SPENDING millions of pounds reopening Queensbury Tunnel for cyclists would be madness when core public services really need that investment. It’s an argument we hear from time to time as campaigners and, taken at face value, there’s some instinctive validity to it.

Engineers commissioned by Bradford Council last year costed the tunnel’s repair at £6.9 million. Developing a cycle route through it - connecting Bradford to Halifax - would take the total construction bill to around £16 million. Undeniably, that’s a chunky sum.

The alternative is abandonment - proposed by Highways England, the body responsible for managing the tunnel. As everyone knows, this would involve filling it with concrete. Except it wouldn’t. They can’t afford much concrete anymore; in fact the infilling would only amount to 12% of the tunnel. The remainder would be left to collapse below Queensbury.

Back in 2009, consultants developed a scheme to backfill the tunnel for about 150 metres from each end and support its five ventilation shafts with large concrete plugs. The price tag then was £5.1 million.

An attempt was made to screw that money out of the landowner at the Holmfield end who was sued for damages because of flooding in the tunnel, a fate which has afflicted it since the 1970s due to landfill in the approach cutting acting as a dam. The legal action rightly failed, but did succeed in creating trouble further down the line.

The same consultants looked again at their proposals in 2016, producing a report strewn with errors. Their estimate for abandonment was revised downwards to £2.7 million, but when the scheme went out to tender last year, contractor AMCO-Giffen costed it internally at an unaffordable £7 million. Instead the firm put together an alternative design involving steel mesh baskets and lightweight aggregate below the shafts, securing the job on that basis for £3.6 million, including £550K for strengthening works.

In 2015, as part of the resolution to the legal action, the Department for Transport - owners of the tunnel - secured a ten-year lease on land at the Holmfield portal, allowing the installation of a pumping station to keep the tunnel dewatered. However Highways England never paid the £50 annual rent, resulting in the lease being forfeited and the pump turned off. So last September, when AMCO-Giffen turned up to make a start, access was prevented by several feet of water.

Highways England could have agreed a short-term deal with the landowner to get the pump restarted, but instead chose to implement alternative arrangements whereby the water was pumped out at the other end of the tunnel, 1.4 miles away. Doing so involved the establishment of a safe access route through a 300-metre long section which was designated as an exclusion zone due to its poor condition.

By January this year, around 8.2 million gallons of floodwater had consumed the tunnel’s southern half. AMCO-Giffen had removed about 80% of it when a prolonged period of heavy rainfall at the end of September caused the water to return to its previous level. Reports indicate that the final cost for the pumping and strengthening works will exceed £3.1 million.

Work to permanently close the tunnel is subject to a planning application, currently under consideration by Bradford Council. More than 4,100 people have so far lodged objections. The work has a contracted cost of £3.02 million, but that’s likely to rise due to constraints imposed by landowners supportive of the tunnel’s reuse.

Recently, Highways England has been keen to apportion blame for the spiralling costs on other parties. In reality however, the past year’s difficulties are entirely self-inflicted, stemming from its failure to pay the rent on the pumping station “whether formally demanded or not”, as the lease required.

So which option represents the better investment - a £6+ million abandonment scheme inflicting permanent uncertainty and no public benefit, or a £6.9 million repair programme which transforms the tunnel into an asset ready to host an active travel route? As a Sustrans study reveals, the latter would return £37.6 million in benefits over 30 years, contributing to health improvements, better connectivity, a cleaner environment and increased tourism.

There are no easy solutions with Queensbury Tunnel, but only one outcome makes any sense socially and economically, and it’s certainly not abandonment.