ANGRY residents have warned Network Rail could kill the heart of their village if plans to destroy a historic bridge are approved today.

UPDATE - more time to look at options as decision delayed 

At a meeting of Vale of White Horse District Council's planning committee, councillors are recommended to approve the demolition of the grade-II listed bridge in Steventon, following a year of delays over the controversial application.

The rail company insists the project, which will cause a 10-month road closure and cut off a main route into the village, is the only way to electrify the line after putting 'significant resources' into exploring alternatives.

But Steventon Parish Council chairman Chris Wilding claims it will have a 'devastating' impact on local business and that Network Rail have ignored other viable options including jacking up the bridge or lowering the track.

He said: "We had our own independent report produced that laid out ways to keep the bridge.

"It will have a devastating effect, a lot of businesses will close as they rely on passing trade from that route into the village."

Mr Wilding added if the project is approved the parish council will push to have the timescale 'significantly reduced'.

He said: "We think four to six months is just about bearable for businesses but obviously our preference is to keep the bridge. Once it is gone, it's gone forever. You can't buy back our heritage."

Concerns over the time needed to replace the High Street bridge with a modern concrete one have been echoed by business owners.

Hamid Ghaffari, who runs Steventon cafe Munchies, in an online objection, warned: "My trade relies on easy access to our premises which the closure will certainly put an end to and once customers are lost, it is impossible to be got them back.

"We could be talking about the heart of the village being killed off by arrogance and indifference."

Network Rail originally proposed the bridge demolition four years ago, but fell silent after objections.

It is among 29 bridges in Oxfordshire that must be modified for overhead wires as part of a £1bn electrification project.

In November, Network Rail expressed frustration with the 'continuing delay' in obtaining approval to knock down the Brunel bridge - the original application being submitted in April 2017.

A letter from route sponsorship director Simon Maple to the Vale said the company was 'concerned' the application had already been deferred six times, adding Network Rail had put 'significant resources' into considering alternatives but none were viable.

Responding to heritage concerns, the company has revised plans to include a brick finish to replicate the existing bridge, rather than the originally proposed concrete design.

Historic England raised issues with the application in light of the parish council report, saying it raised 'serious questions' about the necessity of demolishing the Victorian bridge.

In recent weeks, however, both Historic England and the district council's conservation officer have supported the revised plans.

A final report from Historic England's buildings and area inspector Richard Peats explained, following 'clarifications' from the rail company, that all other potential options were either impossible, would pose a risk to the running of the railway or would involve even lengthier closures to the other routes into Steventon.

He added: "With regret we conclude that Network Rail have made a clear enough case for the bridge to be demolished in order for electrification to be delivered on time and compromising the service provided by the railway is to be avoided."

Mr Wilding said he had been 'very disappointed' to see the reversal from Historic England but said parish councillors would hope to sway the planning committee at tonight's meeting, which will be held at The Beacon, Wantage from 6.30pm.