COUNTY officials could force through the sale of riverside land in order to progress the development of Britain's longest single-span footbridge, it was claimed this week.

Barnard Castle town councillor John Watson said a report in the public domain stated landowners were likely to be served with compulsory purchase orders if the scheme ever gets off the drawing board.

Plans for the £1.3m, 265-metre footbridge, which would span the Tees a short distance upstream of Barnard Castle, were first unveiled nearly two years ago.

However, no planning application has been drawn up and there is still no sign of any funding.

Coun Watson told the town council's planning committee the bridge design was an “artifical contrivance” simply to make it a record breaking structure.

“It is not sitting well with landowners that they are hearing they may be faced with compulsory purchase orders.”

Coun Watson said uncertainty over the bridge project was also affecting environmental schemes in ancient riverside woodland close to where it would be built.

“We are working with Heart of Teesdale Landscape Partnership in terms of environmental enhancements,” he said.

At the partnership's annual forum, Coun Watson said it was made clear the group had been ordered not to do any work on one part of the river bank due to the possibility of the footbridge.

“We are facing blight of that area because of the bridge question,” he said.

Coun Watson added that should the bridge scheme progress, the Heart of Teesdale, town council and residents wanted footpaths to remain as woodland tracks and not part of an artificial network of concrete.

Stuart Timmiss, Durham County Council's head of planning, who attended the meeting, said he would bring Coun Watson's concerns to the attention of his colleagues who deal with footpaths and walking trails.

He said those issues would also be addressed through the planning process if an application for the footbridge is submitted.

The bridge project has split opinion in the area.

A public consultation suggested 60 per cent support for the scheme, but a number of concerns have been raised.

These include how Barnard Castle would cope with the 29,000 extra visitors it is estimated would be attracted to the town.

If the bridge is ever built, it would become the centrepiece of a circular walk from Barnard Castle through ancient woodland, and would incorporate a viewing platform.