HIGHWAY chiefs have approved a £5.5m plan to replace a crumbling bridge used by thousands of drivers every day.

The ageing Holmsley Bridge carries the A35 Lyndhurst to Christchurch route over a former railway line that has been converted into a road.

Plans to replace the structure have been approved by Cllr Rob Humby, the county council's executive member for environment and transport.

The authority is also planning to re-align a 380m stretch of the A35.

Utility diversions and ecological clearance work is due to start in the autumn, with the main work beginning early next year.

In order to keep traffic flowing the new bridge will be built alongside the existing one, which will then be demolished.

But lane closures and full road closures will have to be carried out while the bridge is being replaced and new sections of road are tied into the existing A35.

The county council says every effort will be made to minimise the closures and signed diversion routes will be in place.

Cllr Humby said: “We’ve been monitoring this bridge since it became the county council’s responsibility in 2012 to ensure it could continue to be used by all traffic.

"We have known that the bridge was deteriorating and that we would need to replace it and to keep the route open for as long as possible.

"Last summer the speed limit was reduced. We also installed temporary barriers and added additional steel supports under the bridge."

Referring to the cost of replacing the steel structure he added: "We’ve essentially been saving up for this work since 2012.

“The new single span concrete bridge will minimise maintenance costs, while the improvements to A35 will enhance drainage in the area and ensure safer travel on this key route through the New Forest."

Cllr Humby said the council had been working closely with other organisations, including the Verderers, Natural England and the National Park Authority.

He added: “Local councillors, nearby residents and local businesses have been contacted as part of the scheme and this will continue during the construction phases.

"I would like to emphasise that the Old Station Tea Rooms will be open for business throughout the works.”