CAMPAIGNERS have won their fight to replace and widen an eighteenth century flood-damaged bridge despite persistent objections from English Heritage.

Residents of Kirkby Malzeard kept up the pressure to widen Creets Bridge despite several setbacks and delays.

The breakthrough came from Planning Minister Tony McNulty who backed North Yorkshire County Council's decision to widen, rather than simply restore, the narrow crossing.

Kirkby Parish Coun Ernie O'Keefe, who led the fight for a wider crossing, said: "I am elated. This is a victory for common sense. Now our village can get back to travel normality. But it has been a long task - almost two-and-a-half years of endless meetings."

The 67-year-old pensioner said English Heritage had objected every step of the way. It had wanted the old bridge restored on conservation and heritage grounds.

He praised fellow members of a special bridge sub-committee set up by the parish council to spearhead the "wider bridge" campaign - Coun Neil Fraser, John Bowen and John Elwell.

A majority of the community - about 80pc - backed the widening scheme which will cost £440,000 as against £472,000 to replace the bridge in its old form.

A temporary crossing controlled by traffic lights has caused frustration and anger for the local community while wrangling about the bridge's future led to long delays because of English Heritage opposition.

Delays have already cost the county council more than £100,000 to protect the damaged bridge from further deterioration, as well as putting up the temporary bridge and traffic lights.

Coun Paul Richardson, who represents Kirkby Malzeard on the county council and backed the widening plan, said: "This is a tremendous David v Goliath victory against all the odds because English Heritage just would not let go. We faced delays all along the line and people became so frustrated and angry."

At a recent county council meeting, Coun Richardson urged for a speed-up but was told the minister was referring it back to the county council for further talks.

"There has obviously been pressure for a decision since then and I am so relieved the minister has finally ended all the uncertainty and heartache this has caused locally," he said.

The county council's executive member for environmental services, Coun Peter Sowray, said: "This issue has been hanging over people for far too long and I am so pleased it is settled at last."

Asked about the protests from English Heritage about the grade II listed structure, Coun Sowray said: "I suppose they had to keep trying because they were under a lot of pressure from a conservation lobby to replace the old structure."

Already some people have expressed fears about speeding over a wider crossing but Coun Sowray countered by saying that could be dealt with if it became a problem.

Coun O'Keefe praised the efforts of Ripon and Skipton MP David Curry for continually raising the issue at Wesminster.

After a celebration drink at the Henry Jenkins pub in Kirkby Malzeard, Coun O'Keefe said: "We shall now be planning a special celebration to mark the opening of the new bridge. At the moment I'm not sure who we will invite to cut the ribbon."

The old bridge was 10ft wide but it will now be widened to just over 17ft to cope with modern traffic.

Mr Curry, who backed the campaign for widening, said the issue had been delayed for far too long and what was needed now was an old bridge rebuilt to cope with twenty-first century traffic