Aug 2021 – Highways England acting like “cowboys and bullies” over bridge scheme

PRESS RELEASE FROM HRE GROUP:  Monday 9th August 2021

▲StokeRoadBridge©TheHREGroup: Uncontrolled ivy growth has caused localised mortar loss to the bridge’s parapets, spandrels and arch ring face, but these defects are minor.”.
Stoke Road Deck
▲StokeRoadDeck©TheHREGroup: The bridge carries a little-used country lane over the former Mid-Hants Railway which opened in 1865.

Highways England acting like “cowboys and bullies” over bridge scheme

The Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park says his Authority will “resist this vandalism” after Highways England confirmed plans to infill an old railway bridge needed for a proposed active travel route.

In January, campaigners revealed that the state-owned roads company intends to infill or demolish 134 historic structures which it manages on the Department for Transport’s behalf. The programme has proved controversial as many of the affected bridges and tunnels are earmarked for future transport roles and no appraisal has been made of the heritage and environmental impacts.

Stoke Road bridge, on the edge of the South Downs National Park (SDNP) near Winchester, spans a disused railway which is proposed for reuse as part of the Watercress Way, a walking and cycling path. The route is safeguarded against adverse development under a policy adopted in the SDNP Authority’s Local Plan.

Despite Government assurances that structures needed for such schemes will not be affected, Highways England says it intends to clear vegetation around the bridge in September and October, with a view to starting the infilling work in November.

Nicola Bell, the company’s Regional Director, South East, told the Liphook Herald that “Before we conduct this kind of work, we reach out to local authorities to determine if there’s a viable interest for retaining the structure for alternative uses such as walking and cycling.

“We contacted the South Downs National Park Authority on April 23, 2020. They have approved the work as permitted development.”

But this claim is contradicted by documents obtained following a Freedom of Information request. In response to Highways England’s letter, planners made clear that the infilling scheme “would likely be considered contrary to policy and might adversely affect future potential as a non-motorised transport route”. They went on to state that “the works appear to be ‘development’ that would require the submission of a planning application”.

Instead, Highways England sent a second letter on 10 September 2020, invoking Permitted Development powers – known as ‘Class Q’ – which facilitate temporary works in emergency situations presenting a serious threat of death or injury. Infilling is intended to be permanent. The bridge currently presents no threat to public safety, with only minor defects.

In a tweet, Trevor Beattie, the SDNPA’s Chief Executive, said: “The National Park does not support the infilling and has not given consent, indeed we have argued without success that permission is needed, but [Highways England] has used their PD rights. We will resist this vandalism.”

The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – condemns Highways England for acting like “cowboys and bullies”.

Matt Skidmore, a member of the Group, said: “This is typical of the behaviour we’ve seen from the company over the past few months. Infilling schemes are being driven through against the wider public interest, without local stakeholders having a voice. There is no scrutiny because normal democratic processes are being circumvented through the continued abuse of Permitted Development powers.

“By putting Stoke Road bridge beyond use, Highways England is obstructing the development of a 27-mile circular path connecting the communities of Alresford, Kings Worthy, South Wonston and Sutton Scotney. This is a disgraceful and unwarranted act by a disreputable organisation that couldn’t care less about building a better future.”

In a House of Lords debate on 5 July 2021, Lord Rosser, Shadow Transport spokesperson, accused Highways England of “blocking or severing potential routes by demolishing or filling in currently disused railway structures through a back-door process using permitted development powers, which stifles challenges and objections from local communities and organisations”.

The Government subsequently announced that Highways England’s works programme was being paused until the autumn, pending the establishment of “a formalised framework and engagement process for these structures to understand, in each case, whether there is a realistic prospect of it being used for active travel or other transport purposes in future”.

The HRE Group contends that there is already such a process, involving the submission of a planning application.