Dec 2022 – Council acts as rights expire on emergency bridge infill

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Tuesday 20th December 2022

National Highways has been told to apply for retrospective planning permission after failing to fulfil its statutory obligations under powers used to infill a historic railway structure.

Contractors buried Yorkshire’s 175-year-old Rudgate bridge within hundreds of tonnes of aggregate and concrete during March and April 2021, using permitted development rights intended for temporary works in urgent situations. On 6 October 2020, consultants acting for the state-owned roads company had told Selby District Council that “for the avoidance of any ambiguity, the works are being undertaken in order to prevent an emergency arising”.

National Highways looks after 3,100 Historical Railways Estate structures on the Department for Transport’s behalf. Under the terms of its management agreement, it is required to carry out annual inspections, but failed to do so at Rudgate bridge – between Tadcaster and Wetherby – in 2019 and 2020, resulting in engineers having no up-to-date insight into its condition. The 2018 inspection recorded some minor defects – typical of structures of this type and age – but the examiner’s only recommendation was to spend £1K repairing approach fencing. Infilling cost £133K.

The structure – carrying a narrow lane which is prohibited to vehicles of more than 3 tonnes unladen – had been assessed as having a capacity of 32 tonnes. Despite this, National Highways claimed the bridge presented “an ongoing and increasing risk to public safety” and infilled it over a five-week period.

“National Highways have relied on permitted development rights which authorise certain types of work to be carried out without an application for planning permission”, says Paul Taylor, a solicitor at Richard Buxton Solicitors, a firm specialising in environmental, planning and public law.

“With Rudgate bridge, National Highways claimed that it was entitled to rely upon permitted development rights that apply when there is an emergency. Whether or not the situation was in fact an emergency, these rights are not intended for permanent works and so where infilling has been carried out, the land must be restored to its previous condition within 12 months of work starting unless the local planning authority has given written permission for it to stay or an application for has been made and permission is granted.”

Last month, National Highways claimed that there is “no requirement for a separate consent for retention”, but Selby District Council has now told the company that it must seek planning permission if it proposes to keep the infill. A deadline of 27 January 2023 has been set for receipt of the application.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group which has been campaigning against National Highways’ programme of infilling legacy bridges, said: “At Rudgate, in pursuit of its liability reduction policy, National Highways has exploited permitted development rights which neither fitted the prevailing circumstances nor required the usual level of public scrutiny. We approached the local planning authority – challenging the validity of the company’s actions – and welcome the requirement to submit a planning application.

“The value of legacy infrastructure is increasing as we develop more safe active travel routes – encouraging people onto foot and bike both for exercise and connectivity – and tackle the implications of soaring inflation whereby new structures are becoming less affordable. We need to care for what we already have, not inflict the kind of damage that inevitably comes with transporting huge amounts of quarried material and dumping it in often sensitive landscapes.”

Rudgate bridge is located 340m from the current end of a cycle path occupying the former Wetherby-Newton Kyme railway. Plans for an extension to Tadcaster are longstanding and could involve the structure, but no preferred route has yet been developed.

In its various guises, National Highways infilled 51 historic railway bridges between September 2013 and July 2021 at a cost of £8.01M. The Government then intervened to pause the programme after concerns were raised about ecological, environmental and heritage impacts, the burden on the taxpayer and the loss of sustainable transport opportunities. The pause has now been lifted following development of a process to review any proposed schemes.

Earlier this month, Maldon District Council appointed an enforcement officer to investigate the emergency infilling of another bridge near South Woodham Ferrers, Essex, in 2020.