Dec 2022 – Yorkshire bridge not inspected before emergency infill scheme

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Monday 5th December 2022

National Highways has been accused of “decision-making by guesswork” after claiming that a historic railway bridge had to be infilled because of a growing public safety risk despite having no recent records of its condition.

Dating from 1846, Rudgate bridge is one of 3,100 legacy structures comprising the Historical Railways Estate, managed by National Highways on the Department for Transport’s behalf. It spanned the dismantled Harrogate-Church Fenton line. To its north-west, the former trackbed is now occupied by Route 665 of the National Cycle Network and there are longstanding plans to continue the route south-eastwards into Tadcaster where it would join Route 66.

On 6 October 2020, consultants acting for the state-owned roads company told Selby District Council that Rudgate bridge presented “an ongoing and increasing risk to public safety” and would be infilled “to prevent an emergency arising”. The structure – which carries a lane that is prohibited to traffic of more than 3 tonnes unladen – had been assessed as having a capacity of 32 tonnes. Work to infill it – costing £133K – began on 8 March 2021 and took five weeks.

However, following a Freedom of Information request, it has emerged that National Highways did not have condition reports for the bridge from either 2019 or 2020, despite being obliged to inspect it every year. The 2018 report described the structure’s overall condition as “Fair”, with some minor defects typical of masonry arches. The examiner’s only recommendation was to repair fencing at a cost of £1K, but a note appended by National Highways’ engineer states “infilling preferable to repairs”.

The work was carried out under permitted development powers that allow temporary interventions in emergency situations threatening “serious damage to human welfare” – avoiding the need for planning permission – but campaigners are questioning how National Highways could invoke them without up-to-date records of the bridge’s condition.

“The structure was fundamentally fine”, said Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers. “Both the 2017 and 2018 inspections identified some spalled brickwork in the arch, but the photographs are of such poor quality they are worthless for asset management purposes. In any case, spalling is an issue that affects many masonry bridges and can be resolved simply and cheaply, if necessary.

“Without more-recent reports, National Highways had no evidence of deterioration and its claim that urgent work was needed is therefore unsustainable. This was decision-making by guesswork and suggests a destructive culture whereby infrastructure assets were being put beyond use – at great cost to the taxpayer – just to reduce liabilities, rather than on the basis of proportionate risk assessment and value for money.”

Under the powers used by National Highways, any structures built as part of the works should have been removed within 12 months unless the local planning authority had granted written consent for their retention; the land should also have been restored to its previous state. It is understood that National Highways does not have any such consent for the Rudgate scheme and Selby District Council has appointed an enforcement officer to investigate the matter. Nigel Adams, the local MP, has also been contacted.

According to Graeme Bickerdike, “Rudgate bridge was a strong and resilient structure that had been part of the local landscape for more than 170 years. National Highways got rid of it without considering its heritage value or potential for reuse, exploiting inappropriate powers that prevented the public from scrutinising and commenting on the plans. The money wasted on infilling should have been spent on structures genuinely in need of repair.”

Since assuming responsibility for the Historical Railways Estate in 2013, National Highways has infilled 51 bridges at a cost of £8.01M. Several were needed for new cycle routes or extensions to heritage railways. The government stepped in to pause the programme in July 2021 after the controversial infilling of a bridge in Cumbria which has to be restored after the local council rejected a retrospective planning application. National Highways has since set up a Stakeholder Advisory Forum to review all proposals for major works to its legacy structures.