Dec 23 – Spring deadline to restore buried Norfolk bridge

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Tuesday 12th Decemeber 2023

Bridge at Congham Before
▲A view of the bridge prior to National Highways carrying out its infill scheme. (Credit: Richard Humphrey)
Bridge at Congham Now Aerial
▲An aerial view showing the bridge and route of the old railway to its north-east. (Credit: The HRE Group)

National Highways has until 10 April 2024 to remove more than a thousand tonnes of stone and concrete used to bury a historic railway structure.

In spring 2021, the state-owned roads company infilled St Andrew’s Lane bridge at Congham, Norfolk, 17 months after telling the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk that the project would be carried out under permitted development rights – known as Class Q – that only apply to temporary works in emergency situations.

National Highways’ failure to remove the material within 12 months – as it was obliged to do to comply with the rights – resulted in the Council asking for a retrospective planning application which members of its planning committee voted 14-0 to refuse due to conflicts with local and national policies relating to heritage and landscape.

The company has stated its intention to appeal against the decision to the Planning Inspectorate. However, the Council has now issued an enforcement notice requiring the bridge and surrounding land to be returned to its previous state within three months of the notice coming into effect on 10 January 2024. Any appeal has to be submitted before this date.

According to National Highways, the bridge was in “very poor condition” and “we do not feel that the [Council’s planning application] decision adequately reflects the safety concerns we have for Congham Road bridge”. However, a 2019 inspection report provided to the Council describes the structure as being in Fair condition, whilst its carriageway-supporting girders were assessed as having a capacity of 40 tonnes. St Andrew’s Lane is narrow and lightly trafficked, with low speeds due to restricted visibility.

The bridge was reconstructed in 1926 using an innovative system of modular concrete products pioneered by engineer William Marriott. National Highways claims there are two better examples elsewhere in Norfolk, but these mostly comprise traditional brickwork or masonry. St Andrew’s Lane bridge was more elaborate and the only survivor built entirely to the Marriott system.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group of engineers, heritage campaigners and greenway developers, said: “National Highways acted opportunistically at Congham, unlawfully exploiting Class Q rights to undertake permanent works for routine asset management purposes. Although the bridge had a collection of defects, there was no emergency or any prospect of one, as demonstrated by the 17-month delay before the project actually started.

“To convince the Council of its case, the company misrepresented its own engineering evidence and sought to downplay the bridge’s historical significance. No traffic survey was conducted to help in assessing the risks associated with the structure, resulting in actions that were unjustified and disproportionate. They didn’t even seek the Parish Council’s view.

“The bridge was valued by the community and locals want to see it restored; we therefore welcome the issuing of an enforcement notice. Work to remove the infill should start immediately, but we expect NH to fight on.”

Costing £127K, the infilling of Congham bridge was one of 51 such schemes completed by National Highways since it assumed responsibility for the Department for Transport’s Historical Railways Estate in 2013. None has been started since the government paused the company’s controversial programme in July 2021, but six structures are intended for infilling next summer, subject to planning permission being granted.