Feb 24 – Cumbrian bridge works challenged as infill removal cost is revealed

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Thursday 8th February 2024

Campaigners have voiced concerns about damaged stonework and poor repairs at a historic railway bridge in Cumbria which National Highways exhumed last year at an “eyewatering” cost to the taxpayer.

In June 2021, Great Musgrave bridge near Kirkby Stephen was controversially infilled by the state-owned roads company under emergency permitted development rights, jeopardising the longstanding plans of the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways to connect their operations by reinstating the track under it.

Eden District Council asked for a retrospective planning application to be submitted, but this was unanimously rejected by its planning committee in June 2022 due to conflicts with transport, landscape and historic environment policies. An enforcement notice was then issued, requiring the removal of 1,600 tonnes of stone and concrete by October last year.

On 2 August 2021, in response to a Parliamentary question, then Roads Minister Baroness Vere suggested that “If the fill material is disposed of offsite the estimated cost [of removing it] is £30,000. If it can be re-used to form a walking path, then it is more likely to be £10,000.” However, National Highways has now confirmed that the work cost £352K, almost three times the £124K spent on the original infill scheme. No strengthening or disposal costs were incurred, with the material now being stockpiled on the trackbed just north of the bridge.

“It’s an eyewatering figure”, says Mike Thompson, Project Manager for the Stainmore Railway Company. “Like any voluntary organisation, we’ve become skilled at raising modest sums and doing big things with them, by applying for grants and through fundraising ventures. But this kind of money would be transformational in our sector – it would have brought real progress with our future infrastructure works.

“There are groups elsewhere who face the prospect of having to remove infill from structures for rail and active travel projects they’ve been working towards for years. But how can they possibly afford it at this price? £352K to deal with a single blockage would push most proposals over the cliff of financial viability. The damage has been caused by National Highways through its blinkered approach to managing these assets and a lack of dialogue with stakeholders. They should have to put things right. In that respect, we’ve been very lucky.”

A recent inspection of Great Musgrave bridge has found that masonry damaged when the concrete was broken out was repaired using a ‘restoration mortar’ that masks defects and seals in moisture, preventing the stonework from breathing. According to conservation specialists, the products have a predicted lifespan of around 30 years, but can then decay and take the stone with them. Several other damaged blocks in the bridge’s arch have been left untouched and are expected to deteriorate further.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group of engineers, heritage campaigners and greenway developers, said, “Given the circumstances, it’s disappointing to discover that National Highways has taken the cheap and easy approach to repairing the stonework it damaged. The company’s claim that infilling is ‘fully reversible’ is sounding very hollow.

“The country’s legacy railway assets were gifted to us by skilled craftsmen during a period of exceptional ambition and courage during the Victorian era. They will continue to serve us for many more years if we look after them properly.

“We’ve seen elsewhere that National Highways is capable of undertaking heritage projects sensitively. But the work carried out to Great Musgrave bridge will ultimately require more public money to put right. And they’ve already wasted almost half-a-million pounds on a structure that, prior to its infilling, was fundamentally fine.”

Meanwhile, National Highways has submitted an appeal against an enforcement notice requiring it to remove more than a thousand tonnes of infill from a rare concrete bridge near King’s Lynn, Norfolk. On 2 October 2023, local councillors voted 14-0 to reject the company’s retrospective planning application for the scheme which had also been carried out under emergency permitted development rights and retained beyond the maximum 12-month period without authority. The structure’s future will now be determined through a public inquiry.