Jun 2022 – National Highways questioned over bridge infill “sweetener”

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Monday 27 June 2022

Campaigners have challenged National Highways after it committed taxpayers’ money to repairing a collection of old railway structures for which it has no responsibility if it was granted planning permission for a controversial bridge infill scheme.

Last year, the state-owned roads company used emergency development powers to bury a Victorian bridge at Great Musgrave, Cumbria in 1,600 tonnes of stone and concrete, at a cost of £124,000. It claimed the work was needed to “avert a collapse” despite inspection reports recording only a small number of minor defects. Eden District Council told National Highways to apply for retrospective planning permission which was rejected on 16 June.

The company had already agreed to remove the infill from Great Musgrave bridge if the structure was ever needed for future use, at an estimated cost of up to £431,000. But at a meeting of the Council’s planning committee, Hélène Rossiter from National Highways went further, stating that “If the application were to be approved today then we would ring-fence the sum we would have used to uninfill the bridge – again £450,000 – to be used on the improvement and maintenance of railway assets in the Eden Valley”.

The planning application received 911 objections, with just two comments in favour; one of these came from Railway Paths Ltd, a charity which owns a disused line intended for reopening as part of a heritage railway through the Eden Valley. Director David Pemberton, also speaking at the planning committee meeting, confirmed that “if the application is approved, we gain…£450,000 to reopen the line from Sandford to Appleby and a heritage asset group of 25 bridges preserved and in-use”.

The HRE Group of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers has asked National Highways for evidence that the investment in Eden Valley Railway (EVR) structures would have delivered value for money to the taxpayer and why it was directly linked to approval of the planning application.

“We’re not currently aware of any study that demonstrates the benefits to the local economy of extending the EVR”, said Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group. “Whilst there will certainly be some, National Highways should not be committing taxpayers’ money to any project unless it can demonstrate good returns on our investment.

“Linking the proposal to approval of the Great Musgrave bridge application – which was entirely unrelated in a planning context – makes it feel like a sweetener: an improper attempt to influence democratic process. We were told after the planning committee meeting that at least two members had been lobbied by Railway Paths to approve the application.

“This suggests that National Highways doesn’t understand the responsibilities that come with spending public money. The whole thing smells like Grimsby docks: very very fishy.”

In 2013, the long-term extension plans of the Somerset & Dorset Railway Heritage Trust were dealt a blow when National Highways’ predecessor infilled a bridge at Chilcompton, less than two miles from its base at Midsomer Norton. The Trust’s own specialist bridge engineer found that the few recorded defects could have been repaired at a cost significantly less than infilling.

As at Great Musgrave, there was no consultation with stakeholder groups about the scheme and a second bridge was then infilled further down the line at Masbury.

John Baxter, a member of the Trust’s board, said: “It’s simply unfair that National Highways was willing to fund the repair of several structures – as well as committing to the future removal of infill from Great Musgrave bridge – in order to get its planning application through.

“There are more than 150 heritage railways across the UK and I’ve no doubt they would all be delighted to receive significant investment from the taxpayer, but that’s never going to happen and we wouldn’t expect it to. So why should the Eden Valley Railway be singled out?

“We could have worked collaboratively with National Highways to assist with strengthening our two bridges, both for anticipated heavier traffic and our future extension. But it looks as if we will be forced to remove both infills at our own great expense as we work to bring a community railway back between Midsomer Norton and Shepton Mallet, alongside a green cycleway currently under development.”

National Highways has said it will not appeal against the rejection of its planning application to retain the infill at Great Musgrave bridge and an enforcement notice for its removal is expected to be issued by Eden District Council in due course.

▲Victorian bridge at Great Musgrave, Cumbria in 1,600 tonnes of stone and concrete, at a cost of £124,000. (Credit: The HRE Group)