May 23 – Opposition grows to Norfolk’s unauthorised bridge infill

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Wednesday 31st May 2023

A planning application seeking retrospective permission for the infilling of a historic railway bridge has received more than 200 objections in ten days.

Dating from 1926, the structure at Congham, near King’s Lynn, carried St Andrew’s Lane over the former Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway and was one of six built using a pioneering system of modular concrete components designed by engineer William Marriott. Only two of the bridges now survive.

In the spring of 2021, National Highways – who manage the structure on the Department for Transport’s behalf – buried it in more than 1,000 tonnes of stone and concrete under permitted development rights intended only for immediate, temporary interventions in emergency situations. But campaigners claim there was no emergency, as evidenced by the 17-month pause between a notification letter being sent to the local planning authority and work actually starting. The scheme cost £127K.

National Highways was found to have breached the rights by failing to obtain written consent for retention of the infill beyond the maximum permitted period of 12 months. As a result, the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk asked the state-owned roads company to seek retrospective planning permission. By this morning (Wednesday 31 May), 225 objections had been received, whilst five people supported the application, including two whose comments suggest they had intended to object.

Dr Mary Fewster, Vice Chair of the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society, said she was “appalled at the attitude of National Highways towards our industrial heritage and its significance in the landscape. There was no safety reason for infilling the bridge, and the rarity of the William Marriott structure should, in any case, have flagged up the importance of keeping it open and encouraging the use of the old track bed for public amenity.

“The fact that National Highways breached its permitted development rights in order to do the work suggests they are well aware that their actions are unreasonable. They should, in fact, be maintaining the historic structures which have been entrusted to them.”

Simon Wadsworth, an engineer working within the bridge industry, suggested that “As well as being expensive and unsightly, the use of infill does not fulfil the structural claims made by National Highways in supporting the structure. For such infill to work, the infill must be in constant contact with the structural members.

“Without some form of resilience in that connection, that in turn would damage the structure as the structure would be unable to move. The infill itself could shrink and swell with ingress of moisture. In addition, infill makes the bridge uninspectable from below, increasing the risk of undiscovered deterioration.”

Mary Hooper described National Highways’ action as “ruination of a protected historical feature. Retrospective planning is not what the public wants. The bridge should be sympathetically restored. We, the users of the bridge, are heartbroken. Its condition was fair so would have been easy to upgrade the condition.”

The route of the Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway – which includes the bridge – is identified as an asset on the Norfolk Historic Environment Record. Proposals emerged in January to convert parts of it into an active travel link between King’s Lynn and Fakenham.

The Congham scheme was one of four ‘emergency’ bridge infills carried out by National Highways between autumn 2019 and spring 2021. However no evidence of an emergency was provided to the relevant local planning authorities and breaches of permitted development rights – known as ‘Class Q’ – occurred in all cases.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group which is trying to protect valuable legacy structures against damaging development, said: “Whilst this planning application is fundamentally a local matter, it highlights a bigger issue whereby National Highways was systematically exploiting inappropriate permitted development rights to rid itself of liabilities, with little thought for the broader social implications.

“Such action is unsustainable and the response to this planning application illustrates the strength of feeling. It’s vital that trust and confidence is rebuilt in the custodian of our Historical Railways Estate. That won’t happen until National Highways puts right its past misdemeanours and demonstrates positive intent by restoring this structure.”