Nov 2022 – Campaigners challenge ’emergency’ bridge work

HRE GROUP PRESS RELEASE: Monday 4th July 2022

Schemes to infill four historic bridges now have “questionable legal status”, according to campaigners, as the emergency development powers used to undertake them have expired.

For the past nine years, National Highways has managed the Historical Railways Estate (HRE) of 3,100 legacy railway structures on behalf of the Department for Transport. During that time the state-owned roads company has spent £8.01M infilling 51 bridges, but the programme was halted by the Government in July 2021 over concerns that National Highways was failing to consider environmental, heritage and transport impacts, or consult with stakeholders.

In June, Eden District Council rejected a retrospective planning application for the infilling of a bridge in Cumbria, finding that it conflicted with three Local Plan policies. Around 1,600 tonnes of aggregate and concrete will have to be removed by 11 October 2023.

The structure, at Great Musgrave, was infilled under powers known as ‘Class Q’ which apply to temporary works carried out in emergency situations. However the material was intended to be permanent and a report by Bill Harvey Associates, masonry arch specialists, found the structure to be in Fair condition, with National Highways’ own inspections recording few defects and no deterioration.

It has now emerged that four other infill schemes were undertaken using Class Q powers before the Government’s intervention.

The dismantled railway under Congham Road bridge near King’s Lynn was one of several identified in Norfolk County Council’s Walking and Cycling Strategy as having the potential for reuse as part of a network of active travel paths, but National Highways blocked the route by infilling the structure during March and April 2021 at a cost of £127K, claiming that it presented “an ongoing and increasing risk to public safety”.

A cycle path has already been laid along a section of the former Wetherby-Tadcaster railway in West Yorkshire and an ambition to complete a link between the two towns is still being pursued. However £133K was spent infilling Rudgate Road bridge – close to the current end of the path – in the spring of 2021. Jacobs, acting as National Highways’ consultants, told Selby District Council that the structure was “suitable only for 32 tonnes” and infill was needed “to prevent an emergency arising”, but no specific defects were mentioned.

Near South Woodham Ferrers, Essex and in Ilford, north-east London, National Highways used Class Q powers to infill two bridges in 2018/19 and 2020 at a total cost of £312K.

Under the terms of Class Q, the infill should have been removed from these structures within 12 months of work starting unless written consent to retain it had been granted by the local planning authorities. This interpretation was supported by solicitors acting for The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – and was the basis upon which Eden District Council required National Highways to seek retrospective planning permission for the Great Musgrave scheme.

In February, the group asked National Highways for copies of the consents, but none was provided, and has since written to the four councils requesting confirmation of their positions. Selby District Council has appointed an enforcement officer to consider the Rudgate Road infill.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group, said: “There was no prospect of an emergency developing at these bridges – certainly not by any reasonable definition of the word – and National Highways had no plans to remove the infill within a year as it was obliged to do, by default, under Class Q.

“The company’s exploitation of these powers meant that the four infills were not exposed to scrutiny through normal democratic process which, in the case of Congham Road and Rudgate Road, could have identified issues around potential future active travel use. And as Great Musgrave demonstrated, the heritage and environmental harm caused by infilling far outweighs any marginal long-term maintenance cost savings.

“It is not sustainable for a Government-owned company to carry out works that now have questionable legal status so we have asked the councils to investigate and decide whether consent should be granted for retention of the infill or enforcement action taken with a view to its removal.”

National Highways has established a Stakeholder Advisory Forum to review all future major works to HRE structures, but confirmed outcomes for 68 bridges and tunnels previously threatened with infilling or demolition are still awaited.