Oct 2021 – Locals furious as bridge scheme prompts unauthorised tree-felling

PRESS RELEASE FROM HRE GROUP: Monday 25th October 2021

National Highways “came in like a tornado”, according to a landowner, when its contractor entered their property and cut down trees without permission to make way for a bridge demolition.

The state-owned roads company manages 3,100 disused railway structures on the Department for Transport’s behalf. An ongoing programme of major works will see 68 of them put beyond use, but campaigners believe hundreds more are under longer-term threat. The Government paused the schemes following the controversial infilling of a bridge in Cumbria over the summer, but works are expected to resume within weeks.

At Toller Porcorum in Dorset, the disused railway bridge over Barrowland Lane is needed for the development of a narrow-gauge railway and cycle route connecting Maiden Newton with Bridport. Building a new structure to modern standards would not be viable. However the brickwork is in poor condition following years of neglect and National Highways now intends to demolish the bridge.

On 8 October, the company told its newly-formed Stakeholder Advisory Forum that it wants to lift the nationwide pause and remove the structure – at a cost of around £175K – although it is thought that Ministerial approval would be needed. Demolition would allow Dorset Council to progress an alternative ‘trailway’ proposal along the old line, but the link to Barrowland Lane does not have planning permission or meet cycling infrastructure design standards.

Last week, National Highways’ contractor, AmcoGiffen, arrived on site and entered the property of three landowners, creating an access route up to the former trackbed, felling trees and disposing of the timber. The landowners had not been notified of the work or given their consent for it.

“It’s outrageous – they came in like a tornado, removing everything in their path”, said one of the landowners who does not wish to be identified. “It was wild and unspoiled – full of lovely things – but they’ve cleared all the vegetation and trees from around the bridge. The chippings were spread over the embankment, but they’ve now washed into the road drains which have blocked, so there’s a massive flood there at the moment.

“The contractor let slip that they were asked to do this because there is a bat survey about to happen for the demolition and they couldn’t take the risk that there were bats roosting in the trees. That would stop the job.

“People come from all over to see the bridge and it would make sense for the cycle path to go across it. Dropping down a slope onto the road would be dangerous for walkers and cyclists because of the sharp bend. But that’s the council’s idea – they’ve not consulted anyone locally about it.”

The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – accuses National Highways of “habitually acting like a bully”.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the Group, said: “They seem to hold landowners in contempt; we’ve heard similar stories from elsewhere. The company benefits from reserved access rights at its legacy structures, but doesn’t understand the concept of ‘courtesy’ – notifying people about intended work and the nature of it. They don’t seek permission.

“With its infilling and demolition programme currently paused, National Highways has adopted a scorched-earth policy of destroying habitats to ensure there are no ecological barriers to projects resuming quickly when government gives the green light. These are disreputable acts by a company determined to pursue its destructive agenda come what may.

“National Highways’ recent PR efforts to turn around its reputation in managing these structures are persistently undermined by its own actions. Broader social responsibilities are disregarded. Ministers should reflect on whether it is in their political interests to sanction work that prevents good people doing positive things for their community.”