Bridge infill scandals

When British Rail was broken up for privatisation, its assets were dispersed amongst various players in the rail industry or flogged off, often with little thought to their wider value or importance. For some bizarre reason National Highways, a company solely focussed on maintaining and developing the strategic roads network, was given the custodianship of the Historical Railways Estate. This is a collection of more than 3,100 disused bridges, viaducts and tunnels and includes around 600 structures in Scotland and a further 350 in Wales, despite transport largely being a devolved power.

Unsurprisingly this has not gone well and in 2020 National Highways started to make the headlines for infilling or demolishing perfectly sound structures.

National Highways has emergency powers which allow temporary works to safeguard structures at immediate threat of collapse. The abuse of these powers and the blocking up of perfectly sound bridges (most just in need of some routine maintenance) and the routes underneath them was exposed by The Historical Railways Estate Group. These actions, which threatened over 130 structures, have prejudiced restoring old railway lines or creating new active travel links, and destroyed wildlife corridors. As a consequence, it created quite an outcry. Many of these structures also have a strong heritage value.

Subsequently, National Highways scaled back its plans for infilling and demolition, leaving us wondering what had suddenly changed for 47 structures on its list to have suddenly made them safe? Could it be that the structures weren’t unsafe in the first place?

National Highways’ abuse of its guardianship of the Historical Railways Estate illustrates why it is not fit to be in charge of such important heritage, and also active travel and public transport infrastructure in which it has no interest. Its whole approach was to get rid of as many structures as possible, or to permanently take them out of action to reduce the long term maintenance liability. In the process it has likely wasted millions of pounds which could have been used to maintain many of the structures it is trying to get rid of, reinstall railway track, or create new active travel routes.

An under pressure National Highways has had to radically alter its approach and retrospectively apply for planning permission or seek different solutions. So far no one has been held accountable for the huge waste of public money.

Let’s take a look at some of the bridges involved in this scandal:

Great Musgrave Bridge

This was one of the first bridges to hit the headlines when National Highways’ decision to infill it without permission (using emergency powers) was met with anger by local people in Cumbria. National Highways started infilling the bridge in May 2021 without telling the Parish Council, local highways authority, or the two heritage railways whose ambition was to connect up the two railways under the bridge.

The Victorian railway bridge was built in 1861 from sandstone and limestone blocks and was in good condition with minor maintenance required when it was infilled. Claiming it was unstable, National Highways poured hundreds of tonnes of concrete under it. National Highways was then forced to apply for retrospective planning permission by Eden District Council, which resulted in more than 900 objections. This was refused and National Highways was ordered to remove the concrete.
The illegal infilling cost around £124,000, while a further £352,000 was spent removing it. Many thousands more was wasted on the planning process. However, the bigger cost was to the wider public who had to spend time and money countering the misleading information that National Highways kept releasing. In the end, the ironic thing was that it ended up causing more damage to the bridge which it has now repaired with inferior materials.

You can read the full story of the battle to save Great Musgrave Bridge here.

Barcombe Bridge

A 140-year-old railway bridge, at Barcombe in East Sussex, was another that National Highways wanted to fill with thousands of tonnes of concrete. However, a vociferous local campaign saw almost 200 villagers sign a letter to National Highways against the proposals. “Infill would have blocked an important and sensitive wildlife corridor adjacent to ancient woodland, and across the community, hundreds of residents got involved in the campaign to save the bridge,” said Hazel Fell Rayner, who led the campaign to stop the infill.

National Highways has now transferred the ownership of Barcombe Bridge to East Sussex County Council, who intend on repairing the bridge ‘with minimal changes to its appearance and no change to the weight limit.’

This suggests that the bridge was not in the perilous state that National Highways claimed.

Congham Bridge public inquiry

There was huge uproar when Congham Bridge, a rare historic bridge in Norfolk, was infilled with concrete by National Highways in 2021.

National Highways claimed the bridge was at risk of collapse and the emergency work was necessary. The work took 17 months to complete. National Highways applied for retrospective planning permission in October 2023. This was refused unanimously and an enforcement notice was issued for the bridge to be restored to its former state. National Highways subsequently lodged an appeal with the Planning Inspectorate.

A Planning Inquiry was held in June 2024 to determine the future of the 98 year old bridge. There were 363 objections to the infilling, and just five people in favour of it.

Ophelia Donovan, the clerk for Congham Parish Council said: ‘The bridge acted as a wildlife corridor. It is now an eyesore. It harms the local amenities and is a blot on the landscape. Congham Parish Council wants it to be restored so it can be enjoyed by future generations.’

Rudgate Bridge

It’s a similar story with Rudgate Bridge in North Yorkshire, where National Highways infilled the bridge in 2021. It then submitted a retrospective planning application when challenged over its actions.

The bridge, near Tadcaster, was built in 1847. An engineer’s assessment two years before the infilling graded the bridge as in ‘fair’ condition, according to the Historical Railways Estate Group (HRE).

A decision is currently pending on its future.

You can find out about other structures under threat on the Historical Railways Estate website which lists planning applications for infill schemes and what HRE thinks of them.


Photo: shows Great Musgrave Bridge when infilled, ©TheHREGroup


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