Highways England may be forced to reverse the infilling of a 159-year-old masonry arched bridge in Cumbria.
Following a nationwide backlash, Eden District Council has informed Highways England that it will have to apply for retrospective planning permission to cover the infilling work.
If the application is denied, Highways England could be required to remove the 1,000t of concrete poured beneath the Great Musgrave bridge arch.
Highways England carried out the work earlier this month under its Permitted Development Rights, after informing the council that infilling was needed to “prevent further deterioration of the bridge from occurring and remove the associated risk of structural collapse and harm to the public”.
The council accepts that Highways England acted appropriately under Class Q of its Permitted Development Rights; which effectively allows Highways England to carry out work without planning permission in cases of emergency.
However, an update circulated to Eden District councillors – and seen by NCE – reveals that Highways England will now have to apply for retrospective planning permission within the next year.
It adds: “Whilst the provisions allow initial works to be undertaken in connection with an emergency, where such works are intended to be retained, retrospective planning permission must be sought. […] The Council’s acceptance of Highways England’s Permitted Development Rights does not constitute permission for the infilling to be retained.
Planning processes will be followed and due consideration given to any future application in respect of the infilling of Great Musgrave Bridge.”
The council update adds that a Highways England examination report from January provides “evidence of a high risk in respect of the bridge’s load capacity and the earlier reports evidence this risk increasing over time leading to action being necessary now”.
The update adds that Highways England provided “sufficient reasons […] evidencing why infilling has been chosen over further repointing”.
It continues: “It should also be noted that Highways England consider that the filling works are not being done in a permanent way, but in a manner which would allow for them to be reversed should organisations become interested in re-opening the structures in the future.”
The structure is part of the Historical Railways Estate managed by Highways England on behalf of the DfT and comprises 3,800 bridges, tunnels and viaducts, including 77 listed structures.
Jacobs acts as the 'sole provider' (designer) for the Historical Railways Estate and has been recently reappointed for another seven years. Six contractors will support Jacobs in carrying out any work, including Dyer & Butler and Balfour Beatty.
According to The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – the bridge is one of 115 disused railway structures programmed for infilling by Highways England, with 15 others due for demolition.
Highways England contests this number and instead states that its five-year plan only includes nine bridge demolitions, the removal of six redundant abutments and 69 full or partial infills.
The HRE Group and two local railway groups (the Eden Valley railway and Stainmore railways) claim that there were no real concerns about the Great Musgrave bridge’s condition.
They add that while infilling the bridge cost £124,000, a £5,000 repair job would have made it safe for all vehicles to pass over.
In response to the council’s decision to order a planning review, HRE Group spokesperson Graeme Bickerdike said: “While it is a matter of considerable regret that Eden District Council has been taken in by Highways England’s scaremongering over the condition of Great Musgrave bridge, it will come as a relief to disenfranchised stakeholders that they will belatedly get the opportunity to express their views on this unwarranted vandalism.
“The requirement for planning permission should have been recognised from the outset. Hundreds of tonnes of aggregate and concrete were used to bury the bridge, with no regard for the heritage, environmental, ecological and transport damage inflicted on this historical asset.
“We hope that democratic scrutiny will result in the right outcome - albeit after the event - and that Great Musgrave bridge will be exhumed so that it is again available for future use by the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways.”
Goldhawk Bridge Restoration Ltd managing director David Kitching told NCE that “infilling historic bridges is so unnecessary”.
Highways England Historical Railways Estate director Richard Marshall added: “Most of the 3,200 tunnels, bridges and viaducts we look after were built well over 100 years ago, so they need a lot of maintenance. We will spend £13M this year on keeping the public safe when using these structures or the land around them.
“Infilling is maintenance-free and preserves the small number of bridges where this is required. The infilled bridges remain intact and supported, and the infilling process can be reversed if a future purpose is found for the structure.”