Highways England has found itself embroiled in yet another row over a planned bridge infilling project.
Engineers, transport planners and the local authority have all hit out at Highways England’s proposal to infill a 156-year-old disused rail bridge in the South Downs National Park.
The chief executive of the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) labelled the plans to infill Stoke Road bridge as “vandalism”, while a spokesperson for the HRE Group accused Highways England of acting like “cowboys and bullies”.
In April 2020, the SDNPA ordered Highways England to apply for planning permission for the work.
However, the roads body subsequently decided that it would carry out the infilling under permitted development rights; which allows temporary works to be carried out without planning permission in emergency situations presenting a serious threat of death or injury.
This was confirmed in a letter to MPs on July 19 this year. However, Highways England director of the Historic Railway Estate Richard Marshall confirmed to NCE that the planned works have now been "put on hold" after the government intervened.
In a House of Lords debate following the infilling of Great Musgrave bridge last month, Lord Rosser accused Highways England of “blocking or severing potential routes by demolishing or filling in currently disused railway structures through a back-door process using permitted development powers, which stifles challenges and objections from local communities and organisations”.
The Government subsequently announced that Highways England’s works programme was being paused until the autumn, pending the establishment of “a formalised framework and engagement process for these structures to understand, in each case, whether there is a realistic prospect of it being used for active travel or other transport purposes in future”.
Marshall added: "We are where possible pausing all infilling to provide more time for local authorities and other local groups to full consider Historical Railway Structures as part of their local plans for walking, cycling and heritage railways.
"Where a structure can be re-used as part of those local plans, we will work with the local authority to transfer responsibility of a structure so it can be re-purposed and re-used."
Both the SDNPA and The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – object to the assumption that the Stoke Road bridge is a serious risk to the public.
SDNPA chief executive Trevor Beattie has labelled the plans as “vandalism” and has vowed to “resist” the infilling.
A spokesperson for the SDNPA added: “We find it very frustrating that such works lie beyond our control.
“We did advise initially that the works were development and would need the submission of a planning application.
“The agents came back and have, unfortunately, shown that the works do lie outside planning control under emergency powers.
“The SDNPA will be questioning the use of emergency powers and strongly resisting this vandalism.”
Jacobs acts as the 'sole provider' (designer) for the Historical Railways Estate and has recently been reappointed for another seven years. Six contractors will support Jacobs in carrying out any work, including Dyer & Butler and Balfour Beatty.
The Stoke Road bridge spans the disused Mid-Hants Railway and is earmarked for reuse as part of a walking and cycling route. The route is safeguarded against adverse development under a policy adopted in the SDNPA’s Local Plan.
Matt Skidmore, a member of the HRE Group, said that by infilling the structure Highways England is “putting Stoke Road bridge beyond use […] obstructing the development of a 27-mile circular path connecting the communities of Alresford, Kings Worthy, South Wonston and Sutton Scotney”.
He added: “This is typical of the behaviour we’ve seen from the company over the past few months.
“Infilling schemes are being driven through against the wider public interest, without local stakeholders having a voice. There is no scrutiny because normal democratic processes are being circumvented through the continued abuse of Permitted Development powers.”
Highways England came under heavy criticism following a similar bridge infilling project carried out in Cumbria in July.