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MPs call ‘urgent meeting’ over latest National Highways bridge infilling plan

MPs have called an “urgent meeting” in response to another controversial bridge infilling scheme led by National Highways.

Lewes MP Maria Caulfield revealed on Facebook that an emergency meeting had been set up by transport ministers to discuss the planned works for Barcombe Bridge in East Sussex.

The 140-year-old bridge is earmarked for infilling, with contractors on site last week to cover cracks in the structure to prevent bats from settling within them.

Jacobs acts as the “sole provider” (designer) for the Historical Railways Estate and has recently been reappointed for another seven years. Six contractors support Jacobs in carrying out any work, including Dyer & Butler and Balfour Beatty.

There has been similar backlashes to planned works in West Scotland and the South Downs during the last six months.

Despite the pause on the programme, National Highways can carry out the work if it deems a structure to be a danger to the public.

An email sent from a National Highways engineer to Lewes District Council last month – and seen by NCE– specifically describes the bridge as “not safe” and “now in a dangerous condition”.

National Highways also previously informed the council of its intention to infill the bridge using permitted development rights in September 2020 and therefore could technically carry out the work despite the pause – although under the rights any work would have to be deemed “temporary” and “reversible”.

However, a National Highways spokesperson confirmed to NCE that planned work remains on pause and that only survey work will be carried out at the site during October.

National Highways head of Historical Railways Estate programme Hélène Rossiter added: “The Historical Railways Estate (HRE) is an important part of our industrial heritage. We continue to work closely with stakeholders to keep the estate and public safe, safeguard its future, ensure value for money for the taxpayer and re-use the assets wherever possible.

“Infilling of Barcombe Bridge has been paused to give more time for local authorities and interest groups to fully consider their local plans to benefit walking, cycling and heritage railways, and discussions are ongoing.”

Designed by civil engineer Frederick Banister, the bridge on Church Road, Barcombe was built in the early 1880s as part of a line connecting Lewes and East Grinstead.

The Bluebell Railway now runs steam services on an 17km section further north and believes that “the remaining trackbed is a potentially valuable transport corridor which should be safeguarded”.

The structure carries a narrow, minor road and is assessed as having a capacity of 24t. The brick parapets and wingwalls have been subject to movement for many years, with cracks recorded as long ago as 1994.

National Highways planned work involves infilling the Victorian structure within an estimated 1,000t of concrete, and the design has already been completed.

HRE Group spokesperson Graeme Bickerdike described the proposed infilling of the bridge at Barcombe as “the clearest demonstration of National Highways’ indifference for its broader social responsibilities”.

“The company is a threat to the railway’s valuable infrastructure heritage, blights landscapes and rides roughshod over community aspirations,” he added.

“National Highways has sat back and watched the bridge deteriorate for years. That said it is not in any way a danger to the public and to say so is a reckless statement for an engineer to make.”

(Credit Rob Horgan.

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