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Roads agency starts to undo its ‘vandalism’ of Victorian bridge

National Highways forced to remove concrete after it buried bridge in Cumbria without permission

The government’s roads agency has begun undoing what was described as an act of “cultural vandalism” by removing hundreds of tonnes of concrete it used to bury a Victorian railway bridge more than two years ago.

National Highways (NH) was ordered last year to reverse the infilling of Great Musgrave Bridge in Cumbria by Eden district council after receiving 911 planning objections to the scheme. The council refused retrospective planning permission despite being offered a £450,000 sweetener by NH to allow the scheme to stay.

The agency’s failure to obtain permission for the £124,000 it spent submerging the bridge in 1,600 tonnes of stone and cement, means that it has now been forced to start restoring the bridge to its previous condition at an estimated £431,000.

The agency said its contractors, AmcoGiffen, had been making “steady progress” reversing its previous scheme. It must complete the work by 11 October.

In an update on the project it said contractors were using handheld drills to remove the concrete. It said: “We have excavated around 2 metres under the arch on the north side of the bridge now, and are using smaller, handheld equipment on the areas closest to the bridge arch. We are monitoring the bridge’s condition as we go to build a picture of the work that will be needed to strengthen it when the infill is removed.”

The work is a reminder that councils have the power to reverse unauthorised alterations to buildings, at a time of widespread concern about the demolition without permission of the fire-damaged Crooked House pub in Staffordshire last weekend.

NH infilled the Great Musgrave Bridge in May 2021 using emergency permitted development rights, which only last 12 months, on what it said were safety grounds.

When images of the “repair” first emerged they provoked widespread condemnation. Civil engineers said it made them ashamed of their profession, and the Labour peer Richard Faulkner accused Highways England, as NH was then known, of “cultural vandalism” during a House of Lords debate last month.

NH was forced to pause its plans to infill or demolish other historical railways structures, as part of a programme that had already resulted in the loss of 50 structures since 2013. It is seeking ministerial approval to infill six structures next year and demolish a pair of railway abutments.

In the next two months the planning committee of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk is expected to decide on whether to force NH to reverse another of these projects. The agency is seeking retrospective planning permission for the submersion in concrete of Congham Bridge, over a disused railway line a few miles east of King’s Lynn.

The council has had more than 350 objections to the project including from the local parish council and Save Britain’s Heritage.

NH is also due to submit planning permission to Selby district council over the burial of another bridge in the programme.

Campaigners welcomed the start of the work as it raises their hope of reusing the disused railway beneath the bridge.

But the HRE (Historical Railways Estate) Group – an alliance of engineers, walkers and cyclists who campaign to safeguard historical railway structures and routes – is still seeking answers.

Its spokesperson, Graeme Bickerdike, said: “This saga leaves a bad taste and many unanswered questions. Why was £124,000 wasted on burying a bridge that presented no meaningful risks, according to National Highways’ own engineering reports? On what grounds were emergency permitted development rights exploited to force through the infill scheme after a planning officer asked for it to be paused? Who authorised the sweetener whereby £450,000 of taxpayers’ money would have been spent on legacy structures further up the Eden valley – for which NH had no responsibility – but only if local councillors approved the retrospective planning application for the infill’s retention?”

He added: “This was an organisation that lacked effective oversight and believed it could do whatever it liked in its own narrow interests, misrepresenting evidence and riding roughshod over those trying to make a positive difference.”

Hélène Rossiter, NH’s head of the historic railways estate, said: “In September 2022 we received an enforcement notice from Eden district council to remove the infill. We are working to this deadline and preparing to safely remove the infill.”

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