Historic bridge 'never needed' controversial works

Chris Ames

National Highways has admitted that controversial infilling works at a historic railway bridge, which then had to be removed at a total cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, might never have been needed in the first place. 

The government-owned company has said that recent site investigations ‘confirmed that the road over the bridge wouldn’t require a weight restriction - providing that refurbishment works were satisfactorily carried out. Therefore, strengthening work wasn’t required.’

Under its responsibility for managing the Historical Railways Estate on behalf of the Government, National Highways infilled the bridge at Great Musgrave with concrete in June 2021 under emergency permitted development rights.

Roads minister Baroness Vere stated in a written Parliamentary answer two months after the work was done that the ‘urgent need to act was due to the structure of the Great Musgrave bridge being weak and liable to cause the bridge deck to fall suddenly’.

However, Eden District Council asked for a retrospective planning application, which was rejected in 2022 and an enforcement notice was issued, requiring the removal of 1,600 tonnes of stone and concrete by October last year.

National Highways has now disclosed that the operation cost £352,000, which campaigners at the HRE Group contrasted with the £10,000 to £30,000 pricetag previously stated by Baroness Vere and was in addition to the £124,000 cost of the infilling,

The HRE Group claimed that a recent inspection found that masonry damaged when the concrete was broken out was repaired using a ‘restoration mortar’ that masks defects and seals in moisture, preventing the stonework from breathing.

It said that according to conservation specialists, the products have a predicted lifespan of around 30 years, but can then decay and ‘take the stone with them’.

The group said several other damaged blocks in the bridge’s arch have been left untouched and are expected to deteriorate further.

HRE Group spokesperson Graeme Bickerdike said: ‘The company’s claim that infilling is “fully reversible” is sounding very hollow.

‘We’ve seen elsewhere that National Highways is capable of undertaking heritage projects sensitively. But the work carried out to Great Musgrave bridge will ultimately require more public money to put right. And they’ve already wasted almost half-a-million pounds on a structure that, prior to its infilling, was fundamentally fine.’

National Highways said that this was the first time it had done such work, and the method used took longer than expected and had a significant sub-contract element.

It added that it was aware that the mortar mix ‘has been a talking point’ but that this had been discussed with council officers and it was agreed that the process had no significant negative impacts on the integrity of the bridge.

Infill material has been given to the landowner

All images courtesy of the HRE Group

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