National Highways has said any resumption of its paused programme of infilling and demolition of historic bridges will see all schemes reviewed by a new stakeholder group and planning permission sought ‘where appropriate’.
The first meeting of the stakeholder advisory forum (SAF) took place on Friday (8 October). National Highways said the forum’s role is to provide advice on the development of its ‘strategy, policy and activity on the care and upkeep of the Historical Railways Estate’ (HRE).
At the meeting National Highways sought views on draft plans for four structures ‘where local authorities, other local partners or National Highways are keen for work to progress during the pause for access or safety reasons’. Highways understands this involves infilling one bridge and demolishing three others.
National Highways said feedback from the SAF ‘will be included in the recommendation we will now make to the minister on next steps’ but that there will be no immediate reinstatement on the pause to infilling and demolition and that ‘even if the pause in work is lifted at a point in the future, all schemes will be reviewed by the SAF and planning permission sought where appropriate’.
Campaign group the HRE Group, which has highlighted the government-owned company’s programme to infill or demolish 134 bridges that are part of the HRE, attended the meeting.
It said prior to the meeting that despite the pause, work is expected to resume in the next few weeks, ‘with 68 structures thought to be under immediate threat’.
Fractures have been recorded in bridge parapets and wingwalls © TheHREGroup
The latest structure highlighted by the group is the bridge on Church Road, Barcombe, East Sussex (pictured), where the group said infilling is being progressed under Permitted Development powers, which avoids the need for planning permission.
HRE Group accused National Highways of intending to bury the Victorian structure within an estimated 1,000 tonnes of aggregate and concrete with the design already been completed and a start date for the work awaited.
Jonathan Scripps, a local campaigner and resident, said: ‘The engineering issues with the bridge have been known about for decades, but instead of undertaking appropriate repairs, National Highways has just stood back and watched. Infilling is an unnecessary wrecking-ball act, which will cost the taxpayer a fortune and fails to recognise the structure’s importance.
‘The use of Permitted Development powers is clearly intended to overcome the planning challenges that would be faced if the scheme’s many detrimental impacts were evaluated against the policies adopted in the Council’s Local Plan.’
In February Jacobs, which manages the HRE on behalf of National Highways (previously Highways England), wrote to the local planning authority to state that ‘as the structure represents an ongoing and increasing risk to public safety…Highways England HRE propose to undertake the support works as permitted development in line with the ‘Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, Schedule 2, Part 9 Class B’.
Class B provides permitted development powers to the strategic highways company (e.g. National Highways) in exercise of functions under the Highways Act 1980. However, National Highways is not the highway authority for the unclassified road over the bridge.
A local campaign against infilling the bridge has been launched © TheHREGroup
National Highways told Highways that ‘options that involved infilling the bridge’ are subject to the pause, adding that if infilling becomes an option, the scheme will be reviewed by the SAF and ‘planning permission would be sought accordingly’.
It added that ecological surveys, which are necessary to support any potential future work on the structure, including any minor repairs, repointing or strengthening, are taking place throughout October.
HRE director Richard Marshall said: ‘The Historical Railways Estate 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.’
The HRE Group, which describes itself as an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers, has called on ministers to permanently halt the infilling programme and transfer the legacy structures to the new body, Great British Railways.