Plans to infill almost 70 historic albeit disused railway bridges and tunnels that date back to the days of Isambard Kingdom Brunel could be derailed as councils launch objections and force Highways England to apply for planning permission.
At least 15 councils have pushed back against Highways England’s plans to destroy 15 structures and infill 69 further viaducts and bridges, which have been described as “cultural vandalism” and could require the reversal of work that has already been undertaken.
Infilling is one of a few options for preventative concrete repairs, where a mix of aggregate and concrete is poured into arches under historic bridges to keep them structurally sound and fully supported.
Because it was defined and described as a maintenance programme, HE claimed that they did not need planning permission as it was a matter of public safety, and started with the infill of Great Musgrave Bridge, in Eden, Cumbria.
Initially, Eden District Council did not take action whilst they investigated whether the works would fit under HE’s permitted development rights, at least until people started to see how the works had been undertaken, and it caused a major battle between local and national government institutions.
Most of the railway infrastructure in the UK dates back to the 19th Century and the Age of Rail, which due to increased demand and increased strain on the rail network has led to several older viaducts, tunnels and bridges falling into disrepair.
Typically, when this happens the structure is strengthened using modern restoration and repair techniques and materials, but in some cases can lead to infilling or demolition.
Infilling is a very quick way to increase the stability of a structure by filling it in with concrete, stones and aggregate, which delays the need to repair it, and avoids the need for weight restrictions that can stop HGVs and other vehicles from driving across them.
What Is The Dispute?
Any work that would affect the character of a historically important structure would in most cases need not only planning permission but in some cases listed building consent to ensure that buildings of historical importance are protected.
According to Historic England’s advice on demolitions, as well as the statement by Eden District Council, Highways England have permitted development rights to undertake work without planning permission, although they would ultimately decide that the works did not fall under this remit.
Part of the reason for this is the nature of the infill in question, which once seen by the public sparked condemnation from the general public and the civil engineering profession at large.
In total, 15 local authorities, including Eden District Council, have raised objections to the work undertaken by Highways England, and arguments have been made that the type of work was unnecessary for the bridge in question.
Whilst the Transport Minister, Charlotte Vere, argued that the infill work was necessary due to the weakness of the structure, HE’s engineers allegedly claimed the bridge presented “no significant risk” and rather than a £124,000 infilling project, instead recommended repointing.
Repointing is where the mortar in the bricks is removed and replaced, adding extra stability and weatherproofing.
If the retrospective planning application is rejected, HE may be required to remove the infill and return the bridge to the condition it was in before the work took place.
This could also set a precedent that could halt the entire infilling project.