Row growing after third historic rail bridge filled in with concrete

National Highways faces third intervention by a local authority over infilling, after burying Congham bridge in Norfolk in tonnes of concrete

A controversial practice by the government’s roads agency of burying historic railway bridges in concrete has been dealt a fresh blow after a third council intervened over another infilled structure.

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk council has told National Highways it must apply for retrospective planning permission if it wants to retain hundreds of tonnes of aggregate and concrete it used to submerge Congham bridge, a few miles east of King’s Lynn.

Campaigners point out that the innovative 1926 bridge is one of only three surviving examples of its precast design type in the country.

The £127,000 infilling undertaken by National Highways (NH) in 2021 also potentially blocks a disused railway due to be repurposed as a walking and cycling route between King’s Lynn and Fakenham – that scheme was backed by £657,000 in government funding this month.

The decision by King’s Lynn council to intervene comes in the week that NH had been due to submit planning permission to Selby district council concerning the burial of a bridge in North Yorkshire. However, the request for submission of an application has been removed while the council considers further information.

Congham bridge, west Norfolk, photographed before the railway line closed in 1959.
Congham bridge, west Norfolk, photographed before the railway line closed in 1959. Photograph: M&GN Trust

Meanwhile Eden district council has ordered NH to reverse its infilling of Great Musgrave bridge in Cumbria by next October, after it failed to secure retrospective permission for the scheme following accusations of “cultural vandalism”.

A 2003 assessment by Norfolk county council said Congham bridge, which supports a little used country lane, could hold a weight of 40 tonnes. But in 2019 NH’s consultants claimed it was only safe to support 7.5 tonnes and they used permitted development rights to temporarily infill the bridge on public safety grounds.

Similar arguments have been used to justify an infilling programme by NH, a government-owned company, that has led to the loss of 51 historic railway structures since 2013.

In September 2020 NH sent out 28 template letters citing permitted development rights to justify bridge infilling schemes, according to documents uncovered by the HRE (Historical Railways Estate) Group – an alliance of engineers, walkers and cyclists who campaign to safeguard historical railway structures and routes.

The group says NH’s “destructive” approach to its management of historic railways structures is “unraveling”, thanks to the recent intervention of councils.

Graeme Bickerdike, an HRE member, said: “National Highways has used the same permitted development rights to infill at least six structures in the expectation that nobody would notice or care about its breaches of the statutory obligations therein.

“But three local planning authorities have now asked for retrospective planning applications.

“The strategy was intended to avoid the difficulties that come with public scrutiny but that’s clearly unravelling. These rights were never appropriate for permanent works to structures that were fundamentally fine.

“Permitted development empowered National Highways to impose its preferred method of managing these assets, whether or not they had historical, ecological or potential transport value.”

Hélène Rossiter, NH’s head of the historical railways estate programme, said: “Before carrying out the work we consulted with both of the relevant local planning authorities, which confirmed they had no objections or comments relating to the schemes.

“We infilled Congham Road bridge in February 2021 because we viewed it as a public safety risk. When we took over management of the bridge it was in a very poor condition and had started moving.

“We consulted with the local planning and highway authorities beforehand, and they confirmed they had no objection to the works and that the scheme didn’t impact any of their active travel plans.

“We are in communication with the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, and Selby district council, and are continuing discussions with them about the work carried out on the respective structures.”

A spokesman for NH added: “We reject in the strongest terms any insinuation that there was a wilful or purposeful breach of obligations.

“We understand the strength of feeling around infilling. Under our new process we carry out a thorough review of a structure needing major work against several different ‘lenses’ including safety, ecological or heritage value, as well as the potential for any repurposing plans. We are committed to only infilling or demolishing structures where there is a significant risk to public safety and when there is no realistic or practical alternative.”

• This article was amended on 26 January 2023 to include further comment from the National Highways. The text was changed to clarify that Congham bridge potentially blocks future development of walking/cycling routes but not any current plans, and to make clear that NH felt that the bridge was only safe to support 7.5 tonnes. A reference to plans for a walking/cycling route at Rudgate Road bridge was also removed.


Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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