Highways England may have to reverse act of ‘cultural vandalism’

The government’s roads agency could be forced to remove hundreds of tonnes of concrete it used to fill in a Victorian railway arch in a project that was condemned as the first act of “cultural vandalism” in a nationwide plan.

Eden district council told Highways England (HE) this week that it needs to apply for retrospective planning permission for a scheme that involved pouring an estimated 1,000 tonnes of concrete under the bridge at Great Musgrave, Cumbria, at the start of nationwide programme to infill scores of other historic structures.

If planning is refused the agency will be obliged to restore the bridge to how it was before the controversial infill began at the end of May.

In a letter to the council last year HE argued that no planning permission was needed because the infill project was part of a maintenance programme. At the time the council raised no objection. But this week it confirmed that it had not given permission for the infill to retained and that HE has confirmed its intention to seek retrospective planning permission.

Campaigners hope the move will frustrate the agency plans to fill more than 100 other Victorian rail structures, that include a 220m bridge in Saltash Cornwall designed by the pioneering Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

They also fear for the immediate future of two Victorian bridges in Dumfries and Galloway, which are also managed by HE despite lying over the border in Scotland. The agency has been given the go ahead to infill bridges at Kirtlebridge and Lochanhead again without the need for planning permission.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the HRE Group, an alliance of engineers and sustainable transport advocates campaigning to retain the historical railway estate as an asset, accused HE of “scaremongering” over the condition of such structures.

On Eden’s decision to request planning permission, he said: “It will come as a relief to disfranchised stakeholders that they will belatedly get the opportunity to express their views on this unwarranted infilling scheme”

He added: “The requirement for planning permission should have been recognised from the outset. Hundreds of tonnes of aggregate and concrete were used to bury the bridge, with no scrutiny of the heritage, environmental, ecological, transport and sustainable development implications.”

When images of the Musgrave Bridge “repair” were first published it provoked widespread condemnation. Civil engineers said it made them ashamed of their profession, and Richard Faulkner accused Highways England of “cultural vandalism” during a House of Lords debate earlier this month.

But the government has defended the decision. The transport minister, Charlotte Vere, said: “The structure was weak, potentially causing the bride deck to fall suddenly … Highways England made the decision to proceed on the grounds of public safety.”

In response to concerns from Huw Merriman, chair of the Commons transport committee, Lady Vere said in letter earlier this month that the agency was unaware of plans to reuse the tunnel under the bridge to reconnect rails tracks of two historic lines on the Eden Valley and Stainmore railways.

She also confirmed that HE initially had plans to infill 115 structures, but alternative plans for 46 of these were now being considered.

On Wednesday, Bickerdike described Vere’s portrayal of the Great Musgrave bridge as unsafe as “either a deliberate attempt to deceive or a demonstration of incompetence”.

He pointed out that HE’s own engineer’s noted that the bridge presented “no significant risk” and recommended repointing the bridge at a cost of £5,000 compared to the £124,000 it cost to infill the bridge.

He added: “I fear there is a malevolent force in the Department for Transport that wants to get rid of much of the historic railway estate as possible. It is pushing alongside HE’s stifling culture of risk aversion and lack of understanding of historical railway structures.”

HE has been approached for comment.

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