Railway bridge remedials signal tensions between National Highways and local planners

National Highways provides update on removal of infill from Cumbrian bridge, amid ongoing tension with local authorities and heritage campaigners over management of Historical Railways Estate
The infill under Great Musgrave Bridge being removed. Credit: National Highways

By Tim Gibson

15 Aug 2023

As contractors work to remove 1,600 tonnes of material used to infill a railway bridge at Great Musgrave, Cumbria, the controversy surrounding National Highways’ management of the Historical Railways Estate continues.

Great Musgrave has become a test case for campaigners who see the National Highways practice of infilling unsafe railway bridges as damaging to the nation’s architectural heritage.

Local authorities have become involved in the tensions, with some requiring National Highways to secure retrospective planning permission for infills carried out under permitted development rules.

In cases like Great Musgrave Bridge, the council has not granted planning permission – instead requiring National Highways to perform remedial work and restore the original structure.

In a ruling last September, Eden District Council gave National Highways 12 months to remove the infill. The agency appointed contractor AmcoGiffen to perform the work, undoing its own infilling from June 2021 and repairing the bridge. In a recent update, National Highways said it was making “steady progress” on the project.

National Highways says it only infills historic railway bridges “as a last resort, where there’s no other practical option.”

It adds: “In many instances we include wildlife corridors so that animals can continue to move through. We’ve also created features within the fill material to make sure that local wildlife can still use structures as habitats.”

The National Highways website includes examples of successful projects, such as Stump Cross Bridge in Somerset, where ecological activity led to a nomination for a Bat Conservation Trust award.

The policy of emergency infilling has proved controversial. In early 2021, a group of transport campaigners and engineers known as The HRE Group wrote to the DfT to express concerns over the plans. They said they feared hundreds of historic railway bridges and tunnels could be infilled or demolished.

Now, local authorities such as King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council and Selby District Council have told National Highways to apply for retrospective planning permission for infills performed in their wards. The Norfolk decision is due in the next two months, with an application pending to Selby for works performed on the Rudgate Road Bridge in North Yorkshire in spring 2021.

Meanwhile, the agency has adopted a more a cautious approach to infilling. Last October, it announced that it has dropped plans to infill a 156-year-old disused bridge in the South Down National Park.

In April 2022, it introduced a new process for assessing the maintenance of the Historical Railways Estate. This includes consultation with the DfT, Natural England, Sustrans, Historic England and its devolved counterparts, and The HRE Group.

Speaking about the new approach, National Highways head of HRE programme Hélène Rossiter said: “We set up the Stakeholder Advisory Forum (SAF) made up of representatives from across the sector to support the way we make decisions on projects, particularly those identified for infill or demolition.

“This new process ensures that work is only undertaken after it has passed a series of reviews focused on safety, ecological value, heritage value and potential future repurposing of structures. If we recommend infill or demolition, the minister will review the proposal once it’s been discussed by the SAF.”

Share this page