When its treatment of redundant railway structures in its care was exposed at the beginning of the year, National Highways (then Highways England) was told by ministers to pause its programme of demolition and infilling.
However, just two weeks later, AmcoGiffen was told in a letter dated 12th August 2021 that its price of £175,838.79 for infilling works on Church Road Bridge in Barcombe, East Sussex, had been accepted.
The contractor is told that works are on hold and is not given a start date but is effectively put on standby.
“Infill works are all currently on hold, so works should not proceed until you have been advised that we have been given confirmation to do so," the letter of commission says. "Works should not commence until the site has been checked by the ecologist and they have given approval to commence.”
National Highways said that the procurement process for the Barombe bridge infilling began on 5th May, before the national programme was paused.
Designed by civil engineer Frederick Banister, the bridge on Church Road in Barcombe was built in the early 1880s as part of a line connecting Lewes and East Grinstead. The Bluebell Railway now runs steam services on an 11-mile section further north and believes that “the remaining trackbed is a potentially valuable transport corridor which should be safeguarded”.
The structure carries a narrow, minor road and is assessed as having a capacity of 24 tonnes. A weight restriction prohibits vehicles over 20 tonnes from using it, helping to keep unsuitable traffic out of the village. The brick parapets and wingwalls have been subject to movement for many years, with cracks recorded as long ago as 1994. But instead of carrying out further repairs, National Highways has given Amco a contract to bury the Victorian structure within 1,000 tonnes of aggregate and concrete.
Total cost of the Barcombe bridge infilling scheme, including repair work, is budgeted at £245,550.95 by National Highways.
The HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – is challenging why the contract was awarded at all, given that the letter of contract award was sent out just two weeks after the infilling programme was supposedly put on hold.
National Highways manages 3,100 disused railway structures on behalf of the Department for Transport. A planned programme of infilling and demolition works will see 68 of them put beyond use, but hundreds more are thought to be under longer-term threat.
The government called a halt to the schemes following public and profession outrage (civil engineers said they were “ashamed of their profession”) over the infilling of a bridge at Great Musgrave in Cumbria over the summer. The structure – which had a handful of minor defects – was needed for the proposed reconnection of two heritage railways. That was AmcoGiffen as well, with Jacobs as National Highways' consulting engineer.
Amco is a subsidiary of Renew plc since 2011. Renew’s environmental policy states: “It is the policy of Renew Holdings plc to minimise the environmental impacts of its activities.”
Despite the pause in further infilling works, preparations have continued. On 13th October, an access route was created and trees cut down at a proposed demolition site in Dorset. [See our previous report here.] National Highways failed to notify any of the three affected landowners or seek their consent. The company has since apologised to one of them.
The HRE Group has written to National Highways operations director Duncan Smith asking how the contract award “was compatible with the government putting National Highways’ bridge infilling/demolition programme on hold”.
“The pause has always been something of a smokescreen,” said Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group. “They’ve installed bat exclusion measures and felled trees at a number of sites since August. The direction of travel is very clear and they are obviously keen to restart their destructive programme.”
National Highways (NH) has established a stakeholder advisory forum (SAF) to inform its approach to legacy structures. The first quarterly meeting took place last month. Graeme Bickerdike is among the members of that forum.
He said: “The [Barcombe] contract award undermines the forum before it’s got started. The structure in East Sussex has not yet been put forward for consideration, but NH has already awarded a contract to infill it. This suggests that the SAF will have no influence over decision-making.”
He added: “Awarding a contract demonstrates an intention to proceed with infilling at Barcombe irrespective of the forum’s views and this is reinforced by its ongoing attempts to push forward with the scheme under permitted development powers.”
National Highways said that it was no longer seeking to bypass local democracy by claiming permitted development rights but was instead now "discussing the best approach to planning with the planning authority"
National Highways head of Historical Railways Estate programme Hélène Rossiter said: “The Historical Railways Estate (HRE) is an important part of our industrial heritage. This is why all infill and demolition plans have been paused nationally, and this includes Barcombe Bridge in East Sussex.
"This work has been paused to give local authorities and interest groups more time to fully consider structures as part of their local active travel plans for walking, cycling and heritage railways."