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Council leader tells Shapps to scrap bridge filling programme

18 Oct 21 The leader of Lewes District Council in Sussex has written to transport secretary Grant Shapps demanding the ‘full and unequivocal cessation’ of the infill policy that threatens historic railway bridges.

Local's protest at the planned works to Barcombe Bridge
Local's protest at the planned works to Barcombe Bridge

Lewes council leader Zoe Nicholson has joined the campaign against bridge infilling after a bridge in Church Road, Barcombe came under threat.

Councillor Nicholson said: "The government claimed to have put a stop on this deeply unpopular policy, yet in Barcombe there is clear evidence that Highways England is riding roughshod over any apparent pause in the programme and stealthily pushing ahead using their all-encompassing emergency powers, causing unnecessary destruction to nature and the countryside.

"I have asked the secretary of state to urgently confirm a full and unequivocal cessation of the policy that leaves Highways England in no doubt whatsoever that they must stop and review their approach."

The bridge in Barcombe, East Sussex, was built in the 1880s as part of a railway line between Lewes and East Grinstead. While the railway has not been used for decades, some hope that it could one day be reopened. It is currently a popular route for local walkers and a haven for wildlife that use the disused line as a safe corridor across the countryside in that area.

National Highways, (as Highways England is now called) has plans to bury the Victorian bridge within 1,000 tonnes of aggregate and concrete, using permitted development powers to ride over local opposition.

The Department for Transport suspended the programme earlier this year after an organised campaign, called the HRE Group, blew the whistle on plans to infill 134 structures.

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Officially, National Highways says the programme is on hold but campaigners are not yet confident that the battle has been won.

Hazel Fell Rayner, the local campaign organiser in Barcombe, said: “Over the past few days, National Highways has made contradictory claims about their plans, but the company’s actions on site – including the recent installation of bat exclusion measures – indicate an intention to go ahead with their preferred infill scheme as soon as they are able.”

Meanwhile, the HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – has accused roads minister Baroness Vere of ‘deceit’ after she asserted that there are “no current plans” to infill the bridge at Barcombe, responding to a Parliamentary question from Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Randerson.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the Group, said: “National Highways has identified infill as its preferred asset management option for Barcombe; the design has been completed, bat exclusion measures have been installed on site and approval to start work is awaited.

“The company has written letters to Lewes District Council, including one that states ‘infilling the structure is considered necessary to prevent further deterioration and remove the risk of future collapse’ - a characteristically hysterical and disproportionate claim. Last week, National Highways’ engineer told planners that this ‘isn’t going away’.

“Like 67 others, the project has been ‘paused’, but for the minister to suggest there are ‘no current plans’ to infill the bridge represents a ridiculous attempt to contrive an alternative reality. Trust in politicians is not enhanced by deceit of this kind. The clear intention is to infill.”

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