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National Highways upsets Dorset village with bridge demolition preparations

26 Oct 21 National Highways’ over-enthusiastic preparations to demolish an old railway bridge left a Dorset country lane flooded last week, it has emerged.

The bridge in Toller Porcorum that National Highways wants to pull down, and the flooding it caused beneath. (©Michael Hancock)
The bridge in Toller Porcorum that National Highways wants to pull down, and the flooding it caused beneath. (©Michael Hancock)

National Highways’ contractor, AmcoGiffen, arrived in the Dorset village of Toller Porcorum last week ‘like a tornado’ and entered the property of three landowners and felled trees to create an access route to a disused railway bridge over Barrowland Lane that it wants rid of.  The landowners had not been notified of the work or given their consent for it.

The clearance work led to local flooding the next time heavy rain fell because wood chippings had blocked up the road drains. Villagers acknowledge that flooding beneath the bridge occurs periodically due to inadequate maintenance of the drains but the impact of the wood chippings significantly exacerbated the problem.

The state-owned roads company manages 3,100 disused railway structures – the historic railway estate – on behalf of the Department for Transport. An ongoing programme of major works will see 68 of them put beyond use, and campaigners believe hundreds more are under longer-term threat.

In the face of recent adverse publicity – with leading civil engineers accusing the organisation of vandalism – National Highways says that it has put its programme of demolition and infilling on hold for the time being. But this did not prevent the damaging land clearance work going ahead last week.

Image of flooding ©Richard Sims
Image of flooding ©Richard Sims

At Toller Porcorum in Dorset, the disused railway bridge over Barrowland Lane is wanted for the development of a narrow-gauge railway and cycle route connecting Maiden Newton with Bridport. Building a new structure to modern standards would not be viable. However the brickwork is in poor condition following years of neglect and National Highways now intends to demolish the bridge.

On 8th October, the company told its newly-formed stakeholder advisory forum that it wants to lift the nationwide pause and remove the structure – at a cost of around £175,000. Demolition would allow Dorset Council to progress an alternative ‘trailway’ proposal along the old line, but the link to Barrowland Lane does not have planning permission or meet cycling infrastructure design standards.

The track bed on the bridge ©Nigel Ewens
The track bed on the bridge ©Nigel Ewens

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The HRE Group, an alliance of engineers, transport advocates and greenway developers that is campaigner to save disused rail structures for new uses, accuses National Highways of “habitually acting like a bully”.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the group, said: “They seem to hold landowners in contempt; we’ve heard similar stories from elsewhere. The company benefits from reserved access rights at its legacy structures, but doesn’t understand the concept of ‘courtesy’ – notifying people about intended work and the nature of it. They don’t seek permission.

“With its infilling and demolition programme currently paused, National Highways has adopted a scorched-earth policy of destroying habitats to ensure there are no ecological barriers to projects resuming quickly when government gives the green light. These are disreputable acts by a company determined to pursue its destructive agenda come what may.

“National Highways’ recent PR efforts to turn around its reputation in managing these structures are persistently undermined by its own actions. Broader social responsibilities are disregarded. Ministers should reflect on whether it is in their political interests to sanction work that prevents good people doing positive things for their community.”

National Highways’ head of its historical railways estate programme, Hélène Rossiter, said: “The historical railways estate (HRE) is an important part of our industrial heritage. Any plans to demolish the bridge over Barrowlands Lane are currently on hold as part of a national pause on infilling and demolition activity across the HRE.

“This has been put in place to give local authorities, stakeholders and interest groups more time to fully consider structures as part of their local active travel plans for walking, cycling and heritage railways. We have also set up a national stakeholder advisory forum (SAF) to support engagement with interested stakeholders.

 “Dorset County Council are fully involved with National Highways on developing plans for this structure and the future use of the area as part of an active travel route. The removal of trees around the structure has been necessary to limit ground movements which were causing cracking and rotation of the abutments on the bridge.”

How National Highways chose to deal with an old disused railway bridge in Cumbria earlier this year, blocking a potential greenway
How National Highways chose to deal with an old disused railway bridge in Cumbria earlier this year, blocking a potential greenway

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