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Sun December 05 2021

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Villagers in battle to save bridge from National Highways

6 Oct National Highways is facing another uprising over its rail bridge infilling programme.

Barcombe villagers protest against National Highways' plans for the bridge  [© HRE Group]
Barcombe villagers protest against National Highways' plans for the bridge [© HRE Group]

The latest case of brewing unrest is in the East Sussex village of Barcombe, where National Highways intends to infill a historic railway bridge within a conservation area.

National Highways manages more than 3,100 legacy rail structures on behalf of the Department for Transport. A controversial programme to infill or demolish 134 bridges and tunnels was revealed in January, but the government called a temporary halt over the summer after campaigners exposed what was going on.

Campaigners fear that work might resume nationwide in the next few weeks, with 68 structures thought to be under immediate threat.

Designed by civil engineer Frederick Banister, the bridge on Church Road, 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 intends to bury the Victorian structure within an estimated 1,000 tonnes of aggregate and concrete. The design has already been completed by US consulting engineer Jacobs and a start date for the work is awaited.

Jacobs’ design is to infill beneath the span with structural fill comprising of a layer of 6C free draining material with HDPE pipes laid on top at current ground levels to aid surface water through flow. The remaining fill beneath the span will comprise 6N granular structural fill and foamed concrete. New embankments will be formed from 6N material and tied into the existing ones.

According to campaigners from the HRE Group – an alliance of engineers, sustainable transport advocates and greenway developers – there is anger that the scheme is being progressed under permitted development powers, circumventing democratic scrutiny of the historical, ecological and environmental impacts. This is despite the bridge being within a designated conservation area.

“The community’s views are being disregarded”, said local resident Jonathan Scripps. “The bridge is a heritage asset, connecting us with our past, and lies within Barcombe’s conservation area, which is meant to ensure that the village’s special architectural and historic character is both preserved and enhanced.

“The engineering issues with the bridge have been known about for decades, but instead of undertaking appropriate repairs, National Highways has just stood back and watched. Infilling is an unnecessary wrecking-ball act which will cost the taxpayer a fortune and fails to recognise the structure’s importance. The use of permitted development powers is clearly intended to overcome the planning challenges that would be faced if the scheme’s many detrimental impacts were evaluated against the policies adopted in the council’s local plan.”

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The landscape around the bridge is ecologically sensitive and the cutting to its immediate north is on the priority habitat inventory for deciduous woodland, and includes some ancient woodland. A bat population has been recorded around the structure and the former trackbed beneath it serves as a wildlife corridor.

“Blocking the natural habitat system by infilling the bridge will have a damaging ecological impact”, said Hazel Fell Rayner, the local campaign organiser. “The importance of green bridges has been researched extensively over the last 25 years and is now well understood. Former railway routes offer unique opportunities for increased biodiversity that typically relies upon movement and connectivity with the wider landscape. The loss of Church Road bridge would sever that connectivity, forcing mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates to navigate a road crossing.

“Those responsible for this infilling scheme need to be looking holistically at the issues around the bridge, not just its engineering. The structure is a valued community asset, standing as a monument to the Victorians’ vision, courage and determination, and now plays a vital role in supporting our wildlife.”

The creation or conservation of connected habitats – or nature recovery networks (NRNs) – is national and local government policy.

The HRE Group has accused National Highways of “destroying opportunities to build a better future”. It has called on ministers to halt the infilling programme permanently and transfer the legacy structures to Great British Railways, a body being set up by the government to oversee rail transport from 2023.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the group, described the infilling of the bridge at Barcombe as “the clearest demonstration of National Highways’ indifference for its broader social responsibilities”.

He said: “The company is a threat to the railway’s valuable infrastructure heritage, blights landscapes and rides roughshod over community aspirations.”

National Highways' head of historical railways estate programme, Hélène Rossiter, said: “The historical railways estate (HRE) is an important part of our industrial heritage. We continue to work closely with stakeholders to keep the estate and public safe, safeguard its future, ensure value for money for the taxpayer and re-use the assets wherever possible.

“Infilling of Barcombe Bridge has been paused to give more time for local authorities and interest groups to fully consider their local plans to benefit walking, cycling and heritage railways, and discussions are ongoing.”

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