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“Unacceptable” bridge closure divides Cumbrian community for months

Locals have expressed shock and anger after signs for a 13-week road closure were placed in their village as National Highways prepares to remove 1,600 tonnes of stone and concrete from a historic railway bridge.

The structure at Great Musgrave in Cumbria was controversially infilled under emergency permitted development rights in 2021 despite being in fair condition and needed for a long-planned link between two heritage railways. The state-owned roads company was forced to submit a retrospective planning application to retain the infill material, but this was rejected by Eden District Council in June last year, after which an enforcement notice was issued requiring its removal by 11 October 2023.

Some preparatory works have already taken place, exposing the top part of the bridge’s north side. However, the main scheme – due to start on 17 July – involves excavating beneath the bridge’s arch, so National Highways has arranged a closure of the B6259 – which crosses the structure – for the three-month duration of the project “so our colleagues can work safely”, according to its website. However, it is not expected that workers will be on-site throughout that period.

There was no consultation with either the heritage railways or the parish council before infilling took place and locals remained in the dark about the road closure until signs appeared last week.

Tim Wells, who chairs Musgrave Parish Council, said: “It’s absolutely ridiculous – have they learned nothing? Yet again, there’s been no dialogue with the community directly affected by their actions. How can National Highways not understand the impact this closure will have on villages served by this crucial road?
“Several farms have property on both sides of the bridge – they need to use it every day. There’s a produce seller who will lose most of their passing trade. Are they going to be compensated? The school bus won’t be able to cross, so what are the children going to do? And then there are people who need to get to work and do their shopping.
“The bridge is about 30 yards long. If you’re in a small vehicle that can use the lane heading north from Great Musgrave, the diversion from one end of the bridge to the other is almost five miles. But for a bigger farm machine, at best you’re looking at more than seven miles going via Brough, and that assumes it will fit under the low bridge at Warcop.
“What they’re planning to impose is unacceptable.”

A campaign against National Highways’ infilling and demolition of legacy railway structures has been led by The HRE Group of engineers, greenway developers and sustainable transport advocates. The government stepped in to halt the programme after the Great Musgrave scheme was derided as cultural vandalism, but six infill projects and one demolition form part of the company’s provisional works programme for this financial year, subject to Ministerial approval and, in most cases, planning permission.

Graeme Bickerdike, a member of The HRE Group, said: “National Highways has been taking positive steps in a better direction over the past 18 months, but they still seem to lack good judgement and fail to understand the importance of early, effective engagement with those impacted by their work.
“The frustration being expressed around Great Musgrave is understandable. National Highways cannot upset community life for such a prolonged period whilst they put right a mistake they shouldn’t have made in the first place. They describe infilling as ‘fully reversible’, but clearly not without huge disruption and the deepest of pockets.
“There has to be a way of appropriately ensuring the safety of their contractor’s workforce whilst recognising the needs of local people to go about their business. Continued access across the bridge, with careful traffic management, is clearly vital.”

Meanwhile, 280 people have objected to National Highways’ retrospective planning application to retain infill at another historic railway bridge, at Congham in Norfolk. Emergency permitted development rights were again exploited, but the local planning authority intervened because the material had not been removed within the maximum permitted period of 12 months.