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Public inquiry to be held over infilled historic bridge

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Thousands of pages of statements and evidence have been published ahead of a public inquiry starting on Tuesday to help decide the future of a historic West Norfolk bridge.The rare concrete structure, which spanned the dismantled Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway at Congham, was infilled by National Highways in 2021 under permitted development rights which relate only to emergency works remaining in place, by default, for no longer than 12 months. However, infilling was intended to be permanent, resulting in the scheme becoming unauthorised.Although retrospective planning permission was sought, the application was refused by West Norfolk Council last October, and an enforcement notice was issued for the infill to be removed. But the state-owned company (formerly Highways England) submitted an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate which will be determined through a public inquiry at the Duke’s Head Hotel in King’s Lynn.

Congham Bridge. Picture: The HRE Group

Ahead of the event, inspection reports relating to the bridge have been uploaded to the council’s planning website, as well as financial documentation, background information and an exchange of letters between the council and National Highways.Graeme Bickerdike, a member of the HRE Group of engineers, heritage campaigners and greenway developers, said: “The release of asset management records have revealed a much clearer picture about the circumstances and decision-making that resulted in the bridge’s infilling. We look forward to that evidence being fully tested.“More than 360 objections to the retrospective planning application were indicative of strongly held views on this matter, compounded by the lack of community consultation prior to infilling taking place.“This was an impressive and unusual structure – a rare survivor amongst the small collection of bridges completely rebuilt using a system of precast concrete components first introduced by the pioneering engineer William Marriott. Its burial within hundreds of tonnes of stone and concrete represents a loss to the region’s industrial heritage.” The inquiry will hear evidence from expert witnesses representing both the council and National Highways, with key issues being the bridge’s condition and historical value, as well as relevant planning considerations.The HRE Group, an alliance of walking cycling and heritage campaigners, engineers and greenway developers who regard the Historical Railways Estate’s structures to be strategically valuable in the context of future rail and active travel provision, is also taking part in the inquiry. The country’s historical railways estate is owned by the Department for Transport and managed on its behalf by National Highways. It said since assuming responsibility for the estate, National Highways has infilled 51 bridges.

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