Attempts are being made to fill in or demolish disused railway bridges using fast-track planning powers to avoid objections, Parliament has been told.
Concerns were raised at Westminster over the use of permitted development by Highways England, which allows work to be carried out without a formal planning application.
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The Government-owned company has been accused of “cultural vandalism” in blocking off or removing some of the 3,200 historical structures for which it is responsible.
It has faced criticism over its approach to dealing with bridges deemed unsafe with maintenance costs too high.
Peers have challenged how the use of demolition and infilling fits with Government moves to reverse cuts to the rail network, as well as encouraging walking and cycling on disused rail lines.
On its website, Highways England said it recognised the potential wider social value of the structures and worked with local authorities and others to help find ways to re-use them where possible.
Nevertheless, it had identified nine bridges for demolition over the next five years along with 69 for infilling on safety grounds.
Speaking during a question in the House of Lords on the management of the historical railways estate by Highways England, Labour frontbencher Lord Rosser raised the issue of permitted development, which allows work to be carried out without a formal planning application.
He said: “Attempts are being made to progress some of these Highways England demolition and infilling schemes under permitted development powers, which avoid the need for explanation and the challenges and objections that often accompany normal planning processes, including the need to seek permission from local councils.
“How is a declared policy of reopening former railway lines or encouraging walking and cycling tracks over disused railway lines consistent with Highways England blocking or severing potential routes by demolishing or filling in currently disused railway structures through a back-door process using permitted development powers, which stifles challenges and objections from local communities and organisations?”
Transport minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton said the structures “potentially” facing being infilled amounted to “fewer than 2.6% of all assets”.
She said: “Permitted development orders exist to prevent an emergency from occurring.
“Therefore, Highways England uses permitted development orders only where there is an emergency situation.
“I reassure members that to date Highways England has usually managed to get planning permission for any changes.”
Referring to Highways England’s “hit list”, Labour peer Lord Faulkner of Worcester, who is president of the Heritage Railway Association, said: “Will the minister instruct it to consult not just with local authorities but with cycling and walking groups and heritage railways, before it goes ahead with any more of the cultural vandalism that we have already seen?”
Lady Vere said the body already consulted widely, including councils.
Of the railway structures, she said: “Some will require work that is in excess of maintenance. That might include infilling, but of course infilling can be reversed.”
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