Boris Johnson has intervened to prevent dozens of Victorian bridges up and down the country from being filled in with concrete.
Highways bosses plan to fill in 69 historic bridges in five years over concerns they are not strong enough to carry heavy lorries.
It sparked claims of vandalism last month after a 159-year-old stone railway bridge in Cumbria was buried by tons of concrete. The issue was highlighted by the Daily Mail.
But today Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, will unveil a new strategy to preserve the bridges. Highways England will be told to ‘pause’ any planned infilling or demolition to allow studies to be carried out into whether any can be used for cycle routes or other transport purposes.
Before and after: Great Musgrave bridge in Cumbria was filled with stone by Highways England
A bridge in Montrose, Angus, is one of many historic bridges that could be filled in over concerns they are not strong enough to carry heavy lorries
Residents and councils will also be given a greater say in whether the bridges should be preserved.
Downing Street said the policy has been brought in at the insistence of the Prime Minister and Mr Shapps. It is part of a cycling strategy document. It says: ‘We will consider whether more of our historic railway structures could be used for cycle routes or other transport purposes.
‘There has been concern about the fate of a small proportion of the 3,250 railway structures managed by Highways England.
‘By the autumn, we will establish a formalised framework and engagement process for these structures to understand, in each case, whether there is a realistic prospect of it being used for active travel or other transport purposes in future; and to ensure that the views of local stakeholders, including active travel groups and the local authority, are fully taken into account.
An historic stone bridge in West Wales is one of the bridges which is under threat of being infilled as Highways England look at find the cheapest way to maintain the highways
Chilcompton Bridge in Somerset is pictured in 2014 before it was infilled
Pictured: a bridge at Great Musgrave in Cumbria after being infilled by the Government body which cited safety reasons for the work
Campaigners branded the project a ‘scandalous wrecking ball’ and claimed it would effectively destroy any chances of turning the bridge (pictured) into a greenway – pieces of land, often used for recreation and pedestrian and bicycle traffic
‘Until then, any infilling or demolition on these structures will be paused, unless there is an immediate and emergency need to act on grounds of public safety.’ It is not known if the policy sets out what will happen to bridges that have already been filled in.
Last month Highways England sparked fury by burying the bridge at Great Musgrave in Cumbria. Officials said the work was necessary so the bridge could take lorries weighing more than 17 tons.
But locals questioned why the £124,000 infilling was needed when Highways England’s own documents showed repointing costing £5,000 would have allowed 40-ton lorries to cross.
Pictured: Great Musgrave bridge in Cumbria pictured before being infilled by Highways England
Pictured: The 159-year-old bridge which has been infilled with stone as part of a strategy for maintaining the roadway
Highways England have said work they have done will preserve the structure and can be reversed in the future if necessary
The company carried out the work without planning permission, under permitted development rights. Eden Valley and Stainmore heritage railways had hoped to unite on the disused Cumbrian line to create a new tourist route.
Highways England have plans for 69 infillings and 15 demolitions over the next five years. Since 2013, a number of bridges have been filled in, including a controversial project in 2015 at Chilcompton, Somerset.
‘he Historical Railways Estate Group, campaigning to save the structures, believes up to 480 could be demolished or filled in by 2030.
The body added expert engineers are working to assess, repair, strengthen and refurbish more than 3,000 structures
Spokesman Graeme Bickerdike branded infillings a ‘scandalous wrecking ball’ that would destroy any chance of turning them into ‘greenways’ for walkers and cyclists.
He said: ‘There is an immense amount of anger and frustration that a Government-owned company which has a duty to fulfil Government policy, which is to encourage sustainable transport, is actively and destructively working against that agenda without justification. It’s just vandalism.’
Highways England said it went ahead with the Cumbria work as the prospect of a rail line being restored is ‘unlikely in the near future’.