Half of the bridges on our roads are in a ‘poor’ condition, official figures suggest

Almost half of the bridges on England’s motorways and A-roads are in a poor or very poor condition, it is claimed.

By Tom Payne For The Daily Mail Mark Duell for MailOnline www.dailymail.co.uk 

Evidence of damage or defects have been found in 4,000 out of around 9,000 bridges and large culverts, according to Highways England data released under freedom of information laws.

Some 858 had at least one crucial section in a ‘very poor condition’ that could put them at risk of failure, The Times reported. The revelations follow the closure of Hammersmith Bridge after years of neglect. 

The West London crossing – which is not owned or maintained by Highways England – is not expected to re-open to traffic until 2027, four years later than planned.

The fiasco has attracted international ridicule and fuelled concern over the state of Britain’s crumbling road infrastructure.

Two people look at Hammersmith Bridge last month after it was shut because of concerns it was structurally dangerous

Highways England released details of bridge defects after an 18-month battle with the UK’s data protection watchdog. They had tried to prevent details being revealed on the grounds it could help terrorists commit an attack. 

Today, the organisation insisted that a rating of ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ does not mean that a structure is unsafe – rather that it is to record a visual inspection, such as the paint condition, to help plan for future maintenance.

By numbers: Highways England and its bridges 

Highways England is responsible for maintaining:

  • 8,857 bridges and large culverts (8,249 excluding non-road bridges)
  • 2,276 small span structures (1,143 having span >=1.5m)
  • 9,392 road bridges in total

‘Principle’ inspections in the past financial year:

  • 1,223 on bridges and large culverts (1,136 excluding non-road bridges)
  • 168 on small span structures (all having span >=1.5m)

‘General’ inspections in the past financial year:

  • 2,742 on bridges and large culverts (2,551 excluding non-road bridgess)
  • 688 on small span structures (347 having span >=1.5m)

Sub-standard and/or weight restricted bridges:

  • 95 structures have interim measures such as weight or width restrictions to help them remain fit for service

They said the overall condition of structures has improved over the last five years and that £1.5billion has been earmarked for maintenance up to 2025 – £200million more than in 2015-2020.

However, critics said the findings are cause for concern. 

Matt Rodda, the shadow roads minister, told The Times: ‘It is a major safety concern and real failing of this government that so much of the nation’s vital infrastructure is in such poor condition.

‘Bridges are a critical part of the functioning of any country and it is alarming that so many have fallen into disrepair in the UK.’

Highways England’s chief engineer Mike Wilson said: ‘Our roads connect the country and every day millions of people rely on our structures to get safely to their destination. All our structures are safe and regularly inspected.

‘A rating of ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ does not mean that a structure is unsafe; it is simply a way of recording a visual inspection, such as the condition of the paint, to allow us to consider the future maintenance requirements.

‘We carry out more than 10,000 inspections a year looking at a range of measures from the condition of the paint through to the integrity of the materials.

‘Considering all these assessments together helps us assess the overall maintenance needs and reduces the likelihood of emergency repairs, meaning the majority of our maintenance can be planned to minimise disruption.’ 

Officials insist inspections are in line with guidance in the official ‘Design Manual for Roads and Bridges’, which considers design, age and the maintenance needs.

Inspections carried out of structures look at defects in reinforced concrete, steelwork and other construction materials. Further investigations can then establish the extent and severity of any defects.  

Hammersmith Bridge, which is not owned or maintained by Highways England, is not expected to re-open to traffic until 2027

Factors affecting the condition of a structure and its grading can include weathering, climate change, high rainfall, type of structure, materials, overloading, bridge strikes and accidents.

Full data on banding of all structures maintained by Highways England 

Critical banding – based on the lowest condition score for the highest importance structural elements and components:

  • very good – 5,112
  • good – 5,483
  • fair – 3,012
  • poor – 4,331
  • very poor – 1,123

Average banding – based on the average condition of all the structural elements:

  • very good – 9,951
  • good – 6,983
  • fair – 1,970
  • poor – 207
  • very poor – 13

This data covers structures including bridges, culverts, retaining walls, masts and large signs.

Highways England said the overall condition of stock of structures shows that the overall condition has improved over the last five years. 

They are spending £1.5billion on structures maintenance over the next five years, which is said to be £200million more than in the previous five years.

Officials said they completed a plan in March 2019 to clear all overdue inspections on highway structures – and some 82 per cent of structures are said to be in a ‘good’ or ‘very good’ condition.  

In Hammersmith, the famous Victorian bridge could be re-opened in a year under council plans to build a double-decker crossing over the existing structure.

The cost of fixing Hammersmith Bridge has spiralled to £141million and it is now unlikely to reopen until 2027 – four years later than planned.

The closure of the landmark, which normally carries 16,000 people a day and 22,000 vehicles, has provoked international ridicule and caused misery for local residents.

Ministers are desperate for a solution to re-open the vital crossing amid fear its closure could hurt the Tories in next year’s London mayoral elections.

Hopes were raised last week after the bridge’s owners, the Labour-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council, submitted proposals for a temporary crossing.

The double-decked structure would see the creation of two raised decks built above the road: an upper level for cars and a lower level for pedestrians and cyclists.

Council officials have told Transport Secretary Grant Shapps that they could have the temporary crossing up and running within a year of a contractor being approved.

They say the raised deck would not put pressure on the existing structure and would allow for pedestals, anchors and chains to removed and repaired elsewhere.

Although local residents have welcomed the potential solution, it has provoked scepticism among engineers who fear the Grade II bridge could collapse at any moment. 

One of the most well-known bridges managed by Highways Engand is the M48 Severn Bridge. Its structure rating is unknown

The Orwell Bridge, which was opened to road traffic in 1982 near Ipswich in Suffolk, is also managed by Highways England

The structure is so unstable that river traffic has been banned from passing underneath. The last time the Thames was closed was when the river iced up during the Great Freeze of 1814.

The bridge has been closed to traffic since April last year, when inspectors discovered dangerous ‘micro-fractures’ in the brittle cast iron pedestals.

In August, the bridge was closed off to pedestrians and cyclists after the heatwave triggered a rapid increase in the size of the fractures – putting the bridge at risk of sudden collapse.

The council’s proposal of a double deck crossing was drawn up by property tycoon Sir John Ritblat, the former boss of British Land, along with Foster + Partners and specialist bridge engineers COWI.

It is one of a number of solutions being considered by a Department for Transport taskforce. Another proposal, revealed in the Mail, involves the construction of a temporary road crossing running alongside the bridge.