Number of UK’s substandard road bridges increasing

The number of substandard bridges across Great Britain is increasing, according to new research.

The RAC Foundation, which submitted a Freedom of Information request to 206 local highways authorities in October 2020, said local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have classed 3,105 bridges as being ‘substandard’ – a 1.6 per cent increase on the number released a year earlier.

A substandard bridge is defined by a span measuring 1.5 metres or more that is unable to carry the heaviest vehicles on the UK’s roads, such as 44-tonne heavy goods vehicles.

In total, 199 councils out of the 206 asked provided data. It showed between them councils are responsible for maintaining 71,656 bridges, which would suggest that 4.3 per cent of the inventory is substandard.

Councils also stated that as of autumn 2020, ten bridges across Great Britain had fully collapsed during the previous 12 months. An additional 30 had partially collapsed.

Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “We might not yet be at the stage where London Bridge has fallen down, as described in the nursery rhyme, but several other bridges across the country have suffered partial or total collapses.

“At the same time there has been a worrying decline in the number of inspections carried out to examine just how much damage rivers, and the debris they carry, are doing to bridges below the waterline. This is storing up trouble for the future as our weather gets more extreme and traffic volumes rise again after the Covid-19 restrictions.”

The RAC’s analysis shows a sustained decline in the number of bridges actually being assessed for any damage caused by increased river flow.

Councils have said that they want to bring 73 per cent – 2,256 – of the 3,105 substandard bridges back up to standard, but budget restrictions mean that they predict only being able to carry out necessary works on 392 of these bridges within the next five years. An estimated figure to repair all of the substandard bridges fully is £985 million – down from the £1.1 billion figure released a year earlier.

Kevin Dentith, chair of the ADEPT National Bridges Group, said: “The serious flooding we have just experienced across England means bridges with foundations in watercourses will have again been subjected to scouring. Bridge owners should satisfy themselves that appropriate action is in place to ensure the more susceptible bridges are protected.

“Whilst the number of substandard bridges may appear worrying there is often a good reason why a bridge falls into this category; it does not mean the bridge is unsafe as it will be managed by the Local Authority usually by a weight limit. A restriction such as this may be wholly appropriate for the class of road and/or location, however the survey shows Local Authorities would want to remove 2256 bridges out of this sub-standard category which can only be achieved by more investment through Government funding.”