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UK’s road agency tried to block FoI about unsafe bridges over ‘terror fears’

Just under half of England’s busiest bridges are severely defected or damaged, but have remained open due to concerns about an influx of traffic should repairs be ordered, it has been revealed.

Some 4,000 bridges out of an estimated 9,000 crossings, as well as various culverts on motorways and A-roads, have been identified as having key sections in a “poor” or “very poor” condition, The Times found in an investigation which used data obtained from Highways England under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act.

The defects to some structures are thought to be so severe that they might eventually be unable to carry the number of cars they currently can.

Data shared with The Times showed that 858 structures across the country had at least one crucial section in “very poor condition” as of April 2019. While 14 bridges and culverts were given the worst possible score of zero.

There were 141 bridges in total with “very poor” rated parts on the M6 – as well as a further 90 being given the lowest rating on the M1 plus 51 on the M62 and 50 on the M5.

The Times has said Highways England, the government agency which maintains motorways and A-road, tried to keep the figures secret originally, only releasing them after a year-and-a-half long FoI battle.

In London, Hammersmith Bridge has been closed to cars for over a year owing to structural concerns after engineers discovered microfractures — a result of decades-long unchecked corrosion. Transport for London (TfL) revealed that around 200 of the 500 bridges it looks after in the capital also had sections in poor or very poor condition, The Times said.

It is thought the bridge will not be fully operational again for six years, leading to a ban on river traffic below the bridge. If true, much to the dismay of locals who get an annual front row seat, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race could be moved off the Thames for the second time in its history.

Sections of bridges, or infrastructures, that receive a rating of “poor” or “very poor” do so because they are at risk of failure, according to the documents obtained by The Times. To prevent further damage, weight restriction measures, such as single lane traffic and banning heavy vehicles altogether, are usually enforced.

Highways England insisted that a rating of “poor” or “very poor” did not mean a structure was unsafe, and that the overall condition of structures had improved over the past five years. It also said that £1.5bn had been designated for this kind of maintenance up until 2025, a £200m increase on the previous five-period period.

However, Matt Rodda, the shadow roads minister, told reporters that 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”.

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