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Lineside Vegetation (Network Rail Policy)

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2012

I am pleased to have an extra few minutes for this debate, Mr Betts. A number of colleagues have contacted me who wanted to raise local matters, either through interventions or short contributions. I assume that that is in order.

I was very pleased to have secured this debate. I applied for it because I represent Islington North, an inner city constituency that has very little open space and parkland—so we value what we do have very much indeed. Network Rail runs a number of services through the constituency, both on the north London line and the mainline from King’s Cross to Edinburgh; it is that line that I want to speak about.

A couple of weeks ago, Network Rail arrived to do what was basically some lineside vegetation maintenance work. That work, however, turned out to be quite considerable. Network Rail clear-felled and completely cleared a considerable area of lineside vegetation, including cutting down trees that had nesting birds in them. Rather ominously, the workers also had large supplies of cement and concrete with them. It was not clear what they were for.

The area of track is adjacent to the Emirates stadium and very near to one of our prized local possessions, the Gillespie park nature reserve and ecology centre, which was the result of an effective campaign 20 years ago to have the area made into a park. Local residents were annoyed and alarmed about the work for a number of reasons. First, they value their open space, the vegetation and the ecology of the area. Secondly, they were astonished at the pervasive work that was being carried out. They contacted Network Rail, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Islington borough council and me. I have to say, in praise of them, that they all worked very well together. Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors and local activists held a small demonstration outside Network Rail headquarters. Eventually, after an intervention by the local authority—the police were also fully informed—Network Rail ceased doing its work.

The reason why I was concerned about the work is that London, like all major cities, has limited numbers of open spaces. We value our open spaces. We also value the ecological diversity of our city and of the United Kingdom. Railways—and there are 2,000 hectares of railway land in London—represent a very important source of biodiversity. They are a very important means by which migratory birds, animals, foxes and others travel in and out of the city, enhancing the general ecology for all of us.

If we plant a tree, it is a good thing, but a tree on its own has a rather limited benefit. Two trees together have a much greater benefit, and a string of trees form the possibility of a migratory route. Railways form that migratory route. Clearing that piece of land and breaking up that route is damaging to the ecology not just of the immediate neighbourhood but of London as a whole.

I hope that Network Rail understands that. I hope that it will also understand that we are all responsible citizens who use the railways and want them to be run safely. I recognise that leaves on the line, overhanging branches and all such vegetative growth can be damaging to the railway system and must be controlled, but that control is meant for the area immediately adjacent to the lines, not way back on the embankments. In fact, railway embankments are made more stable by the vegetation on them, and less so if they are cleared.

I wrote to Network Rail concerning the local issue. I shall quote from my own letter to the community relations adviser:

“I have today received rather alarming reports of works by Network Rail around the tracks by Ashburton Triangle, close to the Emirates Stadium. I am told that trees and other vegetation have been stripped, displacing insects, small mammals and nesting birds. This operation appears to be similar to the destruction that took place on the Drayton Park sidings last July.

I should not need to remind Network Rail that these strips of land provide a vital wildlife corridor linking the Borough’s few green spaces—

I cite some of them, before continuing:

“Whilst I appreciate that Network Rail has to manage rail sidings and needs access points to the tracks, I consider such wanton devastation without reference to the local community to be quite unforgivable.”

I referred in my letter to an incident that happened last year. After that, there were discussions and meetings between the local authority, local environmental activists and the ecology sector, and an agreement was reached with Network Rail that it would in future inform the council and appropriate local agencies when it planned to do work and that it would plan its work in a way that did not destroy nesting habitats and sites. June is still clearly the bird-nesting season—someone only needs to watch the excellent “Springwatch” on the BBC to know that.

I got a reply—very rapidly, I have to say—from the route managing director for LNE, the London north-eastern line:

“We removed vegetation in the Drayton Park area (consisting of buddleia, brambles, shrubs and young trees) up to 10 metres from the railway line”—

that is a considerable distance.

“In addition, we cleared vegetation from the top of the embankment, including the area surrounding the substation. These works were part of operating a safe and efficient railway. A daily visual check for nesting birds was undertaken”—

it was not undertaken efficiently, because there is photographic evidence of nests being destroyed.

“The work at Holloway involved the removal of vegetation up to 15 metres from the railway”—

that is nearly 50 feet from the line.

“I understand this involved the removal of shrubs and a number of trees”—

I went to visit the site last weekend, and the trees removed were pretty substantial.

“We also cleared some vegetation to the boundary line and behind the overhead line foundations…Clearly there was no intent here to do anything other than manage our railway requirements. Given the concerns expressed, I have postponed all the current vegetation clearance in this area with immediate effect.”

I am pleased that Network Rail has postponed the clearance with immediate effect, and thank it for doing so, but it should never have done such work in the first place. It should have operated in a way that is synonymous with looking after our local environment.

I want an undertaking from Network Rail, and I look forward to the Minister’s being able to get that undertaking. Network Rail should understand the terms of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which protects nesting birds and sites of special environmental and scientific interest, one of which is included in where we are discussing. Network Rail should be fully aware of the need to work with and not against local authorities and local people, because we value such sites.

When I raised the issue, I was surprised at the number of people who contacted me from all over the country who have had similar experiences. Colleagues present today have been told of similar experiences in their own constituencies, and their own experiences were then broadly similar to mine.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate, which could be packed out because, sadly, there is an “A to Z” of victims throughout the country. In my patch, Winchmore Hill was among the first victims. After an experience similar to his, we were assured of notice, but notice was not given, so Grange Park has become one of the most unfortunate victims of what I call Network Rail’s environmental vandalism and neglect of the local environment, with the destruction of a great swathe of trees and natural habitat—way beyond the immediate area concerned with mitigating safety risks.

I understand that there is no legal requirement on Network Rail to consult with residents on maintenance work, because it is just part of the operational licence to mitigate safety risks. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need properly to protect the local environment and to ask the Minister how we can ensure that Network Rail is held properly to account, and is open and honest about its plans? It is a prolific and persistent offender that needs to be brought to account. We must ensure that its responsibilities are, yes, to mitigate safety, but also to protect the wider local environment.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I understand his concern. I have seen the railside areas in Winchmore Hill, which are a fantastic reserve for natural life and should be protected and preserved.

In January, the London Assembly’s environment committee produced an interesting document, “On the right lines? Vegetation Management on London’s Railway Embankments”. It is an all-party document. The chair of the committee was Murad Qureshi, and it included contributions from Green, Conservative and Liberal Democrat members. It made some good and helpful proposals, pointing out:

“Local people…contacted the Committee about the level of information and communication provided by line operators”,

which is an ongoing problem. It also said—it rather surprised me—that

“Both Network Rail and Transport for London seek to give at least one month’s advance warning…but apply two weeks as minimum. However, they don’t monitor complaints specifically relating to prior notification of works.”

I think they should do that. I suspect that what I have picked up from active and responsible people in my constituency has been picked up all over the country by people in a similar situation, such as the constituents of the hon. Gentleman.

The committee is also calling for a

“standardised written engagement processes with local communities”

to be improved to

“give more detail and a clearer rationale to help the general public…understand and accept the operators’ proposals of line-side work.”

Furthermore, it says:

“Several residents and boroughs have reported concern about the level of communication and information offered by the helplines run by Transport for London and Network Rail. Managing line-side land is usually beyond the scope of local authority guidelines or strategies; as a result, boroughs often refer residents with enquiries or complaints to these helplines”.

That is not the case in Islington, because the council engages very much with local residents, Network Rail and Transport for London on those matters.

In summary—I want others to be able to contribute to the debate—I put on the record my thanks to the local people who live in the Drayton Park area of Islington for their assiduous work in ensuring that, in addition to having Gillespie park, we protect the natural environment alongside the railways.

I want Network Rail to understand that the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 means something. It is there for a purpose. It is there because, as a nation, we value nesting birds, our biological diversity and the ecology in London that is improved by the natural corridor of linesides. Network Rail must manage the railway, and they must do so safely, but there is no need to clear 10, 15 or 20 metres back from the line to do that. If it is cheaper for it to clear-fell once every five years, that is a wrong policy. It should carry out annual maintenance and annual maintenance checks. That is what I want it to do.

When the Minister responds, I hope that she will acknowledge the work that has been done by many local authorities, including mine. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds drew the matter to our attention, and I hope that she will seek a meeting with Network Rail so that it can be acquainted with the strong views that we in the House hold about the preservation of our natural environment and our belief that railways have a part to play in that.

I say all that as someone who is passionately pro-railway. I am not making a criticism of the railways; my criticism is of a specific management decision and a specific management method that Network Rail has used when it should be doing something much more environmentally sensitive.

I thank the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) for securing this important debate because, like many others, this is a big issue in my constituency. Many people are deeply concerned about the fact that there seems to be no way of getting real dialogue with Network Rail, or proper redress when things go wrong.

I want to raise two points. First, the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have stressed the importance of Network Rail’s consulting residents, and it is important that they do so in an up-front way. A problem in Brighton was that it circulated a letter to some, but not all, residents, the headline of which was something like “Vegetation Management”. That sounds like a nice bit of pruning from time to time; it does not sound like clear-felling trees, which is what it ended up being. The letter was rather misleading for people when they first saw it, and the consultation must be very clear in its intent.

Secondly, I have a question for the Minister. Where is the real oversight of the impact of Network Rail’s policies? A few weeks ago, I submitted a parliamentary question to the Department for Transport, asking what information the Department holds in relation to things such as environmental assessments and community consultations. I also asked what estimate there was of the number of trees that had been felled in the past five years, and during bird breeding seasons; on how many occasions British Transport police had investigated complaints about tree-felling; and what estimate had been made of the total area of trees to be felled in the coming five years. I had a very short reply, which essentially said that the Department does not keep that kind of information because it is the business of a private company.

I then asked similar questions of Network Rail and received a very unhelpful letter, which pointed out things such as:

“trees grow in soil, which is the naturally occurring residue from thousands of years of weathering of the underlying strata.”

Most of us know that trees grow in soil and that, from time to time, for serious safety reasons, they need to be felled, but the letter did not answer the underlying questions about when and why Network Rail takes decisions on whether to prune or cut down, how often it plans to do that in the future and the level of consultation it plans to hold with local residents. For many people, particularly in urban areas, the trees around the railway are a vital part of the green space, and they care about them deeply.

Notwithstanding the fact that safety must take priority, I am concerned that Network Rail is acting far too swiftly—from a cost perspective and not from a genuine safety perspective in many cases. I would like to hear from the Minister what action we can take to try to hold Network Rail to greater account.

I want to make just a few comments. This is very much the debate of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), and we want to hear from the Minister.

People up and down the country have been asking that very same thing: how can we properly hold Network Rail to account? In my constituency, vegetation management—a euphemism employed in relation to the Winchmore Hill embankment—was used to fell trees and habitat. Network Rail was only really cajoled into doing any assessment in relation to the bats in one of the trees. That was the only statutory obligation to do any kind of formal environmental assessment. That happened repeatedly.

I got assurances that the company would consult, and notify me of any further works on the lines, and then—lo and behold—Grange Park suffered huge environmental destruction. The area is called Grange Park, but the word “park” might as well be taken away considering what happened. It is extraordinary and desperate how ancient trees were felled, never to be replaced. One can see only the visible destruction of the trees, but natural habitat was also lost. People’s view was completely destroyed by Network Rail’s actions.

After public meetings and a lot of cajoling and hard work on the part of active residents and myself, the new Network Rail chief executive, David Higgins, took his responsibility seriously and met with me for a long time. It is a credit to him that he showed respect and concern, accepted what had happened and apologised. He stated in a letter to me in June 2011:

“Network Rail takes its social responsibilities seriously. Clearly there are lessons we can learn about how we engage with communities when we need to undertake intrusive works. Although consultation in formal terms is not practicable as we will often have little room to digress from the engineering solution being proposed, many misunderstandings can be obviated through early community engagement.”

Those are good words, but sadly we have seen since that lessons have not been learned. That continues up and down the line, in London and beyond. Whitstable is a recent example. There has been great concern about what has happened there.

My concern is that Network Rail is hiding behind its statutory responsibilities—its operational licence responsibility—to mitigate safety risks. In earlier correspondence from the community relationships manager, it stated:

“we have to mitigate safety risks. Therefore most of the work we undertake does not require consultation. However, we consult with local authorities and statutory bodies when working within or near particular sites; such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.”

The company can hide behind such words and not accept its duty of care to local residents and the local environment. That is what happened in the case of Grange Park, Winchmore Hill and other places.

We need to do better. Network Rail has responsibilities to the public, the taxpayers and, yes, to rail passengers, as well as to the local environment, but it has not taken those responsibilities seriously. It has mitigated some of the issues in Grange Park and it has helped to plant some native shrubs, but it cannot undo what has happened and it cannot provide true restoration and restitution. It has come grudgingly to the table but it needs to do a whole lot more. We need to see it being held to account.

We also want to see whether Network Rail should be subject to environmental impact assessments, because of what my constituents had to suffer. There was a major infrastructure project, so I ask the Minister the following question: please can we bring it out into the open, to ensure that we have a proper process of consultation, information and care for the environment?

It is unusual for a half-hour Westminster Hall debate to get trailed on the “Today” programme, but the media interest does not surprise me because this is an issue of real importance for our railways and our environment. Therefore I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. He asked me to pay tribute to the residents and the organisations, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, that have fought campaigns on this issue. I am happy to do so. It is very important that we get this issue right.

I must start by acknowledging that Network Rail, as a private sector company, is not owned by the Government and therefore Ministers have no power to instruct or direct it. Consequently, although I am happy to respond to the points that have been made in this debate, I should emphasise that tree and vegetation management policy is an operational matter for Network Rail, over which we—as Ministers—do not have any power. Nevertheless, I fully appreciate how important this issue is and the concern that communities feel about Network Rail’s treatment of lineside vegetation.

I have raised this issue on a number of occasions with Network Rail, including with those at the very top of the company; I have raised it with Network Rail’s chief executive, Sir David Higgins, and its director of operations, Robin Gisby. I have raised the specific case of Grange Park; I fully acknowledge the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) in that regard. The pictures on the internet of Grange Park are more like the pictures that one would associate with rain forests being devastated by illegal logging than pictures of a leafy suburb. I therefore fully understand the concerns of local residents. In response to the points made by all hon. Members in Westminster Hall today, I am happy to raise this matter again with Network Rail and I will keep up the pressure in relation to it, as I do on a regular basis. I should also point out that some of my constituents have had similar concerns about lineside tree clearance by London Underground. That is a different organisation, but the concerns of the people affected are similar to those of the people affected by Network Rail.

To be honest, I always face a dilemma in this regard, since I care very much about both the provision of safe, reliable and affordable railways, and trees and the conservation of the natural environment. Of course, that is a dilemma that Network Rail faces on a daily basis. I fully agree with everything that has been said today about how important it is that Network Rail exercises care and good judgment when balancing those competing concerns. Efficiency and cost are a consideration, but environmental concerns also have to be taken seriously too. It is also very important that Network Rail engages effectively with the communities and local authorities that are affected by vegetation management, and of course it is essential that it complies with the relevant regulations relating to conservation and wildlife habitats.

Regarding the specific points that were made about the works adjacent to lines in north Islington, near the Arsenal stadium and the Gillespie park nature reserve, I am concerned to hear that the hon. Member for Islington North felt that Network Rail’s actions were so disproportionate and destructive in that area. Department for Transport officials have raised this case with Network Rail. As we have heard, in response to the concerns expressed by residents, Network Rail’s route director, Mr Phil Verster, suspended vegetation clearance in the area. I gather that he has asked a senior member of his team to contact Islington council to discuss what has happened and what went wrong. The aim is to agree a mutually acceptable method for sharing Network Rail’s work plans in the future.

As regards work during the bird nesting season, I can confirm that the company is bound by the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended. Network Rail must ensure that it does not contravene the legislation put in place to protect birds while they are nesting. It should be noted that the legislation allows work to be undertaken where needed for safety reasons.

Turning to the more general issues raised today, Network Rail is tasked with managing over 30,000 hectares of lineside vegetation along 20,000 miles of track. That makes the railway a major natural resource, which needs to be managed at all times of the year to keep it safe. Trees growing within the railway corridor between the railway boundary fences are the responsibility of Network Rail. I am afraid that there is no escaping the fact that trees next to the railway, especially if they are relatively tall, can be a potential risk to train operations and public safety. If they fall over the track or into the overhead wires and cables on electrified railway lines, it can lead to severe train disruption, with major delays and service cancellations. There is also the risk that falling trees could cause accidents.

Factors, such as the steepness of cutting slopes, soil conditions and the nature of the vegetation, can all be relevant to the degree of risk at particular locations. In certain circumstances, trees and bushes need to be cut back in certain areas, because low branches and foliage can impair train drivers’ views of signals. For safety reasons, track workers need to be able to see and be seen by trains, to be able to move to a safe place when a train approaches.

Reliability issues are not confined to instances of falling trees, of course. Delays caused by leaves on the line lead to understandable annoyance and frustration for the commuters and passengers affected, not to mention the economic damage of transport delays. Leaf fall can have a significant effect on train performance and is a significant cause of delay in the autumn, generating public pressure for preventive action. The rail regulator highlighted the contribution of vegetation management to the industry’s successful management of train delays last autumn.

In developing its vegetation management policy, Network Rail tells me that it has worked with organisations such as the RSPB, English Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage. Its priority is to operate a safe and reliable railway, and tree clearance must be a part of that. It has a duty to provide, as far as is reasonably practical, a railway free from danger and obstruction from falling trees.

Recognising public concern on the issue, I have emphasised to Network Rail how important it is that it strikes the right balance between providing a safe, reliable and affordable network and addressing local community and environmental concerns. Although the majority of work is carried out responsibly, the company acknowledged again today that in some instances it has fallen short of the standards it sets itself. It accepts that there are lessons to be learned.

In particular, the Government urge Network Rail to engage proactively and effectively with local residents, local authorities and MPs in advance of carrying out works. It has recently revised its consultation process—no doubt seeking to learn lessons from the experiences that hon. Members mentioned—to enable key stakeholders to be informed of intended maintenance operations in good time.

I am pleased with the Minister’s response and I am grateful that she will raise our issues with Network Rail. We had exactly those undertakings from it less than a year ago in Islington, and we assumed that it was acting in good faith and would mend its ways in future, because it did similar things on the North London line. Will she tell it in clear terms to please be straight with communities and tell them what is going on? That way, they will understand what is happening, without the kind of double dealing that we had before.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It has been raised with Network Rail on various occasions over a period of years. I was trying to remember the first time that I raised it—it was certainly over a year ago. It is important that Network Rail focuses and that we see real change.

There is progress. Network Rail has advised that the number of complaints about vegetation management has fallen. The hon. Gentleman thought that it did not collect that information; I think that it does, but I will check. I was given to understand that it did. Requests to cut back overgrown trees and vegetation now exceed complaints about vegetation management.

However, there are undoubtedly remaining instances in which Network Rail has failed to provide anything like comprehensive advance notice of the nature and timing of its intended work programmes. Network Rail acknowledges the shortcomings that have occurred. For example, it accepts the point made by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that when it does communicate with residents, it sometimes fails to convey the scale of the works that will be undertaken. It is reviewing its communications strategy and working with the Tree Council to improve its lineside vegetation management, and with a view to developing more sustainable solutions to the challenges that it faces in reconciling environmental concerns with keeping the railways running safely. Network Rail has acknowledged that it needs to do better, and I will be urging it to do so.

As the hon. Gentleman highlighted, there are important ecological issues to be considered. Network Rail needs to take care to avoid unnecessary tree felling. I recognise fully the concern that people feel when they see trees being cut down next to railway tracks. Network Rail’s first duty is to ensure the safe running of the railway, but it must also have regard to the environmental, social and quality-of-life importance of the conservation of trees and wildlife corridors. This debate will provide a timely reminder of the importance of engaging with MPs, local communities affected by vegetation management and local authorities. I will ensure that all the points made in this debate are conveyed to Network Rail at the earliest possible opportunity. I have enjoyed the chance to debate an important issue with hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.