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Portishead Railway

Volume 704: debated on Friday 26 November 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Earlier today, I had the great pleasure of introducing my Down Syndrome private Member’s Bill, on which I was extremely grateful for the support of the Government. Let us hope that we can repeat that exercise now and make it two in a row.

This is the third time I have raised the issue of the railway extension to Portishead on the Adjournment in this House. Let us be very clear: we are not talking about HS2. We are not talking about major infrastructure or billions of pounds from the public purse. We are not talking about massive environmental impact or huge public dissent about the route. We are, as I have repeatedly said, seeking only around 1.3 miles of additional track. Although that is only a tiny fraction of the extra railway lines that are currently being planned, it has proved a gargantuan challenge to get through the bureaucracy required to provide a growing and affluent town with improved public transport—public transport that will improve quality of life for many, take traffic off our overcrowded roads and provide a public transport route into Portishead that may help to alleviate our current labour shortage.

On 20 October 2021, the decision was issued from the Secretary of State for Transport’s office to extend the statutory deadline to determine the application for the proposed rail “Portishead branch line—MetroWest phase 1” development consent order by up to six months to April 2022. That extension has significant financial, reputational and programme implications for North Somerset Council and comes as a great disappointment to all of us who have looked forward to the opening of the railway line, particularly given the Government’s support for the expansion of the railway network. When I requested further information from Ministers, I was informed that there was a fear that a judicial review might be granted to environmental groups opposed to the reopening of the line. I will return to that point later on.

On 10 November 2021, North Somerset received initial feedback requesting further information on carbon budgets. Understandably, the council has been seeking urgent clarification as to whether that information will address the so-called environmental matters that have been cited as the delay to the granting of the DCO. What might seem like precautionary legal moves to a large Department are having significant costs at a local level, and we are all at a loss to fully understand the situation, which is why I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate today. If the Government want to see improvements in the rail network, including the opening of new lines such as that to Portishead, we need predictability, not surprises.

I fully understand the Government’s disappointment that several DCOs, such as that at Stonehenge, have been thwarted by judicial reviews, and I also understand the fear that those groups that have been involved in lawbreaking in recent times, such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, might seek such a review on the Portishead line, but I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that our local scheme has the full support of all our mainstream environmental groups, which can fully see the advantage of taking traffic off our congested roads and on to the railways. In these circumstances, I wonder whether any judge would be likely to grant a judicial review to some of these more extreme organisations.

The issues that may have arisen with some of these other DCOs are not present in our case. There has already been a very detailed examination of the environmental and wider considerations of the merits of the scheme, including examination of the environmental statement and habitats regulations assessment. That also included a report into the implications for European sites. The information requested by the Department on carbon budgets should be easily resolved, and North Somerset will make it available as quickly as possible, but it is essential that we all understand whether there will be further issues that may result in a delay.

Let me be very clear with the House: delays of the nature suggested in October can have a hugely detrimental impact on the ability to deliver this project within costs and on time. Following an initial review with Network Rail, it has been assessed that the scheme may accommodate a maximum delay of three months, albeit importing additional cost and risk to the programme. A six-month delay, as suggested by the Secretary of State’s office, would have a potentially devastating impact. It is important that we understand whether this six-month figure was simply plucked out of the air and whether a shorter delay would deal with any reservations from the Department.

For example, at a practical level, delays beyond 14 January would result in key ecology windows being missed, with a net programme impact of at least 12 months. We can control a lot of things in North Somerset, but the calendar is not one of them. It has been assessed that the impact on cost beyond 14 January 2022 will be in the order of an additional £13 million at minimum—an unacceptable figure for the project to bear. The loss of £13 million may be a rounding error on a weekly basis to big Government Departments, but on local government projects of this nature, it is a very large sum indeed.

Today I am asking the Minister to ensure that we receive a positive DCO decision by 14 January 2022 to facilitate the continuation of the project. Failing that, it is unavoidable that we will incur significant extra cost on further legal and consultancy support, and difficulties with practical issues such as the manual clearance of vegetation over the winter—again, something over which we have no control. Although it is clear that the Government have some flexibility in the timetable that they impose on the project, there is, I am afraid, no flexibility in nature’s season.

This scheme fits into every aspect of current Government policy, from environmental benefits to improved public transport and increased economic opportunity. Although we are tantalisingly close to finally getting delivery of a scheme that is supported across the whole community and from every aspect of political opinion, we are still not quite there. I understand that this is a live planning decision and that the Minister may be limited in what he can legally tell us today, but knowing him as I do, I trust that he will sense the frustration that many of us feel—very much including myself—and will undertake to get us full and rapid answers to the reasonable questions that we are currently asking.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on securing this debate on an issue that I am very aware is of great importance to both him and his constituents. I also congratulate him on his Down Syndrome Bill earlier today, which I was delighted secured Government support.

My right hon. Friend has been a passionate advocate for the restoration of the rail link to Portishead for many years, frequently championing the case in this House, and outside the House directly to Ministers. The restoration of the railway is part of MetroWest, which is a third-party scheme promoted by the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council. The Government have committed to funding the scheme, with £31.9 million of support to close the funding gap on this project. This is dependent on the success of the development consent order that my right hon. Friend mentioned, alongside the endorsement of a full business case through the rail network enhancement pipeline.

The application for a development consent order for the Portishead branch line MetroWest phase 1 scheme includes works and powers to enable the reinstatement of the railway line between Pill and Portishead, an upgrade to an existing freight line and two new stations. The section to be reinstated has significantly overgrown since the railway stopped running to Portishead in 1964 and would require some clearance work. The scheme also involves proposals for clearing vegetation along the existing freight line through the Avon gorge woodlands special area of conservation, which is home to a number of rare species of plants including the Bristol whitebeam.

The examination into this application for a development consent order began on 19 October 2020 and concluded on 19 April 2021. Following this, the Secretary of State received the examining authority’s report on 19 July, with a statutory deadline for a decision by 19 October. As with all nationally significant infrastructure projects such as this, this is a complex scheme and there can be detailed matters that need to be worked through even after an examination has closed.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, following the written ministerial statement laid on 19 October by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts)—the Minister for Aviation, Maritime and Security—the decision on this development consent order application has been extended to 19 April 2022 to allow for further consideration of environmental matters. Since then, the Secretary of State has requested additional information from North Somerset Council, as the applicant for the DCO, and comments have been invited from interested parties on this response.

I hope it is not pointing out the blindingly obvious that when people look at projects like HS2, which are able to tunnel under the entire area of the Cotswolds, they find it a touch hard to swallow that we have significant delay because there is some overgrowth on a line that last ran in the 1960s. I hope the Government will understand that.

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, although I am sure he will remember that phase 1 of HS2, taking the line from London to the west midlands, took four years to get through the House and the detailed examination of tens of thousands of pages of an environmental statement. I, like him, want to see us moving forward projects at pace, but however we legislate for nationally significant infrastructure projects—whether by hybrid Bill, DCO or other means—there is a process we have to follow and it is, unfortunately, quite bureaucratic. But I think we also share a view that we must protect the environment and do everything we can to mitigate the impacts of all such schemes.

This is still a live planning application and it will now be for the Secretary of State to consider his decision in the light of the original report and the recommendations from the examining authority and all other relevant information, including the responses to the most recent consultations. As the Secretary of State is the decision maker for all applications for transport DCOs and the competent authority for any habitat regulation assessment, this is required to be undertaken to assess the impact of a scheme on a European-protected site, such as the Avon gorge woodlands special area of conservation. It is important that he, or any other Minister delegated to undertake a planning decision on behalf of the Secretary of State, brings an unbiased, properly directed and independent mind to his consideration of that application. Decisions on applications need to be based on planning matters only and all decisions need to comply with all necessary processes and legislation regardless of the risk or otherwise of potential legal challenge.

I am not involved in the decision on this DCO, but my right hon. Friend will understand that, as the decision on the application is under consideration in the Department, I cannot take part in any discussion of the pros or cons of the proposal. That is to ensure the process is correctly followed and remains fair for all parties.

I recognise that extending decision deadlines for DCOs has implications for the scheme’s delivery and the Government’s commitment to levelling up. It is therefore only used where it is absolutely required to take further necessary steps to ensure a legally robust decision. While a new deadline for a decision on the DCO has been set for 19 April 2022, the Department is working hard to enable a decision to be made ahead of that deadline.

I recognise that all transport schemes have an environmental footprint. It is right that we fully understand them and any other impacts resulting in such schemes, and ensure that they are mitigated appropriately, whether that is in relation to the planning decision or the funding decision.

With regard to funding for the scheme, I can assure my right hon. Friend that the Department will continue to work closely with the West of England Combined Authority, North Somerset Council and Network Rail counterparts on the approval process of the scheme’s full business case. I understand that the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council sent a letter to the Secretary of State on 12 November that set out concerns about the extension to the DCO deadline and ongoing costs. A reply to that letter will be sent shortly.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to improving rail services in the wider Bristol area. I understand my right hon. Friend’s impatience for the scheme to progress, following his years of campaigning. As I have set out, the application for any development consent order needs to follow appropriate processes and any decision must be made in line with the relevant legislation to ensure that it is robust. We are aware of how important the scheme is to my right hon. Friend’s local area. Although I am unable to comment directly on the merits of the individual DCO application in respect of funding from my Department, we will continue to provide support to the West of England Combined Authority and North Somerset Council to help them to develop their business case.

I hope that my right hon. Friend is reassured that my Department fully appreciates the importance of the proposal to his constituency, and we heard that message loud and clear again today. I thank him for raising this important issue.

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish briefly to respond.

We have all become used to reading between the lines in these debates. I take it from my hon. Friend’s speech that the Government are not ruling out a decision earlier than April, which would be a good thing. If I am correct in that interpretation, let us get on with it.

My hon. Friend mentioned the environmental sensitivities in respect of Avon gorge; I should point out that the railway already runs through the gorge to get to Royal Portbury dock, so that is something of a red herring.

For many of us, with this recurrent delay, the pantomime season has come early. There is a very thin line between frustration and farce. I know that my hon. Friend sympathises with my points—I can tell from his tone—and wish him well in persuading his Department to see that, although it is something of an oxymoron, common sense is still the best way forward.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.