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Historical Railways Estate

Volume 813: debated on Monday 5 July 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the management of the Historical Railways Estate by Highways England; and in particular, whether that management is consistent with the Government’s policies (1) to reverse the Beeching rail cuts, and (2) to promote active travel.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and remind the House of my railway interests declared in the register.

My Lords, the management of the historic railways estate is kept under constant review and there is an independent quarterly audit. Checks are made to ensure that proposals do not prejudice the reopening of railway lines, and Highways England has regular discussions with the devolved Administrations, local authorities and other stakeholders.

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will agree that the most significant and expensive obstacle to fulfilling the Government’s plans to reverse the Beeching cuts of the 1960s and 1970s is restoring the infrastructure—track bed and bridges particularly—that was so short-sightedly destroyed after lines were closed. No doubt she has read the article and leader in Saturday’s Times. Can she confirm that Highways England has now reduced to 69 its hitlist of 134 structures to be destroyed? Will she instruct it to consult not just with local authorities but with cycling and walking groups and heritage railways, before it goes ahead with any more of the cultural vandalism that we have already seen?

I am really happy to reassure the noble Lord that Highways England already does exactly what he asked me to make sure that it does. It consults with local authorities, parish councils, people who run active travel schemes and, of course, heritage railway providers, whether or not the railway is actually built. Of the 3,250 railway properties, some will require work that is in excess of maintenance: that might include infilling, but of course infilling can be reversed.

My Lords, the Historical Railways Estate seems to be the perfect body to take forward the Government’s stated policy to reverse the Beeching cuts and promote active travel. However, it does not have a budget from Highways England for changes to the system in terms of active travel. Does it have a budget for reversing the Beeching cuts?

I am afraid I am not aware of the body the noble Baroness has just referenced. There are all sorts of budgets around. Obviously there is £500 million in the Restoring Your Railway fund and up to £2 billion in terms of cycling and walking. It is important to understand that, where particular railway properties fall into either of these schemes, their ownership can be transferred to the scheme’s promoters and therefore they can be maintained in future.

My Lords, in his foreword to the White Paper Great British Railways, the Secretary of State said that

“we now propose … ending the fragmentation of the past and bringing the network under single national leadership.”

Chapter 3 begins:

“Great British Railways will bring together the whole system”.

Can my noble friend confirm that responsibility for the Historical Railways Estate will be taken back from Highways England and given to Great British Railways?

I thank my noble friend for his suggestion, which I note with great interest. However, no decisions have been put to Ministers about a transfer of some or all of the Historical Railways Estate to Great British Railways. There would need to be a power in the rail Bill and, although this might be contemplated, no decision has yet been made on that matter.

My Lords, do we not need a clear indication for every line that was vandalised by Beeching as to whether it is feasible to restore the services on it? Is that not the minimum we need? And, while we are on this, can I make a plea to restore the line from Penrith to Keswick in the Lake District? It is pretty well there; it requires just the odd bridge to be replaced and we could do that pretty quickly. It would be great for tourism and great for the environment.

I hear what the noble Lord has to say. Of course, it is not quite that simple, because some schemes which were taken out by Beeching will not be replaced because of population changes and all sorts of different reasons. But, of course, we do welcome ideas and I note his intervention on the Penrith line. But it is the case that, even where we want to restore the railway, the infrastructure in place needs to be substantially rebuilt to meet modern safety standards.

Highways England states that it is not funded to enable cycling and walking projects. But if local authorities are not able to take on a property, Highways England is responsible for making it safe, which sometimes costs a great deal of money. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government will consider the proposal to ensure that Highways England can use that money instead as a proper part of a partnership with local authorities in order to create proper cycling and walking projects?

I say to the noble Baroness that we would run the risk there of sharing responsibilities across two very disparate organisations that have different priorities. In my view, local authorities should be prioritising cycling and walking projects. They are able to take over these structures—Highways England would welcome them with open arms—such that they can put them within their active travel plans and make them useful for the future.

I declare my interest as president of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Will my noble friend accept that opening up the extension to Whitby has ensured the increasing popularity of that railway? Will the Government ensure that future extensions are looked on favourably to ensure that it remains the most popular and most visited attraction in North Yorkshire?

My noble friend is well aware that the Restoring Your Railway fund is available, and that any proposals put forward are given a fair hearing.

Attempts are being made to progress some of these Highways England demolition and infilling schemes under permitted development powers, which avoid the need for explanation and the challenges and objections that often accompany normal planning processes—including the need to seek permission from local councils. How is a declared policy of reopening former railway lines or encouraging walking and cycling tracks over disused railway lines consistent with Highways England blocking or severing potential routes by demolishing or filling in currently disused railway structures through a back-door process using permitted development powers, which stifles challenges and objections from local communities and organisations?

I would like to reassure your Lordships’ House that those structures that are potentially going to be infilled over the next five years—again, I say “potentially”—or be subject to other action, are fewer than 2.6% of all assets. Permitted development orders exist to prevent an emergency from occurring. Therefore, Highways England uses permitted development orders only where there is an emergency situation. I reassure noble Lords that to date Highways England has usually managed to get planning permission for any changes.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on whether Highways England, which manages the Historical Railways Estate, should be excluded from using permitted development rights to infill bridges or other structures in the estate, so as to ensure that it actively engages with local authorities and other organisations on the future of assets that run through an area, so that these can be considered for cycling or other schemes ahead of any works?

My noble friend has once again raised the issue of permitted development orders. I restate that they are used only in emergency circumstances. I would just like to remind noble Lords that a couple of decades ago, at the Clifton Hall/Black Harry tunnel in Salford, the shaft collapsed, a house was demolished and the residents were killed in their beds. This is a serious issue we are talking about here: sometimes there are emergency circumstances when permitted development orders are required. But, as I have said, in the majority of cases they are not required, and planning permission is sought and given.

My Lords, given the concerns noble Lords have raised on this Question, and the fact that the Minister said it is very important that there is local involvement, surely the answer is to require all such changes to these structures to be the subject of a full planning application.

Well, I think I have now answered that question three times, but I will give it another go. There is a full planning application except in cases where there is likely to be an emergency.

The Minister knows of my interest in the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, which was extended from Toddington to Broadway in 2018. Can she assure me that no legacy structures on the current route, or possible future extensions from Broadway to Honeybourne and beyond, are under threat of demolition or infilling? Is she making any progress on the burning issue of securing affordable stocks of lump coal, which makes steam engines work? Without that, the whole network could end.

I will have to write to the noble Lord on the availability of lump coal and certainly on his specific request about a certain line and whether there are any structures on it. I am afraid I sadly do not have the information and I will have to write.