HC Deb 22 June 1988 vol 135 cc1245-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

11.30 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about a section of the city in which I was born and bred, and for which, as a consequence, I have a great affection. I speak tonight not simply as a constituency representative, but as someone who has always wanted to see railways and the city develop—for railways and transport facilities generally are an important part of a city.

Bradford's railway circumstances are singularly unfortunate because of a series of historical quirks. Those historical quirks have meant a steady decline in Bradford's position as a city with railway facilities. The ASLEF branch closed recently because it is no longer a signing-on point. Leeds has become the centre. There are no locomotive depots and no freight yards, and there are inadequate freight facilities in the interchange station, which is the subject of continuing complaint by the postmaster general in Bradford. Parcels are taken from a major post office facility in the centre of Bradford as far a field as Preston to join the railway network. That cannot be reasonable or right.

As a result of those historical quirks, we have two railway stations, both termini: the Interchange, which is modern, bleak and inadequate, approximately seven miles from Leeds, and Forster square, approximately three miles from Shipley—which can be seen to have an air of faded grandeur, when it is possible to burrow behind the buildings and find out where it is. Shipley is the junction for the Leeds-Skipton railway from which there is access to Lancaster, Morecambe, and, further north, Settle and Carlisle.

The history of railway development in Bradford is essentially one of missed opportunity. If I give the Minister a brief resumé—provided that he has not already got one —it will demonstrate that the House has already in past years given approval for various sorts of railway link to join the two stations, and therefore to provide a regeneration of railway facilities, as I hope will still be possible.

Let me quote from a small booklet by Alan Whitaker, "Railways of Bradford." He pointed out: A change of mind by Leeds and Bradford Railway Company chairman George Hudson"— not the most eminent railway entrepreneur— wrecked Bradford's first chance of a through line as early as 1846 when, after initially supporting a plan to link the Manchester and Leeds and Leeds and Bradford lines to put Bradford on a through route, he decided against it and the chance was lost. …Yet another opportunity arose in the early 1880s when reconstruction of Bradford Exchange station was in an advanced state of planning. A leading local architect was hired by a group of prominent Bradford businessmen to prepare plans for a central station on a through line and the cost was put at £300,000. But, after conferring on the scheme, the three railway companies, which already had local interests … sent a sharp rebuff to the promoters saying that the project was unrealistic". One of those railways—the Midland—13 years later drew up its own proposals for a Bradford through line, at an estimated cost of £2.1 million; and the scheme was authorised by the Midland Railway (West Riding Lines) Act 1898. The House was so keen to endorse Bradford's view that it gave its consent for the extension of time to promote the scheme to build the railway in 1901, 1904 and 1907. But the local authority rightly suspected that the Midland railway was dragging its feet, and so eventually produced yet another scheme. At that stage, the local authority was so keen to promote the idea that the Bradford corporation offered to deduct £8,000 a year from the Midland railway's rates bill for a period of 20 years.

The Bradford Through Lines Act received the Royal Assent on 25 July 1911. But before anything could be done, the first world war intervened in 1914, and in the post-war recession the scheme was again put to one side and forgotten.

In the 1950s, a circular route that would involve joining the stations was considered but thought too ambitious, and so not pursued.

What is the current position? The InterCity service is pathetic. Bradford is a city of almost 500,000 people. It is a major provincial city, and it deserves better. There is one through service each way each day. British Rail is not prepared to electrify the Leeds-Bradford branch, and is talking of diverting all InterCity trains to Forster square and developing Shipley as a station with a parking facility. That would mean a major development miles from the city centre, taking the heart out of the railway centre in Bradford.

Bradford local authority considered a cross-Bradford rail link during 1986, in conjunction with a proposed new court house site by the Property Services Agency. The alignment under consideration was a route extending from the interchange, under Bridge street, crossing land formerly occupied by the Exchange station, returning parallel to Vicar lane and swinging so as to cross the subway well at the junction of Hall Ings and Petergate. It would then go along Petergate by a viaduct, whose columns could be accommodated within the central reservation of Petergate. The line would then swing across the former Forster square goods yard to join the track reaching Forster Square station, thus providing a through route for the first time in the city's history.

Written representations were made to the PSA in February 1987, and a response was received in March of that year from the court house project manager, a Mr. D. Jones. The local authority sent me a letter, dated 6 October, outlining Mr. Jones' objections. He apparently objected to having a railway on the land on which the court house was to be built—the former Exchange station site—on the grounds of security. That is curious. Did he think that court house prisoners were going to leap from their confines on to the roofs of passing trains to make a dramatic escape? He did not like the idea of a railway so close to the court house.

In a parliamentary answer on 26 May the Minister said that the idea would create unacceptable levels of noise and vibration, …unsurmountable security problems, and would be visually intrusive."—[Official Report, 26 May 1988; Vol. 134, c. 307.] I do not believe that the Property Services Agency is so incompetent that it cannot design a secure building that is reasonably insulated against noise. Railways are considerably less noisy than either a busy city centre road or a trunk road. There are ways of insulating railways. For example, rubber pads can be used on the chairs holding the rail to the sleeper. Buildings can also be insulated effectively. I do not therefore support the noise argument.

Railways are much less visually intrusive than, say, multistorey car parks which have grown with the increase in car ownership like some sort of cancer across the face of our cityscapes. I cannot think of any multistorey car parks that are exciting and appreciated by architects and citizens everywhere. The car scene is visually much less attractive than railways. In any case, the railway of the cross-Bradford link would be on only a slight gradient, so the argument about engines or diesel motive units working hard and making a great deal of noise would not apply.

The local authority and the passenger transport authority want the option of a sufficient strip of land across the court house site—round the back of it as it were —so that at some future date there will be the possibility of a cross-Bradford rail link. A man in Whitehall should not have the right to veto the local authority or the local passenger transport authority. They represent people who live and work in Bradford and who can see for themselves that a rail link would not be particularly noisy or intrusive. Certainly it would not be aesthetically jarring to the people of Bradford who would benefit greatly from such a link.

The passenger transport authority is commissioning an independent review and a technical assessment of the potential for a cross-Bradford rail link in the specification for a study to be commissioned jointly by Bradford local authority, British Rail and the passenger transport authority. That is the general position of the cross-Bradford rail link.

The Property Services Agency made it clear that if the Bradford local authority did not accede to the view of, presumably, Mr. Jones, the agency would think again about whether a court house should be built on the site. Then the question of the time to build the court house arose. The local authority, anxious to secure jobs, yielded to what some people might see as a crude form of blackmail, but I am sure that that was not intended by the Property Services Agency. However, that might be seen as the implication.

There would be enormous transport improvements if the option that I have mentioned was available to be taken up at some future date. There could be through trains from Leeds to Bradford, from Bradford to Shipley, to Skipton, Lancaster or Carlisle, or trains could run from Leeds to Bradford and then round to Leeds and on in a southerly direction to London. They could run from Leeds to Shipley and Bradford and through to Halifax and Manchester. In a note to me the passenger transport authority said: The construction of a cross-Bradford rail link would allow routing of train services from Leeds to Lancaster/Carlisle and from Leeds to Manchester/Blackpool via Bradford without reversal. One possible service pattern (fig. 5)"— which the authority gives in a diagrammatic form— would result in improved Leeds-Bradford frequencies and links between Airedale and Calderdale without necessarily increasing train operational costs. That means that there would be an improved train frequency without additional costs in a way that has never been possible before.

The Minister should not close his mind to the option. He should say that he recognises the importance to the passenger transport authority and to the local authority of this potential development. He should consider whether further discussions can result in an accommodation for a rail alignment.

It is Government policy to regenerate inner cities, and the link would certainly help to regenerate the heart of the city of Bradford. It would help to provide Bradford with a railway service such as it has never been able to achieve because of the wretched, if small, division between the two stations, which, as I have explained to the Minister, has been under discussion off and on for more than 140 years. If the court house project goes ahead willy-nilly, the option will be cut off for 100 years. It will not be available at any rate for the period for which a modern court house can be expected to last, which I suppose may be less than 100 years. Once the building is constructed and in operation, the option will not be open to us.

The option of the cross-Bradford rail link would place Bradford at a railway crossroads. It would stimulate rail traffic and provide a greatly improved railway service for the people of Bradford. It would not be intrusive, and the short viaduct across Petergate would blend in well with the surroundings and provide a dramatic and unusual journey through the city. Most of all, the link would stimulate rail traffic. Instead of two stations withering away at the end of two short branch lines, Bradford would once again have a railway service to match its status as one of the most important cities in Yorkshire.

I hope that the Minister will accede to my requests and tell the Property Services Agency to reconsider the matter to see whether the rail link option—which is a very important option to the city and is supported by the passenger transport authority and the local authority—can at least be retained for further examination.

11.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope)

We have been entertained to a fascinating history of the development of the railway in Bradford and its environs.

It is clear from the remarks of the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) that there is much misunderstanding over the role of the Property Services Agency in this matter. I am grateful for this opportunity to set out the respective responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the city of Bradford. After the hon. Gentleman has heard what I have to say., I think he will accept that the PSA is not dictating anything, but that the ball is in the court of the local authority, which owns the land and decides the planning issues. It has agreed to the development of the land for an important court house and accepts that it would not be possible to have both a court house and a rail link on the site.

The Property Services Agency, as its name implies, acts as the agent for the Lord Chancellor's Department in the selection of sites for courts and in their construction. Decisions of where courts are needed, their size and the selection of a specific site in each city are essentially matters for the Lord Chancellor's Department, advised by the PSA. The cost of the court building programme falls on the public expenditure programme of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor, and from 1 April this year the annual expenditure for the courts programme has fallen upon his Vote.

For this, as for other construction projects, the PSA is bound to obtain the view of the local authority on planning matters under the appropriate circular—in this case circular 18 of 1984. The Government have repeatedly said that they are bound by the spirit of planning legislation and in the case of Crown court development there is rarely occasion to seek to set aside the views of the planning authority. I can assure the House, from my inspection of the relevant documents, that there has been the closest co-operation between the PSA and the officers of Bradford city council over planning matters.

Against that background of roles and responsibilities, let me deal with the history of this project. Bradford has been without a Crown court building since 1982, when the two court rooms in the city hall, owned by the local authority, were closed because of maintenance problems. Since then cases have been heard at Leeds, and my right hon. and noble Friend the then Lord Chancellor declared in 1983 that the Crown court would not return to Bradford until permanent modern accommodation could be provided.

Having assessed the case load in Bradford, the Lord Chancellor's Department decided that it needed a court building to house eight Crown and two county court rooms. The PSA identified six potential sites in Bradford, of which two were shortlisted. One of these was the Bradford Exchange site, which was by common consent the best, in that it fulfilled the criteria for accessibility and security, while providing a focal point for a new building of civic significance. Both it and the other shortlisted site at Vickers lane were in the ownership of Bradford city council.

The PSA and the Lord Chancellor's Department therefore opened negotiations with the city authorities over the use of the Exchange station site for courts, with the aim of purchasing it if the authority was prepared to agree to its use for courts. A deputation of members from the city council met officials of the Lord Chancellor's Department and the PSA in June 1986 to discuss aspects of the scheme, and on 13 November 1986 the PSA submitted a planning application to the council.

The Council replied on 3 February 1987 saying that, while it was favourably disposed to the development, it was aware that the West Yorkshire passenger transport authority was considering a proposal to provide a cross-Bradford rail link between the Interchange and Forster square stations, across the Exchange station site. It therefore invited the PSA to consider the effect of the PTA's proposals on the court scheme and to let it have comments.

The PSA carefully examined the proposal from a professional viewpoint. Would it be feasible and physically acceptable to have a court and a rail link on the same site? Writing to the director of planning of the city council on 4 March 1987, the PSA project manager said that the design team had concluded that it would not be possible for the rail link and the court house to share the same site. There would be problems for secure access and egress for custody vehicles, problems of general layout, and a change in the character of the site which would remove the sense of civic importance that the court house development would enhance.

In those circumstances, the project manager went on to say that it was for the council to make a clear decision to approve either the rail link or the court house development.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the PSA took the view that it did, and he referred to the answers that I gave to his parliamentary questions on 22 October 1987 and 2 November 1987. The possibility of a rail link being taken into account was not drawn to the PSA's attention until February 1987. It was not, as I said in my reply on 2 November 1987, for the PSA to give reasons for rejecting a rail link. It simply pointed out that a rail link and the court house to the standards required by the Lord Chancellor's Department could not be accommodated on the same site. In answer to the hon. Gentleman's more recent question on 23 May 1988 I explained that the construction of a rail link, close to the court house, would create problems of noise and vibration, add to the security problems and be visually intrusive.

In effect, the hon. Gentleman has asked me to elaborate on the reasons that I gave him then. First, a court house containing eight Crown and two county courts requires a site of between 2 and 2½ acres. The Exchange station site is slightly under 2½ acres, and of this a little over one quarter would be taken by the proposed railway development. If we sought to realign the agreed site boundaries to take account of the rail link, it would mean encroaching upon adjacent land identified by the local authority for future commercial development and for a civic square. If we did not realign the site boundaries, the railway would pass within 30 ft of the court room walls.

Secondly, the proposed railway route creates major access problems. It would divorce the court house site from the only realistic road access, which is from Vicar lane. Because of the slope of the ground—the hon. Gentleman will know the details of this better than I do —other roads do not give ready access, and bridges or tunnels would be impractical. A level crossing is unacceptable for security reasons—this is where security is crucial—because vehicles bringing defendants to court must be able to get in and out without impediment. Clearly, a level crossing would be an impediment.

If the access problems could be resolved and the railway link provided, the noise, vibration and visual intrusion would create problems in planning and building the courts, and impair their value in use. The design of the foundations, building frame and fabric would have to be adapted in a way that would be costly and cause delay; and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to meet the agreed standards for court design, particularly for noise levels and daylight. Even if these problems were overcome, the visual intrusion of a railway line on the same level as the court building is not hard to imagine.

Those were the PSA's reasons; the decision, though, was for Bradford. On 16 March 1987 the director of development services of Bradford city council wrote to the project manager, conveying outline planning clearance. He said that he had carried out consultations with the leadership of the council and the view had been taken by the council that the court house development should proceed as programmed, because it was appreciated that it was not a feasible proposition to think in terms of physically accommodating the rail link and the court house on the Exchange station site and adhering to the stated programme.

That is the current position. The site is to be developed for the court building and there has been close consultation with Bradford council over the design of the scheme. A new civic square will be laid out fronting the court house, which will do much to regenerate the important central area of Bradford. Both the PSA and the Lord Chancellor's Department have been happy to co-operate with the local authority in this scheme.

The programme to which we are working is dictated by the needs of the Lord Chancellor's Department. Advance works, to prepare the square, are due to begin next year. The scope of the work and apportionment of cost are being negotiated as part of the site purchase agreement. The construction of the court house itself, on which there will be further consultations about the exterior appearance, will begin later that year or in 1990. The Lord Chancellor's Department hopes to bring the new building into use in 1992.

From that brief history the House will see that, far from being bureaucratic or authoritarian, the PSA has fully and properly carried out its responsibilities and observed both the spirit and the letter of the consultation process.

Mr. Cryer

The local authority said in its letter to me that when it had been engaged in correspondence with the PSA it had been requested to make an urgent decision, as failure to do so could jeopardise the timing of the court house project. That could be interpreted as suggesting that if it did not agree with the PSA view the court house project might be taken from Bradford. Was that the case? That was certainly the implication.

Mr. Chope

Clearly, if considerable delay was caused by arguments about whether both could be accommodated on the site, or whether the rail link should have priority over the court house, or vice versa, that would have affected whether we could proceed with the site or should look for an alternative. The hon. Gentleman goes too far in suggesting that that was more or less tantamount to blackmail or a threat. All the cards were with the local planning authority and it could have written back and said that it wanted more time, giving reasons for it. It did not do so. It unequivocally accepted the arguments of the PSA.

The choice between the rail link and the court house, or, indeed, the decision whether the two could co-exist on the one site, was a matter for Bradford city council. That choice was made and communicated in March 1987. I am confident that Bradford will not regret its choice, and that the new court house, when it is built, will prove a worthy addition to the civic architecture of the city.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.