HC Deb 28 January 1998 vol 305 cc322-30 1.27 pm
Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

I thank those in Madam Speaker's Office for selecting my debate. I also thank hon. Members who have expressed their support, but who—understandably, given that this is a busy time—cannot be present.

One of the things that I have appreciated since becoming a Member of Parliament is the way in which Members are prepared to debate not just great matters of state, but issues that—although they affect the lives of only a small number of people—raise principles of wider significance. That is particularly appropriate when we are discussing remedies that the House intended to be available to such small groups, but which have been discovered to be defective.

The subject of the debate directly affects residents of Rupert road in Guildford—whose petition I have here—but it also raises three matters of wider principle. First, how are the railway operators to be made accountable for their impact on the environment? Secondly, are those who live near railways receiving fair compensation for that, at a time when it is intended that there will be investment in the rail network so that it will be improved and its use intensified to a greater extent than for many years? Thirdly, when the use of rail and road networks increases, do we reflect the cost to those who live nearby of the benefits that accrue to the rest of us, as a result of such intensification of use?

I have always been a friend of the railways. The garden of my previous home abutted the main railway line. Equally, those who live in Rupert road in Guildford chose to go there in the full knowledge that their road abutted a busy main-line railway station. They had been there for many years when our saga began 21 months ago, when Railtrack decided, without any apparent consultation or a requirement for detailed planning permission, to take advantage of a disused siding and erect what is effectively a new maintenance depot to service its mainline operations and to help in its vital signalling work on that line. That involved the creation of new road access, the erection of offices and electrification of disused line.

As I said, the developments did not require Railtrack to consult local residents or even the council. However, when the project was under way, the noise began for those who lived in the immediate vicinity. I shall quote from one of the letters that I received from the residents, to give a flavour of the noise and difficulty that they face. In her letter, a lady states: I do not think we have had an uninterrupted night's sleep this week. On Monday I was woken at 3 am by what sounded like someone throwing bricks at a metal sheet for half an hour. On Tuesday night my neighbours called the police after South West Trains left a diesel engine parked by the fence with the engine roaring and the compressors screaming every three minutes. The Environmental Health Officer came out and took measurements which recorded this at over 70 decibels. There are many similar incidents to which I could refer. Residents have had to take days off work to recover from the night-time noise and they have had to take days away from home. A family with three children who live by the railway were especially affected by the fumes from the new activity. The three children have asthma, and I presume that "Thomas the Tank Engine" is not their favourite bedtime reading.

I pay tribute to Guildford borough council, and especially to the environmental health officer, Mike Keetch, who has worked tirelessly on the case from the end of 1996, when the residents asked for his help in the matter. That has required the installation of detailed recording equipment and being available at all times of the day and night to ensure that evidence is properly gathered. A council report states that on one occasion

the normal background noise level of about 44 decibels was raised for periods as high as 76 decibels which is a loud and intrusive noise level. Railtrack took nine months to respond to entreaties by the council, let alone the earlier entreaties by residents, for a meeting to resolve the serious problems that the new and intensive development had caused. In view of what was agreed at that meeting, it is striking how simple were the steps that Railtrack had to take to at least alleviate the problems that it had caused. They included such simple measures as erecting signs along the railway telling drivers and workers that they should keep noise to a minimum, and noise control provisions in the contract terms of Railtrack operators.

One would have hoped that such simple measures would be implemented without delay. However, a Guildford borough council officer who wrote to me about the matter stated in his letter: Since that date efforts have been made to contact Railtrack and seek confirmation of the steps that they propose to control noise. No response has been received … although a meeting has been arranged at my request on 3 February. Over the past week, since this debate was scheduled and in the light of the next week's meeting, there has been a short respite in the noise and difficulty caused to residents. I hope that the attention that has been drawn to the matter will have the effect that was intended and desired by legislation.

I contacted the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and discovered that it was its understanding that the Environmental Protection Act 1990 governed Railtrack and other rail operators. Guildford borough council took a great deal of trouble in collecting the required evidence and information, and was on the point of issuing proceedings against the rail company. It discovered that section 122(3) of the Railways Act 1993 gives all rail operators a statutory defence against the Environmental Protection Act. Those who take action against the rail operators have to prove that their operations and actions were, in the words of the section, "totally unreasonable".

Hon. Members will be aware that it is difficult in law to prove that an action is totally unreasonable even if it appears to be unreasonable and, as in this case, the rail operator has admitted that an equally viable site could have been chosen away from housing. It is a measure of the deficiency of the legislation that, because no consultation was required, that alternative proposal was not presented, although its implementation would have relieved the residents of the difficulty.

The residents also examined the Land Compensation Act 1973, to see whether there were legal requirements on the rail operator to give grants to the residents for the cost of insulation. Noise regulations issued in 1996 require that, if noise during the day is more than 68 dB or is more than 63 dB at night, compensation should be paid to residents. However, that is restricted to cases in which a new line is to be opened or when additional tracks are laid alongside an existing line. It does not take account of the revival of a long-derelict line. Even the electrification of such a line or the erection of depot buildings alongside do not count. Those are all signs not just of intensified use but of a material change in the use of the rail network.

It was also decided to seek the aid of the Rail Regulator, who issued environmental guidance in March 1996. The foreword states: There is of course in place in this country extensive and detailed legislation aimed at protecting the environment. It would not be appropriate for me to try to summarise current requirements and standards in a document of this kind. The implication is that the regulator assumed that operators such as Railtrack would be subject to the environmental legislation. The regulator's guidance is therefore sadly lacking in specifics. When he speaks of railways' impact on the environment, for example, he states merely: mitigation of noise nuisance will require measures to be taken by train operators, rolling stock companies, Railtrack and the infrastructure maintenance companies". That long list of those involved shows just how difficult it is to ensure that everyone involved in the railways heeds an effectively voluntary regime. Moreover, the voluntary regime specified in the guidance note is not nearly specific enough.

The problems at Rupert road have continued—although, as I said, they have abated somewhat in the past week. It is very much hoped that, because attention has been drawn to the matter, Railtrack will recognise its responsibilities to the community. Where Parliament has given any exemption from mainstream legislation—particularly from environmental legislation—a duty of care surely rests on those granted the exemption or licence to act extremely responsibly and, wherever possible, to observe the spirit and the letter of the law.

I believe that the Minister and her Department can make a difference in three specific matters. First, I hope that they will support the call for the regulator to issue to the rail operators new and more specific guidelines on environmental impact. I suggest that such guidelines should spell out how, before an intensification and material change of use occurs, operators should undertake a process of notifying local residents and the local authority, and undergo a period of consultation during which they must demonstrate the reasonableness of their proposals and the lack of any alternatives.

Secondly, the regulator should propose model clauses on environmental impact, so that those who work for the rail operators are bound by a legal and effective system to ensure that the type of suffering and disruption caused to the residents in Rupert road does not happen again there or elsewhere. The operators could use such clauses in negotiating contracts with their subcontractors.

Perhaps the Minister will confirm that the Government intend to introduce a new transport Bill. If so, will Ministers consider incorporating in it a revision of the terms of the Railways Act 1993—thereby changing the terms of the section effectively exempting rail operators, so that their operations are more tightly and more clearly defined when they impact on the environment and cause a nuisance to those living near railways?

Thirdly, there is the wider issue of the Land Compensation Act 1973. I speak as an hon. Member representing a constituency through which a main road—the A3—thunders, and in which the intensification of road use is every bit as much of a problem to constituents as the intensification of rail use. The Land Compensation Act 1973 is now 25 years old. Even if the regulations could have been extended—I do not believe that they could have been—to deal with the situation in Rupert road, there are many deficiencies in the way in which we assess and measure the effect on those living near our roads and rail networks.

I hope that the Minister and her Department, in promoting those suggestions, will bring pressure to bear on the rail operating companies so that they re-examine their scope for agreeing discretionary grants in cases that are currently in a grey area. The operating companies certainly have power to make discretionary grants to alleviate the noise caused to local residents.

Above all, I hope that this Adjournment debate will promote a wider debate on the issues that have been raised.

1.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. St. Aubyn) on obtaining this debate and on learning so soon after his election to the House that the Chamber is not reserved for matters of great moment—although I argue that no matter is of greater moment than the concerns of one's constituents. I congratulate him also on presenting those concerns so cogently and in such detail. The issue that he raises is particularly important.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that, on balance, railway transport is more environmentally friendly than road transport. Undoubtedly, however, it still generates noise. Although noise from railways tends to be less disruptive than noise from motor vehicles, and noise experts consider it much less of a problem and much less disturbing to sleep than road or aviation noise, that is of little concern to those of his constituents suffering from the instance that he described in such detail.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to developing an integrated transport policy and that, this spring, we intend to issue a White Paper detailing a strategy for the United Kingdom. As part of that strategy, and within an environmentally sustainable framework, the Government wish to encourage greater use of the rail network for both passengers and freight.

With greater passenger usage of the rail network and with moves to increase the percentage of freight traffic transferred from road to rail, there will inevitably be increased railway noise for many people who live close to railway lines. Our aim must therefore be to minimise railway noise as much as possible.

For many years, I lived over a very busy main line and, like everyone who has lived in a property near a railway line, I was aware that traffic patterns can change and that volumes can increase. However, some of the hon. Gentleman's constituents are particularly concerned about noise from engineering trains using sidings in the Guildford station area. Of course I regret any inconvenience caused to his constituents, but I am advised that those sidings are used by vehicles employed on essential maintenance or on major investment projects to modernise signalling systems in the area. That activity is centred in Guildford because it has easy road access and the necessary services, and it is close to stores and stockpiles of necessary materials.

I regret that the efforts of Railtrack and its contractor to reduce noise at the site have not been successful in reducing the disturbance to local residents. I understand that residents have now been given a 24-hour Railtrack helpline number so that they may contact the company when necessary, and that Guildford borough council has arranged a meeting with Railtrack, on 3 February, to discuss the problems being caused to local residents.

Railtrack has advised me that the project to modernise signalling systems in the Guildford area is due to be completed in July 1999, and that that will reduce some of the disturbance to local residents. However, engineering trains and sandite trains—which put sandite on to the rails to help adhesion during leaf fall in the autumn—will continue to use the sidings at Guildford. The major Railtrack investment programme to improve signalling will bring benefits for many thousands of rail commuters across the south-east, but the related works will cause some inconvenience to people living nearby until they are completed.

Railtrack has assured me that it wishes to be a good neighbour to those who live adjacent to the operational railway—not only in Guildford but across the country—and that it tries to do all that it can to mitigate noise and nuisance caused by track or line-side works.

In major works, Railtrack gives advance notice to the local authority and line-side residents and, in some cases, has offered to accommodate residents in hotels. However, if Railtrack has to perform emergency safety-related work, it may not be possible to give advance notice to residents likely to be affected.

Although there is no statutory limit for railway noise, both Railtrack and train operators are subject to the statutory nuisance provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which are enforced by district councils. Under section 79 of the Act, it is the duty of district councils occasionally to inspect their areas to detect any statutory nuisances, and to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to investigate any complaint made by a local resident. Section 80 of the Act provides for the serving of abatement notices where a local authority is satisfied that a statutory nuisance exists, or is likely to occur or recur. In addition, a magistrates court may act under section 82, following a complaint by any person aggrieved by a statutory nuisance.

The hon. Gentleman referred to section 122 of the Railways Act 1993, which provides Railtrack with some defence against the Environmental Protection Act 1990 where it is carrying out works as a statutory authority, but it is not an open-ended defence to nuisance proceedings. Although the burden of proof required for conviction would be greater than if section 122 had not been enacted, it would be up to the local authority to convince a court that the noise generated by Railtrack was greater than might be reasonably thought necessary in order for Railtrack to carry out its statutory functions. I understand that the local authority has already taken up the case with the Rail Regulator. The Rail Regulator monitors the environmental performance of train companies and may be able to exert some pressure on Railtrack.

I turn from the specific case raised by the hon. Gentleman to railway noise more generally. There is no statutory provision for noise mitigation for those who live next to stations or shunting areas. It has always been accepted that those who buy property next to such areas do so in the knowledge that they will be affected to some extent by noise from the railway.

The Noise Insulation (Railways and Other Guided Transport Systems) Regulations 1996 provide statutory noise protection measures for people who live near new railway lines, or where a line is moved or widened. That is in line with noise insulation regulations offering statutory protection to people who live near new or widened roads. In recent years, a number of new railway projects have been planned or built, ranging from light railway systems to the channel tunnel rail link. The previous Government recognised that it was only fair that people living near new railway lines should be no worse off than people living near new roads.

The 1996 regulations confer a duty on the body responsible for the construction of a new railway line or additional tracks alongside a line to offer insulation when noise exceeds certain levels. There are two noise trigger levels: one for daytime and a separate, lower one for during the night. The standards reflect the character of railway noise—usually short bursts of noise followed by longer periods of quiet—and are expressed as an average noise level over a given time period. In addition, insulation may be offered against excessive noise from railway construction. In all cases, residents have the option of receiving a grant to cover the costs of carrying out the insulation work themselves.

The adoption of national standards ensures equity of treatment regardless of the area where people happen to live. That is very important. If noise insulation standards had to be determined separately for each individual rail project, unnecessary costs would be incurred and there would be a strong chance that people in one area would receive less protection than those in other areas. The certainty provided by setting national noise insulation standards benefits both line-side residents and promoters of new railway projects.

There is no provision in the regulations for insulation to be offered when use of a railway line intensifies. Again, that mirrors the position on roads. Successive Governments have taken the view that those who choose to live adjacent to roads or railways do so in the knowledge that the volume or composition of the traffic may change, and the householder must therefore bear the risk of that.

Although the Land Compensation Act 1973, of which the hon. Gentleman is clearly aware, would not seem to benefit those in his constituency whose plight he has so cogently detailed, the Act allows householders to claim compensation from the responsible authority when the value of their property is diminished by physical factors, such as railway noise or vibration, caused by the use of new or altered public works. For railways, the Act is not specific as to what is meant by "altered works", but it refers to their being reconstructed, extended or otherwise altered". There is no statutory requirement for compensation to be paid purely because traffic on a railway line has increased. That again parallels the situation for roads. For an altered railway line, it is for Railtrack to determine whether particular works undertaken are covered by the meaning of the Act.

Noise mitigation measures are one aspect of tackling noise, but train operators and Railtrack need to take reasonable steps to reduce railway noise at source. For example, railway noise can be reduced by measures such as replacing jointed track by all-welded track, the use of electric locomotives instead of diesel locomotives for hauling freight trains, and the use of lighter freight wagons. The Government propose to discuss noise levels, exhaust emission levels and energy efficiency with the railway industry with a view to gaining an understanding of what improvements the industry can deliver in those areas.

Noise barriers have proved effective in some instances, but they are undoubtedly expensive and, on occasion, replace noise disturbance with visual intrusion. Although there was no statutory entitlement to noise protection, sound barriers have been erected in a number of locations in London and the south-east on lines affected by increased noise from channel tunnel trains. Voluntary jointly funded noise mitigation schemes were agreed between the British Railways Board, Railtrack and the local authorities concerned. Such noise barriers are, however, likely to remain the exception to the rule, and I expect the railway industry to concentrate its efforts on reducing noise at source. New projects such as the CTRL have been very successful in incorporating noise mitigation measures in the design from the beginning.

Looking to the future, a general European Union noise directive is likely to be the main driver of tighter standards for railway and other noise across Europe. Hon. Members may know that the EU published a Green Paper on future noise policy on 5 November 1996. The Commission proposes to establish a framework of working and steering groups to consider noise policy, which will include a railways working group.

I regret that the hon. Gentleman's constituents are suffering from noise from the sidings in Guildford. The resignalling scheme that causes part of that noise is due to be completed by July 1999, but I hope that, before then, Railtrack will be able to find ways of reducing the disturbance to local residents. In the longer term, there is always likely to be some noise disturbance for those who live next to railway sidings, and I fear that little can be done about it.

Although railways are generally more environmentally friendly than roads—the Government want to see more use made of the railway network—I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government take the wider issue of railway noise very seriously and will be talking to the railway industry about what can be done to reduce noise at source. I must stress that there are no easy or cheap solutions.

The hon. Gentleman raised three particular points. He said that the Rail Regulator should issue guidelines on the environment and that there should be consultation with residents, and he raised the issue of contractors. I believe that Railtrack should be undertaking such things anyway. There should be no formal requirement concerning the regulator. Railtrack, in the main, exists only as a result of vast public subsidies, which go into our railways via access charges. It is surely in Railtrack's best interests, as a good private company that wishes, as it has said, to be a good neighbour, to ensure that the kind of actions that the hon. Gentleman has proposed are part and parcel of its work in every way.

With regard to the possibility of a transport Act, we shall be publishing a White Paper on our integrated transport policy—how we can make best use of all transport modes, including roads, railways and waterways. I am not able to say that there will be a separate transport Bill, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking at the creation of a strategic rail authority.

I am in no position to comment on—nor have any knowledge of—the possibility of a review of the Land Compensation Act. I have made a note of what the hon. Gentleman said. His comments stem directly from his constituents' concerns about a particular incident, and I shall look further into the matter.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.