BRITISH RAILWAYS BILL (By Order)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st March 1972.

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Photo of Mr Airey Neave Mr Airey Neave , Abingdon 12:00 am, 21st March 1972

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) for explaining this Bill. The position is a good deal better than it was two years ago when we debated a similar Bill, and since my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) and myself were involved I had better mention this. We complained about it to the authorities concerned with these matters. There was no one to present the Bill at all. I was a strong opponent of the Bill on account of the level crossings in my constituency. I had to introduce the Second Reading. At least we are not in that rather ridiculous position today. My hon. Friend has clearly explained the situation.

I want to deal with level crossings yet again because the Railways Board is always trying to close level crossings in my constituency on the line between Swindon and Didcot. It is proposing to do so again. I would like to refer to these matters entirely. They are of great local importance to farmers in my constituency, and to the passage of traffic at those points in the area of Shrivenham particularly. As my hon. Friend said, they are referred to in Clause 9 and Schedule 2 of this Bill.

The Bill proposes alterations and improvements to the railway line between London and Bristol. One of the reasons is the increase in the speed limit which is proposed for trains along this stretch of line, which has rendered some of the crossings pretty dangerous. At the present time the proposal is that two automatic half-barrier type crossings at Knighton and Ashbury Lane should be closed. The Railways Board wrote to me originally in January and stated that bridges would be provided at both those places. I object to the closure of both those crossings until undertakings are given that bridges should be built there. I will say why in a moment. I am objecting not only on behalf of the farmer who is involved, but also on behalf of the Faringdon Rural District Council and the Shrivenham Parish Council. We shall hear that they were not adequately consulted by the Railways Board, through no fault of that board, or by the Berkshire County Council, whose fault it was. I wish to refer to that tonight because it is of great importance to my constituents.

I mentioned that there was a farmer concerned. He is Mr. R. L. Sheppard, of Chapelwick Farm, Shrivenham. When the Railways Board wrote to me in January proposing these closures, it suggested that bridges should be built at both those points. I have to mention in passing that under Clause 7 there is also a proposal to close another crossing in my constituency—yet a third—at a place called Butterfly Lane in the rural district of Wantage. No objection has been received by me to that proposed closure, but if one appears, no doubt—as my hon. Friend has just reminded the House—this will be considered by the Select Committee.

The position, therefore, turns upon the Ashbury Lane and Knighton crossings. Certainly the Ashbury Lane crossing is by far the most important for the purposes of what I am going to say this evening. I said that originally the Railways Board proposed bridges at both those places. As an alternative, it also proposed to retain the crossings with widened road approaches and central reservations. Since that proposal was made tome in a letter of January, 1972, the Railways Board has decided—no doubt with very good reason—that central reservations and half-barrier crossings are no longer considered safe. The board also seemed, from what it told me at a conference yesterday evening, to have changed its mind about a bridge at the Ashbury crossing, deciding apparently that the crossing should be stopped up altogether—it will have to get a stopping-up order for that, to which objection could be made—and that it would rely in future on diverting traffic a considerable distance to a realigned railway bridge at Shrivenham. This would be disastrous for a great many people who use the Ashbury Lane crossing, and for my constituent, Mr. Sheppard, of Chapelwick Farm. From his point of view, it is totally unacceptable, and it will be strongly opposed locally unless an undertaking is given to build a bridge at the Ashbury Lane crossing. There will be opposition to this at the Select Committee hearing.

Mr. Sheppard's position is that his farm is close to the railway, and he has a farm level crossing as well. That is a complication in this matter. My hon. Friend on the Government Front Bench will know that farm level crossings still exist in many places, but they are exceedingly dangerous when trains are coming at high speed and there is inadequate control. The farm is on both sides of the line so that Mr. Sheppard has to cross somewhere. Negotiations between his solicitors and the Railways Board have been taking place since May, 1971, to close the farm crossing which immediately adjoins his farm. The farm is only a few yards away from the railway. The farm crossing is too dangerous. The negotiations have been held up for some time past because the National Trust also owns land in the vicinity of the railway, and it has a right of way over this farm crossing.

This has caused some distress to Mr. Sheppard, who naturally wishes to receive the compensation which he has already been offered by the Railways Board for the closure of the farm crossing. I hope that the board will see its way, with the National Trust, to bring this matter to a rapid conclusion because Mr. Sheppard is in poor health and may be in need of money.

During the negotiations between the Railways Board and Mr. Sheppard's solicitors, nothing at all was said about the proposal to close the Ashbury Lane crossing. At first sight I thought this was an unfortunate omission, but I have had the opportunity of talking to the Railways Board's legal advisers, and I am assured that it was not decided at that time to close this crossing, and that to that extent no one was to blame for the fact that Mr. Sheppard's solicitors did not know this. Having talked to the board's representative last night, I am bound to say that I feel very much easier about the whole situation, as I shall tell the House in a moment.

Mr. Sheppard's farm, which, as I said, has this farm level crossing adjoining it. is three-quarters of a mile to the east of the Ashbury Lane crossing on the Didcot side of the railway. That is already quite a long way to go to cross to the other side where he has land; that is to say, on the north side of the line. He has 60 acres there, and he wishes from time to time to take his animals from the farmhouse along a track to the Ashbury Lane crossing. He has some distance to go from the Ashbury Lane crossing north of the railway to the land. If that Ashbury Lane crossing is closed without a bridge erected over it, then I calculate and—these are my own calculations—that he will have to take his animals all the way to Shrivenham Bridge a distance of nearly three miles.

There are proposals to carry out works to improve Shrivenham Bridge at a cost of £35,000. This is nearly three miles from the farmhouse, compared with the three-quarters of a mile the fanner has to go to the Ashbury Lane crossing at present. He would have to go into the village of Shrivenham, and with his animals, would have to travel five miles altogether from his farmhouse over Shrivenham Bridge to his land on the north side of the railway. This is unacceptable to the farmer and constitutes a valid objection to the proposal to stop up and to close Ashbury Lane Crossing, without building a bridge there.

The Board acted under the influence of Berkshire County Council, which was not representing the views of my constituents in the matter when it made an agreement with the Railways Board.

My farmer constituent is not the only objector to the proposal to close the Ashbury Lane crossing. There are other objectors through the local authority. There was a meeting in July, 1971, at which the Railways Board's proposals were put to Faringdon Rural District Council and to Shrivenham Parish Council by a Berkshire County Council representative, not by the Railways Board. This is rather like the situation which we had in the debate two years ago when an objector to the Bill moved its Second Reading. On this occasion the Berkshire County Council put the Railways Board's proposal to the two local authorities concerned; namely, the Faringdon District Council and the Shrivenham Parish Council. Both local authorities strongly objected to the closures at Knighton and Ashbury and demanded that there should be bridges at both places, especially at Ashbury.

It is regrettable that the Railways Board did not meet the local councils but relied on Berkshire County Council to carry out for it the job of consultation. Following the discussions I had with the Board last night, I understand that a different procedure will be followed and that the Board will be going back to the local authorities to discuss matters with them. I certainly hope that that will happen. The Berkshire County Council thought fit to ignore the demand for a bridge at Ashbury, although it reported the local objection to the Railways Board, but it decided itself to overrule the local objections altogether. It agreed to the closure of the Ashbury Lane crossing. Not only was the level crossing to be closed but the lane leading to the crossing was to be stopped up. As I have said, the county council relied on an improved bridge being built at Shrivenham, which is further towards Swindon and would necessitate a long journey for the farmer and his animals.

This proposal would also deprive local people of a crossing at the Ashbury Lane which is used locally by school buses and other traffic. If ever there was a matter that should have been the subject of proper local government consultation, it was this one. However, local opinion was totally ignored by the Berkshire County Council. By overruling local opinion, it has made people really angry, and this is why I have taken this opportunity to take part in this Second Reading debate.

The county council did not tell Shrivenham Parish Council until a very late stage that it had made this agreement with the Railways Board. This was a very unhappy situation and was quite wrong. The county council did not even reply to a letter in which the Shrivenham Parish Council asked what was going on. I regard this as a clumsy and discourteous performance by the county council. I have to say this, much as I regret doing so.

I have already told the House that last night I had a talk with the board's legal advisers and, as I understand the situa- tion, they feel that, in view of the manner in which the negotiations took place and the way that Berkshire County Council ignored Shrivenham and district, they must go back to square one. I regard this as the only thing that can be done; namely, to hold a proper democratic discussion about the future of the Ashbury Lane crossing. Before a Select Committee considers the Bill, the board must hold a meeting with the district and parish councils and consider this matter. This is the only reasonable thing to do in the circumstances.

I hope this will mean that Ashbury Lane will not be stopped up, but that a bridge will be provided at that point. I understand from the Railways Board that the cost of so doing would be about £76,000. This would be fully justified in the circumstances of the traffic involved and in the light of the situation of the farmer, Mr. Sheppard. I hope that in future the county council will pay more attention to what people think in Faringdon and Shrivenham and will not try to ignore their wishes. This is a bad example of what happens when a county authority ignores local opinion.

I would emphasise that this incident arose through activities of the council's officers and not of members of the council. I do not think the latter were consulted about this matter at all, and I am sure they will be upset to hear what I have had to say tonight.

Schedule 2 in the Bill will also give powers to build an underpass underneath the line at Knighton. This would be a little further along from Ashbury Lane and would be of great benefit locally, and I would seek to support such a proposal. I understand that the land has already been acquired for this purpose.

I support the Bill subject to what I have said, and I would ask that the wishes of my constituents should be borne in mind. I wish to thank the Railways Board for its co-operation yesterday evening in unravelling the situation. I have no further comment to make on the Bill.