I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate regarding the behaviour of Network Rail towards my constituents in Sutton Coldfield. I have been in extensive correspondence with Network Rail and its chief executive, John Armitt, since
This is a story of arrogance and insensitivity, but, above all, of a complete lack of corporate accountability. East View road is a residential area in the green belt, located next to the picturesque New Hall Valley country park. It is an environmentally sensitive area and, although my constituents accept that they live next to a freight line and that line security is important, they do not accept the kilometre of monstrous, ugly grey steel fencing that has been erected. They want it to be replaced by green powdered fencing, which would be more suitable for the area. Network Rail has been asked to replace the grey fencing that it erected with more appropriate green fencing, but it has refused point blank.
My constituents have been pursuing this point with Network Rail since March 2004 and I took up their case in October of that year. We have since been in frequent correspondence, and held a series of site visits and meetings—all to no avail. Network Rail has never truly engaged with the complaint or displayed any signs of sympathy towards the case. The arrogance and lack of interest that my constituents' complaint has received has been truly insulting. We can only conclude that Network Rail, although it states that it has an interest in being a responsible neighbour, has no intention of being anything of the sort. I therefore have no alternative but to highlight this sorry case to the House tonight. Network Rail has, through its behaviour, clearly demonstrated that its publicly stated environment policy and improved customer relations objectives are nothing more than box-ticking exercises. They hold no currency in the day-to-day business of Network Rail.
In its stated key objectives, Network Rail claims that consultation with community groups, Government agencies and local authorities
"is essential to our success."
"We are rebuilding trust in the nation's rail network by listening to our customers."
Network Rail's published environment policy, which was signed by John Armitt, the chief executive, in March 2003, claims to offer environmental safeguards. Its stated vision is to "achieve environmental excellence" by engaging in dialogue with stakeholders and to seek continual improvement in its environmental performance. The company claims:
"We are committed to developing our relationships with the community and strive to be good neighbours across the areas in which we operate."
There is no evidence whatever of that in the case of East View road.
John Armitt is coming to the House next Monday to hold an MPs' "surgery" over line-side issues. I am sure that he is coming with every intention of promoting Network Rail's neighbourly credentials. However, if he did not feel that it was worth accepting my invitation to visit the East View road site and was unable to use his authority to address my constituents' problems, why should we think that that surgery is anything other than just another tick-box exercise, a cynical stunt straight from a public relations textbook?
When one of Mr. Armitt's staff came to meet my constituents, after many requests, he was reduced to an embarrassed silence and was unable to defend the actions and attitudes of Network Rail in any way. He promised to go back to Network Rail to try to ensure that a fair and equitable solution was agreed. Nothing of the sort occurred. The subsequent letter that I and my constituents received was a muddle of smug, complacent bureaucracy that addressed none of my constituents' arguments.
The views of the residents of East View road are being swept aside by the over-mighty Network Rail and their line-side issues simply ignored. Network Rail did not engage in any dialogue prior to the erection of the stainless steel fence, either with the local residents or the city of Birmingham planning office. The residents' first knowledge of Network Rail's plans to construct the fence was when they awoke to the sound of workmen cutting back trees, removing bushes and digging up the undergrowth before hastily putting up the fence. The residents of East View road only received correspondence from Network Rail after they had vociferously complained. A request for a temporary halt for a meeting to discuss the issue was rejected out of hand.
Despite representations made by my constituents, Birmingham city council planning office and me to request the use of green fencing, it has refused in a most uncompromising, unsympathetic and offhand manner. The current grey fencing is acknowledged to be environmentally insensitive and completely inappropriate for areas in or around the green belt. At other locations in Sutton Coldfield, more suitable fencing of the green powder-coated variety is used. The question from my constituents is: why cannot they be treated the same as others and have appropriate fencing?
Frustratingly, my constituents and I have no recourse to pursue Network Rail for breach of the local authority planning regulations, as Network Rail does not come under its jurisdiction. Birmingham city council planning control office confirmed on
Had the residents tried to put up such a fence, Birmingham city council would have insisted, due to the environmentally sensitive nature of East View road, as made absolutely clear by the city's planning policy, that the fencing must be green. There are innumerable examples of Birmingham city council having erected the sort of green powder-coated fencing that my constituents are seeking. For example, at the nearby Bishop Walsh school, which is also adjacent to the railway line and New Hall Valley park. The city council granted planning approval subject to the condition that the fencing would be powder-coated green. The reason for that condition is to
"safeguard the visual amenity of the area".
As a result all security fencing fronting the highway in this locality is coloured green.
The Walmley local action plan of May 2002, produced by Birmingham city council's planning department, declares:
"the area does contain an historical legacy that is probably unique in the city. This centres on New Hall Valley and its listed buildings which represent a microcosm of a centuries old rural landscape and way of life".
It also proclaims
"This strategy is grounded in the widely accepted belief that the quality of the environment is of fundamental importance to the quality of life for local residents."
Furthermore—this is highlighted in capital letters in the action plan:
"Any Development proposed within the green belt will be strictly controlled to protect the character of the area and will only be approved if in line with the city council's more detailed guidance for green belts set out in the Birmingham plan."
The plan identifies the area around the railway track as a wildlife corridor, and says that as such it requires careful consideration.
According to the Walmley plan, any security fencing that is erected should be green, and whoever at Network Rail made the decision to use galvanised steel fencing had no regard for the local neighbourhood or for its own environmental policy. Birmingham city council did try to seek a voluntary solution, without success, finding Network Rail
"to be unhelpful and unsympathetic".
Network Rail has made a gross error of judgment in not treating the location with sensitivity and respect, and in not rectifying the clear errors that it made at the outset. It has been unable to give my constituents its reasons for not installing a green fence, despite having installed green fencing in other locations around Sutton Coldfield, including Mulroy road and Four Oaks station. Network Rail says that
"the type and finish of the fencing was correctly assessed prior to its erection and given this it will remain".
It has refused to give details of how the assessment was made.
In August 2004, Network Rail suggested a compromise—that the residents paint the fence green themselves. Network Rail agreed to provide the paint, but the offer was later withdrawn on health and safety grounds. My constituents sought to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to obtain more information about Network Rail's green fencing policy, only to find that Network Rail was not classified as a qualifying body under the Act. However, the rail regulator—the Office of Rail Regulation, as a qualifying body—offered to try to obtain the information on behalf of my constituents.
The ORR was told by Network Rail that it was under no obligation to release any information under the Act, and it therefore arrogantly refused to release any information relating to my constituents' request. My constituents asked the ORR whether it could force Network Rail to install green fencing in environmentally sensitive locations. The ORR explained that while it was sympathetic to the cause, it only set the contractual and financial framework within which Network Rail operates and was not involved in the details.
This is a very difficult situation for my constituents. The residents of East View road have the impression that Network Rail is an uncaring, unaccountable and faceless organisation that can exercise its powers without challenge and in an arbitrary way, while ignoring any local resistance to its actions. The ORR has no direct control over Network Rail; it only provides a framework. The local planning authority has no powers, as Network Rail has permitted development rights. My constituents are unable to refer the matter to any third party for a review. They cannot refer it to an ombudsman, to an appeal body or to a judicial review. As for the Network Rail environment policy, it is policed by Network Rail itself and cannot be challenged. The key objective of improved customer relations set out by Network Rail has also been ignored. Network Rail has simply not listened to its stakeholders.
It that context it adds insult to injury for my constituents that John Armitt, chief executive of Network Rail, received a salary of three quarters of a million pounds in 2005—£754,757, to be precise. If it goes up any more, we shall soon be talking serious money. His bonus was presumably not linked to the company's environmental policy targets.
It is my strong contention, having regard to the sensitivity of the location, and in line with Network Rail's fencing policy in Mulroy road, Wylde Green road, Station approach, Bowlas avenue and Lichfield road close to Four Oaks railway station, that the fencing in East View road should be fully replaced with green powder coated fencing. However, I acknowledge that there are significant cost implications. I want to be helpful, constructive and suggest a compromise solution. Instead of removing the whole fence and the posts supporting it, which is where much of the expense would arise, it should be perfectly feasible to remove just the panels themselves, which are simply bolted on, and it would take just minutes to remove each one. The original support posts could remain and new green powder coated panels bolted on. The existing silver grey fencing could be reused elsewhere, although only where appropriate and not in an environmentally sensitive area such as this.
Network Rail should put an end to the sorry situation and work with the community in East View road, respecting their environment and their opinions to find an acceptable solution. No MP would stand for such arrogant treatment of their constituents, which is why I bought the case to the House.
We look to the Minister, who has in the past shown sensitivity on these issues, to call in the chief executive, to remonstrate with him over the way in which my constituents have been treated, to remind him and Network Rail of their environmental obligations—not least those obligations set out by Network Rail itself—and to make it clear that, as the Minister responsible for Network Rail, he does not expect to see that high-handed and arrogant behaviour replicated anywhere else.
I congratulate Mr. Mitchell on securing the debate. It is clear from his remarks that this is a matter of ongoing concern in his constituency. I thank him for the information that he provided before the debate, which has been helpful in preparing the response to the important matter that he has raised.
Before dealing with the specific issue, I would like to say a few general words about Network Rail and its structure, objectives, responsibilities and priorities. Network Rail is a very large organisation and has a diverse and extensive portfolio of land and property. It employs more than 30,000 staff and owns and maintains 21,000 miles of track. Network Rail's priorities must be focused on the effective management of the rail network. Its first priority is to operate a safe, reliable and affordable railway.
The hon. Gentleman is concerned that Network Rail is not accountable to Ministers and that it is unclear to whom it is accountable. In truth, Network Rail has a large number of stakeholders, and I will say more about that shortly.
The concerns in Sutton Coldfield arise from the installation of new line-side fencing. The main reason for that is to improve safety and to prevent trespass on the railway. The primary responsibility for preventing trespass on the national rail network lies with Network Rail. In doing that, Network Rail works closely with the British Transport police, the Department for Transport and others in the rail industry and the wider community.
Network Rail's national fencing programme is designed to reduce the scope for unlawful access to the rail network, and is recognised as a good initiative. I note that neither the hon. Gentleman nor his constituents dispute the need for fencing along East View road.
The hon. Gentleman raises concerns about Network Rail's lack of accountability to local planning authorities, in particular with regard to planning policies about the colour of fencing. As a statutory undertaker, Network Rail enjoys permitted development rights, under part 17 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, for development on its operational land required in connection with the movement of traffic by rail. Statutory undertakers have acquired such rights for very good reasons. They provide an essential service to the public. It would therefore be unreasonable and inefficient to require them to make a planning application for essential development each time they needed to build something on their operational land.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is carrying out a review of the permitted development order arising from its 2002 Green Paper outlining proposals for fundamental reform of the planning system. The review included a research study of the permitted development rights available to railway undertakers. Following publication of the study in September 2003, ODPM will undertake a public consultation before implementing any proposed changes to current rights.
I would like to go into more detail about Network Rail's status and responsibilities. Network Rail is a private sector company operating on a commercial basis. It is a "company limited by guarantee". It has no shareholders and so does not have to earn dividends to pay them. Instead, any surplus it makes can be reinvested in the rail network for the benefit of all.
I think that at this point it would be worth explaining the new railway structure following the Railways Act 2005. The changes are vital to drive up standards, improve overall performance and underline who is best placed to deliver. The Government have taken charge of setting the strategic direction of the railways. In future, the Government will decide the high-level outputs they wish to buy from the railway and the public sector funding available for this.
Network Rail has been given clear responsibility for operating the network, and for its performance, timetabling and route utilisation. Train and track companies are working more closely together through the introduction of joint control rooms. The Office of the Rail Regulation now covers safety, performance and economic regulation. As part of being a company limited by guarantee, Network Rail's board is accountable to its 100-plus members. These are drawn from the industry and wider rail stakeholders including local and regional bodies, passenger groups as well as individuals. The Department for Transport is also a member.
Network Rail's members hold the board to account as shareholders would do in a PLC, although of course they have no financial interest in Network Rail. They appoint and reappoint directors, approve directors' remuneration and agree the company's annual report and accounts, but they do not get involved in the running of the company. Network Rail's priorities inevitably must be focused on the effective management of the rail network. Its first priority is to operate a safe, reliable and affordable railway and securing the network plays an important part in achieving this goal. However, Network Rail must also strike a balance between operating a safe and reliable railway and addressing environmental and community concerns.
Network Rail is accountable to its regulator, the Office of Rail Regulation. The ORR ensures that Network Rail sticks to the terms of its licence in running the network. If it thinks it is not doing a good enough job, it can take—or consider taking—enforcement action against Network Rail. The ORR also sets the income that Network Rail should receive and the outputs it must deliver for that income. Network Rail is also accountable to its major funders—the Secretary of State and, from April this year, Scottish Ministers. It must be for Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament, to set the national strategy for the railways. Under the new arrangements implemented by the Railways Act 2005, the Government will set the level of public expenditure and take the strategic decisions on what this should buy.
Network Rail is accountable to its local communities. The company owns 21,000 miles of track. That is a lot of neighbours, including, of course, those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. Despite the problems in his constituency, I welcome Network Rail's ongoing engagement with wider communities and its initiatives against railway trespass; for example its innovative "No messin!" campaign last summer to warn youngsters of the dangers of "playing" on the network, and targeted at route crime hotspots.
I am glad to see that the chief executive of Network Rail is actively engaging with hon. Members through the planned line-side surgeries. I understand the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but it is a good initiative. I also believe that Network Rail is concerned about the local environment.
The hon. Gentleman raised concerns as to whether Network Rail's responsibilities to its neighbours fell short of what was expected in this instance. I very much hope the concerns of his constituents about the type and finish of the fencing can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. But subject to Network Rail complying with the terms of its licence and relevant statutory requirements, we have no powers to intervene in operational decisions. Except in a limited range of circumstances related to security or major emergencies, Ministers have no powers to issue directions or any other binding instructions to Network Rail.
I shall certainly bring the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and his compromise proposal, to Network Rail's attention and ask it to respond directly to him.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.