Future of Seaside Towns - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:41 pm on 1st July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Faulkner of Worcester Lord Faulkner of Worcester Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 7:41 pm, 1st July 2019

My Lords, I, too, am pleased to congratulate the members of the Select Committee on producing such an excellent, coherent and well-argued report. I commend especially my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton for the brilliant way in which he introduced this debate. I particularly commend the committee for getting such excellent coverage in local and regional media as it went around the country. Coverage of that sort for a Select Committee inquiry reflects well on your Lordships’ House. I must also thank the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, for providing the note that appears on page 45 of the report, in which he kindly refers to the second book on post-Beeching railway politics which I co-wrote with my friend and colleague from British Rail days, Chris Austin, entitled Disconnected!—Broken Links in Britain’s Rail Policy.

I wholeheartedly support the committee’s conclusion in paragraph 123 that states:

“Inadequate transport connectivity is holding back many coastal communities and hindering the realisation of their economic potential. Emphasis should be accorded to isolated coastal communities which are at ‘the end of the line’”.

When I saw that in the report, I looked forward to the Government’s response and hoped to read a commitment that they would support the reopening of some rail lines to seaside towns and the improvement of services where they still exist. I regret that the Government’s response falls well short of any commitment of that sort. I agree with my noble friend Lady Bakewell that it is a feeble response.

It is worth recalling that scores of Britain’s seaside towns owed their existence to the arrival of the railway in the 19th century. A combination of dramatically improved journey times from the great conurbations and the introduction of paid holidays for factory workers led to the transformation of small fishing villages into immensely popular holiday destinations. Up to the mid-1960s, every one was linked to the railway and, until the arrival of widespread car ownership, depended on it for a large part of their annual holiday traffic.

The railway companies ran hundreds of seaside special trains on summer Saturdays, and this continued until the arrival on the scene of Dr Beeching in 1961 as chairman of British Railways with a remit to eliminate so-called “loss-making” services. The seaside towns fared particularly badly under Beeching. Although the summer Saturday specials were immensely popular, they were expensive to run and tied up the railways’ resources, as the carriages that made up the trains were used on perhaps only a couple of dozen times a year, and were left in sidings for the rest of the time. A more imaginative management approach now would resolve that.

In researching the earlier book that I wrote with Chris Austin, Holding the Line—How Britain’s Railways Were Saved, I came across at the National Archives a secret memorandum to the Cabinet dated 14 January 1964, written by the noble Viscount, Lord Blakenham, then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who chaired the Government’s Rail and Road Committee. In essence, he and his committee were charged with suggesting how best to implement the Beeching closure programme while minimising public opposition to it. A section of Lord Blakenham’s memorandum dealt with holiday resorts, where no fewer than 127 seaside stations had been proposed for closure by Beeching. He wrote the following:

“Few of them receive large numbers of visitors by rail... As more families acquire cars, any loss of visitors which holiday resorts experience as a result of the closing of their stations is likely to be compensated for by the increasing numbers arriving by car, and the effect of the closures on hotels and employment in these places is expected to be negligible in relation to other normal fluctuations in the number of visitors they receive. We do not think, therefore, that holiday resorts need to be considered a special case”.

What a pity that Lord Blakenham’s committee did not have access to the wisdom contained in this Select Committee inquiry, nor a little foresight into how, within 40 years, the railways would come into their own again, doubling their passenger numbers, revitalising communities where services were improved and making a serious contribution to reducing carbon emissions.

There were some astonishingly short-sighted closures, and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, refers to a number of them in his note on page 45 of the report. I was particularly interested to see the picture of Whitby station on page 42, with the somewhat understated caption:

“Coastal towns in rural areas, such as Whitby, often suffer from infrequent rail services”.

Last month, I raised the inadequacy of the current Middlesbrough to Whitby service in an exchange on an Oral Question from the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and in a Written Question. Currently, there are only four trains a day, with no early train from Whitby and no evening train back from Middlesbrough, except on summer Fridays. I understand that the community rail partnership has offered funding for more services, but Northern Railway has so far not taken it up. In her Written Answer of 26 June, the noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, told me:

“Northern is currently working with Network Rail to look at the feasibility of running an earlier service from Whitby to Middlesbrough from December 2019”.

I should tell your Lordships how badly Whitby was let down in the 1960s by first the Conservative and then Labour Governments. At the time of Beeching, Whitby had three services: the line to Pickering and Malton, which linked with the main route from Scarborough to York; a service along the coast to Scarborough; and the Esk Valley line north to Middlesbrough. Beeching had proposed the withdrawal of all three passenger services, and BR issued formal closure notices in February 1963. North Riding County Council co-ordinated the opposition, helped by the local weekly newspaper, the Whitby Gazette, whose front page carried reports about the closures almost every week in 1964 and into the early part of 1965—often there was nothing else on the front page.

The Spa Pavilion in Whitby was the venue for two days of public hearings on 8 and 9 July 1964. The Transport Users Consultative Committee acknowledged that there had been a total of 2,260 objections—at that point a record. The hearings appeared to go well for the objectors. There was much reference to the unreliability of bus services in winter weather, to the needs of schoolchildren coming into Whitby and to the effect on the town’s holiday trade if Whitby lost its rail services. The TUCC reported that the withdrawal of the Middlesbrough service would cause “grave hardship” not only to the many users but also to those whose business is very largely dependent upon providing for the large number of holiday-makers who come to the area by train. Its view on the other two closure proposals was similar, though the degree of hardship was described as “serious” rather than “grave”. The Whitby Gazette claimed a great victory and believed that its campaign had saved all three services, but jubilation turned to despair when, three weeks later, the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples, announced that the Middlesbrough to Whitby service would be reprieved but the other two closures would go ahead.

There were two more twists in the story. The first was the position taken by the Labour Party in opposition as the 1964 general election approached. Harold Wilson told a meeting in Liverpool—and it was later confirmed in the election manifesto—that, if elected, Labour would halt the main programme of rail closures. In a letter to the chairman of the Scarborough and Whitby Labour Party dated 13 September, he confirmed that the Scarborough-Malton-Whitby closures would be covered by that undertaking.

The second twist came when, with Labour in power, the Government fell back on a provision in the Transport Act 1962 which said that they could not halt closures which had already been decided. The National Archives contains a paper, also marked secret, presented to the Cabinet in March 1965 by the Transport Minister, Tom Fraser, which argued that the programme of closures should go ahead more or less unmodified, despite the clear 1964 manifesto pledge to halt it, and that efforts to amend the 1962 Act to rescind previously announced closures should be resisted. The final words in Fraser’s paper were “I recommend we stand firm”. That is the reason why the majority of the Beeching closure proposals, including scores of lines serving seaside towns, went ahead between 1964 and 1970.

There are a small number of seaside resorts which have benefited from the activities of volunteers who have managed to reopen their lines as heritage railways and linked them to the main network. I should declare my interest as president of the Heritage Railway Association. For example, Whitby is served by four trains a day in the summer from Pickering on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. A main line connection to Taunton has been restored by the West Somerset Railway which goes to Minehead. The Swanage Railway has been linked to the main line at Wareham, and heritage trains continue to run to Kingswear from Paignton. These all make a great contribution to the tourist economies in each of the areas they serve and bring thousands of visitors and holiday-makers to the seaside towns, but they cannot provide the seven-days-a-week, year-round service which they would have had if the lines had not been closed and had stayed as part of the national network. As the note by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, on page 45 points out, Cornwall and Lincolnshire,

“appear to be at a particular disadvantage from the impact of rail closures. Significant rail enhancement would assist connectivity to these areas for both … residents and tourists”.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I commend the work of the Select Committee.