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3 Jun 2003 : Column 22WH—continued

Tree Management (Network Rail)

11 am

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I notice in The Guardian this morning that Tom Winsor, the rail regulator, describes Network Rail as "out of control". In opening this debate, I wholeheartedly agree with him—that is the reason that we are here this morning. In seeking this debate, I intend to highlight the problems that Network Rail is causing for my constituents and for people in many other parts of the country through its failure to develop and consult on a proper tree and land management policy.

Let me begin by quoting from Network Rail's environmental policy statement, which says:

Network Rail's community relations policy statement claims:

No one argues that leaves on the line have not been a problem for the railways in recent years—it probably rates with the wrong kind of snow as one of the most familiar excuses that I have heard about British railways in recent times. However, now Network Rail claims to have a solution. It plans to eradicate all vegetation within 15 ft of railway tracks. That will result in thousands of trees being cut down along some 1,000 miles of heavily wooded embankments, many of which are important wildlife sites. According to Network Rail's own consultants, it plans to destroy an area the size of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.

The programme of destruction is already under way. On 19 March this year Network Rail's contractors arrived in Welby road, Hall Green, in my constituency, at six in the morning and began to chainsaw trees without giving any prior notice to local residents or the city council. That was despite the fact that the embankment forms a significant part of the council's conservation strategy. The contractors refused to explain to local residents what was going on and ignored advice that they were demolishing habitats at the height of the nesting season.

The contractors went on to Scribers lane site, which is a site of importance for nature conservation. They drove an excavator the whole length of Scribers lane to Slade lane, apparently to erect new fencing. However, they failed to clear the old fencing, which is now cluttering the site; they failed also to make the usual provisions for the badgers that inhabit the area.

Not satisfied with that damage, the contractors turned their attention to Hall Green's millennium woodland, which was developed at a cost of more than £11,000. In the course of that orgy of destruction, they

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exposed badger setts, felled trees near Trittiford pool—a bat roosting site—and even managed to fell trees that were part of the "sponsor a tree for a railway station" campaign run by their predecessors Railtrack. Those trees were not even on the embankment—and they were evergreen conifers, not the most likely source of leaves on the line.

To date, Network Rail has failed to produce an environmental impact assessment of the work; perhaps the Minister will confirm it, but I understand that to be a legal requirement. After consultations with English Nature and the naturalist David Bellamy, Network Rail promised that it would not damage habitats and would concentrate on trees in high-risk areas only. It promised that it would concentrate on sycamore, ash and birch, as their particularly large leaves pose a specific problem, but its contractors are operating a scorched earth policy, which is leaving track sides desolate. It is absolute butchery.

Vegetation has been removed with chainsaws; and specially adapted rolling stock, with mounted flails, has been used to cut through huge swathes of land. Martin Buckland, head of vegetation, ecology and wildlife at the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, which advises Network Rail, said that many areas had been devastated. He said:

That campaign of obliteration is not confined to my constituency. There are plans to extend it throughout Birmingham. Network Rail has also been up to mischief at Wigston near Leicester—again on a nature conservation site—and at Didsbury in Manchester, Wolvercote near Oxford, Colwall station near Malvern, and at Telford, Wrekin and a host of other areas, many of which my hon. Friends will no doubt wish to draw to the House's attention. Network Rail's justification is that it is a safety precaution.

I checked the number of accidents caused by leaves on the Stratford line between Earlswood and Tyseley in my constituency, where Network Rail has done so much damage. In a parliamentary written answer, I was advised that since records began 13 years ago, there has not been one incident involving leaves on the line. Network Rail claims that trees and bushes can obscure signals. I agree; but it happens also on the highway, which is why most local authorities and the Highways Agency have a policy of management, conservation and pruning. They do not destroy entire areas of woodland. In Hall Green, my constituents tell me that the only time when they saw leaves on the line was when an operative clearing the platform with his leaf blower blew them all back on to the track.

Network Rail says that land slippage can be caused by unstable embankments, but over-zealous tree clearing creates that very problem. It says that it is worried about vandalism, but huge logs and tree trunks were precariously poised at the top of the embankment at Hall Green, perfectly placed for vandals to roll them on to the track. One of its greatest disservices to my constituents was completely to expose the rear of their homes, thus directly contributing to a rise in house burglaries in the area. The contractors left behind

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brushwood, which is a fire risk; they failed to inform the environmental health agency, despite a known rat problem in the area; and they did not even observe the basic health and safety requirements when using pedestrian footpaths in a residential area.

There appears to be evidence of a change of policy in the land management approach of Network Rail. Its new policy is to reduce all trackside habitats to ground level to minimise the cost of work in future years. Safety is not the real issue in Network Rail's tree felling policy. The core of the matter is money. Interestingly, the bonuses of Network Rail's directors are linked to delay statistics, so it might be reasonable to infer that money is a significant motivator.

Network Rail was supposed to be the friendlier, not-for-profit successor to Railtrack. For a company that has received such an intensely hostile press for years and has promised a fresh start to act with such arrogance and contempt for its neighbours and the wildlife that it supports is utterly incomprehensible. I wrote to the head of public affairs at Network Rail asking him to meet me and other Members of the House to discuss the problem. I have had no reply. I was not that surprised, as my constituent, Mr. David Hardy, wrote to John Armitt at Network Rail and, strangely enough, also received no reply.

Network Rail is a private company and says, quite rightly, that the embankments are its land and it can do with them as it sees fit. However, Network Rail is funded by the Government and therefore by the taxpayer, and those valuable embankments and lineside wildlife sites belong to all of us. In future, Network Rail should consult both local residents and organisations such as English Nature and local wildlife trusts before any further work is undertaken. Personally, I would prefer that consultation to be a statutory obligation, but at the very least I hope that the Minister hears what has been said today. We should also publish and implement a strategic approach to protect the national wildlife assets that Network Rail owns. It could be similar to the approach taken by the Highways Agency. Network Rail must make clear its policy for both the short and the long term. We need to know what will happen where and when.

At present, it seems that few people have any power to rein in Network Rail. I have been advised that its actions may be in breach of article 10 of the European habitats directive—I do not know whether the Minister can comment on that—and if that is so English Nature would be in a perfect position to mount legal action against the company unless it shows a dramatic change of heart.

No one wants to compromise rail safety, but the simple fact is that Network Rail has not provided evidence that the policy it has embarked on is wholly related to rail safety. It has treated local people with utter contempt, and exposed their homes to the risk of burglary. It has produced an environmental policy and then completely turned it on its head by destroying wildlife habitats without any regard for the views of others. It has acted in the high-handed, arrogant fashion that we had come to associate with its predecessor, Railtrack. My purpose in securing this debate is to expose what Network Rail is doing and to ask it to see sense before it causes any further damage.

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11.14 am

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I am delighted to take part in this debate on behalf of my constituents, who have been appalled by the situation and the way in which they have been treated.

The matter was first brought to my attention by a constituent in St. Werburghs, an area of Bristol in which people are particularly ecologically sensitive. There are allotments at the bottom of the first embankment, which was completely devastated. There is a city farm nearby, and a narrow ways strip, which, as one colleague here will remember from Avon county council days, we saved as a nature reserve. In that setting, all the trees and vegetation on a steep embankment that slopes away from the railway line were removed. In those circumstances, it is not surprising that constituents asked me what on earth was going on.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Can the hon. Lady confirm that when she viewed the bank to which she referred, which, as she said, slopes away from the railway line, she could see no justification for the argument that treating it in that way would prevent leaves on the line? Knowing that area as I do, I believe that such a justification could not be made.

Valerie Davey : I agree entirely. When I raised the issue with Network Rail, I was given a long and convoluted explanation about the existence of a suction element, which draws the leaves up the bank and on to the railway line. However, the same treatment was given to banks further along in the Montpelier area, which slope down to the line. I could not work out why the same treatment should be given to those two different types of embankment.

I wrote to Network Rail, and received a reply, which illustrates the illogicality of its approach to environmental issues. I was first told:

I shall return to the significance of the problem in a moment—

The letter then discusses the "need to discourage re-growth." However, two paragraphs further down in the same letter, it is stated that

are a problem, and need to be destroyed because they do not allow the

Therefore, on one hand it is said that there is a significant problem, and on the other, that the problem relates specifically to sycamores, because they do not allow the growth of indigenous species.

One of a group of constituents from the St. Werburghs area immediately looked at Network Rail's website, and read its explanation of its environmental policy. It says—or rather, said—that


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Interestingly enough, that policy statement was removed from the website within a week.

Local people were dismayed by the lack of consultation and decided that they needed to take action. On 12 March, local people in St. Werburghs, as it says in their newsletter, were

I contacted the lady who co-ordinates the group yesterday, and she said that the work has not continued, so we are in an impasse on that site. However, I know from colleagues in Bristol that work has continued in the St. Annes area, where debris and logs caused a fire that meant two hours' work for the fire brigade, smoke on the line and long delays to trains.

The two ideas of environment and safety appear to be in conflict, but hon. Members will see no reason for that. In this situation, the safety aspect has been infringed, as brambles and undergrowth have gone, allowing more children access to the railway lines, which we want to keep them off. With good consultation, especially with people who know the St. Werburghs area and recognise the need to take down certain trees, those conflicting aspects could have been resolved.

I urge the Government to use their influence to make it clear that a national policy for Network Rail is implemented, that local people are drawn into the conversation so that their experience of their area is brought to bear and that, as a result, we have a railway that is both safe and environmentally friendly, particularly in our cities where we need the greenery and want to conserve wildlife.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) thinks that Network Rail's interest in delay statistics may have something to do with directors' pay, and if he is right, such delays must be a significant problem on my line, requiring immediate action. One would think that it was a main line, not the Severn Beach line carrying 16 trains a day—eight in each direction. One part of me is delighted that Network Rail has so much concern for the people and those trains, but we have no evidence of delays resulting from leaf mould. Instead, we have a difficulty in getting more trains, despite the need to expand the line and dual rail it, to ensure more commuters.

The situation has been rather like a traditional bereavement or sudden loss in a community. There was initial stunned disbelief and then guilt—had the people not done enough? We learned that Bristol city council had been contacted about the question of planning, but that the people were told simply that the land belonged to Network Rail and that it was a safety issue. It could do as it liked. Following that came the anger and now the determination to do something, and the one piece of good news is that the group in St. Werburghs have introduced proposals for replanting that area. In telephone conversations, Network Rail has given no definitive statements that it will look favourably on that, but it assures me that it will at least consider the

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proposals for replanting in that area. I look forward to a positive and continuous dialogue with Network Rail to get some replanting.

The final outcome of any disaster is to ensure that it does not happen to other people, and we are here this morning to prevent the devastation of wildlife in cities and rural areas throughout our beautiful country as a result of some inane, misguided and short-sighted Network Rail policy that will do neither it nor anyone else any final good.

11.23 am

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I apologise for missing the first few minutes of the debate, but I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on securing it. Although rail punctuality, cost and safety are normally at the centre of attention, the environmental dimension is important, and it causes many of our constituents a lot of grief. In a way, I was relieved to find out about this debate, because I have been grappling for the best part of a year with the problems that the hon. Gentleman described. It is almost gratifying to discover that these things are happening throughout the country as it gives us a platform from which to try to do something about it. The consequences of two such incidents rumble on to this day.

The first was on a major branch line through one of the most densely populated parts of my constituency in the area behind Hampton Wick station. The details of what happened are almost exactly as the hon. Gentleman described. Last summer, Network Rail took away the tree covering along the side of the track and behind the station, which destroyed the local environment and created a perfect platform from which local teenagers could hurl stones and bricks at people's windows. It created a focus for local crime and has become a major environmental eyesore. We had some short-term success in shaming the rail companies into doing something about it. Network Rail accepted that it had made a mistake; there was a lot of publicity and a public meeting was held. One complication, however, as stations were involved, was that there were difficulties because of the fragmentation of the rail system.

The issue is who was responsible at the end of the day—Network Rail or the train operator. In this case, the train operator, South West Trains, assumed responsibility for solving the problem, although it had not caused it. Ever since, attempts have been made to get it to implement the results of that agreement. A few saplings were planted, which in 20 years may remedy some of the damage that was caused, and last summer the company felt able to finance a street party for the jubilee. We are still waiting for the fence that was promised to replace the trees that were destroyed. There will be a public meeting next week to force the company to take on the matter. A year later, the damage, the public anger and the sense of frustration remain.

A few weeks after the first incident, there was a similar episode in another part of my constituency—Hampton Hill—which followed the course of events that the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) described. Local residents were alerted to the fact that the

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chainsaws were out and an enormous area was being cleared of vegetation many yards from the track, far removed from anything that could conceivably have affected the operation of the railway. Nesting birds were being disturbed, and there was complete indifference to the effect on a very attractive area. I am lucky to have many environmentally aware people in my constituency, and fortunately there was rapid mobilisation: the press were brought to the scene and lawyers were wheeled out to draw attention to the fallacies in the Network Rail operator's brief. The clearance was stopped after about 30 to 40 yd. The operation has now been suspended, although what will happen eventually I do not know.

Such episodes are happening throughout the country, and I draw three conclusions from them. First, Network Rail shows a complete absence of environmental sensitivity. Most big utilities have an environment policy, but Network Rail seems not to—it is host to the main concentration of graffiti and shows not the slightest inclination to clean it up—which suggests a lack of environmental awareness or any feeling of obligation to maintain decent environmental standards.

Secondly, as hon. Members have said, there is a complete absence of public consultation by Network Rail. It reacts to protest rather than consulting in advance. There is no mechanism for involving local communities in decisions that affect them. Thirdly, there are the difficulties that arise as a result of the fragmentation of the ownership structure, and the poor relationships between Network Rail and its contractors and between Network Rail and the train operators. There is a lack of co-ordination, and difficulties are involved in their reaching agreement, which particularly affects the station environment. I should be interested to know whether the Minister has any power to intervene to alleviate the problem.

11.29 am

Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East): There is not much more that I can add to the points raised by my colleagues, except to highlight what has happened in my constituency. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) for securing such a timely debate. I first came across the problem in April, when constituents wrote to me about what was happening on the track between Lee station and Hither Green station, which I use each day. They had seen the most appalling vandalism—it cannot be called anything other than that—as tree after tree was cut down in a relatively small area.

None of us would want to compromise safety on the railway. We all know of the tragedies that have occurred as a result of unsafe methods. We absolutely endorse the role of Network Rail in making our railways safe. However, that does not mean that it should completely ignore what is happening. Network Rail's actions are devastating the area around the railway, and I am not convinced that its methods are making our railways safer.

My constituents received a letter from Network Rail on 10 April in which it outlined its intentions and described its forthcoming action as "lineside vegetation management". The letter referred to a contract that would last three weeks and said that the work would

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commence on 1 April. Had my constituents received such a letter on 1 April, they might have thought of it as an April fool's joke. However, they received it 10 days after the work had started, halfway through the contract period, by which time they had seen the utter horror at the back of their houses.

My constituents contacted me, as did Network Rail. As the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) said, such people are articulate. They put together a forceful argument. As other hon. Members have said, if Network Rail responded at all, its response was slow. After I had contacted it, Network Rail called my office and asked why I was so worried. I explained in detail the matters that I wanted to raise with it, and it promised to fax a response immediately. Well, my machine is churning out faxes from many people, but not from Network Rail.

Few large companies in this country do not place some value on decent public relations. It is not difficult to do that, and most companies have members of staff who can communicate positively to residents. Informing residents that work would start after it had begun is one of the crassest examples of incompetence that I have come across for some time. My constituency is in an inner-London borough with the greatest length of railway corridor of any borough in London—it covers 86 hectares. It also has the largest number of important nature conservation sites of any London borough, so it is important that our natural environment is preserved and protected. Hundreds of thousands of people travel on those railway lines each day; surely it would be in Network Rail's interest to encourage them to enjoy the colour and spontaneity of wildlife alongside the tracks.

The Minister may wish to raise with Network Rail the publishing of information on the biodiversity in our inner cities. Network Rail wrote to me:

No one would disagree with that commendable position. However, Network Rail wrote to my constituents explaining that it could not get to the unhealthy trees without cutting down healthy trees. Then, after the work had started, it discovered that the fencing behind the properties needed to be replaced, so more healthy trees had to be cut down. That is why in the small area between Lee and Hither Green stations there are next to no trees left standing. One of our major problems is not simply the fact that Network Rail went in with its bulldozers and chainsaws on that occasion; it is that for years it—and Railtrack before it—clearly did nothing to manage and look after the railside environment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green raised the issue of impact assessments. When my constituents asked Network Rail if they could see the ecological surveys and risk assessments that it said had been done, it replied:

commissioned by Network Rail for internal use only. Why are those assessments not available to the general public, or at least to the local authority? Although we asked our local authority to get involved—it was keen to be supportive and help the residents of Southbrook road—its hands were tied, too. It had only been approached as a basic matter of courtesy by Network Rail in the process of getting on with this vandalism.

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I know that this sounds like Members of Parliament whingeing about small, relatively unimportant issues, but they are not unimportant to the people whose houses back on to a railway line where there were once trees and wildlife, including foxes and nesting birds. Now they can see not 16 trains a day, but four trains an hour going in one direction and four in the other, to say nothing of the freight trains going through all the time. This is, ironically, a conservation area. There are not many conservation areas in Lewisham and here is one environment that has been devastated through no fault of the residents or the borough, but by an independent, arrogant, unthinking and non-listening organisation.

The value of the residents' houses has dropped considerably as a result of that action, although I know that that is not the main concern. People do not buy a house from which they can watch trains go by eight, 10 or 12 times an hour, whereas they would buy a house that had vegetation and so forth behind it—that makes a huge difference. I have to say that those houses are very beautiful. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether there is any possibility that Network Rail will compensate my constituents for the remarkable drop in the value of their property in the past couple of months. I know that at least one person needs to sell their house for reasons that I will not go into here.

I raised the issue of security with the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green is correct to express concern about crime. In my constituency the fear of crime, rather than actual crime, has risen considerably since Network Rail's action. I raised that with my local borough commander, who said that he, too, was very concerned about what had happened and particularly about the resulting fear of crime. He has sent his local beat manager to speak to the residents about their concerns. He also confirms that Network Rail did not contact the police when it started this exercise, but the local police have taken the initiative and spoken to Network Rail, which has been made aware of the concerns expressed by the residents.

As a result—this is one of the few positive things to come out of this horrific exercise—Network Rail now says that it will contact the police in cases where it believes that police input is needed. However, the fact that it must feel that police input is needed is the get-out clause; we need something stronger. I do not argue in favour of regulation for the sake of it, but there is a loose cannon here. Network Rail is not taking its responsibilities to its neighbours or others very seriously.

Can the Minister put pressure, in one form or another, on Network Rail to ensure that it takes into account the aesthetic and environmental impacts of its work? It should also inform people of its conclusions and the reasons for its decisions. I should like pressure to be exerted to ensure that Network Rail talks to the local police and the British Transport police about the impact of its work in the form of a rise in crime or at least in the fear of crime, and to ensure that the work is not disproportionate to the need to keep our railways safe. As I said, I should also like to know whether there is any possibility of compensation for those people who may need it as a result of that work.

I end on this note: although my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) says that Network Rail will now involve people in its replanting

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programme, which is a good thing, very few people have great faith that it will carry that out. I hope that when Network Rail considers, as it has told us it will, what replanting is needed and what has grown in the meantime, it will not just rely on sycamores reseeding themselves and so on, but will plant appropriately, in consultation with the residents and the local authority, whose environmental studies seem considerably better than anything that Network Rail has produced so far.

11.42 am

Claire Ward (Watford): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on securing this important debate. Having listened to other hon. Members recounting experiences suffered by their constituents, I should feel comforted by the fact that Network Rail has not simply picked on my constituents, but I actually feel greater anger, incredulity and despair because Network Rail has continued its arrogant mismanagement in the face of protests from residents, community organisations and MPs up and down the country.

My constituents, too, have the misfortune to live close to land owned by Network Rail. I should like to focus on a couple of the areas in my constituency that have been affected by Network Rail's policy of environmental rape and pillage. I want to raise serious questions about the total lack of accountability and responsiveness of senior managers in Network Rail.

I first became aware of the problem at the beginning of the year, when I was contacted by a number of residents of Gypsy lane in Hunton Bridge, in the north of my constituency. I had dealings with those residents when they contacted me with concerns about an electricity substation that Railtrack was due to install close to their homes to allow for the upgrading of the west coast main line. The land bordering the track is a popular location for walkers. It is a beautiful area that contains many habitats for a variety of wildlife. The residents were deeply unhappy about the development, but they took some comfort from the fact that the substation would partly be screened by vegetation and trees and from the firm's assurances that the screening would be further enhanced.

Railtrack staff gave those assurances at a public meeting in my constituency last May. Foolishly, I and many other residents believed them. I was therefore extremely surprised to be contacted again in January by the same constituents who this time were concerned that Network Rail seemed to be intent on removing all the trees and vegetation in the area. I thought that they might be exaggerating a little, but again, in circumstances similar to those that hon. Members have described, I soon found that they were not. A stretch of some 400 m of track had been cleared of trees, leaving only stumps behind. Many of the trees that had been removed were nowhere near the track or the overhanging cables that power the trains. Some were as much as 25 m from the track.

No one would ever question the need to remove trees that cause a health and safety hazard, but no one with any common sense could believe that that was the case in these circumstances. I immediately contacted

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Network Rail and received an assurance that it would get a tree expert to examine the remaining trees further along the track to check whether they really needed to be removed and to consider the company's position. I had to ask the manager at Network Rail to get his contractors to stop work while we talked, because I feared that they would continue to cut down the tress while we discussed the matter. There would have been little point in having any discussion if all the trees were gone by the end of it.

The firm also promised to contact local residents to tell them what was going on and to warn them of possible future works. Again, I foolishly accepted that reassurance. In early February, however, more trees were felled in the same area. No letters had been sent to local residents, and Network Rail has never produced evidence of any investigation by an arboriculturist. Residents had to approach the site office to receive any explanation for the work restarting. They were handed a letter stating that the company had an environmental policy and a licence for the work, and was going to get on with it.

I acknowledged that it was now too late to stop work in the area around Gypsy lane, but made further inquiries with Network Rail and spoke to its head of public affairs, Mike Watson. He sent me an e-mail in which he assured me:

Mr. Watson continued by assuring me that that the zone area asset manager

Because of my past experiences with Network Rail and its predecessor, I am afraid that I took little reassurance from that e-mail. I was annoyed that Mr. Watson had only raised the issue of telling residents that the work was going to be done, and that he seemed unwilling even to consider that the entire programme was a waste of money that could have been better spent elsewhere.

It seems that I was right to be sceptical, because only a few weeks later, residents in another part of my constituency, Southfield avenue, contacted me. Their homes back on to a small branch line that links my constituency with St. Albans, but they were hardly aware of that because of the extensive foliage and the number of trees at the rear of their properties. That was, however, until Network Rail decided to remove the trees and the foliage and erect a large, ugly metal picket fence in their place. That gave residents a wonderful view of an industrial estate that had previously been screened from them, and views of the railway line and the trains. Once again, the first that people knew about the work was when they heard the chainsaws and saw the trees coming down. There was little evidence that the zone area asset manager for the midlands had paid much attention to the words of Network Rail's head of public affairs, because no resident had been consulted or sent a letter.

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With that in mind, I contacted Network Rail's chief executive, John Armitt. I hoped that he would be interested to learn that his firm was spending vast sums on removing trees and foliage. Given that the company is funded from the public purse, I also hoped that he would be interested to hear from a Member of Parliament who was representing her constituents. He wrote back, saying that the work in Southfield avenue had been carried out to stop fly tipping on railway land. That is probably one of the worst excuses that I have ever heard, and I shall explain why.

The short stretch of rail that has been cleared of trees is bordered by two level crossings, which give easy access to the railway. They allow trains to cross a couple of main roads and give pedestrians access to two small stations. Anyone with a mind to do so has always been able to fly-tip on that bit of railway land. Putting some bits of fencing alongside the track will do nothing to solve the problem, because it will not alter the fact that it is easy to access the line from the two crossings, which cannot be closed off. Indeed, clearing many of the trees will only aid the fly tippers, because they will have more empty land on which to fly-tip.

Mr. Armitt appeared to acknowledge that in his response of 17 April:

Perhaps it would be helpful if I paraphrased Mr. Armitt's words. As I understand it, he was saying, "My firm has spent vast amounts clearing land to stop fly tipping, but we've just discovered that our solution has been a complete waste of time and money, because the fly tipping has got even worse." Let us not forget that the trees were supposedly cut down for health and safety reasons.

In any case, the reasons that Mr. Armitt gave me for the work contradict those mentioned in a letter from the firm to local residents. It referred to the need to ensure that line-side workers had a place of refuge when trains passed, that the sighting lines of trains were not obscured, that drivers could see signals and that there were no leaves on the line—that familiar old phrase.

I wrote back to Mr. Armitt on 24 April and told him what I thought of his response. I asked him to provide me with a copy of the detailed study that had been carried out before the work was done and which showed that it was necessary. I also wanted to see a copy of the contract that Network Rail had signed to authorise the work, because I wanted to be sure that the firm's contractors were not being over-zealous. Additionally, I asked for an assurance that the firm that drafted the study showing that the work needed to be carried out was not the same one that had been given the contract to do the work. I am sure that hon. Members will understand my suspicions and my reasons for asking such a question. Finally, as Watford is only 20 minutes from Network Rail's Euston headquarters, I offered to show Mr. Armitt round the site of the devastation caused by his firm. All that was done at the end of April, and I have not even had the courtesy of a holding response from Mr. Armitt—so much for Network Rail's public affairs management.

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What really concerns me about my experiences with Network Rail is that I know from press reports and conversations with colleagues that the same thing is going on throughout the country, and it must be a massive drain on the resources that the Government are putting into the firm. No one wants rail safety to be jeopardised, and some trees close to a line may need to be removed. That is fine, but why does Network Rail believe that all the trees along the west coast main line will suddenly fall down and crush unsuspecting commuters? Those trees have been standing for decades, and in most places they have caused no harm. I am not aware of any tree being implicated in the tragic accidents that have befallen the railway industry during the past few years.

Without doubt, it is a massive undertaking to chop down a tree that has been standing for decades and to dig out the stump that is left behind. Contractors spend many weeks clearing vast areas of land along many hundreds of miles of railway. That is an enormous expense, and I cannot help but feel that the money would have been better spent on replacing rail or signalling facilities, which have been demonstrated to have caused accidents when faulty. I am concerned that the removal of vegetation and trees, especially alongside steep railway banks, could lead to a weakening of soil close to railway lines and cause landslides on to tracks. In common with other Members of Parliament, I have been assured that extensive replanting will take place—I am sure that that will be of great financial benefit to garden supply firms throughout the country—but would it not have been cheaper to spend the money on a programme of reinforcement and selective cutting instead?

Commuters in my constituency are already facing higher fares and not gaining vastly improved services. Is it too much for them to expect Network Rail to be a decent neighbour? They should not have to put up with the environmental butchery that is taking place and the arrogant mismanagement by Network Rail. It is time that we made it clear to the company that it should be accountable to the Government, to commuters and to the people who pay—the general taxpayers—for the continued running of the company. I hope that the Minister ensures that Network Rail hears that message loud and clear.


Mr. Don Foster (Bath): As has already been implied by several speakers, one of the advantages of these debates is that they reassure individual MPs that they are not alone. It is clear from what we have heard that the concerns of constituents in various constituencies are shared—for the record, many people in my constituency, too, have written to me about such problems. It is also important to have an opportunity to hear the strength of feeling that has been expressed by our constituents, not least because they feel that they have not been consulted in any way.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on securing the debate. He follows a growing tradition whereby in recent times hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), have raised concerns about various areas of Network Rail's behaviour. My hon. Friend has raised concerns about the way in which

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Network Rail has been installing masts on the land, and the hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the destruction of wildlife habitats at the side of lines.

Today's debate was given the title of "Tree Management (Network Rail)". Were we discussing tree management, I suspect that many hon. Members would not have great concerns. As has been said, we entirely accept that Network Rail has a duty to ensure that the lines are safe and to take action that will reduce the many delays that we currently experience. I entirely accept that Network Rail has common-law responsibilities in respect of trimming vegetation that overhangs the line, and statutory responsibilities to protect the line. The problem is that those powers are wide ranging, and it appears that the company can, more or less, do anything it likes subject to its being

That gives the company wide-ranging powers. It is therefore important that opportunities exist to introduce checks and balances for activities that take place.

Sensible tree management is something that we would all support, for the reasons that I have given. Sadly, we are not debating sensible tree management, but something far worse: the scarring of landscape and the devastation of wildlife habitats.

Members of the public may be concerned simply about appearance, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that a number of experts have passed their professional judgment on what Network Rail has been doing. For instance, Mr. Martin Buckland, the head of vegetation, ecology and wildlife at the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, a body that advises Network Rail, said that its actions had resulted in many areas being devastated, and that those responsible were butchers.

The hon. Members for Birmingham, Hall Green, for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey) and for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) gave us some horrific examples of Network Rail not following its clear and welcome environmental policy document. However, it goes far beyond that; we have also heard that Network Rail is clearly not prepared to live up to the standards that it set when it said that it aimed to be a good neighbour. We also heard of a number of examples of a clear lack of accountability.

Network Rail is meant to be a not-for-profit public interest company, yet it has so little regard for the public interest that it seeks to prevent the media from attending its annual general meeting; and we heard from several hon. Members that it does not even bother to reply to their letters. So much for accountability, and its willingness to be involved in consultation.

Because much of the work carried out by Network Rail was not based on a detailed environmental impact study, it has led to wholesale devastation. I was delighted to hear that a diligent policeman in Didsbury in Manchester took action under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which requires people not to disturb nesting birds; he was able to get the work stopped, and I congratulate him on that.

Sadly, however, the devastation has occurred; as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green said, it will cover a total of about 30 square miles, an area

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equivalent to the Forest of Dean. As a result, areas of vegetation are being lost, and various species, including nesting birds and badgers, have been affected. However, it is being done in a way that will not solve the problem. At times, particularly when I hear phrases like zone area asset manager, I wonder whether it is not a case of too many leaves on the track but too many managers.

Crucially, Network Rail has started telling us that it is not doing any of the things that we have heard about today. Not yet mentioned is its document, "Tree management in your area", which states:

Under the heading, "What about the environment?" the document states:

As the hon. Member for Watford (Claire Ward) pointed out, Network Rail has found all sorts of excuses, including cutting down other trees to gain access to the problem trees and to fences. In reality, it has adopted a scorched earth policy because it is cheaper and easier than selective pruning.

The document continues:

That is what Network Rails tells us that it is doing and, frankly, if that were what it was doing, there would not have been any need for this debate.

Given that Network Rail is a not-for-profit, public interest company, the question for the Minister is how it is possible for the House to hold its actions to account when it is not doing as it promised. If we had sensible tree management to reduce delays and improve safety, there would be no problem. The problem, however, is that Network Rail is not sticking to what it said it would do. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will say how we can hold Network Rail to account for the clear commitments that it has given. It is crucial that consultation with residents and local authorities be improved. It is crucial that before any work is done a proper environmental impact study is carried out. It is crucial that before Network Rail carries out any of the work it has a clear understanding of why that method of solving the problem is necessary and not some of the other methods that we know are available.

How do I know that those other methods are available? Because in the very document to which I have referred, six or seven alternative approaches that can be adopted to solve the problem of leaves on the line are listed. The onus should therefore surely be on Network Rail to say why it cannot use any of those six or seven alternative methods and why it must take the tree-cutting approach first. There are other, better ways of protecting the environment and the wildlife habitat, of providing security and protection to individual residents and of improving our environment generally. I hope

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that the Minister will therefore tell us how, in the words of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green, we are going to rein in Network Rail.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): I call Her Majesty's Opposition spokesperson.

12.6 pm

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I say what a pleasure it is to appear before you this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker? I also take the opportunity to declare my interest in the railway industry: I am still a shareholder in Railtrack, FirstGroup and Eurotunnel. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on securing this debate, which is timely, and all hon. Members who have contributed to a heartfelt and lively discussion.

Network Rail's policy on tree management and public consultation raises a number of pertinent questions that may, I hope, form the basis of a study and the taking of evidence by the Select Committee on Transport. The talk used to be of leaves on the line, but times change and we are now talking of trees on the line and whether Network Rail has the right to cut them down and, if so, to what extent.

I am delighted to see the Minister in his place looking so well today—he has obviously benefited from the recess. Will he use his good offices to find a common-sense solution? Clearly the residents have the right to enjoy the environment in which they live and work. Trees form a part of that and provide a natural habitat for wildlife and birds, as a number of hon. Members have said. Equally, however, Network Rail has the right to go about its business in the provision and maintenance of the railway infrastructure and in running a safe and reliable railway.

Trees near the railway—and roads, for that matter—are desirable. They soak up noise and pollution and also look nice and provide screening for residents and habitats for birds and wildlife. However, the problem is not new. The document from Network Rail to which the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) referred says:

At times trees can also become a liability. When deciduous trees shed their leaves they obviously become an obstacle to trains. As frequent rail passengers we know that every autumn, delays are blamed on leaves on the line. At worst—no one has picked this up in the debate—trees can threaten the railway line themselves. Just as they can jeopardise a house when their roots grow too long, they can sometimes buckle a line.

In such circumstances, surely the Minister would agree that it is right for Network Rail to undertake a tree-trimming or tree-cutting exercise or, in its words, "a vegetation management programme". In what other circumstances might that be justified? Obviously, removing vegetation from the side of the line could be justified to give train drivers clear views of signals. Railtrack was criticised in Lord Cullen's inquiry into Ladbroke Grove for not taking action to make the signals more visible. Eight separate driver overruns were reported at that signal.

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Track workers must see and be seen by approaching trains. They must have a safe walking route alongside the track. Old or diseased trees may fall on the track, causing a danger to trains. As I mentioned earlier, leaves falling on the line create the railway's equivalent of "black ice", which hampers train braking, thereby causing delays as trains have to travel more slowly. Even the law recognises the problem. Exemptions to tree preservation orders are set out in section 198(6) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. They apply where trees have become dangerous. I am sure that the Minister will be familiar with those. We would all accept that in those circumstances Network Rail would be justified in taking action.

I turn now to the matter that caused most concern this morning and which has enjoyed all-party support. I pay tribute not just to those who have spoken today, but to Bob Harvey, the Conservative councillor in Hall Green, who has supported the campaign most vigorously. The hon. Members for Watford (Claire Ward) and for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) both spoke about consultation. Obviously, if a document is submitted to local residents on 10 April but the tree-cutting programme started on 1 April in any one year, that is not adequate consultation.

Does the Minister agree that the proposed consultations are an improvement, and does he consider that they go far enough? Approximately 10 weeks in advance Network Rail will liaise with the local authority tree officer and other relevant bodies such as English Nature and the Countryside Agency. Approximately eight weeks before works start, Network Rail will write to all local councillors and MPs. Approximately four weeks before the works start, it will inform residents living nearby.

Valerie Davey : Will the hon. Lady give way?

Miss McIntosh : Unfortunately, time does not permit. The hon. Lady had longer than those of us who are summing up. Would the Minister see fit to invite Network Rail to extend the consultation to parish councils? That would be a welcome development. I certainly understand the concerns and the real sense of frustration expressed this morning, but I recognise that Network Rail is adapting its programme.

I sound a note of caution and invite the Minister to assure us that the ultimate test will be safety. We cannot afford a rail accident in any circumstances caused by a tree destabilising an embankment and creating a mudslide or landslip and buckling the line, leading to a collision or derailment. None of us would want it on our conscience if cuts in the tree management programme lead to another rail disaster. Does the Minister agree that safety should be the ultimate test and that we should do everything we can to encourage the widest possible consultation, which should be extended to parish councils?

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to reflect on the plethora of bodies that have responsibility for rail safety. The website of the Office of the Rail Regulator today says that the national rail network infrastructure was originally owned and operated by Railtrack but has now passed to Network Rail. It states:

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That is contradicted by the rail regulator's statement, to which hon. Members have referred. The rail regulator, Tom Winsor, is reported as saying:

the rail regulator—

The Strategic Rail Authority, together with the new body, the Rail Safety and Standards Board, is responsible for rail safety. There is a host of those who are responsible for rail safety: Network Rail, the rail regulator, the Strategic Rail Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, the new Rail Safety and Standards Board and the soon-to-be-created rail accident investigation branch. Will the Minister tell us who has the last word on rail safety?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : It is a pleasure to call the heavily worked Minister.

12.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to speak when you are in the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on securing this important debate and on the forthright and informed way in which he spoke on behalf of his constituents. If, nearly 30 years ago, I had been successful in my first parliamentary election, I might have been speaking for Birmingham, Hall Green. My hon. Friend obviously had more success in getting elected in that constituency. I know the area well, and the stretch of line to which my hon. Friend referred.

This has been a classic example of a debate in which hon. Members can strongly express their views on behalf of their constituents and they have done so most effectively. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) referred to "whingeing" about important issues, but I do not consider that we are whingeing. These issues have been raised, properly, by my hon. Friend and by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey), the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Claire Ward), who made powerful remarks.

Several issues have arisen from the debate, to which I hope that Network Rail has been listening. I hope that it will study the Hansard report with care, especially the allegations of its not responding to letters from Members of Parliament. I take a very dim view of that; the Department has a good record of responding to hon. Members' letters and I hope that other organisations to which the Department is affiliated try to emulate our record.

I hope, too, that Network Rail has been listening to some of the criticisms that have been made and that it will respond appropriately to them. There are one or two environmental issues that are probably beyond my

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brief. If hon. Members feel that those have not been adequately dealt with, I shall ensure that other Departments respond.

I should like to say a few general words about the objectives, responsibilities and priorities of Network Rail. As hon. Members are aware, it took over responsibility for the operation, maintenance and renewal of Britain's rail infrastructure in October last year, in the wake of Railtrack's going into administration. It must strike a balance between providing a safe, efficient, reliable and affordable rail network and meeting environmental and community concerns, as well as aesthetic concerns about the local environment. The hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) asked about safety. That must, of course, be a priority for Network Rail. As we know, there is widespread public concern about rail performance, and delays caused by leaf fall each autumn have generated pressure for preventive action. The concerns raised today have to be viewed in that light.

Network Rail is a private "not for dividend" company. It is responsible to its membership—more than 100 organisations and individuals representing the railway industry—stakeholders and the wider public. The Government regard the creation of Network Rail as a crucial turning point. It is clear that it has consistently failed in its role as custodian of the rail network. Its priorities must inevitably be focused on the effective management of the rail network. Its first priority is to operate a safe, reliable railway. Tree clearance plays an important part in achieving that goal. I am sure that no hon. Member present today would disagree with measures that are intended to ensure the safety of rail users and those who work on the railway lines.

I appreciate the concerns that hon. Members have expressed today, on behalf of their constituents, about the removal of trees that stood for some 30 years. Younger constituents were not around when it was necessary for the side of the track to be kept clear of trees and other vegetation, to prevent fires. In those days there was little vegetation at the side of railways. I see that you nod, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I think that you and I may just be old enough to remember the last knockings of the steam engines on the railways. After the withdrawal of steam trains that kind of maintenance was reduced—some would even say neglected—by the British Railways Board and subsequently by Railtrack. As a result, the presence of trees and other vegetation on cuttings and embankments has become commonplace, whereas it was not 30 to 40 years ago. Network Rail has concluded that that presents an unacceptable safety risk and it has embarked on an accelerated programme of vegetation management that is prioritised in terms of the degree of risk to the operational railway.

Several safety risks arise from the presence of trees by the side of the track. Leaf fall, especially from broad leaved deciduous trees, can result in trains sliding past signals or platforms and, by interfering with track circuits, it can cause signalling systems to malfunction. That can be exacerbated by the gradient of the embankment, leading to the contamination of the rail head as the leaves fall to the bottom of the cutting. In addition to the safety risk, leaf fall has a significant effect on train performance and is a major cause of delays in the autumn. Last autumn was no exception, especially in the south-east of England and the London area.

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Train drivers' views of signals may also be obstructed. Track workers must be able to see oncoming trains and they must be seen by the drivers; they need to be able to move quickly and safely from the track and tripping and slipping hazards arising from vegetation must be avoided. It is a sad fact that in the year 2001–02 four trackside workers were killed as a result of being struck by passing trains, which was double the number killed in the previous year. We cannot ignore that in the consideration of the matter today.

Falling trees are a risk to trains in certain areas, due to factors such as the steepness of embankment slopes, soil conditions and nature of vegetation. Obstruction of lines and consequent delays can be a major problem, such as after the storms last October. Again, Network Rail was criticised, because the service was disrupted by trees blocking the railway lines.

To address such problems, Network Rail is creating a 6 m flail strip adjacent to railway lines. It will be free from all woody vegetation and will ensure that signal-sighting lines are cleared and maintained, and that the safety of track workers is not compromised. In addition, other trees that pose a safety risk are being selectively felled. That primarily affects the species that have been mentioned in the debate.

Network Rail recognises that a cleared site is likely to be unattractive to residents and others. Arrangements are therefore being made for subsequent vegetation management, and advice is being taken from arboriculturalists and conservation specialists. That will control the re-growth of species that cause a problem and allow colonisation by herbs, grasses, shrubs and trees that do not.

The important issue of consultation was raised, and all hon. Members expressed concern regarding the lack of consultation about proposed clearance work. It has always been Network Rail's policy to consult residents and other stakeholders to explain why work was necessary. The company has produced a leaflet on the subject, and I have arranged for copies to be placed in the Library for those hon. Members who have not seen it.

It has, however, become apparent from correspondence that the Department has received and, not least, from today's debate that consultation procedures have not always been carried out effectively. In some instances, which have been mentioned today, individuals have either not been given prior notice or have been informed only after the cutting started.

I have been informed that Network Rail is revising its consultation process to ensure that key stakeholders are informed of intended operations in good time and given

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a proper opportunity to express their views. I am sure that the company will also take into consideration the point made by the hon. Member for Vale of York about consulting parish councils.

Consultation will involve a number of processes, which will start several months before any proposed work. About 10 weeks before, Network Rail will liaise with the local authority tree officer and relevant bodies such as English Nature and the Countryside Agency and invite them to view the proposed site. About eight weeks before, it will write to Members of Parliament in the area and to local councillors who represent areas covered by the works. About four weeks before, it will inform local residents near the proposed works. That should ensure that all stakeholders have a proper opportunity to comment, although we must recognise that there may be a need to act more urgently in an emergency, where there is an immediate danger to the railway.

Having listened to the debate, I am absolutely certain that Members of Parliament who are affected by the issue—the vast majority probably are—will want to monitor the effectiveness of the new arrangements. I shall certainly be looking carefully to ensure that the consultation process works.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green asked about environmental impact assessments. I am not aware of any requirement for an assessment to be carried out beforehand, but I undertake to find out from the relevant Department what the situation is. Rather than giving an inaccurate answer, I shall refer to the proper Department.

My hon. Friend said that money, not safety, was the prime reason for Network Rail's actions, but costs cannot be ignored. The rail sector as a whole, and Network Rail in particular, is facing affordability problems. I think that he will agree that it is not in the company's financial interests to pay to fell more trees than is absolutely necessary.

The hon. Member for Twickenham asked who took responsibility for tree clearance at stations. As he knows, most stations are leased to train operators, and they, not Network Rail, are responsible for tree clearance in the station precincts.

Network Rail will appreciate that hon. Members have expressed many worries on behalf of their constituents. I hope that it will carefully note the points that have been advanced powerfully in the debate because we must achieve a balance between providing a safe and reliable service, which our constituents want, and preserving the environment and ensuring that people are properly informed and consulted before such action takes place.

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