House of Commons gives Liam Fox reason for Portishead Rail delay

An artist's impression of what Pill station would look like once built. Picture: MetroWest.

Dr Liam Fox secured time to debate the Portishead Rail delay in the House of Commons - Credit: MetroWest

North Somerset MP, Liam Fox, has stated that 'pantomime season has come early' after the Minister of Transport revealed delays to the Portishead Railway project are due to overgrowth on the line.

Phase One of the MetroWest Scheme plans to reopen railway lines in both Portishead and Pill, but a decision on whether this would happen was delayed earlier this year.

After securing a debate in the House of Commons to enquire about the 'environmental reasons' given for the delay in granting a Development Consent Order (DCO), Dr Fox stressed the damage that had been dealt by the decision.

He said: "A six-month delay, as suggested by the Secretary of State’s office, would have a potentially devastating impact.

"It is important that we understand whether this six-month figure was simply plucked out of the air and whether a shorter delay would deal with any reservations from the Department.

Liam Fox arriving at 10 Downing Street for a cabinet meeting on Monday. Picture: Victoria Jones/PA W

Liam Fox has said the process needs to be predictable and not throw up surprises. - Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

"What might seem like precautionary legal moves to a large department are having significant costs at a local level, and we are all at a loss to fully understand the situation, which is why I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting this debate.

"If the Government wants to see improvements in the rail network, including the opening of new lines such as that to Portishead, we need predictability, not surprises."

Dr Fox added that if the project was not granted a DCO by January then 'it is unavoidable that we will incur significant extra cost on further legal and consultancy support, and difficulties with practical issues, such as the manual clearance of vegetation over the winter — again, something over which we have no control'.

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Minister of Transport, Andrew Stephenson, told North Somerset's MP that the proposed scheme requires the clearance of overgrowth from the would-be reinstated Portishead Railway line, which was closed in the 1960s as well as care to avoid destroying a number of rare species of plants further along the line.

Mr Stephenson told the House of Commons: "The section to be reinstated has significantly overgrown since the railway stopped running to Portishead in 1964 and would require some clearance work.

"The scheme also involves proposals for clearing vegetation along the existing freight line through the Avon gorge woodlands special area of conservation, which is home to a number of rare species of plants including the Bristol whitebeam."

Dr Fox responded: "I hope it is not pointing out the blindingly obvious that when people look at projects like HS2, which are able to tunnel under the entire area of the Cotswolds, they find it a touch hard to swallow that we have a significant delay because there is some overgrowth on a line that last ran in the 1960s.

"I hope the Government will understand that."

Abandoned Portishead rail line.

Abandoned Portishead rail line. - Credit: Barry Cash

The Minister of Transport noted Dr Fox's point, adding that phase one of the HS2 railway line scheme took four years to get through the House and thousands of pages of environmental documents.

He added: "I, like Dr Fox, want to see us moving forward projects at pace, but however we legislate for nationally significant infrastructure projects there is a process we have to follow and it is, unfortunately, quite bureaucratic.

"But I think we also share a view that we must protect the environment and do everything we can to mitigate the impacts of all such schemes.

"I recognise that extending decision deadlines for DCOs has implications for the scheme’s delivery and the Government’s commitment to levelling up. It is therefore only used where it is absolutely required to take further necessary steps to ensure a legally robust decision.

"While a new deadline for a decision on the DCO has been set for 19 April 2022, the Department is working hard to enable a decision to be made ahead of that deadline.

"In conclusion, the Government is committed to improving rail services in the wider Bristol area. I understand my right hon friend’s impatience for the scheme to progress, following his years of campaigning.

"As I have set out, the application for any development consent order needs to follow appropriate processes and any decision must be made in line with the relevant legislation to ensure that it is robust. We are aware of how important the scheme is to my right hon friend’s local area."

Dr Fox concluded the debate by stating there is a 'fine line between frustration and farce" in reference to consistent delays to the scheme.

Dr Fox said: "For many of us, with this recurrent delay, the pantomime season has come early. There is a very thin line between frustration and farce.

"I know that my hon friend sympathises with my point and wish him well in persuading his department to see that, although it is something of an oxymoron, common sense is still the best way forward."

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