Liam Fox – 2021 Speech on Portishead Railway

The speech made by Liam Fox, the Conservative MP for North Somerset, in the House of Commons on 26 November 2021.

Earlier today, I had the great pleasure of introducing my Down Syndrome private Member’s Bill, on which I was extremely grateful for the support of the Government. Let us hope that we can repeat that exercise now and make it two in a row.

This is the third time I have raised the issue of the railway extension to Portishead on the Adjournment in this House. Let us be very clear: we are not talking about HS2. We are not talking about major infrastructure or billions of pounds from the public purse. We are not talking about massive environmental impact or huge public dissent about the route. We are, as I have repeatedly said, seeking only around 1.3 miles of additional track. Although that is only a tiny fraction of the extra railway lines that are currently being planned, it has proved a gargantuan challenge to get through the bureaucracy required to provide a growing and affluent town with improved public transport—public transport that will improve quality of life for many, take traffic off our overcrowded roads and provide a public transport route into Portishead that may help to alleviate our current labour shortage.

On 20 October 2021, the decision was issued from the Secretary of State for Transport’s office to extend the statutory deadline to determine the application for the proposed rail “Portishead branch line—MetroWest phase 1” development consent order by up to six months to April 2022. That extension has significant financial, reputational and programme implications for North Somerset Council and comes as a great disappointment to all of us who have looked forward to the opening of the railway line, particularly given the Government’s support for the expansion of the railway network. When I requested further information from Ministers, I was informed that there was a fear that a judicial review might be granted to environmental groups opposed to the reopening of the line. I will return to that point later on.

On 10 November 2021, North Somerset received initial feedback requesting further information on carbon budgets. Understandably, the council has been seeking urgent clarification as to whether that information will address the so-called environmental matters that have been cited as the delay to the granting of the DCO. 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 today. If the Government want to see improvements in the rail network, including the opening of new lines such as that to Portishead, we need predictability, not surprises.

I fully understand the Government’s disappointment that several DCOs, such as that at Stonehenge, have been thwarted by judicial reviews, and I also understand the fear that those groups that have been involved in lawbreaking in recent times, such as Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, might seek such a review on the Portishead line, but I have to tell my hon. Friend the Minister that our local scheme has the full support of all our mainstream environmental groups, which can fully see the advantage of taking traffic off our congested roads and on to the railways. In these circumstances, I wonder whether any judge would be likely to grant a judicial review to some of these more extreme organisations.

The issues that may have arisen with some of these other DCOs are not present in our case. There has already been a very detailed examination of the environmental and wider considerations of the merits of the scheme, including examination of the environmental statement and habitats regulations assessment. That also included a report into the implications for European sites. The information requested by the Department on carbon budgets should be easily resolved, and North Somerset will make it available as quickly as possible, but it is essential that we all understand whether there will be further issues that may result in a delay.

Let me be very clear with the House: delays of the nature suggested in October can have a hugely detrimental impact on the ability to deliver this project within costs and on time. Following an initial review with Network Rail, it has been assessed that the scheme may accommodate a maximum delay of three months, albeit importing additional cost and risk to the programme. 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.

For example, at a practical level, delays beyond 14 January would result in key ecology windows being missed, with a net programme impact of at least 12 months. We can control a lot of things in North Somerset, but the calendar is not one of them. It has been assessed that the impact on cost beyond 14 January 2022 will be in the order of an additional £13 million at minimum—an unacceptable figure for the project to bear. The loss of £13 million may be a rounding error on a weekly basis to big Government Departments, but on local government projects of this nature, it is a very large sum indeed.

Today I am asking the Minister to ensure that we receive a positive DCO decision by 14 January 2022 to facilitate the continuation of the project. Failing that, 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. Although it is clear that the Government have some flexibility in the timetable that they impose on the project, there is, I am afraid, no flexibility in nature’s season.

This scheme fits into every aspect of current Government policy, from environmental benefits to improved public transport and increased economic opportunity. Although we are tantalisingly close to finally getting delivery of a scheme that is supported across the whole community and from every aspect of political opinion, we are still not quite there. I understand that this is a live planning decision and that the Minister may be limited in what he can legally tell us today, but knowing him as I do, I trust that he will sense the frustration that many of us feel—very much including myself—and will undertake to get us full and rapid answers to the reasonable questions that we are currently asking.