Richard Holden – 2021 Speech on Weardale Railways

The speech made by Richard Holden, the Conservative MP for North West Durham, in the House of Commons on 1 November 2021.

I am absolutely delighted to kick off this Adjournment debate on the feasibility bid for the Weardale railway. In an announcement last week, the Department for Transport agreed to that bid. I am delighted to see the Rail Minister here today, because he was one of the first people to come to Weardale to see the railway in all its glory at first hand.

The connection is particularly important for the communities that I represent, and for my hon. Friends the Members for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), for Sedgefield (Paul Howell), and for Darlington (Peter Gibson). It is not only the Minister himself who has visited. I have also, in the past couple of weeks, had a visit from the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), who came up to Frosterley, Stanhope and Eastgate to see the railway and all the potential that it has to deliver transformational change not only for my constituency but other constituencies further down the line. I am particularly glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Sedgefield and for Darlington are here today. I am also grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland, who has just had the excellent news that the Toft Hill bypass is finally going to happen. It was first mentioned in the 1951 Durham county plan and it has now been approved by the Government a mere 70 years later. I beg the Minister to lean on his Front-Bench colleagues also to support my bid for Crook, Willington and Tow Law, which will hopefully be coming down the line in funding rounds 2 or 3.

It is not just hon. Members in this place who have supported the bid for the Weardale railway. The Mayor of Teesside, Ben Houchen, was also involved, along with hundreds of local people who completed my recent surveys on it, my Crook councillors elected last year—Patricia Jopling and Mike Currah—and local candidates who have been campaigning: Robbie Rodiss, Will Wearmouth and Steve Cowie. In particular, there is the group of people who have been keeping the railway going as a heritage line over the past few years—the huge number of volunteers at the Weardale Railway Trust.

The Weardale railway ceased operation as a freight line back in the early 1990s, but it has been operating a heritage service since then. Last year it was bought by the Auckland Project after its previous owner failed. I thank Jonathan Ruffer, who has been doing so much great work down in Bishop Auckland, and the chief exec of the Auckland Project, David Madden, who has been really involved in helping me, and other hon. Members, in the project to help to transform the west of County Durham. One of the most important things that they have done is to give a private sector edge to what is going on. I also thank Durham County Council and Darlington Council for the support that they are giving more broadly to the project and to the bid.

Bishop Auckland was first connected to the rail network back in the 1840s. The extension went further to Crook in 1844, then to Frosterley in 1845, and finally to Stanhope in 1862. In 1887, there was a further bid to extend the line from Stanhope right the way up to the top of Weardale. The budget for the entire line, as I read recently on the excellent Weardale Museum’s website, was a mere £48,627. The bid we have just put in for the feasibility study alone is £50,000 for the whole project. It is one of those interesting quirks of history that Sir Joseph Pease, the then Liberal MP, finally cut the first sod on an extension in 1893. It would be great to see the first Conservative MPs, largely, for County Durham doing exactly the same for the renewed line—if, hopefully, the feasibility study comes through—in the next few years.

Far earlier than the railway line were the wagon ways that we had across County Durham. That is because we were part of the heart of the industrial revolution. Back in the early 19th century, we had horse-drawn wagons going all the way over the moors because we had ironstone that had to be taken to Consett. It is very much in that theme of us being at the heart of the first industrial revolution that Conservative Members now really want to press this project to provide the connectivity to help to transform our communities going into the next industrial revolution that we are currently seeing taking place under this Conservative Government.

Unfortunately, passenger services ended on the line in 1953 and to Crook in 1965, with the freight service finally ending in the 1990s with the closure of the Eastgate cement works site, at which my hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield worked. It is great to see him here today, supporting the bid as the Member for Sedgefield and wanting to deliver that transformational change.

Since that closure, there has been an irregular heritage service operating locally. The bid now is not for that heritage service to come back; what we want to do is connect the communities I represent to the rest of the north-east and to improve the line further down, as my hon. Friends will mention briefly in their speeches. We have a real opportunity in Weardale, and it looks like we potentially have the second-largest lithium deposits in the country outside of Cornwall. That could provide a real freight anchor for that service. As exploration is going on, it is only right that we start to look at the feasibility of how we would transport some of that lithium, particularly as part of that proper industrial revolution with the next generation of manufacturing jobs that we are seeing up at Blyth or at Sunderland, where Nissan is putting in huge amounts of investment.

The bid is not just about freight, however; it is also about connecting communities. We represent proud villages and towns across County Durham, and the town of Crook needs a bit of a boost at the moment. One of the main aspects of the bid is to look at the feasibility of connecting the towns of Crook and Howden-le-Wear to the line as well. At the moment, the terminus is in Bishop Auckland. We want to ensure we have a proper through-running service so that we can capture all that opportunity further up the dale. The third aspect of the bid is looking at a possible extension further up the dale. If that looks viable and a goer, I will certainly be backing that.

The bid is about employment and ensuring that people up in Weardale can access those great jobs, particularly down in Teesside, where we are seeing massive investment in a freeport. We have the Darlington jobs hub and the Treasury. It is all coming to Teesside. I want my constituents to be able to share in that, whether they are in Crook or any of the towns and villages up in Weardale. I also want to see them able to access the best education opportunities. At the moment, that is just not possible with the transport infrastructure we have.

The bid is also more broadly about providing that opportunity for people in both directions. That means we can help drive the economy of Weardale in heritage and tourism. We are seeing real local efforts going into places such as the Weardale museum, the Weardale Adventure Centre or the fantastic pubs around Stanhope or in the smaller villages further up the line. I want to see those jobs thriving in the long term, but it cannot just be about transport connectivity; it is also about buses, broadband and enabling people to work locally, but also to stay local, and that is part of the real drive from this side of the House on connectivity.

Earlier in the Budget debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington said, “Shy bairns get nowt.” We in County Durham from the Conservative side are always arguing for our communities. The Economist in an article recently said that I was proving expensive, but the truth is that for too long, when the north-east was represented by Mandelson, Blair and co, they took the north-east—in fact, the entire north of England, the midlands, Wales and Scotland—for granted. I do not think we are prepared to do that. We are fighting every step of the way and every day for investment in our communities. I am incredibly proud to do that, and we are going to keep pushing for that. I am delighted to be fighting for it, but as part of a package, because this railway is part of many more bids—I have already referenced what is happening in Teesside—across the north.

I have already put in another bid, also accepted, for a connection from Consett to the Tyne. That is important, because we can do stuff to improve cycling and walking on that route, as well as on the Weardale line, but I also want to look at public transport options, and there will be a report later this year.

I thank Ministers for the extra £10 million provided for Shotley Bridge Hospital, which will help us double beds in that community hospital from eight to 16. That is far higher than the zero beds planned before I was elected. I have also fought on the motorhomes tax, which was particularly helpful for my increasingly tourist-focused community, and on the draught beer duty to help those wet pubs that are still part of thriving communities in the north.

The Government are really delivering for the north, including for my community in North West Durham and for County Durham. I am so glad to see the announcement that the feasibility study will happen and delighted that the Minister can support it. I am proud to represent my constituency and hope to do so for many years to come. However, the Government must deliver on the levelling up that we promised at the election. Therefore, although I am glad about the feasibility study and hopeful for the line’s future, I encourage the Minister to keep thinking of more ways to help us deliver for the people who voted for us in 2019.