A Virtual Stroll Along the Mickle Trafford-Shotton Railway
travis perkins yard

As we rejoin the course of the old Mickle Trafford railway to resume our stroll, here's another view of the neglected ex-builder's yard just off Liverpool Road.

Due to extensive new housing developments, the population- and resulting congestion- in this area are set to increase rapidly over the next couple of years. Despite this, there exists no public recreational open space at all in the vicinity. It occurred to us that this derelict site would make a superb new park, and could possibly host an educational/ visitor/ bike hire centre which would compliment perfectly the old railway's conversion to an urban greenway.

Fat chance- in January 1999 we heard of a city council planning application for the relocation of their bus maintenance & storage depot to the site! This was apparently intended to replace the existing facility on City Road and would initially accomodate 89 diesel buses, access to be from the mini-roundabout on Liverpool Road and from Parkgate Road.

The builders merchants- Travis Perkins- occupied the site of the old Liverpool Road railway station until 5 years ago when they relocated to the Sealand Road area, but retained ownership of the land. Since then several planning applications for housing developments have been turned down as the city council claimed that they wished to retain the site for 'light industrial or commercial' use for understandable employment creation reasons. The owners had, until recently, been unable to find such a purchaser so the site has become vandalised and left derelict.

In November 1998 a planning application was made by agents acting for Kwik Save founder and multi millionaire Albert Gubay for the construction of a prestigious fitness/injury rehabilitation clinic on the site, under the Total Fitness banner, which would, it was claimed, provide at least 150 jobs. Surprisingly to some, the city council's response was to oppose this major potential investment in the area, and indeed to promptly submit its own planning application, through its wholly-owned subsiduary, Chester City Transport for a bus maintainance and storage yard- that would create very few, if any, new jobs. This on land designated for employment creation, remember.

The present bus facility on City Road is situated close to a prestigious new housing and office project on the site of the former Cinderella's nightclub at the Bars- an area where other major new developments are also on the cards. It's likely to have occured to someone within the Town Hall that the site could be put to much more profitable use than merely for parking and fixing buses.

But another possible reason for the council's otherwise unfathomable application was of course the site's close proximity to the disused Mickle Trafford-Shotton railway, intended route of their ill-conceived and financially unviable CDTS Busway. In fact, the site provides one of the very few access points to and from the planned busway that does not require major engineering works and was one of only three possible access points indicated on the original so-called 'consultation' leaflet.
Without control of this land, the council's busway plans would be threatened. By securing the site for a bus depot- that may or may not ever get built- future access for the busway's construction and operation are ensured and they would be willing to go a long way to see that this happened. But this unfortunate application to build a gym there seemed to have forced their hand, threatened to put the mockers on their widely-opposed plans.

Unfortunately for the council, the intending developers of the gym complex were equally determined to have their way. Their planning application was due to be heard on 3rd February 1999, but, suspecting that it was unlikely to receive anything resembling a fair hearing- the council, of course, being both planning authority and rival bidder for the site- they withdrew their application until a later date in order to further investigate the circumstances involved.

The council had actually received four objections to the gym scheme by this time- from the Queen's Junior School next door, from the Nautilus Gym located off nearby Brook Lane, from the Chester Civic Trust and, of course, from themselves. Nevertheless, the agents for the gym developers told us that they were determined to pursue their application- they felt that they had fulfilled all necessary criteria for developing the land, and, should their application be 'unreasonably' refused they would not hesitate to take their case to appeal.

So what of the council's rival claim? The fact that access to the site was onto some of the most congested roads in Chester did not deter them, anymore than the locating of a bus depot, with its associated noise, smell, vibration, congestion and pollution, in a residential area adjacent to a school apparently did. That it was also in the middle of a residential area- much of it newly built- surely provided conflict with any number of Government policies?

It was assumed that the depot wouldl be equipped with storage facilities for whatever "green" fuel is eventually chosen for the CDTS buses in addition to large quantities of conventional diesel. As the propulsion for the CDTS had not yet been chosen, presumably the plans did not specify the nature of such storage. Perhaps nearby residents had a right to know if they were to be living next to a CNG or LPG gas storage facility? The reason the Council gave for turning down plans for a Calor Gas storage depot in Lightfoot Street, Hoole was the proximity of residential housing- and who can forget the horrifying Pickford's fire that so recently occured there?

derelict shedsTrue to council form, the original objection period was over the Christmas holidays and many of the most affected residents were not informed. However they seem to have gained an extension with new notices to be sent out. The more objections received by the planning department the better, but probably more useful were objections to councillors on the planning committee, a number of whom appear undecided. For example, Councillor Jean Garrod has said she had "grave doubts about the plans for the bus depot, as do my colleagues", even though she was not sure how much, if any, input mere councillors would be allowed to have in the matter.

If this application were refused it would be a major blow for the Busway planners- who knows, possibly fatal.
Beyond the trees behind the derelict sheds in our picture are the grounds of the Queen's Junior School. The government's recently-announced 'Safe Routes to School' initiative would seem to indicate that the development of a traffic-free greenway along the old railway would be of immense benefit to this and the other schools that adjoin the line. The school objected fiercely to both planning applications on grounds of increased congestion on the already-busy Liverpool Road, and additionally to the council's bus depot plan because of well-grounded fears of increased pollution from stinking diesel buses and the completely unacceptable risks associated with the storage of dangerous fuels.

Then, on 19th February 1999, we learned that Chester City Transport Ltd had temporarily withdrawn their planning application. As a response to the first wave of objections from local schools and residents, the council-owned company first produced pathetic assurances about the provision of soundproof fencing and suchlike and then absurdly proposed banning vehicles leaving the site from turning left onto Liverpool Road. This was in response to a report by Highways Development Officer Dave Roberts, who claimed that the solution to obvious potential problems of noise, congestion and pollution would be to build a bigger roundabout! Why didn't we think of that?

Chester City transport managing director Stuart Hyslop commented "While we do not agree with all the points in Mr Roberts letter, we accept that we need to demonstrate to Mr Roberts and concerned neighbours that the access to the proposed garage site would operate safely".

And off they trotted, planning application under arm, to try and dream up some further flannel in order to keep the neighbours happy.

A couple of letters to the local press. From J F Spall:
"I write concerning two planning applications, currently pending, submitted for the former Travis Perkins builders merchants premises on Liverpool Road, Chester.
The site is currently derelict since precious planning applications for housing developments, have been refused by Chester City Council on the grounds that they wish the site to be retained for employment purposes, although at its peak the builders merchants only employed 14 people. All such employment considerations did not apparently apply to the former Heywood Williams site situated across Liverpool Road or the nearby Brook Lane industrial estate both of which provided far more jobs.

In November, a planning application was submitted for a prestigious fitness and injury rehabilitation clinic on the site, which, it was promised, would provide 150 jobs. Chester City Council's response was not to support this major investment in the area but to submit its own planning application through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Chester City Transport. This amended application was for a bus maintenance and storage depot servicing, initially, 89 diesel buses. It was intended that this site was to replace the existing facility on City Road, therefore no new jobs would be created by the scheme.

The site is in a residential area, surrounded by houses and a school. In addition the main access is on to one of the most congested roads in Chester. It would seem unbelievable that anyone, let alone our local council, would choose such a site for a bus depot with its accompanying noise, pollution and congestion.

However the real reason for the scheme is not hard to find. The site is bounded on one side by the disused Mickle Trafford to Shotton railway, the route of the proposed CDTS busway. Furthermore the site offers the only level access to the line in the Chester area and has connections to both Liverpool and Parkgate Road.

It would seem unlikely that the potential value of this site to the busway has been overlooked for so long by its proposers, which include Chester City Council, so it can only be assumed that it has been deliberately kept derelict in readiness for the busway scheme. The fitness centre application, however seems to have forced the council's hand, hence the apparently hasty application for the bus depot.

In dealing with planning applications on sites in which it has an interest itself, the city council should not only act fairly, it should be seen to act fairly. I believe that in regard to this site it has failed on both accounts".

And from D H and G L Morrison:
"The location of such a depot within a residential area is totally inappropriate and the amended plans are not much better than the previous ones. Having read the application we are sure that pollution from diesel fumes has obviously not been taken seriously into consideration; 20 or 30 buses will start their engines at once at maximum peak times: 7 to 8am, 4pm to 5pm and 6pm to 7pm. Other peaks will be 9am to 10 am, 11am to 12 noon, and 2pm to 3pm. All this next to a primary school full of young children who will be breathing carcinogenic diesel fumes every time they come out to the school playing fields- no doubt every parent of children in the Queen's School will picket the site if this application is granted.

Then there is the noise pollution, seven days a week. The timetables submitted with the application show that buses start running at 5.30am and finish at midnight. At what time will engines start warming up every morning? "Sound absorbing fencing" seems a hopelessly inadequate measure to counteract the level of noise generated by this number of buses.

Traffic in Liverpool Road is already heavy without buses turning "south towards the city centre"- which means right into Liverpool Road across the northbound traffic, including during rush hours. Chester City Transport want to leave their "congested site on Station Road" and congest the traffic in Liverpool Road instead!
As for "creating employment," How will moving the depot from City Road to Liverpool Road create jobs?
The proposed development should he refused on the grounds of environmental and noise pollution and traffic congestion unacceptable in a residential area, next to a school".

On February 25th the gym application was once again submitted to the the city council planning sub-committee and once again was rejected on 'policy' grounds- in other words for failing to conform to their definition of 'employment' usage. Should the application have been for an office block or 'light industrial' development, it would have conformed to the terms- and then how would the council have wriggled out of it? But that it is for an employment-creating health and leisure facility means that it apparently fails to do so. The aspiring developers disagree, and therefore intend taking their case to appeal. Can our cash-strapped council afford to contest the case? Given the strategic importance of the site for the future of the CDTS, can they afford not to?

However, in May 1999 as part of a correspondence to a reader, Cllr John Price said "You will know that the planning application for a bus depot at Travis Perkins has been withdrawn. It is unlikely to be made again". What could this mean?

Three months later, August 12th 1999, at the commencement of appeal proceedings against the rejection of the gym plan, it came to light that Chester City Council had misinformed the public regarding the date when the appeal would take place. A press notice had given the starting date as the previous day, Tuesday, August 11th while 'interested parties' such as councillors, press and local residents had received letters informing them that proceedings would commence on Thursday, August 13th!
Many felt that one such 'mistake' could possibly be put down to a typing error or such like, but two? Principal planning officer Sally Cuncliffe told the hearing that she had made attempts during the evening to telephone all those who had written expressing an interest to inform them of the correct date, "but had not managed to contact everyone".

Consequently, only a handful of annoyed residents actually managed to attend the hearing. Government planning inspector Philip Goodman, with considerable restraint, described the council's apparent double cockup as "unfortunate" and added, "I am sure Chester City Council will apologise to council tax payers".
After expressing his difficulty in weighing up the interests of both parties as a result of these events, the inspector nevertheless decided to press ahead and started hearing evidence from the council and aspiring developers AEW Architects and Designers Ltd.

Those residents who actually made it to the hearing expressed the view that the fitness club may be "the lesser of two evils", in light of the council's expressed plans for the site: "We prefer this development to the bus depot, but I'm not 100% sure we want this either".
A council spokesman described the planned fitness club building as "like a large shed"- totally unlike their planned bus depot, which would have looked like a... large shed. Quite.

gym constructionTotal Fitness won their appeal. their appeal rthe city council, despite failing to follow the inspector's advice and "apologise to council tax payers", made at least one small crumb of comfort, for they demanded- and obtained- from Total Fitness the sum of over £230,000 as a 'contribution' to the public transport (CDTS??) fund as one of the conditions for their granting planning permission...

Surely there's a word for that sort of thing... I forget what it is for the moment....

And here, photographed on a stormy day just one year later, in August 2000, was a graphic illustration of the outcome of that appeal! The council's ludicrous bus depot plans came to nought and construction of the new health gym- much larger and uglier than anyone had expected- was well advanced...

The building would contain two 'state of the art' 25 metre, six-lane swimming pools, an aqua-aerobic pool and a 'standard' pool as well as squash courts, a full-scale gymnasium and physiotherapy facilities.
Alongside it runs the newly-laid SUSTRANS cycletrack.

(While on the subject of swimming pools, in December 2000, a letter in the local press from City Councillor David Challen made the suggestion, referring to Chester's much-loved City Baths, that perhaps "it is time to say goodbye to an old friend?"- and that the listed building (by John Douglas and occupying a site doubtlessly of great potential interest to developers) should be replaced by a 50-metre competion pool at the Northgate Arena... The City Baths celebrated their centenary in September 2001)

A final couple of views, showing the health club adjoining the cycleway in its final, inelegant, form in Summer 2001. Actually, the enormous brick-built structure on the left is entirely devoted to, of all things, two floors of car parking.
No effort has been made to blend this utilitarian structure into its surroundings or provide any form of landscaping.
On our frequent journeys past it, we have rarely observed more than a handful of vehicles actually making use of it, but nontheless, it would appear that the building's architects considered the club's users as being of too delicate a constitution to be allowed to risk getting their hair wet between leaving their cars and entering the gym...

At the end of June 2002, we received this from reader Clive Buckler:

"Whilst I'm not an objector to the CDTS scheme, I have taken a great deal of interest in the whole thing.
I have cycled many times to Queensferry along the Sustrans cycleway.  I am, however, very cynical about the Fitness centre and its car park at Liverpool Road.  Having cycled past many times my friends and I have questioned not only the car park but the very large doors at the Blacon end (seen on your final photograph on the virtual tour).

It would be wrong to suggest that the building, which was built very quickly, is a speculative venture anticipating the CDTS scheme being approved, but!!!!  As this site was earmarked for bus garage/maintenance faciltiy, it begs the question if this facility has already been partly been built with the possibility of large profit, when it has to be (compulsory) purchased for the CDTS, for the existing owners of the Fitness centre.  Look again at the outside of the large doors/gates too".

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