A Virtual Stroll Along the Mickle Trafford-Shotton Railway

Notes For a Controversial History, part 2 Back to part I on to part III

Traffic's thy god, and thy god confound thee
Timon of Athens: 1. 1. 238

In early August 1998, an announcement was made that details of the planning application to Chester City and Flintshire County Councils, complete with plans, was being made available for public inspection and comment at two local public libraries.

Cllr David Robinson commented "It is important we hear from local people about what they think of the project, which is not only imaginative but also environmentally friendly". Tell that to the birds (badgers, newts etc etc).

The deadline for residents to make their views known was generously extended to August 14th, due to the high level of public disquiet about the scheme.
The material was exhibited at Upton library on 3rd and 4th August and at Blacon library on 6th and 7th August. Considering the scale and astronomic expense of this scheme, a mere four days of 'consultation' in peak holiday season seemed a tad mean, don't you think?
Meanwhile, residents of Cranleigh Crescent were deeply upset at the rumoured prospect of the construction of a bus turning circle, exit gate and access path on the pleasant grassy area in the middle of their quiet estate- one of the few local green places designated for children to play on. See the letter from resident Emma Riding for more on this.

It was soon announced, however, that plans for access points at The Glen and Cranleigh Crescent- formerly described by planners as "absolutely vital" to the development of the line- had been dropped! Unfortunately, in addition to concerns about burglars, vandals and child molesters, much the brisk campaign waged by these residents was largely anti-cycling in tone, expressing fears of speeding cyclists on their pavements and people parking in the area to unload bicycles in order to use the cycleway.

Nontheless, these residents shouldn't feel too cocky about their small victory- should Phase II of the Busway ever get built, there is nowhere else suitable for an access point in this area, so they may still be in for a nasty shock!

The planning meeting when our representatives voted on the Sustrans application was held at Chester Town Hall on 23rd September 1998- despite a mysterious rumour put about the day before that it had been postponed.
We were contacted on the evening of 22nd September by a resident of The Glen (another of the places where residents were unhappy about access points being created from the old line into their neighbourhoods) who told us he had been informed by his local councillor, Rae Cross, that there was "no point turning up at the Town Hall the following morning to attend the planning meeting as it had been postponed until a later date".
We were informed that, "due to the high level of publc unease regarding aspects of the scheme", the whole shebang was to be packed up and resubmitted to Sustrans for a re-write. Could it be true?

Right: Here we see a goods steam train passing under a still-surviving bridge at Blacon, back in 1958. (Thanks to Ralph Hodgkinson- who was driving the train!- for this fantastic photograph)

But not so fast. Early the following morning, we received a telephone call to inform us the meeting had by no means been cancelled, but was to procede as scheduled (apart from being moved forward to first item on the agenda). Several people gathering outside the Town Hall told similar stories, and one said she'd been told of the postponement at the Planning department. Suspicions were naturally aroused that the tale had been put about in order to ensure the non-appearance of large numbers of protesters at the meeting. In this it certainly seems to have succeeded- we have since talked to numerous, very irritated, people who 'fell for it' and not turned up...
As it happened, there was standing-room only (and not just because of the woefully inadequate provision of seating) in the small Palatine Room, and many people were turned away due to lack of space. A number of councillors spoke, as did planning officer Steve Ingrams. The meeting, chaired by Councillor John Vernon, was informed that "a number of objections had been received, in the usual tone..." Thus were the concerns of the citizens arrogantly dealt with and effectively dismissed. Without exception, all members welcomed the Sustrans application for a cycleway / footpath to be built, not efficiently and inexpensively down the centre of the old line as was happening everywhere else in the country, but, ludicrously, amongst the mature trees and shrubs at the extreme edge in order to allow for the later construction of the busway. Not that the busway got much of a mention, as all present were diligently keeping to the rules of the 'cycleway is nothing to do with the Busway' game, even though the entire population of the city (including themselves) were patently aware that it was.
The assembly was doubtless impressed and persuaded by Mickle Trafford Labour councillor Dave Bennett, opening his remarks as he did by stating that he was "a cyclist and a member of Sustrans". Unfortunately, he then blew it with the rest of Chester's cycling population by going on to give the scheme his unconditional blessing. In sharp contrast with those of us who consider the creation of a linear park here would be much used and appreciated by Chester's visitors, he stated that he considered the completed cycletrack / footpath to be "primarily a commuter route... nobody will be travelling long distances in order to use the Chester cycletrack". How true. Referring to the wish of the majority for the cycleway to run down the centre of the trackbed, he rather weirdly asserted that "Sustrans don't like to build dead-straight cycletracks, but prefer them to weave from side to side... to the edge of the line". We've put considerable thought into this strange piece of logic, but must admit defeat. The down-the-edge scheme he so approves of will be straight- it has little alternative! Not to mention being a mere three metres wide and unattractively fenced-in. A commuter route indeed- who is likely to want to use such a creation for recreational purposes?

(We heard from the Chester Cycling Campaign that the aforementioned Councillor Bennett- whimsically described in the local press as "the self-appointed spokesman for the green cyclist lobby"- was very unhappy about the impertinent editorial tone of the campaign's newsletter, had been "shouted at in the street" by cyclists and had consequently withdrawn his membership and support. Here is an anonymous letter in the local press bearing all the triumphalist hallmarks of this 'green campaigner's' new style)

Some time was spent debating the objections of residents in Northgate Village, where a gate and new path was to be provided to allow city centre access from the cycleway. As with residents in Mickle Trafford, Brook Lane, Cranleigh Crescent, The Glen and doubtless a number of other areas, they were afraid that linking their neighbourhoods with the old line would expose them to the attentions of burglars, joyriders and child molesters. Some went so far as to say that they considered speeding cyclists to be the major threat... We found their fears perfectly understandable, but were inclined to agree with Sustrans that popular, well-used routes hold little attraction for the thief and vandal, and, as it turned out, the assembled councillors thought so too, passing the proposal with only two voting against. These dissenters would have preferred an access gate onto Victoria Road, but the meeting was told by planning officer Steve Ingrams that such a proposal would involve considerable extra expense and would involve cyclists in potentially-dangerous clashes with traffic on this busy main road.
We were assured that "no trees would be lost during the construction work"- which was blatantly untrue- as we will see later- and in obvious contradiction to the published plans. In the unlikely event of there being any waverers present, Mr Ingrams also informed the assembly that if a decision was not arrived at immediately, the necessary finance for the work to be carried out "may no longer be available". As it turned out, no such persuasion was necessary, as not a single dissenting (representing?) voice was heard- nobody spoke for the objectors- and the application to build the cycleway / footpath as reluctantly proposed by Sustrans was, as expected, passed unanimously.

Some further quotes from the debate:

  • Planning officer Steve Ingrams: "Perhaps this isn't the ideal solution, but it accords with national and local policy."
  • Councillor Jean Garrod: "I have never received so many letters as I did on this subject, most of them objecting to the Busway. But the cycleway is of national importance. I do not necessarily support the busway". Well, there's one. But would she actually vote against it?
  • County councillor and Tory transport spokesman John Boughton: "This has to link up with the National Cycleway. We would be failing in our duty if we don't give permission".
  • Councillor Molly Hale: 'As someone who has campaigned for this to be used for green transport, I am absolutely delighted... It demonstrates the support there is for this vital scheme (how?)- despite the loud and vigorous opposition from a small minority... Before long local people will be able to walk and cycle safely and in an environment free from traffic pollutants" (not to mention trees, wildlife etc) "I feel future generations will applaud and appreciate our foresight and courage in giving an old railway new life as a transport corridor. I have spoken to many people about this application. Many were in favour. Some were concerned about safeguarding space for the proposed busway. But people can be reassured that before any decision is taken about how or whether to proceed with the busway, there will be widespread consultation, and views will be considered carefully. (as they were with the cycleway, you mean?) There is no doubt, however, that the footway-cycleway will be an excellent assett to the communities".
  • Councillor Dave Bennett (again): "A lot of people can't walk or cycle. Why shouldn't they also have an attractive, environmentally-friendly route into the city centre?" (on a bus?) "To me this is sensible forward planning that we have the possibility of a bus route in the future".
  • Peter Foster of Sustrans: "I am sorry the pro-cycling people should oppose plans for a cycleway, although I understand their protest is really against the proposed busway". (He understood nothing of the sort- it had been made clear to him on numerous occasions the reasons the 'pro-cycling people'- and almost every other sort- thought the destruction of an attractive environment to build the cycleway at the extreme edge was a stupid idea) "We're happy we are getting a decent route... People who say we are restricted by the plan have a point, but it is a minor one... instead of yelling at us, they should be delving into the case against the busway, which is the real source of the objections".

On January 6th 1998, Cheshire County Council's Environment Committee gave approval to begin the statutory planning planning procedures for phase 1 of the CDTS, the aim of which- as we're sure you'll know by now- was to create a 'Guided Busway' to the city centre from a new Park and Ride site on the edge of Hoole.
An 'environmental assessment' was to be carried out and we were again assured that "people will be asked for their views" before the eventual (inevitable?) decision was taken to submit a formal application to Secretary of State, John Prescott sometime that Summer.
County councillor Peter Byrne, chairman of the 'CDTS Steering Group'- an unholy alliance of County and City councils together (although this was found to be far from certain, as we shall see) with Flintshire County Council- commented predictably, "It is important to keep Chester moving, competitive and prosperous. The Guided Busway represents a significant opportunity to reduce pollution in the city. It will prepare Chester for the 21st century".
Depending upon the outcome of the Environmental Assessment and the level of public objection, a Public Inquiry was predicted for the Autumn and construction could eventually start in late 2001 with Phase I of the Busway in operation by 2003.

People were intrigued about the terms of reference for this promised 'environmental assessment' and were concerned that said terms would be so tightly written that it will be difficult for the consultants (were they to be independent or paid for by the planning dept?) to conclude other than that "there will be no significant damage". Objectors felt the terms would NOT allow a comparison of the CDTS with a linear green park, and thought it likely that the comparison would only be made between the CDTS and dereliction. Were local councillors to be able to have any input into the terms of reference or would these be entirely determined by County Hall?

Left: A fine view of the old goods railway, as seen from Newton Lane Bridge on a fine Summer's evening: 5.47pm, 17th July 1956. (Thanks to Ralph Hodgkinson- who drove trains on this route throughout his career and still lives in one of the houses on the right- for the picture).

An article appeared in the Independent newspaper about this timereporting upon the loss of sparrows and songbirds such as thrushes from our urban environment, at least partially due to the loss of hedgerows in the nearby countryside and the development of wild green spaces in towns. A Busway could only help to hasten the decline of the city birdlife which currently nests and breeds in the vicinity of the track- despite the absurd claim of Cllr Peter Byrne and others that the laying of a two-lane concrete track will actually "improve the flora and fauna of the area"... Interestingly, at the previous April's 'Green Transport Day', project manager Carlton Roberts-James responded to protests about the massive loss of trees under the CDTS plan by stating that there were "no trees of 'intrinsic' value" along the line. We wondered greatly about his terms of reference for this bizarre statement. But then, we frankly wondered just how much quiet time- out of working hours, without laptop and tape measure- Roberts-James or the rest of the Busway lobby ever actually spent walking on the old line? Had they ever really heard the birds there or encountered any of the other wild creatures? Had they even the remotest recollection of even one of those 'worthless' trees? We very much doubt it. The values of men like these lay elsewhere.

In January 1999 we were made aware of a planning application for a new bus maintenance & storage depot on Liverpool Road at the site of the former Travis Perkins Builders Merchants. The site was to replace the existing facility on City Road and would be initially for 89 buses. Access would be from the mini-roundabout on Liverpool Road and from Parkgate Road.

The builder's merchants on the site of the old Liverpool Road railway station closed down about 5 years ago. Since then several planning applications for housing developments had been turned down as the council wished to retain the site for light industrial/commercial use for understandable employment reasons. The owners had been unable to find such a purchaser so the site became vandalised and left derelict. However, in December1998 an application was made for a gym/clinic on the site and this seems to have forced the council's hand.
The site provided the only access to and from the Mickle Trafford/Shotton railway (that still hadn't got planning permission) that did not require major engineering works and was one of 3 possible access points indicated on the original "consultation" leaflet. By securing the site for a bus depot, future access for the busway would be inevitably ensured.
The fact this access was to some of the most congested roads in Chester was not likely to deter the proponents of the scheme, anymore than the locating of a bus depot in a residential area adjacent to a school would. That it was also in the middle of a residential area surely provided conflict with a number of Government policies? Behind the derelict site 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.
If the depot went ahead, it would be used by conventional (ie conventionally polluting) buses requiring access from the already-congested Liverpool and Parkgate Roads. It was assumed that the depot would be equipped with storage facilities for whatever "green" fuel was eventually chosen for the CDTS buses in addition to 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 storage facility? Both are horribly imflammable. 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- any other finding would surely have been unacceptable considering the horrifying fire that occured in the Pickford's warehouse there. What would the new residents of Duke's Manor think of the possibility of something similar on their doorstep?
In a typically underhand way, the original objection period was over the Christmas holidays and many of the most affected residents were not even informed. However an extension was gained with new notices being 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 appeared undecided. If this application was refused it could prove to be a major blow to the Busway. But neither the council nor the gym developers intended backing down.
Councillor Jean Garrod was said to have "grave doubts about the plans for the bus depot, as do my colleagues". Which was encouraging, even though she was not sure how much, if any, input mere councillors would have had in the matter.

We have fuller coverage and updates of the Travis Perkins saga here

An interesting letter from Nic Siddle: appeared in the local press on 24/1/99 entitled The Fate of Objections to the Busway.
"Like Ann Jones, I was one of the objectors to the Cheshire 2011 Structure Plan Draft Modifications. Readers will remember that considerable publicity was given to the Council's stated intention to take public opinion into account with regard to this plan.
Having detailed objections to both the CDTS busway and the Western Bypass schemes, I received a letter from the Council saying:-
'I am not able to record your comments as a valid objection/ representation', and gave as justification the grounds that 'the County Council intends to pursue a policy endorsed by the EIP panel'. Read the report and you will discover that it was "endorsed" only with major reservations. Why ask for views if the intention is to discount them because they do not support a pre-determined plan?
The writer of the letter also apologised for not sending an individual reply because of the number of completed objection forms received. The letter said (and I quote), that mine was 'one of over a hundred similar objections'. Expressed in that way, one was clearly meant to conclude that there was a limited number of like minded objectors.
I telephoned Commerce House to try and establish the actual number of objections received. There was a marked reluctance to reveal the number and I was advised that there was no plan to count them, although I was told that 'all the objections will be recorded and anyone can come in and count them'. I was eventually led to believe that there might be 300-400 objections. It has now been established that there were in fact more than 500. As any politician will agree, an issue that motivates one person to write a letter or objection in reality usually represents ten times that number of people who agree with the complaint. I am sure that there are many more than 5000 people in the City who object to the CDTS busway. It is crucial that if you too object to the Busway, then you let your City and County Councillors know.
As well as writing to the papers, contact your councillors (the City councillors will be looking for your votes soon). Most councillors can be reached by e-mail (addresses are in the format j.doe@chestercc.gov.uk for City councillors and doej@cheshire.gov.uk for County councillors). Please copy me (NicSiddle@nsiddle.freeserve.co.uk ) with any mail sent on the subject".

Nowe go on to part III of our history of the Mickle Trafford-Shotton Railway

What the People say: A growing collection of letters to these pages and the Chester press in favour of the busway and- far, far more numerous!- letters against it. A true and accurate indication of public opinion! ...or take our Virtual Stroll Along the Mickle Trafford Railway

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