District Councillors inspecting the site of a proposed 42 acre rail depot in Stoke Gifford were given a frosty reception from around 50 residents at a meeting in Sandringham Road last Friday (20th January).
Hitachi Rail wants to build the depot on the Filton Triangle [map], an area of land bounded by railway lines to the west of Parkway Station, as part of the £1 billion project to electrify the Great Western mainline.
More than 500 local residents have objected to the scheme, saying they fear the 24/7 depot will create noise, fumes and light pollution, lead to an increase in flooding and pollute waterways in the area.
Friday’s street meeting gave the applicant’s agent, local residents and local Parish and District Councillors a chance to address members of a South Gloucestershire Council planning sub-committee assigned to inspect the site prior to a decision being made.
The meeting got off to a tense start, with residents heckling the Sub-Committee Chair Cllr Dave Hockey as he tried to explain the procedure to be followed during the 35 minutes allowed. Interruptions continued as planning officer Simon Penketh tried to outline the proposals with the aid of a large plan, with many people saying they couldn’t hear what was being said.
The meeting went on to hear Andy Barr, agent for Hitachi, read out a prepared statement, followed by observations and comments from local South Gloucestershire Councillor Keith Cranney.
One resident who said he was in favour of the scheme “with reservations” was then allowed to speak, before opponents – headed by Lesley Cox of the Stokes Campaign Against Rail Electrification Depot (SCARED) – were given a chance to have their say.
Cllr Hockey thanked everybody for their contributions, adding that although procedure dictated that no answers could be given to protesters’ questions on the day, these would be provided in a report published prior to a planning meeting scheduled for Thursday 2nd February, when a decision to approve or refuse the application is expected to be made.
Andy Barr (Agent for Hitachi Rail) explained that the Stoke Gifford site is one of three chosen for the Great Western mainline electrification project. The others are in London (already approved) and Swansea (pending approval).
Although the trains being serviced at the depot will include diesel generators (to provide power on un-electrified sections and in emergency situations), Mr Barr stated that the company doesn’t intend to run the generators in the depot.
Diesel generators might need to be replaced and, once fitted, the units would need to be tested “for a few minutes”. This would be done inside the “sound proofed and insulated maintenance shed”, he added.
Mr Barr promised that Hitachi would set up a “liaison group” to meet with local residents on a regular basis, “hear concerns and act upon them”.
He concluded by saying the company “looks forward to becoming an accepted part of the community”.
Local South Gloucestershire Councillor Keith Cranney (Conservative, Stoke Gifford) called for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to be produced by the applicant, contradicting the opinion of the Council’s Area Planning Officer, Helen O’Connor, given in a “screening opinion” issued on 8th June 2011 (prior to the formal submission of the planning application on 1st September 2011).
Cllr Cranney also highlighted that residents has experienced “fumes, odours and various environmental problems” arising from the current use of the site and he called on the Council to assign an Environmental Health Officer to assess the “noise aspects” of the application.
He added that the area also suffers from drainage problems and said householders already suffer high insurance premiums due to the risk of flooding.
Cllr Cranney also said he had heard contradictory information about whether the existing bund (earthwall) around the site would be removed or altered. Full details of screening and noise attenuation measures must be presented to the Committee, he added.
Referring to Hitachi’s promise to set up a residents’ liaison group to deal with complaints about noise, fumes and other issues, Cllr Cranney insisted that the forum be accessible “24/7, so that it can be contacted at 3am in the morning”.
Local James Potts, the only resident speaking in favour of the application, said he supported it “with reservations” because “we’ve got to leave our kids something”. His reservations included the lack of acoustic barriers and lighting being “not low enough”. He also called on Hitachi to take steps to prevent train wheels “squeaking”, for example by using gentle curves and installing damping devices on the rails. The existing railway could also be made quieter through the use of screening, he added.
Lesley Cox, speaking on behalf of SCARED, began her speech by observing that the group was being given three minutes to talk to the Council “whilst the applicant and their agents have had three-and-a-half years of continuous access”.
She described the Stoke Gifford (sic) Triangle as an “inappropriate, ill-conceived and unacceptable site” for the proposed rail depot and said the group accepted neither the legitimacy of the proposal nor the validity of the reports that accompany it.
She claimed that the spot in Sandringham Road chosen for the meeting was the least effective location to assess the impact of the proposed development and called on Councillors to also take the time to visit properties in Elizabeth Crescent, York Close, Kent Close and Bush Avenue in order to assess whether the potential impact of noise would be “negligible”, as Hitachi claim.
Councillors should also witness the permanently wet ground behind houses in Sandringham Road and consider the threat to the flood plain and nearby Forty Acres conservation area, she added.
She also asked Councillors to consider whether light from the proposed 27 ft high floodlights would be restricted to the site.
Another local resident, Cecil Gee, pointed out the existing traffic problems in the area and said he feared the new development would only make the situation worse. In response to Hitachi’s promise that 170 jobs would be created at the site, he said there was no guarantee that the people affected by the development would benefit from the new jobs. He also questioned how many jobs would be lost from existing depots that might have to close once the new facility was operational.
A further member of the public demanded to know why Stoke Gifford Councillor Brian Allinson wasn’t at the meeting. Cllr Allinson (Conservative), who serves in South Gloucestershire Council’s Cabinet, was said by Cllr Hockey to be “in London on another mission”.
Cllr Allinson was recently branded “gullible” by one commentator after he reported that noise from the Hitachi Rail depot in Ashford, Kent, was “almost non-existent”. He had visited the Kent depot to check whether Stoke Gifford householders’ fears were “aligned with reality”, according to a recent report in the Bristol Evening Post.
With the street meeting’s allocated time exhausted, Councillors on the Sub-Committee were bussed off to inspect the site proper on the opposite side of the railway. Members of the public were not allowed to witness this part of the meeting as the landowner (named as Network Rail in the planning application) had refused permission on health and safety grounds, according to Cllr Hockey.
Speaking after the meeting, Lesley Cox told The Journal:
“SCARED organisers were delighted that so many people attended the site visit meeting to show their opposition to the proposed development. Many more would like to have been there but the majority of residents were impeded by work commitments.”
“This is the first opportunity that we have had to speak to Councillors and it was hugely satisfying to try to get our concerns across to them, even though we were only allowed three minutes.”
“This depot is a massive development which dwarfs the neighbouring estate, threatens hundreds of houses with flooding, destroys wildlife, pollutes the streams and will drive the whole village mad with 24 hour noise. Yet a lot of people are still unaware of the dangers inherent in the plan because prior advertising was so low key.”
“Big organisations like Hitachi have the advantage of continuous access to Councillors and, when they choose, can generate a lot of favourable publicity. The truth is very different from the picture they want to convey. Stoke Gifford is fighting back! Come and join us.”
SCARED can be contacted on 07884 406 215.
Anyone wishing to speak at the meeting of the Development Control (West) Committee meeting in Thornbury on Thursday 2nd February at 2:30pm is asked to contact Paul Johnson on 01454 864425 before the day of the meeting.
Related link: Filton Triangle Rail Depot (The Journal)