Friday 25 September 2015
The arrival of ugly steel gantries on the Great Western Railway line through Goring and South Stoke in the southern Chilterns in the last few months has caused huge concern to local residents and the Chilterns Conservation Board.
Network Rail is undertaking a major, 10-year modernisation programme on the line. This includes upgrades to stations and electrification of parts of the route, including the section between Reading and Didcot. Work has rushed ahead on this section because it was chosen as the test track for the new trains and equipment, even though it runs through the North Wessex Downs and Chilterns AONBs.
Electrification requires the installation of much infrastructure, including masts and gantries to carry the wires above the track. There are overhead line designs available which are more aesthetically pleasing and reduce the impact on the landscape, but they are not being fitted here. To the great concern of local residents and the Conservation Board, the gantries being installed along the Great Western line through the Chilterns AONB are large, ugly and intrusive, completely out of keeping with a nationally-protected landscape. How has this happened?
Network Rail is using Permitted Development Rights to carry out work to the track without needing planning permission, However, by law, as a ‘statutory undertaker’ Network Rail must ‘have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the AONB’ when carrying out work affecting an AONB. In other words, its activities should at the very least keep this protected landscape the same, or ideally improve it. However, even its own environmental statement concludes that gantries on the line between Goring and Moulsford would be prominent and would have a permanent and adverse impact on the landscape. Now that the first structures have been installed their utilitarian ugliness is clear for all to see. The Conservation Board believes that Network Rail has failed in its statutory duty to conserve and enhance the Chilterns AONB.
In 2013 Network Rail committed to consulting the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs AONBs at the detailed design stage. This didn’t happen, and the detailed plans have still not been shared with us or published, even though construction is underway. “It feels like we’ve been forgotten,” says Lucy Murfett, the Board’s Planning Officer. “The section through the AONBs is getting the worst possible design of overhead gantry. I am sure we could work with Network Rail to get a better solution that would fit with these lovely and nationally-protected landscapes.”
The Board’s concerns were expressed formally to Network Rail via a letter from its Chairman, stating that the gantries “have a significant detrimental impact on the landscape of the AONB and the Board would like to see them removed and replaced with a much less visually intrusive alternative.” Constructive dialogue has now begun with Network Rail and the Board’s Planning Officer has met with them. Local residents have organised themselves into an action group (www.savegoringgap.org.uk)and are publicising the issue widely as well as taking part in conversations with Network Rail.
It is hoped these efforts will persuade Network Rail to meet its legal obligations and modify the electrification equipment to reduce the harm on the sensitive landscapes of the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs AONBs. The Board and local residents will be pursuing this desired outcome with great tenacity.
You can find out more and also sign a petition for the gantries to be replaced with a better design here http://www.savegoringgap.org.uk/