Archive for November, 2010

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Railway Heritage Committee repreive?

Friday, November 12 2010

Hanwell Station, December 2008. Though the down fast platform has been removed, the rest of the station retains many original features, such as a wooden waiting room. Rather than undergoing a radical modernisation like its neighbours – West Ealing and Southall – it has been carefully restored to its GWR condition. Photo Sunil Prasannan.

(Click image to enlarge. Click here for details of reuse.)

A late night speech by Lord Faulkner of Worcester on Tuesday has probably saved the work of the Railway Heritage Committee. The Public Bodies Bill received its second reading during a mammoth 8 hour 38 minute debate in the house of Lords on Tuesday. Lord Faulkner had prepared a comprehensive speech regarding the cost effectiveness and usefulness of the Committee, but was only called to speak at 21:54. He cut his speech to the bone and the result was a very eloquent intervention. He first made a short analysis of the constitutional implications of the bill and then said –

I was going to make a speech about a public body with which I have a particular interest and which I had the honour to chair until 2009, standing down when I became a Minister in the Government Whips’ Office: the Railway Heritage Committee. It is a body which has a link with Henry VIII because, as your Lordships may recall, Benjamin Disraeli predicted as long ago as 1845, in his novel ‘Sybil’, that the railways will do as much for mankind as the monasteries did. This is a debate which I want to have on another occasion and in Committee with the Minister.

However, I make the point now that that is a committee with a budget that costs the taxpayer little more than £100,000 a year. That can be reduced further, but that budget would have to be enhanced because the National Railway Museum will in future have to spend at least that amount of money on buying the artefacts and records which, at present, it gets for nothing. It is staffed entirely by volunteers-there is only one paid employee-and works with the grain of the railway industry and the heritage railway section. It was established by three separate Acts of Parliament, two passed by Conservative Governments and one, most recently, by the Labour Government in 2006. It is a body which fulfils the functions that were set out by the Minister standing at the Conservative Dispatch Box in 1996, to the letter, and has never attracted any criticism or scandal. It was abolished, or at least it is facing abolition, as the result of a single sentence in a Department for Transport press release, with no consultation whatever. The only warning that the members of the committee and the industry had that something was coming was the leak in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ on 23 September. As a consequence of that, over 30 individuals, ranging from some very high-profile in international organisations-the Heritage Railway Association itself, the Keeper of the Records of Scotland, Sir William McAlpine and others-all wrote to the Minister begging her to think again before including it in the list for abolition. To no avail, though; that organisation is in Schedule 1 of the Bill. I hope that it will be possible, when we get into Committee, to do something about this deplorable state of affairs and that we can do something that recognises the importance of railway heritage in the tourist sector and in the economy more generally.

I do not want to speak any more tonight other than to say that I hope that my noble friend’s amendment will meet with approval in the House. It is important that we have more time to look at these proposals and redress, at least to some extent, the scandalous lack of consultation that has led to the Bill in its present form.

In the event the amendment to which Lord Faulkner referred – that the Bill be referred to a Select Committee was lost by 151 votes to 188. However, on Thursday Lord Faulkner received a communication to the effect that, following his intervention, the Department for Transport was considering ways in which the work of the Committee could be continued.

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Bid to save Railway Heritage Committee

Sunday, November 7 2010

LMS Stanier Class 3P 2-6-2T and buffer-stops at Bradford Exchange Station in April 1961. The locomotive has been scrapped, the station was demolished in 1976, but the buffer stops have been designated by the Railway Heritage Committee. Photo Ben Brooksbank.

(Click on image to see original on Wikipedia and for details of licensing.)

The Railway Heritage Committee is a typically British creation. Its job is to designatw records and artefacts still within the ownership of the British railway industry which are historically significant and should be permanently preserved. Its origins go back to  an Advisory Panel on the Disposal of Historical Records, which  used to meet once or twice a year between 1984 and 1994 and make recommendations to the British Railways Board. Then, as arrangements were being put in place to privatise British Rail, Section 125 of the Railways Act 1993 made provision for a strengthened panel – the Railway Heritage Committee – to advise on the designation of historical records and artefacts still in publish ownership.

The original intention was that, as the former assets of the British Railways Board passed from public to private ownership, the scope of the committee would wither away to zero. In the event, a good case was made that rather than the the remit of the committee to reduce, it should be extended to cover the historic items being taken into the newly privatised railway companies and these new powers were confirmed in the Railways Act 1996. These powers were subsequently renewed and extended in the Transport Act 2000 and the Railways Act 2005. The Committee’s powers cover the following organisations:

  • The British Railways Board (‘the Board’). [Since deleted]
  • Any wholly-owned subsidiary of the Board. [Since deleted]
  • Any company which was formerly a wholly-owned subsidiary of the British Railways Board.
  • Any publicly-owned railway company.
  • Any company which was formerly a publicly-owned railway company.
  • The Secretary of State.
  • Any company which is wholly owned by the Secretary of State.
  • Any franchisee, and
  • Any franchise operator.

While the Committee can designate objects or artefacts belonging to any of the above it can also provide advice on railway heritage to other bodies. For example in November 2008, the Committee’s then chairman, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, wrote to the rail minister Lord Adonis asking him to intervene in the proposed forced closure of the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway by Finnish paper-making conglomerate, M-Real.

The Committee has 14 members, drawn from the railway industry, the record offices, the museums world, the heritage railway sector, and from railway historians. With the Committee’s members working as unpaid volunteers and the Department for Transport providing ‘reasonable administrative and secretarial support’, the RHC is probably one of the most cost-effective QANGOS in the country. Certainly in other countries railway historians look jealously at the way the preservation of railway archives and artefacts has been handled in the UK. But now the Committe has been targeted as one of the 175 ‘Non-Departmental Public Bodies’ that the government wish to axe as part of its campaign to reduce waste in the public sector. The Committee has served the rail industry for the last 14 years, providing continuity to the work of identifying railway records and artefacts for preservation, started by British Railways over 60 years ago.

On Tuesday, the Public Bodies Act – legislation which would enable Government Ministers to abolish QANGOS – comes up for a second reading in the House of Lords. The legislation will be challenged on several grounds! A number of Lords rightly feel that it is wrong to introduce legislation which would make it possible to dispose by Ministerial fiat statutory bodies bodies – those set up by Parliamet – without any scrutiny by either the Lords or The Commons. Meanwhile Heritage Railway Association President-elect, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, will be proposing his own amendment to save the work of the Committee. The continued existence of the Committee has been generally supported by the railway industry, only the new Network Rail board, anxious to demonstrate a more compliant attitude to the DfT, has – without any public notice – betrayed the cause!

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