Apology over rail tree felling

Rail chiefs apologised yesterday after extensive tree felling was carried out in Calderdale without the relevant authorities being informed.

Earlier this year the rail infrastructure company Network Rail chopped down trees alongside the railway line between Hebden Bridge and Todmorden, triggering a public outcry about the lack of consultation.

Members of Calderdale Council's regeneration and development scrutiny panel agreed to work with neighbouring authorities along the Trans-Pennine rail link in lobbying Network Rail to suspend activities until open consultation had been carried out with the community and to ensure that tree screening was retained along the boundary of its operational land.

The council is also write to Ministers to ask that the law is changed so that the rail company is covered by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and Environmental Information Regulations.

A recent information tribunal decision found that although Network Rail was a major landowner responsible for many important environmental and historical sites, it was not covered by the legislation and was, therefore, not obliged to share its information about the environmental impact of the tree felling.

Scrutiny panel chairman Barry Collins said: "We are very keen to work with Network Rail to ensure there is more consultation and information for local communities in future.

"I was delighted that some residents from Hebden Bridge actually came along to the meeting to make representations. The committee members were all unanimous in agreeing that we should look at ways of improving the process so these problems don 't happen again."

Network Rail gave no formal notification when it began the vegetation clearance works in January.

Council officials visited the site and although planning legislation had not been breached, a letter was sent to Network Rail to express concern about the lack of notification.

Yesterday Network Rail apologised but explained that it considered the trees had to be removed for safety reasons.

A spokeswoman said: "We have held our hands up on this one, notification was not given. We should have formally notified the authorities that this work was going to happen and we apologise for that. The relevant MPs and local councils should have been contacted.

"Since these concerns arose we have had a public meeting in Hebden Bridge and a site meeting.

"All this work is done for health and safety reasons – we don't just do it because we don't like trees.

"One is for sighting reasons and secondly, leaf fall is a massive problem in that area. A lot of trees in that area were dangerous, dead, dying or diseased.

"Thirdly, we need to clear a certain length either side of the track to allow maintenance easy access and obviously why we don't replant afterwards."

The Liberal Democrat group leader on Calderdale Council, Janet Battye, who triggered the investigation, said: "We must have had 50 calls from concerned members of the public about what was happening.

"One of the hillsides which had been smothered in trees looked like it had been given a very bad haircut afterwards. I am glad Network Rail has apologised but there are still a couple of issues outstanding and we will be watching them very carefully in the future."