Posted on April 5, 2012 by admin
In 1987 British Rail proposed an upgrading of the Thameslink railway line running south-north through London. This involved the construction of a new concrete and steel viaduct through the historic Borough High Street Conservation Area, described by English Heritage as “unique”, and the demolition of at least 20 Grade II listed and numerous unlisted buildings including 16-26 Borough High Street (the terrace designed by Sir Robert Smirke, the architect of the British Museum), Green Dragon Court, the Wheatsheaf pub, the rears of the Park Street terrace and part of the Borough Market roof. Far and away the greatest destructive impact of the whole scheme fell on this area of Southwark.
A campaign was started by residents to raise awareness of the plans. In 1992 BR put a Bill into Parliament for the scheme but the Government failed to find time for it. After rail privatisation, in 1997 Railtrack used the new Transport and Works Act to promote the scheme, now known as “Thameslink 2000”, through the planning system and eventually a Public Inquiry opened in 2000. Both Southwark Council and English Heritage objected to the scheme but Southwark’s opposition was pathetic and English Heritage was compromised by having advised Railtrack on the viaduct’s design. The Borough Market Trustees (custodians of the Market) and Southwark Cathedral were nominal objectors but they withdrew their objections at the Inquiry. Hence it fell to the two residents’ organisations in the Borough Market and Bankside district, the Cathedral Area Residents’ Association and the Bankside Residents’ Forum, to provide the real opposition to the scheme at the Inquiry even though they had few resources and no funding.
Assisted by a lawyer and barrister who gave their time for no payment the residents’ groups were able to present evidence and call expert witnesses who also generously gave their time. A transport expert put forward the community’s case for expanding the Thameslink line through Elephant & Castle and historians detailed the rich and diverse nature of the buildings within the fabric of the conservation area. Residents argued that the area was too valuable a part of our heritage and that building the new viaduct would destroy the integrity and character of the neighbourhood. A petition signed by over 10,000 people was also presented to the Inquiry by Mark Rylance of Shakespeare’s Globe.
The community struggled to present its case against Railtrack’s massively funded legal team of seven including three barristers and thirteen specialist witnesses including transport consultants, noise engineers and hundreds of supporting documents, reports and statistics. No transcripts were prepared, on the directions of the Inspector conducting the Inquiry – this meant that volunteers had to be present to take notes for much of the year-long Inquiry.
The 2000-2001 Inquiry generally approved the scheme but identified defects and a second Inquiry took place between September and November 2005. Again the local community presented the only opposition to the scheme now promoted by Network Rail. Whilst welcoming improvements to south-north rail links they urged the Government to tunnel the inner London section of the line (analogous to the proposed Crossrail east-west line) which would not only save our irreplaceable heritage but would facilitate further upgrading in the future. The Inquiry endorsed the scheme and on 18 October 2006 the Departments for Transport and Communities and Local Government announced agreement on planning permission and legal powers for Network Rail to proceed at a cost presently estimated at £3.5 billion.