Inquiry beckons as Watson and power giant object to rail land acquisition bid

A PIECE of farmland considered essential to the agreed route of the Borders railway in the north of the region has yet to be acquired, TheSouthern can reveal.

This week it emerged there have been two objections to a bid by Scottish Borders Council to slap a compulsory purchase order (CPO) on the land, owned by the Kibble family, at Falahill Farm near Heriot.

This is likely to mean a public inquiry .

Without that acquisition, controversial plans to realign the A7 – involving the construction of two illuminated roundabouts linked by a bridge over the old trackbed – could be scuppered on cost grounds.

Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government agency underwriting the £295million construction of the 35-mile railway and attendant roadworks, confirmed this week that international electricity and gas company National Grid had lodged a formal objection to the CPO bid from the council’s land acquisition team.

The other objector is Councillor Nicholas Watson, leader of the Borders Party, who claims the new road lay-out will pose a safety risk to motorists, increase journey times between the region and the capital and “introduce a suburban feel to an unspoilt tourist route”.

National Grid owns the high speed gas link which runs past Falahill on its route south from Grangemouth.

In February this year Transport Scotland, despite 37 objections, was granted consent by SBC’s planning committee to realign the A7 because it had been discovered the rail route explicit in the Waverley Railway (Scotland) Act, which received royal assent in 2006, would require the gas link to be re-routed at an estimated extra cost of £4million. Consent was granted on a 4-3 vote

Notwithstanding that fundamental oversight, Transport Scotland claimed the realignment would also bypass the cottages at Falahill and would thus be a better option for residents there.

On Monday, Councillor Watson received confirmation from the policy unit at Transport Scotland that Scottish ministers considered his objection to the CPO “valid” and that, in the first instance, his comments would be forwarded to Brodies, the legal firm acting on behalf of the council, which would be given 14 days to respond.

“Where an objection to an order is lodged with Scottish ministers and not withdrawn [and Mr Watson has no intention of withdrawing it], ministers will instruct the Scottish Government’s Directorate of Planning and Environmental Appeals to undertake an inquiry,” stated the letter. “The purpose of the inquiry is to consider the order in light of comments made by objectors and any other relevant matters.”

On the face of it, the objection from the National Grid will carry even more weight and is somewhat suprising given that the proposed realigment is predicated on the non-disturbance of the company’s gas line.

TheSouthern was unable to ascertain at the time of going to press the details of the National Grid’s grouse with the CPO, although Steven Renwick, who is heading SBC’s acquisition team, believes it is a “holding objection”, seeking assurances from Scottish ministers that the realignment work will cause neither disruption nor expense to the company.

Mr Renwick said the CPO, covering land just beyond the cottages between the A7 and the old trackbed, was being sought by the council as a “safeguard”, adding: “We are still in negotiations with the owners and are hopeful of a resolution without recourse to the CPO.”

The Kibble family declined to comment on these negotiations.

Councillor Watson told us yesterday: “I am heartened that ministers believe my objection is valid. At the end of the day, the important thing is that we do not end up making a journey on the A7 worse than it already is.”

In his submission, he claims that, based on an extrapolation of data collected on a single day in August, when 5,590 vehicles passed Falahill in both directions, increased journey times would cost motorists £3.5m in potential lost wages over the 60-year period on which the business case for the railway is based.

“The introduction of two roundabouts would unquestionably increase risk to users of the A7. While I understand that for a small number of users [residents of Falahill Cottages] safety would be improved, this is minimal compared to the overall increase in risks to others...and all at considerable cost to the public purse.

“Although the CPO will allow the financial saving of not having to move a gas pipe, this saving is far outweighed by the environmental, safety and economic costs.

“It is against the public interest, or at the very least premature, to confirm the CPO.”