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Armchair land referencing #13

Last time I described how the history of promoting railways through Parliament is also the history of the modern land referencing profession. This week I am going to look at as few of the peculiarities associated with railways and our work.

There are those who habitually complain about the railways and at the same time there are others who, possibly with a hint of nostalgia, regard the railways as one of Britain’s greatest engineering triumphs. What is clear is that historically the railways have wielded extraordinary power. How else would the UK’s countryside be criss-crossed with railways (5000 miles of which was unnecessary according to 1960s politicians) and massive areas of valuable urban land has been given over to them? The enormous amount of money invested in Britain’s railways in the 19th century was backed-up by political clout when the age of steam was synonymous with a brave new Victorian vision of speed and industry. Some railways even managed to penetrate right through city centres (King’s Cross-Farrington-Blackfriars) before legislation and common sense put a stop to that and required termini to be at the edges of London’s centre – but even this halt of their ambition was only agreed to because of the advent of the underground railways to connect them all (although somehow Fenchurch Street station missed out). It is no coincidence that it is to railway legislation the (Railway Clauses Consolidation Act 1845) that modern compulsory purchase may trace its origins.

Euston was the first intercity railway terminal in London, opened in 1837 and was swiftly followed by most of the other main stations, all in just 25 years. To make way for the sprawling termini many were displaced from their homes. The Euston site was chosen because it was then mainly farmland but it still involved the demolition of the area Charles Dickens grew up in and his works mention his enduring dislike of this modern intrusion. (Dickens is even thought to have died prematurely due to his distress after being involved in an early train crash in Kent.)

The new rail network placed London firmly at the heart of Britain and even of time itself.

Regional clocks previously set to local noon had to adopt new London ’railway time’ to make the timetables work properly – although some just added a second minute hand. (The image showed is the clock at Market Place, Bristol, where local noon is 11 minutes later than that in London - resolved in 1880 by an Act to standardize British time as GMT.) Having London at the centre of the network has a practical implication for land referencers: by convention whenever we describe a railway in a book of reference we should always describe the ‘up’ station (the station in the London-ward direction) first. In mainland UK all stations are either ‘up’ or ‘down’ stations, even if they aren’t on a direct line to the capital.

Railways fed expansion of the cities with new suburbs and localities now within commuting distance with some places campaigning for a station and other, more genteel localities happy to have one - but not too close. I once had lunch with the owner at Dunrobin Castle, the largest castle in Scotland, and he showed me his flag for waving down the local trains at his own private station. His forebear, the third Duke of Sutherland, persuaded the promoters that their railway could come across his land but only if he could have his own station. The Duke built Dunrobin Castle Station in 1870 and even had his own locomotive and train.

The extraordinary powers included and often still include ‘permitted development rights’ that grant perpetual rights for the maintenance and development of the railway within the original limits of deviation authorized in the relevant Railway Act, even if the line’s fenceline boundary is somewhat narrower. In their haste to expand the railway’s reach, the engineers for the Dollis Hill line in north London inadvertently built across fields entirely outside the LODs. As a result this line is unusual in that it doesn’t benefit from any permitted development (PD) rights.

All of this is immensely complicated, not least of all because the Railway Acts that authorized the entire network we know today were promoted by a multitude of individual railway companies that were brought under state control during the First World War and then rationalized in 1923 into the ‘Big Four’ railway companies until nationalization in 1947. As a result the records are scattered in local archives, The National Archives in Kew, the national record offices for Wales, Scotland and N Ireland, the Parliamentary Archives, the British Library, in Network Rail’s own archives (in a variety of locations) and elsewhere. Possibly it is the complexity of finding their details, not just their absence in Dollis Hill, that has resulted in a move away from the past reliance on historic PD rights and a desire to seek powers anew. I remember being at a meeting for the Thameslink project where it was arguing that we should not rely on historic powers for the development of the scheme. This was agreed and, by delivering the then largest land referencing exercise ever, we afforded those affected by the scheme a proper say in how the scheme should be delivered.

More history (but less reminiscing) next time.


This article is written by Ashley Parry Jones, Director – Planning, WSP. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of WSP or SoLR or its members. The information provided does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice and instead is offered for general purposes only. It does not constitute the most up to date legal information. Any links and references provided are for the readers’ convenience only and do not constitute a recommendation of those sources.

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