Friday, 27 June 2014

Tweedbank and trains... the prequel

A few minutes after posting my last epistle on the subject of hubs and powerhouses I experienced an unexpected bout of deja vu: a strong feeling that the words I'd penned about railways and Tweedbank may well have appeared in print in the dim and distant past.

The uncertainty this planted in my mind kept niggling away. Should I remove my offering from cyberspace via the delete button? Had I just plagiarised another writer's work and claimed it as my own? I wrestled with my conscience, hoping against hope that I had not committed such a heinous "crime".

Then, suddenly, in a flash, everything became crystal clear as my often faulty memory took me back 44 years to a time when Tweedbank and trains were the main topics for a House of Commons adjournment debate soon after Dr. Beeching's cruel axe fell on the Waverley line, and the Tweedbank scheme was beset by legal wrangling, Court of Session actions and public inquiries.

In those days Tweedbank was described as a trigger rather than a hub or a powerhouse. The numbers living in the Borders had been decreasing for decades so the experts came up with a plan to bring 25,000 extra souls into the counties of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles to redress the population imbalance.

A Government White Paper published in 1966 contained proposals for a thousand houses and associated factories in the centre of David Steel's sprawling rural constituency. But the trigger to Central Borders prosperity could not be activated until the developers grabbed a large parcel of farmland near Melrose belonging to Ian and Constance Hamilton.

The Hamiltons were very unwilling sellers, and put up a strong and costly fight to hang on to their farm. Hence the aforementioned lawsuits and public inquiries which dragged on for years.

Tweedbank was afforded top priority status by local councillors and their officials, all of them keen to pull that trigger. But the issue appears to have been a mere sideshow for Westminster's politicians. Mr Steel and his fellow Borders MP John Mackintosh had to wait until fifteen minutes to midnight on 20 July 1970 to have their say. I'm willing to bet there were few honourable members in the chamber to hear our region's cry for help.

The young Mr Steel had been re-elected to Parliament a few weeks earlier after surviving numerous re-counts at a nail-biting counting of the votes in Jedburgh town hall. And Edward Heath, an advocate of development hubs in Central Scotland and on Tyneside rather than investment for rural areas, was the new Prime Minister.

"I wanted to know whether the Government regarded themselves as still committed to the Tweedbank Scheme", said Mr Steel. "No-one with any sense of public responsibility or social conscience could fail to recognise the need to get ahead with the development and to allow no further obstruction."

Mr Steel had played a major part in the unsuccessful campaign to prevent the closure of the Waverley rail line in 1969. He warned that if the railway formation land was sold off piecemeal, there would never again be any possible future use for this through route in the Borders region.

Now the northern section of the railway is about to be reinstated after costly compulsory purchase, and there's even talk of extending the line as far as Hawick, then on to Carlisle.

At midnight in the Commons, all those years ago, we almost had the first reference to Tweedbank as a hub or a powerhouse, but not quite.

George Younger, newly appointed Under Secretary of State for Scotland, declared: "The concept of a growth point in the central Borders is very much in our mind, and I can say without equivocation that we accept Tweedbank as the place most likely to succeed in this respect. Indeed, we want to see Tweedbank come about, and that as quickly as possible".

But the Minister went on to caution that Tweedbank should not be seen as the panacea to cure all of the Borders economic ills.

Mr Younger said: "It is essential that provision for the future should not stop short with Tweedbank and nothing else. It is perhaps not surprising that one tends to be mesmerised into thinking that Tweedbank is the beginning and end of Border development.Of course, it is nothing of the kind."

I thought those words sounded familiar, hence that recent uncomfortable feeling of deja vu. Will today's Tweedbank hub makers pay heed to a warning delivered 44 years ago or are they already mesmerised?

Tweedbank and trains: with us in 1970 and still hogging the headlines in 2014.

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