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TRANSPORT CHIEFS: Town centre station redevelopment

TRANSPORT CHIEFS: Town centre station redevelopment

Image: LDRS

Transport chiefs have responded to claims that a major redevelopment of Solihull Station could see sections of a previous £2.3m upgrade – completed in 2019 – ripped up.

During an online Q&A, project bosses were also grilled about the possible impact on a bank of nearby trees, whether historic features will be retained and if the station would be shut during works.

Tuesday night’s briefing was the first of three online webinars intended to shed more light on what has been billed as one of the council’s “most important projects”.

Designs made public last month offered the first real glimpse at proposals to enlarge and improve the town centre rail stop.

But while the council believes the multi-million pound scheme will play a massive part in helping Solihull recover from Covid-19, uncertainty surrounds how certain parts of the project will slot together.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) sat in on this week’s session to hear residents’ questions and what the team behind the scheme had to say in response.

Will improvements made as part of the Solihull Gateway project end up being ripped out?

When a public consultation got underway last month, one of the first questions raised was what this would mean for the upgrades made just a couple of years ago.

In 2019, the council had put the finishing touches to the Solihull Gateway scheme, which  aimed to improve connections in the Station Road/Poplar Road area.

Responding on social media, Daran Philipson said: “They’ve not long ago spent £2 million on the pavements and now they want to dig them up again. Money could be better spent elsewhere.”
On the back of these concerns, the LDRS had asked officers what the latest proposals would mean for the previous work.
Walter Bailey, the council’s transport planner, said designs were still taking shape and wouldn’t necessarily mean that previous elements would be ripped out.
But nor was this option explicitly ruled out, with the council seeing the station redevelopment as much more of a long-term project than the alterations made in the past.
“It depends on how we progress this scheme and what comes out of the consultation,” said Mr Bailey.
“So there are ways in which the scheme could be delivered so we don’t undo what was done as part of Solihull Gateway but we just want to make sure that we are responding to what’s raised.”
What are the main aims of the project?
Solihull Council has said that the works are intended to reduce congestion at peak times and ensure the site can cope with the projected increases in passenger numbers.
Outside the intention is to enhance the interchange area, install a new segregated cycle route and have a public square able to host pop-up markets and community events.
Indoors plans will include new toilets and changing facilities and more by way of retail.
An enlarged underpass, wider stairways and greater lift capacity are intended to ease the strain during the busiest periods of the day.
How will the works be funded?
When the council first approved a redesign a couple of years ago – in favour of a more expensive relocation – costs were estimated at around £20 million.
Council officer Catriona Gilbey said a number of different options were being discussed around getting the money together to take the scheme forward.
“I think there’s some security in knowing we do have different options,” she said.
Could Solihull become a four platform station?
Much will depend on the outcome of a major piece of work by Network Rail around its decarbonisation programme.
Although there is no firm timetable for when a decision will be made.
What will the opening hours be for shops and other facilities?
Solihull has made an improved retail offer one of the main planks of the redevelopment, but will it result in premises stopping open longer?
Project bosses suggested not during this week’s briefing, with indications that opening hours will very much be tied to rail users – rather than any outlets trying to compete with those in the town centre.
Although these proposals will form part of the consultation with local residents, with at least one more public engagement exercise planned after the one currently taking place.
Are trees outside the station going to be at risk?
Designers have been keen to push the station’s green credentials, with extensive use of timber and even an indoor garden area.
Ben Graham, from project architects Hawkins Brown, said the aim was to improve biodiversity, which would include bringing greenery “inside the building itself.”
But one resident, who lived nearby, said he was concerned that plans seemed to show a “swathe” of mature trees outside the station having to be uprooted.
His fear that the likes of planters in the interchange area would not make up for any loss of established trees, some of which were said to be “over 100ft tall.”
“I suppose the question really is why hasn’t there been consideration to retain those large trees, particularly if the stated aim of the scheme is one of sustainability, to create a buffer between the station and neighbours.
“If the station is to grow bigger – with more people – it would seem to be beneficial.”
But Mr Graham tried to offer reassurance, suggesting that concepts were “indicative” rather than trying to map each individual tree onto the image.
“The aim is to retain all of those trees along that northern boundary adjacent to the site … the station building itself has actually been pulled back away from that area.”
What about charging points?
Charging facilities for electric vehicles will be installed for the likes of cars and buses in the station’s vicinity.
This is part of the wider push to make sure sites are increasingly equipped for the new technology.
Designers say that there is room for flexibility, which could allow – for instance – options for e-motorbikes.
Will any of the existing station survive?
 
Mr Graham said that Solihull’s current station had quite a distinctive style, in common with other stops built along the Chiltern Main Line.
He said that their appearance – characterised by red bricks and cream-coloured stone – allowed them to “fit really well” into often residential areas.
Designers say the challenge now was to combine the need to modernise with preserving the look of the area.
At this week’s briefing, one resident had asked if much of the current building,  which was built in 1938, would be retained, arguing it would be “terrible to lose the whole thing.”
“I can understand the difficulties but it’s an attractive old building isn’t it?
“We’ve lost so much. We lived through that period in Birmingham when all those beautiful old buildings were demolished for that absolute eyesore of a new library.”
Artist’s impressions indicate much of what is standing today will disappear, although discussions are said to be taking place about retaining some of the more distinctive features.
An example given was the option to salvage the striking tiles in the existing underpass, which could be incorporated into part of the redesign.
Will Solihull Station be accessible when building work starts?
Construction work on the new station is expected to start at some point between 2024 and 2026.
But questions have inevitably been raised about whether this will mean the site being closed in order for the project to proceed.
Tim Fawcett, from civil engineering outfit Mott MacDonald, said proposals had been drawn up so that “access is maintained to the station at all times through construction.”
He said that this was a key requirement of the steering group overseeing the project and was fairly typical for rail station redevelopments.
He said that the most complex parts of the scheme, where a brief closure might be necessary, would be timed to coincide with shutdown periods such as the Easter Bank Holiday or over Christmas.
“They would be very limited in number and very limited in duration,” added Mr Fawcett.
Arrangements for neighbouring Solihull Methodist Church and The Samaritans are also being discussed.
What are the next steps?
An eight-week public consultation got underway on July 19 and will run until September 12.
Two more webinars will be taking place during the course of the process, with one next Wednesday (August 11) aimed specifically at businesses and a third and final session – open to all – on Thursday, September 9.
Find out more about the project or leave your comments by going to the official website – https://tinyurl.com/x8n26smp
Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter


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