The row over the future of Queensbury Tunnel has taken a fresh twist after flood water poured into the structure, bringing operations to a standstill.
Queensbury Tunnel, which extends for 1.4 miles between Bradford and Halifax, has been the focus of a longstanding battle over its future.
Local campaigners, supported by Bradford and Calderdale councils, believe the Victorian structure should be restored for public use as part of a greenway connecting the two districts.
Highways England, who manage the tunnel on the Department for Transport’s behalf, is seeking planning permission to abandon it due to safety concerns.
According to the Queensbury Tunnel Society, who are campaigning to have the tunnel used as a cycle path, a pumping station at the Halifax end of the tunnel was switched off last year after Highways England twice failed to pay the £50 annual rent for the land on which it is sited, resulting in around 8.2 million gallons of floodwater collecting in the tunnel between September and December 2018.
The Society say that AMCO-Giffen, the abandonment contractor, had removed about 80 per cent of it using a temporary pump before the area was hit by a prolonged period of heavy rain towards the end of last month.
The Society say that the water level in the tunnel began to rise on September 26 and that Hole Bottom Beck, the watercourse into which the floodwater is being discharged, was already running high and overtopping its banks in places.
The Society say that pumping was suspended in the early hours of September 29 and, three days later, the flooding had returned to its level in January.
Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Co-ordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “It’s an inescapable fact that if the rent had been paid on the pumping station, the tunnel would still be clear of water and the original programme of preparatory works for abandonment - costed at £550,000 - would have been completed months ago.
“Instead the taxpayer is footing the bill for an alternative pumping system and significant associated strengthening of the tunnel which look like adding £2.5 million to the bill. Then there’s the estimated £400K spent on legal action to facilitate construction of the pumping station; that’s also gone to waste.
“Responsibility for the current fiasco and huge escalation in costs lies solely with Highways England. However, over the past few months, they’ve made a number of unfounded allegations against third parties in an attempt to deflect attention from the serious consequences of their own failings. This suggests deep cultural problems within the organisation.”
Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “After forfeiting the lease by failing to pay the rent, the only sensible course of action was for Highways England to admit their mistake, sit down with the landowner and negotiate a new deal to get the pumping station working again.
“Their unwillingness to do so has resulted in a year-long farce which, in terms of the flooding, has got them absolutely nowhere. Almost 60 silt pollution incidents have been recorded in Hole Bottom Beck, 20 of them being sufficiently serious to warrant investigation by the Environment Agency.
“We hope that, after this latest turn of events, they will choose the only outcome that makes any sense. The landowner has recently proposed a solution which meets the needs of all those with a vested interest in Queensbury Tunnel, including the taxpayer, the Department for Transport, Highways England and future generations. It’s about time they engaged in meaningful dialogue in an effort to stabilise a situation that’s clearly out of effective control.”
In a statement, Highways England said: “Contractors have scaled down activity in the tunnel because the southern section flooded in late September due to water that was deliberately diverted - not by us.
“Up until 27 September our contractors had cleared water in the tunnel up to an area where partial strengthening work was due to begin but this area is now wholly unsafe and work can’t progress.
“This deliberate diversion of water into the tunnel will take an estimated further five weeks to clear the tunnel back to the position it was in on 27 September.
“Highways England doesn’t own the tunnel and doesn’t have the authority to open it. Any negotiations and agreements with adjoining landowners are a matter for the Department for Transport as the owner of the tunnel.”