Inquiry into Leeds trolleybus rumbles on

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The public inquiry into the controversial £250m trolleybus scheme has been extended due to the resolve of those opposing it. Paul Robinson reports.

Head down Wellington Street from Leeds city centre and take a left just before the Crowne Plaza hotel.

Follow the road round and when you reach the office building at 2 Wellington Place, it’s up 10 steps and into its smartly-furnished foyer.

Make for the lift and hit the button for the fifth floor. Then left out of the lift, through the double doors - push, not pull - and on your right you’ll find a room.

The room isn’t much to shout about. Bigger than your average classroom but far from cavernous, it’s the kind of unassuming meeting space familiar to office workers across Leeds.

But it is here, on the fifth floor of 2 Wellington Place, in a room without windows, where the future course of transport in the city is quietly being charted.

The room is the venue for the public inquiry that will decide the fate of the hugely-controversial Leeds trolleybus scheme.

On one side are the £250m New Generation Transport (NGT) project’s co-promoters, Leeds City Council and the recently-formed West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA), which includes what was Metro, the county’s passenger transport authority.

Lining up against them is a wide range of objectors, from transport giant and local bus operator First to community groups such as the Friends of Woodhouse Moor.

Government-appointed inspector Martin Whitehead has been hearing from supporters and opponents alike since the inquiry started on April 29.

And, the Yorkshire Evening Post can reveal today, the end isn’t in sight any time soon.

The inquiry was originally scheduled to run, on and off, over the course of 30 days until the end of June.

Now, however, it is not due to end until the third week or so of October.

By that time, the inquiry will have clocked up around 65 ‘sitting’ days across six months.

One reason why the process is lasting longer than expected is the sheer number of people who have wanted to cross-examine the various experts appearing as witnesses.

The list of witnesses who have found themselves in the hot-seat includes council director of city development Martin Farrington, NGT project director Dave Haskins and Jason Smith, an associate with engineering consultants Mott MacDonald.

Bill McKinnon, chairman of the Friends of Woodhouse Moor, is among those who have taken on what some might regard as the ‘David and Goliath’ task of questioning the experts.

He believes the green light for trolleybus would wreck any chance of Leeds ever getting what he describes as a “modern and effective” transport system such as an underground.

And he is relishing the opportunity offered by the public inquiry to fight his corner.

On Thursday morning last week Mr McKinnon went up against Jeremy Purseglove, a senior environmentalist with Mott MacDonald.

The inquiry room was far from packed, with the handful of interested observers including 63-year-old Belle Isle resident Martin Fitzsimons.

He has concerns over the suitability of land at Stourton that will be used as a park-and-ride site if NGT gets the thumbs-up.

Mr Fitzsimons, who has missed just four inquiry sessions since April, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “I’m convinced it won’t go ahead but I want to be here to keep track of it.”

Thursday’s session was one of the last before the inquiry started a two-week break, partly for logistical reasons connected to Leeds’s hosting this weekend of the opening stage of the Tour de France cycle race.

Talking to the YEP after the hearing, Mr McKinnon said: “A lot of preparation is necessary before you can cross-examine someone, and it can be quite daunting at times.

“Then when the cross-examination is over you get an enormous sense of relief. You’ve done what you felt you had to do. You’ve said what you felt you had to say. This is often mixed, though, with the sense that you could have done better.

“The process of the inquiry is important because at the end of it the reasons why the trolleybus scheme is a bad idea should be set out in detail.”

For their part, the council and the WYCA said they were unable to comment on events at the inquiry while it was ongoing. But, speaking before the process got under way, WYCA transport committee chair Coun James Lewis told the YEP that it was an opportunity to highlight the “significant” benefits that would result from NGT.

NGT’s supporters say trolleybuses powered by overhead wires and running between Holt Park in the north of the city and Stourton in the south would present a real alternative to car travel in traffic-choked Leeds but First claims a fleet of state-of-the-art double deckers would deliver the same improvements as trolleybus at a fraction of the cost. Other opponents say NGT would damage the environment while Leeds East MP George Mudie has branded it “unglamorous”.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument, it will be some time before its winner is known - even after the public inquiry is done and dusted, it could take the Government a whole year to make a decision that will be based on its findings.

If the scheme is approved, construction won’t begin until at least 2017.