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Order for Second Reading read.
Discussion on the rapid transit system to serve the city of Bristol in the county of Avon in order to overcome the inexorably increasing problems of traffic congestion has been continuing since at least 1980. In that year, a metropolitan railway system, similar to that established in Newcastle, was proposed for Bristol and its hinterland by a number of those who are now in turn associated with the Avon Light Rail Transit Bill No. 1.
The original concept foresaw the linkage of much of the present railway network in Avon, with an underground section that would serve the expanding business and commercial area in the centre of Bristol. Although widely admired, the concept made little progress, since it relied entirely on the public purse for the subscription of capital through the taxpayer and local authority ratepayers, both for construction and for subsequent operation. An important statement had nevertheless been made--that a major contribution to improving public transport in Avon could be achieved only by a radical transformation of the railway network which no longer addressed itself to the necessity of serving the rapidly expanding commuter traffic to and from the city of Bristol.
Bristol has one of the highest levels of car ownership of any urban area of the United Kingdom, but equally, it suffers from the inadequacy of the road infrastructure and the inability to increase it without indulging in major central area road construction, which would be prohibitive on both cost and environmental grounds. It is also a fact that the majority of those living in the Avon travel-to-work area also work within the boundaries of that area. That makes the county of Avon an unusually self-contained economic unit. However, it also imposes enormous additional pressures on the transport infrastructure which the local bus operators, despite imaginative developments of their system, are unable wholly to satisfy in competing for road space, they are also the victims of increasing congestion.
Since 1980, the economic progress of Bristol and Avon has not only reflected the increasing prosperity of the nation as a whole, but in many respects has outstripped it. That is due to the excellence of the mainline railway and motorway connections with the captial and with other parts of the United Kingdom, the development of Bristol as a centre for the financial services industry and the increasing concentration on high- technology industries, clustering around long-established and prospering companies such as British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce, which continue to form a major manufacturing base in the region. As a result, the outlying districts of Woodspring, Wansdyke, and Northavon have shown substantial population increases, one feature of which is the establishment of virtually a complete new town, Bradley Stoke, on the northern outskirts of the city of Bristol.
It may confidently be expected that the economic development of Bristol and Avon will continue, given those many favourable circumstances that naturally benefit the area. However, the problems of that success, notably that of traffic congestion, also continue to grow apace. Unless confidently and effectively addressed, they
Column 948will not only threaten to break that expansion, but impose ever increasing penalties of pollution and environmental decay. As a major regional capital, Bristol ought not to face such problems without a solution and that, in essence, is the concept behind the rapid transit system now proposed. The network proposed is similar to that first considered in the Avon metro proposal, but the technology of achievement has altered radically, due entirely to state-of- the-art development of modern, street-running light rail systems. The House will be aware that it has already approved such systems for Manchester and Sheffield, a Bill to establish a new network in the west midlands has now been deposited and there is active discussion of light rail networks for Edinburgh, Cardiff, Plymouth, Leeds, south Hampshire, Nottingham and a number of other important locations in the United Kingdom.
All those systems, including of course that in Bristol, will be similar to modern urban light rail systems which are a significant and important element of public transport on the continent, most notably in West Germany, France, Holland and Belgium. Even in the United States, the bastion of the motor car, light rail networks are undergoing a dramatic and highly successful revival ; throughout the year, some 20 such systems are proposed or inaugurated. It is a major growth industry which offers considerable attractions for the British railway equipment manufacturing industry, once it has achieved expertise through shop window developments here at home. The opportunity so to create new job opportunities in the manufacturing industry must not be under-estimated. Equally, there is a warning that, unless British companies enter that expanding market, it will be lost entirely to overseas competitors.
Nor should the environmental aspect be overlooked. The demand that the anticipated 5 per cent. per annum increase in road traffic will create cannot be accommodated without a considerable impact on the environment in its broadest sense. The accommodation of necessary roadworks would have a devastating effect, and the related required parking provisions would be unacceptable both in land take and in its visual and economic impact. Additional roads create additional traffic. Development would be forced outwards and the attack on the green belt intensified. The so-called freedom of the private motorist cannot be satisfied without enormous cost, a cost which is too great. The pollution factor, despite an increased consumption of unleaded petrol, will also have an impact. Currently, the level of nitrogen dioxide emission from car exhausts in Bristol city centre is more than twice the recommended EEC limit.
The promoters of the Avon Light Rail Transit Bill No. 1 seek to establish, over a number of years and with a series of Bills, a complete network serving much of the populated area of the county of Avon, the essential feature of which is the intention to supply direct and rapid access to the centre of Bristol. That is something that the existing rail network, frozen in its final development at the end of the last century, cannot achieve, but which a modern light rail network can accomplish swiftly, effectively and economically. The Bill seeks to reopen and convert a length of railway first opened in stages between 1867 and 1906, which has carried no traffic, apart from occasional steam specials, since 1981. The route parallels a wholly inadequate road,
Column 949the A369 from Portishead to Bristol, whose entire length can be consumed by a traffic jam at peak hours and which, even at off-peak times, constitutes ineffective access to the centre of Bristol. Protests at traffic delays encountered by the people of Bristol are now a major feature of local authority meetings. The situation is worsened by the existence of a major traffic interchange on the M5 Exeter- to-Birmingham motorway, which Avon county council and the Department of Transport now consider to be greatly overloaded. The reopening of this single route to a temporary terminus at Wapping wharf in the centre of Bristol therefore constitutes in itself a major contribution to solving the serious problem of traffic congestion. That view has not been contested. The House will agree that it makes no sense whatsoever for such problems to continue and to increase while a perfectly usable railway line lies moribund and there are those willing and able to return it to use.
In essence, this is a Bill not for a new railway, but for the re- establishment of an existing one. Further Bills, to be laid before Parliament, at the foreseen annual intervals as currently provided for, will seek to extend this Bill by means of a street-running section crossing the centre of Bristol to link Wapping wharf and Temple Meads. Redundant railway infrastructure will be incorporated to strike north through Horfield to Filton and the new town of Bradley Stoke, while, to the east, another former railway route will be re-established to bring access to parts of Kingswood and then to Yate, where there will also be a street- running section to serve the centre of the new town area.
Further routes will aim to serve south Bristol and the area which have recently been incorporated, with parliamentary approval, in the new urban development corporation for Bristol. Advanced Transport for Avon, promoter of this and subsequent Bills, has also expressed its desire to serve the Avonmouth area and the city of Bath, whose particular traffic problems have now exceeded manageable levels. Financing is crucial. The Bill--the first of its kind to come before the House for many years--seeks to establish a public transport system within the private sector. Projections obtained from expert consultants show that the proposed system, including, in isolation, the route for which powers are sought in this Bill, can be operated profitably without recourse to public subsidy of running costs, and undertakings that no such subsidy will be sought have been offered to Bristol city council and Avon county council which, quite properly, sought such undertakings. Such an undertaking was indeed given under the company's common seal to the county council last February. The finance for construction will also lie heavily--indeed, predominantly--with the private sector. Advanced Transport for Avon proposes to demonstrate the long-known linkage between enhanced property values and the development of modern transport systems. This phenomenon of uprating in land and property values as a result of transport development was used to supply substantial capital to the British-constructed metro system in Hong Kong. It is being employed, in variant, in the Beckton and City extensions to the docklands light railway and will inevitably form a vital ingredient of future light rail developments in the United Kingdom, quite apart from Bristol. To establish access to these land values,
Column 950Advanced Transport of Avon will form a joint development company with appropriate development companies. The first of those agreements is now taking place, supplying not only opportunity, but also working capital for the development cost of the system.
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : In arguing the case for the Bill, the hon. Gentleman said that this is a first stage and a precursor to a number of developing stages, and that further Bills will be brought forward to give authority for, for example, street works. However, the financial memorandum to the Bill states :
"Expenditure which may be incurred in the future development of the light rail transit sytem cannot now be quantified."
If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that the system can be developed, how can he do so without explaining where the money comes from to develop the system?
Mr. Wiggin : The hon. Gentleman, who is knowledgeable about the Bill for a Sheffield light transit system, will recall that in both that case and this, there is a progression. The promoters of these schemes, whether public authorities as in the case of Sheffield, or private company, as in this case, seek to bite off each little piece rather than seeing the scheme as one vast project, the cost of which would be huge.
This relatively modest proposal as a precursor of another Bill is a sensible way of progressing. I hope that, by the time we reach the later Bills, the first stages will be running and showing that the figures and estimates are truthful. I do not think that doing this piece by piece is a bad method ; I hope that, once we have convinced the House that the Bill should be given a Second Reading, further Bills will progress with greater ease.
Through its expert advisers, Advanced Transport for Avon has established a series of sites which are available for development through the usual planning consent procedure--sites on which development would occur in any case. Instead of being exported elsewhere, the additional profits that will accrue from supplying modern transport potential to those sites will be put to work creating employment and prosperity for the communities of Avon and Bristol.
The basis for that is that the people who benefit directly from the system- -the house owner, the shopkeeper and the property owner--will pay, through the development that they occupy, a large part of the capital cost. I hope that the House will pay particular attention to the phrases "the normal planning consent procedure" and "on which development would occur in any case". I would not be party to a Bill that sought to delve even further into the green belt. The House knows my views about development beyond it. The idea is to provide a railway line to a development ; that development will then have an enhanced value ; it is therefore possible to share some of that value with the railway system.
The employment potential involved in construction, operation and maintenance of the system must not be under-estimated as a vital economic factor for the future. A large amount of job creation, estimated at about 2,000 permanent situations--including direct and indirect jobs but excluding construction personnel--will take place when the whole system is completed.
The company will grant a licence for construction to companies with enough expertise and experience to undertake the work. I can inform the House that a
Column 951substantial agreement with a prime contractor is now in place with a British company of international excellence. In turn, that company will supply £3.5 million in development capital to Advanced Transport for Avon. The company will also license an operator, and has entered into an agreement with Bristol city council and Avon county council in respect of their considerations in the matter.
Advanced Transport for Avon has worked closely with the Department of Transport in formulating its plans, and with the help of our merchant bank advisers is now considering a preliminary application for access to section 56 grants which can be available for projects of this sort. Section 56 grants will, it is understood, be available to the light rail systems now approved or seeking approval in Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. These discussions will continue, but the House will understand that nothing of substance can be said about the matter until the negotiations between the company and the Department of Transport are concluded.
It is, however, a well-established principle that section 56 grants are made available only when there is a demonstrable benefit to the community in general in terms of easement of traffic, reduction of congestion and pollution and a saving to the public purse in other direct respects, such as a saving of expenditure on infrastructure. In Avon alone, serious traffic accidents cost about £47 million a year, so even a modest reduction brought about by travellers switching from the roads to the Avon light rail transit will recompense the company's modest access to Government funds. Even in respect of this single Bill for a limited route, it is clear that a major reduction in traffic congestion and in the almost legendary delays for travellers between Portishead and Bristol will produce major benefits for the public as well as the private purse. I mentioned earlier undertakings proposed or made between the company and Bristol city council and Avon county council. They cover a number of important aspects, among them the contributions that the company will make to the public infrastructure by the provision of funds for works associated with the light railway in connection with highways and footways. The sums involved are considerable, and the company has also offered to make a direct financial contribution to the county council to assist it with adjustments to its work load in progressing the light railway.
Throughout the prolonged negotiations over these matters, it can be shown that the company has responded generously and positively to the requests made by these two local authorities for a direct contribution to infrastructure costs.
Consultation is central to the success of a project of this kind. Unusually, and, in contemporary terms, uniquely, this public transport project is propelled by the private sector rather than by a consortium of local authorities as is the case elsewhere. Throughout the past three years, Advanced Transport for Avon has conducted detailed negotiations with the principal local authorities at officer and political level and through the respective parliamentary agents for the parties. About 76 other bodies have been consulted. Almost certainly uniquely, some of these negotiations have been conducted in public through the medium of television. There have been many public
Column 952meetings and addresses by the promoters to public and private bodies. No one could say that absolutely everyone has been wholly satisfied by what they have heard from Advanced Transport for Avon. Such a state of perfection, although desirable, is, in practical terms, impossible to achieve. Obviously, the time demanded by such meetings dictates that individuals and bodies who are directly influenced are the subject of detailed discussion, so discussions to date have mainly taken place with those involved in the first route and Bristol city centre.
As the project expands, the consultation process will widen correspondingly. As a private company, Advanced Transport for Avon possesses certain commercial confidences which it must retain to itself. That essential element of commercial and business life is capable of being misrepresented. In future Bills, the establishment of a street-running section across Bristol city centre will require the approval of two principal local authorities under the Tramways Acts. The company has energetically endeavoured to establish a route acceptable to all parties and to give greater time for that to be achieved. It was agreed with the county council last year to delay the deposit of the Bill to do with that section. That causes a certain delay to the project, with commensurate additional costs, but it can be cited as a clear example of the company's willingness to undertake and seek accommodation with the parties with which it negotiates.
As a further pertinent example, I cite the negotiations between the company and the Bristol port authority, which is anxious to safeguard the opportunity at some time in the future, to operate freight trains to and from its dock at Royal Portbury. That relatively new facility has no present rail link, but in the light of future traffic developments it may be necessary to establish one. The promoters have shown their willingness to accommodate such traffic within the standards and limits imposed by the railways inspectorate and have further offered at their own expense to lay the track between Bower Ashton junction and the projected junction near the Royal Portbury dock to a standard sufficient to bear the weight of modern freight trains, rather than the much lighter light railway vehicles. That is a further and important example of the promoters supporting the public infrastructure from their own purse, as the Royal Portbury dock is owned and administered by Bristol city council. No doubt an increase in the traffic to and from that dock would benefit the people of Bristol, who continue to support that facility through their rates.
Public opinion has consistently demonstrated its support for the LRT project. That was confirmed in a MORI opinion poll, which demonstrated through the approved sampling system that 85 per cent. of the people of Avon want the light rail system introduced. That extraordinarily high figure confirms the desire of the local population to see effective action to reduce the increasing traffic congestion which afflicts the city and county.
There have, of course, been critics, and the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) has been one of them. However, she will be the first to confirm that she has had a number of meetings with the promoters and, on the most recent occasion, she was accompanied by representatives of the Labour party who sit on Bristol city council and Avon county council.
At different times, the hon. Member for Bristol, South has expressed concern on a wide range of points, which
Column 953include safety in operation of the system, the method of financing, consultation, whether the system will reduce congestion and whether the company intends to complete the network throughout. She has stated that the promoters were unwilling or unable to supply her with information on all or any of those points. An undertaking, however, on those matters has been given by the company to the county council during the proceedings in another place and before the commencement of proceedings in this House. Further undertakings now being negotiated with the two authorities, are confidently expected to lead to the withdrawal of holding petitions lodged by Bristol city council and Avon county council. The negotiations were detailed, complex and lengthy. As I have already stated, they are the subject of undertakings to be given under the company's common seal. Given that those authorities bear weighty responsibilities in permitting the implementation of the light rail network, it is strange that they are satisfied, while the hon. Member for Bristol, South--who bears no such burdens--states frequently that she is not. If the hon. Lady is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, I hope that we shall have the opportunity of hearing her detailed reasonings.
The costs of promoting the light rail scheme in Bristol have to date been entirely supported by private capital, from the promoters directly, and from those who have subscribed or contributed to the scheme in other ways. That again makes the project a unique venture, as an urban transport scheme of this kind has not been promoted by the private sector since well before the last war. In other words, those who have put up the money to promote the scheme have taken a considerable venture risk. Notwithstanding the many difficulties and problems encountered--not least the persistent objections of the hon. Member for Bristol, South--the promoters have continued to recruit both further support and capital and to reach important agreements for the financing and construction of the system. That demonstrates the faith of the railway industry, of individuals and providers of capital, that the project is sound and well-founded and capable of execution within the terms described by the promoters.
In the eight years since the original Avon metro scheme was unveiled, this is the only practical initiative which has emerged to overcome costly and increasing traffic congestion in the county of Avon. Critics who have condemned the scheme have yet to suggest any viable alternatives, or say how it is that they would develop a light rail system in Avon without a major contribution of private investment.
As the light rail industry gathers pace--first in docklands, and now in Sheffield, Manchester and Birmingham--it is abundantly clear to all open- minded people that it would be absurd for a major city such as Bristol to suffer complete traffic coagulation, with all the economic disturbance that that will incur, on the basis that public transport schemes promoted from the private sector should not be allowed to succeed for ideological or other reasons.
Of course a project of this kind involves risk--nothing in this world is absolutely certain--but the light rail project for Bristol and Avon is a brave, imaginative and courageous one, which has been set before the House by
Column 954public-spirited promoters, who are determined to show that there is a sensible and viable alternative to congestion upon the roads, which ultimately benefits no one.
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : I should like first to deal with a few points made by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). I must say that I learned no more from listening to his speech than I have learnt in Bristol in the past 18 months when negotiating with the company. Unfortunately, his speech was full of generalities about which most of us would find it extremely difficult to disagree--indeed, about which it would be foolhardy to disagree. In summary, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare told us that there is a traffic problem in Bristol, which is indisputable ; that something needs to be done about it--quite right ; and that light rapid transit may be part of that solution. I have no problems with that ; I completely accept it. He then told us that it will be paid for from private property speculation through the mechanism of land enhancement values, to which I shall return.
Much of what the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare told the House has not been discussed in Bristol. His claim that the light rapid transit system can be effectively, swiftly and economically built is not borne out by international and national research.
There is a crucial difference between the scheme proposed in the Bill and other schemes proposed for Manchester, the west midlands and Yorkshire. I have a copy of the Chartered Surveyor Weekly of 24 November, which lists all the schemes in the pipeline. All the schemes that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned or cares to compare with that proposed in the Bill are being put forward by public transport executives, which incorporate public and private funding, and not by private companies. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken and is attempting to mislead the House if he says that the scheme proposed in the Bill is exactly the same as the other schemes. I do not accept that.
I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about financing, but before I deal with that I want to correct, in case there is any
misunderstanding, what he said about the negotiations with the local authorities. Negotiations are taking place between the company and Avon county council and Bristol city council. The company has offered to give undertakings regarding the development of the project, which are being considered. I do not question that. I got the impression from the hon. Gentleman, however, that he was seeking to suggest that agreement had already been reached on those undertakings and that they were under company seal. At present, those undertakings are still in draft. They have not been formally exchanged and negotiations are still proceeding.
Mr. Cryer : I am following the debate with great interest and I want to make sure that I have got it right. Is my hon. Friend saying that the local authorities have not expressed support for the project, although they are negotiating with the company? Will my hon. Friend tell me the political character of the two authorities, as that would help the House? My understanding of the speech of the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin) is that somehow opposition to the project is based on political ideology and dogma.
Ms. Primarolo : I must make it clear to the House that the two local authorities have no problem in accepting the principle of the light rapid transit system. I share their support for that system. One cannot be against it, as it offers many opportunities. The city council is Labour- controlled and the county council, a hung council, is in the hands of the Tories and the Liberals. Those authorities have raised a number of queries with the company and have sought undertakings from it. I understand that agreement is near, but negotiations have not yet been concluded and it is misleading to imply anything else.
The way in which the company and its associates have sought to promote the Bill has, at times, been less than honourable and sometimes sordid. Local publicity undertaken by the company has played on people's worries about the problems of Bristol's traffic congestion. Anyone who lives in Bristol, as I do, knows that it has great traffic problems. The lead levels are extremely high and sometimes it can take two hours in the morning to get from the villages around the outskirts of Bristol into the city centre. Clearly that is intolerable.
The company has told us that it will solve all the traffic difficulties by developing the light rapid transit system. That claim needs closer examination. The company has never made it clear to the people of Bristol that little substantive detail currently exists about the scheme. That lack of detail has been constantly highlighted by my detailed questions and the fact that the company has constantly hidden behind the principle of commercial confidentiality and the like. That is inappropriate.
Returning to the ideological point, I should like to read out a letter that was circulated by four hon. Members, including the sponsor of the Bill, to every Conservative Member. The letter is dishonest, untrue and designed to mislead. Some of the points it raises were dealt with in the speech by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare. The letter is dated 24 January.
Ms. Primarolo : You, Mr. Speaker, will recall that I raised a point of order earlier today and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said that he thought it had been put in his pigeonhole inadvertently. He did not know why it had been sent to him as he is a Labour Member.
Mr. Wiggin : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. When a private communication inadvertently goes to another hon. Member, is it right and proper that it should then be put into the public domain? I understood that there was a certain code of conduct about these matters, and I hope that you might give a ruling.
Mr. Cryer : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You may recall that when the matter was raised earlier today you took the view, which I share, that it was not really a point of order. As I recall, your rejoinder was to the effect that if letters are put around which misrepresent a position, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) claims, she should have the opportunity to attack them tonight. That is precisely what she is doing.
Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley) : Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for any hon. Member to seek to raise points of order because he is ashamed of a letter that has been circulated?
"Avon Light Rail Transit Bill"
It says :
"This Bill is the first of a series that will enable Bristol to have a Light Rail System serving the City and its environs. Much of the track which will be used is existing line. A number of the far left on Bristol City Council are opposed to private enterprise providing transport services and for this and other reasons Dawn Primarolo is proposing to divide the House".
I shall pause to comment on that paragraph. It is wholly mischievious and without substance and I challenge the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare to prove it if he can. It is accepted and well known throughout public transport executives that in the present climate private finance is part of the arrangement in public transport. That is a fact of life.
The letter continues :
"Besides this political point"--
The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare was trying to make the ideological point that we are opposed to the Bill simply because it involves private enterprise. That allegation is a disgrace and I hope that he will withdraw it. I fail to see how that was a political point ; it was just a straight smear. The letter continues : "similar proposals for other cities could be damaged if she is able to defeat us."
I relish the though that I might defeat them, but they have more votes than we have. Even I know that.
The implication of that paragraph will mislead Conservative Members if they do not look at it carefully. It suggests that the defeat of this Bill would have implications for a future Bill. That is contrary to the private Bill procedure. It is contrary to the way in which the House makes decisions. I hope that the people who receive that letter have worked out that that, too, was a dishonest and misleading statement.
The letter goes on :
"We would be very grateful if you could find it possible to vote in support of this Bill. Signed, Jerry Wiggin, Michael Stern, Jack Aspinwall and Jonathan Sayeed."
Forgive me, Mr. Speaker--I cannot remember their constituencies exactly, so I have used their names.
I think that the letter is out of order in the sense that it is an unfair practice and once again brings the private Bill procedure into disrepute. We are supposed to be an open, democratic House. We do not need secret letters, we do not need allegations, we do not need smears. We need the matter debated here on the Floor of the House, openly, so that we know what is being agreed to.
I now turn specifically to the points that I want to make about this Bill.
Ms. Primarolo : It is not as boring as the hon. Gentleman was. Any tiny company with a pipe dream, a good idea--and I am not disputing that this is a good idea--can draft a Bill which is given credence in Parliament under the private Bill procedure. This proposal is unusual, if not unique, in that it is from a very small company--I understand that it has one full- time employee and five company directors. Even with expert advice--we are not given references ; we are just told that it is expert advice--it hardly forms the basis of, or represents, a company with a structure such as would fill one with confidence that it could run a public transport system.
The Select Committee which looked at the private Bill procedure--it is an inappropriate procedure, particularly for this Bill--says, "Nor is it accepted that members of the public suffer any disadvantage from the use of the Private Bill procedure rather than the procedure for planning inquiries".
The proposal needs very careful consideration under the planning inquiry regulations. The company holds meetings where slides and attractive pictures are shown and where there is an artistic presentation of what a tram system might look like, but that is not a consultation process ; it is informing people what the company intends to do. Consultation is a two-way process. The company claims that these meetings have been held, but they have, in fact, been public relations exercises.
The Department of Transport must also come in for criticism over light rapid transit systems because, despite the fact that the concept of light rail transit has existed for a number of years, nothing has emerged from the Transport and Road Research Laboratory following its review of the light rail details published in 1979, and there are no Government policy statements or circulars specifically dealing with light rail at present. Because the company told me that it would be bound by legislation and by the guidelines that central Government had laid down, I wrote to the Department asking for details of operational specifications, including safety, which is an important concern, and I was told that guidelines were being prepared, that they were in draft form and would be available soon, but that they do not yet exist and are not yet available.
My idea of public transport is that it is cheap and efficient and serves the needs of the area in which it operates. We need seriously to consider whether this proposal fulfils those criteria. Turning to the specific proposals in the Bill and in an attempt to provide some background, I should mention that nearly two years ago a proposal was launched by Advanced Transport for Avon for a metro scheme. To begin with, rightly or wrongly, the people of Bristol believed that that implied a network which was at least partly, if not wholly, underground, and which would at a sweep solve Bristol's acute traffic problems. This public transport would be provided as a free gift to Bristol by a private company which would finance the enterprise by land enhancement values--that is, by property speculation. It is unprecedented anywhere in the world for a scheme to be totally financed in this way.
The literature produced by the company was glossy and attractive and accompanying rhetoric painted an easy, imaginative and what was more a free system.
Column 958Naturally, Bristolians received the proposals enthusiastically, admired the artist's impressions of what the trams would look like and welcomed this initiative to solve their traffic problems. On closer examination, it became increasingly obvious that no substantive information about some aspects of the scheme--including the crucial financing--had been properly worked out. That was unlike the system in Tyne and Wear, where a detailed policy statement and three-year plan on how the scheme would be developed was produced before it went forward. It was also unlike the light rail transit system of Greater Manchester on which detailed information was produced. The project developers in Avon produced A4 or A3 leaflets and nothing else. Unfortunately, that was not comparable to those other schemes.
The scheme varies in one other crucial respect from Manchester, Tyne and Wear and the others where the proposals were put forward by public transport executives. ATA is a wholly private company, seeking, through a private Bill, the powers normally afforded to public transport executives.
I shall use an analogy to explain what I am trying to say about the Bill. Suppose that someone came to you, Mr. Speaker, and said, "I will build the house of your dreams for £100,000. Will you give me £100,000?" One would ask a series of questions before handing over the £100,000. One would ask of the person ; "Are you a qualified architect? Are you a qualified builder? Do you own the land on which you are going to build the house? Have you got planning permission? Will I have all the services?" All of us would ask those and a great many other questions before passing over the £100,000.
A company is saying to Bristolians, "We can build you, through speculation, a nice, efficient and clean transport system that will considerably ease Bristol's traffic problems." That is to be applauded and the company should be congratulated because it has done what nobody else has done. However, it can hardly complain when we and our representatives say, "Hang on a minute : there are a few detailed questions that we need to have clarified before we enter into that agreement with you."
I should be wholly failing in my role as a representative if I failed to raise the following points. First, on the matter of finance, we were initially told that the scheme would not cost a penny of ratepayers' or taxpayers' money but would be financed by speculation. Then we were told that the developers planned to apply for section 56 funding from central Government and would finance the scheme through a combination of grant funding and bank loans.
Normally, section 56 funding is available to local authorities and public transport executives who match the finance in some way. In October, I asked the Secretary of State for Transport to make a statement on the financing of light rapid transit railway developments. He gave the standard answer. I understand that the Government are reviewing section 56 funding, but it was said that it was normally expected that, when section 56 money was given, it was matched by local authority money. Quite rightly, that upset quite a few people in Bristol, including me, because it was not what we had been led to believe. Obviously, the Government had answered on the basis of the Department of Transport's circular No. 285 which states that light rapid transit systems might be eligible for section 56 funding under the Transport Act 1968.
Mr. Michael Welsh (Doncaster, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether the sponsor of the Bill is allowed to speak in the Chamber to the people responsible for the Bill. I thought that this was the House of Commons.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I had reason to complain earlier about the noise and laughter when my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) was making her case. The Serjeant at Arms succeeded in quelling the noise but I hope that we do not have any more.
Ms. Primarolo : Things moved on. The Department of Transport told the company that it needed more detailed information. Lo and behold, it was in similar areas to those on which I had been asking questions. The company was asked to undertake an economic evaluation which would form part of its application for the grant before the detailed application could be considered. If it is necessary for the Department of Transport to know these things, the House and the people of Bristol should know them before they commit themselves finally to being for or against the scheme.
I understand that the economic evaluation will cover road congestion, pollution, amenity, regeneration, finance and ridership--the normal subjects set out in the circular issued by the Department of the Environment. The economic evaluation will be ready soon. Unfortunately, the debate has taken place before it is available. We might all have been wiser about the details of the company's proposals had it felt able to wait until the information was available.
The company has never demonstrated that it has sufficient finance to construct the entire scheme. It is inconsistent in its answers on the nature and extent of the public-private mix in finance. The latest development in the saga is that two weeks ago it was announced that two companies--Parkdale and VOM International--with ATA, the people asking for the Bill, have formed a third company called Avon Development Ltd., which will undertake property speculation to raise money to pass over to the company which wants to build the railway. That leads to confusion. What the two companies have not said is that they are so confident that land enhancement will raise considerable profit that they are prepared now to underwrite all the money for the project. They are not so confident that it is a good scheme. Presumably there is a financial risk.
The planned reliance on property speculation is unprecedented and would encourage the unwelcome escalation of property prices in Bristol, a city which is suffering sorely already because of housing and land price problems. It is said that the total scheme of which this is the first stage will cost £300 million to £400 million. I think that that is an under-estimate, but we will not discuss that now.
Let us think about how the money is to be raised. How much property development would there need to be in Bristol? Property companies will want to make their own profit and have enough left to give to the railway company