Home Page

Column 1










House of Commons

Monday 13 February 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


London (Road and Rail Developments)

1. Mr. Corbyn : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what are the comparative costs of road development in London and the proposed public financing of rail developments.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo) : As the House may know, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is attending a meeting abroad today and has asked me to give his apologies to the House.

Expenditure on road developments by my Department, the London local authorities and the London Docklands development corporation is expected to amount to some £300 million in 1988-89. That compares with planned investment of more than £450 million on rail development by British Rail Network SouthEast, London Regional Transport and the London Docklands development corporation.

Mr. Corbyn : Is the Minister not concerned that the road assessment studies for London propose the expenditure of £3.5 billion and the destruction of 6,000 homes, and that all of that would be borne by the public

Column 2

purse and taxpayers, who would pay for the whole road development? Yet a much smaller cost of £2 billion for the central London rail study would largely be borne by the fare-paying public, either through interest charges to private investment being put into the rail system or by increased fares for those who wish to use the central London rail system when it is developed. Does the Minister not think that it is time that the majority of people who travel by public transport benefited from public expenditure and the minority of commuter motorists who drive in and out of London were forced to pay for the destruction that they are causing our city and the exorbitant cost of the road development that is planned to appease them?

Mr. Portillo : The position is not as the hon. Gentleman has represented it. The assessment studies are consultants' studies, not departmental ideas and the consultants are still looking at ways of minimising the effect. All the options will have to be considered in a framework that takes full account of the environmental impact. On the central London rail study, no decision has been taken on how the funding will be achieved.

Mr. Maples : Does my hon. Friend agree that major road developments in central London cause enormous environmental damage and often do little for traffic congestion? They simply encourage more people to use cars. Will he confirm that such environmental and other externalised costs are taken into account in deciding levels of public subsidy for other forms of public transport?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend is right. In answer to the previous question, I stressed that the environmental impact was most important and that we would not support any schemes that did more harm than good. My hon. Friend is also right to say that when proposals are made for investment the Department can look at any external benefits that there may be to non- users.

Mr. Chris Smith : The Minister will be aware of the enormous concern among my constituents and others in north London about the likely impact of the east London assessment study proposals. He will be further aware of

Column 3

the growing concern at the extension of the private consultants' studies to the King's Cross area. Have any costings been done of any of the proposals that were drafted last year and which may come forward later this year from the study? Would it not be better if the Department of Transport scrapped the whole idea now?

Mr. Portillo : It would be better if people did not misrepresent what is going on. The important point is that we are looking at ideas from consultants which have not yet been finalised. They will be brought forward in the course of the summer and at that time we shall be able to judge the value of those ideas, to reject those that are not very useful and to proceed on those that have a promising future.

Mr. Adley : Does my hon. Friend agree that in assessing road versus rail costs in London or elsewhere it is important to be both sensible and honest? Does he agree, for example, that all the police costs connected with motoring must be taken into account as part of the costs of motoring? Is he aware that, despite lengthy efforts, I have failed to obtain from the Metropolitan police or the Home Office any idea of the amount of police time involved in policing London's motorists? Will my hon. Friend do his best to ensure that that information is available and is taken into account?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is one of our principles that we expect those who use the roads to pay their full track costs, which would cover not only the cost of building the road but of maintaining it and, importantly, policing it.

Ms. Ruddock : Will the Minister explain why his Department banned the use of a computer model developed by the transport and road research laboratory and designed to evaluate the merits of different traffic policies for London? Will he confirm that the Government's policy of building more roads in London and cutting public transport subsidies scored lowest in that evaluation, and that a policy of investing in public transport scored highest? Despite his obvious embarrassment, will he now lift the ban so that the TRRL can get on with its work?

Mr. Portillo : I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position, and I hope that she will be very happy in it.

What the hon. Lady says about a lack of subsidy to public transport is not right. She will be aware that the amount of public subsidy to London Regional Transport is proposed to be increased, much to the displeasure of some of my hon. Friends behind me. That was not a powerful point. She will know that big investment is going on in London--about £1 billion on the roads programme, and a further amount of money as yet unsettled because we are still studying the central London rails subsidy proposals.

Mr. Speaker : I make a plea for brief supplementaries today to enable us to get more quickly down the Order Paper.

Column 4

Motorway Construction

2. Mr. Knox : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how much has been spent on new motorway construction in each of the past four years, at constant prices.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley) : In 1987- 88 prices, £385 million, £298 million, £204 million and £176 million last year. The reduction reflects the completion of the M25 and more spending on trunk roads, bypasses and increased maintenance.

Mr. Knox : Given the amount of congestion on motorways at present, which is often caused by the sheer volume of traffic, does my hon. Friend realise that the figures are completely inadequate and that much more needs to be spent on motorway construction if British industry is to be competitive and if the frustration experienced by many motorists is to be reduced?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes, Sir. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced an increase in spending of between 20 per cent. and 40 per cent. over the next three years. That is a welcome increase following the reductions under the Labour Government. It is true that we need roads which are longer, wider and stronger.

Mr. Janner : Although spending on motorways is insufficient, does the Minister agree that there must be a balance between spending on motorways and spending on other roads? Does he know of the death of my constituent, Kerry Allen, aged eight, on New Parks estate? The county council had approved a pelican crossing but said that it did not have the money to install it. How long are we to have insufficient money for road safety? Is not the present position intolerable, unreasonable and totally insupportable?

Mr. Bottomley : The whole House would wish to join every family in grieving over a road death. There are 14 road deaths per day in this country. The nation rises to mourn when there are group deaths, but when 5,000 people a year die on the roads in this country, as the hon. and learned Gentleman said, we must obviously go on reducing the toll as fast as we possibly can.

In overall terms, the number of people killed and injured is 6 per cent. down on the number at this time last year, even though there has been a 4 per cent. increase in traffic, and there was a similar reduction the previous year. In population terms, Britain has fewer road deaths than any other country where there is motoring and drink.

Mr. Fry : In view of my hon. Friend's last remarks, is it not clear that we need more motorways so as to reduce the road accident rate further? What plans does he have to provide alternative routes for such as the M1 and M3 which are now so terribly congested?

Mr. Bottomley : Dealing with congestion is one point, but the point that my hon. Friend picked up from the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) is that three quarters of deaths and injuries take place in built-up areas. Motorways are not the answer in built-up areas. Bypasses or relief roads may be an answer, but the normal answer is traffic management and traffic calming so that where there are many pedestrians-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Column 5

Mr. Bottomley : If I may finish, Mr. Speaker. Where there are many pedestrians, pedestrians get more priority and motorists get slightly less.

Channel Tunnel

3. Mr. Macdonald : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what proposals he has to improve communications between Scotland and the south- east, in preparation for the opening of the Channel tunnel.

Mr. Portillo : British Rail is required by section 40 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 to publish a plan by the end of this year setting out its proposals for the dispersal of passenger and freight trains within the United Kingdom. The impact of the Channel tunnel is one of the many factors taken into account in planning the forward trunk road programme.

Mr. Macdonald : Will the Minister confirm a report in the "Politics Today" column of the Financial Times on Friday that a study that was prepared for the Prime Minister shows clearly that unless there is a major improvement in the road and rail network between Scotland and the south- east, Scotland will not benefit in any degree from the opening of the Channel tunnel? If that is so, why is the Minister cutting investment to British Rail by £300 million in the latest public expenditure White Paper and why are there no plans in the White Paper to improve the road and rail networks between Scotland and the south-east to enable Scotland to benefit from the economic activity of the Channel tunnel?

Mr. Portillo : There has been no cut in the investment of British Rail. Indeed, it has been rising sharply and will be £3.5 billion in coming years. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is becoming confused with subsidies, which is a quite different matter and has nothing to do with how much is being invested.

I know of no evidence in any report to suggest that the links to the north are inadequate. On the whole, the inadequacies seem to be in the south- east. That is why there is a £600 million programme of investment in the south-east to improve the links. The north of England and Scotland stand to gain especially from the Channel tunnel because rail freight comes into its own over longer distances.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I heard the Minister's reply with delight. Does he agree that since Liverpool has excellent port facilities it makes admirable sense to improve the links between there and the Channel tunnel as it would prove an ideal through-port for goods from America to the continent?

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend refers to a most interesting idea. When we last had questions on this subject I referred to a study being conducted into that very matter. We are happy to co-operate with that study in any way.

Mr. George Howarth : Will the Minister therefore confirm that when the study for the landbridge concept for the port of Liverpool is completed and suggests that it is a feasible option the Government will look favourably on that proposal?

Mr. Portillo : We shall always look favourably at any commercial proposition put to us by British Rail.

Column 6

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) implied a moment ago, the port and road facilities at Liverpool already look as though they have plenty of capacity for that plan.

Mr. Hind : When my hon. Friend discusses these matters with the chairman of British Rail, will he bear in mind that there is still an important link from the whole of the west of country to the tunnel without going through London? All that my hon. Friend needs to do is to put some investment into the flyover at Redhill. That will then provide long routes and freight links all the way to the tunnel from the north-west, the south- west, Wales and Scotland and will definitely benefit the country as a whole.

Mr. Portillo : The important thing is that there should be through freight links between the regions and the Channel tunnel. That is British Rail's ambition and that is why it is working on its plan now. The exact route is a matter for British Rail. I am happy to mention the point to the chairman when I next see him but I am bound to tell my hon. Friend that he has made his case effectively on a number of occasions already.

Mr. Kennedy : The Minister will appreciate that the rail links between the highlands of Scotland and the south and from there to the Channel tunnel suffered a severe setback last week when the rail bridge in the town of Inverness was washed away in the flooding that occurred. Will the Minister give an undertaking that all available finance will be made available to British Rail and ScotRail to ensure that that bridge is reconstructed as fast as possible because the great worry in the north now is that if it takes up to a year--

Mr. Speaker : Order. This question is about the Channel tunnel, but the hon. Gentleman's question is wide of it.

Mr. Kennedy : Without the bridge, there is no rail link to the Channel tunnel from Inverness.

Will the Minister ensure that the finance is available and that British Rail checks bridges of the same age at regular intervals to ensure that there is not a similar setback again?

Mr. Portillo : The safety point is well made and I shall bring it to British Rail's attention. I know that my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport and for Scotland have been in touch with each other about the bridge. We do not yet know anything about the costs that would be involved, but we shall stay closely in touch with the hon. Gentleman on this matter.

Thames (Barge Traffic)

4. Mr. Bowis : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with London riparian borough councils and the Port of London Authority concerning barge traffic on the Thames.

Mr. Portillo : The recent incident at Battersea is being investigated by a Department of Transport marine surveyor who has had discussions with the Port of London Authority. The authority is now restricting the number of barges that may be towed up river under Battersea bridge to one per tug, and I have asked the PLA to inform me of any other new measures that it proposes to take.

Column 7

Mr. Bowis : Will my hon. Friend confirm that two such measures might well relate to the competence of pilotage on the Thames and the use of the tides? I understand that in this instance the pilot came up too late on the tide and the barge was too close to the bridge structure. Will my hon. Friend further confirm whether the Department has contingency plans against the day when another such incident occurs and the bridge perhaps being completely destroyed?

Mr. Portillo : The marine surveyor will have to consider whether there was a culpable failure and make recommendations arising from that. The PLA has already said that tow barges should come up river as early as possible on the flood tide. In the unlikely event of the bridge collapsing, the PLA would need to take emergency action and it is well aware of that.

Mr. Spearing : Does the Minister agree that to come up early on the tide is navigationally impractical and that the best advantage is in coming up near the top of it? Does he further agree that, pending protective measures to bridges such as Battersea, which is relatively narrow, such accidents on the Thames are rare and when they occur they cause headlines, which illustrates the safety of water transport by barge on the Thames in general?

Mr. Portillo : The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Battersea bridge had been damaged on six occasions this century before the 1988 accident, so it is a fairly rare occurrence. I am not competent to comment on the hon. Gentleman's first point beyond saying that it is the PLA which recommended that tugs should come upstream as early as possible on the flood tide.

Mr. Squire : In addition to echoing the points made by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), may I ask my hon. Friend if he will further confirm that it is in everyone's interest that we continue to send domestic refuse down river by barge, rather than attempting to bring it back on to the roads and increase the already impossible congestion?

Mr. Portillo : That is a good point. The barges keep a large number of lorries off the roads, which is welcome to residents of the area.

Minibus Drivers

6. Mr. Ian Taylor : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he has taken to press for modification of the European Community requirement for minibus drivers to hold vocational entitlement under the proposed harmonised driver licensing system.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : We have pressed the European Commission at every level to avoid placing restrictions on the use of minibuses by the many voluntary groups, including those working with the disabled, who depend so heavily on them. We shall continue to do so and we aim to protect our present arrangements in the negotiations in the Council of Ministers.

There is no evidence that our present licensing arrangements for driving minibuses in any way prejudice safety. There is every evidence that voluntary minibuses aid mobility, especially for people with special needs.

Mr. Taylor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for continuing to press this matter. Will he confirm that

Column 8

minibuses are just about the safest form of transport and that we tend to use them more than other Community countries? The Commission's regulations will cause special hardship to charities for the elderly. That is just not good enough. Will my hon. Friend make that point forcefully to the Commission? Will he also arrange to put in the Library recent correspondence with the Commission on this matter?

Mr. Bottomley : Yes. My hon. Friend speaks for hon. Members on both sides of the House. Minibuses, often with six to 10 voluntary drivers, do a great deal of good for the elderly, the handicapped and the young. The letter which the previous Commissioner for Transport made public on 14 December was probably an aberration. His successor, the present Commissioner for Transport, will look with a fresh eye to see whether safety and mobility for the handicapped and others can be maintained and enhanced. I will put the exchange in the Library.

Mr. Higgins : Will my hon. Friend stress in Europe that harmonisation for its own sake is extremely damaging to the Community as a whole? Can he say whether the eventual decision on this will be by majority vote or unanimous decision?

Mr. Bottomley : The decision would be by majority vote if it came to that, but I have every confidence that on road safety grounds the Commission, Parliament and the whole of Europe will look to Britain, which has the best safety record. If the rest of the Community had our road safety record, 40 per cent. fewer people would have died last year. In other countries, the casualty rate is rising, not falling as it is in Britain, so we have something to contribute. On aid for the handicapped and others, we have learnt some lessons which others may want to copy. We do not know everything, but in this area we are the experts, we have the experience and we are right.

Channel Tunnel

7. Mr. John Hunt : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Rail to discuss the Channel tunnel high-speed rail link ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Portillo : This question comes up at the regular meetings which Ministers have with the chairman from time to time. I am also in regular contact with the BR board member responsible for the development of this proposal.

Mr. Hunt : In view of the continuing anxiety and uncertainty on this matter, is it not high time that we were given a firm date for British Rail's announcement of the chosen route? As soon as that route is known, will my hon. Friend do all that he can--if necessary, by urgent amendment and uprating of the Land Compensation Act 1973--to facilitate speedy and generous compensation to those whose homes will have been blighted?

Mr. Portillo : In answer to my hon. Friend's first point, I agree that an urgent decision is required. There will be an announcement at the beginning of March. On the second point, it is extremely important--I impress this upon British Rail--that there should be an announcement of compensation terms at the same time as the announcement of the proposed route for the line.

Column 9

Dame Peggy Fenner : Has my hon. Friend had an opportunity to study the submission made by Kent county council on behalf of all residents of Kent? May I have his assurance that he will instruct British Rail that whatever proposal it puts forward it should comply at least in minimal terms with the criteria in that submission?

Mr. Portillo : I and British Rail are looking forward to the Kent county council meeting of 23 February, at which I believe that it will confirm or amend the criteria that it is putting forward. Of course, I take those criteria seriously. Environmental protection for the people of Kent under any proposal is most important, and I have no reason to believe that British Rail is is any doubt about that.

Mr. Matthew Taylor : Is the Minister aware that 16 per cent. of the total cost of the TGV north route has been earmarked for environmental impact work? Will he ensure that there is a similar investment in this country to protect the people of Kent and elsewhere from the environmental impact of the route?

Mr. Portillo : I have no idea how those calculations were done in France. Of course, environmental protection will be included in the proposal, but it is only when British Rail makes a firm proposal that we shall know how much it has to spend on environmental protection over and above the cost of the basic line.

Mr. Tony Banks : Would it not be far more appropriate to have a public inquiry into the route through Kent and, indeed, the location of the second London terminal? This is far too important a matter to be left to British Rail. Has the Minister studied route 5 to see whether it would be environmentally less damaging than the other options being considered?

Mr. Portillo : I cannot accept that the matter is too important to be left to Parliament, which is what we are doing. This will be a matter for a private Bill, which is the appropriate means of settling it. I, too, believe that the people of Kent have suffered enough uncertainty already. The important thing is to bring the uncertainty to a conclusion. That will be done when British Rail makes a firm proposal in March. Discussions will continue thereafter, and then a private Bill will be introduced into Parliament for full discussion here.

Mr. Gerald Bowden : Although I recognise the importance of proper links between the Channel tunnel and the rest of the country, does my hon. Friend recognise that proposals to run heavy freight and high speed passenger trains at speeds above 100 mph along embankments, viaducts and bridges, and over the homes, houses and heads of my constituents, are unacceptable and that they will be opposed vigorously in the House? If there is any lesson to be learnt from the dreadful tragedy at Clapham, it is that such a risk cannot be taken.

Mr. Portillo : My hon. Friend puts me in a difficult position, because we do not yet have a firm proposal on the table from British Rail, but I note his point. My hon. Friend asked about freight. It is proposed that the new line should be for passenger trains. One reason is that only passenger trains can move at high speeds. Freight trains cannot move at those speeds. One effect of putting only passenger trains on the new line will be to allow more room on existing lines for freight trains, which may mean fewer freight lorries on the roads of Kent.

Column 10

Mr. Prescott : Will the Minister confirm that these expansive environmental safeguards for the rail link will have to be financed out of British Rail revenue? Will that not inevitably mean a low-cost solution that rides roughshod over the concerns of the people of Kent and south London? Such a major decision should not be left solely to British Rail. Is the hon. Gentleman giving serious consideration to the inquiry that I suggested, which may assist the House in making a decision about that route?

Mr. Portillo : It is not strictly true to say that the safeguards would have to be financed out of British Rail revenue. If British Rail were to propose building the line, it would have to be a commercial proposition that provided an acceptable rate of return. The House and Parliament will decide on what line is acceptable. Once that has been decided, we shall see whether it is commercial. That is the way it will be. The other possibility is that it will be built in the private sector with British Rail paying a toll to run across it. That again would not require British Rail finding money from its own resources.

Networker Trains

8. Mr. Jacques Arnold : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what information he has as to when the new Networker trains will be in use ; and on which lines they will operate.

Mr. Portillo : My right hon. Friend approved the purchase of the first Networkers--77 diesel vehicles for lines out of Marylebone--last Tuesday. These units will enter service in 1990. British Rail hopes to begin operating the first electric Networkers by 1991 in south-east London and north-west Kent.

Mr. Arnold : Does my hon. Friend accept that my constituents would be relieved finally to get a decision on the introduction of Networker trains on the north Kent line? Does he appreciate that they are well and truly fed-up with the dreadful conditions on commuter trains in north Kent?

While we are talking about better conditions, does my hon. Friend recognise that commuters not only in the Gravesham area, but throughout London, are concerned about security, especially in light of the disgraceful scenes over the weekend on the train from Bedford? Will my hon. Friend reassure us that efforts will be redoubled to avoid such security problems in future? Will he note that we take some comfort from the fact that at least one of the alleged perpetrators has now been apprehended?

Mr. Portillo : I look forward to a proposal from British Rail for the Networkers, but I have told my hon. Friend what the position is. A man has been charged in connection with the incident on the Bedford to King's Cross train at the weekend, and I understand that further arrests are expected. I understand that four men are in custody in connection with the Clapham Common stabbings and that six men have been arrested over the weekend in connection with the fight on the train in Scotland.

Mr. Lord : When considering these new Networker trains, and bearing in mind the increase in crime to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) referred, will my hon. Friend take immediate steps to ensure that train drivers can be kept in permanent contact

Column 11

by telephone with the stations along their route and the emergency services? In this age of modern sophisticated telecommunications equipment, it is ridiculous that we cannot have this obvious safeguard for passengers and crew.

Mr. Portillo : It is certainly British Rail policy to equip new trains with radio communications for drivers and to fit that equipment to some existing trains. The Bedford to King's Cross train involved in the incident was equipped with a radio. The driver was able to radio ahead and the police were then able to meet the train at King's Cross station.

Mr. Spearing : In respect of the new Networker multiple unit electric trains, will the hon. Gentleman speak to his right hon. Friend about the future standards of seating? Is he aware that some of the new trains from other London termini, though they are faster and perhaps smoother than the stock which they are replacing, have less seating room and are less comfortable for travellers? Is that not a step backwards? Will the hon. Gentleman look into the seating design of the proposed Networker stock?

Mr. Portillo : I will look into that matter, but I believe that the hon. Gentleman is being a little grudging. We are talking about a major reinvestment, which will constitute a major improvement in the travelling circumstances of many thousands of people coming into London in the rush hour.

Next Section

  Home Page