Previous Section Home Page

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling): I welcome the fact that we have finally reached Second Reading of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill. I do not believe that Opposition Members can make any political runs on the subject of the delay, for the reasons that were well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler). I say to Treasury Ministers, however, that, in the current new phase of this century-old project, the Treasury has taken an inordinately long time to get from the first proposals to this day.

By my calculations, it has taken six years, six months and two days to go from 14 July 1988, when British Rail first announced its three alternative routes for the scheme, to 16 January 1995 and Second Reading of the Bill. In the process, we have had four Secretaries of State for Transport, and-- perhaps this is more relevant for us as hon. Members representing our constituencies--thousands, probably nearer tens of thousands, of people have personally suffered the ravages of blight as a result of the delay and uncertainty which has been generated by the project.

I do not wish to be negative; indeed, I will support Second Reading of the Bill tonight. I wish to be forward-looking, but perhaps I might be allowed one last backward glance. I represent a constituency which, perhaps more than any other along the line of the route, has suffered the ravages of blight on a huge scale as a result of the publication of rail lines which have been put in the public domain and subsequently abandoned. I know that the constituents of many of my hon. Friends representing Kent have suffered considerably in the same way.


Column 492

I hope that at least one lesson has been learnt by British Rail--it should never again come forward with major proposals for new railway lines that are initially ill conceived and ill thought through, and, as certainly happened in one case, have no chance of being built for environmental reasons.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster): Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is still a need for some flexibility from British Rail to avoid unnecessary blight? For example, a danger exists in Rainham, which is in the borough in which my constituency is located, that the route will run unnecessarily close to buildings. Were it to be moved 150 m, as has been proposed, that would make a substantial difference to the well-being of the people who live there. The opportunity still exists to put right such minor discrepancies before this otherwise excellent scheme goes forward.

Sir John Stanley: I am sure that my hon. Friend will make his own constituency speech in his own way. I shall mention another deviation in relation to my part of Kent later.

Initially, the project progressed in a far from professional way, not least in relation to the proposal that is known in our part of the world as the notorious route three proposal, which would have cut a noise swathe through the finest environmental countryside in Kent. I do not believe that the possibility ever existed that it would be built. It was widely reported at the time that route three had been traced out on tracing paper on the kitchen table of the British Rail project engineer who was responsible for the project. I am glad to say that, in due course, it was abandoned.

A great deal of unnecessary blight has been created, and in human terms, that has inflicted great anxiety and distress on a great many people. Having said that, this is one of the occasions on which the last state of affairs is a vast improvement on the first. I should like to express my personal thanks to the three immediate predecessors of the Secretary of State for Transport. I thank the noble Lord Parkinson, who, during his tenure of the Department of Transport, was responsible for presiding over-- and, I believe, strongly supporting--the ditching of route three by BR, to the relief of thousands of my constituents.

I also thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) who, with great vision and great determination, overruled BR on its preferred route and adopted what was then called the Ove Arup route, which provides the basis for the route in the Bill.

Finally, I express my personal appreciation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), who, to my delight, responded to my strong representations that he should abandon the surface route across the Medway gap in my constituency, which would have had serious blighting and environmentally destructive effects, and replace it with a tunnel route under Bluebell hill. They were three profoundly important ministerial decisions, and I am delighted that they have resulted in a Bill that I am able to support strongly.

As hon. Members have said, the Bill has been improved, but I believe that it is still capable of other improvements, which I hope will be undertaken before the Bill leaves this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Kent (Mr. Rowe) said, the environmental cost of the present route immediately to the west of the current


Column 493

Bluebell hill tunnel is unacceptable. There is great demand in Kent for the Boxley long tunnel, which would be a substantial improvement.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will reconsider what he said about the guidance that he proposes to give to the Select Committee. He has made it clear that he will offer only guidance, but I do not believe that it is appropriate for him to offer guidance to a Select Committee to the effect that it should not consider alternative proposals that may be outside the limits of deviation. Members of Select Committees are entitled to form their own views, based on the evidence put before them, on what they should consider.

My right hon. Friend will have heard the strong representations from members of all parties in relation to the Boxley long tunnel. As he is a thinking and considerate person, I hope that he will take careful note of what has been said, and reflect further on what guidance it is appropriate for him to give the Select Committee in the light of our Second Reading debate.

I must also deal again with the issue to which my hon. Friend the Minister of State was kind enough to listen during what was probably the last all- night sitting on the Consolidated Fund Bill. The debate began at 6.58 am on 15 December last year and dealt with the voluntary purchase scheme in relation to the channel tunnel rail link. As I said then, the voluntary purchase scheme is wholly inadequate--something that has been repeated by members of all parties. It is not right that a major public project such as this link should be had "on the cheap" at the expense of individual householders. British Rail and the private consortium have to accept their moral and ethical responsibilities.

I shall not weary the House by repeating everything that I said during the Adjournment debate. However, as it may be of interest, I wish to put some details on the record for the benefit of the Select Committee, which I hope will consider them.

On 15 December, I made a specific, concrete and precedented proposal. We can argue until the cows come home about whether a particular property is blighted. It is necessary to establish an independent procedure to ascertain whether a property is blighted, and another independent procedure to ensure that the property of the householder involved can be acquired.

I proposed that the procedure should operate as follows: where there is a dispute between the individual householder and British Rail about whether a House is blighted by the scheme and the dispute cannot be resolved, the district valuer should offer an independent, open market, unblighted valuation of the property. The individual should be told that he may market his property at that valuation and no more for a set period--conceivably, three, six or nine months. If, at the end of that period, the property has not been sold at the district valuer's valuation, I believe that it is entirely reasonable to expect British Rail to buy the property at that stage. I said that such a procedure was precedented. It is directly precedented by the Department of Transport, and is being used in my constituency in the discharge of the Department's obligations under section 62 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, which enables the Department to buy blighted houses for highways schemes outside the physical limits of statutory blight. In the


Column 494

Adjournment debate, I cited a specific ministerial letter that offered that procedure to a constituent of mine in the context of a house purchase.

We therefore have a viable independent procedure which is already being operated by the Department of Transport in a highways capacity. Surely that provides a means of resolving the problem. I hope that the Minister and the Select Committee will consider it carefully. The final issue is freight. Over the years, I have listened to many statements on freight from Ministers and others. The statements from Ministers, and those from British Rail, have always been somewhat equivocal about how much freight they want to allow on the line. I have never understood the tentativeness about freight on this high-speed line. If one is going to make a multi-billion pound investment, it surely makes sense to use the line to the greatest possible extent. At night, there could be no conflict with passenger trains, as I do not believe that there will be a huge demand to leave London at 1 am and arrive in Paris at 3.30 am. There will, in effect, be a void line at night, and one could surely make extensive use of it for freight purposes.

I was concerned by the Secretary of State's opening remarks. He suggested that there might be an opportunity to increase the amount of freight on the existing lines. The problem is that the existing lines--not only the Tonbridge line but the Maidstone, East line, which passes through my constituency--is wholly unsuited in environmental terms to carrying night- time freight.

Reference has already been made to the proximity of lines to homes in London. On the Maidstone, East line, homes have been built up to its very edge. In environmental terms, I believe that the new line is the best for running night-time freight.

I end with a final postscript. From my voluminous filing cabinet containing papers relating to the channel tunnel rail link, I have taken a press release issued by the British Railways Board on 3 November 1989. It is headed "Parliamentary Bill in 1990". It would appear that this particular legislative train is running approximately five years late.

I think that we are all now firmly agreed that the line's completion is very much in the national interest, and, as far as I am aware, everyone in Kent believes that it is very much in Kent's interest. I hope that Ministers and British Rail will now make every possible effort to ensure that the high-speed line is now built on a high-speed programme, as quickly as possible.

6.8 pm

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) did well to remind us that it is more than six years since British Rail first published the three routes for the fast link to the channel tunnel. He castigated British Rail, but I remind him in passing that it was at ministerial insistence that the schemes were published.

We have heard much from the Conservative Members about the necessity of transferring British Rail to the private sector, and about how ministerial interference should cease once that has happened. However, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, or confessed, or whatever term one cares to use, that the Ove Arup route that we are discussing was chosen by a previous Secretary of State for Transport. I remind the


Column 495

House in passing that the announcement about the Ove Arup route came initially from the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the then Secretary of State for the Environment, who talked about the need to revitalise the east London corridor. I know that my hon. Friends who represent the Newham area will talk about the need for an international station at Stratford; I will come back to that point. Running a high-speed route through the east London corridor and not stopping there is a rum way in which to revitalise the area. I am not sure how the revitalisation would be carried out by the passage of the high- speed trains; but that is the reason given for the choice of route. I hope that, when Conservative Members talk about ministerial interference in these matters, they will bear in mind the fact that it was ministerial interference that brought about the choice. As I have said, it is a strange way in which to revitalise a part of London.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling also reminded us that he has continually talked about the unsuitability for freight of the existing railway line through Tonbridge--remarkably enough, in his own constituency. I have spoken to the right hon. Gentleman about the matter before. I remember that, in an exchange in the House, I cited the freight-working timetable for 1965, when scores of freight trains passed along the route through Tonbridge.

Before we fall for the sob story that railway freight is terribly destructive of the environment, I remind the House that the trains in the 1960s were predominantly loose-coupled freight trains, with all the associated noise. The right hon. Gentleman must do a bit better to convince us that the freight generated by the project must be confined to the high- speed route. I agree, however, that some of it, especially time-sensitive freight, should go on that route. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), who is not in his place at the moment, took us on a rather selective canter around the history of the channel tunnel project and the associated rail link. He went back to early 1974, and the cancellation by the incoming Labour Government of the channel tunnel project, which, at that time, was exclusively in the public sector.

I remember the occasion well. I went to see Tony Crosland, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, when the rumours first emerged, and pleaded with him not to cancel the project. I got singularly short shrift. He said, "Young man"--you can tell how long ago it was, Mr. Deputy Speaker- -"the Government, whom you are expected to support, have inherited three major projects from the Conservative party." They were Maplin airport--who remembers that these days?--Concorde and the channel tunnel.

Tony Crosland said, "Privately, I would love to be able to cancel Concorde and go for the channel tunnel, but, unfortunately, neither the French nor my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East"--who was in the Cabinet at that time--"will allow me to cancel Concorde. I am afraid that we are stuck and that I must cancel the channel tunnel project."

In an earlier intervention, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson) pointed out how lucky it was for the public sector that, when the channel tunnel project considerably overran, the burden of the overrun fell on the private rather than the public sector. I immediately


Column 496

thought of Concorde, and wondered what the hon. Gentleman would say about that considerable overrun. I remember that we spent 10 times the original estimate so that we could fly pop stars to America more quickly. Not much was said about the cost overrun at that time. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield treated us to a rather selective look at history. I regretted the cancellation of the channel tunnel project in 1974, to such an extent that I voted against the cancellation, as did others of my hon. Friends with railway connections. Inasmuch as I have any interest to declare in this project, it is that I am a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers--

Mr. Jacques Arnold: Ah.

Mr. Snape: The hon. Gentleman says, "Ah." I was waiting for that. He will now have to write that fact down.

The project is described as the first main line in the United Kingdom in 100 years; that is a rather unfortunate description. I seem to remember that the previous new main line was the great central main line, which, sadly, was axed following the rule of Dr. Beeching. Few of us will be here to see the 21st century. I must be careful about saying that; my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Mr. Pearson) will probably be here. If a future Dr. Beeching remembers that precedent, he may look again at the fast link to the channel tunnel.

One hopes not, given the amount of passengers and freight for which the line is designed to cater. There is no doubt that there is a need to increase capacity, and there is no doubt of the unsuitability of the electrified third-rail former Southern Railways routes through Kent for the future. When one considers the popularity of the new Eurostar trains, one can see that there is considerable demand for extra rail capacity, and that demand will increase greatly in the years to come.

I mentioned the Stratford international station earlier. I compliment my hon. Friends from Newham on their campaign over the years for an international station at Stratford. Having, I hope, pleased them by my earlier remarks about the east London corridor, and about the fact that I could not see the sense of running trains through an area without stopping to revitalise it, I must tell them that I am by no means convinced of their case for an international station at Stratford, for the reasons that I have outlined before. Getting from Stratford to Birmingham by train is no easy task. Although I listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) when he talked about the dozen or so routes emanating from Stratford, I point out that none of them gives an especially high-speed route to the north-east, the north-west or the midlands. Unless assurances are given that that deficiency in the existing rail network can be remedied, making a case for an international station at Stratford will always be difficult. When thinking about political interference, I am reminded that, when the route was chosen by the Government, King's Cross was intended to be the terminal station in London. We were told that King's Cross was essential, because it was a through station, and


Column 497

that there was no alternative if we wanted to have connections to the north-east, the north-west and the midlands. Suddenly-- Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury) rose --

Mr. Snape: I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith). There was a great row about whether King's Cross was a suitable terminal for the high-speed link, which, if not led, was ably supported, by my hon. Friend. Suddenly, King's Cross, which had been essential, was not essential, and St. Pancras was chosen as the alternative. Does my hon. Friend want me to give way?

Mr. Smith: No.

Mr. Snape: St. Pancras--

Mr. Spearing: Twenty yards away.

Mr. Snape: St. Pancras, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South points out, is 20 yd from King's Cross. Although it is some years since I was a railway signalman, I remember that the operational difficulties at a terminal station with through trains are greater than they are at a through station. I do not think that we shall fly north once we arrive--if we ever do--at St. Pancras as we might have done if we had arrived at King's Cross, the original choice.

I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Hampstead chord, which appeared in a British Rail works Bill some years ago and which was approved by the House, is still going to be built once the high-speed rail link is built. Memory fails me on the rules, although I understand that, if these projects do not go ahead within a specific period, the parliamentary powers lapse. We need some assurances from the Minister that, if it takes until 2002 for the link to be opened, it will be possible to go via the Hampstead chord to the west coast main line, in which I have a particular interest. I have listened to the argument about the need or otherwise for a railway station at Ebbsfleet. The hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), who has now left the Chamber, said that he was convinced of the need for a station there, although he mentioned Ashford and Stratford as well.

The hon. Member said that British Rail and its successors in this project appear reluctant to site railway stations through Kent. If we are to have a high-speed railway line, by its very nature it would not help if there were stations every few miles. When the hon. Gentleman was advocating stations through Kent and one at Stratford as well, I was imagining--I shall say it in English because I could not attempt to say it in French, although, anyway, it would be outside the rules of the House--the train announcer at the Gare du Nord in Paris announcing the Eurostar calling at Ashford and all stations via Stratford to St. Pancras.

A multiplicity of stations along the route is not a particularly high-speed way in which to run things. However, I spoke as recently as last week to Councillor Mark James from Kent county council, and I understand the council's support for Ebbsfleet.


Column 498

I repeat that I understand and commend the campaign that has been waged by my hon. Friends the Members who represent Newham for an international station at Stratford.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am following closely what my hon. Friend is saying, but does he not now accept that a station at Stratford would help to take a great deal of passenger pressure off the St. Pancras terminus, and would provide good London connections and direct connections to all of East Anglia? Surely that would be an advantage. We are not talking about the train stopping at every station between Dover and London, as happens at present: we are talking about one stop.

Mr. Snape: I accept my hon. Friend's point, but I am yet to be convinced that many people travelling on the Eurostar trains would want to get to the sort of destinations that they would easily be able to reach from Stratford. However, that is a matter for the Select Committee to consider.

I am not saying that there is not a case for the station at Stratford. I acknowledge that there is a case. I am merely saying that, as a Member who represents a constituency north of London, I cannot see any great benefit for my constituents from an international station at Stratford. I shall leave that point, on the basis that it is for the Select Committee to decide.

There is also an enormous demand for better freight facilities. We have seen the private sector too becoming involved in various parts of the country in the planning of freight terminals. I understand that there is a terminal on the stocks for Hams Hall near Birmingham, and there a terminal is certainly planned in the north-east. That shows the amount of freight which would switch from road to rail if the facilities were provided.

I return to a point with which some of my hon. Friends will disagree. I have listened carefully to this debate, and I understand the reasons why some of my hon. Friends propose extensive tunnelling along the line of the high-speed link. But, in my view, one of the great attractions of train travel--I confess to be greatly enamoured of that mode of travel--is the ability to look out of the window. While we all accept the need for a tunnel under the channel--there would be some difficulty in getting between Britain and France any other way, given the geography--it would not be fair or reasonable, and it certainly would be extremely expensive, to have tunnels all the way, whether from St. Pancras or Stratford or wherever, and much of the way through Kent.

The hon. Member for Mid-Kent would not answer a question to which an answer was fairly obvious. There is no tunnelling in respect of the M20 motorway, and he said that that has led to a sort of creeping planning blight. But it is surely up to the planning authorities to ensure that that does not happen because of the channel tunnel rail link. If the authorities cannot do that, it is somewhat unfair of them and others, whether the money is to be found from either public or private sources, to expect that money to be found from either source so that tunnelling, which is perhaps not essential, is carried out.

Mr. Chris Smith: My hon. Friend must surely accept that the four specific areas of tunnelling which are being proposed would be a very small addition to the overall amount of tunnelling on the line. Frankly, I do not think


Column 499

that the people travelling on the trains would be particularly upset if they were to lose 20 seconds of view of the back gardens of houses in Gifford street in my constituency, which would be avoided by putting a tunnel in the Caledonian road area.

Mr. Snape: I could have guaranteed that my hon. Friend, with his customary helpfulness, would have mentioned at least one street in his constituency.

Mr. Corbyn: He lives there.

Mr. Snape: I am sure that he does not does live there, or he would declare an interest, too.

Mr. Smith indicated assent .

Mr. Snape: Oh, he does live there. Well, in that case, I shall readily concede the need for a tunnel. That is the sort of personal interest that all of us in this House can appreciate. If my hon. Friend would confine his support to his own back garden, the whole project might be considerably less expensive.

More seriously, those of us who served on the Committee which considered the Channel Tunnel Bill were aware of the distress caused to those people whose properties were to be swept away. The Committee at that time treated those who facing that awful prospect with enormous sympathy. We would have liked to do more, but, of course, the rules precluded us from doing so.

There is an argument, probably not best made here, that there is surely a more sensible way in which to compensate people than the method we currently use. I am conscious that parliamentary legislation is drafted by lawyers, as are all the legal statutes, so it is probably a vain plea, but surely it would be much more sensible if we were to say that, if someone's house were to be taken because of the need for the channel tunnel work, their house would be independently valued, and around 120 per cent. of the value would be paid instantly to persuade the people to move and to enable them to refurnish their house.

That suggestion would stop those expensive public inquiries, so it is, of course, totally impractical from a legal point of view. However, that seems to be a much more sensible way to proceed than the current method we adopt. Similarly, with the 2,000 people already mentioned whose lives are to be considerably affected by the noise of passing trains, the existing laws are not adequate. I hope that we can look again at the compensation that may be provided.

All the matters that I have touched on are for the Select Committee to consider. It promises to be a fairly long-drawn-out Committee, as is often the case, but it is incumbent on the members of that Committee to look sympathetically at the pleas, especially of those who are about to lose their homes. Although there is a comparatively small number of such people for a project of this size, nevertheless they ought to be generously treated.

This Bill has been a long time coming, and it commands widespread support in the House. I hope that the starting date of 2002 can be brought forward. Certainly, if those oft-expressed views about the desirability of transferring freight especially from road to rail and the desirability of using our railway system better are to come to fruition, the sooner the line is built the better.


Column 500

6.27 pm

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham): Perish the thought that we should ever face another Labour Government. It would be ironic, knowing what a hash all Labour Governments ever make of capital or public finance, if the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) found himself in the same position as he did back in 1974, of having to plead with a Labour Secretary of State not to cancel the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill. Given the open- ended commitment and the high cost of the project to the public purse, that is just within the realms of possibility.

Without apology, I am a long-standing chunnel and rail link sceptic. However, it would be churlish of me or anybody else not to acknowledge the remarkable achievement of those who have driven the tunnel project forward to where it is today, and all those who have striven strenuously over several years to produce the current railway project and this Bill. It is also fair to say that there has been unprecedented consultation.

It is quite remarkable that the number of areas in dispute are now so relatively few. However small in number, those areas are of immense importance to all the people concerned, including those in Kent, Essex and London, and I urge to the utmost that the Government and the Select Committee provide every reasonable opportunity, even beyond the strict rules of petitioning, to ensure that the arguments of those people are fully considered, and that justice is not only done but is seen to be done. That is why I appended my name to the Opposition instruction. I believe that it is fairly sensible and moderate. It does not seek to shackle the Committee's hand, or to impose any prejudged issues upon it.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Railways and Roads suggested earlier that the Government would take a very relaxed view if the Select Committee were to consider the options to which I have referred. I am obviously particularly concerned about the Boxley long tunnel option in Kent. That option is supported by virtually the whole of the county.

However, the Minister did not really say that he would take such a relaxed view. In order to maintain the bipartisan approach which has been such a feature of the debate, it would be helpful if my hon. Friend said that the Government would be fairly relaxed in their attitude to the Select Committee when it considers the range of options.

Mr. Watts: If, as my hon. Friend suggests, the Select Committee were to decide to consider petitions relating to the options in the instruction, it would make no difference what view the Government took, because the Select Committee would have done what I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in his opening remarks have said it should do: that is, make its own decisions. It would have taken its decisions in the light of the advice that my right hon. Friend and I have stated quite clearly on many occasions. It would not matter whether I felt relaxed about that. The Select Committee would be fulfilling its proper


Column 501

function in reaching its own decisions in considering the petitions that it decided that it should consider, and then reporting back to the House.

Sir Roger Moate: A great deal depends upon the form in which the advice is tendered to whoever is chosen as Chairman of that Committee. That is a very important consideration.

Mr. Watts: My hon. Friend referred to the form in which the advice is given to the Chairman of the Committee. Let me make it clear: there will be no private advice to any member of the Select Committee. The advice will be given by counsel for the Department and for the promoters of the link in open session to the Select Committee when it is considering those matters. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), there will be no private, behind-the-Chair arm twisting advice from me to any member of the Select Committee.

Sir Roger Moate: I hope that the members of the Committee--alas, we do not know who they will be--will pay close heed to what is said. I do not believe that there is a desire to impose strict rules or to force a vote. However, with regard to parts of London we know about, or to those we do not, it is important that petitioners and objectors from those areas should be given a fair and generous hearing. That is all that one is after, because none of us can know the arguments for and against each of the propositions.

We live in an age when there are many opportunities for enlightened consultation. Parliament would expect the Select Committee to be fair and generous in its treatment of the arguments. I hope that the comments of my hon. Friend the Minister and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will ensure that all those with concerns will be heard.

I do not agree with the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) that the Select Committee need be arduous or drawn out. The Bill is big, but there has been exhaustive consultation so far. The Select Committee should be able to encompass matters in the instruction, and other tunnels and aspects, fairly, swiftly and conscientiously. That is expected, and it would reflect credit upon the hybrid Bill procedure and on Parliament.

We will have to wait to hear what my hon. Friend the Minister says when he replies to the debate, but I hope that that is the message that will go out loud and clear, that the Boxley long tunnel will be considered, and that all other areas directly affected will receive a fair opportunity before the Select Committee.

As a long-standing sceptic, I believe that there is a mood, reflected in the House today, among the sceptics and critics, and even among those whose properties are directly threatened, that the uncertainty has prevailed for too long, that blight has existed for too long, and that, in Macbeth's words:

"If it were done when `tis done, then `twere well

It were done quickly".

After all these years of delay and uncertainty, the message is that we must proceed rapidly. However, the procedure must be done well. It must be understood that there are still detailed and fundamental questions which must be


Column 502

addressed by the Select Committee and the Standing Committee. Many of those questions affect our county of Kent.

I am not quite sure why this should be, but I understand that, by precedence, Kent Members, or Members in the counties affected, cannot be members of the Select Committee. I cannot see why that is the case if our constituencies are not directly affected, but if that is the case, so be it. However, I hope that the counties concerned will have a strong representation on the Standing Committee. That would allow us to take up some of the very genuine and real issues.

Several of my colleagues have referred to the case made by hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent about the Boxley long tunnel. I describe that as the long tunnel that avoids the Boxley valley. Others are affected more directly, but everyone who lives in or cherishes the north downs of Kent will share the determination throughout the county that the route should not be allowed to inflict such irreversible damage on that designated area of outstanding natural beauty.

The long tunnel option would add about two miles of tunnel, and perhaps 40 seconds in a tunnel for the rail traveller. The extra cost would be quite small in relation to the cost of a £3 billion project. For those who are not familiar with that most beautiful area of English countryside, I suggest that they walk along the Pilgrims way--as I hope members of the Select Committee might find time to--on the scarp slope of the north downs and look down on the Boxley valley. They will then see why it is so important to keep that area of outstanding countryside and that natural belt between the two great conurbations which would otherwise threaten to merge. I will be brief, as I know many hon. Members wish to speak. I apologise to the House for having to leave in a few moments for a constituency engagement. However, I want to raise several major concerns which I hope we will have an opportunity to emphasise in the Standing Committee.

We must consider the question of compensation. We have not yet finally faced up to the real implications of compensation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) said. That issue must be addressed properly in Standing Committee.

We must also consider the question of vertical deviation. That sounds very technical, but it is fundamentally important to people in the villages on the route. If the level of the rail could be raised another 3 m, that would dramatically alter the impact on the people concerned.

There is a widespread illusion abroad that the link will somehow be of major assistance in taking a great deal of freight off our roads. I was first attracted to the Arup route because it conceived a superb linking into a national freight network. Alas, we do not have that. The truth is that the high-speed link will take very little freight. It is not a freight route. If we examine the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State carefully, we can see that he made that clear.

A briefing note makes that point even more clearly:

"The growing volume of freight traffic through the Channel Tunnel will make use of the capacity freed up on existing lines when the Link is open. Plans for the Link do not preclude its use for freight traffic, with provision for two passing loops."


Column 503

What enthusiasm that conveys. One could hardly have anything more minimalist than that. Apart from high-value freight in small quantities, hardly any freight will be carried on the high -speed link.

The consequences of that are serious. Freight will be transferred on to existing routes, using existing lines, thus intensifying the noise problem in areas which have long since forgotten the kind of noise that the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East loves so dearly. His love affair with the railways is well known, but it is not shared by many constituents. They do not want old-fashioned freight trains bashing along the bottom of their gardens. It is a serious new issue.

Mr. Snape: The hon. Gentleman provokes me. Do his constituents prefer the sound of heavy goods vehicles on motorways?

Sir Roger Moate: The hon. Gentleman never misses an opportunity to hit out at road transport. That is a fact of life. Of course my constituents are equally concerned about heavy goods vehicles on motorways. There are equal battles about noise insulation. It is not a matter of one or the other. I hope that the Select Committee or the Standing Committee--I am not sure which--will reconsider freight transport. Does the Bill represent a missed opportunity? Could we encourage other ways of linking the freight system?

On financing, it is for the Standing Committee to find some answers. I do not believe that such a Bill has ever stated: "The exact amount of the overall public sector financial contribution is not yet known".

We know why we do not know, but the truth is that we still do not know.

We all welcome the project as a flagship of the private finance initiative- -quite right--but the great thing about private finance is that the risk is taken by the private sector. I fear that such a project could face extensive overruns, could be delayed, and could go well beyond planned costs. The private sector could fail. Who would then risk carrying on, perhaps, a half-finished project?

We must be sure that there is a cap, and that the taxpayer will not have to foot unlimited bills in future. We must be sure that the private sector puts up the bonding and bank guarantees necessary to ensure that the project reaches fruition. Again, very little is known at this stage; the matter is to be explored before the Bill reaches the statute book.

When the high-speed link is built, the people of Kent could have one of the finest commuter services in the country, and we would be grateful for that. Travelling time would be reduced dramatically--how wonderful that would be. It is clear that there will be a first-class premium service, for which premium fares will be demanded. Not everybody could afford premium fares. It is essential to have that service and to have a first-class--in the right sense of the word--rail service through the existing south-eastern train company, and good rolling stock at prices that the company can afford.

Our worry is that we do not know how the two would interrelate. What will be the interface between the premium service and the ordinary service? How can we be sure that we will continue to have public operating subsidies for our existing trains and capital investment in existing train services?


Next Section

  Home Page