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Column 666Question accordingly agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [19 December],
That for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Gas Bill, it is expedient to authorise--
(a) the inclusion in licences of conditions requiring the rendering of payments to the Director General of Gas Supply; (b) the making of provisions under which monetary penalties may be imposed on persons who contravene any conditions or requirements; and
(c) the payment of any sums into the Consolidated Fund.-- [Mr. Conway.]
Question agreed to.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Conway.]
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but clearly there is too much noise for him to be heard. Will hon. Members leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly?
Mr. Lloyd: This debate concerns the Euroterminal development at Trafford Park in my constituency. I know that the Minister for Railways and Roads is aware of its existence and I look forward to hearing his remarks in a few moments.
I must say in clear terms how badly let down my constituents feel by British Rail and, indeed, by central Government--and to a lesser extent by the Trafford park development corporation. Gorse Hill is a residential area, composed essentially of terraced housing. In recent years, it has become an area in which many people buy their first property. Indeed, some years ago, my first house was in that area, not far from the Euroterminal development. The residents feel let down because the area has suddenly been intruded on by the development of the Euroterminal. The development has a huge crane, which is having a severe impact on the local environment. The development was sanctioned originally by the Secretary of State in April 1992 and work began some two months later. Almost no consultation took place with the local community or, indeed, the local council about the likely impact. I draw the Minister's attention to the contrast with the channel tunnel rail link and I quote one of his predecessors, the right hon. Member for Kettering, (Mr. Freeman), then Minister for Public Transport, who said in relation to the channel tunnel rail link:
"However, exacting design aims have been set for the rail link, not only for noise, but for all other areas of potential environmental impact, such as vibration. Our paper on property purchase and compensation policy explains that the thinking behind this is that it is better to limit the environmental intrusion at source . . . by putting the rail link in a cutting or providing mitigation in the form of noise barriers and landscaping, than to rely simply on compensation."--[ Official Report , 31 March 1994; Vol.240, c. 1067.]
I hope that the Minister will take that on board. When the matter came to the Trafford magistrates court recently, the magistrates drew attention to the fact that, before the construction of the Euroterminal, neither Railfreight nor the Trafford park development corporation consulted Trafford borough council regarding noise or other environmental problems. Nor did they seek to discuss the matter with me or with the local community. I consider that disgraceful. According to the stipendiary magistrate,
"No advice was sought by Railfreight from their in-house advisers or from the manufacturers regarding possible noise problem." That is amazing, given that the development was so close to residences. The railway line is literally next to flats and houses. The magistrate also said:
"We now know that silent cranes were a possibility although they were more expensive."
Column 668British Rail, subsequently Railfreight, opted for a plan that was much worse in noise terms in order to save money, at the expense--both environmental and financial--of my constituents. That is difficult to justify.
I wrote to the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment pointing out that the development required no planning permission: as a statutory undertaking, British Rail is outside the planning permission regime. The Minister replied on 28 March 1994, nearly a year ago, saying that the Government did not consider planning permission necessary for a statutory undertaking. He wrote:
"We have issued guidance on the practice which statutory undertakings should follow in publicising development which they propose to carry out in exercise of their permitted development powers".
Sadly, both British Rail and the development corporation chose to ignore that guidance. I consider that to be unforgivable and unacceptable. When I put the point to the corporation and to Sir Bob Reid, chairman of British Rail, each blamed the other in a game of "pass the buck". That, too, is unacceptable.
The first problem experienced by my constituents may seem trivial, but it was the one that Sir Bob Reid seemed to latch on to when I met him. Their television reception was very poor, because the huge cranes act as an aerial, deflecting the signal. Just before Christmas 1993, Sir Bob told his assistant--whom I also met--"We must try to do something so that people do not lose their television reception over Christmas", but only in the early part of this year did British Rail and Railfreight finally get round to providing any kind of solution to the problem. I hope that the House agrees with my condemnation of BR's cavalier attitude to the interests of those whose lives were affected by its actions. Amazingly, even now only about 90 per cent. of those who experienced the problem have had their television reception restored, and I am told that the picture is not so good as it was originally; it is merely a good deal better than the terrible picture that they were obtaining. That may seem a small problem, but I do not think that it is so small nowadays, when we all take television for granted.
Much the most important problem, however, has been noise. Noise levels are now unacceptable, and the matter was recently brought to court. Having sought to reach an amicable deal with BR and Railfreight over a long period, Trafford council eventually lost patience and issued a noise abatement notice; BR protested, and sought to fight it. Only after the court hearing had been adjourned a number of times did BR finally come to court and admit that it was causing a statutory nuisance. That in itself is incredible: the development had been in progress for a full year before BR accepted that the noise level was a pollutant and constituted a statutory nuisance.
I hope that the Minister will join me in condemning BR and Railfreight for their casual attitude to those who have suffered. As I have said, BR could have opted for better technology which would have been much quieter, but considered its own costs more important than those of my constituents. As it has admitted its statutory duty, British Rail will now have to take some steps to ameliorate the problem because the court will make it do that. That compares with British Rail's lack of action to comply with rulings on other types of noise abatement.
Column 669I referred the Minister to the comments of his predecessor about the channel tunnel rail link, when it was said that prevention was better than cure. British Rail never tried to prevent these happenings. At a meeting in May 1994 it promised that an acoustic fence would be erected, but that promise did not materialise. British Rail simply lied, as it lied on a number of occasions about its actions.
When I again took the issue up with Sir Bob Reid in one of the many letters that I wrote to various people about noise, he said: "We are talking about very large sums of money indeed in order to provide effective noise fencing."
British Rail may have been talking about large sums, but it never spent them because nothing happened. Sir Bob Reid may have been gullible or deliberately misleading. He is now on his way out of British Rail and perhaps he is no great loss. I am sure that he will make a great deal of money in the private sector. I hope that every now and again he will think about the loss of money that my constituents are suffering because of his inability to make acceptable decisions.
As I have said, the court has ordered British Rail to abate the noise. The problem is that under the legislation if British Rail can demonstrate to the court that it has taken all practical steps within acceptable financial limits, the court will override the original decision to tell British Rail to abate its noise nuisance and my constituents may face the prospect of having to put up with noise that is above the level set by the court.
Even if British Rail reduces the noise to the level that the court has ordered, it will still be very noisy. One of the anomalies of noise legislation is that in a quiet rural area where background noise is low, the permitted ability to increase noise is far less than in an area on the boundary between a residential area and an industrial zone. That means that because my constituents are in an environment which is less good than another, they are likely to suffer more because of the nature of our planning laws. That makes little sense to me and it makes even less sense to my constituents. The nub of the debate is that, as a result of all this, my constituents have suffered real and material loss. For example, I have a letter from one of the local estate agents in Stretford. The company is called Trading Places and it wrote to the Gorse Hill residents committee. The letter is signed by J.B. Cox, a partner in Trading Places, and it states:
Over the past three years the prices of terraced property in Stretford and Gorse Hill have fallen by an average of 8 to 10 per cent. because of general market conditions."
We know that there has been a recession in property prices. The letter continues:
"However, in my opinion, the property in the Gorse Hill area has fallen by nearer to 13 per cent., and has gone from being a popular area for first time buyers, to an area which the first time buyers wish to avoid if they can possibly do so. Such people call into our office asking for property within an affordable price range stressing `not Gorse Hill'. When asked why they wish to avoid the area the majority have said that is because of the reported problems with the `Terminal'. I can therefore only assume that the additional fall in property prices within the Gorse Hill area is attributable to the `Terminal' and the problems which have arisen since the building of the cranes."
Column 670One of my constituents had his house valued and believes that he may have lost about £10,000 on a house that would have been worth £54,000 before the development. In anybody's terms, that is a significant and unacceptable loss.
Another of my constituents wrote to say that she had contacted another estate agent, Maunders. She wrote:
"Maunders have said they won't touch anything in Gorse Hill as a Part Exchange deal because of the publicity they've seen about the terminus."
Therefore there is blight and a real loss in terms of property prices. I shall not mention his name, but I should like to draw the attention of the House to another constituent, an elderly man, whose wife is also elderly and sick. They lived in a block of flats which was right up against the operation of the crane. Because his wife was not well, my constituent decided to move. Perhaps unwisely, or because he was badly advised--who knows--he purchased another property some distance away. He then found himself, in his late 70s, unable to sell his flat, having already completed the purchase of the other property. He is now in considerable debt, desperately worried, and does not know what to do. He is certainly a victim, albeit badly advised, of the development of the Eurofreight terminal.
The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I want to discuss compensation with him today. I draw his attention to parallels with the channel tunnel rail link. I know that he and his predecessors have had many exchanges with, among others, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) about the operation of the Land Compensation Act 1973. I followed that debate with considerable interest. I would be grateful if the Minister told me tonight whether that Act applies--I believe that the parallels with the channel tunnel rail link are close. This case is actually even stronger, though. In a previous debate the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Kettering, said:
"As hon. Members will know, it has been a long-standing policy of successive Governments to make a clear distinction in this respect between the construction or alteration of public works and the intensification of use of existing works."--[ Official Report , 19 June 1991; Vol.193, c.345-6.]
It is clear to me that this development is not an intensification of use; it is a fundamental change of use, from a rail track carrying goods trains to the presence of a huge crane intended to operate night and day. This is a clear case of construction and alteration of public works.
I believe, therefore, that the Land Compensation Act applies. I hope that the Minister will confirm that and declare that the Government expect my constituents to have their financial losses--if no other--recompensed under the system. I also draw his attention to some remarks of his own about the channel tunnel rail link, when he mentioned the system operated by Union Railways: a voluntary purchase scheme, whereby owners of property eventually to be compulsorily purchased can request Union Railways to purchase now. He went on to say that Union Railways also operate a discretionary purchase scheme for properties outside the channel tunnel rail link safeguarded zone
"on terms broadly comparable . . . to the scheme operated by the Highways Agency under the Planning and Compensation Act 1991."--[ Official Report , 6 March 1995; Vol.256, c.124.]
Column 671Given the losses suffered by my constituents and the environmental pollution that they face every day and night, they are surely entitled to action on the part of the Government and of British Rail to undo the damage done.
This whole exercise shows that British Rail and its successor companies have treated the community that I represent with contempt, which has emanated from Sir Bob Reid and run throughout the system. That is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will at least make the effort to ensure, in what is still a publicly run industry, that these views are communicated to those involved.
My constituents are entitled to some consideration for the losses that they have suffered. With the channel tunnel rail link--I do not wish to be divisive in such a packed House--in the leafier parts of southern England, it was accepted that it was necessary to come up with a prevention scheme to allay the fears of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling. No such consideration or prevention scheme was provided for my constituents. I cannot accept that just because they live in the grimy north they should be treated worse. Because of British Rail's failure to consult, and because the planning powers did not exist to make the local authority and the development corporation consult the local people properly, all this is now water under the bridge. All that can be done now is to ensure that Railfreight gets down to abating the noise and other environmental inconveniences. And because even that abatement will not stop the slide in property prices, there must ultimately be a compensation scheme adequately to recompense people whose lives have been harmed and who have suffered financial loss.
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts): I congratulate the hon. Member for Stretford (Mr. Lloyd) on securing time to discuss the matter, and on explaining the concerns of his constituents so clearly. I should like briefly to sum up the wider background to the development of the terminal before I deal with his specific points.
Intermodal transport is likely to provide a major opportunity for growth in the freight market for rail in Europe. In the past 15 years, the European railways' market share in the domestic freight market has decreased to about 7 per cent. Markets traditionally suited to rail have contracted because of wider structural changes in the economy, while the movement of finished goods has, so far, proved almost the exclusive province of road haulage.
The United Kingdom, however, in common with other European Community countries, views the development of intermodal transport as a key factor in the development of freight business for the railway. Trafford Park Euroterminal has been developed in that context and as an important part of a new network of terminals to take advantage of channel tunnel opportunities. It is situated on an industrial estate close to a long- established terminal that has handled the domestic and the region's deep- sea intermodal business, known as freightliner, for many years. To make best use of resources, freightliner operations were moved to the new site on a temporary basis. The Euroterminal layout and cranage capacity were designed to cater for about 100,000 containers per annum. The initial channel tunnel service, together with the
Column 672freightliner business in the region, are now achieving those figures. Therefore, the old Trafford Park site is being recommissioned, used once again for freightliner traffic, and is to be offered in the freightliner package for sale.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has found the consultation by British Rail so inadequate. I shall reflect on the detailed criticisms that he made about the basis on which consultation has been pursued. In his view and that of his constituents, it has been pursued inadequately. British Rail has pursued a policy of co-operating with local authorities to accommodate the concerns of local communities. Wherever possible, practical measures have been introduced to try to eliminate the effects on the local environment. I agree with his point that it is far better to design out problems at the outset, where that is possible, than to undertake remedial action when a problem has arisen, which appears to be the case here. Following the start of operations at Trafford Park Euroterminal, British Rail received a number of complaints from residents. It has sought various practical measures to deal with those concerns. For example, I understand that there was a problem involving overspill from lighting and glare from the terminal lighting. I am told that that has been resolved.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned interference to television reception and acknowledged that British Rail had taken some action in erecting a new transmitter and in undertaking the reorientation of aerials, but he explained that the implementation of that work took far too long. I am aware that, following landscaping work, residents experienced a temporary problem with rodent infestation, but I am advised that that has also been resolved.
A council study has shown that pollution in the region did not differ from the prevailing level there. I am told that a council study into vibration from the site has proved inconclusive. The hon. Gentleman raised the matter of noise and the Land Compensation Act 1973. He explained that the development was undertaken under general development orders that did not require normal planning permission. The Act allows for compensation to be paid when property value is adversely affected by physical factors such as noise and vibration from new or altered public works, including railways. It does not specify precisely what is meant by altered works in the case of railways, although it does refer to work that is reconstructed, extended or otherwise altered. Interpretation of the law is not for Ministers but for the courts, but the hon. Gentleman and his constituents might conclude that there could be valid claims for compensation under the provisions of that legislation.
As the hon. Gentleman explained, Trafford Park borough council brought an application for a noise abatement order before magistrates last autumn, following representations from local residents about noise nuisance at night from the terminal site. Initially, the court imposed a noise target of 41 decibels throughout the night hours and gave British Rail 90 days to introduce the necessary measures. In BR's view, those noise targets were technically infeasible. By way of comparison, a domestic refrigerator generates about 40 decibels. In response, the British Railways Board obtained independent advice about noise levels at the site, conducted further tests and put forward noise targets that would be technically feasible. Magistrates considered that
Column 673evidence and in the light of advice given in British Standard 4142 and limits recommended by the World Health Organisation for sleep disturbance, amended the noise target during night hours to 47 decibels.
British Rail has started the works needed to bring about that noise reduction. The work includes cladding for the cranes and erection of an acoustic fence. Once the work is complete and noise level tests have been conducted, the terminal will reopen at night. Until then, channel tunnel trains have been rescheduled to avoid the night hours, and freightliner traffic is now using the adjacent terminal. The acoustic fence contract has been let, and work should be completed by the end of May. Mechanical modifications to the cranes should bring about a reduction in airborne noise by the end of this month. Further reductions are proposed for structure-borne noise. Staff training has also been reviewed to reduce unnecessary noise, and equipment has been fitted with reminder notices to prompt staff to use it considerately. British Rail has also requested double glazing quotations from three national suppliers to meet the problems specific to the top floor of maisonettes in Stanton street. It is clear that BR has made, and continues to make, strenuous efforts to operate the Euroterminal with regard for the local environment.
Mr. Tony Lloyd: British Rail has at last made some effort, but it is more than a year since the terminal began to operate. My constituents have suffered a whole year because British Rail did not get it right in the first place.
Mr. Watts: I have taken on board the hon. Gentleman's point that the efforts were made far too late for his constituents and to satisfy him. However unfortunate the history, and whatever the lessons for the future, it is only right to consider what has been done and is being done to overcome the problems inflicted on the hon. Gentleman's constituents. Strenuous efforts are being made, if not as early as they ought to have been, to operate the new terminal with regard for the local environment.
As demand builds for BR's European services, more freightliner traffic will revert to the original Trafford Park terminal. Whatever the growth of European business for the north-west, capacity for container handling at the Euroterminal is limited to 100,000 containers per year, so
Column 674there should not be substantial further intensification of activity. Until the recent restriction on night use, those levels were already being reached.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman and local residents will draw some comfort from the measures that have been completed or are under way.
Mr. Lloyd: British Rail has been reluctant in the matter; it has been forced to act by the courts. Even the levels of noise about which we are talking are a significant increase. The decibel scale is not a linear scale, but a logarithmic scale. The extra 5 decibels makes an awful lot of difference. It means that there is an awful lot more noise than is made by the domestic refrigerator. If the Minister lived in such circumstances, would he, having seen his property devalued, want compensation?
Mr. Watts: If I felt that my property had been devalued, I would make use of the provision that is available in the law to press a claim for compensation. I have tried to be as helpful as I can be in explaining what the provisions of the Land Compensation Act 1973 are, without venturing into territory that is not proper for me, which is to attempt to interpret what the law means. It would be foolish of a Minister, especially one who is a chartered accountant and not a lawyer by professional training, to try to give an interpretation of what the law means in its application to a particular case. The law is there and it can be used if individuals feel that they have a valid claim under it.
I hope that the measures that are under way or completed and, perhaps, a rather more sensitive attitude to the management of the facility in the future will give some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman and to his constituents that attempts will be made to minimise the nuisance that arises from the operation of the terminal. It is, of course, a facility that is important to the development of freight business. It will be of benefit to the region in which the hon. Gentleman's constituency is situated. I know that he will recognise those benefits. Equally, it is important that we strike a balance and that the environmental costs to his constituents are not allowed to be too high in relation to the benefits that accrue. I hope that he will take some reassurance back to his constituents that measures to minimise nuisance will be continued into the future. Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.
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