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Transport Links (Dover)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Clelland.]

10.34 pm

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this Adjournment debate on the subject of my choice--a matter essential to the past, present and future well-being of my constituency. Although more than half of my constituency can be described as rural, the majority of jobs are either related to the port or town-based, and the very existence of the port and the town relies on Dover's transport links--road and rail links to other parts of Kent and to London, the cross-channel links to France and Belgium, and deep-sea shipping links to other parts of Europe and to the worldwide shipping lanes.

Early in my Merchant Navy career, I developed the British seafarer's natural affection for the sight of the white cliffs of Dover--it was our first sniff of Europe, our first view of Britain and our first sight of home. However, over the past 18 years, living in Dover and Deal and bringing up my family in Dover, I have been able to enjoy the much wider attractions of the area. These include the greenery of the north downs which lie above the white cliffs, the splendid views from Dover castle, the enchanting seaside town of Deal and, of course, the warmth and steadfast character of the people who populate my very special and very beautiful constituency--the constituency that we like to call the white cliffs country.

Those people's jobs and their futures are closely related to the sustained success of our cross-channel ferries, our sea-cats and our hovercraft, and the continued development of the public trust port of Dover, which has served one of the busiest and most strategic sea crossings in the world for more than a century. Dover has long been privileged to act as the gateway to Europe: we are pleased to serve in that role, which provides us with direct jobs on cross-channel ferries, jobs in the port of Dover and jobs in port-related service industries. However, we are also charged with serving as gatekeepers, which brings duties and responsibilities that on occasion tax our resources, impact negatively on our communities and strain our inadequate transport links.

In the short time since the new Labour Government came to power, we have suffered the criminal activities of bootleggers, the influx of hundreds of mostly bogus asylum seekers and the crippling disruption caused by the recent French lorry drivers' dispute. For many years, we have had to witness the carriage of live animals for export: we have seen the cruelty that it inflicts, and we look forward to the day when this evil trade will cease. Just over the horizon, we are bracing ourselves for major job losses with the P and O and Stena line proposals to cut their fleet in a merged operation. We face the threat of further massive redundancies if our on-board duty-free sales are abolished.

Of course, I make no connection between the election of the new Government and Dover's difficulties--on the contrary, Ministers have listened to our concerns and, where possible, acted promptly to ease our problems. However, problems in our transport links have remained unaddressed for many years. The link that has caused

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most of our distress has been the fixed link--the channel tunnel--not only because it was allowed to be built without a public inquiry, but because of the uneven way in which the previous Government supported the tunnel in relation to the cross-channel fleet and the port of Dover.

Nothing highlights the uneven approach of the Conservative Government more than the comparison between the tunnel, which was provided with a four-lane motorway connection right up to the terminal entrance before the tunnel was operational, and the port, which, after 20 years of all-party campaigning, still relies on the inadequate A2 single carriageway at its eastern approach.

I acknowledge that, after the tunnel was operational, the A20 was extended into Dover, but that was one of the tunnel-related roads, to give east Kent access to the tunnel, and its configuration means that drivers travelling from London to east Kent are exposed to 70 miles of channel tunnel signage and are then invited to leave the motorway for the Eurotunnel terminal 10 miles before they reach the port of Dover.

Dualling of the last seven miles of the A2 from Lydden to Dover is well overdue. It will make an important contribution to the economic development of the area by easing traffic flows to the port and to the towns of Dover and Deal, opening up better access to the White Cliffs business park and supporting improved road links to the proposed new industrial development at the redundant Ministry of Defence site at Old Park barracks, in addition to greatly improving safety on a piece of road that has an unacceptably high accident rate.

I am aware that the project is now being considered as part of the roads review, but I urge Ministers to take account of the fact that this short stretch of inadequate road is an essential link to the port of Dover, which is diversifying and expanding to meet the challenge of the channel tunnel, and it is crucial to the successful development of our job creation projects.

At this stage, it may be appropriate to give some recognition to the efforts of my predecessor, Mr. David Shaw, the work that he put into campaigning for the dualling of the A2, and the careful attention that he gave to his constituents in casework. He took a robust and combative stance in the Chamber on many issues--as you may well remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker--but I felt that he had gone a little too far when, only four months after the general election, he returned to Dover with a camera crew and accused the new Labour Government of failing to dual the A2.

Before Mr. Shaw, there was Mr. Peter Rees, who, in the few contacts that I had with him, always acted in a gentlemanly and helpful manner; before him was the late David Ennals, who enjoyed a distinguished career in the House before being elevated to another place, where he continued to work hard promoting overseas aid and fostering international relationships.

All three of my predecessors pressed hard for better road links, but Dover also suffers from inadequate rail links. As the Government consider their existing plans to develop an integrated transport system, I am sure that Ministers will wish to take account of the need to encourage investment in the rail links to ports such as Dover, where relatively small amounts of funding can open up new modes of rail transport and enhance the potential of our train service facilities.

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A truly integrated transport system will need to link road and rail networks to international shipping routes as well as the short sea routes to continental Europe. With such links in mind, it troubles me to hear that, at a time when the Government are seeking to shift freight from road to rail, Railtrack appears to be selling off its freight yards, such as Town Yard at Dover's Western Docks terminal.

Dover has survived many difficulties in the past 15 years. First, we had to put up with the disruption caused by the construction phase of the channel tunnel and its road connections. In the little village estate of Aycliffe, thousands of tonnes of countryside were gouged out behind Shakespeare cliff, and 71 homes were demolished for road building.

Secondly, in a premature response to the impact of the tunnel, P and O European Ferries forced staff cuts in 1988 which resulted in a bitter 12-month dispute and the sacking of more than 1,000 local seafarers who were fighting to maintain safe manning levels on the vessels. Many of those sacked are still unemployed, and the P and O Sacked Seafarers Committee is still campaigning for justice and compensation for those local people.

Thirdly, at Christmas 1993, as the single market came into being, we lost 600 jobs in one weekend when the roles of the freight forwarders and the frontier brokers ended. Just last month, ex-miners in the village of Aylesham gathered to mark the 10th anniversary of the closure of their pit and the complete shut-down of the east Kent coalfield. Overall, some 2,000 jobs have been squeezed out of our ferry and port-related industry in an effort to compete with the tunnel. People are rightly angry that a bankrupt channel tunnel with £8 billion of debt, which was heavily favoured by the previous Government, should be allowed to continue to steal traffic from the highly successful surface fleet, and further to threaten the jobs of local people.

Dover has suffered in the past and survived, and we are fighting back again now. In the village of Aylesham--where male unemployment reached 25 per cent.--the local people, supported by public and private partnerships, have opened a complex of workshops, training areas and community facilities to create jobs and breathe new hope into the village and the surrounding areas. The Labour district council has won single regeneration budget funding for a £17 million project to regenerate the east Kent coalfield and create more than 500 new jobs.

The barracks, vacated when the Royal Marines school of music in Deal was shut down, will hopefully soon be developed to create jobs and provide educational and community facilities. However, we shall need help from Kent county council with improving the A258 and providing better access. Similarly, the St Radigund's industrial estate will be sustained and enhanced if improved access can be provided at the notorious Coombe Valley road railway bridge.

The port of Dover is now safe from privatisation. I thank the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) for their visits to Dover and their robust support for our campaign to stop the privatisation of the port in 1996. Now that the threat has passed, the harbour board is planning an ambitious expansion of the already successful cruise terminal. I am pleased to say that it is determined to retain the train ferry services to take advantage of Labour's new transport initiatives.

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Dover has other ambitious plans too numerous to cover in this short debate, but the key to them all is the provision of improved road links, the maintenance and upgrading of our existing rail links, and even-handed support for our highly successful surface fleet as it adapts to meet the changes and the challenges posed by the channel tunnel.

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