Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) on obtaining this debate on Associated British Ports' important development plans at Dibden bay, Southampton. As my hon. Friend chairs the all-party group on ports, it is hardly surprising that his cogent and informed speech touched on issues and interests that ranged wider than those of particular interest to his constituents.

My hon. Friend spoke of the importance of Associated British Ports' operations to Southampton and the surrounding region. There is no doubt that the prosperity of the port is closely linked to that of the city. In connecting the UK not only with Europe but with the rest of the world, the port plays an important part.

I understand that research commissioned by Hampshire county council and Southampton city council in 1994 confirmed that the port is a major contributor to the economy of Southampton and the region. Another report estimated that 13,000 jobs were directly dependent on port activities, with a further 2,000 to 4,000 dependent on the expenditure of port-related companies and their employees.

In total, port-dependent activities were estimated to account for around 6 per cent. of all employment in the Southampton travel-to-work area--an area which experienced a significant loss of manufacturing capacity and employment in the 198Os, compounded by reductions

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1068

in defence expenditure in the 199Os. Therefore, the full-time and semi-skilled jobs provided by the port are particularly valuable.

The port has continued to prosper. In 1996, annual traffic had risen to a record 34.2 million tonnes, including nearly 6.8 million tonnes of container and roll-on/roll-off traffic, accounting for over 6 per cent. of total trade through UK ports. The port is an increasingly busy operation, which also reflects substantial investment through the opening of new facilities and of latest developments in cargo-handling technology. This investment, together with the port's natural deep-water advantages and geographical position, has enabled it to compete successfully in a very competitive market.

An important issue facing ABP is how to maintain and build on this success in the light of international trends towards bigger ships and fewer but larger international hub ports in Europe. ABP's response has been to promote expansion of handling capacity through Dibden bay. The commercial and financial feasibility of proceeding in this way is primarily a matter for ABP, but proposals of this kind inevitably raise a wide range of planning and environmental issues.

Although ABP has not so far submitted applications for the necessary consents, I know that there have been discussions with environmental bodies, the relevant local authorities and my officials in preparation for a public consultation exercise, possibly leading to the submission of consent applications later this year. Procedures are complex, as various consents are required under different legislation. A local public inquiry will almost certainly be held, with the final decision resting with the Secretary of State.

My hon. Friend did not expect me to pronounce on any particular proposal, about which I am relieved, as it would be improper for me to express any view now on the merits or otherwise of proposals for the development of Dibden bay. The public inquiry will address the relevant issues, including environmental impacts, economic benefits and conformity with development plans and with national policy. However, it may be helpful if I say something generally about these issues, without prejudice to future decisions on any formal proposals from ABP.

My hon. Friend raised a number of points about the Government's general policy towards ports and port developments. As the House knows, we plan to publish later this spring a White Paper setting out the Government's integrated transport policy. It will show how our policies can improve the role of the United Kingdom's transport system in supporting employment and sustainable economic growth, as well as protecting the environment. It will also suggest ways in which the best use of ports and shipping can be promoted.

Recognising the importance of shipping, and concerned at the decline in the British merchant fleet, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State last year set up a shipping working group to examine how the decline could be reversed. He is now considering the working group's report, with a view to publishing his conclusions after the White Paper.

As our recent response to the European Commission's Green Paper on ports and maritime infrastructure made clear, we will continue to support policies that encourage competition and efficiency in the ports industry on a fully commercial basis. We shall also ensure fair employment

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1069

standards and better, more effective regulation of safety and the environment. It is important to recognise that our ports are competing vigorously, both in the United Kingdom and in the European market. We therefore support measures to develop a level playing field throughout Europe, which is why we broadly support the principles in the Green Paper.

I reassure my hon. Friend that the Government recognise the importance to the United Kingdom of our ports. They are a vital link in the supply chain, with, as he said, some 95 per cent. of our international trade by volume--moreover, considerable domestic traffic goes through them. We must ensure that ports are integrated into our transport networks in ways that contribute to the achievement of a more effective and more environmentally friendly transport system.

Our ports cannot be developed in isolation. Virtually all ports depend upon freight movements by road. Many have rail access, and some support the movement of people, mostly in their cars or private coaches. Policies for these modes need, in turn, to reflect the role of ports.

Our broad aims are to ensure that ports play a full role in supporting the competitiveness of their regions, and that any port development is sympathetic to the surrounding natural environment and local communities. We must also ensure that greater use is made of rail and water links where they are practical and economic options, although it would be foolish to pretend that road connections will not continue to play a very important role.

The ports industry is diverse; the supply chains it serves are even more so. Demand for their services is derived--their customers have varied and changeable requirements. The shipping industry operates in a highly competitive world market on very tight margins, and is sensitive to minor and unpredictable international economic, political and commercial factors.

Nevertheless, as my hon. Friend said, some trends are clear, notably the strong and continuing increase in the use of freight containers and road trailers--unitisation--as opposed to the carriage of goods in semi-bulk form. Container ships are now larger, and have access to only a few ports, with deeply dredged access channels. As my hon. Friend pointed out, internationally, the shipping industry is concentrating on hub ports for its main liner services, with other ports providing only feeder services.

Last year, Southampton served eight container lines, and handled 893,000 units. Three quarters of that business is with the far east--indeed, the port handles half our far east trade by volume.

There are pressures on capacity, but ports have shown a considerable ability to absorb additional traffic without physical expansion. Development pressures remain, of which the Dibden bay proposal is an instance. It also clearly illustrates the sensitivity of port expansion projects, since protected habitats are liable to be affected.

There is no doubt that the Solent area is outstanding in nature conservation terms. There are many sites of special scientific interest in the area, and proposals for four international conservation designations under the habitats directive will shortly be considered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when discussions arising from the consultation are concluded.

It is surely right that any plan or project should be assessed in the light of a proper evaluation of its possible adverse effects. The aim should be to mitigate and

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1070

compensate for those, in order to maintain the quality of our environment and its biodiversity. Transport projects are not an exception: land take and other environmental impacts of new transport infrastructure have been very significant. We aim to minimise them in future, and to ensure that environmental effects are taken fully into account in investment decisions.

The habitats directive, which sets out the safeguards for the internationally important sites it will protect, emphasises the importance of sustainable development. Any plan or project that will affect the integrity of such a site can, in the absence of alternatives, be approved only on grounds of overriding public interest, and with the provision of compensatory measures.

The directive imposes those specific tests for any development that may affect internationally important wildlife sites. I believe that the tests represent a logical extension to those special sites of the principles that I have outlined. I understand that ABP Southampton has already been discussing informally with English Nature its plans for Dibden bay, with a view to minimising or removing the impacts on the local bird populations and habitats.

There will also be a range of planning issues to consider at Dibden bay. The 1994 regional planning guidance identified Southampton as one of the most important ports in the country. The guidance also recognises that the ports industry generally needs to continue to adapt to changes in patterns of international trade.

Hampshire county council's structure plan is in the process of being revised. When a new plan is adopted, it will provide guidance for development in Hampshire at a strategic level well into the next century. It will identify the general pattern of development and provide a set of policies to enable communities, businesses and institutions to know where to invest in Hampshire.

The draft structure plan deposited in 1996 proposed a policy to allow, exceptionally, for port development at Dibden bay where such development is in the interest of the regional and national economy. However, the Government office for the south-east, on behalf of the Secretary of State, objected to the policy, on the grounds that it was overly restrictive. The panel, known as "Examination in Public", that conducted the structure plan review in which the policy was discussed, has subsequently reported to Hampshire county council, and recommended that the policy be modified to provide a more positive approach to port development.

The county council has published the panel's report for information, but it has not yet formally determined how to respond to any of the recommendations, including on the Dibden bay policy. It is the responsibility of Hampshire county council, jointly with the two unitary authorities of Portsmouth and Southampton, to decide what modifications to propose to the deposited review plan in the light of the panel's report. We wait with interest to learn what shape the Dibden bay policy will take.

In the emerging New forest district local plan, Dibden bay has been identified by the local planning authority as a site of importance for nature conservation, which means that the local authority considers that the area is of critical importance for nature conservation within the district. It is also identified as being within a strategic gap.

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1071

The inquiry into objections to the local plan has now been completed, and the inspector is expected to report this summer. It will be for New Forest district council to decide what account to take of any recommendations that the inspector may make on the issue.

Environmental concerns are not confined to the marine habitats proposed for designation under the habitats directive. Road and rail access are also likely to be important issues for Dibden bay. I understand that a road link is proposed with the A326, a local authority road, and that Associated British Ports is seeking to resolve the issues that that raises with the county council.

I understand that ABP is also in discussions with Railtrack over improvements to the rail infrastructure. Wherever practicable, we want to get more freight on to rail, and we are working to establish more effective and accountable regulation and to establish a new rail authority to provide clear, coherent strategic programmes for the development of the railways, so that the aspirations of rail freight operators and users can be met.

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1072

We have already taken action to boost take-up of freight grants, and that is proving successful. We are also considering what else might be done to boost rail freight in the context of the integrated transport policy White Paper. Southampton port, which has good existing, albeit partially under-used, rail facilities, is well placed to move more freight by rail, and Railtrack's planned increase in route capacity approaching the port is a welcome step in the right direction.

I repeat that I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the issues associated with the development of Dibden bay to the attention of the House. The subject raises some challenging issues for transport policy in general, as well as for the port. Those will undoubtedly get a thorough airing when a formal application has been made and the statutory procedures get under way. I am sure--

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.

23 Apr 1998 : Column 1071

 IndexHome Page