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3 Jun 1998 : Column 324

Newhaven Port

12.29 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I am pleased to have this opportunity to initiate a debate on a matter that is vital to my constituency and, as I shall try to shows, to the economy of a much wider sub-region.

This is a critical time for Newhaven. The port is at a crossroads, if the House will forgive the mixed metaphor. It has the potential to become a major success story of the next century, but might also slip away, leaving a shell of derelict buildings, rusting metal and high unemployment. It could go either way, and which way it goes will depend, at least in part, on the events of the next few months. The Government, local councils and, crucially, the private sector must all deliver if we are succeed, and I see it as part of my job to ensure that that happens.

Let me deal with the port's potential. First, there is the its geographical location: it is not, as some tend to portray it, at the periphery, but well inside the triangle that takes in London, Paris and Brussels; if one draws a line from London to Paris, Newhaven is the port closest to that line. The port's potential is shown by the fact that 1.2 million people live within an hour's drive of Newhaven. However, when people think of channel ports, they think of Dover, Southampton and Portsmouth, and consistently underrate Newhaven's potential.

Secondly, there is the Newhaven Economic Partnership which, as the Minister will know, is a private company, limited by guarantee, set up to revitalise the port. All the town's major employers are represented, including Sea Containers, which owns the port; P and O Stena, which operates the ferry service; James Fisher and Sons, which has in Newhaven the largest cold store for imported fruit and vegetables in the country; and companies such as Parker Pen and Concord Lighting, which are major employers in Newhaven.

All three levels of local council are represented--the county, the district and the town--and so am I, as the local Member of Parliament. In addition, Lewes tertiary college is also an active member, giving valuable help on employment training.

The NEP has been successful in securing single regeneration fund money from the Government, capital challenge funding for a new port access road and Interreg money earmarked for local schemes. In addition, the partners, especially the local councils, have committed funds to the partnership's pot. That has helped with several valuable local projects, such as saving the Hillcrest centre, which is a focal point for the community.

Thirdly, there is the unique and strong relationship with Dieppe. The ferry crossing between the two ports goes back well into the last century. In recent years, Dieppe has had a huge amount of investment in its port, and the French now want the same to happen in Newhaven. To that end, a joint action group was formed between Dieppe chamber of commerce and Lewes district council. More recently, the chamber became a full member of the NEP, which is the first time a French chamber has voluntarily put itself under the jurisdiction of English law. Dieppe believes in the crossing and in Newhaven; it is now time to show clearly that people on this side of the channel also believe in Newhaven.

That leads me to the current situation. An improved port is absolutely essential to the future of Newhaven and to the wider sub-region, including Brighton.

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The regeneration project in Newhaven is a complex jigsaw, which will not work unless all the pieces are in place. An improved port is the key piece, to which all others are connected.

The port in its current configuration is limited in capacity in a way which, if it remains unimproved, spells bad news for Newhaven tomorrow. The present generation of ferries can only just negotiate the port, and, with bigger ferries coming on stream elsewhere, Newhaven faces a loss of competitiveness against other south coast ports if it cannot match any increase in size.

Furthermore, the depth of the port--only 5m--means that James Fisher and Sons is operating well below capacity, because boats are getting bigger, and now touch the bottom when they arrive. That in turn makes it difficult for shippers to obtain insurance cover, with the result that business goes elsewhere. Time and again, contracts have been won by Fisher, only to be lost at the last minute because of the insurance problem. Put bluntly, there must be a possibility that Fisher, a major employer in the town, will close and the ferry operation be scaled down, with the loss of numerous jobs, if an improved port cannot be provided soon. It was that fact that provided a major impetus for the setting up of the NEP.

The good news is that many of the jigsaw pieces have been assembled, and some are fixed together. Planning permission has been achieved for a new outer port, subject to a few final details being ironed out by the district council as the planning authority. Planning permission has also been granted for a new port access road, which will link the trunk road network with the port. Those two proposals are inextricably linked to the port's future. Formal withdrawal of outstanding objections to compulsory purchase orders has been achieved, so that obstacle is out of the way.

The existing road winds around residential streets, passing a nursery school and local shops. It is the most inappropriate port access imaginable. The new road will not only solve that problem and link the trunk road network with the new outer port, but also open up access to the biggest unused piece of land identified for industrial purposes anywhere along the south coast--at least between Eastbourne and Worthing, and probably further. The land will be used to provide an Eastside business park. The road scheme is estimated to cost £7.8 million, with £6.8 million coming from a successful capital challenge bid and the rest from Interreg funding.

It is worth noting that East Sussex county council has already spent around £500,000 on design and securing planning permission for the road. The council also says that it is prepared to shoulder the debt payments from servicing the capital challenge funding, which will come to another £500,000. The county council tells me that it is fully committed to building the road, and I and the people of Newhaven intend to hold them to that commitment.

That is the background; I apologise for the fact that I have taken some time to set it out, but I thought it best to put matters in context. I come now to what I should like the Government to do to help Newhaven.

First, it would be helpful if the Minister could set out exactly what the Government's strategy is for ports, especially their vision for the south coast. The hon. Lady will no doubt be aware of the European Union Green Paper on sea ports and maritime infrastructure, so I

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presume that she has already given that key matter some thought. Currently, 80 per cent. of cross-channel traffic goes through Kent. Does the Minister agree that it is sensible not to put all one's eggs in one basket? The benefits of diversity alone suggest that Newhaven should be protected and enhanced--small ports have an important role to play. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are committed to a diversity of ports, and that they will oppose any contraction of the number available on the south coast?

Given that Newhaven is already on the trans-European rail network, will the Minister undertake to help to put together a case for EU funding for Newhaven port, which might well be available under the proposals in the Green Paper, as I understand them? In short, I am asking for an assurance that the Government, like people in Newhaven and Dieppe, believe that Newhaven port has a solid future in the next century. If the answer to that is yes, I ask the Minister to put that on the record today, because that assurance alone will help in the current circumstances. In addition, it is unclear what is to be the role of the regional development agencies in port policy and support, so some clarification would be helpful.

I said that the trans-European rail network includes Newhaven, and I ask for the Minister's help in that respect. Is she aware that Railtrack's published plans for the next 10 years do not even mention Newhaven? That is despite the trans-European link, despite the fact that major redevelopment of the port would give an opportunity to combine the current three railway stations--which are a shambolic first sight for visitors arriving in Newhaven from the continent--into one brand-new one, and despite the fact that there is considerable potential for moving freight by rail from Newhaven. The infrastructure from decades ago still remains, and the rail lines literally go down to the quayside.

There is still plenty of land for expansion, and, as the Minister knows from our correspondence, English, Welsh and Scottish Railfreight has expressed considerable interest in the site. Indeed, the company's No. 2 in this country, Julian Worth, has met me and others from the Newhaven Economic Partnership on site to discuss the potential. He went away interested in Newhaven port.

The Government are rightly committed to shifting the bias of transport away from the private car and lorry and on to more environmentally friendly transport, including rail. Does the Minister therefore share my view that plans for a new port in Newhaven provide a wonderful opportunity to achieve the Government's objectives? If a new port were almost totally dependent on private road transport, a great opportunity would have been missed.

My requests of the Government in respect of rail are as follows. Will they continue to support Newhaven's place in the trans-European network? Will they give support today for the principle of rail freight movements from and through Newhaven? Will they make representations to Railtrack in order that it assesses the potential for Newhaven, with a view to putting the scheme in its forward programme?

Will the Government please reconsider their decision not to stop the sale of so-called redundant rail land in the town, the loss of which might jeopardise the development of rail freight in the port? I apologise to the Minister for raising that yet again, but I am working on the basis that,

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if I raise it frequently enough, I may get the answer for which I am looking. Even limiting sales to companies with rail interests would help. The policy of disposal of land that was identified as surplus by the Tories, who were not interested in rail and are not present for today's debate, is so out of line with the Government's mainly refreshingly sensible transport policy.

On the wider transport infrastructure, will the Government examine what is being done in Dieppe to see how improvements in Newhaven might dovetail? Will the Government undertake to consider the A26 and the parallel rail line as part of a corridor study on the route north of Newhaven, in line with proposals for such studies in the Government's forthcoming White Paper on transport--if newspaper stories are to be believed?

I return to the key aspect of the debate: proposals for an improved port and a new port access road. The start of construction on the port access road has slipped due to uncertainties over the new port and the merger of two ferry companies. The merger has also made it very difficult for P and O Stena Line and Sea Containers to reach a long-term agreement, given the merger's restrictive conditions.

Under those circumstances, it is being discussed whether, in the interim, it may make sense for the road to access a new deeper berth in the existing harbour rather than a brand new port immediately. That could well cut through some of the problems, deliver an improvement in time to safeguard the port, and achieve the aims that the Government originally set out when approving capital challenge funding. I am advised that such a modified route for the road would not require a new planning application.

I ask the Government for time and flexibility to tie up negotiations among the various partners. In the past few days, as the Minister will imagine, I have spoken to several partners in the public and private sectors to assess progress, and I believe that a solution is in sight and achievable. It is therefore crucial that the rug is not pulled from under our feet by rigid adherence to a timetable that was set under different circumstances.

The Government office for the south-east has been constructive and entirely helpful in the process, but can obviously go only so far without a ministerial steer. Will the Minister use her contacts to put pressure on the private sector in particular to reach agreements that will enable investment to proceed? The public sector locally has, by and large, delivered its part of the bargain.

Newhaven has suffered from years of under- investment. The merger of P and O and Stena Line, although representing a strengthening of the position in Newhaven, has nevertheless caused short-term uncertainty. The forthcoming loss of duty-free trade has added to that, and could be bad for the town. I cannot emphasise enough, however, that Newhaven's potential is enormous as a cross-channel ferry port and railhead, a back-up to the channel tunnel--the only potential one--a major import-export location, and an economic engine for the entire sub-region as far north as Haywards Heath and East Grinstead.

Like a game in a Christmas cracker, this matter is a question of getting all the silver balls into the holes at the same time. The Government's attitude to Newhaven, how flexible they are in funding the port access road,

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how seriously they take the potential for rail freight, how hard they are prepared to lean on those in the private sector, the signals that they send out and the stance that they take, are all crucial. I ask the Minister to respond positively and helpfully to my points--I am sure she will--in order to let the people of Newhaven know that the Government are on their side and will help them.

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