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12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on obtaining this Adjournment debate. As he so rightly says, the topic of Newhaven port is of importance not only to his constituents but to the entire region.

The port of Newhaven is a major local employment provider through companies such as P and O Stena Line and James Fisher, employing several hundred people. As the hon. Member pointed out, it plays an important role in linking the south-east region with the markets of continental Europe, and, like neighbouring Shoreham, is a key port in handling marine aggregates for the construction industry. As the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, it handles a variety of traffic, including passengers, fruit and vegetables, forest products and fish. As he further pointed out, there has been recent investment in a cool storage facility for fruit and vegetable traffic. In all, the port handled 1.3 million tonnes of cargo in 1996, with a passenger throughput of 841,000 and about 160,000 vehicles.

In December 1996, East Sussex county council was awarded credit approval of £6.8 million under the capital challenge towards the £7.8 million cost of the port access road. The road, as the hon. Member for Lewes also pointed out in great detail, is seen as the key to the regeneration of Newhaven. The wider regeneration scheme for Newhaven amounts to more than £80 million, which includes £6.5 million single regeneration budget challenge funding. Most of the private sector investment--Sea Containers Ltd. and P and O Stena Line--will be in the renewal of Newhaven port, including the construction of the outer harbour. The road, the harbour and the wider regeneration of the town are inextricably linked.

East Sussex county council has also submitted a bid through the European funding programme, Interreg, for a £1 million contribution towards the port access road. The application has been received, and is being considered by the Government Office for the South-East and my Department.

In addition, Lewes district council has applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for grants to aid the fisheries aspect of the port's modernisation. Up to 50 per cent. grant is available from MAFF for work including rebuilding the fishermen's jetties and a new fish market building. The application is under consideration by MAFF. Grant for a feasibility study for the development of the port has already been made available under the PESCA scheme for restructuring fishing dependent areas.

Although I am aware of such plans for a major redevelopment of the port facilities at Newhaven, and cognisant of the pleas of the hon. Member for Lewes, I cannot comment on the detail of the plans, because they may be subject to approvals from my Department,

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for which formal applications have yet to be made. The environmental impact of such a project will be carefully considered as part of the approvals procedure.

As well as raising several detailed points about Newhaven port, the hon. Member raised a number of points about the Government's general policy towards ports and port development. As he will be aware, and as the House knows, we are shortly to publish a White Paper setting out the Government's integrated transport policy. We fully recognise that our ports are a vital link in the supply chain. Some 95 per cent. of our international trade by volume, as well as considerable domestic traffic, goes through them. We must ensure that they are integrated into our transport networks in ways which contribute to the aims of a more effective and more environmentally friendly transport system.

It is important to recognise that our ports are competing vigorously both in the United Kingdom and the European market. We therefore support measures to develop a level playing field throughout Europe, and we will continue to support policies that encourage competition and efficiency in the ports industry on a fully commercial basis. In doing so, we will also seek to ensure fair employment standards and better, more effective regulation of safety issues and environmental safeguards.

Our broad aims are to ensure that ports play a full role in supporting the competitiveness of their regions: that any port development is sympathetic to the surrounding natural environment and local communities. Ports can enhance sustainable freight distribution by their connection to more environmentally friendly modes, and increased port efficiency can increase the attractiveness of those modes.

Newhaven, like almost every other port, depends for its business on freight movements by road--but, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, it is one of the many that also has rail access. We agree with him that we must try to ensure that in future advantage is taken of that fact wherever possible in encouraging the transfer of freight from road to rail.

The context for those broad aims is a forward-looking integrated transport policy that supports a strong economy, contributes to a sustainable environment and helps to create a just and inclusive society. That is a huge challenge, and one of the encouraging aspects of an ambitious task is the degree of consensus throughout the nation on the need to change.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's interest in good access to the port of Newhaven. He will know that we are carrying out a review of the role of trunk roads, including the A27. We have involved a wide range of advice and expertise, including local authorities, businesses, trade unions, transport professionals and transport users. As he also knows, we are developing a new appraisal methodology that takes a wider view of accessibility by all modes in terms of the economy and the environment.

Against the background of increased congestion, we have three broad options for roads. To make better use of existing infrastructure is the obvious first choice. It has been provided at substantial cost in both financial and environmental terms, and we must make the best use of that investment. We need, however, to be realistic about what the various options can deliver.

We must also look seriously at other harder options, such as managing demand and providing new infrastructure. Managing demand is a vast topic.

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It encompasses reducing the need to travel, an assessment of the extent to which a shift to other modes can be encouraged, and, inevitably, the question of controlling demand by pricing or rationing mechanisms.

Providing new infrastructure is a difficult option, both financially and in terms of the impact that it may have on the environment. Our starting point is that we will not proceed with major new road construction unless we are satisfied that there is no better alternative; even then, there will be difficult choices to be made within the limited resources available.

We have held regional consultations to elicit views on whether the schemes in the inherited roads programme address the most important transport problems, or whether other problems deserve greater priority. We envisage two outputs from that part of the review--a firm short-term investment programme and a programme of studies to look at the remaining problems, out of which the medium and long-term investment programme will emerge.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the proposed access road to the harbour. As he said, that scheme, designed to link the trunk road network to the proposed new port and ferry terminal, received credit approval of £6.8 million through the capital challenge pilot scheme in December 1996. Capital challenge is a three-year pilot, and all funding is programmed to terminate at the end of March 2000.

Cognisant of the plea that the hon. Gentleman has repeated, I must tell him that there are no plans to extend that deadline at present. Proposed changes to the scheme, resulting from any revision of the development plans, would have to be consistent with the initial aims of the capital challenge bid. I understand that to date no firm proposals have been received, although there have been some preliminary discussions of different options.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about the possibility of the scheme's slipping. I understand that the county council has resolved not to proceed with the road until there is valid planning permission for the port and a firm commitment from Sea Containers to proceed with the port improvements. Of course, as he rightly pointed out, the road network is only one piece of the transport jigsaw. He also mentioned freight to and from Newhaven port.

The Government are determined to encourage greater use of the railways for passengers and freight. We want to see improvements in existing rail services. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we inherited a fragmented rail system with no strategic vision for the development of the network, a confusing regulatory system, and a need for leadership and direction.

The Government have already demonstrated their intentions by conducting a fundamental review of rail regulation, including the Rail Regulator's inquiry into the rolling stock leasing market. We have also taken action within the existing regulatory constraints. Last November, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport announced an interim package of measures designed to boost regulation of the railways, which included new objectives for the franchising director. Those require him to manage existing franchise contracts tightly in the public interest, by making sure that train operators live up to their contractual commitments.

We have made it clear that our overriding goal is to get more freight on to rail. We are currently considering what further action we may take to boost rail freight in the

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context of the integrated transport policy White Paper. Action has already been taken to encourage more freight on to the railway by overhauling the freight grants scheme. Shortly after coming to office, we doubled the grant available for moving freight from the roads, and we have increased it by a further £10 million for the year 1998-99. An initiative to publicise the system has resulted in nearly all last year's £30 million being taken up, and £28 million of this year's grant money is already accounted for.

Railtrack is investigating the scope to develop several major routes for freight, and, with a group of local authorities, is studying congestion on the south coast rail route from Weymouth to Dover with the aim of improving services to encourage more use of the route. We are watching that study with interest. The new freight companies have adopted positive attitudes and ambitious targets that would quadruple the proportion of freight tonne kilometres by rail over the next 10 years. Rail freight volume has already shown a 5 per cent. growth in tonne kilometres over 1996-97--the first such increase in many years.

We acknowledge there is more to be done. We are committed to the creation of a new rail authority, and will announce our proposals in the White Paper. The authority is likely to have responsibility for, among other things, managing and enforcing existing franchise contracts, developing a strategic vision for investment in the network, promoting integration between rail and other modes of transport, and balancing the needs of passengers and freight users, as no one body currently can.

I understand that a community partnership venture between the operating company Connex South Central and Newhaven Economic Partnership has been set up, as a result of which the station at Newhaven will receive a face lift later this summer. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the bad state not only of the network but of stations in his area. We too recognise the importance of clean, smart, comfortable and safe public transport facilities in helping to encourage people to switch from their cars to using public transport.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the abolition of duty-free sales, and its anticipated effect on the port of Newhaven. I can only say that the decision to abolish intra-European Union duty-free sales was taken unanimously by the Council of Finance Ministers in 1991 as part of the single market programme. It is primarily a

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fiscal matter, and not a matter for the United Kingdom in isolation but subject to unanimity among the 15 member states.

We have said that we would not oppose any move by the Commission to set up a study into the effects of the abolition of duty-free sales. There is, however, no consensus of support among the member states for a continuation of duty-free sales, or even for a study of the impact of abolition. We are, through Customs and Excise, in discussion with UK trade interests and the Commission to explore the practicalities of implementing the successor regime after June 1999, when abolition takes effect.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for bringing Government support for Newhaven port to the attention of the House. As I have said, more than £13 million in Government funding has been committed so far to assisting the regeneration of Newhaven, and I can assure him that the Government are fully aware of the importance of Newhaven port to the local, regional and national economy.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that many of the specific issues on which he wanted a direct commitment on my part will be covered in our White Paper on an integrated transport system. They will also be covered in the more detailed documents on regional development. He rightly raised the subject of the sale of railway land, and, from a sedentary position, I responded by referring to the "drip, drip" technique. He is well aware that, when the railways were privatised, the land deemed most essential for the future expansion of our railway system went into Railtrack's ownership--that is, the remaining lands in Railway Properties Ltd.

All such land is advertised before sale, and the freight companies are advised of proposed sales. I understand that the piece of land that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is shortly to go out to tender, and I know that Railway Properties Ltd. has made it abundantly clear to interested parties that it is available. I well understand his argument that such land should be reserved, but I am sure that he will understand that freezing the land could have a most deleterious effect on the market for such properties, and that Railway Properties Ltd. has a duty to ensure that such sales are for the benefit of the public purse.

Although I cannot give detailed responses to many of the pleas that the hon. Gentleman made in a most interesting speech, I assure him that the Government are fully aware of the importance of Newhaven port--as he rightly said, it is important to the economy not only locally, but regionally and nationally. I have little doubt that, when he sees our White Paper, he will be very pleased with its content.

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