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25 Oct 2000 : Column 98WH

Central Railway

12.58 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I am glad to be able to raise an issue that has recently caused considerable concern to my constituents.

I acknowledge that the Central Railway problem is not new: since 1995, when the original route was proposed, many hon. Members have had to deal with the problem of the Central Railway proposal. In July 1996, an application made under the Transport and Works Act 1992 was overwhelmingly defeated in the House, which put paid to the original project proposal for a route alignment through London. In July 2000, the company announced a new proposed route that would go around London, following the M25 in the south-western quadrant. My interest and that of several of my colleagues who, unfortunately, cannot be present today has been awakened by the proposal to route the project through our constituencies.

I should like to place on record anxieties that are shared by my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) and for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who could not be present today. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), the chairman of the all-party group on blight, who has shown a great interest in the matter, for his guidance and assistance in formulating my response to the proposals affecting my constituency. I suspect that he might try to catch your eye later in the debate, Mrs. Michie.

A measure of the anxiety about the effect that the proposal will have on my constituency can be derived from the fact that, shortly after the project was announced in July 2000, a local lobby group--which, ironically, was originally set up to fight the proposed link roads alongside the M25--called a meeting of those who would be affected by the proposal, who were almost precisely the same people who would have been blighted for a decade or so by the link road proposals; the meeting was so well attended that not all the people who came along could fit in the hall, and some had to listen to a loudspeaker outside the hall. Hundreds of people displayed genuine anxiety.

The announcement of the project and the new route around the south-western quadrant of the M25 gives rise to several serious questions, many of which have been asked before, during the debate on the previous proposals. They relate to the engineering viability of the railway project proposed, the financial strength of the promoter of the project and the financial viability of the project itself--in short, the merits and demerits. Valid and important questions also arise about how compensation is calculated and when it becomes payable to people affected by such a project, if it proceeds. However, my purpose today is not to explore those aspects. I shall focus on the iniquity of a system that allows thousands of homes to be blighted without compensation, with no timetable for resolution and no apparent means of redress for those affected. I am glad to say that I do not perceive the debate as party political. I hope that I shall be able to appeal to notions of common sense and the sense of natural justice that is shared throughout the House.

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I do not pretend to be an expert on the operation of the Transport and Works Act. However, I understand--I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong--that a company that makes a formal application under the Act is vulnerable from that point in time to being required to purchase properties and pay compensation to those who are blighted by the application. However, there is no requirement to proceed to a formal application: a project can be announced, producing an effective blight, without there being any requirement to proceed. The draft Transport and Works Act procedures, which the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has out for consultation, put great store in the need for prior consultation between the promoter and those who will be affected. That is fine, but those involved need to be sensitive about the cost faced by people who are blighted during an extended pre-application period.

In the case of Central Railway's current proposal, there is little to consult on and nothing worthy of the name "consultation" is happening. Few details of the project have been made known, which leaves people whose properties are affected guessing, for example, the height of the railway and whether it will go over or under different existing transport infrastructures. The existing system disincentivises a speculative promoter of a scheme to proceed with a Transport and Works Act application, because from the date of doing so the promoter is liable to make compensation payments.

Currently, a private company can announce a major infrastructure project, imposing an instant blight on the homes in its path; there is no evaluation of the merits of the project, no evaluation of the company's financial capability, no procedure for forcing the project to be submitted to proper scrutiny within any time scale, and no accountability because, unlike a public body making such proposals, a private company is accountable to no one but its own shareholders. Meanwhile, in their responses to local searches, local authorities through whose area the proposed project will run have to reveal to potential purchasers of property the existence of the proposals--thus making the sale of property difficult, or possible only at a discount to its true market value.

At best, the procedure can mean a protracted blight with no access to compensation; at worst, it can be abused. I do not suggest that that is what is happening in the case of the Central Railway proposal, but the present procedures contain nothing that would prevent an unscrupulous promoter from blighting an area with a view to purchasing property cheaply while the blight prevails. It is clear to me that the system is inadequate to deal with large-scale projects, especially linear projects such as a railway, which are promoted on a speculative basis by a private company.

I want to place on the record that I am not against big infrastructure projects in principle, nor am I against their being promoted by private companies. However, the lack of accountability and any form of redress for the victims of the blight that an announcement of such a project inevitably produces, and the inability of anyone other than the promoter to ensure that a scheme is subjected within a reasonable time scale to a proper analysis of its merits by a proper process in a proper forum offends my sense of natural justice and, I hope, that of others, too.

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The timetable for the Central Railway proposal is not yet clear, but common sense and a little analysis suggests that, after what happened to the previous Transport and Works Act application in 1996, it is highly unlikely that the company intends to proceed with a formal application before the next general election. Only the Prime Minister knows precisely when that will be, but there is a significant possibility that a further 12 months or so will pass before there is any likelihood of a formal application being made by the company.

There is obviously a problem when the law allows a small, loss-making private company to announce a scheme that will blight thousands of homes and then, if it so wishes, to do absolutely nothing at all--perhaps for years. From private discussions, I know that several Labour Members--indeed, several Ministers--sympathise with my constituents' concerns, but sympathy, while much appreciated, will not solve the problem. We urgently need a change in the law. It would be a minor and uncontroversial change that could be dealt with in a private Member's Bill, but we cannot rely on a Member concerned about the issue being fortunate in the ballot. I hope that the Minister will assure us today that he will give due consideration to early legislative intervention in Government time to resolve the problem.

How might the law be changed? How might we deal with the problems that my constituents face? The Government clearly have more expert resources than I have to consider those questions, but I should like to mention some suggestions that have either been made to me or have sprung to my mind. One option would be that a promoter should face an obligation to pay compensation from the time of a project's announcement, but I do not favour that proposal because I do not want to stifle innovative infrastructure projects, which I fear that the introduction of compensation from the first announcement would do.

Fixed timetables for applications under the Transport and Works Act 1992 could be introduced, but that would risk over-rigidity. The simplest, fairest and most flexible approach would be to give individuals affected by blight, including local authorities in which projects would run, the right to apply to the court for a timetabling order, following the announcement but before a formal application. That would give the courts the power to require either the submission of an application under the 1992 Act within a certain period, which would vary, or the withdrawal of the proposal followed by a lockout period in which it could not be re-announced. The court would consider the harm suffered by those blighted, the degree of active consultation and the prima facie viability of the scheme and the promoter, and seek to produce a fair timetable that balanced all interests. It would be a tough job, but it would be the proper role of the courts in such matters.

That is merely a suggestion. I do not pretend to have researched the subject exhaustively. Whichever way we proceed, I look to the Minister for a commitment to tackle the scandal of the current system, which can leave anyone at the mercy of any half-baked, under-capitalised, ill-thought-out scheme, however dubious its economics and however unlikely it is to materialise in

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reality. The system allows a promoter to blight thousands of properties without any individual evaluation of the merits of his proposal, and then allows him to sit back and do nothing if he wants, perhaps for years, without requiring him to pay a penny in compensation. That cannot be right. It would offend anyone's sense of natural justice. I urge the Minister to give an unambiguous commitment to deal with the issue as a matter of the highest priority.

1.13 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) for allowing me a moment to speak in the debate, and to the Minister for being courteous enough to permit it.

The purpose of the debate is to provide relief to a large number of people suffering from an ill that affects an even larger group. We will benefit them more if we listen to what the Government have to say than if I speak at length, so I should simply like to take the opportunity to say clearly how strongly I support my hon. Friend. I once described the situation as "burglar blight", marching across the country robbing all sorts of people of the value of their capital. It is a scandal that requires urgent redress.

1.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin) : The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has raised an issue that is of great concern not only to his constituents, but to many other people who live alongside major proposed infrastructure projects.

I should say at the outset that encouraging more rail freight is at the heart of the Government's integrated transport policy and we are committed to working in partnership with the rail industry to achieve that. I am pleased that, after many years of decline, rail freight is on the way up again: rail freight volume has risen by 22 per cent. since April 1997, and by 42 per cent. since privatisation. We look forward to the day, not too far off, when the percentage of freight carried by rail returns to double figures.

The Government have for some time been aware of Central Railway's proposals to build and operate a freight railway between Liverpool and Lille. Although Ministers have received representations from the company and seen some of its publicity material, Central Railway has not formally submitted details of its proposals, as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said. For reasons that I will make clear, it would be wrong of me to comment substantively on the scheme at this stage. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that; he did not comment much on the scheme himself.

Before Central Railway could implement any of its proposals, it would need to obtain a wide range of statutory powers and planning permissions. It could obtain these powers and permissions by obtaining an order from the Secretary of State under the Transport and Works Act 1992. Central Railway says that it is

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preparing to make an application next spring, which is a little sooner than the hon. Gentleman stated. The statutory procedures under the 1992 Act offer all interested persons a full and fair opportunity to have their say. I hope to illustrate that and reassure those who are worried about how Central Railway's scheme will affect them by describing the steps that must be taken in respect of an application.

Procedures under the Act are designed to ensure that all those who should know about an application have reasonable opportunity to find out about it; I presume that most of those who should know about the Central Railway proposal already do so. Applicants are required to publish notice of their application locally and on the site of the proposed works, while those affected by proposals must be individually notified. Furthermore, copies of the application documents must be served on local authorities and other statutory bodies and be made available for public inspection for a minimum of six weeks. Within that period, individuals may make representations to the Secretary of State about the application. When an application is made, the Secretary of State has eight weeks to consider whether the scheme is of national significance. If he decides that it is, the application must be referred to Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is aware that that is what happened with the 1996 proposals.

Where such a decision is taken, a further minimum period must elapse before Parliament can debate the application, to allow time for hon. Members to familiarise themselves with the proposals and allow a chance for lobbying. The process is designed to give both Houses of Parliament the opportunity to debate the principles and policies relating to a scheme before it proceeds to more detailed consideration at a public inquiry. A motion approving the proposals has to be passed by both Houses before an application can proceed to consideration at a public local inquiry. If either House rejects the proposals in principle, the application cannot proceed. The hon. Gentleman will know that rejection of the 1996 proposals led to that application being withdrawn.

If any application made by Central Railway succeeded in securing approval from both Houses, a public inquiry would follow. The aim would be to provide an accessible forum for anyone with an interest in the proposals to present written or oral evidence to an inspector. After the inquiry, the inspector would submit a report to the Secretary of State, including a recommendation on whether the proposal should be approved. However, the final decision rests with the Secretary of State and, in making his decision, he must have regard to all the evidence presented to him. He is not bound to approve a scheme simply because Parliament has previously endorsed it in principle. I cannot comment at this stage on the merits or otherwise of Central Railway's proposals.

Mr. Rowe : One of the peculiarly obnoxious features of the proposal is that it is almost avowed by Central Railway itself that it is managed by men of straw. Do the Government not believe that proposals of such magnitude should at least be backed by some kind of public statement of asset?

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Mr. Mullin : I respect the hon. Gentleman's great experience in such matters arising from a project in his area. We shall certainly consider any positive suggestions offered by him or the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, whose suggestions I will touch on at the end of my remarks.

I hope that I have made it clear that, before any decisions are made about the scheme, it will be subjected to thorough and effective examination. No doubt part of that examination will be the financial standing of the backers. Moreover, we would expect a promoter of an order--especially a promoter of such a major scheme--to carry out full and extensive consultations before a formal application was made. My Department's guidance emphasises the importance of thorough pre-application consultation. Such consultation, if carried out constructively and with an open mind, can help promoters to prepare and refine their proposals and may also help to allay unnecessary fears and suspicions that understandably arise when people feel that they are being kept in the dark.

On the issue of property blight, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will probably be aware that compensatory measures are available to property owners through the Transport and Works Act application procedures.

Mr. Hammond : I did not, I hope, at any time raise the question of what happens after a Transport and Works Act application is made. The Minister suggests that the application under discussion will be made next spring, but I think that it might be much delayed. Will he acknowledge that there is nothing to require an application to be brought forward next spring and can he deal with the problem that will face my constituents in the interim until an application is made?

Mr. Mullin : I intend to address that point. It would be helpful to the hon. Gentleman's constituents to know the procedures, and I hope that, by explaining them today, I shall assist them. I fully understand that the hon. Gentleman has been describing the blight that inevitably arises when such a scheme is even mooted, rather than when a formal application has been made.

Compensation for disturbance and home loss may be payable, while home owners may be entitled to compensation for depreciation in their property values due to physical factors caused by the use of the works, such as noise, fumes, artificial lighting and discharges on to their property. The Government are aware that in the early stages of development and before an application is made, major infrastructure schemes can generate uncertainties that are often regarded as the cause of depreciation in property values. That type of blight, which is not covered by the statutory compensation provisions, is commonly referred to as a generalised or perceived blight. As part of my Department's fundamental review into laws and procedures relating to compulsory purchase and compensation, the Government published a code of practice on the dissemination of information during major infrastructure developments in October 1999. That emanated from a recommendation of the interdepartmental working group on blight, whose

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approach is commended to private sector promoters of major infrastructure developments. Its aim is to minimise blight.

As part of the same review, an independent advisory group into compulsory purchase and blight compensation was established. It published its final report on 27 July. Comments on the report will be taken into account when preparing the Government's policy paper, which we hope to publish in the new year. My Department will then consult formally on the proposals and I imagine that the hon. Members for Runnymede and Weybridge and for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe)

will both want to take part in that process.

A further recommendation arising from the blight review was for a property purchase guarantee and compensation scheme, which would offer guarantees of future value for a property, coupled with guarantees in respect of compensation. The purpose would be to help to maintain stability in the local property market. The advisory group endorsed that proposal in its final report, but saw it as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, the statutory blight notice procedure.

The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge calls for a change in the law, saying that it would be a simple change. In my limited experience, changes in the law never prove to be as simple as they appear when one is sitting on the Back Benches. However, the hon. Gentleman made a very reasonable suggestion. He will appreciate that I cannot give him an answer off the top of my head, but I shall ensure that the matter is passed to those who are in a position to review it.

The issues that the hon. Gentleman identified must first be considered by Central Railway and its partners in the proposed scheme as part of the consultation process. Meanwhile, I would encourage all who have an interest in the proposals to make their views known to the company, so that it can have regard to them when preparing its submission. It will be in the interests of all concerned to ensure that the company's application goes ahead as soon as possible, so that it can be given proper consideration. I hope that that is helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hammond : The Minister mentioned a few moments ago the concept of a property compensation scheme that operates prior to the application being made. Central Railway is operating such a scheme, and my local authority is taking advice on it. Will the Minister tell us whether he is aware of any work done to support the notion that the scheme that is in place underpins the market in an area that would otherwise be blighted? I have been able to find no evidence that it is genuinely effective.

Mr. Mullin : I cannot respond to that point off the top of my head, but I undertake to come back to the hon. Gentleman on the matter.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware that the Central Railway property protection scheme was considered by the interdepartmental working group on blight in December 1997 and was received very favourably by the

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Department? In my view, it addresses many of the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond).

Mr. Mullin : That is obviously something that we shall have to look at, possibly in the company of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, but it is not something that we can sort out in the final 30 seconds of the debate.

Mrs. Ray Michie (in the Chair ): Thank you, Minister. We can now move on to the next debate.

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