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19 Dec 2000 : Column 62WH

M25 Parkway Station (Stevenage and Hertfordshire)

1.30 pm

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter that is of considerable concern to my constituents and many others in Hertfordshire. The cause of this concern is Great North Eastern Railway's bid to renew its franchise to operate inter-city services on the east coast main line. If GNER wins the franchise, it proposes to build a large out-of-town multi-platform parkway station on a greenfield site at Hadley Wood, at the junction of the M25 and the A1M, near Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire.

At first glance, the proposal seems eminently sensible. The large, low-cost car park that such a station would provide would be welcomed by Hertfordshire commuters who are eager to travel to London by train, but are compelled to reach the station by car because of the paucity of bus services in the many villages and small towns that dot the county. London's overburdened roads and polluted air would also benefit from commuters leaving their cars at Hadley Wood and travelling to the city by train. However, a longer and more careful look at the proposal reveals flaws that cause my constituents and many others in the county much concern. That concern has nothing to do with the concept of a parkway station, which my constituents are wholly in favour of, and everything to do with its proposed siting at the southern end of the county at Hadley Wood, just on the M25.

First, the proposed siting would shift the centre of gravity of Hertfordshire's transport system to the very edge of London. It is also contrary to the county council's strategy, which bases long-distance rail services at the two railheads at Watford and Stevenage. At present, Stevenage, which is about 16 miles further down the line than Potters Bar, is the first stop after London for most inter-city trains that use the east coast main line. If the proposal were implemented, the first stop would be Potters Bar, and no fast train worthy of the name would also stop 16 miles later at Stevenage.

Secondly, additional traffic would be drawn into an already congested area of south Hertfordshire, which includes a stretch of the M25 for which there are no proposals for improvement or widening. Some of that additional traffic would come from Stevenage itself because, as I said, no fast train worthy of the name would stop at both Stevenage and Hadley Wood.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Is my hon. Friend aware that GNER envisages that the introduction of parkways will not involve a reduction in services to stations such as Stevenage and Doncaster, for which a parkway is also planned? Does she agree that Ministers involved in granting franchises to rail operators should perhaps establish a condition that services to mainline stations such as Stevenage and Doncaster must not be adversely affected by the introduction of parkways?

Barbara Follett : I agree. However, although Doncaster can perhaps survive with a parkway station, I shall argue that Stevenage cannot.

Thirdly, the proposal would downgrade Stevenage station. Instead of being one of Hertfordshire's major gateways for long-distance and local routes, it would

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become a small, provincial siding. That would be a terrible pity for a town that has experienced significant growth in recent years. It would betray the vision of the planners who built Stevenage as the first post-war new town and designed it to be a centre for high-tech industry. The proposed development to the west of the town means that the population is set to grow from around 79,000 to an estimated 92,500 in 2016.

Fourthly, the new parkway at Hadley Wood would significantly retard the regeneration of Stevenage town centre, which, despite valiant efforts by the local council, is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. After all, the town was built 55 years ago, and after 55 years of heavy use it could do with some serious refurbishment--like most of us of that generation.

Fifthly, the proposal would have a negative effect on the economy of the town and its surrounding area. Stevenage is only just recovering from the recessions of the late 1980s, which took unemployment to a peak of 12 per cent. in 1993. In the late 1980s, Stevenage suffered the equivalent of five pit closures in respect of job losses. In the early 1990s, when I first came to the town, I found families with three generations unemployed. That had a devastating effect on the people of Stevenage and their self-confidence. There is still deprivation and suffering in the town. Its unemployment rate of 2 per cent., although low, is the highest in Hertfordshire.

The recent closure of Vauxhall's passenger car-making facility at Luton, where 274 of my constituents are--or were--employed, means that we have to do all that we can to attract new businesses into the area and to provide the right climate for the expansion of those that are already there. The siting of Hertfordshire's parkway station on the M25 would do the exact opposite.

Stevenage train station is situated in the heart of the town--next to the bus depot, in the middle of a shopping centre and next to a new leisure complex. It is also at the heart of the town's current and future economic success. It allows Stevenage companies easy access to a large pool of labour from the surrounding towns and villages--the town has a net inflow of commuters--and gives local people direct and quick rail access to London, Cambridge and the north. That reduces congestion on the A1M to the south and north of Stevenage and allows a freer movement of goods and commercial vehicles between Hertfordshire and the rest of the county. It also allows the continuing development of the Cambridge-Stevenage corridor, which is being actively promoted by the East of England development agency. The agency has identified Stevenage as a town with the potential to develop a high-tech cluster of new employment. If Stevenage loses its direct link to London and the rest of Britain, I fear that its potential will never be realised.

My fears are shared by local businesses, many of which have lobbied me. As many hon. Members will know, Glaxo Wellcome's Stevenage site contains the biggest research and development facility in Europe. An executive recently told me:

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Matra BAE Dynamics, one of Stevenage's biggest employers, told me:

I agree with the business people of Stevenage and the surrounding area. The parkway station should be built in Stevenage and not at Hadley Wood. That decision would have national as well as local benefits. First, it is more environmentally sound. If the station were built at Stevenage, it would be on a brownfield site, but the Hadley Wood site is greenfield and development would, possibly, eat into the green belt.

Secondly, the decision to build the station at Stevenage would cause less congestion on the county's already over-burdened road network. Being a new town, Stevenage has a planned internal transport system. Although the parkway station would generate more traffic on the A1M, that traffic would be travelling contraflow at peak hours, and there are existing proposals to widen the section of road affected.

Thirdly, it makes sense to direct resources to a scheme that promotes the Government's twin aims of urban regeneration and integrated transport. Finally, Stevenage borough council is at an advanced stage in the process of investigating the feasibility of moving the existing bus depot, and integrating it with the existing train station to create a combined bus-rail centre. The new centre would provide easy access to the town and the leisure park with a concourse built over the main road. The concourse would contain shops, cafes, newsagents, waiting-lounge areas, toilets and showers. There would be plenty of room for short and long-stay car parks, park-and-ride facilities and cycle storage. The new development could also include a hotel, offices, commercial and even some residential units. The planning for that is advanced. In other words, Stevenage is ready and willing to have a parkway station.

With the Great North road running straight through it, the town has been a transport gateway since Roman times. In his diaries, Pepys describes travelling to the north through Stevenage. It is no accident that Dick Turpin was based just outside Stevenage--he knew where to fleece the customers. However, modern day Stevenage is not into highway robbery. We want to

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ensure that the whole county benefits and prospers. If we put the Hertfordshire parkway station on the M25, it would seriously affect the ability to attract new business and would restrict the ability of existing businesses to expand.

An M25 parkway station would also positively promote more car travel in Hertfordshire, which would be disastrous in a county that already has one of the highest levels of car ownership in the country. I wholeheartedly support the measures that the Government are taking to reduce the number of car journeys. I beg them to take into account the effect of an M25 parkway station on that laudable aim. A decision must be made on the franchise in 2001. I urge the Government, for the sake of the people, the economy and the environment of Stevenage and Hertfordshire, to do all that they can to prevent the siting of a parkway station in the southern tip of the county, near the M25. They should seriously consider the advantages of moving the station to Stevenage.

1.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill ): I begin, as is customary, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) on securing the debate. As ever, she has proved herself to be a most hard-working constituency Member and an outstanding advocate of the interests of her constituents. I also note that my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) and the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) are in their places and, doubtless, were in sympathetic mode.

For the second time in recent debates, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) on her tireless campaigning efforts on behalf of her constituents, although I remind her that the responsibility for granting franchises lies with the franchise director and not Ministers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) raised the subject of the Hadley Wood parkway station in a similar debate on 19 January 2000. I say, as I did then, that there are no firm plans at this stage for a new M25 parkway station.

To set the scene, I want to outline our strategic approach to the railways and the east coast main line before returning to the Hertfordshire issues. We set up the Strategic Rail Authority with the specific aim of looking at the long-term development of the railway network. In our 10-year plan we have provided unprecedented resources for railway development. The SRA, in its current shadow format, is taking forward an extensive franchise replacement exercise, which will, in return for long franchises of up to 20 years, bring in important improvements to train services. That focus of public and private resources and expertise will take the railways into a new era.

On the east coast main line, Railtrack already has in hand an exciting programme of improvements. In the east of England, that will result in a four-track route all the way from London to Peterborough. That additional capacity will create the opportunity for a significant number of additional train services. To develop those services the SSRA has the franchise replacement of the

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present GNER services well in hand. It has also initiated the Thameslink 2000 franchise replacement exercise for regional trains through London from Bedford, Peterborough and King's Lynn. All those services are important for Hertfordshire and many will use the east coast main line.

In carrying out the franchising replacement process, the SSRA is consulting widely, at various stages in the exercise. The franchising director is consulting, among others, local authorities, regional planning bodies, regional development agencies and rail passengers' committees.

By that means the SSRA is keeping people and organisations informed and also learning about aspirations for rail service development. The SSRA will obviously have to work with Railtrack, the rail regulator and the train operating companies to balance these aspirations with the resources available to create a comprehensive service pattern for all users on routes such as the east coast main line.

I shall speak now about the current position on the inter-city east coast franchise. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has asked the SSRA, through the franchising director' s instructions and guidance, to deliver improvements through renegotiation and replacement of the terms of franchise agreements.

When considering renegotiation and replacement proposals, we asked the franchising director to give due weight to commitments in six issue areas: first, current performance, customer services, innovation, investment and efficiency; secondly, new or earlier investment; thirdly, securing better performance; fourthly, initiatives to promote integrated transport; fifthly, a willingness to give passengers a greater voice in the level and standard of services; and finally, value for the taxpayer. The franchising director has received best and final offers from Sea Containers, the parent company of GNER, and Virgin Rail, in conjunction with Stagecoach, for replacement of the inter-city east coast franchise. These are now under consideration. I cannot say when a decision will be made, but the franchising director is looking for assurances of better performance, more investment and expansion of network capacity and improvements for passengers, which he believes are deliverable.

Caroline Flint : In the guidance provided to the franchising director, would ensuring integrated transport include the protection of inter-city services at existing main line stations if parkways were developed?

Mr. Hill : One of the criteria that we expect the franchising director to examine in looking at franchise proposals is obviously the element of integrated transport, but there is no presumption in favour of one or another aspect of transport integration and certainly no presumption in favour of particular projects within the franchise proposals.

The M25 parkway station is one of the new parkway stations proposed as part of Sea Containers' bid. As I said, no decision on the replacement of the intercity east coast franchise has been taken. Even if Sea Containers' bid were successful, implementation of the proposal for a parkway station would still be dependent on local

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planning consents, which may require a Transport and Works Act 1992 application. Careful consideration would need to be given to a number of important issues including planning, transport and wider environmental and economic development implications, before any parkway station could be approved. If a parkway station proposal were to be adopted as part of a franchise commitment, planning permission and full local consultation would be required.

Meetings to discuss the M25 parkway proposals were in the process of being confirmed with the Government Office for the East of England, Hertfordshire county council, Stevenage borough council, Hertsmere borough council, Welwyn Hatfield district council and North Hertfordshire district council, but the proposals were put on hold due to the Hatfield tragedy. A meeting is now planned to discuss the matter further, as early as possible next year.

We are keen to encourage integrated transport proposals that are designed to encourage people to travel by public transport and to reduce the need to travel by car. I understand that Sea Containers' proposal is intended to encourage a modal shift from car and air travel to rail travel and to allow a seamless transfer between transport modes. GNER believes that the parkway stations would considerably reduce long-distance car usage, thereby reducing road and motorway congestion and associated pollution problems.

We are keen also to improve the quality of rail services. Sea Containers believes that the parkway stations would make long-distance rail travel more accessible and attractive. The parkway stations would be served by a planned new fleet of high-speed trains. I understand that GNER's stations would be airport-style in design, and built to accommodate the needs of all passengers, including those with special needs.

Parkways are not, in common parlance, park-and-ride facilities, as their prime purpose is not to develop short-distance, commuter services. Rather, they provide important gateways to new markets and communities that currently find it difficult to access fast passenger rail services between the north and the south. They build on existing rail provision, rather than detract from it.

I am aware that, for the east of England, Peterborough and Stevenage are currently the key railway stations for passenger access to east coast inter-city services. In Hertfordshire's rail prospectus, which was submitted with the local transport plan in July, the county council made it clear that its strategy for access to long distance rail services would continue to be based on two railheads--at Stevenage for the east coast and Watford for the west coast. Although there has been little analysis of the full effects of an M25 parkway station, the county's initial impression is that it is not ideally suited for Hertfordshire users, and it therefore opposes the proposal. In the council's view, an M25 parkway station would be likely to have a negative impact on service levels at Stevenage, where the council is looking for long-distance services to be developed.

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In its rail prospectus, Hertfordshire set out its ideas for the significant development of Stevenage station, with a bus-rail interchange, parking and station facilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage pointed out. The council is keen to work in partnership with train operators, Railtrack and others to create a quality interchange facility. The refranchising process will establish long-term train operators who will, in their turn, be keen to work with partners to develop the railway.

In the local transport plan settlement announced last week, we increased Hertfordshire's block allocation from £5 million in 2000-01 to £12.5 million for 2001-02, with similar annual levels of expenditure over the five-year period. Deciding which projects to pursue is a matter for the county council, according to the priorities set out in the local transport plan, but those considerable extra resources will enable it to plan integrated transport schemes with confidence.

I am aware that GNER objected to the deposit draft of the Hertsmere local plan on the ground that it did not include the provision of a parkway station on green-belt land to the north of Hadley Wood. Following a public inquiry in 1999 the inspector concluded that the plan should not be altered to meet GNER's objection. Consequently there are no provisions to include a parkway station in the proposed modifications to the plan published in September 2000.

My hon. Friend has set out clearly the issues that would need to be carefully examined should a parkway station be seriously proposed. She has emphasised the importance of Stevenage as the railhead for Hertfordshire and the east coast main line and its potential for further development as a modern, major transport interchange, well sited in an important urban area. She has pointed out clearly the differences between parkway-type stations, which take large areas of green-belt land and attract significant numbers of cars, and the potential integrated transport solution that could be created at Stevenage. In addition, there are concerns about the dilution effect of parkway stations on the level of service at other important stations in Hertfordshire.

The issues that I have outlined would all need thorough examination should a parkway station scheme be proposed. A full analysis of all the pros and cons would be needed. Clearly, such a scheme would not accord with the local plan in the Hadley Wood area. That is something that any promoter would have to consider carefully.

I reiterate that GNER's proposal must be regarded, for the present, as an option, not as a firm package that can be implemented without further consultation and the most detailed analysis.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my hon. Friend accept that it would be appropriate for his Department to be slightly more proactive about the relationship between car use and train use? Leaving things to Railtrack and the operators has often resulted in a higgledy-piggledy system with overpriced car parks and massive disincentives to people to get out of their cars and into trains.

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Mr. Hill : I take the point, and that is why, through the Transport Act 2000, we are establishing the new Strategic Rail Authority, which will, as its name implies, take a strategic role in the development of the rail network.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage has set out in her speech the wide range of concerns that are entertained at district and county level. It is important that the new railway that we are creating meets users' needs. We are keen to achieve the maximum use of the

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railways, as a cornerstone of our integrated transport policy. Obviously, a great deal of work would need to be done if the new train operator on the east coast main line wanted to pursue the project of an M25 parkway station. I hope that I have been able to reassure my hon. Friend that any decision would be taken only after the most detailed investigation and consultation.

Question put and agreed to.

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