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6 Mar 2001 : Column 50WH

Central Railway

12.58 pm

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this subject in debate. It has been raised on several previous occasions, but I make no apology for raising again a matter that is of importance to my constituents. A major threat has been posed to hundreds of households in my constituency and thousands of households along the length of the proposed route of a railway line. Since the subject was properly debated in the House, there have been considerable changes in the surrounding landscape and the company has announced that it intends to pursue a different route in seeking approval for the project.

The proposal for a freight line from the north of England to the channel tunnel goes back to the 1990s. In 1996, an application made under the Transport and Works Act 1992 for the proposed railway on an alignment that took it through south London was resoundingly defeated on a vote in the House of Commons. Many people thought that that would be the end of the matter, but in July 2000, the company resurrected the scheme with a revised alignment taking the route around the south-western quadrant of the M25 and off towards the channel tunnel. That would have a direct impact on my constituents, who--like everyone else, including the Government--assumed that the project would again proceed by means of a Transport and Works Act application: that is, it would be considered in accordance with the processes of that Act and voted on in the House. They were confident that if it were subjected to the proper processes, the scheme would ultimately be rejected on its merits. I shall address the scheme's merits and demerits later.

During the latter part of last year, my constituents concluded that the problem was the continuing blight that they were suffering as a direct result of the proposal, rather than concern about its eventual approval. Throughout that period, I asked Ministers several questions about the matter. The Government took the view that they could not comment because the Secretary of State might have to exercise a quasi-judicial function in respect of a future Transport and Works Act application. I acknowledged the legitimacy of their position. In the meantime, however, my constituents faced a potentially open-ended blight on their properties. As long ago as last summer, it was clear that the company had no intention of submitting a Transport and Works Act application until after the general election.

The whole process has highlighted the serious weaknesses in the Transport and Works Act procedure. It allows a company--which, as in this case, may be very thinly capitalised--to promote an extensive and expensive scheme without demonstrating its economic viability, producing any sound environmental impact assessments, or, most importantly, having to commit to any timetable for progress. Under the procedure, homes can be blighted for years without any obligation on the person or company causing that blight to make progress. I gave the Minister's predecessor some suggestions about how the law might be revised to deal with that problem. Although the Central Railway issue

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has moved on, my appetite for reforming the Transport and Works Act procedure has been whetted and I shall want to pursue my ideas further.

In January this year, the company raised the stakes considerably by publicly announcing that it would not make a Transport and Works Act application and that it was seeking the Government's backing for a hybrid Bill to enable the scheme to proceed by Act of Parliament, thus bypassing the proper processes of scrutiny that a Transport and Works Act application would have entailed. In a sense, the company moved the application from the planning process to the political arena, and it did so at a moment that was probably not of the Government's choosing. The Government's line that it would be inappropriate for Ministers to comment on what might become the subject of a quasi-judicial application under the Transport and Works Act procedure is no longer applicable--it has been shot out of the water. The purpose of today's debate is to try to elicit a clear statement of Government policy about the project now that it is clear that, if the Government give their backing to a hybrid Bill, it will not proceed by means of a Transport and Works Act application.

No doubt the Government thought that they were being rather clever in bouncing an awkward ball into the long grass by asking the Strategic Rail Authority to consider Central Railway's proposal. I hope that the Minister will give us a clear outline of the terms of reference given to the SRA, including the timetable for its report. Those of us of a slightly cynical disposition might guess that that report will not be completed until after the general election. The proposal for the freight railway, albeit on a different alignment, has been around for years so it is not credible for the Government to say that they have no position on the project. The Strategic Rail Authority may or may not be the right body to review the overall implications of the proposed scheme. The company claims that there will be a clear impact on road freight volumes if the railway is given the go-ahead, but it is not clear that the SRA is the best body to comment on or evaluate that effect.

Whatever rationalisation the Government may offer, neither it nor the scheme will not be acceptable to my constituents in Runnymede and Weybridge. They are suspicious of the Government's record on transport infrastructure in our area, for reasons that I shall explain. The people blighted by the current proposal are the same people--residents of communities alongside the M25 motorway--who were blighted by the previous Government's proposals to build the infamous M25 link roads. My predecessor, Sir Geoffrey Pattie, fought long and hard against his own Government and eventually persuaded them to drop that scheme. Some of the houses that are now blighted by the Central Railway proposal have only recently--since my election to Parliament--been sold by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, having been compulsorily purchased for the link roads scheme. My constituents have had enough of blight resulting from one project after another along the M25 corridor. The Government's refusal to come clean about where they stand on the Central Railway project perpetuates that blight.

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Before the previous general election, the Labour party clearly implied its hostility to the proposed widening of the M25 between junctions 12 and 15--a section of the motorway that will be affected directly by the Central Railway proposal. The current Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions described the scheme as "lunacy". The then Opposition spokesman for the Department, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), described it as £100-million motorway madness. The local Labour candidate in that general election went a little further in declaring specifically that a Labour Government would scrap the scheme on day one. A Labour Government were indeed returned, as history records, but once safely in office, after a series of reviews, the Government did a 180-degree U-turn. On 31 July 1998--the last day of the parliamentary Session--they announced that the widening of the M25 to five and six lanes would go ahead after all. In so doing, they betrayed the many voters of all political persuasions in Egham, Thorpe and other communities along that stretch of the motorway who had voted Labour because of specific or implied pledges on motorway widening. The memory of that experience lingers.

Voters in my constituency want to know, and have a right to know before the general election, whether a Labour Government would support the Central Railway scheme proceeding via the mechanism of a hybrid Bill with no opportunity for proper local scrutiny. If the Government insist on postponing the moment of truth until after a general election, my constituents will draw their own conclusions, regardless of their broader political persuasions.

The backers of the scheme claim that it will take freight off the roads. The argument for moving freight from road to rail is essentially environmental, yet the scheme will be highly environmentally damaging. The railway will pass through built-up residential areas in my constituency, as well as areas to the north and south that are of great landscape value. Elsewhere, it will pass through areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Technical issues also arise. We are told that, due to design constraints, the railway will have a maximum gradient of 1 per cent., but it will have to pass over the top of major transport infrastructure such as the M25-M4 intersection, with which many hon. Members will be familiar. In effect, there will be an elevated railway for miles on either side of that and other intersections, which will have an enormous impact on visual amenity and generate huge amounts of noise. Nor will the railway carry cars of normal size: they will be wide-gauge and taller than normal cars of the shuttle freight type that is used to contain full-size freight vehicles on the channel tunnel line. There is even talk of using double-decker freight cars, and it is almost certain that overhead electric cables will be used. In sum, the railway will be elevated, with very high cars and exceptionally high electric pylons. The scheme simply is not environmentally acceptable--a view that is supported by many local authorities along the route. It appears that the environmental damage will far outweigh the environmental benefits.

The assumptions that are necessary to demonstrate the project's economic viability are open to question. So far, there is no sign from the company of anything resembling rigorous analysis to support its contention

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that the project will lead to a substantial reduction in road traffic; nor is there any sign of an environmental impact assessment. Without producing a shred of evidence in support of its claims, the company is inviting the Government to support a hybrid Bill process that will side-step the usual checks to which such a scheme should be subject. Indeed, it is clear to all who have met the company's representatives that the scheme has not been properly worked out--it is simply a line on a plan. Requests for information about the vertical alignment of the railway, which will be vitally important to measuring the impact on the communities through which it will pass, have remained unanswered.

Given its undoubtedly huge environmental impact, even those who tend to support the scheme acknowledge that it should not go ahead without a public inquiry. Given the broad agreement to the proposed reform of compulsory purchase procedures, it would surely be wrong for a scheme with major compulsory purchase implications to be fast-tracked ahead of any changes to such arrangements. My constituents, who are suffering from the continuing blight arising from the project, are horrified at the thought of the promoter trying to erode proper scrutiny of the scheme by seeking Government support for a hybrid Bill.

I do not believe that in the years that the scheme has been around, the Government have not considered and evaluated its merits. My constituents demand answers to very simple and straightforward questions this side of a general election, so that they can decide how to cast their votes when the election comes. The first question is: do the Government support the scheme? The second is: will a Labour Government support the proposed hybrid Bill and thus allow the scheme to go ahead without the usual scrutiny of a planning inquiry? I look forward to receiving two straight answers to those simple and straightforward questions.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Robert Ainsworth ): In the traditional way, I congratulate the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) on securing the debate. I am aware of his concerns about the scheme as he has raised the matter on several occasions, but I am surprised at his desire to turn this into a blatantly party political issue. As Members of Parliament, we all have to decide how best to represent our constituents' interests in any given situation. Along with the other decisions that his constituents have to make, they will perhaps have to consider how he has represented their problems on this occasion.

As has been confirmed to the House previously, Central Railway has informed the Government that it does not wish to pursue its application under the Transport and Works Act 1992, but instead has requested our support for a hybrid Bill. It must be for the company to decide whether to allow its proposals to be examined openly under the TWA procedure. That would not preclude the possibility of the Government promoting a hybrid Bill if we considered it to be an appropriate means of authorising the scheme. However, Central Railway has yet to provide more details of its scheme, so I cannot say now whether the Government will sponsor a Bill to support it. It is, of course, open to any Member to propose a Bill, but this should not be

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seen as a means of bypassing the due consultation process. As with any major TWA application, a hybrid Bill must be debated in both Houses, and individuals and businesses directly affected would be given the opportunity to put their case.

Central Railway maintains that its project is an entirely privately funded scheme and that it is economically viable, but for a proposal of such scale and complexity, it is vital that the technical and commercial aspects are examined carefully. To that end, the Strategic Rail Authority has initiated a review of Central Railway's proposals. Until we have seen the results of that, it is impossible for the Government to take a view on the scheme, and it would be inappropriate for me to comment, let alone to give the assurances that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge wants.

The hon. Gentleman asked for the terms of reference that had been given to the Strategic Rail Authority. The purpose of the review is to identify those factors that are critical to the success of the project and to give an indication of the level of risk attached to each. Consultants should examine, but not be limited to the following areas: volume and market share forecasts; revenue and operating cost forecasts; capital costs; technical feasibility of the construction and operation of the project; planning issues, especially on the southern section of the proposed route; commercial and regulatory issues surrounding the use of Railtrack infrastructure and interfaces with Eurotunnel and Societe Nationale des Chemin de Fer Francais--SNCF; capacity issues on the route; interchange location and other assumptions regarding terminals; and assumptions on rolling stock and rolling gauge.

Mr. Hammond : I am grateful to the Minister for giving the House such detail on the terms of reference that have been given to the SRA. I did not hear him mention the environmental impact of the scheme, but I am sure that he will correct me if that was an oversight. Is he convinced that the SRA is the right body to evaluate the company's claims with regard to the potential of the project for removing traffic and freight from the roads?

Mr. Ainsworth : The SRA is the body set up by the Government to examine how we implement our desires to move a significant amount of freight from road to rail, which it is doing. I know of no other body that would be more appropriate to undertake such a study on behalf of the Government, into Central Railway's proposal. It is worth bearing in mind the Government's clearly stated policy with respect to rail freight. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill), restated that policy in the House during the recent debate on this issue. It is relevant to our consideration of Central Railway's request for support for a Bill, and it is important to reiterate it. He said:

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As the hon. Gentleman said, and as you will recall, Mr. Winterton, the last time that Central Railway's proposal was put before the House, hon. Members rejected it overwhelmingly. If the Government are considering supporting a Bill now for a revised and expanded proposal, it is right that the SRA should seek to learn more about it. I have outlined the basis of the Government's commitment to rail freight and the SRA's role in helping to achieve the industry's objectives. I cannot anticipate the result of that review, but I am confident that the SRA will examine Central's proposals in the context of the 10-year plan and the authority's strategy for freight. We will follow the SRA's review with interest, and will be happy to make a further statement about Central Railway in due course, taking into account the SRA's findings.

The main constituency issue raised by the hon. Gentleman was the question of blight. That is of great concern to many other hon. Members whose constituencies lie along the proposed route. Blight is caused by the presence of any major proposal in the public domain, whether or not a formal submission is imminent. Regrettably, and to varying degrees, blight is inevitable in connection with major infrastructure proposals. One cannot consider a case such as Central Railway in isolation. The sort of problems arising from the proposal under discussion can arise from any major infrastructure project, regardless of the form of the statutory consent being pursued. Nor is blight merely an issue in relation to major projects. It might also arise on a smaller scale in relation to any bad neighbour development that has a long gestation period, regardless of whether compulsory purchase powers are required.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that legislation to regulate developers such as Central Railway would be appropriate. Realistically, one cannot impose a time scale on the period between the inception of a proposal and its formal submission, nor can one dictate how the promoters of a scheme should act in the meantime. We would not want to inhibit developers from making their proposals public. Prospective applicants must surely be free to develop a proposition as they see fit, and to apply for approval when they feel best placed to do so.

Mr. Hammond : Does the Minister agree that as the law stands, there is nothing to prevent a wholly spurious, even malicious, scheme being proposed? There is simply no test. Anyone could propose to build an airport in the middle of the Minister's constituency without any real intention of progressing that proposal. His constituents would be blighted by the local authority's obligation to reveal that proposal in local searches. Does that not offend against the principles of natural justice?

Mr. Ainsworth : I do not know how the hon. Member would propose to change that. How could we without, as I have already said, stifling development proposals and preventing schemes that may be important to the future of the country, not merely a particular

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neighbourhood? An over-regulatory approach to the pre-application planning stage would stifle legitimate development of schemes essential to the well-being of the country as a whole.

The best approach to consultation is through flexible non-statutory guidance. That is why, as part of the Department's fundamental review into the laws and procedures relating to compulsory purchase and compensation, we published a code of practice on the dissemination of information during major infrastructure developments in October 1999. That emanated from the recommendations of an interdepartmental working group on blight. The code's approach is commended to private sector promoters of major infrastructure development, as its aim is to minimise blight.

A further recommendation arising from the blight review was for a property purchase guarantee and compensation scheme that would offer guarantees of future value for a property and thus help to maintain the stability of a local property market.

Mr. Hammond : I realise that the Minister has only a few minutes left, but as we seem to be straying from the main thrust of the debate, I want to put this point to him. He has explained that he does not want to commit the Government to supporting or refusing to support the scheme until he has heard the result of the SRAs review. What is the Government's position on the use of a hybrid Bill as a tool? My constituents believe it to be a transparent mechanism to avoid proper scrutiny of the proposals. Regardless of whether the Government, having heard the SRA's report, think that the proposals are good, should they not commit themselves now to asking the company to take the TWA route so that all the players have an opportunity to scrutinise the proposals?

Mr. Ainsworth : As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were expecting Central Railway to take the TWA route. We did not encourage it to propose a hybrid Bill. It was the company's decision to do so, and we are trying to deal with the proposition on the table. Before we take a definitive view on whether the proposition should be allowed to go forward, or given any support, we have decided to ask the SRA to undertake the review. I know that the hon. Gentleman does not like that, but it seems to be a sensible approach and it would be seen as such by anyone who, rather than playing politics with the issue, is attempting to get the proposition on the table dealt with appropriately.

As part of the same review, an independent advisory group into compulsory purchase and blight compensation was established. The group published its final report last July, and we are currently considering its recommendations and the comments that we have received on them. As soon as possible, we will publish for consultation a statement of future policy on compulsory purchase procedures and compensation arrangements that takes those issues and the recommendations of the working group on blight into account. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is now clear about what is happening and about how we propose to handle Central Railway's proposition.

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Mr. Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair ): We can move on a little early to the debate on coastal erosion and its impact on neighbouring communities, initiated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar).

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