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Rail Freight

3. Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): What recent representations he has received on the expansion of rail freight. [36646]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): Both my Department and the Strategic Rail Authority regularly receive representations from interested parties promoting the expansion of rail freight. The scope of these contacts is wide ranging. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as encouraged as I am that, after years of decline, there has been a 20 per cent. increase in the amount of freight on the railway lines since 1997.

Mr. Duncan: The Minister will be aware that the Government's target for the increase in rail freight is 80 per cent., and some 43 per cent. of that needs to be delivered through the completion of the west coast main line. What is the projected mix of passengers and freight on that line, given its crucial importance to the Scottish economy? Exactly when is it going to be rescued from its current state of chaos?

Mr. Jamieson: The SRA is looking closely at the west coast main line with a view to increasing the amount of passenger and freight traffic. It may have been a temporary lapse of memory that caused the hon. Gentleman not to mention the substantial amount of funding that Scotland has derived from the rail freight grant, not least for the Nith valley project near his constituency, which received £1 million for the Thornhill loop in June 2000.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Is my hon. Friend aware that, before we can encourage more freight on to the railways, we have to maintain our existing services? Will he please give an undertaking that the French Government will be told in no uncertain terms that firms in my constituency are about to go bankrupt because of the attitude of the French authorities to the constant pressure of people trying to get on to freight trains on the other side of the channel tunnel, and that that will not be allowed to continue because it is putting drivers and would-be immigrants at risk?

Mr. Jamieson: I thank my hon. Friend for her justifiable concern in this important matter. The restrictions and their impact are of considerable concern

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to the Government. We are exerting pressure at the highest levels to get the French Government to restore the freight service without further disruption. The French Government have taken the extremely helpful step of changing French law to give United Kingdom immigration officials authority on the Eurostar while they are on French soil. Since February, we have even had the power to check the papers of those who are making internal journeys in France, which is an unprecedented extension of our powers. My hon. Friend raises important matters with regard to freight and they are being dealt with at the highest level by the Government.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the question. The question was not about checking papers but about freight and people smuggling themselves on to freight trains. In a written answer to me dated 30 January 2002 the Minister promised that work to strengthen the fencing was under way and due to be completed by mid-February. He also said that he had received assurances that security measures and a police presence would be put in place. That increased fencing turns out to be little more than 3 m high, flimsy and little better than chicken wire. Not surprisingly, last week 200 m of that was pulled down and there is no sign of the French CRS police. It is little wonder that business is losing confidence. The Scottish whisky industry no longer uses the tunnel, large paper manufacturers no longer use the tunnel and major freight companies are going into bankruptcy. When will the Government do something about that? It is time that they ended the pointless civil war inside the Department, stopped attacking civil servants, and stood up for Britain rather than a departed spin doctor.

Mr. Jamieson: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman rather lost the plot at the end of his question. While the Government concentrate on the problems of the channel tunnel, he concentrates on the problems of personalties. Many of the matters that he just mentioned have been dealt with already. Unfortunately, he looked rather pleased when he said that some of the measures that had been taken were not working. The Government are concerned—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would stop wagging his finger for a moment and listen to what I am saying, it might be beneficial to the House. The hon. Gentleman is clearly rattled by the answer that he is getting and does not like it. I can assure him that the issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) raised in a serious manner in the context of current discussions are being addressed at the very highest level, and that many of the measures that we have put in place, or have asked the French to put in place, are working.

West Coast Main Line

4. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): What discussions he has had with the Strategic Rail Authority on the allocation of track space on the west coast main line between different operators. [36647]

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): The Strategic Rail Authority is leading a review, with the input of principal stakeholders, of the outputs to be delivered from the west coast upgrade, including an assessment of

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how capacity should be utilised to meet the requirements of the many different users of the line. The SRA is keeping the Department in touch with developments.

Dr. Starkey: My right hon. Friend will be aware that my constituents, although pleased about the upgrade and its effect on inter-city services, are seriously concerned about Virgin having exclusive use of the fast lines and squeezing everyone else on to the slow lines. In particular, we are concerned about a deterioration in the county services that commuters use heavily in the mornings and evenings and about the loss of the Rugby to Brighton service north of Watford. Will he assure me that the Strategic Rail Authority will give proper consideration to the needs of all my constituents and those of my hon. Friends who represent Northampton and Watford, and not just consider the Virgin—

Hon. Members: Order.

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Mr. Spellar: That was rather ungallant of Opposition Members as a serious point was being made. It is clear from this afternoon's proceedings that Opposition Members are not interested in making serious points on behalf of their constituents; they are interested only in point scoring.

Two issues are involved here. One is the reduction in the number of paths while modernisation work is being undertaken on the west coast main line. As I understand it, that is having an immediate effect on the service to Gatwick and beyond that my hon. Friend described. Secondly, the Strategic Rail Authority is engaged in significant discussions—not only with Virgin and other train operators but with freight companies—about full use of the paths after modernisation of the west coast main line is completed.

We need to consider how the questions that my hon. Friend raises will be dealt with. I accept that the service has been reduced in the short term, but in the meantime passengers will be able to change between the two services at Watford.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): The Government have paid a great deal of attention to the west coast main line, but they have quietly dropped from their 10-year plan proposals to build crossrail and to upgrade the Great Western line. Is that related to the fact that, according to the Department's own forecast, public sector investment in the railways will be 30 per cent. lower in 2010 than it was in 1995?

Mr. Spellar: That is fine cheek, coming from a member of a party that did nothing about crossrail when in government. We are working with the City, Transport for London and the Strategic Rail Authority to decide on the paths for the project. The project has always been long term and has nothing to do with the 10-year plan. We would not have to deal with the issue now if the hon. Gentleman's party had got on with it a lot earlier.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish): Does my right hon. Friend accept that, although commuters in Greater Manchester are prepared to put up with a deterioration in

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the service while the west coast main line is being upgraded, they want the certainty that services will be restored to at least their former level, if not improved?

Mr. Spellar: I will draw my hon. Friend's comments to the attention of the SRA, which, as I said, is involved in ongoing discussions with train operators and other operators on the line. As he fully understands and as he pointed out to his constituents, some disruption will occur while the line is being modernised, but there will be considerable improvements for rail travellers and a shift in passenger transport.

Planning Green Paper

5. Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury): What representations from environmental groups he has received concerning the planning Green Paper. [36648]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): Quite a number of environmental groups have written to Members of Parliament, who have passed on that correspondence to Ministers. In addition, there have been more than 3,000 responses to the consultation exercise, of which about 2,000 were from environmental groups or their members.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien: Who in the Minister's Department will be available to assist in considering representations on the Green Paper from environmental groups, now that Jo Moore, Martin Sixsmith and Ian Jones are not available? More to the point, will she confirm whether Martin Sixsmith is or is not available, given that some dispute exists as to whether he officially resigned?

Ms Keeble: I hate to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the consultation exercise arrangement has always been that the responses will be sifted and analysed by external consultants on our behalf.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): Can my hon. Friend tell the House how many of the organisations that responded to the planning Green Paper raised issues about telecommunication masts and planning procedures relating to their location?

Ms Keeble: We have yet to analyse the responses. Most of them—about 2,500—have come in in the past week, doubtless in response to the campaign by environmental groups. We receive many submissions about telecoms masts and they are always considered very carefully. We also take up matters directly with some operators.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): I entirely support the Government's approach to the sensitive environmental considerations associated with building 3.75 million new houses in Britain by 2011. However, how does the Minister reconcile that with a fast-track approach to major public building infrastructure works which downgrades

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the environment and regards it as of little significance? How does she square those two approaches to the environment?

Ms Keeble: The Green Paper repeatedly emphasises the fact that we take environmental issues and the importance of community involvement very seriously. It contains a number of recommendations that benefit community groups and the environment.

The housing policies that are already in place will continue, including the use of brownfield sites. The infrastructure proposals will be the exception for major areas of infrastructure, and we believe that our proposals still enable community and environmental groups to have an input into the decision-making process. I underline the fact that we completely understand the importance of taking into account environmental considerations. I would argue that this Government's track record on protecting the environment is far superior to that of the Conservative Government.

Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): Can my hon. Friend tell us whether there have been any submissions about the misuse of planning law by environmental groups when it is quite clear that the will of the people in an area is in favour of a development? Groups misuse planning law, especially on the village green issue, filibustering and wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' money, when what is wanted is much-needed industrial development.

Ms Keeble: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. One of the aims of the planning Green Paper is to provide a system that is more transparent and is not held hostage by filibustering tactics, but that can be well used by community groups to enable them to put their views directly and not turn planning inquiries into what has been called a banquet for barristers.

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