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13 Jan 2003 : Column 518continued
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to raise another matter in an Adjournment debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport for being present to respond. I realise that he is trying to get into the parliamentary book of records for making the most responses to Adjournment debates, so he will not be too upset. He also knows how important this matter is to my constituency.
Before I speak about the needs for transport infrastructure improvements in east Kent, perhaps a little background is called for to explain exactly why we have those needs. Unless the House listens to all my speeches in great detailI raise this issue in most of themit will not be aware that Thanet has the third highest unemployment in England and among 288 travel-to-work areas throughout the country. Thanet's unemployment level is three times the Kent average and 60 per cent. of people in Thanet who are in work are working for less than the average income. Across east Kent, 40 wards are classed as high social deprivation wards using Government criteria. Thanet scores in the top 25 per cent. most deprived districts in England in all six deprivation categories given by the Government and we have the second highest deprivation index overall in the south-east.
To address that situation, wards in Thanet and parts of Dover have been given objective 2 and assisted area status, and projects throughout east Kent have secured single regeneration budget funding, but unless we address the underlying problem that causes economic decline in east Kent, all that we are doing with such additional sums is treating the symptoms and not the illness, which in my view is the poor transport infrastructure.
Our problem is that Thanet is seen by many investors as peripheral to south-east England, rather than, as I believe, central to the European Union. My plea to the Minister is that we should try to take the opportunity to construct a transport infrastructure in east Kent that will put it at the heart of the European Union and address firmly and in the long term the economic decline of the area. That is the vision. I believe that we have a unique opportunity to create a transport hub of road, rail, sea and air unlike anything else in the United Kingdom. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will try to realise that vision in the approaching months and grasp this important opportunity.
Let us consider roads. We have a beautiful, new Ramsgate harbour approach road. From the edge of Thanet towards London, there are some good dual carriageways along the Thanet way to the motorway network. However, the roads around the east Kent access project between Ramsgate and Thanet Way, and Ramsgate and the Sandwich bypass, remain single carriageways. That project must be finished to complete our road infrastructure.
Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover): I am pleased to be part of a joint campaign in east Kent that presses for better road and rail links. One of the campaign's key aims is dualling the A2. My hon. Friend knows that we have fought for that for more than 25 years. The port of Dover is expected to expand in the next weeks and months, and freight is expected to double in the next 10 years. Does my hon. Friend therefore agree that we are considering a burning issue and that we need to get on quickly with putting plans in place and regenerating east Kent?
One of my main worries is the train service. If my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary asks what is wrong with the existing service, I shall reply, XOnly two thingsthe operator and the track." The fastest journey time from Ramsgate to London is one hour 45 minutes. Most services take longer. Let us contrast that with the journey from London to Doncaster, which is 100 miles longer but can be completed 15 minutes quicker.
I worked for Pfizer before I became a Member of Parliament. When we showed people around the site, we used to joke that Pfizer located to Sandwich in 1952 because of the high-speed rail link to London. The same trains are unfortunately still running. The trains are old, the service is poor and Connex has defaulted on a raft of promises. It has been fined for late running, but not many people in Kent believe that there has been much improvement in its reliability. Its train modernisation programme has started but I have no confidence in its completion. I also have no confidence that the slam-door trains will be replaced in accordance with the Government's timetable.
Connex won its franchise by making promises that it could not keep, at a price that it could not afford. That allowed it to outbid companies that made realistic cost commitment projections. When it first began to renege on its promises, the length of its franchise was extended because that was necessary to make future investment viable. Despite that, the Strategic Rail Authority had to invest #58 million in it a few weeks ago to prop up the service.
A year or two ago, Connex said that it had no interest in running fast trains to London. When it became clear that it would be required to do that if it wanted its franchise renewed, it suddenly began to claim that it would try to run such trains. It then started blocking the efforts of other companies, such as NetRail, which was trying at timetable conferences to bid to run a fast train service to London.
A modern, fast train link is a prerequisite for regeneration in east Kent, especially in Thanet. It is also vital if we are to realise the potential of Manston airport and Ramsgate sea port. I do not believe that Connex will provide that. And unless the Government acknowledge the need for channel tunnel rail link domestic services to proceed to Ramsgate, no one else will be able to provide such a service either.
A fast train link using the channel tunnel rail link would bring potential inward investors to Thanet. They frequently cite the poor train service as a reason for not investing there. As I have said, the fast link is a prerequisite for the expansion of Manston airport and Port Ramsgate. It would extend the travel-to-work area, allowing key workers to commute to Thanet and the east Kent area generally, thereby making business expansion practicable. It would also expand the commuting area, enabling the unemployed of Thanet to travel out of Thanet more easily to find work elsewhere.
The main barrier to the provision of a fast train service is the Strategic Rail Authority, which is currently undertaking a review of the use of CTRL domestic services. I understand that a report has been presented to Ministers in the last few days, and that it may suggest that a fast train service should go via Ashford to Canterbury West and stop therealthough we have, at Ramsgate, maintenance sheds that the trains are almost certain to use. If the trains did not proceed to Ramsgate it would be a disaster for us in Thanet and for Ramsgate, and it would be the epitome of ridiculousness to have empty trains running from Canterbury West to Ramsgate when they should be carrying passengers. Starting the fast train service at Ramsgate would improve the economic viability of CTRL domestic services, and would do a huge amount to regenerate the local economy.
Port Ramsgate, as the Minister knows, is a municipal port. It was taken back into council ownership when Sally decided to retrench to the Baltic some years ago. Since then it has developed a highly successful freight business, but it has no passenger service. One reason why it is difficult to attract a new passenger service is the fact that all the costs of starting such a service must be clawed back from the operator in one year, because the council is not allowed to borrow either to invest in the port's development or to spread the cost of starting a new service over several years.
I know that we intend, under the Local Government Bill, to allow local councils to borrow again if they can afford to repay the money, but that will not start for another year at least. We already allow municipal airports to borrow; I wonder why Ministers will not consider allowing municipal seaports to borrow, so that they can spread start-up costs over a number of years. That would allow investment to be made in facilities at the port of Ramsgate.
The Minister will know my view that continental and British seaports are not competing on a level playing field. I should like that to be reviewed. The Government have promised a review of municipal seaports for some time, but have not been able to start it yet. I should also like that review to begin as soon as possible.
Manston airport presents a huge opportunity. I know that the Minister is aware of that, because he recently opened on our behalf some major investments by the developer there. Manston already has a good freight business and a sound air-side maintenance business, but according to the local council's estimate it also has the potential to expand its capacity to 6 million passengers a year. That would make a valuable contribution to the south-east's air capacity, and could create 10,000 jobs including those in the freight and air-side maintenance businesses.
Here we have an opportunity provided by a potentially successful airport carrying passengers as well as freight, a potential successful seaport carrying passengers as well as freight, an advanced train service running rapidly into London and a decent road infrastructureall located close to the busiest channel port in the country, Dover, and the channel tunnel rail link. It is a potential transport infrastructure hub, unique to the United Kingdom, and it could play a vital role in regenerating the local economy. It could solve our problems in the long term: the Government would no longer have to invest funds by means of, for instance, assisted area status to support us, and it would go a long way towards lowering the grossly awful levels of unemployment in Thanet.