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17 Jun 2003 : Column 330

Saltash Tunnel

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

7.13 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I welcome the opportunity to raise in the House an issue that has been on and off the agenda for many of my constituents for the past 15 years. A little background history might be appropriate.

Saltash, in my constituency, which is also where I live, is an ancient borough that was a thriving community before Plymouth was even a collection of a few villages. It always depended on transport links, principally across the Tamar from Cornwall into England. Transport issues have therefore been important over the years. Saltash has become, almost, the mecca of civil engineering projects. We have the famous Brunel Royal Albert bridge, which introduced the railways into Cornwall. In more recent times, the Tamar road bridge was constructed, which was one of the first box girder bridges, and it has recently had additional lanes clipped on to the sides—an ingenious civil engineering project. We also have the Saltash tunnel, which is the subject of the debate tonight.

The Saltash tunnel is a three-lane tunnel—the only three-lane tunnel in Europe, I believe—because we have a three-lane bridge. When the proposal for a tunnel was first mooted, it did not receive universal acclaim, partly because of all the disruption, and partly because people did not want more transport coming through the ancient borough of Saltash. However, it was considered preferable to another bridge, so after a public inquiry it was decided that we would have a tunnel. There were public meetings at the time, and I recall one meeting at the guildhall at Saltash when the proposed contractors and designers of the tunnel came to tell us what would happen.

I distinctly recall someone in the audience at that meeting getting up and advising the contractors that she had lived in Fore street, Saltash, close to the proposed tunnel site, and that at the bottom of her garden was a well, which never ran dry. Even in the severest droughts, water was always available. That was not surprising. We had houses with names like Well Park house, and we had springs. It was clear that there was a considerable amount of water. She warned the contractors that if they proposed to build a tunnel there, they would have to be very careful about the water. The lady was well into her 70s or 80s and had huge experience, but regrettably the contractors took little notice. It is a pity that they did not.

The subsequent construction was a monumental problem. During construction, I had the opportunity of visiting and walking through the site. It was hot, dark, wet and noisy—one of the worst environments in which to work—but the principal problem was the water. Water flowed through the tunnel at an alarming rate while the rock and shale were being drilled. It was clear that water would be a considerable problem. After some two and a half years the tunnel was constructed and traffic flowed through it, as well as the water, although that was behind a lining which, at that time, was very attractive. There was good lighting and fans to get rid of the exhaust fumes, and everything seemed satisfactory.

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Before the tunnel was officially opened by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Paul Channon, cracks began to appear in the lining only months after completion. Although the cracks were not problematic to begin with, water soon began to seep through them—not clean water, of course, but extremely dirty water, so the appearance of the tunnel gradually deteriorated. At that time, many of my constituents began to fear that the lining was going to collapse and that they were risking life and limb by going through the tunnel. Over a number of years, that has been shown comprehensively to be false; the structural integrity of the tunnel, which is almost a quarter of a mile long, is not in question.

I believe that the tunnel is structurally sound, but it looks very bad cosmetically. Despite continual washing down in the night in an effort to make it look better, it has, regrettably, not been a particularly good example of tunnel building. Neither is it a very good gateway into Cornwall, bearing in mind the fact that it is situated only a few hundred metres from the boundary. An awful lot people coming into Cornwall get a very nice first impression when they cross the Tamar bridge and look at the beautiful river, but many plunge into what must be one of the worst tunnels in the country, whose interior now resembles crazy paving.

As I said, the problem was first seen many years ago. When I served on the town and district councils, much correspondence took place between local councils, individual councillors, the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency to try to get to the bottom of the problems. Partly, they wanted the work to be redone in order to make the tunnel look right and to allay any more fears about its structural integrity. Principally, however, they wanted to deal with the fact that the tunnel was professionally designed and constructed, but began to demonstrate severe defects within a matter of months. That process went on for some years. I was involved in trying to get to the bottom of the matter, but nothing very much happened. We were fobbed off, no answers were forthcoming and the tunnel became progressively worse.

We are all grateful that a scheme has recently been proposed for relining the tunnel. It will have an attractive new inside skin to obscure the dismal-looking existing lining and we will have a nice and attractive entrance to Cornwall. Everyone is very pleased that that is happening, but many people are beginning to ask why it was not done many years ago. The issue has also raised in people's minds a number of other questions that I should like to put to the Minister. He may not be able to answer all of them, but if he cannot do so, perhaps he can write to me.

My first question is in the minds of many people who were living in Saltash and close by at the time of the tunnel's construction. Following the public inquiry, which involved much discussion and local knowledge about the wells, springs and other water, why did not the Highways Agency, design engineers and contractors take at least some time to think about the issue, instead of going blindly on? Was their knowledge so advanced that they could dismiss any local experience and knowledge?

Secondly, when construction had commenced and water was seen pouring through the tunnel—we are talking not about modest dampness, but about significant streams of water—why did not somebody

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have a rethink and say, "This is an extraordinary amount of water; have we really taken proper precautions to make certain that it will be properly channelled away when construction has finished?"

Thirdly, when the tunnel was completed, but before it was officially opened, certain cracks appeared, as well as water pouring out. The problem was not as bad as it is now, but it was very noticeable. That happened very early on. Why were no reports requested about those defects? Why were no such reports commissioned and some sort of penalty clause invoked with the contractors? Surely, there must have been some sort of arrangement to ensure that if the tunnel, which cost quite a few million pounds, was defective in any way, it would be put right by those who designed or built it. Why, given that local councillors had raised those issues time and again over the years, was nothing done? Why did the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency merely dismiss everything and keep on saying that the tunnel was perfectly satisfactory in terms of its structural integrity, which no one doubted, and do nothing about the appalling cosmetic look of it?

Why is the report that was commissioned prior to the work being undertaken being kept so secret? I have asked to look at it, as the Minister knows. I understand that some of its contents may not be very helpful to the author and may provoke other action. However, we would be grateful for anything that can help us to understand why we are now in a position, 11 or 12 years later, of being forced to spend a considerable amount more taxpayers' money to rectify something that was apparent very early on when the tunnel was completed. Many of my constituents who have been close to this situation for some time find the whole affair very unsatisfactory.

Over the past 15 years, yes, we have got our tunnel, and yes, we have got an awful lot of traffic through it, but we have seen it progressively deteriorate before our eyes. We have felt ashamed of its condition when we welcomed people into Cornwall. Those people think of Saltash as the place with the dirty and cracked tunnel—not exactly the most endearing sight for people coming to spend their money in Cornwall. Many people in my town believe that although the work that is now being undertaken is extremely welcome—I emphasise that—it should nevertheless have been done some time ago and should not be at the expense of existing taxpayers, but charged to the original designers or the original contractors.

I accept that the tunnel is one of the civil engineering wonders of the world in that it is a three-lane tunnel. Most tunnels are either single-lane or double-lane. Its method of construction may at the time have been leading-edge technology, but we have leading-edge technology in the Royal Albert bridge, which is still standing. Although it is more than 100 years old, it still takes thunderous great trains across it. It is looking perfectly okay and will hopefully go on for a long time to come. The Tamar bridge has its so-called Nippon clip-ons—additional lanes that were constructed in a very difficult environment. They look right and seem to operate well. A tunnel would not seem to be in the same sort of league, yet for more than a decade we have

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suffered from its inferior construction, and we are now being asked to pay for something that should already have been done by and charged to the contractors.

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