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25 Oct 2006 : Column 439WH—continued

Ministers might reasonably ask why they should care. Why should the issue be a matter for them? Is the proposal not a straightforward commercial decision by a private company? I urge the Minister to become involved in persuading Eurostar to reverse its decision, because the proposal will explicitly damage the implementation of a number of Government policies, covering regeneration, the environment and transport.
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I am, for once on these Benches, seeking to help the Government to ensure the success of some of their policies. That is the spirit in which I hope the Minister will take my remarks.

It is also important for Ministers and others to remember who provided the track on which Eurostar runs its trains. The total cost of the channel tunnel rail link was £5.2 billion, of which £1.8 billion was provided by the taxpayer through the Department for Transport. Eurostar’s business depends on that massive subsidy, so it does have wider responsibilities than simply its commercial responsibilities.

My first point is about regeneration. Eurostar’s decision to end services from Ashford to Brussels is damaging to Ashford’s ability to attract new jobs. Under the sustainable communities programme, the Government propose that 31,000 new houses be built in Ashford and, vitally, that 28,000 new houses should be provided there. Without those jobs Ashford is likely to become a dormitory town, which would fly in the face of the Government’s ambitions to create a sustainable community. Domestic high-speed services will ensure Ashford’s continuing attraction as a place to live and commute from, but the Government’s ambitions are higher. They want Ashford to be attractive to inward investors as well. Indeed, Ashford borough council and the Ashford futures board have been working hard at that. The direct link to Brussels is important for that and will become more so in the future.

There is also an important issue of propriety. I am sure that the Minister will be fully aware of the 38th report by the Select Committee on Public Accounts, which was published on 27 March and dealt with the channel tunnel rail link. One of the Committee’s conclusions was that the economic case for the link remained marginal:

That is an important consideration for Ministers to bear in mind.

Apart from the money that is spent directly on the link, tens of millions of pounds of national taxpayers’ money have been spent on the wider development of Ashford, including the road links and various infrastructure projects, such as the new leisure centre that is being built. There are also plans for a £46 million learning campus. The Minister might be aware that the entire town centre is being regenerated as a new shopping area, while other new shopping areas have been built just outside the town centre. Much of that regeneration has used public money, making it a matter of genuinely national interest and the responsibility of the Government, who can therefore legitimately ask Eurostar to think again.

Secondly, the decision is an attack on the Government’s environmental agenda, because it flies in the face of any policy of getting people off the road and into public transport. Ebbsfleet is Britain’s biggest park and ride project, with a 7,000-plus space car park. All the people from Kent and Sussex who use Ashford to go to Brussels will be asked to drive to Ebbsfleet to get there. That is environmental madness, as well as appearing mad to those coming from areas such as
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Folkestone and Dover, who will be required to drive much further away from the continent to catch a train back there.

The policy is also particularly damaging, given the exact time at which Eurostar is planning to encourage thousands of new cars to clog up the roads around Ebbsfleet. We all know that cars are particularly polluting when they are stationary or driving slowly. Let me share with the Minister the road works schedule around Ebbsfleet for autumn 2007, just when all those new passengers are meant to arrive to start using the new station. Construction on the A2 and A282 Dartford improvement started in September 2006, with completion expected in spring 2008, covering the period. Construction of phase two of the A2 Bean to Cobham project also started in September 2006, with completion expected in spring 2008. The biggest project of all is between junctions 1B and 3 of the M25, which is scheduled to start in spring 2007 and be completed in autumn 2008.

So at the exact time when Eurostar plans to switch all that traffic to the roads around Ebbsfleet, those roads will be full of roadworks. Clearly, that is madness. Eurostar has based its decision purely on a survey that it carried out, which said that two thirds of passengers would prefer to use Ebbsfleet. That ignores the real world, in which people will be stuck in traffic jams. That in itself is reason to ask the company to think again.

The third way in which the decision is damaging to the Government’s plans relates directly to transport policy. Ashford is much better served by domestic rail links than Ebbsfleet and has clearer roads. If the Minister wants—I am sure that he does—a properly integrated domestic and international rail network and to encourage the use of trains, he will not want services to be withdrawn from Ashford. Complaints from Hastings have been strong. It is a town that has desperately needed regeneration and desperately needs better transport links. People there have seen transport links through Ashford—a hub not only for east Kent, but for further around—as essential for regeneration. I hope that the Minister listens to the representations that I am sure he gets from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Michael Jabez Foster), a member of his own party.

My final point on transport is that if the services are withdrawn, they are much less likely to be reinstated and people will question the long-term future of international services from Ashford. Again, that will cast doubt over the use of rail services as a proper driver for regeneration throughout east Kent. The decision will have serious transport implications.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give a positive message to people all over the south-east and say that he will join the coalition of those urging Eurostar to reconsider its short-sighted decision—short-sighted because Ashford’s population is projected to grow to 141,000 by 2021. In commercial terms, it seems absurd for Eurostar to turn its back on that growing market.

Eurostar benefits from the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money poured into the channel tunnel rail link, and it should act as an enlightened partner with the bodies that are trying to develop Ashford in a
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sustainable way. The closure of services from Ashford to Brussels will damage the environment in Kent and hit Government plans to develop Ashford. Eurostar has a licensed monopoly of international services and should play a proper role in helping sustainable regeneration throughout east Kent. I hope that the Minister will join me and others in urging it to reconsider its decision.

11.12 am

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am most grateful to my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), for allowing me to add a few words from the perspective of my constituency of Folkestone and Hythe to the excellent case that he has made. My hon. Friend spoke of regeneration plans for Ashford; regeneration plans for Folkestone are more ambitious now than at any time in the 23 years during which I have had the privilege of representing my constituency.

That is primarily due to the immensely public-spirited efforts of a local entrepreneur, Mr. Roger de Haan, who is masterminding the most inspiring schemes for the development of Folkestone. We want the Government to play their part. We see a tremendous future for the area, but the subject of our debate—the existence of good transport links to the continent—is very important for Folkestone, as for Ashford.

Indeed, my constituents would have to travel significantly further to get to Ebbsfleet than would the constituents of my hon. Friend. On the face of it, it looks as if Eurostar’s decision is a big problem for Ashford because the international railway station is there. In fact, the decision would affect my constituents to an even greater extent, so the points that my hon. Friend made from his perspective apply to at least as great an extent to those, such as my constituents, who live even further away from Ebbsfleet.

I shall make just one more point before I sit down, to allow the Minister his full time to answer this short debate. Eurostar seeks to base its case for its proposed changes on a survey that it has carried out. My hon. Friend, the local authorities for the area and I have consistently asked for the relevant information so that Kent county council can conduct its own analysis to test whether the premise on which Eurostar based its proposals is sound. My most recent understanding is that we have had some, but not all of the information that we need. I hope that in replying to the debate, the Minister will deal with that point. He should use his good offices to persuade Eurostar to let us have as soon as possible the information that we need to test and assess its case.

11.15 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) on securing this debate and welcome the contribution made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). This opportunity for the House to discuss international rail services to Ashford is important, given that the second section of the channel tunnel rail link opens next autumn.

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I knew before this debate how much importance Ashford attaches to its international links, so I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain the development of the channel tunnel rail link, the operation of Eurostar International services and how the Department for Transport is working to ensure that the transport infrastructure is in place for Ashford to fulfil its potential as a growth area.

I should begin by making it clear that despite our arm’s length relationship with Eurostar—which is, after all, a private company—the Government have kept a watching brief on consultations during the timetable changes. We have noted with interest the statement from the leader of Ashford borough council and chair of Ashford’s future delivery board, Councillor Paul Clokie. He said:

However, he went on to add:

I do not want to dwell for too long on the borough council’s views, but—

Damian Green: In the rest of that quote, Councillor Clokie said that the Paris services, as I have just said, were disappointing but satisfactory. He then explicitly went on to say that it was not acceptable for the Brussels services to be removed. If the Minister is trying to pray what Councillor Clokie said in aid and say that it is reasonable for the Brussels services to be removed, he will be misrepresenting Councillor Clokie.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because I do not want to imply that Councillor Clokie supports the timetable changes. I simply want to make the point that there is a view in Ashford—and Kent as a wider area—that the timetable changes will not deal the fatal blow to the local economy that campaigners probably suggest.

It is worth highlighting another point made by the council. It sees the provision of the new high-speed domestic service as just as important to Ashford’s economic growth as the international links; that is an incredibly important point. The council anticipates that the high-speed link will provide additional demand for Eurostar services from Ashford in the future.

I absolutely accept that neither the hon. Member for Ashford nor the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe would ever try to talk down their own constituencies. I preface my comments with that, because I know that they do not want to do that. However, there is always a danger that, when Members talk in the House about the economic damage that could be done by one policy or another, they might be seen to be talking down the potential for economic growth in their areas.

The hon. Member for Ashford said—I am not quoting him directly, but paraphrasing—that the reduction in services from Ashford would cast doubt
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on the whole area as a location for inward investment. However, the future for Ashford as a developing community and a town whose centre has, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, a lot of regeneration potential will be undiminished. It would be risky for us to suggest that Ashford’s economic prospects were anything other than rosy, even with the change in the Eurostar timetable.

I want to move on to Eurostar and its operations. It is important to be clear that the Government have no formal powers over Eurostar’s operational decisions and that the company is at liberty to set its own timetables. It does not operate in the same way as a conventional UK train operating company running on the national rail network. However, it does have an obligation to operate a sound commercial business.

I would like to go through the process that Eurostar has undertaken in deciding to reduce the number of international trains stopping at Ashford. I will cover it in three parts: the consultations that the company has undertaken, the proposed service changes for Ashford and Ebbsfleet, and my understanding of the business rationale for reducing Ashford services. I hope that that will address the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe about the passenger survey.

Richard Brown, the chief executive of Eurostar, told my Department that he has personally met with representatives from local authorities including Ashford borough council and Kent county council, and local MPs including the hon. Member for Ashford, to explain the business rationale behind the changes at Ashford. Eurostar also advised London TravelWatch and Passenger Focus of the proposed changes. It spoke to the Government office for the south-east, which is part of the Department of Communities and Local Government, and Locate in Kent, the inward investment agency. I do not think it can be said that Eurostar failed to consult.

Nor can Eurostar be accused of ignoring the views that were put to it. Following consultation with Kent county council, it agreed to introduce an additional stop at Lille on the daily service to Disneyland to provide Ashford with a connection to Brussels, and following consultation with Ashford borough council, it also agreed to revise the timing of the first departure to Paris, to suit local people better.

Eurostar is continuing its dialogue with Kent county council, which is the statutory transport authority, and sharing and explaining the research and analysis undertaken to develop future stopping patterns. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Eurostar remains committed to Ashford in another respect: it will retain its contact centre in the town, which provides employment for some 300 people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.

From the date of the opening of Ebbsfleet station next autumn, Eurostar will have 16 or 17 trains each day from London to Paris, and 10 to Brussels. Seven of the Paris trains and five of the Brussels trains will stop at Ebbsfleet. The opening of Ebbsfleet has led Eurostar to revise its overall stopping pattern to reflect the expected future demand at the two stations in Kent. As a consequence, Ashford will retain three of the current six trains a day to Paris, as well as a weekly service to Avignon in the summer and to the French Alps in the
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winter. With those destinations, 83 per cent. of the current demand at Ashford will continue to be served by direct services.

As I mentioned earlier, the daily Disney train—I do not know whether that is its formal title—will in future also stop at Lille to provide a TGV connection to Brussels. I accept that there may be a residual demand for a direct service between Ashford and Brussels that will not be met by those alternative arrangements. However, the truth is that Eurostar has assessed the demand as being too small to be commercially viable. It has said that trains to Paris will be timed to suit both business and leisure travellers, and it has adjusted the departure times following consultation with Ashford borough council.

Before I go any further, let me say for the record that the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise these matters on behalf of his constituents. He is doing exactly what a good constituency MP should do, and I hope that in the rest of my contribution I will be able to offer him some reassurance that the Government take the matter seriously.

Timetables are valid for one-year periods, so there is an annual opportunity to review stopping patterns and to alter them in the light of changing demand. Eurostar is committed to working with the local authorities, with the objective of helping to grow demand and, in turn, the number of services at Ashford in the longer term.

This point is worth emphasising. Current plans for Ashford reflect the current position, but Eurostar has the flexibility to revise the timetable to suit future changes in demand. Therefore, the comments made by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe about timetables being set in stone and the difficulty in changing a service pattern once it is established are not valid. There will be an opportunity to review passenger numbers and the success of the new service over the next few years. It is not in Eurostar’s commercial interests to ignore genuine demand where it exists, and it is clear that additional stops at Ashford could be reintroduced in the future if passenger demand warranted them.

I offer some further advice to the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Because of the apparent reluctance of Eurostar to provide the methodology and the full details of its customer service survey, there is a suggestion that perhaps it is hiding something, but I emphasise that Eurostar has no vested interest in reducing passenger numbers. It is a commercial company, as I said, and it is important for it to maximise its market. If it genuinely believed that maintaining the current service pattern would increase its profits and passenger numbers, it would do so. It is not credible to suggest that the company is moving to Ebbsfleet in order to reduce passenger numbers.

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