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23 Jan 2007 : Column 433WH—continued

What in fact happened was that Tesco did not commence any of the work or do anything at all until the five-year period was nearly up. The consequence of
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Tesco’s actions was to create great uncertainty in the local community, particularly for the traders who were likely to be put out of business if Tesco opened the store. As a result, some well known local businesses were forced to close and decided to relocate. It was only at the very end of the period—eight days before the planning permission expired—that Tesco decided to proceed and started the works. That was after Tesco had applied unsuccessfully to increase the size of the store by 30 per cent. and, in fairness to Tesco, after it had also taken into account the need to change the dimensions of the tunnel, because of the possibility of Central Railway, the Deputy Prime Minister’s other interesting project, needing to run through the site.

Thereafter, far from the work being done in seven months, it proceeded at a snail’s pace. The result was to lengthen the disruption for the local community to the maximum possible extent. The development was in breach of the planning permission, but enforcing such matters was difficult and Tesco was given every allowance as the work proceeded. Finally, by June 2005, it seemed that the work of building the tunnel segments and putting the fill on top was at last coming to an end. Work was proceeding to tamp down the fill, which turned out to be bottom ash from the Edmonton and Rainham incinerators. That was not envisaged in the course of the original planning permission, but Tesco claimed that, as it was inert material, it was satisfactory to place it under the tarmac between the segments and the open air. I accept that the Environment Agency also thought that that was appropriate.

On 30 June at about 7 pm—a time of maximum commuter traffic—three units of the 16 segments making up the tunnel suddenly collapsed. It was only by a miracle that a train that had been passing through only a minute before was not covered with thousands of tonnes of debris. If it had, the matter of which we are now speaking would have been a major incident with many deaths.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he knows that this matter seriously affects my constituency as well. It would be good if he put on record that there was no loss of life because of the behaviour of two train drivers from Chiltern Railways who took immediate action on realising that something was wrong. They are to be commended for responding swiftly—on that occasion, they saved life and limb.

Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to add that the driver of another train that was about to enter the tunnel realised what had happened and sounded the alert to prevent any further trains from running into the obstruction. The miracle that no one was killed, which was celebrated in the local community, was soon replaced by the realisation that the extent of the collapse meant that the line would be blocked for many weeks. Indeed, it was not until 20 August that it was reopened. Massive disruption had been caused to the local community up and down the line from Banbury through to London. The line was one of the best and most efficient Chiltern lines in the country and was recognised as such.

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Furthermore, as the site was cleared under emergency procedure, lorries went through Gerrards Cross because the railway could not be used. Those lorries carried the spoil material that should have been under the tarmac, and scattered dust in all directions until finally dumping a large quantity of it, without planning permission, at Coleshill in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). Subsequent attempts by Tesco to obtain planning permission for that dump were turned down and enforcement proceedings were brought. The dump was removed only when my hon. Friend wrote to the chairman of Tesco and pointed out that members of the local community, particularly children, were complaining of health problems in relation to the dust coming from the tip.

Mrs. Gillan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging the role that I played, but, in fact, a strong role was played by members of the local community. People were exceedingly worried about the bottom incinerator ash that was sitting in Coleshill and blowing around as it was not tamped down or damped down in any way. The ash was originally cleared only to the bottom of a site where it would be covered by other material. Does he agree that that situation was totally unsatisfactory and a dereliction of the company’s duty towards the local population?

Mr. Grieve: I agree entirely. Indeed, it is a subject of great anxiety because bottom ash—a substance that I am rather familiar with having prosecuted in the past for the old inspectorate of pollution—inevitably contains heavy metals and dioxins. I accept that it may be suitable as fill material, but that does not mean that it is something people want blowing around their gardens, over their streets or across farm land. Yet that is the result of this collapse and the incompetence that underlies it.

As one would expect, there was a Health and Safety Executive investigation and, having in the past prosecuted for it, I know that such things take rather a long time. I am sure that the investigation is very thorough and I know that it is continuing. I have little doubt that at some point in the near future there will be prosecutions. The engineers on the project were White Young Green, and the contractors were Jacksons. It appears to be a combination of their activities that caused the tunnel to collapse. I am sure that the public will expect that those who are culpable to be held to account. However, we know little about the precise cause of the tunnel’s collapse.

I have been briefed that the view of the Health and Safety Executive is that the collapse was due not to the design but to the manner in which construction was carried out. However, it will be appreciated that no one has produced a definitive report to provide that assurance. After the collapse, part of the structure was allowed to stand. It is suggested that Tesco wishes to proceed with the scheme, although it remains far from clear whether that would entail demolishing what is left, with the skeleton of the store above it, or whether it is proposed to build new segments over the railway line and knit them to the existing structure.

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That raises the first major concern, which I flag up for the Minister. Can he provide any indication as to how long the HSE investigatory process is likely to continue? Is there any means by which the findings can be made available to the public that would reassure them about the tunnel’s collapse and that would be sufficient to enable them to gauge whether the structure that remains is fit and proper to be part of a new development?

Secondly, and perhaps obviously, the site is a blight in the middle of an attractive community; where people were proud of the environment there is now a great mess. It is immediately obvious when one travels through by train or when one looks over the railway bridge. There is the continuing problem of dust and contamination that one would associate with any building site. One should bear in mind particularly that, when planning permission was granted, the inspector wanted to minimise the period that that problem would last.

The community of Gerrards Cross is articulate. It is full of retired engineers. Indeed, many people have been extremely proactive following the disaster. One of them, Mr. Neil Mathers, has become well known to me. He is exceptionally industrious and he took an early interest in the project—so early that on 15 May 2003, long before the tunnel collapsed, he wrote to Sir Terry Leahy. In that letter, he stated:

and that

appear to be absent. Prophetically, he asked:

Mr. Mathers highlighted his concern that the design of the building and the immensely large arch that it entailed would not prove to be sufficiently stable to hold the structure on top.

Mr. Mathers may have been wrong; he is an engineer of considerable standing, but he did not have the opportunity to see all the drawings. However, he took the opportunity to stand on the parapet and look at what was going on underneath. The Minister will realise that if someone of that distinction and with that previous career thinks there is something flawed with the plans and the design, the absence of a detailed report before further work is allowed to take place will cause the local community serious concern.

In fairness, although Network Rail does not have any control over Tesco, there is nothing to stop it being proactive in trying to highlight the problems. I am aware that it has indicated that it will not let the plan proceed unless or until it has the reassurance that it is safe. I press the Minister hard on the need to provide an explanation to the public in Gerrards Cross on the cause of the collapse before any new work takes place.

The other problem is that the time scale that I have been given suggests that, because of the difficulty of drawing up new plans, further work on the site may not be possible until the middle of 2008. As the Minister will appreciate, that means that we will have had 10
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years of blight since planning permission was granted and that it will be a massive five years since the construction commenced.

Mrs. Gillan: Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is not only his constituents in Gerrards Cross who need the Minister’s assurances, but those who travel on the Chiltern line beyond his constituency? They need to know that they can travel in safety, but reinstating the plans without providing full access to the results of the health and safety inquiry would leave doubts in their mind.

Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that must be right. I would certainly be hesitant about taking a train through the tunnel when there was a reconstructed building on top, unless I was satisfied that the information was available that clearly indicated that it was safe. We know that Tesco has prepared detailed reports through its new engineers, Costain, but if it wants to give the public reassurance, it should publish them. At that stage, constituents such as Mr. Mathers, who are clearly people of intelligence capable of understanding such things, would be able to reassure the local community that everything was in order.

To conclude, the Competition Commission report on supermarkets was published this morning, and I glanced at it because it is rather relevant to the decisions that underlay the Tesco construction in the middle of Gerrards Cross and the granting of planning permission in the first place. I am beginning to think that had Tesco sought planning permission in another five or 10 years, it would probably not have been granted it at all, because its achievement of a monopoly position and its building up of a land bank have had serious adverse impacts on local businesses in a community that never desired the development in the first place.

The truth, I am afraid, is that the whole history of the development is a catalogue of failures. The project should never have had planning permission in the first place, it has been badly constructed and Tesco has shown remarkably little diligence or urgency since the collapse in trying to remedy its own faults.

1.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on securing a debate twice on this subject. We are of course grateful that no unfortunate event has befallen a current or former statesman and delayed today’s debate.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am unable to go into some of the matters that he raised. Those include the decision-making process under which the original planning permission was granted and the report to which he referred on the monopoly position of various supermarkets. As the railways Minister, I am happy to address my own brief. Fortunately, I am not the Minister for Tesco.

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I am.

Mr. Harris: My right hon. Friend takes that burden on his shoulders.

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Mr. McCartney: It is just unfortunate that I have turned up early.

Mr. Harris: My right hon. Friend has my best wishes.

It would be useful to reiterate once again some of the events of 2005. I know that the hon. Gentleman has referred to them, but I hope that he will forgive me for going over some of them in more detail.

At 19.34 hours on Thursday 30 June 2005, the driver of a Chiltern Railways Stratford-on-Avon to London Marylebone service reported the partial collapse of tunnel construction works over the railway at Gerrards Cross. The train driver acted commendably in conjunction with signallers immediately to implement emergency procedures. As a result, as has been said, a westbound train approaching the tunnel in the opposite direction was brought to a stand 300 yards before the obstruction.

I, too, congratulate and pay tribute to those train drivers, and that reflects what has been said in the debate. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but things could have been so much worse. The potential for a serious accident with multiple casualties was plain, and such an incident was avoided only by a margin of a few minutes.

Engineers from Network Rail and Tesco’s construction contractor were quickly on site and reported that approximately 30 m of the 320 m concrete tunnel had collapsed on to the track. Some 29 reinforced concrete tunnel segments and an estimated 5,000 tonnes of infill material had fallen on to the railway and blocked the line. A further 16 adjacent segments were subsequently identified as having been damaged or dislodged in the collapse and had to be dismantled.

The collapse occurred at the site for the new Tesco supermarket at Gerrards Cross, above the two-track Chiltern line that runs from London Marylebone to Beaconsfield, Banbury and Birmingham. The project involved building over the existing railway lines and infilling the 320 m long cutting in which the railway runs. The supermarket and car park were to be built on top of the infilled cutting.

The client for the construction project is Tesco and its principal contractor at the time was Jackson Civil Engineering. Various other companies are involved, including designers, planning supervisors and subcontractors. The work affects the railway beneath, so Network Rail is also closely involved in supervising the construction work. Along with others, Network Rail has obligations under health and safety legislation to ensure that work that could affect the safety of the railway is designed, planned and carried out safely. I understand that Tesco has appointed new contractors, Costain, and new structural engineers, Scott Wilson, to undertake a review of the project. I am told that that is a thorough and detailed piece of work. However, no decision on the future of the site will be made by Tesco until that review is completed. The hon. Gentleman made explicit his request that Tesco publish that report. I echo him, as that would reassure the many residents whom he represents. Publishing would be a positive and transparent move by Tesco, although whether it does is up to the company.

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The incident was immediately reported to the Health and Safety Executive, the Government’s independent health and safety regulator. The HSE commenced an investigation into the collapse that night and an inspector was on site within two hours. A multidisciplinary investigation team was drawn together the next day. The investigation into the project and the responsibility of the various parties is still under way, but it is expected to conclude shortly. Decisions about potential enforcement action are expected in the next few months. Responsibility for enforcing railway safety was transferred from the HSE to the Office of Rail Regulation in April 2006. Although the principal risk in the incident was to the railway, the legislation allocating responsibilities between the HSE and the Office of Rail Regulation requires that the HSE remains in the lead.

The Gerrards Cross investigation team involves inspectors from both bodies. I am pleased to say that there is full co-operation to ensure that the investigation is thorough and concluded as soon as possible. The purpose of the HSE investigation is to ascertain the reasons for the collapse and identify the extent to which the various parties involved discharge their responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and related regulations.

Specialist inspectors reviewed the decision to reopen the railway in August 2005; more recently, they have been in discussion with Network Rail about the options for recommencing work on the project. The hon. Gentleman referred to Chiltern’s performance before the incident. He will be interested to know that, although it is difficult to measure performance over that shorter period, it has, on a periodic basis, achieved its best-ever public performance measure since the accident. That, of course, is good news for passengers using the Chiltern line.

As the investigation has proceeded, the HSE has continued to make public key facts about the collapse to ensure as much openness as possible during the criminal investigation. I am pleased to say that the investigation team is receiving full co-operation from all the parties involved. As a result of the investigation, the HSE will decide whether it is appropriate to bring criminal proceedings against any of the parties in the construction project. Given the hon. Gentleman’s legal background, he will be unsurprised to know that the HSE will publish its own report only after prosecutions have been brought.

Mr. Grieve: I entirely understand why that is the case. Having done such prosecutions in similar circumstances, I know that the report can come out only at the end of the prosecution’s case. The Minister will therefore understand why it is so important that there should be some means other than the HSE report through which the public can understand what has happened before anything further is done on the site.

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