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I join others in saying that high-speed rail has huge potential in this country. The Government are short-sighted in putting off even looking at High Speed 2 until 2012. Although they may argue that with three or four hours to spare a person can make a rail journey between significant parts of the UK, the benefits that
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come from high-speed rail—we shall see them in Kent—are jobs and regeneration. Given the intense population pressures in the south-east, the use of a rail network that combined high-speed rail with dedicated freight lines, to take business, jobs and opportunities across the country, rather than keeping them essentially south-east and London-centric, would be of benefit to absolutely everybody. We have a pot of money—not the largest in the world, but a significant one—that the Government must, to some extent, regard as a windfall; it could be put towards trying to make that happen. That would live up to the early promise associated with the channel tunnel and the beginning of the idea of an exciting, new and different future for rail in this country.

Dr. Ladyman: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Lady says, and I do not at all rule out the possibility that there will need to be further high-speed projects in future. I do not think that there is one fag paper’s difference between the positions of the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Government, all of whom basically offer a feasibility study on further high-speed lines. However, those feasibility studies have to take account of not only the cost of constructing high-speed lines, but the opportunity cost. It may be that what would give us the best bang for our buck—the best reward for the regions—would be to spend the money on accessing existing mainline stations in the regions, or on improving stations such as New Street. That might actually give faster journey times to London, as opposed to the rather marginal benefits that a new high-speed line might offer.

Susan Kramer: I thank the hon. Gentleman but I think that there is huge opportunity with High Speed, and that ignoring it may be to our detriment. A point that he missed is that when a new line is created and opens up genuine opportunity—Crossrail is an example—there is an ability to capture the development money. He will be aware of the Jubilee line figures: there was a cost of £3.2 billion, even with overruns, but an estimated benefit to developers of £13 billion. The money to get the line built, and the profits, were only just captured. In recent years, we in this country have taken a rather poor approach to the way in which money can be pooled together, because of the benefits, to create infrastructure. A change in the thinking is required. I hope that the Government will use the significant amount of money that will hopefully come from the line to open up that world of possibilities.

The Minister must have expected me to mention my next subject, and the Conservative spokesman gave me a wonderful prompt. I believe that there are obligations to those who lost out with the new link. My constituents in south-west London, who valued the Eurostar at Waterloo, are obviously in that group. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and I have been assured by the Minister in previous exchanges that two of the Eurostar platforms at Waterloo will be transferred to South West Trains in 2008 to improve our commuter services, and that in the 2009 to 2014 cycle, the remaining Eurostar platforms will be converted to domestic use to allow 10-car trains on all lines into Waterloo. I raise the issue because recent press
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reports questioned that timetable and that plan. This is an opportunity for the Minister to give us reassurance on that point.

Like the Conservative spokesman, we fully support the Bill and the intentions behind it. We shall be interested to follow the details in Committee; that is for the benefit of all, because as we know, a small, technical drafting error in such a Bill can have significant financial consequences. We are delighted to support the Bill today.

5.48 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am pleased to have been called to speak, because it means that the high-speed link has been completed; that is why we are debating the Bill. It is strange that when there is a problem the Chamber is full, but when there is a success, such as the one that we are considering now, there are very few people present—but that is the way of the world.

I visited the line a number of times during its construction. The last occasion was on 14 November to see the start of the regular services between St. Pancras and the continent. It gave me—and, I am sure, many other people—great pride to see the reinstatement of St. Pancras. It is probably now the finest station in Europe. New technology was used on the line leading into the Victorian station; it was a great combination. Contrast that with the sense of shame that many of us used to feel when we travelled from Waterloo on that Victorian railway, which slowly chugged its way along to the channel tunnel. It went through the tunnel and came up on the French side as a high-speed railway. No doubt there was a feeling of shame, but now we do not have to feel that. We leave from a station that is probably the finest in Europe and arrive at a shoddy station in Paris. Perhaps we should not take comfort from that, but we will.

The opening of the rail link has been a great occasion and we should take pride in it. We should give thanks to the project team which lately, since 1998, has delivered it on time and on budget. It is a matter of great regret that the project team, which is the equal of the best Victorian engineers that we ever had, is being broken up because we do not have a plan to take the high-speed link further.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the former Deputy Prime Minister, who had the vision and the courage. It was 10 o’clock on a night in January 1998 when he came to the House and made a statement that the deal had been done and that a public-private partnership had been created. It was interesting to hear the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats asking where the money would be spent now. We should not forget the contribution that my right hon. Friend made, and I was pleased to see him at St. Pancras on 14 November.

I have been questioning the Minister about the Bill and whether Railtrack will be able to bid. I am delighted about that, because we do not want a fragmented rail system again.

Dr. Ladyman: My hon. Friend said Railtrack, instead of Network Rail.

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Mr. Martlew: I am sorry. Railtrack caused us nightmares. Network Rail needed to be created and we now have a system that is working well. The Minister pleased me when he said that it would be allowed to bid. I shall be interested in the financial arrangements that will allow it to do so. That is good news.

Now that we have High Speed 1, we must develop High Speed 2—somebody mentioned High Speed 3, but we do not yet have High Speed 2—and bring the line from St. Pancras to the north. One or two hon. Members have mentioned that there is some resentment in the rest of the country about the amount of money that has been spent on infrastructure in the London area. The public transport system in London is very good. In my constituency the only alternative to a bus is to walk. I chaired a meeting yesterday on Thameslink, which seems a good idea that will bring benefits not just to London but to the south-east, and Crossrail is to go ahead as well.

There is a feeling that the north is being left out. I can become obsessive, as I did in about 1992 about the upgrading of the west coast main line. I am still obsessive, as the Minister will know from our meeting last week. Through the work of colleagues, many others and myself, we now have a railway line on the west coast that we can be proud of. The Government provided £89 billion to upgrade it to my constituency and to yours, Madam Deputy Speaker, but we still need a link from St. Pancras up to the north that will take my constituents and others to the continent, or perhaps to Heathrow. One of the proposals, from Greengauge 21, sets that out.

Some comment has been made about the Eddington report. I was part of the Select Committee that questioned Sir Rod Eddington and I pressed him on the need for a high-speed link. Despite the reports in the press that the idea had been discarded, he said that there was a role for a high-speed link and that the planning for it should start now.

High Speed 1 is tremendous. The Government and the country can be proud of it. The improvement in St. Pancras is welcome, but we must go beyond that and take those advantages to the north.

I shall comment briefly on Stratford. I went there to see the opening of the station. It is a totally different sort of station—it is modern, and it is a credit to those who designed it and to the Government, who funded it. However, as we know from the Olympics plans, it is only seven minutes from St. Pancras, and Eurostar will not want to stop at Stratford. It might make one stop as it comes into Kent and continue to St. Pancras. I am not sure whether the Bill can do anything about that. Will the Minister clarify that? It is a technical Bill and needs to be examined carefully, as the financial implications of getting it wrong could be costly.

I return to where I started—the Bill is before us as a result of a successful project which is a credit to the country. I am sure the technical aspects of the Bill will be sorted out and the maximum benefit given back to the taxpayer who, through the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had to bear the risk at the early stage. I welcome the Bill and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has been listening to the calls from all parts of the House for the high-speed link to continue to the north.

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5.57 pm

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): As the Minister acutely predicted, I shall make some remarks about the intermediate stations in Kent, but before I do so, I shall pick up two points. The first was made by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) and shared by the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman). The right hon. Gentleman was worried that the guarantees given to Stratford might not be watertight. From my experience in Ashford, I can say that if those guarantees are not nailed down, he is right to be sceptical about what might happen in the future. I share those worries.

Secondly, I am fascinated to hear from all parts of the House the unalloyed enthusiasm for new high-speed tracks. I share that enthusiasm for the vision of a high-speed railway running up the spine of the country, no doubt eventually as far as the Minister’s constituency in Glasgow, but as the only Member present who has had a high-speed line built through his constituency, I warn hon. Members that it is not an unalloyed joy. I apologise—we are joined by the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), who also has a high-speed line through his constituency.

I make two points. First, if Members want their constituents to welcome a high-speed line with open arms, they must make sure that their constituents get some direct benefit from it, or they will only see the downside. If we build lines from London to Birmingham and then to Manchester, most of the places in the intermediate areas will not benefit very much. People should recognise that. It may well be worth doing as a national project, but we should not kid ourselves that many people will benefit directly.

The second point is the lesson learned from Ashford: people will want to consult. What happened there was that four different lines were drawn on maps and lay there, as it were, for years—thus blighting many properties, completely unnecessarily, for years. That planning blight caused more angst and difficulty than the actual construction. Although the period of construction was, of course, difficult, people at least recognised that something was happening. When we come, as I hope we will, to build High Speed 2, 3, 4—there have been bids as high as High Speed 15, as far as Norwich—please can whoever is in charge of the rail network learn the lessons from the building of the relatively short stretch of high-speed line across Kent?

I want to raise a few points about the Bill that particularly affect the intermediate stations in Kent, particularly Ashford station in my constituency. The bulk of the Bill confirms that the Secretary of State will continue to be empowered to fund the CTRL—or High Speed 1, as we now call it. I wish to explore the Secretary of State’s role as part of my initial point. The Minister will be well aware of the background. Amid all the celebrations, in which I shared, about St. Pancras and the new services, this week also saw the end—temporary, I hope—of the Brussels services from Ashford. For my constituents and many others around Kent and Sussex, that is a blot on what should be an unalloyed celebration of the expansion of the rail network. The lesson that I draw is that we need better and more positive ministerial involvement to preserve the wider
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public benefits of high-speed rail. The need for that involvement is shown by a letter that I received in August this year from Guillaume Pepy, the chairman of Eurostar. He said, quite bluntly:

That is honest and direct; the company is in it just for the money—fair enough. The letter makes it clear that the wider responsibilities for regeneration, always regarded as a hugely important part of the High Speed 1 project, lie with Ministers. The problem has been that Ministers have now declined that responsibility. Another letter, written in July by Judith Shepherd of rail customer and stakeholder relations at the Department for Transport, to Edith Robson, a constituent of mine, says:

That is a classic black hole, between the responsibilities of the public and private sectors. Eurostar says that it does not care about regeneration and the Government say that they have nothing to do with Eurostar’s timetable. Even though tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent on regeneration efforts, based on the international train services and the timetable, no one, apparently, is responsible for making sure that the rail services contribute to the regeneration effort. The buck stops nowhere.

Kelvin Hopkins: I have been listening with great interest to the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be making a powerful case for the public ownership of Eurostar—a change that I would strongly support. That would make sure that the services benefited the British people.

Damian Green: I do not think that Eurostar would benefit from public ownership. However, I hope that I am making a powerful case in favour of Ministers exercising the responsibilities contained in the legislation, including in the Bill. If Ministers did so, we could indeed gain the benefits of the huge amounts of private investment attracted into the project and the rest of the rail network since privatisation. That investment has, of course, funded the huge growth of the rail network in the past decade or so; that point is not controversial on either side of the House.

Dr. Ladyman: Let me say straight away that I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about Eurostar’s ridiculous decision about Brussels services from Ashford, and I fully support his campaign to reverse that. However, I cannot let him pin the blame on Ministers, who do not have responsibility for Eurostar. The hon. Gentleman seems to be arguing that when the Government let a franchise, they should decide on the frequency of the passenger service and where it should stop. The Government have that exact system of franchising in place for the whole of the rest of the network in this country. However, the Conservative party is now opposed to it and says that it would wind it up.

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Damian Green: I do not agree with that analysis. The specific point is that the whole High Speed 1 project and channel tunnel rail link have been based on the idea that they would contribute to wider regeneration efforts in my and the hon. Gentleman’s constituencies and other parts of Kent. I refer the Minister and the hon. Gentleman to the Public Accounts Committee’s 38th report, of May 2006. It states:

That is why it would have been correct for Ministers to play a more proactive role in trying to secure the full regeneration benefits.

I am conscious of and grateful for the Minister’s attempt to question Eurostar’s decision. However, he and I know that that was very late in the day. Frankly, the Department for Transport did not play a proactive role throughout the procedure, despite the huge coalition that had assembled. The people arguing were not limited to those from Ashford or even Kent—the coalition was cross-party and from across the south-east of England. It spread as far as the South East England Development Agency, and even the European Commission became involved. That extraordinary coalition assembled to say that the decision was bad. Frankly, the only piece of the jigsaw that was lacking was the Department for Transport, and that was hugely regrettable.

Mrs. Dunwoody: Oddly enough, I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman on his point that good transport schemes should carry with them a strong element of regeneration. However, we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore the fact that the original Conservative desire to have no public money in the scheme got us into an absurd situation. Although it was perfectly clear that the economic advantages were fairly marginal, when the line was about to go bankrupt it was forced to come to the Department. To say now to the Department, “You are not doing the things that you were not expected to do in the first place, and you have managed to recoup only with considerable difficulty,” seems mildly unfair—and I am never unfair to the Department for Transport.

Damian Green: It goes without saying that the Chairman of the Transport Committee is never unfair to the Department. The hon. Lady makes the point that the Department was heavily involved from 1998 onwards; it therefore had a perfect legitimacy and locus from which to intervene if it had wanted to. However, it did not do so, and that is hugely regrettable.

Dr. Ladyman rose—

Damian Green: I shall give way one more time; then I shall have to make progress.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman misses the point that Eurostar is not the same as the CTRL line. Eurostar was granted its franchise before the Labour Government came to power, on the basis that it was going to be run entirely privately, with no public subsidy. At that point, it was given complete commercial freedom. When the Labour Government came in and had to redesign the
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financial package to complete the line, they did insist on a regeneration benefit. They insisted that the domestic service, which was to serve my constituency and the hon. Gentleman’s, be carried on the line.

Damian Green: The hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. He wants to praise his Government for mounting the rescue, but when things happen that he and I disagree with, he says that the Government have nothing to do with them. He cannot have it both ways. I hope that the Bill will make it more difficult to walk away from these responsibilities in future and that the House can receive some reassurance about that in the winding-up speeches.

Looking ahead, as the Minister explained, the purpose of the Bill is to prepare LCR for break-up and subsequent sale, so that Eurostar will then become a purely stand-alone operation. It is reasonably likely that one of the bidders, possibly the successful one, will be SNCF. The chances of SNCF caring very much about Ashford, Ebbsfleet or Stratford are remote unless some safeguards are written into the sale to try to recapture the full regeneration benefits that Members on both sides of the House want and that should come from a project that has absorbed billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. I hope that the Minister can reassure me about that at the end of the debate and at subsequent stages.

I want finally to deal with the change in the role of the Office of Rail Regulation to allow it to charge fees on the line. Will the Minister clarify whether that new charging regime is designed to allow, or even to promote, competition on using the line? He will be aware, as will others, that there have been reports of new operators who wish to run trains through the tunnel on High Speed 1, and many of us think that such competition, if technically feasible, would be welcome.

As we have heard during the course of the debate, the issues surrounding the high-speed line are rather less smooth than the ride that we will all enjoy on it. It may yet prove in the long term to be a successful “grand projet” of the type that this country is traditionally not very good at. I hope so. To be fully successful, however, it needs to provide the benefits originally promised to Ashford and other parts of Kent. I hope that the Minister can reassure all hon. Members that those benefits will materialise in future.

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