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"With regard to subsidy, that given to Southeastern started at £139.9 million in year one and will decline to £24.7 million in year seven. In year eight, we will be expected to pay a premium of £9.3 million to the DfT to operate the franchise."
With such an enormous turnaround in annual subsidy in the Department's favour-from a negative outflow of £139.9 million in year one to a positive cash inflow of £9.3 million in year eight-the Department is making a cash gain well in excess of £200 million over the lifetime of the franchise. For the Minister to say that he cannot find £637,000 is ridiculous. He is acting like the multi-millionaire who says that he cannot afford a fiver. In light of the subsidy situation, the Government's statement that they cannot find the £637,000 required has no credibility with my constituents.
In an excellent letter to the Minister of 8 December, Ms Laura Cloke and Mr. Felipe Alviar-Baquero, the chairpersons of the Maidstone Area Rail Users Association and the Malling and District Rail Travellers Association, say:
"Your decision to axe the services into Cannon Street and London Bridge from Maidstone East and Malling is shameful and it has serious consequences for thousands of people that live in the area. Moreover, the area will suffer and it is likely that business cease to invest and leave, house prices fall and people lose jobs."
My fellow MPs from mid-Kent and Maidstone and I urge the Minister in the strongest terms to reconsider and reverse his decision. If he declines to do so, I can say with the utmost clarity that should I be returned in the general election in a few months' time, I shall once again beat a path to the door of the rail Minister, whoever he or she is, early in the next Parliament to urge most determinedly the restoration of City services on the Maidstone East line.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) on securing this debate on rail services to and from the Maidstone area. If I am unable to deal with all the issues that he raised, I will ensure that I write to him further.
The current timetable started on 13 December 2009 and represents the biggest change to train services in the area for more than 50 years. The timetable offers an integrated mainline, metro and high-speed service across Kent, south-east London and East Sussex and provides more choice to people visiting, living in or working in the area. The timetable was developed after several years' extensive research and feedback from stakeholders and the public. In 2003 and 2004, public consultations were held to determine what minimum service level would be required to meet current and future demand in the region. The principles of the timetable are set out in the Department's service level commitment, which forms part of Southeastern's franchise agreement.
The franchise was awarded to Southeastern in 2006. Since then, Southeastern has undertaken further extensive consultation with local stakeholders while developing the detailed timetable required to meet the specification. Southeastern has also undertaken extensive market research into travel patterns and preferences across its network. The study considered current and future demand for services.
The consultation in 2003 and 2004 proposed to withdraw the Ashford to London Bridge and Cannon Street via Maidstone East services as part of the December 2009
timetable. Those trains were lightly loaded, relative to other services, and it was felt that the December 2009 timetable offered suitable alternative journey opportunities for people in the area.
Historically, the line serving Maidstone East and East and West Malling stations did not have the same frequency of service as the two main lines running through Chatham and Tonbridge. The Maidstone East line has suffered from poor geographical layout and what has been described as an accident of history. In the 1840s, the landowners and MPs of Maidstone objected so strongly to the railway going through their town and park land that the Bill to build the London-Dover mainline was amended to serve Dover from a junction at Redhill on the Brighton line via Tonbridge. When the railways were finally built to Maidstone, they took a circuitous route and joined up other existing routes as a secondary line.
During the late 1980s, when the high-speed route for the channel tunnel rail link was being selected, it was proposed not to have a station at Ebbsfleet, but to have a Maidstone and Medway Parkway station in the Nashenden valley, adjacent to the A229. That was opposed strongly by local stakeholders because it would encourage development and threaten to close the green belt gap between Maidstone and Medway. At that time, the regeneration of east London was taking place and the idea of the Thames Gateway was forming. Ebbsfleet became the logical alternative to aid the development of brownfield sites. Had the original plans gone ahead, Maidstone would now be about 25 minutes from London and would have an international station.
Although some people who live in and around Maidstone choose to use the Maidstone East line to travel to Whitehall and the west end, those who travel to the City and Charing Cross generally choose to drive to stations at Headcorn, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks or along the M20 corridor as far as Orpington. Kent has three parallel routes that offer a great deal of choice for commuters. It takes only a short drive to access them on a less congested road network than the routes into or out of Maidstone. The appeal to commuters of using those roads is another factor behind the relatively low demand for services on the Maidstone East line.
Sir John Stanley: Does the Minister agree that it is important to focus on the present and the future rather than on history? Will he acknowledge that there is major growth at Kings Hill and across the Maidstone area that must be accommodated? Does he agree that it is highly undesirable and not in accordance with Government policy to force people to travel all over Kent and into south London to get to a railhead? Quite apart from the cost to the individual, it is infinitely better for the environment for people to commute from stations near their homes.
It is important to set out what services there are. There are two trains an hour to and from London Victoria. London Victoria offers a multi-modal interchange
with underground and bus services for customers who are continuing their journeys. Additionally, all trains call at Bromley South station, which offers a cross-platform interchange with trains that serve London Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon and the Thameslink St. Pancras International station. There is no additional cost to people who travel to City Thameslink or London Blackfriars, which the right hon. Gentleman said some of his constituents face. The stations offer excellent connections to the City on foot, by bus and by underground.
During the detailed development work on the December 2009 timetable, it became clear that there was local opposition to the proposed withdrawal of services between Ashford and Cannon Street via Maidstone East. On 30 June 2009, I met the right hon. Gentleman and others to discuss the withdrawal of those services from December 2009. It was agreed that the local rail users groups would prepare a submission to support their case to reinstate the trains from Maidstone and Malling to London Bridge and Cannon Street that the December 2009 timetable proposed to withdraw. That report was submitted to me on 14 August 2009. It asserted that no services between Maidstone and London Bridge and Cannon Street should be withdrawn.
The submission had significant drawbacks. First, the passenger counts did not cover all trains and did not specify where people joined and alighted from the trains, so the figures did not help to improve our understanding of the demand for the services. The most accurate demand figures that we have were sent to the right hon. Gentleman by Southeastern's managing director in June 2007. Secondly, the report aimed to demonstrate the level of concealed demand for services to and from Maidstone and Malling, but did not achieve that objective. The report itself noted that it was not representative. Therefore, I did not consider that it gave a credible view of whether there was concealed demand for services.
On 27 November 2009, I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman and others explaining that I had decided not to reinstate the services. There were three key reasons behind my decision. First, there was no business case to retain off-peak services because passenger numbers were very low and some of the passengers, particularly those starting from Ashford, were accommodated on services to London Bridge and Cannon Street that do not operate via Maidstone East. Secondly, to reinstate the peak services would require an additional annual subsidy of £637,000, and it was not possible to identify sufficient funds for those services in the Department's resources. Thirdly, between 20 and 50 per cent. of the people who use all of the services board and alight the trains at Ashford.
Sir John Stanley: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. Does he agree that the figures that I quoted, showing that the Department is making a cash gain of well in excess of £200 million from the franchise as a result of the change to the subsidy arrangements with Southeastern, are correct?
Customers travelling from Maidstone and Malling to the City have two options. They can take the train to London Victoria and use the underground to reach a suitable station in the City, or they can change at Bromley South for services to London Blackfriars-I accept that that means that the journey will take slightly longer. My letter to the right hon. Gentleman of 27 November stated that the additional journey time would usually be between 15 and 30 minutes on each trip, but clearly individual circumstances will vary. The generalised journey times demonstrated by Transport for London's journey planning tools bear those figures out. If people really do wish to travel to and from London quicker than the services from Maidstone and Malling allow, other reasonable options are available.
London Victoria is a busy station and Transport for London has developed plans to improve it. However, it provides a range of interchange opportunities for passengers. Approximately 70,000 people use Victoria underground station during peak hours and it is anticipated that a further 200 to 300 people will need to use it as a result of the December 2009 timetable change.
I note the right hon. Gentleman's assertion that higher numbers of passengers have been counted on some trains by users. However, the 200 to 300 people refers to those who board and alight in Maidstone and Malling. The total numbers include people travelling to and from Ashford, who have a different journey option. As I said, people who do not wish to use the underground can take advantage of the cross-platform connection at Bromley South.
It has been suggested that withdrawing the services might adversely affect the local economy. We have not seen evidence that there will be any detriment to the local economy as a direct result of the services being withdrawn. I reiterate that independent market research confirmed that withdrawing the services would be the correct decision because there is insufficient demand to make their continuation cost-effective.
It has been argued that removing the services will force people to drive to other stations to reduce their commuting time. Nobody is being forced to drive away from where they live to make a rail journey between Maidstone or Malling and London. Southeastern offers a wide variety of services to different destinations. It is inevitable that people will make the individual journey choice that suits them best. Southeastern's network serves seven London terminal stations, in contrast to the situation that the right hon. Gentleman described with my rail service. That makes it the best connected commuter network in the UK. Most commuter operators serve only one or two terminal stations.
The December 2009 timetable seeks to make the best use of the rail network in Kent and delivers wider benefits to communities across the network. It delivers new high-speed services that provide significantly faster journey times for towns such as Dover, Folkestone, Ashford, Canterbury, Ramsgate, Gravesend and Chatham. It also provides new capacity and journey opportunities for the wider area. The timetable delivers benefits to west Kent with additional capacity at Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, which result from the freeing-up
of seats and the introduction of the high-speed service. The timetable delivers capacity improvements to the Medway towns for the same reasons.
Looking ahead, the rail industry's route utilisation strategy for Kent proposes many improvements. It proposes the improvement of signalling and track between Faversham and Ramsgate. It suggests an improvement in capacity across the network by allowing platforms to take longer trains. For the Maidstone East line, that will mean ensuring that all stations can take trains with up to eight coaches. In addition to existing services to and from London Victoria, it is proposed that Thameslink services run directly to and from the Maidstone East line as part of the longer term Thameslink programme. That will ensure that there is a direct service to and from the Maidstone East line that serves London Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon and St. Pancras International.
I believe that the December 2009 timetable offers people in the Maidstone and Malling area a good choice of destinations in London. It is worth noting that that choice is greater than that offered to customers by most rail companies. A change of this type must be reviewed to ensure that all objectives have been achieved. Therefore, the Department has agreed with Southeastern that there will be a full review of the timetable early in 2010. That will include, but will not be limited to, monitoring loadings, performance and connectivity, and reviewing the success of the overall implementation. If the review highlights areas where the implementation has not been as successful as anticipated, the Department and Southeastern will consider carefully what to do.
Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I thank Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to hold this debate today. I welcome the Minister-I very much appreciate the contact from his office prior to today-and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers to the debate. I also welcome my hon. Friends on the Back Benches.
Immigration is the most important issue for my constituents. I get more complaints, comments and suggestions about immigration than about anything else. In the Kettering constituency, the number of immigrants is actually very low. There is a well-settled Sikh community in the middle of Kettering town itself, which has been in Kettering for some 40 or 50 years and is very much part of the local community and of the fabric of local life. There are other very small migrant groups in my constituency, but it is predominantly made up of indigenous British people. However, there is huge concern among my constituents about the level of immigration into our country.
I believe that I am right in saying that, in recent years, net immigration into the United Kingdom is the largest wave of immigration that our country has ever known and, proportionately, is probably the biggest wave of immigration since the Norman conquest. My contention is that our country simply cannot cope with immigration on that scale-to coin a phrase, we simply cannot go on like this.
It is about time that mainstream politicians started airing the views of their constituents, because for too long people have muttered under their breath that they are concerned about immigration. They have been frightened to speak out about it because they are frightened of being accused of being racist. My contention is that immigration is not a racist issue; it is a question of numbers. I personally could not care tuppence about the ethnicity of the immigrants concerned, the colour of their skin or the language that they speak. What I am concerned about is the very large numbers of new arrivals to our country. My contention is that the United Kingdom simply cannot cope with them.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Like me, will he pay tribute to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, who has had the courage to make the point and elucidate clearly today that dealing with immigration in an honest, straightforward and reasonable way is not just a political but a moral imperative for the political parties in this country?
Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful for the helpful contribution from my hon. Friend who, as always, is speaking up for the genuine concerns of his constituents. As usual, he has hit the nail on the head. I am delighted that today the cross-party group on balanced migration has published a clear declaration stating that the UK's population must be stopped from rising to 70 million people. I have signed up to that pledge today, and I invite all hon. Members in this Chamber to do likewise, because my view and that of the cross-party group is that the UK cannot cope with a population of 70 million.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): Will my hon. Friend assist us by saying what the current level of migration and residence in this country is compared with the 70 million that it is planned to rise to? When are we expected to reach that figure of 70 million?
Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful for that helpful contribution from my hon. Friend, who is a fastidious champion of his constituents' interests; they are also concerned about the level of immigration into this country. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us the official statistics during his remarks, but my understanding is that the United Kingdom's population is currently some 61 million. Net immigration is about 160,000 or 170,000 a year. Unless that is cut by 75 per cent., we will not be able to prevent the UK's population from rising to 70 million by 2029. That would be the biggest population our country has ever had. Indeed, we already have the biggest population that our country has ever experienced. We are the most crowded country in Europe, apart from Malta, and one of the most crowded countries in the world, yet a further 9 million people are scheduled to arrive on our shores within the next 20 years.
Mr. Stewart Jackson: Is it not a sad indictment of this country's political system that the reason why we have not been able to have an honest and accurate debate on immigration is that the party in government for the past 13 years has deliberately and systematically smeared those who have raised immigration as an issue? Incidentally, that has had an impact on people who are not well off-for example, those who live in social housing in places such as Barking and Dagenham. There should have been a legitimate cross-party debate precisely to stop the rise of people such as those in the British National party who exploit people's fears. The Government have not done that. They have chosen to smear their opponents, principally the Conservative party and particularly my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard).
Mr. Hollobone: I am most grateful for that contribution. I will certainly take interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), but first I want to address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson). The cross-party group on balanced migration recognises that point entirely and has stated in a press release issued today:
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