HC Deb 01 December 1965 vol 721 cc1593-604

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

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Norwood (Norwich, South)

The subject that I raise——

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Gentlemen leave the Chamber quietly? They may have an Adjournment debate themselves one night.

Mr. Norwood

The subject I raise is one which is wide and general interest, so far as it concerns the closure of certain rail ways. It is my intention to limit its application, because my main concern is, not unnaturally, with East Anglia. In raising the subject, one is aware of the general tendency to accept general economic arguments of wide persuasion, and to accept in some cases general arguments for the reduction in railway mileage, even railway services, on economic grounds, but to protest in individual constituency cases.

I dare say that this charge might be levelled, fairly or unfairly, against me. In this instance it is reasonable to make the claim that East Anglia is in a somewhat special position. It has a remarkable history in this respect. It is true that, prior to the publication of the Beeching Plan, railway closures had already taken place in our part of the country. But even if one takes the railway lines which have been closed since the Beeching Report one has a formidable list. There are the Sheringham to Melton Constable line, the line from Wivenhoe to Brightlingsea, from Dereham to Wells next the Sea, from Audley End to Bart-low, from North Walsham to Mundesley-on-Sea, Swaffham to Thetford, Witham to Maldon, and one in Hertfordshire, and the Ely to Newmarket service.

That is a list which has not gone unremarked, either in Norfolk or Suffolk. The proposals for the lines which have been closed have gone through the procedure which was laid down in a way for which it is not possible to blame the present Minister or Government. I know that one is limited in what one can ask for in these debates as far as legislation is concerned. The powers given to the Minister in the 1962 Act to withhold his consent to proposals are limited, and my argument would be that it falls to the new Minister to interpret the word "hardship" in the Act as generously as possible. It ought to be particularly interpreted in this way if only because the Minister does not have the powers to interfere with alteration and changes in freight services. There is no doubt that this is one of the matters which has exercised the minds of people in East Anglia over the course of the last few years.

In a statement in November last the Minister made two points of fundamental substance, to which one must refer in a speech of this nature. The first point was that all major closures—which he defined as closures which were in conflict with regional planning requirements as they may later emerge—would not be proceeded with until regional planning arrangements had become clear.

My right hon. Friend went on to make a second point, which perhaps has been somewhat misunderstood in certain parts of British Railways in East Anglia. He said: Even in those cases where I think it right to grant consent the track will be retained for the time being unless I agree otherwise. [Laughter.] Unfortunately I can understand the reason for the laughter. It is not devoid of hypocrisy, but, nevertheless, it is a fact that one can think of one or two instances in East Anglia—and I have a suspicion that other hon. Members may be able to think of other ones—where this does not seem to have happened. According to the information that I received only a little while ago, the railways have seen fit to lift the rails at Wells station—admittedly one of the lines that has been closed—without informing the urban district council, and despite the fact that a local industrialist was at the time hoping to bring materials into the station—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shocking."]—I am prepared to accept that interjection from hon. Gentlemen opposite, provided, of course, we understand that this is occurring under an Act for which the Government they support were substantially responsible.

Mr. Paul Hawkins (Norfolk, South-West)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Dereham-Swaffham-King's Lynn line was not to be closed under the Beeching Plan?

Mr. Norwood

I said that the Dereham-Wells line had been closed. I think that the hon. Gentleman must have misunderstood me. I was referring to Wells station. As far as I know they have not taken up the line at Swaffham station, although it is thought that one day they may do so.

What worries me about the situation is that British Railways' management show every sign of continuing this process. The lines under consideration for closure—I think the proposals are now in the hands of the Minister of Transport—are the Cambridge-St. Ives line, the local service between Ipswich and Norwich, and the Shelford-Marks Tey line, about which I understand another hon. Member wishes to make a short point in a few minutes. I hope that he will have the opportunity to do so. In addition, other lines are under consideration by the T.U.C.C., and I shall refer to those in a minute.

What is the background to this? Closure of the Ipswich-Norwich local line will certainly cause hardship to workpeople. This is a county in which low wages are widespread, car ownership is far from being universal——

Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge) rose——

Mr. Norwood

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not giving way, but time is short. Roads in that area are, by and large, out of date, but the major case relates to the East Suffolk line where, as a result of a somewhat remarkable experiment, it has been clearly shown that the bus service which the railways propose as an alternative to the route they wish to withdraw cannot possibly do the distance in the time. The test that was made resulted in the buses being 23 minutes late on average on British Railways' figures. There is the question of the Dereham-Lynn line. People who use Middleton Towers station, for example, will have no bus service. Early morning workers going from Swaffham to Lynn will lose their bus service. There is a continuing history of complaints over seasonal goods traffic.

The over-riding argument concerns three lines which are still being considered by the T.U.C.C.—the line from Dereham to Lynn, the line from Cambridge to Ipswich and the line from Saxmundham to Aldburgh, in addition to the line to which I have already referred, which by any reckoning must be considered a major closure—the East Suffolk line from Ipswich to Lowestoft. In view of this understanding about major closures I shall reserve the rest of my remarks to the more general argument.

The over-riding argument is that this county of Norfolk, its adjacent county of Suffolk and the fringe counties as well, are in course of time to be expanded in a remarkable way. About 70,000 people are due to go to Ipswich and 30,000 additional people may ultimately go to Norwich.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

On a point of order. Is it in order to ask the hon. Member, who represents a Norfolk constituency, to confine himself to Norfolk? He is now commenting on Suffolk matters. I am one of those who represent Suffolk constituencies. I should be glad if the hon. Member would confine himself——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Roderic Bowen)

That is not a point of order. The hon. Member is in order at the moment.

Mr. Norwood

I regard myself as a Member from East Anglia, and have seen fit to raise this debate. I see no reason why I should not have done so. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths) preferred to use his opportunity yesterday night on something very different——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Member now get on with the subject of the Adjournment debate?

Mr. Norwood

Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. From the existing plans relating to East Anglia we already know that there will be a substantial extension of population and industry, and it is fair to assume, bearing in mind that this is one of the few parts of the country in which there can be economic expansion without harm either to the people resident there or to the South-East as a whole, that that economic expansion will continue, and even extend beyond the existing plans.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that in the case of these two substantial lines—the line from Dereham to Lynn and the East Suffolk line—a strong case can be made for considering this matter as against the plans which will ultimately come before the Economic Planning Council. We have had enough closures already in East Anglia, and it is some years before we should have any more. One solution would be to ask the Regional Planning Council, with reasonable terms of reference, to consider these closures. The East Suffolk line is irreplaceable.

I say this not as a Norwich Member but as one representing an East Anglian constituency. The alternative road—the A.12—is particularly bad. The only real alternative road service will ultimately come via Norwich. Even though I am a Norwich Member and have been criticised for raising this subject as a Norwich Member, I am also an East Anglian Member, and I consider that to think of East Anglia as being confined to Norwich or Ipswich is insufficient. It is a great deal more. It is not the rural backwater that many people have chosen to consider it but an area which promises a great deal in the way of successful economic development.

It has great potential, and the closure of any further lines would only place its possibility of realising that economic potential even more in doubt. I trust that this is not the Government's intention.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

The hon. Member has one fact wrong. He referred to the area as a whole, but he should be aware that a case has been put forward by the East Suffolk County Council.

Mr. Norwood

I believe that representations have been made. I am not disputing that. The area has tremendous potential. It will be a tragedy if that potential is vitiated in any way by unnecessary closures, and if it is within the power of my hon. Friend to give me any undertaking, understanding or explanation I shall be very grateful. I trust that it is not the Government's intention to close down the East Anglian railway system.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Keith Stainton (Sudbury and Woodbridge)

I am glad to have the accommodation of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Norwood), so that I may speak for two or three minutes before the Parliamentary Secretary replies to the debate. It is noble of the hon. Member to have launched out on this debate on the future of the railways in East Anglia. He has the buffers in Norwich—and the buffers only; the railways belong to the constituencies of other hon. Members here tonight, on this side of the House. They are my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Eldon Griffiths), for Eye (Sir H. Harrison) for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) and myself, representing Sudbury and Woodbridge. However, the hon. Member for Norwich, South, touched on at least two important points which I should like to repeat. First, on the 1962 Act, the hon. Member tried to put the whole responsibility on to the previous Conservative Administration. Would the Parliamentary Secretary please make it clear whether his Minister is prepared to introduce a revision of the 1962 Act so far as the functions of the T.U.C.C. are concerned? I warn him that I have been in correspondence with the Minister recently on this matter——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is not entitled to discuss changes in legislation on an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Stainton

Proceeding from that, there is the more general question of the statement which the Minister made to the House in November last year about major closures. When the closures of the Stour Valley line and the East Suffolk line, both of which are substantial closures, were put to him, the Minister refused to exercise the powers he had taken unto himself in his major closure statement, in order that the more general economic factors at work could be considered before the whole panoply of the T.U.C.C. procedure was set in motion. These are my two points—the workings of the 1962 Act and the Minister's statement.

It is facile, indeed spurious, for the hon. Member for Norwich, South to raise these points when his own Government are responsible for the shortcomings.

11.47 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Norwood) will appreciate that I am not in a position to give definitive replies on this very important question tonight. It is clear that the specific matters he has raised—which we regard as of the utmost importance to all those in East Anglia, including those hon. Members who are here tonight—are under close investigation.

Therefore, it is difficult for me to make this reply. I suppose that the only satisfactory reply for my hon. Friend and the other hon. Members would be that all the lines in East Anglia whose passenger services are being investigated will remain open. But they will appreciate, as I know my hon. Friend does, that I cannot make such an announcement tonight. Nevertheless, I will do my best to assist my hon. Friend in the points he has raised, and other hon. Members like the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) on general points by saying something about the Government's rail closure policy in general.

The misconceptions about what we are trying to do and the important respects in which our policy differs from that of our predecessors are still very widespread. I make no apology for using this opportunity to state the fact that we are carrying out our policy of stopping all major rail closures.

We never said in the Labour Party election manifesto that we would stop all rail closures: we said we would stop major rail closures, and that is what we are doing. The definition of major rail closures depends on an appreciation of regional and national transport needs. I would emphasise that, in pursuance of this policy, my right hon. Friend has already rejected no less than 18 important closure proposals since he came to office. In addition to that are the very important lines which have been saved without going through the full statutory procedures by the early sift procedure which my right hon. Friend introduced. This denotes the difference between our policy and that of the Tory Government which preceded us.

Since my right hon. Friend took office, the British Railways Board has been required to let him know, in advance of the publication of any proposal, the nature of the closure it wants to make. Those which are obviously unacceptable on planning grounds are immediately rejected, without going through the elaborate and expensive investigation pro- cedure. This saves time, expense and uncertainty for many people.

For proposals which go through the full procedure under the 1962 Act—the amendment of which, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you have rightly pointed out, I am debarred from discussing, although I shall be delighted to discuss it on another occasion—we have introduced a vital new stage in accordance with our pledge to take regional planning fully into account. In pursuance of that, all proposals are now considered by the appropriate regional council of the area, where those planning councils exist. That means almost everywhere in the country. I shall have something further to say about East Anglia on that point in a moment. The views of the regional council are of considerable importance to us, as, indeed, are the views of all those concerned, and not least the views of hon. Members whose constituents are affected by any proposal. Their views are taken into account.

There is a third important difference in the policy which we are pursuing. Even when my right hon. Friend feels it right to consent to a closure, he has agreed with the British Railways Board that the track and formation of a closed line should not be disposed of without his specific consent. That is a provision which did not exist before but which has been introduced by my right hon. Friend because of the possibility that, with the development of regional plans, services and lines may be reopened in the future. If, despite the most rigorous examination which closure proposals go through, there are unexpected future developments in areas now served by a line which it is agreed to close, on account of its unremunerative character, we shall maintain the possibility of providing the service again in future, if necessary.

My hon. Friend and others have mentioned two specific points of dissatisfaction with the present general procedure. The first is the question of the role of the Transport Users' Consultative Committees in considering hardship under the terms of reference of the 1962 Act. The T.U.C.C. is, of course, one of the many bodies and persons who advise the Minister. Their function is to consider and to report on hardship to users which a closure might cause and to look at alternative services. We are satisfied that this is an important job for them to do. But advice on many other aspects of a proposed closure is, of course, available to the Minister from other specialist sources. The T.U.C.C. is his special adviser on hardship problems, but he also consults other bodies and other persons. But in the last resort my right hon. Friend has, of course, the statutory duty to take the final decision. He must draw together all the strands of advice which are given to him.

As I have said, I cannot comment on the specific lines mentioned by my hon. Friend or represented here by other hon. Members, because all of them—and there are many of them in East Anglia—are in various stages of consideration after being put forward by the Railways Board. But I assure my hon. Friend that everything which he said tonight, and indeed all the representations made by hon. Members from East Anglia, will be most carefully considered by my right hon. Friend before he comes to his decision on them.

More than that I cannot say, but I can use this opportunity to give one important assurance to my hon. Friend and the House. Hon. Members will know that the Planning Council for East Anglia is about to be set up by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary. We intend to refer all outstanding cases of railways closures in East Anglia—I think my hon. Friend mentioned 10 in all—to the Planning Council so that we may have the benefit of its advice before my right hon. Friend takes any decision. The Planning Council for East Anglia has not yet been established and we do not have the date of its first meeting.

It must be remembered that these are unremunerative lines. We have said that it is exceedingly important that all planning considerations should be taken into account in connection with all rail closure proposals. We mean that. We have done it in the rest of the country. We have now decided that, at whatever stage they might be at present, all rail closure proposals in East Anglia will be referred to the Planning Council when it is established. We will, therefore, await the Council's advice on planning grounds concerning the future potential, from the economic, development and other points of view, of these lines in East Anglia before my right hon. Friend takes a decision.

I do not want any hon. Member to have the wrong impression about closure proposals. Publication of the Railways Board's intention to close a line to passenger services does not necessarily mean the closure of that line. In at least 18 cases my right hon. Friend has rejected outright the proposals which have been put to him, while in other cases the proposals have been withdrawn by the Railways Board after preliminary examination. Thus, publication of the intention to close and the procedure of investigation does not necessarily mean that the closures will take place.

The statutory procedure sets in train a full examination of the social and economic value of the line in the area which it serves. In addition, we will now have, as a result of the initiative of the present Government, the Regional Planning Councils in operation. They will contain representatives of the area and, concerning the East Anglian proposals, we will have the advantage of the Regional Planning Council's assessment of the value of the lines for the future development of the area.

I hope, therefore, that it is realised that these proposals will be considered in the widest possible way—and tonight's debate gives us an opportunity to make this point clear—and that the economic implications, the social costs and benefits and so on to the people will be taken into account by a wide representative body of opinion, including the T.U.C.C.s, the economic planning councils, the local authorities and the views of hon. Members, which are made known to my right hon. Friend. All these will be carefully assessed before any decisions are reached by my right hon. Friend on future rail closures in East Anglia.

11.58 p.m.

Colonel Sir Harwood Harrison (Eye)

The whole House as well as the public generally will be grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for the clear way in which he set out the situation. I say frankly, as one of the hon. Members who has been concerned over the closure of what is known as the East Suffolk line, that the public generally usually take the view when railway closure proposals are announced that there is no point in their trying to fight against them.

In view of what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary said, we must make it clear to people in this area that it is worth putting up a fight. I understand that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary attended an inquiry held by the T.U.C.C. in my part of the world and saw the great number of people, certainly 200, who wished to take part. There were two full days of inquiry, at the end of which there were still 93 people wanting to give evidence. However, since two days had been occupied in hearing evidence, it became obvious that some of it was repetitive and the T.U.C.C. rightly came to the conclusion that there was no need to hold a further day's hearing.

I once again thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for making it clear that it is for all concerned, county councils and other bodies and individuals, to put their evidence forward. They should realise that it is not only hardship considerations which the Minister takes into account when making his decision whether or not to close a line. This is not sufficiently well known and it is to be hoped that, as a result of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Norwood) initiating this debate, much publicity will be given to the facts presented by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.