HC Deb 09 February 1966 vol 724 cc516-29

9.5 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

The subject I wish to raise is very different from the one we have just debated. I wish to refer to the Channel Tunnel, which is mentioned on page 14 of the Civil Estimates, Class IV, 15, where there is a reference to £845,000 being spent on expenses for a geological survey and other preliminary expenses.

I am glad that this item is included. For too many years the Channel Tunnel has been talked about without any action being taken, and here we have evidence of action. It has been talked about for at least 100 years, and for the greater part of that time, owing to the very favourable nature of the strata of the chalk below the Channel, it would have been quite easy for engineers, even with much more primitive equipment than we now possess, to have completed the tunnel long ago.

The project was held up for a long time by political considerations, and there were for a long time military objections. In the early numbers of Punch, there were frequent references to the possibility of French soldiers with fixed bayonets marching through the tunnel. There were many cartoons of that sort, but that proposition was always absurd, because it is easy to destroy a tunnel, especially one under water. The proposition has been specially absurd in rencent years when invasion would have been not through a tunnel but by air or by sea. The military objections had been long abandoned, but the project still hung fire and the joint decision of the British and French Governments to go ahead was made only on 6th February, 1964. It is from that decision that the geological survey to which the Estimates refer originates.

I believe that that decision was right. Whether we join the Common Market or not, it is obvious that there will be an increased flow of trade and traffic across the English Channel, not only a traffic in goods but in passengers. I hope that that traffic will be both ways, because the growing prosperity of Europe increases the number of people who are able to take holidays abroad, and with a permanent link we would get a larger proportion of foreign visitors to offset the number of British people who like to take their holidays on the Continent.

A number of arguments are put forward claiming that expenditure such as this in the Estimates is wasteful and unnecessary. It is said, for instance, that air transport and conventional sea transport—and no doubt in the future hovercraft—could provide for the additional traffic we are expecting, but all these forms of transport require the double handling of freight, except in the case of roll-on, roll-off motor lorry ferry services on ships and private car ferry services in aircraft. In the case of passengers there is a double transference.

There is nothing that can beat the train for medium long distance travel. This is a point which is not always appreciated by people who are interested in transport. For travel over very long distances the advantage of speed compensates an aeroplane travel for somewhat uncertain timing, which is still the case, and for considerably more expense, and for very short distances the motor car or lorry has the advantage because of the greater convenience of travelling from door to door. However, over medium long distance the train still has it, and it will continue to have it for a considerable time because a train can carry a greater density of traffic over a comparable area of ground at a greater speed than any other form of transport, and it can do it in any weather. No doubt there will be an increase in these other forms of transport.

Before I pass from the question of weather, I want to mention the Hovercraft. I and a number of other hon. Members recently made a trip in a Hovercraft from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, and we did it in extremely bad weather, when the sea was very choppy, there was very strong wind and the visibility was very poor. There is no doubt that a Hovercraft in such circumstances was much more satisfactory than a ship. It made a much smoother passage, and at greater speed than a surface craft could have done. Nevertheless, it remains a fact that the Hovercraft was certainly not on schedule. It was going at very much less than its scheduled speed. Also, it was not able to make the trip back again; at any rate, it did not. So there is a certain degree of uncertainty in the Hovercraft still and it cannot have the same certainty in bad weather as a train.

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

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson), especially because I am lost in admiration at his breadth of vision about forms of transportation across the Channel. But, in view of previous Rulings given by Mr. Speaker, I should like to know about the subjects with which I shall be permitted to deal in reply. I understand that we are dealing with a section of the Supplementary Estimates on the Channel Tunnel, which provides for the expenses of the geological survey and other preliminary expenses which are provision for the care and maintenance of assets. I should like to know whether, under that, I am entitled to discourse on the merits and demerits of the Hovercraft and various other methods of transportation.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the Hovercraft were to be a regular service, all this expenditure would not be necessary at all. I draw that to your attention.

Mr. Wilson

That was the point I was trying to make, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Perhaps the Joint Parliamentary Secretary did not understand that. I was defending the expenditure which has taken place for the geological survey. Many people say that a geological survey is unnecessary, that the Channel Tunnel is completely out of date, that other forms of transport are becoming available, that to go on talking about about a Channel Tunnel in this day and age is stupid, and that to spend £845,000 on a geological survey for a service which is totally unnecessary is a waste of money to which the House should object.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Roderic Bowen)

The hon. Gentleman is in order in making a passing reference to alternative projects, but he cannot develop them.

Mr. Wilson

I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I have said enough to cover those points.

Perhaps I might be allowed to say that if the money is not spent on a survey for a Channel tunnel, very large sums of money will have to be spent on the improvement of other facilities across the Channel with regard to seaports or airports, or even ports for Hovercraft. It is a mistake to suppose that the Hovercraft can run up on any beach it likes. It needs a prepared platform if it is to be used commercially. Otherwise it wears out the skirt beneath it and becomes a very expensive craft to maintain. So, if the expenditure on this survey was not incurred and the Channel Tunnel project was avoided, we should still have to spend a large sum of money on other forms of transport. If the money which has been spent is not to be wasted, the next stage will have to be proceeded with fairly soon. Otherwise the money which has been spent on a geological survey will be just so much money thrown into the sea.

The group that has been conducting this study cannot undertake to carry out the next stage—the preparation of plans for the tunnel and putting them out to tender—unless it has some sort of assurance that it will at least be partially responsible for the building of the tunnel. The group has already expended £750,000 of private funds on studying the project and if it cannot get this assurance, it cannot go further and the £383,000 spent on the geological survey will have been wasted.

A number of hon. Members have seen the results of the geological study which are at present at Dover Castle. They are impressive even to a layman who cannot possibly hope to understand all the technicalities. A most detailed study has been carried out of the sea bed and the strata underneath it to find the best routes for either a submerged tunnel or a bored tunnel. Both borings and echo soundings of the seabed have been taken.

It is understood that no substantial engineering difficulties were discovered which would interrupt or make difficult the building of a tunnel. But if the group does not now proceed with the preparation of the design and specifications for tenders the ultimate cost of a tunnel, if built, will be increased.

It has been pointed out that the project has been long delayed. If the tunnel had been built in 1930 it would have cost only £30 million. Now it will cost four or five times as much. The sooner the matter can be completed the less likely will there be an increase in cost and the more valuable will be the expenditure already laid out on the survey.

It is necessary to decide, therefore, if all this money is not to be wasted, in what way the financing of the tunnel should be carried out. One understands that the French Government have always indicated that they think that it should be privately financed. What the British Government think is not quite so clear. The study group bankers are confident that the tunnel could be privately financed within the framework of a mixed economy operating under reasonable Government control. The group recognises that a tunnel would be a public utility and that the Government should retain a considerable measure of control. But it believes that private capital could be raised in the world financial markets if private enterprise had sufficient freedom of action to take decisions and to control costs and ensure a reasonable return on investment.

It is believed that about 50 per cent. of capital could be obtained from places other than Great Britain and France. I mention that because it may be thought that there must be some delay on financial grounds in proceeding further now that the survey has been obtained. In any case, even if this project is financed largely by private enterprise, the British Government will gain not only substantial benefits from taxation but from profits of companies which are part of the group and in which the Government or British Railways hold substantial interests, such as the Suez Financial Company and the Channel Tunnel Company.

The group has given details of its suggestions about finance, but it would not be proper for me to go into them now and nor would I be competent to do so. However, I hope that these matters can be considered and that decisions on them can be reached as soon as possible, or the money which has been spent on the survey will be wasted. We know that it will take about six years to construct the tunnel. The impact on the British investment programme would be small during the first four years of construction, especially if the greater part of the outlay were raised in countries outside the United Kingdom. However, if a Channel Tunnel were not built and if nothing were done, long before the six years were up the country would be faced with very heavy capital expenditure to improve other forms of transport and we should be in a desperate position to meet the necessities of expanding airports and ports and so on. The existing facilities will have reached saturation point in six years at any rate, so that it is not a question of the Channel Tunnel being an additional expenditure, but of its being a substitute for something else.

It would be tragic if after so much useful work had been done it should prove to be abortive and merely money thrown into the sea.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

According to the tradition of the House, I think, although I am not absolutely certain, I should declare my interest in this matter. I am not certain, because the company with which I am financially connected did some original surveys, but I understand that certain of them have been bought by the present team. I cannot say with certainty whether they come under these Supplementary Estimates, but for safety's sake I declare an interest if there is one.

It speaks very highly for the versatility of the House that at one minute we can talk about an exciting aircraft and the next about an exciting tunnel under the sea. They have something else in common in that they are both Anglo-French projects. What interests the House at the moment is that both are the cause of additional expense because of delays and lack of decisions.

I realise that the range of debate on this occasion must necessarily be very narrow. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson) has developed the main argument for the tunnel and, as an engineer, I should like to develop some of the points which directly arise from these Supplementary Estimates.

Those of us who have constituencies in the south-east of England and who have seen the surveys carried out week by week can well realise how these additional costs have been incurred. Those of us who went in an all-party group to see the results of the surveys at Dover Castle quite recently know how thoroughly they were done, and I am sure that it would be the wish of all who were there to pay our tribute to those who carried out the surveys so thoroughly.

In passing, I should like to make a suggestion to the Parliamentary Secretary. We now know that as a result of these surveys we have an extraordinary historic collection of bores—[Laughter.]—geological bores for the Channel Tunnel and not in the sense which has caused hon. Members some amusement. They are of such historic value that when the engineers have finished their work with them, instead of being thrown away, they should be sent to museums not only in this country but in the Commonwealth, because the English Channel has such a worldwide importance.

The survey has shown beyond all engineering doubt that the Channel Tunnel is now a possibility. If there were to be any doubts cast at all, the survey has shown that the strata on the French side of the tunnel make it possibly more difficult to define where the tunnel exit or tunnel portal should be on that side. We have been assured by the engineers in charge that there can be a great deal of versatility about the siting of the portal on the English side. I want to make this plea to the Parliamentary Secretary that, as these facts are now known and a great deal of development is being held in jeopardy in my constituency at Folkestone and in the surrounding areas, a decision should be made, even at this time, as to the possible outlet of the tunnel. It is indirectly holding up housing development.

In passing, I would say that a decision on the whole matter is vitally important. My hon. Friend has developed the problems in the ports. In the Channel ports we have reached saturation, not only in port facilities but on ships. I have had letters of complaint from visitors to this country and residents about the poor facilities, not only at Folkestone Harbour but on the boats themselves. I have taken this up with British Railways. The St. Patrick is a ship operating at the present time which has been diverted from the Irish Channel trade, and to say the least it is no credit to this country and does not give the right impression. Whenever I take this matter up with British Railways I am always told that until there is a decision on the Channel Tunnel it can do nothing much about it. One point of explanation which I seek from the Parliamentary Secretary on the Estimates themselves relates to the second item: Other preliminary expenses…£10,000. and then: Additional provision required for the care and maintenance of assets. There does not seem to be a figure against this. I would have thought that this was the most important part of this debate, because the assets are not the cores which have been bored from the tunnel but the engineering team which has carried out this survey. I know that already the engineers have taken work in other parts of the world. If we allow the team to be dispersed this expenditure will be partly wasted, and if we do not go on with the tunnel there will be further wastage. I would very much like to develop an argument in favour of the tunnel, but I realise that it would be out of order in this debate.

The fear has been expressed by some residents in Kent that the tunnel will bring industrialisation to Kent. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can put these fears at rest. I am certain that connecting the Continent with the United Kingdom by rail provides a better opportunity to spread industry throughout England. By having a Channel Tunnel every factory will have direct rail access to their clients all over the Continent. With the present Government's policy on diversification, I would have thought that there was a stronger argument for the tunnel.

I would also remind the Parliamentary Secretary that a number of hon. Members of this House, an all-party delegation, waited on the Prime Minister earlier this year, and put forward the argument for continuing the survey and for the early building of the Channel Tunnel. We were assured by the Prime Minister that it was his intention to press on with this work as a further link between England and France. I hope that within the scope of this debate the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us some indication on the important aspects of the problem.

9.29 p.m.

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

I am very glad to have this opportunity of explaining our position over the Channel Tunnel—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has spoken once in today's debate. He can speak now only by leave of the House.

Mr. Swingler

I am sorry. By leave of the House and with your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will reply on the Supplementary Estimates for the Channel Tunnel, and will make a statement on our position.

I am lost in admiration of the wide-ranging character of the speech of the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Geoffrey Wilson). He referred to 100 years of delay in considering the project for building a Channel Tunnel. I hope that I shall not be held in any way responsible for that 100 years of Tory, and even Liberal, misrule. I can merely answer for the Government, with, like the hon. Member for Truro, only passing references to the matters apparently not in order. I shall endeavour to reply to the points raised by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain).

May I deal with the expenses for the geological survey and the other expenses for the care and maintenance of assets—engineering equipment, and so on. I remind the House of the statement made by the Minister of Transport on 6th February, 1964, about the Channel Tunnel project, which I think was generally agreed. He said: As a result of studies undertaken jointly. Her Majesty's Government and the French Government consider that the construction of a rail Channel tunnel is technically possible and that in economic terms it would represent a sound investment of the two countries' resources."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th February, 1964; Vol. 688, c. 1351.] Since that time the surveys and researches have been proceeding according to plan. There was, first, the geological and geophysical survey of the Straits of Dover which was put in hand as a result of the Minister of Transport's statement and in agreement with the French Government in an endeavour to prove the best route for either a bored tunnel or an immersed tube and to test their feasibility; and, secondly, the discussions between officials of the British and French Governments on how future stages of a Channel Tunnel project might be organised and financed and how the juridical problems necessarily raised by the construction of such an international link might be overcome.

These have proved to be difficult and complex operations, and that is why the House is confronted with the necessity to approve these additional expenses of the geological survey and other expenses, very largely due to bad weather and its effect on the operations. The geological and geophysical survey has proved to be a very complicated and difficult job, including the sinking of 73 boreholes in the bed of the Channel in the face of very difficult winds and waters, land borings, sampling of the floor of the Channel, measurements of current and weather studies.

In relation to the expenditure involved, which some hon. Members may think is a fairly substantial sum, I should like to take the opportunity to put on record some of the operations which have been necessary in the site work—which was completed in October last year—which cost £2,100,000, to be shared between the two Governments.

The works involved include 73 marine borings, as I have said, several hundred miles of geophysical survey, 10 land borings in England, 9 land borings in France, measurements of currents and tides in the Channel, many varieties of new tests in the boreholes, and laboratory tests on samples of rock. For the purposes of the marine borings, two special platforms and four drilling vessels were employed, supported literally by an armada of support ships. It involved the energies of five firms of consulting engineers and specialists in geophysics, calcimetry and paleontology, and has generally been carried out under the direction of the Channel Study Group.

Mr. Webster

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his excellent pronunciation of those words. I noticed that in his speech he has referred to two drilling rigs. As far as I can see, the Estimate refers to an additional hiring of a drilling platform. Was there one drilling rig before, and have we now gone on to two, or are the French now contributing a drilling rig?

Mr. Swingler

As I said, the expenses are shared on a fifty-fifty basis between ourselves and the French. That has been the essence of the whole undertaking. I have been describing a few of the technical engineering features that have been involved.

As I said at the beginning, owing to especially difficult weather conditions, the Anglo-French consortium of engineers encountered the need to employ additional apparatus and to make some additional borings. What is found in the Supplementary Estimate is our 50 per cent. share of the additional costs which were involved in that extremely difficult operation.

The total summation for the surveying work is a cost of £2,100,000, equally shared between Her Majesty's Government and the S.N.C.F. on behalf of the French Government. There is no delay at all in the carrying out of the work. The consultants employed are now putting the finishing touches to their report on the survey, and the two Governments hope to receive that report within the next month.

I am able to say tonight that the first indications are that the report is likely to show the feasibility of the project. But both Governments will require to consider the evidence of the geological survey in depth before they reach a firm view on the future of the project. At the same time, they will require to consider the results of the official studies on all the problems of the kind of organisation required, the financing and the jurisdiction.

It has been of the essence of the whole project that the British and French Governments should act in concert throughout and, therefore, the decisions on the next stages of the project, about which I well understand the eagerness and impatience of the hon. Member for Truro, are matters that we must consider together and announce together.

I would not wish to say anything that was not in accordance with the arrangement by which the two Governments together are considering all aspects-technical, engineering, juridical, organisatonal and financial—in regard to the future of the project.

Hon. Members can take it from me that within the next month or so, when the two Governments' have had a little time to consider the report of the geological and geophysical survey, they will get a statement, agreed between the two Governments, about the feasibility of the project, and no doubt together with that they will get some view from the two Governments about the future economic, financial, and organisational possibilities.

Mr. Costain

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, can he deal with the point which I raised? Would not it be possible, even while the two Governments are considering whether it is an economic proposition to go on with it, to make some announcement that if it goes on, as we hope it will, the portal of the tunnel will be at a known point, and so eliminate the planning blight which exists in the area at the present time?

Mr. Swingler

I am prepared to consider any points which the hon. Gentleman cares to put before me. The hon. Gentleman, more than anyone else, is technically qualified to realise that we must not prejudice any judgments which are to be made. The two Governments must consider the technical geological and geophysical findings of the survey. They must consider the views advanced by their experts about the economics and organisation of the project, and a statement will be made as soon as possible setting out the result of their considerations.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

I thank the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for what he has said. He has been very good to the House tonight.

We are dealing with an increase in expenditure which, according to what the hon. Gentleman said, is due to a considerable extent to bad weather, and to having to change the drilling arrangements from using boats to using drilling rigs, and in a way I am an interested party, because I had the privilege of getting a Bill through the House for the safety of life at sea. Recently, the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) sponsored the Anchors and Chain Cables Bill.

It may not be possible for the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to answer the points which I intend to put to him tonight. How are these drilling rigs secured? This is an important point, and one which I raised in Standing Committee when we were considering the Anchors and Chains Cables Bill. Are they secured by anchors? If they are, have the anchors been certified by the Admiralty Yards? What is the safety factor? I ask this because people are employed at great personal risk, and after the collapse of the Sea Gem morale will not be as great as it was before.

We had the same kind of trouble in the Severn Estuary where a drilling rig collapsed due to a sudden change of current. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) talked about bores. Near my constituency we have the Severn Bore, which is one of the biggest in the world. We experienced the collapse of the drilling rig which was concerned with testing the regime of the bottom of the estuary for a possible jetty for Messrs. Richard Thomas and Baldwins.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson

Perhaps the Minister can confirm this, but I believe that the Sea Gem was the rig which was used on the Channel project.

Mr. Webster

I leave that to the Minister. I am not answering a debate, I am asking questions. [Interruption.] When the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is in opposition, as he soon will be, he will realise the opportunities for, and the beauty of, asking questions in this House.

As a result of the considerable amount of work that has been transferred from boats to drilling rigs—I am not sure how much it is—I should like to know what factor of increased safety the Parliamentary Secretary expects there to be; what increase or reduction in crews there may be; whether these are four-legged rigs, as I imagine, and what type of anchors are being employed—because we are dealing here not merely with a current variability of the type in the Severn Estuary but a very considerable variability in the Straits of Dover. I realise that this is a complicated and difficult matter, but we are concerned with the safety of the men carrying out these very arduous and dangerous tasks.

I note that 19 boreholes have been made on territory, and that there have been 73 marine boreholes. I should like to know how many of these have been made from vessels and how many from rigs. If the Parliamentary Secretary cannot give me an answer tonight, I would appreciate a note at a later date.

What is the difference in cost between drilling from a rig and drilling from a vessel? The House has a duty to check the expenditure of public money, and we also have a duty to our constituents. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe has many constituents who are employed on this project, and I am sure that he, like all of us, is concerned about the safety factor.

9.46 p.m.

Mr. Swingler

If I may speak again, with the leave of the House, I can only say that had I been given notice of those questions I would have sought the best possible technical advice and answered them. It would be quite irresponsible of me to answer them now, without careful consideration. I have given the House some details of the technical operations which have been safely carried out. We all deplore the terrible tragedies which have recently occurred, but perhaps some part of what I have said tonight can be set against them, in showing the success—under very difficult circumstances—of the technologists and engineers. The increase in expenses indicates the very great difficulty which exists today in estimating what techniques are required to be employed and what cost will be involved. We must always take those factors into account. I can assure the hon. Member that I will seek the answers that he requires and if a Question is put down they will appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT at the earliest date.