HC Deb 10 May 1966 vol 728 cc360-70

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

10.4 p.m.

Mr. Peter Tapsell (Horncastle)

I am grateful to have an opportunity of raising a question which is causing considerable concern to my constituents in the Horn-castle division—the future of the Grimsby to Peterborough railway line.

As the House will remember, when the Beeching Report was published in 1963 it recommended among its other proposals the closure of the passenger service between Grimsby Town and Peterborough via Spalding. All the existing railway stations in my constituency would have been closed under these proposals: on the coast, Skegness, Mablethorpe and their branch lines linking them with the main line; and, inland, Alford Town, Willoughby, Burghle-Marsh and Firsby, all on the main Grimsby to Peterborough line.

If all those six railway stations in the Horncastle division were to be closed, it would have a serious economic effect on the whole region of East Lincolnshire and would cause serious hardship to many of my constituents, great numbers of whom would find themselves 40 or 50 miles from the nearest railway station.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the Beeching Report was published three years ago. The Grimsby to Peterborough line has not been closed to passenger traffic. We are grateful for this. Yet complete uncertainty remains about the Government's intentions and about the intentions of British Rail. That uncertainty is extremely damaging and worrying for all those who live in East Lincolnshire. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to clear up that uncertainty when he replies to my remarks.

It seems to me that four main considerations arise about the future of the Grimsby to Peterborough line. The first consideration is its profitability. I recognise that this may well be most unsatisfactory, but I would make two comments in passing about profitability. The un-profitability of the line is being exaggerated by a whole series of management decisions which have been taken by the Railways Board in diverting profitable traffic to other lines. The culmination of these administrative decisions was seen when, on 2nd May, all freight traffic was diverted away from the line.

I am grateful, and I know that my constituents will be grateful as well, for the firm assurance which was given earlier today in another place by the Minister without Portfolio, Lord Champion, replying to a Question, when he said categorically that this series of decisions diverting profitable traffic, including freight traffic, from the Grimsby to Peterborough line is not an attempt by British Rail to establish a case for closure to passenger traffic on the grounds of insufficient profitability.

My second comment to the Parliamentary Secretary about profitability is to quote to him the apparently inspired article by Mr. Colin Chapman which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times on 24th April of this year. This read: … the announcement by Mrs. Barbara Castle, the Minister of Transport, on Friday that she will agree to cuts only where they will not conflict with regional planning or cause social or economic damage, will mean the reprieve of a vast amount of the network doomed under the Beeching plan. The closures announced yesterday, will be the last which the Ministry will approve unconditionally. I understand that Mrs. Castle has made it clear to Mr. Stanley Raymond. Chairman of the British Railways Board, that although some pruning of the systm is still necessary the Ministry will not agree to closures of lines just because they do not meet certain profit margins. I very much hope that the Parliamentary Secretary—and I am most grateful to him for coming to reply to this debate—will confirm that this apparently authoritatively written article accurately represents his right hon. Friend's policy in these matters.

The second main consideration which seems to arise is the question of adequate alternative transport facilities should the railway line be closed. In 1963 we were promised by the then Minister of Transport that no closures would be authorised by him unless adequate alternative transport facilities were available. I assure the Parliamentary Secretary, who may not be personally acquainted with East Lincolnshire, that no adequate alternative transport facilities are available there. This cannot be seriously disputed.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that we have some of the worst Class I roads in the country in East Lincolnshire. Perhaps I might cite as examples the roads leading to Mablethorpe and Skegness, where a large part of the population of my constituency live and earn their living. These roads are narrow and winding, and during the summer months, in particular, are absolutely choked by cars towing thousands of caravans to the coast and then back to the Midlands and elsewhere. Certainly, in the present state of our roads no one could fairly argue that satisfactory alternative means of transport would exist if this railway line were closed.

The third main consideration is, I suggest, the general economic effect on the region as a whole which closure of this line would have. Already, East Lincolnshire suffers from seasonal unemployment, earnings well below the national average, insufficient light or heavy industry, and growing depopulation as a result of these factors. All these unsatisfactory trends would undoubtedly be accentuated and made more difficult to overcome if the region lost a link with the main railway system of this country.

At a time when all political parties are, rightly, giving increasing emphasis to the problem of regional development, the clourse of this line would run wholly contrary to this general policy. It would create a situation where large sums of public money would eventually have to be spent to build up the prosperity of the region again. This at a time when the South Humber bank, only a few miles to the north of the region about which I am speaking, has become the most rapidly developing industrial area in the country. Many believe that it can only be a matter of time before an overspill new town will be needed in East Lincolnshire to serve this South Humber area.

The recent, and perhaps very important, discovery of natural gas, and possibly oil, just off the East Lincolnshire coast, which may have a most dramatic impact on that part of the country in the very near future is also relevant. So I think that I am entitled to ask on behalf of my constituents whether this is really the time to close the region's only link with the main railway system.

The fourth and final main consideration is the undoubted hardship to individuals which would arise if this railway line were to be closed. I hope that I have said enough to convince the Parliamentary Secretary and, through him, the Minister, that closure, for all the reasons that I have given, would cause hardship to individuals which would be both widespread and serious.

I started by saying that I hoped that the Parliamentary Secretary would clear up the uncertainty about the future of this line from Grimsby to Peterborough, linking up to King's Cross—this line which runs through my constituency but also through the constituencies to the north and south of mine. He will recognise that a decision on a closure is a decision for the Minister herself and for no one else.

The previous Minister of Transport—the right hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Tom Fraser)—promised a final decision affecting the services as a whole before the end of the summer of 1965. That promise was conveyed in a news release by the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for the East Midlands area dated, 15th February, 1965, a copy of which I have with me. In the final paragraph it said: The Minister made it clear that, as the proposed review would obviously take some time, there could be no final decision affecting the services as a whole before the end of the summer. That was last summer and we are still waiting for that final decision affecting the services as a whole.

I hope that we can get that decision tonight. I do not ask the Parliamentary Secretary to go into great detail, but my constituents would like to have from him his firm announcement on three points: first, that the Minister will not give her permission for the closure of the Grimsby-Peterborough railway line to passenger traffic; secondly, that the branch lines linking Mablethorpe and Skegness to the main line will remain open; and, thirdly, that some, at least, of the railway stations on the main line in the Horncastle division will remain open for passenger traffic.

10.17 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Morris)

I am sorry that I missed the opening words of the hon. Member for Horncastle (Mr. Tapsell). I rushed down as soon as I could. I take the opportunity of welcoming him back to the House. We are grateful to him for raising this subject. He asks me a number of specific questions.

First, however, I ought to clarify exactly where we stand on the whole issue. The Minister is determined at the earliest possible opportunity to stabilise our railway system. She hopes in the course of the summer to publish her White Paper on transport, in which some of the ideas on which she is working as rapidly as she can will be set forth. It would be improper and also impossible for me to anticipate the contents of the White Paper, but everyone, including the hon. Member, will accept what an impossible task the 1962 Transport Act gave to British Rail. It gave it the duty of paying its way with the present financial structure. We have seen the figures as they have come out year by year, appreciating how impossible it has been, even if all the proposals for closure proposed by Dr. Beeching and accepted by the House and by the Government of which the hon. Member was a supporter were carried out—and if I remember rightly he voted for the Beeching proposals and for the 1962 Act—at the end of the day British Rail would still not be able to carry out the obligation imposed upon it by the 1962 Act.

Mr. Tapsell

The Parliamentary Secretary has referred to my vote at the time. He will agree that we were then given an assurance that the Beeching proposal would be made subject to satisfactory alternative methods of transport being available. My whole point is that those alternatives are not available in East Lincolnshire.

Mr. Morris

I will come to that. My Minister is very mindful of the importance of the duty enjoined upon her by Statute, to ensure that before she agrees to any closure she has to be satisfied that there are sufficient and adequate alternative services. Be that as it may, as at the end of the day, the party opposite agreed to the Beeching proposals. Since I have been in this office I have seen —as did my predecessors—a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House coming with their proper representations about particular railway lines in their own constituencies. I think that all this shows up the impossibility of the task which was given to British Railways. I think that the country now accepts that it would be impossible to carry out the Beeching philosophy, because it would have meant, at the end of the day—this is what hon. Gentlemen must accept—a railway system for this country of about 8,000 miles.

This would be impossible to achieve, in view of the representations made by hon. Gentlemen. As regards alternative services, I have indicated that the Minister must ensure that these are available and she will insist upon this before she agrees to any closure. We now have the advice of the Economic Planning Councils. This was not available when the original 1962 Act came into operation. The councils have been set up under the present Administration. Before my Minister decides on any closure, she now has the advice of the planning councils about the future probable use of a particular railway line.

This is very important. A particular line is not now considered in isolation. Much more than that is done. The railway system in that part of the country is considered as a whole and we have the benefit of the valuable advice of the planning councils before we come to any decision. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this is an important step forward, looking at this non-politically—that we are moving away from the concept of considering one railway line towards looking at the needs of a whole area.

As regards the particular line to which the hon. Gentleman referred, there has been a great deal of speculation in the local press in recent months and I am glad to have the opportunity to tell the House what the present position is, although I am afraid that I cannot at this stage make predictions about the future. I should, first of all, say that the Minister has no locus over the Railways Board's plans for freight services on the line. We understand that some freight depots are being closed and services concentrated at the remainder as part of the Board's freight rationalisation scheme. But it is free to go ahead with such schemes on the basis of its own commercial judgment and, under the 1962 legislation, the Minister has no power to intervene.

Passenger services, of course, are a different matter. Here again, the Board is free to adjust the timing or the frequency of such services but it cannot close a service altogether without the Minister's consent. Hon. Members closely concerned with this part of the country will know that the Railways Board published its proposal to close the passenger services on this line about two years ago and at the same time published proposals to close two short branch lines running off it to Mablethorpe and Skegness. Some months before, they had also published a proposal to close the passenger service between Lincoln and Firsby. Altogether, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, there were four closure proposals affecting the network of passenger services in East Lincolnshire.

All these were formally published under Section 56 of the Transport Act 1962, so that the statutory procedure for considering such proposals was set in motion at that time. Under this procedure, as the hon. Gentleman knows, users of these services exercised their right to lodge objections to the area T.U.C.C. He will know also that these area committees are independent bodies appointed specifically to represent the interests of users. Under the Act they are required to consider objections made to closures on hardship grounds and to report their findings to the Minister.

The East Midland Committee considered objections relating to the Lincoln-Firsby proposal first and reported to the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), on the hardship aspect. He accepted the Committee's view that this proposal was closely linked with the other three and he therefore deferred his decision so that all four proposals could be considered together. In fact, the Committee's report on the Grimsby-Peterborough proposal and the two branch lines was made to the new Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), who, after examining it, came to the conclusion that he could not accept the Board's proposals for East Lincolnshire as they stood. But he recognised that the present services were uneconomic and he thought that it might be possible to withdraw services on some parts of the local network without serious difficulty if proper alternative arrangements were made. He therefore asked the Board to review their proposals on the basis that the withdrawal of the whole of the services which they had proposed for closure was unacceptable at that time.

Since then the Railways Board have been examining their services and the use made of them in considerable detail. Their problem has been to produce new plans which would achieve some economies and be operationally practicable. A good many miles of line are involved in the East Lincolnshire network and this has necessarily been a long and complicated task. They have not yet completed their revised proposals, but we understand that they hope to do so quite soon now.

When they are ready the Board will announce these proposals locally so that the people who are most concerned will be properly informed. Users of the services will be able to make representations to the area T.U.C.C. if they wish and the Committee will consider the Board's proposals in the light of these representations and any objections still relevant which were lodged to the original proposals.

As I have said, the Minister will take the first opportunity of asking the regional economic planning councils concerned for their views on the Board's proposals. She will take these fully into account when considering the future transport needs of the area as a whole. The T.U.C.C. will also make a further report to the Minister on any hardship which they may find would be caused. Until we have seen the revised proposals, I cannot say what other particular features will call for special consideration by the Minister. But I can assure the hon. Member that she will study the representations made by hon. Members, including the letter which the hon. Member wrote to her, and local authorities about various aspects of the original proposals with particular care. We know, for example, that a great deal of concern was expressed about the effect of these proposals on the holiday trade at the coastal resorts which were affected and about the employment prospects in the area. These, again, were matters referred to in the hon. Gentleman's letter to us. As I have said, we do not know whether these same factors will arise in connection with the revised proposals, but the Minister will look into the whole question in detail before deciding whether or not to allow the Board to go ahead.

Mr. Tapsell

Am I to understand that the Parliamentary Secretary is repeating a definite assurance that the Minister will not permit the closure of the passenger services on this line unless and until satisfactory alternative means of communication are provided?

Mr. Morris

Yes. I can give that categorical assurance that it is the duty of the Minister under the Statute. When she examines all closures she has to be satisfied that there are adequate alternative services. This is a matter for her judgment. Indeed, after the closure has taken place she has the duty placed upon her to consider how the alternative arrangements are working, and in many cases where there are changes—maybe there has been an error in the estimate of the passengers, maybe too many, maybe too few—she can vary the terms of the consent order which was made to the closure. Over the months I have been in this office this has been so. This is the duty imposed upon her. I would go further and say that she has asked me to pay particular attention to the working of alternative services. We look with some care at the whole issue of the adequacy of alternative services whenever a proposal comes to my right hon. Friend for decision.

As I have explained, that is not the end of the matter. This is constantly under her observation and my right hon. Friend has the power to vary any consent order she might have made. I regret that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any further details at this stage. He will understand the position. I am grateful to him for making the representations he has so quickly after his re-election, and I am sure that his constituents will be grateful to him.

We are at present awaiting the Board's revised proposals. When these have been completed and considered by all concerned—and we must, as I indicated, allow full opportunity for all concerned in the area to ventilate their views—they will eventually be submitted to the Minister. I cannot at this point give any indication to the hon. Gentleman about the future of this line or the others associated with it.

Although a great deal of time has passed on this issue, I am sure he will agree that it is important that all the railway lines concerned should be examined together. It is important that these proposals—the original ones and whatever revised ones come from the Board—should be considered together and not in isolation. In this way the views of the economic planning council and the whole matter can go as a whole to my right hon. Friend. I am confident that a far better picture of the whole of the transport services in the area will be obtained if that attitude is taken, rather than looking at the subject piecemeal.

I regret that I cannot give further details to the hon. Gentleman. I assure him that I will keep him informed and be in touch at the first possible opportunity. I am sure that he will be making further representations when the revised proposals come from the Board. I am grateful to him for raising this matter tonight.

10.32 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

In the two minutes that remain I must, though it is deprecated by the Chair, raise a matter relating to education in Bristol. I have not given notice that I would do this but the hon. Member for Newark (Mr. Bishop) who knows all about Bristol, is here on the bench—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that Mr. Speaker has deprecated the raising of matters without the Minister being present. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind.

Mr. Cooke

Yes. I do so. I do this because it is the only way I can raise this matter. The Labour Party in Bristol has withdrawn all support from the direct grant schools in the city and has made the allegation that this will not make any difference to the number of free places available in these schools. This is a damned lie. [Interruption.] At three of the direct grant schools—

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

On a point of order. Is that type of language in order in the absence of the hon. Members concerned?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that it is in order.

Mr. Cooke

If I may continue, this is a lie, because at three of the direct grant schools—

Mr. John Morris


Mr. Cooke

I will not give way.

Mr. John Morris

On a point of order. I am concerned about this. Has the hon. Gentleman given notice, in accordance with the custom and courtesy of the House, to a Minister as regards the matters which he is now raising with the purpose of ensuring that someone would be here, representing the Government, to answer any points he may make in the course of his statement?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.