HC Deb 20 May 1968 vol 765 cc193-204

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

11.18 p.m.

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

I am grateful for the opportunity of drawing attention to the need for a decision on the actual location of the English terminus of the Channel Tunnel. The House will appreciate that it is nine years since it was announced that there was a probability that the Channel Tunnel would at last be constructed, for as long ago as 1961 the British and French Ministers of Transport set up a working party of British and French officials to report on two specific proposals from private interests for a fixed Channel crossing and to establish how far they showed promise of financial viability.

It will be readily appreciated that the construction of a tunnel would have a profound effect upon the Borough of Folkestone in general and the harbour in particular. In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in passenger traffic through the harbour, and even in 1959 the lack of Customs and immigration facilities created a serious problem.

British Railways are the owners of the harbour and any pressure which the borough council and I have put upon them to make improvements has always been countered by the fact that if the Channel Tunnel was to be built, these facilities would not be required. It is ironical that in the year when it looks as though a decision to build the Channel Tunnel might be made, at least limited improvements to the harbour itself have been carried out, although the final plans for the surrounding development still leave much to be desired. Now that we have the assurance of the Government that the Channel Tunnel will be built, other uses for the harbour are being considered, but if I were to expound on these proposals I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you would rule me out of order.

The purpose of this debate is to draw attention to the fact that the Government's indecision, or their reluctance to announce their decision, on the site of the terminus installation of the tunnel is having a serious effect upon the development of the Borough of Folkestone.

For some years now it has been assumed—more by rumour and conjecture than anything else—that the portal of the Tunnel would be on the westerly side of Sugar Loaf Hill, but the actual offloading points for motor cars and passengers would be in the vicinity of Sellindge, which is approximately halfway between Ashford and Folkestone. Indeed, the recent Buchanan Report on the development of Ashford stated that the Channel Tunnel station would be on the eastern side of Sellindge, which gave credence to these rumours. There was considerable consternation lest these installations would be sited on the Folkestone racecourse, thus depriving the borough of an important amenity. From the information that has now reached me, however, I am led to believe that this assumption is incorrect, and the promoters are working on the assumption that the railway loading points will be immediately adjacent to the Tunnel portal.

As this could be within the town area of Folkestone, the failure to get a decision is seriously hampering the development plans. As an example, the Ministry of Transport has only recently agreed to what is virtually a bypass of Folkestone station as part of the A20 at Folkestone along Churchill Avenue. As this improvement has been so long delayed, the borough is naturally anxious to proceed with this road construction, but if the passenger vehicle station is to be sited in the proximity it may well be necessary for this road to be widened or realigned.

It is also necessary for a firm decision to be made as to where the marshalling yards for the goods wagons is likely to be. The borough of Folkestone is very anxious that this should not be adjoining the built-up area for, while there is a plausible argument for placing a passenger station as close as possible to the portal of the tunnel and also giving access for passengers to use the facilities of the town, there would seem less of an argument for the marshalling yard to be constructed in this area. Indeed, there seems to be little purpose in building a marshalling yard immediately adjacent to the station, and I should have thought—from my experience as an engineer who has built railways and marshalling yards in the past—that there was a stronger case for this to be located nearer to a main line junction.

I should also make mention of the fact that the link between the Tunnel and the main Folkestone to London line will, of necessity, have to cross land which is under consideration for development, and equally I should point out that the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has designated this area as one of outstanding natural beauty.

At the moment, I have dealt only with the need for a decision on the location of sites for the permanent structure, but I hope that the Minister will appreciate that the actual siting of the offices and workshops of the tunnel builders is of vital importance. I suggested, when the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) was Minister of Transport, that his Ministry should take the opportunity of acquiring the Hawkinge Airfield, which was up for disposal, and I understood that this suggestion had been accepted by him. Subsequently, however, the major part of this land was disposed of, and this excellent opportunity has been lost by the delay in arriving at a decision on this matter. Those of us who have been working closely with Government Departments for a number of years know only too well how opportunities are lost and public money wasted because of a Department's inability to give precise decisions.

The need for a decision on the Channel Tunnel affects not only Folkestone but, quite naturally, adjoining towns, and I am delighted to see present my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). I have no doubt that if time is available they will be able to explain how the actual location of the Tunnel will affect the road pattern in their constituencies. In order to make time available, therefore, I would conclude by saying that those who are familiar with the town planning of Folkestone will realise that by careful planning which has evolved over the past hundred years a town has been designed to maintain a proper geographical balance between residential, commercial and industrial siting, a town which in common with the best seaside resorts, has a carefully prepared distribution of parks and sports amenities which are the envy of many.

Because of the changes which the Channel Tunnel will impose upon the labour requirements at the harbour, the proposed closure of the local Mackeson Brewery, and the Small Arms School at Hythe, and the Government's deliberate policy of dissuading industry from coming into the South-East, we face in Folkestone in the near future a serious problem with the rapid increase in unemployment.

We therefore welcome this new hope for employment opportunities. We realise, however, that the siting of the Channel Tunnel termini is governed more by geographical contours than by any man-made plan. The borough is therefore anxious that its future plans should be designed to accommodate these new developments. This can be done only if we are given the key facts which must dominate our planning proposals. For this reason I consider we are entitled to information. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is tonight prepared to give this to enable us to plan economically and wisely.

I have noted that since I asked for this Adjournment debate the Minister of Transport—on 14th May—made reference to a planning council being responsible for the planning of the United Kingdom terminals. I should have thought that enough was now known about the general line of the tunnel to enable the two Governments, in consultation with the railway and local authorities, to get the approximate location of the terminals. I hope that in reply the Parliamentary Secretary will not evade the issue by saying that it is being carefully considered by the planning council. If he cannot announce a decision now, can he give the date when he expects a decision to be made?

If he cannot tell us the definition location of the terminal, can he assure us that it will not be on Folkestone Racecourse? If he cannot tell us where it will be, can he tell us where it will not be? I hope that if they are fortunate in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, my hon. Friends will raise the question of the roads leading to the terminal.

11.27 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I am glad to support my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) in his plea to the Government for more information about this enormously important project. Over the months during which we have known that a great dual has been going on, the Government have shown some lack of candour over this project which is of first importance to the economy of the country and will have an enormous impact in this region.

In some respects I appreciate the Government's reluctance to give news about the exits of the tunnel, but to give more news about the project generally and to submit the subject to public debate would ventilate the misgiving a number of people feel as to whether in the changed circumstances the project should run at all. I see the attractions which the Channel Tunnel has for the Government. In part they are political. The tunnel would have the effect of giving rail a substantial advantage over road, indeed the tunnel railway would have a monopoly. That would be in keeping with the Transport Bill and other matters.

What I question is whether, in the absence of other evidence, those are sufficiently good grounds for going ahead without further discussion of what new circumstances lie behind the project. It bears stressing that this Government have made no official case for the Channel Tunnel. The sole public justification is the Joint Report of British and French officials in September 1963—five years ago. There has been no revised estimate made available as to the cost and no revised estimate as to the traffic which might be expected. Are we to understand that, between 1963 and 1968 there has been no change in any of these circumstances?

What I fear—particularly in view of what my hon. Friend said about the exit from the tunnel and the impact on the region—is that when the plans are known, especially about the road structure required, there will be a degree of public outcry. Then we shall be told that it is too late to make a protest, as with the Stansted project. This brooks no delay. We are entitled to know more about what the Government have in mind, what their case is for this costly project. For that reason I warmly welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend in raising this matter tonight.

11.29 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) in what they have said about the need for a public debate on the whole concept of the Channel Tunnel. As my right hon. Friend said, this is an enormously important decision involving very large factors in our whole transport strategy, rail and road. The House must have time to consider the matter now as one of urgency. We are left in the air and we do not know what the Government intend.

From the point of view of my constituency, there is one factor of particular importance. At present, the motorway from London which has virtually replaced the old London-Dover road, the M2 motorway, ends in an orchard about seven miles north of Canterbury. This is hardly the way to take the tourist and freight traffic to Dover, Britain's busiest port today. The Government will be forced to say—I hate to put words into the Parliamentary Secretary's mouth —that the decision on ending the motorway where it is now and not to continue it is held up by a failure to make a decision on whether to proceed with the Channel Tunnel. When they can say whether they will go ahead or not go ahead with the Channel Tunnel, they will be able to say what their stategy for road planning in relation to the new entrance and the Channel crossing will be.

Until we know whether the tunnel is to proceed, we shall have no extension to the M2. Thus, we shall see a continuation of the terrible congestion of traffic leading off the excellent M2 into the very narrow A2 road running into the old City of Canterbury. This in itself is a matter of high urgency. It would be out of order in this debate to discuss the need to by-pass our prime cathedral City, but that need is plain for all to see. I hope that the Minister will bear it in mind as one of the elements to be considered in the whole question of the road strategy for the South-East.

11.32 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I am sure that hon. Gentlemen will realise that, although I fully appreciate their worries in connection with the wider question of whether there should be a Channel Tunnel, this debate is about the terminal of the tunnel. The question of principle regarding the Channel Tunnel will be decided only when the House has debated the matter in full. Hon. Members will be aware that next week may afford a further opportunity to discuss some of the preliminary machinery involved and certain other facts required before a decision one way or the other can be taken on whether there should be a Channel Tunnel. We are not in this debate at liberty to discuss the merits one way or the other of the principle of whether there should be a Channel Tunnel.

However, I welcome this opportunity to let the House know more about the terminal facilities likely to be needed for the Channel Tunnel, their possible location, and the machinery for consultation and decision. My right hon. Friend is as anxious as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Costain) and his right hon. and hon. Friends that the facts should be known and that there should be a proper opportunity for public discussion and for taking into account the views of local and regional interests before final decisions are reached in this matter.

The trouble with early notice in cases of this kind is that, while some people think it gives the public plenty of time for constructive discussion of proposals at the formative stage, others look upon it as scaremongering publicity for half-baked ideas and as liable to cause needless local anxieties.

It is a question of striking the right balance. My right hon. Friend believes, and so do I, that in this particular case it is better to make the facts known sooner rather than later.

But first we must be clear about what these facts are. It may help hon. Members to see the problem clearly if I briefly describe the arrangements covering the project as a whole, because these establish the field for decision on the terminals.

The British and French Governments agreed in 1966 that the tunnel should be financed by a company in the private sector, which would also manage the construction; but that the completed tunnel should be handed over to an Anglo-French public authority which would run it. Our first task is, therefore, to choose a private group which will finance the tunnel and arrange for its construction on mutually acceptable terms. We hope that it will soon be possible to make that choice.

The Governments will then agree, with the chosen financing group, the basis for carrying out the final phase of studies needed before we can go ahead. Hon. Members will know that we are currently seeking powers to set up a Channel Tunnel Planning Council to act as the forerunner of the public operating authority during this phase and to work in parallel with a study company to be set up by the financing group. This study phase will be carried out under the supervision of the Governments. It will no doubt include work on the detailed design and location of the terminal facilities. But I must make it quite clear that the commitment to the Study phase is not commitment to the Tunnel. There can be no final commitment to the project, or to the exact terminal requirement, until Parliament has been asked for and given its consent to construction of the tunnel.

Before Parliament can authorise construction, or approve the proposed terminal requirements, an Anglo-French treaty must be drafted setting out the constitution of the joint public operating authority, agreeing on the line of the tunnel and regulating the relationship between the public authority and the construction company. Full legislation will have to be introduced in this country at that time to allow the provisions of the treaty to be implemented and, in particular, to give any powers that may be needed to acquire land compulsorily for the terminals.

It should be clear, from what I have said, that there is no question of determining the site of the tunnel terminal in the final, legal sense, until Parliament itself has passed the enabling legislation for the tunnel. This makes it equally clear that it is impossible to do as the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe asked and say where it will not be. It is just as difficult to say one thing as the other, because we are dealing with land where people may be blighted because of difficulties of making decisions one way or the other. Until legislation is passed, we can talk in terms of proposals, but not of an authorised project.

So I must make it perfectly clear that any infoimation about terminal sites released at an early stage, long before the presentation of an enabling Bill, can only take the form of provisional proposals. It would have the great advantage of giving an opportunity for public opinion to be heard well in advance; but it could cause uncertainty and perhaps hardship to some property owners who will know that their land might be wanted and who might be unable to sell it at a reasonable price in the ordinary way, if they wanted to leave their location.

That is why there is a Clause in the Transport Bill to enable my right hon. Friend to buy, by agreement, land which is likely to be required for the Tunnel. When that becomes law, my right hon. Friend will have discretion to buy land at the request of owners who might otherwise suffer hardship.

So much for the context in which the planning of the terminals must be carried out. I come now to what is being done in that context by the Ministry of Transport, to prepare the ground for the study period. I can say already that whether the undersea section is a bored tunnel or an immersed tube, it is almost certain that for engineering and geological reasons, the tunnel will surface somewhere in the escarpment of the North Downs to the north of Folkestone. It is also clear that, for practical reasons, the bulk of the tunnel traffic must join either the existing main railway line between Ash-ford and Folkestone or the A.20 road route. These are the arteries through which the tunnel will link the railway and road networks on both sides of the Channel and will enable freight to move deep into Europe direct from our manufacturing areas whether in Scotland, Wales, the North, the Midlands or the South. Much of the A.20, west of Maidstone, has already been improved to a high standard. Schemes which would provide for the improvement of the remainder of this route between the Channel Tunnel terminal and the London area are already programmed or included in the announced preparation pool. These schemes will be completed by the time the tunnel opens.

These two factors, the siting of the portal, and the junctions with the main railway and road, have the effect of limiting the possible terminal sites to the general area between Ashford and Folkestone.

The main facility to be provided is a road vehicle ferry terminal for private cars and commercial vehicles, which will be driving on to the trains at one terminal and off at the other. The choice of the best site in this area of Kent is not easy, particularly when stringent railway operating requirements have to be met. The countryside is hilly, fairly densely populated, and, in parts, of high amenity value. The terminal site has, moreover, to be located close to the main line railway and to the improvement or relief of the A20.

The choice has to strike the best balance between operating, economic, and general planning and amenity considerations. We also have to allow for other possible requirements such as terminal and interchange facilities for railway passengers and railway freight. Much the same considerations would apply to these.

In order to prepare the ground for the final studies, which will begin when the study company and the Planning Council are set up, the Ministry of Transport have already arranged an aerial survey. Also, to ensure feasibility from an engineering point of view, a number of specific studies—for example, geological and soil surveys—are in hand to establish the most suitable line of the tunnel approach railway. This factor is likely to have considerable bearing on the final choice of sites suitable for the various terminal facilities.

Extensive studies, consultations and soundings have been and are still in progress with officers of the major interested parties. Apart from other Government Departments, these include British Railways, the Kent County Council, and other local authorities and statutory undertakings. The South-East Economic Planning Council has also been kept informed.

These consultations have not yet been completed, and are still at the confidential stage. We have to be reasonably confident, before making any proposals public, even on a provisional basis, that they are sound from an engineering point of view and meet the operational and general planning requirements.

Once the consultations have been satisfactorily concluded at an official level, it is my right hon. Friend's intention to consult formally with the various local authorities concerned, who will at this stage be able to discuss the proposals, in the light of all the operational, economic, and planning considerations which have so far emerged, and to make their views known in plenty of time for them to be taken fully into account.

I hope that we shall be ready to consult local authorities in this way within the next few months. At that moment, it is my right hon. Friend's intention, again in consultation with those authorities, to make jointly acceptable arrangements for publication, in a suitable form and at a suitable time, of information on the pro- posals under consideration—always bearing in mind, as I have said, that they will be strictly provisional and subject in due course to the approval of Parliament.

I have now sketched out the general area in which we are interested, as well as the factors which at present limit an announcement about the terminal site. I have also indicated the various steps we are taking to make our planning public at the earliest opportunity while guarding against any possibility of hardship.

I hope, as I have said, that it may not be too long before we can publish. But the studies are complex and I am sure hon. Members will understand that It is not open to me today to name a precise date for publication.

The debate having been concluded, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting of the House at a quarter to Twelve o'clock till Ten o'clock Tomorrow pursuant to Order.