HC Deb 18 December 1970 vol 808 cc1809-20

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Acton)

I wish to raise the question of the financing of the new London Airport rail link. It is appropriate, Mr. Speaker, for a back bencher to raise this subject as it is the last debate of the day and the last at which you will occupy the Chair. Back benchers, particularly those of us who are new, have been privileged to sit under your tutelage. It could be said that the winds of political change and custom have indeed penetrated among new Members, but I hope that the general movements of the air will now serve to hasten the development of democratic institutions and procedures rather than to kill them off.

There is a gale of discontent in London with the arrangements for our public transport and I am glad that this opportunity has been given me to bring at least some of that discontent into the Chamber. This is not a party matter but one which concerns both sides across the river in the Greater London Council. For me it is also a matter of constituency interest as the Piccadilly Line goes through Acton, where it has an important junction. I must also declare an interest as a co-opted member of the Greater London Council Environmental Planning Committee.

The facts are that after some lengthy inquiries the Government have decided, I believe quite rightly, that the best new link to London Airport from central London would be achieved by extending the Piccadilly Line from Hounslow West. The cost would be some £15 million for a three and a half mile extension. Until fairly recently it was assumed that the Government would supply 75 per cent. of the capital involved because the previous Government had, I think without controversy, supplied that percentage for the Brixton extension of the Victoria Line, thus bringing investment in roads and railways in London under the same sort of financial arrangement. The link which was foreseen by Abercrombie as long ago as 1943, although in 1964 the Government of the day would not finance it because they did not think that it would pay its way.

The plan is for trains to leave London Airport for London at between 4 and 7 minute intervals throughout the day, taking about 40 minutes to reach Piccadilly Circus. It is estimated that by 1975 11 million passengers a year would use the route, the number rising to 17 million by 1981. One of the features of the scheme is that since nearly 50,000 people now work at London Airport, many would be able to use the line as would visitors or those arriving or departing in aircraft.

My case is that the Government have failed, as is well known, to provide this 75 per cent. grant. Indeed, they have decided that no grant shall be made at all. I wish to ask the Minister to look again at the merits of that decision; and to point out some of the past parliamentary contexts in which this unfortunate decision has been made and the future parliamentary contexts which we will have to face. Thirdly, I wish to look at the subject in relation to the so-called track cost anomaly whereby the financing of rail and road traffic is put on a different basis, certainly in London and largely in the country as a whole.

An important feature of this debate is that it provides the first opportunity the House has had to debate the subject, because the announcement was not made in this Chamber as a result of Questions or a Ministerial statement, but was contained in two and a half lines in a Press release by the Department for the Environment on 6th November, 1970. This reads: The Government has considered the case for paying grant towards the cost of construction but has concluded that as the project will pay its way, Government grant would not be proper. I hope that we shall hear rather more of the Government's reasons than is contained in that two and a half line statement.

First, let me deal with the merits of the case. This is not just a London matter but a national matter, because London (Heathrow) is a national airport.

The Government have said, and of course the G.L.C. provided the figures, that the line will make a surplus, but let us see how it makes that surplus. First, it is proposed that there should be a 6d. toll on the line, in other words, everybody who uses it will pay 6d. more than they would pay if it were an ordinary route. This is a 50 per cent. increase in the fare over this section of the line. In addition, the British Airports Authority will be asked to provide £3 million for part of the terminal facilities. Finally, it assumes a modal split, that is, that an estimate of the number of people using the underground as distinct from those using private cars or the coach services will be in accordance with the calculations.

In other words, the figures may be used either way and, by saying that there would be no toll and that the standard fare would be charged, it would be reasonable to assume that the line would not be profitable and would not pay its way. Therefore, whether it stands on its own two feet, to use a Government expression, is a matter of the adjustment of the figures. If it had not paid its way with a 6d. toll, no doubt we could have made it pay its way with a 1s. toll.

My second objection is in the parliamentary context. This may be rather more important constitutionally. As long ago as 5th June, 1935, Neville Chamberlain, to the great acclamation of the House, announced Government facilities for financing London Transport's new works programme, most of which were devoted to improving the tubes and to tube extensions. Admittedly, that was not providing capital grants, but it was providing special Government financial services.

In 1920, the first report of the Advisory Committee on London Traffic said that there might be some need for additional municipal assistance, or State aid, for extensions of the railways in London. It said: Such considerations must weigh with any Traffic Authority since in regard to transport facilities as a whole a broad and comprehensive view is essential, otherwise, the results will only bring temporary relief and have no permanent value. It said that it might be necessary for the State or municipality to assist in extensions of this sort.

To go back a stage further, the Royal Commission on London Traffic of 1905 noted the difficulties of private enterprise in raising capital and noted its low rate of return. Indeed, a Select Committee from the other place in 1863 recommended the completion of the Circle Line, itself a link with London terminal facilities. The completion of the line was unprofitable, but it was made less unprofitable by joint works with road improvements, particularly the Victoria Embankment.

It is the policy of the Greater London Council to look at transport as a whole. To judge by the White Paper, Transport in London, published a few years ago and with which I assume the present Government to be in broad agreement, this policy is also the policy of the Government. I quote the excellent G.L.C. document, "Transport in London, a Balanced Policy": Public and private transport must not be in competition, and must be complementary …an adequate road system for buses and for the present volume of other road traffic"— must be provided— and its expected increase in the years to come". Most significantly, it goes on to say that since the submission of the Greater London development plan, the G.L.C. had been given overall responsibility for preparing more detailed traffic plans for London Transport's policies and finance. It is thus now able to consider and co-ordinate priorities for investment in all forms of transport in London. I emphasise the last words, because at the moment roads in the ex-L.C.C. area attract a grant of 75 per cent. while those outside may have as much as 100 per cent. The cost of the M4 from Chiswick to London Airport, was met by the Ministry of Transport. It cost £16 million complete, with a 100 per cent. grant. That is capable of carrying about 5,000 people per hour compared with a potential capacity of the underground of 20,000 people per hour. The fact is that the rail link can provide extra road space. Because some people would use the underground, the roads will not be so congested. There would not be the same pressure on the roads if there was an underground link and therefore the provision of rail facilities is, in effect, providing extra road space. The two are very closely connected.

Not far from here there have been road works, relatively small improvement works, costing £10½ million by way of Government grant to the G.L.C. These improvements are to enable speedier access between the Palace of Westminster and just beyond Aldgate into the Highway. Another £3.2 million has been spent on road improvements by way of grant from the Ministry for road improvements round County Hall and Waterloo Bridge. These amounts would have been equivalent to a 100 per cent. grant to cover the underground extension. In other words, we are looking at these two parts of public transport, or the provision of transport, in two different ways.

I appeal to the Minister to look again at these matters. We know that cities are in travail in the United States, where they are trying to keep their cities properly alive. A distinction should not be made between track for road and track for rail, because both are vital. These facilities are like blood vessels in the body. And like the body, when a coronary occurs it impairs bodily efficiency. These arteries must be kept open and the financial system of the country, the equivalent of the heart, must not be overloaded by an unbalanced policy of investment.

I ask the Minister to consider making a statement about the future approach of Government to this problem. With the Greater London Development Plan Inquiry, looking at transport, some assumptions will need to be made about investment policy. The policy the Government intend to pursue should be made clear in a full way, and not in a few lines in a Press statement.

Transport in London will be of increasing importance in the next few years and it seems a great pity that, so far, the Minister has not seen this in the context of the needs of London, the growing need of people to move about adequately and freely, not only for work but also for enjoyment of leisure time.

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Baker (St. Marylebone)

I am, perhaps, the last back bencher whom you will call, Mr. Speaker, before your retirement. I wish, therefore, to thank you on behalf of all back benchers for the way in which you have treated us.

There have been occasions on which we have tried to catch your eye and when we may have thought that we possessed the quality of being invisible. However, we appreciate that, within the confines of the rules of the House and the procedures of this Chamber, you have done your best to give us every opportunity to speak.

Those younger hon. Members who may be here for some years to come will recall your Speakership only with warmth. We shall remember the great love which you showed for this Chamber and the respect you have always shown for the richly textured fabric of Parliament.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) on having chosen this subject for debate. He has followed the tradition of previous hon. Members who have represented Acton by raising an important point. It is right that we should draw attention to the Heathrow rail link. I welcome the decision of London Transport, supported by the Greater London Council, to build this rail link, which will mean that the journey from Hyde Park to the airport will be cut to 35 minutes. There will not be those anxious moments waiting in traffic jams on the A4 wondering whether one will get to the airport on time. Further, the cost of the journey from Central London to Heathrow will be the modest sum of 6s.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, there is an anomaly in the financing of this project. London Transport must finance it itself. It has, therefore, turned to the G.L.C., which has responsibility for transport within the Greater London area, for assistance. The council will meet 25 per cent. The capital cost of about £15 million. It has looked to the Government for the other 75 per cent., but the Government have said that they cannot meet it on the ground that this line will be highly profitable and viable. By 1981, on the lower forecast, this line might well make a profit of £1 million.

I believe that we should look to the whole complex of London transport and not just one part of it. If we do not it is like looking at a currant bun, taking out the currants and leaving the bun. But in the general context of the review which the Government are conducting on public expenditure, the Government have some justification in meeting part of the cost of a project of this sort, which will be viable. But it raises much wider implications about future developments. That is the real point. I am prepared to concede the Government their case in respect of the Heathrow link, but, when it comes to other underground transport in London, I hope that they will reconsider the question of financing the building of tubes and undergrounds because with the growing congestion on the roads I am convinced that the only hopeful and permanent solution to the road transport problem is a better system of undergrounds and tubes and an improved system of overland rail links south of the river.

When London Transport and the G.L.C. decide to build a line they get virtually no assistance from the Government. If they want to build a road to Heathrow over the railway, the Government automatically meet 75 per cent. of the cost. Yet because the link is underground and rolling stock is involved, the Government meet none of the cost.

The G.L.C. has several very interesting and imaginative developments underground. The Fleet Line, going through my constituency, down through the docks and eventually south of the river, will cost not the £15 million of the Heathrow link but £90 million. The G.L.C. and London Transport will be very hard pushed to make a substantial contribution to that sort of capital expenditure. There is the Wimbledon extension and, I hope, there will be many other developments in the Greater London area.

While accepting the Government's case in connection with the Heathrow rail link, I ask my hon. Friend to review the whole question of financing underground developments and to consider whether such financing can be put on the same basis as that for roads. There is an absurd anomaly which will inhibit the development of what I believe to be the most optimistic answer to London's congested traffic problem.

4.18 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Kenneth Baker) said about you, Mr. Speaker, and point out that in my short tenure in the House I have come to appreciate very much your wit, wisdom and sympathy.

In supporting much of what the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) said, I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State to accept that there is a special case for a Government grant for this link. The people using this line will not in the main be Londoners and it is wrong that the ratepayers of London should have to carry the burden. Many people using the line will come from overseas and it is therefore right, in the context of tourism as a whole, that the Government should provide a grant for the construction of this line.

That would not set a precedent. The only possible precedent might be Foulness if the airport goes there and the Roskill Commission's recommendation about Cublington is not accepted. I hope that my hon. Friend will say that the Government have an open mind and will, in the peculiar circumstances, make a contribution to the cost of this rail link.

4.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

Hon. Members will forgive me if I say a personal word before I reply to the debate.

I do not know what moments of your distinguished occupancy of the Chair will linger in your memory, Mr. Speaker. As a very young Member of the House, I can only say that I shall never forget that it fell to me to make the last speech made in your presence as Speaker. I can think of only two qualifications which I may have for discharging this responsibility. You, Sir, are without doubt part of a most distinguished thread of British history and free nations owe much to the spirit which you have embodied.

I am the latest hon. Member for Tavistock, an ancient borough whose voice for 700 years has been heard in this House, and on that account I believe that it is a voice with which you will find sympathy. I am also, so to speak, one of your protegés, and no other Speaker will mean quite the same to me as yourself. You have exhibited, as has been said, dignity, command, patience, but in the end a very kind and friendly man.

I have listened to what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House and there is not the slightest doubt that many points have been raised which are not controversial but are of very considerable urgency. I believe I can deal with some of the details and give an indication of the Government's attitude to this question of investment in public transport and urban transport, and particularly in line with the questions which have been put to me.

It is the intention of my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development to meet an all-party delegation from the Greater London Council to discuss the question of the Heathrow link and the Government's attitude towards it. It is true to say that the Government have announced their intention not to provide grant for this particular scheme. I think the words which are important are "particular scheme", because in looking at this scheme it would seem to the Government—and I have not the slightest doubt that the arguments are right—that this is a scheme which is well able to stand up to its own financing; it is a scheme which, according to all the evidence available to us, will make a profit. If that is the case, then to inject a further degree of subsidy into this particular scheme would be to divert resources necessary for schemes elsewhere into a scheme which is well able to go ahead without any subsidy at this present time.

If we were, as the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) requested, to go ahead with the subsidy for that scheme, what we would in effect be doing would be, as guardians of the nation's taxpayers, to inject money into an essentially London project, and it would mean that the profit would flow to Londoners who would not need to recoup the amount of capital provided by the nation's taxpayers.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Gentleman uses the word "subsidy" which has overtones which, perhaps, one would not accept. I am talking about grant, capital grant, just like the £10 million or £50 million capital grant for road works in London. It is a grant, not a subsidy subsequently to ease fares.

Mr. Heseltine

I think the hon. Member is playing with words. A subsidy is what in effect it would turn out to be. The argument he is advancing would mean that it would not be necessary to have a special 6d. toll. In other words, it is assumed that the 6d. toll would be imposed on people in the form of subsidy. There is no other way round it. I do not want to make a political issue out of this. It is simply an economic fact of life. The people who do not pay the charge are in effect receiving a subsidy.

It would seem to the Government that in the present circumstances there is no case for the nation's resources, scarce as they are, to be diverted to a scheme which is well able to stand up by itself. The resources are needed for a large number of other schemes. This is not to suggest that the schemes will be inside, or outside, London; there may well be competing schemes inside London. There are, obviously, schemes which come to mind and which will come up for consideration. It is simply a question of planning priorities.

The hon. Member for Acton mentioned the point of the toll of 6d. I think he ought to get it in perspective. The proposal for paying the toll is that it is not to be charged to those using the Heathrow link as an ordinary commuting traffic line. It is only to be charged to those people who go the whole distance—in other words, airport travellers. I think it takes a bit of justifying that people who are going to make the rather expensive type of journey involved in going in aircraft should have a special subsidy to avoid a 6d. toll to subsidise the smaller and inexpensive part of the journey, when they are prepared to pay £30 or £100 for a journey in an aircraft once they have reached the airport. It does not seem to me to be a case of hardship, of which we should take particular notice.

The case put forward by the hon. Member for Acton and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Marylebone (Mr. Kenneth Baker) on the question of the anomalies between the various kinds of help that the Government provide for traffic costs is very important. We inherited this situation from the previous Government, and we are looking at it. We announced some time ago that we are looking at the forms of local and Government investment in various forms of transport systems, including roads, to see whether the differing forms of subsidy which now exist—and there are many more than those listed by the hon. Gentleman—are justifiable, or whether a more comprehensive view should be taken.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Speaker

Order. We are up against the clock.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Gentleman said that he inherited this policy. May I remind him of the extension of the Victoria Line from Victoria to Brixton for which there was a 75 per cent. grant?

Mr. Heseltine

This is the essence of what I am saying. It would not have been possible to build the line without the grant. That is why it was given. That is why the Labour Government in the White Paper Command 3481 said: The financial return on the investment will clearly be one of the considerations in deciding whether a project should attract grant. This was on the whole question of infrastructure grants. If a project can stand on its own, let it do so. The Victoria Line could not stand on its own. It was not possible to charge a special toll because the line was interwoven with the London underground system, and it would not have been possible to build it without infrastructure grant.

The Government's view, and that of the Labour Government, is that there should be a flexible approach, and that a grant should be made where necessary for schemes which would otherwise be prejudiced. That makes sense. The toll would be paid only by those who are involved in air travel, which would be about 25 per cent. of the projected passengers using the Piccadilly Line.

To put into context the point about the Victoria Line, the Government have already agreed to go ahead with the improvement to South Kensington, and are committed to 50 per cent. of the capital cost of the £1 million scheme. There is no political issue here.

I will conclude on the particular point that has been made. The anomalies cannot be changed overnight. They have grown up with history. We are looking whether there is something we should do about them and, if there is, what it should be. We shall be coming forward with our views and proposals for adding coherence to the present policy. Without saying that we are not looking forward to hearing what the Greater London Council has to say to us, in my personal judgment and in the judgment which the Government have announced, there is not much room for doubt that the decision about Heathrow stands up to the criteria which have been announced, and that it would be wrong in the Government's interests to change our minds about that scheme.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock till Tuesday, 12th January, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 8th December.