HC Deb 03 April 1974 vol 871 cc1267-73

3.54 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a statement on the Channel Tunnel.

On 25th October last year my colleagues and I, on behalf of the Labour Opposition, divided the House on an amendment which stated that, while we were not opposed in principle to a Channel Tunnel, we declined to approve the scheme in its present form and demanded an inquiry into alternative transport strategies. In line with this attitude, the Government have decided that a full and searching reassessment of the project should be carried out before any decision is taken to embark on the main works.

The current phase 2 already provides for a joint reassessment of the traffic, revenue and financial forecasts in the light of changes in, for example, the energy outlook. But I shall in addition, as a matter of urgency, consider whether the studies now in hand fully cover the points which we and others raised in the last Parliament, and I propose to seek outside advice. In particular, I shall examine with the French Government and the Railways Board the need to orient the project much more strongly towards through rail services.

I have concluded that to keep open the option of eventually going ahead with the tunnel it would be right for phase 2 to take its course. I shall therefore reintroduce the Channel Tunnel Bill. In order to avoid abortive costs to peti- tioners I shall introduce it in the same form as in the last Session. I stress that the object of proceeding with phase 2 is to keep our options open. It does not prejudge any decision on the project beyond the end of the present phase. Before phase 2 ends in the summer of next year I shall report the outcome of the reassessment to the House. Parliament and the Government will then have finally to decide whether or not to sign Agreement No. 3 and build the tunnel.

Mrs. Thatcher

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for making his statement. It is perhaps worthy of note that the original agreement in principle on the Channel Tunnel was signed in 1966 between the present Prime Minister and President Pompidou. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome his decision to go ahead with phase 2 and to complete it? We were not committed beyond the completion of that phase. We also welcome his decision to have the phase 2 reassessment—the provision which that phase itself made.

However, would the right hon. Gentleman be a little more forthcoming about the review and the studies which he now has in hand? His statement was a little vague on this point. Dealing with previous debates, he said that he expected the study fully to cover the points raised then. Having been through those debates, may I ask him whether he expects such a review to be completed by the end of the summer, because almost every point was raised? Would he expect that review to include alternative strategies for providing for the large volume of both freight and passenger traffic which will undoubtedly take place? Would he also be more forthcoming about the nature of the outside advice that he proposes to seek?

Mr. Crosland

I would certainly expect the review to be completed not by this summer but by next summer. The summer of 1975 is what phase 2 requires and what I mentioned in my statement. The review will certainly take account of alternative transport strategies. Our criticism on this side in the debates last autumn was that the Government's proposals were based on the wrong transport strategy. We shall certainly examine alternatives. As for the outside assessment of the consultants' further work, I have not yet decided the form that this will take, but I hope to announce it to the House when I do.

Mr. Tomney

Will my right hon. Friend, when it comes to the siting of the Channel Tunnel terminal in my constituency, pay due regard to the wishes of my council and of my constituents, who are opposed to the project? If it goes ahead, there will be a tremendous loss of jobs in the area as well as of land for housing and general development. The citizens of Hammersmith are not in favour of such a project as is envisaged.

Mr. Crosland

I am well aware of the difficulty which will be created for Hammersmith by the White City terminal and of my hon. Friend's strong feelings on the matter, which he has articulated in the House before. Nevertheless, it is the view of the GLC, which, of course, was originally attracted by the Surrey Docks area—

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Mellish)

They are not having that either.

Mr. Crosland

Thank you. Even before that decisive interjection from my right hon. Friend, it was already the view of the GLC that the White City was the only practicable site for the London terminal.

Mr. Marten

The Minister has referred to studies of alternative methods of transport. Does that include alternative transport across the surface of the sea rather than the old-fashioned idea of going under the Channel?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir, although this possibility has been advanced in the House by a number of enthusiasts, one of whom, I am happy to say, has been silenced by becoming a member of the Government. The only practicable choice that we have at present is between a tunnel, on the one hand, and air and sea services, on the other hand.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

What is the cost of phase 2 as now envisaged, and what is the total cost of the project as my right hon. Friend now envisages it? In view of the current energy and public expenditure constraints, is my right hon. Friend still convinced that we need the currently proposed underwater vehicle ferry? Will he give an undertaking seriously to reexamine the whole question of the proposed mix of public and private capital?

Mr. Crosland

The total cost of phase 2 is £30 million, of which £15 million will fall on Britain and £15 million on France. The only cost in terms of public expenditure—this is a contingent cost—is the Government guarantee on the loan which forms part of the £15 million. Concerning the mix of traffic, this will be almost the central aspect of the reassessment which we propose to make. We on the Government side of the House took the view strongly in the debates that we have had that we wanted a much heavier orientation towards rail and away from the concept of the rolling motorway.

Mr. Costain

In making his reassessment, will the Secretary of State make certain that proper consideration is given to what the alternative road pattern will be for Folkestone and Dover, and will he particularly announce a decision about the A20 before reaching a final decision on the Channel Tunnel? Does he appreciate that people in my constituency are extremely worried that the present expenditure could be a waste of money unless the Government are proposing to continue with this project?

Mr. Crosland

I cannot give an undertaking on the second point because the House and the Government, at the end of phase 2, will have to decide whether or not to proceed with phase 3. On the question of roads, I take the hon. Gentleman's point. The factor about the roads in Kent, which was brought out in all our debates, is that whether or not we build the Channel Tunnel we shall have a vast increase in traffic going in the direction of Dover and Folkestone.

Mr. Stephen Ross

I am glad to hear from the Secretary of State that the Government are proceeding with the introduction of the Bill and to read of the promise made by the right hon. Gentleman that he is to consult more fully with the British Rail Board. We on the Liberal bench consider that a rail-only tunnel has considerable merit, subject to the proviso that access points should be more widely distributed throughout the country and that there should not be one massive distribution area in Kent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Question!"]

Sir Harmar Nicholls

"Is the right hon. Gentleman aware?"

Mr. Crosland

As hon. Members of the last Parliament will recall, I was initially a supporter of a rail-only tunnel, but on closer examination I do not think that a rail-only tunnel is a possible answer. What we must have, however, is a tunnel far more oriented to the rail side of the traffic and less to the rolling road ferry service.

Mr. Ogden

By whom will the reassessment be undertaken? Will those undertaking it be asking for evidence or points of view from other organisations? Is it to be a reassessment entirely within the Department, or in the form of a Green Paper? What particular form will it take? Is my right hon. Friend able to give any assurance about the proposals for putting phase 2 forward, and the work that will follow from that, and the danger that would arise for industry, the Channel Tunnel and British Railways if there were to be a time lag between the ending of the work at that stage and the possibility of work carrying forward again under any different proposal that Parliament may implement?

Mr. Crosland

I take note of my hon. Friend's third point, on which I cannot give a precise answer now. I should like to consider what he has said. On his first and main point, the reassessment will be carried out by a number of people acting jointly—the United Kingdom Government, the French Government, British Railways—and basing themselves on the detailed work done by the consultants who carried out the studies during phase 1. But, in addition to that, as I have told the House already, I am anxious to have an outside group of people who will consider critically the studies that come from the consultants, and we have not yet decided on that group.

Mr. Wells

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's conversion from rail-only, and I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Party has now grown up a little. Can the right hon. Gentleman say that this delay will not have an adverse effect on those people in Kent who are worried about the alternative decisions between roads A, B and C in East Kent and roads 1, 2 and 3 in West Kent, and who do not know what will happen to their property and are full of anxieties? Can the right hon. Gentleman give some assurance to those people who are worried about personal details?

Mr. Crosland

I recognise the anxieties to which the hon. Gentleman has referred, but I fear that there is nothing that I can do to allay them because the delay is implicit in having a phase 2 at all. In any circumstances, phase 2 would have led to a delay in re-examination and reappraisal, which I fear is bound to leave uncertainty persisting while it occurs.

Mr. Hooky

In making this reappraisal will my right hon. Friend pay special attention to the economic impact of this project from a regional point of view, in regard to the South-East Region vis-à-vis the other regions of this country? Will he pay particular attention to the problem that if it is to be primarily a rail tunnel the marshalling and assembly of freight need not take place in the South-East at all?

Mr. Crosland

I am very conscious of the point made by my hon. Friend. The regional aspect was one of the matters which were heavily underlined in the terms of the amendment which I moved on behalf of the then Labour Opposition last October.

Mr. Peyton

May I offer my most cordial congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman and to the Government on their conversion or, perhaps, re-conversion, to this project, and may I say how welcome it is that they should now have adopted almost in their entirety the proposals of the previous administration?

Mr. Crosland

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that my views on the broad principle of the Channel Tunnel have not altered since we started debating the matter in the House. But if he thinks that the strategy and the proposals which are likely to emerge from our reassessment bear any close relationship to those which came out of his policies he had better think again.

Mr. Dalyell

What rôle is envisaged for private capital?

Mr. Crosland

The rôle envisaged for private capital so far has already been announced in phase 1 when the Channel Tunnel Bill was published. What rôle there will be for private capital concerning phase 3 is a matter which will be included in the reassessment which we shall undertake under phase 2.

Sir John Rodgers

is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his decision to embark on a reappraisal and reassessment will be greeted in many quarters of Kent with great support? As part of that reassessment will the right hon. Gentleman say whether British Railways will continue immediately with the talks which they have delayed up to date with the people who will be affected by the rail line, and that meetings will be held in various parts of my constituency, which will be greatly affected, with British Railways, his Department, Kent County Council and the local authorities?

Mr. Crosland

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. Yes. Following my statement today, British Railways will at once resume consultation with the county and the districts, and my Department will be involved in that.

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