HC Deb 20 December 1974 vol 883 cc2108-22

4.0 p.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

I am grateful to the Minister for postponing the commencement of his Christmas holiday, or for leaving his office party early, in order to reply to this important Adjournment debate. I hope he will not think me uncharitable if I observe that it is he, and not a Minister of State for urban affairs, who will be at the Dispatch Box. In the last Parliament, debates on subjects concerning our cities received the special attention of the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment with specific responsibility for urban affairs.

In a debate on city planning which I initiated on 29th July, the Minister's former colleague, the hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris), referred proudly to: the decision taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to recognise overtly, in government, that urban problems do exist and that they need to be looked at in the round, bringing together all of the interests concerned. He did this by creating the ministerial post which I occupy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th July 1974; Vol. 878, c. 330.] What are those of us who represent city seats now to make of the Prime Minister's decision to abolish that important post some time in advance of the solutions of the problems it was set up to solve? I hope it is not in any way a demotion of the importance of urban affairs.

I am particularly glad to have this opportunity of raising the issues in the London Rail study, which are not simply a transport matter, but are crucial and sensible planning of the capital as a whole.

When I was a member of the Greater London Council, I was partly responsible for setting up the Barren Committee. Also, I sent to the committee a paper I prepared on the integration of the two railway networks insofar as the London borough of Ealing is concerned. I am therefore delighted to renew my association with this matter.

I want to press the Minister on what he proposes to do about the recommendations in the study which affects his Department, some of which the report says are urgent. When the report was published, the Minister, in reply to an aptly-timed Parliamentary Question, said about the report: I believe it will lay a firm foundation for the planning and development of London's rail services. I shall study its recommendations with care, as I am sure the Greater London Council and the railway undertakings will also want to do."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th November 1974; Vol. 882, c. 248.] It was a thoroughly predictable and unexceptional response, so much so that the Press did not pay attention to it. I hope that today the hon. Gentleman will be more forthcoming and will reveal some of the thoughts of his Department on the document.

I start with some of the suggestions made at the end of the report. On the organisation side, the report makes a radical recommendation in paragraph 10.18. Having quite correctly identified the danger of having two capital-intensive railway systems, with different financial objectives and different investment and tariff policies in the same area, the committee proposed that a rail advisory committee for London be set up, under an independent chairman, to advise on major rail planning including a requirement to report periodically on railway investment and fares". Does the Minister accept the dangers inherent in the present system described in the report? Will he now set up the advisory committee and announce the name of the chairman?

From the organisational recommendations, I turn to the programme of expenditure dealt with in Chapter 7. The Minister sets the limits to capital expenditure of both London Transport and British Rail, though the London Transport situation will change next year with the transport supplementary grants. Therefore, he will decide which of the three options set out in this chapter will be followed. Planning in London is a very slow and laborious process and to speed it up decisions on the future transport pattern are needed as soon as possible. There have been road plans for the last 10 years, but they have all been dropped. I do not wish to develop the arguments for or against them, but London cannot afford another 10 years spent dithering with plans for public transport and investment therein. Therefore, it is essential that the Minister should indicate at an early date which option it is to be, and he should be prepared to stick to it once he has made up his mind.

Still on the recommendations concerning finance, I turn to paragraph 6.10 which recommends that programmes modernising stations should have a high priority. In my own constituency, the British Rail stations are an absolute disgrace. South Acton station would have been turned down as a halt for Wells Fargo 150 years ago. Acton main line station has all the glamour of a bomb site. Acton Central is the sort of edifice one finds overgrown with ivy in a Victorian burial ground. Figures are included in the investment options on page 29 for modernising stations, and if the Minister would like to accompany me to the stations I have listed I am sure it will help him make up his mind in favour of this section of the programme.

As to the work of the study group on new lines, and the financial implications thereof, those of us who have had planning responsibilities on the Greater London Council—and I see the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker—are particularly interested in the section on the Fleet line and the River line which can unlock the door to dockland and make it available for the residential development which the capital so desperately needs.

In paragraph 6.24 the report sets out the compelling reasons for proceeding with these lines, and in paragraph 6.26 refers to the urgency of the matter. In the light of the report, will the Minister give the go-ahead on stage 2 of the Fleet line from Strand to Fenchurch Street? Does he accept the suggestions of paragraph 6.25 for building the new Thames-mead and Dockland line "at as early a date as possible"?

The Government have rightly said that housing is one of the top priorities, and no hon. Member would dissent from that judgment. But it is necessary to have the infrastructure available for residential development, and these lines are an essential part of that infrastructure. To go back to what I said earlier, one cannot look at the report just as a transport matter. It is a strategic planning matter which affects housing in particular. If we are to make an impact on inner London's housing problem, this capital expenditure on railway lines is a must.

I want to refer briefly to Crossrail, which basically links up by tunnel the main British Rail terminals in the centre of London. On studying the alignment of Crossrail on map 8, I see that it has been chosen by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) as it goes through the gardens of Buckingham Palace. In view of the congestion occasioned by Her Majesty's most welcome hospitality at her garden parties, perhaps we might even have a station there.

The authorised version of map 8 is an imaginative proposal which would have been easier to implement had it been put forward 100 years ago. Paragraph 6.33 contains a recommendation that as a high priority a feasibility study should be undertaken to determine the practicability and costs of the scheme. Is that feasibility study now to be undertaken?

A further recommendation which concerns the Minister, this time wearing his planning hat, is that contained in paragraph 7.11. It concerns safeguarding the alignment for the Chelsea-Hackney line, Crossrail, and other schemes, from encroachment by other developments. Maps 6, 7 and 8 show the routes of the proposed lines. Will the Minister take the proposed routes into account when he considers planning applications for offices and other developments in London? What action does he propose to take if blight results from the publication of the routes?

I want now to look at two weaknesses in the report. First, the report is con- ducted in a financial vacuum. In paragraph 5.14 there is, I suspect, a complaint which is heavily disguised in the uncon-troversial garments which clothe reports such as these. The paragraph states: No official Government (or for that matter GLC) view is available (on the future level of capital investment) and we have therefore had to make our own unofficial assessment. The assumptions made by the group are set out in paragraph 5.15, and they are very important: No switch in funds is assumed either between transport and other sectors of the economy or (and this is the crunch) between public transport and roads. Does the Minister accept that assumption? Alternatively, does he agree that there is likely to be a shift of public investment from roads to public transport in London? That is what his political colleagues at County Hall are saying, and I think that it is what the Minister of Transport has been saying in the House. It is certainly what the Minister for Energy would like to see.

I believe that the group took an un-realistically low view of the capital resources available to public transport in the next 25 years. It follows from that that the group may have felt unnecessarily inhibited in the solutions it examined and recommended.

On the other side of Westminister Bridge much play is made about the amount of money saved by scrapping the ringways, but where has the money gone? It is not included in the report, because the assumptions preclude that. Have Londoners just been swindled out of their transport investment? Perhaps the Minister will help us to find the missing millions.

The second weakness in the report is the failure to recommend that British Rail lines wholly within London should be handed over to London Transport, or that the two networks should be more closely integrated. I appreciate that the study group had on it representatives of London Transport and British Rail, and that may have inhibited discussion on those lines. However, many of the difficulties dealt with in the report could be overcome if the non-radial British Rail lines wholly within London were passed over to London Transport together with, perhaps, those radial lines which terminate within the GLC area or just outside it.

There are precedents for London Transport taking over tracks from British Rail—for example, the former LNER lines to High Street, Barnet, and to Epping and now incorporated in the Northern and Central lines respectively. I shall refer in a few moments to the Richmond-Broad Street line which is wholly within the GLC area and which crosses the London Transport network in several places. The transference of this line to London Transport; would be a first step to having an integrated network instead of a selection of different lines. There are many other lines—for example, Hol-born Viaduct to West Croydon, London Bridge to Crystal Palace, London Bridge to Denmark Hill—which serve the GLC area and which should come under the London Transport system of British Rail.

The nettle was not grasped in the report, and for that reason it is that much weaker. The question of integrating the two networks arises, and the report says: The interchange between rail services is of key importance because it turns London's railway from a collection of separate lines into a properly integrated system. However, the logic of this has not been carried through in the report. The interchange proposals are inadequate. Without Part II of the report—which is not available although it has already been written—obviously the logic has gone wrong.

Perhaps I could illustrate this point of criticism. The Richmond to Broad Street line runs through my constituency and crosses the Central, District and Piccadilly lines. Yet at no intersection is there a station—which makes impossible for any interchange to take place, unless one is an international sprinter. Public transport in my constituency is the poorer because of this lack of choice in any interchange.

I sent to the group some imaginative, radical and well-thought-out proposals which would have alleviated the situation in my constituency, but that evidence appears to have been overlooked. Instead, the report has concentrated on capital investment on given lines and has ignored better utilisation of the present network. I am sure that the hon. Member for Newham, South as an ex-Member for Acton will develop that theme.

I have asked the Minister a number of questions, and, although doubtless he has a copious brief before him, he might not be able to divulge all the answers. However, I hope that he will not tarry long and that the report will not be allowed to gather dust in some ministerial pigeonhole.

As for the broad financial proposals, as we approach 25th December perhaps I could ask the Minister to give Londoners a Christmas present. Perhaps he will accept in principle the financial implication of the report and give Londoners the assurance that funds will be made available to improve the system.

4.14 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

As a former Member for Acton I should like to congratulate the present Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) on raising this important subject. I am glad to see a former member of the Transport and Planning Committee of the GLC raising these matters, and I am glad that he has seen the light in respect of public transport in London. I only wish that the rest of the Conservative Party were as enlightened five years ago so that the Greater London Development Plan would have incorporated the proposals that we have set out in our document.

The chairman of the panel paid tribute to the co-operation between London Transport and British Rail. I must tell the House that I did not notice this spirit on my excursions into the London Transport system. This has been one of the historic difficulties.

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on the point he made about taking over lines of British Rail and giving them to London Transport. The important thing is that these lines are a part of British Rail network and of the freight system, although I agree that we require an integrated network for passengers. I hope that when the advisory council is set up it will deal with these matters. Ever since the days of Lord Ashfield and Sir Herbert Walker there has been a need for London Transport and the main line railways to have their heads knocked together, in terms of being accountable to London. I hope that the advisory body will be able to avoid the past situation.

I find the report lamentably thin. It contains no analysis of the present flows and patterns of London's rail transport network. Nor do I find the financial anlalysis particularly illuminating. It relates more to what the report calls "performance" than the costs and potential abilities of this magnificent network that could again become the life blood of movement in London.

The section on fares does not deal with the possibility of period fares, either for areas in London or for the whole area, where by paying a certain amount per month one could travel an unlimited distance at off-peak times and, perhaps with a premium, at peak periods as well. Therefore, the report is thinner than it ought to be considering the time that it has been in the making.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton mentioned interchange. There is a particularly striking example in Newham, South. In West Ham, the electrified District line—electrified from about 1904—crosses the North Woolwich-Stratford line of British Rail, but not in the same way as at Acton, where there is difficulty in terms of distance. Physically above that line there is a station on the District line, but there has never been a station at Manor Road, West Ham, on the North Woolwich line. It is impossible to interchange.

These lines have been publicly owned for nearly 30 years. Fifty years ago it would have been in the mutual interests of both railways to put an extra station on the ex Great Eastern line, but that was not done. It was not done for bureaucratic reasons, although it was in the interests of the public.

I am glad that the Eastern Region is now looking into that matter. I understand that it will consider my representations about putting an interchange there, because that would give the residents of Silvertown, North Woolwich and Canning Town an easy means of access to Stratford and thence on to the major rail networks of London.

The most disappointing thing that I have found about the report is its dismissal of the ring-rail concept, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It deals with a scheme which would have the highest traffic benefits and puts a high capital cost on it. There may be more modest schemes, of which we do not know because we have not got volume 2, which would give immediate benefits at lower cost. None of the alternatives of lower cost schemes given in the study contains a cross-river link. I believe that, interesting though the cross-rail proposals are, the cross-river link is most important for London, possibly on an orbital service from Acton all the way round to Hackney and across the river into Lewisham from the southern part of my constituency. That would open the area in the way that some people wish, without the questionable advantage of opening up the Thames line straight into the West End, as the report proposes.

I believe that dockland and dockland redevelopment should be for people who live there and for East London. A rapid transport scheme using existing lines would serve East London better than an expensive new tube giving direct access to the West End.

On reorganisation, I have said that we need the co-operation of existing agencies to give the best service to Londoners in both physical and cost terms. There was a pooled fare system until 1938. That has not been resuscitated, despite the fact that public ownership has come for both networks in the meantime.

As the last back-bench speaker before Christmas, may I wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the staff of the House the very best of the season. We look forward to seeing you refreshed for our labours in January.

4.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to attempt to reply to the points made by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I have never had the honour of representing Acton, but obviously they were raising matters of great importance to their constituents.

The state of public transport in London is a matter on which the majority of the capital's inhabitants quite rightly have strong opinions. As I travel around the country I find that the question of transport and public transport in particular, is one on which nearly every citizen has strong views. We are, therefore, well aware of the increasing importance of public transport.

The report of the London Rail Study is an important contribution towards setting the future shape and role of London's railway system. I should therefore like to echo the thanks that have already been expressed by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport to the members of the study team and in particular to the study's chairman, Sir David Barran.

Understandably it is the study's recommendations on capital investment that have attracted the most attention. The hon. Member for Acton asked whether the Government accept the financial implications of those recommendations. I think he knows as well as I do how public expenditure is dealt with. He must realise that the study's report has appeared too late to influence the Government's conclusions for the immediate future which will be set out in the forthcoming White Paper. The Government will have to take account of the recommendations in their consideration of public expenditure next year, though I cannot at this stage predict with what result.

Neither can any Government commit their successors to expenditure stretching as far ahead as 25 years. What is certainly clear is that the study, in linking its three levels of investment to the base of capital expenditure on London's railways forecast for the present financial year, has anchored the options firmly to a realistic starting point.

The hon. Gentleman wonders whether the report goes far enough in proposing integration of the London Transport and British Railways networks. My hon. Friend made a point on this, and I know that both he and the hon. Gentleman gave evidence and made submissions to the study. I understand that the study considered this question in considerable detail and that its views will be explained more fully in Part II of its report. The first report was published on 27th November, just under a month ago, and I think it is a little early to expect my right hon. Friend to have formed views upon it. There is still a great deal of information to be obtained from the public and others, and what has been said today will be taken into account. Improvements that were needed could be dealt with within the existing organisational framework of London Transport.

I think I can best illustrate the kind of problems involved by reference to proposals which the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend submitted to the study on the Acton area. As with the many other suggestions made to it, the study examined the proposals fully even if it was not possible to deal with them all individually in its report.

The hon. Gentleman had three proposals: the transfer of the present British Rail Broad Street-Richmond service to London transport, a new tube line between North Acton and Ealing Broadway and a series of improvements to stations and interchanges in the Acton area. I shall deal with them in that order.

But even if a high level of service were justified there is not the track capacity on the North London Line for it. The route forms the main freight link between West, North and East London. Because of their slower speeds, freight trains need an average of two and a half times the track capacity of passenger trains when the two interwork. Moreover the route suffers from two severe physical limitations—numerous flat junctions, which produce conflicting train movements and thus reduce track capacity, and the Hampstead Tunnel, which is so narrow that trains cannot pass through it in opposite directions at the same time.

The second proposal, for a new tube line between North Acton and Ealing Broadway, falls on similar grounds. In neither of these cases is the ownership and operation of the line a real problem. Incidentally, I should add that in cases where the study thought that lack of integration was a real problem—for instance, on the service between Queen's Park and Watford—it had no hesitation in recommending changes to remedy this.

However, the study recognised that there could be a case for improvement of this and other non-radial British Rail services in North London. It recommended as a high priority that British Rail should consider whether it could make them more attractive and accessible to the public. It also recommended that further study should be made of the costs, operational feasibility and likely demand for a high-cost improvement to these services, involving electrification, re-signalling, the reconstruction of Hampstead Tunnel, new stations and improved interchanges. This would result in a marked improvement over present services on the North London Line and through Acton main line station.

Third, the hon. Gentleman suggested that the study did not give sufficient thought to interchanges. In fact, I understand that it looked at a large number of places where interchanges might be improved or new stations provided. It rejected many of them, either because it was physically impossible to improve them or because the benefits to traffic could not conceivably justify the cost. Again I can illustrate the problems with two of the hon. Gentleman's own proposals, North Acton and South Acton. Both would involve moving existing stations and constructing new ones. In itself this would be expensive—very expensive indeed at North Acton, where it would probably involve rebuilding a viaduct on the British Railways line. His suggestions would also make the stations more inconvenient for the existing catchment areas and unlikely to attract much new traffic. Is the cost justified by the potential interchange traffic? The study—this is a value judgment to some extent —thought not.

Nevertheless the study fully recognised the importance of good interchange. It recommended a continuing programme of improvements and made some suggestions for first priorities. It is better to make a start with some such improvements than to spend an enormous amount of time in a review of all the possibilities. Some of the hon. Gentleman's suggestions will need to be considered in the context of the study of improved non-radial services which I have already mentioned. Incidentally, both the study and I entirely agree that signposting of stations leaves much to be desired and it is suggested that this ought to be improved as a matter of priority.

The hon. Gentleman was worried about the possible divergence of London Transport's and British Rail's investment and pricing policies. This was a problem of which the study was well aware, but it rejected a complete reorganisation of transport responsibilities in London. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, sometimes when something goes wrong it is thought that a reorganisation of management structure will change everything, but I think we all realise that this matter is much more fundamental than that. Reorganisation carries with it the penalty of disruption while the changes take effect, and I would remind hon. Members that there was indeed a reorganisation in 1969 which has taken a considerable time to settle down.

So far I have been dealing with transport issues, but the study found that inevitably it had to go wider than this. It was not invited to replan London, and it did not attempt to do so. Equally, however, there were points at which its work became closely related to other topics. It tried not to avoid the implications of this. I think an illustration will serve to make the point.

The illustration is the proposal for a new Underground line through Dockland to Thamesmead, the "River Line". The report states quite clearly that the line cannot be justified either on financial grounds or on a conventional social cost-benefit assessment of its transport effects. But it also says that there are strong arguments on general planning grounds for the line and a strong case for providing it at as early a date as possible because of its beneficial effect on Dockland development. It also stressed the need in such cases for the integration of the physical and transport planning processes to produce the optimum overall result.

I will keep my concluding remarks short. The objects of the study were to shape the capital investment programme for the short and medium terms to provide the guidelines for medium-and long-term investment, as seen in the light of present circumstances, and to expose the basic problems facing rail transport in London, which is to decide how much finance should be available for both capital and operating expenditure, and the level of service to be provided. I shall write to the hon. Member about any other points with which I have not had time to deal.

This is the last Adjournment debate before the recess. I and the Officers of the House have been here many evenings but have seldom finished as early as this. Perhaps I may have the privilege, Mr. Clerks and Officers of the House and all the staff a Merry Christmas and, coming Deputy Speaker, of wishing you, the from my part of the world, a Happy New Year.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am obliged to the Minister and to the hon. Member. I hope that we come back in the same spirit as we are leaving.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock till Monday 13th January, pursuant to the resolution of the House yesterday.