HC Deb 09 March 1978 vol 945 cc1755-91

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

I must inform the House that I have not selected the amendment.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a Private Bill promoted by the British Railways Board and I have been asked by the Board to explain its purpose to the House.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow British Rail to divert about 15 miles of the East Coast main line south of York to a new line of route which it is proposed should be about four miles further west than the present line of route. The present line between Selby and York lies over the new Selby coalfield. Unless the line is moved, it will not be possible fully and efficiently to extract the coal. If the line stays where it is, it would need to be supported by the coal underneath which would otherwise be extracted.

The coalfield as a whole has resources amounting to 600 million tons. That coal is expected to be extracted over a period of 30 years and at a rate of 10 million tons a year, leaving considerable resources in the ground. In other words, we are talking of a major coal resource and a major operation in terms of jobs. If the line stays where it is, 40 million tons of coal will have to remain unextracted to form support for the present line, and a lot more will prove to be unextractable because of the secondary effects of the mining operations slightly further from the line.

The House will surely agree that in those circumstances the line has to be moved. British Rail's proposal is that a new line should be constructed from a point about four miles south of Selby going roughly north-west, and then north to join the present Leeds to York line about five miles out of York. The present line from Selby to York will cease to operate when the diversion is completed. If it is accepted that some diversion of the present main line is needed—and I think that is accepted even by oppo- nents of the Bill—the only question is what the route of the diversion should be.

The House rightly affords to persons and authorities outside Parliament the right to dispute proposals affecting private interests before a Private Bill Committee of this House. The same procedure applies in the House of Lords. Objectors will be able to present their cases to the Committee, and if the House decides tonight to give the Bill a Second Reading that is the proper way for the pros and cons of the proposal to be judicially and impartially assessed.

I invite the House to give the Bill a Second Reading so that it may proceed to the rigorous procedures of the Private Bill Committee. If it is necessary to do so, I hope that the House will allow me to respond to any specific questions at the end of the debate.

10.18 p.m.

Mr. Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)

I am opposed to this Bill and I seek to block it.

I am opposed to the Bill for two separate sets of reasons. The first broad reason is that the Bill and the associated plans submitted to the Private Bill Office set out a proposed route for the diversion of the East Coast main line which, in my view, is neither the most economical in terms of cash cost nor of agricultural land use involved. My second main heading of objection is that this costly project has not been properly appraised or examined in public in a way that would have been necessary if a motorway were involved.

I am pretty well convinced that the East Coast main line should be diverted because of the Selby coal workings. I am no expert on these matters—and that is one of the reasons why I oppose this Bill—but I do not think that the Selby coalfield and the extractions of coal there are feasible without some action being taken in respect of the railway line. From the point of view of a layman the matter is not clear beyond peradventure.

For example, all that happened at the public inquiry held at Selby about the coalfield development was that at the very end of the long inquiry about the viability of the coalfield project, and after many of the legal advisers of the various petitioners and objectors to the development had left, British Railways came along and dropped a bombshell by saying that consideration might have to be given to altering the route of the railway line. That was surprising and caused quite a stir. They did not say that a diversion would be necessary; they merely said that consideration might have to be given to making a diversion. That was the most that we were told at the tailend of the inquiry.

In the statement that they have made to the House of their reasons for the Bill the railway authorities do not present quite a full and clear picture. There was no explicit statement that could be properly cross-examined by counsel at the public inquiry that it was unavoidable, essential and inescapable that the route would have to be diverted. It was merely said that consideration might have to be given to altering the route of the line as a result of the scale of coal extraction that was proposed in the locality. If we are to take that amount of coal from the coalfield and it is to go under the railway line, it seems obvious to me as a layman that we must do something about the railway line.

There was no proper examination against a background of assessors and experts being cross-examined about the absolute and inescapable need for that to happen for the stability of the railway line, especially as regards the water table.

Sir Timothy Kitson (Richmond, Yorks)

Is my hon. Friend aware that at that time British Railways did not even inform the county council, which had to decide alternative routes through the highways committee? It was only at the inquiry that the county council heard that a diversion was expected.

Mr. Alison

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that clear. That underlines that, instead of the normal procedure being followed, when a planning application is made to the local authority and consent is sought from the local planning body for a major undertaking, which enables a public inquiry to be held in its own right, all that we were told at the tailend of the public inquiry was that consideration might have to be given to diverting the railway line.

The next thing that we hear is that the Bill has been presented to Parliament with the whole issue cut and dried. We hear that the route has been selected, the decision having been made that it is necessary to divert the line. Everything is announced in a definitive and final form before the local planning authority has even exercised the proper and statutory function of appraising the necessity for a diversion.

We are talking about a major railway operation. We are talking about the building of a major new railway line. As proposed, it will be 14 miles long and will cost at least £35 million. I may add that in my view that is an underestimate of the cost. The British Railways official costing document, which has been submitted to the House, gives a figure of £35 million for the 14-mile diversion, but the cost could be a great deal more if, for example, British Gypsum's petition against the Bill is heard.

British Gypsum claims in its petition against the Bill that the loss of the minerals, upon which its operations depend at Sherburn in Elmet, as a result of the preferred route is likely to amount to about £25 million. If that is added as a compensation cost to the £35 million that will have to be spent on the physical work of diverting the line, we are landed with a possible overall cost for the new line of anything between the present figure submitted by British Railways of £35 million and an extra £10 million, £15 million or even £25 million. That takes us to £30 million or £40 million as the final cost, including the compensation to British Gypsum for the removal of this line.

I should add, for the benefit of hon. Members who have a special interest in the coal industry, that the National Coal Board, not British Rail, will have to pay for the cost of the diversion to enable oil-burning trains to go at high speed across the Vale of York. The money will have to come from somewhere. It will come from some of the NCB's proposed capital projects or find itself added to the ultimate price of coal.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

As the cost described by my hon. Friend is to be levied as a charge on the National Coal Board, how does that compare with the possibility of leaving a pillar of coal beneath the line itself?

Mr. Alison

The difference is substantial in cost terms. The loss from leaving a mile wide pillar of coal is between £500 million and £800 million, according to estimates that I have seen. The NCB will get compensation from British Rail for that equation. Therefore, the NCB will not lose money and there will be no cost to the coal industry. But, under the terms of the Bill, British Rail will be running its oil-fired trains across this stretch of land and the NCB will have to carry the can.

The object of my attempt to appraise the real cost is to show that it would be in the interests of the NCB to support an attempt to find a cheaper alternative route. There is a cheaper alternative.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

Is the £35 million going to fall upon the National Coal Board or upon British Rail? If it is to fall on the NCB, it is a matter of the most grievous concern to hon. Members representing mining constituencies.

Mr. Alison

The only inaccuracy in my hon. Friend's question was the £35 million. I think that it will be more than £35 million because of the compensation aspect to which I referred. The £35 million plus will be a charge on the NCB, so the NCB will pay for the diversion.

The substance of my opposition to the cut and proposition that British Rail has put before us is that there is a reasonable alternative route. I must ask the indulgence of the House to refer to a technical point, because there are a number of alternative routes. When British Rail was thinking about this matter, it published certain maps, and I have one here. There is an important alternative route technically known as the Sherburn deviation. As an alternative to British Rail's proposed route, the Sherburn deviation would involve about two-thirds less land take and probably two-thirds less cost.

Mr. George Grant (Morpeth)

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's argument, but he must also take into consideration that this scheme has been carefully thought out. Although he might have views on certain interests of the people who own land in the area, the National Coal Board and the planning authorities have gone deeply into the scheme, and it has advanced so far that it would be costly to delay it. What would be the difference in cost between the scheme he is proposing and the scheme that has already been carefully considered?

Mr. Alison

The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. Grant) has made a fair point in suggesting that British Railways have considered all the alternatives and have come up with the one they prefer. There is no doubt that British Railways have examined all the alternatives. I know that the hon. Gentleman is interested in the coal industry, but what happened was this.

British Railways suddenly saw a marvellous opportunity to build on a green field site a brand new railway line which they could justify on grounds of speed, and speed alone. There is already a severe restriction in Selby, because the existing line has a sharp curve which the trains have to go round to get out of the town. British Railways saw a marvellous opportunity, in the context of Selby coalfield, to build a magnificent brand new stretch of line, 14 miles long, perfectly suited to their railway operations.

Being a public authority, British Railways do not have to worry too much about costs. They had absolutely no regard to less satisfactory alternatives from a railway point of view which would cost the coal industry and the public somewhat less.

All I am suggesting is that British Railways should at least have gone through the statutory procedures involved in a proper planning application to the local authorities so that we could all decide whether it was right that they should build this brand new track across the Vale of York, involving a second major bridge across the Rive Ouse, which is very expensive, when the Sherburn deviation, which is at least one-third and probably two-thirds shorter than the line British Railways are proposing, would enable them to take the railway line into the existing system running between York and Sheffield. They would feed into that line south of the River Ouse, would not have to build a second bridge across the river and would probably take up two-thirds less agricultural land. They would find only one serious objection to the course I am proposing, the Sherburn deviation, which is that the trains would not be able to go quite so fast.

Mr. George Grant

With due respect, the hon. Gentleman has not answered my question. While I have some consideration for what the hon. Gentleman is proposing, I am saying that these matters have already been considered by the National Coal Board, British Railways and the local planning committee. I am asking whether the hon. Gentleman has taken into consideration in the overall cost of the scheme the cost to the National Coal Board of the work it has done and the importance to the nation of getting the Selby coalfield going. He seems to be talking about the economic grounds, but I think that he is missing the point.

Mr. Alison

I take the point that the hon. Gentleman is arguing I recognise the general validity of his argument. It is that in terms of developing the coalfield speed is money. That is a perfectly fair point. The longer we delay the operation of the Selby coalfield, for whatever reason, the greater the loss to the nation of economically mineable coal. The Selby coalfield take will not get anywhere near the railway line about which we are talking until 1980, 1981 or 1982, there is no great hurry about it. It is not as though a dispute about the correct line at this stage would have the effect of delaying the operation of the Selby coalfield, even remotely.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

There is another factor as well as speed, and the hon. Member should attend to it. Whilst he is seeking to make alterations to the existing system, he must bear in mind that the Selby coalfield will produce 10 million tons of coal a year, which I hope that British Rail and the NCB will wish to see transported by rail rather than by road, and the existing railway system may not be able to cope with that quantity of coal without substantial alterations.

Mr. Alison

I entirely take that point. I do not dispute that at all. I recognise that the coal must come out and that it will be very economically minable coal when the time comes. I recognise that there must be a proper railway system for shifting the coal from the Selby coalfield, and that this will probably be on the existing Hull-Leeds line, which runs east-west or west-east through Selby. But when we are talking about what I am here describing as the Sherburn deviation, the hon. Member will recall that we are not talking about using the existing rail network at all.

I am conceding the point, for the sake of argument, that it may be necessary for there to be a new railway line built, and a new railway line in the locality of Selby. But what I am disputing is whether it is really necessary for the extent of the line that the Bill proposes to be new when, by building a very much shorter stretch with a slightly sharper curve, feeding into the existing railway network north-south, slightly nearer Selby, we should avoid the necessity of building a second bridge over the river, we should come into the existing network much earlier, and there would be only one objection to it. Indeed, it is the only objection that I have heard argued—in an informal way, because there has been no public scrutiny of this matter.

There has been only one objection that I have heard informally argued against the Sherburn deviation—a deviation of new railway about two-thirds shorter than that proposed in the Bill. It is simply that trains would not be able to go so fast. Is it really worth spending the sum of money that we are considering here—£35 million; perhaps up to £40 million—to ensure that railway trains can go that much faster over the stretch of line? I do not for a moment believe that it is.

Let me just give the arguments on the other side.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

It is all very well making a suggestion like that, but the hon. Member knows perfectly well that it would interfere with the inter-city services. The hon. Member must bear in mind that in the late 1980s we shall have an output of almost 10 million tons of coal and that there will be daily a tremendous amount of coal going from the coalfield to the power stations. That is one of the main reasons why the Sherburn route that he has been suggesting is not acceptable.

Mr. Alison

Great though my respect for the hon. Gentleman is, as he knows—he is my neighbour in Yorkshire—I am afraid that he has got that wrong in this case, because the Sherburn deviation is a new railway line. It is the British Railways proposed new line as far as just north of Selby. Instead of going straight across the Vale of York for 14 miles, necessitating the building of a new bridge, the Sherburn deviation—a brand new railway line, I concede that; the hon. Member is getting a new railway line out of this proposal—turns fairly sharply to the west and dovetails into the main line, which the British Railways preferred line hits 14 miles further north. It will be slightly further south, but it will not necessitate a second bridge and will require perhaps only one-third as much track. There will be a new line and there will be no interruption in the traffic of coal trains from the Selby coal field.

Mr. George Cunningham

Is the hon. Gentleman assuming that it would not be necessary to double the track on the Leeds-York line north of the point where his new junction joins that line?

Mr. Alison

The line at that point is already four track. There is not much of a problem. We shall be dovetailing into a four-track line instead of hitting it 14 miles further north, having had to build a new bridge across the river. The existing track would be joined 10 miles further south, no new bridge would be necessary and the new line would link the old North-Eastern line with the existing York-Sheffield line. The only disadvantage would be a reduction in the speed of trains.

British Rail says that its £75 million investment in high-speed trains would be abortive if there were a serious hold up of trains over this stretch of track. That is not a convincing argument, because the high-speed trains will be running from May and the £75 million investment is for the whole of the 400 track miles from London to Edinburgh. High-speed trains will have to slow when they hit Selby, as anyone who has been through Selby to Edinburgh, York or Newcastle, will know. The existing main line has a sharp jig in it and trains have to slow appreciably at present.

As far as I know, British Rail had no proposals for straightening the Selby curve so, if it had not been for the Selby coalfield development, the highspeed trains would have taken a serious curve at Selby in their stride. Despite the curve, British Rail still believes its £75 million investment to be worth while.

All we are suggesting is that instead of the Selby curve, which will be removed by the new track, we should have the Sherburn deviation curve, which would have the same effect upon the running of high-speed trains as would the Selby curve. It must be justifiable in logic, because otherwise British Rail would not be planning to start the high-speed train in May along the line that includes the Selby curve.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Surely the weakness in the hon. Gentleman's argument is that if his alternative is adopted instead of British Rail's proposal, from the moment the change is completed and indefinitely thereafter the time taken by every train between York and Doncaster would be longer.

Mr. Alison

That is not the point that I was making. High-speed trains are starting in May. They will make the journey over the 400 track miles from London to Edinburgh very much more quickly despite their having to negotiate a sharp curve at Selby. British Rail has decided that the £75 million investment is worth while, despite the Selby curve, because so much time can be saved on the whole journey that a lot of money will also be saved. All I am proposing is that, in order to save a considerable sum, British Rail should incorporate the deviation that I am proposing. It will involve a less serious curve than the existing curve at Selby. British Rail will still save time, though not as much as it would save with a straight track.

Mr. Jay

I understand that, But let us suppose that the alternative is adopted and takes until 1981 to be completed. From that moment all trains will take longer to travel between York and Don-caster for an indefinite number of years. That is the reason for preferring the British Rail proposal.

Mr. Alison

I concede that. The British Rail preferred route does away with any curve in that locality, but British Rail is buying it at a colossal cost. It will have to drive a new line straight through the Vale of York and use prime agricultural land. It will also have to build a new bridge.

It is an extraordinary phenomenon. British Rail has invested £75 million to bring the whole of the 400 mile track-miles to high speed standard and for this 14 miles it will spend another 50 per cent, of the total cost. That is the British Rail estimate. I believe that it is an underestimate of the cost. If the Sherburn deviation is adopted, although there will still be a new line, the cost will be substantially less.

No public debate or scrutiny has taken place. I suspect that the total sum will be greater than £75 million. There should be a proper independent inquiry. If British Rail had had to apply to the planning authorities for permission to adopt the route, a proper cost benefit analysis would take place. British Rail would be told that it was buying a marginal increase in speed at a high cost to the public and that it should take a slightly less speedy route to save public money.

The issue should be examined openly in the way in which motorway proposals are examined. We are talking about a 14-mile stretch of line which will cost per mile double what it costs to build a motorway. A new motorway costs about £1½ million per mile. This stretch of railway line will cost £2½ million—and possibly £3 million—per route mile.

The Minister has been helpful. He showed considerable sympathy and sensitivity about the building of what is known in Yorkshire as the Kirkhamgate-Dishforth motorway. He will know the long history of the proposal to build 20 route-miles of new motorway across the West Riding through Leeds and Bradford to the motorway system north of Wetherby. Does the Minister recall that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

We are discussing a proposed railway line, not motorways.

Mr. Alison

I naturally accept any rebuke from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A rebuke from you is usually so relevant that it is almost desirable to receive one. But I hope that I shall persuade you that it is legitimate in evaluating the Bill to contrast the procedures involved in planning a new railway with the procedures for planning a motorway. Both such projects ultimately come within the ambit of the Minister who is with us tonight.

Proposals for the motorway were first mooted in about 1975. The Department produced a public statement of its intentions to build a new motorway in that part of the country. It then imaginatively and quite properly produced a popular and informative brochure for distribution to-the public and entitled Yorkshire to the North East—We need your views". It was supplemented by access points throughout this part of Yorkshire at which the public could view the proposed new development and consider the alternatives, all of which were costed out in terms of land use, financial cost, traffic flows, loss of houses, loss of land and the rest. Caravans were located in the towns and villages of the area at which the public could meet ministerial advisers who dealt with queries.

This shows how imaginative the Department was in trying to win acceptance of the proposals. Finally, a poll was held of local views. The Minister came to Yorkshire and spent the day with my hon. Friends and myself, touring around to examine the various alternatives and options. That was only the beginning, because he then went on to consider the results of the poll and the advice of the economic planning council, of the North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire County Councils, and of the Leeds and Bradford City Councils. Finally, he produced his draft proposals for the route that he preferred. That is only the beginning of the statutory procedures. Under the Highways Act there must now be a full examination of any objections produced by any individual objector and, if necessary, a full public inquiry into the line selected. Why, if it is right for a motorway, which is cheaper to build, to go through that sort of procedure, is it right for the decision to build a railway line to be announced without any inquiry, without the selected route being announced, without there being any consultation, and with a Bill such as this being presented?

Mr Jay

If the hon. Member is comparing the procedures as between a motorway and a railway, will he remind the House that with a motorway it is not necessary to carry a Private Bill through Parliament where it will be examined in detail by a Committee? If the project in question had been a motorway the hon. Gentleman would not have been able to make his speech tonight and we should not have been able to take a vote.

Mr. Alison

It is possible to vary our procedures to suit what is most appropriate.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. These interventions will slow the speed of the debate.

Sir T. Kitson

I am trying to slow the speed by suggesting to my hon. Friend that on the recommendation of the Minister the line that this motorway will take will mean that it will take 30 minutes longer to get from A to B than if the suggestion of improving the Al were accepted. But British Rail's suggested time-saving is a matter of only four minutes on a similar line.

Mr. Alison

That is a very relevant point. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Meyer Galpern)

Has the hon. Gentleman accepted the point?

Mr. Alison

Yes, Mr. Deputy speaker, and I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Giles Shaw

I remind my hon. Friend, in answer to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), that the whole consultation process in the motorway development which the right hon. Gentleman accurately described was brought about by new legislation recognising the great desire of the interested parties, the motorway "consumers" and others affected, to have a share in consultation and decision-making. Under this procedure those affected are not given that degree of consultation.

Mr. Alison

The trouble about the railway proposal is that we are starved of the essential data, apart from anything else. We want to know what time-saving would be secured by British Rail's driving its most expensive and ideal route across the Vale of York compared with the Sherburn deviation. The data should be available for the purposes of public discussion.

Mr. Gow

Does my hon. Friend appreciate, in answering the point made by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), to whom in this context I almost refer as "my right hon.

Friend", that the right hon. Gentleman is one of the heroes of this Parliament, in that he has fought the great battle about the new Winchester motorway? The right hon. Gentleman, who says that a Bill would not have been required for that, would very much have welcomed a Bill's being necessary for that exercise.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

Let us get back to Selby.

Mr. Alison

What my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) said is very relevant. That is exactly the contrast we want to make.

We are presented with a Bill when British Rail has pre-determined its ideal solution without proper scrutiny or any planning authority—no formal planning application, no proper submission of a clear-cut plan at the Selby coalfield inquiry. British Rail simply comes forward with the Bill, the main purpose of which is to secure compulsory purchase powers over the land of the farms it has decided to invade and cross. Forty-nine separate farms are involved—

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)


Mr. Alison

My hon. Friend may De able to make a correction in his own speech. The bulk of the farmers have not yet received a formal or official approach from British Rail. They do not know where they stand or in what way they will be involved.

British Rail having decided what route, it wants, under the parliamentary petitioning procedures for a Private Bill it is left to the individual tenant farmer, a working man spending his waking hours doing his job. How can he possibly go through all the elaborate processes of briefing parliamentary agents, producing a formal petition according to the petitionary process of a Private Bill? How are these wretched, hard-working individual small tenant farmers expected to go through the whole gamut of petition and scrutinising of the Bill through the Select Committee procedure?

The process is unsatisfactory. With a motorway there is a proper planning application, with the local plan published locally and with the local people able to see what is involved and then submit objections, which are properly heard if necessary by an independent inspector and finally a ministerial scrutineer.

I hope that the Minister will advise his hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) that he is prepared to examine the implications of the Bill and advise British Rail to withdraw it and return later this Session with an alternative, after a proper public inquiry of the sort he acknowledges may be necessary for the Kirkhamgate to Dishforth motorway. If we had the same process of consultation as in that case, I should readily sit down and urge my hon. Friends not to vote against the Bill when the time came.

But, without an undertaking that British Rail will be made to justify this extremely expensive, Draconian piece of new railway construction, with proper consideration of a viable cheaper alternative of the kind I have suggested, the Sherburn deviation, I cannot see how I can do other than to vote against the Second Reading.

11.0 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John Horam)

I think it would be helpful if I intervened at this point in the debate to explain the Government's attitude to the Bill. It will please you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I say I am not going into the Dishforth trunk road scheme, nor into a comparison of this procedure with that one, except to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) put the essential point when he pointed out that for historical reasons there are different procedures for a motorway and for a railway, and both are being complied with properly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) has already explained, the purpose of the Bill is to enable British Railways to divert their East Coast main line around the Selby coalfield. The need for a diversion was established at the public inquiry in 1975 into the Selby coalfield development. The hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mi. Alison) made a strong point of this in the final part of his speech. That inquiry lasted 37 days. The diversion was mentioned as early as the third day of the public inquiry and there was a full investigation of all the ramifications of that point.

Mr. Alison

The Minister will accept that there was no proper cross-examination of the British Railways evidence in that inquiry because it was felt it was marginal and was presented in explicit form so late that there was no opportunity for a proper cross-examination process.

Mr. Horam

I would not accept that. It was mentioned as early as the third day and later, I agree, there was a proper deployment of the case for a diversion, in my view, there was a full examination at that inquiry.

Two factors were identified at the inquiry which make a diversion essential Both were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, who is sponsoring the Bill. First, severe subsidence problems are caused by a combination of geological conditions and the high intensity of the mining. We accept that. Secondly, the economic considerations are of national importance. The hon. Member for Barkston Ash will accept that second point.

It is the Government view that alignment is primarily a matter for the sponsors of the Bill to defend. I know that they have consulted on the possible alternatives and that the one chosen is thought to have the least impact on people and homes. It is best from the point of view of local opinion. Objections to the proposed alignment which have not been aired can be fully aired in the Committee, as can objections to the Bill. We have yet to go through that procedure, but I hope that the House will allow the Bill to go through the Committee procedure, because those points can best be aired in that way, and I therefore recommend that the Bill be given a Second Reading.

Mr. Alison

Before the Minister sits down—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

The Minister has sat down. I call Sir Paul Bryan.

11.4 p.m.

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

First, I declare my interest. I share the Selby coalfield in my constituency with my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) in his. These problems affect us in rather different ways. His farmers will be robbed of land. My constituents will be robbed of their main line railways. At present they get on at Selby, but once this arrangement has come to pass, they will have to go to York or further afield. That is not good news for them.

I am not an out and out opposer of the diversion of this railway. I should not be surprised if that is probably what will have to happen. But I am not affected either in my property, my life or my pocket, whereas one's constituents are. In their case I should like to know a lot more than they have been told so far. For a start, I should want to know a lot more detail about the pros and cons of this diversion. Hon. Members have studied this matter and know a lot about it, but these people do not. Some of them only recently discovered that a railway line will go through their farms. They want some justification.

Consultation has been absolutely minimal and inept. There is no reason why people should not have been told how these plans would affect them. Over the past five years or so, as the opening stages of the Selby coalfield have taken place, one has had to deal with the National Coal Board, the Department of the Environment and British Railways. The Coal Board has been very good with regard to sensitivity for the local population. From the start it has taken a lot of trouble to inform community organisations and others how the development will affect them personally.

On the other hand, the Department of the Environment has been bad, particularly with regard to the housing of miners and so on. In fact, the Selby District Council broke off negotiations for about six months because it simply could not get consideration from the Department.

British Railways has been the most inept of all. Before this inquiry was talked about I remember how at a presentation in the House of Commons Yorkshire Members were told exactly how this coalfield would be developed. There was not a mention of a railway being developed, although the people concerned must have known about it since it was literally three weeks before the inquiry.

As to the inquiry with which the Minister is so satisfied, a constituent of mine described it in rather more detail. He wrote: At the Public Enquiry because the British Rail barrister was on holiday abroad the evidence of British Rail was given at the end of the enquiry and moreover in the absence of Mr. Potts the Mining Assessor who sat with Mr. Adamson the inspector. Many of the legal advisers to those attending the enquiry had already departed and the British Rail barrister was not adequately cross-examined. Furthermore at no stage in his evidence was it stated that the East Coast Main Railway Line would have to be diverted. He stated that consideration might have to be given to altering the route. Instead of applying for planning consent to divert the railway line to the Local Authority which could have lead to another Public Enquiry, British Rail has resorted to producing this Bill with no more information than it contains.

Mr. George Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that that information came to him from a constituent and not from his own knowledge.

Sir P. Bryan


Mr. Cunningham

I am told by the British Railways Board that an agreed statement was read out by the Board's counsel to the inquiry—on the third day, as the Minister has said—which said unequivocally that the Board would seek to develop the railway.

Sir P. Bryan

I cannot call in aid the records of the inquiry, but I can say that everyone in the district will tell the hon. Gentleman that there was a furore about this. People claim that this was a last-minute affair and that they had not been consulted at all about it. It is against that background that I am talking.

At the present time, the correspondent adds: On the assumption that one accepts the principle that coal has to be mined underneath the existing railway line and that a diversion is necessary many safeguards are required. However, to date British Rail and its parliamentary agents have proved to be extremely difficult about providing precise information on which to base the safeguards. The C.L.A. six weeks ago asked the parliamentary agents to arrange a joint meeting with it and the N.F.U. and British Rail. This was refused. The C.L.A. wrote again to the parliamentary agents saying that only a joint meeting together with the N.F.U. would be fruitful and asked for British Rail to give its reasons for refusing a joint meeting. I cannot understand that sort of conduct. It seems to be asking for trouble. I do not greatly oppose this Bill, but I think that it would be as well to put it off for a few months in order to get information before imposing it on an unwilling population.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

The hon. Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) has just quoted from a letter that he said came from one of his constituents. It might be of interest to the House to know that I have a copy of the same letter. The person who wrote it is the regional secretary of the Country Landowners' Association for Yorkshire. In the first sentence the writer explains that he has received news that Members of this House will spend three hours late on Thursday "talking out" the Bill.

Sir P. Bryan

I said that the writer was a constituent of mine, which he is. The reason I did not identify him is that I have not got his permission to quote him.

There are many things that farmers want to know. They want to know what acreage is affected. All we have is a rather vague statement from British Rail in paragraph 4 which says: The new route of the railway has been sited by the Board so as to be as unobtrusive as possible and existing roads and railway lines are to be carried over the diversion. The Board proposes to take steps to comply with the wishes of the local authorities in respect of the stopping up and diversion of roads and of landscaping, noise and archaeological exploration … That is not the sort of thing about which working farmers want information. They want information about their own premises and their own countryside.

I do not think that my constituents have any knowledge of their compensation. By this time someone should have visited them and explained how they will be treated over compensation. I do not agree that the proposal by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham)—of objections afterwards—is the right way round. Why not prepare the ground before the shock arrives?

Drainage is a great worry in the area. There is a very high water level, drainage is difficult, and always has been. There is the question of how many farms will lose their viability. If a dairy farm is split in two by a railway, it will be worth a great deal less than before. That sort of thing should be thrashed out at an early stage.

In general terms, the advent of the Selby coalfield in this part of the country is not good news. There is a stable, prosperous rural community, with full employment. Therefore, no one is looking for jobs. Although the coalfield is not welcome news, there has been cooperation from the local community, and I am sure that everything will work out well.

The advent of 4,000 miners and their families in a fairly sparsely populated area is rather unsettling, and great care needs to be taken to keep the community united. My only suggestion is that this is all happening too soon. We do not know when these developments will take place, so the right step would be to postpone it for a few months.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I have no constituency interest in the proposed railway line. It does not cross into my constituency, and I have no axe to grind with those concerned.

I accept that the line has to be realigned to allow for coal to be mined underneath, and I do not wish to delay British Rail in its attempts to do that. It is essential that the new route that is chosen is the right one, and it is to that aspect of the matter that I wish to address myself.

I have no axe to grind about the National Coal Board. I accept that it needs to mine coal under the existing line and that we should not attempt to delay its activities to that end. But British Rail's statement causes me some alarm. I believe that alternatives should have been discussed in the statement. Paragraph 3 of the statement merely says The Board has carried out a study of possible alternative routes for the diversion of the line". That is not good enough, because this new line will cost £35 million or thereabouts, and it will take a great deal of land—namely, 1,800 acres. We do not know the exact figure, but that is a great deal of valuable land.

No alternative has been given—apart from that put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), who made a most powerful speech in support of the Sherburn deviation. To what extent do we assume that British Rail has considered that deviation as an alternative? There is nothing in the statement to give us any guidance; on that matter.

Paragraph 3 of the statement also tells us that the route decided upon and provided for in the Bill was based on the ground that it will have the least effect on the inhabitants of the area and make a minimum impact on the environment. There is no mention of cost-effectiveness or whether this happens to be the most reasonable route proposed; nor are we told how much agricultural land is to be lost.

This brings me to the core of my remarks. I believe that in this small group of islands our most valuable asset is good, productive agricultural land. As the years go on, our population will increase and land will become more and more valuable in producing food for our people. It is a valuable asset that we shall lose at our peril.

Let me quote some figures to the annual loss of agricultural land to this country—not just because of the effects of railway building but in other ways, too. In the six years ending June 1975 we lost 76,000 acres of land to urban and industrial development as well as to road building. For example, I am told that the building of a motorway entails the loss of 23 acres for every mile of route. As we were now building 100 miles of motorway, it means that this year we are losing 2,300 acres just because of the effects of motorway construction. Furthermore, we are building this year 85 miles of dual carriageway. If we assume that we shall lose 20 acres for every mile of dual carriageway, we can calculate that we shall lose another 1,700 acres. We can ill afford to lose that valuable land, unless it is vital, essential and necessary that we do so.

The route is being chosen to enable trains to York to run that much faster, but on what basis is the route decided? It is decided on a calculation of maximum cost. The Sherburn deviation is far shorter in terms of the length of railway line that will have to be constructed, and I suspect that the amount of good agricultural land lost in that route would be very much less than the amount of acreage to be lost under the proposals in the Bill.

On that ground if on no other I feel that we should send the Bill back for further consideration. That would enable new arguments to be established to prove that the line—if it can be proved—is the best that can be taken, taking into account the land that would be lost in construction and the cost-effectiveness in relation to the new high speed trains that we all want to see. If it means that they have to slow down to take into account the curve in the Sherburn deviation, and if that is the only alternative that argument must be put forward. However, it may be that there are other options. It may be that there is a line that is not quite so sharp in its definition but is similar to the Sherburn deviation. It may be that line would allow the high speed train to run at full speed. These equations have to be put to us. It is no use putting them to us when we have given the Bill a Second Reading and it has gone into Committee. We are dealing with a situation that it setting the seal on what will happen.

Mr. Albert Roberts

The whole thing is dependent upon getting coal out of the Selby coalfield. No reference has been made by the hon. Members for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) and Harrogate (Mr. Banks) to the taking of coal to the power station, which is what it is all about.

Mr. Banks

My hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash has referred to the line that is used to take the coal to the power station. He has said—I am sure that he is correct—that that is not affected by the proposals that we are now discussing. We are discussing the line that will replace the existing Selby line.

As we move into the 1980s, the land consumption to which I have referred—

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

From where did the hon. Gentleman get the figure that he quoted for the amount of land that would be used if this proposal were put into effect?

Mr. Banks

The figure was supplied by the Eastern Region Branch of the National Farmers' Union. It has been keenly aware of what the line will mean to its members and other farmers in the area. I said earlier that it is up to British Railways to tell us the figure that they have, and so far they have not given us that information.

Mr. James Lamond

Does the ability of the NFU to tell the hon. Gentleman accurately the amount of land that would be used bear out that it has considered the matter with care on behalf of its members? Does that not contrast sharply with the earlier remarks that there are many in the area, including farmers, who did not know what was going on?

Mr. Banks

I understand that the NFU has not had the consultations with British Railways that it has sought. One of the weaknesses of the debate is that we do not come to this place with an assurance from British Rail that it has had proper consultations with the NFU, the Country Landowners' Association and other organisations, including the North Yorkshire County Council or any other council that may be affected. We do not have that assurance. The Minister has not been able to give us the assurance that there has been proper consultation.

If we consider the amount of land that will be lost as we move into the 1980s, we are talking about a loss per year of an area equal to half the size of the Isle of Wight. That is a serious consideration. If on no other consideration we should vote against the bill on the basis that if it goes through we shall have agreed to a line that will absorb much agricultural land for which an argument has not been made.

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

We are all starting by declaring our interests. My interest is that I have been sitting here for the entire day hoping to get in on the steel industry debate. As I am still here at 25 minutes past 11 at night, I think that I should try to get it on Second Reading of this Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think that it is unfair of the hon. Gentleman to take it out on British Rail.

Mr. Shaw

On the contrary, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I suspect that the value to British Rail and, indeed, to the steel industry of the new rolling stock and track is of direct relevance. But that is not the point that I want to make.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State made two comments which I found rather odd. One was that the line proposed by British Rail was best from the point of view of local opinion. Yet I was not aware that in any of the discussions which preceded this debate there had been any direct contact between British Rail and local opinion, other than an expression of view by counsel in the inquiry into the Selby field.

Mr. Horam

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter. I think that inadvertently I said "opinion" when I meant "people". I certainly want to correct the impression that there has been consultation with local opinion as such. I was making the point that, in the view of British Rail and those who were consulted, it is hi the interests of local people. There has been no consultation with local opinion.

Mr. Shaw

What representatives of local people have given that opinion to British Rail?

Mr. Horam

There has been widespread consultation. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) will mention with whom consultation has taken place in winding up the debate.

Mr. Shaw

I should be grateful if the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) would attempt to clear up that question, because by hon. Friends have some views on behalf not only of their constituents but of organisations within the area affected by the proposed route, which suggests that there has been inadequate consultation.

The Minister said that the procedures being followed are entirely correct for an extension of this kind. I do not dispute that. That is indeed so. But it is relevant that, on a fairly rare occasion such as a debate on a Private Bill affecting a new rail line, we should question whether the procedure is right.

We are talking about a splendid nineteenth century system whereby representatives of individual rail companies came to this House—no doubt in frock coats and top hats—and presented their petitions, Bills or proposals for the lordly and careful examination of Members of the Commons. But it is an archaic procedure compared with the normal processes of consultation for major inquiries not only on transport, but on new buildings, urban development and all the other amenities that affect our environment. I suggest to the Minister, in so far as he has responsibility for transport, and to his colleague, who has now left the Bench and who has direct responsibility in the Department of the Environment, that the procedure under which we are debating the Bill should be re-examined. We have spent many hours in recent times trying to sharpen up the consultation processes—reference was made to the motorway consultation process—and, more than that, trying to make the Department of the Environment more sensitive to the general aspirations of those affected by environmental changes.

I return to the Bill. I declare an interest as a Yorkshire Member who has travelled on the East Coast main line almost every week for about 15 years. Therefore, I fully appreciate what this is all about. The main anxiety is whether it is sensible in popular terms for the line chosen to be proceeded with.

I start from a point of total agreement by stating my passionate support for the Selby coalfield development. I do not think that any Opposition Member has denied the economic advantages of proceeding with the extraction of coal from the Selby field as soon as possible.

I think however, that I can question with rather more gravitas the investment that British Rail is making in its highspeed train. If the Price Commission reports are anything to go by, British Rail still has to make out a case that this investment is sensible in terms of the return to the taxpayer from this development, although I appreciate the main conclusion that the Price Commission drew was that the electrification process—which I know is no part of the high-speed train development—was an even greater waste of public money in relation to the return that it was providing.

The question that we have to ask ourselves is whether, for the convenience of the high-speed train, this route is the one best suited to satisfy all interests. It clearly satisfies the interests of British Rail. It provides a straight track, ideal for the running of the high-speed train. But some high-speed trains are running on tracks that have substantial curves in them. Some hon. Members who are not present know the city of Bath, which the original high-speed train passes on its way from London to Bristol. It has to reduce speed very considerably; in any case, it unsually stops to pick up and set down passengers. But the high-speed train is designed to run through areas where the opportunities for length of straight line are restricted. The valley coming out of Bath is restricted, but this by no means makes the high-speed train an operating disaster for British Rail on that route.

We have to decide whether this simple, straight route is worth the additional cost and is the most satisfactory one. The promoter said that the Committee proceedings provided the right occasion for persons to debate the matter in detail, but in those proceedings it is not possible to make detailed alternative proposals to try to persuade British Rail to change the Bill's contents. What the Committee proceedings will do, and should do, is to establish whether the Bill is fair and worthy of acceptance by the House. I do not think that it would be possible to persuade British Rail to amend the Bill in favour of any other alternative. It might be possible to persuade it to withdraw the Bill and to examine an alternative, and that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) and others of my hon. Friends are seeking to do here and now.

They are saying that there is an opportunity for alternatives to be examined. In particular, the alternative offered by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash is not only cheaper in terms of capital cost but is singularly cheaper in terms of the use of agricultural land. It would seem to be a great improvement in terms of the Government's proposals in their document "Food from Our Own Resources."

The question that we have to decide is whether the fact that British Rail comes before us with this single proposal merits our full support. From what I have heard I feel that there has been inadequate consultation about possible alternatives. We have not heard, as we should have, about alternative plans A, B and C. which would cost £X million, £Y million or £Z million. If those alternative plans had been put forward, the House could have decided whether the recommended route was the most acceptable.

In the absence of that full consultation process—a process by means of which many local authority plans are discussed in public—and also in the absence of any details about alternative routes, we are left to determine whether we should accept the recommended route, which is certainly the most convenient for British Rail but is not necessarily the least costly or the least obstrusive.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

Does it make sense to consider any alternative route that would not be able to cope with 56 trains a day, plus additional traffic? It does not make sense to come forward with something that is not operationally practicable.

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) I think, with respect, is incorrect. We are discussing the realignment of the East Coast main line, which has nothing to do with individual lines carrying coal traffic to and from power stations. The whole object of the East Coast line is to allow the trunk route to remain untouched by the heavy development of coal traffic in and out of the Selby coalfield.

Mr. Alison

The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Bagier) does not appreciate that we are not proposing that the new high-speed train should have to run on the east-west Hull-Leeds line which carries the coal traffic. We are proposing a totally new line which is merely a shorter and more curved deviation.

Mr. Shaw

The subject of coal extraction is in no way related to the Bill. The Bill has come before the House because of the necessity for realigning the main route for its normal trunk requirements. The coal traffic in and out of Selby is in no way related to the proposal. The requirement is because the existing line has to be replaced in view of the coal extraction. I certainly received a thump between the eyes when I suggested that it might be almost as cheap to leave the coal in the ground. That is obviously not the case.

I come back to the question whether this is the ideal route, although we know that it is the route preferred by British Rail. We are here as representatives of the public to take a view on whether this cost for this length of track would have a tangible consumer benefit. To divert and relay 14½ miles of track in the context of the general development of the high speed train is not a large intervention in percentage terms. If it costs, say, 50 per cent as much again to put this development through, we have to decide, as representatives of the taxpayer, whether it is a sensible investment.

Secondly, we have to ask what are the consequences to the traveller of being slowed down by the marginal four or five minutes that may be involved in taking a longer route which may be half the price in capital terms. Are we not being a little rash if we say that that four minutes is worth another £15 million or £20 million on the construction costs?

I am well aware that high-speed trains will offer highly competitive services, particularly against internal aircraft between certain points in Yorkshire and the South, and I look forward to being able to use the high speed train when it comes. If we are saying as taxpayers that it is worth £20 million of hard-earned British Rail revenue to lop off four minutes of running time between, say, London and York, I am bound to question that, and I question whether that judgment should be endorsed by the House.

I hope that the expressions of view from the Opposition Benches have not been too destructive of the proposal made by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr Cunningham) in sponsoring the Bill. We are seeking greater confirmation that British Rail has done its homework so that we may have more confidence that alternative routes are not thrown away simply because they do not appear to be quite so short and so fast. Alternative routes, particularly the one suggested, may be of just as much benefit to the public in real terms and of substantially more benefit to the public in financial terms.

In the present circumstances, in which any major development involving public expenditure should have our fullest scrutiny, we should be failing in our duty if we did not ask British Rail to think again upon this matter.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Perhaps I may intervene as briefly as the Under-Secretary intervened.

When the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) replies to the debate, one subject to which he should address his mind and upon which he should inform the House more is public consultation. It is a theme that was dealt with and a point made very powerfully by my hon. Friends the Members for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), Harrogate (Mr. Banks), and Pudsey (Mr. Shaw).

Of course, it is not those Members alone who feel this. I have a letter from the National Farmers' Union saying that it is still the general opinion in the district that the Bill should not proceed until every affected farmer has at least had the chance to discuss with British Rail exactly how the line and proposed route affect him. That is not an unreasonable aim for farmers to want to achieve in relation to this proposal.

Public consultation is a serious matter. In parenthesis, I say to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and to the Under-Secretary that it is certainly a topic about which, in different circumstances, Labour Members would be very concerned indeed. That is why it was absolutely correct for my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash to mention the comparison between road and rail in this respect.

When it comes to roads, we are agreed that there should be a procedure and that that procedure should, as much as possible, carry the support of both the Government and the Opposition and that it should have the confidence of the public. We are agreed that consultation should be as full and as lengthy as is necessary to meet the points at issue.

In the last two years, the Government themselves have set up the Leitch Committee, which has just produced a very full report upon road plans and how road investment decisions should be taken. The Government have set up another Committee on the procedure to be followed. Why have they? I make no criticisms of the Government for having done so. It is absolutely right that they should have done so. They have done so because all parties in the House think that public consultation is vital and that the public should be consulted. They do not think just that the public should be consulted. They believe that the public have a right to be consulted. That seems to be the essential message coming over to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, who has put forward the Bill.

The hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) said that roads cannot be de- bated in the House and that, therefore, this is a rather better procedure and that railways are being put under rather more scrutiny. He will be aware, as I am, that the Government's whole proposal is not only to have the very full public inquiry system of roads, and an improved inquiry system—which I know that the right hon. Member, for one, will support—but that in addition, road proposals should actually be debated in the House of Commons as well. I should have thought that the eventual outcome of the roads procedure, therefore, will be infinitely superior to the kind of procedure that we now have.

Mr. Jay

I would not disagree with that, but I did not say that the one procedure was better. What I said was that it was not fair to say that if it was a road proposal it would go before a public inquiry, but not mention that the road proposal would not have to go through the House. One must mention both in order to be fair.

Mr. Fowler rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are discussing the purposes of the Bill and not the procedures followed in the case of roads vis-à-vis rail.

Mr. Fowler

I accept what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is right to emphasise that the essential concern expressed from this side of the House is that public consultation has been inadequate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not debating new legislation to be adopted as a result of the Bill.

Mr. Fowler

I bow to your ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the argument aduced by my hon. Friends is that one reason for questioning the legislation is that public consultation has not been adequate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is permissible to discuss the adequacy of public consultation, but it is not permissible to start arguing that the rail procedure should be more in line with that adopted for roads.

Mr. Fowler

With great respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was replying to points that have come up in the debate and I was addressing myself particularly to a matter raised by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) pointed out the different procedure under which motorways are constructed. I thought that that was sufficient for the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler).

Mr. Fowler

I regret that it is not sufficient, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. James Lamond

The hon. Gentleman is challenging the Chair.

Mr. Fowler

I would not dream of challenging the Chair. I am making the serious point, which I hope the House will take on board, that the public consultation procedure has not been adequate.

No one disputes what the Under-Secretary said about existing procedures having been followed, but he did not give his attention to the claim that the procedures are not adequate. In this sort of proposal, just as on road proposals, the public have a right to be consulted. I should have thought that that proposition would receive support from all parts of the House. There is surely nothing contentious about it in the 1970s.

Will the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury guide us further about the consultations that have taken place? Everything that I have heard in the debate—and I have been present throughout—and everything I have read about the issue leads me to conclude that public consultation has not been adequate and the Under-Secretary's statement that existing procedures have been followed begs the question that they have clearly been shown to be lacking.

11.49 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and others of my hon. Friends have questioned whether there has been sufficient public consultation about the contents of the Bill. If their fears are well placed—and I believe that they are—there can surely be no criticism of the House investigating the matter. There have been only two speeches in favour of the Bill. The others have been in opposition or have expressed the gravest doubts.

One startling piece of information was given to the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison). It was information which one might have expected to be contained in the statement produced on behalf of the promoters. It is that the cost—a minimum of £35 million—will be borne not by British Rail, as we might have been led to expect, but by the National Coal Board. That was news that was given by my hon. Friend. It was emphatically not news given to the House by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Fins-bury (Mr. Cunningham). It was not even confirmed by the Under-Secretary of State. It is peculiar that that information did not appear in the statement.

It may be regarded as a little strange that Opposition Members should appear in March 1978, as the champions of the mining industry. Nevertheless, it is in that guise that my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash and I appear tonight. We are the protectors of the miners. I am glad that that provokes such warm enthusiasm for my hon. Friends.

If the Bill proceeds, a financial burden of £35 million—of course trifling by the standards of the British Steel Corporation but substantial to my hon. Friends and me—will fall upon the NCB. What has this to do with Eastbourne? A strange doctrine has crept into the debate. Hon. Members are declaring not that they have an interest but that they do not. I go along with the advice of Mr. Edmund Burke who said that once we were sent to the House we were entitled to hold opinions and to speak on matters whether or not they affected our consituencies directly. I have a right to argue about the expenditure of £75 million and the elimination of 2,000 acres of agricultural land.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury does not represent a constituency in Yorkshire. He is not sponsored by the National Union of Mine-workers, by the railworkers' union, or the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. Nevertheless, he who represents a southern constituency recommended the Bill. I dissent from the suggestion that I am not entitled to address the House on this Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

So far the hon. Member for Eastbourne is strictly in order.

Mr. Gow

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. But I might not now find myself in total accord with the Chair, and that is a matter of regret. I welcomed the intervention by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) since he is in many ways an expert on these matters. He is a champion of the right of those who are affected by public authorities to express their grievances. He is the champion of the right of those who are directly affected by the proposals from the big boys to express their views. That is why, overtly or covertly, the right hon. Gentleman and I are at one on this tonight.

Mr. Jay

On a subject on which we are not at one, does the hon. Gentleman realise that if it is necessary to move this railway in order to get the coal, the cost of moving the railway is part of the cost of the coal, and that in that case it is perfectly reasonable that the money should be paid out of the proceeds of selling coal?

Mr. Gow

I was not commenting on whether it was wise or foolish, right or wrong. I was saying that it was not made clear by the promoters of the Bill that the £35 million was to come not from British Railways but from the NCB. The promoters are being less than frank on that.

Mr. Giles Shaw

On the question of the cost to the NCB, does my hon. Friend agree that the point to which we must address ourselves is whether the NCB will get the best or the worst bargain through being charged the £35 million willy-nilly?

Mr. Gow

That is why I was casting myself in the role, which seems to cause consternation to Labour Members, of a protector of the National Union of Mine-workers and the miners.

Mr. James Lamond

Did they ask you to?

Mr. Gow

That is the role I have cast myself in.

Mr. George Cunningham

Be serious.

Mr. Gow

I was asked about the Common Market. I read Clause 5 with consternation, as no doubt did the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, because it deals with railways measurement, not as we have been accustomed to, in miles, but in metres.

Mr. Cunningham

Oh, really!

Mr. Gow

I was asked about this matter.

Mr. Cunningham

Be serious.

Mr. Gow

Hon. Members will see from the statement that the measurement of the railway is shown in metres. I believe that to be the first occasion on which a railways Bill has ever dealt with the measurement of railways in metres.

Mr. Cunningham

Big deal.

Mr. Gow

The proposal in the Bill involves the loss of 2,000 acres of agricultural land.

Mr. Woodall

It does not.

Mr. Gow

I readily concede that I may be mistaken about this, but this is the best assertion I can make on the subject. I also assert, and again I may be wrong, that the cost of these proposals will not be less than £35 million. Fewer than 2,000 acres may be affected but, whatever the area, the acreage will be substantial. The project will involve also a substantial amount of money, even by the standards of the Secretary of State for Industry. It is true that £35 million is about one month's loss in the steel industry, and by that standard it is a relatively small sum. But on whose side should the House of Commons be? Should we be on the side of those who are affected, or on the side of the big boys? The big boys are British Rail and the National Coal Board. I have an instinctive reaction in favour of the small man as against the big battalions. That is why I shall oppose the Bill.

12.5 a.m.

Mr. George Cunningham

With the leave of the House, I shall try to respond to some of the points made in the debate, particularly by the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison).

The whole discussion illustrates the importance of Bills on a matter such as this being considered under the Private Bill procedure to which the House wisely decides to subject Private Bills. The hon. Gentleman finds it impossible to explain his new-found proposal to the House without the use of visual aids. In the Committee they will be much in evidence,

and the alternatives to the course proposed in the Bill will be able to be canvassed on that occasion.

It may be that some of the hon. Members who have spoken have not gone into the alternatives to the route proposed by British Rail very carefully, but British Rail have gone into the alternatives very carefully, and it is only after an exhaustive consideration of those alternatives that the route proposed in the Bill has been decided upon.

A number of hon. Members, particularly the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler), have raised the question of consultation. Before the Bill was deposited in November 1977 the following bodies and individuals had meetings, in some cases more than one meeting, with representatives of the Board: the North Yorkshire County Council, Selby District Council, British Gypsum Ltd., the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association, the British Waterways Board, the Yorkshire Water Authority, the Ryther Parish Council, various Ministries, the Forestry Commission, the Yorkshire Electricity Board, the Hambleton Parish Council, the Selby Internal Drainage Board, a firm of estate agents, the hon. Gentleman and a number of local farmers.

In addition, I understand that a meeting was held in January 1977 with several landowners under the hon. Gentleman's chairmanship, and a public meeting with representatives of the North Yorkshire County Council, Selby District Council, the NFU and the Country Landowners' Association was held on 4th November 1977. A public exhibition was put on at five towns and villages between 12th and 20th December 1977. So much for the charge that there has been inadequate consultation.

Although this evening the hon. Gentleman has put forward a specific alternative route, the Sherburn deviation, only as recently at 1st February he was putting to the chairman of the National Coal Board a quite different proposal, which was that the existing network to the west of the new coalfield should be employed, without the building of any new line. If he was that keen on what he correctly styles the Sherburn deviation that could have been raised well before now and he could have been given more information about it than is possible if he raises it as his preferred solution only when the Second Reading debate is taking place.

Mr. Alison

The explanation is simple. I wrote to the chairman of the National Coal Board suggesting that this might be a cheaper alternative. He wrote back with a reasoned reply that it would interrupt the flow of coal trains, so I abandoned that proposal and switched rationally to the Sherburn deviation.

It should not be left to lay Members, who have to spend most of their time in the House, to sort out these alternatives. They should be properly canvassed, as the Minister canvasses his road proposals, with all the alternatives brought out into the open and properly evaluated and costed.

Mr. Cunningham

I must not allow myself to be drawn into what would be desirable proposals if we did not have the law as it is now. The fact is that British Rail has gone exhaustively into all the alternatives.

Finally, I draw to the attention of the House and the hon. Gentleman in particular some objections to the specific proposal that he has put tonight. The first is that it goes through the British Gypsum area and crosses over the area where the most valuable deposits lie.

Mr. Alison

So does the proposed line.

Mr. Cunningham

The proposed line does not, except marginally, go over the British Gypsum area and does not go over the most valuable deposits. The hon. Members proposed route would go over the coal workings at the southern end. It would have a serious effect on Hambleton. It would join the Leeds-York line in a built-up area and not in an unbuilt-up area, as will happen with the British Rail proposal. For those reasons and others, that alternative, although very much in the mind of British Rail as one of the possible alternative routes, was considered and rejected by British Rail before it went for this preferred alternative.

The lesson 1 leave with the House is that these are matters that can properly—

Mr. Giles Shaw

Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on what are the precise costs? He will recall that there have been some estimates. What is the British Rail estimate of the cost of this route?

Mr. George Cunningham

I do not question the figures. I am informed that those figures are approximately correct.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time and committed.

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