HC Deb 19 March 1980 vol 981 cc388-92
3. Mr. Spriggs

asked the Minister of Transport if he will make a statement on progress in planning the Channel tunnel.

11. Mr. Whitehead

asked the Minister of Transport what recent discussions he has held concerning the Channel tunnel.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Norman Fowler)

I have been examining preliminary proposals by British and French railways for a single track rail-only Channel tunnel. More needs to be done before the full implications of the scheme can be judged and variations might offer different advantages. I await with interest the full proposals which are due to be put to me this summer.

The decision to have a tunnel or any other link across the Channel must firstly be for the French and ourselves, and would need suitable arrangements between the two Governments. The cost of any scheme would be very large and I should make clear now that the Government cannot contemplate finding expenditure on this scale from public funds. However, if a scheme is commercially sound. I see no reason why private risk capital should not be available.

I look forward to receiving any specific proposals, including those on which British Railways are working, which would attract genuine risk capital.

Mr. Spriggs

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that work will commence on boring the Channel tunnel by 1981? Will he further undertake that, once that work has commenced, there will be continuity of operation until completion?

Mr. Fowler

I cannot give such an undertaking. British Railways have not put forward their final scheme. We hope that schemes will come forward that can then be examined. However, they must meet the criteria. No public expenditure is available. The schemes must, therefore, attract private capital.

Mr. John Wells

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that there will be no parliamentary delay? Will he ensure that a simple enabling Bill is brought forward at the earliest opportunity once the schemes have been prepared? My right hon. Friend has mentioned risk capital. Will he assure the House that EEC transport infrastructure funds would be acceptable?

Mr. Fowler

Legislation will be necessary to deal with the first point, and the House will want to consider that legislation.

Concerning the possible EEC regulation on infrastructure, we welcome the Commission's initiative in proposing infrastructure aid. The Channel tunnel would be a natural candidate. At this stage no such regulation exists.

Mr. Booth

Does the Minister accept that there is a strange contrast between his absolute refusal to consider transport integration in a national context and his apparent willingness to consider it here in an international context? Does he agree that the proposal for the Channel tunnel, which is limited in scope compared with the previous proposal, offers an energy-efficient form that would facilitate freightliner services across Europe from this country? If it is of considerable public advantage, why make that development dependent upon it facilitating private profit? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman lay before the House a green Paper so that we can debate the many implications that the proposal has for other forms of transport?

Mr. Fowler

It was the right hon. Gentleman's Government who ruled out public expenditure and cancelled the Channel project. It beggars belief for the right hon. Gentleman to come forward with such suggestions at this stage. The proposal is at an early stage, but, given the right scheme, there is a good opportunity for an enterprise that could be profitable and serve the national interest. I believe that the proposal would be widely welcomed by the public.

Mr. Costain

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in the previous proposal—

Mr. Snape

"Can I have a contract?"

Mr. Costain

Because it was a one-user project, certain guarantees had to be given to the effect that the interest would be met by the Government? Does my right hon. Friend's announcement preclude that guarantee?

Mr. Fowler

We are looking for genuine private risk capital, but I do not preclude consideration of guarantees in the wider area.

Mr. Ogden

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that he is being a cautious Christian and that he has already seen a sufficient number of studies to decide on the project? We have British machinery for the boring, British Railways want to use the tunnel and there are interested freight and passenger users. The cost would be less than one Jumbo jet over the whole building period of the tunnel. Has the right hon. Gentleman given approval in principle? If we and others outside can find the money, will he allow us to go ahead?

Mr. Fowler

I thought that I had made it clear that, provided the details are right—and that is the whole point of what I am saying—there are good prospects for the tunnel. I know the hon. Gentleman's consistent interest in the subject over a long period, but I remind him that British Railways have not yet provided me with a complete scheme. He should interpret my statement as much more hopeful than any he received from his right hon. and hon. Friends.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I shall call one more hon. Member from either side on this question, and then we shall move on.

Mr. Alan Clark

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is disappointment that his guarded statement at the beginning has deteriorated? He now appears to be expressing approval of the proposal and believes that it will be in the national interest. Will my right hon. Friend accept that there is a strong political element involved in the project whose purpose is to tie us more closely to the European Community? Will he deny published reports that he has been under strong pressure from interests in the Community urgently to approve the proposal?

Mr. Fowler

I assure my hon. Friend that I am under no pressure. My hon. Friend should see the matter in this way: there has been a growth of traffic across the Channel, which is likely to increase. Providing we get the right Scheme, a Channel tunnel would be the sensible way of meeting that public demand.

Mr. Whitehead

Will the Minister accept that, had the Channel tunnel existed, I should not have had to rely only on the airlines and would have been here five minutes earlier to congratulate him on his excellent statement? Will he confirm that nothing in the various studies he has so far seen seriously contradicts the cost estimates put forward by British Rail and SNCF at 1978 prices?

Mr. Fowler

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I know the problems that he had in getting here. None of the reports that I have contradict the impression that the British Railways scheme, under the assessment that they are mak ing, is viable. However, I emphasise that we shall look at all schemes. I am asking Sir Alec Cairncross to widen his remit to take in a study of all schemes submitted to me.