HC Deb 21 May 1980 vol 985 cc488-92
12. Mr. Anderson

asked the Minister of Transport what studies have been carried out by his Department into the social consequences of rail closures.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

None, Sir, but I am aware of the report recently published by the policy studies unit.

Mr. Anderson

Does the Parliamentary Secretary recall that the conclusions of that report are that the fears expressed at public inquiries into rail closures have been well founded and that bus replacements have proved wholly inadequate in community terms? In spite of those conclusions and in spite of what the Minister has told the House, will the Minister nevertheless sanction the new Britsh Rail proposals to close three rail services in West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and Glasgow?

Mr. Clarke

We have noticed the conclusions of the policy studies unit report. It confirms my right hon. Friend's repeated determination to avoid substantial rail closures. As for the three proposals, which I understand British Railways are formulating, they have not yet reached Ministers. When formulated, they will have to go through the full statutory procedures before my right hon. Friend begins to decide whether to sanction them. In fact, two of the three arise because passenger transport executives—local authorities—have decided to discontinue financial support for the services. The third, I understand, is adversely affected by one of those decisions.

Mr. McCrindle

Will the Minister accept that the closure of the Epping-Ongar branch line by London Transport, as is now proposed, would have considerable social consequences for my constituency? As he is now likely to be called into the procedure, will he make sure that, whatever other economic circumstances are taken into account, the social circumstances of my constituents are not overlooked?

Mr. Clarke

Again, of course, I cannot prejudge my right hon. Friend's decision on the Epping-Ongar line, if he is called upon to make one. But this, again, is another problem which arises because of a dispute among the local authorities concerned about which of them should continue the financial support for the present line. The Government have no interest whatever in forwarding widespread closures of rural railway services or any other.

Mr. Allen McKay

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware of the report in The Guardian in which the Minister is said to have given permission for the closure of railway lines, in particular the Penistone to Sheffield link? Is he aware of the consequences that this will have on my constituents in an area which is inadequately supported at present by road services? Is he aware that only a few weeks ago his right hon. Friend condemned a report in The Guardian because of the groundless anxiety that it caused, and now it is here?

Mr. Clarke

I can understand the concern which that report has aroused in Penistone. I also know that ministerial denials of newspaper reports tend, in some people's minds, merely to feed belief in the accuracy of the reports. I am afraid that I can only say that that first report in The Guardian saying that Ministers had approved these proposals was totally and utterly untrue. We have not even received the proposals yet. Before we receive them, there may have to be a public inquiry and a TUCC report on possible hardship, and then my right hon. Friend will have to make a decison. But it is utter fiction to claim that any decision has been made about proposals which have not even reached us.

Mr. Booth

Will the Parliamentary Secretary accept that there is much concern in the House about the continued reassertion that his right hon. Friend will not sanction substantial closures of public transport lines? Asking how large is "substantial" is like asking "How long is a piece of elastic?" Will the Parliamentary Secretary tell the House clearly, in a totally unambiguous way, whether his right hon. Friend will sanction the closure of the Epping-Ongar line or any other line purely on the ground that a county authority has not been prepared to provide TSG support for that line?

Mr. Clarke

Of course my right hon. Friend cannot give guarantees that there will be no passenger line closures—any more than could the previous Government. One of the proposals that we are most actively considering is for the diversion of a passenger service from Kentish Town to Gospel Oak, that diversion being asked for in order to speed up the process of the electrification on the St. Pancras-Bedford line, which could not otherwise handle the traffic. We cannot rule out closures of that kind. My right hon. Friend has made it quite clear that he is not interested in, and will not countenance, substantial closures of the other passenger services, and misleading newspaper reports are just giving rise to constant groundless alarm.

Several Hon. Members rose


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member from either side of the House on this question and then move on.

Mr. Porter

Is the Minister aware that there is considerable disquiet, certainly in my constituency and on the Wirral peninsula, about possible closures not of passenger lines but of freight lines, which do not receive the same publicity or have the same consultation procedure? Will he give an assurance that if there is the possibility of closing freight lines, certainly on the Wirral peninsula, consultation will certainly be carried out with representatives of all parties on that peninsula?

Mr. Clarke

I know from practice that British Rail consults very widely when contemplating the closure of freight lines. However, in the case of freight lines there is not the same social problem as there is with rural passenger lines. British Rail is under a commercial remit so far as its freight business is concerned and there is no requirement for ministerial consent for the closure of any freight line. I have to say, therefore, that quite different considerations apply in that case.

Mr. Buchan

Is the Minister aware that one of the three lines mentioned in the report of yesterday is the Kilmacolm line in my constituency? Does he agree that it would be extremely stupid and shortsighted even to give consideration to any such proposal in view of the major development that has taken place on the Clyde with the Clyde link? The social policy studies unit report makes quite clear the long-lasting effect that this would have on rural areas, and that includes my area.

Mr. Clarke

My right hon. Friend will have to consider proposals if they reach him, and Glasgow-Kilmacolm is one of the lines mentioned. However—and this also deals with the other point made by the right hon. Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth)—the Greater Glasgow PTE is withdrawing support from the Glasgow-Kilmacolm line. We have to consider that, because there are many metropolitan counties which give substantial financial support to their railway services, and it alters the situation when some metropolitan counties decide to withdraw their financial contribution. They are, after all, the locally elected representatives of the people who are likely to be affected by the service changes.