HC Deb 13 March 1984 vol 56 cc332-8

Order for Second Reading read.

7 pm

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

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

It is once again my pleasure to propose the Second Reading of a British Railways Bill. It follows in the well established pattern of Bills promoted by the British Railways Board to help to modernise the railway system and to ensure that the dynamic industry which British Rail is is given every opportunity to streamline its functions. Although the Bill deals with structural matters concerned with railway operation, it goes hand in hand with the wider issues of rail investment.

It is extremely encouraging to announce that the board now looks forward to an increase in investment between now and 1986 of 40 per cent.—£380 million—and that the services to the customers—the passengers and those who use the freight services—are also being improved. Great strides have been made to provide passengers with much more up-to-date information about train journeys. Forty-one new travel inquiry bureaux have been established at a cost of over £500,000, and a further 13 are currently being brought up to standard. If one adds to that the electrification of new lines and the building of new rolling stock, one sees that we can be justly proud of the pattern of activity within British Rail.

The Bill is divided into six parts and follows the normal pattern of such Bills. Part I contains the standard provisions: the incorporation of general Acts, many of which go back to the early part of last century when railway building was going on apace, and the application of part I of the Compulsory Purchase Act 1965.

Part II deals with the works which the Bill sets out and which hon. Members will no doubt have studied and seen explained in the explanatory memorandum. I should perhaps draw the attention of the House to one or two of those works because they are significant. Clause 5 deals with work No. 1 which involves the building of a new railway on the course of an old, discontinued line at Swinton in Yorkshire. That plan is similar in some respects to one which was envisaged by the south Yorkshire passenger transport executive in the past. As it is now considering reopening the Swinton station, I hope that the work will find general approval.

Work No. 2 concerns a line extension in Birmingham between Bordesley and the former Snow Hill station to provide a comparatively short length of track—about 452m—which will enable trains to pull clear of the platform and provide a stabling facility at the same time. Works Nos. 3 and 4 are simply bridge widening projects. Work No. 5 is again related to a piece of track. In the past there were two pieces of track at the Rufford colliery in Nottinghamshire, which were duplicating the activities of the system. They are now linked together to produce a more efficient and effective system. It will be a new chord railway.

Clauses 6 and 7 relate to works Nos. 1 and 2, to which I have just referred. Clauses 8 and 9 deal with bridge rebuilding. Clause 10 is the first contentious provision in the Bill. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who was principally worried about the matter, is not in his place. The board seeks to stop up and divert certain crossings in east Sussex. The objection stems from the anxiety of the ramblers about the effect of that on the footpaths. These diversions are being considered because of the decision to electrify the Tonbridge-Hastings railway. Obviously that creates a hazard to pedestrians and others who try to cross the track. The board believes that the cost of providing the necessary platform to cross the third conductor rail—a live rail—would be excessive and, therefore, by the simple re-routing of the existing footpaths pedestrians will be able to continue with their leisure activities, whether rambling or otherwise. The board has further undertaken not to close the existing footpaths until the new diversions have been established, publicly opened and proper signposts have been put in place. I hope that those who have so far objected about the three crossings at Mountfield—Lot's Wood, High Hurst and Selmes Webbs—will see the logic of the board's proposals.

Clause 11 deals with matters with which hon. Members who have followed the progress of similar Bills over the years will be familiar—the alteration of the status of level crossings, and the closing of two level crossings, one at Wickford, Essex. I assure the House that the local police, ambulance and other services raise no objections to its closure. For the second crossing at Cattishall No. 15 in Bury St. Edmunds all authorised users have agreed to its closure.

Clauses 13 and 14 relate to the construction of new crossings at Fareham in Hampshire and at Oswestry in Shropshire.

Clause 15 is the next contentious provision. I shall deal with it as best I can because my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has properly expressed anxiety at the plans which the board has put forward. The night-time closure of level crossings, and crossings in general, is only ever implemented after most careful and searching deliberations. The plan in clause 15 deals with the night-time closure of two crossings, both in Lincolnshire and in the constituency of my hon. Friend. One is at Holton Gate House and the other at Smithfield road and both are in the district of West Lindsey in Lincolnshire. Under the Bill the Holton Gate House crossing will be closed from 2300 hours until 0600 hours each day. That decision has been accepted. However, the Smithfield road crossing, which the Bill proposes to be closed between 2200 hours and 0600 hours each day, is a matter of some concern.

I must make it clear immediately that, although the manned crossing will be closed to vehicles, those on foot and horseback can pass unaffected. Lincolnshire county council and the National Farmers Union have no objection to the proposals, but West Lindsey district council and the Grasby, North Kelsey and South Kelsey parish councils object. Their objection is based upon the fear of a diminution in the public right of access and the effect that closure might have on access for emergency services. The board takes this matter seriously. Indeed, it was so concerned that a traffic census was taken at the crossing to clear up doubts about how much it was used. In a seven-day period last year, it was discovered that there was traffic on only two days. On one day there were four cars and one motor cycle, and on another day there was only one motor cycle.

The board has considered all the objections put to it, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has come to the House to explain to us. However, I must tell him that, since he has now visited the site and had an opportunity to examine the problem, the board, recognising his genuine concern, is happy to alter the timing of the closure to accord with that of the Holton Gatehouse crossing, so that it will close at 2300 hours each day. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that change in the timing and will allow the clause to pass.

Part III of the Bill deals with the purchase of land for works and other purposes. Part IV deals with various protective provisions. Part V relates to a 200m limit of jurisdiction for Sealink in the river Stour at Parkeston quay.

Part VI deals with miscellaneous provisions. I should elaborate clause 31, which relates to the decision to extend the powers provided by section 54 of the British Transport Commission Act 1949 for constables of the British Transport Police to search and arrest employees of the board and those employed on the commission's property. Normally that extension of powers, which the House will understand is an inherited power, has led to five-year extensions, and the present extension will run out in 1985. The Police and Criminal Evidence Bill currently passing through Parliament enshrines the permanent powers provided in section 54. However, the Bill is not yet law, so clause 31, which extends the powers until 1 January 1988, is included in the Bill as a precaution. I am advised that when, as we hope, the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill becomes law, this power can be withdrawn.

The Bill is a modest measure compared with others which those of us who have followed the history of this legislation have seen in the past. It is, as can be seen by the fact that the Benches are largely empty tonight, not a contentious measure. I hope that I have been able to explain the broad outlines of what the Bill seeks to do, and if any hon. Members wish to raise points I shall try to answer them. I hope that, with that explanation, the House will give the Bill a Second Reading.

7.15 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

It was my objection which resulted in the Bill being opposed private business and which caused this debate. I do not object to the Bill as a whole. My constituents will be relieved to hear the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) that the Bill is concerned to improve investment in British Rail.

However, as my hon. Friend said, I was concerned about the night-time closure of Smithfield crossing in my constituency. I have received many representations during the past few months about the closure of that level crossing. As my hon. Friend said, I received representations from West Lindsey district council and from the parish councils of Grasby and North and South Kelsey. This may seem a parochial matter to debate in this august assembly, but it causes great concern to my constituents, who live in a rural area where access is often difficult. If Smithfield crossing is closed, some of my constituents will have to travel three miles out of their way to cross the railway line.

However, I appreciate British Rail's difficulties in manning the crossing. In answer to my hon. Friend's point about the census that was taken at the crossing, may I say that there is strong local feeling that if the crossing were better manned more people would use it. I do not intend to get into an argument about personalities on the Floor of the House, but my constituents have strong views on the matter. I felt so strongly about it that I was prepared to speak for a considerable time to talk out the Bill so that my constituents could see that their case had been adequately heard. However, I am not anxious to detain the House in that way. The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) is here tonight. I have had the pleasure of listening to his speeches during our 80-hour consideration of the London Regional Transport Bill, but I would not wish him to have to listen to one of my speeches for as long as three hours.

Since my hon. Friend has made such a wise concession, which I am sure was a result of my representations, those of the local councils, and then a long site meeting between local residents and British Rail last Saturday, he will be delighted to hear, as will the House, that I withdraw my objection to the Bill.

7.18 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for the comprehensive way in which he introduced this largely non-controversial measure. Normally in such debates we also enjoy a contribution from the hon. Gentleman's brother—the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson)—and I hope that we shall continue to do so in future, because both hon. Members always make a valid contribution to our debates.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) will be relieved to know that my speech will be much shorter tonight than some of those that I made during the progress, if it can be called that, of the London Regional Transport Bill. I want to comment briefly on clause 5.

I join the hon. Member for New Forest in welcoming the proposals to reinstate the former Swinton curve between the Sheffield-Wakefield line and the Doncaster-Barnsley line, which I understand will reduce the journey time for north-east to south-west high-speed trains. That is most welcome.

I shall say a few words about the other part of clause 5, dealing with works in the Birmingham area. As the Minister knows, I have recently expressed some interest in the matter, because the area is not far from my constituency.

There is a long history to the proposal to include the works in the Bill. We are approving—I hope—proposals to reopen either a closed stretch of railway line or what is at present a closed station in Birmingham. I do not want to express controversial views on such a non-controversial Bill, but if minds had been a little more open some years ago there would have been no need for these proposals. Virtually since the closure of Snow Hill station in Birmingham strong feelings have been expressed by political groups and various other interested parties in and around the city that the reopening of the station would be desirable.

The latest attempt to bring that about arises from a TPP application which the West Midlands county council submitted to the Department of Transport last July, specifically relating to this proposal. The West Midlands county council provided additional details of the proposal in October last year, and I, with two of my hon. Friends, submitted written questions about the future of the proposal earlier this year. Perhaps I might paraphrase the replies that I received to those questions.

I was told that the Department was submitting the scheme to further inspection and required further details from the West Midlands county council about exactly what was involved. However, some controversial statements were purported to have been made and appeared in the press in the Birmingham area in January this year. If f may paraphrase again, they said in effect that approval had been deferred because the scheme was not scheduled for completion until after 1986—that is, after the demise of the West Midlands county council. Subsequently, that allegation has been denied by the Department of Transport, and I accept that. However, the Department continues to believe that it needs more details about the scheme, and letters have been exchanged continually since the initial application.

As recently as 6 March this year, the county surveyor, who has overall responsibility for transport in the West Midlands, submitted this scheme among the other new starts for 1984–85. The scheme is third in the county council's list of priorities. Top of its list is a new bus station at Dudley. Second is the proposed Wolverhampton ring road. The third is this scheme, mentioned in clause 5, the rebuilding of Snow Hill station.

We are talking about an amount for grant of £244,000 in the financial year 1984–85, rising to £3.5 million in the following financial year. The overall total for the scheme will amount to £10 million.

One reason given by the Department for the delay in approving this scheme is the need to consult the district councils involved. The district council that immediately comes to mind, of course, is Birmingham city counci. As recently as this week, a letter was sent by the city planning officer to the director-general of the West Midlands county council. I have been given permission to quote extracts from the letter, although I have not seen it myself. The city planning officer's view of the scheme was that the City has consistently supported the re-opening of Snow Hill station". The letter went on to say: The cross-city line"— which is what will result, once Snow Hill station is rebuilt— will be beneficial to the city centre". I do not know whether the Department of Transport feels that the other district councils concerned have to be consulted on the matter. If we are to have joint boards—as yet, no one knows whether that is to be so—clearly they will have representatives of the other district councils. I am not authorised to speak on their behalf, but the fact that the sponsoring body, the West Midlands county council, is so strongly in favour of the redevelopment of Snow Hill station, and that the city council itself, which is under a different political control from the county council, has itself expressed strong support for the scheme, shows the depth of feeling that exists in the area. I do not expect a yea or a nay from the Under-Secretary now, but I hope that he will bear those views in mind.

Only yesterday, I understand, the West Midlands county council submitted an application under the European regional development fund for finance towards the Snow Hill scheme. The county council realises that any finance granted would count against any capital allowances, but it is nevertheless anxious to pursue this scheme. It is true, of course, that the county council does not need Government permission to go ahead with the scheme, but clearly, to qualify for grant, such permission would be necessary.

I hope, therefore, that I have illustrated the depth of feeling that exists in the area about this scheme. I warmly welcome the Bill, but I ask the Minister to remember that a considerable number of years have already gone by since the proposal to reopen Snow Hill was first mooted and that any further delay will inevitably lead to higher costs in the future.

7.28 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) has assisted British Rail, not for the first time, and rightly spoke of the way in which British Rail is improving, and the changes that it is bringing about. In doing so, he demonstrates his personal insight into the way the railway system is changing and meeting the challenge of our time, as well as his interest in the railways.

It may help if I intervene now to give a brief outline of the Government's view of the Bill. The Government have considered its content, and have no objection in principle to the powers sought by the British Railways Board.

A number of points have been raised during the debate which it may be appropriate to consider in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has referred to the night-time crossing at Smithfield road level crossing, and the timing of its closure. I understand that he is now satisfied with the changes that have been made to meet the points put forward so vigorously by him as the local Member of Parliament on behalf of his constituents.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) welcomed a number of the works. He did his best not to become controversial, but he obviously found it difficult. He referred to the Snow Hill service. I know that he will not expect me to comment on that this evening. He will know that the expenditure concerned runs for more than one financial year. It is important to know the degree of priority, along with many other attractive propositions that the passenger transport authority views for the scheme, since it would be imprudent to agree support for it for one year without knowing the extent to which the PTA would wish to see it supported as a top priority in subsequent years, in competition with various other opportunities for transport grant.

A petition has been deposited by the Ramblers Association. However, the petitioners will be able to present their case in Committee. I therefore recommend to the House that the Bill be given a Second Reading, and allowed to proceed in the usual way to Committee, where its provisions can be considered in greater detail.

7.31 pm
Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

Before I reply to the points that have been raised, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) for accepting the concession which I outlined relating to the crossing in his constituency. I congratulate him, as did the Minister, on his determined representations leading to this change, which I hope will be satisfactory to his constituents, particularly those who use this crossing.

I also thank the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for his kind remarks about my brother, the Member for Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson). I will pass those remarks on to him when I next see him, and I know that he will appreciate them very much.

The hon. Gentleman welcomed the broad provisions of the Bill, and I thank him for that. I should like to add a word about his comments on the works at Snow Hill. I wish to make it clear that the works covered in clause 5 will not in any way prejudice the restoration of the railway on to Handsworth and Smethwick East. The hon. Gentleman will know that, for a long time, one of the major obstacles to development has been the uncertainty over Snow Hill station. He will also know, I am sure, that, now that proposals for a mixed development exist on the site, including bus-rail interchange facilities, which have been agreed between the board and the Birmingham city council, there is every possibility that the development will go ahead. Stage one will be the restoration of the railway between Bordesley and Snow Hill, in conjunction with the commercial development of the Snow Hill site. Stage two will be the restoration of the railway northwards from Snow Hill.

I recognise the real interest in this development, and I hope that the provisions in the Bill will help to give it a fresh impetus. I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving his welcome to the proposals outlined.

With those explanations of the points that have been raised, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his support, and I hope that the Bill will now be able to go forward to be examined by the Examiners.

Question put and agreed to.

Read a Second time and referred to the Examiners of Petitions for Private Bills.