HC Deb 24 June 1986 vol 100 cc296-304

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Durant.]

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

In the past week, two parliamentary answers have been given concerning the Dornoch Firth crossing, which is in my constituency. One was an answer to my question by the Minister of State, Department of Transport, and the other reply was given to the hon. Member for Moray (Mr. Pollock).

The latter answer was given by the Secretary of State for Scotland. He said that it was his intention to proceed with plans to construct a road bridge over the Dornoch Firth. He said: Subject to the availability of finance and the satisfactory completion of statutory procedures, construction of the approach roads is planned to begin in financial year 1987–88, with construction of the bridge structure to follow in 1988–89. My Department will be holding a design-and-build competition for the bridge, the first stage of which will be to issue an invitation at the beginning of July to selected competitors for the submission of design proposals." — [Official Report, 18 June 1986; Vol. 99; c. 532.] That reply was, I suppose, encouraging, because it marked another stage in a very long saga that goes back to the mid-1960s when it was first proposed to construct a road bridge across the Dornoch Firth, as part of a scheme to bridge the three firths north of Inverness and to greatly shorten the transportation route between the north coast and the markets of the south.

The answer by the Minister of State related, however, to the possibility of a rail bridge being constructed across the Dornoch Firth, in conjuction with that road. That answer was negative in that the Minister indicated—it is important that I repeat these words too in the context of the debate—that the British Railways Board was not proceeding with that proposal. The Minister said that no detailed request had been made for special funding. He understood that British Rail had been considering the case for a rail crossing of the Dornoch Firth and it had had discussions with the Scottish Office and various interested bodies.

I wish to draw attention to this part of the reply. He understood that British Rail: cannot make a financial case for funding the scheme wholly themselves; nor can it show that sufficient additional funding would be available from other sources."—[Official Report, 17 June 1986; Vol. 99, c. 481.] Turning to the significance of the link between those two answers, it is right to sketch in the history of the project and, indeed, the projects. So far as I am concerned, they have dogged my every step in the House of Commons over a period of close on 20 years.

On 22 July 1969, Dr. Dickson Mabon agreed to my request that a feasibility study of the Dornoch Firth should be made. That, I think, was one of the earliest references to the matter in the House. On 9 May 1972 in an Adjournment debate on the subject I deployed the arguments in favour of the road crossing at some length, and received a wholly negative reply from the then junior Minister at the Scottish Office, now the Secretary of State for Defence. I petitioned the House on behalf of my constituents in 1973, and pressed the Highlands and Islands Development Board to conduct an economic survey of its importance. In October 1975, that survey was completed. It was not until 1978 that Lord Kirkhill, then the Minister of State, Scottish Office, announced, on 10 March, the then Labour Government's decision in principle to build the bridge.

Following the change of Government in 1979, however, once again the whole process went into slow motion. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, now the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) said on 17 June 1981, in answer to a question from me, that the earliest date for the crossing being constructed would be the financial year 1985–86. That is almost exactly five years ago. I draw attention to the considerable slippage that there has been in the Government's best hopes since that time.

There was a more encouraging response from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay), whose presence at the debate I particularly welcome as a Member of Parliament representing the Highlands, if not as the most munificent of Ministers. In July 1984, in the course of a debate in the Scottish Grand Committee, he told me that plans were going ahead as fast as possible, and it was hoped that work might begin in 1986. We are well into 1986, and we are now told by the Secretary of State for Scotland in a written answer of 18 June that work will not begin in 1986 and indeed, we shall be very lucky to see any work begun before 1987–88. We are told that that is contingent upon funds being made available.

I hope that in replying to the debate the Minister will have something to say about the funding of the road bridge because that is a matter of considerable importance. There are too many escape clauses in the Secretary of State's written answer to me. I fear very much that there may be further slippage in what has been a sorry tale of delay from the beginning.

I turn now to the question of the associated rail bridge. This is a much more recent development. It is true that it was mooted in the initial economic study conducted by the Highlands and Islands Development Board back in 1975, and it did not find favour with the consultants who were employed by the Highlands and Islands Development Board at that time. The beginning of the modern proposal for the association of the rail bridge I think could be dated from the announcement of the then manager of British Rail, Scottish region, Mr. Christopher Green, on 17 January 1985, at a press conference held in Inverness following his first meeting with the Highlands Regional Council and the Highlands and Islands Development Board, that this was a proposal that British Rail favoured. In his statement he waxed lyrical about the prospects for the project and said that Sutherland could become a little Switzerland if it went ahead. He warned that if the major opportunity that he described was missed, the hour's difference between road and rail times could prove catastrophic for the line's future.

Mr. Green pointed out that the journey by rail would he 33 per cent. slower than the road journey if the rail bridge was not built. He said that he hoped that, as £300 million was being spent on the A9 between Perth and Wick there would be some investment in the railway. He said that there was a precedent for help from the Scottish Office and that the European Community looked favourably on equal treatment for road and rail.

That was a considerable launch for an exciting and imaginative proposal. I became involved in considerable discussion and a lightning exchange of letters with ScotRail in the spring of that year. I made it plain at all times that I had two major concerns about the rail project, and I aired them in public at a meeting I held in Lairg that year. The concerns were that the loop, which has become known as the Lairg loop, should be kept open for a residual service, and that the plan to build the rail bridge should not delay the construction of the road bridge, whose importance to the revival and regeneration of the economy I regarded as paramount. That was always clearly understood to be my position by ScotRail and the Minister.

I wrote to the Minister in the autumn of last year and he replied on 11 November. I raised the question of the timing and asked him to make the assumption that British Rail had found the money for the project. On that basis, I asked whether he anticipated the same time scale for a combined road-rail crossing of the Dornoch firth. He gave me an extraordinarily interesting answer. He understood my concern about timing, but also affirmed much more than I had asked. First, he said that his Department had been in close co-operation with British Rail on the possibility of a joint crossing of the firth. He said that his Department had told British Rail that proposals for a joint venture would be considered favourably provided that they did not delay unduly the proposed road scheme.

How favourably the Scottish Office has considered the project must now be called into question. Indeed, it is part of the purpose of this debate to elicit what is the Government's current attitude to the project in the light of what has happened this week.

Lest there be any doubt about where British Rail stood when the proposal was originally put forward, Mr. Christopher Green, the general manager of Scot Rail as it had then become, said, in a key letter in the history of this affair dated 29 April 1985, that he had had a very useful second round of meetings with the Highlands regional council and the Highlands and Islands Development Board in March, when they were able to summarise the results of their research.

Mr. Green made three points. The first was that the bridge could be built within the time scale of the road works for about £11 million; secondly, that if ScotRail did nothing it would lose 20 to 25 per cent. of its passengers when the new road opened, which put the whole future of the line at risk; and thirdly, that it might just be possible to achieve a financial payback over 30 years for rail cut-off option in isolation.

Those points are of considerable significance. They reveal that a modest sum—£4.5 million to £5 million—was being sought from the Scottish Office. It was clear from public statements that the European Community would meet 50 per cent. of the cost of the project, that the Highlands and Islands Development Board was prepared to meet a substantial tranche of the expenditure—it had said that publicly — and that the Highlands regional council would meet £1 million of the cost.

A modest sum indeed, therefore, was being sought from the Scottish Office, which, the Minister had assured me, was working in close co-operation with British Rail, and had told British Rail that proposals for a joint venture would be considered favourably.

Imagine my astonishment when a Department or Transport Minister announced last week that British Rail could not show that sufficient additional funding would be available from other sources. The funding from other sources that was missing was the £4.5 million from the Scottish Office. I exploded in rage and anger at the thought that there had been some deception. I do not know where the deception was and I make no charges against the Minister, who did not answer my question and who simply said that he had nothing to add to what he had already said.

This modest sum should be forthcoming for this extremely important project, which has enjoyed the support of the whole community and which, I believe, is supported throughout Scotland. The Scottish Council for Development and Industry said on 29 August last: We believe that the additional cost of a rail crossing on the agreed road bridge across the Dornoch Firth would be a sound investment in the infrastructure of the Highlands and would secure the future of the rail network north of Inverness. Mr. Donald McCullum, the council's chairman, said: It would be a fitting conclusion if these objectives would come together. I hope that the Scottish Office and the Department of Transport will share British Rail's vision and will support this imaginative investment. The reason for this debate is not to trawl over errors or mistaken decisions. It is to avoid further mistakes being made. Its purpose is to make the Minister aware of the importance of not foreclosing on the option of a rail bridge being built in the future. He and the Scottish Office must not accept for the road bridge a design, for which a competition begins in July, which would be incompatible with a rail bridge. I have asked the Minister to bear this in mind when issuing guidelines when tenders are invited.

I hope that the Minister will give me a positive response tonight, and I am grateful to him for coming to the House at this late hour and for agreeing to see me and my colleagues about this matter later in the week.

11.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Ancram)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) for raising the question of the Dornoch bridge and the future of the north line. I am particularly grateful for the chance to set the record straight in the light of a considerable amount of misinformation and ill-informed comment that has appeared in the press and elsewhere in the last week.

I realise that post-mortems serve only a limited purpose, but I hope I shall have time to comment on the future of the line to Thurso and Wick. In view of the remarks of the hon. Gentleman, perhaps I should like to begin by establishing categorically three crucial facts. The first is that, when ScotRail initially approached my Department in November 1984 with the suggestion that a rail element be included in the road bridge project, it was given a positive response and the offer of technical assistance.

It was made clear to ScotRail then, and again throughout the following year, that the assistance was being offered on two conditions. The first was that ScotRail should not delay the road bridge project, which the hon. Gentleman supports, and the second was that ScotRail would meet its own share of the costs. Given the ordinary way in which rail projects in Scotland are funded, I hardly think that it would have expected otherwise.

In other words, ScotRail was aware right from the start that in working up its proposals it should not expect any special Government funding for the project. I would mention, in passing, that British Rail already receives, of course, very substantial annual subsidies from Government and, in so far as the Dornoch crossing is concerned, if it had decided to go ahead it would have stood to save about £1.5 million by combining a rail crossing with the proposed road crossing, by comparison with the cost of building a separate rail crossing. I released last week the full text of a letter which I wrote to Mrs. Winifred Ewing, MEP on 23 April 1985 — and which was quite extraordinarily, selectively and partially quoted in the Glasgow Herald last Thursday to give a completely misleading impression — which made the position on funding quite clear.

The second point which I should like to establish clearly is that neither I nor my Department was ever approached formally by ScotRail with a request for special funding to be made available from Government. Nor did the Railways Board submit any investment proposal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. It is true that there were continuing discussions between ScotRail officials and my own and on a number of occasions the difficulties about funding were raised. However, at no stage was ScotRail given any indication that special funding from the Scottish Office would be available.

Nevertheless, I did not in the course of consideration of this issue rule out any possibilities of special funding. If a detailed case had been made to me, I would have considered it on its merits. I made this abundantly clear when I wrote to the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) in April 1986 when I said that I would be prepared to look carefully at any proposal that was submitted to me. But no case was submitted. ScotRail, or if not Scot Rail then the British Railways Board, was not prepared to back a scheme, the financial appraisal of which had by then become apparent. I will return to this point.

The third area in which clarification is necessary is that concerning possible European funding. Here, too, we were not prepared to consider recommending European regional development fund grant until we had a detailed application in our hands and could see whether or not it was plausible. It would have been quite wrong of us to have prejudged an issue without all the facts being available. But to obtain the facts we needed an application from ScotRail. We never received it. The Scotsman last Thursday quotes the Member for Caithness and Sutherland as quoting, in turn, European Community officials as saying that there were precedents for ERDF help for projects such as this. That is a self-evident point. Valuable ERDF support has been received in the past for transport infrastructure projects in areas such as the Highlands. As I am on record as having said at a much earlier stage in the consideration of this matter, the proposed Dornoch rail crossing would have appeared in principle a reasonable case for such assistance, but there is an important distinction between eligibility in principle and a satisfactory project on the ground worthy of support.

The case would have to be judged on its detailed merits, and it would have to be judged by the rules requiring value for money that apply in the case of ERDF grants as much as they do in any other case of proposed public expenditure. The European Community rules state that any infrastructure project costing more than 15 million ecus—which is approximately £8.5 million—has to be subject to an appropriate socio-economic benefit assessment. It is there for a purpose, to require sufficient information on the project to be available for a judgment on it to be made. The statements that have been made by hon. Gentlemen in this last week somehow seem to suggest that this could be ignored, or pre-empted. That is simply not the case, and I suspect that they know it. ScotRail too is very familiar with ERDF procedures. It is a frequent applicant to the fund through the Scottish Office, and is currently benefiting from ERDF grant for a number of projects in Scotland. It is therefore well aware of how the system operates. In the light of this, its repeated public statements that 50 per cent. funding of the proposed Dornoch rail crossing would be provided by the European Community were, to say the least, premature.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland mentioned the Highlands and Islands Development Board guarantees. As I understand it, the HIDB did not give any such undertaking. That was a misquotation on the hon. Gentleman's part. So why then did ScotRail never make a formal application for funding, either by my Department or by the European Community? The facts are plain, and rest in the figures which emerged at the end of ScotRail's consideration of this project. These are that the rail link—even allowing a benefit of some £1.5 million from combining it with the road bridge — would cost £12.7 million. That is ScotRail's own figure, and, in my view and that of my advisers, is likely to be a very conservative one. The purpose of the investment would have been to secure a revenue of some £120,000 a year—that is 20 per cent. of the present passenger custom which ScotRail estimates will be lost if the road bridge proceeds without the rail bridge. I emphasise that these figures are not mine — they are ScotRail's. It is self-evident from them that the investment could not have been justified on any sensible criterion. That is surely why no application for funding was made.

The hon. Gentleman has asked tonight that the options be kept open to allow a rail crossing to be built at a later date, if that proves possible. In the first place, I can give an assurance that the line of the route for the road crossing would not jeopardise any future proposals by British Rail to undertake a rail crossing similar to that planned, and reflected in its provisional order.

The engineering differences between constructing a combined road and rail bridge and a road-only crossing are such that, to design the road bridge on the chance that a rail component might be added later would involve substantial additional expenditure which could not be justified. If, however, British Rail decided to proceed with its scheme as a separate rail crossing in the future, my Department would be prepared to make available to it the results of the substantial amount of preparatory work, including geological and soil investigations, carried out by consulting engineers for the road bridge. I hope that that might be considered helpful.

I should explain why the proposed road bridge across the Dornoch Firth is now proceeding without the rail component. There is no reason now to hold up the road bridge, which shows a positive rate of return on the proposed investment in it. It appears unlikely in the extreme, from ScotRail's figure, that any delay in building the road bridge would lead to any different decision about the rail crossing.

The hon. Member has himself gone on record on a number of occasions, including tonight, to say that the road bridge must not be unnecessarily delayed. Indeed, in July 1984, in the Scottish Grand Committee, he was attacking the Government for being dilatory in building the road bridge. Not a mention then on his part about concern for the railway line, or the need for a rail element. Indeed, the question of the railway did not emerge until some months after the road bridge proposal had been confirmed, and then it did not emerge from the hon. Gentleman. All he wanted then was the road bridge, and he wanted it fast. In saying that, I am sure that he was reflecting the views of almost everyone in the area, who recognised the benefits to be derived from the proposed road bridge. The proposed timetable, subject to the availability of finance and the satisfactory completion of statutory procedures, is for construction of the approach roads to begin in the financial year 1987–88 with construction of the bridge structure itself to follow in 1988–89. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman is asking me to let this timetable slip, especially after his previous strictures.

I should like to say something about the future of the north line. Hon. Members will by now be aware that ScotRail had made it clear that it has no plans to close the line north of the Dornoch Firth as a result of the decision not to proceed with the rail bridge project. I am aware that that worried the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he was as pleased as me about ScotRail's announcement that its planned improvements on the line remain unaffected by this decision. It is important to bear in mind that there will be no change in the railway's competitive position vis-a-vis bus operators until the road bridge is complete. ScotRail therefore has several years — until at least 1991—to prepare itself for any increased competition that the road bridge will bring.

Also, although the road bridge will undoubtedly make rail services less competitive on timing than at present, they will still have a number of other competitive advantages which they should be well able to exploit. Many people quite simply prefer to travel on trains, particularly in winter. There must be considerable opportunities for exploiting the tourist potential of the line, especially with the introduction of the new Sprinter trains, which I understand is shortly to take place. There is no doubt that a lot can still be done to market this service, and I am sure that ScotRail will do so with the enthusiasm that it has recently demonstrated on other parts of its network.

Returning finally to the matter of the proposed rail bridge, I hope that I have shown that ScotRail had every possible opportunity to establish a case for its proposal. The reasons why it has been unable to do so and has decided not to proceed with its proposals are patently self-evident. Its reasons are shown in the figures that I mentioned earlier. It is important that the people of Caithness and Sutherland are about to get a splendid road bridge which will improve access for them and contribute to the economic welfare of their area. They have pressed for that. They will also enjoy a considerable improvement in the rail service available to them, both in terms of comfort and reliability, through the new investment that ScotRail plan. I am confident that this offers a real hope for the long-term future of the line as well as for the prosperity of the region.

Obviously, everybody would always like to see the best project available, but, in terms of the figures that I have given the House, the decision taken by British Rail was understandable. I hope that misrepresentations and misinformation similar to those that were put out about the project during last week will now cease.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Twelve o'clock.