HC Deb 22 December 1988 vol 144 cc653-9 2.28 pm
Mr. Irvine Patnick (Sheffield, Hallam)

On the front page of the Sheffield Star on 14 April, bold headlines screamed: 7 pages of jobs in the Star tonight and Super Sheffield, Boom City of the 90s. Developments worth £1.3 billion proposed, 77 major projects—30,000 Jobs and 10,000 Jobs in Construction. It also said: The boom in investment over the last three years should result in a major facelift for the City. Hotels, expansion schemes and industry are all concerned. The city has received assistance from the Government and has been extremely grateful for the funding that the Government have supplied for the urban development corporation, the canal basin, road improvements at Meadowhall and other schemes.

In a business survey for the third quarter from Sheffield chamber of commerce—which arrived only today— it pointed out that the domestic market continues to expand, with almost three quarters of the replies indicating increased orders and deliveries. On the export side, the decline in the previous quarter appears to have been arrested and more companies report increases in overseas business. The high value of sterling continues to present some problems to exporters, although not as much as in the past. Recruitment of skilled personnel still remains a problem, with almost half the local replies confirming that difficulty had been encountered. The problem is even greater in other regions and effectively highlights the skills gap. The picture which emerges is one of continuing growth and expansion—there are very few negative indications in investment plans or in the area of recruitment. This, linked to the high level of confidence in the growth of turnover and profit all points to an increasingly prosperous future. The name Sheffield conjures up, especially to the south, a picture of dark satanic factories, but those days have long since gone. It used to be thought that it was a grimy, grubby dirty place to live in, but those days have long gone. We have a science park and a leisure and retail complex, which could be one of the largest in the country, and factories and new industries are springing up all over. It could be called "good news city", because the development figures have been looked at again and it was discovered that £1.3 billion has increased to £1.6 billion. The world student games in 1991 will be a major fillip, although, sadly, they will cost ratepayers in the city £9 million a year for the next 20 years unless a financial package can be put together.

If we are to move into the 20th century, however, we still need road, rail and air access. Such access is vital if we are to ensure the regeneration and continued expansion of Sheffield. My hon. Friend the Minister recently met a deputation from Sheffield to discuss the road links to Manchester. For environmental reasons, it was decided that no motorway should go through the Peak park, and I fully endorse that decision. That Minister said that the M1-M62 link was under active consideration but that some black spots—at Snake pass and at Woodhead—remained to be dealt with. Lighting is also needed on the M1.

On 12 December, British Rail announced that faster services to Sheffield would be introduced in May, cutting 20 minutes off the journey times. It said that £1 million was to be spent on Sheffield Midland station, which will be in operation by 1991 in time for the world student games. It announced a new early service to serve London airports, an hourly service morning and evening and, to meet my needs, a train leaving London at 11 pm

In a letter carrying yesterday's date, British Rail said that, under the Bill deposited in Parliament in November, a new terminal for international trains is to be built at King's Cross. A low-level station served by international trains will be linked by escalators to St. Pancras, with frequent services to Sheffield. The Doncaster line is soon to be electrified and will become even faster. Sheffield also needs a fast link to the east coast line with better and more reliable rolling stock before the year 2025 as well as a major freight depot.

I realise that some of these matters do not come under the Government's auspices, but the debate gives me the opportunity to ventilate the feeling of those in Sheffield that, with better road, rail and air facilities, the regeneration of the city could continue at a cracking pace.

We expect a major freight depot at Tinsley in Sheffield adjacent to the M1—to become the focus for direct services to the continent via the Channel tunnel. If the midland main line is not to be electrified—it seems to me that that outcome is on the cards—can we have the south trans-Pennine route to Manchester, plus a link from Sheffield to Doncaster? Trains could be assembled at Tinsley and go to the continent from there. A dream realised would be a new inland clearance depot in Sheffield, which would help the city with its continued regeneration.

I do not propose to discuss supertram today, although it comes under the auspices of the Department of Transport. As I understand it, South Yorkshire passenger transport executive has not yet prepared its bid.

Air links, too, are vital to Sheffield. I do not envisage a municipally run airport but rather an airport set up by private enterprise to enable short take-off and landing aircraft to be used. That would assist in Sheffield's economic regeneration. I have had discussions with the Ministry of Defence as to whether it would be possible to use Finningley airport for three weeks during the world student games. The suggestion was not unfavourably received, but I was told to come back nearer the time.

There is much discussion in Sheffield at the moment because a site has been found for a short take-off and landing airport but the proposal is not attracting public support in the area that has been chosen. There are other sites, however. There is a site near the M1 spur which we know as Catcliffe, which has been mined by the National Coal Board and would be an ideal spot for the airport.

No one person or organisation can claim credit for the Sheffield phoenix phenomenon. The city is rising from its ashes. For many reasons—some obvious, some hidden —the Government, local councils, industry and commerce and the citizens of Sheffield are working as a team to put Sheffield back on its feet. It is the fourth largest city in England. In a survey of Britain's 38 top cities conducted by Glasgow university to find out where the average man in the street would choose to live, Sheffield came 10th—with Bradford sixth, Hull 17th and Leeds 27th.

I was surprised to discover that the seven major influences on people when they chose where to live and why were isolated. Those influences were: the rate of crime; health provision; levels of pollution; cost of living; shopping facilities; race relations; and factors such as education, access to areas of scenic beauty, employment prospects and climate. All those factors were taken into account, before the positions in the table were calculated.

Only yesterday, major EC cash boosts came into Sheffield—£308 million-worth of investment aimed at repairing some of the economic disasters of the past decade. The fact is that, with better road, rail and air facilities, we could reach the top spot. I appreciate that the Minister will tell me—as do all Ministers—that we do not control British Rail. However, he controls the roads. He does not control air traffic, but he can assist in ensuring that some of the available funding is directed towards Sheffield.

We need a little more help from our friends to speed up the economic regeneration of Sheffield. I am grateful to my Sheffield colleagues for attending today in vast numbers. In fact, I must look hard to even imagine the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) sitting in his place. Nevertheless, I have heard him talk about this.

I am aware that there are negotiations and discussions with British Rail, but we need some assistance in explaining to British Rail that Sheffield's economic regeneration—especially the world student games in 1991 —can be enhanced with good, reliable rolling stock. Sheffield's regeneration could be helped, too, by the construction of a short take-off and landing airport nearby. We have two major airports nearby; one is in Manchester, but at times, when there is ice and snow on the road, Sheffield can be cut off. The other is the East Midlands airport, which is about one hour's drive away.

When I leave the House today and journey back to Sheffield, I shall travel the same way as most business men —I shall go to Doncaster. I am not proud of that, but the service is reliable and fast, and it is a clean train. I would love to be able to say that I was travelling to Sheffield by the midland main line.

I shall be grateful to hear of anything that the Minister can do to assist the regeneration of Sheffield. I believe that the finest Christmas present anyone could have in this great season of goodwill is to say, "I have heard from British Rail that it is doing X, the Ministry of Defence is doing Y, and, above all, we have agreed with Peak park planning that some improvements can be made to the A57 and Woodhead." Speaking apolitically, many citizens and the Sheffield council would be grateful for assistance to enable them to continue with their plans.

2.38 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) on initiating this debate. Sadly, he was unfortunate in representing his constituents' views earlier this week when there might have been an opportunity at about 5.30 in the morning, but in the event he would have come on after the House had adjourned—rather early—at about 9 o'clock the next day. He should be congratulated on coming back for the second bite.

As my hon. Friend has said, he is the last Sheffield Member of Parliament in the House this year. He deserves the congratulations of his local people and press. I am grateful, too, to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume) for attending. It is nice to see that the SDLP is represented in one of the last debates of the year.

I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon). One of his main interests is that of the constitution, which is why he sat in on the previous debate, but, of course, we know that he has a keen interest in railways, because the Stockton to Darlington railway was the first in the country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam has rightly talked Sheffield up, and he has done so accurately. Those who have known Sheffield over the years—I cannot claim to know it anything like as well as he does, but I have visited it over the years—will recognise its dramatic transformation over the past six years or so.

Sheffield has a great and prosperous future, which it has earned for itself. The restructuring of its basic industries of steel and speciality steel products has been difficult. Competition from low-cost producers around the world has made life difficult for Sheffield. Some of the subsidies to other manufacturers, whether by exploitative pay levels or some of the old steel subsidies, made it necessary for many of Sheffield's companies and industries to take a cold bath. But Sheffield has done it without complaining.

During the years, I have kept in contact with Conservative trade unionists, visiting them not for high publicity but to learn how many of their businesses are developing the joint team effort to which my hon. Friend referred. Clearly, most of the improvement has come about because of efforts within Sheffield. Sheffield is right to have picked my hon. Friend to represent it. One does not have to be a lawyer to represent a great industrial city. Sheffield has grown its own representative.

My hon. Friend referred to the railways. When I read a British Rail press notice a week ago, I thought that it had been written by my hon. Friend. I learned that it is possible to spend an evening in London—for example, in the House of Commons—and catch the 11 pm train home, exchanging the discomfort of living in London for the comfort of Sheffield.

My hon. Friend referred to the contribution made by the fast trains knocking 20 minutes off the journey, despite the fact that the line to Sheffield is not exactly the straightest in Britain. That is an achievement. When people argue that electrification is the only answer, they should ask what return comes from the money. British Rail is aiming for improvements next year in the rescheduling of trains and the year after in some of the new stock, but what the business men really needs is a reliable hourly service. Then Sheffield and the rest of the country will be better served.

If it is possible to get from Sheffield to London or Newcastle in two hours, those of us who benefit from Sheffield's business would be able to see its business men, salesmen and technical people more often, and that would be welcome. A regular hourly service is the answer to those who, having just missed one train, ask when the next will be. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out.

When I was in Japan in the summer looking at motorcycle safety, I had the opportunity to ride in the cab of a Shin-kan-sen. With completely new track and no freight or commuter trains, those bullet trains manage to go only 10 miles an hour faster than British Rail's high-speed trains on track that is 100 years old. Our rail engineers, whether they come from Darlington or Sheffield, have done well.

My hon. Friend also talked about air transport. It would be pleasant to have an airport on the edge of the city —so long as one did not live there. We have seen the first new private sector airport—the Stolport—in London docklands. That is the way forward for those who want to provide a similar airport at their own risk. I know that my hon. Friend is not one of those who would say that every city, even the fourth greatest city in Britain, even the 17th or 18th most pleasant city in which to live in Britain, should necessarily have its airport on the rates.

Since the war, there have been too many examples in Britain of municipal enterprise turning an airport into a subsidy sink. I am not saying that we should not subsidise anything, but we should be careful about arguing that ratepayers should pay for airports.

Mr. Patnick


Mr. Bottomley

Bus deregulation outside London has demonstrated the worth of a market approach. Instead of an exponential growth from no subsidy to one of £500 million over 10 years, while the number of bus miles driven per member of staff declined long with the number of passengers, deregulation has made it possible to reduce the subsidy, and increase the number of passengers and for buses to go to estates where they have never been before.

In Sheffield and elsewhere, the new private sector operators are providing minibus services in estates that were inaccessible to double deckers. People may say, "Deregulation has led to buses going into those estates," and go on to say that that is a bad thing. Only the Labour party can find people who will say that. If Labour had thought of ways of getting minibuses into estates that had not previously been served, they would have praised themselves for thinking of it first. Tough luck. We thought of a way of making it possible for local or outside entrepreneurs to provide a service of commercial benefit.

Some aspects of transport must be provided on a group basis, and the building of roads is one. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it plain that he is interested in extending the boundaries of private finance. No one is precisely sure how that will happen, but that it should be considered possible is a move forward. We have seen the involvement of private design, private finance and private operation coming to the Dartford-Thurrock bridge, allowing extra money to be spent on other road projects, be they minor improvements to the A57 or extensions to the major road network outside the national park. All that is of benefit.

We have seen also the 150 schemes where private developers have invested £50 million in better roads or better road access that otherwise would not have been possible. Sometimes, that has been done in agreement with the highways authority or in the developers' self-interest. We should look for ways of developing self-interest without selfishness. Those who argue that self-interest has no part to play are wrong. Few see the merit of public provision as a substitute for private provision when the result can be the same. In Sheffield, when people were looking for jobs, they could have been provided by the municipal Socialists or by companies, co-partnerships, individual entrepreneurs, joint stock companies, or whatever. It is a matter of finding or creating opportunities and then identifying profitable, creative ways of meeting people's needs.

There is then the issue of conventional public funding of roads. I delight in the announcement that the national roads programme will increase by 20 per cent. in the coming year, and that over three years it will increase by 40 per cent. That is not wild profligacy but meeting the country's needs. It will not meet them totally, because there are other areas, whether in Coventry, Sheffield, or elsewhere, where people will go on asking for better roads to be built. Sometimes they will want longer, wider, stronger or deeper roads. Although that may sound trite, there is truth in it. Extensions to the Sheffield road network will allow Sheffield's goods to reach the ports and the Pennines, to travel north or south, and to reach export markets.

My hon. Friend mentioned a number of achievements, some of them accompanied in partnership. He rightly praised the local authority and private sector for working together. None of us should overlook the fact that the roads partnership between local and national Government is one of the best. Occasionally it is controversial, but not normally in respect of projects outside London. The Meadowhall is one development where the Government said that they would help an inner-city project, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend found time to mention it. He spoke also of the canal basin developments, and of the urban development corporation. They have all received attention in the House.

My hon. Friend said he wished to see further improvements, and referred to the delegation that he kindly brought to see me about the A57. I am glad it is generally recognised that it will not be appropriate to find a short cut from Manchester to Sheffield by driving a motorway across the national park. That would be going too far. I make it plain that we take seriously our assurances that we shall not unnecessarily build roads through the national parks. However, I hope that those listening away from Sheffield will have the courage to admit that opposition to the Okehampton bypass was wrong. Anyone who has seen that bypass, where we went into the national park by about 50 yards alongside a railway line, so that the road is hidden both from the park itself and from the town, and that those who just provided their ideas by looking at a map and wanted a 10-foot high viaduct had got it wrong.

We hope to protect the Peak district national park in a similar way. If it is possible for the board, perhaps in collaboration with my hon. Friend and others, to carry out minor improvements, that will make a difference. If most of the traffic is asked to go along the A268 and the A616, I think that we can agree on those minor improvements without making the A57 so attractive that pressures start developing for major improvements.

My hon. Friend has demonstrated that it is possible to come to the House to represent a city. He was of course elected by only part of the city, but seems to be representing all of it, as he is the only Sheffield Member who has taken the time to come here today. He has done so in a positive way, without knocking the city council —although he may, as I do, have his own views about some of its actions. He has recognised that the council is working more with the public sector, and has talked of the need—and the method—to create continuous growth and expansion.

I believe that, as traffic builds up on British Rail services and more people start using the direct service rather than the diversion via Doncaster, British Rail, as a commercial organisation meeting the Secretary of State's objectives and serving the public, will find ways of improving its service still further. I can make no predictions about the air services; that must be left to the commercial judgment of those who will decide whether, in addition to the two airports that people now use, a smaller airport can be built nearer Sheffield.

It is worth emphasising that better roads make economic growth possible and that economic growth generates more traffic. There is a "virtuous circle". When the Channel tunnel is completed, the railways will have a competitive advantage that they do not have now. Nevertheless, even on the most optimistic forecasts of the movement of traffic from roads to railways, economic growth will still mean more freight on the roads. That is why we want to continue to run the economy in a way that will bring about significant and welcome increases in the roads programme. It will then be possible for hon. Members on both sides of the House to come to the Department of Transport and ask for their share of this better infrastructure—what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I call better roads, better bridges and occasionally better tunnels. Every two years we intend to take such action.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced that he wants a review of the motorway and trunk road programme. We look forward to meeting his wishes and putting our conclusions before the House is the spring. I hope not only that we shall see a better, booming Sheffield, but that the other cities below it in the popularity stakes will gain as well; and that those temporarily above it will realise that they must compete very hard to stay ahead.

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