§ Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Maclean.]
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
Any hon. Member rising in the House at a quarter to one in the morning to initiate an Adjournment debate could hardly say that it was a matter of great pleasure. I am especially grateful to the Minister for having sat though the previous debates and presentations of petitions to be here to answer the debate on the subject of infrastructure and investment expenditure in the north-west region.
The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) is also here to share in the debate and to show the cross-party support for this subject, which need not divide people on partisan lines but can unite people from our region in the need to develop our infrastructure to meet the two challenges of the 1990s—the coming of the single European market in 1992 and the opening of the Channel tunnel in 1993. Those two key events will make or break our region and will determine whether we become the gateway to the European Community or a mere backwater of Europe. We are not looking for sympathy or for handouts, but more for a recognition of the challenges that lie ahead and a willingness from Government to lend a helping hand. Despite the problems that the region faces, we are confident about its future and we want a partnership of public and private enterprise, of central and local government, of north and south.
I should like the Minister to consider a series of initiatives which would guarantee the future prosperity of our region. First, the region needs a carefully planned infrastructure to meet the ever-increasing transportation demands. That means better road and rail links. The existing motorway network, like the curate's egg, is good in parts, but the railway system is another matter altogether. How inappropriate it is that on the very day that our railways have again been closed by industrial action the Chancellor should announce his unwillingness to see improved investment in the system. Even more paradoxically, the announcement came within minutes of British Rail announcing a massive profit of £300 million. That is a staggering situation, given that it is sometimes impossible for people travelling to the north-west to find seats on InterCity trains. The local services are no better.
I have recently been in correspondence with the chairman of British Rail, Sir Robert Reid, about the service between Liverpool and Manchester. That follows a letter which I received from a constituent, who catalogued for me the number of times on which his train arrived late. On the first day, 23 May, it was five minutes late. The next day, it was 23 minutes late. Thereafter it was late by 15 minutes, 33 minutes, 10 minutes and 38 minutes. At the end of the letter, my constituent wrote:I am now near to distraction. I'm spending so much time waiting at Oxford Road Station at Manchester for non-existent trains or ones that are horrendously late. Once or twice a month I can live with but as a daily occurrence it's a nightmare.In reply, Sir Robert Reid wrote:It is true that the radical changes in the Manchester area timetable introduced on 15 May have been plagued by shortages of rolling stock which have adversely affected punctuality and reliability. Indeed, we have been experiencing 444 difficulties in many parts of the North West due to the unsatisfactory gearboxes in our 'Pacer' trains necessarily being replaced by the manufacturers.All this points to the need for adequate investment in our railway system.
The condition of the sidings and the track around Edge Hill station, which I think is the world's oldest railway scan still in use, and of many other local stations, as well as the approach to Liverpool Lime street, which is like the black hole of Calcutta, is an appalling advertisement for British Rail and for the city. Those areas, which are owned by British Rail, are dirty and neglected. Despite a recent meeting that I had with regional officers, little or nothing has been done to improve matters. Against that backdrop, British Rail's planned expenditure for future development is minuscule.
North-west Members are rightly anxious because British Rail's proposals for high-speed rail links and for railheads linked into the European network once the Channel tunnel is opened, have not been properly thought through. I am especially anxious that the railhead should be developed within the Liverpool freeport area to ensure that the freeport, which has been extremely successful, is able to capitalise on the opportunities that 1992 will present. On Friday last, my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) was good enough to accompany me to the freeport during his visit to the region. I am sure that he will confirm what I have said about the railhead, and I am pleased that he is in his place tonight.
On 6 March, I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport about Merseytravel's anxieties that British Rail may not be wholly committed to providing direct through trains from the continent to the north-west. Forecasts suggest that a market will exist for at least two daytime high-speed through services from the north-west to Paris or Brussels, and probably an overnight service with a mixture of sleeping cars and reclining seat coaches as well. This would offer about 1,000 seats a day between the north-west and the rest of Europe. In addition, it is estimated that 1,000 lorry movements a day will transfer to rail post-1993. Three quarters of these movements will start or finish beyond London.
I hope that the Minister will confirm that the £150 million investment planned by British Rail on electrification, track improvements and new locomotives will be adequate to meet the demand. I hope that he will also say whether British Rail's choice of King's Cross as the second London terminal for Channel tunnel passenger trains will place the north-west at a disadvantage, as Merseytravel believes.
I am especially heartened that the north-west region of the TUC, as well as the local chamber of commerce, have come out in favour of the land bridge proposal and have argued that infrastructure investment should provide opportunities for competing properly within Europe. In a note to north-west Members, the North West Regional Council of the TUC stated:Preliminary studies have pointed to the urgent need for strategic thinking, particularly on infrastructure investment and regional policy, if the net effects of developments in the early 1990s are to be positive.It adds:Some work has begun already on the concept of Liverpool as a 'land bridge': European-bound container traffic from North America could be received at Liverpool and conveyed by through trains to European destinations. This option offers shorter journey times and improves 445 operating efficiency by avoiding congestion in the Channel. The Merseyside Chamber of Commerce and Industry is working on a feasibility study. The NW TUC welcomes and fully supports this initiative … In addition to the improvements in the rail network, an integrated transport infrastructure is essential if the North West is to gain from the Channel Tunnel. Recognising that, if rail is successful in dramatically increasing its share of freight traffic, a major proportion of freight will still have to be carried by road. Investment in the road network is therefore also an integral part of the programme necessary to the North West.I strongly support what the north-west TUC and the chamber of commerce have argued, and they have the full support of north-west Members of Parliament. So, too, has the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company in its proposals for expanding the very successful freeport. That demonstrates how, given the opportunity, business can flourish in the north-west of England.
The Government established six freeports and, without trying to undermine any of the others, the other five have done pretty lamentably, whereas the Liverpool freeport has turned over £300 million-worth of business since its inception and has been a major success story.
In a letter to me today, following the meeting that my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and I had with Mr. Frank Rowbotham of the Liverpool freeport last Friday, Mr. Rowbotham states:To ensure the development of the first phase of the Freeport Park"—some 20,000 sq ft—an urban development grant of 34 per cent. was necessary. Following the success of the first phase, an application for now what is City Grant Assistance has been submitted. It is still essential that the same level of assistance is forthcoming to make the next stage competitive and viable.In other words, if the freeport is to continue to be successful, it will need a continued helping hand from Government.
On the Mersey estuary, the Mersey barrage presents an opportunity for a major piece of infrastructure and development. If the Government would give this project the green light, it could provide not just energy for local industries but an impounded area for more deep-sea facilities and massive numbers of construction jobs in an area in which, as the Minister well knows, there is a great need for more opportunities in the construction industry. The Government have given money for the feasibility study, which I welcome, and the project would involve the cleaning up of the Mersey at a time when more than 200 companies have permission to pollute the Mersey through the exemptions which they have been given. The project would not merely be a way of improving the quality of life, but would create more employment and attract more people to use the river as an area from leisure recreation and amenity.
One of the great advantages which the Government could bring to the area would be to support the campaign which has been waged by the Liverpool Echo newspaper and others for the Channel 5 television station to be based in the north-west. That would give the area a chance to develop its own media and infrastructure for promoting its image. If Glasgow, which has infinitely more problems than the major conurbations in the north-west, has been able to turn its image around, there is no reason why Liverpool, Manchester and the townships of the north-west should not do the same.
Basing Channel 5 in our region would prove a major asset and a great bonus to us. Similarly, other public bodies and private enterprise should also consider 446 devolving to the north-west, which has a great deal going for it. The south-east economy is increasingly overheated and bloated, and the north-west has enormous appeal to tourists and companies seeking a good quality of life for their employees. As the south-east economy falters, with high interest rates, soaring overheads, a weak pound, tight labour markets and a rapidly deteriorating quality of life, the north-west could become a prosperous and booming gateway to Europe.
There are still unemployment disparities between north and south. Last Thursday, Business Strategy, an independent forecaster, stated that in 1990 unemployment in the north could still be as high as 9.4 per cent., which is twice that of the south-east. That need not be a curse—it should be a challenge. This debate gives the House a chance to stress our bipartisan support for a Government strategy based on turning the curse of unemployment into a challenge to provide the north-west with the infrastructure necessary if we are properly to meet the challenge of 1992 and 1993.
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§ Mr. Ken Hargreaves (Hyndburn)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for arranging this debate and for allowing me to take part, briefly, in it. I agree with him that it is regrettable that the only time we have a debate on the north-west is when we are successful in the Ballot for private Members' motions or Adjournment debates, and I believe that the north-west is far too important to be dealt with in that way.
No one living in or visiting the north-west can fail to recognise, or be impressed by, the enormous amount of investment that has taken place there in recent years—investment in roads, rail, housing, industry, and the National Health Service, and in clearing up dereliction. But it is the investment in the highway network which has been most important in helping the region to help itself and in generating further investment—certainly in my part of the north-west, east Lancashire.
We are grateful for all that has been achieved, but there is a pressing need for even more if we are to take advantage of the opportunities now being opened to us. We need help to improve access to and within urban areas, to employment centres and airports and to Europe and the Channel tunnel. In the north-west as a whole, total investment requirements to meet the needs of motorways and trunk roads alone have been estimated at £1.2 billion, making it necessary to double the current level of investment to reach the desired standard for the national road network in the north-west by 2001.
Such investment would stimulate growth in employment and tourism, as recent investment in motorways in east Lancashire has shown. That investment has enabled Hyndburn borough council to attract an enthusiastic and energetic private developer, Mr. Eddy Quiligotti, to create a tourist attraction of national significance on land at the M65-A56-M66 junction at Huncoat. The estimated capital development cost of the scheme, known locally as the Winter Wonderland, is in excess of £250 million. It is expected to create 2,000 direct full-time jobs and 1,200 off-site jobs, and it is hoped that it will attract 4 million tourists each year. The park will provide a superb range of entertainment, sporting, eating and specialist shopping facilities. It is the best news that Hyndburn has had for years. All this has been made possible because the existing 447 or planned motorway connections to the M6, M61 and M62 mean that 5.5 million people now live within one hour's drive of Accrington—hence the importance of more investment.
Tourism in the north-west is a major expansion industry, and it is consequently a matter of concern that section 4 of the tourism grant aid scheme continues to be suspended. That scheme has been a vital pump-priming aid and its reinstatement would be beneficial to tourism in the north-west, not least to the Winter Wonderland project. With the reinstatement of section 4 and increased investment in the highways, I believe that the future of the north-west will be bright. I hope that the Government will listen to and take seriously many of the points made in this short debate.
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§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Robert Atkins)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for raising the interests—
§ Mr. Atkins
Perhaps grateful is not the right word, as the hon. Gentleman will understand. None the less, it is important that the interests of the region that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Hargreaves) represent should be drawn to the attention of more people. As both said, the north-west is an area that is doing extremely well. Like many other areas, it has problems that it would be wrong to dismiss out of hand, but in general what is going on in the north-west, and even in the north-west extremities of our regions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) will acknowledge, has developed great strengths about which we should talk far more.
A few days ago a major contract, which has many ramifications for the area, was awarded to a company in the north-west, Leyland DAF. The contract, which is to build the new truck for the Army, is worth £500 million, and transfers work that was originally intended for the south-east to the north-west. That is a tribute to what has been going on in our region.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill said much about transport matters. I shall touch on them wearing as much a constituency and a regional hat as a ministerial one, but he will know that these are, broadly speaking, matters for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I found myself drawn, even to the point of sedentary comment, to some of what he said about the railways. Like him, and my hon. Friend, I travel on British Rail at the weekends, so I have sympathy with the points that he made about tardiness, but much money has been spent on British Rail, and more will be spent. I shall draw, with a great deal of pleasure and support, his comments about infrastructure investment to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He may not be surprised to learn that I am doing so regularly off my own bat anyway.
Both the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend spoke about tourism. My hon. Friend will know, and the hon. Member for Mossley Hill will, in his usual charitable way, agree, that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. 448 Lee), who is the Minister with responsibility for tourism, has worked long and hard, all over the country, but specifically in the north-west, to ensure the development of certain parts of our region, whether they are rural and conventionally attractive, seaside resorts or areas of industrial archaeological interest. The new tourist attractions mentioned by my hon. Friend, and those in my area, let alone those in Liverpool, are a tribute not only to my hon. Friend the Minister but to the tourism industry, which is developing regularly.
§ Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)
Will the Minister take into account an important aspect of the future of Liverpool, Merseyside, and the hinterland of the north-west? Liverpool as a port is still an important factor. Therefore, it is necessary to ensure that Liverpool maintains its port transactions and transport. Infrastructure is required to make Liverpool accessible to the continental ports, so that the port, which is still part of the economy, is taken into account in the general developments.
§ Mr. Atkins
The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is difficult for me to be drawn on matters that are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. Equally, as a north-west Member, and one who spent two years of his working life in Liverpool associated with shipping and other related activities, I know only too well the importance of the port of Liverpool. Many of us recognise that while Liverpool has had its difficulties—I make no partisan point here—it is crucial in every respect to the development and continued success of the north-west, along with Manchester, through its airport, and other areas in both the extremities and the centre. The hon. Gentleman has made a fair point about infrastructure support, and I would go along with it.
The hon. Gentleman also made a fair point about the image of the north-west, as, indeed, did my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn. Many of us would agree that the image is often portrayed in "Coronation Street" terms, and that there is a great deal more to our region than that—not only in the industrial sector but in tourism and, above all, in the attractive countryside and the people who contribute so much to the success of the north-west.
Hon. Members may know that, although I represent a north-western constituency, I am a southerner by origin. I have now been in the north-west for some 13 years, and I have been immensely impressed by the quality, dedication, enthusiasm and sheer commitment of the work force at all levels. They want to improve their area and to do their task—however it is perceived, and whatever the industry—to the best of their ability. If it is nothing else, the strength of the north-west is a work force that contributes so much to what is achieved, whether in my constituency, the hon. Gentleman's or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn. I think that we would all agree about that.
In my experience of travelling around the region, both as an Industry Minister with regional responsibilities and as a local Member of Parliament—I think that I can say this without too much contradiction, saving the presence of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. 449 Wallace), who is from the extemities of our nation—the north-west provides the best work force in the United Kingdom, if they are properly guided.
§ Mr. Atkins
My hon. Friend must not make sedentary interventions of that nature, or he will provoke me.
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the importance of 1992, which provides a challenge as well as an opportunity. We are well placed to meet that challenge in the north-west, for various reasons that have been discussed this evening and on earlier occasions. I believe that the British economy and our regional economy are fundamentally strong, and that the challenge of facing up to what will effectively be a domestic market of some 320 million people—with all the opportunities that that provides—can be met.
I use the word "challenge" because, if we do not recognise the opportunity by the region's great manufacturing, service and professional industries, other companies and organisations on the mainland of Europe will seek the opportunity to come to us and beat us at our own game. Any area within the region that hon. Members care to name—Liverpool, Manchester, Preston, Accrington, even Penrith—has many virtues, developed over decades or perhaps centuries. Perhaps occasionally we are a little too complacent and smug about the fact that the world can pass it by and somehow, if we carry on as we are, we shall be all right. We can do that no longer, for 1992 will present a challenge that we ignore at out peril.
It has been the task of my Department, first, to ensure that industries are aware of exactly what 1992 means. 450 When we started our successful campaign, about one in two companies—that includes our region—were aware of what was going on, which meant that 70 or 80 per cent. were not. As a result of our campaign, the figure is nearly 100 per cent. Not all companies, however, know that they must make the decision to face up to the opportunity. It is a message that I invite the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn to convey to the companies and the people in their constituencies. It is simply, as Winston Churchill said all those years ago, that action is needed "this day", to make sure that one knows what needs to be done and gets on with it.
I am quite convinced that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn are fully aware of the strengths of our region and recognise the challenges that have been presented to it, of which the Channel tunnel is one. I do not wish to be drawn as yet as to where the location of investment should be. Many of my constituents take one view; many of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn may take another. I am content to leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who is responsible for transport matters, but I shall put to him that view and that concern.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill for raising in his own inimitable way the interest and the concern of our region; which the Government share. He is right to say that it is a cross-party matter. Representatives of the three major parties are here tonight. I shall do my best, as a Minister with responsibility for the regions and industry, to ensure that our region gets the best that is available to it.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past One o'clock.