HC Deb 14 October 1991 vol 196 cc24-39 3.42 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the choice of route for the new railway line between the channel tunnel and London.

Investment planned by British Rail of £1.4 billion will provide high quality, attractive and competitive international passenger and freight services once the channel tunnel opens. The upgrading of existing routes and the new international passenger station at Waterloo are well advanced. But British Rail believes that there will come a point at which additional capacity in the form of a new line will be needed.

The House will recall that in June last year my predecessor announced that the proposals submitted by a joint venture between British Rail and Eurorail to build the channel tunnel rail link were unacceptable. He said that he was not satisfied that the partners had found the best solution and that he was asking British Rail to complete its studies with the aim of maximising the benefits to international passengers and commuters, concentrating on the options for the route from the north downs to Waterloo and King's Cross.

British Rail spent almost a year undertaking a thorough review. It considered many options and also developed those put forward by Ove Arup, Rail Europe and the London borough of Newham, in association with the proponents of those ideas, so that fair comparisons could be made with its own southerly route option. It also compared variants to each of the main options.

British Rail submitted its report to me in early May and a wealth of additional information has followed since. I have placed in the Library a copy of its report and supporting information, which it has made generally available. The Government have taken account of all the relevant considerations, including regional planning, the environmental impact, and the effect on property as well as transport objectives. We have also been very concerned to minimise uncertainty and blight. We have reached the following conclusions.

First, the Government expect that as demand for rail services through the channel tunnel builds up, a new railway line between the tunnel and London will be needed at some stage. We therefore want to provide a secure basis on which planning can go ahead.

We accept British Rail's advice that a second London international terminal will be needed to complement Waterloo. We also agree with British Rail's proposal that it should be at King's Cross. King's Cross would provide excellent connections to many places beyond London, especially in the midlands, the north and Scotland, so that they would gain more of the benefits of the channel tunnel. It is also a convenient location for destinations in and around central London.

Secondly, we have decided that a route on the lines put forward by Ove Arup which approaches central London from the east, via Stratford, is to be preferred. It would satisfy our transport objectives by providing additional capacity when it is needed. Moreover, it would minimise the impact of the line on the environment and on residential property. British Rail estimates that 38 km will be in tunnel on the easterly route, as against 25 km on the southerly route. Only two domestic properties would be acquired and none demolished, as against 127 acquired and 24 demolished on the southerly route. British Rail further estimates that only five properties would be within 100 m of the line and 115 within 200 m against 1,900 and 5,900 respectively on the southern route.

The impact on the landscape, too, would be less, with fewer kilometres of the easterly route in ancient woodland, on the surface in areas of outstanding natural beauty, or in green belt. Not surprisingly, therefore, British Rail's environmental consultants found when comparing the two routes that the southerly route has greater long term impacts on landscape, ecological and cultural resources and greater potential for disturbance to residents from construction and operation". Finally, in preferring a route on the lines put forward by Ove Arup, we recognised the substantial potential that it offered for development along the east Thames corridor. The new line could serve as an important catalyst for plans for the regeneration of that corridor that may stem from the study that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced last week that he was Commissioning.

The alternative proposal for an easterly route put forward by Rail Europe is less advantageous in a number of respects. It could not be used at all by those international passenger trains that would continue to run to Waterloo. All those services would have to continue to use existing lines, without the prospect of any reduction in journey time. The route is planned to terminate at Stratford—which, although it will become an increasingly important interchange for journeys within London, offers poor connections to the rest of the country.

In environmental terms, too, the Rail Europe route is inferior. It impacts more on sites of special scientific interest, it passes through one designated special protection area under the EEC directive on wild birds, and through another area that is likely to be so designated. It would affect much more domestic property and, due to the length of tunnelling involved, more than twice as much spoil would need to be disposed of than from the other routes that were studied.

All further work will therefore be based on Ove Arup's route. Our decision takes account of British Rail's advice some weeks ago that to develop the easterly route to the same stage to which it had taken the southerly route would take about nine months. I have accordingly asked the chairman of British Rail to develop the route to a standard at which I can safeguard it, and to carry out a full environmental assessment. That will involve publishing plans as a basis for consultations with local authorities, developers, and other interests and the public. The implications for freight will be one of the matters to be considered further. Safeguarding will trigger compensa-tion arrangements, but I have also asked British Rail to consider what voluntary purchase arrangements may be necessary, and when.

Inevitably, the start of construction is still some way ahead; but so is the need for the line. BR's own forecasts are that the capacity of the existing network is expected to be sufficient to meet demand until around 2005. It will be possible to take account of the actual demand for rail services through the channel tunnel, once it opens. Overall, the choice of the eastern route rather than the southern route will not have any material effect on when the new line might come into operation. Suggestions that a decision has been taken not to begin construction before 2000 are incorrect. No such decision has been taken.

I have also told the chairman of British Rail that it is the Government's intention that the rail link should be taken forward by the private sector. The precise financial arrangements will be for the Government to decide in the circumstances at the time.

Given our preference for the easterly route, I will shortly make a direction varying the existing safeguarding directions for the route that British Rail had proposed between Cheriton and Upper Hailing in the north downs. The effect of the direction is to exclude from the safeguarded route the section west of Detling, where the Ove Arup route diverges from the existing safeguarded line. I have also asked British Rail to withdraw its voluntary purchase schemes for homes in the Warwick gardens area of Peckham in south London and along the formerly proposed route between Swanley and Detling, and to dispose of the property that it has acquired there, whilst minimising damage to the local housing markets. The safeguarding and property purchase scheme at King's Cross will remain in place.

In summary, our decision means that the line will be built through east London, where the prospect is welcomed for the economic regeneration that it will bring. It will involve minimal blight for people's homes, and its environmental and conservation benefits, in comparison with the southern route, have been welcomed by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and by other environmental interests.

It is also a decision which has been welcomed in the north, in the midlands, and in Scotland, and it will help to ensure that the benefits of the channel tunnel will be shared throughout Britain. I commend it to the House.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

I want at the outset to register the strongest possible protest at the Secretary of State's contempt in choosing to make his statement to the Tory party conference six days before the House could meet to hear his statement. The House will understand the sensitivity of a Secretary of State who, on the route decision, has been bushwhacked by his own Cabinet colleagues—especially by the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—as it was said that the decision was not taken on transport grounds.

What is the Secretary of State's justification, particularly as his statement was planned to be given to the Tory party conference, which replaced "Play School" on television? Does he accept the description given to the Government's handling of this crucial decision of "disastrous" by the chairman of Eurotunnel, and "a pantomime" by the chairman of British Rail? Does he accept also the universal editorial condemnation of the lack of vision and planning by a hapless Secretary of State for Transport, who is in danger of making his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), look competent?

I welcome what appears to be the endorsement of Labour's policy on an east London—Stratford—King's Cross route which was published 12 months ago, and which was outlined in "Moving Britain into Europe", which I sold at a profit to the Department of Transport, last year. Keep reading—there is a lot to learn.

Does the Secretary of State accept that after years of chaos and delay there is still scepticism that the rail link will ever be built by a Tory Government? Today's announcement is simply a decision not to adopt the south London route. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman make it unequivocally clear that the Government's policy, like that of the Opposition, is to build a high-speed, dedicated rail link from the channel tunnel to London and beyond? The Secretary of State will agree that British Rail's study and others, together with the Government's decision on the link, raise many questions, several of which have not been dealt with in today's statement. The House will need a debate on the full implications of the decision and of the link route.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that it is acceptable for the rail link not to be built or to be begun until the year 2005? I welcome the statement that construction could start before then and hope that he will give us some sign of his view of the matter. What is the earliest time that he thinks building of the link could conclude, if there was the political will to achieve it?

Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether a further assessment of the east London route will include consideration of the original Ove Arup plan for a dedicated European-gauge standard freight line, which is crucial to northern and other parts of the United Kingdom?

Can the Secretary of State tell us what criteria will be used to assess the route's environmental impact in view of the Government dispute about environmental criteria with the European Community? I hope that that will not further add to the delay. Does not today's decision affect the future of the King's Cross Railways Bill, especially in view of the fact that the King's Cross development will knock down twice as many houses as the south London route would have done, although there are no Tory marginal constituencies involved?

What will be the future of the Waterloo international terminus, costing £140 million? Its assets were to be transferred as part of the public contribution to the joint project with the private sector to fund the original south London route. Is that still a relevant cost which can be carried over to the east London project?

Will the Secretary of State review the compensation terms for the future link? Will he consider prioritising the selling back of houses worth £100 million which British Rail originally bought along the south London route to the residents who were forced to move out? I hope that he will consider that. Will he allow British Rail to use that money to finance Ashford station—he has still not given any decision about that, although plans for the station have been on his desk for more than 10 months—or are we to live with a Portakabin, built as Britain's first international station on the Eurolink for foreign travellers and thus forcing 2 million passengers to go up to Waterloo before travelling south, adding a further two hours to their journeys and further congesting central London? Immediate decisions are required on that.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the differences in the cost of the south and the east London routes? On the "World at One" last Wednesday he did not know what was the difference in cost. Does he accept British Rail's estimate of a £750 million cost difference? Why is it more likely that a more expensive route will secure private finance when the cheaper south London route failed to do so?

Surely the Secretary of State must now agree with the Opposition yet again that the rail link cannot be built without a public financial contribution and that therefore section 42 of the Channel Tunnel Act 1987 needs to be repealed, along with reform of the stupid Treasury rules which prevent new forms of private finance from being used by British Rail, as recommended by the European Commission, the 100 group of accountants and as spelled out in Labour's document, "Moving Britain into Europe", which I recommend that the Secretary of State should read.

Many questions are posed by this statement, questions that affect London, especially east London, as well as the nation. I reiterate my demands for a full parliamentary debate and offer the support of the Opposition for the appointment of an independent Commission to assess the road and rail links involved with the building of the new tunnel so that they are envisaged as a plan for the next 20 years and so that we may have a vision of future transport requirements, can ensure rapid access to the new Europe and can prevent this sort of chaos from happening again.

Mr. Rifkind

If the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) expresses that sort of bogus anger when the Government make an announcement that he agrees with, I hesitate to speculate what his reaction would have been if we had made an alternative announcement. My announcement was welcomed not only by my right hon. and hon. Friends but by the Labour party, the Liberal party and all other parties in the House, I do not think that one would have imagined that to be the case from the hon. Gentleman's rather unimpressive contribution.

On the specific matters that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, first he asked whether it was Government policy to build the high-speed line up to and beyond London. Certainly building the line beyond London would have enormous financial implications. I should be interested to hear whether the Labour party is committed to spending the billions of pounds that would be involved in the building of new dedicated, high-speed lines of that kind. The new high-speed east coast mainline has just been completed, and that has made a substantial difference to the route. It is not very clear what the hon. Gentleman is offering instead.

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the building of a dedicated freight line would also involve the spending of billions of pounds. Moreover, as far as I am aware, neither France nor Germany—nor any other European country—has contemplated building a dedicated freight line of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman seemed to refer.

A full environmental impact assessment is required, and will have to accord not only with the United Kingdom requirements, but with EC directives to which we are fully party.

I see every reason for the King's Cross Railways Bill to have been given a boost by my announcement, given the recommendation for King's Cross to be the main terminus. I also continue to see a strong need for improvements at Waterloo. Not only will Waterloo be the sole terminus for the first few years after the opening of the channel tunnel; even after the high-speed link is complete, approximately half the people using the channel tunnel are likely to want to use the Waterloo terminus.

As for the difference between the cost of the eastern route and that of the southern route, the actual difference in capital construction is to a large extent determined by the cost of the Stratford terminal. We hope that that will be very much part of a private-sector development. In connection with the overall question of financing. I have clearly said that I want the project to be funded by the private sector: we believe that that is the most desirable development. If proposals are presented that fall short of that, we shall consider them in the circumstances of the time.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I well understand the importance of the statement to hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I ask them to make their questions brief. There is a lot of work before us today.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is essential to avoid the mistakes of 1979 and to ensure that the householders who will be affected by the proposed route are given proper and speedy help with compensation? Is not a proper period of consultation also essential? Will my right hon. and learned Friend also confirm that the possibility of adopting the other routes that he has considered has now been extinguished once and for all?

Mr. Rifkind

Let me deal with the last point first. I can indeed give a clear and unequivocal assurance to that effect. It is important that the uncertainty be minimised, and that the blight be ended. That is why we propose to lift the safeguarding of the part of the alternative route that had been safeguarded.

There will now be the fullest possible consultation with all those affected by the eastern route. That is part of the process that involves the environmental impact assess-ment. I agree with my hon. Friend about compensation, which will be legally required once the safeguarding of the route has been announced. As I said in my statement, we shall also want to discuss with British Rail the extent to which voluntary arrangements may be appropriate even before the safeguarding stage has been reached.

Mr. Ronniie Fearn (Southport)

We welcome the announcement; we have recommended this route for some time.

Will the Secretary of State tell us what will happen in regard to direct links to the north from the channel tunnel? Does he agree that the Ove Arup proposals are not at all firm, and that many areas along that route have still to be investigated? Those areas will have to be dealt with by a public inquiry, not only for environmental but for financial reasons.

The funding of the whole scheme appears to be extremely dicey. So far, we have heard nothing from the Secretary of State—in either of his two statements, or, indeed, in the television broadcast from the Conservative party conference—about whether funding will be available.

Will the Secretary of State also let us know what is to happen with the night riders, as I call them, away from the King's Cross development? The proposals make no reference to noise from night trains running through to the north, most of which will go to the north-west. What is to happen about sound proofing of the additional track and the existing track?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman was right to raise the issue of the through services to the north. They are not affected by the statement that I have made today. It is British Rail's intention that there should be both through day services and through night services. They will benefit from the statement by being able to achieve the full increase in speed that the high-speed line will provide. British Rail has made it clear that, because of the technical problems that it is having with the manufacturers, for the first period after the channel tunnel opens it may be necessary for passengers from the north to change at Waterloo. That was made clear some months ago. However, it is still British Rail's firm intention that as soon as these technical problems can be overcome the through services to which the hon. Gentleman referred will be provided.

Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)

The Secretary of State will be aware that all three of the proposed routes went through my constituency. I compliment him, however, on choosing the Ove Arup route, which is considered to be the best route from the point of view of the environment.

I seek from my right hon. and learned Friend only two assurances. Given that my constituents will be pleased to have a station that will help commuters—they jolly well need it—can he assure me that car parking will be more than adequate in order to prevent overflow into nearby streets of Strood? Furthermore, can he assure me that the design for the additional crossing of the Medway will be submitted to the Royal Fine Art Commission and that it will be as near to the motorway as possible? British Rail gave us a guarantee that the design would be submitted to the Commission. The line will be very visual and will have an impact on the environment.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for the welcome that she has given to the announcement. She has raised important points that relate to the environmental implications of the announcement. I am sure that the further work that is to be done, in particular the environmental impact assessment, will address these significant issues.

Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

We in Southwark welcome the abandonment of the southern route. It would have been disastrous to drive a rail link through a crowded inner city area. However, I seek assurances on two points.

First, are we absolutely sure that this is the last word and that the Government will not revert to the southerly route if they find that they cannot finance the route that they have chosen? That would be the worst of all worlds. Secondly, can the Secretary of State ensure that his Department co-ordinates the investment of resources in our area where businesses have gone bust and homes have been boarded up because of the years of blight during the Government's mismanagement of the project?

Mr. Rifkind

I can give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks. There is no question of us reverting to the southern route: that is no longer an option. We wish the link to go ahead. If it goes ahead, as we wish it to do, it will be on the basis of the eastern route that I have outlined today.

Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for making the announcement when he did, thus removing the uncertainty that has existed for so many years. Can he confirm that one effect of his statement is that, although my constituents welcome his decision, it means that for an even more extended period the traffic generated by the channel tunnel between the opening of the tunnel and the completion of the link will have to go along existing lines, two of the main routes of which run through my constituency?

What progress has my right hon. and learned Friend made with British Rail regarding the diminution of noise for people living near the lines, the value of whose property is affected by the substantial intensification of use of those lines—far above anything that could possibly have been anticipated?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome of the announcement. British Rail has been continuing discussions with the relevant local authorities on minimising any problems that might be associated with its proposals.

My hon. Friend referred to the more extended period that may now be required. I reassure him that British Rail's assessment of the implications of choosing the eastern route rather than the southern route is that it will require nine months to get the same detailed information on the eastern route as it already had on the southern route. Apart from that requirement, the likely time scales are the same.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

As one who has been saddened by the neglected appearance of the entire east of London, may I be assured that there will be concerted action between the various Departments? I am thinking particularly of the role to be played by the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Rifkind

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has announced that there will be special studies of the development implications and opportunities that this announcement produces for that part of east London. We are keen to maximise the significant contribution that can be made in dealing with an area of the capital that has severe problems of deprivation. This project, which the local community has warmly welcomed, is an opportunity to make a quantum leap in that direction.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that Ove Arup has put forward some superb proposals that have won the support of both sides of the House and have won through despite considerable opposition, notably the entrenched attitude of British Rail? Does he agree that when it put forward its proposals it was backed by an impressive number of banks, and that if we are to get the project off the ground within a reasonable time scale it is incumbent on those financial backers to come forward and put their money where their mouth was?

Mr. Rifkind

I compliment Ove Arup on its work, and, as I said, we shall consider any serious proposals from the private sector in order to help to take the project forward.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

It makes much sense to approach London from the east rather than from the south, but it makes far less sense to continue to insist that King's Cross should be the final terminal for the channel link. Surely it would make much better sense to have a modern international interchange at Stratford, with direct links from Stratford to the north and, by the east-west cross-rail, to the west as well? To put the terminus at King's Cross does no good for the environment of the people of King's Cross or for the aim, which we all share, of ensuring that the benefits of the channel tunnel can be spread around the country.

Mr. Rifkind

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point of view, but I am afraid that I cannot agree with his conclusion. The work that British Rail did on identifying the importance of King's Cross as the natural terminus for the link is difficult to fault. Those who use that route will either wish to travel within London or to points north and west of London. It is difficult to imagine a terminus other than King's Cross that could offer those travellers that convenience and opportunity, which is an important factor to take into account.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend understand that this is particularly bitter news for my constituents in the southern parts of Northfleet and Gravesend who are being asked to pay the price and to make sacrifices for this project? Does he understand that it will be essential to sink the link past those two towns into a cutting and preferably to cover it? Will he give an undertaking that British Rail will extend its voluntary purchase scheme to my constituents immediately?

Mr. Rifkind

On the latter point, I said in my statement that I would want to discuss with British Rail the possibility of voluntary arrangements in advance of the automatic compensation that flows from the safeguarding procedures.

I entirely understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's concern to ensure that the environmental implications for his constituents are properly taken into account. The environmental impact assessment will provide an opportunity to do just that.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that British Rail thinks that this proposal is so crazy that it has released to London Members of Parliament four working documents—its internal document, the report of the Planning, Industrial and Economic Development Advisers, an environmental report and a financial report? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that, taken together, those reports show that no decision ever undertaken by a British Government has promised less value for money? Is he aware that, even on a cost-benefit analysis, the taxpayer will end up losing hundreds of millions of pounds?

Mr. Rifkind

We have tabled in the Vote Office the very documents to which the hon. Gentleman referred, so they are not quite the revealing scoop which he thought that he had discovered. I think that most hon. Members would disagree with the hon. Gentleman's assessment of the importance of ensuring a proper infrastructure to meet the needs of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

Although I am sure that the majority of my constituents will welcome the choice of an east London route, will my right hon. and learned Friend offer more help to those living alongside the already congested rail lines of south London, which clearly will have to carry the bulk of the freight to the channel tunnel for 10 years after 1993?

Mr. Rifkind

I appreciate the point that my hon. Friend properly raises. Clearly, any new, substantial increase in railway services has implications for those living near the existing railway line. We are considering whether British Rail should be able to assist such persons. This is a difficult matter, and we shall want to consider how it can best be taken forward.

Ms. Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

Over the past few years, one of the most frustrating aspects of the delay has been the passing of the buck faced by residents when contacting British Rail and London Transport to get the issue clarified. Will the Secretary of State answer one simple question: who is now in charge of this rail project? Is it the Secretary of State for Transport, the Department of Transport, British Rail or Ove Arup? If British Rail does not agree with the route, how can we possibly expect residents to know whom to contact to discuss what is happening near their homes?

Mr. Rifkind

British Rail has said that it accepts the Government's decision on the eastern route. British Rail is now going forward, at my request, with consideration of the detailed route, and it will then carry out an environmental assessment. Therefore, any questions on this matter that the hon. Lady or her constituents wish to ask should be put to British Rail at this stage.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

In welcoming my right hon. and learned Friend's statement, I should like to congratulate him and his Ministers on stepping straight into the necessary decision on transport infrastructure. In the past, the Opposition have complained about infrastructure, but this decision has proved them absolutely wrong. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the decision to use the Ove Arup route provides a much greater opportunity for freight to travel on that line than did British Rail's south London option?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my hon. Friend for the welcome that he gave the decision. I said in my statement that I wanted the freight option to be further considered. Ove Arup has certain ideas about the use of freight on that line. Obviously, British Rail will need to consider that matter before a clear decision is made. I believe that the welcome that has been given by all parties in the House to the statement shows that the Government were correct to come to that judgment and that British Rail can realise the consequences its proposals would have had if they had been endorsed.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

May I say to the Secretary of State that he has come to almost the right decision for a number of dubious reasons? With all the confusion and mayhem, it was no way for the Government to have made such an important decision. We still do not know—we are still uncertain after the right hon. and learned Gentleman attempted to answer my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Ms. Hoey)—who is in charge. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should be in charge, and he should say so from the Dispatch Box. Is he aware that the route chosen—the Ove Arup route—is not the best one? Instead, the Government should have chosen the route from Hither Green to Canning Town through a tunnel, which then continues up the Lea valley to Stratford. That is the Newham-Colin Buchanan route. Has he studied that route? It would be cheaper and environmentally less damaging. It would not destroy the site of special scientific interest on Rainham marshes. He should consider that carefully. As British Rail is clearly livid with the decision, it must take seriously the fact that Stratford is to have an international station. It must be not a parkway station but a proper international station, with proper connections to the north.

Mr. Rifkind

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial welcome for the decision itself. Part of the problem associated with the proposal to which he referred, which was put forward by the London borough of Newham, was the suggestion that Stratford should be the final terminus of the high-speed line. I have already said why I thought that to be undesirable and unacceptable. I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks that British Rail is required to take forward the eastern route as the basis on which the project will go ahead.

Mr. Gerald Bowden (Dulwich)

May I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on choosing the best route for the channel tunnel rail link? It is the best route because it is best environmentally and the best operationally. It is widely welcomed in my constituency. A great burden of anxiety has been lifted from many of my constituents' heads and the community is no longer under threat. I must tell my right hon. and learned Friend, however, that there is enduring and continuing blight. British Rail has purchased many houses, and the confidence of the community in the housing market has been lost. Can he give me an assurance that, when British Rail releases the houses that it owns on to the open market, it will do so in a controlled way to ensure that the market is not distorted and the community can regenerate itself?

Mr. Rifkind

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks. It is highly desirable that any release of the property that British Rail has acquired should take place in a controlled fashion so as not to distort the housing market either in my hon. Friend's constituency or elsewhere where the problem has arisen. He has made a reasonable point that I am happy to endorse.

Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that if he and his Department had listened a little more closely to Newham Members he could have made a similar announcement a long time ago, thereby saving a great deal of time and money? Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us exactly what is envisaged at Stratford? Will he tell us that there will be a proper international station at Stratford? Will he undertake to consult closely with the London borough of Newham on the environmental impact and the reduced disruption and to ensure that the people of Stratford and of the east end generally get the economic and employment benefits?

Mr. Rifkind

It is envisaged that the high-speed train from the channel tunnel to King's Cross will stop at Stratford, and it is desirable to have the consultations with the local authority that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I was pleased that the leader of the Newham borough council welcomed the Government's announcement.

Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)

As a Member whose constituency contains the revised route, may I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that there will be a general welcome in Essex and east London boroughs for the guts of his decision? Will he confirm that the site of special scientific interest mentioned by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) will not be destroyed by the proposal, although it will obviously have some impact upon it? That will reassure those who heard the hon. Gentleman's comment that there will be no long-term destruction of the SSSI.

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, we want to minimise the impact on any site of special scientific interest. Whichever route had been chosen—whether the eastern or the southern route—would have involved some effect on SSSIs; that was unavoidable. The purpose of the environmental impact assessment will be to clarify the way in which that problem can best be accommodated.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Secretary of State rightly referred to the general welcome given in Scotland to the siting of the second international terminal at King's Cross. In that context, and particularly given the importance of exports to the Scottish economy, can he tell the House what discussions he is holding with the Secretary of State for Scotland, ScotRail and other interested organisations about the development of links between Scotland and King's Cross? In particular, may I remind him that Scotland does not stop at Edinburgh and Glasgow and that great importance is also attached to the matter in the north-east and the north of Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

Of course, these matters are especially important; in a sense, they are almost more important the further north one goes. At the moment, for example, it takes about five or six days to send freight from central Scotland to Spain, whereas, once the channel tunnel is open, it will be possible to undertake the same journey in 42 to 52 hours. Likewise, the midlands and the north of England will benefit from the tunnel.

These matters are being addressed by British Rail at the moment, and one of the most important decisions that BR will be taking in the near future will involve the choice of a Scottish freightliner terminal, which also has important economic and industrial implications.

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Mailing)

Notwithstanding the fact that both the new route and the previously preferred route would appear to go through my constituency, may I add my congratulations to my right hon. and learned Friend, both from a national and a regional standpoint, on the excellent common-sense decision that he has made? May I also urge him to give early consideration to the deeply serious problems of those living on the existing designated routes to the channel tunnel for whom the problems of blight are every bit as bad as for those on the previously preferred route? Will he please make an early announcement of help for those people whose houses have been rendered valueless?

Mr. Rifkind

I thank my right hon. Friend for his warm welcome of the decision itself. I am aware of the difficulties to which both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. Bowden) referred and, as I said, we are considering the matter to see whether it is possible, in co-operation and consultation with British Rail, to make progress on this difficult and sensitive matter.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

Will the Secretary of State again try to explain to us why, of itself, the announcement is good news for travellers from the north, because his first attempt sounded to me like pure gobbledegook? Will he confirm that, at present, there is no guarantee of the financing of the tunnel-to-Stratford link and that, under this Government, there is even less guarantee of the link then being taken to King's Cross? The Government have again this week failed to bring the King's Cross Railways Bill back into the parliamentary timetable.

What will happen? What gurantees are there that we shall have even the point of interchange at King's Cross, let alone direct connections, to give a proper service from the north? Is not it an absolute disgrace that, on the morning after the announcement was finally made—after all the delay—Ove Arup, the sponsor of the group, still says that it has no idea where the money is coming from? It has no idea on the tunnel-to-Stratford link; it certainly has no idea on the Stratford-to-King's Cross link.

Mr. Rifkind

It is not often that I agree with the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), who made it clear that she welcomed the announcement and believed that it would be beneficial to Scotland. Moreover, I believe that the announcement has also been welcomed by Labour Members representing constituencies north of the border. The choice of King's Cross, as opposed to Stratford, as the terminus has been warmly welcomed by Scottish industry, the Scottish CBI and the Scottish Trades Union Congress, and the hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that fact rather than carping about the matter.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on a decision which I believe will be in the long-term interests of the whole of the United Kingdom, but may I also remind him that for many months British Rail has been telling the long-suffering commuters who use the north Kent line that the proposed fast link into central London will be their salvation? Now that that will clearly not be the case, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me and the House that money will not be diverted from much-needed commuter programmes to subsidising the fast link?

Mr. Rifkind

In its assessment of the two routes, British Rail assumed that, whichever route was chosen, there would be the same number of daily commuter services from Kent into London. Obviously the choice of route influences the places to which commuters may go and at which they may alight, but the number of commuter services will continue to be increased and improved and many commuters will benefit substantially, irrespective of the choice of route. I can also confirm to my hon. Friend that there will be no question at all of commuters being expected in any way to see a diminution in their services to provide funding for the channel tunnel service.

We have already made it clear that whatever route was chosen, if there were commuter benefits as a consequence of the new line, the Government would be prepared to fund those benefits in the usual way.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

As the Secretary of State has given his preference for the second terminal to be at King's Cross, will he now consider the link between Stratford and King's Cross? Will that link be through a tunnel on a dedicated line or will the north London line be upgraded to link with the western region and the north-west? That is important because the north London line has experienced underinvestment for some time and the people who live along that line need to be aware of the future of that route.

Mr. Rifkind

The intention is that the stretch of line between Stratford and King's Cross should be a tunnel, and that clearly will be more acceptable to people who live in the locality

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am aware of the importance of the matter, but we have a busy day before us. I will allow questions to continue for another five minutes and we must, I regret, move on. Will hon. Members please ask brief questions?

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

I do not believe that commuters will carry on as they do now as electronic communications are developing so rapidly, and I do not believe that the European Community will continue to accept the ever-increasing numbers of even heavier lorries. Freight is the key to all this. Will my right hon. and learned Friend upgrade his assurance that freight will be central to the assessment of the route?

Mr. Rifkind

It is important to ensure that the opening of the channel tunnel enables major benefits to be achieved by the United Kingdom economy as a result of improved freight times for exports and imports from sources in the United Kingdom to the continent. The Government believe that that is important, and I would expect British Rail to treat it as important.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the choice of the eastern route to King's Cross and Stratford as opposed to the central route advocated by the London borough of Newham was made for developmental reasons? Is not a fact that lucky landowners near designated stations on the route between London and Ashford will have direct contact with Paris and London? Will that not increase the value of the land? As the Secretary of State for the Environment created the London Docklands development corporation, which has not been a general benefit to most of the inhabitants of east London, does the Secretary of State for Transport accept that there is a certain amount of cynicism about the motives of the Secretary of State and the decision taken on the matter?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman may wish to suggest that he is cynical, but that does not appear to be the reaction of those who have welcomed the project, including people in the Labour party in the London borough of Newham. The hon. Gentleman is alone in his cynicism.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend pass on a welcome for the orderly marketing of the homes which have been bought up in my constituency and in other constituencies? Does he also recognise that delay will mean more traffic on roads through constituencies such as mine? If we can have environmental protection for a railway, why can we not have the £10 million recommended by two inspectors for the road through Oxleas wood?

Mr. Rifkind

Each project is considered to discover whether the resources would produce a commensurate benefit. I am sensitive to the point made by my hon. Friend about Oxleas wood. He is aware of the reasons for the decision taken by my predecessor. I see no reason to depart from that conclusion.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton)

Stratford may be the right decision, but it is not easy to tell because the Secretary of State sat on the professional reports until today. Will he be assured that my constituents in Leyton, which is next door to Stratford, will not tolerate their area being turned into a giant car park, motorway or traffic logjam to facilitate Stratford? Will he undertake urgent studies into the implications for neighbouring boroughs? The M11 link road was approved on a false prospectus. Now that Stratford has been chosen, there will be much more traffic on the road. Will the Secretary of State review urgently that Department of Transport scheme?

Mr. Rifkind

Naturally, all the local boroughs will wish to consider the implications of the announcement in terms of their own traffic patterns. We are anxious to ensure that there should be the maximum benefit from the choice of the eastern route. It has been widely welcomed, but I accept that a lot of detailed work of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman and others have referred needs to be done.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

As a Member whose constituency has been directly affected as it is on the north side of the Thames, may I give a qualified welcome to the scheme, provided that the railway line travels through the derelict marshland which borders much of the north side of the Thames and will not take out the 18th hole of the Orsett golf course? Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the needs of the commuters who use the congested and almost derelict Fenchurch Street line will also be borne in mind so that as the new railway line is developed it may offer better facilities for the commuters who daily use that appalling railway?

Mr. Rifkind

I must confess that those who briefed me on the likely questions to be raised by hon. Members did not anticipate concern about the 18th hole at my hon. Friend's golf course. I cannot comment specifically on the implications for that site, although it would probably come under the environmental impact assessment to which I referred. I assure my hon. Friend that the points that she has raised, which are important, will be taken into account.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Does the Secretary of State agree that, if the channel tunnel link is to have any benefit to people in the midlands or the north, we in turn need good direct rail access to London? In that connection, what will he do about British Rail's decision to axe the inter-city route from Telford to London, which is a grave threat to the economic development of the region? When will he set British Rail free and allow it to electrify the line from Wolverhampton to Shrewsbury?

Mr. Speaker

That question is a bit wide of the statement.

Mr. Rifkind

I expect British Rail to take into account demand for the line and the likely use of any of its services when determining whether to continue or terminate them.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

None of the proposed routes has ever gone through my constituency, but my constituents look forward to the day when some relief is given to the north Kent line. They hope to see that route planned and built much sooner than the most pessimistic estimates of 2005, for they look forward to relief from their daily misery on what is the worst commuter line in the country.

Mr. Rifkind

There appears to be substantial competition among hon. Members for that title. I recognise my hon. Friend's point; it is a perfectly fair comment. His constituents are not as well served as they should be, and my hon. Friend is right to draw that point to the attention of the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry that I have not been able to call all hon. Members who wished to speak, but I shall certainly bear them in mind when we return to this matter.

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