HC Deb 14 December 1992 vol 216 cc231-50 6.21 am
Sir Keith Speed (Ashford)

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the debate. It will be a somewhat Kentish debate, judging by my hon. Friends in the Chamber. I am sure that the Minister will accept some of the criticisms that we shall make in the spirit in which they are made.

Over the past few years, history has shown us that a number of motor transport projects have lacked the political will to carry them through or suffered delays, ineptitude or incompetence. One thinks of the Maplin airport plan, the Heathrow rail link, crossrail and the Jubilee line, which is still being discussed. I submit, however, that the granddaddy of them all is the channel tunnel rail link.

When the new channel tunnel was announced a few years ago, it was decided that a link was not necessary. Then it was decided that it was necessary. Indeed, many of us who live in Kent and see the problems of Network SouthEast realise that to run a viable and complete international channel tunnel service of trains from London and other parts of the United Kingdom through to the continent on the existing Network SouthEast would, in a few years' time, soon lead to disaster.

First, it was said that we needed only one London terminal for the channel tunnel rail link. We then did an about-turn and said that we needed two: King's Cross and Waterloo. It now appears to be one again, because I am not sure about the status of King's Cross. That gives none of us grounds for confidence that people will arrive where they thought they had set out for.

Five years ago, it was clear that if Network SouthEast was to grow at 4 to 5 per cent., which was the incremental growth rate per year until the recent recession, the link was essential; many senior people in British Rail were saying that it would be essential to have it by the turn of the century. It was realised that, as well as being necessary to cope with the capacity problems on Network SouthEast, the line would be of considerable benefit to Kent commuters, which would obviously have a bearing on the way that it was financed.

Since then, the history of the project has bordered on high farce. Unfortunately, that high farce has caused major problems and uncertainty, not only for my constituents but for many others in Kent and south-east London. In 1988, there were four route options through different parts of Kent that joined just north of Folkestone. Some of the options went through housing estates which, apparently, were not on the maps that British Rail was using. I suspect that they were not on the maps used by the Department of Transport either—some of my hon. Friends know of that only too well.

There was much aggravation, consultation and discussion. I, and, I am sure, others of my hon. Friends representing Kent, had a difficult time. I experienced the worst time that I have known in my 24 years in Parliament. I personally received more than 3,000 letters. We were attending public meetings of 400 and 500 people and none of us—British Rail, the Department of Transport and the Government—appeared in a good light.

Eventually, after all that aggravation, we arrived on a likely route—the southerly approach into London. It was to pass up the existing line from Folkestone, through Ashford and my constituency, branching out along the M20, through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), up through north Kent, to Waterloo and across the river, in through Essex, Stratford and the two terminals at King's Cross. Meanwhile, there was an abortive attempt to involve the private sector.

The consultants—the Ove Arup group—had been drawing up their own solution to the problem, as had a consortium called Rail Europe, based on the original Talis route. The Rail Europe proposal was for a line further to the east of the existing routes, approaching through Stratford into King's Cross through east London and Essex. I believe that that option was never properly evaluated. I know that both the Department and British Rail said that it was, but there was a strong feeling in my part of the world, and, I think in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent, that it was not properly evaluated. Whatever the Minister, I or anybody else says, many of my constituents will take that view with them to their grave. That solution could have been a good one. It would certainly have been people-friendly.

We thought that we had found the final solution. My constituents, if not learning to love it, were learning to live with it. My 3,000 letters dropped to just a few letters every month, and I thought that all was in order. However, in October last year my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who was then the Secretary of State for Transport, announced in Blackpool at the Conservative party conference that the Ove Arup route through Stratford was to be selected, and the southern route, worked out by British Rail, was to be abandoned.

I believed then, and said so—I have heard nothing to change my mind—that the choice had more to do with the regeneration of the Thames corridor than international transport considerations. My right hon. and learned Friend told his audience in Blackpool, and I heard him—as did the world, because he was widely quoted:

We are ending the blight and the uncertainty. At the beginning of this year, Union Railways, a new subsidiary formed by British Rail, was set up to redefine and bring forward the project. I believe—my hon. Friend the Minister can correct me if I am wrong—that the remit from the Department of Transport made it clear that cost savings were to be the main name of the game. It was put about that the Ove Arup route was only a concept, not a detailed line, although it had apparently been a fairly definitive route in October last year.

So it was back to the drawing board. Contrary to what my right hon. and learned Friend had said, fresh blight and uncertainty had been created. Cost-cutting had a lot to do with it, I suspect. People in my part of the world say that the cost-cutting was in preparation for privatisation. I hope that that is untrue. I have reservations about privatisation. I should like to see a partnership between the Government, British Rail and the private sector—a partnership producing high-quality environmental protection.

Matters went from bad to worse. In July this year there were rumours of a new possible route through Kent. They remained rumours, because no consultation had been carried out with Members of Parliament, local councillors, the local business community or anyone else. There were some murky confidential meetings between the chief officers of one or two local councils and one or two council leaders, but there was no "consultation" in the sense that my hon. Friends and I understand that word.

Local people have some idea now of the options under consideration, thanks to the excellent investigative work of our local newspapers, particularly the Kentish Express, which has unearthed some interesting facts.

It appears that one option is the original route through Ashford, north through the town in a tunnel, up alongside the M20 to the area know as Charing heath, thence into the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent, on up through the north of Kent and eventually into King's Cross, having passed through parts of Essex and east London.

The favoured option, however, would apparently be completely different. It would abandon the tunnels—this is where the cost considerations come in—and run on the surface almost all the way. In Ashford, it would destroy the local golf club, and the new sewage works, which cost a great deal of money. It would run through one of the most attractive residential parts of the town, emerge alongside the M20 and somehow cross it to join the existing line down near Mersham. The line would also run further into north-west Kent, and it would cause more problems and uncertainties there.

Ashford has been appallingly blighted by all this. I have received letters from business people and other people thinking of moving to Ashford, asking me whether they should buy a house in the town and what will happen if they do. I have sent my hon. Friend the Minister copies of some of those letters. The truth is that neither he nor can answer them at the moment. If the line does come, we do not know which side of the M20 it will affect. Sale boards are going up again in my part of Kent, and the housing market is just beginning to revive—but not in Ashford, because the line's route is uncertain and no one in his right mind would buy a house knowing that in a few months' time it could be dramatically affected by the high-speed link.

The blight is also affecting what is probably the largest income-generating employer—potentially—in south-east Kent: Trinity College science park in Ashford. It has come to a grinding halt because the new surface line, which would bisect Ashford, would also mess up the science park, thereby destroying its huge potential for high-technology industries and local employment. My constituents are coming to the end of their tethers. They are punch drunk after so many years of "consultations". They had thought that the matter was settled, but they now find that they are unable to sell their houses—and the new route is not even protected for blight purposes.

I understand that Union Railways intends to submit proposals to the Government within the next two weeks, and I strongly believe that the proposals and options should be published at that stage and placed in the public domain. I shall tell my hon. Friend the Minister why: it would end the blight, including that affecting the possible new surface route through the town. I cannot overstress—I am sure that hon. Friends representing other Kent constituencies can bear this out—the hardship, worry and concern being caused.

It is no use saying that early publication will cause blight, because the blight already exists. Once the proposals are published, at least the blight will be defined. We know of and have learnt to live with the route that passes alongside existing lines in Ashford. The possible new route is being imagined by different people in all parts of the town, although I think that the press has done a pretty good job of trying to define it. If the proposals are published as soon as the Department receives them, at least that will eliminate large areas of blight. It seems impossible to get that through to the Government and to Ministers. I think that they cannot understand because the problem does not exist in their constituencies.

I also believe strongly in publication, because the proposals are bound to leak very quickly in garbled form. It is an unfortunate fact of life that Whitehall cannot be relied upon these days to keep confidences confidential. In this particular case, it should not do so anyway, because enough has leaked since last July.

Another important point that should be mentioned—although I do not set great store by it—is that the county council elections are to be held in May. I do not think that the high-speed rail link should be a matter of party political controversy. All parties in my part of the world want it, but it would be singularly unfortunate, to say the least, if the Government decided to publish the proposals in a few months' time, and became embroiled in the county council election campaign. That would not do anybody any good.

Another vital reason for quickly publishing the proposals is so that the consultation will be meaningful. If the Department, Ministers and Union Railways all want the consultation that they say that they want, it is no use the Government sitting on the proposals and causing a delay of three to six months, and then coming forward with their conclusions and saying, "We are now going out to consultation." There has been no consultation so far, and what will consultation be worth at that stage? Will it be consultation about the colour that the fences will be painted, or about whether a tree will be planted here or there? Clearly, it could not be substantial consultation on whether the route should go through tunnels for environmental reasons and on other matters of importance, including freight.

Ashford is already bisected by the main line, but we have lived with that for 120 years and can do so for another 120. If the Government's proposed route for Ashford is the new one alongside the A20, which would introduce an additional bisecting of the town and all the profound disadvantages that I listed—my constituents and I profoundly hope that will not be so—the Government, when they make their announcement, must also announce proposals for dealing with all those problems. Where is the golf course to go? Where is the new sewage works to go? What will be the compensation scheme for all the residential houses affected? What will happen to the Trinity College science park, which is vital to the balanced industrial growth of Ashford and south-east Kent?

Perhaps I have been a little rough so far. I do not mean to be offensive to my hon. Friend the Minister; in his dealings with me and those of my hon. Friends who represent other Kent constituencies, he has always been courteous and helpful and he has done his very best to assist us. He is, however, defending the indefensible if he is not prepared to publish details of the route at an early stage and to ensure that meaningful consultation takes place.

It has been publicly recorded within the past fortnight that my constituents have one of the worst rail services in the United Kingdom—the Kent coast line. I do not blame British Rail for that; I blame the lack of investment in rolling stock on the line. The Networker 471, which would have made an enormous difference to punctuality, reliability and comfort, was promised to my constituents and those of my hon. Friends who represent south-east Kent: they were originally told that they would have it by 1993. I have maps upstairs, published by British Rail—presumably with the authority of the Department of Transport—which show that that was the plan. Alas, it now seems that the Networker will be at least five years late, appearing in 1997–98 at the earliest.

Over the past five years, my constituents have been subjected to numerous anxieties. All the consultations and statements on the channel tunnel rail link have been totally misleading and out of date, bearing no relation to the latest initiative. My hon. Friend the Minister has done a great deal to try to promote Ashford international passenger station; it is now three-eighths funded, but is clearly unlikely to open before the international services start running. Even at this stage, local British Rail management appears doubtful about whether it can spend the money announced by my hon. Friend on signalling and track work. I feel that my constituents have a right to feel aggrieved.

What is the cost of the exercise? I wrote to my hon. Friend, who was unable to give me the figures; I have, however, ascertained them. The cost of the nugatory work done so far is as follows: £145 million for house purchase, offset by sales of £19 million. Interest on the money raised for expenditure currently stands at £66 million; on top of that are thousands of hours of management and senior management work. The total net cost is clearly in excess of £100 million—for nothing. We are now back to the drawing board.

For £100 million, we could have built the Ashford international passenger station and had £20 million left over for something else. Alternatively, we could have provided about 20 per cent. of the cost of the new Networker fleet. That would have been a substantial start. People in Kent are angry and shell shocked; they are asking for a say in decisions, and they want those decisions to be implemented properly and sensibly, so that the rail link will, at best, be only five or six years behind the comparable link that the French are to open next summer.

If the scheme is to be completed—I hope that it will be, although there is considerable doubt at present—it will need not only the work that is being done but a proper selection of the route and proper environmental protection. It must set European noise standards, rather than trailing behind with outdated standards that might have been adequate for the roads of 20 years ago but are not adequate for the new railways of today.

Before the ink dries on the Edinburgh summit agreement, let me put in a plea. Much of the cost of both the Ashford international passenger station and the link could be found from the £24 billion infrastructure economic funds that are to be provided by the private sector, the European investment bank and other Government sources. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister knows that the European investment bank financed the second Dartford tunnel some years ago: there is a good precedent. If this sort of money is now up for grabs among the 12 Community countries, we ought to put in a quick bid at an early stage. Both projects would be good for local people, good for employment and good for Kent and the United Kingdom, and I believe that they are vital for Europe.

On the channel tunnel rail link, we want publication now; we want consultation as soon as possible; we want the very best environmental protection; and we want early construction. It really is time to stop the shilly-shallying.

6.45 am
Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed) has expressed admirably the sense of anger and frustration in his constituency over the handling of the channel tunnel rail link, and the sentiments that he has conveyed to the House are mirrored in that part of my constituency through which the rail link was at one stage designed to pass and which may conceivably still constitute one of the options now being considered by British Rail.

Let me start by giving a brief history of the link, up to the time of the announcement made by the then Secretary of State for Transport in October last year. Until that time, the channel tunnel rail link was formally designated from the channel tunnel portal up to Halting, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), and the extreme north-west section of the route passed through my constituency. It passed through the charming hamlet of Kit's Coty; then travelled west, very close to the village of Eccles; then passed immediately to the south of the village of Burham, going close to the primary school there; then went along a visually very intrusive viaduct over the Medway.

In addition, British Rail planned to construct, in the last remaining rural lung between the Maidstone area and the Medway area, a new commuter station—the so-called Mid-Kent Parkway station—which would have been environmentally extremely damaging to that part of my constituency, quite apart from the fact that it would have been wholly unserved by suitable access roads and would have caused heaven knows what traffic mayhem if it had been brought into use.

Those plans were scrapped, as we thought, by the then Secretary of State for Transport in his announcement of 9 October last year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford said, that announcement was originally made in very clear and precise terms. At that time, a formal map was issued by the Department of Transport, in which the clear line of the so-called Ove Arup route was designated. That line travelled partly over land and partly in tunnel. Its route was confirmed as far as Detling, although it was made clear that there was further work to be done in determining the route beyond Detling. The line was none the less set out in a formal Department of Transport map, which followed it all the way into London.

The new proposed line passed outside my constituency and—more significant—the Government had apparently accepted some of the central environmental arguments advanced by the Ove Arup team and had made the crucial decision that the line was to pass in tunnel under the north downs rather than travelling along the surface. That news was greeted with delight by my constituents—a delight which was added to just under a month later when, on 5 November last, the then Secretary of State issued directions cancelling the previous directions that he had made safeguarding the area of the line from Detling to Hailing, which was now clearly redundant. The Secretary of State quite properly removed the blighting effect that his directions in 1990 had created. The position in my area is very similar to what was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. The Government having established a clear position with the announcement of last October, as this year has progressed the position has become more and more muddied, more and more uncertain, with the blight becoming ever more maximised.

Of course, I accept that, if one is going to carry out public transport infrastructure projects, it is inescapable that blight will follow the publication proposals, but blight is an immensely damaging factor. In human terms, it is incredibly distressing. It makes it impossible for people to sell their homes, it causes them enormous worry and anxiety and it tends to be of long duration.

What I find quite intolerable about the present position in my constituency—from what my hon. Friend has said, it is also taking place in his constituency—is that in 1990, several hundreds of my constituents were effectively formally blighted by the publication of the previous safeguarding orders designating the line between Detling and Halling. One year later, that blight was removed. One more year later, in 1992, it looks as though the blight will come back, with the endless circulation of rumours about alternative routes which British Rail is putting forward, possibly including going back to the very surface route between Detling and Halling, which the Government very clearly, in a statement to the House, scrapped in October last year.

It is quite intolerable to treat people in that way—to blight them one moment, to remove the blight the next moment and then possibly to put it back over them all over again. The Government must acknowledge that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford said, they are duty bound not merely to remove the blight but to honour previous undertakings. People who were previously blighted should not be reblighted all over again.

Perhaps British Rail is being driven by purely financial considerations, but that in itself is not acceptable. We have had many assurances from the Dispatch Box that British Rail would not be allowed to adopt a cut-price route. We have had many assurances that environmental considerations are not simply going to be set aside but taken into account. The pages of Hansard are littered with assurances that have been given by a succession of Ministers to that effect. For example, on 7 November 1988, referring to the British Rail board, the then Minister of Public Transport, now Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said: I do expect the board to be extremely sensitive to environmental concerns".—[Official Report, 7 November 1988; Vol. 140, c. 69.] Another previous Secretary of State for Transport, now Lord Parkinson, said: We recognise that there are special problems in Kent, and we must protect the environment."—[Official Report, 14 June 1990; Vol. 174, c. 490.] The then Secretary of State for Transport, the present Secretary of State for Defence, in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold), said:

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."—[Official Report. 14 October 1991; Vol. 196, c. 32.] This year, the present Secretary of State for Transport, in a letter to me, gave me the assurance that British Rail is applying environmental standards comparable to those for other major infrastructure projects. That is just a short selection from an endless range of assurances from Ministers that the environmental protection of Kent will be paramount and that the Government accept that the necessary costs will have to be borne to ensure that environmental protection is achieved.

It is absolutely essential that the Government continue to tell British Rail that they will not accept a cut-price job. Basic environmental obligations must be met in Kent. That county is trying to hang on to its considerable and, in some areas, remarkable rural qualities. In those areas with large populations, people must be properly protected from noise and visual disturbance.

The critical requirement for the area of line that passes through my part of Kent is that the ministerial undertaking that we believe that we were given, and which was amply demonstrated on the map issued by the Department of Transport in October last year—that the line will pass through the north downs in tunnel—is adhered to. If there is any question of the Government reneging on that, the Minister will face absolutely determined opposition from me and others throughout the passage of any subsequent Bill that comes before the House.

6.55 am
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

It is very difficult to remain calm when one is so frustrated and angered. I should like to begin, however, by agreeing with my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed) that one is at issue with the issue and not at issue with my hon. Friend the Minister, who has always behaved with great courtesy and consideration to us all.

As Christmas is approaching I thought that I might begin by trying to lighten the early hour with a modified Christmas carol:

In their first Euro effort, British Rail gave to Kent the promise of no railway, but a blight trail across the county, In their second Euro effort, British Rail gave to Kent four rail routes and a blight trail across the county, In their third Euro effort, British Rail gave to Kent a line on greaseproof paper, four rail routes and a blight trail across the county, In their fourth Euro effort, British Rail gave to Kent an international station, a line on greaseproof paper, half a rail route and a blight trail across the county, In their fifth Euro effort, British Rail gave to Kent no international station, a line through the north downs, a station at King's Cross and a blight trail across the county, In their sixth Euro effort, Ministers gave to Kent an international station, no line through the north downs, no station at King's Cross, a new freight line and a blight trail across the county, In their seventh Euro effort, Ministers gave to Kent an international station, no line through the north downs, no station at King's Cross, many route options, no freight line and a blight trail across the county, In their final Euro effort, will Ministers give to Kent an international station, a line through the north downs, a station at King's Cross, consultation on the route, a real freight line and the end of blight across the county? It is sad that, yet again, the debate is being conducted among Kentish Members only—with the exception of the gallant hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) who is sitting on the Opposition Benches. The proposal relates to the development of part of the infrastructure that will affect all the United Kingdom. It is a great shame that it seems almost impossible to engage consistently the attention of hon. Members from other parts of the country to examine exactly what is being proposed and what needs to be done to make our infrastructure satisfactory for the next century.

I want to discuss freight, blight and consultation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), perhaps the most forceful of the Secretaries of State who have declared support for the transfer of freight from road to rail, said that it was the Government's intention to instigate such a transfer. Even in the time since he left that post—transport certainly seems to be the best way of transferring Secretaries of State from A to B, even if the Department experiences difficulty in moving freight from A to B—there has been an appalling haemorrhage of freight from the railway. Last week, Castle Cement announced that it will send 210,000 tonnes of cement by road. The week before, Blue Circle transferred half a million tonnes from rail to road. In the same week, British Rail refused to carry 75,000 tonnes of oil on its Highland line. We know that by the end of 1993 a substantial number of major companies that send freight by rail will have been priced off the railway, with the result that remaining users will face higher costs. Why have they taken these decisions? It is because in the depth of a massive recession, British Rail has increased the price on some pathways by more than 100 per cent. That smacks of exploitation of monopoly power.

British Rail has a habbit of responding to falling traffic by raising prices. It has happened to our commuters and it is now happening with increasing speed to freight. We know that the chairman of British Rail believes that rail freight has no future because he said so in public. Is it really the Government's intention to kill it? If not, why do they not change the rules?

For example, can my hon. Friend the Minister give any idea how much additional cost falls on the Government from 7 million extra lorry movements a year? The present policy flies in the face of Government assertions that freight should switch from road to rail, in the face of Kent county council's policy and in the face of the policy of local councils in Kent. There is an urgent need for a rethink on freight. It would be a mistake of massive proportions for the United Kingdom to accept Euro-money to build a passenger line while setting its face against similar support for freight.

I believe that the social, environmental and, eventually, commercial benefits of carrying freight by rail justify some short-term changes in Government policy.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I agree with every word that the hon. Member is saying, but is it his understanding, as it is mine, that British Rail is still bound by financial objectives laid down by the Government in December 1989, which oblige it, even in this time of recession, to seek an 8 per cent. return on investment on whole train freight, whereas road haulage would be happy to get perhaps 1 or 2 per cent. to get the business? Should not the rules be urgently changed and BR told that they have been changed?

Mr. Rowe

I am urging a change in Government policy, without which rail freight will cease to exist. The enormous expenditure incurred in creating freight villages will become a meaningless gesture. It would be rather like the legs of Ozymandias standing in the north of England.

It is vital that we seriously rethink how we finance freight. I shall give one example of the need to look to the future.

In recent years the controls on lorry drivers' hours have been considerably tightened, and there is every probability that over the next 20 years they will become tighter still, as will controls on lorry pollution. If that changes the economics of taking freight by lorry, there must be a sensible and viable alternative—as there is in every other European country.

As things are going at present, there will be no capacity left to handle the opportunities that the channel tunnel makes available. There is no doubt that, if present circumstances continue, the scenario that I remember sketching out in the House about four years ago will come to pass. There will be huge freight terminals in Frence to allow freight to be transferred from the trains that have carried it through the whole of Europe on to lorries, so that those lorries can come through the tunnel and rumble through the roads of Kent—in clear opposition, I repeat, to the wishes of every level of local government in Kent.

That will not do, I seek a clear assurance that there will be a change in the Government's perspective on the matter. Specifically, how meaningful is their commitment to a freight capacity on the channel tunnel rail link? Lord Goschen said in another place: we have great plans to carry freight from the Channel Tunnel on the high speed link. However, he had previously said: British Rail has stated that existing lines have sufficient capacity for freight traffic well into the next century"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 November 1992; Vol. 540, c. 954–55.] I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether he is genuinely certain that the British Rail proposal, with its gradients, passing loops and curves, can create a genuine freight capacity on a line that BR wants to use primarily for passengers. There is clear evidence that the mixing of high-speed freight trains and high-speed passenger trains is difficult to achieve, and I believe that there is serious doubt whether British Rail will be able satisfactorily to carry any meaningful quantity of freight on the route chosen, which runs through villages such as Harrietsham, in my constituency.

We need a genuine assurance. I know that the Minister wants the line to be able to carry freight, because he has often told me so, but I want him to be certain that British Rail, with its indifference to freight, is not pulling the wool over his eyes to secure a line such as it has always wanted—purely for passengers.

I shall refer briefly to blight. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) has set out the argument well, supporting the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. I add only that the blight caused by the project has been even greater than that caused by all the other current major infrastructure projects in Kent—and we know how many of them there are.

There are two principal reasons for that. The first is that British Rail had no skill or experience in handling such a matter. Its handling of public concern was clumsy to the point of shame. There was maximum confrontation with the public and minimum consultation. BR took no advice, nor did it listen to anyone. It was clear from an early stage that it had no serious intention of modifying its favourite proposal, and it is still cross that the Government made the route go east of London.

The second reason was the fact that BR hugely underestimated the intelligence, knowledge, commitment and hard work of the public affected. Large numbers of people in Kent now know an enormous amount about where the line could go, and about gradients, locomotives and curves. In spite of all that, BR has tried to pretend that it can minimise blight by keeping its plans secret. Of course, the opposite is true. The flood of rumour and counter-rumour has made matters far worse.

Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling both said, the Government lifted safeguarding in terms which gave some people, including constituents of mine, a clear assurance that they were no longer on the route. That has proved to be a complete myth. I am glad to say that the ombudsman has accepted two examples of blight for investigation.

The most famous example is the Oak Hive estate in my constituency which was originally not noticed by British Rail when it first put its line across the map. British Rail then bought every house on the estate in compensation for its incompetence. Goodness knows what British Rail paid for the estate at the height of the market. When the safeguarding was lifted, BR gave instructions for the houses to be sold.

Two or three houses were sold before, about a month later, the Nationwide Anglia property agency, totally scrupulously, decided that it had to put a map of the original proposal, which was all that BR would let it have, on the wall because it became clear that the lifting of safeguarding meant nothing at all. We now have British Rail blighting its own houses yet again on an estate where it has already behaved disgracefully.

Fourthly, the massive increase in freight along the existing lines has blighted properties along them as well. How long will it be before construction on those lines starts? There is the possible scenario of people being blighted from now well into the next century. The misery of that would be intolerable.

I urge the Government to publish the proposals when they receive them, or very soon afterwards. Publication will not increase blight. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford said, it could not. Blight is universal anywhere near the line; it is unshakeable and it is soundly based.

The people of Kent and Essex are not stupid. They know where the options are likely to go. Designing a railway is not like putting in houses. Designing a railway is subject to strict parameters. Once one knows where some parts of the railway are, one knows that the rest is bound to go in one of two or three places. People are not stupid; they know that. Even if Union Railways sometimes behaves as if people were stupid, I can assure my hon. Friend the Minister that they are not. Most of the people I know in the action groups up and down the line and all their friends could draw a perfectly good set of options on the map which would look very similar to British Rail's options. I could not support more strongly the case for publication put by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford.

It is nonsense to suggest that there will be real consultation after the line has been chosen. The people along the route, who have done so much work and who have so many ideas to contribute, deserve to be allowed to make that contribution. I warn my hon. Friend the Minister that there will be much greater anger and much greater public hostility if people feel that whatever they say will make no substantial difference to the outcome It is not enough to ask people to comment on where the trees should be planted. They need to be consulted about matters such as where the stations might be.

It is interesting that Kent county council, Rochester upon Medway city council, Ashford council, Maidstone council and Tonbridge and Malling council are all in favour of publication when the Government receive the plan from Union Railways.

7.13 am
Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

This debate is opportune, given that we are about to head for yet another hurdle in this long and sorry saga. It is significant and should be noted that, despite the very early hour of the morning, many Kent Members are here to defend their constituents.

I cannot help but feel that this debate on the channel tunnel rail link has all the hallmarks of competing with "The Mousetrap". It goes on, and on, and on. It is now four years since British Rail first sprung the high-speed rail link route upon the people of Istead Rise and New Barn in my constituency. That caused major upset and public meetings of 700 very concerned residents who saw their only major asset—their homes—blighted and their value undermined.

The latest corridor, the so-called Ove Arup alongside the A2, lifts the blight on the people of Istead Rise and New Barn, but imposes it on people from Pepper Hill in Northfleet along Watling street to Hever farm in Gravesend. They are all very densely populated areas.

I note that BR, in its new guise of Union Railways, is doing a thorough job. Nevertheless, that thorough job is causing great anxiety. The message from the people of Northfleet and Gravesend to BR, Union Railways and the Government is simple: sink the link. Clearly, people in my part of the world did not want the link. However, if it has to be, if it is in the national interest and if it has to be in the corridor concerned, then environmental protection must be the order of the day. To achieve that environmental protection in my constituency, the line should be dropped vertically.

Originally, the Ove Arup plan was for a 30 ft high embankment opposite Northfleet. That is clearly unacceptable opposite a densely populated area. The line should be dropped to a very low level, preferably with cutting and covering and, in any event, shielding the urban area from noise.

Although those people already have noise from the A2, that noise dies away at night. If action is to be taken to get freight onto the line, which we are assured will happen, that freight is likely to move at night and that movement will be accompanied by noise. Therefore, abatement of noise by dropping the level of the line is absolutely essential to ensure that the lives of thousands of my constituents in Northfleet and Gravesend are not made intolerable.

The other point of concern in my constituency relates to the parish of Cobham. The crossing of the Medway by the high-speed rail link remains a matter of uncertainty. Ove Arup's original proposal had the link crossing the river flush with the M2 bridge. Later plans from Union Railways show the crossing being south of Cuxton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner).

The danger of despoliation of one of the most beautiful and historical parishes in Kent—the parish of Cobham—is clear. That must be considered by the planners. Union Railways must carefully consult environmental and heritage interests on its plans as they cross that parish.

The plans to date show that the passage across Gravesham remains south of the A2 line. Any suggestion of crossing to the north of the line within the borough of Gravesham would cause major problems by hitting the densely populated urban area. I take it that the statements made to date by Union Railways that it has no plans to cross the A2 line in Gravesham remain inviolate. I hope that the company will stick by those undertakings.

The A2 line east-west across Gravesham is a powerful boundary for the green belt between urban north and rural south. That line has been held firmly now for decades and the success of green-belt policy is clear. However, Union Railways must not see an opportunity to spread itself across the green belt adjacent to the urban area. Union Railways may see unbuilt land on a map as white. We see it as green and we fully intend to defend it. That is why I strongly discourage any passing loops in that area.

Nevertheless, there are rail transport opportunities in this area. People in north-west Kent rely on the old North Kent line to commute to London. The line was built in the 19th century to cheap specifications, and it is no longer adequate for the weight of thousands of daily commuters that it must carry.

The Government have taken steps to relieve the terrible conditions under which our commuters must travel by authorising construction of the Networker 465. British Rail, in its inimitable style, together with the companies that it uses to construct these vehicles, has caused delays on the introduction of the Networkers 465. I saw the first Networker 465 arrive in Gravesend only a fortnight ago. It seems that many months will pass before the vehicles are properly introduced. The Government should be congratulated on introducing the Networkers in Kent.

If we are going to have a high-speed rail link through this area, and if commuter facilities are to be developed with an interchange station or junction between Northfleet and Swanscombe, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn), combined with fast links with the urban areas of Gravesend and Northfleet, there will be some compensation for my constituents from the proposed environmental impact. Indeed, we will enter the 21st century in terms of transport provision for my constituents.

The year 1993 will be fateful. The people in Kent wish to have an announcement that combines environmental protection with new rail transport opportunities. I expect the Government to honour the environmental undertakings referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), which have been given time and again. The whole proposal is a tall order. It must have essential pre-conditions, and I wish my hon. Friend the Minister well in achieving them.

7.23 am
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

First, I must apologise to my hon. Friends for missing the start of the debate. I was detained in the small hours of the morning by a constituency problem, which I have been dealing with ever since.

Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)

The hon. Member was in bed!

Mr. Gale

I was not in bed. Because of that problem, I missed the speeches of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed), but I heard the rest of the debate.

I know that I speak for all of my colleagues in east Kent when I say that we support the belief of our friends in mid-Kent that the fast link is needed, that decisions must be taken, and that the programme must receive the necessary investment to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion swiftly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) forcefully said that it is time that we got the freight off Kent's road and on to the railways. That is vital. The roads in Kent from the ports of Ramsgate and Dover are saturated with heavy and dangerous traffic. Heavy lorries are breaking up Kent's roads and using country and side roads as rat runs to an intolerable and unacceptable level.

Let me give the House two examples. Only yesterday the M2 in the Chatham area was blocked for many hours while the police removed the wreckage of a lorry which had crashed through the central reservation. I was told that there was a 15-mile tailback on the coast-bound road, and I experienced a seven-mile tailback on the London-bound side of the motorway.

It is only a few days since my friend Anthony Garrett, who will be known to many hon. Members, was driving to his home just south of Ashford. He was pushed off the road by a German lorry. The lorry drove into the back of his car and pushed him through the central reservation. It is a miracle that he escaped with his life. His car was a complete write-off. The lorry did not stop; it was heading for the ports in a hurry. Those are simply two instances in the past 10 days of what is commonplace in Kent. It is time that we got the traffic off the roads and got it where it belongs—on the railways.

It would not be a debate about railways in Kent if I did not mention the Kent coast line. This is a debate about the channel tunnel link. Those of us who serve constituencies in north-east Kent look to the channel tunnel fast link as one of the means of speeding traffic from north-east Kent into central London. We believe that the time will come when our commuters will benefit from that and will be able to experience the faster, more comfortable journey to which we believe that they are entitled.

My hon. Friend the Minister will know only too well that just last week British Rail was compelled to recognise that the Kent coast line was the worst line in the Network SouthEast empire. It is the only line in the entire region on which people have had to receive a discount from British Rail under the charter because of its miserable performance in timekeeping.

I believe strongly that the rail link and especially that part of the rail link that will be needed to carry freight must receive, preferably from private sources, the necessary investment. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make certain that any investment in the fast link is at the cost of the vital improvements that must be carried out urgently to meet the needs of the commuters on the Kent coast line.

7.26 am
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

There is a convenient natural link here. I was pleased to be joined by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) just as the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) was talking about the Kent coast line. Conservative Members will remember with gratitude that my hon. Friend proposed using the Kent coast line as the model for a leasing project which would relieve them of all the worries with which they are unfortunately still burdened. Now that their Front-Bench team has somewhat timorously arrived at the view that leasing is not some far-fetched flight of socialist fancy, I am sure that they will all press for my hon. Friend's proposals to be implemented.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed) on initiating the debate. I am the only geographic outsider who has sat through it. It has otherwise been entirely men of Kent—[Interruption.] I am sorry—apart from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick), a Government Whip. I have found the debate extremely interesting. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) that the link is not a local Kent issue but a national one. It is one of the big infrastructure decisions which must be taken. It affects the whole country.

It will be something of a national embarrassment when the tunnel opens and high-speed trains come thundering across the continent and through the tunnel and arrive on a British Rail network when we are still thinking about where the route should go to carry high-speed trains direct even as far as London. The idea that we should have done anything about links north of London is so far-fetched that it does not even need to be contemplated at present. Presumably, the Government will get around to thinking about that at some time in the early decades of the next century.

Having caught up with some of the arguments in the debate, I find that the way in which the story has unfolded, even since last October, is astonishing. I have great sympathy with the constituents of the hon. Members who have spoken this evening. They must have thought, as I and any reasonable person did, that the Government were, at least on the surface, announcing some sort of decision last October. There was a great action-man exercise. We were given to understand that a decision had been taken. We saw television shots of street parties. We understood that something was to happen and that in other places it would not happen.

A clear-cut picture had supposedly emerged. I caught up with that story recently. No decision was made last October except a decision to give the false impression of a decision. People who thought that relief had been brought to them found that, in the words of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, they had been reblighted by the question being opened again in respect of their homes and areas. That is a grotesque injustice which is intolerable by any standards, but it will continue unless we have a decision.

Not only is the channel tunnel link called into question, but there is also the question of the method by which we go about arriving at major infrastructural decisions. We do not seem to get any of them right. They drag on for years, while we discuss routes and methods of funding. Strategic decisions cannot be taken within a reasonable time, or by a process that respects democracy and the national need for decisions to be taken so that we can get on with projects that are in the economic interest.

The idea that one is doing anyone a favour by prolonging uncertainty is false. As the hon. Member for Ashford said, people can live with a decision once it is taken, but they cannot live with uncertainty which seems to be removed and is then reimposed yet again.

A decision should have been taken long ago. The route should have been chosen, the means of funding it should have been defined and we should now be looking towards the opening of the tunnel, in the confidence that the project had been undertaken here in exactly the same way that it was undertaken in France.

The hon. Member for Ashford and I have made several visits to the tunnel and to the infrastructure on the other side of the channel. The French Government probably thought it a bit eccentric that the tunnel was to be built on a private enterprise basis, but, once they had accepted that, they obviously had to come in behind it. The channel tunnel and the approaches to it were treated as a national project, which clearly offered tremendous economic potential for the Pas de Calais area. It was to become the engine of economic regeneration. The private sector worked with the public sector, and investment was made available as strategic decisions were taken. The project was seen to have enormous potential as an engine for training people in various skills and they got on with it. The testimony to it is there and is fitting into place.

It is half-past seven in the morning, five years after we started talking about a fast rail link for the short distance between London and the tunnel, and this is as far as we have got. I do not think that one has to be politically partisan to measure the two approaches and to decide which has served national interests better.

In spite of the welcoming words of the hon. Member for Mid-Kent, I do not think that Conservative Members want to hear anything at great length from me. It is perfectly reasonable for time to be left for a comprehensive reply from the Minister—a reply which I also want to hear.

I strongly endorse the claim by the hon. Member for Ashford and his colleague the hon. Member for Mid-Kent that the Union Railways report should be published in full. Coincidentally, a written question of mine on that subject was answered yesterday. The answer made it clear that the report would not be published in full, but it suggested that some filleted version of that report would be published within a relatively short time. I do not think that most of the people represented by hon. Members here would regard that as adequate. People have the right to know, in full, what is going on, the arguments underlying any decision and where we go from here.

I cannot conclude without referring to freight. Several Conservative Members have made heartfelt pleas for the movement of freight from road to rail and that is obviously relevant to the debate. Conservative Members must realise—they cannot deceive their constituents on this point—that everything that the Government are doing, as opposed to what they are paying lip service to, is operating in precisely the opposite direction. Freight is being driven from rails to road at an astonishing rate and that will continue unless there is a definite change in policy.

I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Kent to make a distinction clear. I do not think that there was any disagreement, but he said that the chairman of British Rail saw no future for rail freight. It is only fair to the chairman of British Rail to point out that he was reflecting not a desire on his or British Rail's part but the reality of the moves leading up to privatisation.

I understand—I should be delighted to be corrected—that British Rail's objectives are still governed by the statement made by the now Lord Parkinson in December 1989, which laid down the financial objective of an 8 per cent. return on investment for whole train freight. Rail freight is being asked to compete on that basis at a time of recession, when most businesses are happy to get 1 or 2 per cent. However misguided it might be, that conditions the pricing policy of rail freight. At the same time, the Select Committee has been hearing day after day from every witness that has come before it that if freight is asked to accept more of the burden of infrastructural costs, the only consequence can be to drive freight off the rails and on to the roads. Those are the realities.

I shall not prolong my comments now, but let there be no doubt that any Conservative Member who has been piously, and doubtless sincerely, saying this morning that we must get more freight on to rail should know that he cannot go along with that policy and at the same time support privatisation, which is the main driving force in precisely the opposite direction. Nobody can avoid that conclusion.

This has been an extremely useful and interesting debate. Along with hon. Members from Kent, I now await with interest some answers from the Minister. I have some sympathy with the Minister. Secretaries of State come and go, but he always seems to be there, trailing along behind them with a bucket.

7.37 am
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I am sorry if the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) thinks that I trail behind Secretaries of State with a bucket of cold water.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster)

May I point out that my hon. Friend the Minister trailed to Lancaster yesterday to show how well our rail line would do out of privatisation?

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I hope that we shall see an early improvement to the infrastructure on the west coast main line, as I made plain to her yesterday when I visited Carlisle, Lancaster and Preston.

The debate has been sombre but important and I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Ashford (Sir K. Speed), for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) for reminding me of the great importance of ensuring that we build the channel tunnel link with maximum environmental protection and as speedily as possible. I accept that squaring those two difficult and sometimes conflicting pressures is ultimately the Government's responsibility.

When I approach that matter, I often seem to be treading on a sea of broken glass in the county of Kent. It is extremely difficult and I accept the need to move judiciously but firmly in completing the project. However, it is difficult in a country which, compared with northern France, has a high density of population, outstanding areas of countryside and many villages and historic towns which must be protected. I sometimes wish that I held the position of my opposite number in France, where Abbeville, Lille, Amiens and Fréthun are anxious to have the rail link through their municipalities. It must be different in Kent because of the need to protect the environment.

I do not have much time, so I shall deal briefly with the issue of freight and the Kent coast lines and then respond to the substantive matters relating to the rail link. Rail freight distribution loses a considerable sum of money—more than £100 million—so there is no question of British Rail meeting its financial objectives this year or next year. The freight that is being lost from the railways at present—a fact which I regret—does not make any contribution to the infrastructure costs. It is not meeting its marginal operational costs.

When the Government are informed by British Rail about the freight that it finds difficult to retain because the price increases are unacceptable to the customers, I do not accept British Rail's estimates of its above-track costs, but consider whether, even with substantial improvements in efficiency of operation, the freight would still not cover its marginal costs.

It would be difficult for some freight loads, which are hauled over relatively short distances in trains which are not full, to stay on the railway without direct subsidy. That is an important point of principle. There is a great opportunity for the rail freight industry to expand, but it must do so in the long-haul business, with full train loads. There is a great opportunity with the Channel tunnel to haul freight from the nine terminals which British Rail plans. In addition, when the private sector starts to construct new freight terminals throughout the country, the opportunities will expand.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced additional resources—£150 million—for the procurement of rolling stock. He has given permission for that rolling stock to be leased. He was able to do that because we have tabled our proposals for privatisation. British Rail is not the only operator of last resort—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) may laugh, but that is the position. If we had not announced our proposals for privatisation, there would have been only one operator. There would have been no difference between British Rail offering to lease trains and its offering to buy them outright, as there was only one operator. [Interruption.] I am explaining to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East the prudent financial and accounting rules in this country. I hope that British Rail will soon be in a position to make a judgment on ordering new rolling stock. It is not a matter for me, but I know that the Kent coast services are being considered.

I shall now deal with the important issues of substance raised by my hon. Friends. I ackowledge that what has happened since the general election has spread blight. We intended that Union Railways would take advice from planning officers and some leading councillors in Kent on discharging its remit, which was to come back to Government by the end of the year, 31 December—which it will do—with its considered judgment on how to build a railway line from Folkestone to King's Cross. Much of that work has already been achieved.

I well understand the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling when he says—as did my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent—that he will totally oppose any suggestion except that of a tunnel through the north downs. No such proposals have been made to the Government. I understand my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford when he says that he opposes any suggestion that involves taking the route north of the town, not through a tunnel through the town centre.

Union Railways has sought to discharge its remit. There has apparently been some success in parts of Kent. I believe that, as a result of confidential conversations, some intelligent light has been shed on how best to take the railway line under the Thames at Dartford with minimum impact on the borough. That is an example of the common sense of allowing Union Railways to get on quietly with preparing the details for the Government to consider.

I appreciate that through leaks or investigative journalism some of this work has entered the public doman, causing blight. I regret that. I agree with my hon. Friends that when we receive the Union Railways report, and the WS Atkins report on the methodology, they should be promptly published. My hon. Friends all agree about the desirability of that—

Mr. Rowe

I do not agree that this has all been done by investigative journalism. A great deal of the blight has been caused by the replies from Union Railways. When asked whether a person's house is out of danger of blight, it has answered in highly equivocal terms which could only be interpreted as meaning that the house in question was not out of danger.

Mr. Freeman

I was trying to help my hon. Friend by acknowledging the problems. The Government need to resolve them as quickly as possible. I accept the necessity for early publication. That is in the interests of proper public consultation with all hon. Members who take an interest in the matter—

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Will the Minister publish all the relevant facts?

Mr. Freeman

All relevant facts except those that are commercially confidential—the Government reserve the right not to publish those, but it is important nevertheless that as much as possible of the information that comes to us be published.

The report from WS Atkins will be published, too. Everyone should be in a position to know the costs and environmental implications of the various options that Union Railways will have considered. Ministers have not yet seen the report; it is still under consideration by the British Rail board: but I have been given firm assurances that it will reach Ministers by the end of the year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford will accept what I have said about publication.

The public consultation procedure may take many months. I undertake to talk to all hon. Members directly affected, in person and one by one. There will also be consultation with local authorities and interest groups. At the end of that, we should be able to safeguard a specific route all the way from Folkestone to King's Cross. Then the planning procedures can commence.

There are two ways forward: either a hybrid Bill or procedure under the Transport and Works Act 1992. The latter would be quite complicated, but it is an option. Once that procedure is completed, with the right finance construction can begin.

We want the private sector to play as big a role as possible in constructing and financing the link. I have no idea just how viable the link is. The Chancellor has said that he sees it as an example of public-private sector co-operation. It is important that commuters from the constituencies of my hon. Friends be able to use the link. We also remain committed to using the link to take as much freight off the roads of Kent as possible, and to relieve existing lines in Kent.

We shall examine carefully the extent to which the private sector can play a role in building the link. We want to involve it at an early stage so as to take the project forward.

Mr. Wilson

Does the Minister intend to seek access to the newly unleashed European structural funds?

Mr. Freeman

Any contribution from any Community source is welcome, but the participation of the European investment bank or any other source of European finance will not dramatically alter the viability of the scheme. It can help, however. The EIB helped with the second Severn crossing and the Dartford-Thurrock bridge, and I am sure that it will take part in any major transport infrastructural work in the future.

Addressing the key point, I acknowledge and regret very much that some blight has been created. It is important that we move on to the public consultation as quickly as possible. On behalf of the Government, I accept responsibility for accomplishing that.