HC Deb 21 July 1994 vol 247 cc605-13

1 pm

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking)

As I have been a Member of the House for such a short time, it is a privilege to be given the opportunity to speak in one of the last Adjournment debates of this Session on a topic which is of such paramount importance to my constituents. The focus of politics today for all sides of the House may be concentrated elsewhere rather than here, but I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise on the Floor of the House issues which mean so much to the people of Barking.

We are about to rise for a long recess when some of the worries and stresses of our lives will temporarily be lifted from our shoulders. There is no such respite for the people of Barking. My constituents face a summer of anxiety, worry, uncertainty and anger with the threat of the channel tunnel rail link route coming through the heart of our town, destroying the homes and lives of hundreds of families in my constituency.

Let me start by making it clear that I and my constituents, including those who are most directly affected by the tunnel, support the plans to establish a high-speed rail link connecting the channel tunnel to all parts of Britain. We are not displaying selfish nimbyism. We are saying that another solution must, and can, be found for Barking which does not destroy the homes, the environment and the lives of so many of the people in my constituency.

Nowhere along the entire route of the channel tunnel rail link in Britain are so many people so adversely affected by the Government's plans. Frankly, I find the plans grotesque. I believe that they represent a betrayal of trust on the Government's part: trust which the ordinary people place in the Government, and trust built on the belief that the Government will act in the interests of all the people throughout the country.

If my constituency had been a Tory marginal, with the greatest respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would not have seen the proposals even reach the light of day. However, the people of Barking do not vote Tory. One of the reasons I was returned with such an historic majority for Labour, and the reason why the Conservative vote collapsed in Barking, was that the people of Barking feel that they have been abandoned by the Government. They are very angry.

What is good enough for the people of Kent must be good enough for the people of Barking. My constituents are ordinary working people. They are not Tory voters and they do not live in a marginal Tory seat. Nor are they like the articulate media pack and legal brigade in Islington where I live which lobbied the Government. However, the people of Kent and the people of Islington wrought concessions to minimise the environmental impact of the channel tunnel rail link. All I am asking for is fair and equal treatment for the people of Barking.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Hodge

In a moment.

It is the Government's duty to govern in the interests of all our citizens and it is on that ground that I ask for a fair deal in respect of the proposals for my constituency.

Mr. Rowe

Will the hon. Lady give way now?

Ms Hodge

I am anxious to finish my speech in 15 minutes. This is my only opportunity to raise the matter on behalf of my constituents.

Let me deal with the impact of the proposal. The Minister for Transport in London has visited the area. He will know that more than 1,000 homes are directly or indirectly affected by the proposals. In answer to a recent parliamentary question, the Government admitted that the boundaries of as many as 321 homes in Barking. are directly adjacent to the rail track. That is more than anywhere in Kent or in Islington.

The proposal tears the heart out of Barking. It destroys the basis of the community in that part of London. It also destroys the Government's own stated objective of urban regeneration and renewal. Take the heart out of Barking and we will destroy the integrity of the community.

The homes in which those people live are not luxurious suburban residences, they are homes that were built for war heroes. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Government admitted that the distance from the back wall of the nearest house to the track is 2.5 m. I am not terribly good at estimating distances, but I guess that that is closer than the distance between the Minister and myself.

Trains currently pass the area at about 47 mph. Fast trains will go through at 185 mph. That will make an enormous difference. From calculations that I have had to make because the Government have been unable to provide me with proper estimates, at peak times there will be one train every three minutes going past the homes of people in Barking, at a distance of 2.5 m from their kitchens. We must add to that the problem of freight traffic. Again, the Government's estimates suggest that, instead of the 6.1 million tonnes of freight traffic in 1993, 16.4 million tonnes of freight will be carried on that track. In 2013, there will be a further adverse impact on the quality of the lives of people living close to the track.

We have had some noise measurements. I believe that they are inadequate. Even the measurements that have been published to date show—again I make a comparison with Islington, the borough of which I used to be the leader —in Islington 45 properties were affected by noise in excess of 85 DBA. In Barking, 325 properties will be so affected, yet the Government have no proposals on the table to ameliorate the quality of life. There are also vibration levels.

The only solution that has been suggested so far is that there should be 10 ft high walls between the rail track and peoples' homes. Again I stress the 2.5 m distance. A 10 ft high wall will do absolutely nothing for people if they have to look out at a mass of coircrete. It will be claustrophobic. That is not the environmental protection that we should enjoy today.

Who will be affected? Some are tenants, some are owner-occupiers. The tenants have no escape; they are locked into the homes in which they have lived happily for many years. Owner-occupiers are finding their properties blighted. At the peak of the market, their homes were worth £80,000 to £85,000. We all accept that, to some extent, the market has collapsed, but people cannot sell their homes in that area of Barking. One could probably sell for £20,000 to £25,000, but nobody would give a mortgage on such a home, so we are talking about cash purchasers, most of whom are private landlords who would turn the area into bedsit territory, which again would impact on the sense of community which is so important in that part of London.

I shall tell hon. Members about three people who have written to me; I have received hundreds of letters. One is a woman who moved into her house when she was just married. She now has three children and she is locked into a two-bedroom house which she cannot sell. The children are now reaching their teens. Another constituent is an old-age pensioner who has an asbestos-related disease and who wants to move, but he cannot sell to move somewhere which would give him the chance to live longer.

The third constituent is a woman whose mother lived down the road. When her mother died, she wanted to sell her mother's house so that she could afford to put her children through higher education. Nobody will buy the house and, as a result, her children are being prevented from achieving their aspiration of an opportunity in life.

I wish to deal with a couple of other issues which are of concern to me. We have found that Union Rail is not giving us the information that we require, and we are living in uncertainty and secrecy. My constituents have a right to know. On the issue of freight, there is no clear information.

In November 1993, a representative from Union Rail assured residents of Scruttons Farm that there were no plans for a railhead at Ripple lane. I now understand that Union Rail may have plans to build two railheads in Renwick road and Scruttons, and the Secretary of State has announced that there will be a freight link to Ripple lane.

There has been an intensification of use, and nobody knows why. Union Rail and British Rail have said that they are maintaining and upgrading the line, but I believe that they are preparing for the intensification of use by freight trains and avoiding paying compensation to residents in the area.

On compensation levels, there is no clear information for residents on the level of compensation, and it is unclear how many residents will get compensation. The levels of compensation have yet to be set, and they will be set by private sector companies which will have control of building the channel tunnel rail link. This is a matter of public policy, which ought to be determined by the Government. The veil of secrecy and uncertainty is unacceptable, and I ask Ministers to ensure that, in the interests of my constituents, we bring an end to it.

Is there an alternative? In Kent and Islington, work was done on other options, and in Kent, five options were worked out to see which was the most feasible. Why cannot we have some investigation of other options in Barking? There has been unanimous support within the community for the channel tunnel rail link to be tunnelled under Barking Reach. That is an empty piece of land, and the project would not impact on the future plans for the reach or on the current residents. Other options were also available for consideration.

Some £2.7 billion is being spent on the project, and all I am asking is that we should investigate. If it costs another £50 million or £60 million, it will be a worthwhile investment for the long-term benefit which it would bring to my community. I am concerned that there is has not been a proper estimate of costs and that other costs have not been taken into consideration.

For example, I do not know—perhaps the Minister might enlighten me—what the cost of the disruption to the current freight and passenger services will be during the construction of services on Tilbury dock.

I ask the Minister to assure me today on three matters. First, he will recognise that there is a case to answer to which he and the new Ministers should now give consideration. Secondly, he should cost all the other options so that at least we can be objective about providing the channel tunnel rail link which we all want. Thirdly, he should leave a mechanism in place in the Bill which gives us time for consultation and for consideration. That may mean widening the limits of deviation around the proposed route so that the alternative under Barking Reach can be considered.

If Jo Richardson had not been so ill during her latter years, I am sure that we would never have got to the position today where the interests of thousands of Barking residents are being ignored, while the interests of other people along the route from Islington down to Kent have been acknowledged. I am asking the Minister to pause for thought, and to give us one more opportunity to provide a sensible and lasting solution. We all want the rail link, but not at the price of destroying a community, destroying people's homes, destroying their environment and destroying their future.

1.14 pm
Mr. Stephen Timms (Newham, North-East)

In supporting the points made so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on behalf of her constituents, I draw attention to a further issue related to the link as it passes through Barking and the rest of east London. It is clear that significant environmental problems will be caused by the link, whatever the ultimate route. If, as I hope, my hon. Friend is successful in persuading the Government to choose an alternative route through Barking, problems will arise with tunnelling. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) recently convened a meeting with Union Rail to discuss those problems.

In 1991, the then Secretary of State, announcing the east London route for the link told the House of Commons: the line will be built through east London, where the prospect is welcomed for the economic regeneration that it will bring."— [Official Report, 14 October 1991; Vol. 196, c. 26.] Local authorities in east London in Barking, Dagenham, Newham to the west and Havering to the east are imaginative and enterprising. The Secretary of State was right: the authorities spotted from the outset the potential for the link to provide the stimulus for economic regeneration in the area that we so desperately need.

Yet it is plain as a pikestaff that there can be no regeneration in east London from the link if there is no international station in east London. Stratford now appears to be the only place where there is still a possibility of an international station in east London. It is now the only way to unlock the potential that the Government rightly identified for economic regeneration in Barking and the rest of east London.

I understand that an announcement is imminent on the matter and that the new ministerial team at the Department of Transport wants to consider the matter before making the announcement. That is entirely proper. I understand that. I urge the Minister to ensure that the announcement contains a commitment to the long box at Stratford so that the Stratford station remains a possibility. Beyond that, there should also be a commitment to the international station as a integral part of the scheme so that the regeneration benefits that Barking and east London need, and that the Government have promised, will materialise.

1.17 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

With the leave of the House, I congratulate the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) on securing this debate. It is about what she and I know to be an extremely important issue, not least for those of her constituents whom she has properly represented today. As she knows, during the past few months and indeed, the past few years, Ministers in the Department of Transport have received a number of representations from local residents, the borough and members of the borough council. Councillor George Brooker has a been frequent and assiduous correspondent on the issue and has met Ministers on several occasions.

I shall merely leave on the record the points made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) about the choice of intermediate stations. My job is merely to confirm that the choice of stations will be made shortly and, more importantly, in time for inclusion in the Bill and to confirm, as he probably knows, that it is assumed that the Bill will be ready for November and, subject to the parliamentary timetable, will be brought before the House.

I shall savour and enjoy for some months to come the description by the hon. Member for Barking of her erstwhile constituents in Islington as the articulate media pack, the chattering classes' chattering class, as we always knew them to be in Islington. It would be churlish of me to suggest that the hon. Lady was to some degree the doyenne of such a pack, but none the less, whither Islington these days and welcome to Barking and a more realistic view of life than occasionally is held in the borough of Islington.

Without descending into political point scoring, as I do not see it as a Labour-Tory issue, it is clear to me, having looked at a great many major schemes over the years in the Department, that not the slightest influence is brought to bear by the excellent officials, whose job it is to do the basic work, on the voting preference of those who live adjacent to schemes, whether they are Tory grandees living alongside road schemes that happened to impinge on the fields at the bottom of their rolling acres or the residents of the hon. Lady's constituency; that simply is not a material consideration. On reflection, the hon. Lady might not want to pursue that point, as it would be a reflection on the integrity of officials, which, with her long experience of local government, she would not like to cast.

The hon. Lady was good at defining the problem. There was some excellent hyperbole and my emotions were drawn and strung but, sadly, she said very little about any proposed solution.

In the next few minutes I shall give a little of the background to where we are on the rail link and try to address in a practical way what the actual solutions are. The hon. Lady made it clear—I am grateful to her for doing so—that she is not opposed to the idea of a second rail link and neither are the hon. Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms). We are discussing the practical way of delivering that rail link in that part of London, and what the hon. Lady said about the impact of the link and the difficulty there will always be —which no doubt she has faced in other fields because of her long career in local government—in trying to find the right way through.

As she will recall, the decision was taken in 1991 for the rail link to run from Kent to King's Cross St. Pancras via the so-called easterly approach and, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-east said, to assist in the regeneration and development of the east Thames corridor.

Since the announcement of the general easterly approach, we have done a great deal of work and I would like to express my appreciation of the work of Union Rail over the past few years. I can appreciate that, in the nature of things, there will inevitably be some conflict between those who represent affected residents and Union Rail as, in effect, the proposer of the scheme. My experience has been that Union Rail is an excellent and professional organisation. If the hon. Lady believes that information is being withheld and kept secret by Union Rail in a manner that she believes to be unreasonable, I shall certainly ask Union Rail at the highest level to consider carefully the specific points she raised and I shall endeavour to let her have the information.

Of course there are considerations of commercial confidentiality, but in general it is a matter for the whole community to resolve and issues of secrecy do not arise.

Union Rail submitted its report in March 1993 which proposed a route for consultation which ran through Barking largely on the surface. There was then a period of further work and consultation. The results of that work were reported in Union Rail's October 1993 report. The Government decisions on the route were announced by my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State on 24 January this year.

Part of the conclusions reached then included the route of the rail link through Barking. The March 1993 route ran from the portal of the London tunnel to the south-east of the existing Barking station—the route that the rail link would run on the surface along the existing London-Tilbury and Southend railway corridor through Barking. As the hon. Lady says, I and other Ministers at the Department have visited that part of the route on a number of occasions.

The hon. Lady mentioned a tunnel option for Barking as one of the proposals, and then spoke about Barking region. I shall try to relate the two.

Following the announcement of the March 1993 route, and during the subsequent consultations, Union Rail worked up a tunnel option, which was included in the October 1993 report. The option would have extended the London tunnel by about 1.8 km, along a similar alignment to the surface route, thus moving the portal further east to the Ripple area. It was estimated that the tunnel would cost £40 million and the figure could be reduced to between £20 million and £25 million if only one tunnel boring machine were used. That would also introduce a six-month delay in the programme, however.

We were not convinced that the tunnel was the right answer, especially as the scope for further mitigation of the route remained. Yes, it would be in the shape of different types of noise barriers. Also, the modest extension to the property purchase and compensation policy announced at the same time, which would allow hardship terms to be offered for cases in which a home qualified for noise insulation under the draft noise insulation regulations, should help in some cases.

I am clear that the construction of the rail link through that area of Barking will need to be carried out in a sympathetic manner and in line with an agreed code of construction practice, to minimise the inconvenience to the local community.

Since then, my right hon. Friend, the former Minister for Public Transport, the Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), has met Councillor Brooker, who further pressed for the Barking tunnel option, which was included in the October 1993 report. We made it clear to George Brooker that, after carefully considering the points made, the January 1994 decision stood.

Incidentally, on the hon. Lady's proposal, some of the residents of Essex road and other roads in the area said that they were rather worried about the tunnel option there because, in the short term, it would lead to the existing line carrying increased freight traffic, for which they would receive no compensation, and there would be a possibility of vibration from the tunnel underneath their homes.

I am afraid that at that stage there were already widely divergent views, not only on the benefits of the existing option, but on the merits of the 1993 proposal—the tunnel.

On the question of the tunnel under Barking Reach, which was more in line with the original Ove Arup route, as the hon. Lady was told in answer to a parliamentary question this week, we have not received detailed advice on the feasibility or the additional cost of routing the rail link under Barking Reach, and I shall give some of the reasons. That sort of tunnel would affect the flagship east Thames corridor development site there, which is very near to the council's heart.

Ms Hodge

indicated dissent.

Mr. Norris

If the hon. Lady disagrees with that proposition, in all seriousness, I invite her—together with the council, if necessary—to let me have at an early stage chapter and verse on precisely why she has come to that conclusion. The route would also pass very near Ford, Barking power station, the A13 extension and so forth. The proposition might require a new route to be devised for the rail link all the way to Stratford, which is very important as it would affect many more properties than the present route, which closely follows the existing railway corridor.

I was looking at the route that that option would take and the hon. Lady is more than welcome to see me, or whichever one of my hon. or right hon. Friends is given direct responsibility for the project, to find out precisely what the impact would be. I have always found the hon. Lady to be a reasonable soul and I cannot believe that she would not care about the many additional properties that would be affected by the Barking Reach option. It is utterly symptomatic of her party's pathetic approach to public expenditure that she brushes the cost aside. She says, "Fifty to £80 million—well if it has to be, it has to be, after all, it is a jolly big sum of money, isn't it?"

I suppose that that is one basis on which to monitor public accounting, but it is not one that I commend to her. If she is late for the coronation that is taking place elsewhere in our great city, or if she has not been invited, I am sure that it will not be long before she manages to re-ingratiate herself with the chattering-class leadership of her party, when she might discuss with those who have some responsibility for finance in her party whether they are prepared to be quite so cavalier with public finances as she suggested.

We shall take forward this project sensibly and responsibly. As far as possible, and within the limits imposed by those who propose such major constructions, we shall consider any serious proposals that may achieve what the local community wants, with the least possible disruption.

Neither the hon. Lady nor I had the opportunity to touch on some of the subsidiary issues today, but I want to make it clear that this need not be the end of the discussion. I know that the new Secretary of State will be more than willing to listen to what she has to say, and so will I. As far as practicable, we shall reflect on whether any of her additional points can be accommodated.