§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport knows, I have had to detain him and the House many times over the past two or three years on the issue of compensation for those who are unfortunate enough to have homes immediately adjacent to the existing rail routes to the channel tunnel. Today, I shall deal with a different but related issue—the position of those who are unfortunate enough to find their homes in the path of the proposed new route, by means of high-speed rail link, between London and the channel tunnel.
For those people, the terms of the voluntary purchase scheme that was announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport in his statement on 24 January are critical. The terms of that scheme will decide whether they can escape from blight in the near future and be able to move by selling their homes to British Rail at an unblighted price, or whether they will be blighted for a considerable time ahead.
This is now a significant regional issue, covering London, Essex and Kent. We are talking about people with homes within the 108 km which is the length of the high-speed line between St. Pancras and the channel tunnel terminal at Cheriton. We are talking about people who are facing blight not just for a year or two. On the most optimistic forecast by British Rail, construction will not begin for two and a half years—at the end of 1996.
Therefore, those people will face blight for some seven to ten years. Even after the channel tunnel rail link is completed, it will take a further year after its full operation for them to be able to seek financial redress for any depreciation in the value of their homes under the injurious affection provisions of the Land Compensation Act 1973. This is a profoundly important issue, affecting the people between the two ends of the channel tunnel high-speed rail link.
When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the voluntary purchase scheme on 24 January, he said that the voluntary purchase arrangements would be available to two groups of homes. The first would be those within the statutorily safeguarded route. The details and maps of the statutorily safeguarded route were released on 25 February. He said also that the voluntary purchase scheme would be extended to another group of homes outside the physical parameters of the statutorily safeguarded zone. I should like to examine the proposals for the voluntary purchase scheme in relation to those two groups of homes, starting with those within the statutorily safeguarded zone.
I was left with the clear impression from my right hon. Friend's statement of 24 January that all homes in the safeguarded zone would be eligible for voluntary purchase, but, on examination of the small print, I find that that is not the case. It turns out that the voluntary purchase scheme extends only to the part of the statutorily safeguarded zone that runs on the surface; it does not extend to the part below the surface.
1061 The key paragraph in the document published by British Rail, which is headed "Guide to Property Purchase Procedures for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link", is paragraph 3.3:An important distinction is made between property safeguarded at the surface that is, at ground level, and property where the safeguarding applies only to areas below the surface, either for tunnels or ground support works. The voluntary purchase scheme applies only to property included within the surface safeguarded area.I shall examine the justification provided for the exclusion of properties within the safeguarded zone but where the route lies in tunnel. I must stress the significance of that exclusion. We have been told that 23 per cent. of the route is now in tunnel, which means that the voluntary purchase scheme does not apply to properties along nearly a quarter of the whole route, even though they are within the statutorily safeguarded zone.
In his correspondence to me, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State justified the exclusion by reference to the practice that has been followed in schemes to extend the London underground system where blight purchase provisions have not been applied to new underground lines such as the Jubilee line.
I accept that it seems reasonable and fair that, in the construction of an underground line in a city such as London, it would not be possible to proceed if one had to acquire all the properties above the underground line. However, I do not accept that it is fair or reasonable that that precedent should be used as a justification for automatically excluding every other property above the tunnelled sections of the channel tunnel rail link.
It is not reasonable, because there is a world of difference between the impact on property situated above a relatively slow-moving underground line, where trains travel at about 20 or 30 mph in a tunnel with a relatively small diameter, and that on property above a tunnel with a much greater diameter, which carries international trains running at speeds of up to 140 mph. I believe that the latter case needs to be examined separately. It is relevant to me and some of my constituents, because the rail link enters the tunnel under the north downs at Blue Bell hill in my constituency.
I suggest that the Government and British Rail are taking the wrong approach by asking the wrong question. In considering whether the voluntary purchase scheme should apply, they are asking whether a particular home is situated alongside the route on the surface or alongside the route in tunnel. Where the route is on the surface, they say that the scheme should apply but, where it is in tunnel, it should not.
That is the wrong question. The right question is whether the property is or is not blighted. If it is blighted, surely the voluntary purchase scheme should be extended to it, regardless of whether the route is that point on the surface or in tunnel. I have no doubt that the property of my constituents who are in this predicament is blighted. Indeed, I would say that it is comprehensively blighted, and I have brought to the attention. of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State the particular cases of Mr. and Mrs. Margerum and Mr. and Mrs. Sandford.
In case there is any doubt in the mind of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport about whether 1062 homes have been blighted, I read to him from a letter that I have recently received from Mr. Margerum about his efforts to sell his property in the present circumstances:We have at U.R.'s"—Union Railways'—request, tried to re-market the house. This includes contacting 13 estate agents; 7 of these knowing the situation refused even to come and value. 3 came to view the property but when realising the situation refused to market. 3 others are currently marketing, 2 of these have written reports to us that the proposed works are having an adverse effect, thus making a sale at a reasonable figure unlikely.Mr. and Mrs. Margerum are now down to one estate agent, and I suspect that it will only be a short while before that estate agent tells them that it is hopeless trying to market their property at a reasonable price. I believe that such homes are without question comprehensively blighted.
The acute difficulties faced by such individuals have been added to by a letter that they received from British Rail at the end of January. I read from a letter received by Mr. Sandford, which is the same as one received by Mr. and Mrs. Margerum. British Rail wrote:I am writing to let you know that the Secretary of State for Transport has announced the Government's decision on the route to be safeguarded for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. This has been developed by Union Railways for the Department of Transport.The route selected is proposed to be in tunnel at this point and may affect the subsoil to the property described above.The property described was, of course, Mr. Sandford's home, and Mr. and Mrs. Margerum received exactly the same letter, which amounted to a formal warning from British Rail that the subsoil to the properties may be affected. That is a devastating letter to receive.
I took up the letter and the terms in which it was written with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. He gave me a very interesting and in some ways remarkable reply on 15 March about British Rail's letter. He wrote:There is no requirement to send such letters, but this was done as a courtesy so that everyone affected by safeguarding knows where they stand.I doubt whether Mr. and Mrs. Sandford or Mr. and Mrs. Margerum regard it as a great courtesy to receive from British Rail a letter that has a devastating effect on the value of their property for the foreseeable future, and makes it wholly unsaleable.
At the end of his letter, my right hon. Friend provided some remarkable new information, which was wholly excluded from the letter sent by British Rail. He said:In answer to the point put by Mr. Sandford to Union Railways about possible damage from the construction of the railway, any damage would be put right (though in fact damage is unlikely over such a deep tunnel).The remarkable situation is that British Rail sent a letter that caused certain and devastating blight to particular houses by saying that the subsoil might be affected but which contained no mention of any rectification of damage—but, lo and behold, the Secretary of State in his letter tosses out the fact that the damage will be rectified. That is no way to deal responsibly and reasonably with individuals.
It is absolutely apparent that the British Rail letter should now be formally withdrawn, and replaced by an alternative letter that would fully discharge the Secretary of State's commitment, by including a full indemnity from British Rail for the owners of properties, and for any subsequent purchasers, against the effects of damage resulting from the construction works due to take place under their homes. It is imperative that that be done.
1063 Secondly, the properties must be dealt with from the standpoint of blight. It is no good making a blanket automatic exclusion from the voluntary purchase scheme of every home above tunnel along the entire route. The issue is whether individual homes are seriously blighted. If they are, in fairness to their owners they should be acquired.
The Secretary of State described the homes that would benefit in the part of the safeguarded route on the surface, where the voluntary purchase scheme applies, as follows:Homes wholly or substantially required for building the railway, together with those seriously affected by the works or operation of the railway, will be included in the safeguarded zone and will be offered voluntary purchase".—[Official Report, 24 January 1994; Vol. 236, c. 20.]My right hon. Friend included two groups of homes in the scheme, the first of which was those where the land would bewholly or substantially required for building the railway".Of course, that is not a concession; it simply gives effect to the standard blight purchase notices provisions that would apply to any transport or highway scheme where the land was required for the development.
The second leg represents a potentially important concession. My right hon. Friend said that, where the land itself was not required but homes would beseriously affected by the works or operation of the railway",they would be brought into the safeguarded zone and made the subject of the voluntary purchase scheme.
The critical wording is the phrase, "seriously affected". The worth of the concession will depend entirely on how that phrase is interpreted. It is not satisfactory that British Rail, which has a vested interest in reducing to the minimum the sum that it will have to shell out in compensation, should be the arbiter of whether a property is seriously affected or not.
It is imperative that there should be some independent appellate body to which individuals could turn. The obvious body would be the Lands Tribunal. I urge my right hon. Friend to create an independent body to which people could appeal if they believed that their properties were seriously affected, but British Rail tried to maintain that they were not, and denied them the opportunity to use the scheme.
The second group consists of homes outside the statutorily safeguarded zone. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has agreed in principle that some may be eligible for the voluntary purchase scheme. That reflects the principle embodied in section 62 of the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, a welcome policy development that acknowledges the fact that property certainly can be blighted even when it is not the subject of statutory blight. Section 62 gives a discretionary power to the highway authority—or, in this case, British Rail—to acquire homes which are blighted but not statutorily blighted.
However, there is a sting in the tail of what the Secretary of State said, to which I drew attention during the questions that followed his statement. The sting in the tail lies in the following wording:Any other homes that may be affected by operational noise above the proposed threshold for noise insulation will qualify for purchase in cases of hardship."—[Official Report, 24 January 1994; Vol. 236, c. 20.]In other words, two criteria will have to be satisfied before individuals can use the concession. First, they have to demonstrate hardship. I hope that British Rail will interpret the word "hardship" in a sympathetic and understanding 1064 way, and will not be tight-fisted, mean and uncaring when, for example, it decides whether an individual illness in a particular family represents hardship.
The other critical requirement is that the predicted noise disturbance must be above the proposed threshold for noise insulation. Here the Government are in danger of making a significant error. The consultation period on the Department of Transport's proposed new noise insulation regulations for railway lines ended in February, and we await the Government's conclusions. However, all the hon. Members who represent constituencies in London, Essex and Kent along the route of the new high-speed rail link believe that the Government are setting the threshold for noise disturbance far too high.
The higher the threshold is set, the fewer the people who will qualify for noise insulation—or, in this case, for having their homes acquired under the voluntary purchase scheme. Indeed, if the Government persist in setting noise thresholds too high, the concession may prove almost worthless. Almost no properties at all may be able to use the scheme under the concession.
As my right hon. Friend knows, among local authorities and residents in the affected areas there is total unanimity on what the noise threshold should be. That level is set out in the papers that I know my right hon. Friend has received.
The standard is described—at least in Kent—as the Kent noise standard, but the paper was sent not only by the Kent district councils and by Kent county council, but by the London borough councils, the Surrey district councils and the Essex district councils, all of which have agreed a basis for the new noise insulation threshold. Of course, it is materially lower than the threshold that the Government originally proposed. I urge my right hon. Friend to adopt the local authorities' Kent noise standard, in preference to that suggested in the consultation paper.
I shall now briefly summarise the four points on which I hope that the Department and my right hon. Friends will be prepared to make changes to the voluntary purchase scheme in connection with the channel tunnel rail link. First, I hope that the scheme will be extended on a case-by-case basis to homes within the safeguarded zones that are above the tunnel sections and are individually well and truly blighted.
Secondly, I urge my right hon. Friend to get British Rail to withdraw the devastating letter dated 31 January that it sent to certain individuals above the tunnelled section, and replace it with an alternative letter that properly gives fair warning that the subsoil may be affected. The alternative letter should include a copper-bottomed legal guarantee to the owner of that property, whether the present owner or the subsequent purchaser, of full indemnification if the property is disturbed as a result of the tunnelling operations due to take place.
Thirdly, I am asking that there should be established, for those who have homes in the area of the line where it runs on the surface within the safeguarded zone, an independent tribunal, probably the Lands Tribunal. That tribunal should arbitrate independently and on the basis of the facts between individual home owners and British Rail on whether or not individual properties will be "seriously affected", either by the works or by the operation—the key trigger as to whether or not one can take advantage of the voluntary purchase scheme.
Fourthly, I am asking that the owners of those properties outside the safeguarded zone should be helped by the Government in the following way. When the Government 1065 lay before the House the noise insulation regulations, they should introduce a noise insulation threshold that is more reasonable, significantly lower and preferably the Kent noise standard. That acoustic threshold would ensure that those who face disturbance from the channel tunnel rail link trains, but who live outside the safeguarded zone, will be able to benefit from the voluntary purchase scheme and escape the blight.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) for his consistence and perseverance in setting out to protect my constituents, as well as his, against the worst effects of blight. His work on compensation deserves the highest praise, and the gratitude of us all. I am grateful to him for allowing me to have two or three minutes to speak in this important debate.
I strongly endorse all that my right hon. Friend has said, particularly the need for some form of independent appeal. The voluntary purchase scheme operates in an arbitrary way. There are clear cases which, in my view and that of my right hon. Friend, should be treated sympathetically. We must have some independent appeal that overrides the internal and secret workings of Union Railways' or British Rail's tribunals.
The issue of noise is important. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport knows, many of us are deeply concerned about the intention to build a line capable of running trains at 180 mph, while building in the noise protection necessary for trains that run at 140 mph. It seems that, if the capacity to run faster trains exists, as soon as the signalling is capable of absorbing it, whoever runs the line in future will undoubtedly run faster trains. As I understand it, that will have considerable effects on noise. I hope that that will be part of the current planning.
There is a serious difficulty with blight. The length of time taken to complete a big project exceeds—by 2.5 generations of normal house ownership—the occupation of a family in a house. Most families spend, on average, less than six years in their homes. Many of the projects, particularly the one that we are discussing, will take at least 10 years. The one under discussion will take 15 years to complete. That is a long period for people to be unable to sell their houses at anything other than a distress sale price, leaving them with no scope for buying an alternative home.
Action groups and others face a cruel dilemma. We recently had a meeting at which North Downs Rail Concern advised as many solicitors, estate agents and professional advisers as possible to come to a presentation. We explained how much additional protection had been won by the work of action groups and others since the line was first proposed. As Union Railways will agree, the effect of such action has, in some ways, exacerbated the sense of blight. However, had we not fought like cats to win the protection, we would not have achieved the remarkable improvements in protection that have been obtained.
It is not just a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister. The Government must think about ways of achieving some buyer of last resort for people whose 1066 properties have been plunged into blight by large-scale Government schemes, but who are outside the statutory blight corridor.
§ The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)
Once again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) has done the House a service by raising specific issues; he has certainly focused my attention and that of the officials in the Department. I shall respond to the four points that he raised, but it may be helpful to my right hon. Friend and to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) if I put on record a number of the points that relate generally to the voluntary purchase scheme.
Since the debate on 13 January, we have announced the route of the new channel tunnel rail link, with the exception of Ashford and Pepper hill, where we expect to reach a decision in the next few weeks. When we announce our conclusions, we shall be able to safeguard the entire route. We have also issued formal safeguarding directions for the route, except for the two exceptions that I mentioned.
Those directions came into force on 25 February, and are essentially a planning mechanism to ensure that conflicting development does not take place on land required for the purpose of an undertaking—in this case, the rail link. They also initiate the statutory blight arrangements for affected homes. Union Railways wrote to all those affected at the time, and has also produced a guide to property purchase procedures for the rail link, from which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling has quoted.
Two safeguarded zones have been defined in the safeguarding directions and shown on the plans that accompany them. One is for land required for surface works, and the other is largely for land above deep-bored tunnels. The surface safeguarding creates a right to statutory blight compensation where homes and some other properties would be wholly or substantially required.
So that those affected know where they stand, all those homes included in the surface safeguarded zone will be offered voluntary purchase without the need to demonstrate a statutory right to compensation. Purchase will be on the same basis as if the houses were being acquired under a compulsory purchase order. The owners will be paid the market value of the home as if the rail link proposal did not exist, plus home loss payments, legal and agents' fees and disturbance costs as appropriate.
If agreement cannot be reached on voluntary purchase, blight notices may be served by the property owners qualifying, and any disputes can then be settled by the Lands Tribunal. That tribunal would also settle any disputes on statutory compensation for compulsory purchase and compensation for loss of value due to the physical effects of the operation of the rail link on the surface or in the tunnel under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973.
Compensation under that Act is a statutory right, and may be claimed 12 months after the start of use of the rail link. That is simply because time is needed to assess the actual impact, whether in tunnel or on the surface, of the railway once it is operational.
Advanced predictions of the physical effects, such as re-radiated noise, would probably not be sufficiently precise, and could cause later problems associated with 1067 overpayment and underpayment. It would not be right for compensation to be available from an earlier date than the normal 12 months, especially as, during the construction period and for a time thereafter, the property market may well be distorted by the effects of the project. There could be difficulty in assessing the extent of any long-term drop in the value of homes.
However, exacting design aims have been set for the rail link, not only for noise, but for all other areas of potential environmental impact, such as vibration. Our paper on property purchase and compensation policy explains that the thinking behind this is that it is better to limit the environmental intrusion at source, as far as reasonably practicable, by putting the rail link in a cutting or providing mitigation in the form of noise barriers and landscaping, than to rely simply on compensation.
Union Railways has included in the surface safeguarded zone all the land that may be acquired, either temporarily or permanently, for the rail link and associated works, including land required for construction sites and ventilation shaft sites, and homes seriously affected by the works or operation of the railway have also been included. Having purchase arrangements related to property taken or seriously affected is nothing new; it is the accepted practice for road building. It is a tribute to the abilities of Union Railways in designing the project that so few homes need to be taken or are judged to be seriously affected and hence included in the zone.
In general, Union Railways is not seeking to acquire non-residential property at present before compulsory purchase powers are sought in the hybrid Bill for the rail link. Any non-residential property owner and occupier whose property interest meets the criteria for statutory blight is invited to contact Union Railways to discuss the position.
Acquisition by mutual agreement, with the blight notice procedure being held in reserve, can then be discussed. Statutory blight procedures for non-residential property apply to commercial properties with a rateable value not exceeding £18,000, and agricultural units. For properties not meeting the statutory blight criteria, purchase notice procedures may apply, as provided for in part IV of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.
Again, property owners and occupiers considering a purchase notice are invited to contact the relevant local planning authority, and to advise Union Railways of their position.
I know from the representations that I have received that many argue that a much wider surface safeguarded zone is needed. There is no planning argument for extending the safeguarded zone further, although I appreciate that, as an alternative, some people would like to see a purchase buffer zone apply along the route beyond the safeguarded zone.
It is true that such buffer zones, a set distance from the track, have been tried in the past, but after initial enthusiasm, the communities affected have found them a mixed blessing. That is because, first, a standard width zone, regardless of its width, is somewhat arbitrary and creates many anomalies and complaints about fairness. For example, a property over 100 m from the rail link in open country may be more affected than one half the distance away but shielded by buildings, or one that is close to the rail link but on the far side of a motorway from it.
1068 The second reason is that, wherever the line is drawn, there is a perceived blighting effect just beyond it, and the wider and more arbitrary the delineation of the zone, the greater this problem tends to become.
Thirdly, in a wide zone, the increasing loss of neighbours and an influx of new neighbours on short-term leases is in itself perceived as generating blight. The people—usually the majority—who originally had no intention of moving as a result of the railway proposals increasingly feel that the community is changing too much for them to stay.
That is why we feel that the surface safeguarded zone is best restricted, as far as possible, to the homes that are either taken or seriously affected by the works, and that it should not be influenced by general fears or the perception of blight where in reality none should exist. As we said in our paper last year, this has to be coupled with the provision of information on impacts, particularly to building societies and estate agents, to try to bring fears down to the level of the likely impacts.
In addition to the homes included in the surface safeguarded zone, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport said in his January announcement, any other homes that may be affected by operational noise above the proposed threshold for noise insulation contained in the draft railway noise regulations will qualify for purchase in cases of hardship.
As with highway schemes, hardship needs to be proven, and each case is looked at individually. Those who think that they may qualify for the scheme should contact Union Railways. I should stress that the scheme is not a statutory requirement, and that decisions are entirely at the discretion of Union Railways.
As I have said, homes within the surface safeguarded zone will be offered voluntary purchase. In line with long-established practice for underground railways, purchase is not available for homes above bored tunnels. The practical evidence of underground railways in use is that their impacts are not sufficiently serious to justify purchase.
Land within 40 m of the centre line at a tunnel portal has been surface-safeguarded. Where land falls within the criteria for both surface and sub-surface safeguarding, the surface safeguarding will always prevail. Where tunnels are shallow—less than 9 m below the ground—the land above would normally be subject to surface safeguarding.
In addition, we have made it clear that property surveys will be undertaken of potentially affected homes both before and after construction of the rail link, and any damage caused by construction, including settlement due to tunnelling, will be put right. Any loss of value of homes caused by the physical effects of the rail link in operation in tunnel—from re-radiated noise, for example—may qualify for compensation under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973.
In the construction of the rail link, every effort will be made to minimise the impacts. However, if a home were made temporarily uninhabitable because of the disturbance, compensation would be paid in respect of the cost of moving to temporary accommodation. A code of practice for construction will be drawn up in consultation with the local authorities.
I now turn to the four points made by my right hon. Friend. I am grateful for his patience in letting me get on the record some wider points.
1069 First, my right hon. Friend has not convinced me, on his first point, that all houses—he referred specifically to those above the tunnel—that are blighted should be bought. Blight is clearly a very real problem, which often arises from people's perceptions and is not based on hard evidence of what might be the effects of the construction and operation of the tunnel.
I cannot concede the general principle, which my right hon. Friend is forcing on me, that all houses that are blighted above tunnels should be bought. If one thinks of the number of houses that would be affected in Greater London, for example, one realises that thousands of properties could be involved.
My right hon. Friend has advanced powerful arguments on his second point, and he has persuaded me that the present position is not satisfactory. There is doubt what the consequences would be for property if the subsoil, for example, was affected. My right hon. Friend quoted from a letter which caused me concern when I read it.
My right hon. Friend is also concerned about the nature of any indemnity that would be offered if there was settlement. I take his point about an assurance or guarantee being given in writing. Although I repeat at the Dispatch Box that in all cases of settlement or structural damage there is an absolute guarantee that the damage will be put right, I take my right hon. Friend's point that that assurance should be repeated in writing.
I also take on board my right hon. Friend's point about what the distinction is between underground rail tunnels and broad-gauge rail link tunnels in terms of re-radiated noise. We have little experience, because we have not built such tunnels before. I am happy to repeat that if, as a result of re-radiated noise—that is when the building itself vibrates as a result of the movement of the trains—there is any reduction in value, under the Land Compensation Act there will be payments. That, of course, comes after the tunnel is open and the trains are running.
On my right hon. Friend's second point, I undertake—I shall take official advice—to reflect on the need to issue, or to have issued by Union Railways, fresh advice. There will be a new letter to all those affected who live over tunnels, not only to set out the best scientific evidence 1070 we have on settlement and re-radiated noise, but to explain precisely what the rights of the owners of the properties are. I shall read the record to ensure that I have covered my right hon. Friend's point. I hope that he is satisfied with that answer.
Thirdly, I also believe that my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent have deployed powerful arguments in relation to the definition of properties that will or will not be seriously affected by the safeguarded route. That must be a matter of judgment—I understand that—but it is in a category wholly different from whether a property is affected by the hardship scheme or not outside the safeguarded zone.
I understood my right hon. Friend to be referring to the safeguarded zone and to properties that might or might not be seriously affected. He has deployed powerful arguments there, and I shall reflect on whether it might be sensible to seek to clarify the position and perhaps—I can give no commitment from the Dispatch Box—whether there might be some reference to an independent party to establish whether a property or land is or is not seriously affected.
Fourthly, there is the question of the land outside the safeguarded zone. Not only properties affected by noise above the threshold may qualify for the hardship scheme; in some cases, others will qualify. I refer my right hon. Friend to paragraph 4.4 of the document issued by Union Railways.
Union Railways must define hardship, because this is a voluntary ex gratia scheme. However, I take my right hon. Friend's point about the noise threshold. The higher the threshold, the fewer properties will be purchased: we shall therefore pay close attention to the advice offered by local authorities.
I look forward to a debate later in the year—but, I trust, before the House rises for the summer recess—on noise thresholds, for which we shall seek the House's approval.