HC Deb 04 December 1996 vol 286 cc1178-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coe.]

12.1 am

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (South Thanet)

Despite the lateness of the hour, I am grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of great importance to my constituents. I am also grateful to the Minister, who will reply with his usual courtesy.

The debate marks a small milestone in parliamentary history, because it is the first time that the House has debated the capital challenge funding scheme or any bids submitted under it. The fact that the milestone is being passed is not due to any perspicacity on my part; it is simply that the capital challenge fund is completely new. It was born only seven months ago when my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, in a characteristically imaginative move, announced that, over the next three years, £600 million-worth of supplementary approval finance would be made available to help local authorities to fund what were called their top priority capital projects under this new competitive bidding system.

It was also announced that the winners under the bidding system would be those capital projects that were identified as being of the greatest benefit to their community. That quotation from the Department of the Environment press release which was issued on 15 May is important. I am delighted by the criteria, because they apply perfectly to Kent county council's capital challenge bid, which was submitted in September under the title "Accessing opportunities in Kent". It is to that subject to which I now turn.

The centrepiece of the Kent bid, which is for £34 million-worth of capital challenge funding, is the Ramsgate harbour approach road, which would cost some £;30.6 million, of which £25.9 million would come from capital challenge support finance. Ramsgate is the principal town in my constituency, and the main engine of economic growth and activity in the town is its harbour.

Port Ramsgate, which is the outer harbour of the town, is a great success story. It is Britain's second biggest cross-channel port, and handles approximately 3.5 million passengers a year, plus more than 450,000 cars and 250,000 freight lorries. Moreover, the new parent company of Port Ramsgate, Holyman-Sally Ferries Ltd., is expanding fast.

On Monday, the port will see the arrival of the first of two brand new £24 million high-tech catamaran fast ferries. They will be a great boost to the port of Ramsgate, because, next year, they will operate on the Ramsgate-Ostend route, with up to 16 extra sailings a day. The company forecasts that the new service will attract to Port Ramsgate an additional 1.5 million passengers, an additional 300,000 cars and an additional 140,000 freight lorries over and above the very substantial annual traffic figures that I quoted a moment ago.

Port Ramsgate is growing, expanding and flourishing, and it is a success story in today's competitive cross-channel marketplace. The unfortunate recent fire in the channel tunnel reminds us that that marketplace must be strong, competitive and diversified. But the Port Ramsgate success story is being held back by one constraint: the lack of a proper port access road.

My purpose in this short debate is to explain to the Government, and particularly to the Ministers who are responsible for picking the winners of this year's capital challenge bids, the reason why Ramsgate deserves—indeed, urgently needs—a harbour approach road. I shall summarise those reasons under five headings: the fair play reasons, the transport reasons, the environmental reasons, the economic reasons and the community reasons.

I can be mercifully brief about the fair play reasons, because I set them out in some detail in a speech I made in the House last Friday, in a debate on tourism. I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister has been generous and good enough to read that speech. To summarise my argument as succinctly as possible, however, I shall say only that it is monstrously unfair that Ramsgate should be the only channel port in Britain—or in France or Belgium—not to have an access road separating port traffic from the congested town centre.

Only Ramsgate is discriminated against in that manner, contrary to the pledges given by the Government during the passage of the channel tunnel Acts, that there would be equal rights on the proverbial level playing field for all channel ports. That promise has not yet been delivered.

Eurotunnel—the favourite son—has its spanking new M20, bringing its customers to the terminal entrance, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds to the taxpayer. Dover has its M2 and its Jubilee way, which lead traffic straight into the port without troubling the regular traffic and citizens of Dover. Only last week, in my right hon. and learned Friend's Budget, Dover was granted an extra £40 million to improve the Lydden-Dover section of the M2. Only Ramsgate continues to be left out in the cold. That is not right, it is not fair, and it simply does not make sense in transport terms.

As for the transport reasons, in recent years the Government have recognised in principle the importance of Port Ramsgate by designating the roads to it as part of the trans-European network, and by spending serious sums of taxpayers' money on them. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), whom I am glad to see in the Chamber—I know that he hopes to catch your eye later in the debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I am grateful, as are our constituents, for the £;180 million that has been spent so far on dualling the A299 Thanet way from the M2 to Monkton and the A253 from Monkton to the outskirts of Ramsgate. The final sections of the project are now close to completion.

Bewilderingly, however, after spending more than £180 million on the first twenty-one and a half miles of the road, the final one and a half miles of that 23-mile road between Port Ramsgate and the beginning of the M2 motorway have been left as a snarling, growling and dangerous bottleneck. Until that one-and-a-half-mile bottleneck is converted into a proper approach road, the situation will remain a senseless example of the "so near, yet so far" syndrome. It is the equivalent of building Westminster bridge as a four-lane highway, but leaving the last 150 yd of the approach to the Palace of Westminster as an unfinished, single-track cart track.

I now move to the environmental reasons. As you can imagine, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that last mile and a half where we need the harbour approach road is an environmental nightmare. The present juggernaut route goes through the town centre, bisecting a conservation area and passing alongside 250 homes, 107 listed buildings, two schools and 16 hotels, pubs and boarding houses. When I raised the subject in an Adjournment debate last year, I described that part of the port access route as a veritable Dante's "Inferno" of noise, pollution, disruption and danger. Those who live in that part of Ramsgate know that that is not an exaggeration.

I am glad that the Kent capital challenge bid states clearly that one of its main objectives is to bring environmental benefits to Ramsgate town as well as to encourage investment in the town centre and improve conditions for cyclists, pedestrians, businesses and residents as part of the Ramsgate Renaissance initiative". Mentioning the investment brings me to the economic reasons for the much-needed harbour approach road. Ramsgate is sadly still one of Britain's unemployment black spots, with an unemployment rate of well over 12 per cent., which is not coming down. One light that shines brightly in the somewhat gloomy scene is Port Ramsgate which, according to paragraph 3.21 of the Kent bid document, creates 1,500 jobs—4.5 per cent. of local employment—and generates about £15 million a year for the local economy. That contribution is well recognised and appreciated in Ramsgate.

The lack of a port approach road is holding back local economic growth. The new Kent international business park at Manston, the expanded Haine industrial area and the businesses that are quietly expanding in and around Ramsgate, thanks to the Government's excellent development area status scheme, which has brought much-needed growth to Ramsgate, will all get a boost from a new approach road for the great sea port of Ramsgate. It would be a vote of confidence in the area, not least because, as the Kent bid document says: the scheme … will have a major impact on increasing local employment opportunities and improving labour market mobility". Finally, I should like to highlight the community reasons in favour of the Ramsgate harbour access road. I do so with particular emphasis because, as I reminded my hon. Friend the Minister at the start of the debate, his Department's press release at the start of the year, announcing the setting up of the capital challenge scheme, stated that bidders should target those capital projects that they have identified as being of greatest benefit to their community". If that is the basis, the Kent bid deserves to be an outstanding runner in the competition and, I hope, a winner. As I have said, it will benefit the community by reducing unemployment and stimulating the economy, by improving the quality of life in environmental terms and by improving local, national and international transport links.

The litmus test of the popularity of the road and of the bid is that the community really wants and has fought for the Ramsgate harbour access road. We live in an age when new roads are often unpopular with local communities. The Ramsgate harbour access road bucks the trend. With the exception of a small minority of dissenters, the road is popular in the local community. That popularity has been tested by a thorough exercise in local democracy and consultation. Kent county council is to be praised. The bid document notes: Local democracy has played a key part in the development of the scheme. Three alternative schemes were put out to consultation and there was overwhelming support for the present proposals. That is an accurate comment.

There is some minority opposition, but even the 10 or 12 home owners in the Pegwell village area who stand to have their houses compulsorily purchased seem to be reconciled to the scheme, provided they receive full and fair compensation for the losses, disruption and inconvenience that they will suffer. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of contemporary Ramsgatonians support the Ramsgate harbour access road and will certainly be supporters of the bid.

Our town of Ramsgate needs and deserves this road. I congratulate Kent county council on putting together a clever and well-argued capital challenge bid. If my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues see the bid in as favourable a light as I hope I have described it, the face of Ramsgate and its economy will change and the town will have a much better future. I commend the capital bid to my hon. Friend and the House.

12.15 am
Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken) on securing the debate and on the elegant way in which he has made a case in support of Kent's capital challenge bid. I endorse his arguments utterly and whole-heartedly.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the economic importance of Port Ramsgate to the whole of Thanet—to his constituents and mine. The Government, in their wisdom, have shown their confidence in the potential for development in east Kent, and Thanet in particular, through the granting of development status to the Isle of Thanet. That was hard won by the last Conservative council, by the then European Member of the European Parliament, Christopher Jackson, by my right hon. Friend and by me. Working with the Government, we secured the development status and the objective 2 status that the area now enjoys.

As my right hon. Friend has said, the Government have committed tens of millions of pounds to the dualling of Thanet way, taking a road that was little more than a cart track and turning it into, in effect, an extension of the M2, almost down to the sea. With Connex taking over the area's trains, we expect and look forward to better rail communications and new trains. Thanet enjoys the benefits of an airport and the port of Ramsgate in my right hon. Friend's constituency.

Although I would not wish to pretend that £30 million or thereabouts is small beer, we are in some danger of destroying the shipping for a hap'orth of tar. The Thanet way now runs down to the Prospect roundabout and the Lord of the Manor junction in my right hon. Friend's constituency has been dealt with, so it really is time to accept the fact that the jigsaw must be finished.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the fact that the issue has united the community of Thanet. My constituents entirely support his campaign for the completion of the last piece of the vital road. The issue has united not just the community but the political parties in an exceptional way. Politicians of all parties at every level—local councillors, county councillors, both Members of Parliament and the Member of the European Parliament—are as one in believing that the project is vital to the area and must be completed.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend when he stressed the importance of the events of 18 November and after relating to the channel tunnel and the French strikes that so badly affected the channel ports on the French side of the channel. The Ramsgate to Ostend service was a lifeline for the commerce of this country during that period. The fire in the tunnel demonstrated the fragility of that piece of transport infrastructure. Without the ferries, this island would be isolated. I doubt that there could have been a more graphic example of that than the events of 18 November.

Although, as my right hon. Friend has said, millions of pounds have been spent on infrastructure serving the tunnel, one piece of road has been left incomplete. The Kent capital challenge bid is essential to the future of east Kent. My right hon. Friend cited the description from the capital challenge prospectus that bids should be for projects of the greatest benefit to the community". I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can think of no greater benefit to an entire community and its economy than the Ramsgate harbour approach road proposed in the bid.

12.24 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Mr. Aitken) on using this opportunity to press the case for Kent's capital challenge bid and I was not surprised that he was joined by his neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale).

This evening, Thanet has the full team out putting pressure on, as it has on many other causes. It must have had some success, because I have discovered the extent of public funding for Thanet in the past three years.

Thanet has received £12.7 million from regional selective assistance, with a further £80 million levered in. In the first EU objective 2 programme, £7.3 million was allocated to projects. A further £3.7 million is carried forward, along with the prospect of £14 million awaiting approval from the second objective 2 programme. In addition, £9 million was allocated to the regeneration of Thanet under round 1 of the single regeneration budget. The Thanet Regeneration Partnership has submitted a bid for a further £7.6 million from round 3 of the SRB. Thanet also benefits from funding under the EU Interreg Community initiative and it will be eligible for a share of the £15 million allocated to Kent under a further programme of co-operation with Nord-Pas de Calais.

The funding for Thanet is a mark of the pressure that has been applied, and I am feeling the effect of that this evening. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet knows and mentioned, earlier this year the Government announced the capital challenge scheme to explore how best the principles of competition could be brought to bear on the distribution of Government support for local authorities' capital spending. Those principles have already been applied successfully in other areas of public expenditure, the single regeneration budget being one of the obvious examples.

Authorities were invited to bid for their highest capital spending priorities drawn from their overall capital expenditure plan. That invitation is along lines that a Chief Secretary would applaud and we have heard support for it this evening—or rather, this morning. The Government offices for the regions have received more than 300 bids and we estimate that about three quarters of principal authorities have bid for £1.5 billion over three years. That is two and a half times the £600 million available from the fund, but the authorities expect to lever in an additional £2.6 billion of private and public sector funding, which is what the whole system is about.

Kent county council's capital challenge bid, "Accessing Opportunities in Kent", consists of two projects —first, the Ramsgate harbour access road and, secondly, Kent access. The case for those projects has been put clearly by my right hon. and hon. Friends this evening. The pressure applied on the case has outranked that in any other area and, if there was any doubt that my Department would not take notice of the bid, it has been dispelled.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends are aware, it is now a matter of "watch this space". We are certainly aware of the points which they have made and they have, as ever, added interest to the debate. Ministers in the Department of the Environment have been left in no doubt about the strength of the support for the bid but, as my right hon. and hon. Friends will appreciate, they must wait until the announcement of the result of the bidding process later this month.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes past Twelve midnight.