HC Deb 12 February 1996 vol 271 cc644-6
10. Sir Michael Neubert

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport how many times the River Thames working group has met in the past 12 months; and if he will make a statement on its work. [13027]

12. Mr. Simon Hughes

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the latest programme of initiatives to recommence a riverbus service on the Thames. [13029]

Mr. Norris

The River Thames working group has met once in the last 12 months, on 11 July, to consider progress on the recommendations contained in its report published in December 1994 and it will meet again this week on 15 February. My hon. Friend will know that the group was set up to examine the potential for developing freight and passenger traffic on the river.

I continue to support the idea of a riverbus service on the Thames. My Department, as I said in an earlier answer, has sponsored the preparation of a study by London First, with KPMG, on the potential for new passenger services. I look forward to the results of that study being published.

Sir Michael Neubert

Does my hon. Friend accept that, with the minutes ticking away to the millennium, the unique opportunity of establishing a central London river service as a permanent monument and lasting benefit for Londoners becomes daily more pressing? Will he undertake, as a matter of urgency, to bring together the best of the proposals made to him, including the distinctive ideas put to him by the Transport on Water working party with the aim of achieving a river component of a through ticket travelcard transport system for Greater London in good time for the next century?

Mr. Norris

I certainly undertake to consider carefully the proposals that the London First study produces, and to seek to find whatever agreement is possible between its report and that which the Transport on Water working party, of which my hon. Friend is a senior representative, has submitted to us. I will not repeat the caveats that I have already suggested must exist in respect of such a service. My hon. Friend speaks of integration into the travelcard system; if he were to talk of integration on the same fare basis that exists for buses and the underground, it might be a different proposition from the idea of incorporating the service into the travelcard system. On that latter front, I know that Peter Ford, the chairman of London Transport, has shown a willingness to consider ways in which we could, perhaps through that mechanism, achieve much wider awareness of riverbus services.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Further to both the earlier questions on this subject, now that the London First report has been published, we have all the research that we need. We have three catamarans, owned by P and 0, idling in St. Katharine's dock ready to do the job. Can the Minister—I put this as a serious proposition, because there is huge interest in the issue—collect together the authors of the report, the Port of London authority, the National Rivers Authority, London Regional Transport and interested hon. Members from the locks at one end down to the estuary at the other, to find out whether he can sort out the difficulties that remain? Some people need a kick up the backside and the Minister needs to kick them, but the report suggests that it can be done and we need to get around the table to work out the best and most economical way of doing it.

Mr. Norris

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's continued interest in this subject. He will acknowledge that I am keen that we should produce concrete proposals to build on the work of the studies. I have accepted that if that requires the involvement of my Department, or, indeed, other sources, it is a proposition that I would be prepared to consider. We have all been seeking to ensure that there should be a service that is, ostensibly at least, viable at the operating level. If that can be established—the early work seems to show that it can—I believe that we have the ground on which we might be able to build.

Mr. Robathan

My hon. Friend will know that the River Thames does not flow close to Leicestershire, but he and I share much the same attitude to the scheme for river transport. Will he confirm that, when he produces proposals, he will study closely the question of enabling legislation, particularly in relation to piers? With the last scheme, if one caught a boat at Chelsea Harbour, the next stop was Charing Cross. That was a ludicrous situation, because invariably one had to use some other form of transport. Will my hon. Friend look into that closely?

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend puts his finger on the major weakness of previous schemes, which is that they have had to rely entirely on sufficient stopping-off points linking with the public transport infrastructure. In other words, one has to have a system which takes people where they want to go. The transport on water study, and KPMG, for London First, identified the number of locations that it will be necessary to consider. It is not appropriate to elaborate at this point, but my hon. Friend is right in his observation.

Miss Hoey

Does the Minister agree that thousands of people are frustrated every day as they sit in traffic jams and watch an empty M11 wind its way through London? Further to the question of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), does the Minister agree that we also need a change in planning so that, if planning permission is to be given, any major office development along the river must include the building of a pier?

Mr. Norris

As to the first half of the hon. Lady's question, I am not sure that I agree, because all the studies show that the river is a very inefficient mechanism for conventional commuting—it does not go in a straight line, it has a 7 m rise and fall, and there are many technical difficulties with establishing such a service. There is, however, a market for a service using the river, particularly building on its tourism potential, which could be valuable for London, Londoners and jobs in the capital.

On the hon. Lady's second point, about the desirability of ensuring that the planning process is sufficiently tuned always to consider the potential of the river when riparian applications are considered, she is entirely right. The Thames working group, which was established by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, is taking that matter forward.