HC Deb 28 February 1996 vol 272 cc843-8 12.30 pm
Mr. Robert Hicks (South-East Cornwall)

I trust that the Minister will forgive me for reminding him of a little piece of recent political history relating to the south-west. Before the 1970 general election, the Conservative party produced a west country manifesto. It contained three principal commitments, one of which was to develop and upgrade the A38 trunk road link between the west country and the rest of the country. Many of us felt that that manifesto was very effective.

Of those colleagues who are still in the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) was re-elected on that occasion, and my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) was elected for the first time. I mention that to emphasise to the Minister the necessity for the south-west, because of its peripheral position, to have excellent transport links not only with the rest of the United Kingdom but with Europe.

In the intervening 25 years, the transport infrastructure has been significantly improved. The road network has been developed, and, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, it is possible to drive from Saltash in my constituency to London or Glasgow without, in theory, changing gear. Our air links have likewise been strengthened and consolidated. To complete the transport infrastructure, it is now right to concentrate on improving and upgrading our rail links, especially as the channel tunnel is now in operation.

In any debate of this kind, one cannot avoid reference to the fragility of the economy of the far south-west. We are going through a period of readjustment following the reduction in our defence requirements. The recognition of our current economic situation is made manifest by the fact that much of Devon and Cornwall is classified as eligible for European regional aid. In a national context, many parts of the region have assisted area status or rural development area status.

Business and the population as a whole are determined to reverse the downward economic trend, and there are many encouraging signs. It almost goes without saying that to maintain the region's competitive advantage, our transport system must be developed.

Following a commitment in the Maastricht treaty, the European Union is shortly to witness an exciting phase in the development of the transport network throughout the Union. Proposals are being put in place for a trans-European network. As I understand the current position—no doubt the Minister will confirm it when he responds—the European Commission is at present preparing to submit to the Council of Ministers proposals that will form the basis of the first generation of trans-European network classifications.

At present, the Bristol-Plymouth-Penzance rail route is not included. Brittany, which has a similar geographical position and a similar economy to those of Devon and Cornwall, already has a TGV link to Brest and Paris. The European Parliament has agreed that the Bristol-Plymouth-Penzance link should be added to the list.

Within Devon and Cornwall, there is unanimity of opinion among business organisations such as the West Country development corporation and Devon and Cornwall International, our inward investment agency, as well as among individual companies and local authorities, that the region should not lose out and thus be placed at a disadvantage in relation to other UK and European regions in attracting inward investment.

To try to persuade the Minister to change his mind on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter led an all-party delegation to see the Minister in November. On that occasion, the Minister played a politically straight bat that Geoffrey Boycott and—dare I say it because it gives away my age—Trevor Bailey would have been proud of in their prime.

The situation cannot be allowed to continue. I am quietly confident that the Government are now prepared to review the position and to be more positive about this requirement. I do not wish to sound patronising when I say that the Minister has an appreciation of the political sensitivities of this issue in our region. That characteristic was not necessarily shared by all his predecessors.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I entirely approve of my hon. Friend's case—as, I think, do all our west country colleagues. Does my hon. Friend agree that closely tied up with the issue is the upgrading of the A38, and that, had his plans and mine for a key-route designation, a bluish tinge, for the A38 been adopted, it would have made a great difference and would have fitted in well with the plan that he is outlining for our railway system? That is part of the debate as well.

Mr. Hicks

I entirely share that view. I was about to say that, a couple of years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) and I went to see the Minister's predecessor. I mentioned that because, as my hon. Friend said, the issues are linked. We suggested to the Minister who was at that time responsible for roads that there should be an upgrading of the designation of the A38 trunk road between Exeter and Plymouth. It is disturbing and ludicrous that Plymouth, the sub-region's natural growth point, should not be directly linked or adjacent to our motorway network.

We gave the Minister's predecessor an opportunity to go down in history as the Minister who introduced the concept of key routes—that is to say, the A classified trunk roads (M) designation. His name would have appeared as part of the legend on all road maps of the United Kingdom. Although it would not have cost the Government anything, he failed to respond to our suggestion. I am hopeful that the current Minister will be more positive.

I have two modest requests on behalf of my native west country. First, Her Majesty's Government, through my hon. Friend the Minister, should today give a clear statement of intent that the Bristol-Plymouth-Penzance rail link will be incorporated into the trans-European network. That is crucial, because any potential inward investor, whether from another part of the United Kingdom or Japan, the United States or wherever, must see from a map of the UK that our regional rail link has the same designation—in other words, the line is the same colour on the map—as those linking south Wales, the north-east or Scotland with London and the European mainland.

My second request is that my hon. Friend will ensure that the necessary funds are made available for a feasibility study in the very near future to consider the upgrading of our rail link. Both those requirements are essential.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the second request is the more crucial, especially to my constituency, which is literally at the end of the line? Unless detailed work is done now on what is required to upgrade the railway right down to Penzance, it will never be done.

Mr. Hicks

I certainly understand my hon. Friend's sentiments, but I would not like to differentiate in any way between the relative importance of the two requests. The colour of that line, that statement of intent on the map, is crucial to inward investment, especially from overseas.

Both the requirements are essential if the south-west economy is not to be placed at a disadvantage compared to other United Kingdom and European regions. Furthermore, by agreeing to my two requests, the Minister will be sending a positive message to the south-west that the Government have listened to our arguments and are prepared to help.

12.41 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Hicks) on the way in which he has presented his case. I am also grateful to him for allowing me a couple of minutes to support his argument from the Opposition Benches. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the case that he has made this morning, which we also put to the Minister in the deputation, enjoys the support of every party and all parts of the west country. We all believe it to be absolutely critical to the future well-being and economic health of our region.

I pay tribute especially to the effort that the Western Morning News has put into the campaign over recent weeks. It has recognised the campaign's validity and importance, and entirely supported all our efforts. I should also put on record the effort made by our Member of the European Parliament, Robin Teverson. He has kept the issue alive in the European Parliament over several weeks.

As my parliamentary neighbour the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall has emphasised, there are no obstacles on the other side of the water in the way of achieving what he, I and all of us want. Not only has the European Parliament reasserted the importance of identifying the route as part of the trans-European network for high-speed purposes, but the Commission—I have the Commission's opinion—has endorsed that view. There is no obstacle in Brussels to what we are trying to achieve. The only obstacle would appear to be here, in Whitehall.

I know from what the Minister told us on that splendid cricketing occasion to which the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall referred what arguments he will put in this debate. He will say, "Ah, but the campaign only amounts to a wish list." That is precisely the point. If every other part of the European Union in comparable circumstances—perhaps on the periphery of the Union—is able to identify itself as being on the international wish list for improvement of its main transport arteries and we are not, by definition, the fact that we are left out is as important to us as their inclusion is to them. That exclusion will be taken as a sign—not only to those who are already investing in our region but to those who might intend to—that we are economic and transport second-class citizens.

The second point that I know the Minister will make, as he did when the hon. Member for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam) led us in deputation, is that it is up to Railtrack to take the initiative. As a result of conversations with Railtrack, I do not think that it agrees with that analysis. Railtrack says that, if every other part of the EU is identifying routes by means of a TEN designation and the Bristol-Plymouth-Penzance route is not being designated, and if other routes in other parts of the United Kingdom are being designated and the BPP route is not, it would find it extremely difficult to take any initiative in our region. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall is absolutely right to say that the colour of the line on the map is significant to everyone concerned. It is not just symbolic—it is a clear signal.

Railtrack will clearly have to prioritise its efforts. Given its investment time scale, it is extremely important to give it a clear indication of where that investment should be prioritised. That is why I absolutely endorse the second point made by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall about the need for funding a feasibility study.

I am delighted that you are in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that you cannot indicate your support, but I believe that your heart is with us on the issue. We are all in this together.

12.45 pm
The Minister for Railways and Roads (Mr. John Watts)

It is indeed appropriate that you are presiding over our deliberations, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Hicks) on securing the debate. I recognise the great importance of good transport infrastructure, whether by road or rail, for the economic regeneration of Cornwall and other parts of the west country, and the importance of the area attracting the necessary inward investment in order to provide the job opportunities that we want.

The importance of those issues is underlined by the presence of so many of my hon. Friends who represent the south-west—my hon. Friends the Members for Exeter (Sir J. Hannam), for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope).

The draft trans-European network proposal was considered by the Transport Council in June 1995, and has been considered twice since then by the European Parliament. The European Parliament concluded its Second Reading in December. Among the amendments it proposed were a number to the maps, including the recategorisation of the Bristol-Plymouth-Penzance route from a conventional to a high-speed rail route. It is important to recognise that the route is on the rail trans-European network, but as a conventional route, not a high-speed one. Those and other European Parliament amendments will be considered by the EC's Conciliation Committee, which is expected to meet for the first time in about two weeks.

We secured as much coverage of UK routes on the network maps as seemed reasonable in the context of overall European coverage. I am pleased to say that that includes the London to Taunton via Westbury and Waterloo to Exeter lines, as well as the Bristol-Penzance line. The draft TEN network therefore fully recognises the importance of links to the west country.

The draft rail network maps distinguish between high-speed and conventional routes. The draft guidelines, at draft article 9, provide criteria for the inclusion of rail routes as high-speed routes. They are as follows: The high speed rail network shall comprise: Specially built high-speed lines equipped for speeds generally equal to or greater than 250 kmph"— which I believe is 155 mph— in current or new technology. Specially adapted high-speed lines equipped for speeds of the order of 200 kmph"— or 125 mph. Lines specially adapted for high speed of a specific nature by virtue of topographical relief or town planning constraints where speed must be adapted to each case. The Department has relied upon advice from British Rail and Railtrack on the categorisation of routes for the United Kingdom map. That advice has been informed by existing line speeds and investment priorities. I must tell the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that the map is not a wish list; it must represent current realities or future plans. Accordingly, the UK routes that are shown as high speed are the east coast main line, the west coast main line and some of its connecting links, the proposed channel tunnel rail link, and the Great Western line from London to Cardiff.

Mr. Tyler

Will any of the links to the west coast main line take the TEN into the wilds of western Scotland?

Mr. Watts

From memory, I cannot recollect whether the links go into the wilds of western Scotland, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman. I prefer not to rely on my failing memory.

Services on the east coast main line already reach speeds in excess of those stipulated for the greater part of the route, so it is represented as "upgraded high speed". The channel tunnel rail link will be capable of speeds of up to 186 mph, and is therefore shown as a planned high-speed TEN route. Proposals for upgrading the west coast main line are being advanced, and the line is therefore shown as a planned upgraded high-speed line, although final decisions have yet to be taken on the future speed capability of the route.

Since the start of discussions on TENs, British Rail and Railtrack have advised the Department that the UK rail TEN should show the line from London to Bristol and Cardiff as planned high speed because—in common with the east coast main line—the greater part of that longer route satisfies the criteria. All other UK rail routes represented on the rail TEN are shown in the draft rail TENs map as conventional routes. I am informed that the Bristol-Penzance line has a maximum speed capability, on parts of it, of 110 mph, and therefore does not fall within the criteria.

The rail TEN, in common with the other transport TENs, is indicative, and does not place any financial or other commitments on member states to complete or upgrade existing rail infrastructure. In other words, the existence of any route on the rail TEN—whether high-speed or conventional—does not compel the UK to bring forward any specific investment projects. However, infrastructure investment projects proposed by member states on routes represented on the rail TENs maps, of whatever classification, will be eligible, in principle, for assistance from the Commission's TENs budget.

The UK rail map agreed at the June 1995 Transport Council includes all the major links to the south-west of England, albeit as conventional routes, so projects on those routes would be eligible, in principle, for EC funding. I must emphasise that TENs funding for any project is limited to 10 per cent. of the total project costs, and that the overall TENs budget is comparatively small.

I do not know whether it was a compliment or a criticism when my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cornwall drew comparisons with my skill at cricket—I certainly have no such skill. However, I assure him that, even when I appear to be playing with a very straight bat, I listen to what people tell me, and take appropriate action afterwards.

I have been impressed by representations from my hon. Friend and many other hon. Friends that the case for upgrading should be examined. I have therefore recommended, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has approved, a bid for TENs funding towards a feasibility study, which will consider investment options on the Great Western lines for both passenger and freight traffic. I hope that my hon. Friends will accept that that is a positive step—much more positive than simply getting out a marker pen and changing the colour of a line on a map. It is a positive step towards securing the improved rail infrastructure to which they aspire.

I want briefly to deal with some of the comments about roads. I was intrigued by the notion of key routes. I just wonder what they will be called if I deliver them.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. We now move on to the next debate.