HC Deb 31 October 2000 vol 355 cc686-92

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

8.39 pm
Ms Claire Ward (Watford)

I was beginning to think that the uncertainty about what time this debate would start was part of a conspiracy to ensure that I was away from my other constituents this evening, who are following the fortunes of Watford football team, which is playing Manchester United at home. However, I shall not detain the House for long, certainly not until 10 o'clock, as I am sure that other hon. Members are keen to know the results.

Many of those who have seen the title of the Adjournment debate will believe that it refers to the chaos and disruption seen on the west coast over the past few days. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe will be pleased and relieved to know that it does not. This debate is about the chaos and disruption that will be caused to the people in my community by the works required to achieve the upgrading of the west coast main line.

First, may I say that I fully support the project to upgrade the west coast main line? The opportunity to improve services along the line must be welcomed, and in Watford we expect to see a substantial extension to services as a result of the upgrade. Although I have some concerns about the capacity available to local services, that is not an issue for tonight. I recognise, too, that sometimes there must be disruption in order to gain those benefits. However, we expect our public utilities, notably Railtrack and the National Grid Company, to do all within their power to minimise disruption and seek the most suitable means of carrying out works so that, wherever possible. communities are protected from the upheaval of the track improvements. However, there are two areas along the line in my constituency where proposals from Railtrack are causing great upset and concern to residents.

The first is an issue on which I have already made representations to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. As part of improving the power source for the railway, a series of electrical transformers is being sited along the line. Railtrack has applied to the Secretary of State for an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 to authorise a package of projects for improving the power supply to the line. One such project includes the siting of an electrical transformer in Gypsy lane in the north of my constituency. Gypsy lane, for those who do not have the advantage of knowing Watford, is a beautiful country cul-de-sac that leads out to greenbelt land, and people regularly walk and cycle there. It is a single-lane road, with no footpaths and no turning spaces, other than those of the residents' own driveways.

Railtrack originally planned to site the transformer on the east side of the track and took some soundings from a few residents. They expressed concern, not so much about the position of the transformer as the access to it. Residents have never opposed the fact that a transformer needs to be sited in the area, but have always opposed the plan that access to it should be via Gypsy lane, which is inappropriate for use by huge vehicles. Railtrack considered that and moved it to the west side. Residents have never supported that site and access to it would still be required via Gypsy lane.

Railtrack has estimated that the work will take about six months. Once built, the transformer will require regular maintenance. That would all need access along this narrow lane. It is no wonder that the residents have opposed Railtrack's proposals.

The site favoured by residents—the original site identified by Railtrack—could be accessed from private land and would be more suitable for construction and maintenance vehicles to use. The land is part of Leavesden aerodrome, now used by Leavesden film studios, and using it would cause less disruption. Equally, using that site would minimise the visual obstruction in this attractive area.

I have supported residents in their discussions with Railtrack. The Transport and Works Act 1992 will now be considered by a public inquiry. However, we continue to urge Railtrack to reconsider the alternative position now, rather than wait until the inquiry, which will not be considering the issue until August next year.

The second issue relates to the south of my constituency, in Oxhey village—another quaint and attractive part of the constituency which is being threatened by Railtrack's proposals. There are two areas of concern. First, a further transformer is required near Bushey station. Although residents had been led to believe that it would be sited near the end of the platform, more recent proposals—without consultation—indicate that it is due to be built further away from the station but nearer to homes. Residents are understandably concerned about the loss of their visual outlook by the erection of such a large building. Some have also expressed concern about the health implications of being so close to a fairly high electromagnetic field.

Secondly, Railtrack has asked the National Grid Company to provide a high-voltage electricity supply to the line. The cables will be run from Elstree sub-station to Bushey railway station. Unfortunately for my constituents, it is proposed that trenches be dug to put the cables along the middle of those narrow Victorian streets. Not only will that cause disruption, increased noise and dirt to residents, but the parking problems in the area will be magnified by the displacement of cars due to the works. Although the majority of the area is residential, a number of businesses such as newsagents, specialist shops and takeaways rely on passing trade and the ability of customers to stop close by. The cabling works would not only make the road almost unusable but would prevent cars from parking in any relatively close proximity. Those businesses will be severely affected and, as yet, they have not been advised of what assistance, if any, Railtrack or the National Grid Company will provide.

Watford borough council has also expressed its opposition to the proposals, and is considering whether to grant the necessary planning permission for the National Grid Company to cross the recreational ground, owned by the council.

Although the National Grid Company claims to have sought to keep the community fully informed of the proposals, it has not been much of a consultation. Residents have stressed the disruption and chaos that will result from the works and have suggested alternatives that have been refused by the National Grid Company and Railtrack.

The first option that we asked them to consider was the use of tunnelling equipment. We are aware that, on other stretches of roads in St. John's wood, the National Grid Company is using the technology available to it by rotary drilling and steel casing a borehole through which the cables are threaded. Equally, when the cables cross the major A41 road under the proposed route, the National Grid Company will tunnel underneath. Residents rightly want the National Grid Company to minimise disruption by using the best technology available to it in undertaking this work. Yet the National Grid Company and its customers, Railtrack, refuse to do so.

Residents and the council have also requested consideration of alternative routes where fewer residential areas would be affected by the cabling. To date, there appears to have been some reluctance to provide exact costings and details of the alternatives and the technical reasons why they are not practical. Neither Railtrack nor the National Grid Company appears interested in those alternatives.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Does my hon. Friend agree that similar problems are occurring in many communities up and down the west coast main line upgrade route? Does she agree that, if Railtrack were to treat those alternative suggestions seriously, it would have far better support in those communities? Instead, people suspect that Railtrack is not up to the west coast main line upgrade.

Ms Ward

I agree with my hon. Friend. Although there are not as many Members in the Chamber as one would wish to be present for an Adjournment debate, I am confident that there are many other constituencies, up and down the west coast main line and elsewhere, where Railtrack and the National Grid Company have not taken due consideration of the concerns raised by residents about the disruption in their area. Indeed, people would be more willing to engage in discussions with Railtrack if they felt that they would be listened to. Negotiations will continue over several months, and I hope that Railtrack and National Grid will be interested in talking to residents and the council.

People in Watford have been told that the proposals are the most cost effective. It seems that Railtrack is not prepared to spend extra money to reduce disruption and protect the environment. The companies are making millions of pounds in profits for shareholders each year, and they have statutory powers allowing them to gain access to private land and highways to carry out their work. On refusal, they can apply to the Secretary of State. That gives the companies immense power over communities that are expected simply to accept proposals and be grateful that they have been informed of the plans.

As a result of my securing the debate tonight and delays by the council in deciding its course of action, Railtrack has written to me to advise that, if we do not accept its plans, it will seek permission to use an alternative and even more disruptive route. Bullying by such companies is quite appalling, and is not conducive to achieving a solution. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe will recognise that when she replies to the debate. It is the unfortunate result of their serving the interests of their shareholders rather than those of the communities in which they work. It does not seem appropriate that companies in private hands, acting in the interests of their shareholders, should have statutory powers far in excess of any held by other companies or industries.

In preparing for this debate, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions were unsure about which of them could most appropriately respond to the issues that I intended to raise. I understand the confusion, and it seems that my right hon. Friend has drawn the short straw. I realise that she cannot easily answer some of the points that I have made, particularly on planning, and I should appreciate it if she would pass on those concerns to the DETR.

The local community, councillors and I oppose the proposals. Yet the power of the council to refuse planning permission to National Grid, should it decide to do so, can be easily thwarted by the company's ability to turn to the Secretary of State, who would be placed in a difficult position. It cannot be right that a private company, supposedly acting in the public interest, can use the Secretary of State to justify its desire to keep costs low and profits high while being unable to explain to the local community why alternative proposals are not suitable. I hope that my right hon. Friend will stress that point to her colleagues in other Departments.

I should be interested to hear what standards of consultation and action my right hon. Friend expects from public utilities that are now in the private sector. Does she agree that such companies, with the benefits of wealth, power and lack of competition, have a duty to consider the effects of their actions on the environment and local communities? Does she agree that, when companies make large profits, it is not unreasonable of my constituents to expect the best service rather than simply the cheapest?

In the words of National Grid, the present route was chosen because most of it—approximately 90 per cent.—fell within sparsely populated roads or rural land, with the aim of minimising disruption to the community as a whole. The remaining 10 per cent. of the route passes along residential streets in the immediate vicinity of Bushey station. I believe that it is possible for National Grid to make the extra effort to reroute the cables away from residential areas, so that the route from Elstree sub-station to Bushey railway station causes minimum disruption. That is the view of my constituents, and we hope that my right hon. Friend will encourage National Grid and Railtrack to reconsider the proposals with local residents, me and Watford borough council.

8.53 pm
The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward) on obtaining the debate. She is known across Government for the vigour with which she has pursued these matters, which may be why a Minister from the Department of Trade and Industry rather than the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is answering the debate. I well understand the strength of her feeling about how her constituents have been dealt a hand that they regard as unfortunate.

As my hon. Friend generously pointed out, her concerns cover two distinct but interrelated issues. She is concerned about the Railtrack plans for modernisation of the west coast main line—in particular, how they will affect her constituents. As she rightly points out, that is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

I undertake to my hon. Friend and to her colleagues who are supporting her in this debate to ensure that my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister for Transport is made well aware of the matters that she raised. They are important and, were I in a similar situation, as a constituency Member I would pursue a similar course of action to that of my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend is also concerned about the disruption that would be caused by the National Grid Company's proposals for the laying of underground power cables in Oxhey as part of a power upgrade for the west coast main line. That is a matter that falls directly to me as the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe. I am replying for the Government, but, by my so doing and by my concentrating on the Department of Trade and Industry aspects, she must be assured that, across Government, we share many of her anxieties and we will try to consider her arguments as fully as possible, especially the points of substantive policy for the future.

As my hon. Friend knows, Railtrack has applied to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions for an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 to authorise that range of works to upgrade and modernise the west coast main line. Indeed, although Railtrack is a private company, it is regulated by the rail regulator under the Railways Act 1993. Although the Government recognise that the promotion of schemes such as the west coast main line upgrade are matters for the company, where they affect third parties Parliament has provided a procedure under the Transport and Works Act to permit individuals affected by the planned works to make representations.

A public inquiry into the application is to be held next year, starting in January. I understand that the inquiry is scheduled to take place at 10 different venues along the route, to ensure that the proceedings are accessible to all those who wish to take part. Once the different venues and dates have been settled, my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will write to all the interested parties to inform them of the arrangements.

I understand that, arising from that application, a number of my hon. Friends's constituents have registered objections to the proposed siting of an electrical transformer at Hunton Bridge, Kings Langley. That is one of the works included in the application for a Transport and Works Act order. All interested persons will have an opportunity to make their views known on that and any other proposals in the application at the public inquiry. My hon. Friend will be pursuing that matter with her characteristic vigour.

I am sure that my hon. Friend recognises that it would not be right for me to comment in advance of the inquiry on any proposals included in the Transport and Works Act application. To do so could prejudice the proper consideration of the application in light of all the evidence that has to be presented to the inquiry or made in writing. In the usual way, the inspector who is making the inquiry will provide a full report on the proceedings.

I am sympathetic to the concerns of my hon. Friend and her constituents about the disruption that is likely to be caused by the works. We all know the great upheaval that can be caused to local communities because of such works. However, checks and balances exist in legislation to ensure that the rights of landowners and occupiers are not ignored.

Under existing legislation, electricity companies must first seek to make contractual arrangements with landowners or occupiers for rights to install electric lines. Such arrangements are called wayleaves, which also confer access rights for the purpose of inspection, maintenance, repairs and anything else that may be required.

I understand that the National Grid Company has obtained all the wayleaves that it requires voluntarily, except for one, covering the section of the route from Attenborough fields to Oxhey. That land is owned by Watford borough council, and its policy and procedures committee met yesterday to decide whether to agree to grant the wayleave on a voluntary basis. I understand that the committee referred the matter back to the full council, which will meet on 13 December.

Should Watford borough council decide not to grant the NGC a wayleave, the company can then apply to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for the grant of a compulsory wayleave. I cannot discuss the merits of that case, as, if an application for a compulsory wayleave is made in due course, it may come before the Secretary of State for decision.

It might, however, be helpful to my hon. Friend and her constituents if I outline generally the procedures followed if an application for a compulsory wayleave is made, to illustrate that the current provisions encourage negotiation—as my hon. Friend wants—rather than compulsion and to ensure that such procedures are conducted fairly and independently.

Applicants for compulsory wayleaves for new lines must first give a period of notice to landowners of at least 21 days. If voluntary wayleaves have not been agreed at the end of the notice period, application can then be made to the Secretary of State. Should the—usually—on-going negotiations between the parties be unsuccessful, my Department will, if requested, arrange a hearing at which the parties can make their cases. That hearing would normally be conducted by an inspector from the DTI's engineering inspectorate, who acts independently in such matters, and who, after hearing the evidence, submits a written report to the Secretary of State with his or her recommendations. The Secretary of State's decision is then conveyed to the parties. We do not yet know whether that procedure is likely to be required.

In summary, I cannot comment on the merits of the decisions that have to be made, because of the Government's quasi-judicial position in the matter. I have listened carefully to the debate and will ensure that my colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are informed as to the strength of feeling of my hon. Friend and of her constituents—especially in relation to the rather cavalier way in which my hon. Friend believes that her constituents have been treated by Railtrack.

If a wayleave is received by my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the normal procedures will be followed. I understand that the NGC has already discussed the route options publicly and has consulted organisations such as the traffic police.

The substantive point of my hon. Friend's criticisms relates to the performance of companies such as Railtrack and the NGC. Regardless of whether utilities are in the public or the private sector, companies have certain responsibilities that flow from the performance of their public service obligations. We expect them to supply on demand; to provide a high level of service and, in doing so, to take the needs of individuals into account.

We are all grown-up people who realise that, in the real world, there will be a need for development work, and that such work causes disruption. Such matters can be dealt with under various statutes, such as the Electricity Act 1989, the Transport and Works Act 1992 and the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. Those measures can all be used, but they do not diminish the criticism correctly made by my hon. Friend: when any company undertakes works that will cause not only economic but social disruption, it has an obligation to take that disruption into account. Companies must behave considerately and sensibly towards people such as my hon. Friend's constituents.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on achieving the debate. I have listened to it carefully. The Official Report will be made available to my colleagues in other Departments.

In conclusion, as Airdrieonians football club is not playing tonight, I can, without hesitation, wish my hon. Friend's team every success.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Nine o'clock.