HC Deb 13 May 2003 vol 405 cc149-52
1. Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

If he will make a statement on plans for Crossrail. [112567]

13. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

If he will make a statement on the future of Crossrail. [112579]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The Government continue to support the development of Crossrail. We are now evaluating proposals from the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London to see whether they are financeable and deliverable.

Mr. Davey

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but does he not recognise that that amounts to yet more delay and indecision? If the Government really cannot make a decision on this essential investment for London and the country, will the right hon. Gentleman use the intervening period profitably by asking the valuation office to assess the value of the property and land either side of the Crossrail corridor? Armed with that information, we could find new options for the future using American financing models, for example, and tax-incremental financing. Will the Secretary of State ask the valuation office to do that?

Mr. Darling

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, sadly, Crossrail has a long history. Many hon. Members will recall that it was severely damaged when it could not get parliamentary approval in 1991, and that it was effectively killed off by rail privatisation a couple of years later. We need a proposition that is financeable and deliverable before we can consider how it should be funded. I have not the slightest doubt that it will need to be funded with a combination of support from the Government and the private sector, but the first thing is to get a proposition on which we can proceed. The time spent on getting that right now will be time well spent. Not nearly enough preparatory work was done in the early 1990s, with the result that the whole scheme was cut to bits under scrutiny in the House.

Mike Gapes

Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is increasing concern in a wide number of areas across London, including my constituency, that important regeneration and development plans such as "Progressive Ilford", which will involve a massive regeneration of our town centre, could be badly damaged by further delay to the Crossrail programme? Will he ensure that the economic benefits that will result from Crossrail will be taken into consideration, particularly the improvement in cross-London east-west journey times, which have been made worse for those driving into London by the impact of the congestion charge in the centre? Will he therefore improve the public transport links from east to west London—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Darling

I will stick to Crossrail, for the time being at least. As I have said on many occasions, I have not the slightest doubt that we need to improve capacity on the railways running between the east and west of London. Never mind any development that might happen in the future, the development that we know about now, and that is likely to take place over the next years, means that we must increase our rail capacity. That is why I believe that Crossrail is so important. What went wrong in the past was that not nearly enough attention was paid to the detail and specification of the project. One of the reasons why I asked the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London last autumn to come up with a workable proposition was that, until that time, Crossrail had been a very vague concept. As I have just said to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), we need to have a workable, deliverable, financeable proposition. We are working on that at the moment, and if we can get one, we shall have to see how we can finance it and press on with it. But let us be in no doubt that the east-west link is extremely important to the development not only of London but of the surrounding areas that will see substantial development in the years to come.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

In Chesham and Amersham, two railway schemes affect us: Crossrail, which would be of great benefit to my constituents; and the Central Railway project, a poorly presented, poorly financed and ill-thought-through scheme that is causing great concern to my constituents who have houses near the railway. I urge the Secretary of State to support the former, which is urgently required, and to rule out the latter once and for all.

Mr. Darling

I have made my position, and that of the Government, clear in relation to Crossrail. In relation to Central Railway, there is a proposition there, and Central Railway has been speaking to my Department. Before we can do anything further, however, I would like to be sure that there is actually someone standing behind that proposition who has the money to develop it. Until I am satisfied about that, the question of any building of the Central Railway project remains theoretical.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the immense support in my constituency for Crossrail, which would link Whitechapel to Heathrow. Will he, however, tell the House a bit more about the cost of the project? If it is to be approximately £10 billion, £5 billion of which would come from fares or the usual channels, where would the other £5 billion come from? Are there any proposals that he can rule in or out regarding business rates?

Mr. Darling

The final costing will depend on the final shape of the proposal, but we should all realise that the cost of building Crossrail will be substantial, probably in excess of £10 billion. As I have said in reply to other Members, we are now ensuring that the project is financeable and deliverable. The question that follows from that is how it should be funded, which will be a matter for discussion not just within Government but with the private sector. I am encouraged by the number of people in that sector who have expressed interest in joining the project, but the test is whether we can persuade them to sign up rather than merely sending a general message of support. In my experience it is easy to secure such messages, but securing cash is sometimes more troublesome.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

May I press the Secretary of State on two matters? The first is cost. The Mayor says he thinks the project will cost about £10 billion, the chief executive of Crossrail says it will cost between £7 billion and £11 billion depending on routes, and the Secretary of State has been quoted as saying that he thinks it might cost £15 billion. Can the Secretary of State explain why his estimate is so much higher than the others?

The second matter is timing. We expected an announcement in February, and were then told that it would be delayed by a fortnight and would be made in March. It is now the middle of May. May we at least have an assurance that a final decision will be made before the House rises in July?

Mr. Darling

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman got his timetable. I do not recall our expecting an announcement in February. What I said last time, I think, was that I had asked Transport for London and the Strategic Rail Authority to come up with proposals for me to receive in spring. The Department has indeed received them, and we are looking at them now.

The cost depends largely on the nature of Crossrail. The London Regional Metro scheme, for instance, is also called Crossrail, but is very different from the SRATFL scheme. I am very cautious about costs. My experience over the past 12 months has been that costs relating to railways, in particular, usually turn out to be rather more than was originally anticipated.

As I have told the House, I think that Crossrail is very important to London's future development, but it is also important for us to get it right, and we should be realistic about the costs. It would be foolish and misleading to suggest that a scheme of such magnitude could be done on the cheap.

Linda Perham (Ilford, North)

I am glad that the Secretary of State supports Crossrail, which has received support throughout London and in other areas. This is not just a question of people in London wanting investment in London; the project is important to the business community, and to London's status as an international centre. As for the costing, has the Secretary of State had any discussions recently with the London business forum and others about private finance?

Mr. Darling

I have had a number of meetings, and, as I said earlier, there is no shortage of expressions of support for Crossrail and its funding. Nevertheless, we should all be cautious about saying "That is fine, let's go ahead". We need people to sign up to the proposition before we can proceed.

As I have said on a number of occasions, Crossrail is important not just to London but to areas around the city, especially in the east. It is also important, however, that we learn from mistakes made over the past 10 to 15 years. Once we have a project that is workable and financeable, we will see how we can deliver it. No one should underestimate the task we face: the project has a long history, and has fallen at a number of hurdles in the past because not enough preparatory work has been done. I understand people's frustration, but it is important that we get this right.