HL Deb 26 November 1974 vol 354 cc1261-7

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I would like to repeat a Statement which is being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in another place. His words are as follows:

"The House will recall that when on November 11 it debated a motion enabling the Channel Tunnel Bill to be reintroduced, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary undertook that the current estimated cost of the rail link from Cheriton to London would be published as soon as possible. The estimated cost in the 1973 White Paper was some £120 million in February, 1973, prices.

"The Government have now completed their examination of a revised cost estimate by British Railways. This amounts to £373 million at May, 1974, prices. This excludes the additional environmental works which have been canvassed in Surrey and Kent; the greater part of the cost of compensation under the 1973 Land Compensation Act; and the cost of enabling the link to carry freight which was not previously envisaged. It is out of the question that the Government should approve or finance an investment of this magnitude. We must find some less expensive means of enabling the through rail traffic, which forms so essential an aspect of the Tunnel project, to gain access to London and the British rail network. British Railways are therefore urgently examining a range of lower-cost options intended to achieve the greatest possible volume of through traffic, including freight, while avoiding detriment to the existing Southern system.

"In this situation it is clearly now impracticable for us to adhere to the previous timetable for decisions on the main Tunnel project, which were due to be taken in the summer of next year. I have, therefore, today formally proposed to our partners in the project, the French Government and the two Channel Tunnel Companies, that the timetable be put back to enable alternative lower-cost rail links to be thoroughly examined before we decide whether to build the Tunnel or not. I have asked our partners for an early indication of their readiness to re-negotiate the detailed arrangements on this basis.

"If such an indication is forthcoming, the Government will immediately reintroduce the Channel Tunnel Bill, for this still has to be passed in order to keep open the option of proceeding with Phase III. Indeed the sole purpose of reintroduction is to prevent the project from being abandoned by default. It implies no commitment to go beyond the present Phase II.

"The House should be aware, however, that the French Government have now re-emphasised to Her Majesty's Government their intention to complete Phase II and the current economic studies with a view to signing Agreement 3 within the agreed time schedule. They expect the studies to confirm the economic and financial viability of the project. This may or may not be so. But in view of the large increase in the estimated cost of the rail link it is, as I have said, clearly essential in the interests of both Governments and the Channel Tunnel Companies that the position be reassessed in depth. It is for this reason that I have now formally invited the French Government and the Companies to reconsider with us the timetable leading up to the final decision on Phase III.

"When I have received and considered the further Phase II studies, the report of the Cairncross Group and the advice from British Rail on an alternative rail strategy, I shall report them to the House. Meanwhile, as I have repeatedly told the House, the decision on whether to proceed with Phase III and build the Tunnel remains completely open, and the House will have the fullest opportunity for debate before this final decision is taken."

My Lords, that is the end of the Statement.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for repeating this very important Statement, which contains so much information that it would indeed justify a debate. I shall, however, confine myself to three questions. First, what is to be the new timetable; what is the cost of extending this time-table while alternative lower cost rail links are being considered; and are there any penalties attached to the agreements we have already signed if we do not fulfil our obligations?

The second general question is, What is the scope of this reinvestigation to be? Does it mean that the alternative rail routes which were originally considered, and which were undoubtedly cheaper but which were much more damaging to the environment, are to be considered again? Indeed, is the environment to be sacrificed to cost? What about the siting of terminals? Above all, what about the whole problem of planning blight that this reinvestigation may well raise at once in Kent, Surrey and a great many London boroughs? Have the local authorities involved been consulted, and how soon will they know what the timetable is to be so that an end may be put to this planning blight?

My last question is, if the French do not agree with the proposed alteration of the time-table, would the Government consider making it instead an EEC project?


My Lords, we, too, would like to thank the noble Baroness for making this important Statement. It seems to us, at any rate, to be very wise for the Government to insist on what may perhaps be called a pause for reflection before re-embarking finally on an enormously expensive project, and perhaps one which is, after all, doubtfully reconcilable with our present rather desperate economic situation. Apart from the huge revised cost of the, after all, essential rail link, surely there is another reason for thinking again if the Tunnel is going to be in any way economically viable, and this is the possibility that, with the greatly increased cost of petrol, and even with the possible necessity of petrol rationing both here and in the Community as a whole, the whole calculation of the profitability of the Tunnel will presumably have to be re-examined. Could the Government confirm—this is the specific question I should like to ask the noble Baroness—that these calculations, that is to say the profitability, were based on a great increase during the next 10 years in the number of motor vehicles using the Tunnel? Would the Government tell us whether these projections are now in their view likely to be justified?

4.1 p.m.


My Lords, the first point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was about the effect of postponement on the timetable. This would mean that instead of Phase III commencing in the summer of 1975 it would, provided the negotiations with the French go ahead well, be started in the summer of 1976. In the meantime, from to-day, as I said in the Statement, we will be in touch with the French on the question of a year's delay. There will be no penalties such as have been suggested so long as the negotiation goes ahead. The penalties do not operate unless abandonment is concerned, and this is not under consideration at all. The noble Baroness mentioned the scope of the reinvestigation. This involves going ahead with the Phase II studies. We are now in the midst of these. We also await the Cairn-cross Group's report in the spring of next year.

The noble Baroness also asked me about the question of the environmental impact of the rail link. It is true that the additional use of existing infrastructure could be less environmentally detrimental than a major new construction. which would possibly involve a far greater use of land. In any case, I can assure the noble Baroness that the local authorities concerned will be fully consulted all the way through. She also mentioned the question of the siting of terminals. At this moment all I can say is that the question of a London terminal is one which we are expecting to discuss further with the GLC. Certainly the White City cannot be ruled out at this stage. I think that her final point was, what would happen if the French do not agree to our proposals. I think that it would be quite wrong for me at this stage to conjure up any possibilities of what might, or might not, happen in the future. It is only to-day that my right honourable friend has written to the French suggesting this delay, and we hope that we shall be able to come to an amicable arrangement with them.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for his comment on the pause for reflection. The pause is in order that we shall be able to go further into the Phase II studies, and also to enable us to find, as the Statement pointed out, lower cost alternatives to the originally proposed rail link. As to his point on the calculations, these remain, as they originally were, based on the need for the Tunnel, but, as I am sure he is aware, this Government consider it absolutely essential that the Tunnel be railway-oriented.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us are grateful for the kind and informative way in which she gave the House this information? is she further aware that some of us would not like to take the opportunity—and incidentally, I am right behind the prepossessing noble Baroness—of stabbing her in the back about this Walter Mitty conception? However, does not she think that this might be an opportune moment to suggest to British Rail that an improvement in the train ferry for the next 25 years may he of much more use than this Walter Mitty concept, which has reached heights of fantasy that are almost psychotic?


My Lords, as I did not say on a former occasion, the answer to my noble friend's first question is, yes, and the answer to the second question is, no.


My Lords, how can the noble Baroness say in one breath that it is wrong to conjure up possibilities of what might happen in the future, and in the second breath say that abandonment of the Tunnel is not under consideration at all? That means that she has a closed mind on the question raised by my noble friend Lord Gladwyn, to whom she did not give an answer. The question my noble friend asked was: Have the Government taken into consideration the effect on the volume of motoring of the increases in the cost of fuel which we are already experiencing, and which we are likely to suffer even more in the years between now and the opening of the Tunnel, if it were decided to go ahead? Will the noble Baroness give an assurance that studies will be undertaken by the Road Research Laboratory and the motor car manufacturing industry to find out what the volume of motor traffic will be in the 1980s, and how many motor car owners will be in a position to either afford or even want to take their cars on holiday with them to Europe? Will the Government further consider whether the existing means of taking cars across the Channel by Hovercraft, or British Rail ferry, will be adequate without spending a great deal of public money?


My Lords, I do not agree that I gave contradictory answers. The answer on the question of abandonment was that abandonment is not under consideration at all now. When the noble Baroness asked whether, if we did not come to an agreement with the French, we would consider the EEC, my answer was that it was quite wrong at this stage to talk about "ifs" and "maybes" when we are embarking on a series of negotiations with the French. Concerning Lord Gladwyn's question, taken up again by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, this is the whole point—and I am sorry that I did not make it as clear as I hoped I had—of the Cairncross Group and the Phase II studies that are going on at the present time. All the other points that he mentioned—I am sure that the noble Lord will forgive me if I do not repeat them as they were rather lengthy ones—will be considered. Part of the reason for the delay is so that these and many other factors can be taken into consideration.


My Lords, I understand that tunnelling work is proceeding on schedule both on the French side and on this side, and that 2 kilometres of the service tunnel on either side should be completed in June, and that then Phase III should begin. In such circumstances, do Her Majesty's Government really think that the French Government will agree to a postponement of one year when, in effect, on both sides work is proceeding for 24 hours a day, the teams are there, and everything is organised for work to proceed continuously and in a satisfactory manner?


My Lords, this is exactly what we are hoping.


My Lords, while one appreciates the reason for the difficulty and the consequential delay, can my noble friend give any indication that, in this further assessment of traffic that is likely to use the Tunnel, more up-to-date research methods will be adopted? Is she aware that millions of pounds have already been spent in preparation for this development, and that to abandon the whole thing, or even to postpone it for a further period of years, means ever increasing costs; and that it most certainly is to the advantage of the industrial North, industrial Scotland, and other industrial parts of the country that this easier method of transfer of goods should be proceeded with as quickly as possible?


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Popplewell for his question and comments. He is right that the possibilities of mere up-to-date research and methods of working are, of course, not only under consideration but have been pursued. It is indeed development in design—it was, I believe, at the beginning of the century that we opened the last railway to be constructed in this country—that has had a great deal to do with the increased cost of the rail link. We are very much aware of the necessity of getting on with the studies I have mentioned, and I can assure the noble Lord that the purpose of asking for a year's delay is to try to carry out further work along the lines he has suggested.


My Lords, in view of the time, perhaps your Lordships will agree that we should now proceed with the debate.