HL Deb 20 January 1986 vol 470 cc21-31

3.49 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the Channel Fixed Link.

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister and the President of France, meeting earlier today in Lille, announced the decision of the two Governments to take together the necessary steps to facilitate the construction of a fixed link across the Channel by the Channel Tunnel Group. Copies of the joint Statement are being made available in the Vote Office.

"We will publish as soon as possible a White Paper that will give the full reasons for this decision. It will also chart the next steps to give effect to that decision: the Treaty, the Concession Agreement and the legislation.

"The two Governments were faced with four proposals of outstanding quality which reflect great credit on the firms involved. It is remarkable that such keen competition could develop to provide and finance privately a project of this magnitude. The key factors that led the Government to select the Channel Tunnel Group were as follows.

"Eurobridge was eliminated largely on technical grounds. It is an imaginative and forward looking proposal, but the technical risks make it too speculative for the two Governments to believe it was likely to be financed and successfully completed.

"The choice between Channel Tunnel Group, Channel Expressway and Euro-Route was a more difficult one. They differ widely as to their technical characteristics, their impact on the environment, their effect upon shipping, and their vulnerability to terrorist attack—all factors in the decision. The Invitation to Promoters made it clear that any fixed link had to be financed, constructed and operated without support from public funds, and without Government guarantees against technical and commercial risks. It is thus for investors ultimately to determine whether a fixed link is built. The Governments had to try and select the scheme which offered the best prospects of attracting investors' support.

"Both Euro-Route and Channel Expressway answer the popular desire to drive from one country to the other with the independence and freedom of a drive-through link. But both have large technical risks. CTG's is a well-developed project, relying on well-proven technology and is both less risky and less expensive. It offers a fast and efficient rail shuttle service, for road passengers and freight, with very frequent departures and no booking. It presents no problems to maritime traffic in the Channel and is the least vulnerable to terrorist attack. Its environmental impact can be reduced to an acceptable level. The Government concluded that CTG was the best scheme to go forward to the market.

"The Government remain very much aware of the arguments that the public would like a drive-through link. In due course the conditions may arise when a drive-through link would be viable. We have therefore secured an undertaking from the CTG that they will put forward by the year 2000 a proposal for a drive-through link, to be undertaken as soon as its technical feasibility is assured, and economic circumstances and the growth of traffic allow it to be financed without undermining the return on the original link. At a later stage, the Governments will be free to invite competitive bids for a further link coming into operation not before 2020.

"I expect the signature of the Anglo/French Treaty to take place in February: and the concession agreement between the Governments and the Channel Tunnel Group to be concluded shortly thereafter. The legislation will then be introduced into this House as soon as possible. Construction could begin by the summer of 1987.

"Consultations in Kent have so far focussed on the question of which scheme the Government should adopt. We must now concentrate upon making the chosen scheme as acceptable as possible. We will want to minimise the environmental impact, and to consider carefully the employment consequences of this development. We will be sympathetic if problems seem likely to arise in East Kent when the link opens some seven years from now.

"We must arrive at satisfactory arrangements with the promoters for the disposal of spoil and on other environmental matters and we will ensure that the necessary road infrastructure is provided. The White Paper will deal with these questions.

"The Channel Tunnel is a massive and difficult project. It will be a challenge to our engineers, our technicians and our financial institutions. Equally, I believe it will be of great benefit to travellers and exporters alike in giving them cheaper, quicker and more reliable access to the Continent of Europe."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl for repeating this Statement and, whatever noble Lords' opinions might be of the desirability of a fixed link or the project selected, I think it would be generally agreed that this is an historic Statement. When we debated the question of a fixed link on 13th December last, I stressed then that there had been inadequate parliamentary discussion and also inadequate national consideration of whether or not there should be a fixed link. That still remains the opinion of these Benches at this stage, particularly in the light of all the other massive schemes that are required: schemes such as housing and other problems; and we shall be debating housing on another day. All these factors, we believe, have not been adequately considered.

The Statement says that the White Paper will be published as soon as possible. Will the Minister give an assurance that the White Paper will include the conclusions of the 20 assessment teams and the reasons for their various conclusions? Will the noble Earl give an assurance that the White Paper will be debated before the treaty is signed? The Statement says that the treaty is to be signed in February. The noble Earl may say that this is a matter for the usual channels to discuss, but I would ask that the noble Earl discuss this matter with his noble friend the Leader of the House and ensure that, not only in this House but also in the other place, there is a debate on the White Paper before the treaty is signed.

When we debated the matter on 13th December, the noble Earl explained the procedure of the hybrid Bill and the Select Committee that will be necessary. Has consideration been given to the possible timetable for that procedure? Will the noble Earl give an assurance that there will be no inhibitions on the organisations or individuals who may wish to petition and appear before the Select Committee?

At that debate, I stressed that whatever fixed link there should be, if it were decided to have a fixed link, there must be included a rail link. Therefore it is not my intention at this time, despite all the points raised in the Statement, to go into the merits or demerits of the four schemes mentioned, but to express satisfaction that if there is to be a tunnel link, it will be a rail link. Does acceptance of the Channel Tunnel Group project mean that the Government have decided on the British Rail proposal for the expenditure of between £250 million and £350 million, to which the noble Earl referred in our previous debate? Will this be above its EFL (External Financial Limits)? Will every opportunity be taken, as we have heard, for lots of discussion about express rail traffic between London and Paris? Will the noble Earl give an assurance that every opportunity will be taken to provide for through rail freight links with the Midlands, the North, Scotland and South Wales?

The Statement also said that the Government will ensure that necessary road infrastructure will be provided. Does this mean that the expenditure will be additional money to that provided already by the Government for road construction? Will the Government give an assurance that the British share of construction costs will be spent on British materials and will be spread over as many regions as is practical and possible? Will the Minister also confirm that the requirement which (the Statement says) is to be obtained from the Channel Tunnel Group, that they will put forward by the year 2000 proposals for a road drive-through link, does not imply that already the Government accept the necessity for, and desirability of, a road tunnel?

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I rise from these Benches to greet this Statement with enthusiasm; although that is not to say that one may not be critical of certain parts of the details. But, basically, let it be known that the Alliance believes that a link of this sort is important to the future of this country, and therefore we have come to the conclusion that the Government on this occasion have come to the right answer for the right reasons. Of crucial importance is to have a rail link between the industrial heartland of this country—Scotland, the North and the Midlands—through into the industrial heartlands of Europe. The Channel Tunnel Group proposals seem to me to provide that in the best possible measure.

4 p.m.

We well understand that emotionally people will want to drive through the tunnel to France, but that is not really a matter which touches on the national interest: that would be a nice dab of cream on top of the cake at some stage, although I see that it is not likely to happen under this proposal until the year 2020: and perhaps I could suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, should be asked to open it on that occasion! Personally I feel that the opportunity of driving 50 kilometres through a tunnel under the Channel is not something I should myself like to undertake, but presumably there had to be some nod to the Prime Minister's susceptibilities; and this seems to be the way out.

Let me just say that the fact that there have been four imaginative proposals—"tenders" would be the wrong word—for this link does great credit to the British engineering industry. If I may say so, on a slightly different subject, having been down to the South Atlantic just before Christmas and having seen the way in which the civil engineering industry down there has built the complex at Mount Pleasant, I have every confidence that this piece of engineering can be completed on time and within budget.

One of the virtues of the scheme which has been accepted is that it does the minimum damage to the ferry service. I believe it is important that we should maintain a viable ferry service out of Dover and Folkestone, for a number of reasons: partly because of employment prospects, but partly also as a strategic back-up. I do not believe that we should rely entirely on the Channel tunnel for all movements across the Channel at that part of the south coast, and I believe that the Channel Tunnel Group's proposals just about get the balance right. We will be able to maintain a reasonable ferry service out of Dover and Folkestone while producing the important rail link with Europe.

I think also that it minimises the environmental effect on Kent. But I want to ask the Government what sort of consultation they propose to undertake so far as Kent is concerned. The Statement says that we must now concentrate on making the chosen scheme as acceptable as possible. I hope that is not merely a cosmetic exercise, but that there will be some genuine consultation with the environmental groups and the people who are living in that area to ensure that the minimum environmental impact occurs. I do not believe that the environmental impact is all one way. It seems to me there might even be a reduction in the number of heavy goods vehicles passing through Kent, if goods can be moved on to rail. I believe that is an important consideration.

As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has said, there is a need for the Government to give some assurance that British Rail will have the finance available to put in the very necessary links. If this scheme is going to work to its maximum, whether it be links through London or the possibility of a link to the north through Reading, I believe the Government must give some assurance that British Rail will be allowed to generate the necessary finance to make sure that this scheme really is viable. I hope we shall not get the sort of answer that I got the other day from the noble Lord the Minister when we were talking about Stansted, where it seemed that there were two separate compartments: one for the expansion of Stansted and one for the expansion of British Rail, which must depend entirely on market forces. I hope that in this case, if there is a need for British Rail to be given some support, the Government will be prepared to do that. I believe this Statement today is a statement of our belief in the European Community and in our membership within that community. Therefore your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that the proposal has the wholehearted support of these Benches.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am most grateful for the warm response given to the Statement by the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff. I believe this is an historic Statement and one that is properly repeated in this House.

Among other questions, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether we would publish all 20 assessments. The answer to that is "no", because it would not be right for the Government to seek to influence the banks and other institutions to which a successful promoter (that is, the CTG) will look for finance for the chosen link project. It would be for the successful promoter to put the details of the project in the form in which it is to go ahead to potential investors, to allow them to decide whether to invest in it without a Government guarantee in any form, expressed or implied. So the commercial aspects, which are confidential, will not be published. As much of the results of the other assessments as can be published will be put into the White Paper. I am sure the noble Lord would agree with me that it would be quite wrong for us to put in the commercial aspects.

The noble Lord quite rightly said that if there is to be a debate on the White Paper that would be a matter for the usual channels. I see my Chief Whip in his place and I am sure he will take note of the noble Lord's request. The timetable for the procedure of a hybrid Bill will very much depend upon the petitioners and on the amount of time it takes to get through the special Committee stage. As to those who can petition, I do not think I can add to the comments I made last December: I would merely confirm them.

Both noble Lords asked me about the rail infrastructure. It is intended that British Rail expenditure on the link should be approved in principle, but, as both noble Lords will be aware, expenditure will not be incurred for some years but will have to be accommodated within the EFT. during the years.

A noble Lord

Oh dear!

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I agree with both noble Lords that there should be a good rail link to the rest of the country. A section of it is in position at the moment and I am sure that British Rail will seek to improve this where commercially justified. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me whether the Government would make sure that the work incurred by this project would be distributed fairly round the country. That is something in which the Government would not seek to intervene. It is a matter for the concessionaires themselves. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, ended by referring to a road tunnel. Of course he must not prejudge the situation. There is the possibility of a road link, which might be a tunnel or a bridge.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned the ferry service. I agree with him that a viable ferry service is important. He will appreciate that it is of particular concern to me, especially in view of the role that ferries play in the defence of the country.

The noble Lord also referred to our consultations with regard to minimum impact on the environment. I can tell him that we are forming a joint consultative arrangement with Kent County Council. This will include representation probably to an inter-governmental commission to look at these matters. There will also be a special study into the particular effects on Kent. That is what I meant by the words used in the Statement. I am grateful to both noble Lords for their welcome of the Statement.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he can please help us a little more as regards the special procedure of hybridity and Select Committees? As I understand it, if you are a member of a Select Committee—and I have sat on a committee on a hybrid Private Bill—you sit acting as a jury, the various people present their case to you in one way or another and you decide on the merits of the case. With the Okehampton By-pass Joint Select Committee, the Government thought one thing was going to happen but another thing happened. That is not unusual in this world. Does that not mean that it is quite possible that there will be the most frightful foul-up in the Select Committee procedure? What happens if the various members of the Select Committee say, "We agree with petitioner X"? That in the effect ruins the plan put forward by the concessionaires who have been selected. I realise it is a highly technical question, but I think there is considerable importance and merit in finding out what the answer will be and what the Government will do about it.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, it will be for Parliament to decide the result following the Select Committee's deliberations. Although the Select Committee might agree with a point of a petitioner, if it comes to the amount of detail that my noble friend mentioned it will be for Parliament to decide and for the concessionaire to take it forward as a result of what Parliament decides.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I welcome the Government's decision, but I should like to ask my noble friend whether he agrees that any charge of undue haste or lack of consultation is really stretching language beyond what is permissible, for discussion, consultation and argument have been going on for a very long time indeed. Indeed, I hope my noble friend will recall that we have travelled thus far and even farther before, and still the thing has been frustrated.

I should like to ask my noble friend about two points. First, will he ensure that people do not just talk from a distance about consultation in Kent and in Surrey, but that consultations take place where they really are valid, on the spot, with Ministers there and not just underneath a shower of paper and written communications? The second question which I should like to ask him, and on which I should like to press him, is about the need for a really effective rail link between the tunnel and London, because it is there, in my view, that everything about this adventure could be frustrated. The need for a rail link which will accommodate not just the commuter traffic that is there already but the immensely enhanced traffic which will flow from the tunnel is absolutely paramount, and the Government should not stand back from it with their arms too much folded.

There is one last point which I should like to make, if I may intrude upon the patience of your Lordships' House. I should like to ask my noble friend to ensure that this imaginative project evokes from the ranks of the Government some real enthusiasm, and that it is not hindered and chopped about by our ghastly and hideous procedures.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, first I agree with my noble friend that this matter has not been dealt with in undue haste. I think we have been discussing it for close on 200 years and have had two false starts, so perhaps it might be a case of third time lucky. I confirm that the consultation that we propose in Kent will be for real and not just mounds of paper. This is very important. I will certainly draw to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary the point that my noble friend made with regard to an effective rail link because I, too, think this is very important. There is Government enthusiasm. The procedures—certainly in this House—are up to us to decide, so I should not like to influence that position.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not the case that the "ghastly and hideous procedures" referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, will have to be overcome before a spade is put into the ground? Is it not possible that the Government are being rather over-ambitious when they say that work on the scheme is likely to start in the summer of 1987? I note from the Statement that signature of the treaty will take place in February. This will be followed by the concession agreement between the Governments and the Channel Tunnel Group. Then legislation will be introduced into the House as soon as possible, and so on.

But can the Minister say whether the legislation which normally covers a treaty will, in fact, be covered by the main hybrid Act to which he has referred? Is it not possible that the processing of this hybrid Bill will take far longer than the Government appear to assume? Is it not the case that it is the experience of Parliament over very many years that Bills involving hybridity make for great complexity and, if people are to be given the opportunity, as they should be, to petition on the Bill and to give evidence, then the procedure could take far longer than is at present anticipated?

Lastly, is it the case that the Bill and its procedures will subsume the normal procedures of planning authorities? In a normal case there would be a public inquiry; the Minister would call it in, and the inquiry would be held locally. Does the noble Earl agree that there is considerable local concern in the south of England about this great development, and is it not important that the people of that area should be given the opportunity to make proper representations on planning and other aspects? Can the Minister confirm, therefore, that the normal procedures under planning legislation will, in fact, be absorbed by the hybrid Bill?

4.15 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can confirm to the noble Lord that, if the hybrid Bill takes longer to get through Parliament and to reach its conclusion than we have suggested at the present time, work will not start. Although the treaty might be signed next month—and we hope will be signed next month—it will not be ratified until the hybrid Bill has passed through its procedure in Parliament, and until it has passed through its procedure in Parliament and the treaty has been ratified no work will be able to start. As to whether that will take longer than we estimate at this stage, we shall have to wait and see. The noble Lord has much greater experience of the length of time hybrid Bills take than I have, but we hope that it will not be unduly delayed. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me whether the normal planning procedures were being subsumed by the hybrid Bill. To some extent they are, because this is a national matter. Though it is local to Kent, it is also of very great national importance and, therefore, it is right that Parliament should decide; but a great deal of the normal planning procedures will be dealt with by the Kent County Council.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, I should like to join those who have welcomed this announcement. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for the assurance he has given us in response to the questions already asked about consultation with Kent. He will be aware. I am sure, that there are considerable anxieties both about employment and about the environment, and therefore the assurance that he has given us is most welcome. I should like to repeat in a slightly different form one of the questions of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and to ask whether the White Paper will give an assurance that there will be access points well away from Kent, because the last thing we want is a greater concentration of traffic building up outside Cheriton.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful for the comments of the right reverend Prelate. To my knowledge there certainly will be an access point in London, which is fairly well outside Kent. But I think that we shall have to wait for the White Paper, in order to see the details.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, may I return to a point which I put to the Minister in our debate on 13th December, and which has been obliquely referred to in several questions today; namely, the procedure for the hybrid Bill? May I ask whether the Government have had any further thoughts about my suggestion that it should be referred to a Select Committee of the two Houses, thus minimising the cost to petitioners and maximising the speed at which this very desirable project can be got through?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can confirm to my noble friend that we have given this matter thought. There are very great advantages both in what he suggests and in letting both Houses have their own committees. We have not reached a final conclusion on the deliberations.

Lord Bruce-Gardyne

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether further thought has been given to the ways in which we are to safeguard the survival of the ferry services?—because now that the decision has been taken which must in principle leave the traffic at the mercies of Mr. Knapp and Mr. Buckton and their opposite numbers on the French side, we could well need them.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there will be a good deal about ferries in the White Paper, and we have given this matter very careful consideration.

The Earl of Bessborough

My Lords, I warmly welcome the fact that a decision has been taken in this matter but I should like to ask one question. As I say, while I am glad that a decision has been taken and although I might myself perhaps favour a bridge as well as the high-speed rail tunnel, I should like to ask my noble friend whether both Governments have taken fully into account the experience of the Japanese in building their Seikan tunnel between the two islands and the very considerable problems associated with it, extending over some 20 years?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I can confirm to my noble friend Lord Bessborough that we have considered this matter.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, the Minister has said that normal planning procedures are to be overridden in the case of the terminal. Can he say whether compulsory purchase orders will be subject to normal appeal and public inquiry procedures?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, if I may clarify the point to my noble friend, I did not say "all normal planning procedures"; I said "some", because that is where Parliament comes in. With regard to compensation, I understand that the appeal mechanism will work as at the moment.

Lord Alport

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether, as this is still the age of the train, the financial advantages of this plan are to be shared equally by British Rail and the French state railways?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me whether this is the age of the train. I think it is the age of improved choice for people coming through France and through this country to get from one side of the Channel to the other.

Lord Alport

My Lords, it was merely a statement on my part, rather than a question. May I ask my noble friend whether, in regard to the second part of my question, the Government have ensured that the financial benefits of this scheme are shared equally between British Rail and the French state railways?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, this is a matter for British Rail and the French railways. I understand that they have an agreement in principle.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I am sorry to ask yet another question, but I should like to go back to what my noble friend said when he stated that Parliament will make the decision on what the Select Committee says. Does this mean in effect that if the committee says that it agrees with petitioner A, public policy is such that the Whips will be on to overturn that amendment? And it does not matter whether it is in this House or in another place. If that is the case, it is then almost pointless having a petition at all. This is a very difficult problem and I understand the difficulty the Minister is in. I sympathise with him very much indeed, and I sympathise with everybody concerned. But it is a problem and it is something that I think the petitioners should like to know; and, last of all, I should like to know.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, to answer my noble friend Lord Onslow, Parliament is paramount in these matters, not the Select Committee. As to whether there is a Whip put on by the opposition parties or by my own party, that is entirely a matter for the respective Chief Whips.