HL Deb 16 May 1988 vol 497 cc76-83

7.2 p.m.

The Earl of Gowrie

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

I have no doubt that nearly all your Lordships are aware that this Bill has been before Parliament for a considerable length of time; in fact no less than three and a half years. Noble Lords will remember that on Report in another place there was a legendary filibuster by the Opposition which produced a Sitting that lasted no less than 24 hours and the discussions, as always in another place, were extremely engaging. They ranged from the evocation of the call of the Brent goose to the diet of Colchester United footballers and the proper use of parliamentary notepaper. I feel that in the light of that your Lordships' House can take a particular pleasure and pride in the fact that you have dealt with the Bill in a far more expeditious and, dare I say, responsible way with even more scrutiny of a pertinent character than the Bill has had since its introduction at the beginning of this year.

Given the long parliamentary history, I am sure that the House will be relieved that I propose to deal with my Third Reading speech very expeditiously indeed. If your Lordships cast your minds back, the key issue is that in a little more than 20 years the port of Felixstowe had developed at an astonishing rate from what can be called irrelevancy in a maritime sense—although it was always a very charming and interesting place—to becoming the UK's largest and most thriving container port. In the last two years alone container traffic has increased by almost 50 per cent. and in 1988 looks set to create further records.

However, growth and success of this kind, while altogether welcome, bring problems and the port is now operating beyond its optimum capacity and therefore urgently needs room for expansion. The Bill before us would allow Felixstowe to extend its boundaries by an additional 1,000 metres along the northern bank of the Harwich harbour. Some 226 acres of land—or 95 hectares as we must learn to call them—will be involved for cargo handling and storage and approximately half of this expansion is to be reclaimed from the shallows of the harbour. Thus the port plans to develop this area of land over the next decade to provide further container terminals which are capable of handling the largest container ships afloat. These vessels are as large as the "Queen Elizabeth II" and they can carry up to 4,000 containers.

In 1986, which, as I shall say at the end of my remarks, was 10 years after your Lordships' House, played a vital part in the future of Felixstowe, the port commissioned Trinity Container Terminal, which was built at a cost of £42 million. All its cranes were of British make and can handle 60 containers an hour. They have revitalised the moribund British crane industry, winning export orders in the Far East and creating jobs in Scotland, the Midlands and the North-East of England. This is a success story with a vengeance and it is important for us to ensure that the success continues.

Of course in a crowded island such as ours very few, if any, developments can take place without consequences, and often worrying consequences, for the environment. The land involved in this expansion plan is owned by Trinity College, Cambridge, which strongly supports the development. Because the extension impinges on the edge of a large area of outstanding natural beauty the promoters have had to pass a far more stringent examination than would otherwise have been the case. I am glad to say that they have passed it.

The dock company has been sensitive to the fact that it is proposing the development of a greenfield site and will implement a large-scale landscaping scheme. About half a million trees will be planted creating close to 85 acres of additional, mainly deciduous, woodland, copses and hedgerows. A detailed environmental package has also been agreed with Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council and neither local authority opposes the expansion plans.

Moreover in extensive discussions with environmental groups the company has offered to provide a nature reserve of over 200 acres. Not only will this serve as a further buffer between the port and the surrounding landscape and provide a new habitat for birds, but it will also effectively prevent any future port development. Therefore this is not a thin end of the wedge scheme.

In addition the company and Trinity College, Cambridge, have agreed to provide a £235,000 lump sum to meet the immediate establishment costs of the reserve, and at the request of your Lordships' Select Committee the company has further undertaken to meet 60 per cent. of the annual running costs up to a maximum of £15,000 per year of the reserve for the next 30 years.

I mentioned Trinity College and I want to emphasise, and not in any way to skirt over the fact, that financial advantages will accrue to Trinity College through the port expansion. The extra revenue provided by this development will be used for education and research not only in Trinity but in other colleges by way of the inter-college support system.

At the Second Reading debate in this House some speakers, while acknowledging the strength of Felixstowe's case, urged that due consideration should be given to the environmental matters surrounding this subject. Your Lordships' Select Committee examined the Bill, its promoters and the petitioners both long and hard for 15 days before finding in the promoters' favour. I have no doubt that we shall be hearing from the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gwydir. I should like to pay tribute to his work and the work of all the members of the committee, whose contribution will be perceived as being intensely valuable in the years to come.

If it happens that in a few moments' time your Lordships consent to give this Bill a Third Reading you will be able to look back at the great contribution the House has made to this British success story; not only in terms of the present legislation enabling expansion but also, all those years ago in 1976, when your Lordships frustrated an attempt to nationalise this port by the back door. Thanks to the actions of your Lordships I am now able wholeheartedly to commend this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time. —(The Earl of Gowrie).

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for explaining again the details of this Bill and for amplifying the statement issued on behalf of the promoters which I was pleased to receive. I have read it with some care and I note that the noble Earl has amplified some of the points. I do not know whether they are agreements—that is what I wish to find out—or offers which have been made by the company. I do not intend to give my Second Reading speech again even though I believe I have an hour in which to do so.

I recall however the position of the Nature Conservancy Council which expressed great concern at the proposals. In fact, it expressed concern at all port developments affecting SSSIs; in particular those estuaries of national and international importance to wildlife. The NCC claims that this development is in that category.

In its submissions to the Commons Select Committee the NCC actually opposed the development stating that it would result in the destruction of nature conservation in an area of SSSI. The council urged that the Bill should not be enacted. It urged that the balance of the national interest of conservation and that of development should be properly determined by impact assessment. I was assured by the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, the Chairman of Committees, that the NCC had petitioned and would be heard by the Select Committee. I should like to know whether the council has fully accepted the offers made by the promoters and whether it regards them as meeting the serious criticisms which it made of this development.

I referred also to the Countryside Commission which holds the view that the siting of any major industrial and commercial development in an area of natural beauty should be permitted only where there is proven national interest and lack of alternative sites. I argued at Second Reading that there were alternative sites even though it was stated that no other port was carrying on development. I referred to the fact that while this Bill was before us there was also the Harwich Parkeston Quay Bill. That development is on the opposite side of the estuary and has no effect whatever on an SSSI or on an area of natural beauty.

A specific question was considered by the Select Committee. I am not criticising the committee because—I shall be honest—I have not read all the 14 days' of evidence given to the committee. I have no doubt that the committee arrived at very good decisions. However, I should like to know whether that point was considered and what is the attitude of of the Nature Conservancy Council towards the proposal made on behalf of the promoters. I should also like to know the position on the Harwich Parkestone Quay Bill which, I believe, is still before another Select Committee of your Lordships' House. Were other petitions presented as well as that of the NCC? We know that the RSPB and the Ramblers' Association strongly opposed the development. I note from the statement given to us that Suffolk County Council is in full agreement with the stopping up of paths and the provision of alternative sites, but it would be interesting to know whether the Ramblers' Association agrees with these points.

I am not suggesting that we should hold up the Bill at this stage. However, in the light of discussions and the points raised at Second Reading, I believe that we are entitled to know the status of any agreement—if there was agreement—with those who were objecting and who actually petitioned.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Thomas of Gwydir

My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I say a few words at this stage as Chairman of the Select Committee to which this important Bill was committed following Second Reading in February. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Gowrie for his kind words about the Select Committee. We sat for no less than 16 days and we heard and read a very great deal of evidence submitted by the promoters and by the various petitioners against the Bill. In addition we made a full day's visit to Felixstowe and were able to inspect the site of the proposed extension, both on foot and from the air.

I am very grateful to the other members of the committee—the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and the noble Lords, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, Lord Foot and Lord Wise—for their faithful attendance over such a long period and for their individual contributions to the deliberations of the committee. The committee was unanimous in its view that the Bill should proceed. It was felt that the Bill was justified on commercial grounds and the committee was impressed by the beneficial effect the development was likely to have for the local community. Above all, it was convinced that the extension of container terminal facilities at Felixstowe was justified on grounds of national interest. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, emphasised, the site of the proposed development occupies part of the Suffolk coast and heaths of outstanding natural beauty. Part of the site has been notified as a site of special scientific interest and identified as a potential wetland of international importance.

The committee therefore listened with great care and concern to the cases put forward by the Nature Conservancy Council, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other parties representing the conservation interests. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that the committee considered all the issues submitted by those respective parties. After the most careful consideration of all these matters, there was, as I have said, unanimity in the committee that the proposed development should proceed. The committee took the view that this expansion of the premier container port of the United Kingdom would create a unique national asset.

The committee was impressed by the proposals made by the promoters for landscaping. It attached importance to those proposals and also to those of the land owners—namely, Trinity College, Cambridge—to finance and establish the nature reserve, referred to by my noble friend Lord Gowrie, which will be adjacent to the development site. As my noble friend Lord Gowrie said, to help ensure the continuing good management of this reserve we sought and obtained from the promoters a written undertaking that for a period of 30 years from the date of establishment they would contribute 60 per cent. of the cost of management of the reserve up to a maximum annual sum of £15,000, duly index linked.

With those few words, I commend the Bill to the House and wish it well on the last few days of its long and eventful journey towards Royal Assent.

Lord Annan

My Lords, your Lordships may have thought that we had left education for commerce, but I want to emphasise the part that Trinity College has played in this Bill. It may be of some comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, to know that, as the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, said, Trinity will be devoting to education and research the financial benefits it gains from the change of use of this land. When one hears those depressing words, so often used today, one has the unworthy suspicion that it means more oysters at the high table of Trinity. It does not mean that. Trinity took the lead in 1970 by setting up a science park in Cambridge. It is that to which I believe the college intends to devote any extra revenue it will now derive if the Bill passes. That will be of immense value to this country's industry and commerce.

I very much commend the work of Mr. John Bradfield, the senior bursar at Trinity, who has been behind all the negotiations over the Bill in which the college took part. He is the founder of the science park and deserves well of our country.

Lord Greenway

My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, and to the Select Committee for all the hard work they have put in on this Bill. I am not entirely surprised at their decision. In the circumstances it was the only logical decision that could have been reached.

As the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, said, the success of Felixstowe is to a certain extent your Lordships' baby. We have watched it grow over the past years. We have just heard from the noble Earl how many containers are handled by the port. It handled 1 million TEUs last year, an increase of 40 per cent. over the previous two years. It is already up to its 1990 predicted level. The port urgently needs this expansion not only to accommodate the new business that is constantly being attracted to it—and the Trinity terminal completed two years ago is already running to capacity—but also to provide a long-term solution to the unacceptable levels of congestion that have occurred from time to time, to the great frustration of the freight forwarding and haulage industries. There is simply nowhere else for the port to expand.

Important amendments have been made in another place regarding the conservation issue. I for one see no reason why nature, in its infinitely adaptable way, should not continue to exist in harmony with the port once this new extension has been completed.

As a postscript, I should add that I was having lunch aboard a large Taiwanese container ship in Felixstowe last week. The captain was regretting the fact that he had never been able to visit an old college friend in London. When I asked him why, he said, "Because this port is so efficient it turns round my ship too quickly". That to me speaks volumes. The time for talking is now over. It is time for the digging to begin. I wish the Bill every success.

Viscount Rochdale

My Lords, I owe your Lordships an apology for intervening in this debate, but I could not let the occasion go by without saying a brief word. In 1962 a major committee of inquiry into the ports of Great Britain reported to the government of the day. I happened to be chairman. I regret to say that the committee made only one brief reference to Felixstowe and we were rather disparaging about it at the time. Perhaps I may report what we said: As regards the minor ports of the East and South coasts of Britain, they could perhaps benefit from increasing trade with Europe". We went on to say: We cannot accept the view that development here is a matter of immediate national importance". How wrong we were! It is certainly true that we foresaw on the horizon what was to become known as the container revolution, but we did not foresee that it would apply in particular to Felixstowe. We could not see what was going to happen there.

A few years later when I was chairman of the National Ports Council I visited Felixstowe again. It was a first-class port, well managed and impressive, but nothing like what was to follow a few years later. Now we see this absolutely meteoric increase in its efficiency, size and importance, so that, as we have heard this evening, it has become the United Kingdom's major container port, with world-wide trade.

In conclusion, I should like to congratulate all concerned—the directors, the management and all the workers in the port—and to say that, assuming your Lordships give this Bill approval this evening, as I sincerely hope you will, I have every confidence that the port will continue to develop in the great way that it has done in recent years.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, it may be helpful if at this point I briefly intervene to give the Government's view on the Bill.

A month ago the most popular marathon race ever took place on the streets of London. Tonight your Lordships are participating in the ending of another, less popular, marathon. As my noble friend Lord Gowrie said, it is just three and a half years since the Bill was first deposited in Parliament. Its consideration has stretched over four Sessions in two Parliaments. It has been examined in opposed Committee in both Houses, and debated in both Houses, with a thoroughness and, at times, a passion rarely accorded to Private Bills. It was one of the main factors leading to the establishment of the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure, which has yet to report.

Stripped to essentials, the Bill has been a classic example of the perpetual conflict between development and environmental conservation. As a sub-plot it has epitomised the competitive tension between a closely regulated regime and unrestricted enterprise. No one can say that the various arguments have not had a full hearing. I believe they have also had a fair hearing. The end result is a Bill which fairly reflects, and does justice to, the various interests which have been at stake.

The Bill has been considerably altered since it was first deposited. I believe it has been much improved. I am glad to see the environmental protections that have been written into it. I am pleased that the promoters have given positive assurances about landscaping and the creation of a new nature reserve. It is also satisfactory that questions of navigational responsibility and priority have been resolved. But the essence of this Bill is that it will permit the further expansion of this country's biggest container port and of a successful enterprise that has been good not just for Felixstowe and Suffolk but for the country as a whole.

In 1987, Felixstowe became the first British port to handle in a year 1 million TEUs, as the noble Lord, Lord Greenway, said. Ports like this, as I have seen for myself, do not happen by accident. They are not just the right collection of physical facilities in the right geographical spot. The people who operate them have built up skills, efficiency and a reputation for reliability; they have won the confidence of customers.

Like other types of business, ports cannot stand still: they must adapt and expand or face decline. Felixstowe is not our only good port—far from it—but it is an asset which we should be foolish to allow to waste away. The Bill will help to ensure that this asset can be enhanced. I warmly support the Third Reading of the Bill.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.30 to 8 p.m.]