Channel Tunnel

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th October 1973.

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Photo of Mr Percy Grieve Mr Percy Grieve , Solihull 12:00 am, 25th October 1973

I shall endeavour, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to abide by the spirit of the recommendation which you have just made to the House. May I first declare a very small interest in the subject matter of our debate today in that I am a small shareholder in the Rio Tinto Zinc Company, the British project managers.

I am bound to say that I have listened with the utmost astonishment this afternoon to the arguments with which the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) and the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu) have endeavoured to bolster up a half-hearted approval of the scheme for a Channel Tunnel and the amendment which has been tabled in the name of the leadership of the Labour Party. I say that I have listened with the umost astonishment, because it seems to me that what the Labour Party and those who put their names to the amendment are asking for is not a twentieth-century tunnel at all; it is a nineteenth-century tunnel. What we are asked to approve is a rail-only tunnel, as if the motor car either did not exist or was shortly to fall into disuse because there were to be no petroleum supplies left in the world. Perhaps it is not surprising that the Labour Party should be looking for a nineteenth-century tunnel; perhaps in a great many other respects it is behind the times.

When one looks at the arguments with which the Opposition endeavoured to bolster up their case, one sees that they are even more astonishing. I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for Grimsby. He said "Let us do away with the roll-on/roll-off possibility. Let us make this a much smaller gauge tunnel, so that only trains may go through it. After all, we are facing a fuel crisis in the world." Of course in a sense we are, or we may be. We all in politics tend to take a somewhat apocalyptic view of the circumstances which afflict us from day to day. But there are still enormous petroleum supplies in the world. It may be that they will be temporarily affected by events in the Middle East. It may be that over the next half century they will run down and we shall have to look for other sources of energy.

But the Government of the day, in formulating a great project of this kind, have to look at circumstances as they are—at great oilfields still in the world, and at great oilfields on our doorstep in the North Sea to which we ourselves shall have access. It is wholly unrealistic to suppose that, from one day to another, the people of this country will forsake their motor cars or be driven out of them; that the motor car is no longer going to run on the roads; that freight is no longer going to cross the Channel in great container lorries, and that everybody will be back in the railway train again.

What the Government are doing—I applaud them for it—is making the best of both worlds, and looking forward to the two contingencies which are the main contingencies before us in the second half of the twentieth century. They are producing a tunnel in which people and freight may travel by rail but which will also funnel a large part of the motor traffic of this country on to the Continent. To have made a tunnel for rail only would have been an astonishing dereliction of duty and probably a complete waste of money, because it would have halved, or even further reduced, the amount of traffic that might have gone through it. The argument of the right hon. Member for Grimsby reminds me very much of the suppositions which one sees from time to time in the Press and elsewhere when we have a hard winter or an indifferent summer, that the one or the other is the harbinger of a new ice age. It is not because we face a possible reduction in our oil supplies that the Government must not take account of the fact that a great deal of the transport of the world in the foreseeable future will be powered by petrol, in the motor car, in the lorry and by air.

I now turn to an argument with which I have a great deal more sympathy—the environmental argument. I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) and for those who spoke in our debate on 15th June, many of them Kentish Members, in trying to estimate the effects upon their county, and upon the constituents whom they represent, of the great agglomeration which will undoubtedly grow up at Cheriton at the mouth of the tunnel to deal with traffic which goes there to get on to the trains through the tunnel, as opposed to that which may come already by train from distant parts of the kingdom. One has only to look at the projection of future traffic to the Continent, based on the most careful studies of the build-up of traffic over recent years, to see how enormously it will increase whether or not there is a tunnel. I am looking at Annex 5 on page 48 of the White Paper.

In introducing the motion to the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State referred to a doubling of present traffic by 1980 and a redoubling by 1990. Whether we have a tunnel or whether we do not, this vast increase in traffic will call for an immense increase in dockyard space, in road use and in the need for roads in the very part of the world where the tunnel is to be constructed, because a large part of that traffic goes through the ports of Dover and Folkestone. By providing an important alternative, I believe that the tunnel will protect the environment to a very large extent. I endorse the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks, who invited my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister to consider the question of channelling heavy lorries on specified routes. This is something which I believe my right hon. and learned Friend has very much at heart, and it is something which we ought to look forward to doing in this country, particularly in so far as traffic is routed towards the mouth of the Channel Tunnel. For these very reasons, expressed as succinctly and as shortly as I can put them, I believe that, far from foreseeing damage because of the tunnel, we ought to foresee an environmental benefit.

I turn now to the more positive aspects of the matter. I have always been a champion of the project to build a Channel Tunnel. Never has it been more necessary than it is today. We are a country living by trade, living by commerce, and that trade and that commerce more than ever before will be found in Europe. It is with Europe that we hope that our trade and our commerce will flourish in the years to come. This project will make us an integral part of the European transport system. In the first place, there will be a way to the Continent which will not be subject to the vagaries of the weather. It is not surprising that the British Chamber of Commerce in Paris has come out strongly in favour of the Channel Tunnel project, and in the editorial which it published in its newspaper in October it made this very point. Traffic through the tunnel will be something which will not be held up by gales or bad weather in the Channel.

Secondly—I make this point as a West Midlands Member—the tunnel will integrate the British Railways system into the European railways system. The tables which have been set out in the document, provided for Members by British Rail, "The Express Link with Europe," show how this will be done. Freight and passengers will be able to go on rail at the most northerly pionts of these islands and go through to the Continent. It is impossible to estimate the full benefits of the system of this kind, at a time when we have become members of the European Economic Community and are looking to European trade in large measure for our livelihood.

Thirdly, I agree with a great many of those who have spoken, both today and in earlier debates, that we may look forward to a time when railway travel, both for passengers and for freight, will achieve a greater importance than it has now, because of the reasons which have been given and because of a possible rundown of oil supplies. This system will encourage people to go by rail. To some extent, therefore, it meets the arguments of those who want to make it only a rail tunnel, though for the reasons I have given I believe that a tunnel in both forms is absolutely essential to our well-being as a country.