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 John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam 12:00 am, 25th October 1973

The views of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) conflict with my views, but I shall be brief because I know that the hour is late and that many hon. Members wish to speak. I have been asking myself a question not only throughout the debate but for a long time previously—namely, whether it is in the national interest to build the tunnel, bearing in mind that there are changing circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) said "Why the haste? Why not more consultation?" However, it has been my experience from the first year I entered Parliament that there have been a number of documents produced on this subject. Some have been produced by the Channel Tunnel Company and some by the Government. If I were to go into the Library now the plethora of documentation which would be available would be such that few hon. Members would have the time to absorb and understand it. I do not agree that we should have more inquiries and more documentation if we are to get something done.

I remember an American general, Sverdrop, who built the Chesapeake Bay project saying to me "When are you politicians in England going to make up your minds and do something?" If they change their minds continuously there in industry or in any other sphere, nothing happens.

My attitude during the period of consultation has changed. In the early 1960s I was closely connected with the needs of industry in the provinces, including the North, and my city, Sheffield, and with the chamber of commerce movement. I am still so connected. At that time containerisation held out great prospects. Today, as is quite natural, manufacturers and industrialists in the North wish to have every opportunity to continue to send their goods to the ports, to Humberside, Harwich and further north, and, when shipping goods to the south, through Southampton. I very much hope that the concept of the Channel Tunnel will not eliminate the traffic and these alternative routes for supplies from Europe and elsewhere or the distribution of our products to our main customers.

I am sure that it is accepted that traffic will increase at a high rate, whether it be freight traffic or passenger traffic. My attitude has changed over the years because from time to time there have been bottlenecks in our ports. As an aircraft passenger I have from time to time languished only too frequently for one or two hours in a hot aeroplane waiting for take-off because of an industrial dispute. I should have thought that a third major link—the first one obviously being sea—Britain being an island to the main continent; the second, a newer one, for an air link; a third link, with continuous land link provision—would make sense. We should proceed with that immediately.

I share the view that there should be high-speed train links between the Midlands, my own city, Sheffield, and the main cities of Europe. The high-speed train is now about to enter service and there is the possibility of the advanced passenger train. Therefore, it is wise to proceed with this additional link straight away. Where I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon is that we should use that situation to pressurise goods off the roads and on to rail.

The hard fact is that every country in Europe has been trying, and this has been raised within the Council of Europe by the European Committee of Transport Ministers, to devise new techniques for transportation. But today for the industrialists, the most efficient, reliable. cheap and convenient method of transport happens so often to be the individual consignment propelled by the lorry. It may be said that on the environmental ground and other grounds that freight should be driven back to rail. However, I visited some houses in my constituency alongside a railway line, and I can assure the House that in the area which I visited the objection to rail is a good deal greater than the objection to road transport and a motorway link.

I emphasise that in 1973, in spite of the threat of an oil crisis in Europe, there is an increasing use of road transport. That is in spite of tariff quotas and immense capital injection into the European railways. It could be, therefore, that rail is not meeting the transport requirements of industry and society.

I find that the typical shipping manager in a large industrial organisation is neither for nor against, in terms of cost and efficiency, a continuous link under the Channel. He is concerned to have a variety of options. One more option would be useful if he is to provide reliable distribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon raised transport strategy and the need for imagination. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries will elaborate on the recent seminar of the Committee of Transport Ministers of Europe on new techniques for transport. In a debate at the Council of Europe. Strasbourg, I asked: What will be the pattern of transport in 1984, a somewhat symbolic year, and in the year 2000, bearing in mind that European countries have poured a fortune into their railway systems"—