Orders of the Day — Channel Tunnel Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Fletcher Mr Alexander Fletcher , Edinburgh North 12:00 am, 5th December 1973

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me this opportunity to address the House for the first time. I appreciate very much the warm welcome I have received from hon. Members on both sides of the House and from those who have no particular side to sit on.

I have received a great deal of advice. The House may be interested in one letter which came my way from a former very distinguished Member of the House, who gave me the following advice: It is very hard to be a good Member of Parliament. There are no rules and all the helpful advice is bad. It is bad to be too independent and worse to be too subservient. But which is what? Perhaps when I learn the answer to that question I may be able to address the House on a future occasion.

I want at once to pay tribute to my predecessor, now the Duke of Buccleuch, still better known as Johnnie Dalkeith. He has a great sense of duty and is regarded with great affection in the constituency, as I am sure he is by this House. In recent years, his example of courage was not just a demonstration of those qualities which his friends knew he possessed. It was an example to all of us. He gives great encouragement to thousands of people whom he has never met. He was a very honourable Mem- ber of this House, and he is a very honourable man.

North Edinburgh was once reputedly a lawyers' constituency, but I hope we are moving away from the idea of pocket burghs, whether for lawyers or for those who belong to other trade unions. I am a citizen, but not a native, of Edinburgh. I am from the West of Scotland. But I went to Edinburgh, as to here, as a capital city. That is Edinburgh's greatness. It is a capital, and it is a European city in which there is a rich diversification of Scottish experience in law and commerce, banking and insurance, in brewing and in whisky and in government. Edinburgh is a financial centre in its own right. It is investing in North Sea oil, which is bringing great benefit to Scotland, as it will to Britain—and, clearly, the sooner the better.

It may seem rather strange that a Scottish Member should open his parliamentary account on a Bill about South-East England, but, although we Scots rightly demand investment in Scotland, we recognise also the strength of the Union and the benefit it brings to our economy and to our culture. The importance and significance of this were reaffirmed recently by the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution, and, of course, the Scottish representation in this House constitutes, to a figure of 97 per cent., those who, like myself, were elected on a United Kingdom ticket.

But this Bill is just as important to Scotland as it is to South-East England. It would, of course, be better still if the link were from Leith to Hamburg, but I am a realist and I can accept the physical constraints, although I shall attempt to argue the regional case. It is accepted as a matter of general principle that projects such as the Channel Tunnel, Maplin or the railway network cannot be considered in isolation. They form part of a national transport policy which should, for example, pay as much attention to Scotland's links with Europe as to a third London airport.

Not surprisingly, it is the regional implications of the Bill that are my particular interest, for regional policy and the location of industry are much influenced by the availability of good communications. I look to the Channel Tunnel as a contribution to regional policy; so, too, does the Scottish Association for Public Transport, which has issued a statement to this effect. If we can make it substantially easier to travel between all parts of Britain and Europe we shall, in effect, bring Scotland, Wales and the northern regions of England closer to the centre of economic and social activity. That could ease many of the problems, both real and imagined, that are part of the feeling of being on the periphery, of being out on a limb and remote from the centres of decision. This is not an EEC matter, for with or without the Common Market our regional policies should aim at the time when subsidies and special incentives become unnecessary, as distances and economic differences diminish through good communications. Last week's announcement by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries on the future of British Rail was an important contribution to our national transport policy, and the Channel Tunnel is another.

Airport policy is equally important, and in this respect the September White Paper, "The Channel Tunnel", may already be out of date. In paragraph 10.3 there is a brief reference to Maplin and the tunnel: The development of Maplin will have no appreciable effect on the traffic forecast for the tunnel since the Maplin traffic would otherwise pass through other London airports. There are two points here. First, the fuel crisis has put even greater emphasis on rail travel, and, as these services develop, shorthaul air journeys are likely to prove less attractive. Secondly, many people now prefer rail for journeys of up to 200 miles, and with the Channel Tunnel and improved rail services many people may prefer rail for journeys of 400 miles or more. That would bring Glasgow, Edinburgh and many European cities within a few hours' rail journey of London, with a consequent reduction in the number of aircraft using the London airports system. It seems, therefore, that the construction of the tunnel, the improvement of rail services and the need to conserve fuel could have a considerable effect on the air traffic forecasts mentioned in the White Paper Maplin may still be required as an environmental alternative to Heathrow, but that is a matter for debate at another time.

I was surprised that in considering the regional implications of the tunnel the White Paper did not refer to provincial airports, for, if the Channel Tunnel and a revitalised rail network affect the volume of air traffic in London, airports in other parts of the country may be similarly affected. The truth is that we have too many provincial airports, with the result that few provide an adequate service other than to London. In considering a national transport policy we should remedy this by moving from a policy of city airports to one of regional airports. That is particularly necessary in central Scotland, where Prestwick, Abbotsinch and Turnhouse compete un-economically for domestic and international air services.

The White Paper estimates that the tunnel should be completed by 1980. That gives British Rail only six years to provide fast through services from Scotland and the north of England to Europe. What we must not have is the usual situation in which direct services will start from London in 1980, from Manchester about five years later and from Scotland 10 years after that. It is as a significant contribution to regional policy that the Bill matters, and British Rail has to prove, and prove quickly, that it can rise to the challenge that the Bill presents. Perhaps another way in which my right hon. Friend could make clear that the tunnel will benefit the whole country is in Part III, which deals with the setting up of a British Channel Tunnel Board. It is important that the board should right from the start represent regional interests, and I hope that in winding up my right hon. Friend will show his willingness to do that. The same considerations apply to the consultative committee, whose interests should extend beyond South-East England.

The project will bring its own environmental problems, and I hope that my right hon. Friends will make sure that any public inquiries which are held will be more than just exercises in public participation. It is terribly important that when an inspector supports the views of objectors following a public inquiry those findings should not be overturned by the responsible Minister unless he makes it abundantly clear that no possible alternative exists.

It is generally accepted that in terms of technology and engineering the Channel Tunnel is within proved experience and does not require the courage and faith that were necessary for some of the great engineering projects of the last century. The Caledonian Canal, the Forth Bridge and Brunei's Thames Tunnel stretched the technology of their time, but that is not the case here. Of course there are many difficult technical problems, but if modern technology can extract oil from the North Sea in extremely difficult conditions it can build a Channel Tunnel.

The project that is presented in the Bill has been with us for a long time—almost as long as has the Irish question. I noticed in a recent issue of New Scientist a reference to this: We are of the opinion that it is not an unreasonable proposition to drive a tunnel under the Channel, but that in some measure it must be a venture. The New Scientist points out that that is a quotation from the magazine Nature of 20th January 1870. The caution that we have shown by waiting more than a hundred years to make the plunge is evidence of our desire not to rush our courtship with Europe, but at least we can claim that the physical union has not preceded the marriage, as that ceremony took place in Brussels some time ago.

Although I am a newcomer to Parliament, I am not a newcomer to London and London attitudes. I know that the average person in this part of the world considers that parochialism is a disease that starts north of Watford. Sometimes I think that the opposite view may be more appropriate, and that is why I have tried to stress the importance of the regional implications and the effect of the Bill on regional policies.