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 Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker , Cheltenham 12:00 am, 5th December 1973

I am still not quite clear what the better alternatives might be. I think I had better get on and leave the right hon. Gentleman to make the point later.

I support the Second Reading of the Bill with the greatest possible enthusiasm. I regret that when I last spoke on this subject I did not exhibit the full enthusiasm for the tunnel that I might have shown. We had been urged by the Chair to cut our speeches short, and I reckoned, wrongly as it turned out, that, having for some time been joint chairman with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Woodside (Mr. Carmichael) of the all-party Channel Tunnel Committee, it would be assumed that I was enthusiastically in favour of the project.

It is difficult to find out how far back the committee goes. I am not sure that it is as far back as 1802, which the hon. Member for Wrexham mentioned. There are some good pictures of a coach-and-four going through a tunnel at that time. The committee goes back to the nineteenth century, and it was originally set up to stop the tunnel from being built, for defence reasons.

As I say, I wrongly took it for granted on the last occasion that I was recognised as being an enthusiastic supporter of the Channel Tunnel. This is one of the most exciting projects that I have had anything to do with, in the smallest connection, during the last few years. It was probably a similar lack of knowledge which prevented any member of the committee from being invited to the signing of the treaty some weeks ago.

It is nearly 17 years since I first became concerned with this project and entered the Ministry of Transport to discuss it. I spent a great deal of time trying to help the professionals—of which I am not one—both engineers and financiers. I do not believe that any project has been so well researched, under both Governments, as this one. One hears it suggested that the Government should consider the construction of a bridge, or something like that. I believe that all the various suggestions have been considered in the greatest detail and that we have now come to the point at which we must make up our minds either to go ahead or not to do so.

I repeat, as I did last time, in case there is any doubt, that I have no commercial interest in, or technical knowledge about, the Channel Tunnel, but if I could scrape up a mite or two I might invest it here, because if someone puts money into a project he is much more likely to press on with getting it into a profitable state than might otherwise be the case. I should be prepared to do that to back my belief in the value of a Channel Tunnel.

Historians will have to search the records to find why there has been this long delay in recent years. It has been increasingly apparent, even to laymen, that this project is technically possible, economically viable and necessary, and here one comes to the oil crisis which underlines the need, long felt by many people, for a high-speed link between the Midlands of this country and the middle of Europe, and that link can be powered by two nuclear power stations.

The link will not be just from London to the South-East. So much of the debate in the House has centred around points affecting the South-East: sometimes those who live in other areas think that the problems of the South-East take up a disproportionate amount of time of the House.

About eighteen months ago I helped in an extremely good television programme in the Midlands on this project. I produced some of the background detail, the company worked out the programme and it gave rise to a great deal of interest in the area. It was regarded largely as a means for getting to London and on to Calais rather more quickly than is possible now. There is a great deal of interest in this project in the provinces.

British Railways were unable openly to support this project until the Government had made up their mind whether to go ahead with it. That was understandable, but now that the decision has been taken I hope that British Railways will consider some of the matters that have been suggested.

The project is even more attractive to those who come from the Midlands, from Sheffield, which was my ancestral part of the world many centuries ago, from the North and from Wales. It provides the opportunity for through passenger and freight traffic. There seems to be some magic in the figure of 170 miles. Up to that distance it is better to send freight by road but beyond that it is better to send it by rail. If that is accepted, the existence of a fixed link in the tunnel will enormously increase the capability of the British rail system; while considerable developments are taking place in the rail system on the Continent, with trans-European expresses, freight trains, and so on.

High speed is important, but I do not believe that it is as important as through overnight services. If after work one day somebody can load freight or put himself on a train at Edinburgh and be in Western Europe at breakfast time the following morning, the future will provide great benefits for both passengers and freight.