Environmental Protection

– in the House of Commons at 1:30 pm on 22nd December 1988.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid 1:30 pm, 22nd December 1988

The purpose of this debate is to draw attention, by the use of a particular example, to a set of general propositions that I hope will engage the interest of the Minister, to whom I am grateful for his courtesy in responding to this debate at a time when even Ministers must be thinking wistfully that it would be better to be at home.

Present policies and attitudes towards the environment must change immediately, or the grandchildren of today's policy makers stand a real chance of never having grandchildren. This is one of the last debates before Christmas, and I believe that it would be a remarkably fine Christmas present, both to this country and to the world, if we could be assured that—following the Prime Minister's growing interest in this subject—the Department of the Environment, and the Government generally, would take a much more positive role in protecting the environment and in changing public attitudes towards it.

The Government have a truly remarkable record of raising the British people's standards of living, and they are right to be proud of that. Now they must ensure that a much higher proportion of this nation's growing affluence is spent on ensuring that future generations, here and in other parts of the world, have something left to enjoy—and, indeed, are here to enjoy it.

In less than 90 years, our world has already warmed up by 0·5 deg. C. That does not sound very much, but it is enough to cause anxiety. The record for the warmest year in global surface air temperatures has been broken four times in this decade alone—in 1980, 1981, 1983 and 1987. If it continues to do so at the present projected rate, Bangladesh, among other countries, will entirely disappear and many thousands of British citizens will be made homeless by flooding around the major estuaries and elsewhere.

It is a matter of will to do something about it. By the year 2020, the developed nations could reduce per capita energy consumption by as much as 50 per cent. That would, of course, dramatically alter the present position, which I believe to be almost obscene, of 15 per cent. of the world's population consuming 85 per cent. of the world's energy.

On the whole, huge Government programmes involving millions of pounds are not the answer. The individual must be directly involved and the best way to do that is through his or her personal bill. Water privatisation is a step in the right direction. Water will cost each of us, as consumers, more than it has in the past. Provided those higher charges are spent on preventing pollution from reaching the sources of supply and on preventing our sewage from poisoning the earth and sea, consumers will understand. We need to do the same for electricity.

It is obscene that the power generating industries should be permitted to contribute as much acidity—or more—to the atmosphere than any comparable industry in the developed world. Our plans for controlling CEGB power stations' emissions are too feeble and much too slow. The price of electricity must include the price of protecting the atmosphere, and the Department of the Environment has a duty to become involved.

The same is true of cars. It should be illegal to build or sell a new car in Britain which is not fitted with a catalytic converter or similar device. I am about to replace my car, and I shall make sure that my new car is appropriately adapted.

We know that our cars poison people, animals and trees, but we scarcely seem to care. Tax incentives to buy lead-free petrol are one small step in the right direction, but the hill of poison on which that little step has been taken is growing so steep so quickly that such a little step will scarcely be noticed.

Protecting the environment makes sense, not only in humane terms but in financial terms. Many of the hundreds of millions of pounds now being spent on rehabilitating the inner cities are needed because hundreds of millions of pounds were spent by earlier Governments on bribing businesses to leave the inner cities for green field sites outside. Their work forces followed and left behind only those least able to make a success of inner-city life.

One of the most exciting projects of which I have heard recently is one in which the Government have given Professor Alice Coleman a sum of money to put into effect her idea that many of the features that cause crime and anti-social behaviour can be designed out of housing estates. She has for a long time been a passionate champion of building more houses in the inner cities rather than on green field sites outside.

Just as families contain more than one generation, so does society. We have no business to condemn our grandchildren to an overheated, aluminium-saturated world of fishless lakes and treeless forests where no birds sing. If that is true—I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with me in principle—it means that every development needs to be looked at with fresh eyes.

Take British Rail's proposal to run a new high-speed rail link to the Channel tunnel. Of course, I have a constituency axe to grind. My constituency contains a large part of Kent's only area of outstanding natural beauty—the national designation which stands second only to a national park. Through it runs the Pilgrims' way, hallowed for centuries by pilgrims visiting Thomas á Becket's tomb in Canterbury and still a resort of those seeking physical recreation or spiritual solace.

The villages along that face of the north downs are distinguished by their beauty and antiquity and the fierce pride with which they are cared for in the face of all modern pressures to deface them. For millions of people all over the world they represent the spirit of Kent: ancient settlements built on a human scale. Now they are all threatened by British Rail's proposed corridor for routes 1 and 2. New trains are intended to race along new tracks at 186 mph, emitting a sound comparable to that of a low-flying jet, well in excess of the highest noise levels permitted in factories by the Health and Safety Executive. The hope may be that we shall get used to it. Perhaps we shall. The trains will run every seven minutes.

We do not know how much noise the new trains will emit, because, six weeks away from deciding which route to follow, British Rail still has not been able to tell us. As far as I can see, it retained its expert only a few short weeks ago. I shall not weary my hon. Friend with details of the incompetence with which British Rail has presented its proposals to the people of Kent. It is well enough known for even British Rail's chairman to admit to me in a letter that it has led to a loss of confidence in British Rail.

To describe it in such mild terms is like describing the fall of Jericho as a case of wall fatigue. Suffice it to say that those living alongside routes 1 and 2 will not accept a high-speed train weaving in and out of an area of outstanding natural beauty, slicing through their villages on tracks that will often be a considerable distance from existing lines, wrecking houses, and destroying not only areas of special landscape importance but also a site of special scientific interest.

We are profoundly sceptical of British Rail's traffic projections, and contemptuous of its admissions that it has neither walked the route nor consulted modern maps. It will be remembered that in my constituency there is a new housing estate of whose existence British Rail was so unaware, because it had not bothered to walk the route, that it is now having to negotiate compensation terms with the estate's builder. We are angered beyond belief at the way in which British Rail presented its proposals for a £1·5 billion project, using techniques so amateurish that they would bring public contempt upon a small shopkeeper were he to use them to allay anxiety among his neighbours in the village street.

If Kent is not to be defiled by intolerable noise, physical disruption and unplanned consequential development, we need help—and we need it fast. For five months, thousands of home owners have lived under blight. We now face the prospect of being forced to accept British Rail's largest ever capital project, not on its merits but to rescue a number of home owners blighted by the proposal.

I remind my hon. Friend the Minister—and of all the Ministers in this Government, with his record in local government he scarcely needs reminding—that British Rail's proposals have been made by a state monopoly that has not thought them through, but that may get away with them because there is no alternative source of advice. What a strange situation for this Government, of all Conservative Governments, to find themselves in.

There should be established immediately an independent, multi-disciplinary body, possibly with advice from Swiss or German railways, say, who have at least built railway lines this century, to evaluate British Rail's proposals and the objections to them. At present, there exists only a process whereby angry, frightened laymen —albeit that they are often intelligent and well informed —try to take on a state monopoly that controls the flow of information and has a vested interest in gettings its own way.

I remind the Minister that the last large-scale technological project in which British Rail was involved was the advanced passenger train—a project that tilted into extinction after years of work and the expenditure of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money. I ask my hon. Friend urgently to consider my suggestion. It would be usable for other future rail projects and perhaps for other purposes. My hon. Friend may say that those matters are for his right hon. and hon. Friends responsible for transport and not for him. I beg to differ. They are almost as much a matter for him as for Transport Ministers. I am dismayed that questions about the environment have been referred to Transport Ministers for attention only because they concern a train.

The Secretary of State for the Environment has a direct responsibility for areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest, and for the quality of the environment in general. He has, or he ought to have, an interest in how much noise is allowed to defile the countryside and in whether an undertaking shall be allowed to destroy natural springs—perhaps up to 10 per cent. of Kent's water supply—or threaten the purity of the water supply with track-cleaning chemicals and other pollutants.

I return to the point with which I began. My hon. Friend must take a direct interest in the nature of the world that we shall hand to future generations. British Rail wants its new train to travel at 186 mph. That will save a bare five minutes on the journey between London and Dover, but those five minutes demand a much noisier train running on tracks that cannot deviate to avoid a building, a natural feature or a collection of homes of especial value. How shall we account to our grandchildren if, as we travel ever further and faster to broaden our experience, the very devices that we use to achieve those speeds and distances ensure that there is nothing left to experience when we arrive at our destinations?

I should like my hon. Friend to declare, on this last parliamentary day of the old year, that he is prepared seriously to consider taking five minutes longer on a journey if by doing so he will help to preserve the environment in which we and our children live.

Let me take this opportunity of wishing my hon. Friend and his colleagues in the Department a very happy Christmas and an environmentally conscious new year.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 1:45 pm, 22nd December 1988

May I reciprocate my hon. Friend's good wishes immediately? I hope that 1989 is also a good year for him and his constituents.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these important issues. The state of the environment is very much in the forefront of people's minds at present, but is not something to which the Government have only just turned their attention. We have consistently demonstrated our concern to protect the environment during our time in office, and in the past two years have quickened the pace of our environmental initiatives to tackle such problems as atmospheric and marine pollution. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reaffirmed the Government's strong commitment to the protection and enhancement of our environment in a speech to the Royal Society on 27 September, in which she described it as one of the greatest challenges of the late 20th century". In this country, we are fortunate in enjoying high standards of environmental quality, not least because of the significant improvements that have been secured in recent times. That does not mean that further improvements must not be secured. My hon. Friend referred to the reduction of lead in the air as a result of cars being converted to take unleaded petrol. He said that he was setting an example by opting for unleaded fuel, and I am able to tell him that I have made a similar transition already this year. Most Government cars will be converted to take unleaded fuel. That is just a small example of the changes that must be made if we are to continue to enhance our environment.

We live in an industrial world, and to maintain and improve our standard of living we need factories, roads, power stations and, indeed, railway lines. It is naive to suggest that they can be provided without some consequence to the natural environment. Almost all development is subject to the planning system, and I can assure my hon. Friend that that system is not blind to its duty to balance the need for development with the need to maintain the natural environment. An essential task for Government, local authorities and all public agencies concerned in the planning system is to ensure that adequate provision for development and economic growth is coupled with the effective conservation of the landscape, its wildlife and natural resources.

An important part of our natural heritage is safeguarded by a network of statutory designations: national nature reserves, sites of special scientific interest, areas of outstanding natural beauty and the like. In built-up areas local authorities can designate conservation areas where special attention must be paid to the desirability of preserving and enhancing the area's character and appearance. We have introduced the requirement for environmental assessment of major development projects, and our system of public inquiries ensures that the environmental implications of major schemes are fully considered before decisions are made.

I recognise the particular concerns of the people of Kent. Their proximity to London, the M25 and the Channel tunnel means that they are subject to a unique series of development pressures. It is clear that many people wish to live in Kent, and it is not possible to respond to all those development pressures without some changes affecting both the built and the natural environment.

My hon. Friend is aware that the future of development in Kent came under close scrutiny in July, when the second review and alterations to the Kent structure plan were examined in public over a period of four weeks. The existing structure plan contains policies for the protection of the countryside, and the coast and the built environment. Amended built environment policies are included in the second review of the structure plan. While my hon. Friend will appreciate that it is too early for me to comment on the outcome of the structure plan review at the present time, he will of course take comfort from the fact that Kent's proposals left the countryside and coast policies unchanged.

Now, on top of other development pressures, Kent finds itself the subject of proposals for a high-speed rail link between the tunnel and central London. It is particularly unfortunate that the publication of British Rail's report on long-term route and terminal capacity for Channel tunnel train services should have given rise to a detailed discussion of the effects of specific track alignment and the effect upon individual properties, rather than British Rail's intention that the discussion should be broadly based and concerned with the relative merits and the environmental importance of three route corridors.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport said in an Adjournment debate on 2 December, to which I was pleased to be able to listen, the routes shown on the map should be taken not as representing specific alignments but only as a general indication of the areas through which the alternative routes might pass. The choice of which route should be adopted and its precise alignment cannot be determined without further detailed design work and wider public discusson.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that any more specific discussion at this stage would be premature and inappropriate. British Rail is some way off deciding which route corridor might be chosen, but even when a route through one corridor is firmly proposed, there will still be the opportunity for further discussion on precise alignment within the corridor.

Inevitably, the publication by British Rail of its report has given rise to the utmost anxiety, and in some cases to distress and hardship, for people in Kent, including many of my hon. Friend's constituents. I can understand why some people may think that British Rail was wrong to publish its report in the way that it did, but had it not done so it would have been justifiably criticised for lack of openness and consultation. The fact that British Rail chose to reveal the options that it had under consideration and to consult widely among local authorities and others is in line with a process of open consideration of major planning issues that has been widely encouraged by all those with concern for the environment for more than two decades.

It is the process of prior consultation that exposes to rigorous examination the effect of development proposals of all kinds upon both the built and the natural environment. Of course, as in this case, it can be highly unpleasant for all those affected by one of the alternative routes proposed by British Rail. Nevertheless, British Rail must ensure that it has taken into account in considering the impact and relative merits of the three routes all relevant matters before it comes to a conclusion on a preferred route. In particular, it must be in a position to demonstrate that adequate weight has been given to environmental factors, including the effect upon the people of Kent.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport noted with regret during the earlier debate that, for a large number of people, their anxiety will prove to have been unnecessarily caused, in that only one line will be proposed, whereas at present the worry is spread along three route corridors. I support wholeheartedly his determination that the present uncertainty that is affecting parts of Kent should not be allowed to last any longer than is strictly necessary.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

I put to my hon. Friend a specific point, to which he may turn later. British Rail, which is a monopoly supplier in this country, has proposed the various routes and is also the holder of the criteria against which those routes are being evaluated. British Rail is the supplier of all the information, and as far as I can see it is the only major source of technical advice available to the Government. In those circumstances, those who have any reason whatsoever to be sceptical about some of British Rail's arguments feel powerless. Before my hon. Friend closes his helpful remarks, I hope that he will address the suggestion that another method of evaluating British Rail's proposals might be found.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I had intended to turn to that point. My hon. Friend can rest assured that British Rail will not be judge and jury in its own cause. One of my hon. Friend's points was whether a very high speed train rather than a slightly less fast train is justified. That is one of the balancing factors that will have to be taken into account when assessing whether the rail link has to be at the maximum speed or at a lower speed so that noise is reduced. The balancing factors will have to be assessed in this case and in all planning applications.

The sooner that British Rail is able to identify the preferred corridor the better. In reaching a decision on the preferred route, it will need to weigh in the balance the views of the local authorities and other consultees. I understand that Kent county council, which has appointed consultants to advise it, hopes to come to a view on its preferred route corridor in January.

Although the proposals for the Channel tunnel rail link raise matters of exceptional importance in respect of the built and the natural environment, I should remind the House that the high-speed rail link is primarily a matter for British Rail and not for the Government or the affected local authorities. British Rail will eventually have to justify the proposal to Parliament. But that does not mean that the Government in general nor the Department of Transport in particular are not taking a keen interest.

We shall ensure that environmental matters are properly taken into account in selecting the preferred route. I assure my hon. Friend that my Department has not sheltered behind the Department of the Environment in terms of parliamentary questions. Although the Department of Transport takes the lead in regard to new long-distance railway lines, issues involving the environment are concerns for my Department.

The Town and Country Planning (Assessment of Environmental Effects) Regulations, which came into effect this July, covered proposals for long-distance railway lines authorised by way of planning Acts. At present there is no formal requirement for environmental assessment of development proposals which proceed by way of a parliamentary Bill, but the Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure has given consideration to how the EC directive on environmental impact assessment can be applied to projects which would otherwise have required planning consent and environmental statements.

The Committee has recommended that each House should incorporate environmental impact assessment into the private Bill procedure by making new Standing Orders which would require promoters of any Bill which authorises the carrying out of works for which planning permission has not already been obtained to seek a determination from the appropriate Secretary of State as to whether it should be the subject of an environmental assessment with an environmental statement containing specified information. The suggested procedure would be for promoters of Bills to produce an environmental statement in advance of the Committee stage and for the Department of the Environment to comment to the Committee on the proposals contained in the Bill.

My Department is at present discussing with the Department of Transport standards for environmental assessment of new long-distance rail routes appropriate to that procedure. In advance of the adoption or implementation of those recommendations by Parliament, British Rail has voluntarily appointed consultants to undertake environmental assessment and produce a full environmental statement in respect of any future proposals.

The Government will expect British Rail or any private sector consortium putting forward proposals for a new rail link to spell out its approach to environmental protection when proposals for a new line are announced. It is expected that Parliament, in giving consideration to proposals before it, will attach considerable weight to the environmental implications alongside commercial, economic and other social factors, and will wish to be satisfied that it contains appropriate provisions to ensure that those matters are dealt with properly.

I assure my hon. Friend that environmental issues are very much to the fore in consideration of the high-speed rail link, as they were in consideration of the Channel tunnel. As a Minister for the Department of the Environment, I sit on some of the committees relating to the Channel tunnel in order to safeguard environmental interests. I represented my Department's interests at an earlier meeting which my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport held with Members of Parliament representing Kent constituencies.

British Rail's study, published in July, made it clear that a new rail link from London to the Channel tunnel would be needed some time in the future. Without it there would be a risk of excessively overloading the Kent rail network to the detriment of existing rail users. It is self-evident that no new line can be built without some detriment to the environment.

I welcome the fact that British Rail has employed independent consultants to undertake an environmental assessment of the present proposals and has committed itself to a full environmental assessment of the preferred route. Clearly, it will be in British Rail's interests in developing and progressing its proposals to ensure that it can demonstrate to Parliament that it has given adequate. weight to environmental factors in selecting its preferred route corridor and futher that it has given the closest attention, in finalising the design, to minimising and mitigating the environmental impact of the rail link on the people of Kent.

I conclude by quoting from a speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made at the Conservative party conference this year. She used a quotation which may be a candidate for the quotation of the year when she said: No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease. She assured the party, and I assure the House today, This Government intends to meet the terms of that lease in full".