We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Environmental Protection

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

Alert me about debates like this

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.