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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.