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Environmental Protection

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 22nd December 1988.

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

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".