I have been involved in discussions about the railway extension since 1988. Those discussions have taken place on an all-borough, all-party basis. We have made forceful representations to the Minister, urging him to give the scheme favourable consideration. Although there may be some t's that we would have liked to cross differently, the broad principle of the extension is much needed by the people of south-east London.
Over the years, we have had a very raw deal south of the river in terms of public transport. We have almost been cut off: we have had no underground system and only a limited British Rail system. That has had some advantages for the people of Greenwich—it has retained a certain village-like quality, for instance—but, although that may have added to the charm of the place, it has certainly not added to local people's job prospects and it is inhibiting commuters.
Over recent decades, Greenwich has experienced a vast decline in industry. In the 1950s and 1960s, many residents could find employment very close to their homes—almost within walking distance. Unfortunately, that has changed. Now, people must travel to seek employment.
Greenwich is also experiencing a major housing crisis. As house prices in north London have steadily risen, more and more people have moved to south London, where— for a while, at least—prices were more moderate. That has led to more people trying to reach other parts of London for work opportunities.
By railway development standards, the cost of this railway is relatively modest. The period of time involved is relatively short. We are not talking about a decade or more. The scheme could be up and running by the mid-1990s. There will be immediate benefits, therefore, if the scheme goes ahead. We have heard that about 12,000 commuters an hour will use the railway. I am not so pessimistic as the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Ms. Gordon) about the residents of south-east London being unable to obtain jobs in docklands. The current recession means that the hoped-for jobs in docklands are not there, but I have always taken the view that the people of Greenwich and Deptford —I have a little bit of Deptford in my constituency—must be given the opportunity to take advantage of the future work opportunities that docklands presents. I have never accepted the argument that docklands jobs are for a different category of people, with different educational attainments. If that presents a problem, it has to be tackled. We must make sure that our people have access to those jobs.
Congestion in the area, particularly when it comes to crossing the river in the morning, is appalling. Those who have to use the Blackwall tunnel or the Rotherhithe tunnel know of the delays that can be experienced. The Network South East service in Greenwich is becoming almost a joke. We have experienced particular problems. I hope that the introduction of the Networker trains and the construction of the new tunnels will lead to a vast improvement. The present service, however, is infrequent and unreliable. Trains are frequently cancelled, or travellers experience considerable delays. The frustration of commuters is rising by the day.
A great step forward will be made by the combination of the docklands light railway extension and the Jubilee line which, for the first time, will link Greenwich with the underground system in London. Even those who travel to work by Rolls-Royce will be tempted to travel by means of a railway that allows them to cross the river to Canary wharf in 10 minutes and links them with other lines to take them into the City.
The railway's route through Greenwich is surprisingly uncomplicated. It will travel through pockets of residential areas. However, an almost ready-made route is available that would cause relatively little disruption to local residents. The railway will stimulate development and investment in Greenwich town centre. A great waterfront development is planned for the forthcoming decade. It will be no more than a pipedream, however, if a proper transport infrastructure is not provided.
I am concerned that the Bill's progress has already been somewhat delayed. That is due, in part, to the Prime Minister's announcement that the scheme is to be transferred to the London Docklands development corporation which, I understand, will be the shareholder, banker and strategic planner, while the docklands light railway will continue to run the day-by-day business of the railway. I understand the Government's motive—that they need to reinspire confidence and initiative, since the railway has been regarded as a very poor substitute for what was originally promised. The number of breakdowns, the number of people stranded for hours on end and the inoperative nature of the scheme has caused great concern to those who had looked forward to its extension across the river. However, I have been reassured that some of the fundamental problems are already being tackled. Therefore, when the extension has been completed I expect it to run well.
I accept the LDDC's undertaking that it will honour all the commitments made to local groups and residents by London Regional Transport, but I share the concern of the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar that we need strategic planning for public transport in London so that we can achieve the long-overdue cohesion and co-ordination.
In my constituency, there has been some debate and controversy about whether we should have two stations relatively close together—one at the Cutty Sark and one at the British Rail station in Greenwich town centre. They are about five minutes walk apart and several bodies have argued forcefully that one would have been sufficient. I accept the principle that the railway will be a tram-like system which people will use for relatively short journeys to get very close to where they want to go. I also accept that commuters in Greenwich will find it easy to link with the British Rail station in Greenwich whereas tourists will want to use the Cutty Sark station.
I heard with concern what the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar said about the noise and deterioration experienced by her constituents over the years and I shall seek continual reassurance that that problem can and will be eradicated before there is any further development. The majority of constituents on the Meridian estate which will be affected by the Cutty Sark station will not, of course, have the immediate problem of noise, because at that point the extension will be underground, but, naturally, there are concerns. They fear dust, dirt and noise during the construction period and vibration once it is in operation.
One block of flats in particular has had a difficult few months. It was initially threatened with demolition and, although it now seems to have been spared that, it will bear the brunt of the dirt, noise and pollution during construction. I hope that the residents of Walrond house will be treated with the generosity and sensitivity that they need.
I should also like to draw the Minister's attention to the problem of residents in Straightsmouth who already have to contend with a great deal of noise from the British Rail tracks which run near their homes and which will have to be moved slightly nearer as a result of the development. I understand that the continuous track which they have requested is technically possible and it would, I believe, alleviate many of their problems. As so few residents will be adversely affected by the development, which will be to the great advantage of the vast majority, I hope that generosity can be the order of the day. However, the uncertainty of the past few years has been the worst of all worlds for many residents who have not known whether the development would go ahead.
I strongly recommend that there is no delay in proceeding with the Bill, as it will be to the enormous advantage of the people of south-east London. It will substantially improve the quality of their lives and provide access to job opportunities currently denied them. We are talking about journeys of 10 minutes as opposed to a miserable journey of, perhaps, an hour and a half stuck in a car trying to get through the Blackwall tunnel in the rush hour. Such journeys are proving to be an enormous barrier. It is extremely frustrating for people who can stand in Greenwich park and see the development in docklands. Let us hope that, when the area eventually becomes economically more vibrant, people in Greenwich will be able to do more than see it—let us hope that they can participate in it.