Orders of the Day — British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:38 pm on 18th May 1992.

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Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill , Streatham 6:38 pm, 18th May 1992

I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robinson) on the fluency of his maiden speech. I rise with a sense of awe and history to make my own maiden speech. Since its creation as a separate seat in 1918, Streatham has always been represented by Conservative Members of Parliament. On 9 April 1992, for the first time ever, Streatham elected a Labour Member of Parliament. The voters of Streatham made a little bit of history that day. Interestingly, it was made in the London borough of Lambeth.

Among my many distinguished predecessors, perhaps the most notable was the late Lord Duncan-Sandys, who was in his time the holder of nine ministerial offices—all but one as a Cabinet member. It is said of Duncan Sandys, no doubt apocryphally, that he was not the most assiduous attender of his constituency. The story goes that he was once upbraided by a junior member of the local Conservative association, to whom he majestically replied, "Young man, 1 was elected to represent Streatham at Westminster—not Westminster at Streatham."

I hasten to add that no such charge could be levelled against my immediate predecessor, Sir William Shelton —to whom I willingly pay tribute. Sir William—or Bill Shelton, as he was universally known in Streatham—was Member of Parliament for part or the whole of the Streatham constituency for 22 years. Among the literally thousands of Streatham residents whom I met before and during the general election, I found a deep recognition and appreciation of his work for the constituency. The result of the election in Streatham was a reflection of political and demographical change; it was in no sense a judgment on his record of service. I intend to maintain the high standard set by Bill Shelton during my stewardship of the Streatham constituency.

The constituency, embracing as it does communities in Balham, Brixton, Clapham and Streatham itself, may truly be said to represent the heart of London south of the river. It is a constituency of great variety, ranging from the inner city to the tree-lined streets of the suburbs—pluralist, multi-ethnic, in considerable demographic flux and with a dynamic population full of potential. That potential, I regret to say, is now under great stress and strain.

In the Streatham constituency as a whole, unemployment currently stands at almost twice the national average. The impact of the recession is nowhere better signposted than in the increasingly derelict condition of our major shopping and recreational area—Streatham hill and Streatham high road, once known by Streathamites as the west end of south London. Now, no fewer than 50 of its shops stand empty; a year ago, there were 30. It is a sad irony that the only new building to appear in Streatham high road in recent years is Wentworth house, our local jobcentre.

The recession has torn the heart out of what was once a busy and thriving community. Locally, we are not willing to resign ourselves to inevitable decline. Under the auspices of the Streatham Association, which brings together local traders and of which I am the newly elected president, we shall continue to explore every avenue to bring businesses back to the high road—and especially to the site formerly occupied by the John Lewis company, whose departure was such a tremendous blow to our locality.

Central Government, however, must also accept their responsibilities. Partly as a result of the recession, but for other reasons too, the entire Streatham constituency is increasingly taking on the character of an inner-city area. I therefore give notice that, in this Parliament, I shall be pressing for an extension of the urban programme beyond the present boundary set by Government at the A205 south circular road. The statistics of decline, deprivation and distress warrant such an extension, and that demand unites all political parties in the constituency.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the core of deprivation lies in the Brixton area of the constituency. In our town hall ward, unemployment ranges between 20 and 25 per cent., much of it long term; among young men, the figure is much higher. The Brixton area also ranks high on all the other standard indicators of deprivation—homelessness, poor housing and overcrowding, low incomes and poor health. For too long, we have heard expressions of concern for the condition of the inner city which have been followed up by all too little action.

I am only too well aware of the recent political history of Lambeth council. Lambeth has been easy meat, and doubtless still presents a few choice targets for Ministers; but I believe that the new administration in the borough is making genuine efforts to turn things around. I very much hope that Ministers will recognise that change, and not succumb to the temptation to play political games for short-term political advantage.

The trouble with punishing the politicians is that the people are punished as well. There must be a constructive relationship between central Government and local authorities, and between the public and private sectors, to improve the conditions of the inner city. Central Government now have the chance to signal a new and positive approach.

Last week, Lambeth presented its impressive City Challenge bid. That bid is supported not only by the police and local community organisations, but by major private-sector concerns—BAT Industries plc, P and 0 Developments Limited, ICL, Higgs and Hill and Laing. In the past few days, Regalian Homes has also lent its support to the bid. Those companies want to do business in Brixton. They have confidence in its future, and they want to work with the local authority. The Government have a unique opportunity to boost the prospects for both enterprise and social improvement in this inner-city area, and I hope that they will grasp that opportunity.

I now turn to the substance of the debate. I must declare my interest as a Member of Parliament sponsored by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers. Efficient transport links are vital to the well-being of an overwhelmingly commuter constituency like Streatham; that such links are not efficient is the daily experience of my constituents and of most Londoners. The CBI has estimated that the London economy loses £1 billion a year as result of the inadequacies of our transport system, and all the current signs are that the position will get worse rather than better.

With what strikes me as staggering complacency, the Department of Transport has forecast that traffic on Britain's roads will increase by between 83 per cent. and 142 per cent. by the year 2025, with London taking its full share. That forecast beggars the imagination: it just cannot be managed. It conjures up a future of super-jams on our roads in an ever more polluted city environment. Clearly, we need a strategy aimed at creating a modern public transport system that will attract car users off the roads.

One part of that strategy, incidentally, must be to add further tube lines to the notoriously sparse underground network in south London. We in Streatham expect to be high on the list, with the extension of the tube line to our area which has been promised by London Transport since 1926. No such strategy exists, however: indeed, there is now a super-jam in the projects that might have formed the beginnings of that strategy. There is no money for Crossrail; Thameslink 2000 has been stopped; the east London line has been stopped; and, to say the least, there is now a major question mark over Olympia and York's Jubilee line.

So what is on offer to Londoners? The answer appears to be bus deregulation and red routes. In the past six years, bus deregulation has produced a massive drop in the number of bus passengers; that is hardly an encouraging omen for London. While speed and traffic volume are the only criteria for red routes, there is justifiable anxiety about their damaging effect on local businesses, and about their role in splitting up communities and increasing pollution and road accidents.

In Streatham, we are also threatened with the red-routeing of our high road. We believe that a sensible compromise is possible, and I hope that the Department of Transport will be willing to listen to our arguments. We believe, however, that the interests of the neighbourhood must come first.

Speaking candidly, I have little confidence that the proposals foreshadowed in the Bill will assist the plight of rail commuters in my constituency. I seriously doubt whether my constituents can look forward to a 17.10 Virgin service, all stations to Streatham hill, or to a 17.40 Stagecoach service, all stations to Streatham common—much less to the provision of such services in off-peak periods. Moreover, I somehow doubt that Virgin and Stagecoach will be very enthusiastic about laying on less profitable off-peak services on major InterCity routes.

Nevertheless, some method of franchising is to be expected, and it will be necessary to secure proper guarantees in regard to safety, staff training and the retention of through-ticketing facilities. It remains to be seen just how far the Government will succeed with their franchising plans and with their more ambitious scheme for the widespread privatisation of rail services. Neither approach, however, promises to deal with the kernel of the problem—the need in this country to reach the levels of investment in rail services and other forms of public transport that have been maintained over very many years by our partners elsewhere in Europe. Sooner or later, the Government will have to bite the bullet of sustained higher investment in rail.

There is, however, an additional route to increased investment—the route of co-operation between the public and private sector, discussed earlier in the debate but described in detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) in his especially important speech on 11 July 1991 in this House, in which he set out a new financial framework for the railways, drawing upon the French experience of co-operation between SNCF and the French banking system. As a trading company in the public sector, there is a special case to be made out for British Rail.

I hope that the Government are still ready to look seriously at those proposals. Throughout my speech, I have tried to argue that partnership between central Government and local government, between the public and the private sector, must act as the motor of economic and social progress. Such partnerships have amply demonstrated their success in other economies and other societies. They ought now to be allowed the scope to succeed also in our country.