East Thames River Crossings

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:51 pm on 18th November 1994.

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Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest 2:51 pm, 18th November 1994

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on securing this important debate. Having spent some years replying to such debates, I now appreciate that there is an invariable rule which is that the longer one allows the proposer to make his case, the longer one needs to reply to what he said in the shorter time remaining. The inverse is even worse in that if the proposer sits down after five minutes having said nothing, one has to extemporise for the remaining 25 minutes. However, it was important that the hon. Member for Woolwich and also the hon. Members for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) should have been able to put their remarks on record.

We are not in the business of spending vast sums of public money to build infrastructure for purposes wholly unrelated to the environmental, social and economic needs of an area. We know that the Thames is a great asset of which we wish to make more. Indeed, we have been doing so on an all-party basis and Labour and Conservative-controlled boroughs further down river have co-operated with me. However, what emerged from the consultation and planning work was that the Thames is also a barrier. It is a barrier to regeneration and, as the hon. Member for Woolwich said, it is starkly evident that that is especially so east of Tower bridge where, as the river widens, crossings become fewer, which is a genuine constraint on our ability to regenerate areas where unemployment is high, housing is bad and conditions are far from ideal.

There have been tremendous developments in docklands, north and south of the river and adjacent to specific regeneration areas. There are signs that whole areas are coming back to life. Hon. Gentlemen will agree that many people in London have consistently underestimated the impact of the Jubilee line. It will have a tremendous regenerative effect on a swathe of south London, through Bermondsey and Southwark to Surrey Quays before it crosses back to the Isle of Dogs, on to north Greenwich and up to Canning Town. We all, therefore, have a straightforward agenda in our minds. We want to try to remove the river as a barrier to allow for the regenerative expansion we all seek, and to try to do so in a way that is consistent with the needs and wishes of the local population.

I hope that the hon. Member for Woolwich will allow me to say that he was less than his usual equable self when he described us as having all our eggs in a road-building basket. If he will forgive me for saying so, that was a ludicrous caricature. As he knows, the whole point about our strategy in east London is that it takes account of Woolwich metro, of the Lewisham extension of the docklands light railway and of the Jubilee line extension. That is a quick £3 billion-worth of eggs in the road-building basket. Compared with that, the road-building component is relatively modest.

Equally, in all fairness, the hon. Gentleman's version of the history of the east London river crossing was unrecognisable. There is no reticence, as he puts it, about Woolwich metro. Far from it; it is very much a live project for us. I was delighted to take it on board as it arose from the Union Metro proposals and to see how the operators generally regarded it highly, not least because it is quite a cost-effective proposal with much of the infrastructure already in place.

Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me for putting this next point on the record; it needs to be said. There was no dithering over the proposition that we should attract the private sector into the Jubilee line extension. "Dither" is the last word that I would associate with that transaction. For the record, what happened was that Labour Members constantly berated me for not simply saying, "Get on with it. Start building. Do not worry about the private sector. The private sector is too slow. Build the thing." I said no because I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport were well aware that as long as Labour Members took that view, the private sector would sit back and say, "If they are mugs enough to put the money in themselves, let them do it." It was only when the private sector saw clearly that this Government did not flinch that it contributed £400 million towards the building of the line—money that would otherwise have been lost to the Exchequer and lost to London. I apologise to no one for having stood firm in that transaction and for having achieved an excellent result.

To add insult to injury, which is uncharacteristic of the hon. Gentleman who is such a mild and generous-hearted chap in reality, he said that it would be nonsense for us not to build a station at north Greenwich. He is absolutely right. It would, indeed, have been nonsense which is precisely why I made it clear to the private sector interests there that they would contribute in large measure to its construction. That is exactly what they subsequently did.

If one seeks office in this country, it is as well to sharpen up one's bargaining techniques because these people are no patsies. I fear that a life in the wilderness has left the hon. Gentleman with his customary good nature, but without that instinct for the jugular which so defines the Government, whom it is probably best to leave to do these sort of deals while the hon. Gentleman remains happy to chide me—