Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill

Part of Orders of the Day — Schedule 3 – in the House of Commons at 6:48 pm on 1st November 1995.

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Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid 6:48 pm, 1st November 1995

I congratulate the Committee on having worked so hard. I was a little disappointed to learn that a senior member of the Committee had said that the proposals from Kent had been well put by officers but not sufficiently supported by councillors. That is unjust, as all the representations made by Kent were made with the endorsement of the councillors. Indeed, in at least one case—and I think in several others—county councillors were not allowed to give evidence to the Select Committee on behalf of their parish councils. So if there is any sense that there is a lack of political will behind what the Kent people have been saying, it is misunderstood.

I am of course going to support the motions, because, as many hon. Members have said, they are the only way in which to relieve my constituents from blight. But I do so with a heavy heart. It has been a lamentable story. We were told at the beginning, when the channel tunnel was first being devised, that there was no need for a railway; we were told that there would be no question of any form of public subsidy for the line; we were told that there would be four routes on the table, although it quickly became apparent that three of them were a complete whitewash and not ever intended to be worked. A whole series of undertakings have been given and withdrawn.

My constituents are thoroughly cynical about whether they will even see what the Select Committee has recommended—and, indeed, has been accepted so far—happen in practice. It is perfectly clear, as many of my constituents who are much more numerate than I shall ever be have pointed out, that the economic viability of this line is very fragile. Ministers have made it clear in correspondence among themselves that they have anxieties on that score. Those anxieties are well founded.

The worst possible outcome for any of us would be that all the proceedings on this Bill in both Houses of Parliament were completed and the line was not built for a considerable length of time. That would be a scandal and I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Minister will give us an undertaking—even though I am sceptical about some of the undertakings that I have had so far—that the line really will work.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister, however, for the letter that I have received this very evening saying that, on the authority of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration Committee, it has been agreed that the worst cases of hardship brought before that Committee will be looked at again. That is a welcome assurance.

I say once again to my hon. Friend—he has heard me say it before, but it is essential to say it again—that the way in which we handle compensation on big public schemes is a scandal. It is not easy, but what happens is a scandal. For the permanent secretary to the Department of Transport to try to maintain that there are only two kinds of blight—statutory blight and the blight caused by uncertainty—is so far removed from reality as to be a disgrace. Member after Member in this short debate has pointed out that, although there is no uncertainty over large parts of the line, the blight persists and will probably persist for another decade.

I do not believe that the line will be built as quickly as we all hope that it will be. I heard today that a potential tenant of Union Railways was offered a 10-year tenancy. When the tenant said that the company had to be joking because the line was set to go through the cottage, Union Railways is alleged to have said that there was no chance of the line being built in the time scale provided. I have not had time to check the story, but if it is true, it is a disgrace.

I wonder what the real cost of the line will eventually turn out to be. There has never been a project on such a scale which has cost anything like the budget first projected. The only thing that would be worse than not having the line built after all the proceedings in both Houses would be to have half the line built and some future Government saying that they could not afford to finish it.

I should like to make one detailed point. I am disturbed and distressed to discover that the thoroughly sensible way suggested of improving the amenity of the Boxley valley—one of the causes célèbres before the Select Committee—by the road going over the line, under the project described as 3A, has been thrown out by Union Railways. I very much hope that in this debate the Minister will allow us to hope that at least that alternative could once again be properly considered.

I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House, that after the matter is resolved, the trauma of compensation and blight that we have all endured should not be forgotten. Could we not have a cross-party consensus that the present system of handling compensation is lamentably unfair and try to work out a better system for the future?