International Station (Stratford)

– in the House of Commons at 12:29 pm on 20th December 1995.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East 12:29 pm, 20th December 1995

Our most recent full debate on this topic was on the day before the Christmas recess in 1994, although it was at a somewhat less congenial hour—about 4.30 am. This shorter debate today gives us an opportunity to review the progress since then.

The then Secretary of State for Transport announced in 1991 that the channel tunnel rail link would run through east London, because it would bring regeneration to east London. If there were to be no station in east London, however, there would be no regeneration, either. In good faith, the Government should honour the commitment they made in choosing the route for the channel tunnel rail link.

The transport case for the Stratford station is a compelling one. Stratford is a better station location for users of the rail link based in east and much of south London. Given the Jubilee line extension, Stratford is better for users from Westminster, and for users from the City, Essex and East Anglia. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) in his place this morning, and that hon. Members from Essex and East Anglia have signed early-day motion 126.

The Thames Gateway Partnership was launched in the City at the European bank for reconstruction and development on 1 December. The event was extremely well attended, and it was distinguished by the strong support voiced for an international station at Stratford in the speeches of both the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration, and Mr. Neil Kinnock, the European Transport Commissioner.

I wish to highlight the developments since the previous debate, because they have powerfully advanced the case for Stratford. I shall concentrate on just two: first, the July report of the Select Committee on Transport; secondly, the publication of the London Pride Partnership's transport action programme.

The Select Committee, after its exhaustive deliberations, gave a ringing endorsement to the Stratford proposal. It identified the national and regional importance of the Stratford proposal and urged that the necessary powers for the station under the transport and works legislation should be obtained as soon as possible. That was a welcome and important decision, which recognised the case for Stratford at national level, which we had not previously achieved. We debated that report last summer.

The second development I wish to highlight is the launch of the London Pride programme last month. That was significant, because of the breadth of support it has achieved from local government and the business sector in London. The transport action programme that London Pride has produced represents a remarkable consensus among all those concerned about the future of London.

In the foreword to the programme, signed by Lord Sheppard and Toby Harris, the leader of Haringey council and chairman of the Association of London Authorities, one of the main priorities of the programme of action is

the award of the concession for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link with an international station at Stratford". All the London boroughs, London First, the Confederation of British Industry and the London chamber of commerce have recognised the Stratford station decision as one of the keys to the future of transport in London. As the Stratford promoter group has shown, the proposal can be achieved at no cost to Government.

One of the benefits of the Stratford station proposal is the excellent onward connections that Stratford can offer to the north. The Minister may be aware that the proposal, in its initial form, for additional tunnelling at Islington—which I support—could jeopardise some of those connections. Newham council, of which I am still a member, is working with the London borough of Islington on a proposal that would give the extra protection in Islington that the Select Committee advocated, without jeopardising Stratford's link to the west coast main line.

When we debated this topic at 4.30 am a year ago, the Minister intimated that a final decision would be announced in spring 1995. We have not yet had that decision, and I understand that there will be a decision in January. I appeal to the Minister to make a real and substantial decision. Some people are saying that the Government will duck the issue, by leaving it to somebody else to make the decision. It is a priority for the capital, as London Pride has demonstrated, and it is important to the national interest, as the Select Committee has shown.

This matter cannot be left to the vagaries of purely commercial decision-making. The Government need to make this decision; they have always suggested that they will; and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm today that that remains their intention. The Government should now resolve swiftly, clearly and unequivocally in favour of Stratford International.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess , Basildon

Unfortunately, I am advised that the procedures of the House mean that, as I have already spoken this morning, I cannot make a separate speech. However, I can intervene.

I wonder whether the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) understands my personal commitment to Newham. As the House has become tired of hearing, it is the place where I was born, and I still have family there. The case for having the international railway station at Stratford is very strong. There is enormous support from Conservative Members of Parliament in Essex and in East Anglia for having the international railway station at Stratford.

From my point of view, on the Conservative Benches, I am very proud that the Conservative Government built the channel tunnel, and I am very proud of what they did in the London docklands. I believe fundamentally that the case for the international railway station being at Stratford will enhance the success of the docklands. There will be an enormous benefit for constituents in Essex and East Anglia if we have the railway station at Stratford.

Does the hon. Member join me in hoping that my hon. Friend the Minister will give the House a Christmas present by announcing in the new year that the railway station will be at Stratford?

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

I gladly endorse many of the points that the hon. Member has made, especially the last one about the aspiration for a Christmas present from the Minister. I gladly acknowledge and put on the record the long-standing and unwavering support that the hon. Member has given to the interests of Newham and to the case for the international station at Stratford. I agree with his assessment of the importance of this proposal, not just for east London, but for Essex and East Anglia. I have already said that I especially appreciate the support that many Conservative Members have given to the proposals by signing the early-day motion.

The channel tunnel was built by a private sector organisation rather than by the Government, but I agree with the hon. Member for Basildon that it is an important element of our infrastructure. We need to ensure that it brings benefit not just to London, but to Essex and East Anglia. An international station at Stratford would help to make that possible.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Stratford is in my constituency, but I am in favour of the proposed international station not because of a narrow constituency interest, but because, as my hon. Friend has rightly said, the project involves all London. I am glad that the three Members who represent Newham, together with supporters on the Government Benches, have worked together on the campaign for Stratford international station.

Does my hon. Friend agree that that campaign is an example of the public and private sectors working together? Organisations across London of all political persuasions have said that the station should be located at Stratford, as have Conservative Members. Is that not a perfect example of a co-operative venture? Does my hon. Friend agree that that should impress the Government? Given the enormous support across the House and across London and the south-east for the station to be located at Stratford, we cannot understand why it has taken the Government so long to make a decision.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

I agree. I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend is with us this morning, and I know that to some extent we owe that to the immigration authorities at Zurich.

A year ago, the Minister acknowledged the impressive nature of the public-private sector partnership which supports the Stratford proposal. I agree with my hon. Friend: I hope that the Minister and the Government will swiftly make the decision for which so many of us have been pressing for such a long time.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 12:41 pm, 20th December 1995

I am glad to join my hon. Friends from Newham, and the support from Basildon of all places, in praising a multi-party, multi-beneficial investment in public transport. I say "public transport" even though there may be a slightly different emphasis on the manner in which it is funded. That is now less important than the principle.

I am also glad to support the Stratford proposal because I can support, surprisingly enough, two aspects of Government policy that are intimately connected with it. That may sound strange, but it is absolutely true.

The first policy with which I agree is the provision of the station works at Stratford without cost to the public purse. That will not come under the various formulae that we have talked about or the private finance initiative, but it will be funded by the Stratford Development Partnership and those in the area who are willing to provide the capital for the station inside the concrete box that is part of the works that have been agreed. That is wholly in line with the Government's policy of private enterprise, and development from private means. On this occasion at least, the Opposition have no objection to that.

The second aspect of Government policy with which I agree is something that I heard the Secretary of State for Transport, no less, express only this morning on "Today"—a programme which often reflects, or perhaps leads, rightly or wrongly, what happens in the Chamber. He said that the Government want more and more people to travel by rail. That is good news, particularly when congestion is caused by cars and other traffic in Greater London. A station at Stratford would contribute not just to international facilities but to traffic flow in Greater London. We all know that people choose to travel by the underground not just because of the time saved, but because of the convenience of it.

Hon. Members will be aware that the Stratford location is truly extraordinary. Whether trains from the channel tunnel rail link will eventually stop there or not, the existing rail network from Stratford is considerable. Fortunately, I have time to spell out the links from Stratford to other parts of Greater London. One can travel around the North London link to Richmond, Cambridge and beyond, to Stansted airport.

Stratford is linked to two branches of the Central line, one to Epping and one to Hainault. It is linked to two, possibly three branches of the Great Eastern line to Southend, Clacton, Chelmsford and Norwich. It is also possible to take a night service from Stratford to Barking and Southend, and indeed to Basildon by another route.

In future, there may be a permanent service operating every half an hour from Stratford to the royal docks, and beyond, under the Thames, to Woolwich and north Kent, should the proposed link be built. At the moment, it is perfectly possible to travel to north Woolwich and the important development and exhibition centres and the university college of East London at the royal docks.

Stratford will also be connected to the Jubilee line, on which it will be possible to travel to London Bridge, Waterloo, Westminster, central London and beyond. Stratford is also on the docklands light railway, which connects to Canary Wharf, which is an important development, whatever one may think of it. It may well be possible, should that line be extended, to travel on to Lewisham.

Stratford is also on the Central line, and is thus linked to central London through the Oxford street access. In addition, if crossrail is built, that would add a through line to Paddington, London airport, Reading and perhaps as far south as Bristol or Exeter. Such is the network to which Stratford has, or is soon likely to have, access.

Photo of Mr Jacques Arnold Mr Jacques Arnold , Gravesham

I do not want to pour cold water on the comments of the hon. Members for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who have said that passengers from south London and Kent would be able to use Stratford station, but may I remind them that Ebbsfleet international station has already been approved for the route? Due to the excellence of the South Eastern Railway Company, it will be able to cater precisely for those people from south London and Kent. That does not detract, however, from the advantages of Stratford to Essex and north London.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The hon. Member speaks for north Kent, and Ebbsfleet will be a valuable link on the network. We all know that there are breakdowns on every line for good or bad reasons. If trains have to stop at Ebbsfleet, it may be possible to change to alternative routes. It is to those alternatives that I wish to refer.

The channel tunnel rail link should go to King's Cross and St. Pancras by some means or another. Many visitors to London get taxis from King's Cross or St. Pancras to their hotels or an exhibition centre, so they are the preferable stations to which the rail link should go. A station at Stratford would also offer additional access to the channel tunnel rail link to many people in Greater London through designated trains or routes, and could provide luggage facilities for passengers. If things go wrong—they go wrong in the best regulated circumstances—trains have to be reversed from a station further out—for example, Reading. A station at Stratford would offer an additional facility to cope with such problems.

I believe that the choice of Stratford would add to the returns of traffic on the route. We know that the rail link has been subject to financial difficulties, so I suggest to the Minister that everything points to supporting the works order, and thus creating a station at Stratford.

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough 12:47 pm, 20th December 1995

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) for bringing this important matter to the attention of the House again. As he reminded us, we last debated it a year ago, at a less sociable hour. I know that he and many other hon. Members have campaigned long and vigorously for an intermediate station at Stratford. I understand their concern and impatience that a decision should be made without further delay. I therefore welcome the opportunity to inform the House of the current position on the proposal.

On the occasion of our previous debate, I explained the process by which the Government had reached decisions to date about intermediate stations on the rail link. I described the position as it then stood, and how we saw things moving forward to a final decision. I also acknowledged that an international station would assist the regeneration of the Stratford area. I also drew attention, however, to the need to be sure that there was a good economic case for it.

At that time, we were hopeful that we would be able to reach a decision in the early part of this year. In the event, the nature and complexity of the bids received from the consortia bidding to construct and operate the rail link, and their proposals for a possible Stratford station, meant that that decision has had to be delayed. I do not apologise for that, because the Government have to be sure that they make the right decision on the basis of all the necessary information. The important thing is that no time has been wasted in the process of reaching a decision.

The Government and the two short-listed consortia have had the opportunity to address the concerns expressed in the various recommendations of the Select Committee on Transport, which considered the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

The Minister said that the Government must ensure that they make the right decision. When reaching a decision about Stratford, will the Minister take into account strategic reasons, or will he look only at the commercial case put by the developers? He said that the Government must make the right decision. What factors will influence the Government?

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough

I shall come to that issue in a moment. The Government will be influenced by a broad range of factors, including some of those to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded.

The Stratford promoter group has continued to lobby very hard, and there have been a number of meetings with Ministers. I agree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) that it is an excellent example of public sector and private sector co-operation, the like of which we are seeing increasingly in London and around the country.

The group made presentations both to the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Dr. Mawhinney), and to me in February. I also had the pleasure of accepting an invitation to visit Stratford in March on a very wet day, and I was impressed by the strength of support from the local community. More recently, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), has also met representatives of the group.

The group has argued that patronage of, and therefore revenue from, the CTRL would be increased, that the station could be built at no cost to the Government, and that there would be substantial regeneration benefits. It has argued strongly that the total realised from the sale of development lands in the area would exceed the cost of providing the station, and that the site offers the prospect of a major new public transport interchange of national and international significance. It is accepted that Stratford is now an extremely important public transport interchange, and I can see advantages in expanding that role. I know, too, that a great deal of work has been done in estimating land values and on associated planning issues.

The promoter group's funding proposals rely heavily on income to be derived from the sale of development lands—the Stratford railway lands. The Government have always reserved the right to consider other funding approaches and have invited the CTRL bidders to put forward alternative funding proposals if they so wish.

However, in order to ensure that the approach of the station promoter group remains viable, the Government undertook to ensure that the Stratford railway lands should remain available pending a decision on the future of the station. Concern has been expressed from time to time as to whether that is still the case, and I am happy to confirm the assurances that I and other Ministers have given, that there will be no piecemeal disposals and that the Stratford railway lands will remain fully available until a decision on the station is made.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms , Newham North East

I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. In raising again the decision about Stratford, do the Government intend to decide for or against the Stratford station, or will they allow someone else to make the decision? I urge the Minister to assure the House that the Government will make that decision.

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough

I shall come to that issue. We might make a decision in favour of the station, but we shall not make a decision against it. I will explain that comment later. I assure hon. Members that we shall certainly not duck a decision.

The Government will decide shortly whether a Stratford station should be provided now, and, if so, whether it should be a combined international and domestic station or an international station only. The possibility of having a station at some point in the future has already been secured as a result of the Government's acceptance this summer of the recommendations from the Select Committee on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill.

The promoter will now be required to construct a long box at Stratford rather than the shorter version envisaged originally, which would have met only the operational requirements of the railway. The long box will be large enough to house the platforms and the other passenger facilities that are needed for a combined international and domestic station. Even if the decision is taken next year not to provide a station immediately, the possibility of adding one at a later stage will remain.

The decision will be either "yes" or "possibly in the future". It will not be "no", because the possibility of a station has been secured by the requirement to build the long box as part of the main construction of the link.

Photo of Mr Andrew Rowe Mr Andrew Rowe , Kent Mid

At the beginning of the CTRL affair, British Rail espoused the wonderful theory that the economics of building a railway meant that, the fewer stops there were, the more money would be made. I am relieved to discover that Ministers have taken a rather different view. Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is easier for passengers to get on and off the train when it stops?

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Too many stops may reduce the frequency of services and may diminish revenue, but if the argument that it is better for trains not to stop is pursued to its logical conclusion, it means running trains that stop only at each end of the line—which would probably not maximise revenue.

The Government will decide whether to proceed immediately and, if so, how that would be financed. However, the views of the two short-listed bidders on the costs and benefits of such a station, and particularly the effect that it would have in terms of increasing or reducing the contribution sought from Government for the project, are key factors in that decision.

The bidders have been instructed to treat the long box as a minimum requirement, to price for a fully combined international and domestic station, and then to say how their bids would be adjusted for an international station only or no station at all. In that way, we shall receive the full range of available financial information.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

With regard to the comments of the hon. Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe), does the Minister agree that the existence of some clause of which people are unaware, that traffic and fares are directly related to some formula involving distance and journey time, would be incompatible with the commonly held view? Stopping at a station may add only five minutes to the journey time but prove of inestimable benefit to many people, and thus increase traffic and revenue at the same time.

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough

An extra stop might reduce the total number of trains that could be run. Against that, we must balance the extent to which the provision of an extra stop might generate additional passengers and revenue. Those are the sort of judgments that we must take on the basis of the best evidence available. The bidding consortia are also considering those matters when submitting their bids to us and indicating whether a scheme with a Stratford station is a better business proposition than a scheme without it.

If a decision is made in favour of a station, it will be promoted by an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992, which will provide the mechanism for the necessary planning consents. The process of securing such an order could begin next year, and, subject to securing the necessary approvals, should be capable of being completed and the station constructed within the same time scale as the completion of construction of the rail link.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North

Will the Minister give the House an absolute assurance that the final decision will be based on all strategic considerations, including the recognition by his predecessors, such as the present Deputy Prime Minister, that it is not simply a transport project but a vital contribution to the economic infrastructure of the area? Will he assure us that that strategic decision will be taken by the Government, and not by any consortium for commercial reasons?

Photo of Mr John Watts Mr John Watts , Slough

I have already said that the Government will make the decision, and that we shall take into account a wide range of factors, including the strategic considerations to which the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West have referred.

Apart from the CTRL effects and other transport benefits, another key factor in the decision-making process will be the regeneration benefits to be derived from an international station. The hon. Members for Newham, North-West, for Newham, North-East and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) have been persuasive advocates of the contribution that a station would make to the regeneration of the Stratford area. We had substantial correspondence on that point following last year's debate.

I do not accept that east London would derive no economic benefits if there were no station development at Stratford. There is already substantial investment in transport, infrastructure and so on in east London. None the less, I accept—as I did when replying to the debates last year and in March—that a CTRL station at Stratford would prove a significant additional boost to those initiatives, and to the development of the Thames gateway as a whole.

In evaluating bids, the Government will carefully consider the assumptions about the viability of the station, the scope and nature of regeneration benefits, and the possible impact on the CTRL generally of a Stratford station. We shall also take into account other possible developments in transport infrastructure, such as the opening of the Jubilee line extension in 1998, and how traffic patterns and levels of use on existing and proposed transport links might respond to the opening of an international station.

In reaching their views on the costs and benefits of the various options, the two bidders have had the opportunity of extensive discussions with the Stratford promoter group. By deferring a decision until the final bids from the two short-listed consortia have been received, we have sought to give the promoter group and the bidders the maximum opportunity to make their best case for a station.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lefthouse):

Order. Time is up.