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Channel Tunnel Rail Link

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 4th March 1998.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jane Kennedy.]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Before I call the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick), I remind hon. Members that I have a lot of applications to speak in the debate. In the best interests of all concerned, it would be appropriate to have short speeches.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town 9:34 am, 4th March 1998

I am pleased to have secured time to debate this important issue. I can confidently say that the channel tunnel rail link is a national issue. I hope to reinforce the well-argued and, I believe, accepted view that the CTRL is critical to the United Kingdom economy. The Government must continue to do all that they can to support the project and ensure its speedy completion. I know that many hon. Members are keen to contribute to the debate, so I intend to limit my speech to around 15 minutes—or at least that is what I have timed it at without interventions.

I shall refer to three basic points: first, the history of the project and how we got to the current dreadful situation; secondly, why the CTRL is a national, not just a regional issue; and thirdly, the importance of the CTRL to east London in particular and how it fits in with the transport infrastructure already being built or developed there.

I almost hesitate to point an accusing finger at the previous Government on the project's history, because I assume that most of the Conservative Members present this morning support the link. However, it is impossible not to make some comment. I hope that they will forgive me for saying that their former colleagues in the previous Government failed spectacularly when they told the House that they had reached a sensible business deal with London and Continental Railways.

Criticisms of the business plan, particularly those about the passenger projections, have now been shown to have been well founded. Even at the time, it was recognised that we were 10 years behind our European partners in building a fast link. Our standing in Europe has suffered as a consequence of that indecision and will continue to suffer if we do not rectify the position.

However, that criticism is history. As well as accusing and apportioning blame, I should also applaud and commend vision. I am happy to appreciate the number of former Ministers who recognise the importance of the CTRL to the UK economy in general—and east London in particular—and those who fought for the project in the Cabinet. I am even happier to commend my right hon. Friends in the present Cabinet who are fighting for the project.

The launch in Birmingham on Friday 20 February of the campaign known as Faster—Fast Tracks to Europe—demonstrates the national significance of the rail link. The campaign brings together local authorities from Glasgow, Manchester, York, Birmingham, London and the south-east, as well as business and industry from those areas, including the London chamber of commerce and industry. They jointly articulated the importance of national fast-track access to Europe for our regions. For the European Union to have the support of the people of this country, they need to have access to Europe.

We are joined to Europe by the channel tunnel. The rail link on our side must be as fast and convenient as that on the continent. Had the link been built by now, as it should have been, life would be a lot easier for West Ham United football supporters to travel to away games next season, when we qualify for Europe.

On a more serious note, it would be wrong not to take this opportunity to refer to my concerns about safety and Eurotunnel's continued resistance to separating passengers from their vehicles on Le Shuttle. The fire on the latticed freight transporter demonstrated the dangers of a fire in the tunnel. I firmly believe that the decision not to separate passengers from their vehicles was taken on flawed commercial grounds. Safety has been at best compromised and at worst disregarded by Eurotunnel—but I digress.

The United Kingdom as a whole needs the fast link. I know that the Government recognise that fact, and I dearly hope that they ensure that it goes ahead. My main comments are about the impact of the CTRL on east London. I can confidently leave others to address the issues that affect the rest of the United Kingdom, the Thames gateway and the rest of London, and the south-east. I know that others may refer to blight, which has adversely affected homes and businesses across the south-east and had—and continues to have—a negative impact on the lives of our people. I have heard particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Ms Hodge) and for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) refer to that issue in other debates. Uncertainty, misery, unemployment, redundancy and negative equity are a few of the effects that their constituencies have had to endure. They need the matter resolved as soon as possible. This is certainly a serious issue.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Chair, Education Sub-committee, Chair, Education & Employment Committee

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the most important forgotten victims of the whole fiasco are the hundreds of families whose homes have been blighted, through no fault of their own, by the mess that has been made of introducing the scheme? Does he accept that if there is further delay, we should ask the Government to introduce as swiftly as they can a more generous compensation scheme, so that residents who are unable to sell their homes have the opportunity to move and do not have their lives destroyed by something that has been brought about through no fault of their own?

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

As one of my hon. Friend's constituents, I know that she has campaigned long and hard on the issue. I readily accept her points. I am sure that the Government will take note.

Many people believe that London is Westminster and the corridors of power, the BBC and Fleet street. Perhaps it is if one is from outside the capital. But the real London, my London, is Poplar and Canning Town, an area of high unemployment—14.2 per cent.—of poverty, deprivation, overcrowding and homelessness, which puts Tower Hamlets and Newham among the 10 most deprived local authorities in the UK. But that is changing.

The Government's social exclusion strategy has been written for constituencies such as mine. Education standards are being raised, communities and long-forgotten estates are being rebuilt and partnerships between new business communities and local people are being engendered in east London. To ensure success, and in order to deliver, we need the transport infrastructure.

Already, we have had some new roads, and we have London Underground's District and Central lines, and Stansted airport. New developments are under way on the docklands light railway, and the City airport is looking to expand. Improved bus routes are taking shape and the Jubilee line extension to Stratford opens in 12 months. Improvements are planned for the A13, and there is a real prospect that the Thames will be crossed at three new separate points in the years immediately ahead.

The final piece of the integrated transport jigsaw is rail. Even now, rail is playing its part, but the channel tunnel rail link, with the international station at Stratford, makes it all make sense. The project is about the next millennium, planning for the future. This is the stuff of boldness, of vision, of government.

In economic terms, east London has for too long been the poor relation of the family that is our great city of London. Historically, the east end has been a starting point for waves of immigration—Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, black and Asian communities. In common with most other eastern quarters of cities in the United Kingdom, east London has been our industrial centre. With prevailing westerly winds, it was convenient for our Victorian ancestors to locate certain industries in our part of town, where the sensibilities of others would not be offended by the smell, which would be directed away from the City. Consequently, gas and sewerage works linked with business that was dependent on the docks, to create a potent cocktail. But times have changed.

We still have some important traditional industries, but, following the closure of the docks, regeneration of the area was addressed, and the industrial focus moved to a commercial one. In the past 20 years, thousands of jobs and many businesses and organisations have moved to east London. The benefits are yet to penetrate the poverty that many local communities still suffer, but that will happen. I repeat the suggestion that I made in the debate on the Greater London authority, that docklands would be a wholly appropriate home for the new mayor and the elected assembly.

As I said, there is high unemployment, overcrowding and homelessness in my constituency—all the indices of poverty. The Government's new deal programme and welfare reform, as part of their social exclusion strategy, are critical. That is where we can make a difference. East London is the gateway to Europe. For Britain to be successful, London must thrive. For London to prosper, we need continuously to renew. The symbolism of docklands, Canary wharf, the millennium dome and, yes, even baby dome, is our beacon. It says to Europe and the rest of the world, "This is our capital; This is our country; This is our future." If the channel tunnel rail link is not built now, it will delay our renewal by a generation—although not prevent it. When we look back at the Tories' 10 years of indecision, we say that they were weak and frightened, and that they failed. This Government must not fail.

The London borough of Camden and its advisers have calculated that not to proceed with the CTRL would cost £850 million. Additionally, the Thameslink 2000 project, which was part of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill, would be compromised by any decision either not to proceed or to phase the project. Waterloo is not a real option because it does not have the capacity, particularly if the hope to move more freight by rail rather than road is to be realised.

Photo of Jacqui Lait Jacqui Lait Conservative, Beckenham

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my constituents in Beckenham and throughout Bromley will be supporting his and his colleagues' plans to ensure that the channel tunnel rail link goes east of London because, at the moment, they are suffering from the noise and disruption caused by Eurostar.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

I am grateful for the hon. Lady's support.

It is calculated that, as a regeneration engine, the CTRL could create between 80,000 and 120,000 new jobs. When in opposition, Labour endorsed the project and flagged up what were seen as flaws in the business plan, to try to ensure its success. We need to support the project now that Labour is in power because the reasons why we supported it then are as valid now, if not more so—even if that means more public resources and financing.

Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody Labour, Crewe and Nantwich

I am a bit worried by that. Is my hon. Friend really saying that we should commit a great deal more public money without getting something in return? I am sure that that is not quite what he means. We all want the project to go ahead, but I hope that the Government will look very closely at what the taxpayer will get in return.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Labour, Poplar and Canning Town

I am sure that my hon. Friend is correct in encouraging the Government to look very closely at the prospect of allocating additional resources. However, I believe that the benefits that will accrue to the UK in general warrant consideration of additional resources. If London and Continental Railways is unable to deliver a new financial package, the Government may want to look to such an option.

It is encouraging that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has afforded LCR extra time, because it seems to be making progress. I am aware from contacts with various businesses over the past 48 hours that at least three other international consortiums are queuing up in case LCR fails. Although I hope that extra public finance is not necessary, I do not think that the Government should disregard the option. The prize at stake is too great.

This issue is not an east London, a London or even a south-east one. It concerns the whole of the UK. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues on the attention that they have given the matter so far and on their determination to make it work. I am sure that the whole House will join me in wishing them every success.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford 9:48 am, 4th March 1998

I welcome the chance to speak in this debate while delicate negotiations are going on. I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) on suggesting the debate. I am glad that he steered away quickly from turning the issue into a party political one. At this stage particularly, that would be completely inappropriate.

Broadly, I endorse the thrust of much of what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance not only of the link being built but of the whole link being built, so that the full benefits can be obtained. The people of Kent, including those in my constituency and all along the route of the line, have suffered blight and uncertainty for many years because of both the prospect of the line and the many delays in building it.

What those people deserve is that when the link is eventually built it will be a great national project bringing regeneration. The benefits that the people of Kent deserve come into two categories. The first would be better commuter links for themselves, not only on the line itself but through the release of capacity on other rail lines that have become increasingly crowded as the Kent economy has improved over the past few years.

Secondly, the people of Kent deserve the knowledge that the project is an essential link in a national project—indeed, an international project—involving not only the urban regeneration that the hon. Gentleman described but the general upgrading of rail services throughout Britain and into Europe.

I want to talk about what seems to be happening, and the likely effects. I warn the Minister that if the Government cannot find the subsidy to build the whole link at once—I dare say that that is the most likely eventuality—warm words about building future phases, after a first phase stopping at Southfleet, will not be enough. The people who live along the route, and channel tunnel rail link enthusiasts throughout the country, will want to see a firm timetable for building the entire line, with penalty clauses written in so that the timetable can be enforced.

Almost the worst eventuality would be for part of the link to be built, with all the disruption that that would cause, followed by vague words about how the rest of it would be built in phases over the years to come, but for the years to tick by with phases 2 and 3 delayed. In my more pessimistic moments, that seems to me to be the most likely outcome. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance that it is not.

Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Labour, East Ham

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether he has noticed that some newspapers, including the Financial Times, are suggesting that it would be a good thing if only the first section of the link were built. Does he agree that that would be a disaster, and that the Government must ensure that when an announcement is made about taking the project forward there is full confidence that the whole link will be completed?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I reinforce it from my constituency point of view. Because people have had to put up with blight and uncertainty for so long, they will be angry if they feel that, after all the inconvenience and damage to housing and to businesses along the route, the only result is 10 minutes off the journey. That would not seem like a sensible equation of advantage and disadvantage.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

As I am now being allowed to intervene, I shall not endeavour to catch your eye later, Madam Speaker, because of the number of other hon. Members who want to speak.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and I have collaborated closely on the matter, especially concerning our mutual problems with business blight and the distressing circumstances of small and medium-sized businesses.

I have every confidence that everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying is what I would have uttered if I had caught your eye, Madam Speaker, so I want to associate myself with it, and acknowledge the way in which the hon. Gentleman and I have collaborated in making representations to the Minister about our local businesses.

I reinforce the idea not only that the link must be built in its entirety but that any slippage would be an abuse of Parliament, because the long title of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996 makes it abundantly clear that Parliament's intention was for the whole link to be built with the maximum expedition.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman not only for those remarks, with which I agree, but for his share in the work that we have done together on behalf of small businesses in both our constituencies, which are often in severe difficulty because of the various delays to the link.

I ask the Minister to give me some assurances and to answer some detailed questions about the propositions now before the Government. It is about 12 hours since I was last in the Chamber, and at that point the Minister was sitting there replying to a debate—so may I congratulate her on both her stamina and her versatility?

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

Yes, she was standing. One wonders whether she ever gets away from that place.

I should like to receive three assurances from the Minister. The first is that whichever new project comes forward and whatever consortium is building it, there will be no relaxation of the environmental standards imposed in the original Bill that went through both Houses of Parliament and was fought over in detail by many people in this House and in another place, as well as in local communities along the route.

Along the route there is much fear and cynicism to the effect that one of the ways in which money might be saved when a new project emerges would be to relax the environmental standards. The Minister could reassure many people by giving an assurance this morning. In that context, I take it as read that when a new project comes forward there can be no change to the route currently before Parliament.

The second assurance for which I should be grateful is that the delays will soon come to an end. One understands that we are talking about complex commercial negotiations, to which the Government are only one party, so perhaps it was over-optimistic to expect them to be wrapped up in the 30 days that the Deputy Prime Minister originally suggested.

None the less, I must tell the Minister that businesses along the route, including those referred to by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), are especially damaged by the lengthening uncertainty, and I urge her to move as fast as possible to a conclusion of the negotiations.

The third assurance that I seek is that no secrecy should surround the deal eventually struck. Railtrack is at times an inherently secretive organisation. For example, last year an accident—not serious, fortunately—happened in my constituency. When I wrote to Railtrack some months later asking for details of its inquiry, and what remedial measures it proposed to take, I was shocked at its reply that the information was not available to the public and it was up to the Health and Safety Executive to say whether it should be released. The HSE wrote back to me saying that it was not its responsibility but Railtrack's—and compounded the insult by accompanying the letter with a pamphlet on open government.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Shadow Secretary of State

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the greatest assurances that the people of Kent could have would be one from the Minister today that Kent county council will be fully consulted and involved in the decision-making process? We hope that the decision will be completed as soon as possible, but we should like the county council to be fully involved.

Photo of Damian Green Damian Green Conservative, Ashford

My right hon. and learned Friend is right. Kent county council has played, and is playing, an active and constructive role in bringing the project forward, and it is important that its ability to represent the people of Kent is recognised by full consultation during the negotiations.

The Minister will recognise the importance of avoiding secrecy, because, speaking in the House about the deal with London and Continental, she said: I understand that no one in the House is privileged to see the contracts in any detail or to discuss them, on grounds of commercial confidentiality. It is a curious commercial enterprise that is clouded in mystery in one direction."—[Official Report, 25 April 1996; Vol. 276, c. 629.] I am sure that the hon. Lady will endorse her own words and will not wish such secrecy to surround the project in future. Will she assure the House that full details of any agreement will be put in the Library for the perusal of Members?

As well as asking for those three assurances, I shall ask the Minister three questions. First, what type of freight does the Department think will be carried? We hear a lot about the freight benefits of the link. I assure the Minister that this is a genuine search for truth. Many, perhaps most, of the questions asked in the House are questions to which the questioner thinks he or she already knows the answer, but in this case, I genuinely have no idea of the answer, and no one connected to the project has ever satisfactorily explained it. We all agree that the line as planned will not be able to take any kind of heavy freight, but there is vague talk of "high-value freight" being carried. I am not sure whether that means any more than parcel freight, and I should be grateful if the Minister would give some guidance.

My second question is whether it is feasible or practical for Eurostar to share the lines between Southfleet and London with the existing commuter traffic if we go for a phased project, with the first part of the line built to Southfleet and the rest built in stages afterwards. I have been assured by reasonably well-qualified railway engineers that the amount of commuter traffic using the lines from Canterbury and the Medway towns to London will mean that either we will have to cut the commuter traffic in the rush hour or Eurostar will not be able to run in the rush hour. If that is true, it suggests that the phasing of the project would be simply impractical.

My third question is whether the benefits of upgrading the existing track are being considered while the Government are looking at all the options available to them. Engineers say that, effectively, we could save 15 minutes from the journey for £1 billion. We are, broadly speaking, talking about spending £7 billion or £8 billion to save 35 minutes, and it seems that that proposal deserves full consideration.

We recognise that the channel tunnel is a great national achievement, but it is only half an achievement. Linking the tunnel to the rail network of this country is the other half. London and Continental has had many failings, not just the central failing of its passenger projections which has led to the current financial plight. More particularly, it has been determined to keep secret the fact that it is more convenient for the whole of the south-east of England to drive to Ashford and travel from there than to struggle in to Waterloo. Despite the best efforts of the excellent management and staff at the Ashford international passenger station, the marketing of the station by London and Continental has been inadequate. Perhaps that is a symbol of its lack of commercial acumen.

Many people—not just my constituents, but all the people of Kent and the rest of the country—hope that the consortium put together by the Government shows more sensitivity to the needs of people who live, work and run their businesses along the route. We hope that it will be able to complete the project so that the whole country can gain the advantages that will be available from it.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East 10:02 am, 4th March 1998

It is perhaps appropriate that I follow the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) because I shared the job of co-chairman of the all-party channel tunnel group with his predecessor, Sir Keith Speed, for many years.

I wish to make two declarations of interest. First, as a former railwayman, I am still a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—one of the reasons behind my interest in this great project. I am also the chairman of Travel West Midlands, a bus company based in Birmingham which is a subsidiary of National Express—itself a member of the London and Continental consortium. I ask the House to appreciate that I am not speaking on behalf of National Express. I have never had anything to do with the railway side of its operation, but I feel that such a connection should be on the record before I speak in the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) on bringing this important subject to the attention of the House. In an able speech, he talked about the history of the project. However, he did not go back far enough. Those of us who have the doubtful benefit of old age can remember this project in the 1970s when, I must say, neither of our main parties came out with any great credit. The Channel Tunnel Bill was cancelled by the Labour Government shortly they were elected in 1974.

I say to my hon. Friend and other colleagues who feel that public money should be put into the project that one of the reasons given for the cancellation was that there were other priorities for public money. At that time, many of my hon. Friends were in favour of the cancellation of the project because they wanted public money spent on schools, hospitals and other matters with which the Government were directly involved. I must tell my hon. Friend that I would not hold my breath too long if he thinks that the Treasury is likely to come to the rescue of London and Continental, or anyone else.

I was more amused than angered by the intervention of the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), who is no longer in his place. I do not know how any member of the previous Cabinet could jump up and defend his constituents against the effect of this project on their lives, given the enormous mess that the Conservatives made of it from beginning to end. I admire his cheek, if not the basis on which he made his intervention.

The hon. Member for Ashford and all of us are anxious that the link is built as quickly as possible. I attended the meeting in Birmingham last Friday to which my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town referred. The Fast Tracks to Europe group is unrealistic when it says that the project must not be phased. Whatever happens, it seems unlikely that the work will start at each end of the route and will meet in the middle. Some phasing is inevitable. It looks as if the southern section will be built first, because—let us be realistic—it is likely to be a lot cheaper.

I have seen the figures produced by Fast Tracks to Europe, which suggest that such an approach will cost money because of the loss of benefits, but I have yet to hear a real alternative. If no Government money is involved, and if the projections for Eurostar travel—receipts from which will go towards the building of the project—are accurate, some degree of phasing, unpalatable though it might be to us all, is inevitable.

Around 1991, the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)—that great social engineer of the previous Government—decided to change the route. I know that that decision suited some of my hon. Friends, and I congratulate them on the effectiveness of their campaign. When the right hon. Gentleman changed the route, companies such as Blue Circle found themselves to be sitting on valuable real estate in the Ebbsfleet area. Coincidentally, the public relations company involved with Blue Circle at that time had as one of its representatives the former vice-chairman of the Conservative party, Dame Angela Rumbold.

I wonder whether companies that made money out of the project have volunteered to put any of their extra profits into the cost of building the rail link—particularly that part of it north of their land which is more expensive because of the need to tunnel under London. Cynic that I am, I would be surprised if any volunteer had come forward.

All of us want the project to benefit the rest of the country. Those of us who represent constituencies in the west midlands are no less anxious to see that happy event come about. What we have at present is the worst of both worlds. We have all the uncertainty about the future of the link, and we have no through trains to Europe. Indeed, the connecting trains to Waterloo have been removed by London and Continental, although many remain on the timetable. Last week, the Birmingham Evening Mail and the BBC highlighted the absurdity of a local train being held for eight minutes at Birmingham international station to allow for one of the Eurostars that do not exist as far as the west midlands is concerned.

I understand some of the difficulties in getting a safety case for the trains north of London. As far as I understand, they still only run between Manchester and somewhere like Bletchley. I should be grateful to the Minister if she would tell us what progress is being made to introduce those trains north of London, and whether the newspaper rumours about the trains being leased to Virgin or any other train operator for incorporation into their service are valid. No one north of London, and few people in London, have benefited from the project so far.

As the hon. Member for Ashford said, the link is a great engineering project, and all hon. Members attending this debate want to ensure that the original intentions of the Committee dealing with the channel tunnel are carried out. I am sorry if this sounds like a plea for medals for a rather undistinguished career, but I served on the first channel tunnel Committee in the 1970s—I remember, to my amusement, that there were only about 60 objectors then. When I served on the subsequent Committee in the mid-1980s, there were 12,000 objectors.

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), who is no longer in the Chamber, illustrated the dilemma that arises from the channel tunnel rail link and the expansion of the railway system—all of us are in favour of expanding the network, until the trains run through our constituencies or past the bottom of our gardens. According to the hon. Lady, the prospect of an hourly train of 18 coaches going to Paris or Brussels makes life intolerable for her constituents. I think that she exaggerates. People who buy houses next to railway lines and then complain about the noise from trains do not endear themselves to me as a former railwayman, although some of my hon. Friends may take a different view. We want the benefits of the link to be brought to the rest of the country, as was intended, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can answer some of the points that have been made.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town is as realistic as I am about subsidy—he knows that Treasury involvement is unlikely. The fact that, across the country, road bridges are being strengthened to take 44 tonne lorries—that is a direct subsidy to the road haulage industry by the taxpayer—yet both the previous and current Governments said that public money cannot be found for the great project that is the channel tunnel rail link is an illustration of how we treat different forms of transport.

I add, as an amusing aside, that when Lord Parkinson stood at the Dispatch Box as Secretary of State for Transport, he used to say, "There must be no public money for the channel tunnel or the rail link." Nevertheless, he popped up later as chairman of one of the consortiums asking for £1 billion of public money for that very rail link. That illustrates the awesome warning to all hon. Members—never say never. We should never say never about this great project.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:12 am, 4th March 1998

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. I start by running through some of the history of the project—not the whole history, hon. Members will be pleased to hear. The first reference to a high-speed link that the Library could identify came in a speech by Sir Bob Reid on 9 May 1988. He said that a high-speed link would be built if it brought the right level of profit". Hon. Members may be interested to know what was happening in France at that time. Construction of the train grande vitesse north line began after the end of September 1989.

Nearly 10 years on, and many miles of new roads later, the House is debating a future high-speed rail link, while Eurostar ambles through south London—Brixton, Beckenham and Orpington—at an embarrassingly relaxed and leisurely pace. What progress has been made in France? As hon. Members may know, its high-speed link was opened in September 1993—four and a half years ago—at a cost of £2 billion. That is a sad indictment of the previous Government's obsessive love affair with roads and their indifference to the railways.

The White Paper to be published soon will confirm whether the new Government have a more balanced approach to infrastructure provision and whether they believe that there should be a level playing field for roads and rail. In the meantime, they have to contend with the thorny issue of the channel tunnel rail link.

Over the past few weeks, I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister has been considering the pros and cons of allowing the project to sink or swim. I give three good reasons why the high-speed link should be built. First, it will make it easier to shift freight off the roads and on to rail by releasing network capacity for freight trains. Secondly, it will cut CO2 emissions, as many short-haul passengers who currently fly will choose to travel by rail. Thirdly, as hon. Members have said, it will help to regenerate some of the poorest parts of east London, developing the recycled sites that the Deputy Prime Minister has prioritised.

There is also a good reason why the link should be built along the current route. We are already five years behind the French, so surely our national pride will not let us slip behind a further five years while new legislation is drafted to provide for a new route.

If the Deputy Prime Minister accepts that argument, he has the choice of four partners—London and Continental Railways, Railtrack, Bechtel and Eurorail—some or all of which could take the project forward. If he seeks a deal with LCR, he should not reward it for its past bad management and judgment. If he seeks a deal with Railtrack, he should offer no sweeteners—he should not allow it to impose higher access charges for all other rail users. If he fails to secure a deal with LCR, Railtrack or any of the other players, and chooses not to back the project, I would ask him a simple question—what is Government for?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

We shall find out shortly.

Liberal Democrats believe that Government should protect people on some of the lowest incomes—such as people with disabilities or lone parents—provide free education and take the lead. Even if the Government do not agree on the first two points, I hope that they can agree on the third. If no commercial operator produces an acceptable package, the Government—through a public interest company, bond issue or other measures—must step in. The need for Government involvement in such a strategic project was recognised even by the previous Administration, who committed £1.4 billion to the rail link.

The country needs the high-speed rail link, and it needs it to be built in its entirety—a 17-minute reduction in journey time for the first phase is not a sufficient benefit. I understand that Department of Trade and Industry lawyers advised the Government that if they intended to build not the full length but only stage one, a new Act would be required, with all the delays that that would entail. The Government must, therefore, be committed to building the full link.

The channel tunnel rail link is the first real test of the Government's commitment to an integrated transport policy, to moving freight from road to rail and to meeting their own CO2 reduction targets. It is now up to the Deputy Prime Minister to show us whether he can rise to that challenge, or whether, like his Conservative predecessors, he will falter and stumble.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Labour, Gillingham 10:17 am, 4th March 1998

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) on securing the debate at such an opportune time. Hon. Members from all parties recognise the difficulties that face both London and Continental Railways and the Government in saving and developing something from this project—although we should not save just any old thing. As my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town said, the project is not a local or regional issue; it is a vital national and transcontinental one.

The rail link will draw in business to the channel tunnel from the east and, via the west coast main line, from the midlands, the north-west and the west of Scotland. Businesses and individuals will be able to capitalise on the opportunities that the link provides. Other hon. Members may be able to point up the significance of the rail link on a national level.

The link will open up the Government-identified Thames gateway region, which extends from east London through Dartford and down the north Kent coast, and includes my constituency and the western boundaries of Sittingbourne and Sheppey. The area contains about 2.5 million people, 17 local authorities, 10,000 acres of business and industrial land, and three training and enterprise councils.

The Thames gateway is the largest European regeneration area. The Government's regional strategy identifies north Kent as a growth point for major development. Significantly, much of that development, in business and new homes, would be on an abundant source of brown-field sites, which is clearly in line with Government policy.

The development of the Thames gateway will unlock major locations that face directly the main European markets. To succeed, we need the infrastructure: the rail link must be developed in its entirety. A link that stops short of the new international station at Ebbsfleet and transfers to existing lines will not deliver the regeneration, unlock the brown-field sites and help the people of north Kent.

It is anticipated that the development of Ebbsfleet will bring up to 50,000 new jobs and allow 30,000 new homes to be built. For the approximately 300,000 people living in the Medway towns, it will be a catalyst for new opportunities, with direct rail links to jobs along the north Kent line.

In addition to the development, a new commercial zone will be created adjoining Ebbsfleet station. There will be sustainable journey-to-work patterns by public transport, rather than by car, which, again, is in line with our integrated transport strategy.

The full scheme, including the new stations at Ebbsfleet and Stratford, will afford the people of north Kent greater job opportunities, as they will have access to new areas such as Stratford and St. Pancras. Those jobs will be linked to far faster and more reliable rail services: Gillingham will be only 30 minutes from St. Pancras if the link is built in its entirety.

The link is essential for the regeneration and redevelopment policies of the Government and of Kent county council. Failure to complete it will send out the wrong signals. The private sector has already made huge commitments to north Kent. Failure to honour the promises that elicited those commitments will destroy confidence not only in the immediate area but, I fear, in other developments that are proposed along the entire route of the integrated link, including east London, Birmingham and the west midlands, and the north-west.

We should record our appreciation of the fact that the House has been kept quickly and reliably informed through the offices of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, in both a statement and a written answer. Our resolve to build the link, which will eventually connect the east, the west, the south and the north of our country to the European capitals of commerce must not weaken. Failure could mean that we end up as a branch line to Brussels.

We must remain true to the original agreements. The Deputy Prime Minister's statement last month informed us that there was no intention to consider an alternative alignment to that approved in the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996. That is more than welcome. Any deviation would be the death knell of a realistically timed completion of the link.

Hon. Members who are far more au fait than I am with developments over the past 20 years—at least—said that various alternative routes had been canvassed. I whole-heartedly agree with what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) said about blight and uncertainty, because those alternative routes caused much anxiety and concern among home owners and businesses; my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) also mentioned the business side. It is essential that competition should not reopen for the design, construction and operation of the link, as that would open a Pandora's box of alternatives and variations.

One benefit of the link will be to open up existing lines for other uses, increasing both passenger and freight capacity. I shall be interested in the Minister's response about freight, as there seem to be some differences of opinion. I understand that there will be increased capacity for freight on some existing lines, as well as along the link. That will have an important environmental impact in helping us to reduce traffic congestion.

The environmental impact of the link itself must be minimised. Debates in both Houses over two years have developed negotiations that have led to high standards and considerable sophistication in the plan, which incorporates measures embodied in the environmental minimum requirements and undertakings given by the previous Government and LCR. It is essential to adhere to that.

We must grasp the opportunities before us if we are to be a key player in the issues of integrated transport, commerce and the European Union. The development of the link gives us the opportunity to create the right balance and to implement the Government's sound objectives on issues such as the fight against poverty, social inclusion, the environment, integrated transport, the regions, and Europe.

This is not a local issue, as can be seen by the range of hon. Members who signed early-day motion 770 and by the membership of Fast Tracks to Europe, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, which includes many private sector organisations and the leaders of many local authorities throughout the country.

The message, specifically from the Medway towns, is that we must build the link in its entirety as quickly as possible, so that we can have the transport links that are needed for the 21st century.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West 10:28 am, 4th March 1998

I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) on securing this debate. He has done the House a great service. It is a little sad that the bipartisan approach slipped somewhat. It is up to the current Government to decide how to proceed on the matters that face them, but it would be churlish of hon. Members not to note that the channel tunnel itself was built during the 18 years of Conservative government. I am proud to defend the record of the Conservative Government, which was democratically elected on four occasions.

Photo of Mr Peter Snape Mr Peter Snape Labour, West Bromwich East

There were also a few hot summers during the period of office of the previous Conservative Government. Is the hon. Gentleman going to claim credit for those as well? On the insistence of the then Prime Minister, not a penny of public money went into the channel tunnel.

Photo of Sir David Amess Sir David Amess Conservative, Southend West

That is exactly the point and it is something which has been learnt from the Conservative Government. I shall leave claiming the credit for hot summers to the Liberal party and new Labour.

I must also pay tribute to the noble Lords Parkinson and Channon, who did a great deal during their terms of office to drive the project forward. Our former colleague Michael Portillo, as Minister of State at the Department of Transport, also did a great deal to make the channel tunnel project the success that it obviously is. Finally, without the noble Baroness Thatcher none of it would have been possible.

My roots run deep and I suspect that I am the only person in the Chamber who was born in the east end of London—in Stratford. In the previous Parliament, it was my great joy to work with, among others, the hon. Members for East Ham (Mr. Timms) and for West Ham (Mr. Banks)—now the Minister for Sport—and Mr. Nigel Spearing, who has now retired. We worked together in a bipartisan fashion and a great deal has been achieved as regards our particular concerns in Newham.

I still have family living in Newham; indeed, that is where the tiny vote for the Conservative party comes from these days. Although I was less than satisfied for a long time with what went on there—I call those the barmy days of Labour—a number of projects are a great joy, particularly those in Stratford. I protested about the pyramid 20 years ago, saying that it was a waste of time building it and I note that last week it was blown up—my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) will have enjoyed that—so I was right in my protestations all those years ago.

The channel tunnel rail link is important not merely for Newham but for both our Essex constituencies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is essential that the project is completed. For docklands and Stratford in particular the link is essential—it is the most important rail link.

I wish that I had time to touch on the excellent advice that I have been given by the London borough of Newham regeneration and partnerships division, which has done some great work on the subject. I must emphasise its point that: Without the CTRL being built in its entirety … to central London, there will not be the possibility of moving commuter trains from Kent from congested existing lines onto it between international trains and 'freeing up' capacity for more freight movement through Kent to the Channel Tunnel. Indeed given the growth figures already referred to, the Integrated Transport Strategy, on which so many hopes are built, especially that freight will be moved from road to rail, could face an immediate crisis of insufficient capacity. Phasing solely to Southfleet or Ebbsfleet could deliver the worst scenario of all—no possibility of increasing either the number of international trains an hour (from the current 3) and no extra capacity for freight trains unless the number of commuter services is reduced. It is already clear that the different train operators recognise the looming problem. However, with Railtrack—the track provider—set to be a major player in the CTRL rescue … they are reticent in voicing concerns when they may shortly be competing with other train operators for an insufficiency of train paths. I realise that this is a difficult moment for the new Government—how best to approach the challenges facing them—but I hope that we will not be churlish and that we will rejoice in this great engineering feat. I hope in particular that the House will be minded to support the efforts of Newham council and Stratford in particular.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford 10:33 am, 4th March 1998

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) on securing this important Adjournment debate. He has distinguished himself as a first-class chairman of the all-party Thames gateway group. He and my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Mr. Clark,) make a formidable team in leading our group, which represents constituencies in London and the south-east. The success of the Thames gateway is fundamental to our opportunities to secure economic regeneration, as many of those opportunities stem from the building of the channel tunnel rail link.

Photo of Howard Stoate Howard Stoate Labour, Dartford

Is my hon. Friend aware that the opportunities for regeneration are immense in my constituency? As Opposition Members and my hon. Friends have already said, up to 50,000 new jobs could be created as a result of the creation of Ebbsfleet international station. Also, 90 per cent. of the 30,000 new houses proposed for the area would be built on recycled land, in line with Government policy, thus protecting the green belt for the area.

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

That is an excellent point, and just the sort of example I was looking for, so I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I will not discuss the route in its entirety, but I associate myself with all the other comments about that. I must focus briefly on an issue that affects constituents who live in and around the Medway towns—the M2 widening and the construction of the channel tunnel rail link, both of which were authorised in legislation. During the parliamentary process, the three authorities that represent my constituency—Rochester city council, Tonbridge and Malling district council and Kent county council—stressed the importance of the co-ordination of those projects. We argued that the construction of the bridges across the Medway valley had to take place at the same time. My constituents and the infrastructure in the Medway towns would suffer considerably anyway as a result of the construction and we recognised that, but to start one project across the valley, finish it and then start another would be a nightmare scenario. The estimated time scale for the channel tunnel rail link over the Medway valley is likely to be about three years and for the M2, three and a half years, which could mean six and a half years of disruption and chaos for my constituents. However, put the two projects together and we could reduce the time to four and a half years, which would be not only less destructive but more cost effective.

Understandably, we were pleased when the Government accepted that the two projects should be co-ordinated. Last year, the new Labour Government fulfilled the pledge to hold an early review of the road building programme. The M2 widening was contained within that programme and at the time we made representations to press the point about the delay and the effect that it could have on co-ordinating the concurrent construction that we had fought so hard to win. The matter was resolved and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions announced that the M2 widening would go ahead. He rightly pointed out that the project was part of a strategic transport infrastructure, in that the M2 would link up with the CTRL station in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford. Now, we face similar doubts about the other project.

The timing of those two nationally important transport schemes is vital to my area to limit disruption, keep down costs and to apply the principle of sustainable development. The CTRL has caused misery and blight in Kent—

Photo of Jonathan R Shaw Jonathan R Shaw Labour, Chatham and Aylesford

Indeed. There have been hard-fought battles for environmental safeguards, but I support the project and have always done so. We must build the link in its entirety, but I look forward to hearing some answers from my hon. Friend the Minister to my questions about concurrent construction.

Photo of Mr Alan Clark Mr Alan Clark Conservative, Kensington and Chelsea 10:38 am, 4th March 1998

I congratulate the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick). His presentation of the argument, with which I disagree except for his strictures on the channel tunnel, was admirable and beautifully structured. However, this debate has seen the House at its most facile. It has consisted almost entirely of a series of clichés and trite remarks about the strategic plan, the need to send messages and so forth and national pride. I was interested to hear a Liberal Democrat Member, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), talking about national pride. All those points were synthesised in a series of mini soundbites which hon. Members uttered for the benefit of their local newspaper before they sharply and shortly left the Chamber.

The House has not been at its best during the debate. The most interesting contribution came from the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who reminded us of the situation in 1983 when the channel tunnel project started, and of the colossal underestimation of building costs. Fortunately, because of the views of the then Prime Minister, the project did not attract public money and, therefore, it was the banks that took a terrific bath, which everyone enjoyed.

Now, we are faced with precisely the same situation: the contractor grossly overestimated traffic, and got the contract by one means or another, but almost immediately got into difficulties and has to be bailed out. It is perfectly clear that the private sector will not bail the contractor out, and the Deputy Prime Minister implied in his late-night statement that, if necessary, the taxpayer would foot the bill.

I caution the House against blithely accepting that. The sum involved is £8 billion—at the moment. We all know that figure could easily double. The House should consider this: on one hand, we have a colossal and environmentally damaging project, the real benefits of which no hon. Member has quantified; on the other, we have the putative expenditure of £8 billion of public money, which will probably increase to £16 billion. Hon. Members should ask themselves whether it would be better spent elsewhere, not on the usual clichés such as schools and hospitals, but on the transport system, and the rail network in particular. We should also ask what we would get for £16 billion, as an alternative to this ludicrous and megalomaniac project to drive a new rail link.

The trains run perfectly well at the moment. Because this is an unprogressive, slightly reactionary argument, hon. Members on both sides of the House regard it with mirth, but it is practical. I do not have time to develop my argument, but I say this: the money has been notionally ring fenced, so we should consider what other ways there may be of putting into the transport system.

Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Shadow Minister (London) 10:41 am, 4th March 1998

We are always pleased to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), who has put the alternative view on these matters.

The channel tunnel rail link was announced in February 1996, and there was enthusiasm for and commitment to a project that would be fundamental to the economic enhancement of the south-east of England and the nation as a whole. Conservative Members still believe in the project, retain the same enthusiasm for it and think that it will bring benefits. We share that enthusiasm with the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick), and I congratulate him on securing the debate and on the balanced way in which he made his arguments.

We support the Government's attempt to find a solution to this problem. The project was never going to be easy to complete, and we wish them well. Many people have been embarrassed to travel through France at high speed, only to trundle across Kent at a gentlemanly speed. However, no contrast is more marked than that between north-western France and south-eastern England. The Picardie region of France is flat and empty, and the construction of the railway was not a technical or a financial challenge. In contrast, the route through Kent traverses some of England's most beautiful countryside and passes close to a substantial number of communities. They, and affected London communities, commented vociferously on the project during the passage of the legislation through the House.

Scrutiny of the Bill was intense, with a Select Committee considering thousands of petitions. The agreed route had the support of the vast majority and provided a much-needed framework for the economic regeneration of east London. There is to be a station at Stratford, and a special link to King's Cross and St. Pancras to provide a direct twin-track connection between the CTRL and the west coast main line.

The consortium that won the competition to construct the CTRL was London and Continental Railways, a partnership of six of the nation's leading companies: Ove Arup and Partners, Bechtel Ltd., Sir William Halcrow and Partners, the National Express Group, the Virgin Group and SG Warburg and Co. The key criteria for the evaluation of bids were the size and timing of the Government's financial contribution and the risk that each bidder was prepared to accept. The LCR bid was successful: it needed millions of pounds less in subsidy than the bid of its rival, Eurorail.

Some people say that the project was given too little public subsidy. The then Labour Opposition made it clear that they considered the public subsidy to be too high, yet at the same time they believed that there should have been a public-private partnership with most of the assets given to LCR remaining in public hands. That ignores the fact that, under any public-private partnership, Government subsidy would have been inevitable and would have entailed an even greater public subsidy we are likely to end up with.

Faced with the harsh realities of office, the Deputy Prime Minister's initial reaction was to resist the further use of public funds, no doubt with encouragement from the Treasury. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the main factor behind the current impasse was the passenger forecast of London and Continental Railways. When the bid was made, the annual passenger projection was 9 million; today, it is only 6 million. The forecasts were put forward by the best experts in the country, but no one could be certain about future passenger numbers and all estimates are subject to a degree of error.

Although LCR clearly overestimated the number of passengers, it is probable that the channel tunnel fire had something to do with that inaccuracy: a six-month delay and a reduced service cannot have helped in marketing the project. The good news is that passenger numbers continue to increase. We should retain our optimism that targets will be hit, albeit late: not even a revised scheme will work if they are not.

LCR is not in a position to proceed, because it cannot raise the necessary funds. We share the view of many people that the proposed route should not be altered. To alter it would require the reopening of the whole inquiry and would cause further unacceptable delays. There is every possibility that a two-phase solution may be found, with Railtrack, in a joint venture with LCR, constructing phase 1 from Cheriton to Ebbsfleet station by 2002, and phase 2 from Ebbsfleet to St. Pancras by 2005.

Despite the opposition of the Local Government Association and others, we give that solution a cautious welcome if it is to be the only basis for a successful outcome. I say to the hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms)—and, indeed, to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who ably represented Newham council—that there may be a gulf between what he wants and what is achievable. He will have to face up to the realities.

We understand that phase 1 could cost about £2 billion, with Railtrack playing a major role. Such a tremendous achievement by Railtrack would confirm the previous Government's decision to privatise the company, leaving it as a strong, well-financed company which can pick up such projects at relatively short notice and make something of them. The whole House will agree that that is a tribute to the previous Government's privatisation policy.

The question of running Eurostar remains to be solved. Although the Deputy Prime Minister, egged on by Labour Members, was excited by the thought of taking the trains back into public ownership, the change in culture brought about by the previous Government will lead him to conclude that a private solution remains the best bet.

One of the more stupid suggested alternatives is the resurrection of the Central Railway scheme which was decisively rejected by the House in July 1996. The proposal was to drive a railway line from the tunnel through the heart of London, causing massive disruption as it went. I urge the Government, if they need urging, not to reintroduce that proposal.

Notwithstanding the deep complexities that remain and the need to find a solution to Eurostar's loss making, the main aim must be for all options to be explored to allow the project to go ahead. The failure of the project would be a great blow, not only to the rail link, which is an important integrated transport project, but to the much-needed regeneration of east London. We offer the Government our support.

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 10:49 am, 4th March 1998

I thank the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) for his support, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Mr. Fitzpatrick) on obtaining the debate. As others have said, we are grateful to him for giving us this opportunity. The channel tunnel rail link has probably not had such a high public profile since the idea was launched, and it is a pity that such a level of interest has been generated for all the wrong reasons.

No one would dispute the fact that all the speeches this morning—with, perhaps, the exception of the somewhat curious contribution of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark)—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) points out from a sedentary position, the right hon. Gentleman has just left the Chamber—presumably to publish his soundbite press release, an action for which he criticised other hon. Members in his speech.

In the main, the speeches have been both serious and informed. The importance of the CTRL, not just as a high-speed link with Europe but for its regeneration potential, was stressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It may assist hon. Members, however, if I summarise the events of the past six weeks, and explain how matters now stand.

London and Continental Railways formally notified my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 28 January that it would be unable to meet the terms of its development agreement with the Government without the injection of some £1.2 billion of public subsidy over the next 10 years. That £1.2 billion was on top of the £1.8 billion of taxpayers' money that had already been committed. It did not include the public assets that were also part of the development agreement, which have been estimated to be in the region of £5 billion.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister rejected the proposal. He has left no one in any doubt that he wants the development of high-speed connections to Europe, but not at any price. I trust that that would reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who, regrettably, is not present. At a time when fiscal prudence is needed, it would be irresponsible—almost unthinkable—to commit such large additional sums of taxpayers' money, no matter how strong the wish for improved links.

LCR asked for more money because it vastly overestimated the number of passengers who would be travelling on Eurostar by now. The development agreement made those Eurostar projections a cornerstone of LCR's plans for raising project finance. The then Government and LCR should have realised that the forecasts were overblown and unrealistic, but they did not. That was a serious misjudgment, and the present Government should not and will not simply bail LCR out.

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister came to the House with all speed, having heard LCR admit that it could not meet its obligations under the development agreement. As he explained in his statement on 28 January, the development agreement with LCR allowed for a 30-day period during which LCR could present revised financing proposals. LCR's shareholders subsequently constructed a framework of proposals, which they put to my right hon. Friend last week. The shareholders envisaged a role for Railtrack. After careful consideration, my right hon. Friend agreed to grant a further extension of the cure period to allow LCR more time in which to flesh out its ideas. The revised deadline is 31 March.

As my right hon. Friend intimated on 28 January, we would like LCR to come up with a solution allowing it to meet its obligations under the development agreement. Against the contingency that no satisfactory solution will materialise, we are still working to provide for an orderly transfer of Eurostar UK Ltd. to the public sector, as is required if the development agreement is terminated. Let me assure the hon. Member for Croydon, South that that would obtain whichever party was in power. It is part of the development agreement that was worked out and signed by the Conservative Government.

I am afraid that I cannot say much more about the point that LCR has reached. Its proposals simply are not developed enough. However, there has been considerable speculation in the press, and I want to put some of what has been reported in context.

There has been much talk of white knights galloping to the rescue. Given the size of the project, it is not surprising that organisations wish to become involved, but the formal position is that the Government have a contract with LCR and no one else. If LCR chooses to bring in other partners, that may happen, but only with the Government's approval. As I have said, it appears that LCR sees a role for Railtrack in the new structure that it is drawing up, but that is its business.

Much has also been written about the notion of phasing the construction of the link. It is important to remember that Parliament authorised a railway between Cheriton and St. Pancras which follows a very carefully defined alignment. Our contract with LCR requires the construction of the entire railway approved by Parliament. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1997 envisages a whole line from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, so there must be an intention to build all of it when the powers are used. In case there is any doubt, let me stress that the environmental standards that have been set for the link will not be compromised. I trust that that reassures hon. Members who have expressed concerns this morning.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Labour, Doncaster Central

Does my hon. Friend agree that the benefits that would be derived from making the link go all the way to St. Pancras would greatly help to regenerate areas such as South Yorkshire, which have suffered incredible manufacturing and industrial decline over the past few years?

Photo of Glenda Jackson Glenda Jackson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The issue of regeneration inherent in the building of the line has been mentioned by all hon. Members this morning.

The excitement in the media has prompted an interesting and widespread public debate about the rail link. That reminds us just how many parties have an interest in the CTRL—partly because, as many hon. Members pointed out this morning, it is not simply a transport project. The key reason for routing it via the Thames gateway—also known as the east Thames corridor—was that stations along it could act as focal points for regeneration. The theme of regeneration has run through all the speeches this morning. In fact, the £1.8 billion of public subsidy promised in the development agreement with LCR was justified in part by the regeneration benefits.

Concern has been expressed that regeneration may be forgotten in decisions on the rail link. I assure hon. Members that it will not. In the last few weeks, the problems of the rail link have elicited views from those interested in each of the stations, and also from those concerned with access to the regions—such as my hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Canning Town, for Gillingham (Mr. Clark) and for East Ham (Mr. Timms), and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green).

Later this month, I shall be chairing a meeting of all local authorities affected in order to discuss their concerns. They will include Kent county council, which I trust will reassure the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I strongly agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) about that intervention by a member of the Cabinet when the agreement was signed by the last Government.

I am aware that there is considerable concern that delays to the CTRL may jeopardise regeneration in London and Kent. As hon. Members will know, the CTRL has been seen as the vehicle for a number of regeneration initiatives, all of which have been mentioned this morning. Ebbsfleet station is the main node for regeneration of the eastern part of the Thames gateway. Substantial development is already taking place, but the rail link station is regarded as key to the redevelopment of some 2,200 acres of land, which has nearly all been used previously.

Stratford is the main node at the other end of the Thames gateway. Here the concept is of development on derelict or under-used land that can be of sufficient scale to act as a catalyst for other redevelopment on smaller sites in the general area. Stratford is also complementary to regional interests because it is proposed that trains can call there before running through to the west coast main line, without incurring the time penalty of having to stop at St. Pancras and reverse out again.

There is also the regeneration created by the rail link and Thameslink 2000 at St. Pancras. Seventy acres are available for redevelopment in one of the last potential areas on the fringes of central London.

As I am rapidly running out of time, may I say that I shall write to hon. Members on the issues to which they drew my attention. The hon. Member for Ashford and my hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Ms Hodge), for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), for Gillingham and for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) have mentioned blight issues. The hon. Member for Ashford also mentioned freight and commercial confidentiality.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. We must now move on to the debate on the benefit integrity project.