Orders of the Day — Crossrail Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:09 pm on 19th July 2005.

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Photo of George Galloway George Galloway Respect, Bethnal Green and Bow 6:09 pm, 19th July 2005

Owing to my special relationship with the Labour Whips earlier in my parliamentary life, I served in quick succession on the Committees that considered the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Bill and then the King's Cross Railways Bill, which was the longest running railway Bill since Isambard Kingdom Brunel. When I stepped off those great sets of parliamentary proceedings, it was my intention never to return to vast infrastructural projects again, but my detour to east London at the last general election places me slap bang in the middle—indeed, the epicentre—of the controversy that these proposals will cause, for my constituency is more seriously affected than any other.

The House is full of Members this evening who support Crossrail as the rope supports the hanging man. I want to say, quite bluntly, that I just want to hang it. I am against it and will vote against it this evening for reasons that I hope to make clear—reasons such as those adduced by the secretary of the Woodseer and Hanbury residents association in my constituency, who wrote:

"Crossrail is a project that will never pay for itself. The 2002 estimate of £15 billion is likely to cost £20 billion by the time it is built, especially if it is delayed until after the Olympic games—the cost of 40 new hospitals or more than 400 new schools".

Of course, the cost could be very much greater than £20 billion.

Crossrail is a five-day commuter service that will primarily benefit the City, but cause unnecessary harm to London's communities from the east end to Mayfair. The country, particularly London, will subsidise a suburban railway for ever, and the residents and small businesses of my constituency will pay the greatest price for a service designed to connect Canary Wharf to Heathrow airport.

MPs are being asked to vote for the Bill even though the finances for the Crossrail scheme are not even being presented to Parliament. There can be no other country in the world that would seriously pass a Bill in its Parliament for a project that might cost £20 billion or more with the derisory amount of time that the Bill has been given by the Government this evening devoted to the issue of who will pay for it. I suspect that the public will end up underwriting a very considerable amount of the cost.

Tom Brake, who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, mentioned the millennium dome. In fact, this project might turn out to be 20, 25 or 30 millennium domes. Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of Mr. Raynsford for the millennium dome, which he says will be a wonderful gymnastics hall for a couple of weeks in a few years' time, it will end up, of course, as the most expensive publicly funded super-casino in world history.

If taxpayers pay for the railway for the next 30 years, sacrificing other projects, it should have the highest environmental and health impact standards and should not openly violate human rights. Crossrail has not properly considered the risk to human safety. It has failed to adopt the multi-modal approach originally demanded by the then Minister of State. That brings me to the point that I made in our preliminary debate, on which I hope that the Minister will now be able to advise the House.

At 12 o'clock today, there was still not tabled in the papers for these proceedings the very serious matter of a barrister's legal opinion that Members are being asked to vote for something that is illegal. I refer to the paper submitted by Bindman and Partners. I shall read from the letter that the WHRA sent to the Bill team:

"We have noted a serious omission in the tabled papers as part of the Government's responses. It does not include a letter from . . . Bindmans . . . You may be aware that the letter raises serious legal matters in relation to the Crossrail Bill . . . Please could you provide reasons for the omission of the letter from tabled papers as this prevents MPs from considering serious issues about procedure and compliance with the EIA and human rights obligations."

I am ready to allow the Minister to intervene now if he is able, as he promised, to indicate why those papers are not among those tabled for these proceedings today. I see that he intends to remain sedentary—so perhaps later we will be informed of why that information, which goes right to the heart of the judicial review that will inevitably occur, is not before Members today, even though it should be.

I am conscious of the fact that many Members want to speak, but if time permitted me, I would demonstrate in detail that there is no doubt that Crossrail has not produced systematic comparisons of alternatives, which it is obliged by law to do. It is legally required to consider alternatives, to supply information requested by the public and to allow them an opportunity to comment to ensure compliance with the environmental impact assessment directive and human rights provisions.

Crossrail appears not to have considered any alternative route alignments between Liverpool Street and Canary Wharf. Crossrail has not considered any option without Whitechapel station. Simon Hughes misstated the position among my electorate. For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear that we do not want a station at Whitechapel. In so far as there will be a station at Whitechapel, it will cost about £200 million, forcing cost-cutting measures elsewhere in the project, which will impact on the placing of the tunnelling and other engineering work that is required.

Let me volunteer something to the Minister: he should drop the Whitechapel station from the proposals. We do not need the Whitechapel station. Whitechapel has a perfectly adequate underground station at the moment. Moreover, it will be substantially overhauled by London Underground by 2009—an overhaul that would almost certainly be delayed if the Bill is passed and if a Crossrail station is built at Whitechapel.

A Whitechapel station will be a disbenefit to us, not only for the reason that I have stated, but for another reason, which is a source of great anger on this subject in my constituency. A vast number of people commute into the Tower Hamlets to work and then commute out again. There are huge areas adjacent to Tower Hamlets where local people cannot get a job. There are great citadels of wealth in Canary Wharf and the City of London, with hardly a local person working in them. In the City of London, where tens of thousands of people work, there are only 88 Bangladeshis working in white collar jobs. Less than 10 per cent. of the people who work in Canary Wharf come from Tower Hamlets, and no one is able to give us a demographic breakdown of that 10 per cent. We already have a problem with local people not being able to get jobs in the area, and a Crossrail station at Whitechapel will merely make that problem worse.

We understand from evidence that the six sites in Spitalfields were considered without environmental data and without proper consultation, contrary to article 1.5 of the EIA directive. Crossrail has failed to justify interference with the property rights of residents or shown any proper consideration of alternative alignments, contrary to human rights provisions. As the benchmark route and the location of work sites in Spitalfields is likely to cause significant harm, we ask the Minister—this was asked of him on 27 June in questions that were handed to him, and I hope that he will answer some of them soon—how will Crossrail remedy that error? Why were alternatives, such as tunnelling from both ends, not produced until after the deposit of the Bill and the production of the environmental statement?

I say from my great experience, to which I referred earlier, that there is no engineering reason why the tunnel cannot be dug from both ends. The only reason is financial, because Crossrail wants to save the money that it would cost to dig from both ends. In that case, I demand a cost-benefit analysis, because that what Crossrail will save by digging from only one end will be paid for overwhelmingly by my constituents through damage to their businesses, their property rights, their environment, their health, and in many other ways. The possibility of tunnelling from the ends instead of going through Spitalfields was produced after the environmental statement and after it was demanded by residents, who are not engineers. We want to know why alternatives were not considered and compared before the benchmark alignments were chosen, because those alignments will undoubtedly form the basis for any subsequent discussion and will be difficult to move.

There are many other questions on the list of, I think, 20 that were given to the Minister, but I do not have time to adduce them all this evening. I hope that he will seriously consider them, however, because my overarching point is that Crossrail will absolutely devastate my constituency. It will have three major tunnelling sites, yet it is the only part of the whole route said that will be affected in that way. The reasons behind that are financially driven—they are not driven by any other consideration.

For those who are not familiar with Spitalfields Banglatown, which is the area that we are talking about, it has one of the densest populations in the capital. They are overwhelmingly poor people, a substantial proportion of whom are from the ethnic minorities and so will be disproportionately affected by the proposals. Some 60 per cent. of the population of Spitalfields Banglatown are of Bangladeshi origin. A growing and visible Somali minority lives in the area and there is a small indigenous white community. There is also a new group of young, upwardly mobile professionals in the area, who moved there precisely because it was the area that it was, but for six or seven long years it will be a ground zero.

I hope that I can convey to hon. Members the impact that Crossrail will have. It will be like a major bombing raid on the east end. There will be three major tunnelling sites and a 2 m wide conveyor belt will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for six years to carry spoil from the digging of those sites. It will go past people's houses—inches from their windows in some cases, and feet away in others. Ten-tonne lorries will come and go through this small, densely populated, poor, disadvantaged and multiply deprived area at the rate of one every five minutes, with consequent dangers for children at local schools and the health of local people—and male life expectancy in that part of London is already 6 per cent. less than that throughout London as a whole. Higher than average incidences of asthma, diabetes, blood pressure and other health problems are already present in this multiply deprived community, yet we are going to make a ground zero right in the middle of it that will devastate the community for years—day and night, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I will tell you my suspicion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as someone who has been the Member of Parliament for the constituency for only a few weeks. I suspect that the Government are doing this to our community because they would not dare do it to another community. They are doing to the east end what they would not dare do to the west end because they would not get away with it in the west end. The political representatives in the west end would raise such a hue and cry that it would be politically impossible to do such a thing. The highly educated and articulate people who know the way to lobby on such things would ensure that such action would not be taken.

Our area was chosen because it was, politically speaking, a pushover. Until we dragged the local council into the fray with our political campaign, it was fully in favour of the Crossrail scheme. Until we dragged the then Member of Parliament into the fray due to our pressure, she was fully in favour of Crossrail. When they did enter the fray, they did so half-heartedly. Indeed, Tower Hamlets council is the origin of the reason for the station at Whitechapel, which, as I have already stated, we do not want because it will be a disbenefit to us, add to the cost and force certain engineering decisions upon us that will be disadvantageous. The council and the former Member of Parliament were not ready to stand up for local residents, which was why the Government chose this area, of all the areas, to be subjected to the demolition—the ground zero—that they intend to visit, if they get away with it, on the multiply deprived people of my constituency.

I do not want to leave the issue of the racial character of the community because it is important. Banglatown is a national treasure. It is an international tourist destination. In looking from around the world at London as a tourist destination, one of the things that people look at is Banglatown. I know very well, because I live just off Brick lane, that people come from all over the world, all over London and all over Britain to see the community, its restaurants, shops and mosques, and all the other things that make Banglatown the national and international treasure that it is.

The Minister is a fair-minded man, so I hope that he will accept my invitation to come and meet the communities. Today, I met residents associations, the Brick lane business association, the ethnic minority enterprise project, the Banglatown restaurant association, the Bangladesh welfare association and the Chicksand residents association. Chicksand is one of the poorest estates in Britain, in an area in which some of the poorest people in Britain live, yet it will be at the epicentre of the epicentre. People will not be able to move on the Chicksand estate for 10-tonne trucks—with their spoil flying in the wind, no doubt—for six long years, day and night, seven days a week.

Well, things have changed. There is now a new political power in the area that is represented by my election victory. I tell the House that we intend to make this matter a major election issue in the run-up to the local council elections next May. We hope—we intend—to be the administration in Tower Hamlets council just 10 months from now. If we are, Tower Hamlets council will no longer be a pushover.

I promise the Minister that if we win control of Tower Hamlets council, it will use every means at its disposal, and all its resources, to try to stop such devastation being visited on local people, so he should factor that into his consideration. He should also factor into his consideration the fact that he is no longer dealing with a Member of Parliament who is a pushover. Many groups are already preparing for peaceful, non-violent, civil disobedience to try to throw a spanner in the works, so all told, it would be better to give us a wide berth. We do not want the station. Give us a wide berth and go around us. Go along the river or go somewhere else. We do not want Crossrail. We are prepared to fight it and we will make it a very politically costly matter for the Government if they proceed along the route that they currently intend to follow.

Annotations

Arjun Mittra
Posted on 19 May 2006 11:34 pm (Report this annotation)

You cant trust what he says on Crossrail- whilst there was an important debate on it in the house of Commons, he was busy being a cat in the Big Brither House.