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I am most grateful to have secured this debate, which concerns the Gerrards Cross tunnel collapse. I applied for and was granted such a debate rather a long time ago by Mr. Speaker, but unfortunately the debate fell on the day after Sir Edward Heath died. The House adjourned in the morning, following tributes to him, and the debate, which was to take place in the afternoon, was therefore lost.
I rather took the view then that the necessity for the debate might evaporate with the passage of months. I regret to say, however, that the necessity for the debate has not gone at all. Now, at the beginning of 2007, my constituents in Gerrards Cross continue to face a nightmare situation, which has been brought about by the botched attempt to develop a Tesco store above the railway line, in the middle of their community.
It is worth briefly running over the history of the matter. Tesco purchased from British Rail as far back as the early 1990s the air rights to build a store over the railway line at Gerrards Cross where it lies in the cutting. However, Tesco submitted a planning application for the construction of the store only in 1997, the idea being that the railway line would be filled in with a tunnel. Fill would be placed on top, and a store and a car park placed on top of that.
That proposal went down extremely badly with the local community. Press coverage at the time, as well as an in-depth investigation, showed that 93 per cent. of the local community in Gerrards Cross were against the scheme, and they expressed their opposition vociferously. Even Tesco, having initially denied the level of opposition, subsequently had to admit that it was as high as that level.
When Tesco persisted in pursuing the planning application, I attended a public meeting at which, I recollect, the local community raised £14,000 in 20 minutes to pay for representation to resist the scheme. The matter went to a planning inquiry, at which the local community and the district council, which had turned down the application, united to try to persuade the planning inspector and the Deputy Prime Minister to turn the application down. Unfortunately, they were not successful. Even the Minister might agree that it was unfortunate that the application was not turned down in view of the history of what followed.
The application was granted in January 1998. The inspector accepted that the development would cause massive disruption to the centre of the community and a great disturbance for those living near it, and laid down a number of criteria for the manner in which it should take place. It was envisaged that the development, which would require massive amounts of fill material to be brought in by rail only in order to minimise lorry movements, should take place over a seven-month period, and that the clearing up and landscaping thereafter should take a further three months.
What in fact happened was that Tesco did not commence any of the work or do anything at all until the five-year period was nearly up. The consequence of Tesco's actions was to create great uncertainty in the local community, particularly for the traders who were likely to be put out of business if Tesco opened the store. As a result, some well known local businesses were forced to close and decided to relocate. It was only at the very end of the period—eight days before the planning permission expired—that Tesco decided to proceed and started the works. That was after Tesco had applied unsuccessfully to increase the size of the store by 30 per cent. and, in fairness to Tesco, after it had also taken into account the need to change the dimensions of the tunnel, because of the possibility of Central Railway, the Deputy Prime Minister's other interesting project, needing to run through the site.
Thereafter, far from the work being done in seven months, it proceeded at a snail's pace. The result was to lengthen the disruption for the local community to the maximum possible extent. The development was in breach of the planning permission, but enforcing such matters was difficult and Tesco was given every allowance as the work proceeded. Finally, by June 2005, it seemed that the work of building the tunnel segments and putting the fill on top was at last coming to an end. Work was proceeding to tamp down the fill, which turned out to be bottom ash from the Edmonton and Rainham incinerators. That was not envisaged in the course of the original planning permission, but Tesco claimed that, as it was inert material, it was satisfactory to place it under the tarmac between the segments and the open air. I accept that the Environment Agency also thought that that was appropriate.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because he knows that this matter seriously affects my constituency as well. It would be good if he put on record that there was no loss of life because of the behaviour of two train drivers from Chiltern Railways who took immediate action on realising that something was wrong. They are to be commended for responding swiftly—on that occasion, they saved life and limb.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was about to add that the driver of another train that was about to enter the tunnel realised what had happened and sounded the alert to prevent any further trains from running into the obstruction. The miracle that no one was killed, which was celebrated in the local community, was soon replaced by the realisation that the extent of the collapse meant that the line would be blocked for many weeks. Indeed, it was not until
Furthermore, as the site was cleared under emergency procedure, lorries went through Gerrards Cross because the railway could not be used. Those lorries carried the spoil material that should have been under the tarmac, and scattered dust in all directions until finally dumping a large quantity of it, without planning permission, at Coleshill in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mrs. Gillan. Subsequent attempts by Tesco to obtain planning permission for that dump were turned down and enforcement proceedings were brought. The dump was removed only when my hon. Friend wrote to the chairman of Tesco and pointed out that members of the local community, particularly children, were complaining of health problems in relation to the dust coming from the tip.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging the role that I played, but, in fact, a strong role was played by members of the local community. People were exceedingly worried about the bottom incinerator ash that was sitting in Coleshill and blowing around as it was not tamped down or damped down in any way. The ash was originally cleared only to the bottom of a site where it would be covered by other material. Does he agree that that situation was totally unsatisfactory and a dereliction of the company's duty towards the local population?
I agree entirely. Indeed, it is a subject of great anxiety because bottom ash—a substance that I am rather familiar with having prosecuted in the past for the old inspectorate of pollution—inevitably contains heavy metals and dioxins. I accept that it may be suitable as fill material, but that does not mean that it is something people want blowing around their gardens, over their streets or across farm land. Yet that is the result of this collapse and the incompetence that underlies it.
As one would expect, there was a Health and Safety Executive investigation and, having in the past prosecuted for it, I know that such things take rather a long time. I am sure that the investigation is very thorough and I know that it is continuing. I have little doubt that at some point in the near future there will be prosecutions. The engineers on the project were White Young Green, and the contractors were Jacksons. It appears to be a combination of their activities that caused the tunnel to collapse. I am sure that the public will expect that those who are culpable to be held to account. However, we know little about the precise cause of the tunnel's collapse.
I have been briefed that the view of the Health and Safety Executive is that the collapse was due not to the design but to the manner in which construction was carried out. However, it will be appreciated that no one has produced a definitive report to provide that assurance. After the collapse, part of the structure was allowed to stand. It is suggested that Tesco wishes to proceed with the scheme, although it remains far from clear whether that would entail demolishing what is left, with the skeleton of the store above it, or whether it is proposed to build new segments over the railway line and knit them to the existing structure.
That raises the first major concern, which I flag up for the Minister. Can he provide any indication as to how long the HSE investigatory process is likely to continue? Is there any means by which the findings can be made available to the public that would reassure them about the tunnel's collapse and that would be sufficient to enable them to gauge whether the structure that remains is fit and proper to be part of a new development?
Secondly, and perhaps obviously, the site is a blight in the middle of an attractive community; where people were proud of the environment there is now a great mess. It is immediately obvious when one travels through by train or when one looks over the railway bridge. There is the continuing problem of dust and contamination that one would associate with any building site. One should bear in mind particularly that, when planning permission was granted, the inspector wanted to minimise the period that that problem would last.
The community of Gerrards Cross is articulate. It is full of retired engineers. Indeed, many people have been extremely proactive following the disaster. One of them, Mr. Neil Mathers, has become well known to me. He is exceptionally industrious and he took an early interest in the project—so early that on
"It seems there has been a failure to address the major problems properly, and to ensure ALL construction drawings are received and approved" and that
"the construction schedule, construction execution statement, crane rigging studies and specific safety procedures for the site" appear to be absent. Prophetically, he asked:
"Is it worth the risk? Your vast tunnel at Gerrards Cross might well become a national scandal."
Mr. Mathers highlighted his concern that the design of the building and the immensely large arch that it entailed would not prove to be sufficiently stable to hold the structure on top.
Mr. Mathers may have been wrong; he is an engineer of considerable standing, but he did not have the opportunity to see all the drawings. However, he took the opportunity to stand on the parapet and look at what was going on underneath. The Minister will realise that if someone of that distinction and with that previous career thinks there is something flawed with the plans and the design, the absence of a detailed report before further work is allowed to take place will cause the local community serious concern.
In fairness, although Network Rail does not have any control over Tesco, there is nothing to stop it being proactive in trying to highlight the problems. I am aware that it has indicated that it will not let the plan proceed unless or until it has the reassurance that it is safe. I press the Minister hard on the need to provide an explanation to the public in Gerrards Cross on the cause of the collapse before any new work takes place.
The other problem is that the time scale that I have been given suggests that, because of the difficulty of drawing up new plans, further work on the site may not be possible until the middle of 2008. As the Minister will appreciate, that means that we will have had 10 years of blight since planning permission was granted and that it will be a massive five years since the construction commenced.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that it is not only his constituents in Gerrards Cross who need the Minister's assurances, but those who travel on the Chiltern line beyond his constituency? They need to know that they can travel in safety, but reinstating the plans without providing full access to the results of the health and safety inquiry would leave doubts in their mind.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that must be right. I would certainly be hesitant about taking a train through the tunnel when there was a reconstructed building on top, unless I was satisfied that the information was available that clearly indicated that it was safe. We know that Tesco has prepared detailed reports through its new engineers, Costain, but if it wants to give the public reassurance, it should publish them. At that stage, constituents such as Mr. Mathers, who are clearly people of intelligence capable of understanding such things, would be able to reassure the local community that everything was in order.
To conclude, the Competition Commission report on supermarkets was published this morning, and I glanced at it because it is rather relevant to the decisions that underlay the Tesco construction in the middle of Gerrards Cross and the granting of planning permission in the first place. I am beginning to think that had Tesco sought planning permission in another five or 10 years, it would probably not have been granted it at all, because its achievement of a monopoly position and its building up of a land bank have had serious adverse impacts on local businesses in a community that never desired the development in the first place.
The truth, I am afraid, is that the whole history of the development is a catalogue of failures. The project should never have had planning permission in the first place, it has been badly constructed and Tesco has shown remarkably little diligence or urgency since the collapse in trying to remedy its own faults.
I congratulate Mr. Grieve on securing a debate twice on this subject. We are of course grateful that no unfortunate event has befallen a current or former statesman and delayed today's debate.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I am unable to go into some of the matters that he raised. Those include the decision-making process under which the original planning permission was granted and the report to which he referred on the monopoly position of various supermarkets. As the railways Minister, I am happy to address my own brief. Fortunately, I am not the Minister for Tesco.
It is just unfortunate that I have turned up early.
My right hon. Friend has my best wishes.
It would be useful to reiterate once again some of the events of 2005. I know that the hon. Gentleman has referred to them, but I hope that he will forgive me for going over some of them in more detail.
At 19.34 hours on
I, too, congratulate and pay tribute to those train drivers, and that reflects what has been said in the debate. Fortunately, there were no injuries, but things could have been so much worse. The potential for a serious accident with multiple casualties was plain, and such an incident was avoided only by a margin of a few minutes.
Engineers from Network Rail and Tesco's construction contractor were quickly on site and reported that approximately 30 m of the 320 m concrete tunnel had collapsed on to the track. Some 29 reinforced concrete tunnel segments and an estimated 5,000 tonnes of infill material had fallen on to the railway and blocked the line. A further 16 adjacent segments were subsequently identified as having been damaged or dislodged in the collapse and had to be dismantled.
The collapse occurred at the site for the new Tesco supermarket at Gerrards Cross, above the two-track Chiltern line that runs from London Marylebone to Beaconsfield, Banbury and Birmingham. The project involved building over the existing railway lines and infilling the 320 m long cutting in which the railway runs. The supermarket and car park were to be built on top of the infilled cutting.
The client for the construction project is Tesco and its principal contractor at the time was Jackson Civil Engineering. Various other companies are involved, including designers, planning supervisors and subcontractors. The work affects the railway beneath, so Network Rail is also closely involved in supervising the construction work. Along with others, Network Rail has obligations under health and safety legislation to ensure that work that could affect the safety of the railway is designed, planned and carried out safely. I understand that Tesco has appointed new contractors, Costain, and new structural engineers, Scott Wilson, to undertake a review of the project. I am told that that is a thorough and detailed piece of work. However, no decision on the future of the site will be made by Tesco until that review is completed. The hon. Gentleman made explicit his request that Tesco publish that report. I echo him, as that would reassure the many residents whom he represents. Publishing would be a positive and transparent move by Tesco, although whether it does is up to the company.
The incident was immediately reported to the Health and Safety Executive, the Government's independent health and safety regulator. The HSE commenced an investigation into the collapse that night and an inspector was on site within two hours. A multidisciplinary investigation team was drawn together the next day. The investigation into the project and the responsibility of the various parties is still under way, but it is expected to conclude shortly. Decisions about potential enforcement action are expected in the next few months. Responsibility for enforcing railway safety was transferred from the HSE to the Office of Rail Regulation in April 2006. Although the principal risk in the incident was to the railway, the legislation allocating responsibilities between the HSE and the Office of Rail Regulation requires that the HSE remains in the lead.
The Gerrards Cross investigation team involves inspectors from both bodies. I am pleased to say that there is full co-operation to ensure that the investigation is thorough and concluded as soon as possible. The purpose of the HSE investigation is to ascertain the reasons for the collapse and identify the extent to which the various parties involved discharge their responsibilities under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and related regulations.
Specialist inspectors reviewed the decision to reopen the railway in August 2005; more recently, they have been in discussion with Network Rail about the options for recommencing work on the project. The hon. Gentleman referred to Chiltern's performance before the incident. He will be interested to know that, although it is difficult to measure performance over that shorter period, it has, on a periodic basis, achieved its best-ever public performance measure since the accident. That, of course, is good news for passengers using the Chiltern line.
As the investigation has proceeded, the HSE has continued to make public key facts about the collapse to ensure as much openness as possible during the criminal investigation. I am pleased to say that the investigation team is receiving full co-operation from all the parties involved. As a result of the investigation, the HSE will decide whether it is appropriate to bring criminal proceedings against any of the parties in the construction project. Given the hon. Gentleman's legal background, he will be unsurprised to know that the HSE will publish its own report only after prosecutions have been brought.
I entirely understand why that is the case. Having done such prosecutions in similar circumstances, I know that the report can come out only at the end of the prosecution's case. The Minister will therefore understand why it is so important that there should be some means other than the HSE report through which the public can understand what has happened before anything further is done on the site.
I fully accept that. I reiterate my earlier point: provided that the review has been completed, Tesco should make its consultant's report public. The HSE investigation has thoroughly explored the role of all relevant parties and considered all credible causes of the incident. It remains of the view that the cause was related to the way in which infill material was being loaded on to the concrete arch structure. The removal of the collapsed structure from the railway was undertaken by Jackson Civil Engineering and it was overseen by Network Rail. HSE specialist investigators gave advice during the clear-up to ensure that the huge task was completed as quickly as possible. A full engineering assessment of the tunnel was undertaken and verified independently. It involved a complex review of the design's site records, a specialist engineering assessment and a detailed survey of the structure.
Some remedial works were undertaken to adjust backfill loading on the arch sections and to enable continuous monitoring of the structure. The line reopened for trains on
The material stored at Brentford Grange farm was to be used as construction material at the Tesco site in Gerrards Cross. The hon. Gentleman said that the material known as incinerated bottom ash aggregate is a secondary aggregate processed from the ash that is created from the high-temperature incineration of municipal waste. The material used at Gerrards Cross was supplied from incinerators at Edmonton, north London, and Rainham in Essex. It is important to stress that the material is inert; it does not contain high levels of toxic heavy metals. Chemical analysis of IBAA shows up below the detection limits of heavy metals deemed acceptable by the Environment Agency.
Further, the use of the material in the construction project was approved by the Environment Agency and by Network Rail, and it was accepted by South Buckinghamshire district council, the local planning authority.
I have also prosecuted incinerator contamination, so I am familiar with the fact that bottom ash may be used for several purposes. The Minister will appreciate, however, the distinction between bottom ash as fill over a tunnel that will be capped with tarmac, and bottom ash blowing in the wind around a local community and landing in people's vegetable gardens. There is anxiety, and I am not completely content that the Environment Agency has provided reassurance on that wider issue.
Were I to be in the hon. Gentleman's position as constituency MP, I would have exactly the same concerns. I do not want to sound like I am passing the buck, but he will appreciate that the conditions of any planning permission are not for the Department to enforce. I none the less welcome any move to ensure that enforcement measures are considered when a construction company has such materials to hand and does not make the proper arrangements to contain them and to stop them contaminating people's gardens and property.
I have served on the same Committees and attended various debates with the hon. Gentleman, and the number of people and the categories of individuals whom he has prosecuted in a past life continue to grow. I look forward to hearing what new additions there are in the future.
Decisions relating to any future reconstruction of the structure are a matter for Tesco. There is no firm date set for that. However, management of the construction work will need to comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 1994 and will be overseen by the HSE's construction inspectors.
When completed, the structure over the railway will be subject to approval by the Office of Rail Regulation under the requirements of the Railways and Other Transport Systems (Approvals of Works, Plant and Equipment) Regulations 1994—obviously. That approval will extend only to the functionality of the work and its effect on the safe operation of the railway; it will not consider the structural elements or the method of construction.
In summary, the incident naturally created much local concern and it had a severe impact on railway operations. It was only by the quick thinking of railway staff that a serious accident with multiple casualties was avoided. The clear-up operation and detailed site assessment enabled Network Rail to reopen the railway line as quickly as it could, once all key parties were satisfied that there was no risk of a further collapse.
The complex investigation into the cause of the collapse is still under way. It has gathered a large quantity of evidence and it will reach a conclusion soon. I understand that Chiltern Railways, Network Rail and Tesco are keeping stakeholders informed of events.