§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kenneth Carlisle.]
§ 10.5 pm
§ Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)
I am most appreciative of the opportunity to discuss the implications of the high-speed rail link for north-west Kent. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the time that he has spent previously and will spend tonight in debating this issue with me.
I am also grateful for the company of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent the county of Kent—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley), my hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Mr. Wolfson), for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) and for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and also for the company of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Sir R. Boyson), who takes a great interest in this matter.
It would be wrong for me to let the opportunity pass without placing on record the thanks of Members representing Kent to our right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) who today left office at the Department of Transport. He was at all times a most perfect gentleman and an extremely courteous Minister with whom to deal. I also welcome to that post my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson) who, I dare say, will meet us soon to discuss the vexed problem that faces my constituents and those of other Members who represent Kent.
I also pay tribute to the many hundreds, if riot thousands, of my constituents who have suffered for a year stress and anxiety, personally and collectively, caused by the wretched proposals that have been brought forward, I believe inadvisedly, by British Rail.
I speak for the constituency of Dartford and the five communities within it, South Darenth and Horton Kirby, Sutton at Hone, Longfield, New Barn and Southfleet, which are the most severely affected by the proposals to construct a high-speed rail link in and through Dartford.
Those communities are the most affected and yet, thus far, they appear to be receiving least help. Of all parts of the track, that part that I represent, the area roughly between the M25 and Istead Rise, is worse off today in terms of the impact, stress and damage of the proposals than even a month ago following the significant concessions made at the portals at Swanley and the lesser concession made to the portal placement at Istead Rise.
It is clear that the high-speed rail link has no benefits for the people of north-west Kent or the commuters of Dartford who face the most difficult and badly administered service within Network SouthEast, the Dartford line. It is indisputable that those of us in the House or those representing the county council, the borough and district councils, the parish councils or the various community-based action groups have found it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain the range of information from British Rail about the route and all its implications in order that we, the people of Kent, can properly evaluate the options available to us. These proposals will massively damage the people of Kent, socially, economically and environmentally, and British Rail has not responded as constructively as it might have to our request.
829 Tunnelling is clearly the main answer to our difficulty. British Rail has told us that the cost of tunnelling between Swanley—or the M25—and Istead Rise would be £410 million, as opposed to £289 million for constructing a surface line. So the difference between the two options means that, as at June 1989, tunnelling would cost £121 million more than a surface line.
British Rail has admitted of late that its opposition to tunnelling is based largely, if not solely, on the cost. In my view, direct tunnelling would save £20 million, thus reducing the gap to £100 million. Further, British Rail appears to have assumed London, not Kent, tunnelling costs for the mere five miles of tunnel between the M25 and Istead Rise, as the track goes through Dartford. This is important, because the substrata of London are a ragbag of ingredients—some sand, some clay and some other admixtures—whereas tunnelling through Dartford would go through good-quality chalk. Kent tunnelling costs are cheaper per mile than London costs. Taking that into account and bearing in mind that we have been given no idea of likely expenditure on environmental protection, the tunnelling option for Dartford becomes much more attractive and must be seriously taken into account by British Rail and by the House and the Department of Transport.
§ Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)
I am sure that these suggestions do not come only from my hon. Friend's head: they will have been based on the views of consultants who are experts in their field.
§ Mr. Dunn
This point comes not only from me but from consultants, action groups and British Rail. It is an accurate point and it must be taken into account by British Rail.
My constituency faces further problems on the environmental front, caused by the potential placement of construction sites in Sutton at Hone and in other sites in and around New Barn. I refer to the movement of spoil. The A225 to Farningham, and perhaps into Dartford, will become a major route carrying a potential 2,000 vehicle movements a day, removing spoil from the construction site.
The same applies to the construction sites liable to be placed near the New Barn road between communities of Istead Rise and New Barn itself. We face the problems of the movement of spoil for at least six years after the passage of the legislation. Three million tonnes of the materials necessary for construction need to be moved to Kent, and about 15 million tonnes of spoil need to be moved out.
Our county faces a major problem of environmental survival. We would not be thanked by those who will come after us if we did not expect the House, the Government and the Department of Transport to recognise the anxieties that I have advanced and that my hon. Friends, if they catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, will also discuss.
There is a problem for the farmer and the business man and for elderly people living in private rented accommodation. All those aspects need to be covered and, yet a mere 15 weeks from the presentation of the Bill we are no wiser than we were last week or last month in terms of getting information from British Rail. The only option for north-west Kent is tunnelling.
§ Dame Peggy Fenner (Medway)
British Rail is already tunnelling through the village of Hailing in my constituency. It has to do that because the tunnel is under the north downs. British Rail is proposing a viaduct over the Medway. We already have five crossings of the Medway and another would create a visual impact that one should not expect. The Medway towns are among the most highly populated in the area and every scrap of the environment that is not urban environment is vital. In such parts of Kent, tunnelling is the answer. We need to consider the cost, but it should not be considered before the environment. I seek an assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister that the environment will come first. This link will be for always and the people of Kent should not be asked to shoulder the burden of a spoilt environment.
§ Mr. Dunn
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her contribution. She makes the point more effectively than I could have done.
We have not been well used by British Rail in this matter. We are anxious to ensure that the project is right, from its start on the Kent coast to its termination in the centre of London. I raise these matters because they must be dealt with now. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will not be able to say much now, but it would be wrong of me to allow the House to go into the summer recess without placing on record my concern about my constituents and the general concern that we all have for the future of the county of Kent.
§ Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for initiating this debate. He is a tireless champion on behalf of his constituents who are perhaps now the most seriously affected by the British Rail proposals. He and I share the representation of the village of New Barn which remains exposed to the line, albeit in deeper cutting. Bringing complete protection to that village could be achieved either by constructing the line via the progressive working of cut and cover or by extending the bore from Thirty-Acre Shaw to beyond the New Barn road. That would be a great improvement and would also benefit my constituents at Istead Rise.
Another advantage of carrying out construction in this manner would be that the necessary construction sites would be moved further westward saving both lstead Rise and Southfleet from such disturbance and from the removal of spoil which could be taken northwards on the disused railway line. Not least among that spoil would be high-quality chalk which could be taken to the Northfleet cement works. If implemented, the proposals would lead to a desecration of the beautiful Kentish countryside in north-west Kent, and lip service to the environment will not be enough.
§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Mailing)
I thank my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) for allowing me one minute of his precious time in this Adjournment debate. I have three points to put to my hon. Friend the Minister. First, will he continue to urge British Rail to listen to the people of north-west and mid-Kent, and will he in particular urge it to consider the real environmental concerns expressed by my hon. Friends the Members for Dartford and for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) 831 and others? In particular, the section between the River Medway and the A229 road is still not acceptable environmentally and I hope that my hon. Friend will continue to register that with British Rail.
Secondly, will my hon. Friend the Minister resist any attempt by British Rail to get for itself deemed planning consent for the Mid-Kent Parkway station through the private Bill procedure. That development should be the subject of formal planning procedures and it would be an abuse to seek planning consent through the private Bill procedure.
Thirdly, will my hon. Friend urge British Rail to take more seriously the profound noise disturbance that is likely to be created on existing railways from transcontinental freight trains? British Rail can take steps with various acoustic baffling devices and so on to mitigate the noise disturbance on the designated freight routes and it should do so.
§ Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)
It would appear that the only way that I can get tunnelling in any part of my constituency is if there is a motorway service area, because it is more important to protect such areas than it is to protect real people. Kent is bruised by what I think are the dying throes of a dinosaur—the private Bill procedure which was invented to enable 19th century railway entrepreneurs to build a railway. It is a quite inappropriate procedure for building modern railways. Some 19,000 miles of railway are projected to be built within the European Community between now and the end of the century. It is a major part of the transport provision, and it is inappropriate for it to be excluded and treated wholly separately. I understand why the Government step back from this, but it cannot continue.
We need to look closely—not only for our county but for all the counties affected by future railway building—at compensation. It would be disgraceful if farms were to be expropriated at market value, and later British Rail was able to claim a major capital gain by selling the land back at an inflated price. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that point on board.
Secondly, it would be inappropriate for Kent county council to have to carry all the costs of access to the Mid-Kent Parkway station, which has been foisted on it in contravention of its county structure plan. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will agree that British Rail should contribute to the cost.
Thirdly, I echo what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) about noise. The noise intensification of enormous freight trains running all through the night instead of occasional freight trains once or twice a night requires that compensation and protection should be available not only to the people of Kent, but, as this enormous explosion in freight being carried by rail spreads across the country, to the whole country. It is essential that my hon. Friend should give us some consolation on this matter.
§ The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Michael Portillo)
I do not remember an Adjournment debate in which six of my right hon. and hon. Friends have spoken and that is a testimony to the great importance of this 832 subject in the county of Kent. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) on having had the chance to initiate this Adjournment debate, and thank him for doing so. He has been assiduous in pursuing the interests of his constituents and I can fairly say that barely a day has gone past in recent months without my hon. Friend taking an opportunity to let me know his latest concerns and to press me further to see what I can do to soften the blow of this proposed project on his constituency.
My hon. Friend will not mind if I pay tribute to my other right hon. and hon. Friends who have spoken because they have also been most pressing on Ministers and British Rail in trying to achieve the best for their constituents. I thank my hon. Friend for his generous words about my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), who cares deeply about these matters. His mind was deeply engaged on how the project could best be carried forward with justice being done for all concerned. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson), the Secretary of State for Transport, will be only too keen that I should brief him as quickly as possible on the matters that have been discussed between my hon. Friend and I over recent months.
I wish my right hon. and hon. Friends to be aware of the tremendous influence that they have had already on the matters that we are discussing. I do not wish them at any time to downplay that. They are all aware that important changes have been made to the proposal. I understand that they wish the changes to go further, but the changes are important and many of them have been largely because of the pressure that my right hon. and hon. Friends have sustained over a long period. They all know that the cost of the project now, at £1.7 billion, includes a large sum—probably about £500 million—that has been provided entirely for environmental protection.
Even since the project was launched in March with the new proposals and the rather higher price tag, extra costs have been allowed to mount. It has been announced that the tunnelling will be somewhat longer than in the original March project. The extra tunnelling costs amount to £53 million, inclusive of property purchase and resale, to extend the London tunnel beyond the M25 and to move the portal of the north downs tunnel further west to the A227. These changes have arisen largely because of the pressure of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford thinks that the least help has been given to his constituency. To some extent I would dispute that. He will know that there have been important changes in his constituency as well as in others. For example, the viaduct that was originally to have run to the north of the existing railway will now run through the south, so saving about 80 properties and removing the need to take part of the gardens of 70 properties. British Rail is still considering the height of the viaduct and what would be suitable there.
I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends—and I know that this is extremely difficult for them—to keep some sense of proportion in these matters. We are talking about a project that will result in trains running through Kent. They are not new monsters. Again, partly due to pressure by my right hon. and hon. Friends, the maximum speed of the trains will be about 140 mph or maybe 145 mph. It will not be the 186 mph that was proposed originally. The speed at which they will run will be fairly comparable to the speeds 833 of trains operating now, or that may operate shortly. With new technology, these trains may not be any noisier than present trains. Indeed, they may be a little quieter. In a number of instances we are talking about them passing close to villages which trains already pass. I do not want to play down the difficulties that are being experienced in the constituencies of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I merely ask them to maintain some sense of proportion, if they are able to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford talked about lack of certainty at this stage. As I have said to him on a number of occasions, people in Kent want certainty so that they know whether they are affected by the scheme. On the other hand, they want genuine consultation. It is extremely difficult to have certainty and real consultation. I think that to some extent my right hon. and hon. Friends may have been surprised by the extent to which British Rail has been willing since the March date to consider different proposals, and I am sure that at least some of the changes have been welcomed.
There is obviously a dispute between my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford and British Rail about the cost of tunnelling and what would be the extra cost of putting the tunnel all the way through his constituency. The latest figure I have as British Rail's estimate of the cost of the longer tunnel compared with the preferred route is £122 million—which my hon. Friend disputes. I take the view that my hon. Friend's points should be exhaustively examined by British Rail and that he should be given satisfactory answers to them all.
§ Mr. Portillo
Very well. I did not mean to misrepresent my hon. Friend in any way. In any event, he arrived at a different net figure, and his arguments should be exhaustively addressed. He will appreciate that if, after examination, the net cost of tunnelling is found to be very large, obviously British Rail will be reluctant to adopt his proposal. The project, at one point estimated to cost £7 billion, is less viable than when it was estimated to be considerably less. British Rail is concerned to complete the project, because it believes strongly in the provision of a new rail link across Kent and to London, to the benefit of the entire country, but it is concerned also to ensure that that project will be viable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dartford is concerned also about the movement of spoil and about the construction site. Such matters are often discussed during the passage of a private Bill, and I hope that it will be possible to reach an accommodation either during the passage of the Bill or in discussions beforehand.
834 I noted carefully the short interventions of my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Arnold) and for Medway (Dame P. Fenner), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Sir J. Stanley) raised a number of specific points. My right hon. Friend wants me to guarantee that British Rail will continue listening to the people of Kent. I hope that the tone of my remarks this evening leads him to believe that my view is that British Rail should do so, and there are a number of examples of British Rail's willingness to adapt its proposals to take account of the views expressed.
My right hon. Friend is concerned that the private Bill procedure should not be used as a means of obtaining planning permission in respect of issues far wider than simply the Mid-Kent Parkway station itself. I agree with him. It is implicit in British Rail's approach that it wants to discuss the wider planning implications of Mid-Kent Parkway station with Kent county council. While recognising that that will create difficulties in respect of the structure plan, Kent county council is at least content with that method of proceeding.
As to noise disturbance on existing routes, of course there is always the risk, if one lives near a railway or road, that more intensive use will be made of it as time passes. My right hon. Friend appreciates, I am sure, that it is difficult to compensate people for such changes. He asked me about specific physical measures, and I shall certainly raise that aspect with British Rail.
§ Mr. Wolfson
I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend the Minister concerning increased rail activity over a period of time, but the difference in this case is that there will be a rapid marked increase in activity only two or three weeks after the tunnel is opened. The change will be dramatic.
§ Mr. Portillo
I am not so sure about that. I suppose that there will be a change when the tunnel is opened, but it might take some time for the freight to build up. In any case, I am not sure that there would not be analogies in other areas. Compensating people for changes in intensity of use is a difficult subject, but I note what my hon. Friend says.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) believes that the private Bill procedure is inappropriate. He will be aware that for the moment no other procedure is available for the building of a railway line. He raised what I hope he will forgive me for describing simply as a big subject—compensation. Not only my Department but the Department of the Environment will want to consider his remarks carefully. My hon. Friend also raised a point about the Mid-Kent Parkway station. That is a matter appropriate for discussion between Kent county council and British Rail, who are proceeding on that basis.
I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends for their great courtesy in raising these matters. I congratulate them on the meticulous way in which they have always represented the interests of their constituents.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.