HC Deb 18 November 1994 vol 250 cc314-22

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

2.30 pm
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

East London, north and south of the River Thames, is an area of higher unemployment than the rest of London. It has more housing problems and poor transport connections to the rest of London. North of the river, Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets are first, second and third in the Department of the Environment's league tables of urban deprivation. South of the river, Greenwich ranks 28th in the Department's list of the 100 most deprived urban councils.

My constituency has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the country, a training and enterprise council that increasingly looks unable to deliver, and adult male unemployment around the town centre in the region of 50 per cent.

The name Greenwich conjures up images of the Cutty Sark, Greenwich park, the royal observatory, the famous Queen's house of Inigo Jones, Wren's masterpiece of the Royal Naval college and Georgian terraces—the Greenwich that tourists see. Few glimpse the reality for ordinary families in the borough, which has unemployment rates higher than in Bolsover or Blyth Valley.

Unemployment levels in my own constituency of Woolwich are higher than in Bootle, Hartlepool, Knowsley, Newcastle or Salford. Together with the boroughs on the north bank of the river, Woolwich also has development potential. At the heart of the town centre are 75 acres of derelict industrial land owned by the Ministry of Defence, which once housed the royal arsenal. In its heyday, the arsenal employed 80,000 people on that site—the largest factory in Europe. Today, it is derelict. To the east, there are hundreds of acres of development land in Thamesmead. To the west, there is the Blackwall peninsula—derelict land that once housed the now-defunct metropolitan gas works.

In that picture of gloom there are enormous opportunities for change; that is already occurring in the London docklands north of the river, where there are well-formulated plans for the Blackwall peninsula. The biggest drawback to development is transport. East and south-east London have poor public transport links to the rest of London, and south-east London is the worst served of all. Indecision about investment in public transport and uncertainty in the vacuum created by the Minister's announcement last June of the withdrawal of proposals for the east London river crossing are hindering development and job opportunities in the area.

Woolwich boasts one of the modern wonders of the world—the Thames barrier. That is a superb feat of civil engineering, but the Thames itself is a barrier to communities and to development that is difficult to overcome. The Thames could be used as a means of transport. It offers possibly the quickest way into central London, but there are no commuter services—only tourist boats. There could be traffic across the river, but apart from the Ford ferry which transports workers from Belvedere to Dagenham, there is only the Woolwich ferry—the floating link between the north and south circular roads in which the Department of Transport has failed to invest and which it has neglected to modernise, resulting in queues and congestion as boats are taken out of service. For motorists in south-east and east London, there are two depressing announcements on the morning radio. One is, "Only one boat is working on the Woolwich ferry," and the other is, "Overheight vehicle stuck in the Blackwall tunnel." I have to tell the Minister that there were two of the latter this morning.

The Government's preferred solution to those problems was to build more roads. I am aware that there was much lobbying for a motorway to link docklands on the northern side with the M2 and M20 south of the river and the channel ports; for enhanced capacity on the M25 crossing—the construction of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge. There was pressure for improved access across or under the river at Blackwall.

The Government appear to have listened to those voices, but to have ignored all the possible public transport solutions and put all their eggs in the road-building basket. But they came unstuck over the east London river crossing. They planned to build a motorway across the Thames, through Thamesmead and the residential areas of Abbey Wood and Plumstead—areas with some of the highest incidences of asthma and child respiratory illness in the south-east—and then through Woolwich's Oxleas wood, destroying an 8,000-year-old ancient woodland and site of special scientific interest.

Clearly, the Government had not anticipated the strength of the environmental concerns. The battle over the east London river crossing led to what I understand was the longest planning inquiry on record. The Secretary of State was taken to the High Court by local residents. The European Environment Commissioner issued a reasoned opinion that the Government had breached the European directive on environmental impact. What started as a small, local campaign—Plumstead Against the River Crossing—became Londonwide, then national and eventually international. It was discussed at the Rio summit and gained support from the rainforest campaigners in southern America. It eventually led to the Minister coming to the House last June to say that the proposals did not measure up to the Government's current environmental standards.

The problem was that, all the time that that was going on, the area along the line of the proposed road was blighted. Homes fell into disrepair and decay, not just the 258 homes due to be demolished to make way for the road, but the surrounding area as well. The problem now is that, although the original proposals for the east London river crossing have been withdrawn, the Government appear to remain wedded to the idea of a strategic road linking docklands north of the river to the M20 and the M2. They cannot work out how to get around, over, under or through Oxleas wood. They have not cancelled the compulsory purchase orders and have not withdrawn the line order, so the area which has been blighted for the past 20 years remains blighted. But I urge the Minister, having seen the situation for himself yesterday, to accept that the east London river crossing will not be built and to lift the blight on the Abbey Wood and Plumstead area.

I am aware that there are discussions with the private sector about the possibility of a road bridge linking Barking with Thamesmead and stopping at the Thamesmead spine road. The Minister will know that I have reservations about such a proposal. I accept that it might produce some benefits for Thamesmead, but it would also pose problems in terms of traffic generation for Woolwich, Belvedere, Erith and, possibly, Dartford, too. If that east London river crossing were ever built, it should not exclusively be a road bridge, because at very little extra cost it could carry the docklands light railway south of the river to Thamesmead, and I can see that as a very real plus for the area.

If the little east London river crossing—the bridge from Barking to Thamesmead—is an option that the Minister wishes to explore, he could go out to consultation on that and we could examine in detail the benefits and disbenefits of that proposal, but in the meantime he should withdraw the line order through Abbey Wood and Plumstead for the big east London river crossing and help the regeneration of housing in that area.

I implore the Minister to look seriously at the public transport alternatives. I draw his attention to the east London rail studies. In 1989, the then Secretary of State pointed to the need to improve rail services to docklands and east Thameside. The earlier central rail studies had been about relieving congestion, but the east London rail studies stressed the developmental role of public transport provision. The first east London rail studies report referred to regeneration and was probably the first official report to highlight the need for a rail link across the Thames to Woolwich, which would extend the docklands effect east and south. It was clear that a public transport river crossing would have advantages over a road crossing: less noise, less pollution, less disturbance during construction, less community severance, greater development potential, higher safety, less demolition and land acquisition and less harm to local ecology.

The proposed Woolwich rail crossing enjoys the support of the London Docklands development corporation, London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack, Union Rail and the local authorities in the area. London Transport and the London docklands corporation now propose a core scheme linking the north London line with the north Kent line and the provision of new cross-river services between Stratford and Abbey Wood. I hope that a spur to Thamesmead will also be built at little extra cost. The Woolwich metro fits into the Government's east Thames corridor, Thames gateway initiative and core services could be extended east to Dartford and possibly to the proposed international passenger station at Ebbsfleet. A new station could be provided at Silvertown, with a possible link to City airport, and the existing Woolwich-Arsenal station could be utilised.

The project is clearly attractive to the private sector and the project group, consisting of London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack and the London Docklands development corporation, is looking into those possibilities. But the scheme will require a public sector contribution and the Government's reticence could be a major contributor to delay.

The local authorities most affected— Greenwich and Newham—have not been invited to participate in the project group or its steering group. In view of the significance of the rail crossing for Woolwich and the direct impact on Woolwich town centre, I hope that the Minister will argue for the borough council to be a full member of the group. The LDDC, as the planning authority for the north bank, is fully represented on both groups and will, no doubt, be safeguarding its essential interests. Greenwich, as the planning authority for the south bank, ought to have similar representation. I understand that the LDDC and London Transport are sympathetic to that proposal, but that opposition is coming from Railtrack. I enlist the Minister's support in rectifying that.

The east London rail study has looked at the benefits in terms of development and job creation. It has looked at the possible relief on other overcrowded lines, but it has not yet estimated the benefits from reduced rail overcrowding. It has not considered the benefits from reduced congestion on the road network, nor have the environmental impacts been evaluated and compared with road options.

Even without assessing those additional benefits, the arguments to press ahead with the Woolwich metro are convincing. I hope, however, that we will not see delay, such that we saw over the Jubilee line extension, as the Government dither about whether there is to be public investment. The scheme is too important for the future economy of Woolwich and north Kent and to the successful development of the royal docks to insist on private capital alone being responsible for its construction. It must be a partnership, with the Government playing a full part.

We had delay and anxiety over the Jubilee line extension and then uncertainty about a station on the southern side at Blackwall. What nonsense it would have been to build the Jubilee line extension crossing the river twice from north to south and north again and not provide a station on the south side. What an opportunity will be missed now if the docklands light railway extension to Lewisham does not have a station at Cutty Sark gardens, despite an undertaking by the Government that a station would be included. I hope that the Minister recognises the near impossibility of getting a private funding package of £14 million together by January 1995 and that he will persuade the Department of the Environment to allow the project to go to tender in the new year with the options open regarding the Cutty Sark station.

Finally, I come to the proposed Blackwall third crossing. Clearly, the impact of a third crossing at Blackwall, together with the Woolwich metro, will need to be assessed in relation to the perceived need for an east London river crossing. It is the view of Greenwich council that the Woolwich metro plus the Blackwall scheme would be sufficient to meet transport needs in the area. Of course, the Minister will be aware of local arguments against the third crossing at Blackwall. I share the concerns on both sides of the river about the adverse environmental impact of a high-level bridge on the residents, especially those in Tower Hamlets, the blight and adverse effect with regard to the land-take on the Greenwich peninsula and potential traffic effects. However, at the end of the day, if the Minister is convinced of the need for a third crossing at Blackwall, I urge him to consider seriously the tunnel option.

Yesterday, the leader of Greenwich council, Councillor Len Duvall, suggested to the Minister that, instead of piecemeal consultations on individual projects, there should be widespread consultation in a meaningful way with the local authorities on a comprehensive package of measures to meet the needs of the east Thames area. I know that Councillor Duvall and his colleagues in Greenwich, as well as those in Newham and Tower Hamlets, I am sure, are willing to work positively with the Minister to ensure that the developments in the east Thames corridor bring lasting benefits to the local community. The Woolwich rail tunnel is crucial to the economic regeneration of Woolwich and north-east Kent and is crucial to the successful development of the royal docks as well.

2.44 pm
Mr. Nick Raynsford (Greenwich)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on his success in securing the debate and I thank him and Minister for their courtesy in allowing me a brief period in which to speak. My constituency has within its boundaries three of the river crossings that have been proposed or are under construction. They are the Blackwall third crossing, the Jubilee line extension and the docklands light railway extension.

As the Minister knows, there is considerable support in Greenwich for a third crossing at Blackwall, although we are both conscious of the environmental consequences of the proposed high-level bridge that his Department favours, and sensitive to the concerns expressed by people on the north side of the river about the possible consequences of a third crossing. If the Minister considers the congestion that exists, particularly immediately south of the Blackwall tunnels, and the extent to which that affects a much wider region, including Greenwich town centre, he will understand the forceful support of people in Greenwich for a third crossing at Blackwall.

On the Jubilee line extension, there is considerable pleasure in Greenwich at the fact that, belatedly, approval has been given to North Greenwich station, although there is concern about the price that is being paid—approval was dependent on the 1,000-vehicle park-and-ride facility at north Greenwich. There is concern that that will attract more vehicles into a region that, as I have already said, is severely congested. As the proposal is proceeding, it gives added force to the case for the third Blackwall crossing.

On the docklands light railway extension, we enter a rather different world, a curiously Alice in Wonderland world. The Minister for Transport in London is not responsible because the scheme is being promoted not by the Department of Transport but by the Department of the Environment. That seems curious enough, but the second bizarre Alice in Wonderland feature is that Cutty Sark station, which would be on that route, and which would generate the largest number of visitors and serve the major tourist attraction of Greenwich town centre, with all the historic buildings to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich referred, is very much in doubt.

The station is in doubt because of an extraordinary piece of short-termism on the part of the Department of the Environment, which said that the station could be built only if the full cost were raised by Greenwich council and private sector partners within a three-month period. Allowing the station not to be built flies in the face of all common sense. Without question, transport logic points to the need for a station to serve this major tourist attraction on a link that serves another of London's major tourist attractions, the Tower of London. There are links down the river, but the case for a direct rail link between the Tower and Greenwich is strong.

The decision to reject a station at Cutty Sark, which is right in the heart of the tourist area, is curious. It flies in the face not only of common sense but of the views of the people who responded to the consultation exercise that the Department of the Environment, Docklands Light Railway and the London Docklands development corporation carried out when the proposal was made to drop the station.

Local residents, businesses and other organisations expressed almost unanimous support for Cutty Sark station to go ahead. Instead of responding positively to that and working with Greenwich council and others to ensure that the station is built, the Government appear to be trying to wriggle out of their responsibilities. Saying that the station will be built only if the council raises £14 million within three months unconditionally is tantamount to killing the station. It is depressing that the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has taken that decision and who is not currently in the Chamber, has essentially signed the death warrant for Cutty Sark station and does not have the guts to admit that. I have expressed that view to him in writing, so the fact that he is not here is not a reason for my holding back from making that comment.

To its credit, Greenwich council is doing its level best to come forward with a funding package to make the station possible and it is working closely with a number of partners, local businesses, landowners and other organisations. At this stage, it is difficult to say how far it will succeed in raising the large sum of money that has been specified. I hope that it will go a long way towards achieving its aim. I am giving the council my full support, but I hope that the Minister accepts that it is very strange for the Government essentially to have passed all responsibility for securing the station on to the local authority and to have established such extraordinarily difficult conditions for the station to be built.

I hope that the Government will change their mind and that the Minister will persuade his colleagues in the Department of the Environment to make them work more constructively with Greenwich council and Greenwich's private sector partners to ensure that the station is built. Not to do so would be an extraordinary exercise in putting short-term economies before the long-term advantages of building the station, which has huge potential for generating additional income and which makes great sense in planning and transport terms.

2.49 pm
Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I support my hon. Friends the Members for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) and for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford), who represent the south bank in east London whereas I represent north Woolwich, or the north bank. I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Timms) is here, too. My hon. Friends have made clear their views on the Blackwall crossing and stated what nonsense it would be not to have the Cutty Sark station on the docklands light railway. The Woolwich crossing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich referred, should have a high priority. It would extend the north London link from Richmond and Willesden junction—and perhaps by even more ambitious routes—across the Thames to north Kent, Dartford and even further.

There is no great support for the construction of a road for the east London river crossing, but there is support for another extension of the docklands light railway, even by tunnel, across to Thamesmead. Such a proposal would be in keeping with the Government's change from road to rail and would be wholly in line with the royal commission's recent report.

I endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich said about the river. Should there be a practical proposal for developing the river as part of London's overall transport system, I hope that the Government will give it as much support as they have given to road planning and construction.

2.51 pm
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) on securing this important debate. Having spent some years replying to such debates, I now appreciate that there is an invariable rule which is that the longer one allows the proposer to make his case, the longer one needs to reply to what he said in the shorter time remaining. The inverse is even worse in that if the proposer sits down after five minutes having said nothing, one has to extemporise for the remaining 25 minutes. However, it was important that the hon. Member for Woolwich and also the hon. Members for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) and for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) should have been able to put their remarks on record.

We are not in the business of spending vast sums of public money to build infrastructure for purposes wholly unrelated to the environmental, social and economic needs of an area. We know that the Thames is a great asset of which we wish to make more. Indeed, we have been doing so on an all-party basis and Labour and Conservative-controlled boroughs further down river have co-operated with me. However, what emerged from the consultation and planning work was that the Thames is also a barrier. It is a barrier to regeneration and, as the hon. Member for Woolwich said, it is starkly evident that that is especially so east of Tower bridge where, as the river widens, crossings become fewer, which is a genuine constraint on our ability to regenerate areas where unemployment is high, housing is bad and conditions are far from ideal.

There have been tremendous developments in docklands, north and south of the river and adjacent to specific regeneration areas. There are signs that whole areas are coming back to life. Hon. Gentlemen will agree that many people in London have consistently underestimated the impact of the Jubilee line. It will have a tremendous regenerative effect on a swathe of south London, through Bermondsey and Southwark to Surrey Quays before it crosses back to the Isle of Dogs, on to north Greenwich and up to Canning Town. We all, therefore, have a straightforward agenda in our minds. We want to try to remove the river as a barrier to allow for the regenerative expansion we all seek, and to try to do so in a way that is consistent with the needs and wishes of the local population.

I hope that the hon. Member for Woolwich will allow me to say that he was less than his usual equable self when he described us as having all our eggs in a road-building basket. If he will forgive me for saying so, that was a ludicrous caricature. As he knows, the whole point about our strategy in east London is that it takes account of Woolwich metro, of the Lewisham extension of the docklands light railway and of the Jubilee line extension. That is a quick £3 billion-worth of eggs in the road-building basket. Compared with that, the road-building component is relatively modest.

Equally, in all fairness, the hon. Gentleman's version of the history of the east London river crossing was unrecognisable. There is no reticence, as he puts it, about Woolwich metro. Far from it; it is very much a live project for us. I was delighted to take it on board as it arose from the Union Metro proposals and to see how the operators generally regarded it highly, not least because it is quite a cost-effective proposal with much of the infrastructure already in place.

Again, the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me for putting this next point on the record; it needs to be said. There was no dithering over the proposition that we should attract the private sector into the Jubilee line extension. "Dither" is the last word that I would associate with that transaction. For the record, what happened was that Labour Members constantly berated me for not simply saying, "Get on with it. Start building. Do not worry about the private sector. The private sector is too slow. Build the thing." I said no because I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport were well aware that as long as Labour Members took that view, the private sector would sit back and say, "If they are mugs enough to put the money in themselves, let them do it." It was only when the private sector saw clearly that this Government did not flinch that it contributed £400 million towards the building of the line—money that would otherwise have been lost to the Exchequer and lost to London. I apologise to no one for having stood firm in that transaction and for having achieved an excellent result.

To add insult to injury, which is uncharacteristic of the hon. Gentleman who is such a mild and generous-hearted chap in reality, he said that it would be nonsense for us not to build a station at north Greenwich. He is absolutely right. It would, indeed, have been nonsense which is precisely why I made it clear to the private sector interests there that they would contribute in large measure to its construction. That is exactly what they subsequently did.

If one seeks office in this country, it is as well to sharpen up one's bargaining techniques because these people are no patsies. I fear that a life in the wilderness has left the hon. Gentleman with his customary good nature, but without that instinct for the jugular which so defines the Government, whom it is probably best to leave to do these sort of deals while the hon. Gentleman remains happy to chide me—

Mr. Austin-Walker


Mr. Norris

Given the limited time, I shall pass on to one or two important issues.

The third crossing at Blackwall is, indeed, a difficult proposition. The difference between the tunnel and the bridge is that the tunnel costs about £80 million more and, unfortunately, provides only two lanes of traffic, whereas the bridge provides four. It is clear that the bridge is extremely intrusive on the north side and it is also clear that British Gas has many reservations about its intrusion on the south side. We want to try to find an alternative, but I am loth to see the tunnel as an alternative simply because it is a rather inadequate solution. We shall need to press further on an all-party basis on that.

On the Cutty Sark station, it is simply a question of looking at £14 million, which is more than all the other station costs put together. That must be set against the fact that Island Gardens and Greenwich stations are on either side of the Cutty Sark and that each is about 700 yd from it. It is the sensible project management that has to go into making tough decisions which will shape that project. The important point is that Greenwich will be on the DLR map. Greenwich is what tourists recognise and Greenwich is where people will go.

The consultation document, which we hope to issue shortly, will stimulate, I hope, exactly the kind of constructive exchange that we have had to date both north and south of the river, recognising as it does that this is a problem that we all have in seeking to regenerate the local community. I echo the hon. Gentleman's words in that I have enjoyed an extremely co-operative relationship with Len Duvall of Greenwich council and with many of his colleagues. I look forward to that continuing. I am heartened by the co-operative sense in which people both north and south of the river are prepared to look at these issues. I promise the hon. Gentleman that there will be no shortage of co-operation on my part in endeavouring to see this through to a successful—

The motion having been made at half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.