Nicholas Ridley – 1986 Statement on the Channel Tunnel

Below is the text of the statement made by Nicholas Ridley, the then Secretary of State for Transport, in the House of Commons on 20 January 1986.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Channel fixed link.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the President of France, meeting earlier today in Lille, announced the decision of the two Governments to take together the necessary steps to facilitate the construction of a fixed link across the Channel by the Channel Tunnel Group. Copies of the joint statement are being made available in the Vote Office.

We will publish as soon as possible a White Paper that will give the full reasons for this decision. It will also chart the next steps to give effect to that decision, the treaty, the concession agreement and the legislation.

The two Governments were faced with four proposals of outstanding quality which reflect great credit on the firms involved. It is remarkable that such keen competition could develop to provide and finance privately a project of this magnitude. The key factors that led the Government to select the Channel Tunnel Group were as follows.

Eurobridge was eliminated largely on technical grounds. It is an imaginative and forward-looking proposal, but the technical risks make it too speculative for the two Governments to believe that it was likely to be financed and successfully completed.

The choice between Channel Tunnel Group, Channel Expressway and EuroRoute was a more difficult one. They differ widely as to their technical characteristics, their impact on the environment, their effect upon shipping, and their vulnerability to terrorist attack—all factors in the decision. The invitation to promoters made it clear that any fixed link had to be financed, constructed and operated without support from public funds, and without Government guarantees against technical and commercial risks. It is thus for investors ultimately to determine whether a fixed link is built. The Governments had to try to select the scheme which offered the best prospects of attracting investors’ support.

Both EuroRoute and Channel Expressway answer the popular desire to drive from one country to the other with the independence and freedom of a drive-through link, but both have large technical risks. CTG’s is a well-developed project, relying on well-proven technology and is both less risky and less expensive. It offers a fast and efficient rail shuttle service for road passengers and freight, with very frequent departures and no booking. It presents no problems to maritime traffic in the Channel, and is the least vulnerable to terrorist attack. Its environmental impact can be reduced to an acceptable level. The Government concluded that CTG was the best scheme to go forward to the market.

The Government remain very much aware of the arguments that the public would like a drive-through link. In due course, the conditions may arise when a drive-through link would be viable. We have therefore secured an undertaking from the CTG that it will put forward by the year 2000 a proposal for a drive-through link to be undertaken as soon as its technical feasibility is assured, and economic circumstances and the growth of traffic allow it to be financed without undermining the return on ​ the original link. At a later stage, the Governments will be free to invite competitive bids for a further link coming into operation not before the year 2020.

I expect the signature of the Anglo-French treaty to take place in February, and the concession agreement between the Governments and the Channel Tunnel Group to be concluded shortly thereafter. The legislation will then be introduced into this House as soon as possible. Construction could begin by summer 1987.

Consultations in Kent have so far focused on the question of which scheme the Government should adopt. We must now concentrate upon making the chosen scheme as acceptable as possible. We will want to minimise the environmental impact, and to consider carefully the employment consequences of this development. We will be sympathetic if problems seem likely to arise in east Kent when the link opens some seven years from now.

We must arrive at satisfactory arrangements with the promoters for the disposal of spoil and on other environmental matters, and we will ensure that the necessary road infrastructure is provided. The White Paper will deal with these questions.

The Channel tunnel is a massive and difficult project. It will be a challenge to our engineers, our technicians and our financial institutions. Equally, I believe that it will be of great benefit to travellers and exporters alike in giving them cheaper, quicker and more reliable access to the continent of Europe.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

In opting for the Channel Tunnel Group tender, the Government—against the instincts and prejudices of the Prime Minister—have chosen a fixed link which has the potential of matching Britain’s needs for an integrated transport policy. However, in rushing this decision through in such a tight time scale, the Secretary of State has broken his promise to Parliament on 9 December that he would publish a White Paper on the same day as the decision was announced. I suspect that this will not be the last of his broken promises.

A number of questions must be answered. Exactly when will the White Paper be published? Will the Secretary of State fight in the Cabinet to get a debate in Government time before the treaty between Britain and France is signed? The right hon. Gentleman said that the White Paper would refer to the treaty and various other things. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore answer this question precisely: will he fight in the Cabinet to get a debate in Government time?

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that no obstacles will be placed in the way of those most affected by the scheme and that their views will be thoroughly canvassed by the Select Committee? What guarantees can the right hon. Gentleman provide that the British share of construction costs will be spent on British goods and that British labour will be employed on the project? As we know that the French are keen to gain the maximum advantage from this fixed link and to have the maximum investment in SNCF, will the right hon. Gentleman produce an investment plan in conjunction with British Rail so that BR can maximise the opportunities which the link may offer?

Will the right hon. Gentleman do what he can to establish customs clearance facilities in major regional centres in order to encourage the carriage of long-haul freight by British Rail? Will he ensure that the terminal ​ points from which passengers may travel are spread throughout the regions? Will the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that any public expenditure on infrastructure will he new money and will not be taken out of existing budgets?

Now that the Government have taken the decision, it is their duty to ensure that any benefits are evenly spread throughout the country. The Government have a responsibility to the nation as a whole.

Mr. Ridley

I was not clear whether the hon. Gentleman was in favour of the link. It is curious that we have had such a grudging response to this statement on the day when the Leader of the Opposition has made a speech—I saw the Tape as I came in—calling for a massive programme to reverse the decline in the British economy.

I shall publish a White Paper giving a mass of the information which the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has sought and which other hon. Members will seek. The decision was taken only a day or two ago, so it seems right that I should postpone publication until full details of the decision can be included in the White Paper. I hope that the details will be published within a week or two, or shortly thereafter.

The question of a debate is, of course, one for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to consider.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to ensure that objectors to the scheme would have an opportunity to put their views. I confirm that they will be able to present their case as petitioners before the Select Committee in this House and in another place, if the Select Committee is prepared to give them status. I shall encourage the Select Committee to be as wide as possible in accepting petitioners.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman-he might even be pleased to hear this—that I believe that a good deal has been done between the British and the French railways, and between those railways and the promoters, which will result in large-scale orders for rolling stock. I am certain that all those who are concerned on the British side will do their utmost to provide as many jobs as they can on this side of the Channel.

We hope to site national customs controls as far as possible next to each other at the entry to the link of each direction of travel so that there will not be duplication or stopping for through passengers, but there still have to be customs and immigration controls.

As to public spending on infrastructure, there will be new money, in the sense that this is a new project. However, whether or not a new link is built, there will still be a need to expand the road system to the channel ports because of the great increase in traffic that is taking place.

Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)

As one of my right hon. Friend’s predecessors as Secretary of State for Transport who brought similar proposals before the House more than a decade ago, I congratulate him and welcome his conversion to the project. I express my appreciation at the success of his negotiations and promise my wholehearted support to the scheme.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for those wise words. In mitigation of what he said about me, I should point out the small difference between his attempt to get his link constructed and mine, which is that on this occasion no taxpayers’ money will be involved.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

We welcome the decision that has been made today, and we are grateful for the fact that this project has been chosen and not one of the others.

The right hon. Gentleman said of the chosen scheme: “Its environmental impact can be reduced to an acceptable level.” Does he agree that that can be done only if British Rail has adequate capital resources to make full use of the whole network, including the midlands, the north and Scotland? I realise that this is not in his hands, but will he try to persuade the Select Committee to hold hearings in Dover and Folkestone. This would be the right way forward, because people would be able to make their views heard.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the support that he brings on behalf of the Liberal party for the decision that we have made to choose the Channel Tunnel Group. I am sure that that will be as welcome to Liberals throughout east Kent as it is to the Government. I congratulate him on his courageous support for what he knows to be right. Massive investment will be required by British Rail. A conventional-speed train system will need about £290 million, and a high-speed train system about £390 million, and there will be further investment in the shuttle rail equipment, which will be undertaken by the Channel Tunnel Group. Some large orders from the promoters and the railways are to come for this part of the project. It opens up great new opportunities for extending the railway system right from the north of our country into the farthest corners of Europe. I join the hon. Gentleman in hoping that the Select Committee on the hybrid Bill will be prepared to travel and hear evidence in the affected areas of Kent.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend recognise that his statement will not allay the c’eep and legitimate concern in east Kent about the implications of a fixed link?

Therefore, will he accept the need for close and continuing consultation with the local interests likely to be affected? Can he give the House any reassurance that there will be a proper and continuing role for the ferries and ports of Dover and Folkestone? Will he reassure the House that any extra economic activity generated by the fixed link will be retained in east Kent and not be drawn to north-west France?

Mr. Ridley

I should like to be as helpful as I can to my right hon. and learned Friend, who has done so much to represent to me the views and fears of his constituents—as has my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) who, as we all know, cannot speak for himself.

My hon. and learned Friend has made clear, as has my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Rees), the views and fears of constituents on the south-east coast of Kent. As a result of their representations I have decided to set up a joint committee consisting of officials, local authority representatives of the area and the promoters. It will be chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Mr. Mitchell), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and it will go into all the points of local concern and difficulty, in the hope of improving the impact of the scheme on both the environment and the economics of the affected areas.

I cannot accurately forecast the effect on the ferries to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred. ​ However, I believe that there will be a continuing role for them, even after the link has been opened. Dover has some of the longer distance routes, as well as short sea routes. The growth in traffic is expected to be very great, and I am sure that the ferries will have a share of it. I am also certain that many people will prefer to choose one mode of transport rather than another.

When it is opened, I believe that this huge new artery will carry an immense number of passengers as well as a vast amount of trade between the continent and this country and that it will act as a magnet for new economic development and investment. If the planning policies of the local councils are right, there will be great opportunities for additional development in the east Kent area.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some of us view this project as simply the biggest election bribe in history? It is clear that this decision has been arrived at without due consideration of its implications for Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom and of its effect upon the merchant service. Will the right hon. Gentleman hold up this project until a commission has fully investigated all these aspects?

Mr. Ridley

The link will greatly benefit constituents throughout the country, including those in Scotland. If goods can be sent to the continent more quickly, more cheaply and without the risk of delay, and if people can travel to the continent more quickly, more cheaply and without the risk of delay, that will aid the competitiveness and trade of the whole country. These are not Government funds which could be spent in other directions. A great deal of this money will be international money. A great deal of this capital will go only to projects which are chosen internationally. It will not be possible to direct it elsewhere.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Government have made by far the best and most sensible choice by choosing the Channel Tunnel Group’s scheme from among the other fixed link options? Will he also accept that this is the only scheme that ensures that a substantial amount of the growth in traffic will still go to the ferry operators? Will he say a word about the plans for streamlining the handling of customs and immigration, in particular the possibility of on-train customs handling, since this would represent an important asset for the project?

Mr. Ridley

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I welcome his support because he, too, studied this matter in depth when he had my responsibilities. He is correct in saying that this choice means that the opportunities for continuing the ferry operations are great indeed, although it is difficult to be specific about the precise amount.

My right hon. Friend asked about customs and immigration. We are working hard on this matter. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Treasury is still hoping to find ways to improve this service. For many reasons, we shall need both customs and immigration. The reasons include the prevention of disease through plants and animals being carried through the link. Controls will therefore be needed.

I am anxious that a special arrangement should not be provided for the through trains which use the link which ​ would be competitively disadvantageous for the ferries or for any other forms of transport. To concentrate both the French and the English controls at the point of departure in each direction will mean at least that passengers are stopped only once, and that control acts only once.

Mr. Gordon A. T. Bagier (Sunderland, South)

In making the decision to have a fixed link, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on following the guidance of the Select Committee on Transport. I only wish that he had done so on the occasion of the Bill dealing with buses.

The courage of the Minister has been mentioned, so I congratulate him on taking the hazardous line of disagreeing with his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on her reported preference for another scheme. Will the Minister give an undertaking that when the White Paper is published he will make strong representations to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to ensure that it is debated and that a decision is taken by the House before the treaty with France is signed?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The report of the Select Committee on Transport was most helpful. I am pleased that we have been able to agree with it entirely. The hon. Gentleman did a quick and expert job, and the Government are grateful to him.

This has been a rather frustrating time for the press, because its members have been unable to discover what has been happening. Some hon. Members may have seen misleading statements in the press, which, I am happy to say, are untrue. The Government are united in their choice, and we agree with the French as well.

Debates are a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but there will be a Second Reading debate on the hybrid Bill.

Sir Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his optimism about the future of the ferries is not shared by some of the ferry operators? Will he consider the matter carefully, to ensure that this decision has not sounded the death knell for the British merchant marine, which has served this country so well?

Mr. Ridley

Some ferry operators are more pessimistic than I have been this afternoon about the prospects. However, it will be seven or eight years before any link can be opened. During that time we expect a massive growth in traffic to the continent, which will result in extra business for the ferries. The extent of the business that they will retain is hard to predict, but I am not pessimistic about the prospects for my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

As the transport unions have been especially careful to offer positive co-operation, will the Secretary of State suggest to the chairman of the Channel Tunnel Group that it is unhelpful to give the impression that he would be prepared to use non-union labour on a fixed link?

Mr. Ridley

Far be it from me to make suggestions to the chairman of the Channel Tunnel Group after we have made our decision and accepted the final proposals as modified. However, there may be some disagreement about what the hon. Lady has said. The customers using the link will place great reliance upon the fact that it will not be subject to strikes and interruption. The hon. Lady’s question is a strange one. To ask to ensure the possibility of unionised activity and strikes is to sound a warning note of the true face of the Labour party.​

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of how bitter the opposition is in east Kent to the proposition? Is he further aware that, although I give the proposition my support on national grounds, I am sorry that I am unable to carry my constituents with me? Will my right hon. Friend offer my constituents and the environmental societies more than a hybrid Bill as a means of registering their complaints? Will he offer them consultation with officers in his Department, so that they will feel that they are being heard and that something is being done about their complaints?

Mr. Ridley

I am fully aware of the feelings in east Kent. My hon. Friend and I have visited the area and discussed the matter with local people. I share my hon. Friend’s view that there is still much apprehension. In response to this, we shall undertake a major consultative programme in the area and, in addition, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will chair a co-ordinating committee of the local authorities, the promoters and the Government as problems arise.

The procedures of the hybrid Bill Committee will allow almost anyone who is affected to make representations, not just to the Committee in this House but to the Committee in another place. Those are full and proper arrangements for hearing local objections, and I confirm that the Government and the promoters will do what they can to adapt the scheme to local requirements.

Mr. Bruce Millan (Glasgow, Govan)

Is the Secretary of State aware that many of us are resolutely opposed to a Channel fixed link, whether this project or any other, for the reason which the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged in answer to a previous question, namely, that this will suck further economic activity into the south-east of England, which is the last place in Britain that needs such stimulus? This is just another project that will widen the north-south divide, and it will be bitterly opposed, especially in Scotland.

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friends who represent Kent have expressed concern about the effect on Kent, although not in the sense that it will suck jobs from Scotland into Kent. I believe that the link will create some growth in jobs. The orders that will be placed for rolling stock and other manufactures will be of great benefit to the entire country. The fact that Scottish exports will be able to reach the continent more cheaply and more quickly should be recognised as a help to the competitiveness of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents and, therefore, to their advantage.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Will my right hon. Friend conduct careful consultations about conservation before producing a White Paper? Will he have discussions with the Nature Conservancy Council, which is the Government’s adviser, and which wishes to put strong points to him?

Mr. Ridley

We are always keen to take what action we can to assist in improving arrangements for conservation. My hon. Friend will know that geography dictates where the tunnel will come out and where the service area will have to be. It would be difficult to change that now.

Mr. Roland Boyes (Houghton and Washington)

Is the Secretary of State aware that I and the majority of my constituents completely oppose the building of the fixed ​ link? We live in an area of high unemployment, and we cannot understand why the Government can encourage the expenditure of billions of pounds on building a hole in the ground, instead of encouraging such expenditure on building structures above the ground. The construction of new schools, houses and hospitals would reduce unemployment in my area. This project will increase unemployment there.

Mr. Ridley

This is not Government cash which could be used to build schools, hospitals or other structures in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. It is international capital, which will go to projects only where investors believe they can earn a reward. It is far better that that capital should be used to build a Channel link than to build factories on the continent, which might make the competitiveness of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents even worse. I repeat that a most useful benefit to the north of England and Scotland will be the fact that goods will be transported more cheaply to their markets. Transport is an important factor in industrial costs, and anything that we can do to reduce transport costs will help industry.

Sir John Wells (Maidstone)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great opportunities that will be created for new employment in Kent, despite fears of early local unemployment on the ferries and elsewhere? Will he encourage Kent county council and the district authorities to grant planning permission, so that Kent may grow, with great prospects for our people? In north Kent unemployment is as high as it is anywhere in the country.

Mr. Ridley

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is great potential for further development arising from the link. However, such development must depend on the planning policies pursued by district councils. I have been in close touch with the chairman of Kent county council, who came to Lille with me early this morning. We have throughout discussed the problems and opportunities which the link presents. I undertake to keep in close touch with the Kent local authorities to ensure that every opportunity is taken to help.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Given the considerable public interest in having a drive-through link in addition to the rail tunnel, does the Secretary of State accept that the year 2000 seems a long way off? What steps will he take to encourage the CTG to tackle the technical problems involved well before that deadline, and how firmly committed are the French Government to the concept of a drive-through link at a future date?

Mr. Ridley

Both Governments would have liked to see a drive-through link, but the problems are fairly formidable, in the sense of a 5 or 6-kilometre stretch near the French coast where the strata are difficult and unknown. It will be of great assistance to drive the bored tunnels of the CTG through those strata, whet more information about the possibility of a bigger tunnel for a drive-through link can be gathered. There was always doubt about the ventilation system proposed by Channel Expressway. With further advances in that technology, and with the greater geological information that we hope to obtain, it may be possible to drive a bigger tunnel through at a later stage. The CTG’s undertaking, which will be spelt out and put into the White Paper, makes it possible to do that fairly soon, or, in default of that, for a further invitation to be made to promoters so that a drive-through link would come into existence by the year 2,020.