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The Crossrail Debate

July 19, 2005

The Crossrail Debate

I am sure that the whole debate has been a delight for every last train spotter. It seems that almost every railway siding from Essex to Worcestershire has been mentioned; in particular, we have had a tour d’horizon of Romford, courtesy of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) who went into great detail in a passionate defence of the rights and interests of his constituents.

When, or perhaps if, Crossrail is built, our capital city?one of the great global cities?will have the beginnings of a railway system fit for the 21st century. Why then have the Government seen fit to impose a procedure more suited to the 19th century in proposing this hybrid Bill? What of democratic accountability, and consultation with the countless residents whose daily lives will be blighted and affected? We have heard about that from several contributors to the debate. Why is the ultimate decision about whether the project is funded, and thus can proceed, left to two men, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Transport, who do not represent anyone on transport issues in this House? It is a devolved matter for their constituents in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and in Edinburgh, South-West.

There is no doubt that London desperately needs proper investment in its infrastructure, because if London fails economically, the whole of the United Kingdom fails with it. Jobs, at least those outside the public sector, that fly from our capital city usually leave our shores entirely. Any Government action that diminishes the relative commercial importance of London is unlikely to benefit Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham; instead, it will be European or increasingly south-east Asian cities that will reap the benefits. It is in that context that we must ensure that investment in the transport infrastructure of our capital city is fit for purpose in an innovative, rapidly evolving world of commerce.

Crossrail is a plan that will integrate the mainline railways to the east and west of London, through the construction of two tunnels, directly beneath the centre of London, from Paddington to Liverpool Street. As the Secretary of State said in his opening comments, the project was agreed by the Government as long ago as 1990 but the necessary private Bill failed to get through the House of Commons four years later. Finally, on grounds of cost as much as anything else, the Conservative Government pulled the plug on that scheme in 1996. Many Members who have spoken in the debate may not be entirely aware that the proposal goes back as far as 1948, so surely few would dispute the fact that Crossrail is an idea whose time has genuinely come.

There are, however, some substantial issues that need to be properly addressed even on Second Reading. Later, I shall touch on some constituency issues; rightly, as constituency Members, we have particular concerns and they have been mentioned by all the Members who have made contributions so far. None the less there are some more fundamental issues, many of which concern the proposed funding for the entire project and the manner in which the promoters of the Bill, Cross London Rail Links Ltd.?a joint venture company formed by the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London?have gone about their public consultation obligations. I accept that many such issues will be discussed at far greater length in the protracted formal Committee stage, assuming that the Bill gets that far.

I am the Member of Parliament whose constituency is most obviously directly affected by the proposal, which is not to demean in any way the contributions made elsewhere. However, as the central part of Crossrail goes right through my constituency from Liverpool Street in the City of London to Paddington station, I wanted to list some of the concerns on the record in advance of petitions by residents associations, local businesses and individual members of the public. The funding of infrastructure projects here in our capital city has historically been highly contentious. Sadly, if anyone believed that adding a new layer of devolved government, as this Labour Government did in creating the Mayor and the Greater London assembly only five years ago, would make things easier, they were sadly mistaken.

Mr. Walker : Does my hon. Friend agree that traditionally too much of London’s money has been sent to the regions to fund infrastructure projects in the north of England and Scotland, and not enough retained in London to guarantee the future of this great city and its ability to bankroll this nation of ours?

Mr. Field: I thank my hon. Friend for that observation. I know that he is a serving councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth, so I expect he sees both sides of that argument, from the suburbs and from central London. I think he is absolutely right.

It is clear that the financing of this project remains entirely up in the air. I think we are the first to accept that businesses are willing, and have shown themselves willing, to make a contribution, but equally they want to see the colour of the Government’s money. They want an idea of the likely funding structure. My greatest worry is that although we could spend months, perhaps years, talking about Crossrail, unless there is a fairly clear idea of the source of the financing, all that discussion will come to naught. It would be somewhat intellectually dishonest for any Government to advance such a scheme without having a strong idea about where the finance will come from. Without such clarity, the great worry is that many years could be spent in discussions, with the result that many lives and many properties and businesses could be blighted in the manner described by a number of Members across the House.

There is little doubt that the creation of Transport for London under the direct responsibility of the Mayor of London has at least provided a structure for transport decision making here in the capital, but the terms of the Greater London Authority Act 1999 were couched in such a way as to ensure that financial control remained firmly in the hands of central Government. I do not believe that can truly be a sensible way to proceed, although I accept that Crossrail has an importance that goes beyond the capital city. In view of Mayor Livingstone’s record of financial profligacy, such control of finances might generate a collective sigh of relief from many London council tax payers who have already seen a whopping 105 per cent. increase in the mayoral precept on the London council tax over the last five years. Indeed, the prospect of Mayor Livingstone being issued a blank cheque for Crossrail is enough to make anyone shudder.

Nevertheless, the stark financial reality is that all too often this Labour Government have regarded London as a convenient cash cow. The creaking London infrastructure, especially but not exclusively that of transport, treats residents and wealth-creating businesses alike with some disdain. Most independent commentators would estimate that every year, some £12 billion of public funds is transferred from the capital to the rest of the UK and some £1.5 billion of that is from business rates alone. There is little doubt that this is beginning to have an electoral effect, and the Government should beware.

Issues of quality of life and the cost of living were increasingly important for my party in the capital during the general election campaign, and the swing from the Labour party to the Conservatives in London was greater than in any other region of the United Kingdom. I am proud that I have four hon. Friends?my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes), for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond)?in seats that would have remained in Labour hands had there been only an average national swing. On the grounds of electoral self-interest alone, I hope that the Government are now listening to the voice of London. I appreciate that the trend that I have articulated has been echoed by an increasingly worried cohort of London Labour Back Benchers.

We now seek an investment commitment to Crossrail at the earliest opportunity, although I accept that there is no clear pathway to its funding. I am the first to admit that it is a complicated situation. No one is suddenly going to produce £10 billion, £15 billion or £20 billion?I think we all realise that by the time Crossrail is built the cost is likely to be at the higher end of that range?but over the past year the Mayor has been given what he and his new friends in government have euphemistically called "prudential borrowing powers" to complete the east London link, which is of course a crucial part of our Olympic 2012 successful bid, and therefore the programme for the future. In essence, that is a financial sleight of hand because the Mayor is allowed to borrow some £2.9 billion from future council tax receipts to complete the east London link. Despite the national importance of that transport project, the money will still come from London’s local taxpayers. Apparently, that will be the case for the whole Crossrail scheme.

In their desperation, London’s largest businesses have tried to engage with the Government and offer some money on the table. As the Minister will be aware, the current proposal is for an additional 3 per cent. surcharge on the business rate over 50 years or, indeed, for some added-value capture scheme that reflects the projected long-term increase in property values as a result of the infrastructure being created. That is understandable?everyone can support it in principle?but the difficult is, of course, how that bit of any increase in the value of a property is calculated. Understandably,
business has been reluctant to declare its hand fully, without a firm commitment in advance from the Government to put up the bulk of the project’s costs. I hope that the Minister will give at least some indication today about where he envisages some of the project’s funding will come from.

Inevitably, when the works start, there will be an immense amount of disruption to many London residents and businesses. As I mentioned in an earlier contribution, given the disruption in central London alone, I personally believe that it is very unlikely that we can go through the whole process of getting the Bill on to the statute book in enough time for work to begin before the Olympics. Nothing would be more disruptive than two or three years’ upheaval in central London in the midst of the Olympics. In all honesty, I suspect that the Government already recognise that and therefore the timetable is being postponed to the middle of the next decade.

I hope that my hon. Friends from other parts of the capital and beyond will forgive me if I focus my comments on my constituency, which has some important aspects to mention. I am assured that, although some of my constituents oppose Crossrail as a matter of principle, others, even those who face disruption in their lives, recognise many of its overall benefits. However, they are worried that, without a proper funding commitment and therefore a realistic timetable for how quickly work will commence and finish, their properties will be blighted. That has not been made any easier by the fact that the erstwhile chief executive of Crossrail, Norman Haste, quit it mid-May, before the necessary parliamentary approval process commenced. To a large extent, the Government had made his job increasingly impossible by dragging their feet on the funding required to make the whole Crossrail project viable.

It is now of key importance that a full public consultation exercise takes place on Crossrail’s precise route in central London. The initial proposal suggested three possible routes. I am alarmed by the current proposal for a route just south of Oxford street because it is certain to cause massive disruption to the residential population of Mayfair, as well as damage to a large number of listed buildings and other residential properties. Some Members?I say this perhaps for the benefit of Labour Members?may assume that Mayfair is somehow full of hugely wealthy investment bankers who live in large, multi-million pound houses. Nothing is further from the truth: the biggest number of complaints have come from two very large Peabody Trust buildings: one off Binney street and the other in Brown Hart Gardens in Mayfair. Indeed, the great bulk of the population of north Mayfair is made up of people who live in social housing, many of whom have done so for decades and their families may have done so for several generations.

My great concern is that, in reality, they have no choice about where they live. The same applies with many of the licensing changes that are taking place. People who live in Soho, Covent Garden or Mayfair who are well off enough can decide to move if they find that the disruption is too bad, but we always forget that a significant number of people, particularly in central
London, live in social housing. They have absolutely no choice about where they live. They are the most vulnerable people in our society, and they need everyone?not just hon. Members, but those in the city council, the Greater London assembly and, indeed, a range of non-governmental bodies?to stand up for their interests. I am sure that my constituency neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Regent’s Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck), as a former Westminster city councillor, would entirely endorse what I have had to say.

If we are to minimise the complications caused by both compulsory purchase and possible structural damage, it is of key importance to give serious consideration to other routes, especially the northern interchange route. I accept that the proper place for such consideration is not the Floor of the House because that will take place in Committee. However, it is worth at least talking about the matter in limited detail at this stage so that I can put it on record.

The housing association tenants in Mayfair often have no choice about where they live, as I have said, but they face the risk of severe disruption to their community. In Gilbert street in Mayfair, for example, the 1930s educational facility will be torn down to make way for a terminus to support the Crossrail link. The apartment blocks in the area will be subjected to a minimum of six years’ building work?several hon. Members have cited that time scale. Trucks will go in for at least 12 hours a day to dispose of rubble and a great deal of underground drilling with take place day and night. A shaft measuring 30 ft wide and 25 ft deep will be sunk to expel all the stale air. The residents feel that they have been neither properly informed, nor consulted. The building work will seriously disrupt the quality of life for countless local people, yet many residents are already in poor health, with some elderly and others similarly vulnerable.

Mr. Walker : Does my hon. Friend think that Crossrail has given sufficient attention to the environmental impact of the work? His concerns have been expressed by many hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, so they seem to run though most people’s arguments.

Mr. Field: My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. There is worry that insufficient emphasis has been given to a range of environmental issues throughout the consultation. Obviously, the green belt would not be affected in my constituency as it would be in those of many other hon. Members, but we still must consider environmental factors in my area.

I would have some sympathy with any Government on this matter because some persistent complainants will not be complaining about a lack of consultation, but the outcome. If we go ahead with Crossrail?such a scheme will have net benefits?some lives will inevitably be disrupted. The scheme will clearly cost an inordinate amount, which will have an effect on business and the council tax payers of London. I suspect that some of the cost will also be met by the general coffers. We can consult until the cows come home, but we must ultimately take a decision. That is the difficult side of being in government, so perhaps it is easier to be in opposition when considering such matters. I respect the fact that the Government must make decisions. However, we hear time and again the complaint from residents of not only central London, but the suburbs and places outside London, about a lack of consultation. I do not think that that represents average griping, but reflects a concern that I hope will be addressed in great detail in Committee.

Several interest groups, such as the Grosvenor Estate and the US embassy, which is based in Grosvenor Square, have great concerns about security, which I fear have been highlighted by the terrible events of only 12 days ago, not least because some of them took place in two great pinch-points?one just by Edgware Road and another by Aldgate East station. Both those places are not only right on the edge of my constituency, but very close to where much of the building work will take place at the Barbican and Paddington.

Hon. Members who have visited the Grosvenor Square part of central London in the past four years will know how the change to traffic arrangements around the square has been highly disruptive to many residents in surrounding roads. The current route proposed for Crossrail, which would go south of Oxford Street, is of great concern to the US embassy because it is not clear how we would be able to tackle the serious security implications of large numbers of workmen operating in the vicinity of the embassy at all hours of the day and night over several years. The Crossrail northern interchange route would link the Barbican, King’s Cross and St. Pancras, and Baker Street here in central London, and connect with all airports and tube lines. It would adjoin business areas along the Marylebone road and wide areas of regeneration that would otherwise not be touched by Crossrail. Unlike the proposed Crossrail scheme, the CNIR requires only one new interchange station.

Normally, underground tunnels run under roads, parks and railways in order to reduce damage and the number of compensation claims. The authorised District and Metropolitan lines used cut and cover under roads as against narrow tube tunnels. The Jubilee line extension runs under railways for 2 km but even in that case there has been some evidence of ground subsidence. The twin Crossrail tunnels will be about 2.5 times the size, and it is clear that there will be substantial additional risk of subsidence.

In addition, construction savings are supposed to be made under the scheme by tunnelling under shallower foundations of listed buildings and conservation areas, but the Crossrail safeguarding zone has two outer areas of possible subsidence up to 400 m wide under Bayswater, Mayfair, Soho, the City, of which I shall say more in a minute or two, and Georgian Spitalfields. I could not speak with the eloquence of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway), who defended the rights of his Spitalfields constituents but who is not present at the moment. I suspect that he was looking at the Crossrail cause célèbre in terms not just of next year’s local elections but of future general elections. No doubt the issue will run and run, conveniently for him, over that period.

We are concerned that this hybrid Bill uses the Land Clauses Consolidation Act 1845 to calculate compensation for disruptive work, which is not only a denial of modern human rights law but reimburses property owners only for specific building repairs. Under EU legislation, other interested parties will inevitably qualify for full compensation, which goes directly to concerns about funding and the overall cost of the project.

I appreciate that one or two colleagues wish to speak and I am sorry to have detained the House for so long, but I want to end with some heartfelt comments from the dozens of letters that I have received from constituents in the Barbican about the likely impact to their estate. They are concerned about the effect on the structural integrity of the Barbican estate from the proposed tunnelling works and particularly from the proposed construction of the cross-over cavern under the estate. In the short term, their concerns include the environmental impact of the noise, dust, vibration and traffic congestion over the next three or four years, which are inevitable in any Crossrail development work. They are keen that the Bill should contain rules that will constrain construction activities to offer no less protection than those that apply to other contractors working in the City of London. I have continually heard concern expressed about the long-term consequences of the operation of Crossrail for the immediate environment, including the effects of noise and vibration from the operation of the railway, and that Crossrail should be designed, constructed and maintained in order to minimise the risk of such effects.

It has been a pleasure to have had an opportunity to put some of our concerns on the record. I appreciate that inevitably such debates become parochial?we are all describing the concerns that affect our constituents?but we should raise our sights a little, and in particular to the long-term benefits of Crossrail.

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for the eloquent case that he has made for his constituents?not least for the huddled masses of the vast, echoing council estates of north Mayfair, whose denizens eke out a miserable existence. Does he accept that exactly the same was said at the time of the Jubilee line extension and the Victoria line works? Who remembers the inconvenience of that work and who nowadays ignores the great benefits and advantages that that has brought us? Does he not agree that, to use an infelicitous phrase, it is a price worth paying?

Mr. Field: That is entirely fair. I was coming to precisely that. We must raise our sights beyond some of the inevitable concerns expressed by our constituents. We should not ignore them and we want to do our best to mitigate them, but we must look at the long-term benefits?and we stand to experience some tremendous benefits from Crossrail. Much of my concern centres on the funding, because it is not clear where that will come from, but there is little doubt that the project will be of real benefit not only to all Londoners but to many from all parts of the country. If we are to maintain our strength and force as a global commercial city, without which this country would face grave problems, we desperately need to ensure that the project goes ahead.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman has made an excellent speech and he has put the case for his constituents?for example, in the Barbican?and the need for the quality of the work, and the sensitivity with which it is done, to be of a high standard. Does he agree that the best way to achieve that is for the construction labour force to be fully trade unionised? That would improve health and safety, as well as the quality of the work.

Mr. Field: We have had such a harmonious debate and I thought that it would end on a wonderful note. I will allow the hon. Gentleman to look after his own manor. He will, no doubt, wish to speak on Thursday when we discuss the Olympic bid, if he is not doing more sensible things such as going to the test match. He must be very proud that we won the 2012 Olympic bid and I am sure that he will ensure that all the workmen who will build our new Olympic stadium are highly unionised. I hope that he will allow a more free-market approach to what happens in my constituency when it comes to Crossrail.

I have now said more than enough. I thank the House for its indulgence and I hope that the Bill gets a Second Reading. However, the debate has raised some serious concerns and I hope that the Minister will take them on board not only when he winds up tonight, but?more importantly?in the months and years ahead.