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Woolwich Rail Tunnel

Volume 264: debated on Monday 23 October 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the benefits of the proposed Woolwich rail tunnel. [36465]

London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack and the London Docklands development corporation continue to co-operate in their study of that proposed project and I await their further report with interest.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the proposed east London river crossing, if built, would produce increased congestion and pollution in the Woolwich, Belvedere and Plumstead regions, which already have some of the highest rates of asthma and respiratory illness in the south-east? Does he recognise that, in terms of economic regeneration, the Woolwich rail tunnel would provide enormous benefits to a region that has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the United Kingdom? In view of the support for the Woolwich rail tunnel—which is environmentally acceptable and cheaper to produce than the east London river crossing—of the London Docklands development corporation, London Underground, British Rail and local authorities, will he now get the Government to pull their finger out and start construction of that vital rail project?

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to anticipate the outcome of the consultation exercise on. east London river crossings in general, which was embarked on several months ago, and I cannot do so; nor can I anticipate the dedication of resources before considering the wider pattern that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will need to examine in the public expenditure settlement. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the east London river crossing, he will know that we withdrew the original scheme for the long east London crossing, but that a number of other proposals, which interrelate in east London, are still on the table in the consultation document. There again, at this moment it would not be appropriate to pre-empt the conclusion of that consultation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in my borough of Bexley, considerable support exists for that rail tunnel, that there is also, however, considerable support for additional road crossings between Tower bridge and the Dartford crossing, and that it is essential, if we are to develop the east Thames corridor-Thames gateway, to have them as soon as possible? When are we likely to have an announcement on those developments?

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have had a chance to consider all the consultation responses and to issue a further statement on this subject before the end of the year, but I note what my hon. Friend says. I fear that it is always convenient and, in a sense, something of an intellectual cop-out merely to assume that a public transport scheme, however desirable, will be able to absorb all the demand in a particular transport corridor. The consultation exercise points out—frankly, it is not a matter of great political disagreement—that a mixture of further access across the river will be necessary if the river is to cease to be an impediment to economic and social progress, and to be an asset.