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Hadley Wood (Parkway Station)

Volume 342: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2000

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1.30 pm

I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise a major issue of local concern in my constituency, and one that raises questions of wider regional and national importance. I am especially pleased to have this, my first debate, in the new Westminster Hall. I am a member of the Modernisation Committee and a strong supporter of the experiment.

One of the reasons that the Committee proposed the Westminster Hall experiment was to provide increased opportunities for Back-Bench Members and Select Committees to have issues debated. The topic that I bring before the Chamber today is one that I have attempted to bring before the House for some time under the traditional Adjournment debate procedure. This is my second attempt to bring it to Westminster Hall, and I am delighted to have succeeded so speedily.

I am grateful to all those who assisted me in my preparations for today's debate, in particular the Hadley Wood Association, a number of whose members are present for the debate; the Council for the Protection of Rural England; the Railway Development Society; and several of the affected local authorities, most notably Hertfordshire, Hertsmere and Stevenage councils.

Transport is clearly a key policy challenge for our Parliament, Government and country. There is wide support in my constituency for the Government's transport policy objectives—to reduce congestion, to enhance the environment and reduce pollution, to foster a shift to greater use of public transport and to promote greater integration between different modes of transport, including between road and rail.

As part of this policy development, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions published in July 1998 "The Future Strategy for the M25", which takes a strategic look at the future of that road. In that document, DETR states:
"Among the issues to be addressed … will be the scope for … park and ride facilities near the motorway".
I recognise, as do my constituents, that parkway stations can play a positive and productive part in transport policy, but that an overall view needs to be taken about proposed locations which considers the benefits as well as the drawbacks, in terms of both transport and the environment. Over the past year, new parkway stations have been opened at Luton airport and, last May, at Horwich in Bolton, and they have brought many benefits to those areas. Parkways can work where the location is appropriate.

Great North Eastern Railway has expressed a wish to create three new parkway stations—one north of London close to the M25, one close to Edinburgh and one in Doncaster.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising such an important matter on behalf of the residents of Hadley Wood. Does he agree that in transport planning, GNER must be sensitive to local residents and local circumstances? In my constituency a new parkway station is planned, which I believe will bring enormous benefits to villages such as Rossington and Finningley, but it must be integrated into the local transport infrastructure. An area such as Doncaster could benefit tremendously, but GNER must be mindful of other partners to ensure the best outcome for all concerned.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her intervention. Later in my speech, I shall deal with a more appropriate location for the proposed parkway north of London. I am well aware of the benefits that can be gained, but also of the great importance of proper public consultation and involvement.

My understanding is that GNER's preferred site for the parkway station north of London is on land immediately adjacent to Hadley Wood. According to GNER, the aim of the new station would be, first, to encourage north London residents to drive out to Hadley Wood, rather than going into central London to pick up their trains, and secondly, to encourage drivers in the area north-east of London and in Kent to drive around the M25 to Hadley Wood, rather than taking the train into central London and going to King's Cross by underground or other forms of public transport.

The proposed site is greenbelt land in the borough of Hertsmere, although most of the affected residents live in the borough of Enfield in my constituency. GNER has not submitted a formal planning application because it is awaiting the outcome of the process of renegotiation of franchises, and has stated that it will not submit such an application until that process is complete.

I am opposed to the siting of a parkway station in Hadley Wood for three main reasons—first, the effect on the green belt; secondly, the impact on the local infrastructure in my constituency; and thirdly, the wider consequences for transport policy in outer north London and Hertfordshire.

The green belt was one of the finest achievements of the post-war Labour Government. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has reaffirmed the Government's commitment to the green belt. Hadley Wood is an attractive residential area in the north-west of my Enfield, Southgate constituency. The threat to the green belt is a threat to the amenity and way of life not only of the residents of Hadley Wood, but of all my constituents and the residents of neighbouring constituencies. I am pleased to see my colleague the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) in the Chamber. We have been working closely together on the matter, along with the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), in whose constituency the proposed development would take place.

I pay tribute to the excellent work done by the Hadley Wood Association in drawing the attention of local people to the matter and getting media coverage, and in doing work that has largely informed what I shall say in objection to the proposal.

The site is in the narrowest part of the green belt around London. It is less than two miles wide. The effect of a parkway station would be to extend the urbanised boundary of London beyond Potters Bar. The area is a community forest with two working farms, both of which would have to be closed, were the proposal to proceed. They would be replaced by a 2,000-space car park. In other words, two farms would be replaced by an area the size of five Wembley football pitches for cars. That poses a disastrous threat to the green belt.

With regard to the local infrastructure, one effect of the GNER proposal would be to increase the use of roads in our area—the M25, obviously, and local roads as well. The stretch of the M25 between exits 23 and 25 is already heavily overloaded and is a well known bottleneck. It makes little sense to encourage more cars on to an already overloaded stretch of the M25.

Furthermore, like most of London and many other parts of the country, my constituency is increasingly plagued by traffic congestion. Since the opening of exit 24 on the M25, the A111 that passes through my constituency has undergone a heavy increase in traffic. The Hadley Wood Association commissioned a study by the leading traffic consultants, Messrs Colin Buchanan and Partners, in 1997, which demonstrated that during rush hour periods there were more than 1,000 vehicles per hour using that stretch of road. I am certain that there has been a further significant increase in traffic volume since that study was carried out. Buchanan and Partners estimated that a parkway station could add a further 500 cars per hour during peak times.

While one theoretical solution is to widen the roads, there would be substantial local opposition to that as there is little scope or capacity in the Cockfosters area for widening the road. Even were such a plan acceptable, it would be not be viable. In terms of the infrastructure in Cockfosters, Hadley Wood and the wider Enfield, Southgate area, the consequences of such a proposal would be to increase congestion and worsen the bottlenecks. That would contravene the wider objectives of Government policy on transport.

There is a wider argument against the proposal. I am worried about Railtrack's lack of overall planning to develop a coherent strategy for new parkway stations in our part of the country. The case against Hadley Wood is not simply a "not in my back yard" reaction to a proposal to build on the green belt; there is a strong transport argument against it. Hertfordshire county council has clear, well-thought-out transport policies in which Stevenage is the key rail centre for the county. In the past few days, Hertfordshire county council told me that it had received no evidence from GNER or anyone else of special circumstances that would justify building on the green belt. That view is reinforced by Hertsmere borough council, which stated that
"no case has been made"
for the development. Last year, GNER tried to challenge Hertsmere's local plan to facilitate a possible parkway station, but it did not pursue the matter and the local plan stands.

Stevenage council shares Hertfordshire's view that Stevenage should remain the main focus for rail in the county. It goes further, and would like Stevenage to be the site of a parkway station. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) shares that view. The council told me that there was space in Stevenage to build the necessary car parking facilities, that there is scope to expand the station to six platforms, that no greenbelt issues affect it and that traffic congestion is less significant because of Stevenage's location as a relatively new town alongside the A1M. People in Stevenage and elsewhere in Hertfordshire are worried that a Hadley Wood parkway station would detract from Stevenage's position as the main rail focus for the county. Anxiety has been expressed that some trains might not stop at Stevenage because of the close proximity of the two centres.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tackle those anxieties in his response. I appreciate that, for the reasons that I outlined, there are no specific proposals from GNER. However, if GNER wins the franchise, it will want to move rapidly to effect its proposals for the three parkway stations, including Hadley Wood. That is why there is widespread anxiety in my constituency and beyond. While the residents of Hadley Wood form the focus of that anxiety, other people in the Enfield, Southgate area and colleagues in neighbouring constituencies are worried about the proposals.

Like my hon. Friend, I am a passionate supporter of public transport and a non-driver. I use public transport every day; I believe in the railways and I support a successful, thriving railway system for our country. There is a persuasive case for a parkway station north of London. However, Hadley Wood is a totally unsuitable location for it. If such a proposal were implemented, it would be a disaster for the green belt, exacerbate already appalling conditions and congestion on our local roads and threaten the future of Stevenage as a rail centre.

I hope that GNER or whoever wins the franchise will abandon the idea of a parkway station in Hadley Wood and pursue the sort of alternatives that I have outlined. I hope that the Minister will take account of my comments and offer some hope to my constituents.

1.44 pm

I shall speak briefly to support everything that the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) said in opposition to the GNER proposal. I want to make two points on behalf of my constituents. First, if the proposal goes ahead, it will constitute the most devastating blow to the metropolitan green belt in one of its most sensitive areas. The main objective in that area is to keep Potters Bar away from the metropolis. The thin strip of land has already been divided by the M25, so not only the proposed development but the attendant feeder roads would devastate the green belt in that area. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate but on the eloquence with which he put the case.

Perhaps I should declare a possible interest. For many years, I was president of the London Green Belt Council until I was appointed a Minister, when, quite properly, I had to give up that honorary position. The consolation for my friends is that my career has gone downwards ever since.

I want to underline the effect of the proposal on the local infrastructure. The roads are already overcrowded and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate was right to refer to the overloading of the M25 in that area. I disagree with one point that he made. He painted a rather rosy picture of the Government's commitment to conserving our green belt. He mentioned Stevenage, which is a much better location for the proposed parkway station, but the Government have permitted a significant development to the west of Stevenage on the metropolitan green belt. Their action reinforces the case for a parkway station in Stevenage, not Hadley Wood.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Keith Hill)

I begin, as is usual, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) on securing the debate. I am aware that the proposal by GNER for a new parkway station near the M25 north of London is a source of great concern to many of his constituents.

Since his general election triumph in 1997, my hon. Friend is proving himself, in this matter as in so many others, an extremely conscientious constituency Member of Parliament and an outstanding advocate on behalf of the interests of his constituents.

I also thank the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) for his contribution to the debate. As a former resident of Chipping Barnet, who often walked in Hadley Wood, I know that he is also a most assiduous constituency Member of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is another highly effective constituency Member of Parliament. She also made proper representations on behalf of her constituents.

I want to make it perfectly clear at the outset that there is no firm proposal for a new parkway station near Hadley Wood and no final site has been identified. The station is one of three new parkway stations proposed as part of GNER's initial bid for a replacement franchise. The other proposed stations are near Edinburgh and the M18 in South Yorkshire.

However, it is still early days. No decision on whether to replace GNER's franchise has been taken. Even if GNER's bid were successful, careful consideration would need to be given to several important issues including planning, transport and wider environmental implications, before the parkway stations could be approved.

The Chamber knows that last September, the Deputy Prime Minister issued new instructions and guidance to the franchising director asking him to deliver improvements through renegotiation of the terms of franchise agreements. When considering any renegotiation requests, we have asked the franchising director to give due weight to commitments to current performance, customer services, innovation, investment and efficiency; new or earlier investment; securing better performance; initiatives to promote integrated transport; a willingness to give passengers a greater voice in the level and standard of services; and value for the taxpayer.

In November last year, the franchising director announced that the current GNER franchise would be one of the first three to be renegotiated or replaced. The GNER, Connex SouthCentral and Chiltern franchises were chosen because they are thought to offer great potential for improvements and developments which can be delivered in a relatively short time scale.

On 22 December, the franchising director announced that Sea Containers, which is the parent company of GNER and Virgin Rail, in conjunction with Stagecoach, had pre-qualified to participate in further discussion of its franchise replacement proposals. They are now preparing their detailed proposals for discussion with the franchising director before final negotiations. It is hoped to conclude these negotiations in the spring.

However, it is important to remember that the franchising director is not committed to accepting either proposal. After careful consideration, he may decide instead to allow the existing GNER franchise to run its course until it expires in April 2003.

In considering any franchise replacement negotiations, the franchising director will consult, among others, local authorities, regional planning bodies, regional development agencies and rail users' consultative committees as appropriate. If the parkway station proposal were to be adopted as part of a franchise commitment, planning permission and full local consultation would be required.

I want to say a word about the Government's approach to parkway stations. We are keen to encourage integrated transport proposals that are designed to encourage people to travel by public transport and to reduce the need to travel by car. I understand that GNER's proposal is intended to encourage a modal shift from car and air travel to rail use and to allow a seamless transfer between transport modes. It believes that its proposed parkway stations would considerably reduce long-distance car usage, thereby reducing road and motorway congestion and associated pollution problems.

We are also keen to improve the quality of rail services and GNER believes that the parkway stations would make long-distance rail travel more accessible and attractive. The parkway stations would be served by GNER's planned new fleet of high-speed trains. I understand that stations would be airport style in design and built to accommodate the needs of passengers, including those with special needs. There is a measure of support for a new parkway station in the north London area and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, for example, believes that the parkway station
"could prove the single most important lever for achieving a modal shift from road to rail for long distance journeys between London and the north east and Scotland."
There are also clearly important planning implications for the scheme, however, and I am well aware that the proposed site for the parkway station lies within the metropolitan green belt. That has generated considerable local opposition and I know that organisations such as the London Green Belt Council, the Association of North Thames Amenity Societies, the Potters Bar Society and the Hadley Wood Association have expressed their concerns.

Obviously, a scheme for a parkway station would need to be the subject of a planning application. Under national planning policy guidance on green belts, which is known as PPG2, such a development would be inappropriate in the green belt. To justify approval being given, it would therefore be necessary for GNER to show that very special circumstances outweighed the harm that would be done to the green belt. The land use planning merits of a station proposal would need to be considered against the statutory development plan, and careful regard would have to be paid to all other material considerations. Those might include, for example, the impact of the development on the environment and on residential amenity as well as the effect on the M25 and the local highway network. Should the local planning authority be minded to grant consent to a planning application, there remains the possibility that it might be called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions for his own determination should it be thought to raise matters of more than local importance.

Last October, we set out land use planning policy on transport, including park and ride, in our consultation draft PPG13 on transport. That emphasised the need for park-and-ride schemes to be introduced as an integral part of the overall planning and transport approach for an area. They should be in the local transport plan, and based on a thorough assessment of travel impacts, and should also be in the development plan and consistent with the strategic context of the regional transport strategy.

In his speech on 13 December, which set out the Government's vision for transport policy, my right hon. Friend explained that the final version of PPG13, which is due out this year, would give priority to well-designed and well-conceived park-and-ride schemes. We are currently examining the responses to our public consultation on PPG13 and aim to publish the final version in the summer.

We are keen that local authorities should consider allocating sites for interchange in their development plans, for example, park-and-ride schemes to town centres and at bus and rail stations. I am aware that GNER objected to the deposit draft of the Hertsmere local plan on the grounds that it failed to support proposals for improvements to passenger services on the east coast main line and, in particular, the provision of a parkway station on land to the north of Hadley Wood. A public inquiry into the local plan was held last year and the inspector's report is still awaited. When it is received, Hertsmere borough council will consider the inspector's recommendations and decide whether any modifications to the plan are required. Those will then be published and the public will have an opportunity to express their views on the merits of the proposed modifications.

I reiterate that GNER's proposal must be regarded for the present as an option, not a firm and agreed package that can be implemented without further consultation. There is a process still to be gone through in which the planning, transport and wider environmental implications would need to be thoroughly considered. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate is reassured that any decisions will be taken only after the most careful consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Two o'clock.