The Crossrail Project

Mr. Field: I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this timely debate. As a central London Member, I am clearly going to be affected by whatever route it is finally agreed Crossrail should take. Within the multitude of proposals for Crossrail, there has never been a suggestion that central London should be missed out.

To touch on some constituency interests, Hanover Square residents have expressed grave concerns about the lack of consultation on the current proposal for a route through Mayfair. Notwithstanding the catalogue of disasters iterated by the hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), the residents feel that there has not been enough information about potential disruption and the ongoing blight that would affect that part of my constituency.

One of the key issues is the eventual route of Crossrail. Understandably, colleagues have argued in favour of their own, perhaps narrow, political corridors and proposals that would affect their constituencies. My view is that it is of key importance to link in the east London gateway corridor, as well as places such as Dartford, Shenfield and Grays.

The spectre of the Olympic bid has been raised. I did not entirely agree with my hon. friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) when he said that the two issues had to be kept entirely apart. Crossrail investment will, in practical terms, be of key importance to any sensible and successful Olympic bid. Clearly, time is running out if the Olympic bid is to be made by July 2005.

I am also worried about the rather high barrier that the Government have erected in their most recent thinking on Crossrail. They have said that it "needs to be feasible from both operational and engineering points of view, environmentally acceptable and value for money"

It has been rightly pointed out by all right hon. and hon. Members that the key consideration is how Crossrail will be funded. The hon. Member for Reading, East was absolutely right to point out that the Crossrail project was first mooted in 1948 – it might have been her colleague the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Linda Perham) who pointed that out. The catalogue of delays since the project was shelved during the recession of the early 1990s has also rightly been mentioned.

It now seems clear that the Treasury will not be willing to provide funding up front, and the Secretary of State for Transport has given a fairly clear indication that Crossrail is pretty low on his list of priorities, especially in view of his task of clearing up the mess created by his predecessor during the botched re-nationalisation of Railtrack in October 2001 – rightly mentioned by my Rt hon. friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) – which will apparently take up an additional 1.5 billion pounds sterling per year of public money. It is therefore difficult to see how Crossrail will be in any way a priority for the Government in considering their rail projects.

Londoners seem to receive a poor return, as a number of London Members have pointed out. London is a massive contributor to the public purse. How can Britain’s only globally competitive city continue to shine internationally if the infrastructure investment that is demanded of such a global city cannot be taken for granted? The Government’s anti-London bias is damaging the UK economy, and we will see the results of that in the coming decade.

The talk is of a private sector consortium for Crossrail, which is the only realistic game in town. Several consortiums, comprising for the most part property and construction businesses, have discussed the matter and put forward innovative plans, but there are two key flaws. First, they anticipate that the Government will ultimately be the guarantors of last resort. Secondly, there is no proper risk-transfer test for public-private partnership projects. Conservative Members have consistently pointed out that that makes a mockery of the Government’s prestige projects, for which we will all pay higher taxes during the next decade and a half. The risk is that private consortiums will cherry-pick the most economically desirable routes. They might discuss stage B development but will shelve it later, probably for good. Prior to world war two, for example, there were great plans, all of which have been permanently shelved, to build tube lines to places such as Cranleigh Gardens and Muswell Hill.

One of the ways forward on funding is to examine the notion of value capture, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Twickenham. I cannot do justice to the concept in this brief speech, but the proposal by the Conservative mayoral candidate, Steve Norris, to add a 2 per cent levy to the business rate in the vicinity of the new line over the next 20 years to allow the cash flow to be securitised and to ensure that the capital works come into play has at least some merit.

When I first read Don Riley’s book "Taken for a Ride", I found it persuasive. He is one of my constituents, and he gave me a proof copy of the book a few weeks before the general election when I was out canvassing in Morton place, where he lives. His thesis is simple; when taxpayers invest in a new transport system, many landowners are given accidental windfall fortunes. He argues that the leakage of publicly created income into private hands explains why railways have not been self-financing. The thesis is fairly, but not entirely, persuasive.

Various bandwagons have jumped on to value capture. Some people – particularly left-of-centre politicians- think that it will be an enormous property tax. With the fast-deteriorating public finances, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has got eyes on a range of property taxes – as predicted 18 months ago by many hon. Members who worked on the then Finance Bill. I am concerned that great injustices will by done by taxing windfall gains. The great worry is that if the sums are not properly ring-fenced, there will simply be more money in the Exchequer’s pocket. There is also a large question mark about the practicality of taxing windfall gains. It is not clear how far away from a railway line the benefits would extend. There would clearly be losers, and a sense of injustice on the part of those located right on the edge of affected areas.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend touches on an important point. It is easy to see that there is a gain if a property owner realises an asset that has gone up in value or decides that he can enhance his business because a new line is coming or has arrived. However, an existing property owner who wants to use his property for the same purposes or whose business is not enhanced will simply suffer higher taxation. That problem must be sorted out when we implement such schemes.

Mr. Field: I entirely agree with my Rt hon. Friend that there is a great worry that such a levy would simply be a stealth tax.

Although I appreciate that he is not a Treasury Minister, I hope that the Minister here today can indicate the Treasury’s intentions. If we look upon new property taxes as a means of clobbering landowners rather than as a specifically ring-fenced way to finance projects such as Crossrail, we will see some of the conspicuous disadvantages that arose in the 1990s during the construction of the Jubilee extension. Clearly, one has to follow the money, which is the great problem with Crossrail.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s response to the comments of the hon. Member for Reading, East, because there is a worry that we are being inundated with yet more reports as a way of kicking the issue into the long grass. From where will the funding come? Understandably, given the problems with Network Rail, the Treasury may feel that insufficient funding is available in its coffers in the short term for the Crossrail project. If so, can we at least get some indication of the preferred route forward, so that we can ensure that in 14 or 15 years’ time we are not still debating the issue, without any further progress having been made?

I appreciate that at least one other speaker wants to get in. I look forward to sharing a platform with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) tonight in Covent Garden, although I cannot imagine why he wants to come to my constituency to discuss these matters. It may have something to do with an election in the middle of next year. I look forward to hearing his comments and those of the Minister.