Dr Julian Lewis: It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St. Albans (Kerry Pollard), who is warm-hearted and sincere in speaking on behalf of his constituents.
One local issue is of fundamental importance in my constituency – the proposal by Associated British Ports to build a huge container port at Dibden Bay, on Southampton Water, which is on the edge of the New Forest. The distribution of population in my constituency is unusual. The area is largely taken up by the heavily protected Forest region. More than 80 percent of my constituents are compressed into the long line of villages from Calshot and Fawley in the south, along the Waterside, to the town of Totton in the north. Planning restrictions in the Forest mean that house-building is overwhelmingly confined to Totton and the Waterside corridor. As so many of my constituents live in that narrowly restricted area, the impact on their lives of the closure of strategic gaps between the villages, and of extra burdens placed on road and rail links, is disproportionately heavy.
When I became acquainted with the Dibden Bay proposals in 1995, it seemed obvious that the adverse effects that they would have on people who live in Totton and along the Waterside would decisively outweigh any possible advantage. Therefore, it was also obvious that those people who proposed to build the huge container port would have to produce an overriding national economic case if the development were to have a chance of proceeding.
ABP briefed me at least three times in 1996 and 1997. The nub of its argument was that each of the small number of major container companies will use only one port of entry into the United Kingdom and that, unless Dibden Bay were built to expand Southampton's container capacity on the other side of Southampton Water, not only would Southampton fail to obtain the extra business, but it would lose its existing business to competing ports. On the face of it, that seemed to be a strong argument in ABP's favour.
However, more than a year ago, the picture was dramatically transformed. The prospect arose that the redundant oil refinery site – a brownfield site – at Shell Haven in Essex might become a new container port on a scale substantially larger than Dibden Bay. That prospect was welcomed, with appropriate provisos about local concerns, by the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith), who, by a fortunate coincidence, happens to be in her place at this very moment.
Angela Smith (Basildon): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in alerting me to the fact that he would be mentioning my constituency and me. I put it to him that, although many in my constituency warmly welcome the proposed development at Shell Haven, which would create up to 10,000 jobs, there are significant and genuine environmental, traffic and social concerns. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that those should be taken into account.
Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. It has been a pleasure working with her in past months to try to resolve these matters to the mutual benefit of both our sets of constituents. However, the balance tips overwhelmingly in favour of the development taking place in her constituency, provided appropriate ameliorating measures can be taken to safeguard people living nearby. I am sure that she accepts that, in my constituency, there would be huge effects that could not possibly be ameliorated in any circumstances.
When the Shell Haven proposals were first mooted, I was astonished by the way in which ABP in Southampton derided the practicability of building a container port at Shell Haven and then tried to claim that, even if it were built, it would make no difference to the overriding national economic case in favour of Dibden Bay. It became clear to me that ABP was wholly bent on pushing through the scheme, irrespective of the existence of more suitable alternatives. Later, I shall mention one possible motivation for the company's rigidly blinkered approach. When Shell Haven was first mooted, ABP objected on the grounds that the traffic outflow would be too heavy for the M25 to cope with, and that excessive dredging would also be involved. Such claims sounded strange coming from a company that tried to tell my constituents that the mere A326 could cope with massive container traffic and that Dibden Bay would be capable of receiving the new generations of large container ships that it would face during its years of operation.
Shell Haven will be larger than Dibden Bay, and it is possible that it will come into service sooner than Dibden Bay. In addition, I have been assured authoritatively that Shell Haven by itself will be able to absorb all the projected additional container traffic for the south-east for between the next 15 and 20 years. So confident of that is the Port of London authority that it anticipates Shell Haven opening on a staggered basis, a few berths at a time, as and when the extra capacity becomes needed over the next two decades. That fact alone must be sufficient to destroy the argument that Dibden Bay must be inflicted on the residents of Totton and the Waterside in the national economic interest because of the lack of any viable alternative.
The story does not end there. We now know that there are to be substantial expansions in container capacity at no fewer than three additional sites: Harwich, Felixstowe and Tilbury. In addition, further development at Thamesport remains a possibility. None of those options involves the destruction of a natural habitat, the overwhelming of inadequate A-roads, or the bisecting of towns and villages such as Totton and Marchwood by endless convoys of lorries and railway wagons, all of which would be inevitable were Dibden Bay to come on stream. Yet, according to ABP, all that extra capacity makes no difference to its case that the Dibden Bay development is essential. One wonders how gigantic the extra capacity being created by ports around the southeast and east of England would have to be before ABP allowed such expansion to have any effect on its fixation with developing Dibden Bay – now that the company's rubbishing of Shell Haven as a container port has itself been discredited.
ABP claims that it is not planning to transfer its existing smaller container operation on the other side of Southampton Water to Dibden Bay so as to be able to sell off the existing container port location for vastly profitable property development, as has happened to other parts of Southampton port in the past. It claims that that could easily be prevented by the Secretary of State. However, how could the Secretary of State – or anyone else – possibly know what the directors of ABP will do in 10 years' time if Dibden Bay is up and running? There would be nothing to prevent the existing Southampton container port from being closed down and the land being used to make fortunes for those running ABP.
That alone is the explanation that supplies logic to its position. If the real objective is to free up expensive land in Southampton to make a financial killing, that would explain why the opening of Shell Haven and all the other new container facilities would, in the words of ABP, "make no difference" to the need for Dibden Bay. Indeed, the existence of new container ports elsewhere would make it easier to argue in 10 years' time that the old Southampton container port had to be closed and developed precisely because there was not enough trade to keep it busy, as well as the new Dibden Bay terminal.
It is preposterous to say that there is an overriding national economic requirement to build on the unsuitable site at Dibden Bay regardless of the fact that other sites are to be constructed or expanded. I believe that ABP would continue to argue for the development of Dibden Bay even if 50 new ports were being built or expanded. Its determination to develop Dibden Bay has little, if anything, to do with a genuine need to meet future increases in necessary container capacity.
There are no proposals from ABP currently to turn the pitifully inadequate A326 even into a dual carriageway, although it used to say that it would do that. Perhaps that is being held back as a great concession to be made to the community in due course. I have always taken the view that nothing less than a prefabricated tunnel under Southampton Water would do, connecting any container port to Southampton's major road and rail links. Even then, the light pollution, never-ending noise, unsightly container stacks and cranes at the edge of the New Forest and environmental destruction would add up to a vision of hell for the thousands of people unfortunate enough to live nearby.
A few years ago, before Shell Haven and the other facilities came on to the scene, and before it was apparent that there were alternatives, it might have been arguable to inflict all this suffering on our communities in the constituency of New Forest, East. There is now no case for it. I urge the deputy Leader of the House to convey that message in the strongest possible terms to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, because he will have the final say.
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Mrs Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) mentioned Dibden Bay. I have visited his constituency on several occasions. Regardless of the main subject about which one speaks to my hon. Friend's constituents, all the questions afterwards are about Dibden Bay. I am glad that he is so well up to speed on that subject that I can always defer to him when I am in his constituency and allow him to answer the probing questions that arise on what is happening in Dibden Bay. As he demonstrated this afternoon, he will not let the matter drop. He is representing his constituents in a matter that I know concerns them greatly.
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The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr Paddy Tipping): We have had 14 speakers in the debate, who have raised many matters that are very important to them and to their constituents .... A number of hon. Members asked me to pass messages in different ways .... The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis) asked me to convey the message about Dibden Bay in the strongest terms to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, and I shall do so.