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10 Jan 2007 : Column 132WH—continued

Mr. Hoon: It certainly would end the isolation, at least in part, but there are clear international rules and law governing direct flights. It is important that the
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United Kingdom Government consider the legal position carefully. So far, we have concluded that it would not be possible to authorise direct flights in the absence of agreement by the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. That remains our legal opinion and legal view. It is clearly important that the United Kingdom Government do not transgress international law in any way.

The UK-Cyprus relationship is a priority for the Government. It has been argued, rightly in my opinion, that it was the absolute determination of the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who worked tirelessly to overcome the concerns of other member states, that secured Cyprus membership of the European Union. Many senior figures in the Government continue to take a close interest in developments on the island, most prominently my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. We are, therefore, making every effort to work with the Republic of Cyprus to build a broader base of bilateral co-operation across a range of issues of common interest, as well as on the question of a Cyprus settlement.

The structured dialogue between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Cyprus, which is now in its second year, has resulted in co-operation and exchange of information on a variety of issues ranging from football hooliganism to counter-terrorism, and has included a number of high-level visits. Most recently, Cypriot and British officials met to discuss best practice in urban planning, and we expect future exchanges on civil service reform. The broad range of issues encompassed by the structured dialogue illustrates the depth, breadth and fundamental importance of our bilateral relationship with Cyprus. I am also encouraged by the engagement of both communities in the work of the UN Committee on Missing Persons. That bi-communal project is expected to present its first findings to the families of the missing early this year. Unfortunately, the committee is an exception in a worrying decline in bi-communal civic relations. That trend must be reversed because, without strong contributions from civil society, the two sides are unlikely to reach a comprehensive and lasting settlement.

There is much work to be done to foster trust and good relations to bring the two communities closer together. We will continue to encourage interaction at all levels of society through the UK Government, the EU, non-governmental organisations and UN-funded projects, but above all, as hon. Members have indicated, the impetus must come from the leaders of both communities. They must demonstrate their readiness to engage with the United Nations and with each other in the search for a solution.

Simon Hughes: Since taking over his job, has the Minister given any thought to our Government seeking to convene a meeting with the Turkish Government and the Greek Government—the three guarantor
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powers—to see whether they can find a proposal that they believe would be acceptable to the communities in Cyprus?

Mr. Hoon: It is no secret that I have spent a considerable amount of time during the past few months talking with political leaders in Greece and Turkey and on the island. Those efforts are continuing and form part of a wider context, which I am outlining. There is no lack of effort by the British Government in trying to secure a just and lasting settlement.

An important development was the meeting between UN Under-Secretary-General Ibrahim Gambari and the two leaders on 8 July, when they agreed a set of principles and decisions. That, along with the leaders’ subsequent agreement to the proposals set out in Mr. Gambari’s letter of 15 November, provides a new opportunity for the resumption of fully fledged settlement negotiations. Whether the path to that settlement is long or short—obviously, we hope that it will be the latter—the settlement will be determined by the willingness of the parties to engage purposefully with the UN and each other. We will support that process in whatever way we can to achieve the ultimate goal of a reunified Cyprus within the EU and of peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean region.

Mr. Love: We talked about confidence-building measures, and the Minister referred to them. Although there was some negative reaction, the measures suggested by the Finnish presidency at the end of last year were generally welcomed by the international community. What discussions has the Minister had with the new German presidency to carry on the good work that the Finnish presidency was doing in trying to build confidence on the island?

Mr. Hoon: Again, as a member of the European Union with a significant interest in Cyprus, we were closely involved with our Finnish colleagues in trying to find a way through the various issues without linking a settlement in Cyprus directly to the requirements of European law. The Council’s decision was practical and sensible, and it indicated the European Union’s concern about the failure of Turkey to implement European law while allowing the negotiations to continue in all but eight chapters. That is a practical solution to the problem and means that we have the opportunity to move forward. It will continue to be discussed but, as hon. Members said, a breathing space was required and the decision in December allowed for that. I hope that that breathing space can be used to maximum advantage in Ankara and the UN process. As the outgoing UN Secretary- General said, it is important to recognise that both sides must show the political will and flexibility to bridge the gap between words and deeds, and to implement the 8 July agreement without delay. Whether a comprehensive settlement can ultimately be reached rests with the leaders of both communities. I recognise the absolute determination of the people of the island to achieve a settlement, but it is important that both sides are prepared to recognise that they must both move to allow that settlement to occur.

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Ashington, Blyth and Tyne Railway

4 pm

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): I thank the House for allowing me the debate.

I first raised the issue on an Adjournment debate in the House in April 1999, at a time when Wansbeck was still suffering from the after-effects of the premature closure of the mining industry. Unemployment in some wards was running at more than 30 per cent. According to the university of Warwick, Wansbeck was in the top 6 per cent. of local authorities in Britain for concentrated poverty, and in the top 5 per cent. for concentrated unemployment. Although some jobs were created in Wansbeck, it was necessary for the majority of people to travel outside the constituency to obtain work. It was therefore vital to strengthen the transport network and to restore passenger rail services on a fully functioning railway line.

4.1 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.15 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Murphy: Freight was always the dominant feature on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, delivering coal to the staithes at Blyth and the Tyne for export. Passenger services were introduced between Blyth and Newcastle in 1847 and extended to Ashington and Newbiggin in 1872. Passenger services between Bedlington and Morpeth ended in 1950 and the remaining service ended shortly after the 1963 Beeching report. The final train ran in November 1964. I remember that date very well because I travelled on the very last train from Blyth to Ashington.

The Government recognise the level of deprivation and since 1997 have invested in the regeneration of Wansbeck. Wansbeck general hospital, situated close to the line, was extended to provide a much wider range of quality services such as accident and emergency, oncology, orthopaedics and maternity. Investment in a new bypass for the village of Pegswood will enable a faster link to the A1 north of Morpeth to be established. Investment in neighbourhood renewal is upgrading many districts in Wansbeck. A lot of time, effort and finance has been invested in the village of Newbiggin by the sea, which used to be the last station on the line. The public and private sectors have worked in partnership to regenerate the village.

Newbiggin Life was set up to obtain the views of residents and businesses to ensure that local people’s ideas were the driving force behind change. The first investment was the restoration of the war memorial garden to its original glory and it was opened recently by the Duke of Kent. A number of the older, run-down houses were demolished and the first phase of new private housing built alongside well designed social housing. The good work continues. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has just agreed a £10 million coast protection scheme for Newbiggin, which will include an offshore breakwater
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and a new beach. Newbiggin has the oldest working lifeboat station in the world, which will be of much interest to tourists.

The railway line also runs adjacent to Woodhorn colliery museum, which was reopened recently by Princess Anne after a £16 million facelift. The line runs through the centre of Ashington, which has benefited from major investment in leisure, sporting facilities and business parks, and is about to undergo a major town centre redevelopment. Proposals for a new learning park are well advanced. It would be situated five-minutes’ walk from the proposed Ashington station and will involve the relocation of Northumberland college, bringing many more people into Ashington.

A new station at Choppington with a park and ride and bus interchange will help to improve access to and from that former mining village. Bedlington still has its station platform and has seen a huge increase in the development of private sector housing. Access to a train service would make Bedlington an even more desirable place to live. The marketplace area and Front street are undergoing major refurbishment in an attempt to restore Bedlington as one of the premiere market towns in Northumberland. The provision of a train service would assist that process enormously.

The market town of Morpeth is also undergoing major redevelopment. A £15 million project that is about to commence will transform the riverside, improve visitor facilities and provide an excellent range of shops in what is already an excellent shopping centre. A major part of that redevelopment will provide hotel and conference facilities to attract people from all over the country. Improved rail services through Morpeth will of course assist that development.

Since my last debate on the railway line, Morpeth has changed a lot. A lot has also changed in the national rail structure. In 1999, the biggest stumbling block to the return of passenger services was the involvement of Railtrack, which at the time was operating at the height of its incompetence and reluctant to become involved in the scheme. In fact, it did its best to ensure that it never went ahead. There was a further problem with the investment required to upgrade the west coast main line, which in effect ensured that many smaller schemes were starved of the funding that they required to progress.

I congratulate all those involved in the South East Northumberland Rail User Group, which has worked to encourage certain train operators—Great North Eastern Railway, Virgin and Northern Rail—to increase services into and through Morpeth. Those participating have achieved a notable success in their discussions with Virgin, with a further two trains servicing Morpeth. They have also come forward with a proposal from Northern Rail to extend the current service from Newcastle through Cramlington into Morpeth, as the first stage of the full reopening of the line. As a result of those discussions, a feasibility study is about to commence, to be led by the North East assembly and funded by Nexus, Northumberland county council and Wansbeck district council. In addition, Northern Rail, the train operating company, and Network Rail, the rail infrastructure provider, will be participating in the study and will sit on the steering group, along with a member of SENRUG.

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The Blyth and Tyne network comprises two connected routes, one running from Bedlington station to Washington, via South Newsham. The line continues further, running past Woodhorn museum and ending at the Alcan aluminium smelter at Lynemouth. The second route runs from Bedlington station to Morpeth, via Choppington. An opportunity has been identified to provide a limited rail service to the Wansbeck district, through the use of existing rolling stock, by the extension of the hourly Northern Rail service from MetroCentre in Newcastle, which currently terminates at Morpeth. At present, in order to clear the east coast main line upon arrival at Morpeth, trains run on to the Blyth and Tyne route, and lay over at Coopies lane, near the Hepscott junction, before commencing their southbound journey.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He has fought for the reopening of the line since he was elected. On the point about capacity, he mentioned the east coast main line and there was a report two weeks ago about the west coast line hitting capacity in 2015. Does he agree that now is the time for the investment in the railways, because of concerns about climate change, economic growth and the 30 per cent. increase in use over the past decade, with 2.3 billion journeys now being made? Now is the time to consider such lines, not least the one in his constituency and Leamside line in my constituency.

Mr. Murphy: I agree with my hon. Friend that that is of course vital. Indeed, the timing of this debate, for both schemes, is probably the best that we could have picked. I will touch on some of the issues that he raised later in my contribution, but I certainly agree with his intervention.

As I was explaining, the train lays over at Hepscott before commencing its journey. It should be possible to extend the service to Bedlington station and to use the existing disused platform, taking advantage of the excellent bus and rail interchange at Bedlington. A new station platform would be required where the A1068 crosses the line at the Swan public house, which was the site of former Choppington station. There is space at the site to develop park-and-ride and bus interchange facilities. Preliminary discussions with Northern Rail suggest that an extension as far as Bedlington station would be feasible within the current timetable. I also point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that that would cost a fraction of Railtrack’s original costings, and provide a much needed rail link from Wansbeck to Tyneside.

Although not covered by the current study, SENRUG has planned further phases that could be introduced with an adjustment to Northern’s regional timetable, without the need for extra rolling stock at this stage. Phase 2 would be to extend trains from Bedlington into Ashington. It has been calculated that the journey time from Ashington to Newcastle on that route would be only 36 minutes. Phase 2a would be to extend beyond Ashington on the existing track to a new station at Woodhorn museum.

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As I mentioned, the museum has been given a £16 million facelift, and charts the growth of coal mining in south-east Northumberland, along with the unique culture and heritage that developed from mining. The museum houses, in an extensive new gallery, the internationally renowned collection of paintings by the Ashington miners group, with images depicting everyday life, work underground and scenes in and around the Ashington area. The museum now also houses the Northumberland records office, with access to all the facilities online. The museum is adjacent to hundreds of acres of woodland, with walks, wildlife and a lake with a narrow gauge railway running through it. Entry to the museum is free of charge. The journey from Woodhorn to Newcastle would take approximately 40 minutes. If a long platform were built at Woodhorn, the station would be likely to attract incoming weekend charter trains from the rest of the country, bringing people into Northumberland.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a platform at Woodhorn could also benefit my constituents in Lynemouth, Ellington, Widdrington and Ulgham, where there is a growing commuter population?

Mr. Murphy: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. A platform would also provide an opportunity for an extensive park-and-ride interchange for Wansbeck general hospital.

Phase 3 would be the full reopening of the line from Benton junction to Bedlington, via Newsham. That would permit the potential for two full connecting services, the first being from Newcastle to Ashington, via Morpeth and Bedlington, and the second being from Newcastle to Ashington and Woodhorn, via Benton, running through Blyth valley and offering full metro interchange. There are also further possibilities to extend beyond Woodhorn to a reopened station at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. It would be possible also to run trains north of Ashington, to Widdrington and Alnmouth.

More than 200,000 people in south-east Northumberland live close enough to the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line to use it regularly. Since my debate in 1999, more than 1,500 new houses have been built. Well over half the population commute to jobs outside Wansbeck, with 65 per cent. of them travelling south to Cramlington and Tyne and Wear. The proportion travelling by car is growing, increasing from 60 per cent. in 1999 to 74 per cent. today. At the same time, the number of bus users has decreased from 20 to 9 per cent. That does not surprise me, however, for the Wansbeck and Blyth valley fleet must be the worst in the country. Arriva, the bus operating company, invests the bare minimum in its buses to ensure that the company complies with the law. The buses are certainly not attractive and are generally noisy and dirty. The only saving grace is that the drivers are usually pleasant and helpful.

Anyone travelling into Ashington, Bedlington or Blyth early in the morning will generally have a clear run, with few traffic hold-ups, as all the traffic is travelling out of those towns and heading to work in Tyneside. Every one of those several thousand cars
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crosses the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line at some point in its journey, either heading for the Tyne tunnel south or for the western bypass. The Newcastle A1 western bypass is one of the most congested roads in the country. It desperately needs widening, and a second crossing over the Tyne is urgently required near the current tunnel.

The majority of cars that currently block the western bypass from the north come from south-east Northumberland. Congestion would therefore be significantly reduced with a new passenger rail service. The new rail service would have the effect of delivering Government policy on the ground. Environmentally, it could substantially reduce our carbon footprint, while economically it would further enhance the significant investment already made by the Government, by giving access to a wider jobs market for those who are unable to find work locally. A new rail service would enable people to travel into Wansbeck and Blyth valley to enjoy many of the facilities that I have listed.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this debate forward, because the line runs straight through my constituency as well. It has been said that charging will be introduced on the roads, but as he has pointed out, the only thing that we have in south-east Northumberland is bad bus routes. We do not have a rail link. Therefore, we in south-east Northumberland are going to be penalised twice, as a lot of people use their cars because the public transport is not there. Would my hon. Friend not agree with me on that one?

Mr. Murphy: I agree with my hon. Friend and neighbour 100 per cent. That is the major problem: we have no access to rail services. Indeed, less than 0.5 per cent. of people who travel to work outside Wansbeck use the current rail service.

The project has the support of all major organisations in the north-east. It does not make sense—for the economy, the environment or local people—for a working railway line, maintained at taxpayers’ expense through Network Rail, to run through the county without passenger trains.

The Government’s main responsibility is to make the best use of existing resources. The line is a classic case of an underused resource that could be developed cost effectively for both freight and passenger needs. It could also play a major role in contributing to the diversionary route capability of the east coast main line. The synergy of those key issues will ensure that there is a sound business case for the line. When reopened, it will contribute towards many Government objectives, including reduced carbon emissions, through a modal shift from road transport. It will promote social inclusion, assist in continued regional regeneration and improve regional prosperity.

In conclusion, I thank all the dedicated people in SENRUG, whose efforts are to be rewarded by a feasibility study to examine phase 1. If successful, that will result in passenger rail services being introduced to Bedlington as early as 2008. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will support the principle of the reintroduction of passenger rail services on the Ashington, Blyth and Tyne line, and I ask him to meet a small delegation from the region to discuss that exciting project further.

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