HC Deb 29 July 1938 vol 338 cc3539-51

1.25 p.m.

Mr. A. Jenkins

I want to raise the question of the building of three projected bridges, and more particularly of the building of the Severn Bridge. There was great disappointment this week when we got the announcement from the Government that it is not their intention to build these bridges. We have been looking forward for some years to the building of the Severn Bridge. There is general agreement as to the need for it, and during the last week, since we received the announcement of the Government's decision, there has been something in the nature of consternation on the part of the people, not only in Wales, but in the West of England as well, at that decision I am very astonished that the decision should have been given, because on a number of occasions statements have been made by substantial authorities as to the need for the bridge. The President of the Industrial Commission said: I share the view of my predecessor that the construction of a bridge over the Severn is a project of major importance for the industrial development of South Wales. He went on to say that he would regard it as being a project which, if carried out, would give substantial importance to South Wales. In addition to that, Mr. Palmer, a representative of the Board of Trade, giving evidence before the Royal Commission on the geographical distribution of the industrial population, said, in reply to a question put to him by Mr. Ernest Bevin: Yes, I think there cannot be any doubt that it would have an effect on the development of South Wales. Transport, and easy transport, is, I think, a very important factor in a business man's mind when he is considering sites for his works. South Wales has been prejudiced for a long time because of bad business communications, and I want to call attention to the experience that we had during the late war, when, owing to the bottle-neck of the Severn Tunnel, it was next to impossible to get the amount of coal and other things through the tunnel that were made necessary by the war. A committee was formed, and it tried in every way to meet the difficulties. There were joint committees between the coalowners and the railway people, but all the time there was considerable congestion, and hundreds of thousands of tons of Welsh coal had, during the war, to be diverted and carried hundreds of miles more than would otherwise would have been necessary because of the congestion there. That was in the last war. Nobody wants a next war, but if one should come, the problem would be infinitely more difficult than it was on the last occasion.

The Government have spent and are spending a substantial amount of money in Wales. Wales is regarded, I suppose, as being one of the safest places in this country should a future war arise. Quite near to the Severn Tunnel, at Caerwent, they propose to erect a cordite factory; only six miles away they propose to build a railway, quite near the Severn Tunnel, to that factory, and they are going to spend, we understand, a very considerable sum of money for that purpose. A few miles away again, at a place called Glascoed, they are already preparing and working at the building of a shell-filling factory, and it is said that they propose to spend £1,500,000 on it, and not only do they propose to do that, but they are going to have a dump for munitions driven into the hills. That is in Monmouthshire. You go further West and come to St. Athens, and there we are spending a substantial sum of money again in connection with munitions works. At Bridgend it is said that we are spending about £2,000,000, and if you go further West still, to Burry Port, there you have more money being spent.

Having regard to the difficulties that existed during the last war, what would be the difficulties if a war should happen in the future and we had to convey those munitions from South Wales through the Severn Tunnel? It would be a very substantial difficulty. There is a further point. We have a Commission sitting now, I believe, considering such things as evacuation of the population from certain areas. I suppose that if the necessity did arise for evacuating 2,500,000 or 3,000,000 people from Greater London, they would have to go West, and one could understand the congestion and difficulties that would arise in consequence of this lack of transport facilities. I think it is of importance that we should make South Wales a bigger economic unit. There is the possibility, by the building of this bridge, of linking-up South Wales with the South West of England. Let me try to indicate what difference it would make to industry. The difference in distance from Cardiff would be 52 miles less if a bridge were built, and the same applies to Exeter and other towns round, with which a substantial trade might be carried out.

Personally, I am very disappointed that the Government gave this decision. It seems to me that the Severn Bridge could be shown to be an absolute necessity if only on the ground of strategy, having regard to the development that is taking place in these areas at present. If the Government are not concerned about trade, they certainly ought to be concerned about the defences of this country. I hope that, despite the answer which the Minister of Transport gave last week, he will give us a different reply concerning these bridges to-day. There is every reason, it seems to me, on the ground of the improvement of trade and on the ground of strategy, for the Government to reverse their decision. The Minister knows as well as I know that a project of this kind cannot be undertaken immediately. A long period would be necessary for preparation, and it may be that two years would be required before we could get to the actual building of the bridge, but if the local authorities were informed by the Government that they would not offer any opposition, but that, on the contrary, they would undertake to give substantial grants in connection with it, I know that those local authorities would be very glad indeed to proceed immediately with the preparation of the scheme. I hope that we shall have a reply from the Minister that will be favourable.

1.32 p.m.

Mr. Mathers

I want to take the opportunity, very briefly, of making reference to the disappointment that is felt at the statement of the Minister of Transport on Wednesday with regard to the three bridges that have been projected for a considerable time, though my remarks will be devoted exclusively to the question of the proposed Forth road bridge. I do not think I need spend my time in indulging in strong criticism of the Minister, because he will be made aware during the next few weeks, even if the House is in Recess and himself on holiday, of the indignation and disappointment that are felt in Scotland with regard to the decision of the Government not to proceed with the Forth road bridge, not to give, under the present circumstances, as I think the answer put it, the financial support that is necessary to carry through this great project. It would be wrong in any case to criticise unduly the Minister of Transport himself, for obviously this is a decision that is the result of the collective consideration of the whole Government.

When we raise this question, there are some who might say, "But other Governments have dealt with this matter," and indeed the last Labour Government, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South Hackney (Mr. H. Morrison) was Minister of Transport, also refused to proceed at that time with the giving of the necessary financial support to enable this bridge to be built. The position has changed vastly since my right hon. Friend was Minister of Transport in the last Labour Government. At that time the project which was put forward was for a bridge on another site, and it was estimated to cost twice the amount of the estimated cost of the present project. At that time, also, the engineering difficulties had not been settled. Now the Mackintosh Rock site near Queensferry has been agreed to be the best site for the bridge. At that time the local authorities had not agreed on the contributions they might make, and my right hon. Friend was faced with the position of giving a grant of £6,000,000, while all that he had in the way of promised financial support from local authority sources was somewhere in the region of 22½ per cent. Obviously, he was justified at that time in asking the local authorities to get together and in asking that the engineering problems should be solved, and that some effort should be made to bring forward a scheme at a lower cost.

The position since that time has been taken in hand by the Forth Road Bridge Promotion Committee, an influential body that has worked very hard and has had frequent contacts with Ministers of Transport. I understand that they have satisfied those in control that the proposal they make now is a sound one. The engineering difficulties have been got rid of and the local authorities are agreed. Now, when they have been looking forward to a favourable decision by the Government, they are told that it cannot yet be given. The local authorities have been encouraged to spend a certain amount of money, and they are at present spending £1,000 a year in preparatory work under the promise of the Government that if and when a favourable decision is made, this preliminary expenditure will rank for grant.

The best thing I can do is to give the Minister an opportunity of clearing away any misconception there may be in the minds of those who have heard the decision of the Government with a great deal of perturbation. I will, therefore, ask him the specific question: When is it intended that this matter shall be reconsidered with the idea of giving a favourable decision? I would like to ask, also, whether there has been any objection by the Admiralty to the proposed site of the new bridge? Near the site there is the naval base of Rosyth, and it is conceivable that the Admiralty may have some views on the placing of the bridge at this point. I ask the Minister to realise the disappointment that has been caused by his statement and to accept as the view of many people besides myself that this link in the road system of Scotland is one that is necessary and that will have to come in time. It is, therefore, the duty of the Government to forward the scheme instead of damping it down as they are doing. This bridge will form a link in the road system of Scotland in a properly co-ordinated transport scheme under, I hope, national control, and the Government are missing a big opportunity and causing a great amount of disappointment with regard to an import project that should have their support now. I would like to know when we are likely to have a favourable decision.

1.41 p.m.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence

My hon. Friends, each speaking for their own constituencies, have urged the claims of the three bridges—my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) of the Humber Bridge, my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Jenkins), of the Severn Bridge, and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Mathers), of the Forth Bridge. Though my interests are primarily in the last named bridge, I do not propose to cover again the ground which has been covered by these separate hon. Members. I rather want to address myself to the larger issue on which, I have no doubt, the Government have come to their decision. I want to say at the outset that I regard it not merely as regrettable, but as unsound. Having occupied a position at the Treasury, I always come to the House with a predilection in favour of the Treasury point of view. Often when Members in different parts of the House have opposed actions taken by the Treasury I have found it in my heart to support what the Treasury have done. I certainly cannot do that, however, in what has been done in this case. I consider not merely that it is unsound, but that there is at the back of the minds of those who have come to this decision a confusion between finance and economics.

This question was to the front in the days of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor at the Ministry of Transport. At that time the position was that the rearmament programme was at its outset and there was definitely a shortage of steel, so much so that the price rapidly rose. Those who wished to use steel for domestic purposes had great difficulty in obtaining their requirements because the Government, having set out on this great additional programme for which steel was required, competed against the private persons who desired steel for other construction. Much as I regretted the decision of the Government at that time that the Forth and the other bridges must be postponed, I understood and appreciated it. I think that if I had been in the position of a Member of the Government who had to make the decision I should have come to the same conclusion as they did. The position is wholly different to-day. There is no question of a shortage of steel —quite the reverse. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg, what we knew before, that there is a definite shortage of work in the iron and steel trade and that large additional orders such as these bridges would involve would help to cure that unemployment when the orders for steel got going. Therefore, the situation is wholly different from what it was at the time when this question was adversely decided 12 months or more ago.

There is no doubt that there would be an economic advantage to the nation in building these bridges. The Forth Bridge, for example, very much shortens the distance from the south to the north of the island; it would facilitate traffic, it would greatly improve the means of communication, and to build the bridge would increase the economic productivity and industrial prosperity of the nation. I share the views of the hon. Member for Pontypool about the strategic advantage of these bridges. There is no doubt that in time of war, if war unfortunately should arrive, we shall want to get about the country in the quickest available time. The railways will be strained to the uttermost, and we shall require the best means of transport in every direction, and we cannot possibly tell in what direction the need for increased and improved transport will arise. Then there is the benefit to employment. Unhappily, there is a recession of trade which is increasing the numbers of the unemployed very rapidly. I should have supposed that the Government would be anxious to do everything in their power to prevent the numbers of the unemployed getting out of hand. Finally, there is the question of prestige. I should have thought that the Government would have wished to show that the rearmament programme was not straining the resources of the country to the utmost, and this decision not to build the bridges on the ground of the financial expenditure upon armaments may be very deleterious to our prestige in foreign countries.

When all these facts have been taken into account I should have thought that it would be seen that the actual strain on the Exchequer had shrunk to such small proportions that it ought not to have weighted the balance against these larger considerations. Finance should be the handmaid of economics. The economic position of this country demands the provision of these bridges, whether from the point of view of the advantages to the industrial life of the nation, the wealth of the nation, or employment. Where economics demand, finance should find a way, and I venture to say that if, instead of being a country dependent upon the capitalist system of industry, we were on the community basis in industrial life, the present decision would not have been taken.

I can quite understand that any Minister of Transport in deciding such questions would be most anxious that the work should proceed, but he is faced with a Chancellor of the Exchequer and a Treasury equally anxious not to spend one penny which they can possibly avoid spending, and the Minister will, no doubt, have a difficult task to-day to expound what is, in a sense, Treasury policy, and is against the policy which he himself would like to adopt. At the same time he must not ride off on that, either from the constitutional point of view or any other. I remember that once a distinguished Parliamentarian was being spoken to by a Cabinet Minister, who was entitled to make the remark he did. The Minister said "I did everything I could to try to get the opposite decision taken." His friends said "Did you threaten to resign if effect was not given to your wish? Did you hold your office in your hand and say "Either this decision is taken or I go'?" The Minister said "I did not." "Then," said his friend, "you did not take every step that was open to you to gain your way when you thought it was right."

1.50 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Burgin)

I am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman, in his concluding words, is asking for a bridge or for my resignation; but I will come to the subject under discussion. When, a few days ago, in answer to a question, I had to announce that the financial resources of the country must be concentrated upon its most urgent requirements, particularly upon defensive rearmament, and that the Government were unable in the present circumstances to offer contributions towards the cost of these bridges, it was inevitable that disappointment would be caused in the neighbourhoods of the great tidal estuaries which these bridges are to span. I understood that perfectly well, and I think it is an advantage to have the opportunity provided by the Adjournment Motion to say a few words about the matter. I am not sure whether anybody reading the Debate this morning might not draw wrong conclusions. There is a great deal of history about each of these major bridge proposals. None of them is free from controversy. They are not agreed proposals. Neither the place of the bridge, nor the type of bridge, nor the effect upon navigation, has yet finally been agreed in the case of any one of the three bridges. In the case of the Humber and the Severn attempts to secure Parliamentary approval have failed, though I put that on one side, because that has really nothing to do with the position as we find it this afternoon.

The hon. Member for Brigg (Mr. Quibell) raised the question of the Humber Bridge to introduce a speech on the condition of the iron and steel industry. Again I do not want to score a false point, but the House may just as well have the figures. The total of the steelwork in all three bridges, if the orders to build them were given to-morrow, would be about half a week's output, so that to speak of the building of these three bridges as a substantial contribution to the prosperity of the iron and steel trade is just nonsense. The other speeches have raised more detailed matters relating to the bridges. The order in which these bridges have been referred to for some time past has been—the Severn, the Forth and the Humber. If hon. Members will look at the answers to questions and Government pronouncements made from time to time they will find that that is the order in which the matters have been states.

With regard to the Severn Bridge, a bridge on the west coast, a bridge which would link Wales to south-west England, it might be possible to find arguments which differ from those applicable to the Forth and the Humber. I say that it might be, for I am in this difficulty, that the proposal to build the Severn Bridge, when dealt with in a Bill before this House, was rejected. The site of the bridge is in controversy, the type of construction is in controversy, the effect upon navigation is in controversy. If agreement were reached between the parties as to the site at which a bridge could be thrown across the Severn, and if the navigational interests agreed also that a bridge on that site might be of advantage to the country, I certainly should be prepared to reexamine the proposal. For the moment, I have been obliged to say that at a time of intensive rearmament and with a Budget of the order of £1,000,000,000 a year, it is not possible to contribute from Government sources to those projects, as immediate propositions.

Mr. S. O. Davies

Assuming that the propositions referred to were agreed to under those three heads, could those who are advocating the construction of a Severn Bridge look to the Minister of Transport for an early and favourable response in the matter?

Mr. Burgin

I do not want the hon. Member to go too fast. Until I heard some of the speeches in this Debate I did not know that anybody expected that any one of these three bridges was to be built immediately.

Mr. Davies

Oh, yes.

Mr. Burgin

I had not expected that. There must be property acquisition, parliamentary powers by the promotion of a Bill and a very great deal of preliminary work. I think that a certain amount of confusion has crept into the Debate today between what is involved in the preliminary work, a relatively small matter, and the decision to construct the bridge, which is a major decision.

Mr. Davies

Sanctions must be obtained.

Mr. Burgin

There can be no title to build a bridge over a tidal estuary other than by law. As this matter involves interference with navigational rights, nothing but an Act of Parliament is applicable.

Mr. Jenkins

If the points of difference can be disposed of, does the Minister say that he will then take no exception to local authorities' commencing the preliminary work at the present time? If we can get an undertaking from him that that work may be proceeded with and that, at the end of the two or more years that may be necessary to carry it out, the scheme would rank for grant, we may be within the region of a practical proposition.

Mr. Burgin

I wish to be perfectly frank with the hon. Member. I have received deputations in regard to all these bridges, but at the moment I am talking of the proposed Severn Bridge. Deputations have been evenly divided; there have been deputations in favour of the proposal and others in favour of its opponents. I am therefore dealing with a somewhat hypothetical question. I gave an answer in the House two days ago that, in the present circumstances, there could not be a contribution from the national Exchequer towards these projects. What I am telling the hon. Member, and through him the House and the country, is that if the circumstances relating to the Severn Bridge were quite different from what they are to-day and if there were agreement as to the site, as to the type of bridge and with the navigational interests, I should be prepared to go beyond this answer. I should be prepared to re-examine the matter. Those who might put the matter forward again would have to work out very clearly in their minds what precisely they were asking for. There can be no question of giving approval to the construction of any major works of this kind at the present time.

Mr. Jenkins

I am not saying that we can get absolute agreement in any of those directions, but, if a substantial measure of agreement were reached and a Parliamentary Bill were promoted, I understand that the Minister would look upon it and the proposition favourably.

Mr. Burgin

The hon. Member cannot anticipate what opposition there would be or would not be to a proposal which I have not seen. What I am saying is that I would be prepared to re-open the answer which I gave a few days ago, if conditions altered and a proposal were put forward on the lines which I have sketched out. The case of a major bridge might possibly be considered on the West Coast, where conditions differ from those of the two proposals on the East Coast,

With regard to the two bridges over the Forth and the Humber respectively, the position must stand, for the moment, in the way in which I announced it in the House. In the present conditions and circumstances, and with the present demands upon the national resources for rearmament, it is not possible to give grants from national funds for the construction of those bridges, and I cannot, with the best will in the world, take the matter further than that, in answer to the speeches which have been made.

Mr. Mathers

Does the right hon. Gentleman class the Forth Bridge proposal as one of the projects in relation to which the site has not been agreed to?

Mr. Burgin


Mr. Mathers

I think the right hon. Gentleman had better amend that statement. I think he must know that the site has been agreed upon by all the interests concerned.

Mr. Burgin

I do not want to go into the details of the matter but I am well aware of the proposals for the Mackintosh Rock site; but there is a strong body of opinion pressing for another site, even at the present time. I am in very close touch with the proposals for this project. I have visited the sites, and I have studied the matter in detail, and it would be misleading the House to suggest that there is no other proposal than the Mackintosh Rock site proposal.

Mr. Mathers

The right hon. Gentleman has not answered my specific question about the Admiralty opinion.

Mr. Burgin

Any matter relating to the Admiralty had no bearing upon the decision which I announced to the House.

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