HC Deb 03 August 1944 vol 402 cc1742-52
Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

If I were to take time in expressing the feelings of grievance that I have for regarding the manner in which I accommodated myself to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War I would waste time in putting the case I am very anxious to put, that case being in relation to the project for a Forth Road Bridge, which I want to put to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport. The right hon. Gentleman apologises and I will discuss that apology with him on an appropriate occasion. He has apologised for keeping us so late with this Debate which should have come on much earlier in these proceedings.

There is a very considerable background to this project of a Forth Road Bridge and I hope the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot), both of whom are present, will use their influence to see that justice is done to Scotland in this matter. I do not want to go into ancient history. If I did, I would be able to show that there was a project and plans were prepared for a road bridge across the Firth of Forth near Queensferry, as a matter of fact at exactly the site later chosen by the railway companies——

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Mr. Mathers

The site finally chosen for the railway project was the one that had been originally projected in 1818 for a road bridge across the Forth near Queensferry since that was obviously the natural crossing. However, I do not want to get involved at the moment in questions of sites. I will only take the House back in recent history to the Debate that took place in another place on 22nd July, 1936. Seeing that that is a past Session, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I think I shall be in Order in making quotations from the speech of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies at that time, who answered for the Government the very full case that was put up for the project of a Forth Road Bridge at the Mackintosh Rock site. In the course of his remarks he said that the question had recently been revived and: … It was in October of last year—(1935)—that agreement was reached between the local authorities that the Mackintosh Rock site was the best site that could be found. The Minister agrees that if a bridge is to be built at all, this undoubtedly is the most suitable site. The cost of it, I understand, has been estimated at £3,250,000. … That was the comment at that time, I ask the House to note, upon the question of a site that had been agreed by the combined local authorities working in the form of an organisation naming itself the Forth Road Bridge Promotion Committee. The Earl of Plymouth on that occasion in the same Debate said: It cannot be considered in any sense an official committee, and it does not carry any direct responsibility for this project. Therefore I think your Lordships will agree that obviously the Minister would not be justified in reaching a conclusion on the statement of this body alone. There are other remarks made in that speech which I would have quoted if there had been more time, but I draw attention to the fact that in 1935 and in 1936 the local authorities were committed to the putting forward of their claim for a bridge on the basis of the erection being made at the Mackintosh Rock site. Since that time the Ministry has apparently been depending very largely upon the local authorities, organised in this body that I have named, for guidance as to what the views of the local authorities were about where this bridge should be placed. It is true that the Ministry at no time has completely committed itself to the erection of a bridge, but the encouragement that has been given to the promoters, and the kind of considerations that have been put to the promoters by the Minister of Transport, have definitely established the feeling in Scotland, and especially in the area more particularly served, that there was a real intention on the part of the Ministry to have a bridge at that point. When there was consideration of the various sites there was the more ambitious project of a bridge nearer the sea, to the East of the railway bridge. That was the choice for a time, but it was given up when it was found that the cost would be about £6,000,000. Just before this war the idea of erecting a bridge was abandoned on the urge of the Ministry that it would not be a practical proposition when steel was being so much used in our war preparations. Quite rightly and patriotically the local authorities did not urge an the Government, after that, the question of building a road bridge during the war. But in view of the fact that more recently they have been asked to indicate their views as to the merits of all schemes which have recently been put before local authorities, and which are in a measure still before them, they have felt that owing to the need to look ahead to the post-war period a decision should be made by the Government and a declaration made by them on this matter. It may be pointed out that to offset the building of a bridge at Queensferry after the last war, a bridge at Kincardine, and an improved ferry service, were provided but these have not met the needs of the situation.

We are now asking, nay, demanding, on behalf of Scotland, that a decision should be arrived at in regard to this matter and that that decision should be, must be, favourable to the idea of a bridge being built in this part of Scotland in order to help complete the great North Road and make this an important link in the road system of Scotland. It is claimed that a bridge at this point on one site or the other should have very high priority. When I say that, I am not saying that we should divert steel—the bridge will be largely steel—or labour that would properly be going to the erection of houses. We would not say that this should stand in the way of the provision of houses, but we are entitled to say that if very high priority, as we understand it, can be given to the project of a bridge across the Severn, linking Wales with England, there should be no objection to making a decision with regard to the Forth Road Bridge. We are not aware that the question of the Severn Bridge has been prominently in hand so long as the question of the bridge across the Forth. If there is a justification for the one there is the same, or almost the same, justification for the other.

I said just now that I did not want to enter into the battle of the sites. Owing to what was understood to be the Ministry's wish the local authorities have done their best to get complete agreement about the Mackintosh Rock site and a number of people who have their views about that site have allowed themselves to be set aside in order that unity should not be disturbed. But when we get an answer such as I got from the Parliamentary Secretary on Tuesday I think we are entitled to say that obviously this question of site has not been settled and that the Ministry must come in and settle it. The answer I got shocked me. I am glad I got it as a written answer. If I had got it across the Floor I should have been speechless and could not have put a supplementary to it. It has caused very considerable indignation in Scotland, where the question is exciting a good deal of attention. The answer was: My Noble Friend does not think it opportune to come to a conclusion upon the alternative sites for a road bridge across the Firth of Forth in present circumstances."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st August, 1944; Vol. 402, C. 1183.] What does that mean? When will it be opportune to come to a conclusion? What are the present circumstances which deny to Scotland the satisfaction of this demand for a decision? Further, in respect to the varying sites, have they been properly examined in an independent way by Ministry engineers, and why is it that after this lapse of time no preference even can be indicated for one site or the other? I am entitled to ask this further point because I have been denied an opportunity of putting it to the Admiralty, who are involved. I was told I could not put a question as to their views because, although it affects them, it was a matter for the Ministry of War Transport. Has the Ministry of War Transport consulted the Admiralty about the possibility of interfering with shipping up and down the Firth of Forth? What is the Admiralty view on the point? It should have been ascertained by the Ministry of War Transport and it should be made known to those interested in the matter. Equally important, it seems to me, is the question of demanding a decision now in order that the planning of the area which is going forward on both sides of the Forth may be carried out to the best possible advantage. The chairman of the planning committee for the area indicated to Members of Parliament who gathered in Edinburgh and had a discussion on the matter last week that the Committee's plans were completely held up in important respects because they had no knowledge whether there was to be a bridge across the Forth and where exactly it was to stand.

What stands in the way? Is it the railway interests? Surely, he will not allow that to stand in the way. I would not allow it to stand in the way although I am a railway man myself and I realise the importance of the matter from their point of view. I am hoping that we need not consider individual railway interests in a matter of this kind at this date. I am looking forward to there being one great comprehensive railway organisation in this country after the war, whether under private or public ownership.

We are asked to put aside our private interests, prejudices, and partial affections, and I consider it my public and patriotic duty to insist on the Ministry of Transport discussing this matter, deciding upon it and indicating their decision to the people of Scotland. I want to know what conditions there are still to be satisfied before the Minister of Transport can give a decision. It has been indicated that he looks upon himself as a Minister of War Transport, concerned only with things relating to the period of the war. He cannot evade his responsibility in that way. He is Minister of Transport. Plans are being made for the future, and on this important matter the Minister must take a decision. In the name of those who have been putting forward this project for many years, a project which is completely justified by the traffic, I demand that this attitude of the Ministry be ended and that a decision be taken at the earliest possible moment and made available to us when we return from the Recess.

Lieut.-Colonel Elliot (Glasgow, Kelvingrove)

I should like to assure the Minister that this question has not been raised in any sense as a party matter. It is a matter of general interest in Scotland, and we are all extremely desirous of having the matter advanced a step. In the great railway age the Forth Bridge was built, and as we are now passing into a road age it seems almost essential that a road link between the two sides of the Forth should be constructed. It is true to say that there is a great deal of uncertainty about the best site, about the methods of construction, and so on, which in the long run only the Ministry of Transport will be able to resolve. It is unfortunately true that such great projects demand a long time in planning if they are to be successful. No doubt, from the accounts I have heard from eminent engineers, the matter has advanced very considerably in the greater skill in engineering which is now available as compared with the skill which was available even a few years ago, let alone the long period since 1818 to which my hon. Friend referred. The matter is now coming well within the range of a great engineering project. The great conceptions which are available in modern engineering make it quite possible to build a bridge more cheaply as time goes on—a remarkable and welcome contrast to many other projects. It is true to say that in Scotland the industrial areas of the centre are becoming worked out, and it is necessary that we should develop the great coastal coal areas, both of the East and of the West. That is becoming more and more manifest, and one of the fields obviously marked out for development is the Fife coalfield. The possibility of great industrial development which will not reproduce the ugly characteristics of the development of the early years of the industrial revolution offers itself to us. Therefore, I hope that we shall have a favourable response from the Minister.

Mr. Hubbard (Kirkcaldy)

To-day we find Scotland given the treatment that it usually gets in this House, of being relegated to the end of the programme. I want to suggest that this road bridge, so long promised to Scotland, has a definite bearing upon post-war reconstruction, especially in connection with the development of roads. The planning committee must know where there will be a bridge because if there is to be a road bridge, all roads must lead to it in that area.

I would like to point out that the development of industry has been held up for many years, almost as many years as it has taken the Government to make up their minds whether they will go on with the building of this road bridge. When the war is ended it may be that the existence of this bridge would justify the further development of shipbuilding in the area. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman who has just spoken mentioned the development of the coalfields in this connection also. I do not think the people of Scotland will accept the answer that no plans have been made, whether it is by the Minister of Transport or by the Minister of War Transport. It is obvious that no plans can be made for Scotland until we get the Minister's decision whether or not the Government are going on with the proposed Forth Road Bridge. I hope that the House is not going to get a purely negative reply, but that the Minister will offer something to Scotland so that Scotland may be able to take its rightful place in the development of housing, which is complementary to industry. If we are going to build a bridge, it will have a big bearing on where we are to build our houses. I sit down, having gone half a minute beyond the time I proposed, in order to hear the Minister's reply.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

This Debate is a concentration of Scotland's purpose in this matter. I hope that the Minister and his Noble Friend will not think that the shortness of the Debate is symbolic of the patience that Scotland has shown in this matter, because his Ministry has been fiddling about over this Forth Road Bridge for over 20 years. While we are a very patient race, Scotland is just about reaching the end of its patience at the way in which it has been treated with regard to some of these major projects. If it is a question of a bridge in London, everybody is interested, and the bridge has to be provided immediately. London is of no use as the office of the Empire, unless the hinterland is economically prosperous. It cannot be of use to have an office in London for the Empire and for the country, unless Scotland and the other industrial districts are properly equipped with a means of transport. This bridge would be a life artery for Scotland. Because it is not there, Scotland's development is being throttled. The right hon. and gallant Member for Kelvingrove (Lieut.-Colonel Elliot) told us that the bridge would be a vital necessity for the development of industry in the area. There is a growing resentment over the treatment that has been given to us in the matter of this Forth Road Bridge. I want to say frankly to his Noble Friend, and I hope that the Minister here will convey it to him, that handing the matter over to local authorities to squabble about is regarded as an excuse to rid the Ministry of a responsibility which must in the end be theirs. The Ministry of Transport have laid down the specifications for the bridge and they will eventually decide where the bridge will be, so it is no use asking the local authorities to wrangle about sites, which are a technical matter to be decided by the officers of the Ministry.

I hope that the Minister will realise that this is a serious matter and not a matter for temporary stunting in Scotland. It will become more serious as time goes on, and unless plans are laid now there is no possibility of the project being started until three, four or five years after the war. If the plans are not ready by the end of the war, it is certain that the industry of Scotland will suffer and that very great resentment will be visited on the Government at that time.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport (Mr. Noel-Baker)

I cannot detain the House for any length of time, even if I so desired, and I am afraid that in the few minutes I occupy I shall not give my hon. Friends any very great cause for satisfaction, but I hope they will not think that because my reply is brief we have not treated this matter in a serious manner. My hon. Friend said that for many years we had dealt with it frivolously. I do not think that is true. Certainly we have no desire to throw it back to the local authorities to wrangle over. I have given it a good deal of attention. I have studied the plans, read the papers and been to Scotland and, with my hon. Friend and under the guidance of my Ministry's divisional road engineer, I have inspected the rival sites. My interest in the subject has been greatly heightened by what my hon. Friends on both sides have said to-day. I think the best thing I can say to them is that I will submit the very eloquent and persuasive arguments they have laid before the House to my Noble Friend. I can certainly promise them that he and his advisers will consider, with all the care they deserve, the cogent arguments brought forward to-day.

About the site, as has been said, neither the Inchgarvie nor the Mackintosh Rock site is the first or only one to be considered. There was the old Dalmeny site proposal, and in 1934 the Beamer Rock. There have been a good many variants of these four basic propositions. I am not satisfied in my own mind that everything that would require consideration has yet been considered from the technical point of view. If and when the time comes for my Noble Friend to make a decision about these technical matters he will have to consider whether the bridge will be adequate for the traffic it must carry many years ahead. I do not think it could be considered adequate unless it could carry a dual carriage-way. It is a basic policy of the Ministry to segregate traffic into two directional streams, both on safety and traffic grounds. The bridge would have to carry footpaths for pedestrians and cycle paths. I am not sure that the plans now prepared allow for these things, and they might therefore have to be modified when the time came. My hon. Friends and the local authorities are at one with me in thinking that the aesthetic aspect of the matter is of the highest importance. The existing Forth Bridge is one of the glories of Britain, and no plan must be passed which would endanger the beauty of that bridge. The new bridge, if there is to be one, must be the equal of the bridge which now exists. On all these matters, on every technical and aesthetic aspect of the project, my Noble Friend, if and when the time comes for him to make a decision about the site, will take the best advice he can get. I can give my hon. Friends a definite pledge about that.

While my hon. Friends were talking about an inquiry into the rival merits of different sites, what they really want is a decision that this bridge shall be built. I cannot really hold out a hope that a decision will be made at any very early date. They are aware that if the plan were carried through my Ministry would have to put up by far the greater part of the total costs. But after the war my Ministry will be faced with great expenditure for public works for transport of all kinds. We have at least £35,000,000 of deferred maintenance work on our existing roads, and we shall need large-scale new road constructions and improvements both to assist necessary economic development and on road safety grounds. The Forth Bridge is not the only estuarial crossing which we shall be, and are being, asked to consider. There is the Severn Bridge of which my hon. Friend has spoken. There is a crossing for almost every estuary round our coasts; there is Hull; three crossings of the Tyne are being asked for; I have had representations——

It being the hour appointed for the Adjournment of the House, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order, till Tuesday, 26th September, pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 2nd August.