HC Deb 13 February 1945 vol 408 cc182-92

Motion made, and Question proposed; "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Beechman.]

7.28 p.m.

Mr. Woodburn (Clackmannan and Stirling, Eastern)

In view of the extended Business which has been before the House I would gladly have postponed this Adjournment Debate but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it would have been most undesirable, because since he gave his answer to me in the House regarding the Forth Road Bridge, there has been continuous uproar in Scotland on this question and that of the Prestwick airport. It has become necessary to put the matter properly to the Minister in order that some definite declaration might be obtained of a more prompt character than has so far been the case.

Scotland welcomed the implied decision in the Minister's answer that the Government have agreed that a bridge is to be built over the Forth at Queensferry. If the answer does not mean that, we had better be clear about it after the Minister has replied. I shall proceed on the assumption that the Government have accepted the principle. What is unsatisfactory about the Government's reply is the suggestion that some day in the future they will consider whether the preliminary arrangements can be made for going into the question of preparing plans and designs. That aspect of the matter has raised a great deal of feeling in Scotland and it is believed that there are influences that, somehow or other, want to delay the building of the bridge. There seems to be also an implication that the Severn Barrage and the Forth Bridge are alternatives. I would like to make it quite clear that we in Scotland are not considering the Forth Bridge in relation to priority over the Severn Barrage. We cannot see any reason why there should be conflict between these two propositions. Indeed, we see no reason why they cannot proceed simultaneously, and in whatever order may be expedient at the time.

Scotland's own industrial resources could build this bridge. We have steelworks, we have engineers, we have heavy industries, and we have labour, and therefore, we ask nothing, so far as the material resources of the South are concerned, to build the bridge, except the Government's decision to go ahead. Indeed, I am prepared to go so far as to say that, if necessary, Scotland itself could provide the money. Since this matter has arisen, two people have approached me quite spontaneously, and suggested that they would provide some money to start a fund, which would become a national fund, for the building of this bridge. I suggest that if the Chancellor is prepared to allow Scotland to use its savings for this constructive purpose, instead of using them for the general national purpose, the money itself could be raised in Scotland, if that is the only way to build this bridge.

The question is not as to the principle of the bridge being built, but one of urgency. If I mention one or two arguments on the matter of urgency, I hope they will receive serious consideration. The first is that this decision of procrastination, if there can be such a decision, has struck a blow at the whole planning which is in preparation in Scotland. The planning authorities both in the East and West are considering what are to be the economic conditions in which Scotland is to develop. Both in regard to Prestwick in the West, and the Forth Road Bridge in the East, these are vital considerations. I hope it may be possible for Mr. Speaker, in the discussion tomorrow on the Scottish Town and Country Bill, to allow some questions to be raised with regard to the position of the Forth Bridge in relation to that planning. I would like to say to the Minister quite frankly that the position in this matter has almost brought to a standstill all the plans that were under consideration in the East of Scotland, and indeed for Scotland as a whole. The second point is that the Government have intimated a policy of full employment. Scotland sees no possibility of that full employment policy being successful if the heavy steel and iron industry of Scotland is to be denuded of the kind of work which this bridge would provide. It is true that immediately after the war it might not be possible to have steel and iron available, but it is a question not of immediate use of iron and steel, but of the intimation that it could be used when the time comes.

The third point is that the bridge would save from 25 to 44 miles from the South at Edinburgh, to the North in Fife and right up towards Aberdeen. Even taking this at its most reasonable, a delivery van, for example, would save about three gallons of petrol each way, and two hours of time. At 7s. an hour it would mean a saving of 20s. each way in the case of a lorry. Against the actual waste of a driver and a lorry to go round the distance at present entailed by the journey, the lorry could go across the bridge in a matter of a quarter to half an hour. There are 200,000 vehicles licensed in the area affected. I am taking as an example right up the coast, that is, the places to which these vehicles might run. I am not saying that all these 200,000 vehicles will be running backwards and forwards across the bridge, but in 1936 there were 200,000 vehicles in the area affected.

The next point is in regard to the policy of full employment after the war. This bridge would have a great effect on the mobility of labour, because in the past it has been found difficult, from Rosyth to the south of the Forth, to use the housing in one part of the area for labour for the other part. In the last war and in this war much of the labour has had to travel from Edinburgh to Rosyth. That is not a convenient journey, where the railway is so taken up with other kinds of traffic having greater priority. The population in the two districts on both sides of the Forth is approximately 1,000,000. To suggest that there is no urgent need for a bridge, with 1,000,000 people affected on both sides of the Forth is fantastic.

Scotland resents very much the fact that whenever anything in the way of a bridge is suggested for Scotland, economic justification must be proved. We never hear anything about economic justification for the making of great main roads, or in the case of many other projects before the Ministry. But let us assume that the economic question is important. It is estimated that there would be 1,000,000 crossings of vehicles over that bridge per year. At 3s. a head, that would bring in over £300,000. If money is available at the rate which the Chancellor says will be charged for public purposes, that would be enough to provide a £6,000,000 road bridge—because the new bridge will be much more expensive, with the wider crossings, than the one proposed before the war.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

My hon. Friend is not suggesting a toll bridge?

Mr. Woodburn

We are prepared to pay tolls if necessary in order to have a bridge.

Mr. McKinlay

What about having tolls for Waterloo Bridge?

Mr. Woodburn

In Scotland we are prepared to pay tolls if they have to be paid. We do not want that made an excuse. The Scottish Coal Report has just been published. On both sides of the Forth there are great coal seams to be developed. The next major point is that Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, and its routes approach it only from the south and the west. It is barred on the east by the sea, and on the north by the Firth of Forth. It seems quite unjustifiable that this great main road, the A.1 road of this country, should come to a sudden stop at that point, and make a 44-mile detour around the Firth of Forth. It is true that a new bridge has been started, but it has made little contribution to that main problem. The Forth railway bridge was an economic proposition 50 years ago, and everybody realises that if, in the first great raid of this war, that bridge had been destroyed, it would have had to be rebuilt, so vital is it. There is a suspicion that the railways are acting in a dog-in- the-manger manner in regard to this road bridge. There have been so many red herrings that there is a suspicion that there are some obstacles behind the scenes, which prevent full consideration of the scheme. If the railways have an objection they ought to let it he known, and if they have no objection they ought to make their position on the matter clear to the public.

I want the Minister to get from the Government a decision that the plans can be started at once, unless it can be shown that the civil engineers to whom we have been referred for plans are not available and able to plan the work. If they are available there is no justification for not proceeding with the plans immediately. The second point is that the necessary preliminaries should be organised in industry. There should be a survey of where the work is to be done, the necessary firms should be asked to tender, and it should be ascertained what preparations can be made in the meantime, so that, as and when the actual work becomes desirable, in the national policy of full employment, the actual manufacture of the goods could be commenced without delay. Immediate attention should also be given to the necessary road connèctions, because all local authorities will have to be associated in helping the Ministry to plan the roads to and from this bridge.

So far as I am aware, all Scottish Members of Parliament of all parties are behind the policy that I am putting forward to the Minister. Scottish people regard the air services at Prestwick and the construction of the Forth Road Bridge as symbols of the Government's sincerity in developing Scotland after the war. Scotland itself is prepared to contribute to this work, and we ask that the Minister should take an early opportunity of consulting the Government again and asking them to make a further decision. I understand that, so great has been the agitation in Scotland, even our friends in another place are likely to raise this matter direct with the Minister. In any case, he can take it that what I am saying now, so far as the Press, the local authorities, the Scottish Council of Industry and all the representative bodies of Scotland are concerned, is the view of the Scottish people.

Someone, before this Debate began, was kind enough to hand me a quotation from Hazlitt, which runs: There are two things an Englishman understands—hard work and hard blows. Nothing short of these, generally speaking, excites his attention or interests him in the least. Well, Hazlitt was an Englishman and he ought to know, but I do not propose to indulge in either. I hope that reason may still prevail with the Government, and I ask my hon. Friend to do his best.

7.42 p.m.

Lord Douglass (Lanark)

I detain the House only for a moment to make it evident, in a physical sense, that my hon. Friend's claim that this is an all-party matter is the fact. On this side of the House, I think we feel that there is a very strong case for going ahead with the plans for this bridge. The hon. Gentleman has made his case, and I understand that there is a population of something like 1,000,000 to be served on either side of the Firth of Forth. On the economic side I think it is perfectly clear that, for those industries which use the roads in order to carry their goods, it would mean an immense saving in expense and especially in coal, and although I speak with reluctance as representing a Lanarkshire constituency, I think the fact that the Lanarkshire coalfields are on the decline, while the coalfields in East Lothian and Fife are going to be the coalfields of the future in Scotland, reinforces to an immense extent the case for having this bridge ready to serve both areas. I hope the Minister will listen with sympathy to the claim advanced from both sides of the House, which represents the universal opinion in Scotland.

7.44 p.m.

Mr. McLean Watson (Dunfermline)

I do not expect the Minister to make an adequate reply to the case put by my hon. Friend, but I wish to add my voice to those already raised in favour of the Government going on with this bridge. I have never seen public opinion in Scotland so stirred as it has been since the last reply which the Parliamentary Secretary gave to my hon. Friend the Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn). Public opinion in Scotland has been deeply stirred. Not only the newspapers, but public opinion generally, was most resentful of the statement made on the last occasion. For 20 years we in Scotland have been "diddled" over this question. It is 20 years since we had a Minister of Transport who looked at this matter in a realistic fashion. At that time we had a Minister of Transport who recognised the advisability of taking some steps to ascertain whether or not a road bridge was an engineering possibility, and he in conjunction with the local authorities in the immediate neighbourhood, came to an agreement that £10,000 should be spent on a survey of the Forth in the neighbourhood of Queensferry to see if a bridge was a feasible proposition. A report was made and presented to this House, and although every Minister of Transport since that time has been approached by Scottish Members interested in this matter not one of them has given us the slightest hope that a road bridge would be constructed at Queensferry. I do not want my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to ride off on the fact that in Scotland we have different ideas as to where the bridge should be built. I hope that he will not let that go forward as an excuse for the Government not doing anything. There is not one of us who does not know that, if the Government make up their mind to build a bridge, they will get their engineers to say just where the bridge is to be built and to decide the type of bridge. We may have our own ideas where the bridge should be built but I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will not take the slightest cognisance of the fact that we have various opinions on this matter. There is one other thing I want to say. I will allow the Minister 10 minutes in which to reply.

Mr. Pethick-Lawrence (Edinburgh, East)

He has not To minutes available now.

Mr. Watson

The other thing I want to say is that, in addition to a road bridge, there is a proposal that there should be a combined road and rail bridge. The present rail bridge cannot take the whole of the traffic that ought to be passing between North and South. I hope that the Government,- when they are considering the question of a road bridge, will take into consideration the possibility of a rail bridge being constructed and a joint arrangement between the Government and the railway companies. I want to give my hon. Friend time to reply.

7.48 p.m.

Mr. Francis Watt (Edinburgh, Central)

I think that I can say in less than one minute all that is necessary in this matter. I am a representative of one of the Divisions of the city of Edinburgh and I can say for the whole city that it stands solidly behind the hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) in the speech he has made to-night. The bridge is a very vital thing for Edinburgh—I do not merely speak for myself but, I believe, for the whole of Scotland—and I hope that the Government recognise the gravity of the situation and that this matter will not be postponed.

7.49 p.m.

Captain McEwen (Berwick and Haddington)

I will confine what I have to say to one minute. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary realises as an Englishman that, in contrast to olden times, when the dividing line in Scotland ran horizontally from East to West between the Highlands and the Lowlands, now the line runs North and South, and that these two problems—the Prestwick Aerodrome and the Forth Road Bridge—being definitely concerned one with the East and the other with the West of that country require to be considered as one. I trust we may have an opportunity, as the hon. Gentleman has said, to discuss this at greater length on another occasion. Time is too short now, but I hope to get to-night from the hon. Gentleman some statement which is not hedged about with "perhaps" and "may be's" as we have had already. The other day, when the Minister of Aircraft Production wound up and we were all full of hope that we would hear something of value, all we heard was that perhaps Prestwick would perhaps be one of the aerodromes that would remain after the war. It is on those grounds and for the reasons which have been given by hon. Gentlemen this evening, and many others if we had time to give them, that I trust we may hear some good news from the hon. Gentleman to-night.

7.51 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for East Stirling (Mr. Woodburn) who opened this Debate kept his promise not to use hard words and hard blows, but even an Englishman who follows the Scottish Press is able to understand that there are people North of the Border, who would like, if they could, to use both hard words and hard blows upon this subject. I hope the House will not think I am guilty of discourtesy, and I hope the critics of my Ministry in Scotland will not think I have treated the matter in a cavalier way, if I fail to say anything to-night that is very new or very pleasing to those who want a firm decision that this bridge shall be built. I hope at least they will acquit me of any charge of having thought the matter less deserving of serious study than they think it is. In fact, I have done everything I can to understand it. I have examined memoranda and reports and plans and estimates and drawings. I have discussed it with high authorities. I have visited the site to try and envisage, as well as a non-technician can, the problems which it involves. No doubt I have done so in part under the stimulus provided by my hon. Friends who have asked me Questions and who have raised the matter on previous occasions on the Adjournment. But I had, in fact, begun to do so before they applied that stimulus at all. I hope that, as a result, I understand the arguments they use.

I do understand that the local authorities are agreed on what they want and how they want it, and I would like to assure my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Watson) that I do not at all want to ride off, nor does my Noble Friend, on the fact that there is a rival plan to that of the McIntosh Rock which the local authorities have put up. I do think there is more work to be done on the basic planning before decisions can be made. I raised some points on the last occasion when we debated the matter which have not yet been taken into consideration. I do understand what has been urged by the Noble Lord to-night, that those who are planning Eastern Scotland want to know if there is to be a bridge. I do understand that they think the matter is greatly affected by the probable, perhaps the certain, development of the Eastern Fife coalfields in a relatively early future. I do understand the argument put forward by my hon. Friend who raised the matter about the saving in transport. Certainly, if the figures which he gave proved in practice to be right, they would mean beyond dispute—


They represent the minimum.

Mr. Noel-Baker

I am not challenging the hon. Member at all. I only say, if they proved in practice to be right they would mean a very considerable saving of imported fuel and imported rubber and a great saving of time and labour on the transport of goods and passengers across the Forth. I hope I understand all that. I am not sure, however, if I have made my hon. Friends understand my Noble Friend's position. No doubt if this bridge is built, a great sum of money will be asked for from Parliament by my Department. We have to answer for it as part of the general economic plan which the Government will have to carry out when the war is over. There will then be an immense diversion of our resources in, man-power, in raw materials, in industrial plant back to peace-time industry. There will be an immense programme of absolutely vital public works, deferred maintenance, new construction on existing works, the development of new works which do not exist at all but which are indispensably required. There is a great housing programme. There will be an immense programme of rehabilitation and new construction on the railways, new developments of a different kind. There will be municipal enterprises of many kinds. My Department will have an immense amount to do on the roads. The sum of £35,000,000 is required for deferred maintenance on roads alone, and the bill will not have been made less by the hard weather we have had this year. There will be great pressure on man-power, raw materials and industrial plant for some years after the war, and the Government will have to choose the public works which must be done first. Then we will have to consider the various crossings of the various estuaries which have been asked for. There have been demands for crossings over virtually every estuary around the coast. It is not only a question of the Severn Bridge, but also the Severn Barrage. Three crossings of the Tyne have been asked for, and Dundee presses strongly for a crossing of the Tay, and so on.

My hon. Friend opposite said that we should not listen to arguments about economic justification. Of course, from a long-period point of view, economic justification, in the old sense, is a very debatable matter, but in this immediate postwar period the Government will have to consider what works will most strengthen the general economic position of the country. That will be the basic principle. The Government will have to look for economic justification in that sense. I do not desire to prejudge or prejudice any of the arguments which have been used to-night, and I am not going to try to answer them. Maybe when the Government come to settle what public works they can do after the war it may be possible to do all kinds of things which at present seem most unlikely to be possible at once. But I am sure that the Government cannot pledge themselves to any general programme of works at the present time. It is not reasonable to ask them to do so at the very crisis of the war; and if they cannot decide the whole programme they cannot decide individual items. It is true that they have decided about the Severn, but I am sure my hon. Friend will not dispute the fact that the industrial rehabilitation of the South Wales region is perhaps the first of all the economic problems with which this country must deal. We do not think of the Severn as an alternative to the Forth. We say we cannot now decide the general programme or priorities, and I cannot go to-night beyond what I said in my answer to my hon. Friend's last Question on this subject. I will, of course, report this Debate to my Noble Friend, and he will consider what has been said.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes before Eight o'Clock.