HC Deb 24 October 1950 vol 478 cc2741-51

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

5.36 p.m.

Mr. Vosper (Runcorn)

The subject of this Debate—the bridge between Runcorn and Widnes—may at first sight appear to be of a somewhat parochial nature, affecting only my own constituency of Runcorn and that of the hon. Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl), who, I hope, Sir, may catch your eye later. It also concerns, however, many industrial areas in the south and west of Lancashire and, to a lesser extent, all those whose commercial vehicles use the western traffic routes between Lancashire and the North, on the one hand, and between the Midlands and the South, on the other hand.

This is a subject with which the Minister, when he is with us, is familiar, and a subject to which, I believe, he is sympathetic, but we make no apology for raising this matter again because we feel that it is of growing importance. There are five crossings of the River Mersey between Manchester and Liverpool, including that of the Mersey Tunnel. All of them are congested, all have long and narrow approach routes, and on all except two of them tolls have to be paid.

The crossing between Runcorn and Widnes is served at present by what is known locally as "the transporter bridge." I can only describe this as a sort of horizontal funicular. It was built in 1905 and was designed primarily for horse-drawn vehicles. It is owned at present by the Widnes Corporation. It is, of course, quite inadequate and entirely out of date. To remedy this situation, plans for a new high level bridge were drawn up in 1947 and Parliamentary approval was given in that year. Preliminary arrangements were put in hand straightaway and have been completed, but now, some three and a half years later, Ministerial approval is still withheld on account of the economic situation. Our contention is that the construction of the new bridge, by contributing towards increased production and efficiency, would, in fact, help the economic situation.

Three potential types of traffic would wish to use the crossing. First, there is the traffic which is almost entirely local, which uses the present transporter bridge. In the month of September just past, the traffic actually using the existing bridge amounted to 140,000 foot passengers, 16,000 bicycles and motor cycles, and 25,000 four-wheel vehicles. That is in the one month. Secondly there is that traffic which only wishes to move from Runcorn to Widnes or alternatively from Widnes to Runcorn, and which should use a bridge between the two places, and which rather than face the average delay of 40 minutes in waiting for the "transporter" and pay the heavy tolls prefers to make a detour of some 16 miles via Warrington or a rather longer detour via Liverpool.

Thirdly, there is the through traffic from Lancashire to the Midlands which at present does not use this route at all but would use it if an up to date efficient bridge were available. It is estimated that these last two groups, that is the traffic which at present does not use the bridge but would do so if a modern bridge were there is estimated—these are official figures—as being 10 times the traffic which uses the bridge at present. In other words, when the bridge is constructed the traffic along this road will increase tenfold from the present average of some 700 four-wheeled vehicles daily to about 7,000. Surely these figures are proof of the need for this bridge and of the necessity to raise this matter.

I should like to give to the Minister five additional reasons why this problem has become more urgent of recent date, possibly more urgent than I believe he himself realises. In the first place, the present transporter bridge is in danger of collapse. In support of that view I need do nothing but quote the words of the consulting engineer—a member of a firm of consulting engineers held in great repute by the Ministry—when he gave evidence before the Select Committee on 22nd April, 1947. In reply to a question on the state of the present bridge he said "The bridge is worn out." That was some 3½ years ago. We still have the same bridge. Repairs may be effected but that is no long term or real solution.

Secondly, there is a continual increase in traffic over the present bridge, in lorry traffic in particular. Since 1939 there has been a 75 per cent. increase in four-wheeled traffic across the present transporter bridge, and since 1947, the year in which the Measure became law, the lorry traffic has increased by no less than 30 per cent.

Thirdly, there is the fact that the workers of Widnes and Runcorn have never interchanged more than they do today. Many of those who live in Widnes work in Runcorn, and many of those who live in Runcorn work in Widnes. There is rail communication between the two towns but it is useless because there is no rail stop on the Widnes side. Those wishing to go to work have to use either the transporter bridge or take a foot passage along the railway embankment. In either case it is a waste of time and effort. Although it is not a part of their working time it is generally agreed today that conditions of travel to and from work are an important contributory factor towards the productivity of individual workers. Practically every report from America of the productivity teams support that contention.

Fourthly, the delay and resulting cost to local industry is immense. Practically every industry in the two towns is interdependent. The chemical, leather and allied industries in particular are located on both banks of the river and their inter-communication has to be done either by an extensive delay of 40 minutes at the present rate or else by making this lengthy and expensive detour via Warrington or Liverpool. I will give one instance of one firm, admittedly the largest, who have calculated that in the present year or in any one year the charges of the added cost of tolls, transport delays and alternative routing costs them not less than £15,700 per annum, all because the present bridge is inadequate. These figures can if necessary be produced to the Minister. Every other industry in the same locality can produce similar figures.

Fifthly, on both alternative routes—Warrington and Liverpool—congestion is increasing month by month, partly due to the increase in road vehicles and other reasons. Fifty per cent. of the traffic using the Mersey tunnel is through traffic, much of which should not use it. Much of that traffic would use this bridge were it available. These few facts and figures—they are a few of the many available—illustrate what we think is the growing urgency of this situation. We do not wish this bridge to be built for our convenience. It is not a matter of it being a social asset, for many workers will be displaced from their homes. We regard this as a progressive step towards increased production.

I believe it is a measure which calls for a share of the capital investment programme, in which respect it compares very favourably with any other project. Unfortunately it is so difficult to measure the production quotient of a measure like this. For that reason it may compare somewhat unfavourably with the list of priorities which the Minister must have before him. We believe, however, that this project should obtain a high priority.

We do not ask or expect tonight the Minister to say that he can sanction the whole of this project. That will not be necessary. We feel that we should have a clear and definite answer as to what chance and what hope there is of this work commencing in the near future. The immediate requirement is that the foundation work be commenced, particularly that portion of the foundation work needed to serve as a protection to the Manchester Ship Canal. While that work is going on it is impossible and unnecessary to start any other work—not even the fabrication of the steel work of the superstructure. The work to which I have referred will take from nine months to a year. In the first year of work upon the project it should not be necessary to expend more than £100,000 upon it. As well as asking tonight for a definite priority for this project we ask that approval should be given for that sum in the capital estimates for 1951.

Should this, in due course—we may not get an answer on that point tonight—prove impossible, I would ask that serious consideration be given to alternative schemes to meet this difficulty, because I believe that that will be more beneficial than indefinite delay in always waiting for an improvement in the economic situation. We shall always have that answer given for many years, whatever party may be in power. Furthermore, I would suggest that if the Minister should doubt any of the facts and figures which I have produced tonight or give to him in private, if he should think that I exaggerate the position, then I ask him to come and see for himself.

I fully realise that to ask at present for any capital investment project to be put in hand must mean that it will compete with defence needs. I am quite sure that a bridge across the Mersey at this point is a vital necessity in our defence programme. In view of the present state of the bridge there can be no guarantee that in one, two or three years time there will be any bridge there at all. For that reason I ask that urgent consideration be given to this problem.

5.50 p.m.

Mr. MacColl (Widnes)

I should like to express appreciation to the hon. Member for Runcorn (Mr. Vosper) for so kindly giving me an opportunity of putting the point of view of Widnes on this very vexed question. As it happens, we are not quite so pressed for time as we might be, but the generosity of the hon. Member is not any the less for that.

I want to press my right hon. Friend very hard on the matter of this bridge, but in doing so, it is only fair to say that the present grave situation is not in any way his fault. He finds himself in a position which is common enough in these days. This bridge was out-of-date many years ago and it could have been demolished and a new bridge put in its place before the war at comparatively small cost when there were reserves of resources which could be used for the purpose. Unfortunately, that was not done, and now the hon. Member for Runcorn, myself and others are having to press my right hon. Friend to do something which I quite understand is exceedingly difficult for him to do.

I wish to press on him that this is not just a question of two hon. Members trying to get a little slice from the pork barrel for their constituents. This bridge is in fact a vital industrial artery linking up South-West Lancashire with Cheshire and the South. Much of the traffic which either queues up to use it, or ought to be using it but has to make a long and inconvenient detour, is not local traffic at all. The Mersey is a big boundary to cross. At one end there is the tunnel, which is already showing signs of congestion and. at the best, is rather difficult of access. As one sees in the newspapers, it is presenting problems of traffic control. At the one end is Warrington, which is already extremely congested, and those two points are no alternative at all to the smooth and easy crossing of the river which is required between Runcorn and Widnes in order to go north.

I do not know whether the House quite appreciates what the problem is. Probably some hon. Members have not seen this extraordinary contraption, the transporter bridge. In form it is a carriage attached to a trolley which is towed across the river on a kind of suspension bridge. The result is that the loads on the car have to be limited, so that heavy industrial traffic either cannot go on it at all, or has to go on in small quantities—

Mr. Shurmer (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)

It is similar to the one at Newport.

Mr. MacColl

It is similar to those at Middlesbrough and at Newport. I had the rather dubious pleasure of walking over this bridge and watching the effect as heavy traffic is taken across. I wish I could take my right hon. Friend for a walk along the bridge. To walk along this crazy contraption, when from time to time something gives way and one tries to steady oneself on the railing and then the railing gives way from the screws, made me wonder whether my majority justified me in risking my seat by carrying these explorations much further. It is the kind of contraption which was admirable and something of a wonder 50 years ago, when used for carrying private horse carriages. At that time it was something to marvel at and it is still something of a marvel to watch it working, but not quite such a pleasant marvel.

That bridge is having to carry the burden of heavy chemical traffic from I.C.I. from one side of the river to the other. If my right hon. Friend has any-withers still to be wrung, this should wring them—it is the main communication between the two branches of our local Co-operative society. Runcorn and Widnes share a co-operative society and the milk has to be carried across this bridge. I am informed by the society that the extra cost of delay, apart from the tolls which have to be paid, is substantial and is about 11 per cent. of the total transport costs of the Society.

I know my right hon. Friend accepts all this and accepts the necessity of doing something about the bridge. I quite appreciate that his difficulty is that there are many other claims upon his resources, but I should like to underline the point made by the hon. Member for Runcorn that it is no answer to say that owing to the claims of defence it is necessary to postpone doing something about this bridge. If, in fact, the defence situation becomes worse and there has to be a great increase in output, inevitably the strain will be felt by the vital industries situated on both banks of the Mersey, even more than it is felt at the moment. It seems to me quite impossible to develop the industries of South-West Lancashire in the way my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade—who sits for the neighbouring constituency to mine—is anxious to do as long as there is this situation in which industrial traffic, vital to the welfare of the country, has to sit perhaps for an hour and a half or more queuing to get on to this transporter bridge.

As the hon. Member for Runcorn said, it is not only the bridge as it is at the moment which is causing concern, but the bridge as it is going to be in the next five years or so. At the moment it is cared for with fatherly care by an exceedingly experienced engineer, past the age for retirement, who is carrying on from day to day because he knows the bridge so intimately. That position cannot go on for ever, and any moment we may be faced with the situation that the bridge is no longer useful, as either it will have completely collapsed or can no longer be used by heavy industrial traffic.

I hope my right hon. Friend will tell the House tonight what he is going to do if this bridge closes down. What alternative means has he for taking this industrial traffic to and fro across the river? That is the problem causing great concern to local industrial undertakings, the chamber of commerce and other people living with this problem from day to day. I ask my right hon. Friend tonight to do two things. I ask him, first, to try to give us some kind of comfort, some kind of indication that it will be possible to get on with this bridge so that at least we can have some certainty of what is likely to happen in the future. Secondly, I should like him to give some assurance that he has alternative proposals to put forward if the bridge can no longer be used.

At the moment the situation is one which is bound to cause the gravest anxiety to anyone who cares not only about the industrial and commercial life of Runcorn and Widnes, but of the whole area and, indeed, of the whole of South-West Lancashire. I emphasise the point, put so well by the hon. Member for Runcorn, that this is not only a problem of domestic traffic, but of a vital industrial key and, unless my right hon. Friend can find some way of providing the money for the purpose—which, I am sure, he admits is entirely needed—we are faced with a very grave situation which can only cause grave disquiet among hon. Members on all sides of the House really interested in this problem.

6.0 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I desire to make it plain at the commencement of my remarks that I take no exception to the way in which the hon. Member for Runcorn (Mr. Vosper) and my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. MacColl) have raised this matter. I would go further and say that the hon. Member for Runcorn is quite justified—in fact it is his duty—to take this opportunity to emphasise the seriousness of the problem if this transporter bridge at any time failed to carry the very heavy traffic that passes over it. It appeared to me that both hon. Members submitted their case in the most reasonable way possible.

I will deal with one point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes. He wished to know what provision I would make if anything happened to this bridge and it went out of commission. Even if it were possible to sanction immediately the construction of a new bridge, it would take something like four years with the work going at full speed. So that is not really a material point at the moment. The situation is serious, the bridge is now maintained by heavy and constant repairs, but I have no reason to believe that we are faced with immediate disaster.

Of course, as has been pointed out this evening, the bridge is some 40 years old and does represent a very vital artery between Warrington and the Mersey Tunnel. I do not dispute the facts as submitted. It was in 1943 that the consulting engineers expressed a view that a new bridge should replace the old one within a period of five years. That was in the middle of the war, and in many directions we have had to make do and mend. I must confess that in this case there is a good deal of mending that must proceed to keep this bridge in commission.

There are two county councils involved, the Lancashire County Council and the Cheshire County Council. Both of them have accepted a joint responsibility for this matter, and obtained the necessary powers to proceed with the new bridge in 1947. The estimate for the new bridge is £3½ million, and of course that is a most substantial figure for me to find at the present moment, with the exceedingly limited and narrow margins upon which my Department have to work.

I have time after time emphasised to hon. Members that the provisions of the Road Fund at the present moment only enable a maintenance standard of something like 65 per cent. of our pre-war standard of maintenance. When that is carried through, there is very little left for new construction work. That is the hard fact which we have to face when we consider claims of this description. They are all justified in themselves, but the money is not there to deal with them. That being the case, and being unable to sanction the reconstruction scheme, my Department have been in consultation with the county councils to see whether in this intervening period some agreement can be reached so that at least the preliminary work should proceed.

The figure which I had been given for the whole of the foundation work, which, if commenced, would possibly occupy a period of two years, is in the neighbourhood of £3 million to £4 million. It was quite impossible for me to face an expenditure of that kind in the immediate future in view of the other claims pressing upon the limited means at my disposal. We then directed our attention to whether the whole of the foundational work need proceed. Here we begin to move towards the possibility that in the future at least the protective preliminary work which the Manchester Ship Canal requires should be carried out. I should be prepared to consider that.

The consulting engineers, as has been stated by my hon. Friend, have a good deal of work of this description to do. They are a very reputable firm and their opinion can be taken quite seriously in matters of this kind. I understand that they are of opinion that the preliminary production work necessary in connection with the Manchester Ship Canal could be executed for a figure of approximately £20,000. But the engineers speaking for the Manchester Ship Canal are of opinion that the protective work would cost something in the neighbourhood of £120,000, and this evening the hon. Member for Runcorn mentioned a figure of £100,000.

At the present stage we may have to determine a figure of that kind by the process of arbitration. While, of course, I am unable to commit myself with regard to next year's Estimates, I would say that we fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation, not only from the defence angle, but from the industrial angle in this very heavily industrialised district, if a vital traffic artery of this kind should fail to perform its functions. Therefore, while this evening I can give no definite promise to the hon. Members, I shall pursue this question of the preliminary protective work in connection with the Manchester Ship Canal to see whether an agreement on the estimate can be expedited. If we are able to expedite agreement between the various parties and my Ministry are able to accept that, I would consider—and I can go no further than that—whether it is possible to get that in by the 1951–52 Estimates.

I wish to express my appreciation to the hon. Members for the way they have raised this matter. I do not wish to minimise the importance of the problem in any way. I agree entirely with them that this bridge badly needs to be reconstructed, and no one regrets more than I do that the financial circumstances today prevent me from sanctioning a "go ahead" for the whole scheme. As that is not possible, I will at least address my mind to that preliminary stage which I have mentioned so that while we are waiting to see whether the financial circumstances of the Road Fund can improve we can, at least consider this preliminary work. I regret it is not possible for me to go any further than that this evening.