HC Deb 29 April 1955 vol 540 cc1299-308

1.30 p.m.

Mr. David Llewellyn (Cardiff, North)

I am very much indebted to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation for so readily agreeing to answer this debate today. Had my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary and Minister for Welsh Affairs not had engagements of long standing out of London, I would have preferred to raise certain matters concerning devolution and I would have enlarged on the suggestion which I made during my speech on the Government of Wales Bill that a Royal Commission should be set up.

However, in advocating the urgent need for a Severn bridge in the immediate future, I am raising a matter which is, in many people's minds, of commensurate importance, and I am doing so at a time when road users in South Wales have recently experienced the road system leading from our country to England in all its utter inadequacy and with its nightmare quality. My hon. Friend may not be aware, to give one recent example, that on Easter Monday many motorists were held up for two hours between Pwll-y-Meric and the eastern side of Chepstow. On every day of the week congestion, if not on that scale, is a serious source of waste, frustration and, indeed, of accident.

It is customary to base the case for a Severn bridge on economic grounds, which, so far as I know, have never yet been disputed. The case is simply based on the fact that better communications reduce the costs of transport and, therefore, of prices. I should like to give to my hon. Friend certain figures which have been provided by the Welsh Board for Industry.

First, with regard to the mileage savings which would result from a Severn bridge, traffic census figures show that the greatest volume of traffic between South Wales and London, and between South Wales and South-West England, travels on the route A.48 to Gloucester. The mileage that would be saved by the bridge route compared with A.48 would be: South Wales to London, 15 miles; South Wales to Bristol, 50 miles. In terms of time and mileage costs of operating vehicles, the average operating costs of the various types of vehicles have been assessed as follows: commercial vehicles, 21s. per 15 miles; omnibuses, 21s. per 15 miles; private cars 4s., and motor cycles 1s. 9d. per 15 miles. These are the amounts that would be saved by the various classes of vehicles on a journey from South Wales to London. The savings on a journey from South Wales to Bristol and to the South and South-Western parts of England would be appreciably greater.

Estimates which have been given of the economies that the bridge would effect include these two examples. First, a South Wales steel firm would save about 9s. 2d. a ton on a journey from Cardiff to South-West England and about 3s. 8d. a ton on a journey from South Wales to London. Secondly, a large transport organisation, operating an average of 36 vehicles per day between South Wales and South-West England and 190 vehicles per day between South Wales and London, has estimated that, taking an actual operating cost of 1s. per mile, a net saving of £62,500 a year would be effected on operating costs alone, quite apart from consequential savings in time. I have yet to hear anyone claim that there is any economic virtue whatever in transport from South Wales to Bristol going via Gloucester and along both sides of the Severn in preference to the more direct route which a Severn bridge would provide.

As my hon. Friend knows, since the war £300 million has been sunk in South Wales industries. Diversification of industry under successive Governments has brought the fullest employment ever and the greatest prosperity that Wales as a whole has even known. In March, 1946, there were 40,002 males and 31,781 females unemployed in Wales. Today, in contrast, the figures are 12,430 and 7,612. To take Glamorgan alone, in March, 1946, there were 47,852 persons unemployed whereas today the number is 9,165. In the case of the City of Cardiff, where 2,945 people were unemployed in March, 1946, today the figure is 1,875. All these figures are indications of the prosperity of industry in Wales and, consequently, of the ever increasing demands which are being made upon the roads.

The consequences of this prosperity of industry in Wales were foreseen by my hon. Friend's Department at least as far back as 1946 in the Ten Year Plan for national highway development. In fact, a scheme for the Severn and Wye crossings was the subject of an Order made by the then Minister of Transport in 1947. Unhappily for Wales, the Order was cancelled by the Minister in the following year, because of the prevailing economic climate to which Socialist mismanagement, muddle and waste had largely contributed.

As the House may know, a proposal was made as long ago as 1845 to build a bridge between Beachley and Aust, but eventually, instead of a bridge, a tunnel was built in 1886 at a cost of £2 million. Since then, the Chepstow Urban District Council, the Gloucestershire County Council and other local authorities have submitted schemes, one at least reaching Bill form in 1936. Ultimately, in 1945, the Ministry of Transport agreed to take over the Severn crossing scheme as a Government project under the Trunk Roads Act. A suspension bridge was decided upon at the Aust—Beachley site and Messrs. Mott, Hay and Anderson were instructed to prepare a scheme in association with Messrs. Freeman, Fox and Partners. In addition, the National Physical Laboratory undertook an aerodynamic investigation. I should like to know from my hon. Friend whether it is not a fact that all the necessary technical information is now available and that nearly all of the preparation work has in fact been done.

I come now to the latest scheme, which has recently been prepared with speed, vigour and, I would say, with brilliance by the county surveyors and treasurers of Glamorgan, Monmouth and Gloucester. It would be improper on my part to go into the scheme in great detail because I happen to be a member of the delegation appointed by the Welsh Parliamentary Party to the main conference which recently met my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation and my right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary and Minister for Welsh Affairs. There are, however, certain features of the scheme upon which my hon. Friend may feel disposed to comment.

First, there is the question of cost. The estimated costs are as follows: for the Severn and Wye bridges, £10 million; for the Monmouth approach, from Crick to the crossing, £900,000; thirdly, the Gloucestershire approach, from Almondsbury to the crossing, £1,100,000; fourthly, that section of the Severn bridge to the London motorway in Gloucestershire, from Almondsbury to the junction with A.46, £2,100,000, making a total of £14,100,000. This figure conflicts markedly with that given by the then Home Secretary and Minister for Welsh Affairs in this House on 8th December, 1953, when he stated that the indispensable works required to complete the Severn crossing would result in an expenditure of £40 million.

Secondly, there is the question of the toll. I know that there are many high-minded people who object to paying for the Severn Bridge on principle, and as a potential customer I can sympathise with their point of view without sharing it. At the same time it is a fact that the vast majority of motorists would prefer to have a bridge and pay a toll than not to pay a toll and have no bridge. It has been estimated that a toll might yield sufficient revenue to meet the cost of the bridge, leaving only £4,100,000 to be provided by the Government over a period of seven years. I think it would be of great value to the conference which is to meet shortly if my hon. Friend could give some indication today of his attitude to both the principle of the toll and also to its financial implications.

However, there are other advantages attached to a Severn Bridge than those which can be justified merely on economic grounds. It would, of course, afford an invaluable shop window not only for tourism on both sides of the Bristol Channel but also for British engineering skill. It can further be justified on the grounds of the health of the whole population of South Wales, and especially of those who live in industrial areas.

My hon. Friend may not know it, but at the present time the coastline of Glamorgan is being planned out of existence, always in the name of progress. The latest plan is to erect a vast power station at The Leys. As a result, more and more wage earners in South Wales, with more holidays and more leisure, will have less and less chance of breathing sea air in their native country. They will have to go to the Somerset coast to get it, and without a Severn bridge many will be denied it altogether.

I should like in conclusion to thank my hon. Friend, and through him the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, for the unfailing sympathy which both have given to Welsh problems, and to their alleviation. Even though it is true that the allocation to Welsh needs is higher than that to many other regions—I believe, higher than to any other region—I do ask my hon. Friend to recall that in Wales we have to meet not only accumulated arrears of need from the past but the need to have a road system for a new age in the life of my country.

1.43 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. Hugh Molson)

I appreciate very much the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Llewellyn) when he said that both my right hon. Friend and I have always shown sympathy with the needs of Wales. Both the programme of road construction which was announced in December, 1953, by my right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and also the more recent and expanded programme which was announced by the present Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation in February of this year have certainly treated the needs of Wales with sympathy and understanding. Many people will remember the protest made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) on the former occasion that too much was being done for Scotland and for Wales and that there was a danger that England, with its very great need for development, especially in the industrial areas, was in some degree being neglected.

The complaint has been made from Wales—and I was very glad that my hon. Friend did not associate himself with it—that in the programme announced in February, Wales did not receive its fair share. Actually, of the trunk road construction then announced the cost of the projects in England and in Wales will amount to £55 million, and of that £7 million or 13 per cent. will be spent in Wales. The population of Wales is less than half of that 13 per cent. This does not take into account the fact that the expenditure upon the Ross Spur project is counted as being in England, although it is being undertaken to grant relief and assistance to Wales.

This project of a bridge over the Severn and the Wye has encountered the great difficulty that, as was stated by the present Lord Chancellor on 8th December, 1953, the whole scheme with the necessary approaches was estimated to cost £40 million. That, I know, is the project which my hon. Friend would like to have undertaken. I will deal later with the more modest proposals which were put forward recently when the present Home Secretary and Minister for Welsh Affairs received the deputation of which my hon. Friend was a member.

We take the view that the Ross Spur road is preferable to the Severn crossing. It is in the first place less costly. But that is not the only reason why we believe that it is really more advantageous to Wales. As that work is undertaken, so immediately benefits will be received; whereas in the case of the Severn crossing no benefit at all will accrue to Wales until the whole of the work has been completed.

My hon. Friend was of the opinion that there was great need for improved communications between South Wales and London. His figure coincides with the estimate that has been made in my Department, that traffic between South Wales and London would benefit by only 15 miles by going by the crossing rather than going north as far as Gloucester. We fully recognise that traffic going to Bristol or to South-West England, would benefit it very considerably more, but Bristol is the only great industrial city in that part of England, and it is, as we believe, the only city with which there is a great deal of traffic from South Wales.

The great and important industrial development that has taken place as the result of the investment, as my hon. Friend has said, of £300 million in South Wales since the end of the war has associated the steel and tinplate industries of South Wales very closely with the engineering undertakings of the Midlands, and it is in order to facilitate traffic between the industrial areas of South Wales and of the Midlands that we have given this high priority to the Ross Spur road.

Mr. Llewellyn

I know that my hon. Friend is not trying to suggest that I am arguing that the development of the Ross Spur road is in any way unnecessary, but does he think it helpful to compare the relative value of these two schemes in the manner in which he has done?

Mr. Molson

I do indeed. My hon. Friend mentioned that he thought that Wales had been accorded more preferential treatment than any other part of the United Kingdom, and it is necessary to have some balance in expenditure on the roads. There has never at any time been any possibility that the Ross Spur road would be constructed at the same time as the Severn crossing. It is a matter of priority and in our view, and it may well be in my hon. Friend's view, the Ross Spur road is likely to be of more direct and immediate benefit to Wales than the Severn crossing. I hardly think, however, that my hon. Friend suggests that at this early stage in the road development of the United Kingdom as a whole these two large and costly projects should be both undertaken for the benefit of Wales.

If the Severn bridge were constructed it would be also necessary to remove the Army school for apprentices at Beachley. This is a comparatively satisfactory military establishment which the War Office has no desire to remove and reconstruct. To do so would involve the expenditure of at least £1 million and it would require four years' work in removing and rebuilding the establishment.

Mr. Llewellyn

I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again, but I should like to point out that in the new scheme which is before the Ministry it is made perfectly clear that it is unnecessary to interfere with the establishment of this school.

Mr. Molson

I am trying to deal with the matter logically and in sequence. At present I am dealing with the scheme which was put forward originally, which we still believe is the only really satisfactory scheme for the communications between South Wales and South West England, and which would involve a total expenditure of £40 million. I am coming later to the more modest and less satis- factory proposal which was put forward on 9th February.

This scheme has been prepared by the local authorities. It provides for the building of the bridge and roads from Crick on the A.48 on the Welsh side and from the A.46 on the English side. The cost is estimated at £14 million, excluding the cost of the removal of the Army school which, in the opinion of my hon. Friend, the Member for Cardiff, North may not require to be removed if that smaller scheme is undertaken.

At a deputation on the subject it was proposed that experts from the Ministry of Transport and the local authorities should get together to prepare a scheme. My right hon. Friend, who was present, said that he was not prepared at the present time for the Ministry of Transport to co-operate in the preparation of the scheme. As will be readily understood, at a time when we have just embarked upon a programme which will authorise in the next four years works costing £147 million there is a very considerable pressure upon the engineers, surveyors and other technical staff of the Ministry of Transport. But my right hon. Friend undertook that as soon as that scheme had been prepared in some detail by the local authorities concerned our engineers would examine it.

I understand that the outlines of the scheme were received this morning in the Ministry and, of course, there has been no time yet even to form a preliminary opinion on it. At the same time, it is only right to say that since 9th February naturally a certain amount of thought has been given to this matter in the Department. We are rather disposed to think that by reducing the expenditure from £40 million—which includes £11 million for roads common to both this and the Ross Spur Scheme—to £14 million, it may certainly be greatly improved from the financial point of view, but it is extremely doubtful whether the benefits which would be obtained would not be proportionately more reduced than the cost. However, I must not be taken to be prejudging a document which was only received this morning. It will certainly receive careful and indeed not unsympathetic consideration.

Perhaps I should say a few words about the cost, especially in view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North has said. I understand that the deputation suggested that of this £14 million the sum of £10 million could be raised by levying a toll of 7s. 6d. per vehicle passing over the bridge, which would leave the cost to the Government at £4 million. I understand, however, that when this proposal was outlined—and as sometimes happens when there is inadequate preparation before a deputation comes to the Ministry—a certain difference of opinion amongst the delegates was revealed. There were some who were unfriendly to the idea of tolls being charged on the bridge.

The Government are prepared to consider the possibility of tolls being charged. At present, they are charged in the Mersey Tunnel. They have been authorised by Statute for the Dartford-Purfleet Tunnel, and I understand that they have been accepted in principle by Scottish public opinion in the case of the Forth crossing. We are of the opinion that where an expensive but relatively short major engineering work is undertaken, which will enable traffic to avoid a long detour, it is justifiable on general financial grounds and of public expediency and convenience that tolls should be charged. This Severn crossing is clearly a case of that kind. Those who wish to avail themselves of a costly bridge to reduce a detour which they otherwise would have to make through Gloucester could be reasonably called upon to pay a toll.

I should like to read to the House what was said on this subject in February by my right hon. Friend when he was making his announcement. He said: Over and above schemes in particular localities, there are certain major projects of national importance which should be ready for commitments towards the end of this period. They will be projects of great magnitude and the cost will be formidable; indeed, to enable us to proceed as rapidly as we should like the Government have in mind that tolls should be charged in suitable cases. This will enable the Exchequer to get back something on the money put up and will, of course, include provision for sharing between the Exchequer and local authorities where the latter had also put up money."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1955; Vol. 536, c. 1102–3.] In conclusion, let me say that while this project does not appear in the first four years' programme and while it would also be rash to assume it will obtain any great priority even after the first four years have elapsed, and while it would be necessary for the War Office to be given four years' notice if the project involved the removal of the military school at Beachley, we are not necessarily opposed to it. A more modest scheme costing £14 million will now be carefully examined in the Ministry of Transport and, if it were agreeable to those concerned that tolls should be charged, then the financial difficulty would be to that degree reduced. It is, however, a scheme which is not likely to be undertaken in the immediate future, but we will certainly give the fullest and most careful consideration to it.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)

Is there a suggestion in what the Minister is now saying that the levying of tolls is going to be automatically conceded in some of these local schemes before the principle on a general basis has been decided by this House?

Mr. Molson

I do not quite understand what the question is. At the present time tolls are levied at the Mersey Tunnel. and in the case of the Dartford-Purfleet Tunnel this House has agreed to the principle. My right hon. Friend has made it quite plain that there are some costly projects in the future which might be undertaken by the Government provided that tolls were levied, and I have indicated that this is clearly one of those costly projects where it would appear to be suitable that tolls should be charged.

Mr. Williams

That may be so, but there is a growing feeling among the public that this large-scale development recently outlined by the Minister of Transport should enable consideration to be given to whether tolls should be levied, There is a feeling that we should write them off and have none whatever on new development.