HC Deb 10 December 1956 vol 562 cc190-4

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

11.29 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

I am sorry to keep the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport here at this time of night, but he will appreciate that this problem is one with which he is not unacquainted. For years there has been talk of a link between the two banks of the Tyne, and after many conferences, deputations and discussions, it was ultimately decided that the best method by which this could be brought about was a tunnel. Plans were made and approved, and in 1947 the first part of the project was started, namely, the pedestrian tunnel. That is completed, and it has been a boon to many of the workers who have to work on the opposite side of the river to that on which they live.

Due to the country's economic position, the major development scheme was delayed. Always we were assured, by one Minister of Transport after another, that as and when the economic position improved the plans for the tunnel would be allowed to go ahead. Always we were assured also that the Tyne tunnel would keep its place in the queue of major projects. When the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Colonial Secretary was Minister of Transport a deputation of northern Members went to see him. At that time we were given to understand that the Tyne tunnel project was third on the list. I believe that the first was the Dartford tunnel and the second the Whiteinch tunnel.

In August, 1955, there was a meeting in Newcastle, at which the right hon. Gentleman who is now Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, in his then capacity as Minister of Transport, threw out a proposition which came as a bombshell. He said that he would like to consider proceeding not with a tunnel but a bridge. He gave as his reasons the fact that a bridge would be cheaper to construct than a tunnel; furthermore, that it would be speedier to build; and also that there was a greater chance of building it.

Argument has gone on whether there should be a tunnel or a bridge. A bridge would be less costly, but there are certainly many distinct disadvantages connected with it. Although we understand that the Admiralty has no objections to a bridge from a strategic point of view, many of the interests connected with the Tyne are very doubtful about a bridge being as serviceable as a tunnel. What we are now very concerned about is the fact that the Minister of Transport has recently been thinking aloud and saying things which might mean that there was going to be an innovation in respect of tolls. I would like to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that before those thoughts are turned into concrete facts he might consider the fact that such suggestions slow up traffic.

You will understand, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that I cannot go into too much detail upon this matter, but it is quite true to say that no Minister of Transport should, at this time, be contemplating the introduction of any innovation or change which will add to the number of people in administrative posts. What we require is as many people as possible engaged in productive work. Anything which tends to add to the number of administrative workers and, at the same time, tends to slow up traffic, is something which, in 1956, ought not to be contemplated.

I should like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to understand what is happening in my constituency. The pedestrian tunnel is completed, and is a great boon. All the plans were made on the basis that there would be a tunnel and not a bridge. Jarrow Corporation has made its plans on that basis, and the county council has acquired houses and land on the same assumption. Until the matter is finalised—we hope on the basis of a tunnel—all the local authority efforts to plan properly a town which, like Topsy, "just grow'd", become nonsense.

I think that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary would agree that the North-East has been patient. I recognise that the patience has to be extended further because, in present circumstances, it would need very violent argument on the part of the Minister of Transport and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary be fore the Chancellor would give the "Go ahead" to projects of this nature. But Hope springs eternal in the human breast and so I would like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to give us hope tonight by assuring us that the Tyne tunnel still retains its place in the queue, still comes after Dartford and Whiteinch.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary must know that Tyneside is one of the most productive areas in the country, and that as much of the essential work of the country is done there as in any two counties. It is where great contributions have been made to Britain's economic survival and recovery. What a boon and a blessing a Tyne tunnel would be. I ask for some assurance that the job will be started soon and that the Minister will grant us the tunnel as originally planned, and not a bridge. This is what most people on Tyneside would like best.

11.39 p.m.

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

I have listened to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) speaking about this project, which has been brought to the attention of the Ministry at frequent intervals for certainly the last three years.

I remember my embarrassment on what I think was literally the eve of the pronouncement by my right hon. Friend who is now the Colonial Secretary of a new programme of road construction. That was in December, 1953. I had had to receive on the previous day a deputation from Tyneside which stressed the urgency of this tunnel. I was, of course, not able to tell them what the position was, and I felt very much the fact that I was unable to divulge to them that in the announcement to be made the following day, the tunnel would not be included.

Since this idea was originally put forward, the cost has unfortunately increased very much indeed. At the present time the cost of a tunnel under the Tyne would be not less than £10 million or £11 million. It was for that reason that the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, when he saw the Tyne Tunnel Joint Committee in 1955, referred to the possibility of there being a bridge in place of a tunnel, and discussed the possibility of levying tolls to meet the very heavy cost involved.

I believe that on 14th December, 1955, the Committee replied that it was unable to make any recommendation to the two county councils concerned, but that while it appreciated that tolls might warrant consideration in the case of a tunnel because of the high capital cost, it was unable to find reasons to justify a new toll bridge across the Tyne, in view of the fact that a number of bridges across the river had recently been freed from tolls.

There have been no further exchanges on the subject for some time, except that the Committee, I believe, has expressed the wish to come and discuss the matter with the Minister. The speech which we have heard from the hon. Member for Jarrow tonight rather suggests that the Committee will probably express the local opinion in favour of a tunnel rather than a bridge. I am afraid that the fact that it desires a tunnel, at a cost which, as I have mentioned, is nearly double that of a bridge, makes it more difficult for the Minister to agree to this project at any time in the near future

As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we are at present engaged in carrying out the programme which was announced by the present Minister of Pensions and National Insurance and which involves the authorisation of £147 million of new expenditure in the space of four years. It was not possible to include the Tyne tunnel in that programme, and I am afraid that there has since been an increase in costs generally, and it is not possible for me tonight to indicate when this project can be authorised. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members who represent the people living on the banks of the Tyne, that we do fully realise how necessary it is for some relief to be provided for that area, and to improve the communications between the two banks of that important industrial river.

Mr. Fernyhough

I wish to put two points to the right hon. Gentleman before he sits down. Can he tell me whether we are to retain our place in the queue? Secondly, can he tell me whether, in the statement the Minister made about tolls in July, the last part would apply in the case of the Tyne project? The statement said: "The plans which have already been sanctioned will not it is understood be affected by the new rule." Since the Tyne tunnel was a project which had been sanctioned from the point of view of planning, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it would be exempted?

Mr. Molson

In reply to the first point, while I do not wish to give any new promise tonight, I think that the order of priority was indicated, as the hon. Member said, which suggested that the Tyne tunnel would be the next tunnel undertaken in this country. There is at present no intention to depart from anything that has been said on that subject in the past.

With reference to the second point, what my right hon. Friend said to the National Production Advisory Council for Industry on 20th July, 1956, was that no new schemes for expensive bridges or tunnels would be authorised except as tolls projects. In view of the fact that the Tyne tunnel has not been authorised it would appear to me to fall within the scope of what he then announced.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at a quarter to Twelve o'clock.