HC Deb 19 July 1960 vol 627 cc449-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. J. E. B. Hill.]

1.44 a.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

My reason for initiating this debate is that there is considerable anxiety in the Harwich, Dovercourt and Parkeston area about the effect that the change from sea to air trooping will have on the trade of the port of Parkeston. There is a fear of a drop in employment and a threat to trade due to the cessation of trooping, particularly since this follows closely upon the decision to take the Navy from Harwich, where it has been for several hundred years.

We recognise that we live in quickly changing times, and certainly I have not raised my voice against either of these decisions. I recognise that in the interests of economy and progress, such changes are inevitable. However, what I am concerned about today is to make sure that everything possible to being done to develop and increase the trade of Parkeston because of these changes and their effect on employment and trade.

I hope that the railways will make a real effort to encourage other shipping to use the quays as soon as the troopships cease to sail, so as to fill the gap quickly. I am told that three commercial ships would more than fill the gap of employment because the warehouses and sheds the army now occupies would again be used for shipping.

I am not concerned so much with day-to-day administration of the port today, however. I want to look ahead at future developments, and discuss this problem, because of its great importance owing to the various changes that have been made. I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell me how much the trade of Parkeston has increased since pre-war and how much in the last few years.

Since I have been Member for Harwich I have paid many visits to the port and have every reason to believe that trade is increasing each year, and profits, also. Because of this, it is an anxiety to me to see the slow rate of new capital projects at the port. Could my hon. Friend state the relation of capital projects at Parkeston since 1945 to profits? I am very doubtful that capital has been ploughed back as it should have been, due to the over-centralised control of finance by the British Transport Commission.

In July, 1955, I raised, in an Adjournment debate, the question of the need to improve facilities at Parkeston. This followed widespread criticism concerning the amenities there. In reply, the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport said: …we are not entirely satisfied with the facilities that exist in the Port of Harwich. I am glad to inform my hon. Friend that we are examining the whole of this question with the British Transport Commission. Moreover the modernisation plan includes provision for the reconstruction of the main Marine Station, including the enlargement of the reception facilities."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th July, 1955 Vol. 543, c. 2289] That was five years ago, and only a very little has been done since.

Can my hon. Friend say when this work will be started? Every year I have complaints about the modern, material facilities and the buildings at the Hook of Holland and how favourably these compare with the out-of-date facilities at Parkeston. This lack of modernisation and the slowness of progress is de-moralising both to employers and to employed, and gives the impression that the Transport Commission is running down the valuable assets at Harwich, besides giving me many inquiries about the lack of progress that is being made.

There is considerable loss of trade in carrying cars accompanied by their owners, due to the labour in loading and unloading. That is only one example of one problem, which, if there were more modern facilities and further decentralisation, I am sure could easily be overcome. I agree that capital is scarce, but how important it is to see that we continue with productive investment. In the affluent society we have today it is most important to see that we get our priorities right and the right balance between productive and social investment. It is vital in industry to see that a reasonable proportion of profits are ploughed back as well for further capital development.

I am disturbed by the present situation, because, although I realise that the trade of the port is increasing, I must say that its rate of increase is not as quick as I should like to see, especially bearing in mind the loss very shortly of the trooping facilities and the need to cover new capital projects in future. I am sure that if we were to see a speedup of the modernisation plans we should see still further increases in trade.

However, in a question like this I must be frank, particularly as I am pressing for the spending of valuable and scarce capital resources. Has the development of the Port of Parkeston and its finances been brought before the wise men at present examining regional finances and reorganisation? Has the question been answered satisfactorily why the Port of Felixstowe on the opposite bank of the Stour has been expanding at a greater rate than Parkeston? Should greater facilities be given to develop sea road transport at Parkeston than exist now?

Are the existing arrangements concerning road transport at Parkeston satisfactory? Is dock labour under private enterprise more competitive than under the railway-owned dock staff conditions? Are these the reasons why Felixstowe is developing more quickly than Parkeston? Is it that private enterprise is more flexible and more ready to accept new ideas and more risks than the present over-centralised Transport Commission controlling the Port of Parkeston?

Then there is the question of the long-term development of the Stour Estuary. Is any long-term thought being given to the development of a motorway, say from the Midlands to the Stour Estuary, so that we can make use of the valuable natural facilities which exist at Harwich, or are we just dealing with problems as they arise with little long-term thought for the future? What a saving such a motorway would be in reducing congestion in the London area.

Lastly, can the Parliamentary Secretary say what major plans there are for the further development of Continental services, both passenger and cargo, for certainly an expansion in these would go a long way to replace the trade lost by the ceasing of sea trooping. In some quarters it is said there is a shortage of railway vessels. Ls it fair to say, as some do, that since the war the railway vessels at Parkeston Quay have not been brought up to pre-war establishment?

There is a fear that the Hook boats are run far too hard and do not get sufficient time for maintenance. Is there a case for another vessel? These is criticism that the present two cargo vessels built for the Antwerp and Rotterdam service cannot maintain these services as advertised in all weathers and conditions. It is said that the train ferries have to, and do go out to, help at times. In consequence, again it is said that the three ferries are driven too hard and do not have enough time for maintenance. These critics claim that the general cargo is often stopped as they cannot cope with it and goods urgently required for factories here are delayed at Zeebrugge for four to six days.

It is important to raise these points to give the Minister the chance to reply on behalf of the Transport Commission because the train ferries are the largest cargo business the railways have at Harwich. I know that trade is increasing, but I want to see it expand still further as the prosperity of the Port affects employment in the Harwich area very considerably.

May I therefore ask whether shortage of capital for further vessels is holding back expansion in the Port? I am disturbed by this because I am told that in the first eighteen months of her commission the Suffolk Ferry earned enough by carrying freight to pay for the cost of her building. Surely it is wise to support this kind of success.

I have raised these points because there is great anxiety in Harwich about the expansion that could take place in Parkeston. The seemingly comparatively slow rate of increase in trade compared to what is happening on the opposite bank of the river at Felixstowe, and the fact that capital does not seem to have been put back into a profitable concern as much as it might, due to over-centralised control.

I know that in a lot of these matters the Parliamentary Secretary is the spokesman of the Commission, and that they are not the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Minister. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Minister has a direct responsibility as to capital, aid I hope that he will be able to say something about thought being given to the long-term, as well as to the short-term questions that I have raised.

1.56 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

I must begin by telling my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) how much obliged I am to him for the trouble to which he has gone to give me notice of the numerous points that he wished to raise, but even at the risk of seeming, perhaps, a little churlish I must straight away tell him that many of his points are matters on which I can give him very little information. Indeed, in his closing remarks, my hon. Friend reminded the House of the situation in which I find myself.

I cannot act as the spokesman of the Commission. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has a general responsibility for the operation of the inland transport system, and the Commission provides a great deal of that system, but there is a limit, as the House knows, to ministerial responsibility in these matters. We have always tried to defend the line that the Minister is not responsible for matters which can truthfully be said to be those of day-to-day management.

My present difficulty is that I cannot really give my hon. Friend answers to many of those questions because they are quite clearly matters of day-to-day management of British Railways and the Commission. I shall, of course, do my best, but I can only tell him that the information I can give is simply that which the Commission has been able to supply to me.

I can, perhaps, begin most usefully by dealing with one matter in which there is a clear Government responsibility although it is not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. I refer to cessation of trooping, which is the peg—if I may use the expression—on which my hon. Friend has hung this debate.

As I think the House knows, the position at the moment is that sea trooping is carried out by the services from Harwich to the Hook of Holland. There are three ships in operation, carrying Service men to Hook, and thence to Germany, and this has been a very large traffic over the years. It is estimated that about 115,000 passengers a year go by this service. Its cost is a little more than £2 million a year, and the Government have decided that an experiment should be started in shifting these men by air instead of by rail and sea.

The change to air trooping would have a number of advantages, and some of them will, I am sure, commend themselves to my hon. Friend and to the House as a whole. To begin with, it is estimated that a saving of not far short of £1 million will be made by the change to air trooping. Secondly, if the change is made, the responsible authorities will avoid spending about £90,000 on the overhaul of one of the ships that at present carry out the service. Thirdly, they will avoid the necessity, which is coming upon us before very long, of replacing all three of the old ships at present operating the service.

Briefly, the proposal is that from October next about one-third of the traffic which at present goes by rail and sea will be transferred to the air. If this proves satisfactory it is intended that a complete transfer of trooping from sea to air will take place next year. From that time onwards military facilities which are at present at Harwich would be withdrawn and the service manpower engaged there would be deployed elsewhere.

I can tell my hon. Friend and his constituents, who are no doubt a little disturbed at this development, that we do not expect this change to have any severe detrimental effect upon Harwich as a locality, or upon the port facilities themselves. Harwich is doing fairly well as a port. As my hon. Friend has said, trade trends through Harwich are improving all the time. In 1959, the highest level of passenger trade ever reached was reported as travelling via Harwich, when over 609,000 passengers passed through. In the last five years cargo via Harwich has increased by over 22 per cent., and in the first six months of the present year a still higher increase has been shown.

I hope that it will be of some encouragement to my hon. Friend and his constituents if I say that the Commission has informed me that it has no intention of allowing its Harwich services to decline; neither has it any intention of allowing Harwich, as a port, to run down, as my hon. Friend suggested might be the case. It says that it definitely intends to seek new business to make up for the loss of military traffic which will occur if this change from sea to air trooping takes place. It has a number of plans for modernisation and improvement of the port facilities at Harwich. I believe that my hon. Friend, who has frequently been in touch with the Commission on these matters, is aware of the nature of these plans. He asked me a number of questions, which I will attempt to answer as best I can, subject to the qualification I mentioned earlier as to the extent of ministerial responsibility in this matter.

My hon. Friend first asked whether I could give him any idea of the relationship between the capital spent on Parkeston Quay since the end of the war to the profits which have been earned by the Commission. I have made inquiries about this, but in the rather limited time we have had available it has not been possible to draw up anything like a balance sheet on the basis suggested by my hon. Friend. It would be a lengthy and perhaps difficult task to carry out accurately, because the Commission's finances are not based upon regional accounting, which enables a profit on a particular service to be quickly identified. This is one of the points that we are going into at the moment in our general review of the Commission's structure, organisation and finances. In any event, I can tell my hon. Friend that the railways' expenditure on major items such as the renewal of ships and quay work has been £5 million over the last ten years. That will give him an indication of the extent of capital investment involved.

My hon. Friend next asked me when it is expected that work on the various capital projects mentioned by one of my predecessors in 1955 would begin. I am sorry to disappoint him, but it is not yet possible for us to give any firm dates as to when work on these projects will start. As I have just said, we are engaged in a review of the Commission's activities, and I do not think that it would be right or proper for me to attempt to speculate on the date when any of these various plans could fructify.

My hon Friend then asked whether the specific position of the Port of Harwich and its finances is being brought before the Special Advisory Group set up under the chairmanship of Sir Ivan Stedeford, to consider the Commission's situation and to advise my right hon. Friend. As my right hon. Friend said on 6th April, the task of the Group is to examine the structure, finances and organisation of the Commission and its terms of reference, therefore, would obviously cover the Commission's shipping services. But we cannot say whether it will direct its attention to specific cases, such as the Port of Harwich and its finances. My hon. Friend may take it, however, that the review that is being carried out in the general ambit of activities of the Special Advisory Group would be enough to cover this particular case.

My hon. Friend next turned to a comparison between what has been going on at Harwich and Parkeston and the adjacent Port of Felixstowe and put the question bluntly to me: why has the Port of Felixstowe apparently been extending at a faster rate than Parkeston? I must tell him that I think it very difficult to make direct comparisons of the trade between these two ports. The Port of Felixstowe caters for an entirely different type of trade from that of Harwich. When, in this case, I say Harwich, I mean Parkeston Quay and not the Port of Harwich, which, I believe, is mainly concerned with very small, mostly fishing, vessels. I do not think that it would be either right or wise for me to attempt to give any kind of indication of why we think one port or another is more or less successful, because these are matters very strictly of commercial judgment for those who want to make use of the ports. I do not think that any useful purpose would be served by an exercise of that kind.

My hon. Friend next turned to the question of the sea road transport facilities at Parkeston and their organisation. The Eastern Region of British Railways tells us that it has no particular complaints to make about existing facilities. It is reasonably satisfied and, without further detail from my hon. Friend as to exactly what he has in mind, I cannot give him any very full answer tonight, but all these matters are under constant consideration in conjunction with continued improvements at Parkeston Quay to which I have referred. In passing, my hon. Friend raised the question of the flexibility of private enterprise owned ports and dock facilities as compared with those run, for example, by the Transport Commission. He instanced the possibility of dock labour being more competitive under private enterprise dock administration than under the railways. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour has a general responsibility for questions of employment in the docks and I am informed that after discussion with the Dock Labour Board the Ministry of Labour has informed my Department that no survey has ever been carried out into the respective costs and comparative efficiency of the two different types of ownership of docks. This point is one which we have not had raised before. Beyond that, I cannot go tonight, because we have no information.

The next point was rather more clearly in my court. My hon. Friend asked whether there was any possibility of a motorway being constructed, for example, from the Midlands to the Stour estuary. We are not satisfied that at the moment that there will be a long-term need for a motorway from the Midlands to Harwich. Foreseeable traffic in future would not, in our view, justify the building of such a road, particularly at a time when there are so many new road schemes all over the country waiting for urgent attention and many of which have very much higher priority than such a link.

It may be of same interest to my hon. Friend and his constituents, against the background of the Port of Harwich, to know that we are modernising the trunk road A.12 between London and Ipswich. This is a process which is going on progressively and I am sure that it will help Harwich and the other parts of the region very much in the future.

Finally, my hon. Friend raised a number of points about the operation of the Continental services from Harwich, and, in particular, the vessels which are used. I must tell my hon. Friend bluntly that I cannot possibly give answers on these points. The operation of vessels, their suitability for the job, their age, their state of repair, whether they are worked too hard or not worked enough, are clearly matters of day to day administration and management.

All I can legitimately say is that I am satisfied that the Commission naturally makes the very best use it can of its vessels. It assures me that it does not do so at the expense of maintenance or any other necessary work. It watches the situation all the time, quite properly, because it is carrying the public and the public's goods. I am satisfied that it runs an efficient service. I cannot go more deeply into that, because these are matters which Parliament deliberately excluded from the ambit of my right hon. Friend's responsibility.

With that explanation, I must come to the end of what I have to say to my hon. Friend, hoping, nevertheless, that from what I have said he will have been able to draw some satisfaction for himself and his constituents in the light of the change which is envisaged in the trooping arrangements, which will obviously affect Harwich to some degree.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Two o'clock.