HC Deb 20 July 1960 vol 627 cc683-92

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

12.16 a.m.

Colonel Sir Leonard Ropner (Barkston Ash)

The hour is late, but I have half an hour in which to lay before the House the sad and, as I think, the disgraceful story of Selby Toll Bridge; the maddening and disgraceful story because of the indecision and, I submit, the lack of good faith on the part of the Ministry of Transport over a period of very many years.

This toll bridge crosses the Ouse at Selby in the West Riding of Yorkshire and leads into Barlby in the East Riding. Regarded from many aspects Selby and Barlby are one town, and the fact that every individual and every vehicle must pay a toll on every occasion that the bridge is crossed is an unmitigated nuisance from which the locality has suffered for well over a hundred years. In addition to the inconvenience, the payment involved has been and still is a serious discouragement to the commercial and industrial activity of the two towns. One industrial undertaking alone pays something like £7,000 a year in toll charges.

I hold no brief for the Selby Bridge Company, but neither do I in the slightest degree blame the Company which by a special Act of Parliament was given the right to build the bridge in the first place and to collect tolls. If Selby is to have a toll-free bridge the toll rights must be bought, and it was a very recent act of justice on the part of a Conservative Government which now ensures that a fair price is paid for property which is compulsorily acquired.

When, after twenty-five years, the late Lord Bingley ceased to represent Barks-ton Act in this House he told me that when he died "Selby Bridge" would be engraved on his heart. After thirty years the same words may well be written on my heart—with perhaps other words which I think you would rule out of order as unparliamentary, Mr. Speaker.

My remarks tonight will be chiefly composed of a miserable catalogue of events which display, I submit, inefficiency, vacillation, contradictions, and 'broken pledges on the part of Ministry of Transport. I have found it impossible to memorise the sequence of events which make up the whole sad story, and I hope, therefore, that the House will forgive me if I make frequent reference to the notes which I have prepared and in which, I hope, I have included the salient points in the long battle wtih successive Ministers. Much of what I say will be quotations from letters or extracts and quotations from Questions and Answers which have been asked and given in this House.

Tonight I will not refer to events prior to 1938. It was in that year that the county councils of the West Riding and the East Riding agreed with the Minister of Transport that, in the first place, the toll bridge should be replaced by a free bridge on the same site, and, secondly, that at the same time a bypass should be constructed round Selby necessitating another new bridge about a mile down the river.

These two projects were quite distinct, but were, of course, in part complementary. It was announced in that year that work on both projects would start in 1940. It seemed that at last the toll bridge at Selby was to go. Of course, unhappily, the war made it impossible for work to be started on either of these schemes. After the war, in the summer of 1945, that is to say, fifteen years ago, the Minister of Transport inquired from the county councils whether it was desired to reopen the question of freeing the toll bridge, of replacing it by a new bridge and of constructing the by-pass.

In the light of the events of recent years, it is interesting to note that it was the Minister himself who started the ball rolling at that time. New hope was found by the people of Selby. In April, 1946, the East and West Riding County Councils decided that, in order to assess the compensation to which the bridge owners would be entitled, a census must be taken of the traffic passing over the bridge. In May, 1946, the Minister of Transport agreed to make an increased contribution to the cost of carrying out these schemes, and that in itself was encouraging.

In September, 1946, the census was completed and in December of the same year the East and West Riding County Councils agreed to contribute to the cost as soon as the chief valuer had completed negotiations with the bridge owners. A year had passed, but it seemed that some progress had been made. Six months later, in June, 1947, the Minister of Transport told me that it would be necessary to collect certain information locally; secondly, to investigate the precise nature of the powers of compulsory acquisition, and, thirdly, to assess the basis of compensation appropriate to the acquisition.

It would not have been unreasonable, I think, to have asked at that time, but I do not think that I did so, why on earth these things had not been done during the previous eighteen months. However, another year passed, and in May, 1948, the Minister of Transport told me that he had broken off negotiations with the bridge owners, and he added that in any case the toll bridge would be unsafe if it were freed. It was surely quite extraordinary that after ten years the Minister of Transport had only just made this discovery. But, in fact, the remark was irrelevant, for it should be noted that the proposal which had been made in 1938 and followed up later was not that there should be indefinite use of the old bridge but that the new free bridge should be erected on the same site to take the place of the toll bridge.

The West Riding County Council expressed the view at that time that it was quite unable to accept the Minister's reasons as adequate and expressed the desire as strongly as possible to press the Minister to reopen negotiations with the owners of the bridge.

In view of the disappointing climax of nearly three years of procrastination on the part of the Minister, I asked for a full report and received the astonishing reply that the Minister—and here I quote— did not want there to be delay in abolishing the tolls because the new bridge was not ready by the time the toll negotiations were concluded. What on earth that was meant to mean I do not know to this day.

What is even more surprising was that the Minister added that he must investigate the location and design of the new bridge. Later in the same month of May, 1948, I asked him if it was really true that the exact location of a new bridge had not yet been decided upon. I might have asked how many civil servants in the Ministry were employed hatching new and apparently bogus excuses for the lack of action on the part of the Minister himself.

Months passed, and in July, 1948, the Minister of Transport wrote to me and said that Circumstances had necessitated a reexamination of the proposals for solving the traffic problems at Selby. The by-pass could no longer be regarded as the answer. He now suggested that …the first steps should be made to improve the existing road by buying out the tolls, and reconstructing the toll bridge. It should be noted that nobody had ever suggested that the by-pass of itself could be regarded as a solution to the traffic problems of Selby. In any case, here was the Minister telling me with a note of surprise in his voice that he proposed as a first step to do something which he had said he was going to do three years ago but which only a very few weeks earlier he had told me he could not or would not do.

In reply to the Minister's letter I said that every time he wrote to me about Selby toll bridge he found a new reason for postponing effective action. That view was certainly supported by the West Riding County Council which told the Minister that it was quite unable to understand his attitude. The County Council told the Minister that on the one hand he apparently was anxious to free the bridge, while on the other hand he continued to advance reasons why steps should not he taken forthwith, to free it from tolls. That was a pretty tart letter coming from a county council and addressed to a Minister of Transport.

Three months later, in November, 1948, the Minister of Transport told me that he would bear the whole cost of acquiring the tolls and building a new bridge. That, of course, was good news but unhappily he added that …the difficulty is practical, rather than financial. That remark made me a little suspicious, but he added I hope to see the toll bridge replaced in a matter of two years. Knowing the record, I had my doubts. That was twelve years ago and the only bridge at Selby in 1960 is our old friend, or our old enemy, the toll bridge.

I gathered at the time that the practical difficulty to which the Minister referred was that his Ministry had only just discovered that it might be necessary to build a temporary bridge while he was pulling down the old one. I wonder whether that was really so. Did the Minister really expect me to believe that this discovery had just been made, or was it another excuse for further inaction? In December, 1948, the Minister of Transport said that it was not a foregone conclusion that a temporary bridge would have to be built at all and that consultants were considering other possibilities. Surely that is a question which could have been decided years before. I suggest that it was just another excuse hatched in the Ministry of Transport.

In June, 1949, the Minister told me, with complete disregard for what he had said previously, that negotiations with the bridge owners were progressing and that the preparation of a contract for the temporary bridge was well advanced.

In 1951 the Conservative Party was returned to power at the General Election of that year. With the people of Selby I heaved a sigh of relief: now that Labour inaction had come to an end, surely Tory brains and sheer drive would in a few weeks get Selby that which Labour had failed so dismally to procure doing all those years. How wrong we were.

In December, 1951, I wrote a nice little letter to the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Secretary of State for Scotland. He was then the Minister of Transport. I said in effect: In Selby we are not all right Jack. Please free our toll bridge. A further two years passed. Not two months, but two years; two years of stagnation; two years of irritation and disappointment for my constituents in Selby and the surrounding district.

In November, 1954, in reply to a letter I had written two months earlier, the Minister of Transport said: In the absence of detailed information it has not been possible to make a close estimate of the cost of acquiring the toll rights and building a new bridge. Nine years—not nine days, or nine weeks, or nine months but nine years—had not been long enough for the Minister of Transport to get this information. How perfectly ridiculous, and how pathetic.

A month later the Minister told me: Estimates for the building of the bridge can be made, but it is another thing altogether to estimate the cost of buying out the tolls. More miserable excuses. One would have thought that after six years of negotiations with the bridge owners the Minister of Transport might have found it possible to obtain the necessary information on which to found an estimate.

In February, 1954, I had taken the first step to ascertain whether all the local government authorities concerned would wish to be represented on a deputation to the Minister of Transport with a view to persuading the right hon. Gentleman that perhaps he should do something about Selby Toll Bridge. They all did, and on 7th July, 1954, the right lion. Gentleman the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) received a deputation representing the West Riding County Council, the East Riding County Council, the Selby Rural District Council, the Selby Urban District Council, the Howden Rural District Council, and the Derwent Rural District Council. There were also present three Members of Parliament.

At that meeting, after full discussion, the Minister of Transport gave me a pledge to the effect that of all the toll bridges in the country the Selby Toll Bridge would be placed at the top of the list of bridges to be cleared.

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

Toll bridges on trunk roads.

Sir L. Ropner

The Minister gave me the pledge that of all the toll bridges in the country Selby Toll Bridge would be placed at the top of the list of all the bridges to be cleared.

On 12th July, 1954—I should like the Minister to note this—for record purposes I wrote to the Minister of Transport and said: We feel that we achieved something, when you so readily placed Selby Bridge at the top of the list". Shortly afterwards the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Minister of Pensions became Minister of Transport, and in July, 1954, I reminded the new Minister of the pledge given by his predecessor.

Six months later, in January, 1955, I reminded the Minister that the pledge that Selby Toll Bridge would be put at the top of the list had not been forgotten and that it had received wide publicity. In March, 1955, I again reminded the Minister of the pledge that had been given.

Two more years passed—wasted years, letters, talks, Questions and Answers; but no effective action whatsoever.

But in December, 1956, the night hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Watkinson), who was then Minister of Transport, revived the hope that something would be done. In reply to a Question the Minister said, An approach has been made to the bridge proprietors to reopen negotiations for the acquisition of the bridge and toll rights. Subject to a satisfactory settlement of this question, I hope to authorise the scheme for the replacement of the bridge before the end of the financial year 1958–59."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th December, 1956; Vol. 562, c. 222.] Was that good news? Perhaps it was, but some of us had not forgotten the lesson of previous years.

Again my constituents waited and waited, but in May, 1957—five months latter—real hope was engendered, for the right hon. Gentleman told me that the negotiations were proceeding and that, subject to a satisfactory settlement being reached, he still hoped to be able to authorise, before the end of the financial year 1958–59, the scheme for building a toll-free bridge.

In July, 1957—that is to say, two months later—ithe Minister of Transport told me that Further preliminary discussions were held recently with the bridge proprietors' representatives, on compensation matters, and it is hoped to arrange another meeting very soon, when we shall be able to produce up-to-date proposals for the replacement of the existing bridge. That was good news, but the word "preliminary" in this context was a little disconcerting, bearing in mind that the question of Selby Bridge had been a burning topic for sixty years.

Time passed, and five months later, in November, 1957, I addressed a Parliamentary Question to the Minister of Transport in order to find out whether his negotiations for the purchase of the toll rights had been completed. The reply was disappointing. From time to time, later, I continued to ask the Minister how he was getting on and, needless to say, I continued to get disappointing replies.

In February, 1958, in an attempt to excuse the appalling length of time taken over the negotiations, the Minister of Transport told me that he must avoid the appearance of being anxious to reach a quick settlement with 'the bridge owners. I was not able to resist the temptation of telling the right hon. Gentleman that I found some cause for amusement in his remarks since, off and on, negotiations had already been proceeding for rather more than fifty years.

In October, 1958, I was told by the Minister of Transport that the whole question of the loll bridge had been put back into the melting pot. Needless to say, that shocked me and my constituents. After fifty or sixty years the Ministry had discovered the obvious, namely, that it would cost a considerable sum of money to buy the toll bridge and the toll rights. In spite of previous declarations that the first step to help the people of Selby would be to get rid of the toll 'bridge, the Minister hinted at a complete reversal in priorities and reverted 'to giving first place to the by-pass scheme. Let it be noted that the by-pass scheme will help through traffic but will not deal with the century-old nuisance of the toll bridge.

Nevertheless, two months later, in December, 1958, I was informed that negotiations were still being conducted with the owners of the bridge. Two more months passed, and in February, 1959, I wrote to the Minister and reminded him again of the pledge given by the right hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. It was at this stage in the unhappy story that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport stated for the first time that the pledge given referred only to toll bridges on trunk roads. Since July, 1954, I had on frequent occasions reminded successive Ministers of Transport of the pledge that had been given, namely the promise to deal first with Selby Bridge, of all toll bridges in the country. Over the years my interpretation of that promise had never once been disputed; indeed, it had been confirmed.

In April, 1959, about five years after the event, the Parliamentary Secretary sent to me a copy of a Press statement alleged to have been issued in July, 1954. In this statement, which was never submitted to me and would not have been approved by me if it had, or, as far as I know, by any of the local authorities involved, a wholly mistaken qualification is given to the Minister's promise.

Another year passed—again a year of inaction—and in May of 1960 the Minister of Transport told me that the plan to give Selby a toll-free bridge had been completely abandoned. Fifteen years of wasted planning and negotiation; for the people of Selby a fifteen-year walk down the garden path which, under the guidance of the Minister of Transport, had led in the end to nowhere.

The latest chapter in this pitiful tale is perhaps the most discreditable. Not long ago I heard that two toll bridges had been freed. If that was so—and it proved to be so—then the Minister of Transport had broken a pledge which had been given to a number of local government authorities and to myself by one of his predecessors. Even if it were possible to accept the official and belated version of the pledge which the Minister had given six years previously, it would still be broken in letter and spirit if the Minister of Transport had made a grant towards freeing any toll bridge before dealing with Selby Bridge.

I find that in the case of a new bridge which has taken the place of a toll bridge at Langstone, the Minister quite recently made a grant of more than £186,000. Does he really think that that was not a violation of the pledge by which he was bound? At Conway the toll bridge which carried a trunk road has recently been replaced by a toll-free bridge. In the case of Conway bridge, the Minister of Transport has made an effort to wriggle out of the pledge by saying that the toll rights of the old bridge were not acquired. Nevertheless, £500,000 were spent by his Ministry in building a new bridge which in effect has taken the place of the toll bridge.

If the Minister of Transport does not agree with me when I say that there has been not only muddle and indecision over a period of fifteen years, but also a woeful lack of good faith, then he and I do not accept the same standards when we gauge degrees of honesty. As traffic over the bridge increases in volume, as it has, and will, so the toll rights will increase in value. Some day Selby will have a toll-free bridge. I appeal to the Ministry of Transport to write "finis" to this miserable and disgraceful story. By exercising his usual vigour, for which he is famed, let him give to Selby a toll-free bridge.

I conclude by saying that I am conscious that I have left the Parliamentary Secretary very few minutes in which to reply. For that omission and the fact that he cannot reply he will never be blamed by me or by the people of Selby. Perhaps he can deal with my remarks, but if such is not the case I will endeavour by ballot to obtain the Adjournment when we re-assemble after the Summer Recess.

12.43 a.m.

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

Just about a minute remains for me in which to reply to the long series of allegations of bad faith, indecision, inefficiency, vaccilation and so on which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner) has delivered. I must say that I repudiate all those allegations and I only wish that I had as much time as he has taken, in which to reply fully to the statements that he has made.

I think it is quite impossible for me to attempt to do any more than say that now. If there is a further opportunity I will try to deploy the case in full.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes to One o'clock.