HC Deb 02 August 1963 vol 682 cc867-77

3.1 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of raising the subject of the future development of marine hovercraft. I shall confine myself to the marine side and not go into the attractive features of hovercars and hover rail-cars, because then my remarks would take up too much time.

A number of strands in this problem have engaged my sympathy. First, the hovercraft is one of the greatest and most imaginative inventions since the war. Secondly, the Denny Hoverbus, now running up and down the Thames, is run by Thames Launches, of Twickenham, under the auspices of one of my energetic constituents, a Mr. Caisley. Both he and I have been struck by the tragedy that has befallen William Denny & Bros. Limited, who may be going into voluntary liquidation, with the result that one promising type of hovercraft may be in great danger in the future.

Lastly, and incidentally, Mr. Christopher Cockerell, the inventor or the hovercraft, was born within a mile of me at Cambridge. We used to knock each other about at children's parties. Both of us have a great interest in boats and sailing, but he has put his interest to much greater and more profitable use than I was able to do.

Great work has been accomplished by the National Research Development Corporation in taking up Mr. Cockerell's fundamental invention in 1958, developing it, as it has done, in such a short time. Great credit is also due to four companies—Saunders-Roe, now part of Westland, Vickers-Armstrong Engineers Ltd., William Denny, and Cushioncraft Ltd. They have all played an important part in this programme. The task of the N.R.D.C. is to encourage and develop big ideas which cannot be financed by any one company. The Corporation takes them up in the national interest and, for that purpose, can borrow money from the Treasury at Bank Rate and lend it out to individual firms at 1 per cent. over Bank Rate so as to allow the technological processes to be brought into play.

But these moneys are loans. The Corporation puts money out to a company and hopes to recover its investment over the years by royalties on the licences of the patents or by a share in the profits of successful inventions. Looking at the accounts of the Corporation, I noticed that its indebtedness to the Board of Trade is already nearly £6 million of the £10 million that was originally granted to it by Act of Parliament. I regard the Corporation as a splendid launching machine for new projects, but I believe that more is required in the case of the hovercraft. We have reached the prototype stage in the hovercraft, and now the nation must get it into production.

I shall now explain how I differentiate this invention from the smaller inventions with which the Corporation generally deals. The very size of the project puts it into a different category. The final aim of this great venture must surely be a virile export market. I look forward to British hovercraft, in ten or fifteen years' time, running up and down the Rhine, or even the Danube, sailing over the great lakes of the United States or Canada, running between the islands of the West Indies, forging its way up the Amazon and other Brazilian rivers, running between the Argentine and Uruguay on the River Plate, skidding over the swamps and rivers of Africa and India and even over the deserts of Australia, although I admit, of course, that it would not be a marine craft in that case.

I understand that over 400 serious inquiries from abroad have been dealt with, but, of course, at the moment we cannot show our potential customers a commercially operating hovercraft service. Ws have a lead of one or two years over other countries, but licences have recently been granted to Japan and the United States, and therefore we have very serious competitors who may catch up with us shortly. We have got as far as building a 38-ton vehicle with a payload of 12 tons, but it is not economic for scheduled services or for pleasure services at present.

What I should like to see in the near future are two scheduled services on the most potentially economic routes in the country, which would be showpieces for all the world to gaze at and a shop window to which customers could come and buy things. I believe that these two services could best be run for a number of reasons in the Solent, where, every year, 5 million passengers cross the water between the Isle of Wight and the mainland and where the water is comparatively smooth and not subject to the large waves of the main ocean.

One route for instance, might be from Portsmouth to Ryde and running, possibly, to Sandown on the south side of the island to replace the three old paddle steamers run by British Railways. Another route could be from Lee-on-Solent to Cowes,to carry passengers and cars, because it is ridiculous to find, when one goes to the Isle of Wight in the summer, that one has to book a passage for a motor car three months ahead. What I suggest is wanted for these two services are four hovercraft of about 120 tons each, capable of 40 knots and of carrying 500 to 700 passengers, thus reducing the journey time from 50 minutes to 12 minutes. I believe that such craft would cost about £800,000 each, or perhaps a little more.

By charging a fare of 5s. per passenger, to make them comparable with the present services would not, of course, be fully economic, but they would have great advantages, such as flexibility of operation, landing on beaches, and so on. All the same, there will have to be some terminal, perhaps a concrete ramp on the beaches, and that would require some capital expenditure, perhaps about £100,000 in all. Then there would have to be stores and working capital, so that about £2 million for each scheduled service would be required.

My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) wishes, I know, to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, for a minute or two, and if he does he will elaborate the need of the Isle of Wight for this sort of service. The total amount of money spent by the N.R.D.C. and by the four firms involved is not, of course, known, but I would estimate that it is not more than £2 million or £3 million in all. That is only about enough to buy the tailplane of a prototype of a modern airliner and nothing compared with the hundreds of millions that have been poured out in the last few years on the development of aircraft and air engines, much of which not only served military purposes but civilian purposes as well. Nearly every plane which is flying has been financed to some extent by defence expenditure, and the Boeing 707 is a supreme example of that. I know that there is one defence contract for a hovercraft and no doubt another would help. But it is not my purpose to discuss that today.

It was reported in The Times of 15th July that the National Research Development Council is prepared to make up the difference between the price which a hovercraft manufacturer would have to charge and the maximum that an operator felt he could afford to pay for a commercial hovercraft, and that is a step forward. I should like my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to confirm that that sort of idea has the approval of the Board of Trade. Such sums as would be advanced for this purpose would, I take it, be loans, carrying interest, and in my view we must go further

My proposal for the operators to get a scheduled service going would be that the operator be asked to put up one-third of the capital, that the N.R.D.C. should advance one-third and that the Government should make a grant of one-third. This is similar in principle to the sort of grant they make for the construction of roads at the present time. It would be in the ratio of £1 per £1 which industry is putting up and similar in principle once again to what the D.S.I.R. does for research. So we have two precedents for that sort of assistance.

If such a scheme came into operation, could we find operators to run these services? I think that we could. There are plenty of people interested in marine transport, particularly in the Isle of Wight and on the Solent; companies like the Red Funnel Steamer Company and the Southdown Bus Company which ran an experimental hovercraft service in connection with Westland. There is the possibility that the Transport Holding Company might be interested. In London, a scheme like this would help the Denny Hovercraft Company, which is a subsidiary of Denny Bros., to keep going and possibly run a service in the future.

The operation of the hover-bus now running on the Thames comes to an end on 31st October. It is much cheaper than a full-scale hovercraft for it is more like a boat than a flying machine. If such a service were developed, it could grow into a commuter service from Hammersmith and Chelsea to the City, running at 20 or 30 miles an hour with practically no wash. It would be independent of the tide because the machine would be powerful enough to disregard it. Such a service would take the place of those gallant old "penny steamers" operated by the L.C.C. for working-men which fell into disuse over fifty years ago. Such a service on the Thames would help to prevent congestion on the streets and revive the dream of that indefatigable champion of the River, Sir Alan Herbert.

In my view, hovercraft have now reached the stage where they are fast, safe and reliable marine vehicles. They exactly fill the gap in carrying passenger freight which exists between an ordinary ship and an aircraft. It is a splendid craft in the form of S.R.N.3 and the V.A.3. But now we need larger successors to those vehicles to operate regular schedule services to show to the customers of the world. I think that this is too large a task for the N.R.D.C. alone. I am sure that the public would be thrilled if such a service could be started and that the Government would receive great credit for the comparatively modest investment of £1⅓ million, which is all that I think that it would cost. We should be modernising Britain and find- ing fresh export fields for our inventive genius.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Mark Woodnutt (Isle of Wight)

I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr.Gresham Cooke) for giving me the advantage of two minutes of his Adjournment debate to say a few words on this subject, about which I feel so strongly because the Isle of Wight, my constituency, is the home of the hovercraft.

Of the four companies which have done all the research and development in getting Britain ahead of the rest of the world on this project, two are in the Isle of Wight. Westland Aircraft's Saunders Roe Division carried out all the original research and development which was later taken up by Denny and Vickers and by Britten-Norman, also on the island. I pay particular tribute to Britten-Norman which has developed its cushion craft with no financial help from the Hovercraft Development Corporation and has sold the first commercial craft.

We have got ahead of the world in this development, and we have to keep ahead. The fact, as my hon. Friend said, that we have now granted licences to two Japanese firms and to the United States, means that they will go into production and will be competing with us in selling hovercraft in the rest of the world. We have to devise a means of assuring that this wonderful vehicle which we have produced is sold. Where do we go from here? The answer is that we must have a vehicle that we can demonstrate to show that it does operate successfully.

When I am not in this House, my normal job is persuading foreigners to buy British machine tools. Whenever I have to persuade them I have to show the machines actually working, or people will not buy them. We have to be in a position to show them the hovercraft working. The only way to do that is to set up regular scheduled services. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend suggested that such a service should be in the sheltered waters of the Solent because that would also help my constituency in its transport problems. I suggest to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade that, in view of the fact that the Minister of Transport is hoping to close all the island's railways, he should get a great supporter in him because if we had a hovercraft service it would make the railways far less important.

This is a venture of considerable size and it needs a lot of capital. When a firm has just produced a new project it must recover what it has spent on research and development in its first few sales, which means that the machine is very expensive. I suggest that the Board of Trade should direct the Hovercraft Development Corporation—I know it wishes to do so—and actively encourage it to participate in a private enterprise venture—and I assure my hon. Friend that there will be one—to run a service in the Solent. The extent to which it could participate would be either by guaranteeing the amount required for the original craft or at least putting in funds to cover the research and development expenditure so that the machine is not made too costly to run economically.

We have looked into the figures of running a service from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. I can assure my hon. Friend that a regular service could be economically viable if the price of the machine were reasonable. If he could get together the Hovercraft Development Corporation and the various private enterprise bodies interested in doing this, he would do a great service because then we would be able to show foreigners machines operating. We would sell them and keep Britain ahead in hovercraft development and also increase our exports to the markets of the world.

3.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. David Price)

I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) on choosing for debate this afternoon the future of marine hovercraft. This is an important subject in which I am sure the hopes of many of us lie. With the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr.Woodnutt) and my own reply, plus the fact that so much of the hovercraft development is taking place on Southampton Water and the Solent, we may say that this is almost a Hampshire occasion, for my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham has a home in Hampshire.

There is no doubt that the development of the hovercraft has caught the imagination of many of us. In the hovercraft we see an entirely new method of propulsion, which, I remind the House, could have a land use as well as a marine use, although the marine application has earlier prospects of success.

As hon. Members know, the hovercraft makes use of a new concept of propulsion, which is obtained by the establishment of a cushion of air beneath the craft. This principle of the air cushion as a method of propulsion was worked out by a private inventor, Mr. Cockerell, who, I am glad to say, has been able to develop his ideas, largely as a result of the interest and support of the National Research Development Corporation. As the House will remember, in 1958 the National Research Development Corporation formed and financed a company, Hovercraft Development Ltd., known as H.D.L., to develop hovercraft. The company instituted a programme of advanced research and development and placed a contract for the design and manufacture of the first experimental hovercraft which was completed in June, 1959.

Since then, H.DL. has been collaborating with a number of United Kingdom firms—four to be precise—in the development and testing of a range of prototypes and carrying out various research and project studies. The second generation of hovercraft has now been built and has undergone trials. As hon. Members know, some of them have been subject to experimental operational use in ferrying passengers on selected routes. The potentialities of amphibious hovercraft have now been demonstrated. Some of the collaborating firms have already shown their confidence in the commercial future of these craft by announcing their plans for the third generation of hovercraft. These will be much larger than the present models, and their larger size should make them more attractive commercially.

The progress of this revolutionary project has been relatively rapid, but a considerable amount of further development will be necessary if hovercraft transportation is to become fully established as a paying proposition. On the basis of progress made to date, the collaborating firms are in a position to meet orders for specific requirements. Development has reached the stage where two of the collaborating firms are contemplating the construction of ferries for use, as my hon. Friend indicated, across the Solent and later across the English Channel.

To give the House an idea of the advantages of hovercraft as a cross-Channel ferry over an ordinary ship, I want to give a simple illustration. I am informed that on the basis of current knowledge and within the limit of the current state of the art, a hovercraft cross-Channel ferry would be able to make a speed of 60 knots against a head wind of 30 knots over a whole Channel crossing. In practice it might not be desirable to do so, because I understand that even hovercraft passengers can be subject to sea sickness. I think that I can safely say that N.R.D.C. and these collaborating firms regard the future of marine hovercraft as good. But, of course, there are still practical problems to be solved and regular operating experience to be gained before any assurance can be given about the commercial future of hovercraft.

As I have said, Government finance is being put into the development of hovercraft by the N.R.D.C. through the medium of H.D.L. In general—and this is an important point for my hon. Friend—all the commercial and technical judgments are for the N.R.D.C. rather than for us in the Board of Trade—and this, I think, is basic to the whole concept of N.R.D.C.It is for that body to decide to what use it should put the funds made available to it under the Development of Inventions Act. The development of the hovercraft is the biggest and most costly venture which N.R.D.C. has so far undertaken, but it has every confidence in the future of marine hovercraft and believes that a worth while market for them can be developed.

There is no ground for saying that N.R.D.C. is at present handicapped in the future development of hovercraft by lack of funds. N.R.D.C. can finance the development of inventions in a num- ber of ways, but the method used in each case is a matter for N.R.D.C. to judge, just like the board of any commercial company.

Where the N.R.D.C. is giving, as the phrase goes, "financial assistance" to a firm or "acquiring an interest" in some undertaking, the approval of the Board of Trade has to be given and each case has to be considered on its merits. The actual arrangements made are the results of negotiations with individual firms and the details are regarded as commercial secrets. If they were disclosed, it might make negotiations with other firms in the same field much more difficult. I can tell the House, however, that various types of hovercraft have been developed through joint ventures, with the Corporation paying roughly 50 per cent. of the costs. The Corporation hopes to recoup its investments through royalties on sales. If I had the time I should like to go into the wider question of N.R.D.C.'s finances but I understand that we are now a little behind schedule in our debates.

At present the United Kingdom is well ahead of the rest of the world in the development of the hovercraft principle, but we cannot be complacent. As has been pointed out, firms in America and Japan have taken out licences, and competition for markets will undoubtedly increase. What the United Kingdom hovercraft industry needs now is orders from operators at home and abroad. A successful ferry service in the United Kingdom would be a shop window where prospective purchasers could see hovercraft in operation.

One point which has been raised is whether the N.R.D.C. can participate in the operation of a ferry service. We in the Board of Trade would regard the operation of such a service as one within the Corporation's statutory powers, provided that it was satisfied that it was necessary in order to further the development of hovercraft. It is therefore up to the Corporation to work out a detailed scheme for the operation of such a service together with its prospective partners and submit it to us for consideration like any other project. I understand that talks are taking place now about the possibility of ferry services in the Solent.

Another point raised in the debate was the defence interest in hovercraft. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Aviations has told me that there is considerable defence interest in hovercraft and their possible applications to the Services are being studied. An Inter-Services Hovercraft Trials Unit has been sot up at Lee-on-Solent and various types of hovercraft have been hired from the manufacturers so that the unit can gain first-hand experience of their present capabilities and their potentialities. Three hovercraft from two different manufacturers have been ordered for research and longer-term evaluation, one by the War Office and two by the Ministry of Aviation. The possibility of placing development contracts for hovercraft specifically for defence purposes is being studied as more information becomes available from the Trials Unit and the research and development establishments.

As for the future of Denny Hovercraft Ltd., the parent company has announced its intention to go into liquidation because of lack of ship building orders, and if the shareholders agree with this proposal a receiver will be appointed. Whilst it is too early to say what will happen, it is important that the benefits of Denny's Hovercraft work on the "side-wall" type of craft, which no other company has been developing, should not be lost. The N.R.D.C. thinks that this craft is very suitable for work in sheltered waters and should have a market if it is developed quickly. The Corporation would be willing to co-operate with any firm which is prepared to develop it.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham and other hon. Members would like to se something of the way in which hovercraft have been developed I should be very happy to try and arrange with the N.R.D.C. for the showing of films here in London or for a visit to the Solent or possibly both. I intend later this month to visit H.D.L. and see something of the present state of the art for myself.