HC Deb 18 July 1963 vol 681 cc910-8

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

11.34 p.m.

Mr. J. M. L. Prior (Lowestoft)

I am very grateful to have the chance to raise the subject of a new swing bridge for Lowestoft. I make no apology for doing so, because this subject has been close to the interest of my constituents for very many years. It has an interest wider than a constituency one in that many people who spend their holidays on the East Coast have been delayed by the state in which the swing bridge now is.

The swing bridge carries the traffic on the main A. 12 London to Great Yarmouth trunk road, across Lowestoft harbour, and it is also a vital link to local traffic, including large numbers of industrial workers who live on one side of the bridge and work on the other.

Local and through traffic has greatly increased in recent years and shows every sign of continuing to do so. One of my constituent wrote to the local paper the other day pointing out that in the last 17 years he had spent all the working hours of one year waiting for the bridge to close so that he could get across. Two summers ago I had to help to prevent a strike which was to take place because of the tremendous frustration resulting from the delays on the bridge. So great are the delays in the summer that car drivers at the end of the queue waiting to cross the bridge find that it has opened again before they have reached it The result is that it can take an hour or one-and-a-half hours to get across the bridge. This is a very bad state of affairs and we welcomed very much the announcement by the Ministry of Transport some years ago that it was considering urgently the question of a new bridge.

The existing bridge is of such a nature that two buses cannot pass on it, and even at the best of times there are considerable delays. Anyhow, with the promise that we would have a new bridge a further complication arose. This was that since the war a great deal of industrial activity has commenced in the inner harbour and is to the west of the bridge. This includes the building of very modern and large shipyards belonging to Brooke Marine, Ltd. This firm stated quite plainly when the replacement of the bridge was under discussion that if the waterway could be widened at the same time it could build a much wider variety of ships and this would help considerably the prosperity of the shipbuilding industry in the area. We have also now further industries which have developed round the harbour, including Boulton and Paul, who have big timber interests, and East Coast Silos, who are big importers and exporters of grain.

If the bridge is rebuilt to the same width of waterway as at present we shall be condemning the inner harbour and port of Lowestoft to the same sort of traffic as it has had for the last fifty years for a further fifty years. This we wish desperately to avoid. Approaches were therefore made to the Ministry to see whether this could be overcome. I have always found my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and his hon. Friend, and particularly the present Civil Lord of the Admiraty, very courteous and helpful in dealing with the problem. After we had attended as a delegation two or three years ago, the Ministry of Transport agreed to provide an extra length of bridge which would cost an additional £50,000 if the widening of the waterway were carried out by local interests. This £40,000 was additional to the cost of the new bridge, which was estimated two or three years ago to be £200,000. This is quite a big undertaking. The local authority, in conjunction with local firms, has been trying to find the sum of about £60,000 needed for the widening of the waterway.

The local authority, realising the importance of this project, agreed at once to make an allocation of 50 per cent. of the total cost, whatever that might be, up to £30,000 as a contribution by them. Brooke Marine, Ltd., which is the shipyard chiefly involved, has agreed to make a contribution of a maximum of £17,000. Boulton and Paul, who originally made an offer of £1,000 have stepped it up to £1,350, and the Docks and Harbours Board, previously the B.T.C., has made an offer of £500. The Docks and Harbours Board owns the Port of Lowestoft and over the years would gain very considerably from the new swing bridge and new waterway. We must consider its offer of £500 to be almost worse than giving nothing at all, and I hope that it will realise that it ought to make a substantial contribution.

The sums which I have mentioned add up to £48,850. That means that there is a maximum of about £11,150 to provide to raise the£60,000 required. In addition, the companies which have agreed to help, Brooke Marine and Boulton and Paul, have also suggested that they would underwrite the annual charge which would fall on the Harbours Board if they made a contribution of £10,000, which would be about the necessary amount. They would for this £10,000 capital expenditure be receiving an offer to improve their property by about £50,000, and in the long run they would be the main beneficiaries. I hope that they will look at this again and see whether they can help. It seems ridiculous to me that a project of this nature, involving perhaps the prosperity of this East Coast port for the next 50 years, should now be prevented for the sake of £10,000, and I hope that we can get some sense into it.

The time has come when we must make a decision. We cannot go on delaying the new bridge which is so urgently needed for road traffic requirements, and therefore the stage must be reached when a decision has to be made. The purpose of the debate is to draw attention in the House to this problem and to give my hon. and gallant Friend a chance to state the intentions of the Government and his Ministry as to when the bridge will be built and what he suggests that we can do quickly to overcome the deadlock which we have reached.

I cannot help feeling that we ought to be able to find some way out but if we cannot find an immediate way out of the problem surely we ought to build the bridge and acquire the land so that at a future date the waterway can be widened if the money can be found. At least by doing that we should not get into a stage of once and for all stopping further development in the harbour.

The questions which I want to ask my hon. and gallant Friend are, first of all, when he thinks that the new bridge can be started and, secondly, whether he will consider giving permission for the bridge to go ahead, then hoping that the local authority and local industries will once more come together and find this extra sum of money. If he says that we can go ahead with the bridge, we shall make another big effort to see that the extra sum of money is raised, but there are a great many statutory duties which have to be undertaken before work on the bridge can start, and with the present state of traffic it is essential that we get on with this now, otherwise I am afraid that the patience of my constituents will become exhausted.

I want to ask two further questions. If the local authority felt that this was absolutely essential for the future of the town and port, would it be possible for the local authority to give more than 50 per cent.?

The other question is whether my hon. Friend would ask Lord Rochdale, of the National Ports Council, to look at the problem to see whether the Council could provide the comparatively small amount of finance that is needed.

I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend for coming to the House to reply to the debate. I hope he will be able to give a satisfactory answer. The situation is really very trying to local people. It is having an effect on the industrial prosperity of the area, and it is about time that something was done about it. I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will be able to give me some encouragement.

11.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) on having been so fortunate as to be able to raise this matter on the Adjournment tonight. I am not sure that he was quite so fortunate in the day on which the debate has fallen, but, after all, it might have been a great deal worse because the House certainly got through all the water in double quick time.

To be serious, my hon. Friend has put forward most persuasively the case for widening the channel which joins the inner and the outer harbours of Lowestoft. He also asked whether the bridge would be renewed. The two things, of course, are inter-related. It is common ground that the swing bridge needs renewal. I cannot give the precise date. The project will have to be included in an extension to the present programme, but I can say that the preliminary procedures will be begun when we know the decision with regard to widening the channel, and I hope this will be not later than the spring of next year.

The question that arises when we consider widening the channel is the old one of where the money is to come from. My hon. Friend has explained that no less than £48,800 has been promised towards the expected cost of about £60,000 and that a sum of £11,200 is needed to enable the scheme to go forward. My hon. Friend also said that the local interests concerned have promised to contribute as much as they can and that the remaining capital, therefore, must be found elsewhere. But, in fact, the only other sources which have been suggested are the British Transport Docks Board and/or the Government, approached through Lord Rochdale.

The Docks Division of the British Transport Commission expressed an interest in this proposed development from a very early stage, and, as my hon. Friend said, it agreed to contribute a token sum of £500 towards the cost. Since then the British Transport Docks Board has taken on this commitment. Of course, whether the Docks Board is willing to make any further contribution is entirely a matter for the Board to decide. This is the kind of decision which has to be taken frequently by the nationalised industries and it would be quite wrong for the Government to try to interfere in such decisions.

I must be frank with my hon. Friend and say that even if we were prepared to press our advice on the Docks Board, we should hesitate to counsel any further contribution We must stand by the principle that the nationalised industries should operate commercially, and the Docks Board is quite clear that the widening of the channel would not be of any commercial benefit to it.

My understanding is that the width of the channel has not in the past been an obstacle to commercial shipping that used the inner harbour. The traffic consists mainly of trawlers entering for refuelling or to take on ice. The largest vessel known to have passed through the channel had a beam of 45 feet There is no reason why a vessel of 58 feet beam could not clear the channel provided that her draught was suitable. I remind my hon. Friend that we must bear in mind that draught is a relevant consideration, and that it is estimated that it would cost up to £1,000 a foot to dredge the channel.

The other ships which use the inner harbour are those which have been built or repaired there. These, however, bring in very little revenue to the harbour authority. I therefore repeat that it is purely a management decision of the British Transport Docks Board and that, even if it were our policy to interfere in these matters, we should find difficulty in advising the Board to spend more than the £500 which it has already promised.

My hon. Friend seemed to suggest in his reference to Lord Rochdale's Ports Council that this is a case in which the Government might make a grant. I cannot accept this. The Government have never before made a grant for harbour works in time of peace except in the case of a disaster. This does not mean that no grant can ever be made in future, but it does mean that we must think very carefully before we set the precedent. At present, I cannot foresee grants of this kind being made unless the case were very exceptional and there were a compelling national need.

Much the same consideration applies to this sort of case as to the case for maintaining docks which have ceased to pay their way. I dealt at some length with this when I was winding up the debate on the ports last week, and, if I may, I will repeat what I said then: If there were a genuine national interest—such as defence—a port might be kept open at the national expense. If the reason were a local one, such as the effect on a town or city of the closing of its port, the local authority should decide whether it is willing to bear the burden. In the case of some municipally-owned ports, this already happens. If, as is also sometimes the case at present, the existence of a port is essential for a particular industry or firm, that interest must decide whether it is willing to keep the port going."—[Official Report, 10th July, 1963; Vol. 680, c. 1370–1.] I cannot see that there is any sufficient national interest in carrying out the widening of this channel to justify a Government grant. I can conceive that such a case might arise if there were an overriding need to increase shipbuilding capacity in this country, but, as we have often said, the reverse is, unfortunately, the case. There is a surplus of ship-building capacity in the country and we must expect contraction in the future rather than expansion.

Neither has it seemed to us that there is a case for arguing that the future of Lowestoft as a port is at stake. It may be—I dare say that this is so—that the ship-building industry would benefit from the widening of the channel; but this is certainly not a reason why the Government should make a grant. Of course, I recognise that the scheme is favoured by local interests. The council's willingness to pay half the cost is sufficient evidence of this. If the council judged that the future of Lowestoft as a port depended on it, it would, no doubt, be prepared to present a case for increasing the contribution.

To come to the question which my hon. Friend asked me. There is no fixed rule limiting such a contribution to 50 per cent. In this case, however, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government felt that it would be unfair to the ratepayers to go beyond this for a project which seemed most to benefit local industrial interests. If the local council feels that there is a case, in order to maintain the port as a port, for this work to be undertaken, it must come back to my right hon. Friend and make that case.

Meanwhile, it certainly seems to us that the main beneficiary of the scheme would be the ship-building interest. I think, therefore, that it is for that interest to decide whether to give it greater financial support. If shipbuilding does not think it worth while in its own interest, it is difficult to see why the Government should make a contribution, particularly in present conditions.

I know that it could be argued that the Government should do it to create more employment in the town; yet this is rather academic since there is no certainty that the firm would secure orders for larger ships. If they thought that, they would surely be willing to increase their contribution.

Nevertheless, I assure my hon. Friend that the Government's attitude is not purely negative. As a result of his intervention, we have already agreed that when the bridge over the channel is rebuilt, we will bear the additional cost, estimated at about £40,000, of increasing the span of the bridge if the channel were widened. This, of course, was subject to the proviso that the harbour works would be carried out without charge to Government funds. We have already, therefore, gone some way towards making the scheme possible and I do not think it reasonable that the Government should be asked to go further and contribute towards the cost of the harbour works as well.

In his concluding remarks, my hon. Friend asked whether the Government would be prepared to build a longer bridge in any case. We recognise that unless this is done, any prospect of widening the channel would be put off for many years. I can only say that we will consider this, but only if we can be satisfied that there is a clear prospect of the channel being widened in the foreseeable future. That is as far as I can go and I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that it is not unreasonable.

Mr. Prior

I am grateful for what my hon. and gallant Friend has said, but I should like to ask him a question on his last point about the extra length of the bridge. What does he mean by "foreseeable future"? Does he mean a period of, perhaps, five or ten years or something of that nature? If the local authority says that it will undertake the work within five or ten years, would my hon. and gallant Friend then see his way clear to advising the Ministry to accept the extra length of bridge as its responsibility?

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I would rather not be too specific. What I had in mind was that we should want a definite plan and not a vague aspiration. We should need a definite plan and some sort of date and assurance that the work would be undertaken.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned at two minutes past Twelve o'clock