HC Deb 12 March 1963 vol 673 cc1315-26

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

10.32 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

We have today had revised estimates for the road programme, and I notice in those estimates that the second stage of the M.1 from Crick to Doncaster is to cost £36,700,000. The M.2 Medway motor road to Dover is to cost £16 million. The M.4 from London to South Wales is to cost more than £44 million, and the M.6 from Birmingham to Penrith is up £19 million to £67 million, and on none of those roads is any toll to be levied.

In Scotland, as the economic situation has steadily worsened over the last few years, the campaign against tolls on the Forth Road Bridge has steadily mounted, and many who formerly agreed with the charging of tolls are now against them. The only people who are still in favour of tolls are the Government, including the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland, and every single Tory Member for Scotland.

There are four reasons for this. The first, and I think the most important from the Opposition's point of view, is that an agreement was made in 1957, and reaffirmed in 1957, that tolls should be paid and that we should not now welsh on that agreement. Agreements and contracts are sacred, say the Government: we must not depart by one iota from them.

The second argument was reasserted by the Prime Minister last week, when he said that costly projects of this character should be financed in this way.

The third argument is that tolls will have little effect industrially, and the fourth is that if no tolls are levied—and this was one of the arguments used by the Secretary of State—less money would be available for other transport projects in Scotland.

On the first argument, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the agreement made in this case was made under duress. It was made, moreover, at a time when the economic prospects in Fife, in particular, were very bright. At that time Fife was regarded as the potential workshop of Scotland. But there can be no doubt—and I do not think that the Secretary of State would challenge this—that economic circumstances have worsened drastically since that agreement was reached. I want to quote the Fife unemployment figures. I refer to Fife particularly, although both sides of the Forth and much wider regions are vitally concerned in this problem. I shall use the summer figures, and it must be remembered that the winter figures are much worse.

In June, 1957, the number of totally unemployed workers was 1,947; in June, 1962, it was 4,552—an increase of 132 per cent. For men alone the figures are much worse. In June, 1957, the total number of men unemployed was 673; in June, 1962, it was 2,300—an increase of 240 per cent. In mining, which is the principal industry in this part of Fife, the June, 1957, figure was 74, and in June, 1962, it was 518—an increase of 620 per cent. over the five years. As for juveniles, the present rate is the highest in the history of the youth employment service. In mid-January, 1962, it was 452, and in mid-January, 1963, it was 929.

I have since brought the figures up to date. I admit that the figures are winter figures, but nevertheless, from June, 1962, to February, 1963, there has been another increase in total unemployment in Fife of 4,205, or 93 per cent., during the last eight months. On this very argument, apart from the economic argument, it is clear that no agreement is sacrosanct for all time.

The Government have welshed on many agreements and pledges in their lifetime. At the Dispatch Box on 12th February, the Chancellor himself said: We are not over-scrupulous about international obligations."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th February, 1963; Vol, 671, c. 1247.] They have welshed on their international obligations, but they must not welsh on an agreement made in 1947. They have welshed on their pledges to the electorate. They talked about "mending the hole in the purse". Indeed, full employment itself was a pledge to which the Conservative Party was committed in 1944. Does the right hon. Gentleman pretend that that pledge is being honoured, or has been honoured, during the last several years? Welshing is the Government's favourite pastime.

As for the third argument, that costly projects should be financed by these methods, I have already quoted some extremely costly projects in the most prosperous areas of Britain which are not to be financed in this way. There are many projects in Scotland itself which are not being financed by this method. If this had been a consistent policy we could have understood it. We would not have agreed with it, but we could have understood it. In fact, there is no consistency at all.

I have quoted the M.1. We have the Hyde Park tunnel and the London flyovers, which were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Gourlay). We have the Whiteinch Tunnel, under the Clyde. There are not tolls on those projects. A toll decision is to be taken by Parliament about the Severn Bridge. It is true that toll provisions are made in respect of the Tyne Tunnel, but there will be an authorisation to permit certain traffic to pass without the payment of tolls; but there is no such provision for the Forth Bridge. The pattern is chaotic.

The Scotsman of 12th February made a list of these bridges in an article entitled "The Muddle of Tolls", in which it stated: The Forth Road Bridge stands out as the one example where the State has provided most of the funds and yet seeks to recover them by tolls. The Scotsman editorial of the same date quotes what Sir Frank Mears said several years ago in his survey and plan for central and south-east Scotland, when he advocated the bridge as an essential corridor for the industrial and social development of the region. The Scotsman also said: That is even more obvious today than it was then. At a time when the emphasis is rightly on the need to promote economic expansion it seems indefensible to charge tolls on a pivotal section of a vital arterial road. The Scotsman is a Tory paper and no friend of ours. Originally, it was for tolls, but having seen the economic position it has come round to the sensible view.

On the third argument, that it will have no effect industrially, there is very powerful opinion on the other side. For example, the Scottish Council gave the Secretary of State evidence at a meeting at St. Andrew's House. The Scottish T.U.C., the Scottish National Farmers' Union and the F.B.I. are all against the proposal for tolls.

Sir George Nairn, the well-known Fife industrialist, and a Tory, has said exactly the same thing. The Fife County Council has had little evidence that industrialists are breaking their necks to get to Donibristle and one of the reasons for that is that the proposal that there should be tolls on this bridge is holding them back.

This aspect was taken up in the February issue of the magazine of the Scottish Council, which stated: If the agreement on tolls is detrimental to the best use of the bridge for Scotland's economy, unquestioning loyalty to it serves no useful purpose for Scotland or Mr. Noble. It continued: No one in official quarters seems to have done all the sums to compare the costs and benefits of various possible courses of action. Mr. Murray Stewart, an economist writing in the 'New Saltire' in August, 1962, came to the conclusion that 'the imposition of tolls will reduce the potential benefit of the bridge to the road users of Scotland'. So there are powerful allies of different political persuasions lined up against the Government. The Edinburgh Corporation is in line on this question with all the local authorities concerned, and the bodies which I have already mentioned. Most of these constituted a deputation which went to the Secretary of State on 15th February. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would agree that it was one of the most powerful and widely representative deputations ever to go to St. Andrew's House. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) and myself, and the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) were the representatives from this House.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart) originally agreed to go, but subsequently refused because, as he said, rightly and legitimately from his point of view, he was opposed to a non-toll bridge, and, therefore, felt that he could not be of any assistance to the deputation. I can understand that point of view.

The hon. Member for Fife, East took exactly the same view. He is against a free bridge. He has areas in his constituency, which have 10 per cent. unemployment, but he went because Fife City Council invited him to go. He did not speak—he graced the proceedings with his beauty, but that was all. The Secretary of State listened courteously—he is a very good listener—and then read his prepared brief like an office boy from the Treasury. The gist of his case was that if we went back on the agreement of which I have spoken the Secretary of State would find it difficult to go back to the Treasury and ask for more money for Scottish transport. I do not think I am being unfair to him in saying that.

Did the Minister of Transport take that view? Had the Secretary of State tried to go back to the Treasury? His duty is to speak for Scotland and to act for Scotland. I do not know what additional pressures he wants from Scottish representations to recognise that it is in the interests of the Scottish economy that there should be no tolls on this bridge. It was his duty to go to the Treasury and say that opinion in Scotland is overwhelmingly against the idea of tolls on this bridge.

We read in today's newspapers that a psychiatrist is giving talks to Tory M.P.s and candidates. There is work for him in the Scottish Office. If he were to get on to the Secretary of State he might convince him that it is in his political interest as well as in the economic interest of Scotland that this nonsense of tolling on this bit of trunk road—the only bit between Inverness and London —should be stopped. It is an outrage that one of the most economically distressed depressed parts of Britain should have this burden placed upou it. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider this matter.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Harry Gourlay (Kirkcaldy Burghs)

Next to unemployment the question of tolls on the Forth Road Bridge is possibly the most talked of subject in Scotland. The numbers of hon. Members present in this Adjournment debate tonight is also an indication of the extreme importance we on this side of the House attach to this matter. This problem is agitating the minds of most people in Fife and also on the south side of the river.

The Prime Minister said in reply to a Question on Tuesday, 5th March: This has been the policy since it was announced in 1955, which is that tolls should be applied to large and costly bridges and tunnels which effect particularly great savings in time and distance,"—fOFFiciAL REPORT, 5th March, 1963: Vol. 673, c. 201.] This principle does not apply either universally or consistently in practice. For instance, the Whiteinch Tunnel, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), is costing about £11½ million, but 75 per cent. of that sum is grant from the Exchequer. The other 25 per cent. is being met by Glasgow Corporation. There are to be no tolls in the tunnel.

The Severn Bridge will cost £16 million, but 100 per cent., about £11 million, of the cost of the bridge, is coming from the Exchequer and the £5 million for the approach roads will be met by Government grant and local authority contributions. The question of tolls there has yet to be decided by this House, but at present there is no provision made for charging tolls. This bridge is being built by the Ministry of Transport under the Special Roads Act, 1949. There is to be no board governing the project as the Ministry alone will be responsible.

The Forth Road Bridge is to cost £17.7 million. The Government grant is small, £4.6 million, and local authorities are making a grant of £½million, while the remaining £12.6 million will be loaned by the Government. Under the present regulations there will be tolls for something like thirty years. So far, I have mentioned only three projects. There is a different approach by the Government in each case. My hon. Friend mentioned the MA, the first section of which cost £22 million. The Hammersmith and Chiswick flyovers cost possibly £10 million, making a total of £32 million. The Chiswick arterial road of about 2½ miles will cost possibly £11 million. There will be no tolls on any of these facilities, though they are in an area of great prosperity.

Where is the logic behind the thinking which permits the free use of one scheme financed by public funds, but which sets a price on the use of a similar scheme whose benefits to the public are not dissimilar? The Government have stated that tolls will not prevent industry coming to Fife and other parts of Scotland, but they cannot argue that tolls will attract industry to Fife or the east of Scotland. That is precisely what is most urgently required to meet the present economic problems in that part of Scotland. It has also been said that the Forth Road Bridge is an essential corridor for the industrial and social development of the region. This is even more obvious now than it was when it was said some years ago by Sir Frank Mears. The rundown of the coal industry and the closing of Rothes pit makes the promotion of economic expansion in Fife more necessary now than ever.

It is estimated that in the current year about £745 million will come to the Exchequer from the road fund tax and the fuel tax. This represents about 11 per cent. of the total national revenue for 1962–63. The expenditure on British roads this year is about £170 million, which leaves a balance to the Exchequer of no less than £575 million. Still the Government intend to extract more tribute money from the motorists and from industrialists who use the bridge.

It is indefensible that, while millions of pounds are spent on motorways and flyovers in the South, to which there is free access, that tolls should be imposed on a short but vital and essential part of an arterial Scottish road. Incidentally, the expenditure on the road bridge over the last few years has represented the major part of the expenditure on Scottish roads. If the Government really intend to strengthen the Scottish economy, as they are for ever proclaiming, let them as an earnest of that intention eliminate the toll charges on the bridge.

10.52 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Noble)

The hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) feels very strongly about this subject and led a delegation from his constituency and neighbouring constituencies to see me. He does an injustice to himself and his cause by saying that nobody but myself, the Prime Minister and the Tory Members of Parliament are in favour of keeping tolls on the bridge. If he gets around Scotland as much as I do, he will find that a great many other people share my view.

May I correct the statement which the hon. Member made about our meeting at Edinburgh? He said that all that I did was to read my prepared brief. [-le cannot have been watching. It is perfectly true that I read out a specific statement by the Minister of Transport giving the exact words in which he proclaimed the Government's policy some years ago, but, apart from that, I never looked at any papers at all.

It is fair to explain to the House, as one should do, the background to this matter. The hon. Member mentioned it. He mentioned that the original Forth Road Bridge Order, 1947, when the Labour Party was in power, was designed to provide for the recovery from tolls of the greater part of the contribution which the local authorities concerned were to make to the cost of the bridge. At this time the cost was estimated at a mere £6½2 million, but by the time it became practicable to start the work it was clear that the cost would be much more.

In 1956 and 1957 negotiations took place between my Department and the Joint Board to settle a revised method of finance which would provide for the expenditure, which had then risen to about £15½ million. It was agreed that the outright contributions to be made in terms of the 1947 Order should remain unchanged—a little over £4½ million by the Government and £½ million by the local authorites. The remainder of the cost it was agreed, should be advanced by way of loan by the Government and be recovered by tolls.

This was agreed with the local authorities concerned and the Joint Board then promoted a Provisional Order which became the Forth Bridge Order, 1958. This Order gave statutory force to the agreement reached with the local authorities and there is no doubt that the joint decision at that moment to go ahead with these financial arrangements resulted in a decision to build the bridge a great deal earlier than would have been possible in any other way.

This is the background. It was unchanged until about a year ago when a considerable campaign started, aimed at the reversal of the decision that the bridge should be toll financed. The arguments put forward to me both tonight and when I met the deputation have fallen broadly into three classes. The first is that economic conditions have changed, particularly in Fife, and this I entirely accept. It also is represented that the prospect of industrial development in Fife will be adversely affected by tolls on the bridge and that they therefore should be abandoned.

The second argument is that the Government's toll policy is being applied inconsistently. The hon. Member for Fife, West said that the local authorities had accepted this under duress in 1956–57. This is not the case. At a meeting which I had with representatives of all the local authorities concerned—the meeting which the hon. Member attended—only one representative said that he had objected in principle to tolls in 1957 and he added that he had been overruled by his local authority colleagues. I cannot honestly square this with what the hon. Member said. Was that negotiation under duress?

I will deal with the three arguments separately. Fears have been expressed about the effect of tolls on industry—that by increasing overheads on goods moved in both directions across the bridge an intolerable burden will be placed on the areas most closely concerned. The Government do not share this view. We think that it is based on an over-pessimistic assessment of the attraction to traffic which the new bridge will undoubtedly provide. The Toot-hill Committee and the Scottish Council, which have been brought into this argument, took a great deal of trouble to draw attention to the generally low proportion of industrial costs attributable to transport.

Although I would agree that no one likes tolls, the movement of materials and goods between Fife and Edinburgh via the bridge will certainly be very much more convenient than at present, and even with tolls will be cheaper than the existing ferry or the detour via Kincardine. Our opinion, based on experience of similar projects elsewhere, is that it will be the convenience of the bridge that will make it a telling factor in new developments in Fife.

I entirely rebut the extreme view expressed to me by the convener of Fife County Council that a toll bridge would be a curse to Scotland. I do not believe that this view is shared by any other areas in Scotland, such as Dundee, where a toll bridge is about to be built, or by Renfrew and Dunbarton where a toll bridge at the Erskine ferry is at least a possibility. We do not believe that the abandonment of tolls at this stage would be the right method of tackling the industrial problems of Fife. We do not believe that in any case it would be effective. There are other ways by which we can deal with trade and industry in the area which will be served by the Forth Bridge and we will do everything possible to deal with them.

Mr. James H. Hoy (Edinburgh, Leith)

We had representations from the Scottish Council for Development and Industry which produced three cases where firms had refused to come because of the imposition of tolls. Would the right hon. Gentleman like to deal with that point?

Mr. Noble

I think that they were perfectly correct in saying so. On the other hand, there have been indications since our meeting that one or two firms will move to Fife, and the Civil Lord of the Admiralty gave us a little encouragement for Rosyth in yesterday's debate. In addition, very substantial expenditure is being incurred on new developments in places like Glenrothes.

I have explained that the financial arrangements under which the scheme started, and is now well on the way to completion, were entered into after negotiation by the Joint Board, on which the local authorities principally concerned are all represented. It is my view that this bargain between Scotland and the United Kingdom taxpayer should be honoured, and that both the Forth Valley and Scotland as a whole will benefit more in the long run if they accept it.

The second argument is that the Government's policy about tolls has been inconsistent. I cannot accept that. The policy is that tolls are an appropriate method of financing expensive bridge and tunnel schemes. This policy was announced in February, 1955 by the then Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, and, for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman, this was the one thing I did read out of my brief. I has been followed consistently since that date—[An HON. MEMBER: "Whiteinch?"]—The White-inch Tunnel project was approved in 1954, which was before the date in question.

The imposition of tolls is taking place at the new bridges over the Forth, the Severn, the Tamar and the Tay, and at the Dartford and Tyne Tunnels. If one considers how widely these schemes are spread in Britain, it seems to me a little difficult to say that we are discriminating harshly against the Forth Road bridge. I would also remind the House that the purpose of tolls on the Forth bridge, after providing sufficient income to pay for running and maintaining it, and to build up a reserve fund intended to provide for its operation and maintenance after tolls have come to an end, is to service the loan. While I cannot anticipate what schedule of toll charges the Joint Board will propose to me, I shall be giving away no secrets in saying that the use of the bridge will have to fall far below expectations for the tolls not to have done their job within thirty years of the opening of the bridge.

Finally, there is the 'objection to tolls generally. The Government's principle in broad outline is that the Queen's highway should be free, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport has spoken at other times in the House on the subject of by-passing or buying up the old privately-owned toll bridges. But this is quite a different matter from modern bridges or tunnels owned by local authorities and built by the latest engineering techniques at great cost to effect specific savings in time and distance. These projects, in fact, create new facilities—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes past Eleven o'clock.