HC Deb 30 April 1965 vol 711 cc880-90

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

4.3 p.m.

Mr. David Price (Eastleigh)

It is my task this afternoon to raise the question of future responsibility for the control of Southampton harbour and the port of Southampton. This question arises out of the recommendations of the Rochdale Report of 1962. Chapter 36 of the Report dealt with Southampton, and in paragraph 532, the noble Lord, Lord Rochdale, and his colleagues made four major recommendations for the future development of the port and harbour at Southampton. I should like to remind the House of these recommendations.

The first was that, In view of its great natural and geographical advantages Southampton should be developed as one of the country's principal cargo ports. The second recommendation, which follows from this, was that: The development of Southampton must be accompanied by improvements to the communications of the port with London, the Midlands and the West and should take place within the context of a general plan for industrial development of the locality. The third recommendation was that …a new independent port trust authority should be created at Southampton to take over Southampton Docks, absorb the functions of the Southampton Harbour Board and assume responsibility for pilotage". The fourth recommendation was …the need for a new large dry dock at Southampton… It is fair to say that these four recommendations were well received locally at the time of the publication of the Report and were judged to be both imaginative and right. It is the third recommendation, that pertaining to the unification of port responsibilities, which is the cause of my seeking the Adjournment today. In paragraph 530 of its Report, the Rochdale Committee argued cogently for amalgamation of …the functions of the present Harbour Board and ownership of the Southampton Docks. This amalgamation, I understand, is to go ahead and I assure the Minister that the principle of amalgamation meets with general approval. I should add how flattered I am by the courtesy of the right hon. Gentleman in coming himself to answer the debate. The Rochdale Committee recommended that …a new independent port trust authority should be created at Southampton to take over Southampton Docks, absorb the functions of the Southampton Harbour Board and assume responsibility for pilotage". This proposal seemed to most of us to be right, and one hopefully expected that it would be implemented. However, on 1st April last year the newly created National Ports Council announced at a Press conference in London: As far as the Humber and Southampton are concerned, the Ports Council think that the British Transport Docks Board should be the estuarial authority". That pronouncement was a complete reversal of the Rochdale Committee's recommendation that the estuarial authority should be …a new independent port trust authority…". In paragraph 530 of its Report the Rochdale Committee spelt out some of the reasons that lay behind its recommendations. Neither at the Press conference on 1st July nor at any time since have we, the general public, been given a proper explanation why the National Ports Council recommended a reversal of the Rochdale proposal. I hope that the Minister will give us such an explanation today. Better still, I hope that he will announce his Department's adherence to the original recommendations, in which case this debate and the courtesy of the Minister in replying to it will have been really worth while.

The House will be relieved to know that this question raises no ideological issue about private or public ownership. It is a straight question as to whether the estuarial authority should be a port trust, as recommended by the Rochdale Committee, or whether it should be the British Transport Docks Board, as recommended by the National Ports Council. Every independent local body, with the single exception of the Southampton City Council, is in favour of a port trust and is opposed to the British Transport Docks Board as the estuarial authority.

In the short time available to me I will deploy some of the arguments in support of a local trust. First, it has been argued that the ownership of Southampton docks by the Docks Board makes it the "predominating authority" in the harbour. But this is barely true. Only about 50 per cent. of all shipping using the port is berthed at its docks. Within the City of Southampton there are only four miles of shore for docks—and the Docks Board does not own all the shore—compared with no less than 37 miles of foreshore potentially suitable for docks outside the city limits and within the jurisdiction of the present Harbour Board.

Secondly, within the Harbour Board area there are already two oil terminals, the Town Quay for coastal vessels, three power stations, several shipyards of various shapes and sizes, a large number of privately owned wharves and the finest yachting centre in Britain. The majority of cargo, principally oil, is dealt with outside the docks. About 40 per cent. of all shipping is handled below the Fawley Beacon. On grounds of predominance, it is really just as logical to suggest that the Esso Petroleum Company should become the sole estuarial authority as it is to suggest that the Docks Board should take over this rôle.

Thirdly, there is considerable apprehension that the British Transport Docks Board would use the revenues from Southampton to support less viable ports elsewhere. This was one of the fears expressed by the Rochdale Committee in the famous paragraph 530. I know that the British Transport Docks Board has agreed that the financial results of each port should be separately identified, but this does not safeguard the port of Southampton's reserves and profits from being used to meat in part the debts that may be made by other ports under the control of the British Transport Docks Board.

Fourthly, the Minister may argue that the great port and harbour of Southampton are national assets—as indeed they are. He may go on to argue that therefore they should not be locally run. To my mind, there are two fallacies in that argument. The first is that an undertaking can be run in the national interest only if run from London. That is palpable nonsense, and I am sure that the Minister, who has with such energy represented the Scottish interest, will agree that it is palpable nonsense. The second fallacy is that we in the great expanding area of Southampton and southern Hampshire are incapable of running our own affairs with drive and imagination.

There is no suggestion that the estuarial functions on the Mersey, the Clyde and the Tyne should cease to be discharged by local port trusts. Indeed, the Rochdale Committee went out of its way, in paragraph 636 of its Report, to praise local port trusts, and I will give this one quotation: The publicly owned ports have achieved a great deal but there are strong arguments in favour of creating a number of new independent port authorities… The National Ports Council has not recommended the abolition of a single existing port trust. On the contrary, it has gone further; it has recommended two new ones—on the Forth and on the Tees. I ask the Minister—the Government being so sympathetic to regional schemes—why are we so different on Southampton Water? Are we considered to be less competent than the Scots and the Geordies? Our recent industrial history would not bear out that contention. Or is it that Whitehall regards our area as one of London's backyards?

The First Secretary of State is very rightly carrying on and developing the regional development policies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) and myself. Part of such policies must entail devolution from London, but such devolution need not run counter to overall national planning. Through ultimate Ministerial responsibility, and through the National Ports Council, the co-ordinated development of our ports in the national interest is secured. Why, then, are we not allowed to run our own port and harbour? If the Government confirm the National Ports Council policy towards Southampton port and harbour, their decision will be in direct opposition to their own policy for regional development. Or is Wessex to be excluded from the benefits of regional development? Are we just a forgotten area between London and the South-West?

There is the further fear that the Docks Board will develop Southampton Water commercially without regard to our immense recreational interests. I need not remind the House of the enormous sailing interests in the area. I need only mention the name of Hamble, in my own constituency. Sailing is no longer the prerogative of the rich alone. Southampton Water and the Solent provide healthy and invigorating recreation for thousands of town dwellers, not only from Wessex but from the Midlands and from London. Poor city troglodites, they need it!

There is also the priceless heritage of the New Forest, whose perambulations run close to and parallel with the western shore of Southampton Water. Indiscriminate and inconsiderate development on the western shore would have serious repercussions on the New Forest.

We believe that only by creating a local estuarial authority with members possessed of local knowledge can the many conflicting yet valid interests be reconciled. This does not mean that every parish council should be represented, or that every local interest should have the right of veto.

I am not pleading the case for parish pump control of the estuary. What I am asking for is regional control. I am sure I have the support of the First Secretary of State and his Department in this plea. I now ask the Minister for his support. If the Minister tells us that through his Departmental advice he finds he is incapable of finding suitable men of stature from the region, then my hon. Friends and I would be very happy to advise him.

Time does not allow me to develop my arguments any further. I trust I have said enough to show how unsound is the proposal of the National Ports Council and that the right solution was given by the Rochdale Committee—in a word, do not take the control of our harbour away from us and give it to "them" in London.

4.16 p.m.

Dr. Reginald Bennett (Gosport and Fareham)

I wish to add a few words in general support of the case so ably expounded by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price). This controversy is a matter of tremendous importance of the community which is existing now to the north-east of Southampton area, parts of which he and parts of which I represent, and the whole of which is due to develop enormously as has been set forth in the South East Study.

This is a matter of the most tremendous importance because a large new conurbation of the sort contemplated cannot transfer and transport its goods and find the proper outlet for the trade which will be engendered there without an adequate and well-run port. Southampton clearly is the port, and the whole of the Southampton estuary, for potential port space; it is indeed quite rightly becoming so. When Lord Rochdale made his first announcement it was to be assumed that he had thought carefully before he spoke. The arguments he set forth were carefully balanced and on balance he reported in favour of a local port trust. This all seems to make perfectly good sense and well considered sense, but what on earth can have got at him after that that he should so suddenly back-track and go to one of the solutions which he himself had so roundly condemned in that excellent paragraph 530 of his report to which my hon. Friend made reference?

It seems extraordinary that he should have to go back on all the work he has done, and spontaneously. It sounds like one of the medieval controversies in which Galileo was involved. Estuarial authorities, estuarial or port trusts as my hon. Friend said, are thriving and excellent in other parts of the country. The Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, the Clyde and the Tyne come readily to mind. It seems quite incredible that at this late stage we should have the nationalised British transport docks board fastened on to Southampton docks as the total authority.

Even if the milking of Southampton for the maintenance of ports elsewhere is not officially to be allowed, I cannot help thinking that if arguments can make Lord Rochdale change his mind in the way in which he has they will be equally able to make him change his mind again, and arguments for performing a "social service" for an otherwise dying port would come to our ears so that Southampton would be milked for the maintenance of non-viable ports elsewhere. This, I assure the House, worries very deeply those whose commerce is in the port of Southampton. So I repeat the argument with all the force at my disposal that we should have an auto- nomous estuarial trust. That is what would do the good we need. It is the commercial world which should run this commercial port commercially.

It would perhaps be churlish of me if I did not make some reference to the sport with which so many hon. Members associate me most—that is, amateur seafaring. The same argument applies. The Hamble River, which is already full of moorings and for which great charges are made to those who use them, would be regarded as another place from which the dues could be milked off to be taken and used elsewhere. This is a valid argument. It affects my constituents personally, and in very large numbers. They are anxious about this.

The other argument as to the amateur would be the development in an inconsiderate way of port facilities elsewhere in the estuary in the future by an unthinking and unfeeling body.

It is the commercial and professional seafaring people, the ship owners, the dock owners, and those who run all the businesses connected with the maritime life of this country who have most to lose by the reaching of an unfair and improper conclusion in this matter. Therefore, I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to listen to these voices and to give the answer which we so earnestly desire.

4.21 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Tom Fraser)

I am much obliged to the hon. Members for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) and Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett) for the reasonable way in which they have presented their case. However, lest I should raise any false hopes, I think I should say straight away that I cannot give them the answer for which they have asked. I think they are not altogether surprised that this is so.

As they know, when the National Ports Council at the end of June last year made its proposals to deal with the various estuaries, it departed from the recommendation in the now terribly well-known paragraph 530 of the Rochdale Report and proposed, instead, as to Southampton Water, that the British Transport Docks Board should be the estuarial authority. At that time, on 29th June last year, my predecessor informed the House that he had asked the Council to go ahead on the lines proposed; so my predecessor gave to the Council at that time his blessing on what it had proposed—and it was dealing, not only with Southampton Water, but with all the estuaries round our coasts.

Since then a lot of water has flowed down Southampton Water. The present position is that the Docks Board has agreed to take the initiative in promoting a scheme for the amalgamation of the Docks Board and the Harbour Board. Discussions have been held with both the representatives of the harbour users and the staff interests concerned. The Harbour Board, by a majority decision, has agreed to co-operate in the preparation of the scheme. I have taken no part whatsoever in these discussions. I have not any right to take any part in these discussions. I have no locus in them. I am informed, however, that the Docks Board will have a preliminary draft of the scheme ready for consideration with the Harbour Board very soon.

I understand that there is and has been for some time widespread opposition to this proposal—not to the proposal of unified control, but to the proposal that the unified control should be under the British Transport Docks Board. It is only fair to observe, lest Lord Rochdale should be accused too harshly of having changed his mind and of being an untrustworthy turncoat in these matters, that at the time that his Committee was doing its preliminary work on the ports the British Transport Docks Board, as we now know it, did not exist. It was only called into existence under the Transport Act, 1962. It quickly established itself as a very efficient port authority, and when the Ports Council under Lord Rochdale came to consider the matter, as the House knows, it came to the view that the Docks Board was the appropriate estuarial authority.

The hon. Member for Eastleigh reminded me of some speeches that he had heard me make in the past from the other side of the House, in which I said that I would be the last to argue that the national interest could not be served by a local port trust. He called my attention to the fact that in the case of other estuaries—for example, the Forth and the Tyne—this is what has been proposed by the National Ports Council. Of course, I would not argue that the national interest could not be served by a local port trust, but I think I would probably be going further than I ought on this occasion if I were to try to explain why the Ports Council has selected Southampton Water for different treatment from that which is proposed for the Forth and the Tyne.

My responsibilities in this matter are now quite well understood. I am perfectly entitled to say whether or not I agree with the original proposition that there should be unified estuarial authorities created, or whether I think that the existing setup is satisfactory. I do not think that the existing setup of the ports in this country is anything like satisfactory, and I think there is a great deal to be gained for the nation if we have a quite drastic port re-organisation. I think Southampton Water is less in need of drastic treatment than some other estuaries in this country. But the British Transport Docks Board is the principal dock authority for Southampton Water at present, and I think the only other substantial dock authority is Esso Petroleum.

I am convinced, therefore, that it is in the interests of the country, and I am sure of Southampton, that there should be unified control. But having said that, I think I am obliged to see the present proposals go through under the provisions set out in the Harbours Act that we passed last year. I did not take any part in the discussions on the Harbours Bill, as it then was. But I sat many hours on the other side of the House listening to what more expert hon. Members on both sides of the House had to say about the ports, because I took more than a little interest in the subject, although I did not participate in the debates.

I am aware of the rôle which the House of Commons gave to the Minister under the Act of 1964. My predecessor authorised the council to go ahead with its proposals in general. The council and town authorised the Docks Board to go ahead with the promotion of its scheme for Southampton Water. It may very well be that when the scheme is published and the objections are notified, when the Ports Council does its work and brings its recommendations to me, I shall be required and obliged in the interests of Southampton and in the national interest to order a public inquiry.

It is in these circumstances that it would be very wrong for me to say now what I think would be the best thing to do at the end of the day. I have this quasi-judicial function to fulfil and hon. Members will understand me, particularly the hon. Member for Eastleigh, because he was for some years a Minister who had to come to the Dispatch Box and make a speech which would not be altogether too boring or seem too empty but in which he was conscious he would not be able to say very much to those who had initiated the discussion. That is exactly the position that I am in. If I were speaking from any other part of the House I would be able to express a view, but because I am the final arbiter I cannot at this time say a single word which would seem to pre- judice the impartial judgment which I shall have to apply to the determination of this matter.

Both hon. Members who have taken part in the debate have put their case in a most reasonable way. I fully appreciate the need for local interests to be properly protected at the end of the day. I will bear in mind all that they have said today, and all that has been said to me in a good many letters which I have received, before I arrive at any final decision. I hope, however, that when the scheme is published and discussed and debated it may even yet be possible for a solution to be found which will be acceptable to all the interests concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.