HC Deb 16 July 1965 vol 716 cc1065-70

(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, the power to levy tolls shall cease to be exercisable at the end of the period of forty years beginning with the date on which the new road becomes open for use as a special road.

(2) In the exercise of his powers under section 2 of this Act the Minister shall not specify scales of tolls exceeding those which in his opinion would be requisite to secure that, taking one year with another, the revenue produced by the tolls during the toll period, if applied for the purposes mentioned in Schedule (Purposes relevant to general limitations on tolls) to this Act, would be sufficient, but not more than sufficient, for those purposes.

(3) If at any time during the period specified in subsection (1) of this section (or during that period as extended by a previous order under this section) it appears to the Minister that the aggregate revenue produced by the tolls is likely to fall short of what would be required for the purposes mentioned in that Schedule, the Minister may by order direct that the period shall be extended, or (as the case may be) further extended, by five years.

(4) An order under this section shall be of no effect unless it is approved by a resolution of the Commons House of Parliament.

(5) In Schedule (Purposes relevant to general limitations on tolls) to this Act any reference to interest is a reference to interest at such rate as may be determined to be appropriate in accordance with any directions given in that behalf by the Treasury; and different rates may be so determined in relation to all or any of the following matters, that is to say, different times, different paragraphs of that Schedule, and different expenses referred to in any of those paragraphs.

(6) In this section and in Schedule (Purposes relevant to general limitations on tolls) to this Act "the toll period" means the period specified in subsection (1) of this section, or, if one or more orders under this section have come into operation, means that period as extended by that order or those orders, as the case may be; and in Schedule (Purposes relevant to general limitations on tolls) to this Act "the relevant works" means—

  1. (a) those parts of the new road (including the specified carriageways) which lie between the points specified in paragraphs (a) and (b) of section 1(3) of this Act, and
  2. (b) any structure, works or apparatus on, under or over any of those parts of the new road or used in connection with the regulation of traffic on those parts of the new road or in connection with the levying of tolls.—[Mr. Swingler.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Clause results from the consideration we promised during the Committee stage of the Bill, following criticisms that had been made about the powers granted to the Minister by its original draft. As the Financial Secretary, my right hon. Friend and I stressed on Second Reading, the intention behind the Bill was to give to the Minister of Transport the power to levy tolls in order to recover the exceptionally high cost of building the Severn Bridge, which will bring such tremendous benefits to travellers. That was the intention. In the drafting of the Bill, we provided for the maximum flexibility in the scale of tolls to be charged and their possible variation over the years to be exercised by the Minister himself.

During the Committee proceedings there were many criticisms about the width of the power and, in particular, the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) and other hon. Members expressed the view that the costs that it was intended to recover by exercising the power to levy tolls on the Severn Bridge ought to be specified in the Bill, and that some limitation should, therefore, be put on the exercise of the power by my right hon. Friend.

The Clause responds to that criticism in two ways. In the first place, it imposes a time limit on the power to levy tolls. It provides that the power to levy tolls should end after a period of 40 years, though we also provide for the power to extend the levying of tolls, but only by means of the Minister coming to Parliament and getting an Order passed to extend his power.

Secondly, we provide in the new Clause that a ceiling is put upon the amount of revenue to be raised, taking one year with another, by means of charging tolls on the Severn Bridge, and in the Schedule that goes with the Clause we specify the costs which it is intended to cover by means of the levying of tolls over this period of years, setting the maximum year by year at the amount required to pay for the bridge as if the bridge had been built by means of a loan.

We all know that the bridge has been built by expenditure out of national funds, but to introduce a conception whereby we have set a limit upon the Minister's power to raise revenue by charging tolls it is necessary to introduce the idea that, if the bridge had been built by means of a loan on which interest would have to be paid, the principal would have to be repaid and other costs would have to be covered for the purposes of maintenance, renewal and other things of that kind. That would give us the amount of money that ought to be raised annually to cover the cost of the bridge.

That is the basis of the new Clause and the items which are set out in the Schedule, which give a complete outline, an outline which is more complete than the things specified in the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment. That is why we prefer our new Clause with a complete itemisation of all the costs with which we are concerned. It sets a ceiling on the amount of revenue which it is legitimate for the Minister to raise by exercising the tolls.

I hope, therefore, that the House will feel, because very much work has gone into the drafting, that the Clause meets the two criticisms; first, that there was no time limit; and, secondly, that there was no ceiling upon the amount of revenue to be raised by the Minister. The Clause and the Schedule meet these two criticisms, while at the same time giving the advantage of flexibility, as it were, underneath that ceiling and over the period of years that we have specified, which we regard as necessary in the exercise of this power.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)

I am sure that the Government have been right in abandoning the attempt which was implicit in the Bill in its original form to take to themselves the unlimited power to impose tolls in the use of this Bill by ministerial orders and in not persisting in the somewhat technical distinction between this toll bridge and previous toll bridges upon which they had relied in departing from the precedent that hitherto, where a power to levy tolls has been given by this House, an indication has been written into the Statute of the principles upon which the tolls would be assessed. The new Clause, as the Joint Parliamentary Secretary rightly says, supersedes and is much fuller and more effective than the Amendment which I and one of my hon. Friends placed on the Notice Paper. We shall have an opportunity when we come to the new Schedule to consider the detailed elements of the computation which are set out in that Schedule. At this stage, therefore, I should merely like to invite the Parliamentary Secretary to seek the leave of the House to speak again in order to clear up one question which arises in subsection (3), the subsection which enables the Minister by Order to extend the 40-year toll period by successive periods of five years at a time. I take it that he would not be at liberty to extend it for less than five years but has to do it in lumps of five years at a time—by quinquennia.

I wonder whether the Parliamentary Secretary could go a little further into the circumstances in which he envisages that this would happen. Clearly, the Minister will set out by attempting to hit off broadly correctly the sums which will achieve the desired product within the 40 years. He is not deliberately going to fix the tolls at a level which is not likely to achieve the required repayments within the 40 years. One can conceive that there might be a minor miscalculation and that it would be reasonable that a margin should be allowed for that miscalulation to be made good without the tolls having to be varied, let us suppose, in the last two or three years during which they were levied at all.

On the other hand, it seems to me that this consideration does not quite justify the power to extend the toll period for an unlimited number of quinquennia. After all, the capital elements of the cost are already known now, and the initial capital costs will not, of course, alter during the 40-year period. So far as the costs which the tolls will meet vary according to the value of money and the cost of work, one assumes that they will be periodically adjusted to allow for that and will not be held down during the 40 years so that any under-yield accrued in this way during the 40 years has to be recouped in the subsequent five, 10 or 15 years, whatever it might be. This is, therefore, on the face of it, a rather strange provision in the unlimited character with which it endows the Minister's power to extend the toll period for succeeding quinquennia.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will help us by indicating a little further the circumstances in which it is envisaged that not just one quinquennium but several more might need to be added to the 40 years.

Mr. Swingler

By leave of the House, I should like to reply to the right hon. Gentleman, first welcoming what he said in his opening remarks.

We are looking ahead here over a quite long period and we cannot be at all sure at what rates it will be desirable to levy the tolls and what the relationship may be to the notional calculations of what is required to repay the capital and cover maintenance costs. Moreover, one cannot be sure what is likely to be spent in renewals or possible improvements to the bridge, or just what different views might be adopted by Ministers of Parliament regarding the charging of tolls in general.

The Bill permits the easy cessation of tolls. This could happen at any time during this period if it were thought right as a matter of policy. But in subsection (3) we conceive of the possibility that, over the period we have laid down, the aggregate amount required to cover the large costs of this bridge and its maintenance and the expenses for renewals and improvements may not be raised. It may be desirable for the Minister to bring forward an Order to extend, five years by five years, the power to charge tolls so as to raise the necessary sums.

We have provided by subsection (4) that this can be done only by the approval of Parliament. I suggest that the safeguard required by the right hon. Gentleman is built into the new Clause because any extension of this power by Order after the 40-year period will require the positive approval of Parliament, presupposing that Parliament is able to discuss the whole issue and the reasons the Minister might bring forward for requiring more than a 40-year period. I hope, therefore, that the House will approve the Clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second lime and added to the Bill.