HC Deb 29 June 1966 vol 730 cc2148-60

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

10.9 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I rise, even at this late hour, to deal with a matter of great national importance, as well as of great local importance to the City and citizens of Bristol, and indeed the whole of the West Country.

I raise in this House, not for the first time, the continued delay in the Government's coming to a decision on the vital matter of the Portbury Dock scheme. I carry on the battle—for battle it has been—which we conducted in the last Parliament and in which my friend Martin McLaren, the late Member for Bristol, North-West, played such a large part. Even at this late hour one can feel passionately about this great and imaginative scheme. Of course we now have a more tranquil atmosphere in which to discuss this great matter, and we have the one consolation that at least we have a debate which cannot be closured by the Government.

This is a matter to which we attach great importance. The Leader of my party put himself four-square behind this scheme during the course of the exchanges which took place at the time of the General Election. The Prime Minister, however, is not officially on the record as to his views on this matter, because the Labour Party have not seen fit to publish the full text of any speech of the Prime Minister in which he mentioned this scheme. I will not on this occasion rehearse all the detailed arguments which have been heard before, but I will try to put one or two new arguments and to deal with some of the counter arguments which have been floated publicly and which are circulating as informed opinion, or information circulating as to what is the attitude of the Government and the National Ports Council.

I hope that by putting a few new points, Mr. Speaker, I shall have the privilege of a new reply, because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to this debate is sick and tired of reading out the same speech, and I cannot believe he has sat here all night just to do that all over again. I hope to leave him ample time in which to deploy his arguments, although of course, if he came down fair and square in favour of the scheme it would not take him very long to say so.

In addition to what has happened in this House, the Portbury Dock scheme has had a very full coverage and a considerable amount of informed opinion has appeared particularly in the two Bristol papers and other West Country journals. I hope to have the assurance of the Minister that he has seen and read these articles which have been appearing recently.

This is no stunt campaign. Does the hon. Member wish to intervene? I think the hon. Member was laughing at the suggestion I made that this was no stunt campaign. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is a member for one of the Bristol constituencies as I have not yet had the opportunity of identifying all my Bristol colleagues because they have not been particularly active since the election.

Mr. John Ellis (Bristol, North-West)

I wonder if the hon. Gentleman could explain his last remark? Some of us who are hon. Members for Bristol have been in the House as much as the hon. Gentleman has. If you would keep your eyes open——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do keep my eyes open.

Mr. Ellis

I was referring to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must refer to the hon. Gentleman in a Parliamentary way.

Mr. Cooke

I hope the hon. Member for Bristol, North West (Mr. Ellis) will be behind me in the need for an urgent decision on this scheme.

I think it is worth pointing out that the land available for the Portbury Dock is some 2,000 acres of undeveloped land and that if a decision were taken now we could have this great port operational by the early 1970's. It would become a port of world significance with unrivalled United Kingdom communications and would be in the most favourable geographical position in relation to countries across the Atlantic, and also in relation to the countries of Europe.

On the question of United Kingdom communications, I think it is worth recalling that in reply to a Question from Mr. Martin McLaren on 15th March, 1965, col. 221 of the Written Answers, the Minister of Transport, when asked about the access available to the Portbury Dock traffic for the London area, the Midlands, South Wales, the South-West and so on, said The line proposed for the southern section of the Birmingham—Bristol motorway (M.5) passes near Portbury. The docks, if built, would thus have direct access to the Midlands and, via the motorway interchange at Almondsbury in Gloucestershire, to the London—South Wales motorway (M.4). Access to the southwest of England would be provided by the proposed new dual carriageway road between Exeter and East Brent, the present planned terminus of M.5; a survey is now in progress to determine whether it should be built as a continuation of the motorway or as an all-purpose road."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th March, 1965; Vol. 708, c. 221.] A splendid catalogue of the magnificent communications now to be provided for the area of Portbury!

Mr. E. Rowlands (Cardiff, North)

Does the hon. Member agree that Cardiff is as near to the Midlands as is Bristol, if not nearer?

Mr. Cooke

The hon. Member can have his views about Cardiff, but there are reasons other than communications which rule out Cardiff and South Wales ports. The House knows these. They have been rehearsed ad nauseam.

I maintain that the case is made for Portbury by Lord Rochdale and the National Ports Council, which positively campaigned for it. Lord Rochdale has made speeches up and down the land saying that this is the one answer. I feel that the Government delay is delay in the hope that the National Ports Council will get cold feet, or that new factors will be found which will provide the Government with an excuse not to give us this scheme.

One of the factors that have been noised abroad is that containerisation could in some way make the grand design of Portbury unnecessary, and that some of the less favourable sites in other places might do the job. Quite apart from the lack of deep water channel—which excludes the South Wales ports—we have the Answer of the Minister to my Question of yesterday, when I asked him What new aspects of port organisation are now being studied by the National Ports Council in exploring alternatives to the Portbury scheme", and the Answer was, None, I am told."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th June, 1966; Vol. 730, c. 294.] It would appear that there are no new aspects to consider. Presumably no new places warrant serious consideration when the Council has said that it has looked at all the possible alternatives and has come down firmly in favour of Portbury.

The South Wales case has been argued in the House, and Southampton has been mentioned. I would draw the attention of the Minister to the lamentable communications that Southampton enjoys, or fails to enjoy. If one talks of Southampton as a possibility when it has such a bad communication set-up, one may as well consider Portland, in Dorset, which has a magnificent harbour, alas almost cut off from civilisation by the lack of communications. I hope that the Government will not forget. Portland, however, because it is the place where all the stoneworkers are unemployed because the Building Control Bill has ensured that Portland stone will not be used in schemes where it was being used before.

We have had excuse after excuse for the delay. We were told that it was due to political pressures. The hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Wilkins), who I regret is not here today because of illness, made an impassioned attack—almost an hysterical attack—on this side of the House. He said that the attention we had drawn to the scheme had suddenly caused South Wales to wake up to the possibility of its having the port on the other side of the Channel. He said that it was our fault for waking up South Wales. South Wales is not a sleepy place; it is wide awake. It has been talking about this for years. It is nonsense to say that Bristol woke up South Wales. Political pressures were mentioned by the Parliamentary Secretary in the proceedings on the Docks and Harbours Bill: Of course there has been political pressure from all sorts of quarters about Portbury, Liberal, Labour and Conservative."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A; 23rd June, 1966, c. 184.] I did not know that the Liberal Party had been involved in this. But surely the political pressure is pressure exerted by the Labour and Conservative parties in Bristol and the West Country to get the Government to make up their mind and approve the scheme. But that is hardly political pressure. That is public men acting in a responsible way. All parties in Bristol want Portbury. Just because it is a Conservative who is making this speech is no reason for declining it. The Labour Party are as much in favour of it as we are in the West Country, and I hope that we shall convince the Minister.

On the subject of South Wales, it surely cannot be said that South Wales has ever been overlooked with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the late Home Secretary representing South Wales, and almost every hon. Member for South Wales being a member of the Socialist Party. Therefore, I feel that the case for South Wales has been fully made and fully answered. What are the reasons——

Mr. E. Rowlands rose——

Mr. Cooke

I will not give way. The hon. Member must seek to catch the eye of the Chair.

What are the reasons for the Government declining to give their approval? Are they economic ones? There has been a great deal of recrimination about the financial state of the country. I will not go into the arguments about who is to blame for it, although I know very well where the blame lies. But if the reasons are economic, surely the Government must take their courage in their hands and sanction this great venture. If one's business is not flourishing, one must look for ways of improving and expanding it.

This great dock is something which this country desperately needs to win more trade. It is something which the party opposite sadly neglect. They cast jealous eyes on the successful and the fact that we thrive in our trade. On this question, perhaps they might look more approvingly at those who venture in this great scheme. It is surely an antiquated attitude to be so overcautious.

I must mention the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-West (Mr. Benn), who gave a lukewarm and cagey approval to the scheme but looked for loopholes, rather like the Minister. But the right hon. Gentleman is on record as saying that the new Labour Government would produce "an age of adventure and reform". Is it an age of adventure and reform when we see, from week to week, from month to month and even from year to year the endless delay about this great project?

I am afraid that I have come to the conclusion that there is another and more sinister reason for the delay. Of course, I may be wrong and would be delighted if the Parliamentary Secretary will disillusion me and make me much more happy about the whole affair. Last week there was printed and this Monday published with a flourish by the First Secretary of State the Socialist policy document now accepted in full, or at least in outline, in principle——[Laughter.] Hon. Members are laughing. They should read The Times newspaper. The First Secretary said that he accepted the whole thing in principle, though there might be one or two details which the party could not accept.

The document was a report from the Socialist Policy Group on Port Development, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member got for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), and including a couple of other hon. Members of the House. The First Secretary leaped to accept it, so it would appear that Bristol Docks are doomed to be sacrificed to the iron grip of the extreme Left wing of the Socialist party.

Public ownership is said to be the answer, but the Bristol Docks are owned by the people of Bristol, and a very fine Port of Bristol Authority we have. Why should it be messed around by some other superimposed and grandiose scheme which some of the First Secretary's more troublesome friends have dreamed up?

All this sounds disagreeable. I am entitled to be disagreeable. I feel a bit disagreeable having had to wait so long for this great opportunity to say what I have to say. I also feel a little unhappy about the sort of things I have been reading in the newspapers about the Government's intentions for the great port of Bristol as it now exists and their endless shilly-shallying about Portbury. I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to take up his own words on the Docks and Harbours Bill and put them into action. If he thinks there have been political pressures, let him and the Government resist them. Above all, let them look at this project again both from the national and the international point of view.

10.26 a.m.

Mr. E. Rowlands (Cardiff, North)

I am glad of this opportunity to reply to the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke). Cardiff and South Wales have produced an imaginative alternative to the Portbury project. The hon. Gentleman did not quote the relevant figures, which it is necessary to appreciate before the House and the Minister can make a decision.

The first stage of the Cardiff scheme would cost £7 million, compared with £27 million for the first stage of the Portbury scheme. The facilities that would be provided by both schemes are identical but, on economics alone, Cardiff has a very good case which should be heard by the Minister.

10.27 a.m.

Mr. Evelyn King (Dorset, South)

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for raising this matter. I agree with every word he said, but I ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to consider—although I cannot speak in detail of it at present—what is clearly ultimately to be a bold and imaginative scheme for the development of the deep water harbour into a dock at Portland. If a road link were taken between Bristol and Portland this would make an enormous difference to the whole of the area.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind that Weymouth is losing the Vickers factory, employing 1,000 men. It is closing down, and one of the reasons is the lack of communications between South Dorset and the Midlands. Anything that could be done to strengthen those communications would help immensely the low wage economy I represent.

10.28 a.m.

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

The Portbury scheme has been raised again and I make no complaint about that. As the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) said, this is a matter of great importance and, as he also said, it is not just a question of a local scheme. What we are concerned with here is deciding whether the country needs a third major liner terminal in order to relieve the two major terminals at London and Liverpool which might otherwise be permanently on the brink of congestion with the large increase in imports and exports that we expect during the 1970s.

That is the context of the scheme, and it is no wonder that there is immense and widespread interest in it and that it is regarded as a matter of great importance. When the National Ports Council made its recommendation last year it was in favour of Portbury, and it was a fact that there were no other ports in the field competing for this position and claiming that they might become the terminal.

Since then, claims have been pressed upon the Minister for the development, for example, of Cardiff and Southampton. After the Portbury scheme came forward it was proposed that either Newport Monmouthshire, or Newport and Cardiff in combination could be developed more cheaply and effectively than Bristol. More recently, the advocates of Southampton have been to see us and have insisted that Southampton would be a better site for large-scale development than any other alternative. This by no means exhausts the list of possible places which have, since the Portbury recommendation, been mentioned as the site for a new terminal.

The studies which have been undertaken, and which are now nearing completion, are about port capital and operational costs, ship costs, inland transport costs, and traffic and financial prospects. These studies have thrown valuable light on the relative strength of the case for each of the candidates for a third major liner terminal.

In addition, entirely new data on the subject became available as recently as last month. In the past inadequate information has been available, both in the ports themselves and to the National Ports Council, on these matters. As was mentioned during the Committee stage of the Docks and Harbours Bill, the Ports Council made this point in its interim plan, and in its annual report for 1965. The Council stated that the Port of London Authority and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board had launched special new inquiries in the nature of market surveys to throw more light on the generation of traffic, or the likely generation of traffic, in various parts of the country.

The new data to which I have referred have been provided as a result of a survey carried out on behalf of the Port of London Authority by one of the leading firms of consultants. It relates to the movement of goods to and from the ports—not only London, but other ports—and covers inland traffic flows in each direction, and the total volumes of traffic arising in particular regions.

A summary of the results of this survey will be published shortly by the Port of London Authority, and this information should be of immense benefit to every major port authority and in our national port planning. It will go a long way towards filling the serious gaps in our knowledge, which the National Ports Council mentioned in its annual report.

For the studies of Portbury and the whole concept of a third major liner terminal, the importance of this recent survey, or rather the operational research and analysis of its results by the Ministry, is that for the first time we now know in great detail where traffic destined for export through a port tends to originate and we know the same in reverse for imports.

Some surprising conclusions emerged from the survey. For example, we have learnt from it that 60 per cent. of the dry cargo exports passing through our two major ports of London and Liverpool originate within a distance of 50 miles of those ports. For imports the percentage is even greater—80 per cent. are dealt with within 50 miles of those ports. The effective hinterlands of the major ports are much smaller and less distant from them than anybody had previously thought.

The implications of this are highly material to the whole question of founding a third liner terminal, wherever we situate it, and the results revealed by the analysis of the survey would be sufficient by themselves amply to justify the additional time and research spent on this problem.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

Could the Parliamentary Secretary say when he expects the decision to be made, and why he did not refer the matter back to the National Ports Council to let it reconsider the other proposals?

Mr. Swingler

I am just coming to the point about the way in which this has been undertaken. These studies and analyses are nearimg completion, and therefore we shall shortly reach the point of decision. The decision on this admittedly complex and controversial matter will have to be reached after taking into account this new evidence.

This is not merely a matter of choosing a particular site for the construction of a large and expensive harbour works. Fundamental questions about the location of industry, commerce and population come into this, and it is necessary to determine what level of industry and population is required within a reasonable distance from the site of a port to make that port commercially viable.

In any circumstances, other major ports have valid claims for large-scale development, some of which have already been sanctioned by the Government, for example, in Hull, Leith, Grangemouth, Newport in South Wales and Tilbury. Other schemes we have under active examination. But we do not in any way apologise for taking some time to arrive at this decision because of its large-scale importance, We have in the past 18 months authorised 18 major port development schemes costing over £60 million. This proves that this Government are getting on with the job of increasing investment in the ports, because we know that investment has been sadly neglected in the past. It is clear to us already that the results of this research put in hand by authorities like the P.L.A. will enable us to take a much better decision on this matter.

I come now to the question raised by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Peter Walker). These studies have been carried out by us in conjunction with the National Ports Council which recommended the Portbury scheme to us. The Council has been participating fully in the analyses of the various proposals made, and any suggestion that we have in any way overridden it or ignored it is completely false. We shall come to a conclusion on these studies very shortly, in conjunction with the National Ports Council, and it will then be for the Government to take the decision on the matter of a third liner terminal and where it should be situated.

I hope that, in the light of this explanation, hon. Members will exercise for a little longer patience and forbearance. I assure them that we are aware of the very widespread concern about the important decision we have to take, and when this decision is taken a very full statement will be made on the whole question of the third liner terminal and the results of the studies which we have undertaken.

10.37 a.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

I find the Minister's reply most unsatisfactory. This is a very great project, which the National Ports Council, with all its authority, has looked at. It can hardly be said that we ought now to look at other schemes which were not then prepared. I am certain that the National Ports Council, carrying out its duties properly, considered the possibility of other schemes. Whether or not those schemes were submitted in detail, the Council discharged its duties with knowledge of the needs of the country and decided that the Portbury scheme was the right one.

Moreover, the Minister has undermined the position of the National Ports Council by not referring this question back to it and leaving it, if necessary, to review its decision. The decision which will be made will now be a Ministry of Transport decision, not a decision of the National Ports Council. That is quite clear.

Mr. Swingler

What is indisputable is that evidence now available to us, and which will shortly be published by the P.L.A.——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman requires permission if he wishes to speak again.

Mr. Swingler

By leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, may I make a short reply? I wish merely to point out that the new evidence which I have mentioned, and which will shortly be made available to hon. Members because we shall publish it, was not available to the National Ports Council when it originally considered and recommended Portbury. I think that we have been right to await this evidence, to sift it and to analyse it It will mean that the decision taken on this question of a third liner terminal will be a better informed decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes to Eleven o'clock a.m.