HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2233-52

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Before I come to the subject of port development, and the question of the Port of Bristol, its future aspirations and the national consequence of those aspirations, I would like to put on the record a question which I wish to pose to the Government and about which I have given notice to the appropriate Minister.

It is a brief question and concerns the proceedings earlier today on the much drawn-out discussions on the Building Control Bill, now deceased, and the procedure which the Government propose to use while the House is dissolved and before a new Government are elected. The Lord President of the Council left the House, the nation and the building industry in some difficulty because he spoke at some length earlier about the limit of£100,000 being the limit to which the Building Control Bill's provisions might be put.

I am sure the Government realise that the Bill as originally presented could be altered by Order to reduce the limit down to any amount, although as a result of Opposition pressure in Committee in that connection the sum of £50,000 was written in. We are still not in a position to know the Government's intention and I hope that the Whip or whoever is responsible on the Government Front Bench will convey this question to one of the Ministers in the responsible Department, remembering that I gave notice that I would ask this question this evening.

Having disposed of that point—without, I hope, trespassing too much on the time of the House—I come to the very important point which I and my hon. Friends want to raise, namely, the future of the Port of Bristol in the context of port development. I begin by saying that I put the subject down as "port development" so that anyone from any other part of the kingdom might feel able to give the House his views on the subject, because it is in the context of the whole national problem that we Bristolians, and Members for surrounding constituencies, are interested in the project of the Portbury Docks.

We have a historical background to this proposal in that the City of Bristol enjoys about a thousand years of history, and was for many hundreds of years the second city in the kingdom by virtue of its great position as a port, both importing and exporting. It is in the export field that we feel that the Portbury scheme has very special significance. The present Government have made more noise than any previous Government about the export trade, and this is a great opportunity to translate some of that noise into "dynamic action"—to use the Prime Minister's own phrase.

Bristol has a long and honourable history in the export trade. My own personal association with that trade is somewhat limited as far as shipping goes. My grandfather was a shipowner in Gloucester in a small way, though I no longer have any financial interest either in the shipping industry, or, indeed, in any of the fruits of his labours, due to the activities of the Inland Revenue.

From a family point of view, I can claim a very close connection with export from Bristol. One Sir Ferdinando Gorges, commemorated on the walls of a council house in Bristol as the father of American colonialism, was an ancestor of my mother, and I have discovered recently that my grandfather's sister, my great-aunt Clare, left Bristol in the 'nineties to work in a saloon in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is against this family background, and deep personal interest that I raise this subject.

No one should think that I was in any way prejudiced in favour of Bristol in that I had the good fortune to be born in a constituency represented by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department—in a part of Cardiff called Llandaff. I was, therefore, born on the other side of the water from which a good deal of counter pressure has come in the matter of the Portbury Docks scheme.

If it is true that in the nineteenth century Bristol tried by all means in its power to surmount the position of its rivals, and that during that time, for one reason or another, the Port of Liverpool became large and prosperous, and Bristol now finds itself as one of the number of vitally important ports alongside the great Port of London. It is not in a spirit of provincial rivalry that we raise the subject of the Portbury Docks scheme here this evening—all this provincial rivalry is over. We are seeking to promote our scheme in the national interest.

The House would not wish me to give it a lesson in geography, and it is not necessary for me to give such a lesson to the Government spokesman. Nor is it necessary to go over all the benefits of this scheme, because we have the evidence of no less weighty a person than Lord Rochdale, who has not only made reports on the subject but made speeches on it up and down the land, and given it his unqualified approval. We believe that Portbury has unlimited possibilities to become the most modern port in Europe, that unrivalled facilities could be produced there and that it enjoys, and will enjoy, the finest communications to all parts of the United Kingdom. Now is the time to take this glorious opportunity.

This is no provincial scheme, but a grand design, something of tremendous national significance. We must set aside the views of the small-minded critics who rival us, who came late into the field and whose proposals are in no sense an alternative to what is suggested by the Port of Bristol. It is suggested that if Portbury is developed it will upset the pattern of industry in South Wales. In this half of the twentieth century many patterns have to be upset in the national interest. Here is the only opportunity we have to achieve anything like the export port of national significance that this country needs, and Portbury is the place for it.

In conclusion, I ask the Government one or two questions. I want to know why there has been further delay in coming to a decision. Will the decision be announced today? The Parliamentary Secretary looks somewhat evasive. I assume that because it is his business to answer this debate we shall have a disappointing reply. That is no reflection on the hon. Gentleman—far from it. Although it is always one's instinct never to give the Government any credit for anything, and I do not give them credit on this occasion, I have noticed that the hon. Gentleman has been busy at the Dispatch Box and has been given the unpleasant duty on other occasions of telling the House that nothing can be done.

Perhaps if we were to get the answer we seek the right hon. Lady the Minister would be answering this debate, so perhaps my question No. 2 is already answered. If not today, are we to be told the answer by 31st March? I put down a Question about this and received a rather evasive answer from the right hon. Lady. If we are to be told by 31st March, will the Minister herself announce the decision? Where will she announce it? If we are not to have an answer to that question, or if the answer is no, can we be sure that the Prime Minister will not attempt to use this as some sort of election stunt?

The Prime Minister had a happy knack at the previous election, before he gained office, of going round dockyard towns making pronouncements of one kind and another. Perhaps this would be an opportunity for him to come to Bristol and tell us that at last the Government have taken their courage in their hands and have come to the right decision. We should like to know, lest anyone should think that it was out of some sudden tremendous enthusiasm for the national interest that the Government had decided to make the announcement during the election campaign. They have had plenty of opportunity to do so before. We have been very patient and far from offensive at Question time, when we have been told month after month that we must wait a little longer.

The reason this is the last contribution on a Bristol matter, so far as I can discover, in this Parliament, is that we believe for the City of Bristol and for the nation this is the most important decision the Government could take. I pay tribute to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), who has been even more active than I have in this matter and has raised it in the House on many occasions. He has obtained a vast mass of technical detail which is beyond one such as myself. There are present no fewer than three hon. Members vitally concerned in this question, including my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster). That shows that we attach tremendous importance to this scheme which is vital to the whole future of Bristol and, we believe, to the whole future of Britain.

9.50 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for introducing this subject of port development, and I support and reinforce what he has said. I want to deal with the subject not in any local or parochial spirit, but in some of its wider aspects.

I start by referring to the work of the National Ports Council. It was set up under the Harbours Act, 1964, and one of its most important duties was to advise on whether the Minister of Transport should consent to any harbour development schemes estimated to cost more than £500,000. One can see from its last annual report that it goes into these applications with a great deal of care and does a lot of work.

I have the last annual report with me. In paragraph 9, it says that the director of economics and statistics is responsible for collecting and processing the information which is vital to the council's work, in particular the work of preparing a national plan, and for making appraisals of development schemes and other matters which the Council have to consider. The director of finance is responsible for such matters as financial appraisal of development schemes, advice on problems concerned with port finance, accounts and charges schemes, and also the council's domestic finances. The technical director advises on engineering and technical aspects of development schemes, and other problems which come before the Council.

I quote that only in order to show that when these matters are before the Council they are gone into with every care and great detail. We should pay tribute to the valuable work which the Council has done. It has not wasted any time. Last July it produced the document, which it describes as its interim plan, and in which it says in the synopsis what schemes it recommends should go ahead as quickly as possible, and that even so it must be some time before many of them bear fruit. It says that it is certain that additional schemes will soon have to be put forward as the need for improved and extended port facilities becomes more clearly seen.

The Council is sure that there is no danger of over-investment, that the arrears are serious and that the prospective growth of traffic is considerable. It mentions that this is the first attempt ever made to co-ordinate measures for port development on a national basis. One of the main points mentioned in the report is that for many years there have been two principal ports in this country, London and Liverpool, which have been predominant owing to the country's geographical distribution and that that state of affairs is likely to remain for as far as we can foresee.

It goes on to say that, owing to the happy expansion of our trade, there is room in this island for a third modern port which in some measure will relieve the congestion in London and Liverpool. One of the dominant questions raised in the interim plan is where that third port should be situated.

I do not think that this is necessarily a contest between Bristol and South Wales. After all, there would be an arguable case for maintaining that the third port should be situated in Southampton Water. However, the Port of Bristol had one advantage, which was that it was first in the race in coming forward with a specific plan and definite proposals worked out in detail for the construction of a new port at Portbury. It is worth emphasising that Portbury is a scheme in being whereas the alternatives are no more than ideas which have yet to be worked out.

It is a pity that these issues should have become bedevilled by any kind of local politics. This would not have been so if the Minister had been more ready to accept the advice tendered to her by her expert body, the National Ports Council. The essence of the Council's task, surely, was to assess the relative priorities and advantages of different places, and it was after it had carried out this exercise and it had looked at all the alternatives, including various places in South Wales, that it came down in favour of its definite recommendation of Portbury. It seems to me that this gives the advocates of the Portbury scheme a clear advantage over the advocates of any scheme in South Wales.

The attitude of South Wales seems to me rather like the attitude of children who see another child about to be given a new toy. Their immediate response is that they would prefer to have the new toy themselves and take it away. To onlookers the argument seems to be all one way. The basic objections to a modern port in South Wales are that the sea approaches are full of shallow mud banks and one has to try to superimpose a new port on a lot of cramped 19th century urban development with insufficient space for any modern lay-out and with a pattern of narrow congested roads leading to the dock areas.

By contrast, at Portbury one has what the philosophers call a tabula rasa, a completely new virgin territory where one can make a fresh start. I see the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport smiling. He may remember, as I do, the days when we studied the philosopher Descartes.

We have a complicated Parliamentary democracy. We have hon. Members who write letters to St. Christopher House, where there are myriads of civil servants who eventually cause their Ministers to send polite replies to us on blue paper. But one thing which is sometimes lacking, is the ability of the people at the top to take bold and definite decisions. Against the background of the admitted need for the modernisation of our ports, foreigners and competitors in places like Rotterdam must stand amazed at the delays and the indecisions that there have been over this Portbury scheme. It is no wonder that we are losing ground in the continual competition that goes on between British and continental ports.

As I look round the Chamber, I am struck by the thought that we have all been here before on this subject. We were here on the night of 17th November last. The Parliamentary Secretary was present. Both my hon. Friends, the Members for Bristol, West and for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster) were here, too. I shall not repeat what I said on that occasion. I said something about the right hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Tom Fraser) which, perhaps, was a shade unkind but which had rather a prophetic touch. I said that the right hon. Gentleman ought to recapture the power to make decisions, or he should go."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1965; Vol. 720, c. 1298.] Evidently, the right hon. Gentleman saw the force of that dilemma, and, being unable to recapture the power to make decisions, he chose the other alternative, or, perhaps, had it imposed upon him, and he went. Reigning in his stead, we now have the right hon. Lady. We still have the Parliamentary Secretary, faithful as ever. But are we any better off with the right hon. Lady than we were before? The answer to that question must be, "Not so far".

In the debate on the Adjournment last November, the Parliamentary Secretary said, We have urgently to consider it"— it being the Portbury scheme, and he said also that there will not be very much delay."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th November, 1965; Vol. 720, c. 1301–2.] There has been only another four months' delay, but some of us feel that that is far too long. It is no answer for the hon. Gentleman to say that, before that, there were 13 years of delay. These docks are not owned by the Government. They are owned by a variety of bodies, harbour trusts, nationalised industries and local authorities, and successive Governments have had to wait until these owners came forward with plans for a port development. This is what Bristol did in May 1964 now nearly two years ago. It did not follow that the scheme which Bristol put forward with confidence at that date would have been a viable scheme if it had been put forward some years before, when, perhaps, the traffic would not have justified such a large and adventurous investment.

The time for a decision on this matter has long passed. If the Minister of Transport cares at all for the modernisation of the docks, she must show action, not words—a phrase which we shall hear a great deal during the next three weeks. If she gives a favourable decision on the Portbury scheme, she will not regret it, and neither will the country in the days to come.

10.4 p.m.

Mr. David Webster (Weston-super-Mare)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) not only for raising this subject tonight, but for giving us such a fascinating vignette of the history of his family and those members of it, female and male, who left the country through the Port of Bristol. I am sure that the House was held spellbound by his account.

Also, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), who has supported my hon. Friend and who, on frequent occasions, has had the tenacity to bring this matter before the House. I wish him success tonight.

I hope that we shall have a satisfactory answer from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who, with his colleague the other Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, has five debates on transport tonight. The two hon. Gentlemen seem to be doing a "Bootsie and Snudge" act, and I hope that this "Bootsie" will be a "Puss in Bootsie" who will give us something which will be satisfactory to the House and for the balance of the nation's trade.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West rightly paid tribute to the National Ports Council, which grew out of the efforts of Lord Rochdale, under whose chairmanship it now stands, from the Rochdale Committee, as a result of which the 1964 Act was brought into being. As a member of the Standing Committee on that Bill, I know a little about it, and I do not think that I would wish to weary the House with some of the complicated aspects of the subject now.

I have ben round a large number of our docks, and what impresses me, or depresses me, is the fact that, except for the Port of Immingham, there has been practically no major entry lock built in this country to any major dock complex since the First World War. They are all named after Queen Alexandra, Queen Victoria, King Edward, and so on. These things are part of the investment of this country, and we must not forget that at least 95 per cent. of our exports go through docks which are completely out of date. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West has stated how much we are in competition over exports with the countries of Europe.

The Port of Bristol Authority is a civic authority. Bristol is unique in having the only major port which is municipally and civically owned. The original Rochdale Report states in paragraph 48 on page 22 that what is particularly significant is the fact that, compared with most British ports, the continental ports of Rotterdam, Hamburg and Antwerp is undoubtedly an integral part of the municipal life and economy, and it states that this is evident from its local prestige, and is recognised in its financial arrangements and structure.

One of the things which we must stress is that there is a civic pride which goes right through the history of the merchant adventurers of Bristol. We are not asking for great benefit from the taxpayer in this matter. It is one which would be very largely financed by the Corporation of Bristol, which itself came forward with proposals before the Rochdale Committee was convened by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples).

It is worth reminding the House of the history in this context. First of all, Bristol made the proposition to build this new complex, which is a new concept in this country, across from the Avonmouth Docks at Portbury. This was put to the Minister before the Rochdale Report was presented in September, 1962. The Rochdale Report recommended—I hope that no one will say that the Conservative Government held it up—that the development of Portbury should be deferred or further considered; and that was agreed. But in July last year the National Ports Council recommended firmly that the proposal for constructing a dock at Portbury should be the subject of separate submission by the Council to the Ministry of Transport, and recommended that the Minister's approval for the scheme should be given.

This was a firm decision of the National Ports Council. So we have had, in the Prime Minister's sacred words, the "smack of firm government" here. But nothing at all has happened except that Members representing British Transport Docks Board ports have been exercising in Wales, but have apparently all gone back to their constituencies tonight.

This is a new concept for Britain. I have talked about the change of development from pre-1914. This is a concept on a green field site. One may look at all the other major dock areas, but it is not possible to find a green field site where one can have a completely new dock complex with completely new "roll-on roll-off" arrangements for vehicles and the modern handling techniques which we need if we are to be competitive with Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg. This is one of the major things which I commend to the House.

In that context, I should like to quote in aid a letter which I have received from a director of one of the larger companies which has sailings from Bristol. He states: Quite suddenly there has been an 'explosion' in the volume of cargo moving by vehicles and trailers via 'roll-on roll-off' ships. No dockers are needed. No time is wasted packing and unpacking the ship. No pilferage and negligible damage occurs. The cargo never waits in dockside sheds and does not get lost; it is but rarely at rest. The ship achieves many more voyages each year. The relevance of this is that general cargo could now be moved in containers or on pallets or in unit loads across the Atlantic from the United Kingdom and the Continent if the ports had 25-ton cranes"— he states, in parenthesis, that three tons is the United Kingdom standard crane— and if the United Kingdom ports had the many acres of space required for a container/trailer park such as exists at Port Newark, New York, U.S.A., where the organisation is computer controlled. This is the clinching point: Portbury gives the nation a unique opportunity of moving into the twentieth century as far as cargo handling is concerned. It is the only green field site linking a natural deep sea lane with a 1970/72 motorway system. For these reasons, there is a clear case in support of Portbury on these grounds alone.

It is not on those grounds alone that I submit the matter to the House, and I hope that we will get from the Minister a very satisfactory answer. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, when in office, made a start with laying down the M5 from Birmingham to Bristol. We have the M4 from London to Bristol, the Severn Road Bridge coming across from Wales and the M6 north of Birmingham. So that there is an immense hinterland leading to the port. Portbury would make a tremendous change. It would be a port not only with excellent internal communications, but is the only one of the major ports adjacent to a motorway.

If one goes to the Port of London, as I have done many a time—and I have been grateful for the hospitality that I have received—one knows that when leaving the Ml it is necessary to travel for an equal length of time through London as one takes to get from Birmingham to the outskirts of London. This shows how bad communications are. If one tries to go from Birmingham to Liverpool, which is the other part of the St. Andrew's Cross, one again finds that the motorway does not go anywhere near the heart of Liverpool.

On the other hand, there will be a spur on the motorway which will go near to the Portbury complex. For this reason, the hinterland is a clear and useful one. But not only that. I come back to the analogy of the St. Andrew's Cross. If one looks at the industrial heart of Britain on the Birmingham and Black Country complex, and if we look at the St. Andrew's Cross, at the top left-hand corner one sees the Mersey ports, at the bottom right-hand corner the Port of London, at the top right-hand Hull and Immingham, which are being developed, and at the bottom left-hand corner the Port of Bristol, with its excellent communications and good labour relations, marred by a recent event.

One of the great advantages from which the Atlantic trade would benefit is that if there is difficulty over loading or congestion in London, it is a shorter haul to Bristol. I do not consider that the fact that there is unused capacity in the South Wales docks justifies holding up the Bristol concept. I am told that the maximum tonnage which can be taken into Cardiff is 8,500 tons. There are also the Cardiff mudflats, which are moving the whole time and are most unsafe.

We have the excellent Bristol Deep right opposite my own constituency, with a very fine channel straight into it, unsullied, I am glad to say, by that wretched jetty the nationalised steel company was trying to build right across it. So we have this heartland of excellent communications, and we should use each section of our St. Andrew's Cross, which is the industrial complex of this country.

There is a problem of cost. I am told that the original estimate was for £27 million, including capitalisation of interest, to go up to £36 million. Bristol, as I have said, is an authority which can raise its own money, and has tremendous assets, and Bristol is a profit-making port, and it is not seeking a great amount from the Exchequer. Naturally, if there were anything going from the Public Works Loan Board they would, like human beings, apply, and take their chance in the queue.

But I will give this assurance with every confidence, and I give it to the House very seriously, and I am authorised to say this, that if my right hon. Friends are returned, as they will be, in three or four weeks' time, to that side of the House, we will, in due course, after consultation, after survey, and after all the legal complexities, authorise proceedings for such a port to be built. I feel that this is right for the country, that we should get away from being controlled simply by two major ports on estuaries at the north-west and south-east of this island, and that we should get a better balance of trade for this country, if we are to compete for the trade of the world on which the future and prosperity of this country depend.

10.16 p.m.

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

Let us return to reality. I must ask your leave, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and that of the House, to speak again. I hope that leave will be granted. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I may have to repeat this request many times between now and conclusion of this Sitting.

I start by taking the test of action and not words. Let us see where we have firm Government. All right. In 1962–63 the total actual capital investment in the ports of the country was £14.9 million. In 1963–64 the total actual capital investment in the ports of the country was £14.7 million. It dropped. In 1964–65 the total actual capital investment in the ports of the country was £18.2 million, a substantial increase since this Government took power. The planned capital investment in the ports in 1965–66 is £29.9 million compared with £18 million actual last year, and £14 million under our predecessors.

Under the National Plan, in 1966–67 it will rise to £51 million, and in 1967–68, £63 million. These are funds which have been allocated and earmarked. The actual performance shows in 1964–65 a substantial increase in capital investment since this Government took Office, and the National Plan which foreshadows in six years an investment of £230 million plus in the ports of the country—necessitated by the fantastic past negligence in the last decade to modernise the ports and harbours of the country. These are the decisions which have been taken.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) asked for facts about the national ports and dock development. There are the facts. On the Port of London Authority's Tilbury development scheme to provide seven new berths authorised by the Ministry of Transport under this Government work has been put in hand to the tune of an investment of £10 million in the London docks.

Improvements to the Royal Edward Dock at Avonmouth have been authorised by my right hon. Friend to the tune of £750,000. Work on the new lock at Grangemouth is about to start, my right hon. Friend having authorised the scheme and an investment of £7 million. Work is now in hand at Leith to the extent of an investment of £6 million, and we are in close discussion with the Leith Docks Commission about the improvement of conditions and facilities there.

Those are actions which have been taken to try to overcome the results of the negligence that we inherited. They are evidence of the colossal need that confronts the nation for enormous development to modernise and extend the port and dock facilities of the country, and they are evidence of the fact that we have put in hand a programme that is going to rise from £18 million of capital investment last year to a projected £63 million of capital investment in the year 1967–68, at least £150 million of capital investment in 14 major ports of the country, and over £230 million as projected in the Government's National Plan in the ports and docks of the country as a whole. It stands in stark contrast to the low level of investment of the past decade.

Mr. Robert Cooke

The hon. Gentleman said that I had asked him to read all those figures, but I did not. All the figures that he is reading out and all the projects that he has mentioned are part of a National Plan. Can he tell the House who initiated the National Plan, and can he also tell us where Portbury stands in that National Plan?

Mr. Swingler

We initiated the National Plan, of course. I was talking about the National Plan, which was so much decried last autumn by hon. Gentlemen opposite, and I was talking about what is provided for in the National Plan covering all industry and all services in the country. It provides for a capital investment in six years of £230 million.

Mr. Peter Emery (Reading)

It is a Socialist plan.

Mr. Swingler

I accept that. It is the National Plan, produced by the Socialist Government. When I talk about a capital investment of £230 million in the next six years being necessary in the ports and docks of the country, I am talking about what is provided for in the National Plan, produced last autumn, which was the work of this Government. I am not claiming that all the individual schemes were the result of the work of the Government. It embodied many of the recommendations of the National Ports Council.

Mr. Emery

Thank you.

Mr. Swingler

But if the hon. Gentleman will accept the necessity for a national plan of capital investment in the ports as compared with other forms of transport and other industries and services, the figure that I was referring to of £230 million-worth of capital investment would modernise our ports and docks on a nationwide scale, and that is the figure which is given in the document called The National Plan.

Mr. Webster

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us how much of the authorised expenditure was approved before October 1964 and how much was approved after that date?

Mr. Swingler

The schemes that I have mentioned were approved by that document. They were approved by the Government. When I refer to the schemes for Tilbury, Avonmouth, Grangemouth, Leith and so on, I am referring to schemes which have been approved by my right hon. Friend.

I know that other schemes were approved before that. I have given the figures. Hon. Gentlemen opposite say that the acid test is action, not words. In 1963–64, capital investment overall in the docks and ports was £14.7 million. Last year, it was £18.2 million. I stand by stating that fact, and by the fact that we have now planned that in 1965–66 it must rise to nearly £30 million—£29.9 million to be exact—and that includes the important decision taken by this Government for the iron ore terminals in South Wales, one of which includes the scheme at Port Talbot which will involve an investment of about £17 million. Those are the decisions which were taken by this Government last year, and which were urgently necessary.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite have been suggesting that decisions have not been taken, and that they want more action. I am simply indicating, in, I hope, an objective and completely colourless sort of way, that these are the facts about capital investment by one Government and then by another, and the plans for extra capital investment. The decisions in the National Plan for particular schemes affecting London, Avonmouth, Grange-mouth, Leith, and so on, were taken during the last 12 months.

Hon. Gentlemen opposite may regard this as a modest performance. I think that compared with the previous 12 months, or even the previous five years, it is quite an ambitious programme, necesistated, I am sorry to say, by the fact that, as is now generally undisputed throughout the country, a tremendous effort must be made to modernise the ports and docks due to the fact that during the last decade there was not a tremendous effort to modernise them.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to do a Paymaster-General on us. I am sure he will concede that if, during the last 10 years, there was any lack of action in approving projects, it was not merely that period with which the House has to contend, but with a much longer one going back to the nineteenth century. Will not: the hon. Gentleman concede that all these so-called actions and decisions which he claims to have made are based on a survey carried out under the previous Government, and that the Portbury scheme is one of the most important which should be approved? Will the hon. Gentleman "come clean" and tell us his intention on that?

Mr. Swingler

I shall come to that. Hon. Gentleman opposite cannot have it both ways. I concede straightaway that it is not just a matter of considering the last few years. The problem is much more deep-seated than that. It goes back very much further. Those who come from areas in which there are docks and ports know that that is the fact, but if hon. Gentlemen opposite want to base themselves on facts, on decisions which have been taken, and on the capital which has been allocated, and argue about those matters, I think that we had better have the facts before us about what has happened, and what is projected.

I concede immediately that it is on the basis of recommendations made by the National Ports Council, and on considerations by the previous Government, that much of this is being done, though many would consider that these things should have been done very much earlier. I am simply giving the facts about the capital investment schemes which have been considered, in order to get them into proper perspective.

I come now to the Portbury scheme. Let us be frank amongst ourselves about it. As I have said before from this Box, and I make no apology for saying it again, this is a most ambitious, enterprising, and imaginative scheme put forward in 1964 by the Port of Bristol Authority. Less than 12 months ago it was recommended to us by the National Ports Council. We had to consider it very carefully as a special project, not on a par with many of the other recommendations, because it was a question of principle—of deciding in favour of a third major liner terminal for the kingdom, and of investing capital that merely started with the sum of £27 million but involved very much more. It represented investment of a very different order of magnitude than anything going on elsewhere.

It is, therefore, right that this question should be considered very seriously in the context of the increasing demands for capital investment by all the ports in the country. We have to consider its effects on other parts of the country. I assert again that we recognise the merits of the scheme for Portbury that has been put forward. My right hon. Friend, like her predecessor, received the representatives of the Port of Bristol Authority recently and heard the case that they put forward. The Government are taking into account all those factors which point in favour of the Portbury scheme.

If we had taken a quick decision in favour of the scheme some hon. Members opposite would have said that we had moved with indecent haste. Because we have decided to receive representations from all those who might be affected, and all those who have alternative proposals to put forward—because this is a most important decision, involving an enormous amount of capital—we are being accused of procrastination.

This very morning I received an important and powerful deputation from a consortium of local authorities from South Wales who were concerned about their interests. It is right that we should take them into account. Hon. Members opposite are not united on this issue. I do not know where the hon. Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) or the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Box), is, but they have a Motion on the Order Paper asking us to reject the Portbury scheme. I make no point of that, because there are also varying opinions on this side of the House, based on local considerations.

This is a very important matter to the areas concerned, from the point of view of employment, and the attraction of an import and export trade. It is natural that they should be concerned, and one of the things that I want to say tonight—and which I told the deputation this morning—is that the Government have faith in the future of the ports of South Wales; that important investment was made in those ports last year, to the tune of £4 million, and that there are proposed improvements involving the expenditure of £20 million. That includes the iron ore terminals in South Wales.

Therefore, I hope that those who represent and are concerned about South Wales will appreciate that the Government have confidence in the future of its ports and its harbour developments. It is important that this should be made clear.

Mr. Webster

It is a little wrong for anyone in the House—I do not accuse the hon. Member of doing so—to say that there is a conflict of interest between South Wales and Bristol. Bristol is not a bottom loading port but ports in South Wales are. The cargo from the steel works could be put in the bottom of the ship, it could come across to Portbury, where it would be much easier to get a quick turn around with a complete load. This would be very efficient: there is no conflict of interest.

Mr. Swingler

The hon. Member realises, I think, that what we are most anxious about is that the question of establishing a third major liner terminal should not be made a political football between the interests—

Mr. Robert Cooke


Mr. Swingler

I should like to emphasise that on this point my right hon. Friend's predecessor and now my right hon. Friend have been anxious to receive representations from all the authorities concerned in Bristol in South Wales and in other port areas and of the National Ports Council in order that they can be studied and assessed and taken into account in the decision which has to be taken. A decision has to be taken, but we are not anxious that it should be taken in haste. We recognise that it is extremely important that we should get the value for the enormous amount of capital investment and that the decision should not be taken on the basis of the results of a conflict of interests between the authorities concerned, but that all concerned should see it as part of the general programme of increasing that capital investment in out ports and docks, which we are concerned to make.

I am not in a position to announce a decision on Portbury tonight. Further studies are being carried out following representations made from Bristol, from the authorities in South Wales and from other areas which have also put up proposals. A decision will be taken in the near future on the subject, but it is right, since we have had less than 12 months to consider this major decision, during which time we have substantially increased the capital investment in the ports and docks on other schemes, to take further time to ensure that the decision which is taken about a third major liner terminal is the right decision for the kingdom as a whole.

Mr. Robert Cooke

Would the hon. Gentleman answer the straight question which I asked at the end of my speech? Will this decision be announced before 31st March or not, and who will announce it?