HC Deb 10 April 1967 vol 744 cc661-96

10.34 a.m.

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop (South Shields)

I welcome the fact that we are to have a reasonable amount of time to discuss the very important issue of the future of the River Tyne. I hope that for a moment it might be possible to secure the attention not only of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport but also of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade, as some of these matters are almost indistinguishable in the way the responsibility for them falls between the Ministry of Transport and the Board of Trade.

I first wish to emphasise how sincerely and how deeply the anxiety is felt amongst all of us who live on Tyneside and, indeed, much more widely. This extends far beyond those whose work is directly affected to very many people who fear that their forms of employment may be indirectly affected by this whole question of how the trade of the River Tyne is likely to develop in the immediate and in the longer-term future.

Of course, the major trade of the Tyne—on which, indeed, its commerce was built up—was that of coal carrying and we recognise the inevitability of the decline of that trade both for export and, to some extent, coastwise. One cannot envisage very much change in that pros- pect, but it is of the utmost concern to all of us that this declining trade should be replaced by increased trade in other goods.

I will illustrate the amount of anxiety there is on Tyneside. Not only has the Chamber of Commerce taken a very active part in expressing the concern so widely felt in industry and commerce along the river and elsewhere, but on the trade union side anxieties are also being expressed. Only a few days ago, a major meeting of the South Shields Trades Council was held and these anxieties were expressed. Demand was made for a special conference on the subject and that desire was supported by the North-East Federation of Trades Councils as recently as last Saturday. There is no doubt that the feeling is growing throughout Tyneside that action is urgently needed.

I want first to refer to a particular topic which affects the Board of Trade, although it is a little hard to understand why it should not also be the responsibility of the Ministry of Transport. This is the position of coastal shipping. While my hon. Friend the Minister of State is still present, I want to say how anxious we are about the future of coastal trade. At a time when we are all concerned to see that the best possible use is made of transport facilities, some of us feel that the contribution that coastal shipping might make is being left out of the picture. We are certainly not particularly encouraged by the knowledge that, when various regional transport bodies are being established, we do not really see the inclusion of representatives of coastal shipping. There may be many reasons for that but there is no doubt in the minds of most of us that coastal shipping has made a big contribution to the movement of certain types of cargo and we fear that, unless some specific action is taken, its decline may become quite rapid and the potential of coastal shipping utterly lost.

Indeed, many of those responsible for this form of transport complain that they are put in an unfair position in competing with shipping firms on the Continent which are able to come over and, as some people feel, take unfairly some of our trade without similar reciprocal facilities being available to our coastal shipping firms.

Are any steps being taken to encourage the development of fresh ideas about the form that the coastal shipping trade might take in future so that it can efficiently fill its proper rôle and thereby help to limit the amount of traffic which might otherwise have to be carried by road or rail? I hope that we shall be assured that those responsible, both at the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Transport, accept that coastwise shipping has a proper and efficient rôle still to play, and that they would welcome new proposals from the industry. The question of coastwise shipping particularly concerns us on the Tyne because a high proportion of our trade, particularly in coal, now goes coastwise from the Tyne. Coastwise shipping is an integral and vital part of the whole picture when we are discussing the river's future.

I hope that this debate—I was going to say short debate, but it need not be all that short—will enable the Minister to give certain assurances and put right certain misconceptions which have arisen because of the publication of the major reports on the future of ports and harbours in Great Britain. There was the Rochdale Report, and since then we have had the Interim Report of the National Ports Council. Both those bodies made clear that in their view the major immediate development requiring emergency consideration was that which was to take place on the Tees. I do not wish to attack that recommendation; there are clear economic reasons why important developments should take place on the Tees, and none of us would wish to gainsay them.

Unfortunately, the idea seems to have got about that that precludes the Tyne from putting forward major proposals for development, and even for more modest proposals that might well fit into the broader picture of port developments in the whole of the North-East. It would be very valuable if we could establish from this debate that the main recommendations from the National Port Council in no way ruled out the importance of developments still taking place on the Tyne. When he was on the Tyne only last Wednesday, Lord Rochdale said as much. When questioned on that very issue, he said that he had to make it clear that the proposals for which he had been largely responsible did not mean, and were not intended to mean, a sterilisation of the Tyne. He said that it was largely the responsibility of the area to put up practical proposals for development.

I have no quarrel with that, although I think that there are certain ways in which valuable assistance and information can be given from Government sources and elsewhere. But if we can get it clear that there is no block on schemes for development and improvement that we regard as vital for the Tyne, that will at least make some contribution to getting rid of what I believe to be a major misconception that has damaged relationships on the Tyne in the last year and a half.

The Tyne is still a major port, although there has been a severe decline, which is still continuing, in its major and historic trade in coal. The history of that trade goes back a very long way. Queen Elizabeth I made regulations trying to limit and stop the coastwise export of sea coal from the Tyne to London because of the smoke and smell that was caused there.

None of us really complains that that trade is inevitably declining. But the Tyne has not only been concerned with the export of coal, which, even after its recent decline, remains a major factor in the river's trade. It has also had other considerable trade. It is naturally the great import centre for grain and provisions of all kinds because of the large population that can easily be served from it. There is the largest concentration of population in the North-East around the Tyne, and there are also extremely efficient road and rail services for distribution. The road services are steadily improving even further, and there is no doubt that when the immediate programme is completed there will hardly be a river and area better served by road communications.

Naturally, that type of consumer trade for the River Tyne is likely to continue, and we hope that it will expand. New quay facilities have been provided by the Newcastle authority, and other facilities have been developing at the mouth of the Tyne. There are also very valuable developments concerning many other types of cargo, including facilities for packaged timber. Trade union disputes have unfortunately caused some difficulty in the past and we all hope that they are in course of settlement. There is no doubt of the desire on the river to make good, modern facilities available for all forms of trade that can suitably be dealt with on the Tyne.

The Tyne is well placed for communications to Scandivania, and passenger services have recently been developed, in addition to the long-standing passenger services available to Oslo and Bergen which many of us have used many times in the past. It is very encouraging that new roll-on roll-off berths have been constructed in the constituency of the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward). They will prove extremely valuable. We also hear discussion about possible further developments on that side of the river for other cargo. I do not think that that need be the last of the development for passenger services. It should be possible for valuable passenger services to be established to Sweden as well as to Norway from the area, which is very suitably placed for that kind of traffic.

I now turn to one of the main cargoes at present coming into the Tyne, and about which there has been some discussion, namely, iron ore. This has grown to be the largest single bulk cargo coming into the river and at Tyne Dock, in my constituency, we have one of the most efficient discharging quays for iron ore in the country, if not the most efficient.

These are facilities not available anywhere else in the North-East. There is direct rail communication to the Consett Iron Works.

The point that I want to make to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and I hope that he will put it to other Ministers who may be responsible, is that we regard the continuance and development of this traffic as absolutely vital to the future of the River Tyne, and to much else that goes on near the river. This matter is complicated by the fact that the extent of the development at Consett, the size of production to be encouraged, is a matter for discussion and decision.

At the moment the needs of Consett are being met by services already available at Tyne Dock for the import of ore. But if, as we all hope and expect, the Consett Works are to develop—and I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) is here—and if the demand is to tripling as we wish it to, this will mean a tripling of the import of ore into Tyne Dock, and will almost certainly mean that provision would have to be made for larger bulk-carrying ore ships. There are very few of those large ships which cannot be taken at Tyne Dock, but there are some rising to 60,000 and 65,000 tons, which could not be accommodated there or in the Tees at present.

This would involve the deepening of the river channel in the harbour mouth of the Tyne up to Tyne Dock, which is very close to the harbour mouth. The important point is that if the deepening of the river to take the larger ore carriers is to take place and the new dock facilities are to be provided, this will cost £3 million, of which I understand the deepening of the harbour mouth will account for £500,000. Geological surveys have been made to prove the feasibility of this work, and to show that it would neither be a particularly difficult job nor would it involve very heavy maintenance costs. It has been shown that the cost of continuing dredging to maintain the deeper channel would not be very high.

I stress this because it is true, as my hon. Friend has made clear in correspondence with me, that the proposal for the deepening of the channel and the provision of these new facilities at Tyne Dock is linked with the potential development of Consett and with the decision whether to take iron ore through the Tyne or to concentrate it and take it through the Tees. This latter would be a much longer and more expensive haul, and this is a crucial point. This project is a major one demanding development on the Tyne but it is by no means the only one.

I should like to point out that it has some relative urgency in the sense that at present the cranes on the existing quay and the jetty for the discharge of ore will need to be replaced within a relatively short period of time—about two to three years. It is vital that, when these cranes are replaced, we shall know what size of traffic we are to take. We want to ensure that the cranes shall be replaced by the most modern available, which frankly, could not go on the existing quay.

They would have to be part of a larger scheme of development of the kind that I have already mentioned, provision for which is already included in the figure of £3 million. Before long we shall be coming to decisions which are inevitably linked with these wider questions of the total cargoes which are to be taken into the river. I am making the most urgent plea to my hon. Friend to ensure that these decisions are taken quickly, enabling this first stage of development to take place. It is a relatively modest development in comparison with the kind of capital costs, which in any case will be undertaken on the Tees. In my view those on the Tyne will be of great value, not only for the iron ore cargoes but for many other purposes.

We have been faced in recent years with the rather absurd position of having to lay out to sea large numbers of ships which could not be brought into the river loaded, except at high tide. I would have thought, and this is very much the view of those with whom I have discussed this matter, including the river pilots, that it ought to be possible to deepen the harbour to enable these larger ships to be brought up into the harbour to the necessary quay facilities, rather than leaving them out in the open sea, at cost, and sometimes with some difficulty.

There are a number of other possibilities of development on the river. The river provides facilities for a wide range of general cargo. We have most important engineering works and other industries on the river, including some of the most famous in the world. There are firms such as Parsons, which, from time to time, exports coastwise or otherwise, some of its very large plant-transformer equipment and so on. No doubt this trade will increase.

What is more, we have three new towns within easy reach of the river. There are the two developed through the initiative of the Northumberland County Council, Killingworth and Cramlington, and on the south of the river there is Washington New Town which is just developing. It would make economic sense to examine the potentiality for traffic by sea to discover what developments may be taking place in those new towns, and the kind of traffic that they might generate.

That leads me to the important point which I wish to make. There is clearly a need for an independent economic survey of the potentiality of the River Tyne to examine not only the kind of traffic which may develop from existing firms but the potentiality of it within the context of the North-East as a whole. This has not been done, and I hope that my hon. Friend will give every possible encouragement to it. It is essential and urgently needed and it should be started without delay. My fear, and the fear of many of us on Tyneside, is lest decisions are taken almost behind our backs which determine the issue without our having been able to make the case effectively for the potential of the river.

This is what is worrying many people on the river. They recognise that the Tyne has been under the disadvantage of having four river authorities, in effect, managing the trade of the river whereas the Tees has only one. This is to be altered. It was right that, as was made clear in the Reports to which I have referred, this should be one of the first matters to be considered by the river authority in order to get its administration right. This has now been agreed, and a new single authority is to take over next year. However, I urge that this should not be used as an excuse for holding up possible development.

We on the river are very concerned that it can be said, and indeed it has been said, that this matter should be left to the new authority. We cannot afford to leave it to the new authority. Many actions can be taken now. I have no doubt that the main existing authority, the Tyne Improvement Commission, is doing its best within its limited resources to undertake some of the work which needs to be done. But I urge that an independent economic study is vital for our future. We should be taking some of the initial steps now, particularly concerning the future of the iron ore, and moving forward to making a proper economic study and carrying out the sort of inquiry to which I referred into the future of coastal shipping.

I emphasise that we are not only concerned about the repercussions of any further rundown of traffic on the river on those who are immediately affected and naturally very anxious—for example, the pilots, tugmen, port workers and dock workers. My information is—and it is confirmed most strongly by the Chamber of Commerce and by all those in a position to know—that any further rundown of trade on the river will most seriously affect the major concentration of ship repair for which our river is famous, and, in the longer term, shipbuilding itself.

This is a matter which affects every one of us because there are thousands of men employed in these great industries. In Britain there is no greater concentration on ship repair work than there is on the Tyne. The link between trade on the river and repair facilities is very close. Those concerned with the industry tell me that they are anxious lest any dwindling of trade results in a fall-off of orders and in unemployment. If trade were to fall further, the whole question of the dues to be paid must be considered and its effect on the industries on the river will be of the greatest concern.

I have, therefore, introduced this debate, because I am particularly anxious that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary should, first, set at rest some of the anxieties which have been rather mistakenly caused by some of the recommendations of the Rochdale Committee and of the interim Committee. I hope that he will make it clear that developments on the river which can be justified are not precluded, although I realise that there must be economic justification for any proposals put forward.

Secondly, I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to assure us about the possibility of getting ahead in reasonable time with deepening the channel in the harbour mouth and with new facilities for the iron ore quay linked with the developments at Consett. These matters should be studied urgently not only for their own sake but because of their link with other important work which is needed on the river. Thirdly, I hope that he will give every possible encouragement to the carrying out of an independent economic study on which we can rely which will make clear not only the vital need for development on the river but the great economic disaster which would occur, and for which no Government could escape responsibility, were the downturn in trade to affect the major industries on which the life of the river and the people who live by it depends.

11.7 a.m.

Mr. R. W. Elliott (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North)

I should like to congratulate very warmly the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) on having initiated this debate. I congratulate him on his speech, which was excellent, and on his grasp of the problems of Tyneside as a whole.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that there is urgency in this problem. He is perfectly right in suggesting that much of the concern on the banks of the Tyne has arisen from misconceptions. There is certainly concern at this time. The Tyneside Chamber of Commerce, the Tyne Improvement Commission, and the third and fourth generations of traders on the banks of the Tyne are suggesting to Members of Parliament that something needs to be done urgently to ensure the future of this great river and port.

I am surprised that there are not more Members from Tyneside present today for this very timely debate. At the election, a year ago, the Conservative Party did not have, I think it is reasonable to suggest, its best election ever.

Mr. Blenkinsop

I have had apologies from several of my hon. Friends who were expecting that this debate would take place later in the morning.

Mr. Elliott

We know about the problems of morning sittings, but quite a lot of the victories—in fact, the majority of the victories—on Tyneside a year ago were Labour victories. I am, therefore, surprised that there are not present more of the candidates who were successful at the election and who, during the election campaign, stressed their concern about the future prosperity of the area. There were so many Labour victories that only my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward) and myself now represent the Conservative Party on Tyneside. This is a temporary embarrassment, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman notes that we are both here, having set out in good time last night for this debate. I will not make more of that point.

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) present, because the future of Consett is of major concern to the area as a whole.

Misconceptions have arisen, first, from the Rochdale Report which, sensibly, thinking in modern terms, suggested that we had too many ports and that there should be amalgamation of ports and a concentration of the principal ports. The first misconception in the North-East was that all future development would be on the Tees. Then we had Benson No. 1, the Report which, rather to the dismay of the area as a whole, suggested that there was not a long-term future for the great iron and steel works at Consett in County Durham.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

Will not the hon. Gentleman agree that there was no direct reference to that in the Benson Report, but the conclusion has largely been drawn from the omission of specific mention of Consett in the Report?

Mr. Elliott

Yes, I agree, but the hon. Gentleman, with his constituency concern, and all others in the region were approached—we had our own concern without being approached—on the possibility of this steel works not continuing and the enormous effect that this would have on the future of the River Tyne.

The hon. Member for South Shields rightly said our river was both famous and historical. It is indeed. All those who are associated with the City of Newcastle, the natural capital of the area, and with the constituencies round about, are proud of the river and its history, proud of what was done by those who set out to make the commerce of our area in other days as good as it became and as it has steadily become over the years. But the principal and basic trouble on our river is the loss of the coal trade.

It has often been said that, so long as the Tyne had coal, it was all right. We want the Government constantly to keep in mind—I am pleased that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport is with us this morning—the fantastic fall in the coal trade. Not long ago, 22 million tons of coal a year went from the Tyne. Now it is 3¾ million tons, and those of us who are closely associated with the area know that the decline will not stop there.

Coal is a great commodity for our area. The old saying that no one takes coal to Newcastle no longer applies, perhaps, now that nowhere near so much coal is going forth from the Tyne. Coal is a bulky cargo. It called for a lot of ships. How right the hon. Member for South Shields was to stress that ships are important to our great industries on the Tyne, in repairing, and so on. It does not take nearly so many ships to carry away the goods made in the new factories which have come to replace the old. We are delighted to have with us in the North-East a company like Wilkinson making its "sword-edge" razor blades, but it would take a great many cases of razor blades to fill up the hold of the ship. Coal was a bulky cargo, and, so long as we had it, we were all right.

As I see it, the Tyne has a future. I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should have an independent economic survey. Perhaps we should, but I am not altogether sure. We have had too many surveys in the past and too many suggestions that planning councils and reviews would bring automatic answers. My experience recently in talking to those who are concerned about the future of the trade of our area is that the businessman has a good idea of what is required. The natural application of economic forces brings the right conclusions, but the right conclusions, as the hon. Gentleman said, need a good deal of economic aid.

The Tyne has a great future. It has a basic industry established there which is most important to it, and we must build on it. Based on the banks of the Tyne, we have some of the finest shipbuilding facilities in the world. The concentration is considerable, as the hon. Member for South Shields pointed out. In a very short space on the north bank of the Tyne, not far from my constituency, 10,000 men are employed daily. We have magnificent yards which have equipped themselves in recent years. I am happy to know that they were greatly assisted in re-equipping and modernising themselves by successive Conservative economic policies when we were in office. The investment allowances did a great deal for the shipyards of the Tyne.

In ship-repairing, also, we have something which is basic and highly important to us. But, as the hon. Member for South Shields rightly stressed, if our trade on the Tyne is falling, if we are not having so many ships coming into the river, our great ship-repairing industry is in grave danger. I want the Minister to appreciate this. It was said to me recently that ships are being paid the cost of their transport from other places in order to be brought to the Tyne for repair nowadays. This is the state we are coming to. We need new trade and we need new ships.

I believe that our future can be all right if we concentrate on the bulk cargoes. If we do that, there are three main bulk trades possible for us, as I see it. First and foremost, there is iron ore. I understand—perhaps the hon. Member for Consett will confirm this—that iron ore at present represents 18 per cent, of the trade of the Tyne. It is most important to us, therefore, that Consett should continue in being and that the iron ore which is its basic requirement should come in through the Tyne.

If we are to develop Tyne dock and spend a considerable amount of money on so doing—I understand that it is a perfect place to be developed for this type of cargo—why should not the iron ore for the whole region come in through the Tyne? Is not this a possibility? There have been suggestions that Consett is badly located as a steel works—we have always called it the steel works on top of a hill—but I understand from those who know better than I do about the problems of such an industry that it is not the haul to the steel works, but the possession of terminal facilities, unloading facilities at the docks, and so on, which is all-important.

Tyne dock could be developed, with the necessary dredging, to take ships of up to 100,000 tons if there would be enough business for them. Why not have iron ore coming into the Tyne not only for Consett, but for the steel works of South Durham as well?

I dwell for a moment longer on Consett because of our concern in the area for its future. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to realise that, although there are about 7,500 people employed in the steel works, about 40,000 people are socially dependent on the industry in that town. There has been tremendous investment there and great effort on the part of the company to modernise itself. This has greatly impressed all those of us who have been to see it, and we hope that it will continue.

The second great possibility is the importation of wheat. There will be a heavy wheat requirement in the United Kingdom over the next five to 10 years. It will be more difficult to bring wheat into our country because there is not so much available in the world as there used to be, and in the recent Farm Price Review the Minister of Agriculture has rightly encouraged an increase in home production of wheat.

Nevertheless, there will be need for heavy importation of wheat, and wheat coming into the Tyne in bulk is the second great possibility for us. I mean wheat coming into the Tyne not as it has always done, to the well-established and traditional mills there, Spillers and Ranks, but coming in in greater quantity. Our two great mills were designed to take Canadian wheat from ships on the river, but they were designed for a specific trade. We now require something far bigger than this.

Early in my membership of the House as one of the Members for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I was approached by Messrs. Rank and asked to assist the firm in doing something about the high cost of the dredging of the river in front of its wharf. Those of us from the area know how high up the river the Rank mill is. Indeed, the Spiller's mill on the other bank is not much further down. There is a great possibility for incorporating in the modern dock, which, we hope, will be much nearer the mouth of the river, wheat unloading facilities not only for Tyneside, but for a much larger area.

The third possibility is timber. We are given to understand that Canadian timber, in particular—Canadian lumber, to give it its correct description—is now being packaged in such a form that it can be conveyed by big bulk carriers. Here again, is a possibility for the Tyne to do something for a wider area than merely its own environment.

Surely, if facilities are made available for the unloading of those three commodities—iron ore, wheat and timber—and if we can get our river into a suitable condition to take 60,000, 70,000 and, as I am told there will be operating in the near future, 100,000-ton ships, there is a great future for the river.

We must think in terms of the lower reaches and of dredging. I do not claim technical knowledge, but those who have the requisite technical knowledge have assured me on inquiry that there is nothing to prevent the lower reaches of the Tyne being dredged to an additional depth of 30 or 40 ft. It seems that the new trailer suction dredging would make this a practical possibility.

I like the other suggestion of the hon. Member for South Shields—because, here again, one has certain evidence of its possibility—of roll-on, roll-off transport. There is a good possibility here from the Scandinavian countries. The Port of Newcastle and the River Tyne has always been the natural port for Scandinavia, and I hope that it will long continue to be so.

Here again, there is need for capital development. Alongside the berths from which the ships have gone for many years to the Scandinavian countries, there is the possibility of the construction of modern roll-on, roll-off berths. The hinterland is available, and development linked to developing road systems could be a very practical possibility.

I therefore add my support to that of the hon. Member for South Shields in asking the Government to realise the urgency of our requirement on the Tyne. We were most encouraged by the recent visit of Lord Rochdale. I return, as I began, to the misconception of the original suggestion that there would be concentration of ports. When Lord Rochdale came to Newcastle last week, or the week before, and said that he was anxious to be given proposals from the Tyne, and that the river should have a good future, this was highly encouraging. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will add to that very real encouragement when he replies to the debate.

We are heading fast towards a single authority for the river, and I am sure that that is right, but I would like to end by paying tribute to the Tyne Improvement Commission. Over the years in which I have represented a Tyneside constituency in this House, I have found the Commission to be a lively and active body. It has been peopled by keen citizens of the area and I know that its members are highly concerned, as, indeed, are all those who know the problem, with the future of the river.

11.24 a.m.

Mr. David Watkins (Consett)

My remarks must of necessity be prefaced by an expression of regret to the House for my late arrival and for missing the opening part of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) at the start of this debate. It is clear that the House has dealt with its earlier business with greater expedition than I and, I suspect, others of my hon. Friends expected.

The hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North (Mr. R. W. Elliott) has rightly said, as did my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, that the whole future and development of the River Tyne is a matter of urgency. In this I certainly support what they have said. They have drawn attention to the importance of the Consett steelworks for the future of the Tyne and, indeed, of a very large area of the North-East. The future of the Consett steelworks is very much interrelated with the future of the Tyne.

To a large extent, the future prosperity of the Tyne and Tyneside depends on the future prosperity of Consett, but it is equally true that the future of the steelworks at Consett and its possible expansion is very much tied to the necessity for improved facilities for the importation of iron ore via Tyne Dock.

Consett steelworks injects something like £20 million per annum into the economy of the North-East. It is obvious, therefore, that not only is the future of the River Tyne at stake, but that the future of a large area of the surrounding hinterland of the Tyne estuary is tied to the future development of the river.

Previous speakers have indicated that there remains doubt in some places concerning the future of the Consett steelworks, and I should like to devote my next remarks to this subject. As the House has already heard this morning, it is relevant and of importance in the matter of shipping facilities on the Tyne.

I notice that a noble Member of another place, who spoke on this matter and referred to the Report of the Benson Committee on the future of the steel industry, is reported in the Northern Echo of 30th March to have said: It is, I believe, conveyed that the Consett Iron Company would drop out of production in seven or eight years' time". My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields will recollect that on 15th December last, following a great deal of controversy over this matter, he accompanied me when we met my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power specifically to discuss the Benson Report and the implications which had been drawn from it concerning the future of steel production at Consett. My right hon. Friend said on that occasion—and this was made public—that there were certainly no proposals for the closure of the works.

Furthermore, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, West (Dr. Bray), who was then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power, referred to this matter in the House on 23rd January and said: There is no intention, no proposal whatever, that Consett should be closed."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd January, 1967; Vol. 739, c. 1173.] I make these points particularly to deal with what clearly remain as misgivings in some quarters about what is thought to be the possibility of a phasing out of the production of steel at Consett. It can, I think, be fairly assumed that the conclusions which have been drawn from the omission from the Benson Report of any mention of Consett, to which I referred when the hon. Member for New-castle-upon-Tyne, North allowed me to intervene, are wrong and that the future of steelmaking at Consett can reasonably be assumed to be ensured for a considerable time into the future.

When the deputation of hon. Members representing constituencies in the North-East met the Minister of Power, what we put before him clearly and what was not in dispute was that there is a considerable potential not only for the retention of that plant but for the ultimate trebling of its output. The facilities for capital investment are such that it is a distinct possibility, and the potential is there.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Would the hon. Gentleman deal with the rather complicated point which has given rise to a number of the misgivings which have been expressed? The Minister has said and it has been emphasised on more than one occasion that the future of Consett depends on the proposals which have to be put forward by the National Steel Corporation. I think that that is where difficulty has arisen, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman can elaborate on that proposal, because it would help to clear the issue for us all.

Mr. Watkins

The issue which is at stake is not only the retention of the steelworks, but that it is estimated that a viable modern steelworks of this type must have a productive capacity of 3 to 3½ million ingot tons per annum, the present capacity at Consett being 1.1 million tons. The building of a 3½ million ton capacity plant on a new site is calculated to involve £80 million of capital expenditure, whereas the existing facilities at Consett are such that an expansion could be achieved at an estimated capital cost of £40 million. I do not want to enter into a great deal of technical discussion on this point, but the fact remains that Consett is the most modern of the major steelworks in the country, and the only one whose production is on the oxygen process of steel-making. That means that the potential for expansion is considerable and it would be expansion at a greatly reduced capital expenditure compared with anything on another site.

The amalgamation which has taken place on Teeside, involving South Durham and other companies, does not of itself mean that there is no future for the Consett works. That was the rationalising of a type of steel production which is not carried on at Consett. Irrespective of mergers and amalgamations, Consett remains in a very strong position for the future. I am sorry if I have dealt with that at some length, but the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) rightly made the point, and I hope that I have played some further part in seeking to clear up some of the misapprehensions which have existed.

It is an established fact that Consett is not to be phased out of existence, and there is considerable potential for its expansion. There is a powerful case for improved iron ore handling facilities at Tyne Dock. It is not so practical to use the River Tees for the purpose of importing iron ore into Consett. The hon. Member for Newcastle, North touched upon this point, and he made the interesting suggestion that the Tyne might become the major importing point for iron ore for the whole north-east of England. I do not want to be drawn into a discussion of that this morning, because it is by no means a simple issue. The point which we are making here is the necessity for the improvement of the River Tyne, particularly in relation to Consett. The possibility of other steelworks importing their ore through the Tyne is a wider issue which needs further consideration.

The Consett Steelworks is 24 miles from Tyne Dock, but it is a direct rail run and, as the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has himself remarked, it is one which uses the most modern rail transport facilities and the cheapest pro rata in the world for conveying iron ore by rail.

The possibility of using the Tees for importing ore to Consett is, on economic and practical grounds, a non-starter. It is not only that the rail haul is a longer one, although, if it were a direct run, the fact that it was longer would not necessarily add hugely to the cost. The import of iron ore to Consett via the Tees would involve switching between three different rail routes, and it is the switching, changing and shunting which adds considerably to the cost. The corollary of that might apply when considering the possibility of importing iron ore to the South Durham and North Yorkshire works via the Tyne. That is why I say that the matter which the hon. Member for Newcastle, North has raised is more complex than might appear at first sight. Unquestionably, on grounds of practicality and economy, Tyne Dock is the place for the importation of iron ore to Consett.

The fact remains, too, that it is necessary to consider making greater provision for larger iron ore carriers to be accommodated and discharged at Tyne Dock. It is a practical and economic proposition that such provision could be made.

The point which I have tried to make in the course of my remarks is that Consett and Tyneside are mutually dependent. I do not think that the future of either the River Tyne or steel manufacturing at Consett can be separated. The prosperity of each depends on the other and upon the improvement and expansion of facilities in the other. It is a practical and economic proposition to make provision at Tynemouth for the discharge of iron ore carriers of 65,000 tons or more. The prosperity of a large area depends on the modernisation of the Tyne and everything which is tied with it.

I repeat that this is a matter of urgency, not one about which we can await pro- longed investigations and further reports. At the same time, if the suggestion which my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields has made were adopted and an independent economic survey were carried out, all the factors involved would point to a very powerful case for the future of the Tyne and for investment in its modernisation.

I wish to support my hon. Friend in everything that he has said, and I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will give us a favourable reply.

11.40 a.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

We have had a most useful discussion and I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) on having had the imagination to choose this subject for an Adjournment debate. It was extremely lucky for Tyneside and the North-East that the debate came on early because we have been given a fairly long period in which to get down to much more detail than is possible in an ordinary half-hour debate, when, so often, time precludes important detailed issues from discussion and, therefore, from inclusion on the record in HANSARD.

My hon. Friend the Member for New-castle-upon-Tyne, North (Mr. R. W. Elliott) referred to the many promises made during the last election campaign. It is fair to say that candidates who have not previously served in the House of Commons do not always realise that the making of promises is easy but that their implementation is much more difficult. This goes for all parties, for this is not a party discussion.

Those of us who have been in the House for some time realise that we must always exert pressure on Governments because there are so many problems that, unless one pinpoints the essential needs of our areas, Governments may say, "We have had no major representations about a certain issue, so it can go to the bottom of the agenda". That is why it is so fortunate that we are able to have this debate and I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Shields for initiating it, for it has enabled us to put forward some of the issues facing Tyneside.

After the last election, the first suggestions on the future of the Tyne came from the Tyneside Chamber of Commerce. Very rightly, it summoned all the local M.P.s to a meeting. I was, unfortunately, ill, so I could not be there. The meeting discussed what could be done to deal with the situation on Tyne-side. In the old days, with the concentration of coal exporting, quite apart from shipbuilding, marine engineering, and ship-repairing, we had a very lively trade on the Tyne. It takes a long time to change the trade of a river.

The other day I was listening to Questions being put to the right hon. Lady the Minister of Transport. She was being asked what the future of other ports was to be. Their future is good for the economy and I make no complaint about those Questions. But capital expenditure seems to be projected for ports all over the country and I thought to myself, when I heard the questioning, that if the Tyne does not get in soon we shall be told that finance for capital expenditure on the Tyne is not available within the coming financial year.

When I was fortunate enough to catch the eye of the Chair, I asked the right hon. Lady what she intended to do or authorise for Tyneside. She replied that she was awaiting proposals. Today, many practical proposals have been put forward. I appreciate that they have to be in more specific form, but I hope that the Minister now realises that the Tyne has many practical ideas. All Tyneside M.P.s want to impress upon the Government that this is a matter of urgency.

Reference has been made to the Rochdale Report and also to the future of Consett within the concept of that Report. Tyneside is in a very difficult position because our future has been "crabbed" in the last two years by the fact that the National Ports Council has plans for other areas whereas Tyneside seems to have been out in the cold. The same thing applied in the case of the Benson Report. As the hon. Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins) said, the future of Consett depends on the proposals of the National Steel Corporation.

Consett is the lowest cost steelworks at present. That is a very important factor. I feel very strongly about this, as a British subject. The man who evolved the new method of steel production now operated at Consett was British. He made his proposals available to this country, but, as we are always so cautious, his ideas were not acceptable and he had to go to Austria to develop them.

A very real lesson should be learnt from that. I visited Consett the other day and heard the whole story and I thought to myself how short-sighted the British can be. But, although this process is now known as an Austrian process, it is at least satisfactory to know that the brains behind it were British. I hope that, in future, we shall be a little more expansive in looking at developments proposed by British brains. It is important to have on the record that this process of steel making which is operated at Consett produces the cheapest steel. That is another reason why we view with pleasure the future development of Consett.

When I asked a Question recently about the National Steel Corporation, and what it was doing about the possibility of fixed-price control for steel products—which question affects shipbuilding and ship-repairing—I was very surprised to be told that there was no National Steel Corporation. That flummoxed me for a moment. However, I have put down a Question for answer tomorrow. Perhaps I shall then be able to discover exactly what sort of position the Corporation has got itself into. All these things tends to lose us valuable time on the Tyne. All those who are engaged in taking part in the debate today look to the Government to overcome the disadvantages under which the Tyne has laboured for some time, so that we can now go ahead.

We were all very pleased when, last week, Lord Rochdale and some of his associates visited the Tyne. We have waited a long time for this to happen. I only hope that the interest recently shown about the future of the Tyne by Members of Parliament for the North-East will be rewarded. Lord Rochdale has heard from the experts on the Tyne what proposals they have to put forward, and I now hope that he will not take a long time to make up his mind, so that we can go ahead with our efforts.

The creation of a sufficient depth of water and of the requisite unloading facilities to accommodate 100,000-ton bulk carriers is already beginning to take shape. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that he has already asked the Tyne Improvement Commission for its views and ideas, and that if the Commission puts them forward in concrete terms the go-ahead will be given without any delay. As far as I understand, there does not seem to be any difficulty in being able to provide facilities for these 100,000-ton bulk carriers on the Tyne, but we must get on with the job because the people of Tyneside are becoming extremely worried about its future.

I want to put on record the fact that at a meeting last year the Tyneside Chamber of Commerce initiated proposals to find solutions for the various problems of the Tyne. Following that meeting, many Questions were asked in the House, and I thought that it would be a good idea to write to the Prime Minister and ask him to receive a deputation. I always believe in going to the top. I had a charming letter from the Prime Minister—he is very good at writing charming letters—refusing to see a deputation, although it would have been an all-party deputation, because he thought that all the Ministers concerned were well aware of the problems and were read to face them. I received that reply about 23rd January.

I then thought that it would be a good idea to make contact between Members of Parliament and the Tyne Improvement Commission at an official level. I was glad when the Chairman of the Commission, Mr. H. N. Burrell, arranged a conference for us last Friday. He had many of his officials there, and we discussed all kinds of issues and problems affecting the Tyne. The Lord Lieutenant—the Duke of Northumberland—was also present. As a result of that conference, we all now form a fairly united body, and we want to go straight ahead.

I do not want to be controversial with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. R. W. Elliott), but, although we always hear about Newcastle's Scandinavian trade it should be pointed out that the ships sail from North Shields, which is in my constituency. I agree that Newcastle is properly placed to deal with Scandinavian trade; it is a "natural". Everybody talks about tourists landing at Newcastle, but I am proud to say that they land at North Shields and have to be conveyed from the quay there to Newcastle by train.

The people of South Shields, therefore, have as much interest in Scandinavian trade and in roll-off and roll-on—which I hope will be developed—as have the people of Newcastle. Newcastle is lucky in being able to say that it is the port for the Tyne, but in my constituency I have Smith's docks, the greatest ship-repairing yard in the world. South Shields carries out the bulk of ship-repairing for the Tyneside.

I am glad that we now have an established body—including the Tyne Improvement Commission, the Tyneside Chamber of Trade, Members of Parliament, industrialists representing Consett, and our Lord Lieutenant—which is all out to exercise as much pressure as possible in the interests of the Tyne. We may be knocking at an open door, but I want us to be able to move forward quickly now.

I appreciate that a lot of money is involved, but we are offering value for money on the Tyne, whether it be in terms of the importation of ore and its subsequent distribution, or in terms of ship repairing, timber, or wheat. The Tyne can offer value for money. We must get over the drawbacks that have arisen in respect of the National Ports Council and the Benson Report.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to an economic survey. I have made a few inquiries, and have been told that an economic survey would take a very long time. I am rather anti-survey, not because surveys do not produce anything in the end, but because they take so long that something may die before the results of the survey arrive. I understand that the Port of London started to have consultants and spent a great deal of money on paying them, but that nothing happened as a result. I do not know whether their recommendations were good, bad or indifferent.

Consultants can talk about things, but on the Tyne we have eminent, highly-skilled, technical, business, professional and workpeople who can do the job. They know what is wanted. That is the great thing. We all know now what is wanted. That is the value of this debate. It will be in HANSARD for everybody to see. We want to get on with the job.

I am glad that we have had this debate. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies we shall be told that these are at least embryo proposals and that they can begin to be looked at. I am sure that before long the Tyne Improvement Commission will be putting forward its proposals.

There is another thing that I should like to get straight on the record, because there are people, including, no doubt, many of our colleagues in the House, who will ask what part the Northern Economic Planning Council is to play in this. My view of the Northern Economic Planning Council, which has responsibility for the region—I do not criticise that—is that at present its interest is in the development of Teesside and not so much the development of Tyneside. It would be very difficult for a planning council which has overall responsibility to concentrate purely and simply on the Tyne. That is why it is so important to have our own efforts and to use the people who are there and to get the Government to co-operate with us.

I would also like to pay tribute, because the hon. Member for Consett did not mention this in specific terms, to the Durham County Council, which is not noted for its support of the Conservative Party, which has brought out an excellent memorandum on the social aspects of what is done by the Consett Iron and Steel Works for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Mr. Watkins

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding me of the excellent Report of the Durham County Council, which had, of course, been drawn to my attention. The hon. Lady will, recognise that the Report dealt not so much with the social work of the Consett Iron Company, but with the social effects of the existence of the steelworks and the serious effects which would arise from any running down of it.

Dame Irene Ward

That was what I meant to imply, so I am grateful to the hon. Member. I have heard from all sides what an excellent document that report was and I was grateful to the Clerk of the Durham County Council for sending me a copy. I agree that it deals with the social implications of life for the whole community in Durham County if the development of the Consett iron and steel works is in any way impeded. It was an admirable report.

It is no good discussing the Northern Economic Planning Council, because it seems at present to be concerned mostly with the development of Teesside.

Mr. Blenkinsop

To get the record straight, may I say that the Planning Council has set up an important group to study the whole port facilities of the North-East, including some of the smaller ports as well.

Dame Irene Ward

I am glad to hear that from the hon. Member, but it is exactly like a governmental Cabinet. The Government have responsibility for all sorts of things, and we know what happens when it comes to a Cabinet decision. I say this because I sometimes get annoyed with Cabinets, not only the present Socialist Cabinet, but I used to get annoyed with the Conservative Cabinet about things in which I was interested from the North-East Coast or, indeed, the national point of view. If the Minister concerned was not strong enough, items in which one was interested would go to the bottom of the agenda. I am not in the least impressed, except that it is a good idea for the Northern Economic Planning Council to set up a study group.

The Northern Economic Planning Council produced a great volume called "Challenge to the North", or whatever its annual report was. I do not see that council getting up and demanding action from the Government. I put down a few Questions, but we do not seem to have got much further. I would rather have the future of the Tyne in the kind of hands that we have all indicated this morning rather than place too much reliance on the Northern Economic Planning Council, which seems to be imbued with the future of Teesside. I know that Teesside is important to the economy, but that area has the great advantage of having a developing I.C.I. It is like the relationship of Birmingham and London, which has tended to isolate the North-East. The present Government tend to isolate Newcastle with their transfer of railway personnel from Newcastle to York. I get very nervous about these things. I am nervous, also, because nobody has said anything about marine engineering, which is one of our great industries on the Tyne. A great many trade union representatives are coming to see me. This is quite a new development in political circles. I am not used to having a lot of trade unionists coming to see me, but they are getting worried. They want to explain their problems about shipbuilding, marine engineering and ship repairing to both sides of the House. This they have done, and I am very glad about it, because it emphasises the non-party character of this approach.

We have to act on our own. We must exert our pressures. We have the people on Tyneside to exercise their pressures. All we want now is to convince the Government that we mean business. We have the protection and the future interest of the Tyne at heart. All we now want is to make sure that the Government know just how much we require from them and that we are prepared to have Adjournment debates whenever we can unless we get immediate and speedy action so that the Tyne can be restored not only to her former glory, but also to an ever-increasing prosperous future.

12.8 p.m.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

It is not my intention to delay the House more than two or three minutes, because my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will want as much time as possible to deal with the many points which have been raised.

First, however, I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) for not having been present when he opened this important debate, despite the fact that I have been in the House since 7.30 this morning. This indicates what difficulties one has in determining exactly what time an Adjournment debate is likely to begin during a morning sitting having regard to the difficulties which have so far manifested themselves. The importance of this debate is clearly emphasised by the fact that it has already lasted almost two hours, which would not have been possible under the old arrangements.

It is not my intention to follow the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) along the devious paths which she has chosen to follow in addressing herself to the subject. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields corrected the misinterpretation that the hon. Lady has obviously placed upon Northern Economic Planning Council and its approach to port development. When the hon. Lady alleges that the council is concerned only with Teesport, it is well to remember that this is directly attributable to the fact that Teesport was selected by the Rochdale Committee as one of the major ports for development. It is equally well to remember that the Rochdale Committee was set up by the hon. Lady's own Government.

Therefore, if there is emphasis on Teesport to the detriment of the Tyne and, indeed, of the Weir, it is wrong to blame the Northern Economic Planning Council, which has already set up its own inquiry into the whole port situation in the northern region.

Specifically on the question of the development of facilities on the Tyne, I was pleased to hear the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Consett (Mr. David Watkins), who admirably recounted the difficulties which will face the steel industry in Consett if development does not take place quickly. There would inevitably be serious social and economic effects if the Consett works were eventually to be closed and lost to the region.

This is a matter of concern not only to Tyneside Members, but to people beyond Tyneside as well. The Economic Planning Council is heavily involved in providing facilities to ensure the resurgence of the economy of the northern region, a development which has had a good deal more impetus and emphasis in the last two and a half years.

Representations were recently made to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and to the Minister of Power on the related questions of Consett and the development of Tyne facilities. It was then proposed, only a few weeks ago, that there should be joint discussions between the two Departments and Members of Parliament to ensure that the importance of this subject was fully borne in on everyone and that quick action was taken. Perhaps the time is now opportune for a meeting of that kind. We await with interest what my hon. Friend has to say in reply to this debate.

I understand that the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North (Mr. W. R. Elliott) has referred to the importance of better facilities for the development of further trade with our E.F.T.A. partners in Scandinavia. This is an admirable idea. Whatever happens regarding possible British entry into the Common Market, both now and in the future it is eminently desirable to extend and improve facilities for trade with these countries which are our partners in E.F.T.A.

About 13 months ago, the three words, "Time for decision", were much used on election platforms in this country. I put it to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and all my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government who are responsible for these matters that now is the time for decision if the economic development of the northern region is not to be retarded and if progress is to continue with the same spirit and impetus as it has had during the last two or three years.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I interpose with a point of order which may be of some interest? Normally, attendance in the Chamber at morning sittings is very sparse. On this occasion, I congratulate hon. Members from the northern region on the way in which they have turned out and on the speeches which, I understand, have been made from both sides. But, quite apart from the question of normal attendance on morning sittings, I wish to point out that tomorrow morning there will be a great rush of Members into the Chamber—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. Is the hon. Gentleman taking part in the debate, or is he raising a point of order?

Mr. Lewis

I am raising a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am explaining it so that I may have an answer from you.

Tomorrow morning, there will be a rush of Members into the Chamber to reserve their seats for the Budget debate. I imagine that there will be a greater turn-out tomorrow morning, although there is not a morning sitting then, than there has been for a long time. If the tradition is followed, there may well be queues at the door and Members will be here very early to claim places for the Budget debate.

I should like you to say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether it will be possible for you to arrange that those of us who have been here this morning, and those who usually attend morning sittings, may have a special opportunity, without coming tomorrow morning, to put Prayer cards on the backs of the seats, to book their places for the Budget debate. I am sure that this would be an arrangement genuinely appreciated by hon. Members who attend morning sittings, and, further—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that he is not raising a point of order. If it is a matter which he wishes to raise in a speech on the Adjournment, he is entitled to do so, but it is not a point of order.

Mr. Lewis

But, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I have to make representations to the usual channels either through the Serjeant at Arms, who is concerned with these matters, or through the Chair. There is no one on the Government side whom I can ask to give a reply now. If it were a special Adjournment debate, I should want someone to reply.

Would you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, be prepared to reply from the Chair? I thought that the best thing to do was to ask you that special facilities should be given to those who attend morning sittings so that they could book their seats straight away without having to turn up again tomorrow morning.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Chair does not answer Adjournment debates. He has made his point. I have no doubt that due notice will be taken of it by anyone who thinks that due notice should be taken of it.

12.16 p.m.

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

It is one of the advantages of the speedy conduct of business at morning sittings that we can have a prolonged Adjournment debate which enables many hon. Members to participate. This morning's debate seems so much to have impressed the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) that he thinks that we should have a special prize for our conduct. I think that that may be going a bit too far, but, undoubtedly, there have been many forceful and fascinating contributions on the future of Tyneside. Many hon. Members, whether present in the Chamber or not, will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) for initiating the debate and for the cogent case on behalf of Tyneside which he put.

The debate has ranged widely, raising many matters which are the concern of my right hon. and hon. Friends, for example, the future of the iron and steel industry, which is the concern of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Power, and developments in shipping, which are mainly the concern of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade. I assure the House that specific points on these matters regarding Tyne-side—the development of shipping, the iron and steel industry, and so on—will be brought by me to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields mentioned the future of coastwise shipping. I call his attention and that of the House to the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Board of Trade and I recently met a powerful national deputation from the National Union of Seamen to discuss the whole question of the future development of coastwise shipping, including many points which specifically concern Tyneside, especially the relationship with the co-ordinated transport plan prepared by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport.

Although the interests of shipping come under the Board of Trade, we in the Ministry of Transport are concerned that all the interests of coastal shipping should be taken into account in the development of a co-ordinated expansion of rail and road traffics, and we shall keep in mind from this point of view the possibility of reinvigorating coastal shipping. We are very much aware of the special difficulties experienced on Tyneside, particularly the falling off in the coal trade, which was mentioned by practically all hon. Members who have spoken, and which culminated in the closing of Tyne Dock to coal traffic at the beginning of this month.

I must preface what I have to say by two points which may appear a little obvious to many hon. Members but which must be said in reply to the major case made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields. First, the function of a port is to provide facilities for the handling of traffic. We must always remember that the ports are there to give a service to industry and shipping Expansion of the ports depends on the demands of industry and the development of the shipping trade. Secondly, the responsibility for making proposals for port development to meet traffic needs rests in each port authority, and not on my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. My right hon. Friend depends on the port authorities to put forward proposals for development in relation to the needs and interests of their regions.

My first point does not mean that port facilities should be provided only to handle either existing traffic or traffic which is guaranteed for the future. It may well be right in many cases to anticipate traffic growth, to take account of the possibility that provision of new facilities may of itself attract traffic not at present using the port, or to encourage development of existing traffics. But here I must make a distinction. General cargo facilities may serve a wide variety of shippers or of cargoes. The provision of new berths and the introduction of modern handling facilities may be justified by the extent to which efficiency can be improved or costs can be cut, as well as by the prospect of increased trade. A real prospect of enough trade to provide a reasonable return on the investment may be sufficient without a firm guarantee of that trade. Provision can sometimes rightly be made to some extent "on spec".

But where port facilities are required only for the bulk carriage of a particular commodity to or from particular installations that is not the case. For example—an absurd example—there would be no point in building a major oil port in a part of the country where there were neither refineries nor pipelines for the oil. It would be equally pointless to construct a deep channel for large bulk carriers where none are likely to use the port. I stress this because it is crucial to the two points causing most concern on the Tyne at present and which loomed large this morning: the future of the coal traffic and the prospects for the iron-ore traffic.

First, the coal traffic has fallen dramatically, as several hon. Members said. Exports have fallen from the all-time peak of 21½ million tons in 1923 to 3.9 million tons in 1966, the lowest figure since the middle of the last century. Even after the Second World War exports reached 9½ million tons in 1950. But now Tyne Dock, which at the height of its prosperity shipped several million tons of coal a year, closed to coal traffic at the beginning of this month. Other staiths have closed over the years. Coal exports from the Tyne depend on the coal industry of the area, and have declined with it.

Secondly, the prospects for the import of iron ore must also depend on those of the industry it serves. The Tyne has facilities for the import of iron ore for the Consett steelworks which have allowed ore to be imported in larger vessels than could hitherto be handled at ports serving the other major steelworks. But this advantage is disappearing, as current projects will enable Port Talbot, for instance, to take still larger vessels in the next few years. The economic size of vessel is constantly increasing, and it may be that if Consett is to be developed facilities for even larger ore vessels may have to be provided in the area. Similarly, if there is any firm proposal for any other industry requiring bulk imports in large vessels to develop on the Tyne, it may be right to provide the facilities, including dredging a deep channel. Special jetties for oil handling have, indeed, been provided in recent years. But such special facilities are both expensive and wholly dependent on individual decisions by major industries or firms. They cannot be provided "on spec".

That brings me to the second of the points I made at the beginning of my speech. If there is in future a need to make provision of this sort, it must be for the port authority or, behind it, the user, or prospective users and port authorities together, to prepare and submit proposals.

I now come to the question of the so-called "misconception" mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields and many other hon. Members. The National Ports Council is responsible for the broad planning of our ports, and it has made its view on the Tyne plain. It sees its future, as does the Northern Economic Planning Council, as a medium-sized port serving mainly local needs, and has, therefore, not included it in its interim development plan. But that does not mean any disregard on our part of the need for development in the area and the future of the port.

As many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) said, when Lord Rochdale was in the area last Wednesday he emphasised that the National Ports Council is prepared to consider schemes for those ports not covered by the interim plan where it is plain, as a result of local discussions, that new facilities are obviously needed. But these schemes must be worked out first not by the National Ports Council or the Ministry but by the port authority itself in conjunction with prospective users in the area.

The National Ports Council will then advise my right hon. Friend on particular proposals from any area submitted to her, but the Council does not prepare or undertake schemes. My right hon. Friend is responsible, as Minister of Transport, for authorising port investments projects costing over £500,000. But she does not invent them or undertake them. It is for the port authorities to take the initial decision.

As the general manager of the port authority declared in a letter to the Press, in reply to an expression of views by my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields, no proposal to provide a deep channel or new ore berth is before us at the moment. Perhaps we might not expect such proposals to come forward until the future of Consett has become clearer. We trust that that will be in the very near future.

Mr. Blenkinsop

My hon. Friend will recognise that that is almost a form of words. The authority is eager to provide the necessary detailed projects. The only thing holding it up is, as my hon. Friend says, the question of rather clearer understanding about future developments at Consett. It has the proposals and wants to get them to the Minister.

Mr. Swingler

I well understand that, and the decisions must be made on the submission of development proposals based upon calculations and assessment of the extent that the port will be used, which depend on decisions in other industries. The fact that reorganisation is going on in the industries or in the ports should not be used by anyone as an excuse for not getting on with the job of technical modernisation or the submission of proposals in the meantime.

We know that, in regard to ports, estuarial groupings and major reorganisations are to take place but we shall not permit this to deter us from taking decisions on immediately necessary improvements. I hope that those concerned on Tyneside will push ahead with the discussions and processes of industrial decision-making in order that clear proposals can be formulated.

We well understand the difficulties. We are extremely glad to see a new scheme like the one at Whitehill Point operating so successfully. My right hon. Friend's predecessor took a decision on that. I assure my hon. Friends that we will do the best we can. Port modernisation grants will be made available for any projects that meet the criteria. Indeed, my right hon. Friend recently announced that payment of the modernisation grants would be speeded up.

My right hon. Friend undertakes to consider, with the National Ports Council, any projects for major developments submitted to her. In doing so, we will pay full attention not only to the implications for port planning generally but also for the development of Tyneside and the North-East as a whole.

We pay great attention to the advice of the Northern Economic Planning Council and of its Ports Working Group, whose recent establishment my right hon. Friend has welcomed very much and in whose work the Ministry is already co-operating. I know, for example, that it is studying one of the subjects mentioned by my hon. Friend—traffic from the new towns and its bearing on these issues.

But the main responsibility for the development of the Tyne's port facilities must rest with the port authorities, the shipping interests and, of course, the men. My right hon. Friend and I welcome the initiative shown by the Tyne Improvement Commissioners in undertaking a survey to establish whether a deep channel to take iron ore vessels drawing up to 43 ft. of water, could be provided.

We hope that, on the management side, the Tyne authorities will adopt a positive attitude towards improvements and will co-operate fully with the North-East Economic Planning Council's Ports Working Group, for example, and will play their part in any joint surveys proposed in the North-East. Similarly, we hope that the trade unions will co-operate in all respects in the introduction of modern methods of handling traffic.

In all this, we will play our part so long as those directly concerned play their part in ensuring that the port meets adequately and efficiently the needs of shipping and the shipping companies and will prepare proposals on the basis of the most up-to-date information on the industrial development in the region.