HC Deb 15 December 1967 vol 756 cc876-86

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

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Peter Doig (Dundee, West)

I have received very strong protests from the Dundee Corporation, many Dundee firms and the Dundee Chamber of Commerce about the lack of siting for a vehicle testing station in Dundee. The Dundee Chamber of Commerce represents well over a thousand firms, including all the largest firms, not only in the City of Dundee, but stretching as far North as Montrose and as far South of Glenrothes.

Accordingly, I took the matter up with the Ministry of Transport. I had an interview with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and in the course of a discussion it was pointed out that the Ministry had, first of all, decided that Perth was the most suitable point for a vehicle testing station in the area. But then they went on to decide that if they could not get a suitable site in Perth Dundee would be equally satisfactory.

I want to show that not only would Dundee be as suitable, but that it is the logical place for this station. The distance between Dundee and the proposed site on the far side of Perth is 23 miles. The population of Dundee is 185,000, and it is an industrial city, while Perth has a population of 41,000 and substantially less industry. Taking these two facts alone, the number of vehicles which will have to traverse the 23 mile stretch between the two places will be at least five times as great if the site is in Perth than if it is in Dundee. On that score alone, the argument is in favour of Dundee.

In one of its letters, the Ministry said that it was the policy to put the sites of these stations where the vehicles were and not where they were passing through. There is no doubt, and even the Ministry does not dispute it, that there are far more vehicles in Dundee than in Perth. Indeed, there are more in Dundee than in the whole county of Perthshire, and it is not even proposed to use this station in Perth for the whole of Perthshire.

In making the following estimate, one can take any figure one likes, but I took population figures of 5,000 or over in sending to the Ministry a list of the distances which would be involved from various places either to Dundee, if the site were there, or to Perth. If the Ministry thinks that a population level of 5,000 is an unfair measure, I offered to work out the mileage on any other figure. But the Ministry has never asked for this, so I assume that it accepts 5,000 as being fair.

A vehicle testing station either in Dundee or in Perth would be the nearest for the following towns: Blairgowrie, Glenrothes, Cupar, Montrose, Brechin, Carnoustie, Crieff, Forfar, Leven, Methil, St. Andrews and Arbroath. On this basis, the mileage from these places to Dundee totals 252 miles and to Perth it is 333 miles, an increase of almost one-third, quite apart from the fact that most of the vehicles which will use the station are sited at Dundee. Taking the area as a. whole, Dundee is much more central than Perth for this purpose.

If the site were in Dundee instead of Perth, there would be less wasted mileage and less lost time and, therefore, less cost to industry. Why did the Ministry reject the Dundee site? First, it said that the site in Dundee was unsuitable. But that site was chosen by the Ministry's own officials. When they went to Dundee Corporation, they were directed to the planning department to pick their own site from those available. Having selected a site, they decided that it was going to cost £30,000 to level. If this was true, it is strange that they did not ask for or select another site.

Then there is the question of delay. I was told that the Ministry approached the town clerk and asked for a site and that everything was then done by the Dundee Corporation within less than a month, which is unprecedented speed for a local authority.

It was said that it would cost £30,000 to level the site. The Dundee Chamber of Commerce approached a large building contractor who constantly does work of this type and asked him for an estimate. He said that it would be between £900 and £1,500, with the latter at the top figure. Yet the Ministry says that it would be not £1,500 but £30,000. It is no wonder that I am constantly asked where the Ministry gets this figure of £30,000 from. It is absolutely fantastic.

It is then said that there is an objection from N. Fife to paying a 10s. toll for heavy vehicles to cross the Tay Road Bridge to go to Dundee. If the Ministry seriously believes that, it should persuade the Government to abolish the 10s. toll charge on heavy goods vehicles going over the Tay Road Bridge, which is the only bridge in Great Britain to have so large a toll—the next highest is only 2s. 6d. I do not know why the toll on this bridge should be 10s. If it has the deterrent effect which the Ministry of Transport believes, so that vehicles are driven an extra 20 miles or more so that the toll can be avoided, then it is time for the Government to reconsider the toll.

The site selected in Perth is on good agricultural land—it grew a crop this year. The Government say that they want farmers to increase production, but how will that production be achieved if good agricultural land is taken when it is not required? We are also told by the Ministry that a station must deal with 10,000 vehicles a year if it is to be economic and that there are only 7,000 vehicles in the area. It is significant that when only this week I put a Question to the Minister asking for a list of places with a population of 5,000 or more which would be served by this station, I was given a list which had some notable omissions. It completely missed out Arbroath, Forfar, Montrose, Carnoustie and Brechin. The reason is to be found in a little slip which was made when I was at the Ministry of Transport when it was hinted that there might be a local station at Brechin. If a place like Brechin with a population of only 7,000 can have a local station and an industrial city like Dundee with a population of 185,000 cannot, there is something wrong with the thinking at the Ministry of Transport.

What would having a local station at Brechin achieve for other areas? It would be three miles nearer Arbroath, which is only 17 miles from Dundee. It would be only three miles nearer Forfar, but that is only 14 miles from Dundee.

Montrose is the only exception in that it is 30 miles from Dundee and 9 miles from Brechin. On the other hand Carnoustie is only 11 miles from Dundee but would be a further 10 miles from Brechin. In other words, it is 21 miles from Brechin. Finally there is Brechin which is 25 miles from Dundee. The total population of all these places is 52,000. The figures are so small that I cannot understand why the Ministry should he prepared to put a local station at Brechin with such a small advantage to such a small number of people.

The Ministry wants to limit these stations, and they said previously that there could only be six in Scotland. It now appears that there are to be more than six, and one at Brechin as well, because the next nearest place is Aberdeen which is a long way. The saving as between Dundee and Brechin is terribly small and in some cares considerably worse as in Carnoustie. The interesting point is that the average distance that people would have to travel to Dundee would be less than that what those in Dundee would have to travel to get to Perth.

Even the furthest place, Montrose, is a lesser distance than the Ministry has said the people of St. Andrew's would have to travel to get to Perth, which is 31 miles distant. The Ministry does not think it is unreasonable because it has suggested that St. Andrew's people should travel a further distance than that from Montrose to Dundee. If we accept that there is to be a local station at Brechin we have to look around to see where it could be much more profitably sited. Looking at the county of Fife we see a remarkable picture. If an extra testing station were available and was sited in Kirkcaldy, Methil, Buckhaven, or even Leven, it would cut down travelling distance and wasted time.

Let me give an example of Kirkcaldy which can be applied to the other places too. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy Burghs (Mr. Gourlay) has been very active about this, because he also appreciates the need for a testing station in the area. If we go down the list of those places which could use a testing station, there is Dunfermline, Glenrothes, Alloa, which is outside Fife but would be nearer to such a station, Cowdenbeath, St. Andrews, Leven, Cupar, Burntisland and Lochgelly. The distance between all these places and Kirkcaldy comes to 132 miles, and between these places and Perth is 304 miles—more than double the distance. One or two would be nearer Livingston, and it might be argued that they ought to use that station. They would have to pay tolls to get to Livingston, this time over the Forth road bridge. Admittedly it is only 2s. 6d. so far, but the bridge is running up a deficit and the toll may be increased to 10s. before long for all we know.

If this station is sited at Perth and there is no station in Fife the inhabitants of every one of those places I have listed would have to travel over 20 miles to get to Perth. In three cases it will be more than 30 miles. On the other hand, if the station is sited in Kirkcaldy all these places would be nearer to Kirkcaldy than to Perth. Not one person would have to travel any more than 30 miles or even as much as that. Therefore, the arguments for a local station in Fife are 1,000 times stronger than those for a local station in Brechin. If there is to be an extra station, it should be sited in Fife.

Secondly, the population of the area which would be served by a small station at Brechin is only 52,000. But the population in the places which I have listed is no less than 212,000. In addition, Fife is a highly industrialised county. It is faced with pit closures and requires all the additional facilities it can get to make it profitable for industry to go there.

I wish to voice a further criticism. I have tried for over a month to arrange a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, but without success. It seems to be harder to get a meeting with the Minister of Transport than with the Prime Minister. I have never previously had difficulty in getting meetings with any Minister. I have been able to meet the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the President of the Board of Trade, the Secretary of State for Scotland and even the Prime Minister when I wished to raise any grievance which affected my constituency. But to try to see the Minister of Transport seems to be an impossibility.

Finally, I was granted a meeting with the Parliamentary Secretary. I was dissatisfied with the outcome of that meeting. After all, he is comparatively new to the Department. Therefore, I again asked for a meeting with the Minister or, failing that, with the Minister of State, who is present today. I received letter from the Minister of State saying that he saw no point in meeting me. That vas a rebuff which I had never had from any other Department when dealing with a constituency complaint. Eventually, he agreed to an informal meeting in the House—one could almost call it a fireside chat.

There is no doubt that a colossal blunder has been made by the Ministry. It will deter industrial development in Dundee and in Fife, contrary to the Government's policy. It will adversely affect exports by making them more expensive. If this is the best that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport can do in organising these matters in Scotland, it is about time that the whole business was handed over to the Secretary of State for Scotland, a man who knows the area, and to leave him to do the job.

4.28 p.m.

Mr. Ian MacArthur (Perth and East Perthshire)

I will not take more than a minute so as to allow the Minister of State time in which to reply.

I ask the Minister to consider very carefully the claims of Perth for this heavy goods vehicle testing centre. The city is ideally placed at the heart of Scotland and is nearer to the centre of the industrial belt than Dundee. It is on the main route from north to south and West to east of Scotland. An ideal site is available at the North Muirton In- dustrial Estate, which is flat and needs very little work done on it. The warmest and most anxious co-operation will be given by the Perth City Council in connection with such work as needs to be done.

I asked the Minister to recall that there has been a steady erosion of Government employment in Perth and that this small site would be very welcome to the city. I hope that there will be no change in the position expressed to me by the Minister of Transport on 1st December in a letter which reads: We agree that the station at Perth would best serve the whole of the surrounding district and we intend to go ahead with our plans for the site at the North Muirton Industrial Estate. I trust that no change will be made in that decision.

4.29 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Transport (Mr. Stephen Swingler)

In the time available to me I wish to say three things in general before turning to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Doig).

When we started the Heavy Goods Vehicle Testing Scheme we made it clear that the scheme should be self-supporting. Consequently, the costs of building and operating testing stations will determine the fee to be charged to vehicle operators. That is a most important point.

The Road Safety Act enjoined on my right hon. Friend the holding of consultations with industry before making regulations, and we have carried those consultations through in all areas of the country with the Road Haulage Association, the T.R.T.A., representatives of British Road Services, the Railways Board and others.

As a result of that, we have decided on a total of 68 main testing stations throughout the country. Not everybody's aspirations can be satisfied within the scheme. We have had to make some difficult choices on the basis of the best analysis and advice that we have been given.

I come to the position in Scotland. The 1966 vehicle registration figures for Scotland show that there are about 63,000 goods vehicles over 30 cwt. unladen, plus a number of trailers and semitrailers, which will also be liable for compulsory testing. Of these, just over 50,000 will be covered by the full-time stations at Glasgow, Livingston, Kilmarnock, Perth, Aberdeen and Inverness which, between them, have a maximum capacity of over 90,000 vehicles per annum.

The remaining 10,000 or so will be covered by the stations at Berwick and Carlisle, plus the small auxiliary stations proposed for the remoter areas. These auxiliary stations will have the essential testing facilities only, although, even so, they will be uneconomic. However, without them many vehicles in Scotland might well have to travel over 100 miles to a full-time station.

The placing of a station in or near Perth was agreed by the operators' associations in March, 1966, when the location of stations generally was considered. The station there is intended for vehicles from Perth, Dundee, the county of Kinross and parts of the counties of Fife, Perth, Angus and Clackmannan. The total goods vehicles over 30 cwt. unladen registered in that area amount to just over 9,000, but probably about 2,000 of them come within range of the full-time stations at Glasgow and Livingston; an auxiliary station capable of testing about 500 or 600 vehicles is also proposed at Brechin. The design capacity of 10,000 vehicles per annum at Perth will thus be more than adequate.

I assure my hon. Friend that the concentration of vehicles in Dundee was an important factor which was considered, along with the fact that a station at Perth, which, as he will know, is the focal point of the area's road system, would still involve many operators, including many farmers, in a journey of well over 30 miles. Since my hon. Friend first raised, about four weeks ago, the question of a testing station in Dundee, we have talked again with all the associations concerned and with the responsible area mechanical engineers. All have confirmed—and I emphasise this—their view that the station should be at Perth.

By the spring of this year, actual sites had been found throughout the country for all but a few stations, including Perth, where planning difficulties had arisen. However, we were able to announce to the House on 31st May a list of places where stations were to be placed and that the testing and plating of heavier goods vehicles would begin in July, 1968. At that time my right hon. Friend told us that unless we had a site available for Perth in June, it would be unlikely that the station would be completed in time for the beginning of the compulsory testing.

We made a fresh approach to Perth Town Council in July to see whether we could get earlier access to its Industrial Estate at North Muirton. The result of this approach was doubtful, so we decided to extend the search to Dundee. There the corporation, which was extremely helpful, offered a site on the Liff Road Industrial Estate, but it was obvious that some preparatory work on levelling would be required. After detailed surveying. my right hon. Friend the Minister of Public Building and Works estimated that about £30,000 would have to be spent on levelling and drainage work for this site.

We have, of course, had to depend on the collaboration of that Ministry in the search for sites, technical surveying and so on. The work in this case would, we were told, have delayed completion of the station by about two months. However, before this exercise was completed, we succeeded in finding a much less expensive station at Perth.

My hon. Friend has not, of course, been alone in making representations that the station should be sited somewhere else. Several hon. Members from Scotland have made representations to us about alternative sites for this station, but the deciding factor in having the testing station at Perth is the analysis of the overall distribution of goods vehicles in the area, confirmed by the advice of our own technical staff and by the advice—which is unanimous—of the trade associations with local knowledge of the position.

I hope that, as far as vehicles in Dundee are concerned, operators will find that the speed of testing in a large, efficient station—a really highly organised production line, as it were—helps to balance to some extent the time taken in reaching the testing station itself. Moreover, as the Perth-Dundee road, the A85, continues to be improved by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the time spent in travelling will be further reduced.

Let me say this, in conclusion, to my hon. Friend, whose representations at all times we have considered with the greatest care. We are sorry at the disappointment of those in Dundee, but when we are planning throughout the whole country, and when there are only 68 stations to cover the whole area of the country, naturally, and unfortunately, there are some who are disappointed in not having a testing station located in their own area.

Nevertheless, we propose in any event to review the scheme generally in the light of experience when it has run for a reasonable time, and if circumstances should suggest the need for some infilling, and for the extension of the scheme to meet difficulties which have been encountered, I can assure my hon. Friend that further auxiliary stations might be provided, and we will, naturally, consider the representations which he has made in that regard.

Question put and agreed to.

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