HC Deb 03 July 1967 vol 749 cc1222-35

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

12.24 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I am fortunate to have a chance to raise a subject seldom touched on in the House, but one that exists only 100 yards from where we sit—Old Father Thames. If there had been no River Thames the capital of England would still be at Winchester, because it is the river that has made this city one of the greatest commercial cities of the world, the country's largest port, and the most accessible city to Europe and the oceans of the world.

I must declare an interest in the matter of the River Thames because I am honoured at present by being President of the River Thames Society, a voluntary body that takes a great interest in the Thames. The River Thames, this silver thread that runs through England from the Cotswolds to the North Sea for 210 miles, this river with 37 tributaries, is perhaps the country's greatest single tourist attraction. It attracts as tourists in its launches and steamers 2½ million passengers a year, tens of thousands of whom are foreigners. We can easily check that by simply going for a moment to Westminster Pier, where we can hear nearly every language under the sun.

All the launches, steamers and motor boats that carry these passengers earn us a great deal of foreign currency. I hold in my hand copies of two cheques paid to a firm in my constituency, Thames Launches Limited. One is from a travel agency in Chicago, Travel Headquarters Incorporated, for no less than 11,677 dollars and another from a Swiss company, paid through the Union de Banques Suisses, Zurich, for £1,160. Therefore, one can see that this is profitable business for this country.

But although the Thames is used by tourists it is grossly under-used nowadays. A century ago, before the roads were developed and before the internal combustion engine, it is estimated that 20 million people a year used the Thames in sailing vessels, rowing boats, ferries, barges and those lovely old Thames sailing barges that some of us were lucky enough to see. So the Thames is really an under-used highway that could relieve other highways. The time has come when we should revitalise our valuable river.

There has been a running down of the old fleet of tourist launches and steamers, the ones that ply in London and up to Kew, Hampton Court and Oxford, the boats specially designed for the Thames. I am told that the newest was built 40 years ago, and that one was built in 1886. Let us compare them with the Bateaux Mouches on the Seine which are a tremendous tourist attraction in Paris. Nearly every visitor goes on one of them. Let us compare them too with the boats with transparent plastic cabin roofs at Amsterdam, Stockholm, and all over Europe.

Piers on the Thames are getting out of date. If the Minister walks down to Westminster Pier he will see that it has hardly changed this century. There used to be innumerable embarking places up and down the Thames, but many have been closed by embankments or cut off by road traffic. Those which remain at Charing Cross, Westminster and Putney should be modernised.

We should consider the possibility of the noiseless type of hovercraft, in which I think we are becoming supreme. I understand that Red Funnel Steamers at Southampton and Cowes will operate what is called a sidewall hovercraft driven by a propellor in the water. Each such hovercraft, called the "Hover-marine", costs about £65,000 and can carry 60 people. I understand that they will operate on the Solent next summer. That is the sort of hovercraft which would be suitable on the Thames because it is more ship and less aircraft than the SRN series in the Solent.

If one looks at the old pictures of the Thames in the eighteenth century, one sees that it was used for every type of entertainment, pageantry, and all manner of similar activities. At the moment we have son et lumière, which provides for a limited audience. Last September we had a splendid and most enjoyable pageant put on by the Evening News. What about more pageants on the Thames at Bank Holiday periods with a show lasting several days? We understand that we need a new exhibition hall in London. What about a floating exhibition hall off the South Bank? Why not a floating swimming pool off Cleopatra's Needle? I am sure that Cleopatra would not object. Both those areas, which are free of river traffic could take a floating exhibition hall and a floating swimming pool.

The River Thames Advisory Committee of the London Tourist Board, of which the hon. Lady the Member for Peckham (Mrs. Corbet) is a member—and she has asked me to say that she is sorry that she could not be here today—has taken an active part in giving London River a new look in the last two years, and several bridges have been attractively repainted. But there is an enormous field of endeavour still open to the Committee and similar committees. There is a great need for a yacht marina for visiting foreign yachtsmen. I have had letters about that from foreigners. I am aware of the proposed marina in the Erith development. But why not put some mooring pontoons off Battersea Park, which might be suitable for a marina for visiting yachtsmen?

A cultural suggestion has been made to me that it would be nice to have a Saturday or Sunday open-air art centre for artists to display and sell their pictures along the river—perhaps on the embankment at Twickenham.

In all these ideas for revivifying the life of the river, I have concentrated on the lower river below Teddington Lock. But what about those beautiful stretches up to Windsor, Maidenhead, Marlow, Oxford and beyond? I see the Minister nodding his head. I am sure that he knows them well. Here is the real habitat of the canoeist, puntsman, oarsman, dinghy sailor, motor boatman and angler, all enjoying the wide-open, tree-lined, verdant reaches of the Thames.

The River Thames Society has, since it was formed. kept a watchful eye on all planning applications for factories, offices, apartment blocks and houses on the banks of the river, and it has made suggestions in innumerable cases and has appeared, through its representatives, at about a dozen public inquiries a year, not in an attempt just "to preserve", but in a constructive sense, realising that the river is a growing, organic thing and that people must live and work alongside it as well as enjoy it. Those of us who are in the Society feel that the upper reaches of the Thames should be considered as a comprehensive area of development in relation to housing needs and recreation facilities for the communities in the areas adjoining the river.

The Society has established some local planning forum to discuss these matters, but what is required is a co-ordinating planning authority with the support of the local authorities in Berkshire, Surrey, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. For instance, what about a Thames footpath going from county to county and from side to side of the river? That needs a river planning authority. Possibly it is too late to establish a national park alongside the Thames, but in the Countryside Bill for England—I understand that there is a possibility of a similar Bill for England to the one now going through for Scotland—perhaps the upper reaches of the Thames could be established as a country park or an area of outstanding natural beauty.

I have thrown out a number of ideas for both the lower and upper reaches of the river. Perhaps the best way to foster these would be to establish a River Thames Amenity and Planning Authority which would have to have an architect with a wide vision for the whole river and it would have to be divided into two sections: one section covering the tourist and commercial needs of the lower river, and another section for the recreational and planning needs of the upper river above Teddington Lock, the area covered by the Thames Conservancy.

I have not time to cover such problems of the river as driftwood and vandalism. We appreciate the efforts of the Port of London Authority in clearing driftwood, but I note from its accounts that, while it spends about 90 per cent. of the revenue obtained from docks and warehouses on that part of the river, it seems to spend only 76 per cent. of the revenue received from pier tolls, boats, and so on, on the upper part of the river which it controls above the docks. I hope that it will spend a bigger proportion of its revenue on this part of the river.

The Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police patrolling the waters as far as Staines has waged a successful fight against vandalism. I hope that that will be extended when the police authorities of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire become united. They could form a Thames constabulary. I hope that my small Bill, the Vessels Protection Bill, will get through all its stages and will assist the police against those who go joy riding in other people's boats.

We must not forget that the Thames supplies the greater part of London's drinking water, and from the vast reservoirs of Laleham and Staines water is pumped by a 9 ft. underground pipe about 19 miles long right under London from Hampton to the Lee Valley to serve the east side of London when required. How lucky we are in this country to have a steady and regular rainfall of 25 to 30 inches a year. Our rainfall is much maligned, but if we did not have it we should become a desert like the Middle East and, no doubt, we would all have to emigrate to Canada.

Finally, I deal with an idea which, in my view, would be the greatest single factor in beautifying our river and at one sweep would give us an extra 30 miles of deep water frontage, enabling boats and vessels to travel up and down the river at any time, irrespective of the tide. It is not generally realised that the shimmering reaches above Teddington Lock are maintained only by a series of locks—to mention a few, those at Marlow, Maidenhead, Windsor and Teddington. If these locks did not exist, the river would become a muddy, non-navigable, low-lying stream. There have always been some kind of locks—they used to be called flash locks—to help navigation for several hundred years. I do not know whether hon. Members have seen the state of the river at low tide at places like Richmond. If the half locks at Richmond are out of use for repairs, one sees a very sorry sight—a muddy stream. That is the difference which the locks make between a low-lying stream and a river with plenty of water in it.

Suppose that we had a new lock at Woolwich, making our London river here non-tidal at constant high water, gently flowing, giving us 30 miles more of deep water frontage all the time. How delightful that would be. In addition, it would keep out the sewage which flows up from Barking and Crossness. This series of locks, or barrage, at Woolwich would give the Port of London Authority constant high water for its West India and Surrey Commercial Docks.

I know that we are all concerned about possible flooding in London. There is always the possibility of this at times of equinoctial gales. I am not the least of those who are concerned, but if we are thinking of spending £30 million at Long Reach on a mechanical flood barrier which may be used only once every few years, would it not be better to spend that money on a permanent barrage, which would be about the same cost, at Woolwich which would not only keep out the flooding but give us all the other permanent advantages as well?

Thirty organisations called together the other day by the River Thames Society, passed a resolution which ended: The Conference calls on H.M. Government immediately to re-open the question of building a Thames Barrage and to hold further studies and enquiry into the planning implications of such a scheme for Greater London together with a study of present day costs and advantages, having regard particularly to the tendency in recent years for large port authorities to be opened and required further down river towards the Estuary. Therefore, a barrage at Woolwich would not be the disadvantage that it might have been to the port 30 years ago.

This scheme has long been advocated by Sir Alan Herbert, Professor Bunge, Mr. Bernard Clarke and others. It seems a far-off dream, but I believe that it is easily within the bounds of engineering and cost possibilities nowadays. I know that the Port of London Authority has its reservations, but it would have certain advantages. I believe that the time has arrived for an independent inquiry into the whole of this barrage scheme.

I was interested the other day to see that the Lightermen's Union has come out in favour of such a scheme, which would help the lighterage trade up and down the river above the docks.

As the first ever Inter-Nation Conference on Waterways is to be held in London next year, that would be an admirable time for the Government to be able to say that they are actively contemplating such an imaginative scheme for our chief river. It would put our river on a level with the Seine and the Rhine, or the Charles River at Boston and other great rivers of the world where the tide is held back. The country which has such a river as the Seine has the advantage of a controlled and gently flowing river, in which state we would, I suggest, like to see the Thames at Westminster at its best at all times.

12.42 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

I wish to intervene briefly since the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) has referred to my constituency and we have a great interest in the development of the River Thames. The hon. Member has done a great service to Thames-side communities in bringing this matter before the House this morning. As the hon. Member has said, great and wonderful opportunities are available to the country to increase its dollar earnings by the development of the whole of the Thames-side areas for tourist attractions.

The hon. Member suggested that that would be helped if a Thames flood barrier or lock could be installed in the vicinity of Woolwich. I should like to draw to the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State that if this were done, it would have a detrimental effect on the residents of my constituency of Erith and Crayford, who have been subjected to flooding over a considerable number of years. In addition, the Greater London Council is embarking on a bold and imaginative scheme of development for housing and recreation at Thames-mead, in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew). That development, as the hon. Member for Twickenham has said, will have a yacht marina, which will go a long way to meeting the needs which he has outlined.

To put the barrier up river from that would mean, however, that my constituency—and, indeed, yours, Mr. Deputy Speaker—would still be subject to the dangers of flooding. With the 60,000 increase in population which will take place at Thamesmead, I certainly hope that the Minister will not encourage the placing of a barrier further up river. If there is to be a barrier to increase the amenities of the River Thames, the overriding consideration must be that of the protection of the maximum number of Thames-side dwellers from the dangers of flooding. That can be done only if a barrier of some sort is put further down river to protect the maximum number of people, particularly those of my constituency.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams (Hornchurch)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) for missing five minutes of his speech but I listened to the rest of it with great interest. I know of the hon. Member's interest in this matter exending over many years. The House will, I think, know also of my interest.

I fully accept practically every word the hon. Member has said, except that I would give greater emphasis to the need to realise that the commercial viability of the River Thames is of paramount importance and all the rest follows from that. The attractiveness for overseas visitors is that it is a commercial River Thames. As hon. Members know, when sitting on the Terrace one sees ships of all kinds, from all nations, sailing by outside. It is not merely looking at pleasure craft which makes the River Thames attractive.

It is in that respect that I take every opportunity to raise the question of the use of the River Thames, which in the last 10 years, in terms of the amount of tonnage carried on the river and the work of the lighterage industry, has shown a drastic decline. The extent to which traffic now finds its way on to the road—which is one of the reasons why I was late in arriving here this morning—emphasises that we must attract traffic back on to the river where it properly belongs. The River Thames is a great highway which is greatly under-used.

I am very much interested in your proposal for a committee of inquiry to deal with the two aspects which you have put forward. I would like to declare my interest in saying that the lower reaches of the Thames also have their own kind of beauty, as well as the upper reaches to which you have referred.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The hon. Member is omitting to refer to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) in the traditional way.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

I beg pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was, of course, referring to the hon. Member for Twickenham.

I have commissioned some town planners to examine aspects of the waterfront in my constituency with a view to improving the amenities and the usefulness of the River Thames. The hon. Member for Twickenham can always rely on my support in developing the River Thames as an attraction both for tourists and for trade.

12.47 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

The House is clearly unanimous in congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) on raising this subject this morning. The hon. Member is right to stress the enormous importance of the River Thames to the country. It is important for transport of all kinds, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Alan Lee Williams) has said. Its banks are packed with history and, therefore, it is a wonderful place from which to do sightseeing. It has tremendous possibilities for sport. It has an obvious use as a water supply and it has tremendous advantages from the sheer pleasure of being on it and doing nothing at all.

The River Thames is important from a tourist point of view, and not only for dollars. Tourists come from all over the world and their currencies are very acceptable in terms of our balance of payments. It is not, however, only as an attraction for tourists from abroad, welcome though they are, that I look upon the Thames. It is, or could be, a tremendous attraction to the people of this country. I was delighted that the hon. Member for Twickenham did not concentrate entirely on the London area of the Thames. The Thames stretches all the way up to Seven Springs and, as the hon. Member has said, there are stretches of almost unbelievable beauty.

In stressing the under-use of the river and the imperfections of our facilities, we ought to be careful not to suggest that, even though we are not making full use of the river, even though the facilities on the riverside or on the river are not as good as they should be, it is not possible to have a great deal of pleasure from using the river.

I have had one holiday away from home in the last four years and it was on the River Thames, a holiday which I enjoyed enormously. I have from time to time gone down by river either to the Tower of London or to Greenwich and have found a great deal of pleasure in doing so. I would not like to put anybody off from using the river simply because all the facilities are not as perfect as we should like them to be.

It is, unhappily, true that the boats are getting pretty well out of date. Their catering facilities either do not exist or are inadequate. I have found their seats remarkably hard. I am surprised that the running commentaries, some of which are admirable, are almost invariably in English. I happened to take a trip along the canals of Amsterdam the other day. There the commentary was bilingual and it was done by a university student who was paid by the tips we gave him. The commentary was very effective. I do not understand why we do not realise that not everybody in the world speaks English, and it would be a good plan to have commentaries in French, or perhaps in German, as well as in English.

The trouble about the boats on the Thames at present is the old one of finance. I do not know which comes first. If we put on better boats, would that attract more visitors, or do we have to attract more visitors on to the boats first to make it possible for the owners to buy new boats?

Much the same consideration applies to the other amenities on the banks—public houses, restaurants and so on. Before we can get really good public houses, do we have to try to stimulate people on to the river, or should we stimulate people on to the river by having good public houses and restaurants on the bank-side?

There is, as I well know, an acute shortage of moorings. Some of the piers are getting pretty ropy. It is unhappily a fact that some of the piers and some of the steps are beginning to get neglected, because people do not use them. This may be a failure of public relations. It may be a failure of publicity in stimulating people to use the river.

The question of a through-path is a difficult one. It was examined some time ago by the Parks Commission, or whatever it is called. It was rejected on grounds of cost. Leaving that aspect out of account, so far as I know, on the whole the footpaths, especially those in the upper reaches, are reasonably well maintained. They are the responsibility of the riparian authorities where they are public, and not all of them are public.

I am horrified to hear from the hon. Member for Twickenham that vandalism is a serious problem. I have not come across it. When the amalgamations of the police forces to which the hon. Gentleman referred take place, it may well be possible to have more patrolling.

This is a rather bleak approach. I do not mean it to be, because I feel as strongly as other hon. Members do about the beauty of the river and its enormous potential. value. However, there are difficulties in, the way of getting things done. The fact that there are difficulties does not mean that nothing is being done or that thought is not being given to the sort of problems that the hon. Gentleman has paraded before us. For example, he mentioned the possibility of a floating exhibition centre and a floating swimming pool somewhere on the South Bank. This has been thought about a great deal. The London Tourist Board has fairly recently produced a pretty detailed plan for doing just that.

Then there is the question of the barrage or barrier, whichever it may be, which exercised the hon. Member for Twickenham and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved). I well understand the anxieties of my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford about the placing of either a barrage or a barrier. This idea has been very carefully considered by Departments, by a series of experts, and by consulting engineers. We are now actively looking at the fairly detailed proposals that have come to us. I understand that there is a serious possibility of a recommendation in principle being arrived at during the latter part of this year. This would not be a decision. It would be a means of putting the pros and cons before the House and the country and, I hope, of providing a full opportunity for detailed discussion. Until possible recommendations are made public, I do not think that there is the necessity for an independent inquiry of the type suggested by the hon. Member for Twickenham.

Another of the hon. Gentleman's suggestions, which at first sight seems to me to be particularly attractive, was for a single authority to consider the whole question of the river—its use as a form of transport, its amenities, its potentialities, the various pleasures it provides. At present there are almost literally dozens of authorities with some executive say or which, unofficially in an advisory capacity, are concerned with the river. Such a diversification of interested parties and executive bodies dealing with the river can sometimes lead to inaction. There is the Port of London Authority, the G.L.C., the boroughs, the Thames Conservancy, the South-East Regional Economic Planning Council, and so on, right the way along to the admirable River Thames Society, of which the hon. Member for Twickenham is President.

There may well be a case, because of the enormous importance of the river, for treating its future development as a project with one body to do the planning, subject to the authority of Parliament. I say that this suggestion strikes me as attractive. I could not make any promise on behalf of the Government, beyond saying that I will put this matter to my hon. Friends who are most immediately concerned, and seriously discuss with them the possibility of having such an authority, so as to make sure that we make the fullest possible use of this tremendous national asset.

Those are the points I want to make, bar one. We are talking at the moment about the River Thames. This is not our only river. We have some lovely rivers. We have some extremely good canals. We have a plentiful supply of water all over the country. Generally speaking, we do not make anything like the best use of it. The rivers abroad which the hon. Gentleman mentioned always seem more fully used and more pleasant to look at than our own.

I hope that both the hon. Member for Twickenham and other hon. Members who are interested in this subject will do all they can by publicity, by putting the heat on Government Departments, and so on, to ensure that in the future, unlike in the past, we make use of our rivers in a much fuller way, because they are such an enormous asset to every one in the country.

The debate having concluded, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER suspended the sitting till half-past Two o'clock, pursuant to Order.

Sitting resumed at 2.30 p.m.