HC Deb 02 April 1968 vol 762 cc179-81

3.36 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to authorise the setting of up public corporations to construct and manage motorways and other roads financed by tolls. This is not a new idea. Indeed, we have a number of special projects—roads, tunnels and bridges—financed by tolls, of which the Severn Bridge, which is near my home, is the most notable recent example. My Bill seeks to further the construction of toll roads in places where much improved through routes are greatly needed but which have little hope of achieving them in the foreseeable future. I refer to the outlying areas of the United Kingdom which are low on the list of priorities of the Minister of Transport. More effective through roads more quickly will mean that fewer of our towns and villages will have to be torn down to deal with the present congestion, and fewer communities torn apart by day and night traffic thundering between home and home.

It will not have escaped the notice of hon. Members that the West Country, which I have the honour to represent, and in parts of which I have lived all my life, has so far not had a single mile of motorway either planned or constructed since 1964, though a useful beginning was planned before that date. Lines on a map do not of themselves do anything to prevent delay, frustration and even death on our roads. Every year that goes by without proper means of access to the outlying areas of the United Kingdom means more depressed agriculture, more ruined holidays, more frustration, anger, accidents and wastage of human effort, not to mention the financial loss to the nation.

My Bill seeks to solve the problem of those who look like getting little or nothing in the way of decent long-distance communications this century. The most notable Minister of Transport of all, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) said that he did not rule out the possibility of toll-financed motorways, and I am not aware that the right hon. Lady who now holds that office has altogether set her face against toll roads. Government road building will always be at the mercy of the Chancellor's axe. Too much public money thrown about for political purposes tends to lead to economic crises such as that in which we find ourselves today, and the cuts which we have to endure are not just a temporary inconvenience, since they cripple our investment in the future.

Motorways corporations could get on with the job of building roads, whatever the political climate. Of course, they would work in harmony with Government planned roads, but would not be subject to the same fluctuations of enthusiasm. As a Conservative, I do not believe that the State should take all and then dispense benefits as decided by faceless people in Whitehall. Why not let people pay for what they want? Toll roads combine private enterprise and personal freedom, and Britain could surely do with a great deal more of both.

The House may wish to know on what evidence I base my claim. I could quote a number of other countries, some in Europe, but the United States will suffice on this occasion. Out of 24 major toll roads covering over 3,000 miles, only one is in financial difficulties, and this is due to an over-optimistic forecast of traffic in the early days of toll roads. Better connections to that road may well set it right. In the United States, toll roads are financed in the main out of revenue bonds—shares in the road whose interest depends upon the success of the project. Quite a low rate of interest would be attractive if tax concessions were granted, but that is by no means a necessity. Road revenue bonds in this country could be a productive form of national investment, a form of national savings benefiting the whole community. In the United States, 4.8 billion dollars were invested in revenue bonds in 1965. I am sure the House will want to know something about the toll costs. They vary, but they are infinitesimal compared with the wear and tear on cars and the petrol saved.

To summarise, the benefits that toll roads can bring are that the road construction programmes can be speeded up without increased taxation; payment can be spread over a number of years for which increased revenues will be available from the roads; benefits can be enjoyed sooner by a greater number of users; earlier generation of new traffic can produce revenue towards construction costs; once the idea is accepted, the certainty of funds makes for better advance programming; political pressures do not interfere with progress; national resources can be freed for other necessary projects or, better still, taxes reduced.

It is unfortunate that under our Ten Minutes Rule procedure we do not get a Ministerial reply on this occasion, but I hope that this short speech and the ensuing publicity will prepare the Minister for further and fruitful discussions. There is intense interest in this proposal. I have had many inquiries from the Press and from broadcasting institutions. Any idea which could bring about an acceleration in our painfully slow road programme surely merits Parliamentary consideration. That is why I ask the leave of this House to introduce this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Cooke, Mr. du Cann, Sir G. Wills, Dame Joan Vickers, Mr. Bessell, Mr. Carlisle, Mr. Geoffrey Wilson, Mr. Kenneth Lewis, Sir G. Nabarro, Sir S. McAdden, Mr. Ridsdale, and Mr. Emery.