HC Deb 06 November 1968 vol 772 cc1035-46

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

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Michael Alison (Barkston Ash)

It is very agreeable and helpful for me to be able in a short debate to draw the attention of the House and the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport to a most serious accident that occurred in the town of Selby, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, in my constituency, at the beginning of August.

Damage was caused to the Selby Toll Bridge when a vessel sailing upstream on the Ouse tried to navigate through the gap left when the toll bridge swung open, and struck one of the timber baulks of which the bridge is built and by which it is supported in the river. As a result of the damage the bridge had to be closed to road vehicle traffic for three weeks.

The House will appreciate the seriousness of what this meant both to the bridge and to Selby when I remind it that the toll bridge carries the A 63 trunk road which links not only the town of Selby to the town of Barlby adjacent across the river but also the whole of the West Riding of Yorkshire to the East Riding, and is also the principal trunk link between the West Riding industrial complex—Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield and the rest—and the Port of Hull in the East Riding, one of the principal East Coast ports in the British Isles to which much of the West Riding industrial production goes.

I digress here to point out that the Selby Toll Bridge has very few alternatives. If the bridge is closed there remain only the bridge over Wharfe at Tadcaster, the Cawood Bridge, a small light bridge unsuitable for industrial traffic, and the Booth ferry bridge.

The disruption caused by the closure of the Selby Toll Bridge for three weeks was unimaginable. I challenge the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to recall any occasion when a major trunk road of this importance linking one of the largest concentrations of industrial population and industrial production in the British Isles —namely, the West Riding—to perhaps the third or fourth greatest port in the British Isles, Hull, has been closed to vehicle traffic for three weeks. I believe that it is without precedent in the history of trunk roads since motorised traffic came into being. A major trunk road may have been closed for three hours, or three days, or even a week, but never, I believe, for three weeks.

I need hardly point out the fantastic difficulties this entailed for the local population in the first place. If one lives just to the west of Selby and has a job five miles to the east, this means, normally, crossing the bridge. During the three-week closure, people in such circumstances had to make a detour of about 35 miles to cross an alternative bridge.

Many local firms were affected. They include British Oil and Cake Mills, Rank's Flour Mills, Fletcher's Sauce and the Danish Bacon Corporation. The latter, which is on the west side, has Danish sources for its supplies and carries on much of its trade through Hull, on the east side of the river. For three weeks, all these firms and others were unable to use the bridge for normal commercial purposes. The large Cochrane shipyard is also on the west side and Fletcher's Sauce is on the east.

The financial loss to Selby traders and firms was probably incalculable and I have two testimonials to that effect. The National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs wrote that traders' turnover was cut to less than half, perishable goods were delayed or diverted and carried at a loss, and that it could only surmise as to the cost to industry. Obviously, if perishable goods were involved, very substantial financial losses were entailed and this even applied to such goods as machinery in having to make a huge detour of 30 miles or so.

The Selby Chamber of Trade wrote: The closing of Selby Toll Bridge…has, and still is, causing severe hardship to the local business and trades people in the Town, through a drastic drop in trade. Further…the cost of deliveries, time and wear and tear of vehicles, has soared to incredible degrees. One of the larger firms in the town normally pays over £7,000 a year in tolls to cross the bridge. At the height of the summer activity, the bridge was closed, entailing additional financial cost The hon. Gentleman should also visualise what happened to the local services. The Selby Fire Brigade is on the west side of the river but the town of Barlby, which is across the river, is really an integral part of Selby and shares the services not only of the fire brigade but of the ambulances. A hazardous situation arose for Barlby because fire engines could not get across from the west side of the river to attend to fires there. This meant that appliances had to be brought in from Bubwith in the East Riding many miles further away, and there was that additional hazard.

There were pictures of these things in the papers, for it frequently happened that patients had to be carried by stretcher from one ambulance to another across the toll bridge in order to be taken from the West Riding side of the town to York hospital, or possibly to Hull, and sometimes in the other direction, for one of the features of this rural area has been the tendency to concentrate hospital services, so that more travel is involved. For three weeks the disruption on the major trunk route, was unimaginable. I need not dwell on the repercussions further afield. The principal cities of Leeds, Bradford and Wake-field were effectively cut off from the Port of Hull for three whole weeks. That it can happen makes the imagination boggle, and I do not think that anything of the kind has ever happened before.

I do not believe that the Parliamentary Secretary or his Department can allow the risk of this ever happening again, but the risk is still there. It lies in the fact that Selby Toll Bridge is an antiquated, 18th century, wooden swing bridge which is quite inadequate not only to carry modern vehicular traffic across it, but to deal with the volume of river traffic now seeking to go under it, a growing form of traffic in the East and West Ridings. Perhaps I may draw the Parliamentary Secretary's attention to a letter which I have received from a correspondent with whom I keep in touch in Selby, someone whom I may describe as a boat spotter. He is a young man, Mr. John Adamson, who is kind enough to furnish me with regular details about the movement of shipping. In January, of this year, he wrote: I am confident that the volume of shipping using Selby will continue to increase during 1968. Twenty-seven ships have already visited the town this year, and I was informed today by one wharfinger that a ship carrying 1,100 tons of cargo is due to arrive at his wharf next week. This may well be a record cargo for Selby. Another firm of wharfingers have informed me that they are to load two shipments of molasses during February and others may follow. These shipments will be the first of their kind in recent years, and the tankers, which are to be chartered from a London firm, will be large vessels by Selby's standards". The risk of this further damage to the toll bridge at Selby is obviously increasing and that makes the bridge even more inadequate to modern needs.

I must draw attention to the fact that if the Selby Toll Bridge is closed, the alternative routes are themselves extremely vulnerable. It so happens that Cawood bridge, which is one of them, by a stroke of fate sustained an accident in the very same week that the Selby bridge was closed and was therefore also closed. At the same time, the Booth ferry bridge is a somewhat unreliable swing bridge and is frequently closed. If Selby and Cawood and Booth ferry bridges were all closed simultaneously, which is by no means beyond the stretch of imagination, the whole of the West Riding industrial traffic and traffic from over the Pennines to the Port of Hull would be affected. Hon. Members will appreciate the difficulties for this traffic which would have to be routed by the A 64 through Tadcaster, which is already an intolerable bottleneck.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

There was a time during the closing of the Selby Bridge when the Booth ferry bridge was also closed.

Mr. Alison

I can readily understand that.

We now look to the Government to act in the present situation. Action can no longer be delayed. The risks and the damage liable to be caused not just to a town but to the whole of West Riding industry and the Port of Hull are too serious to brook any further delay. First, the Government must assume responsibility for the supervision and the conduct of the Selby Bridge. Secondly, they must make early plans for at least replacing, but preferably duplicating, the bridge across the Ouse at Selby.

Thirdly, the Government must honour their pledge, given by the Minister's Department in 1954, to free the Selby Toll Bridge, with fair compensation to the owners, as a first priority, and as the first toll bridge with a trunk road to be freed.

First, the action with regard to responsibility. It must be the Department's responsibility to take over as soon as damage is caused to the Selby Toll Bridge. It is its trunk road and vehicular traffic is its responsibility. If the bridge is damaged and closed, it must assume responsibility immediately. It must be brought into the question of the scale of expenditure, repairs and the type of contractors involved. It cannot be left to private individuals.

As to the replacing or duplication of the bridge, I must ask the Minister to refresh his memory about a meeting which took place in Selby, on 30th August this year, between representatives of the East and West Riding County Councils, the Selby Urban District Council and the Ministry of Transport. They discussed the possibility of an alternative route, a by-pass of the town of Selby, and reached a unanimous agreement about a new route. I quote from the minutes of that meeting: The Meeting accordingly resolved that the Minister of Transport be urged to take immediate action to abandon the Southern By-Pass Order"— that was the Order prevailing up to the time of the meeting— and to authorise the preparation of the necessary plans for the new route"— that is the northern route— with a view to its securing an early place in the road programme. We want the Minister to comment on this. This was a representative meeting which reached agreement that there must be a new by-pass, the northern route, and the abandonment of the old southern line. The new route was to be up Scott Road, Flaxley Road and eastwards across the river, north of the oil and cake mills. We want a date for that inclusion of this new route, and an associated bridge in a published road programme.

Let me draw the Minister's attention to some comments made by my predecessor, Colonel Sir Leonard Ropner, in an Adjournment debate on 20th July, 1960. He said: …the Minister gave me the pledge…that of all the toll bridges in the country the Selby Toll Bridge would be placed at the top of the list of all the bridges to be cleared. At that point the then Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Hay) interrupted and said: Toll bridges on trunk roads."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th July, 1960; Vol. 627, c. 688.] With that qualification the pledge given in February, 1954, was that of all the toll bridges in the country, the Selby Toll Bridge would be placed at the top of the list of such bridges to be cleared. I want the Parliamentary Secretary to reiterate that pledge and associate the Government with it.

Secondly, I want him to confirm that his Department will, at an early date, confirm the new line, the northern by-pass route agreed by representatives of his Department, the East and West Ridings and Selby U.D.C. Thirdly, I want a firm undertaking that there will be a date for the inclusion of a Selby by-pass and a new bridge in a published road programme. This is the least that the town of Selby and the East and West Ridings can reasonably expect.

An antiquated 18th century toll bridge is totally inadequate for the needs of the locality and the country, and it is intolerable that it should be possible for a trunk road to be closed to traffic for as long as three weeks. Can the Parliamentary Secretary give us some encouragement and hope for the future in this important local matter.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary for allowing me a minute in which to support many of the arguments made by the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison). I had the opportunity earlier this year of raising this matter. It is of prime importance to the future of the whole of the East Riding, and concerns our connections with the industrial West Riding and the Midlands. We depend upon this most inadequate bridge. It is shocking that a small accident, with a barge ramming one of its piers, can put the bridge out of commission for such a long time, with such a tremendous increase in costs for people transporting goods. It causes great inconvenience and expense for people concerned in the vital export industry.

10.45 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

The hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) has performed most assiduously his duties as a Member on the issue of the Selby Toll Bridge. On 8th August this year, he sent a telegram to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport when the bridge was damaged, and he was most energetic in ensuring that he was kept in close touch with the progress of repairs. Likewise, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) has also pursued this matter with great vigour and raised the question of communications, of which the Selby Bridge is a part, in the whole of the East Riding of Yorkshire.

The hon. Member for Barkston Ash has this evening vividly described the serious difficulties caused for traffic by the unfortunate damage to Selby Bridge which necessitated its closure for three weeks during August. As we know, and as has been described by both hon. Members, crossings over the Ouse are widely spaced and any incident of this kind inevitably involves long detours and throws an additional strain on routes which may already be inadequate to cope even with the traffic that normally uses them.

I do not want the House and people who use Selby Bridge to think that we are turning a blind eye to the problems. The Government have long been aware of the inadequacy of the general communications over the Ouse. We know of the particular difficulties experienced at Selby, even when the bridge there is functioning normally, let alone on the exceptional occasion when it has to be closed to traffic.

Following the publication of Ministry proposals in September, 1965, for a new network of trunk roads in the Humber-side area, some of the local authorities concerned suggested an alternative network. This would have included a new route on an alignment close to the exist- ing A63, thus providing an effective bypass of Selby and ending the dependence of east-west through traffic on the Selby Bridge.

But there were many other considerations involved in the choice between the two alternative networks. My right hon. Friend, now the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, considered all the factors with the utmost care and heard the views of all the local authorities concerned, including the Selby Urban District Council, before finally she decided to adhere to the proposals originally published by the Ministry.

These proposals, as the hon. Member will know, consist of a new east-west route between Ferrybridge on the Al and Gilberdyke on the A63 west of Hull and a new route running north-eastwards from Doncaster and joining the first at East Cowick. Both these routes, which were included in the first instalment of the trunk road preparation pool announced in February, 1967, will be constructed as motorways and will form extensions to the M62 and Ml8 motorways, respectively. They will include a new high-level crossing of the Ouse at Hook. This bridge will be able to carry all the through traffic between Hull and the west, south-west and south and will to that extent relieve Selby considerably. By increasing the facilities available for communication across the Ouse, it will at the same time ensure that the consequences of any future occurrence similar to that to which the hon. Member has drawn attention would be much less serious than they are in the condition of today.

It is, of course, true that it will be several years before this new network can be completed. This is inevitable because of the enormous amount of survey and design work involved and the need to carry out the appropriate statutory procedures for establishing the route and the side-road modifications and for authorising the acquisition of the necessary land. We are, however, pressing on with this work with all possible speed.

We realise, of course, in the Department, that the construction of the new motorway network will not provide a complete answer to the difficulties caused by Selby Bridge. The hon. Member has been at pains to make this point. This was indeed expressly recognised by my right hon. Friend when she met objectors to her original proposals for the Humber-side network in June, 1966.

She then said that if she confirmed the network as proposed it would still leave the problem of Selby and in that case she would investigate separately what improvements might be made there. Since the confirmation of the proposed Humberside network, discussions have accordingly been proceeding with the local authorities concerned to explore the possibility of carrying out a scheme to deal with the traffic problems that can be expected to remain when the motorway network has been completed.

The most promising solution appears to be a line to the north of Selby which would involve a new bridge across the Ouse about a mile to the north of the existing toll bridge. Now that this preliminary conclusion has been reached we are considering the inclusion of the bypass in the next list of schemes to be announced for inclusion in the trunk road preparation pool. The hon. Member has pressed hard for a firm date to be set for construction of this road, and I am sorry that I cannot be as explicit as he would like.

If this were the only scheme in the country requiring to be undertaken, life would be easy. I should be able to promise it on the spot to the hon. Member and other hon. Members for the area who have been pressing the matter over the months and years. But we have to establish priorities in drawing up our list of road schemes to be included in the preparation pool. This particular scheme will have to compete for a place with many other urgent schemes throughout the country, and I cannot at this moment anticipate what my right hon. Friend's decision will be and when it will be announced. But I can promise that, provided the scheme does secure a place, we will ensure that it is developed without delay to the point at which it can be considered for firm programming for a specific year. This is not the answer which the hon. Member hoped for, but I assure him—and my hon. Friend—that if we are able to give them brighter news at some time about its inclusion in the preparation pool, we shall push ahead as fast as we can, and let him and the local authorities know we can go ahead.

Again, we recognise that even if we can some day promise this new bridge, it will not provide an immediate answer to the Selby problem. The hon. Member has stressed how intolerable conditions would be if the existing bridge were out of commission again for any length of time. He has shown that existing traffic still has to be coped with in the normal situation and will encounter a most awkward problem in the event of a further closure. We have looked seriously at one constructive suggestion which hon. Members have been asking for, and this was the idea of a temporary bridge, but there are great problems here, because there would have to be road works on both sides of the bridge, which would mean demolishing a quite large amount of property. Also, the bridge would either need to be a high level bridge or it would need to be a mechanical bridge. It would be extremely expensive, particularly since it would be for only a limited period, till the new by-pass and bridge were built. So this was really not a feasible solution.

There remains the possibility of improving the existing toll bridge. The hon. Member is very rightly concerned lest the bridge is at any future time out of action again, and I understand that the bridge owners are anxious as well that this should not happen again. That is why they are thinking about improvements to the bridge. I must make it very clear at this point that the toll bridge is privately owned, although it connects trunk routes, and the Ministry has no locus at all in the question of the actual bridge. So it is not open to my right hon. Friend the Minister to decide to carry out any improvements. He has no power to do so. This is a matter entirely in the hands of those who own the bridge. But as I have already indicated, it so happens that the bridge proprietors do intend to reconstruct the bridge in a way which would result in substantial improvement. We shall, of course, be pleased to co-operate with the bridge proprietors in any way which may be necessary to ensure proper co-ordination of their proposals with considerations affecting trunk road traffic, and we hope that their proposals for action will lead to an alleviation of the situation during the period before the longer-term trunk road proposals can come into operation.

I am sorry that, for want of time, I am rather rushed now, but I can say, on the question of the promises made at one period by other Ministers, that I myself have been in great detail into the whole question of tolls and bridges. The position of the Department on the cost of buying out tolls, of compensation, is that, since bridges would need to be replaced in any event, it is better to go ahead and use the money to build new bridges, instead of using the existing bridge and spending perhaps a great deal of money in trying to bring it up to a satisfactory standard.

To sum up, therefore, we have already announced and will implement as quickly as we can an extensive and costly motorway network that will considerably reduce the importance of the route through Selby for through traffic. We are considering the inclusion of a Selby by-pass in the trunk road preparation pool, and some relief is to be hoped for from the reconstruction of the existing bridge, towards which we shall be happy to offer our co-operation. I trust the hon. Member and my hon. Friend will accept this as evidence of our real concern to do all in our power to remedy the deficiencies to which he has so vividly drawn attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Eleven o'clock.