HC Deb 25 January 1971 vol 810 cc277-90

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

4.28 a.m.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport)

This scheme of an access road in Newport has been given fresh impetus by the Government's decision, announced on 17th November, to authorise the Port of Bristol's West Dock expansion scheme, under Section 9 of the Harbours Act, 1964. But it first came into focus in 1967, although the British Transport Docks Board was aware of its possibilities for several years before.

The difficulty has been putting the scheme into the road programme, because it cannot be justified as a principal traffic road, and therefore grant aid was not available. Anyone who visits the site does not have to be a planning expert to realise that the project is a "natural", since a rudimentary track already exists on the route of the proposed road.

Mr. Jim Iles, the former Town Clerk of Newport, pursued the idea energetically, and on 7th September, 1967, the Council's General Purposes Committee agreed in principle to a £500,000 scheme to build the road. The new timber terminal of Messrs. MacMillan, Bloedell & Meyer Ltd., which was officially opened on 8th September 1967, by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition when he was Prime Minister, undoubtedly encouraged the committee in its decision. It was felt that traffic for the terminal would need quick access to the M4 because it was intended to distribute from Newport as far afield as Manchester and Plymouth.

The first stage of the road development envisaged was an improvement at the junction of Mendalgief Road with Cardiff Road at the Belle Vue roundabout. Then the long term idea was to take the docks traffic along the existing Maesglas Road and from there by means of a new bridge on the Cardiff Road near the Forge Lane roundabout. The committee tentatively agreed that the council should make a contribution of £100,000, and the Welsh Office was prepared to make a recommendation to the Treasury for a similar amount, and that would have left £300,000 to be found by the British Transport Docks Board and the Ministry of Transport.

However, the method of financing came adrift because the Board refused to make a contribution. I was keen for the work to go ahead and, in an effort to get the Board to have second thoughts on the matter, on 11th October, 1967, I met the Chairman of the Board, the late Mr. Sidney Finnis, at his London office. However, he was adamant in affirming that, in principle, his Board would be just as justified in putting money into the M1.

Nevertheless, in the past schemes of a similar character have been embarked upon. For example, an access road was provided by Newport Corporation for the Spencer Steel Works, with a contribution from Messrs. Richard, Thomas and Baldwin; a road at Talbot Green, in connection with Fram Filters, for which the Board of Trade made a 50 per cent. grant, and the provision of an access road to Southampton docks.

However, the Board was right to point out that it, the Board, was a substantial ratepayer in the borough. In 1966–67 its contribution in rates was £226,000. In 1967–68 and 1968–69 it was nearly £140,000. There was a considerable drop in 1969–70, because the docks had been closed for several months due to technical difficulties with the lock gates.

The amount paid in rates by the Board, it is important to understand, is based on the level of profits, which is another compelling reason for the building of the road, for it would provide a quick linkup with the motorway and directly improve the efficiency of the docks. This, in turn, could mean more trade and bigger profits, with a correspondingly greater return in rates for the Corporation. It would, in other words, be an excellent investment all round.

There are other important grounds on which this docks access road to the motorway can be justified. Consider, for example, the improvement that would be made in the environment of the area. One of the first decisions of the present Prime Minister on taking office was to appoint a Minister especially to have responsibility for the environment. But it is the practical application of measures to improve things that really count.

Hon. Members will be aware of the difficulties that arise from the movement of heavy lorries, such as noise, fumes, and congestion. In a busy town like Newport this is a considerable problem. At a stroke, this heavy traffic going through the town and its residential areas, to the docks could be diverted and the journey speeded up. The citizens of Newport would certainly welcome such a development.

The town is a busy industrial town, and geographically it is excellently sited, with immense possibilities for economic growth. The flats east and west of Newport have been officially designated by consultants acting for the Government as one of the outstanding sites in the whole country for a maritime industrial development area scheme. It also figures very prominently in the projected Sevemside development of which we are likely to hear a good deal in the near future. In July last year we had the report by the University College, Cardiff, on Maritime Industry and Port Development in South Wales, and it pointed very directly to the need to construct a direct road link from Newport docks to the motorway.

My constituents have a great affection for the docks, for it was there that it all started, and Pill—Pillgwenlly to give it its full title—is still regarded as the heart of the town.

Now, a new and dangerous situation has arisen with the decision of the Government to authorise the Port of Bristol's major expansion scheme. It is the biggest threat to Newport and the South Wales ports generally for a long time. As the South Wales Argus in an editorial article on 20th November, 1970, pointed out: If carried through such a scheme must inevitably take trade from South Wales and this could mean fewer jobs and less prosperity for the area where there is already under-utilised capacity in the ports. This is not a plea for the spoon-feeding of the Welsh ports. In the end, they will stand or fall on their efficiency or otherwise. But there are more practical and more general considerations. Development could take place at the South Wales ports more quickly, efficiently and at a fraction of the cost of the West Dock scheme. I appreciate, though, that commercial considerations have been of little concern to this Government for they have been engaged in a vote-catching exercise, and in the process may have put all the South Wales ports in jeopardy. Regularly every weekend, long before the General Election, one or other of the members of the then Shadow Cabinet trotted down to Bristol and poured out the simple message: "Vote Conservative and you can have your port development." Competition is their parrot cry, but surely even the members of this Government will eventually realise that we are only a tiny island that that our ports have plenty of competition from the Rotterdams of this world.

The present Secretary of State for Wales has a great measure of responsibility for the decision, but I appreciate that his real job in this administration is chairman of the Conservative Party——

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

For which decision?

Mr. Hughes

Presumably, this was a Cabinet decision, and the right hon. and and learned Gentleman, as I understand things, is the voice of Wales in the Cabinet. One looks back with nostalgia to the days of his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. George Thomas), for then the ports of South Wales had a real and genuine spokesman in the Cabinet.

Surely, though, even a Government as heartless as this can appreciate the need at the present time for this dock access road in Newport. The total cost was estimated at only £500,000, which is a mere pittance compared with the £12½ million of public money that has been authorised for Bristol. It is Newport of all the South Wales ports that is nearest to its rival on the other side of the Channel, and which will bear the brunt of the new challenge. Is it too much to ask, then, for this small concession to help improve its competitive efficiency?

The other side of the coin is the Newport Corporation. I apologise for the fact that for nearly four years it has been controlled by the Conservative Party, because for sheer ineptitude it has won a few first prizes. Its housing record, and the entanglement and mess it left over the reorganisation of secondary education are but two examples. On 11th January the planning committee met to consider the future of the docks. The meeting was held in secret session, after the Press had been excluded, but apparently a decision was taken to set aside the sum of £4,000 to fight the Port of Bristol's Parliamentary Bill. Afterwards the town clerk made a statement, and I should like to read some extracts from the statement which appeared in a report in the South Wales Argus dated 12th January: The town clerk, Mr. John Long, warned that the chances of Newport stopping the Bristol plan were nil. He stated that even if they were successful in getting the Bill rejected at the Committee stage in one or other of the Houses of Parliament there seemed little doubt that the Government would use its majority to get the Bill through Parliament at the Report stage. The Government was politically committed to allowing the scheme to proceed as promises to this effect had been made before and during the General Election. Mr. Long pointed out that the British Transport Docks Board, who were the sole opponents of Bristol's 1967 scheme, would not be opposing the present Bill. Barry was the only local authority prepared to join Newport in opposing the Bill. He added that at the hearing by the Select Committee, Bristol would be able to make a great play of the fact that the Bill was not being opposed by the Docks Board, Cardiff, Port Talbot or Swansea.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. I have a feeling that the hon. Gentleman is not, strictly speaking, in order on an Adjournment debate. It seems to me that he is talking more about something which is in the purview of the local authority's responsibility and not something for which the Minister has responsibility.

Mr. Hughes

This, strictly speaking, is a joint exercise between the Ministry and the Newport Corporation, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What I want to say is that this statement was a highly charged political statement, and that such pronouncements should be made by elected representatives and not by officials. The best contribution that the Newport Corporation can make to the future of the docks is to push full speed ahead with the plan to build a dock access road, which is the subject of this debate. Yet in practice, one finds that little effort is being made. A joint meeting was held with representatives of the Welsh Office, the Docks Board and the borough council——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman's speech is entirely out of order. He had better try to put what he wants to say in a few words and as soon as he can, and get back into order. Government responsibility is what is germane to an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Hughes

In a Parliamentary Answer to me on 2nd November, the Secretary of State for Wales pointed out that Divergent views were expressed about the priority and financing of such a road. In the light of the discussion I am considering whether there is any further way in which the Government can help."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd November, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 648]. Questions were then asked about this matter at a meeting of the Public Works Committee on 4th November, but the official requested the Press not to report his reply but confirmed that there was no money in the estimates for such a road and also that no provision was made in the present five year capital programme for such a road.

I am sorry to dilate on this point, but it is very much an interrelated matter. This is yet another example of what I mean by ineptitude, and the increasing tendency for secrecy is also indicative of a faltering Administration. In any case, I do not share this conception of the inevitability of the Bristol scheme going ahead, and neither do my Labour parliamentary colleagues in South Wales, for we shall fight it in every way possible. On Friday of this week the Caledonian Society in my constituency will recall the immortal memory of the Scottish bard with the visit by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), the former Secretary of State for Scotland. I say this because it is worth remainding ourselves that The best laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley". This could well happen with the Bristol plan, particularly when the ratepayers of that famous city realise that it is they who will have to foot the bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member's speech is still not in order. We cannot deal here with the ratepayers' responsibilities.

Mr. Hughes

I am just coming to my conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is a good deal of concern in Newport today about the future of the docks. On Saturday, 9th January, I met a large delegation representing all registered dockers at the port, and they were led by Mr. James Heaven, J.P., Newport and district committee chairman of the Transport and General Workers' Union. They expressed very forcibly to me their concern about the future, and particularly about the need for such improvements as the access road to which I have referred.

I want to be able to assure the port workers of Newport that efforts are being made to improve the efficiency of the docks, which, in turn, could mean bringing in more trade and successfully competing with Bristol even if the development scheme goes ahead there. What I expect from the Minister, therefore, is an assurance that the money will be found for this vital scheme. It is essential at the present time to improve the efficiency of Newport, and, surely £500,000 is not an impossible sum to be raised by the Government and a prosperous county borough like Newport. I feel that the project should be given the go-ahead without further delay.

4.46 a.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

Perhaps it was fortunate that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Newport (Mr. Roy Hughes) made his speech to an empty House at half-past four in the morning, for I do not think that he has furthered the cause of Newport by the partisan line which he decided to take. However, having said that, I very much welcome his raising of the issue of this important road at Newport docks.

The prosperity of the South Wales ports has been a matter of considerable interest and care to this and to previous Governments. What is happening on the other side of the Bristol Channel has little relation to the Newport problem, as is shown by the fact that very few local authorities in South Wales have sought to support the hon. Gentleman's argument in this case. If the burghers of Bristol wish to find money for their port, it is equally open to the hon. Gentleman and his burghers to support their port if they wish to do so. The Government are not giving money to Bristol.

Good road access is an important requirement of any modern port, and this is a point which has to be kept constantly in mind by any authority planning highway improvements. It is something which my right hon. and learned Friend and I are particularly conscious of in Wales. Traditionally, the South Wales ports have depended on good north-south road and rail links with the Valleys to provide a free flow of coal for export. The new need is for good east-west links by road to meet the changing industrial pattern in South Wales. I have seen the line of this proposed road and have travelled along part of it as it now stands, as has the hon. Gentleman himself. I should not like it to be thought that road communications between Newport and the rest of the United Kingdom are poor. They are already good, and within the next year or so will be still further improved. The M4 motorway which passes around the north of Newport will have been completed to London by the end of this year. Work is also now in progress on the final stage of the new Midlands road, which should be completed to link with the M4 at Coldra, just east of Newport, towards the end of next year. Schemes are, in addition, being prepared to continue the M4 westwards to Swansea and beyond. We are, therefore, considering only the last mile or so of road between the main excellent highway network serving the Borough of Newport and the docks entrance itself.

I must make clear the limitation which exists in the Government's own direct responsibility for providing a new access road into Newport Docks. The hon. Gentleman himself touched on this. The Government can take, and have taken, a hand in bringing together the interests which are mainly concerned with this problem and can help to secure agreement and action. I think that the borough council and the Docks Board accept, however, that the primary responsibility for building the road must rest with the borough council, which will be the highway authority. I cannot speak for the borough council.

I should, however, like to make it quite clear that in our discussions with officials of the borough they have left us in no doubt of their very considerable interest in, and concern for, the welfare and prosperity of the docks; they have made it clear that it is their council's policy to do all that it reasonably can to encourage and support the Docks Board in its plans for the future well-being of the docks.

The stretch of road we are talking about will be about one mile long and will run from Maesglas Road westwards to join the A48 road, east of Tredegar Park, which is the present western terminal of the M4 motorway. Its estimated cost—and I correct the hon. Gentleman here—would be about £700,000 in the first stage, when it would be constructed as a single 24-ft. carriageway. An additional £120,000 would have to be spent eventually to convert it to dual carriage- way standards. It is therefore quite a major scheme which needs proper justification.

This justification can be considered under three heads. The first is the greater attractiveness of Newport Docks to traders if there is first-class road access to the M4 motorway. I can understand that all concerned are most anxious to ensure that the Newport Docks, with the excellent facilities they already enjoy, also provide direct access to the major communication links with all parts of Britain.

The second advantage results from the speeding up of traffic between the motorway and the docks. The present roads are far from ideal and there will be a reduction in congestion costs if journey times can be reduced.

I should say here, however, that there has been some doubt about the magnitude of these savings. At our request the Docks Board estimated last year the number of vehicles which might use the new access road as a result of developments within the docks. The borough council is also aware of developments outside the docks which might generate traffic on the new road. It was concluded from these studies that although traffic flows could not be precisely forecast, it would take some time before they came up to the capacity of the proposed road.

I would not wish to make too much of this point as an argument against building the docks road. The cost of the road is, however, considerable. One of the matters which clearly has to be considered in this, as in other projects, is the need to ensure that such an investment would bring a worth-while return when compared with other important highway improvement schemes within the borough.

The third advantage lies in the field of town planning. This again is primarily a matter for the borough council, which appreciates that a situation in which heavy vehicles to and from the docks have to pass along residential streets and through built-up areas is undesirable. In so far as a new access road would remove this traffic from the town centre it would therefore undoubtedly be of benefit for that reason.

I should now like to come to the present situation in relation to the road. As the hon. Member will know, both during the previous Administration's term of office and more recently meetings have been held between my officials and officials of the Docks Board and the borough council to discuss this scheme. The most recent meeting took place on 6th January, 1971. It was agreed at this meeting that the most promising way of making progress might now be to consider the docks access road in its broader context, as part of the general pattern of future highway improvements within the Borough of Newport, rather than, as in the past, as an isolated spur road leading from the A48 road to the docks.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there were considerable difficulties, mainly relating to finance, in getting agreement to build the road on this latter basis. These difficulties were, in the view of those who took part in discussion about them, not to be overcome by relatively minor changes in the proportions in which the costs might have been borne. This new approach is a matter where once again I cannot speak for the borough council. The council is, however, already preparing plans for future highway developments within the borough in the light of future planning and traffic needs. I understand that one possibility might be a proposal for a new highway of which the docks access road could form a part. It has been invited to submit its views to my right hon. and learned Friend on this idea as quickly as possible.

Such a proposal would, of course, have to be considered in relation to the transport pattern within the whole of the borough, and there would be planning implications which would have to be the subject of further study. The council might, however, wish to approach my right hon. and learned Friend to see whether such a new road could be given the status of a principal road so that it would qualify for a 75 per cent. grant when it is built. My officials have invited officials of the borough to consider this possibility. Responsibility for the highway system within the borough rests, of course, with the council and it is for the council to make its plans and fix its priorities.

I must also keep an open mind at present on the planning and financial implications of such a proposal. I can give the hon. Gentleman, however, an assurance that if, as a result of the considerations which the borough is giving to the matter, my right hon. and learned Friend receives an application for a new principal road to be built serving the docks as part of a comprehensive scheme for highway improvement within the borough, he will give it his earnest consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Five o'clock a.m.