HC Deb 09 May 1972 vol 836 cc1276-86

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I am glad to have the opportunity provided by this short debate to put before the Government, at rather greater length than has been possible in letters and parliamentary Questions, the imperative reasons why I believe that the Government should authorise the crossing by road of the Dornoch Firth and why I believe they should do so now.

The proposal to bridge the Dornoch Firth at the Meikle Ferry is not new. Indeed there are extant plans drawn up by the great Telford well over 100 years ago for this bridge. I hope that the Under-Secretary will not regard that fact as providing any justification for the Government's further delaying in coming to a decision.

I am conscious that Ministers have on a number of occasions expressed interest in, understanding of, and even sympathy for the proposal, but tonight I hope that we shall have evidence from the Under-Secretary that the Government intend to take action.

The more recent history of this proposal stems from the decision of the Sutherland County Council in October, 1967, to raise in its county development plan the question whether this scheme should be included and to go ahead. In November, 1968, an approach was made to the Scottish Development Department suggesting that the preliminary studies should be put in hand. This was in the context of the economic strategy of the Highlands and Islands Development Board for the development of the northern Highlands based, with the approval of the then Labour Government, upon the development of two areas—the area which came to be known as the Wick-Thurso axis in Caithness and the area known as the Moray Firth Development Area.

The Highlands Development Board and the then Government believed that these areas could be the foundation of major industrial growth, in the one instance based upon the possibilities and needs associated with the prototype fast reactor development in Caithness and in the other instance based upon observed natural advantages of the Moray Firth area with its flat land and deep water which would provide suitable harbours for major industry and the back-up for the then Government's decision at that time to locate an aluminium smelter there.

It is not necessary—indeed I do not wish so to take up the short time available to me—to rehearse all the exchanges which have taken place since that time between myself and members of successive Governments. The Minister will be aware that this has been a matter which I have constantly sought to bring to the attention of successive Governments and Ministers. I want to find out in a clear and unmistakable way where the Government stand today in this matter.

The arguments in favour of the bridge must, however, be briefly repeated. First, the principal argument is that for the northern Highlands communication is a paramount factor in its development. Air communication is enormously useful and growing in importance but it has a limited capacity for freight. Coastal freight transport has a minor rôle to play. The railway in recent years has shown an unwillingness to take on the job of ferrying freight from the North to the markets in the South. British Rail has proved singularly uncompetitive with road transport. For example it decided, about six years ago, not to take livestock any more and appeared unwilling to foster the development of rail transport for freight purposes.

The roads are the most vital lifeline for the northern communities. The proposal to bridge the Dornoch Firth is part of a scheme which has been universally advocated throughout the northern Highlands for bridging the three Firths—the Beauly Firth, the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth—to compensate for the geographical obstacle of distance which these northern communities face in seeking to promote industrial development.

Looked at from the perspective of the North, not from the angle of vision with which the Under-Secretary of State undoubtedly views these matters from within St. Andrew's House, the proposal to bridge the Dornoch Firth is of at least equal importance to my constituents in Caithness and Sutherland as the schemes to bridge the two crossings further south Indeed, the saving in time which would be effected by bridging the Dornoch Firth would be substantially greater for my constituents travelling from Caithness than would be the saving effected by the bridging of the two firths further south which is now to go ahead.

The importance of this communication link to all industries, not merely to manufacturing industry, cannot be too strongly stressed. However I must particularly single out agriculture, as the store markets and the transport of livestock require large and growing numbers of animals to be transhipped annually out of my constituency south over a road which is singularly ill-equipped and unsuitable for the purpose. I refer to Struie, the A836. Indeed it must be remembered that for many of my farming constituents, their markets lie not in the central belt but in areas north of Inverness. Therefore important as improvements are to the A9 further south, this improvement is of paramount need.

Some estimate of the benefits which would be derived from these savings is shown by the following figures. On the journey between Wick and Invergordon there would be a saving of 19 miles if the bridge were built across the Dornoch Firth, which is 22 per cent. of the total journey. On the journey between Golspie and Invergordon there is the same saving but this time it is 44 per cent. of the total journey. If the three firths were bridged the saving in total journey from Wick to Inverness would be 31 miles, which is 22 per cent. of the total journey.

I need hardly stress to the Minister the shortcomings of the A386. It is hazardous in winter with precipitous inclines and sharp turns. I need not stress its unsuitability for the carriage of all freight but particularly the carriage of livestock. The benefit of a road which avoids this hazardous route is immeasurable. It cannot be measured by any of the conventional cost-benefit analysis techniques.

The benefit would be not only to those going south, but also to those going north, particularly the tourists. It would be of benefit to the Burgh of Tain which at present, because of the existence of the A836, loses out on the tourist trade. It and the whole of the area would be benefited by the construction of the trunk road. When the Orkney roll-on, roll-off ferry is completed and is sailing from Scrabster in May, 1974, the motor link with the Orkneys will be considerably improved. The tourist traffic, which is growing at an annual rate of about 25 per cent., will be enormously assisted, as will be those living in the northern isles who wish to travel south. It should be said in passing that with the growth of tourism on that road there is no fear that Bonar Bridge and places north and west would be cut out by the existence of such a bridge. The main tourist interest continues to be in the North and West and one would expect that traffic to continue.

But none of these factors brings urgency to the debate. They are continuing and good reasons for treating this matter as important, but not necessarily with the high degree of urgency which I would ascribe to it tonight. The situation has been made critical by the economic development which has taken place in the Moray Firth under the impetus of the Labour Government and the Highlands and Islands Development Board in the first instance and continued by the present Government with the exploitation of oil resources in the Moray Firth.

The Minister must agree that this development has proceeded at a pace quite in excess of anything that could have been estimated two years ago. The build-up of jobs in the Easter Ross area and further south in the Moray Firth has been simply phenomenal and it can be expected to continue at an increasing rate. The Jack Holmes Planning Group when it produced its report about three years ago predicted that the growth of population in that area by the end of the century would be about 250,000 to 300.000. I have it on the best of authority—from the Highlands and Islands Development Board—that it is expected that there will be 6,000 new permanent jobs in the area by 1974. This has massive consequences for the development of the infrastructure of the whole region, consequences which I believe the Government have not as yet fully taken into account or adequately responded to.

The planning officer of Ross and Cromarty has pointed out that by next year there will be in Easter Ross a requirement of 4,700 new houses to deal with an influx of 6,100 workers—indeed, that the infrastructure costs in Easter Ross to take account of the growing oil industry developments will soar in the next three years to about £50 million, which is about £8,000 per job. So we are talking about massive development of a kind which is not, I believe, paralleled in any other part of Scotland at this time. It is in this context that the Government should be looking at the costs associated with the relatively minor infrastructure project of bridging the Dornoch Firth.

There are economic reasons why the Government should consider this scheme immediately. Not only are these developments taking place which will throw some light on the total cost factor, but we are faced with a serious economic situation in Sutherland and in particular where the population has dwindled over recent years to something below 13,000 for the first time in its history. We are also faced with an unemployment rate in my constituency of 10.3 per cent. We face the prospect of a population drift. The situation is quite encouraging at present in Caithness because of the work associated with the Atomic Energy Authority's reactors there.

The number of school leavers is rising annually both in Caithness and Sutherland, and in the region as a whole it is about 450 this year and is expected to rise to about 650 in three years' time. These young people have to have jobs provided for them. An immediate source of jobs to hand lies in the developments of the oil industry in Easter Ross and this is of particular importance and of potential benefit to those living in the eastern part of Sutherland. the catchment area that extends at least as far north as Golspie in the east and as far west as Lairg.

To enable us to take advantage of these employment opportunities, the bridge over the Dornoch Firth would be critical. I believe also that it would ease to some extent the immediate problem of Ross and Cromarty. It is important to note the anxiety that has been expressed by the chief planning officer not about the possibility of dealing with this question in the long term but about the problem of meeting the needs of the industry that is there now in the short term. These needs, I believe, can be met by opening up some of the jobs at least to those now living in Sutherland. Also, the advantage to those living and working in Easter Ross of being able to travel north to Sutherland and enjoy recreation there hardly needs underlining.

What about cost? The figure put on this project in 1968 by the Scottish Development Department was £1 million for the crossing, including the approach roads. It has to be admitted that the cost has probably escalated in the time which has elapsed to something nearer the £1,800,000 calculated by the development officer of Sutherland on the basis of the costs of bridging the Kyle of Tongue. It is not for me to spell out how the project might be carried out, but it might be by causeway and bridges or by a dam with sluices. The cost might be approximately the same in each case but it is partly to discover that that the Government should embark on an engineering study straight away, to carry out the necessary preliminary inquiry into the most economic way of bridging the Dornoch Firth.

On costs, I should make a minor debating point. If the Government are prepared to spent £30 millon on a gunnery range at Tain, it is not too much to ask them to spend £1.8 million on this new bridge, which would be of lasting and inestimable value.

The matter is put into perspective by the admirable assessment in the Glasgow Herald by Aeneas Allen who estimated that by the end of the century £1,000 million would have been invested by industry in connection with the oil industry in the area. The Highlands and Islands Development Board considered this a matter of importance and the Secretary of State has told me that it regarded it as a project having the highest priority which should be considered as early as possible.

The secretary to the Board wrote as follows: The Board's attitude to the proposed bridge remains as before. We regard it as second in priority to Ballachulish. We feel that the provision of a bridge over the Dornoch Firth at Meikle Ferry will be a logical and important development both for East Sutherland and Caithness and, in a few years' time, for Orkney when the roll-on/roll off ferries are operating. Now that Ballachulish has been accepted and the Secretary of State has approved the crossings over the Beauly and Cromarty Firths we now regard the Dornoch Bridge as the next major improvement to be secured. What is the attitude of the Government? It remains somewhat obfuscated In 1970, just before the General Election, the then Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon), said that the Dornoch Firth crossing was principally a communication question with planning and developmental advantages which were largely self-evident. He said that an engineering investigation was needed with a cost benefit evaluation.

I agreed with that then and I agree now. That is the situation and the Government should get on with it. What are they doing? It is unclear from the various parliamentary replies I have had from the Government what their intentions are. It was suggested in the Under-Secretary of State's letter to me of 4th February, 1971, that we might do well to wait to take advantage of the development of technology in bridge building, but if that is what we have to wait for we shall have to wait a long time and population drift will have become so disastrous that Sutherland's future will be in question. Do we have to wait for the growth of the tourist traffic rate to justify this in cost benefit terms? That would be a long time.

Do we have to wait until the A9 road to Inverness is completed? If so, we shall have to wait until the end of the decade before the envisaged bridge can be built. Surely the Government do not believe that to be advisable. Do we have to wait until the Cromarty and Beauly bridges are completed? That would not be in the best interests of the northern Highlands as a whole. It will not be before 1978 at the earliest.

I hear that the Government have let the cat out of the bag. It was reported in The Press and Journal of 30th April, 1971, that the deputy chief road engineer of the Scottish Development Department, Mr. R. A. H. Allen, spoke of there being: just a possibility that some time later"— that is after the Beauly and Cromarty Firths were bridged— there would be a crossing of the Dornoch Firth. That was headed: Over the Firths by 1980. If that is the position, will the Minister come clean tonight and say that not until 1980 can we expect to have that firth bridged? Then we can make our plans accordingly. If that is not the position, will he say that we are to be able to take advantage of the economic developments taking place in the oil industry in Easter Ross and give us a proper estimate of when this will happen?

11.11 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) for raising a matter of great importance, particularly to his constituents. He has raised this matter often in the House but, as he has said, this is perhaps a better time to have a rather longer debate than usual. In thanking the hon. Member for raising this subject and particularly for the way in which he has put the matter tonight, may I accept absolutely his assessment of the general desirability of the bridge.

Both I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accept that this is a desirable project, from the point of view of the people of Sutherland and the people on both sides of the Firth who would make use of such a bridge and also from the point of view of the far north of the Highlands. As the hon. Gentleman will know, my right hon. Friend said as recently as 20th April: I have myself for some years past been aware of arguments in favour of such a scheme and called attention publicly to them." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 141.] There is no doubt in the Government's mind that a crossing at Meikle Ferry would bring considerable benefits to Caithness and Sutherland both directly by shortening the main north-south lines of communication and indirectly by making a whole range of economic activities easier. I assure the hon. Member that we look upon it as a most desirable scheme, particularly bearing in mind the present and prospective developments in the oil industry and at Easter Ross and the Highland area to which he has referred.

Because a proposed road scheme can be shown to be desirable from the point of view of the people living in an area, this does not mean it necessarily must or indeed can be put in hand straight away. Although much valuable work in improving the Scottish main road system has been and an expanded road programme is at present being implemented, many schemes of modernisation or reconstruction are still urgently needed in many parts of Scotland.

Present funds available now and in future are limited in view of the vast demands made upon them. I emphasise the large amount of work either being done or planned on the strategic routes serving north and north-eastern Scotland particularly with a view to the development of the oil industry. For the A.9 as the main route northwards from central Scotland we have published draft orders for a new route between Inverness and Invergordon, while south of Inverness preparations are in hand for bypasses at Dunkeld and Ballinluig and the replacement of the Almond Bridge north of Perth is being prepared. A comprehensive range of improvements is planned about which we hope to make further announcements shortly.

Similarly the work already started to improve the main route between central Scotland, Dundee and Aberdeen—that is, the A.85 and A.94—is to be accelerated. Further south the recently completed M73 link road between the Glasgow-Carlisle and Glasgow-Stirling roads—

Mr. Maclennan rose

Mr. Younger

I do not have much time.

Mr. Maclennan

It is not good enough—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)


Mr. Maclennan rose

Mr. Younger

I must ask for a little courtesy from the hon. Gentleman. I listened with great patience to his speech.

Mr. Maclennan

It is an absolute scandal.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must kindly keep to his seat.

Mr. Younger

I am trying to answer courteously a courteous debate started by the hon. Gentleman. It is rather hard that we should have—

Mr. Maclennan

No information.

Mr. Younger

Whose fault is that? I have a speech planned to last a quarter of an hour. I am not complaining—

Mr. Maclennan

I am.

Mr. Younger

The hon. Gentleman should complain to himself.

It may bring the point home more clearly if I name a few major schemes in the Highlands which are being prepared for inclusion in the road programme during the next two or three years. There is the bridging of the Loch Leven narrows at Ballachulish, planned to begin before the end of this year, the improvement of lengths of the Ballachulish-Oban and Lochgilphead-Oban roads, the continuing reconstruction of the Fort William-Mallaig road—

Mr. Maclennan

On a point of order. Is it in order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the Minister to use the opportunity that I have provided by raising the subject of this narrow crossing of a stretch of water in my constituency to describe the entire roads programme for the whole of Scotland?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member knows that that is completely and exactly an example of a bogus point of order.

Mr. Younger

I absolutely despair of the hon. Member. If he had wanted to give me full time to answer the debate he could have finished after a quarter of an hour. I have a lot of interesting information to give the House and I am trying to give it. I have now wasted much of the little time that I had. I am normally not a difficult person in these matters.

We are sure in the Government that in giving each of these projects—and others that I could mention—priority over a Meikle Ferry crossing we are doing something that is right for the Highlands. I am sure that the money available is used in the most effective way for the Highlands. I ask the hon. Member to reflect upon what he might have been saying by way of justified criticism if we had been putting the priorities in reverse and had been improving part of the northern stretch of the A9—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.