HC Deb 07 November 1972 vol 845 cc964-74

10.30 p.m.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

I am sure that every Member receives numerous complaints from his, constituents about the congestion on our roads and the pollution caused by heavy goods vehicles. Southampton is a busy port, and therefore we have this problem even more acutely than do many other areas.

For years many of us on this side of the House, and the Labour Party, have been arguing that more heavy goods traffic should go by rail rather than by road. The 1968 Transport Act, with its provisions for subsidies for unprofitable rail routes, was designed to facilitate this and, when listening to the debate on the environment at this year's Conservative Party Conference, I was heartened to hear six out of the first eight speakers make this point. They all argued that more traffic should be transferred from road to rail.

Is it not, therefore, absurd that British Railways should be proposing to close their conventional rail freight service to Southampton Docks? In 1971 this accounted for about 292,000 tons of cargo. At a rough estimate, that means that if the rail service is discontinued about 29,000 extra lorries a year, or 80 a day, will use the roads through Southampton into and out of the docks, and I assure the House that these roads are already grossly overcrowded.

In addition, this decision means that more than 100 men employed at Southampton will no longer be required. I accept that the British Transport Docks Board has said that it will be able to re-employ on other dock work a proportion of this labour force, but I am also given to understand that the decision to close the railway freight service will mean considerable redundancy at the other end of the line; in other words, amongst railwaymen at South Lambeth.

What are the reasons given by British Railways for this closure? First, they say that they are losing £400,000 a year on the service. I agree that that is a large sum of money, but what consultations took place between British Railways and the appropriate trade unions, prior to the announcement of the closure, to see whether ways could be found of reducing the deficit. Secondly, what consultations took place between local management and the workers operating the service to see whether there were any ways of reducing the deficit? I understand that since the announcement of the impending closure reports of the workers in Southampton have produced suggestions for considerably reducing the annual deficit. Are these proposals being given serious consideration?

The second reason given is that this is a declining service. Again, what attempts were made by British Railways to provide the services and rolling stock which would have enabled them to attract more of the trade to rail? There are very good reasons for believing that they have deliberately run down the service to provide an excuse for closing it. I hope that the Minister will not argue that the 1972 tonnage figures show a reduction over those for 1971. Of course they do. If, as happened earlier this year, an announcement of the impending closure is made, the users of the service naturally begin to make other arrangements in anticipation.

All this follows a very familiar pattern. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Ron Lewis), who wishes to intervene briefly on behalf of railwaymen, will remember the closure by British Railways a few years ago of the boat service from Southampton to Le Havre. I was not a Member of Parliament at the time but I was a member of the local authority, and I attended the public inquiry. We were met with masses of statistics produced by British Railways, telling us that the service could not possibly be made to pay. British Railways pulled out, a Norwegian firm called Thorensen's moved in, made an instant profitable success of the service, and has now put on more ships. We are facing a repetition of that in this case.

When I wrote to the Minister about the closure I received the conventional reply that there was nothing he could do, because it was a commercial decision of British Railways. I received another letter today which contained one remarkable sentence, which must be a misprint. Dated 6th November, it says: But there are many cases where road transport is more attractive to the road hauliers than rail. Surprise, surprise!

This spotlights what is wrong with the Government's transport policy. I get the impression that the transport side of the Department of the Environment has little contact with the environmental side. What efforts have been made by the Department to measure the social and environmental effects of putting all these extra heavy lorries on to the roads in and around Southampton? My local authority, which is naturally very concerned in this matter, would be interested in the reply to that question.

There is also a proposal to build a new road, known as the Portswood Link, through the middle of Southampton, which involves pulling down 700 houses and, in my view, destroying the environment of the whole area. I know that the Minister cannot comment in detail on this, because he is presumably considering the inspector's report after a very long public inquiry, and he will have to make a quasi-judicial decision. But can he yet give us any indication of when he expects to announce the decision? As lie will realise, the future of many of my constituents' homes depends on that decision.

There is another aspect to this problem. I have already referred to nuisance, as well as congestion, caused by heavy lorries. Many of my constituents, particularly in the down-town areas, suffer the nuisance of these large, heavy juggernauts parking outside their houses night after night. They arrive at about 4 p.m. and often leave at about 4 a.m. Many of these lorries are so large that they obscure the light from both upstairs and downstairs windows, and cause traffic hazards in narrow residential streets. On one beautiful day in June I was invited to sit in one of these houses. Sure enough, at 4.10 p.m. a lorry arrived and parked outside. The occupant immediately had to switch on the electric light.

These lorries leave early in the morning, waking up the whole neighbourhood. One of the favourite parking places is around the Royal South Hants Hospital, and I have received numerous complaints from patients and staff. When one approaches the police on this matter, the answer is—I have a lot of sympathy with them—"Where do we send the lorries? There is no point in transferring the nuisance from one street to another."

There is an urgent need for properly regulated lorry parks to which the police can direct these lorries. Earlier this year the Department of the Environment produced a document on this matter and recommended a chain of major lorry parks, with accommodation and restaurant facilities for drivers. I understood that one of the first of these was proposed for a site at Nursling, on the outskirts of Southampton. Will the Minister say what has happened to that proposal? Is the Department still interested? What finance will be provided by the Department?

All the points that I have raised show a need for urgent action by the Department. Ministers travel around the country and make speeches about the environment, but I want to know what practical action they are prepared to take to back up their fine words.

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)

It is a long way from Carlisle to Southampton, but I do not apologise for taking a few minutes of this important debate. I do so because by trade union, the National Union of Railwaymen, is very much concerned with what is happening at Southampton and in other parts of the country.

Any railwayman will say that British Railways have a very happy knack of running down certain services two or three years prior to a closure. That has happened all over our railway system. When I worked on the railways before becoming a Member of the House there was a saying that if a manager could close railways he was considered an essential person.

What is happening in this case does not end at Southampton. I appreciate the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill). Sooner or later someone in Britain will have to face his responsibilities. This traffic must return to British Railways.

Five thousand tons of freight passes through Southampton every week. I understand that this closure is imminent, and that 5,000 tons of freight will go on the roads. As a trade union we are concerned about this, as are the other unions in the railway world. In Lambeth alone at least 500 men will be made redundant immediately if this project goes through. That will involve 500 families, and that figure can be multiplied. An immense amount of traffic will be passing from the railways on to the roads.

Even at this late hour I hope that the Minister will consider the representations made to him by my union and others.

Before agreeing to this closure I hope that he will re-examine the question, so that this essential traffic, which has been transported by rail for many years, can continue to go by rail, thereby helping the people involved.

Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)

Would the hon. Gentleman agree that not only areas such as Southampton are affected, but also large areas—I am thinking particularly of my own Haven ports—where the development of the railways could be of the most enormous benefit ecologically and from the point of view of the development of the regions?

Mr. Lewis

I agree with every word uttered by the hon. Gentleman. I appeal to the Minister to have another look at this matter with a view at least to helping to solve the problem. We have an unemployment problem now. If this closure goes through it will swell the ranks of the unemployed.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

I agree wholeheartedly with my colleague from Southampton, the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell). There is a problem here. I think that the cause is that there has been little or no liaison between British Railways and the Ministry, so that this line is to be closed without anyone having made sure that there are adequate motorways and other facilities to take the traffic, which I calculate will amount to another 160 lorries per week.

There will be severe congestion. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the matter once again to see whether a solution can be found for the short term.

10.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I appreciate the keen interest which has been shown by the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) in the problems of coping with road traffic generated by Southampton Docks. He is naturally concerned with the effect that this has, and will have, on the local environment. His concern has been evident from the many letters that he has written and the Questions that he has asked. I also appreciate that that concern is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. James Hill).

There is, unhappily, an ever-increasing conflict between the needs of transport for industry and commerce and the desire of individuals for a better environment. We are all aware of this conflict. But we must not forget that the well-being of individuals depends on fluorishing trade and commerce. Southampton has built up its prosperity on the docks. What we must seek to do is to reconcile these conflicts in the best possible way. I shall come in a moment or two to certain long-term proposals for dealing with the environmental problems raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Money).

The hon. Member for Itchen suggested that British Railways' intended withdrawal next spring of their present freight wagon service to the docks will be a retrograde step, taking traffic from rail to road and aggravating the present traffic situation. I wish to put that decision into context.

A decision by British Railways to withdraw or continue a freight service is a matter for their commercial judgment. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Transport Industries has no power to intervene. Despite the powerful emotional plea made by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Ron Lewis), I must stress that my right hon. Friend can only satisfy himself that there has been adequate consultation and that notice has been given. In fact, it is well known that considerable consultation over this matter has taken place with the unions. All these things have been done. It is a decision of British Railways, made by railway men. I fully understand the feelings of the hon. Member for Carlisle, and I acknowledge his pride in his connection with rail transport.

Mr. Lewis

The hon. Gentleman says—rightly, from his point of view, no doubt—that this is a decision made by railway men. I differ from him there. The tragedy is that at one stage we had the old-time railway man who could go right to the top, who knew the railways from A to Z, but we have brought in so many experts from outside—and now look at the mess we are in!

Mr. Eyre

I understand the hon. Gentleman's feelings, but I must stress that it is essentially a British Railways decision. The board has to act in what it believes to be the best long-term interest of British Railways.

I come now to the reasons for the decision. In 1971, the existing service carried nearly 300,000 tons of freight. Total costs were £1.6 million, and revenue was only £1.2 million—an operating loss of £400,000, or well over £1 per ton carried. It is forecast that in 1972 the tonnage will drop to 170,000 tons, a little over half the 1971 figure, with a consequent fall in revenue and a larger gap between expenses and receipts.

British Railways are satisfied that they cannot bridge this widening gap. They are under a duty to make the railways commercially viable, and they must cut their losses.

Nor, if the services were retained, could there be any guarantee that freight would not continue to go elsewhere, as is already happening. During 1972, with the service available almost half the freight business has evaporated and we must therefore consider what would happen in 1973 should the process continue. There is no evidence that the shrinkage in the amount of freight carried has seriously worsened the position on the roads. Some traffic may well have transferred not to the roads but to the Freightliner rail service.

It has been suggested that the consequences would be serious if the service is closed and that a large additional load would be thrown from the railways on to the roads. That cannot be substantiated. The proposed withdrawal is confined to the freight wagon service to and from the docks, involving about 10 trains a day. Passenger and mail trains are unaffected, as are other rail freight services. The Freightliner depots within the docks area at Millbrook and Redbridge will continue. Redbridge is the new main line terminal, which entered into operation this year. It caters for five container trains per day in each direction, the same total number as are being withdrawn.

Rail freight will continue to be handled at the full-load depot at the Milford sidings just outside the dock area. Such freight will require transport to and from the dockside, but that will be confined largely within the docks area, and will therefore have a minimal effect on outside roads.

The decision to withdraw the freight wagon service has been taken in consultation with the docks board, and it is being accompanied by improvements in the dock facilities for road vehicles. There will be no delay in the discharge of ships or any loss of efficiency in the working of the port. Even so, some freight will doubtless get on to the roads. How much will it be? Will it be significant? It is difficult to say what the quantity will be. The answer to the second question will almost certainly be "No". The figures must be considered in the context of the scale of operations at the port.

The annual amount of freight passing through Southampton Docks is about 28 million tons. The amount now being handled by the freight wagon service is 170,000 tons—a little over ½ per cent. of the total business—and it has been falling. It would probably be less than ½ per cent. in 1973 if the service were retained. The question is raised how much this represents in terms of lorry loads. A Question has been put down on that point and I do not wish to anticipate it. It is difficult to judge for various reasons.

It is far from certain what traffic will go on to the roads. It depends on the nature of the goods and the average size of the load. It could, however, be fairly confidently asserted—and this differs from the information given by the hon. Member—that we are talking about not more than 50 additional lorries per day on the roads on the very worst assumptions, and probably even less. That number is minimal in the context of the great number of vehicles already travelling daily to and from the docks.

I appreciate the concern of the hon. Member about existing traffic. As he knows, many road construction and improvement schemes have been completed or are now in the pipe line. A new bridge is planned to ease congestion on the A27, on the eastern approach, and various new roads are in planning.

I will refer quickly to some of these. The main north-south route to Southampton will be the M3, with the M27 running east and west to the north of the city. The completion of the section of the M27 between Ower and Chilworth and part of the section between Chilworth and Windhover, together with the Portswood Link—the M272—to the east and the Nursling Link—the M271—to the west, will eventually provide a motorway box on three sides of the city, thereby protecting the centre from docks traffic. This will be a wonderful improvement when carried out. In addition, the Western Approach Road will link the southern ends of the M272 and M271. The greater part of this road is already dual three-lane.

The Portswood Link—the M272—is a proposed local authority special road for which the city council is the responsible highway authority. I appreciate the local concern about this road. Objections have been made to the proposal, largely because of the very heavy property demolition involved. This is understandable. To consider these objections a public inquiry has been held, which will examine the implications.

There are three main aspects to this. The first concerns the proposals for the Portswood Link. The second relates to certain motorway proposals for the interchanges and side road alterations on the Chilworth—Windhover section and, thirdly, there is the upgrading of the Otterbourne—Chandlers Ford by-pass—the A33, in Hampshire—to special road status. The inspector's report is awaited, but some time will inevitably elapse before my right hon. Friend announces his decisions, as the most careful and detailed consideration must be given to the complex and contentious issues that arise. I am sorry that I cannot give an accurate estimate of the time needed, but I assure the hon. Member that the decision will be taken at the earliest possible date. As the decision is sub judice I cannot comment on its merits tonight.

The Nursling Link will provide access to the Western Dock area. It runs northwards from the M27 to the A3057 and southwards to the A35 at Redbridge. It is expected that an interchange will be incorporated in the Nursling Link to provide direct access to the motorway from a proposed lorry park and container depot to be situated on the westside of the link.

The hon. Gentleman properly complained of the damaging effect of parking by heavy lorries, and he will be glad to know that work is proceeding apace on the provision of lorry parking facilities. Following the publication of the report of my Department's working party on parking of lorries in 1971 a regional working party on lorry parking in the Portsmouth and Southampton areas was set up by the Department. Its report is due to be issued shortly. Membership of the working party included representatives of the county and city councils, the police authority, employers associations and the Department.

The lorry park will form an essential link in the national network of secure lorry parks which my Department's working party recommended should be set up and for which the Government have agreed to provide £10 million to defray the cost of sites. In due course this network of lorry parks, providing hotel accommodation for drivers with every facility for overnight stops, plus secure parking for their lorries, will be making a worthwhile contribution to the improvement of the working conditions of the transport drivers and the environment generally.

I appreciate the concern of local inhabitants, expressed tonight by both hon. Members representing Southampton. We must reconcile the needs of Southampton as a docks area and a pleasant city to live in.

I hope that I have shown that it is wrong to think of the proposed withdrawal of freight wagons as a significant factor in what are, in any event, increasing road difficulties. Even on the worst possible assumptions only a small amount of additional freight will be added to the roads, and plans are in hand for roads which are more than adequate to cope. The environmental problems caused by road use which is essential to the prosperity of the Southampton Docks must be tackled on a wider front, the major elements in that battle being an improved and expanded primary route network, recommended lorry routes, and lorry parks. We are tackling all these problems.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eleven o'clock.