HC Deb 17 December 1975 vol 902 cc1609-20

2.19 a.m.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans (Carmarthen)

On a television programme shown tonight—perhaps I should say "last night" since it is now 2.19 a.m.—the question which I was pressed to answer was whether there was any purpose in holding this debate on the Floor of the House since the Secretary of State had already given his answer, in his room in Whitehall last night. That answer is published in this morning's papers. Despite that, I think that the debate can serve an important purpose in awakening the ratepayers of Dyfed to what the Government are doing to them. It is the voice of the people which will compel the Government to dispense justice.

In view of the limited time, I will concentrate on what I believe to be the Government's moral responsibility for the greater part of the tremendous escalation of the Cleddau Bridge scheme costs, from about £5 million to about £12 million.

Building the bridge was a Pembrokeshire matter. It was Pembrokeshire which was empowered to build it by the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965. But the financial burden now falls on all Dyfed, and the people of the old counties of Carmarthen and Ceredigion do not yet realise what has hit them. Every ratepayer these days is weighed down by the burden of rates and sometimes there are complaints about the expenditure of sums that are tiny in comparison with the amount involved in the Cleddau Bridge.

The deficiency in 1975–76, if there were no rate levy to meet it, could be about £1,500,000. This will have to be paid annually out of the rates if the Government evade their duty to help. To illustrate what this means to Dyfed I give four comparisons. This sum exceeds the whole cost of the maintenance and cleaning of unclassified roads in the county of Dyfed. It is approximately £250,000 more than the whole cost within Dyfed for the provision of residential care for the aged. It is more than the whole not cost of the fire service in Dyfed and it is approximately two-thirds of the net cost of the police service in Dyfed. If the amount were not charged to the rates the deficit in 20 years' time would be £34.77 million. When this is realised from Llanelli to Aberystwyth 200,000 Welshmen will call for the reason.

Before noting the stages of the Government's deep involvement in the Cleddau Bridge scheme I make the point that to say—as Government spokesmen sometimes do—that the previous Conservative Government did not help is no reason for persisiting in this Treasury-inspired attitude. Perhaps the hon. Member for Llanelli (Mr. Davies)—who is Minister of State at the Treasury—will find an opportunity of helping.

The Government's responsibility started when the then road engineer of the Welsh Office requested that the bridge design be submitted to the Minister of Transport for approval. In consequence of this Welsh Office request, a meeting took place at the offices of the Ministry of Transport on 18th March 1968, with five Ministry officials. Following that meeting a letter was sent from the Welsh Office on 10th April, 1968, to Freeman Fox & Partners, the bridge designers, confirming that the design was acceptable to the Government.

This is an extremely important point because the primary cause of the bridge's collapse was a fault in design. The interim report of the Merrison Committee left this in no doubt. Para. 17 states: As a result of all our investigations and discussions we are left in no doubt what so-ever that the primary cause of the collapse of the Milford Haven Bridge was a failure of the diaphragm over Pier 6, and that this failure was certainly not primarily due to manufacture of the bridge or its components. The diaphragm as designed simply was not strong enough to resist the severe compressive forces it was subjected to during erection. The point to emphasise is that the Government had approved the faulty design which caused the collapse. I hope the Under-Secretary will not repeat the specious reasons given me by the Secretary of State on 24th November for rejecting the comparison between Cleddau and Ronan Point, where the Government had subsidised the rebuilding of high-rise flats—in the local authority sector—after a tragic collapse of part of the block. He contended then that the Ronan Point situation was quite different from Cleddau because the Government had in Ronan Point had: a close concern in safety and design aspects. None of these is a Government responsibility in respect of the bridge."—[Official Report, 24th Nov., 1975; Vol. 901, c. 467.] I have shown that even before the bridge was built, the Government had shown a close concern for its design and therefore for its safety. If this concern is the reason for a Government subsidy for rebuilding Ronan Point, it is equally valid in the case of the Cleddau Bridge. The two situations in their relation to the Government are almost identical.

It was after the collapse of a similar box girder bridge at Yarra in Australia that the then Secretary of State for the Environment stated in answer to a Parliamentary Question that the Government—once again the Government, one must note—were appointing an independent technical committee to examine the basis of design and method of erection of large steel box girder bridges"—[Official Report, 5th November 1970; Vol. 805 c. 447] This became known as the Merrison Committee. The main purpose of the Committee was to produce a code of practice to replace the British Standard 153.

Through this action in setting up the Committee the Government's concern for the bridge increased greatly. They became still more deeply involved in the delay in its rebuilding, and more responsible for the increased costs because rebuilding could not be resumed until the Merrison Committee Report. The final Report did not appear for 28 months, the period during which inflation gathered force. Can central Government, whatever its political complexion, deny all responsibility for inflation? The Committee produced a new code of practice which should be universally followed, and the bridge has served as a most valuable guinea pig since then.

Apart from Cleddau, the only large box girder bridge under construction in the United Kingdom at this time was at Avonmouth, and this had reached approximately the same stage as Cleddau. There had been no collapse there, yet the two-year delay on it increased costs by £6 million. This increase was shouldered by the Government without demur because the Avonmouth bridge is on a motorway.

The Government, however, refuse to help the Dyfed council, which has inherited the problem after the Government's reorganisation of local authorities, another Government responsibility. The financial connection between the ratepayers of Carmarthen and Ceredigion and the Cleddau Bridge arose only because of the dismal reorganisation conceived by the Labour Government and executed by the Conservative Government.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting, as the Secretary of State did yesterday, that if there had not been local Government reorganisation it would have been right for the whole of this burden to fall on the people of Pembrokeshire. An amount of £1,400,000 would add perhaps 10p or 11p on the rate, a 20 per cent. increase. Surely that would have strengthened the case still further for the Government to intervene and rescue the helpless local authority.

Mr. Evans

That would have been an absurd situation and the Government could not have met it with the kind of equanimity which seems to have been produced to meet the situation I am describing. Ceredigion and old Carmarthenshire would not have been involved but for the Government's reorganisation.

Now the Government are rejecting their responsibility on the ground that whereas Cleddau was built for a local authority under a private Act, Avonmouth was wholly a central Government responsibility. This is a mean and unconvincing way of evading responsibility.

Even before the Merrison Report was published, pressure was brought by the Government on the Pembrokeshire County Council to agree to adopt the Committee's recommendations. The Committee itself made it known that it would like to be in a position to frame its report in the certain knowledge that the council would comply with its rules. The interim Report of this Government Committee says, we make a number of recommendations which we feel of sufficient importance that we regard their immediate applications as mandatory. The chief highway engineer of the Department of the Environment specifically asked the county council to adopt the recommendations, which themselves, quite apart from inflation, added immensely to the cost.

The Department of the Environment said that their adoption by local authorities "is strongly recommended". This was followed up by a letter dated 23rd August 1971 from the Welsh Office to the Pembrokeshire County Council endorsing this, and adding, Obviously any structure which did not fully satisfy the generally accepted criteria would be a factor against the selection of a new trunk road which incorporated it. That is, the chances of trunking the bridge road, as the county wants, would be nil if the Merrison recommendations were not implemented. The Welsh Office letter further stated that the approval which had been given to the council to borrow money should be regarded as based on the assumption that the bridge will be completed in accordance with the recommended criteria. Yet after all this close involvement with the design of the original structure, with the rebuilding of the bridge and even after exhausting every means of compelling the council to delay rebuilding at a time of inflation and to implement the Government's recommendations, the Government with a deadpan face deny any responsibility for any share of the costs, telling the people of the old shires of Carmarthen and Ceredigion, who were brought into the matter by Government legislation, that they must bear the whole burden of the financial consequences of the accident, equivalent annually to the cost of maintaining and cleaning the thousands of miles of unclassified roads in Dyfed.

The Government tell us that they have no money to do justice to Dyfed ratepayers, yet yesterday the same Government decided to subsidise a wealthy and powerful American motor car corporation up to about £170 million. I wonder which funds they will rob to enable that to be done. Even if they refuse to bear their fair share of the costs of the Cleddau Bridge, surely they could at least make Dyfed an interest-free loan to cover those costs on the understanding that any insurance moneys received by the county will be passed on to the Government. Will the Minister, if he rejects again the idea of the grant which justice demands, at least consider that proposal?

1.32 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Barry Jones)

I have listened with interest to what the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Jones) has had to say about the Cleddau Bridge and about the financial problems which are faced by Dyfed County Council. To take up his first set of remarks, I think that all these debates that take place in the Chamber are of importance. I cannot agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's numerous and unjustifiable epithets that he worked into the skein of the argument.

The ground that the hon. Gentleman has covered is familiar. The arguments have been rehearsed again and again. I have met two deputations on this matter and only yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. and learned Friend met a further deputation of hon. Members representing constituencies in Dyfed, including the hon. Gentleman. On 24th November there was a fairly lengthy exchange during Question Time, during which my right hon. and learned Friend said that he was always ready and willing to listen if there were something new to say. Yesterday in the Welsh Office, in front of a deputation of hon. Members, he repeated that assurance.

What we are hearing is not new and what the hon. Gentleman has said tonight is not new. The country has already made its case for Government help. My right hon. and learned Friend studied the case thoroughly and sympathetically but he did not consider that he had any real choice but to decide that he could not ask the taxpayer to bear the burden of what is a county responsibility, or the rest of Wales to forgo such a proportion of its share of the road fund as to stop or delay, for example, the important development of the M4, which the Government and the Department consider one of the most significant keys to our jobs campaign, and one which we wily not sacrifice.

It is well known that this Government do not shirk their moral responsibilities. They never have, and they never will. But there is no such responsibility on the Government to subsidise the county council in the difficult situation in which it finds itself over the additional cost of this bridge, no matter how much we may sympathise with it, as we do.

Much has been said about the history of this dispute, as it might be described. May I add to that? The scheme was prepared in 1964 by Pembrokeshire County Council, and it was made clear by the Welsh Office that it was not considered to qualify for inclusion in the central Government programme of grant-aided schemes. The county council knew that there was no question of financial assistance for the bridge and, indeed, it was its intention to pay for it completely out of tolls.

To go a little further, what happened was the very tragic accident in June 1970 when part of the bridge collapsed, and I am sorry to say that four men working on the construction of the bridge were killed. Arising out of that, we had the Merrison Committee, with its very through investigation of box girder bridges.

The delay while the investigation was being carried out and the need to redesign and strengthen the bridge to what I think were the necessarily stringent Merrison criteria meant an increased cost from an estimated £3 million to about £12 million. It is that escalation in cost which has brought about the council's financial problem. But it does not in any degree alter the balance of responsibility between the council and central Government.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned responsibility. First, it must be said, harsh though it may seem, that when a county council decides to go it alone, it enters into its independence of government for better or for worse. As my right hon. and learned Friend has said already, the Government cannot be perpetually waiting in the wings as a universal insurer. There can be responsibility on central Government only it there is some special circumstance arising out of the events of the collapse which makes the Government responsible. I cannot accept that any such circumstances exist.

One of the factors in the increase in costs was the passage of time between the collapse and the resumption of building, during which time the Merrison Committee investigated and reported.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

Will the hon. Gentleman enlarge a little on this matter of responsibility and explain at what time the counties of Carmarthen and Ceredigion made this decision?

Mr. Jones

Even at this very late hour the hon. Member can ask some rhetorical questions. I am sure that by the end of the debate I shall have given as much detail as possible, given the time and nature of the interventions.

The Merrison recommendations had to be translated into redesign. The central Government had a duty, in the light of what happened here and in Australia, to investigate the structure of box girder bridges. It was common prudence on the part of any bridge builder to await the results of that investigation before carrying on. A great deal of expensive research was carried out, which benefited those executing or contemplating bridge schemes, for which the taxpayer footed the bill. It would be very harsh indeed if the taxpayer were also asked to pay for the loss of time or loss of toll revenue incurred while that necessary research was being carried out.

The county council has suggested that there is some commitment because Cleddau bridge was the guinea pig used to test the Merrison criteria, and because the experience and information derived from the experiments carried out on the bridge will be to the benefit of all box girder bridges designed in the future. I welcome such recognition of the valuable work that is carried out on many fronts by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in particular, and I am sure that the Cleddau Bridge construction benefited at least as much from that research as any other scheme. It only remains for me to point out that it was paid for entirely from central Government funds. It is not correct to say that the criteria produced by the Merrison Committee, or the testing of these criteria by central Government, was in any way paid for locally by the Dyfed County Council.

Nor can it be said that the council was coerced by the central Government into the adoption of the Merrison standards, thereby increasing the cost through the need to redesign and reinforce. Indeed, in August 1971 the Director of Highways in the Welsh Office wrote to the Clerk of Pembrokeshire County Council making it absolutely clear that it was for the council to reach its own decision on the standards to be adopted for the bridge, for which the council was independently and fully responsible.

In fact, the pressure that was on the council was the pressure of circumstances. Let us look at the facts. Cleddau Bridge had collapsed; an expert investigation recommended in the strongest terms that such bridge designs should be modified and considerably strengthened. Could the builders of any box girder bridge, least of all one that had collapsed, have decided not to accept the revised criteria?

I am very sure that if the council had gone ahead with anything less than Merrison standards, the unions would have taken a very serious view. I cannot imagine that they would have been content that workers should be asked to take the risks of working on a bridge project where criteria vital to their safety were being ignored. Nor could the council expect insurers confidently to insure the contract.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Avonmouth Bridge. The fact that the central Government bore what might be called the Merrison cost of Avonmouth Bridge is not really relevant to the case made by Dyfed County Council. The Avonmouth Bridge is part of the M5; it is a clear central Government commitment as part of a motorway.

In that context I must also refer to the collapse some years ago of part of a residential tower block at Ronan Point. It has correctly been pointed out by the hon. Member that the Government were prepared to meet increased and unexpected costs. But there were considerations that were quite different from these which apply in this case. In the first place, the housing concerned was heavily subsidised by the central Government, which therefore had a responsibility for a considerable amount of the taxpayers' money. Strengthening was necessary to save that investment. In subsidising the strengthening of tower blocks, the Government were simply accepting the most economical way of fulfilling an already accepted commitment to safeguard their own investment and to ensure adequate housing for people who would otherwise have been homeless. With the greatest respect to Dyfed and to Cleddau Bridge, it is quite wrong to regard the two situations as even remotely similar.

I turn now to design responsibility. It is equally wrong to say that officials of central Government approved the design of the Cleddau Bridge. As part of the normal procedures in force for the granting of consent for borrowing at the time funds for the Cleddau Bridge were being raised, central Government were given plans of the bridge to check that there was nothing to suggest that the proposals were unreasonable. The design was not checked in detail and the Pembrokeshire County Council was never told that it had been. It is most surprising to hear the theory that the central Government should bear such a detailed financial responsibility for schemes in which the only Government participation is to give loan sanction.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Department's inspector, after hearing all the evidence at a public inquiry, made that strong recommendation in his report to the Secretary of State?

Mr. Jones

I think that what I am putting to the House in this debate indicates that we are taking absolutely the right view.

I can readily appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern that ratepayers in his constituency should find themselves saddled with paying for something they had nothing to do with and probably would not have agreed with. My right hon. and learned Friend, as a Dyfed ratepayer at Llandysul, certainly understands the hon. Gentleman's feelings. But let me make it absolutely clear that the present Government bear no responsibility for the building of the bridge or for the local government reorganisation that now results in the costs being borne by ratepayers in Aberystwyth, Carmarthen and Llanelli.

That latter responsibility rests firmly with the party to which the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Edwards) belongs, and I am surprised that the pressure he is exerting on the present Government to take over the financial responsibility incurred by the old Pembrokeshire County Council was not exerted on his own side when they were in power. I find it hard to believe that neither that Government nor the Pembrokeshire County Council realised over a period of four years that there was bound to be a substantial increase in cost and that the reorganisation of local government would land it in the laps of the Dyfed ratepayers.

The hon. Member for Pembroke, during the dying days of his last election campaign, talked about freeing the Cleddau Bridge from tolls. It is very strange that in the four wasted years of his Government nothing was done about tolls in other parts of Britain. The necessary decisions were not taken. Perhaps the promise indicated his confidence that we would be returned to power. The promise had the scent—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening 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 eleven minutes to Three o'clock a.m.