HC Deb 27 March 1975 vol 889 cc734-43

1.45 p.m.

Mr. Julian Ridsdale (Harwich)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a problem affecting the port of Harwich which arises from the refusal of the Government to grant planning permission for the Bath Side scheme. This refusal came as a great shock to the people of Harwich because to them it was a natural development following previous port development. It was a natural step of expansion, not only for the port and British Railways but because of the overall importance of the scheme in filling in land for stage 2 of the Dovercourt By-pass which would ease the traffic problem that has affected Harwich and Dovercourt since the opening of the Harwich Navy Yard in 1964.

For the ratepayers it was an economic scheme, developed with private finance. Yet is was a scheme which would have provided valuable rate revenue. I would be wrong not to underline to the Minister the anger of the people of Harwich because of the Government's refusal. Negotiation have been going on for a considerable number of years. A great deal of experience and time went into preparing a special parliamentary Bill. Members of both parties deliberated upon that Bill in Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Small). I hope that the Under-Secretary will be half as sympathetic as his fellow Glaswegian was to our problems.

We have, alas, a storm brewing up. There is the threat of nationalisation hanging over the ports. That has altered the picture which was presented to the hon. Member for Garscadden when he saw the scheme as being necessary for the inhabitants of Harwich and for the whole country. After a great deal of inquiry, that all-party committee saw fit to recommend the scheme.

Later British Railways joined with Ear1par, the developing company, in adding its weight to those pressing for the scheme. It wanted the scheme as much as anyone. Indeed, the expansion it needed at Parkeston would hardly be viable without the Bath Side scheme. Years of hard work and planning went into the submission which finally reached the National Ports Council. An entirely viable scheme was presented to the council. While user commitment was lacking at that stage it is now common knowledge that the council gave the land reclamation scheme its full backing as long ago as the late summer of last year.

The Government's negative decision, after long delay, came just before Christmas of last year. As the Minister knows, the publicity announcement and distribution was not all it might have been. It may have been because of Christmas and problems with the post. I shall be grateful if the hon. Gentleman will explain, as he has done to me privately, that the faults were to do with the Government publicity machine and were not the faults of others.

This Government decision meant that the development of valuable port facilities, particularly road communications, in an exanding area of trade was delayed and extra expense incurred at a time when everything was prepared to go ahead. These facilities are backed by excellent road and rail communications. The Minister knows that with these facilities there needs to be an improvement in the lorry parking situation. All of this in my view would have helped, if the scheme had been allowed to go ahead, to create the kind of impetus needed to help an expanding port.

Ear1par was not asking for any Government money. It was planning the development entirely through private investment. While I have no personal interest in that firm I backed the scheme wholeheartedly, not only because of the improvement in port facilities and trade that it was bound to bring but because I wanted to see the completion of the bypass to the Harwich Navy Yard as soon as possible.

Stage 2 of the by pass was to be fitted into the Bath Side plans, and if the Gov- ernment had given permission in December stage 2 of the bypass could have been well on the way to completion, since the natural filling-in as part of the Bath Side development meant that half the job on the bypass would be done not with taxpayers' or ratepayers' money but with private investment. In fact, it would have meant a considerable saving in ratepayers' money, besides bringing to the longsuffering people of Dovercourt and Harwich much-needed relief from the heavy port traffic which now trundles through the town, as it has done for the past 10 years.

The Government's adverse decision in December, therefore, was a great shock to the people of Harwich. I pay tribute here to the late Mr. Early, an engineer of considerable imagination, who conceived the scheme, and to his company Earlpar Development, under the chairmanship of Lord Lauderdale, who has worked with great effort to get the scheme off the drawing board and make it a practical reality.

The scheme had all-party support in Harwich. It had the support of the local chamber of commerce and of the ports association, as well as the backing of local councils.

Will not the Government reconsider their decision? The Minister has said that one of his reasons for refusal was the lack of user commitment. But has not the stopping of the Maplin scheme and the decision not to go ahead with the Channel Tunnel changed all that? My information is that user commitment could now be found, and in any case British Rail, which wishes to expand in Parkeston, needs the valuable back-up facility which the Bath Side scheme could provide.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to tell us how the Government's policy for nationalisation of the ports will affect developments in ports such as Harwich, especially in the context of the proposed Bath Side Scheme? Does the decision mean the ending of any further development in Harwich and the stopping o: the Bath Side scheme?

What is to be the future outcome of stage 2 of the Dovercourt Bypass; so vital for the people of Harwich? Now that the Maplin project has been stopped, what is to be the policy regarding investment in the East Coast ports? I have been pressing the Government for a statement on this for some time.

I want the Minister to say a word today about future plans and intentions. I hope he will not hide behind the shadow of inflation and say that vital investment plans such as this cannot now go ahead. Since it had the backing of the Ports Council and a number of other eminent bodies and persons, as well as the backing of Parliament itself, why cannot the Government now agree to the plan going ahead?

In this situation, the timing of the nationalisation Bill is of great significance. Is the Bill to go through in the next Session of Parliament? Under their nationalisation policy, will the Government allow schemes such as Bath Side to go ahead or must we expect the stopping of all future port investment for the time being? If not, what is the Government's intention regarding stage 2 of the Dovercourt Bypass? Delay costs money-it has already cost a considerable amount-and I earnestly hope to hear from the Minister a clear statement to allay the fear about further costly delays.

Is the burden of development now to be shifted from private investment to the taxpayer and ratepayer? Does not the Minister understand the sort of industrial development now beginning to take place around our ports, especially at Harwich? Road communication is becoming more and more expensive. Having industries near ports facilitates cheaper exports, giving the chance to take advantage of expanding trade opportunities in any part of the world. The relative cheapness of sea communication must work to our advantage in the next few decades, and we should be prepared to seize that advantage.

For all those reasons I ask the Government for a clear statement of their future intentions regarding the East Coast ports, and Harwich in particular. As they have refused the Bath Side scheme, a private development, will they find the money necessary for a development at Harwich which has the backing of the Ports Council? Surely there is an easier way, now that user commitment can be obtained, especially after the decision not to go ahead with the Channel Tunnel and the Maplin project.

The Government should take account of these changes and allow the scheme to go forward as soon as possible. I am sure that that would be in the interests not only of Harwich but of the country as a whole. For my part, I want to see the scheme go ahead, with the land reclamation, so that stage 2 of the bypass can be completed. I have every reason to believe that an entirely new situation has arisen as a result of the cancellation of the Channel Tunnel project. Although user commitment was uncertain, now, with British Rail's expansion plans, matters are entirely changed. Why cannot the Government allow a fine private development scheme to proceed, after all this careful preparation over a number of years? If they will not agree, will they themselves proceed without delay in view of the vital significance of the scheme to Harwich and to the country?

1.56 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Carmichael)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich (Mr. Ridsdale) on the continued and informed interest which he has taken in this imaginative scheme for land reclamation and harbour development at Harwich. I know that the project has attracted the interest of other hon. Members, too, and I need hardly say that the Government have studied, and will continue to study, any application for authorisation of major port projects with the utmost care, especially in view of the importance of the ports industry to our country's economic life.

I hope that the House will forgive me if I spend a little time on past history—the hon. Gentleman gave some of it himself—because, in a matter of this kind which has been pursued over a number of years, a brief historical survey can hardly be avoided.

I should make clear at the outset that the refusal in question was one of authorisation under Section 9 of the Harbours Act 1964. There was no question of the refusal of planning consent. Earlpar Development Co., Ltd. obtained the necessary powers to carry out harbour works on land adjoining the area known as Bath Side, Harwich, in its Bath Side Bay Development Act 1972, but—this is important to note—it still needed to obtain authorisation under the Harbours Act. Section 31 of its own Act makes this explicit.

In August 1971, the company applied for authorisation to construct harbour facilities on reclaimed land at Bath Side, and, after the National Ports Council had been consulted, its application was refused in April 1972. The grounds for the refusal were that there was no evidence of guarantees from prospective users and the company had been unable to show that existing facilities at Harwich would be insufficient to cater for forecast traffic. The company was, however, advised that a further Section 9 application could be considered in due course when uncertainties about traffic and the likely return on the scheme were resolved.

In April 1974, the company submitted a modified application. A feature of this scheme was that it was linked with proposals by the British Railways Board to extend Parkeston Quay. After the most careful consideration had been given to the company's submission, it was informed last December that my right hon. Friend had decided that it could not be given the authorisation for which it had asked. The company was told that, although the modified application was for reclamation only, it had to be considered as a part of a major harbour development scheme, and no firm evidence of customer demand for harbour facilities or of a forecast rate of return had been produced. I understand that the company has received legal advice to the effect that the terms of its Act permits it to reclaim Bath Side Bay only with a view to developing harbour facilities. This is why it must as a first step obtain authorisation under the Harbours Act.

Under Section 9 of that Act my right hon. Friend is required to act with a view to securing the proper control in the national interest of schemes of harbour development. The company was also told that availability of financial resources would not be regarded as justifying authorisation so long as the uncertainties about customer demand and rate of return persisted.

Finally, it was pointed out that it would be inconsistent with the Government's announced intention to take privately- owned ports into public ownership as part of their ports reorganisation proposals to authorise the first step in a major harbour development by a harbour authority which is not a public body and which has not yet exercised its statutory works powers.

These, then, are the reasons why the company's second application was refused. Unfortunately, perhaps, from its point of view it could provide in support of its application only letters of general interest and intention which fell some way short of the kind of firm evidence which was necessary to demonstrate a degree of commitment by shipping operators which would produce an adequate income in order to make the whole scheme viable.

I think it will be seen from what I have said that the general arguments which have been advanced in support of the scheme—that it will be good for the prosperity of Harwich generally in terms of industry and employment and that land reclamation is in itself a good thing—are not in themselves sufficient justification in terms of the Harbours Act. Nor is it a conclusive argument in favour of authorisation that the company proposes to finance the scheme itself and without any form of Government financial assistance. The fundamental question is the proper use of national resources, in this case in the context of the requirement for port facilities. If it is still the case that the company hopes to be able shortly to produce the evidence as to demand which the Department has consistently sought we, of course, should be prepared to consider a further application, and that is important. We are tied by the Act to accepting only firm evidence and not a letter saying that the scheme is in general terms a good idea.

The hon. Member has also asked about investment at Harwich and at neighbouring East Coast ports. I must emphasise that it is up to harbour authorities themselves to make proposals for harbour development. They must, however, under statute, seek my right hon. Friend's authorisation for any projects costing more than £1 million. No such application in respect of one of these ports is at present outstanding. I can give a firm assurance that any application that may be made in future will be considered on its merits after consultation with the National Ports Council in accordance with the requirements of the Act.

Parkeston Quay at Harwich is, of course, one of British Railways principal ports. Over the years the railways have done much to bring in new traffic and thus to build up the port. Drive-on, drive—off vehicle ferries were introduced in 1968 and container traffic has been developed as part of the freightliner system to Zeebrugge since 1968 and to Dunkirk since 1969. British Rail's own traffic forms about three-quarters of the total traffic handled at Parkeston Quay. The board has been considering expansions to meet the growing demand from some of its other port users such as the Danish DFDS shipping line. Now that the Bath Side scheme will not be going ahead as proposed, the board is having to review its plans for dealing with expansion by these users.

The hon. Member has mentioned, in connection with the future of the port, the recently announced proposals by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment to extend the Dock Labour Scheme. Any questions which the hon. Member may have about the proposals themselves should be addressed to my right hon. Friend, but I have no reason to think that they will have any significant impact on the future development of Harwich.

Perhaps I may take this opportunity of apologising for the mix-up which occurred over the release of the Department's Press notice of 20th December last year announcing the refusal of authorisation of the Bath Side Bay scheme. Unfortunately, although copies of the notice were delivered to national newspapers and shipping correspondents and to ports journals in the usual way, copies did not reach the local newspapers in the area because of a chapter of accidents, perhaps, as the hon. Member suggested, not unconnected with the period leading up to Christmas. A copy of the decision letter was, I understand, addressed to the hon. Member and I am sorry if, for reasons which I am unable to explain, this did not reach him. I am glad, however, to note from one Press report that he appears to have been aware of the decision by Christmas Eve.

I can assure the hon. Member that this was a sheer accident. He and I have met so often to discuss the whole question of the Harwich area that I am sure he will accept that he would be the first person to come to mind when we think about Harwich. I hope that he will accept that this was one of those accidents that happens for no accountable reason.

I turn now to the problem of roads and the Dovercourt bypass in particular. Stage 1 of the bypass will be open to traffic in the autumn of 1977 and will carry traffic from Parkeston Quay. Stage 2 of the bypass is a principal road scheme and is the responsibility of the Essex County Council. It is therefore for the county to include the scheme in its transport policy and programme and to fund it in the usual way, but I understand that the council has been reluctant to do this since it considers that the scheme should be financed by central Government, as was stage 1. There is, however, a difference in that stage 2 of the bypass will relieve the A136 which has never been proposed for trunking and therefore the council has been told that this is not possible. The question of the future of stage 2 is independent of the Bath Side scheme and I must reiterate that it is up to the council to decide whether it wants to proceed with it.

On the related question of lorry parks, I recall discussing this topic with the hon. Member at some length some time ago. We followed up the discussion in correspondence during the year. I explained in that correspondence that in the view of the Department it was unlikely that a strategic lorry park sited at Harwich itself would be viable because of the limited number of away-based heavy vehicles parking in the town overnight. The hon. Member will know that this view was supported by the results of a joint Essex and Suffolk County Councils survey of lorry traffic. This showed only too clearly that a lorry park of the kind recommended in the Department's report on lorry parking could not possibly be an economic proposition in Harwich or Parkeston because far too few drivers require overnight accommodation there.

In fact, it now appears to be generally accepted in the industry that the rather ambitious plans set out in the Report of the 1971 Working Party on Lorry Parking are not likely to be realised at all. We must look for other and perhaps slightly more modest ways of tackling the problem. The responsibility for meeting the demand for purely local lorry parking in Harwich therefore lies with the local authority. The County Council has powers under Section 30 of the Highways Act 1971 to provide lorry areas for specific purposes. Such schemes are now eligible for transport supplementary grant.

I hope, therefore, against the background which I have tried to outline and the other points which I have set out, that the hon. Member will realise that while the door is by no means closed, we should require fairly firm commitments by the users of the scheme before we could look at it again.

Mr. Ridsdale

I have information that there is an earnest user commitment. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will consider the matter quickly? How long will it take for them to review the situation? This is something we want to get on with as quickly as possible.

Mr. Carmichael

I do not want to give an evasive parliamentary answer, but the point raised by the hon. Gentleman leaves little scope for anything other than that. Obviously the time taken will depend on the strength of the assurances he is able to supply to the Department and the change in the situation since the earlier two applications were made. If he can make fairly strong proposals, what has gone before will always be a help. I should not like to give any commitment about time until we saw the lion. Gentleman's proposals.