HC Deb 27 June 1983 vol 44 cc338-40
14. Mr. Mark Robinson

asked the Secretary of State for Wales if, following publication of the final Flint and Neill consultants' report, he will make an assessment of the potential impact of periods of complete Severn bridge closure on economic activity in south Wales as generated by traffic using the bridge.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

It is clear that complete closure of the Severn bridge for any but limited periods would have serious consequences for economic activity in south Wales, but the Flint and Neill report, which we are evaluating, explicitly states that the majority of the structural works could be undertaken without the need for special traffic controls and that total bridge closures should be confined to short periods at night for critical operations.

Mr. Robinson

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the deep concern in Newport at the prospect of periods of closure of the Severn bridge? Will he undertake to ensure, first, that maximum notice is given of any periods of closure, and, secondly, that it will be done at times likely to cause least disruption to businesses within the region?

Mr. Edwards

I agree that there is concern, and not just in Newport. That is why, in considering the Flint and Neill report, we shall pay particular attention to keeping any closure to the shortest possible period at night, if that proves possible. We shall give the maximum possible warning when any such closures take place. I repeat that the Flint and Neill report specifically says that it expects such closures to be confined to short periods at night for a very few critical operations. I hope that in planning any work we shall be able to carry that forecast into effect.

Mr. Abse

Why, in effect, has Wales no control over the Severn bridge? Why is it that we do not have, as bridges throughout Europe from the Humber to the Bosphorus have, a specific bridge authority which, in the case of the Severn bridge, could include representation from Wales? Is the Secretary of State aware that there is widespread opinion among engineers and bridge designers that is highly critical of the Flint and Neill report? Since the report could clearly lead to major disruption, is it not important that he obtains other opinions and, further, that he begins to consider how, instead of leaving it to bungling bureaucrats in Whitehall, Wales can have some control over this vital artery?

Mr. Edwards

I do not believe that the way to proceed is to set up a quango to control our bridges. It seems to me right that these decisions should be taken by the Government, answerable in this House. The fact is that every important decision on the Severn bridge is taken with full consultation between my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and myself. We maintain close and continual contact at both ministerial and official levels and we are consulting widely in our evaluation of the Flint and Neill report. I am involved in all the consideration of that report. I believe that that is the proper way to proceed.

Mr. Denzil Davies

Why does not the Secretary of State stop hiding behind the Flint and Neill report? Why is he prevaricating on this issue? It is clear that over the next few years the bridge will be closed for longer and longer periods, with consequent damage to the economy of south Wales. It is now time for the Government to take the decisions and provide for a second crossing of the Severn river.

Mr. Edwards

I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman's qualifications are as a bridge builder—

Mr. Davies

What are the right hon. Gentleman's?

Mr. Edwards

—but I am certainly not sheltering behind the Flint and Neill report. We have published the report and placed a copy of it in the Library. We are considering carefully the technical and professional advice that it contains. Even if a decision were taken today to go ahead with the construction of another bridge it would be essential to south Wales that we should do just that. It would take many years to build such a bridge and it is therefore of vital importance, which the Government recognise, to carry the Flint and Neill recommendations or other proposals for securing the bridge into effect as quickly as possible.

Mr. Grist

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to prevent congestion at times of partial closure it would be a good idea to do away with at least half the toll booths and perhaps to double the price on a one-way ticket system?

Mr. Edwards

I am gratful to my hon. Friend for that proposal. We considered that suggestion previously and will continue to keep it in mind, but there are problems, which would involve the resiting of the toll booths, and other changes that might not improve the position. Certainly we keep every possibility under review the whole time.

Mr. John Morris

Whatever the qualifications of both Front Benches as bridge builders, is not the heart of the matter the fact that the Severn bridge comes under the Department of Transport and not the Welsh Office? Would it not be better now to reconsider the matter and give an enhanced budget to the Welsh Office and let the matter of a second crossing be proceeded with speedily? Otherwise, if anything serious happened to the bridge, industry in south Wales would grind to a halt.

Mr. Edwards

The arrangements today are exactly what they were when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was Secretary of State. I have no doubt that he spent, just as I spend, a great deal of time discussing these problems with the Department of Transport. We shall bear any proposals in mind, although any changes of responsibility of that type would not be for me alone to decide.