HC Deb 17 November 1983 vol 48 cc1008-15 4.45 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the Severn bridge.

I told the House on 1 November that I considered it prudent to extend the early morning lane restrictions to round the clock, except at weekends, until I received further advice from Flint and Neill. I have now received recommendations from Flint and Neill, agreed by Mott, Hay and Anderson who carried out an independent check of the former's appraisal of the bridge superstructure. I am satisfied that the crossing will continue to be safe to use, with the adoption of the following three recommendations.

First, the closing of one lane in each direction every weekday from 4 am to 8 am, first introduced in March 1982, will be maintained.

Secondly, for eastbound traffic, the M4 carriageway will continue to be restricted to a single lane from the Newhouse roundabout as it has been from time to time since March 1982. Accordingly, one lane each will be available to the M4 traffic and the traffic from Chepstow, respectively.

Thirdly, for westbound traffic, between 8 am and 4 pm on weekdays all goods vehicles in excess of 7.5 tonnes will be channelled through one toll booth. The purpose of this control is to prevent bunching of heavy vehicles; in most circumstances they should be released without delay.

Round-the-clock restrictions will cease as from midnight tonight, and tolls will be reintroduced for eastbound traffic.

I am instituting careful monitoring of incidents causing, or likely to cause, a traffic jam on the bridge. If there is an incident, the following restrictions will be applied until it has been dealt with. If the incident is on the westbound carriageway, westbound traffic will be held at the toll booths and eastbound traffic joining the M4 from Chepstow will be stopped at the Newhouse interchange. Eastbound traffic already on the M4 will not be affected. If the incident is on the eastbound carriageway, eastbound traffic joining the M4 from Chepstow will be stopped at the Newhouse interchange; all westbound heavy goods vehicles will be held at the toll booths.

A different hazard is wind. Traffic will be prevented from using the crossing when both the gust wind speed exceeds 50 miles per hour at deck level of the bridge and the maximum mean hourly wind speed at deck level is forecast to exceed 62 miles per hour. Those conditions are expected to occur no more than once in two or three years on average.

I have set work in hand to improve those systems of traffic control in order to ensure the minimum interference to movement, within the safety limits for the bridge.

Finally, I shall assess with all possible speed the options put forward by Flint and Neill for strengthening the bridge to cope safely with increased loading. As soon as I receive the text of Flint and Neill's report on Mott, Hay and Anderson's check, I shall place a copy of it in the Library.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The House will welcome the statement, which at least shows a proper sense of urgency in dealing with legitimate public concern about the safety of this important bridge.

Does the Secretary of State now accept that those restrictions and controls, designed to control the flow of traffic, will be hindered by his recommendation for the reimposition of tolls, which will become a tax on safety? Does he further accept that the Department of Transport's failure to take action has unnecessarily heightened public concern as those restrictions could have teen implemented after he received the Flint and Neill report in October 1982—18 months ago—and certainly after the report of May 1983, six months ago?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the three reports that he has now read show differences in their conclusions ranging from fear of collapse to the need to spend £33 million and to the denial of the necessity to spend £33 million to make the bridge safe? In view of those conflicting views in the consultants' reports, will the right hon. Gentleman co-operate with the Select Committee's investigation into such divided opinion on those essential safety matters? When was the Mott, Hay and Anderson report, which said that there was a serious risk of failure without warning, first available to the Department and when was it first available to the Minister?

Finally, as these extra restrictions and controls fully vindicate the exposure of the issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who was accused by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State of misrepresentation and causing further delay, will he now unreservedly withdraw those accusations and congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward a matter of major public concern?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for recognising the urgency and speed with which I have sought to act and with which I shall continue to seek to act, with safety as my first priority and a viable crossing for the maximum amount of traffic as my second. The hon. Gentleman knows that tolls are necessary to repay the cost of building the bridge. There is to be a public inquiry on that subject next year.

The hon. Gentleman appears to be a little muddled about the many reports and cross checks that have been commissioned about the safety of the bridge. I received the final agreed report from the two firms of consulting engineers yesterday. They show no differences in their analyses of the problem and they both entirely agree with and endorse the recommendations for traffic control that I have just announced to the House. I announced them as soon as I received them, and therefore there has been no delay in that matter. They could not be announced before, because they were received only yesterday, or the day before, and that was the first I heard of them.

The Mott, Hay and Anderson report, about which the hon. Gentleman asked, was received on 18 October. It was not until the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) made a partial disclosure of an unagreed report that I felt it prudent and right, in the interests of reassuring travellers, to impose those restrictions. I believe that I was right to do so, and I am happy to be able to lift them today.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

Is there not now a real need for a firm commitment by the Government to a second crossing over the Severn? In view of the complacency of his Department, will he not resist any application to transfer responsibility for the bridge from his Department to the Welsh Office? Would that not lead to a greater awareness in Wales of the tragedy that would occur if anything went wrong with the bridge?

Mr. Ridley

I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I fully recognise the interests of Wales. I shall always put them first in ensuring that there is an adequate crossing over the Severn. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman insists on questioning the validity of the present bridge, he should remember that it would take at least 10 years to plan and build a new crossing. Therefore, it is vital that the present bridge be strengthened and operated to permit the maximum amount of traffic to cross. The extent to which it is possible to make the crossing safe beyond doubt and able to cope with foreseen traffic can help to determine not only the timing but the character and capacity of any second crossing. I repeal that I stand ready to issue instructions to begin the building of a second crossing whenever it proves to be needed.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Newport, West)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that his announcement today of the easing of restrictions will be welcomed by many people and businesses throughout south Wales. The recent controversy has done a great deal of harm to attempts to attract new industry into the region. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, for the longer term, he will do everything in his power to ensure that the Severn bridge link between England and south Wales will continue and that the delays that we have experienced over the past few weeks will at some stage become a thing of the past?

Mr. Ridley

The present restriction should not result in anything but occasional disruption of traffic. That would mainly be an accident or an incident on the bridge. I sincerely believe that I can find improved methods of traffic control which will speed up the traffic on the bridge and that, by strengthening, it will carry whatever load is required.

As soon as I am ready with the answers to all those questions, I shall make a further statement that will, I hope, give confidence that the crossing will be able to serve the needs of industry in south Wales. If there is any doubt about that, there will be a second crossing at an appropriate time. We do ourselves a disservice if we question the existing crossing without reason.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Does not the Secretary of State realise that, however much he might try to hide and camouflage it, the Mott, Hay and Anderson report just will not go away? Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that the bridge is the economic lifeline of south Wales? Is he aware that, while we need adequate safety precautions and essential repairs to the bridge, the basic and urgent need is for the Government to draw up plans for a second crossing?

Mr. Ridley

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the Mott, Hay and Anderson report, which he quoted, has gone away. That shows the unwisdom of quoting partially from documents that have not yet been agreed. Mott, Hay and Anderson agreed with what I have announced today, and for that reason I have been able to lift the restrictions. That is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's point. I have made it abundantly clear that I give the highest priority to the maintenance of this vital link between Wales and England.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

Is it not clear that the exploitation of alarm and despondency by Opposition Members, for partisan reasons, has done far more harm to the interests of the Welsh economy than would have been done by a more sober approach to the problem? Is it not a fact that the bridge is sound and safe, but necessarily of limited capacity, and that, looking forward to the next century, we must envisage a crossing with a larger capacity? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that studies will be put in hand as soon as possible to assess both the need for and the viability of a second crossing?

Mr. Ridley

I counsel the House not to mix politics and safety. The bridge is perfectly capable of taking the load with the restrictions that remain after my statement and will be so for many years. I repeat to my hon. Friend my undertaking that if, in the course of the work on the strengthening measures, which we shall be carrying out quickly, it appears to us prudent to initiate studies into a second crossing, that will be done. If my conclusion is that that is not necessary, the House will want me to make the best of the good crossing that will be there.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

In view of the catastrophe that has befallen Wales in the past four years from the Government's economic policy, what proposals do they have for providing financial aid to south Wales as a result of the reduction in the status of the Severn bridge from motorway to "hoot and pray lane", particularly with the stockpiling of lorries at one toll booth?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is wrong on both counts. If he insists on talking down the bridge in that way, he will be doing a further disservice to the economy of south Wales. The bridge is a four-lane road. It will take that traffic, except in the circumstances of congestion caused by a jam. It is a good link.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

Despite the right hon. Gentleman's assurances, is he aware that the recent exchanges initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes)—I compliment him on the part that he has played in the matter — revealed that there is concern throughout south Wales about the importance of a crossing of the river Severn to the economy of south Wales? Is he further aware that it is not partisan to say that a second crossing is necessary? Will he consider the need to complete the "missing link" to the area, the A465, the completion of which would help the economy of south Wales to prosper?

Mr. Ridley

The road to which the hon. Gentleman referred does not arise on the statement. He should be reassured by what I said — that this vital link to the south Wales coast will be maintained for the benefit of travellers. I am acutely aware of its importance and have said that, if anything makes me feel that it will be inadequate, studies will be set in hand for a second crossing. Equally, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that if our conclusion is that it remains adequate, there is no point in having a second crossing.

Mr. Stefan Terlezki (Cardiff, West)

I am sure that the industries in south Wales will be greatly relieved by my right hon. Friend's statement on this important issue. Is he aware that all hon. Members representing Welsh constituencies accept that the bridge is the lifeline for industries not only in south Wales, but in Wales in general? Having a vested interest in tourism, I hope that if, or when, the findings show that the bridge will not be viable or that the restriction to one lane must be maintained, my right hon. Friend will look closely and urgently into the possibility of a second crossing.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those observations and I agree with his sentiments. However, from midnight, it will not be restricted to one lane, except in exceptional circumstances. What is more, we are studying a programme for strengthening the bridge which might enable it to take greater loads than it was designed for. The trouble is that it was designed for certain loads and subsequently has proved to be inadequate in those terms. Therefore, we must keep the loads to what it will take. I am fully in agreement with my hon. Friend that, whatever the result of the studies, a viable and fast crossing must be provided across the Severn estuary.

Mr. Leo Abse (Torfaen)

As the Mott, Hay and Anderson report is buried, according to the Secretary of State, why will he not now, on behalf of his bumbling Department, make an acknowledgement to Freeman Fox, whose proposals to monitor traffic he is apparently, though belatedly, substantially putting into action? Why does his Department have preconceived views which cause it, through the right hon. Gentleman, to abuse my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who is doing his duty, and, by implication, one of the finest bridge builders in the world, Freeman Fox? Why does the right hon. Gentleman permit his bumbling bureaucrats to carry on in this way?

Apart from considering the proposal that responsibility for the bridge should be transferred to the Secretary of State for Wales, will the right hon. Gentleman consider putting into effect the suggestion that has been urged for months by Opposition Members: that there should be a bridge master, such as other bridges of this kind throughout Europe have? That would end a system of segmented administration that has resulted in no profit and no co-ordination of any real character and with responsibility continuing to lie in the confused minds of the right hon. Gentleman's bureaucrats, who now have before them four engineers' reports, and who have still not come to a conclusion?

Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman intend to make any comment about——

Hon. Members

Too long.

Mr. Speaker

Order. One long supplementary is enough.

Mr. Ridley

I do not intend to pick and choose between consulting engineers in the partial way in which the hon. Gentleman did. I waited for an agreed report between the consulting engineers. It was the quotation of remarks from an unagreed report that caused me to impose restrictions two and a half weeks ago. Now that we have an agreed report from consultants for the first time, it is right that I should follow their instructions as to what is necessary to restrict traffic. I have done that exactly to the letter. It is because of that that I am able to make this announcement, which I should have thought the hon. Gentleman would have realised was for the benefit of the Welsh economy.

Mr. John Ward (Poole)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of his hon. Friends congratulate him on the calm and objective way in which he has dealt with this major problem? Is he further aware that the worst possible service he could have done to any part of Britain—the west of England or Wales—would have been to jump to ridiculous conclusions on half-baked and leaked reports? The whole House owes him a debt of gratitude for looking at the issue objectively, and we know that a solution will be coming in due course. I have every confidence in my right hon. Friend to make the right decision at that time.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that comment. One must always put safety at the top of one's list of priorities. I repeat my assurance that this crossing must be maintained for the benefit of travellers.

Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

Will the right hon. Gentleman remember that there is a report about a Severn tunnel? Will that be given consideration? How often do 50 mph gales occur in the area of the Severn bridge? Is he aware that those of us who use that bridge frequently have the impression that gales of that magnitude occur regularly? Does that mean that the restrictions will be imposed often? Will the right hon. Gentleman also be less complacent than he has been in recent weeks, bearing in mind that it took a question to the Prime Minister on Tuesday to twist his arm to get him to come to the House today to make a statement about the Severn bridge?

Mr. Ridley

I have looked at the preliminary views about a tunnel instead of a bridge, and it seems that it would be much more expensive than building another bridge. However, if the matter is studied in depth, we should get a firmer and more up-to-date answer on that.

I am told that winds of the violence I mentioned occur every two or three years on average. It is not only the strength of the wind, but the direction from which it comes. I do not think it is a hazard that will frequently trouble travellers.

I reject the hon. Gentleman's statement that I was shy to come to the House with a statement, as his right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench will be aware.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, South)

Has the right hon. Gentleman looked carefully at the report of the Select Committee, of which I was a member? Is he aware that members of that Committee went to the bridge, went underneath it and saw that weldings that were giving way were being replaced by re-bolting, giving cause for some public alarm? Is it his intention in his new post—we shall become acquainted because of his new responsibilities, apart from our artistic acquaintanceship — to look at the bridge for himself? If so, will he be going through the trapholes—doing it the hard way—so that he may satisfy himself on the issue, in addition to looking at the myriad of sometimes conflicting reports?

Mr. Ridley

I said that I did not wish to pick and choose between various firms of consulting engineers. I shall not include the hon. Gentleman as one of those. It is better that I act on agreed professional advice of the highest calibre, though I am interested in what members of the Select Committee feel about the subject. Ultimately, with safety being the issue at stake, I must rely on the best advice I can get.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Is the Secretary of State's real motive to make up for all the damage that the Conservatives have done to British Rail in the last four years by encouraging people to use the bridge? May I commend to him a scheme to avoid the bunching of heavy vehicles? Abolishing tolls for eastbound traffic and doubling tolls for westbound traffic should, in the short term, ensure not only much the same revenue to the Government, but that there were no stationary heavy vehicles on the bridge.

Mr. Ridley

If the hon. Gentleman really believes his first comment, he must also explain why I have lifted restrictions to the extent that I have done this afternoon. I thank him for his suggestion about the tolls, although that would, of course, require a little more than a quick decision by me. It is one of the suggestions that I shall consider in my urgent quest to get better traffic management and thereby increase the flow across the bridge.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

Does the Secretary of State realise that his statement this afternoon, that the restrictions will continue and that the bridge needs to be strengthened, is bound to perpetuate the uncertainty that hangs over the future of the bridge? Does he accept that a firm statement today of his determination to press for a second crossing would be a major boost to optimism in the valleys of south Wales and to industry and employment and would do much to dispel the uncertainty that now stalks south Wales as a result of his dismal performance in this regard?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman may not have heard me say in my statement that lane restrictions would be raised from midnight tonight. If he has the interests of his constituents at heart, he will understand that that is the reassurance that he sought for the people of the valleys and that I agree is vital. Now that I have given it, the hon. Gentleman should have the good grace to acknowledge it.

Mr. Allan Rogers (Rhondda)

Does the Secretary of State accept that there is a long-standing problem with the crossing of the Severn, that during the past five years—perhaps an unhappy coinciding of events during this Government's period of office — there have been considerable delays on the bridge, and that the bridge can only just cope with the present level of economic activity in Wales? In view of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's statement this afternoon, in which he said that he hopes the boom is round the corner, does the Minister accept that any increase in economic productivity will lead to enormous pressures on the bridge? In view of the long lead time that is needed for a second crossing, will his Department immediately commission a feasibility study into the Severn barrage, in particular, instead of a tunnel or an alternative bridge crossing? May I add that the money is available, because the Gwent county council told me, as the Member of the European Parliament for South-East Wales, that the Department of Transport or the Welsh Office sat on its application for Common Market money to carry out a feasibility study.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman will surely agree that the first thing to do is to make an assessment and take a decision about the strengthening that is necessary to carry the required traffic. If the bridge cannot be strengthened to carry that future traffic, I have said that we shall start a feasibility study into another bridge. The second bridge is related to the strengthening that can be done to the existing bridge and the traffic control that can be instituted to make the flow greater. Those three matters should be studied together. The answer to one should not be sought before the answers to the others are found.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I thank the Secretary of State and the Leader of the House for having met our request that a statement should be made to the House. However, I hope that he will withdraw his unjust statement about my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes). Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the need for at least joint ministerial responsibility with the Welsh Office, bearing in mind that we are discussing the most important industrial artery to Wales? Does he further accept that people in Wales will be angry and disappointed tonight at the lack of a decision to build a second crossing—either a bridge or a tunnel? There are widespread fears that vital industrial development and investment have been delayed and lost. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Welsh economy would receive a massive psychological boost if the Government had the courage and wisdom to sanction a second crossing?

Mr. Ridley

I resent the implication that, because I am responsible for the bridge, I do not give it the same priority and importance as would my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, were it his responsibility. There is no difference between us. We work together closely in considering these matters. I do not believe that the red herring of transferring responsibility would make any difference to the crossing. I have replied endlessly to the hon. Gentleman's questions and made it clear that if the bridge can be strengthened to carry the necessary traffic, it will be strengthened. If that cannot be done, we shall have to undertake studies into a second crossing. I need time to study those possibilities. It will not take very long. As soon as I have reached a conclusion, I will make another statement.

Hon. Members

How long?

Mr. Barry Jones

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that, after the long exchange of questions that we have had, that would be somewhat of an abuse of the procedures of the House, although I cannot stop him.