HC Deb 06 February 1984 vol 53 cc657-92

Order for Second Reading read.

7.11 pm
Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Those of us who in 1971 served on the interminably long Committee stage of what is now the Local Government Act must feel that our misdeeds will haunt us for ever. Were it not for that legislation we should not today be faced with the Dartford Tunnel Bill. The problem is technical. We are being asked to renew existing powers because of that Act's provisions. The House is not asked to consider significant new proposals or new policies. We are asked by the Kent and Essex county councils for powers to continue to operate and maintain the twin Dartford tunnels and to collect tolls as hitherto.

Although we are discussing only a renewal of powers, hon. Members are given the opportunity to raise matters of considerable principle and of national policy. I understand why some of my hon. Friends and the petitioners—notably the local authorities and motoring organizations—will seize the opportunity to register their views on a matter of importance to many people. However, I hope that, following the debate, the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, both on the merits of the case—which I believe to be strong—and because of the grave consequences for Kent and Essex if the Bill does not succeed. I shall do my best to answer detailed questions later, but I do not claim an omniscience about the details of this 49-page Bill or about the tunnel management.

Right hon. and hon. Members will have seen the promoters' statement and know something of the history of the tunnels and of the legislation. This is the eighth Dartford Tunnel Bill. The first Dartford Tunnel Act was passed in 1930, but the first tunnel did not open until 1963. That tunnel was so successful that Parliament, in the Dartford Tunnel Act 1967, authorised the construction of a second tunnel. That Act also provided for the whole of the cost of the second tunnel to be defrayed out of toll income. The tolls in 1963 were set at 2s 6d. They are now 60p which is considerably less than they would be if the ordinary rules of indexing for inflation had been allowed to operate. If those rules had operated, the toll would now be 79p or 80p.

It is important to note the date of the Act which we are being asked to renew. It is 1967. That was when a Labour Government were in power. I hope that tonight's debate will not be partisan, but we must remember that previous legislation of this kind was supported by different Governments of different political complexions. I concede that there are plenty of valid and logical arguments on both sides about tolls for estuarial crossings, but we are entitled to remember the record of previous Labour Governments in relation to other legislation. I refer, for example, to the Tyne tunnel legislation which was re-enacted in 1976, the Tamar bridge legislation of 1977 and the Mersey tunnel legislation which was deposited in 1978. Labour Members must understand that the application of estuarial crossing tolls has been supported by both sides of the House.

I am ready to accept that when in Opposition parties may change policy. That is often done. All that I ask of Opposition Members is that, when considering the consequences for our county councils, please let us not have a U-turn in the Dartford tunnel.

I shall state what I understand to be national policy which established the Dartford tunnel in its present position. I understand that the Government's view is that such expensive crossings which provide attractive alternative routes for travellers and opportunities for journeys which otherwise might be uneconomic should be paid for by the users rather than by the taxpayers. I understand that it has been the policy of successive Governments that tolls should be charged on estuarial crossings which provide exceptional benefits to users.

We must understand the context of that national policy because I believe that in all respects the Dartford tunnels meet the criteria. Having understood the national policy and the existence of the tunnels as toll crossings, it is right to point out that the Kent county council and, I suspect, the Essex county council would be more than pleased if the Secretary of State overturned that national policy and took over the tunnels and all the debts. Even if the Secretary of State were to take over all the responsibilities of running and maintaining the tunnels, tolls would not necessarily cease. The Government might well pursue the same policy as that which applies on the Severn crossing, for example, and toll them in the same way.

It is right to record that no one in either of the counties is enthusiastic about carrying these responsibilities. Why should they be? No motorists are enthusiastic about tolls. Why should they be? That is to state the obvious. Nobody wants to pay tolls, any more than they want to pay taxes. That is not the practical question which we are called upon to consider. We have to be concerned, as have successive Governments, with the practical question of how best to finance these outstandingly expensive estuarial crossings.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

One of the problems for a number of hon. Members is that many of my hon. Friend's constituents coming from London can save half an hour or an hour on a journey by avoiding traffic jams on the Rochester way in my constituency since the Government have rightly allowed the GLC to build the relief road. The same applies to people going round what will be the M25. They will save only about half an hour's journey if they use the Dartford tunnel rather than coming in on the A2 using the Blackwall tunnel and going back out to Essex.

Mr. Moate

I fully understand my hon. Friend's argument. It has been deployed extensively and is a legitimate argument to explore, but I do not believe that anybody would divert for a half-hour journey, especially into congested conditions with the consequent petrol cost and agony of driving in heavy traffic, to avoid a toll of 60p.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I know well the road system referred to by my hon. Friend. From experience I would have thought, especially in the conditions of congestion which one encounters in the Greater London area, that the delay would be considerably more than half an hour.

Mr. Moate

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that anybody who were to divert from the Dartfort tunnel because of the toll and enter London traffic would spend much more than half an hour, and very much more on petrol than he would save on the toll, by not going through the Dartford tunnel.

I fully understand the arguments about this matter, which causes anxiety to all those concerned with London traffic, but, frankly, I have seen no credible evidence—I have read much of the evidence that has been submitted—to suggest that a large volume of traffic would be diverted because of the toll. Experience of tolls shows that when they have risen there has been almost no effect upon traffic flow. Even if the toll were eliminated, I suspect that it would make almost no difference to the volume of traffic in the Dartford tunnel. All hon. Members can speak subjectively as motorists, and I believe that the convenience of that and other crossings is so great to the motorist that he is prepared to pay reasonable tolls to utilise them.

Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to congestion which, as a frequent user of the A13, I experience when I travel to and from my constituency. However, to support the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), the degree of congestion depends on the time of day. After the evening rush hour has subsided, if one wished to go into London through the Blackwall tunnel and out on the A13, one would encounter very little traffic. Drivers of heavy vehicles might consider making that detour to avoid the tunnel, and could do so providing they were travelling down the A13 to Essex after about 7 o'clock in the evening. There are times during the day when traffic is light on that road.

Mr. Moate

The hon. Lady is right that there are times during the day when the general figures for the extra cost do not apply, and when the deviation would be less time-consuming. However, it would be a most uneconomic detour in terms of fuel. If a heavy vehicle were to make the complete detour of about 15 miles each way, the additional cost would be more than £10 per heavy lorry. That is £10 for time and fuel consumed, which is a considerable additional cost. Without going into all the massive detailed evidence, I suggest that the vast majority of drivers of private cars and heavy lorries will always find it much cheaper to use the tunnel than to divert back into London. That is why we have those crossings in the first place. They are attractive to the motorist and confer benefit on him. The Dartford tunnel confers exceptional benefit on the motorist.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I agree that the crossing confers benefit on motorists, but not only local motorists and commuters. It also benefits motorists from all parts of the country who must use it.

Mr. Moate

Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to answer that point later. It is one of the key arguments in the matter. The more one examines such arguments and all the estuarial crossings, the harder it is to find a clear and logical pattern that applies throughout the country. However, with the Dartford tunnel we have found a practical answer that works. We cannot consider now whether it works well in other areas or whether we should apply tolls on other crossings. Although my hon. Friend may argue his case for other areas, I urge him to accept that the Dartford tunnel is beginning to work well.

It would be ironic—I hope that it is a hypothetical proposition—if, when the finances of the tunnel appear to be looking good, we should change the scenario and deny to the county councils the powers that they seek. If it is not too much of a pun, I could say that, financially, we can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

The statement from the promoters states clearly that Toll levels are limited by the Act of 1967, and must be no more than is sufficient to allow over a period of time for the repayment with interest of loans made for the construction of the tunnel and the maintenance and running costs. Under the Act of 1967, and under the Bill, the power to charge tolls would cease when the capital debt has been paid off and maintenance and reserve funds have been established. It is impossible to be precise about when that will happen, but we must believe the statement that all hon. Members have received from the promoters, which states: On present estimates it is predicted that tolls will cease to be chargeable under the Bill early in the next century having regard to the predicted increase in the flow of traffic through the tunnel.

There was evidence given in another place to suggest that we could reach that position even earlier. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) might laugh, because it sounds like a long time ahead. However, in the context of general Government finance, a period of about 16 years during which time a debt of £68 million is expected to be extinguished is not a long time. In the context of financing such an operation, it is a reasonable period that justifies the philosophy of charging tolls and allowing the user of such an exceptionally expensive crossing to bear the cost of doing so.

Dr. McDonald

The hon. Gentleman talked about early next century, but that will be too late for those of my constituents who now spend £6 a week in tolls alone while travelling to and from work. They will either be happily retired, or may even have gone to the other place, before the debt for the Dartford tunnel is paid off.

Mr. Moate

When the hon. Lady refers to the other place, I presume that she means not the other Chamber but some other destination. Everyone becomes impatient with such forecasts, but we must relate the matter to local government finance generally. I still say that if we can finance trans-estuarial crossings—crossings that might not otherwise be in the Government programme—on such forecasts, that justifies the entire policy. Had we not built the Dartford tunnel on the basis of toll revenue, it would not exist today. That was the basis on which it was financed and on which powers were originally given to the councils, and it is the basis on which we seek renewal of those powers.

The House should consider the problems that would arise if the Bill were not renewed. I understand that many hon. Members hope that, if the Bill is not renewed, the Government will take responsibility for the tunnel and that all our problems will be over. However, it is not that simple. If the Bill does not succeed and the councils lose their toll-raising powers, the first and most likely consequence would that the burden of paying for the tunnel would fall upon the ratepayers of Kent and Essex. I have seen forecasts of the rate consequences, and I do not believe that they have been up-dated for this year's calculations. Having made that proviso, I offer them to the House: the tunnel would cost Essex ratepayers 3.8p in the pound and Kent ratepayers 8.6p in the pound. Why should the ratepayers of Kent and Essex bear the burden of this tunnel when that tunnel was built in the expectation that it would be paid for by the users?

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

Does the hon. Gentleman understand that the Humberside precept for rates for the financing of that debt will be about 50p?

Mr. Moate

I am not sure of the hon. Gentleman's point. He may be supporting my case that it would not be an acceptable proposition. The hon. Gentleman is supporting the case that we do not wish to transfer this burden to the ratepayers.

Sir Bernard Braine

Not even at 8p?

Mr. Moate

Certainly not at 8p. I shall not go into whether it was right to have a Humber bridge built at three times the debt of this project because that is a different argument.

The next alternative is that the Government should take over the £68 million debt and that it should be borne by the general taxpayer who bears the major burden of road construction. The cost of building an ordinary motorway is perhaps £2 million a mile. We are talking about a tunnel of a little under a mile to be built at £40 million a mile. We are entitled to say that that is an exceptional cost, that a large proportion of the benefit is obtained by the local users and that some other way should be found of financing that proposition. I do not believe that we are justified in placing the cost on the general taxpayer throughout the United Kingdom.

If the Government were suddenly faced with that £68 million debt, presumably the Department of Transport would have to carry the cost from its budget, and so £68 million would have to be found from the general roads programme. I do not believe that the Department of Transport could suddenly take over a £68 million debt without having to find cuts in the programme to match it. That would mean that we would perhaps lose the M20 extension, for which we have been fighting for so long, and many other cherished and desirable road schemes for which hon. Members have been clamouring. I should have thought that the consequences would be unacceptable to all involved and that there would be no case for not continuing to use a revenue-raising method that is working quite effectively.

I put it to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) that if the only way in which we can get the second Severn crossing—which I know many people feel is urgently necessary—is is by a toll-based financing operation, surely we would all want it. If the only way to get a new Dartford tunnel would be by applying tolls, even those motorists who do not like paying tolls would welcome that proposition. That takes us to the heart of the matter. The only way in which we will get this type of crossing, as successive Governments have acknowledged, outside the broad roads programme is to have tolls.

Mr. Porter

If it is true that such projects will be financed by tolls, how does my hon. Friend explain the tunnel at Conwy on the A55?

Mr. Moate

I shall resist the temptation to consider all the other crossings, because, as I said earlier, there are anomalies and this is not a satisfactorily clear and logical picture. Successive Governments have applied a policy which they would have described as flexible, but I believe that that policy is essentially practical and that, where local circumstances and the practicalities allow it, tolls have been charged. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Transport, will say that in each case there is a consistent argument that applies tolls in some cases and not in others and each area must argue its case. In this case it works, and that is the best possible reason for continuing the present system.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is it not time that he got down to the basic question which is that this year motorists have contributed £10,000 million to the Exchequer and only a quarter of that amount is spent on road improvement? In other words, three quarters of that huge amount goes towards general Exchequer expenditure. The hon. Gentleman, because of an anomaly on the estuarial crossing, is putting the motorist in the role of supplicant, where he is paying hand over fist.

Mr. Moate

I do not believe that that is the basic question. If it is, it is such a hairy old question that I thought we had stopped arguing it. I suggest that we cannot argue that revenue raised from the motorist should always be spent on roads. We do not adopt that type of financial policy of hypothecated revenue—I believe that is the right phrase. It does not work, no Government have ever used it and no Government can. If the same logic were applied to revenue from excise duties on whisky, the tax raised would be spent for the benefit of the whisky drinker, and that might be popular. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we know that petrol duties and the like are a way of raising revenue, just as are income tax, value added tax and any other source of revenue. We should resist the temptation always to relate revenue raising to expenditure on roads.

Expenditure on roads is at a high level and is increasing substantially. We do not need to be ashamed of the money generally being spent on the roads programme. How can we finance the additional requirements for the immensely expensive crossings—I refer again to the Severn estuary—at the expense of the road programme? Should we find additional ways of raising revenue on terms similar to those that we are discussing?

The Bill has excited more interest than it might otherwise have done because of the virtual completion of the M25. That project has shown up starkly the presence of one toll on perhaps the most exciting road project this country has ever conceived. The Dartford tunnel is the one point where tolls will be raised on this superb new orbital road. I do not believe that that is an argument for getting rid of the tunnel. It would be an argument if there were major and unacceptable delays caused by the raising of tolls, but the collection of tolls once is not an argument of great principle. I believe that this road will cost £825 million and will be of immense benefit to London and the whole country, and especially the south-east. I do not think it unreasonable that a fairly modest toll should be charged at one point on that motorway.

One may pursue the point that as a matter of fact there will always be a delay when collecting a toll. There will be a minor delay, but I have never heard it argued on the major highway networks on the continent that the tolls charged are uneconomic or in some way undermine the impressive nature of the autoroutes and major motorways. If a delay is not caused on the continent, why should we assume that there will be a delay here?

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that in France there is considerable controversy about the tolls on the motorways and, in fact, it has been found that most of the money raised by tolls goes to financing the operation of the tolls.

Mr. Moate

I understand that the system works quite effectively in financing many of those roads. If the hon. Gentleman can show me where tolls on the French autoroutes are being scrapped, I believe that he would have a case.

Mr. Prescott

So many jobs are in it.

Mr. Moate

I see. Generally speaking, in countries where tolls are charged they are not seen as a major obstacle to the strategic network—indeed, if they cannot be applied there, they cannot be applied anywhere.

Are delays caused by the Dartford tunnel? As hon. Members with adjoining constituencies may wish to point out, there have been delays, but those delays were mainly caused by construction work. I understand that a 100 per cent. Government grant has now been earmarked for what is romantically but unsuitably called the "toll plaza" and that once the number of toll booths is increased and the approach roads completed there should be no delay at the point of collection other than the ordinary delay for collection of the toll itself.

There will be occasions on which motorists will be frustrated and irritated by the formation of queues at the toll booths. Clearly that must be considered in Committee, but I understand that the only constraint will in fact be that a three-lane motorway will be going into a two-lane tunnel. To avoid congestion in the tunnel, delays will sometimes be caused deliberately at the toll booths in the interests of everyone's safety. As I believe my hon. Friend the Minister of State recorded in Hansard recently, the assumption is that delays caused by the collection of tolls will be eliminated save for the brief moment of payment. Delays would certainly be unacceptable and it is right to insist that there should be none. We therefore welcome the Government's grant for the expansion of the toll plaza.

I think that I have dealt with the major objection about diversion of traffic into the London scene, which I do not believe is a major difficulty.

At other stages of the Bill and outside Parliament there has been some discussion about the east London river crossing. If and when that crossing is built and the decision is taken whether it should be tolled or toll free, that will be the time to consider the other river crossings if that proves necessary. At this stage, however, I believe that we should proceed on the realistic, practical basis of the renewal of these powers without looking too speculatively into the future.

On the rights of appeal against toll increases, the law at present provides that anyone objecting to proposals for the revision of tolls may require the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry. Clause 23 would make that a matter for the discretion of the Secretary of State. The absolute right for objectors to demand an inquiry will be removed. There is little doubt that the previous procedure was wrong and unworkable. In one case that was quoted an inquiry was ordered—the Secretary of State having no discretion in the matter—and the objector who had caused it to be held failed to appear at the proceedings. The result was eight months delay and a very substantial loss of revenue. That increase was merely to cover inflation. The Bill provides that the holding of an inquiry should be at the discretion of the Secretary of State, but an amendment was accepted in another place requiring the promoters to consult Thurrock and Dartford borough councils. I believe that that has now produced an arrangement satisfactory to all parties.

In conclusion, national policy is flexible and holes can be picked in it, but in the context of the Dartford tunnel the situation works well. The tunnel has been a great success and a great tribute to Kent and Essex county councils. We can at last look forward to a time when the debts will be cleared. That may be a long way ahead, but the system is working well. It would be ironic indeed if we now deprived those councils of the power to operate in the way that they have operated so successfully until now. I submit that it is right to grant the promoters, Kent and Essex county councils, the powers sought in the Bill.

7.45 pm
Mr. Guy Barnett (Greenwich)

The pleasing manner in which the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) introduced the Second Reading of the Bill tempts me to describe him as the Dartford tunnel warbler, but I am not sure that the arguments that he so ably deployed are as strong as he suggested.

Towards the end of his speech the hon. Gentleman referred to the complete change in the function of the tunnel due to the building of the M25. Unquestionably, when the tunnel was first opened in 1963 its purpose was predominantly — I stress that word — to enable the inhabitants of Essex to go to Kent and the inhabitants of Kent to visit Essex. The construction of the M25 completely changes that, making the tunnel a national asset rather than one shared by those two counties.

I appreciate the logic behind the Bill in that it is a repetition of the previous legislation, but when the tunnel was first opened its function was of direct interest primarily to the two counties concerned, which is presumably why they originally prompted it. Now, however, the Government are rightly pressing ahead with the construction of the M25 right round London. That will be a magnificent asset both to London and to the country at large. Unquestionably, the use that will be made of the M25 and of the Dartford tunnel will be national rather than regional or local.

The hon. Member for Faversham rightly referred to the arguments for and against tolls and I accept his comment that there is no apparent logic or hard and fast rule of Government policy on which to base a decision. Perhaps today's debate is a good opportunity to suggest one. If the tunnel is primarily of use locally there may be an argument for part of the cost to be borne on the rates or through a toll or for some system covering both forms of income. If it is a national asset, however, as it is bound to become, I cannot see any sensible argument for a toll. The purpose of a toll is so that those who predominantly use the tunnel and thus stand to benefit from it should pay for it. If it is a national asset, however—like the M25 or any other motorway or main road in the country—it must make reasonable sense for the nation as a whole to pay for it.

In that way, therefore, I dispose of the argument that there is any logical case for a toll once the M25 is complete, because that stretch of the road which passes under the estuary of the river Thames will be of enormous value to people—to private drivers, firms which send lorries and so on to and from the north, Wales, Scotland and all over the country — and will be an asset to continental firms which bring their merchandise in through one of the channel ports.

It must be seen as a national asset, but it is also an enormous asset to the citizens of London, particularly those who live in my constituency and in my borough. The hon. Member for Faversham said that he had seen no credible evidence to suggest that the existence of a toll, or the queues that might build up on either side, might have a deleterious effect on other parts of London and might throw traffic on to London's roads.

I understand that some work was done in 1975 by an inquiry into the possible results of an increase in tunnel tolls. That work showed that the likely transfer, as a result of increased tolls, of existing traffic using the tunnel on to other river crossings could be substantial and that the effect on some roads could be significant, for instance, on high street north in Newham, on Rochester way in Greenwich and on the East India Dock road in Tower Hamlets.

The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who is not at present in his place, referred to the Rochester way, which runs through his constituency and mine. Anybody who travels down the A2-M2 knows that at present the Rochester way is a considerable congestion point, and it is likely to remain so until the relief road is built about two years hence. Therefore, any additional traffic passing through our two constituencies would create immense problems. There are frequent blockages in the Blackwall tunnel and anyone who tries to reach outer London through Leyton and Leytonstone knows the difficulties in that area.

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)

The hon. Gentleman referred to some work that had been done on what people's attitude might be if the tolls on the Dartford tunnel were raised. If I were approached by a pollster and told that tolls might be rising and asked what I would do about it, it would be like asking me if I were against sin. I would obviously try to pretend that if the tolls were increased I should divert so as to avoid paying the extra. What was the size of the sample and what sort of questions were asked in the survey to which the hon. Gentleman referred?

Mr. Barnett

I cannot give that information. I have not studied that piece of work in detail and I referred to it only because the hon. Member for Faversham suggested that no work had pointed to that possibility. Indeed, I believe that we in east London have every reason to fear the possibility of delays at the Dartford tunnel, which might tempt people to move away. The possibility of tolls is also a reason which, curiously, dissuades people from taking a particular route. Admittedly, in a couple of years' time, the Rochester way relief road will, I hope, be open; I am not sure whether it will be open that soon, but we are looking forward to that possibility. It is right to point out some of the dangers that would arise if the M25 were completed and there were still tolls at the Dartford tunnel.

The hon. Member for Faversham said that the Government had generously offered £15 million so that a plaza could be laid out at each side of the tunnel to enable the money to be collected. We need to question the Government about that because I understand that the amount owing on the tunnel at present is £62 million, so that that £15 million could pay off one quarter of the sum owing.

Mr. Moate

I believe that the figure for the toll booths in terms of Government grant is £3.5 million.

Mr. Barnett

Then I was misinformed; I was told that it was a good deal more than that. Nevertheless, it seems that any work done on the toll points, and the wages that would have to be paid to those operating them, would all involve costs, so we should be told what costs are likely to continue to be involved in the collection of money, apart from the capital cost, which I understand the Government have made available so that toll booths and a plaza may be laid out.

Another point needs to be put forward, particularly on behalf of east London. The hon. Member for Faversham fairly pointed out that the rest of the M25 would be toll-free. The Government have allowed the link between Staines and Egham to be toll-free on the west side of London but, curiously, have not seen fit to take over responsibility for the link at Dartford. That is unfortunate because anyone who knows anything about London knows that there is a considerable contrast between standards of wealth and deprivation in west and east London. Some of the most deprived boroughs in the Greater London area are on the east, rather than on the west, side, and I need only name Islington, Hackney, Southwark and the other dockland boroughs to illustrate the point. Therefore, it seems unfortunate that the Government should have agreed to the financing of a free road on the west side of the M25 but should have accepted no responsibility for the Dartford crossing.

In addition, the hon. Member for Faversham mentioned the proposed east London river crossing. I oppose that, and the borough in which my constituency is situated also opposes that development. However, I understand that if it were to take place, the idea would be not to have a toll on that road—it would be interesting to know what arguments there might be for that—while retaining a toll on the Dartford crossing.

Those are serious arguments against the continuation of tolls at the Dartford tunnel. I emphasise that this is now a national asset; it is transformed into a national asset by the construction of the M25. There can be no argument about the national recognition of the need for the M25, for the sake of London and for the national economy as a whole. For those reasons it is wrong for the Government to expect Kent and Essex to continue the responsibility that they now have for the Dartford tunnel. I should have thought that for that, if for no other reason, we should vote against the Second Reading. That would be a statement by the House that we regard the Dartford tunnel as requiring national, rather than local, financing.

8 pm

Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesham)

I listened closely to the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett). His final words filled me with considerable consternation on behalf of every ratepayer in Essex and Kent. If the Bill were to be defeated, I do not believe that in the present climate there would be the slightest chance of the Government taking over the Dartford tunnel. The hon. Gentleman has suggested, in effect, that the ratepayers of Kent should pay an extra 8.3p in the pound in two years' time, and that ratepayers in Essex should pay an extra 4p in the pound, to maintain a tunnel which caters for traffic which comes from Scotland or from the other end of the country, from Dover, and travels up and down the country. The traffic is largely national and not local.

I must admit to a considerable feeling of bewilderment. If the Government were prepared to take over the tunnel I should be delighted. As the hon. Member for Greenwich said, the tunnel has lost its local need. It does not provide a service that is confined to those who wish to travel from Kent to Essex and Essex to Kent. The service that it provides is entirely different.

I support the Bill with a somewhat heavy heart, for it is essential to the two counties if the ratepayers are not to be unduly penalised. I am perhaps the only Member in the Chamber who is avowedly and enthusiastically in favour of motorway tolling. I wish that the Government and previous Governments had adopted the practice of France and the United States, so that those who use the generation of super roads could make a contribution to their provision.

The tide is running with that thought in the United Kingdom. Given the complexion of the Government, it seems that they are in favour of those who can afford it making a contribution to the services that they use. The principle extends beyond that into subscription television, for example, which will soon be with us. We shall have broadcasting by satellite and cable television. Why should we not expect the users to contribute something to the arterial roads and in that way enable them to be kept in better condition? In the circumstances that now prevail, it is inevitable that a major part of the road fund will not be spent on roads. If a tolling system were developed and the revenue was spent on the betterment of our road system, many people might be extremely pleased.

It is not impossible to make tolling work. The tunnel under Hong Kong was built at a cost of many millions of dollars and I am told that it was in profit, as a result of tolls, in about 18 months after it was built. The enthusiasm of the Chinese for using new devices and new systems may be greater than ours, but there are opportunities and I hope that ultimately the Government will look towards tolls. I do not believe that that will happen in time to cause the lapsing of the legislation that we are discussing and, therefore, I believe that we must make provision for Kent and Essex to continue to charge tolls.

There has been talk of possible delays, but we shall extend the toll plaza. If hon. Members have used the tolling system on the continent, as I have, they will know that it is rare for there to be more than a few seconds' delay in passing through the toll and that the motorist becomes practised in having his change ready to throw into the basket and pass straight through.

It is estimated that the tunnel will not be paid for until almost the end of the century. It should be underlined that it is the only one in the country for which there is a definite target date for paying off the cost of construction. It is possible that another one will be built and that there will be a third Dartford tunnel, but I served on Kent county council for a few years in the 1970s and I know its members fairly well. As I understand their thinking, I can say that the county council—I cannot speak for Essex—would not accept the idea of facing the debt of a third tunnel. There was a different climate in the 1960s and we are now faced with an entirely different ball game.

I hope that those who disagree with the notion of tolling will recognise the impracticability that would result from defeating the Bill and will not cause a Division to take place when the Question is put, That the Bill be now read a Second time. We can avoid penalising the Essex and Kent ratepayers by enacting the Bill.

8.5 pm

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

I hope that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) will forgive me if I seem somewhat less than enthusiastic about his idea of a patchwork quilt of turnpikes throughout the country. Most of my constituents would take the view that motorists pay enough in taxation as it is without that form of direct taxation on their motoring.

Mr. Prescott

What about social services in Kent?

Mr. Cartwright

I had better not go into that because that would involve straying beyond the bounds of order.

I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) when I say that I was attracted by the reasonable way in which the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) presented his case. He clearly knew when there were holes in it, and that was part of the engaging presentation. It is no part of my case to place in the dock the county councils of Kent and Essex. They are the fall guys for the Department of Transport. Those of us who feel strongly about the toll will realise that that is so.

The Government's attitude to tolls has been made clear on a number of occasions. I came across a clear statement made by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) on 10 June 1981 when he was the Secretary of State for Transport. He said that the Government saw no case for departing from the general principle that tolls should be charged on crossings where exceptional benefits are provided to the users".—[Official Report, 10 June 1981; Vol 6, c. 148.] It has already been made clear in the debate that that principle does not seem to be carried out to the letter. Relevant examples are the M5 Avonmouth bridge and the river Orwell crossing. I have no doubt that other hon. Members can quote other examples.

It is difficult to decide what constitutes an exceptional benefit. The Severn and Humber bridges provide exceptional, extraordinary and unusual benefits but there are other crossings of the Thames available apart from Dartford that lie within a comparatively short distance. The benefit of the Dartford tunnel is clearly not exceptional. As the hon. Member for Greenwich has said, the tunnel has changed in character considerably since it was opened. I shall quote some of the traffic flows to underline the hon. Gentleman's argument.

In 1964, for example, there was a traffic flow of 4.8 million vehicles a year. By 1982, that had increased to 12.3 million vehicles a year and a daily rate of 34,000 vehicles. In April 1983, when the section of the M25 from the A127 to the M11 was opened, the daily flow increased from 34,000 vehicles in March to 41,000 in May. We all know that there has been a tremendous increase as a result of the opening in January 1984 of the section of the M25 from the M11 to the A10 and the dual carriageway link all the way from the Al and the M1 to the M2, the M20 and the Channel ports. In a written answer on 11 July 1983, the Minister of State said: When the M25 is complete, traffic flows are currently expected to be between 65,000 and 78,000 vehicles per day." —[Official Report, 11 July 1983; Vol. 45, c. 249.] Those figures must be set against the flows when the tunnel was opened. The contrast communicates effectively the change in character.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

The hon. Gentleman's figures are rather misleading. He referred to the traffic flow in 1964, forgetting that the second tunnel did not come into operation until 1967. The introduction of the second tunnel was bound to make a significant difference. In the past 20 years, the number of vehicles on the roads has increased enormously.

Mr. Cartwright

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. However, I think that he will also accept that, allowing for the extra traffic generated by the second tunnel, greater car ownership and the greater number of lorries on the road, the tunnel has changed its character, and is an important part of the M25, which provides an attractive orbital route around London. It was constructed to take through traffic away from London, particularly heavy goods traffic. It seems to many of us to be somewhat inconsistent to build what is essentially a bypass and then to maintain a toll on it, which will have some discouraging effects.

I declare a constituency interest because traffic diverted is likely to head for the Blackwall tunnel or the Woolwich ferry. Both crossings are free. I can tell the hon. Member for Faversham that, with the construction of roads such as the Thamesmead spine road and the improvement of the A206, the area is not so congested and it is possible to get a large part of the distance from Dartford to the centre of Woolwich on dual carriageway roads. That will be even easier after the improvement of the A206 has been completed. The traffic might not be moving slowly. It might move fast on its way from Dartford to divert to Woolwich or the Blackwall tunnel. However, there are still problems for my constituents and the residents of Greenwich, whether the traffic is moving rapidly or slowly.

The hon. Gentleman said that there might be a new situation because of the east London river crossing, a proposal that has hung like the sword of Damocles above my constituents for about 17 years. It now looks as if it is a real prospect. As the hon. Member for Greenwich said, we were never told that there would be tolls on the river crossing. It started life as a tunnel and has now been transformed into a bridge, but no one has suggested that tolls be charged. Therefore, there must be a strong possibility that vehicles will be diverted away from Dartford, where tolls are charged, to the east London river crossing, if that is free. That would apply particularly to heavy commercial traffic.

The east London river crossing is not an attractive scheme to my constituents. As the Minister knows, it is strongly opposed in my constituency. That is not surprising. About 260 homes, most of them in my constituency, will be demolished because of it. It will divide established communities in Plumstead and Abbey Wood from each other and go through some pleasant open spaces. Therefore, that is a controversial issue. Many of my constituents feel strongly that the charging of tolls at Dartford inevitably builds up the demand for an additional free crossing at Thamesmead, which the east London river crossing will provide.

As other hon. Members have said, not only the toll costs but the congestion that the charging of tolls might cause might divert traffic from Dartford. We have all heard that the Government are spending an extra £3 million to provide additional toll booths. However, it seems that even the Government accept that there will be some congestion. Lord Lucas of Chilworth, replying for the Government on the Second Reading of the Bill in another place, said: in the event of congestion occurring there is already in the main building programme for 1986 onwards a major scheme to provide another river crossing in East London at Barking across to Plumstead and the A2".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 March 1983; Vol. 440, c. 614.]

In other words, before we have even had a public inquiry on the east London river crossing, Ministers are quoting it as a means of easing congestion that they foresaw would arise at Dartford. If anyone doubts that there will be congestion, let me draw his attention to the comments of Mr. Desmond Jago, a former general manager of Dartford tunnel, now retired. He wrote to the Royal Automobile Club on 2 January 1984, making some clear comments about the risks of congestion arising at Dartford. He said: It is my firm conviction that when the toll booths for northbound traffic have been increased to twelve, of which 10 or 11 will be in use at peak periods, the attempt to funnel so many lanes of traffic into two lanes to negotiate the tunnel can only lead to acute congestion that will be further aggravated by the impatience and lack of consideration by some motorists who will attempt to bull-doze their way through. Traffic flow through the tunnel will be further affected adversely by the escorting of dangerous material (eg petrol). On the basis of his experience, Mr. Jago went on to say: It has always been my view that traffic approaching the tunnel should be funnelled down to two lanes well before reaching the tunnel portals—at least half a mile away from it, and further than that if practicable. The present intention is quite the reverse, viz. spread the traffic out to twelve lanes and then attempt to narrow it down to two lanes too close to the tunnel portal.

That is a worrying comment, on the basis of the practical experience of a former Dartford tunnel manager. I hope that either the Minister or the hon. Member for Faversham will reply to that point later.

It is not my intention to oppose the Second Reading of the Bill. It would be most unfair if the burden of the tunnel were to fall on the ratepayers of either Kent or Essex. I hope that the Committee considering the Bill will look at the possibility of a time limit on the operation of the tolls. If we look at the full cost of the M25, which is about £900 million, none of which is charged to the users, that puts into perspective the cost of abolishing the tolls. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will think again and recognise that the tunnel is an integral part of the M25 and of the trunk road network, and will abolish the tolls.

8.16 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

The case for both Kent and Essex county councils was put admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate). He was described elegantly by the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) as the Dartford tunnel warbler. It will take my hon. Friend a long time to live that one down.

Mr. Crouch

My hon. Friend is not as rare as that.

Sir Bernard Braine

My hon. Friend certainly gave a rare performance. He sang so well that my task will be all the easier.

I am glad to say that Essex Members, at least on the Conservative side — I hope that we carry the hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) with us—and Kent Members see eye to eye on the necessity for the Bill and its urgency. The hon. Member for Greenwich was right to speak as he did — so lyrically — about the advantages to our constituencies in Kent and Essex of the M25. Some of us are beginning to see that it will bring considerable benefits to local industry and commerce. We in Essex will be brought an hour or so closer to ports such as Southampton and Dover and we already have a major development at Felixstowe. It is an exciting prospect. The hon. Gentleman was right to mention that. I expect it to lead to a massive development in the next five to 10 years, bringing with it the employment opportunities that we ardently desire for our people.

More important, the M25 will bring great benefits to the rest of the country—the midlands, the north and even Scotland. Exporters, business people and travellers seeking access to the ports in the south-east and links with the continent will find it a great advantage to avoid the congestion and traffic delay of Greater London. I did not agree with the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). It is true that traffic patterns change, but my experience over 30 years shows me that any diversion of traffic away from the Dartford tunnel because of tolls would add much more than half an hour to journeys such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned.

The Dartford tunnel is, therefore a crucial link which serves not only Essex and Kent but regions far beyond. Widening the approach roads to the tunnel recently attracted a 100 per cent. grant from the Department to eliminate the delays which we experienced last year. The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) was right about that. I had some sympathy for the views on tolls expressed by the hon. Members for Woolwich and for Greenwich. I hope that, for reasons which I shall give, the hon. Member for Greenwich will follow the logic of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Woolwich and not vote against the Bill. After making their protest against tolls—like everyone else, I dislike them, too—I hope that nobody will vote against the Bill. With the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton), everyone agrees that getting rid of tolls would be a good thing. They are certainly unpopular. I should like them abolished everywhere. However, there is no alternative at present. We must deal with realities. The two county councils have had to operate, as one would expect them to do, within the parameters of national policy. Tolls have been required to facilitate provision of trans-estuarial crossings which provide substantial benefits for users and tolls are required here.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham went into the history of the subject. I shall not take up the time of the House by exploring the past. In the present climate I see no prospect of the Government picking up the bill. They could do so only at the expense of the national road programme. I wonder what the effect of that would be on the right hon. and hon. Members who are not here tonight. There would be countless alarms and excursions and delegations to the Minister. We must face circumstances as they are, not as we would like them to be. If the House were to reject this measure, it is the ratepayers of Essex and Kent who would have to pick up the bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham attempted to estimate the effects of meeting the cost of the tunnel without tolls being levied. I understand that evidence given by the treasurer of Kent county council to the House of Lords Select Committee suggested that the extra rate burden would be about 3.8p for Essex ratepayers and about 8.6p for Kent ratepayers. That would be unfair and inequitable. It would be unfair for people who live at the extremities of the two counties in, say, Clacton at one end and Margate at the other.

Mr. Crouch

And Canterbury.

Sir Bernard Braine

How dare I miss out Canterbury? It would be unfair to people who do not use the tunnel frequently. The unfairness to Essex and Kent would be even greater when one takes into account the use which would be made of the tunnel by people in the outer London boroughs who are close to it, but would not bear any of the burden of cost. I cannot conceive that anyone in his senses would advocate such a course.

The constituency of the hon. Member for Thurrock lies at the northern end of the tunnel. She joined me only a short time ago in criticising the Government's White Paper on the rate support grant. I went into the Lobby against the Government on that issue because of the intolerable burden that the proposed settlement would put on Essex ratepayers, despite the fact that the county has managed its affairs prudently and kept its expenditure down. I ask the hon. Lady to consider the illogicality of voting against this Bill. To do so would be to run the risk of putting an even greater burden on Essex ratepayers. I am sure that she would not contemplate that for one moment.

The policy of the joint committee of the two county councils, which is designed to achieve the financial viability of the tunnel undertaking at the earliest practicable date, is to secure small and frequent toll increases. Both councils have concurred with that policy and it has been welcomed by the Department of Transport. I should also make it plain that both councils are under a statutory obligation to restrict the tolls to produce an annual revenue which is not substantially less or substantially more than is adequate to meet relevant expenditure.

The modest increase which is now recommended will enable principal payments to commence next year, the outstanding debt being repaid by the mid-1990s. We are, therefore, within a measurable distance of meeting the cost of the tunnel. However, I was most interested to hear what the hon. Member for Woolwich said about thinking about the future. As he said, we should give the Bill a Second Reading and then have a long hard look at tolls, financing, road policy and the rest later on. The different sides of the argument could then be brought together.

I hope that the House will approve the Bill and permit the two county councils to get on with the task of improving and running this vital link.

8.27 pm
Dr. Oonagh McDonald (Thurrock)

I welcome the assurance which the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) gave and acceptance of the amendment which was proposed in another place to the effect that the committee must consult Thurrock borough council before increasing tolls. Although he mentioned an objector failing to appear before the inquiry, it is a pity that Thurrock borough council is merely to be consulted and that there is no obligation to hold an inquiry, as the council has been consulted about increases in the toll more than once, only to find that it has been increased. I am glad that the amendment proposed in another place was accepted, but I regret that there is no obligation on the Secretary of State to hold an inquiry into proposed price increases when there are objections to them.

The trouble with the Dartford tunnel is that, although it brings enormous advantages—it has increased dock-related industries of all types such as warehouses, cold stores and container parks—industries in Thurrock bear the cost of using the tunnel perhaps to a greater extent than other indusries in other parts of the country which use it just as frequently.

In addition to companies, many of my constituents find that a firm has moved from the Essex side of the river to the Kent side, and to maintain their jobs they have to travel to and fro. As a result, they pay £6 a week in addition to petrol costs to travel to and from work. That is a heavy cost for people to pay simply because they have to go to the other side of the river either to find work or because a company originally on the Essex side has transferred to the Kent side. Although Thurrock recognises that the tunnel brings enormous advantages, I understand the council feels that the costs can bear heavily on local firms and employees on the Kent side.

Thurrock is faced with paying the toll if the point of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) is followed, or paying the costs in the rates, and it has a right to complain. The alternative is for the Government to take over the cost of the tolls and make the tunnel toll-free, thus preventing the delays that will otherwise occur on the M25. The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) talked about the traffic increasing to 78,000 vehicles per day when the M25 is completed. However, the local police in Thurrock estimate that possibly 90,000 vehicles per day will pass through Dartford tunnel.

The delays at peak times are caused by accidents in the tunnel and were caused in the past by the construction work. Everyone on both the Essex and the Kent sides has breathed a huge sigh of relief now that the construction work has been completed, and one no longer has to face that kind of delay. Nevertheless, delays will arise from the greatly increased traffic as it builds up with the addition to the M25 and with its completion.

In an intervention in the speech of the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), I mentioned that the toll could act as a disincentive to M25 traffic. It is possible to avoid using the Dartford tunnel when travelling outside peak hours, although this adds to London's congestion. The continued collection of tolls will cause unnecessary delays for motorway traffic. The tolls impose a heavy cost on those who have to use the tunnel regularly and lead to the possibility of diversion.

I listened a few weeks ago to a statement by the Secretary of State, by which I was very puzzled. I read a copy of the press release issued by the Deprtment of Transport on 25 January 1984 to check that I had heard correctly the news item on the radio, and indeed I had. The right hon. Gentleman said: For the first time in the history of the capital, traffic will now be able to flow freely on motorway or dual carriageway roads from Scotland and the industrial areas of the North West and the West Midlands to just outside Dover. In one of the reports that I heard the right hon. Gentleman proudly announced: There are no traffic lights to hold anyone up. I laughed hollowly to myself as I listened to that, thinking that the right hon. Gentleman had never driven through the Dartford tunnel in peak hours, and wondered what he meant by saying there was no hold-up on this wonderful new motorway. However, I have thought again since then.

Perhaps there was a hint in what the right hon. Gentleman said, because he referred to the traffic flowing freely. He may have been referring, not to the absence of traffic lights or other source of delay, but possibly to a promise of good things to come from the Government. If the Government were considering taking over the Dartford tunnel so that tolls would not be charged, there would have been no need for my hollow laughter when I heard that item on the radio. Indeed, perhaps I should have welcomed it.

Perhaps the Minister will have something to say about the possibility of the Government taking over the Dartford tunnel, so that people will no longer have to bear the iniquitious burden of £6 a week as a special local tax for having the temerity to wish to travel from one side of the river to the other in the course of their daily work.

8.35 pm
Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I feel that I am intruding on a private party because I have no constituency interest. If it is any comfort to the promoters of the Bill, I have no intention of opposing it. Indeed I welcome it as it gives an opportunity to the House to discuss the principle of tolls in relation to estuarial crossings, and there is a great opportunity at the Committee stage of the Bill for the Government to reconsider their attitude on these matters.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Minister, who represents Wallasey, has vacated her position as I rise to speak, because this morning I considered coming through the Mersey tunnel through the Wallasey plaza rather than taking my normal route through the Birkenhead plaza. I have never heard them called by those names before. Whichever plaza one goes through, I assure the House that there tends to be a slight delay. Indeed, there are delays occasionally to the extent that one can get out and buy ice cream, a bottle of Italian wine, or whatever else may be available at these places. At Birkenhead this morning, I did not bother to purchase such luxuries, and I got through the tunnel fairly quickly. As I was coming through the tunnel, my wife and I were discussing our holidays. Our holidays this year, owing to the rather damp economic climate, will be spent in north Wales. We shall take our modest family saloon from the Wirral peninsula, and we shall go to what I gather is now called by the Boundary Commission Ynys Môn or, as it used to be called, Anglesey. To get there, I shall go through what is called the "Wyn Roberts" tunnel, near Conway. That was built very recently, and goes under an estuary. It might have been a bridge, but it was decided to spend £15 million extra to go under the river for environmental reasons. Accordingly, I shall drive without let or hindrance or ticket or toll through that tunnel. As I was discussing this with my wife, it struck me as being rather strange. It is, indeed, a strange example, but I am afraid it is only one of the anomalies throughout the country since the concept of the estuarial toll came in. I cite that one example only, and I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) will in due course cite others, and that other of my hon. Friends will cite yet more examples.

Although my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) did well to suggest that the policy in relation to estuarial crossings is "flexible", in fact it is not. It is inconsistent, illogical and indefensible. To date the Government — and I use the term in the past and present, but I hope not in the future tense—have refused to debate that argument, and instead have told authorities to increase tolls to solve their financial difficulties. Governments cheerfully believe that this will make most of the structures that we have—under or over ground—viable in due course. This is a touching faith, but it is not realistic. Most crossings are incurring losses accumulating to approximately £38 million per annum. The overall debt has grown from £268 million to £473 million over the last five years. A document entitled "The road to free tolls", prepared by the Merseyside county council, has detailed figures that show beyond peradventure — and I summarise for the sake of brevity—that there are four estuarial crossings in the country that have no chance of achieving toll-based profitability. One has doubtful prospects, four owe their financial success—if such it can be called—almost entirely to Government aid, and only one can lay claim to unaided viability, and that for only a temporary period.

I listened with some interest to the figures and forecasts put forward by the proposers of the Bill about the financial viability of the Dartford tunnel. I have heard it all before; the residents of Merseyside have heard it all before; indeed, the residents of almost anywhere have heard it all before. In my examples of the long-term unviability of estuarial crossings, the Mersey tunnels—which are my particular interest—are not even included. In the view of the soon-to-be-demolished Merseyside county council, those tunnels have received uniquely unhelpful treatment from Government. With all the crossings, the tolls rise and the debt rises — which is a funny way to conduct a business.

I hear those on the Benches behind me ask what it would cost to abolish the tolls. What effect would that have on our old and dear friend the public sector borrowing requirement? The figure currently bandied about is about £500 million. I am relying on the figure produced by various freight associations two years ago of £438 million, but the principle remains the same. It is vital to realise that the Government would not have to spend that amount. The actual cost of disposing of the estuarial crossing charges would be about £28 million in 1982 figures—less the cost of collection, which, on average, is about 20 per cent. Therefore, the net cost in present-day terms would be about £25 million. The precise figures are arguable, but if they are accepted even in general terms, that is about 0.37 per cent. of the surplus road user taxation in the year 1982–83.

What about the capital debt? My memory may be failing me, but I have heard of capital debt being written off when there is no possibility of it being repaid. I have heard of it being written off for the Mersey docks, the London docks, the British Steel Corporation and a number of other nationalised industries—and why not, when there is no possibility of it being repaid? It is nonsense. We are talking about a book transfer. I understand that I have been described as being on the arid side of dry, but I take that as a pragmatic view of economics. Of course the capital debt should be written off.

I have given the cost of that in any one year to the Government, which shows the relatively small scale of the problem. How that would be achieved and over what period are matters open to discussion. An admirable time for such a discussion might be in Committee. I hope that the Government will at least consider the facts as I and other hon. Members have outlined them—I hope in a reasonable way—and open that discussion as soon as possible. It may be that the Dartford Tunnel Act 1984 will be the start of something more logical and sensible in relation to the crossings.

8.44 pm
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Like the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter), I have no wish to oppose the Bill. However, I wish to oppose the principle of tolls. The joint sponsors of the Bill, the Essex and Kent county councils, say that the power to charge tolls will cease when the capital debt has been repaid and maintenance and reserve funds established. The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) was rather optimistic about that. My experience is that the paying off of capital debt could be sometime, never.

The promotors say that it all depends on the amount of revenue generated by tolls, which in turn depends on the volume of traffic. It also depends on inflation and interest rates. Comparisons are odious, but when the Severn bridge was in its planning stage it was estimated that the cost of inflation would be 2.5 per cent. to 3 per cent. per annum, and that interest rates would stabilise at no higher than 6.25 per cent. How ridiculous those figures appear today. The debt on that bridge is rocketing. We have heard about the joys of the bridge from previous speakers. I can tell them that it is not for nothing that some years ago it was given the name of the bridge of sighs.

The basic question is why there should be tolls at all. The Dartford tunnel is clearly established as an integral part of the M25. The sponsors of the Bill have accepted that the collection of tolls will undoubtedly cause delays to motorway traffic. Yet more than £3 million has been committed to the provision of additional toll booths. More money will be taken from motorists, who will face delays for a facility whose basic purpose is the easing of congestion in London. The tolls will cause traffic queues at peak periods, with the inevitable road safety implications—another important factor.

The cost to motorway users will rise not only through tolls but through delays. It has been clearly established tonight that there will be a disincentive to motorists to use the new facility. Routes can be taken that will aggravate the traffic problems in London. The Government's policy on tolls has neither rhyme nor reason.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

The hon. Gentleman is one of three hon. Members who have expressed a belief that in some way a toll causes delay. He also mentioned the possibility that tolls might create traffic hazards. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members are clearly unaware of the circumstances surrounding both ends of the Dartford tunnel. Any delay caused would be as a result of the funnelling of a three-lane motorway into the two lanes of the tunnel. Far from creating a safety hazard, I suggest that the tolls, through slowing down the traffic and splaying it, are more likely to create a safety factor. The danger factor on a fast road occurs when three fast lanes converge into two fast lanes. By splaying out the traffic, as happens already, a safety factor will be introduced. I ask the hon. Gentleman to accept that——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is developing into a speech. Perhaps he will catch my eye later.

Mr. Hughes

The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) is entitled to his view. But I assure him that my remarks are made on the advice of considerable authorities on the matter. I think that a free flow of traffic would be a better safety bet than the delays of toll collection. For instance, there is the Mersey tunnel. I understand that tolls were increased there again this year, and yet Merseyside is an area that needs to be assisted rather than penalised.

Mr. Porter

The toll on the Mersey tunnel was last increased in 1981.

Mr. Hughes

I pointed out earlier to the hon. Member for Faversham that the motorist is paying the Exchequer over £10,000 million in the current financial year. Only a quarter of that will be reinvested in improving road communications. Three quarters goes towards general Government expenditure. When considering the possibilty of an estuarial crossing by bridge or tunnel the Government sometimes treat the motorist as a poor relation, but the motorist consistently pays hand over fist.

There is no consistency in the Government's policy. There are tolls on the Severn bridge, so why are there no tolls on the Avon bridge, the A5, which serves Bristol and the west of England? When there is intense rivalry between the two regions, particularly in the attempt to attract new jobs, why is south Wales discriminated against? Merseyside is an area of economic deprivation. However, there are tolls on the Mersey tunnel but there are to be no tolls on the new Conway tunnel in north Wales.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is beginning to stray. He must relate his remarks to the Dartford tunnel or use illustrations relevant to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Hughes

I am trying to show that there is no thread of consistency in the Government's policies, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the case of the M25, the Government should abolish tolls and take over the responsibility from the Essex and Kent county councils. The accumulated debt should be written off. That course of action is essential if the M25 is fully and efficiently to serve the purpose for which it was planned. The estuarial crossings are part of the national motorway network. If tolls were abolished, the crossings would become far more efficient.

8.53 pm
Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

I have two points to make. The first is a descriptive point, rather like that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) earlier this evening, when he gave us a "Breakaway" programme about his holiday prospects.

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) made a sound argument against the intentions of the promoters of the Bill. Of course there are arguments against the Bill. There are arguments for not having tolls at all, and for saying that the Government should pick up the tab and give us free travel throughout the kingdom. That is what I should like to see, but we are not living in a perfect world.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Greenwich about his assumption that the good people of Essex and the good people of Kent decided to build the tunnel in order to meet and exchange thoughts. Would he assume that many years ago the good citizens of Middlesex decided that there were equally good citizens in Surrey and therefore built London bridge? London bridge was never merely a local asset or a means of local communication. Similarly, the citizens of Kent and Essex were not thinking of a means of local communication, and what they built immediately became a national asset.

I used to live in Yorkshire. When we travelled down on holiday from Yorkshire to Kent — another "Breakaway" touch — we used to try to avoid the conurbation of London. We used to go through Hertfordshire into Essex and cross into Kent not by the tunnel—it was not there then—but by the Woolwich ferry. We bought a ticket and crossed the river pleasantly by that small ferry. That was one way of travelling. It did not occur to me that we should not pay for the privilege of being shipped across a busy river thoroughfare.

When I first became Member of Parliament for Canterbury my constituency included Herne Bay, which is now part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). Herne Bay pier was the second longest pier in the country. There was a paddle steamer that crossed the estuary to Southend. I was sorry when it stopped running. Later, the pier was swept away and the steamer never ran again.

Those were all ways of crossing estuaries. People have many and varied reasons for wishing to cross estuaries. They may wish to go to Southend or to Herne Bay, but it is also true that people living in the north cross an estuary to reach Kent. It is not only people from Essex who wish to go to Kent. Equally, people living in Dorset wishing to go to Norfolk might choose to go by way of Dartford tunnel, not because of the M25 but simply because a crossing point on a river, such as a tunnel, immediately becomes attractive to the traveller. People have many reasons for travelling long distances around the country, and they will look for the most easy route.

The Dartford tunnel was not built just as a local benefit for the people of Essex and Kent. It was built with foresight, in recognition of the need to build a national asset. Unfortunately, when the tunnel was first thought of in 1930, the farsighted people of Kent and Essex who wished to embark on that project told the Government that, as people living on the perimeter of London, they had had the good idea of building a tunnel. The Government said, "That is a good idea. Go ahead, and we will give you a grant towards it." The tunnel was not built until after the war. It was opened in 1963. The Government kept their promise and delivered the grant at the 1930 rate. The two county councils had to find the remainder by borrowing and that debt has to be serviced. Subsequently, a second tunnel was built.

I believe that I misled the House earlier in my intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) when I suggested that the second tunnel was opened in 1967. It was not. It was agreed by Parliament in 1967 that the second tunnel should go ahead. I believe that it was opened in 1980. There is now a double tunnel.

The Government in 1967 did not give us a grant towards the second tunnel. It escapes me at the moment which Government were running the country in 1967, but they were not the most generous of Governments. The Kent and Essex county councils had to pay the whole cost by borrowing, as it was properly described by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate).

The tunnels exist as a result of the good decisions of the people of Kent and Essex. Those two county councils have given us a national asset. They have carried a great part of the cost. How nice it would be if the Government were to say, "You have done too much for your country. You have overstepped the limit. You have been too generous. We feel that we owe you a debt. We cannot repay you what you have had to pay during the past 20 years, but we will pick it up from now on." I see my hon. Friend the Minister as I like to see her—smiling at me. I fear that within about half an hour I shall be dismal again, because I do not believe that she has £68 million, or thereabouts, ready to hand to me.

If my hon. Friend did have that sum, as has been said by other speakers, I fear that it would come out of the road programme and that some of the essential works that are required and promised, and are in the programme, might be taken out. I am pragmatic about the matter. I say to myself, "Yes, the Government should pick up this burden and take it from us," but it would be at someone else's expense. If that were to be the case, I do not believe that they would or should.

I argue therefore, pragmatically and logically, that we should accept the Bill. We are already saving the Government and the taxpayer money. The money has to be paid by someone. It has to be paid by the road users by the toll. It is not a perfect world, as I said, but I believe that we should not allow the Bill to be lost, and hear the Government say, "We will not pay." The Kent and Essex county councils would say, "Well, if the Government will not pay, and the road users are not allowed to pay, there is only one section of the community left who can pay, and that is the ratepayers." We have heard what a big rate increase that would mean in an area where the subject of increases is delicate and extremely unpopular.

I have no alternative but to welcome the Bill, imperfect though it is, and say that the tolls must continue.

9.2 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

I intervene at this time because it may assist the House to know how the Government stand on the Bill. Let me begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) on the excellent way in which he has moved the Second Reading of the Bill on behalf of the promoters.

Despite the charm of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), I have to say to him that I do not have £65 million in my pocket for him, any more than I have various other sums for the other estuarial crossings mentioned during the debate, on the general theory that there should be no estuarial crossings in the future.

Let me explain why the Government are broadly in favour of the Bill. We accept that it is necessary, because without it the powers of the Kent and Essex county councils to manage this three-mile tunnel will lapse at the end of 1986, in accordance with section 262 of the Local Government Act 1972, unless the Dartford Tunnel Act 1967 is re-enacted. In particular, the Government support clause 20 which enables the councils to continue to levy tolls. We also support clause 21 which amends the procedure for revising tolls. Clause 21 is among those which the county councils very sensibly decided to modernise in the light of their experience in administering the 1967 Act.

With regard to clause 20, it may be helpful if I first explain the Government's attitude to tolls generally. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) and several other hon. Members have raised this issue. It is important, because most of the opposition to clause 20—and by extension to the Bill as a whole—is concerned with objections to tolling in principle rather than to the clause in particular. That was apparent during proceedings in the other place, which may help to explain why the Bill completed all its stages there with only minor amendments which the promoters were able to accept.

The policy is one that has been followed by successive Governments of all persuasions. It is also one that has been endorsed by Parliament in the various enabling Acts under which the tolled crossings are managed. The policy is that these expensive estuarial crossings should be paid for by those who use them rather than by taxpayers or ratepayers. The policy is reasonable, because it is the users who benefit from the savings in time and money which the tolled crossings make possible. In addition, tolls have enabled substantial and useful additions to be made to the transport infrastructure which would probably not have been provided had it been necessary to finance them in any other way. In that my hon. Friends were absolutely right in their comments this evening.

The policy has not been applied to upstream crossings and the generality of motorway and trunk road bridges because it would be impracticable to do so: the existence of alternative routes would make it easy to avoid paying tolls. It is also reasonable not to toll such bridges because the benefits to users are correspondingly less where alternative routes are available.

I must say a word to my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) about tolling in general. I understand that he favours tolling other roads. However, the experience in other countries, where toll roads have been introduced with a substantially untolled network round about, is that traffic that should have used the specially built roads has turned off on to the old roads that were not designed for it. That is one reason why I cannot accept my hon. Friend's general principle of tolling, however much one could argue that we would not have started with tolls if we had started from here.

I remind the House that we reviewed the policy on tolling in 1979 when my right hon. Friend who is now Secretary of State for Social Services was Secretary of State for Transport. It was concluded then that the policy was sound and should be maintained. However, it was predictable that great concern should be expressed in the House about tolling. I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) and for Romford (Mr. Neubert) would have expressed their concern too if they had been in a position to participate this evening.

I come to clause 20, and ask opponents of tolling to remember that if this clause was lost it would not ensure that the Government took over the Dartford tunnel or that it would cease to be tolled. That is the reality of the situation. The Government have no intention of taking over the tunnel. There is no need to do so, seeing that it is exceptionally well run by the two county councils, and that it is financially secure owing to their prudent management. Even if the Government could be persuaded to take over the tunnel, the capital debt would remain and the tunnel would continue to be tolled. The only effect of depriving the county councils of their power to toll the tunnel would be to saddle the ratepayers of Kent and Essex with responsibility for servicing and repaying outstanding debts amounting to some £65 million.

The hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) suggested that it was inappropriate to toll a tunnel which was now said to be part of the M25. The Government accept that the tunnel links two sections of the M25, but it is not part of that motorway per se—[Interruption.]The hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) may laugh all she likes, but she is well aware that the tunnel was promoted by the Kent and Essex county councils. As hon. Members have said, it is their tunnel. The cost of building that tunnel was freely accepted by the two councils as long ago as 1930, when, I believe, the M25 was not even a flicker in the eye of the then Secretary of State, if there was such a man. The two councils built the tunnel and accepted that responsibility. There is no reason why the taxpayer should be forced to assume responsibility for paying for it.

Dr. McDonald

I should like to challenge the Minister to drive all the way round the M25, when it is completed in 1986, without driving through the Dartford tunnel.

Mrs. Chalker

I should be committing a road traffic offence if I arrived at the toll plaza on either side of the Dartford tunnel and executed a U-turn, so I should be happy to pay the toll to go through the tunnel.

I understand what the hon. Member for Thurrock and others have said about the different crossings. Governments of both complexions have grappled with the problem, whatever the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) may say at any minute. We realise that action is needed to cope with the increased traffic which the M25 will bring to the tunnel.

The Government have made two 100 per cent. grants to meet the problems. A total of £12 million has been given to improve the approach roads to the tunnel. A further £5 million will be used to enlarge and improve the toll plazas to cope with the traffic increase. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) was right in his description of the toll plazas and the way in which they help to funnel the three-way motorway traffic to two lanes in each direction at the tunnel. The increased traffic which the M25 will bring will help the two councils to clear their debts. Catering for greater traffic in that way is the best way to cope with the M25.

It is also suggested that tolls act as a disincentive to using the tunnel, thereby reducing the economic benefits which the tunnel brings to Kent and Essex. Similarly, petitions against the Bill lodged by several London local authorities argue that tolls would divert traffic from the Dartford tunnel to the east London river crossing, should it be built. Both arguments are a little curious.

The last tolls increase application attracted only 16 objections. On the other hand, over 12 million journeys annually are made through the tunnel and the traffic continues to increase. It does not appear that the people who actually use the tunnel are put off by having to pay a toll. The fact is that the tunnel is an obvious asset to the local community's economic life as well as to that of people who travel a wider distance.

When I consider the alternative of using the Blackwall tunnel, which involves a 28-mile detour and, for heavy goods vehicles, increased costs of about £10, I do not believe that it is a viable alternative. The economics of the Dartford tunnel are plain for all to see. The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) mentioned the east London river crossing. I understand all the problems that that crossing and its associated roads may cause in the future—if it is built following the public inquiry which will surely be needed—but its purpose is to give relief to the Blackwall tunnel. Our best estimate is that it it might attract some 15 per cent. of the traffic using the Dartford tunnel. I suspect that, with the greater benefits of the M25, that is not likely to happen unless the traffic is proceeding to destinations within the radius of the east London river crossing—should it be built—or within the eastern arm.

The east London river crossing would have the happy effect of postponing the day when the growth of traffic at Dartford would justify a third bore without undermining its financial position to a significant degree. The combination of the Blackwall tunnel, the east London river crossing—if it should be built—and the Dartford tunnel appears to be a good improvement for Londoners in terms of crossing the River Thames to the east of London.

Clause 21 was drafted in consultation with my Department. Its purpose is to overcome difficulties which the promoters have experienced with the operation of the current legislation. The point at issue is whether the objectors to the proposed tolls increase should be able to require the Secretary of State to hold a public inquiry. Under present legislation the Secretary of State is required to hold an inquiry at the insistence of a single objector, and he must do so regardless of the nature of the objection.

The original purpose of giving an individual the right to insist on an inquiry was as a safeguard lest the councils proposed an increase out of all proportion to any increases in costs which they had suffered. In the present circumstances such a possibility is remote, and the Bill contains safeguards against it. Tolls can be raised only to meet authorised expenditure and the Secretary of State has powers to call in any proposed increase or to amend the toll levels himself.

It has been found necessary to increase tolls on five occasions since 1967 — in August 1976, April 1979, January 1981, March 1982 and on 1 January 1984. Before the increase in 1981, there were 12 objections. As my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham said, only one objector insisted on an inquiry. When the inquiry was held, no objector appeared before it, not even the one who had insisted that the inquiry should be held. That objector, as a matter of interest, was the local Liberal association. The county councils estimated that the delay involved in holding the inquiry cost the tunnel undertaking some £300,000 in lost revenue, plus the cost of the inquiry, at which the objector did not appear.

Under the procedure now proposed the Secretary of State will have the option, instead of an obligation, to hold the inquiry. However, the councils would be obliged to advertise their proposals to allow a period for objections to be made and to send copies of objections to the Secretary of State. He would be entitled to require any relevant information from the councils. Having considered the objections, he could call in the councils' proposals and make the relevant tolls increase order himself, with or without modification, and after holding a public inquiry, if he thought fit. Otherwise, he could decide not to intervene and allow the councils to make their own order. The Secretary of State would also have the power to initiate a tolls revision order, in which case the procedure would be essentially the same.

The Government are of the opinion that that system strikes a reasonable balance between the interests of the councils in making revisions expeditiously and efficiently and the interests of those who use the tunnel.

It has been suggested that the Secretary of State's discretion should be expanded to allow him to hold an inquiry even if he did not propose to call in the councils' proposals. The Government do not consider that necessary in view of the Secretary of State's power to initiate procedures. Nor do the Government agree that tolls should be revised under the provisions of section 6 of the Transport Charges, etc. (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1954. That Act would also allow a single objector to force an inquiry on any ground.

It has also been suggested that revision orders should be made by statutory instrument. We do not consider that the possible intrusion into parliamentary time would be warranted, having regard to the adequate provision made in the Bill for the making of objections to be considered.

I emphasise that the tolls revision procedure in the Bill is not unique. Parliament has already endorsed a similar procedure in the Tees Tunnel Act 1976, although this tunnel has yet to be built. I must make it clear to the House that there should be no doubt that the Secretary of State will use his powers to order an inquiry if he believes it necessary. There is no way in which the Secretary of State would ride roughshod over the reasonable desire of objectors who wish to put their case. On the contrary, the Secretary of State has as much interest as any objector in testing at an inquiry the evidence, especially disputed evidence, for a proposed revision of tolls.

Finally, although I understand what my hon. Friends said in their speeches, I believe that the Bill is sensible, and I commend it to the House and ask that it be given a Second Reading. It seems to the Government that the issues raised in the Bill deserve to be examined in Committee, where they can be considered in greater detail with the benefit of expert evidence.

9.20 pm
Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The debate has reflected the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House that the M25 is a major improvement. However, we were not convinced by the Minister's statement that one is no longer on the M25 when one reaches the toll booths for the Dartford tunnel. The tunnel is clearly part of the M25, as was advertised by the Secretary of State when he opened the new stretch of the road. He said that it was an important link route between Scotland and Dover. All hon. Members will welcome its opening, and will look forward to the completion of the M25.

The debate has centred, rightly, on the controversial issue of tolls. Tolls were also the main issue in Committee and on Second Reading in another place, and they have been highlighted in clause 20, to which the Minister referred. I should make it clear from the outset that I do not oppose the Bill. In my area, where the Humber bridge is located, there is a possibility of a precept rate far greater than that being considered for the Dartford tunnel, and I readily understand the difficulties in which local authorities will be placed if the Bill is not passed. Although the provisions for appeals and the consideration of rights are not completely satisfactory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) said, no doubt they can be discussed in Committee.

Publicly and politically, I was not an advocate of the Humber bridge, because I did not see how it could pay its way in tolls. As the Minister and other hon. Members said, the Government's view on tolls has been the same throughout. Their view was adequately reflected by the Minister and in the Select Committee of the House of Lords which noted the arguments for and against tolls. The Government's view is that, if a project is privately promoted, it must be paid for privately. With the Humber bridge, the local authorities involved entered into a contract stating that they would finance the project, believing that the cost could be recouped by tolls. No one would now enter into a financial contract if he knew of the possible huge debts that can be incurred with estuarial crossings. Many reasons are given for that, but they do not include the fact that people are blind to what might happen. Low growth in the economy, high interest payments, and high inflation in the costs of construction can contribute greatly to the final costs of estuarial crossings.

There are difficulties with the view that the user, who has the advantage, should pay, especially since the Government believe that the toll payments must cover interest costs, the payments of the capital debt, and the operating costs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) mentioned the social consequences of tolls, in that those who must travel to work must find the extra cost. A much more potent argument applies in my area, because since the hospital authorities decided to centralise their hospital system, people from one side of the bridge must pay a toll before they can reach the hospital and receive medical treatment.

The estuarial areas now subjected to tolls—there are about 11—make up about 25 miles of the road network. They are a small yet essential part of the road network, whether to connect motorways, as in the case of the Humber bridge, or, as the Minister pointed out, to connect two parts of the M25.

Benefits flow not just to those who live around the estuarial crossing. I believe that the claim is that, thanks to the M25, a person can travel from Scotland to Dover by motorway. We readily agree about its benefits. It is felt that the tunnel will provide advantages to London because it will reduce congestion on the North and South Circular roads. We must exercise our judgment about the social considerations and the alternative avenues of movement. We should readily admit—more than the Minister has done — the social costing arguments, particularly in relation to such matters as the Victoria line financing, when considering the road structure and infrastructure costs and the effects on transport flows.

The Bill has provided a means of raising the issue of the tolls system and the toll principle. The House of Lords Select Committee on the Dartford Tunnel Bill was instructed to look at the vexatious principle of tolls. Paragraph 13 of the Select Committee report states: The Committee were conscious that a number of the points raised before them concerned the merits of the general policy on toll crossings but they did not consider that a Committee on a Private Bill was the appropriate forum for resolving issues which affected the highway and motorway network throughout the country. We can understand why the Select Committee came to that decision, because we are being asked to support or reject a private Bill. As I have made clear, the circumstances are such that I will not vote against the Bill. As previous debates have shown, the issue does not go away.

I was surprised to hear that tolls are not controversial in Europe, and I was pleased that the Minister made it clear that a great deal of rethinking is going on about the toll principle, even in Europe. There is an especially strong controversy between the French and German Governments because there are no tolls on the German motorway going south but there are tolls on the French side. Most people are crossing the Rhine and travelling on the German side and, obviously, the costs of maintaining that route are considerable because no tolls are imposed. The German authorities argue that it is unfair that they should have to carry the burden caused by the diversion of traffic simply because the toll principle applies on only one motorway system. I shall not go into the complexities of the French motorway system, as I should be out of order, but they are relevant to the principle of tolls and the effect on our motorway system.

Tolls are a matter of controversy when discussing connecting motorways, whether it is the Humber bridge or the M25. The hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) and other hon. Members cited some figures that showed the illogical pattern that had grown up—largely because of the way the estuarial authorities have developed. There has been the rather illogical position of Governments of both persuasions holding the line of not wanting to pick up the tab for the cost of the difficulties. That is the basic position. We are not consistently looking at the problem and asking ourselves whether we want tolls to make a contribution to the financing of our road network. The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Brinton) suggested that he would like that line to be followed, and I was glad to hear the Minister's response.

Having tinkered with the idea of tolls for motorways in the early stages of the last Administration, the Government soon dropped that idea and we heard no more about it. Clearly they were anxious to raise money for the road programme and reduce public expenditure — all those measures are cardinal to the Government's economic policy at present. The position of the Department of Transport is that, first, it does not want to increase public expenditure, and we understand why it has such a policy. Secondly, the Department does not want to create a precedent, as it has been pointed out. If there were no toll on the Dartford tunnel, there would still be tunnels and bridges over which the Department had some responsibility—I refer to the Severn, the Tyne and Wear—on which toll principles apply. It is like a ball of wool. If you pull one end it keeps on coming—and there is a huge bill at the end.

As has been pointed out, the capital debt is about £450 million or £500 million and increasing far more rapidly than the income accumulated by the tolls. Therein lies the nature of the problem. The details vary in the various estuarial developments—on the Mersey, the Humber, the Tyne and at Dartford — but all have a growing accumulated capital debt. The question is whether we believe that the toll principle can solve the problem. Frankly, it cannot. Nor will the problem go away. We should not imagine that happily giving the Bill a Second Reading today will make the problem go away. The problem is growing day by day and it behoves the House to look ahead and decide what to do about it. The principle of tolls is at the heart of the debate as to how finance should be raised to cover operational costs, accumulated interest and the cost of servicing the capital debt.

Reference has been made to a comparison made a couple of years ago of the total debt of the various estuaries. The total debt was then about £450 million and the total income from tolls about £28 million, 40 per cent. of which was used to cover the cost of operating the facility, so only 60 per cent. of the income went towards the interest debts and the capital debt. The capital debt for the Dartford tunnel is £63 million. On the Humber, it is £185 million, on the Severn £43 million and on the Mersey £72 million. The toll for the Dartford tunnel is £1.70 for a lorry. I hope that that is the correct figure.

Mrs. Chalker


Mr. Prescott

I am obliged to the Minister. On the Humber the toll is £7.50, on the Severn 40p, and on the Mersey £1. Even trebling the tolls would not raise sufficient income to pay the interest rates, let alone pay off the debt. That is the scale of the problem and it is constantly increasing because we never meet the interest debt. For the Humber bridge, 75 per cent. of the debt is to the Department of Transport. If we trebled the lorry toll it would be getting on for £24 for one crossing. The motorway alternative route would then be a great deal cheaper and people would take it. The idea of raising tolls to meet the debt is based on the hope that people will continue to pay, but they simply will not do so.

As has constantly been pointed out today, increasing tolls cannot possibly solve the debt problem. We are therefore forced, as the ratepayers of Kent and Essex will be forced if the Bill is not passed, to find the difference. I believe that the increase in rates required would be 3.1p in the pound. Hull district council, which is the responsible authority in my area, has rates of 25p in the pound. If it had to deal with this problem by means of a levy, as the Secretary of State advised a recent delegation, the rate would rise to 50p in the pound. There is no way to levy that sort of rate precept. Indeed, the Government's rate-capping Bill would impose considerable penalties on the local authority, even if it found that it could do it. Therefore, it is not within the realm of reality even to consider dealing with the problem in that way, and the problem is growing at such a rate that an alternative solution must be found.

The problem varies according to the estuary. The fortunate aspect, for example, of the Severn bridge—if one can use the word "fortunate" when talking about that bridge—is that it has a lot of traffic. Unfortunately for Hull, it has little traffic because it joins little to little. There is now an estimated bill for repairing the Severn bridge of £30 million. That bridge is under strain today because it was designed for lorry loads of 24 tonnes and is carrying lorries of 38 and 40 tonnes, through no decision of those responsible there. Is a £30 million repair bill a legitimate charge on those who must finance that sum through tolls for using that bridge, when it was a direct Government decision? The increase in lorry weights has had that catastrophic affect on the bridge.

Mrs. Chalker

Let us keep the record absolutely straight. The stresses on the Severn bridge have been due partially to the much greater level of traffic across that crossing and not to the decision, taken in this House on 26 November 1982, to increase maximum lorry weights from 32.5 tonnes on four axles to 38 tonnes on five axles. The stresses on that bridge have occurred from the sheer volume of traffic, over a long time, way outside the design specification.

Mr. Prescott

I remain to be convinced that a lorry weight of 24 tonnes going up to 38 tonnes does not have an effect on a bridge, especially when one considers the constant movement across it. I leave that there in the hope that we shall, on another occasion, be able to debate that issue. I was referring to the £30 million extra cost of the bridge that must be financed. That sum will presumably have to be raised by tolls, which is why the Government are involved in an inquiry about increases in tolls.

It is clear that the Bill deals essentially with the issue of tolls, in this case for a total £65 million, the estimated debt for the Dartford tunnel, and, as we have heard, it is hoped to pay that off by the next century. I add my voice to those who express concern over debts which, it is said, will be paid off by certain dates in the future, about traffic movements, toll assessments, interest charges that cannot be estimated and so on. They all extend the period of payoff, and we have not seen one estuary being able to meet the timetable of its programme of pay-off. I wish them well, however, in any targets that are reached.

A major aspect of the debate has been the question whether there is an alternative way of dealing with the problem. A number have been suggested—indeed, we are not short of alternatives — by various interests. I believe that we have reached the stage when we should reconsider the whole matter, and I do not say that in a political sense in that we should do that now because we are not in office. It is clear that a big problem exists and that we should start thinking of the alternatives, because the problem will remain with us.

As for the alternatives, it has been suggested, for example, that the Government could adopt them and take over the complete funding of them as part of the motorway and road network. Then it has been suggested that the Government could write off the capital, which has been set in total at perhaps £500 million. Hon. Members will say that that is a large sum, but many Conservative Members have trooped through the Lobby to write off similar amounts — for example for the National Freight Corporation and other bodies—and no doubt they will be doing the same for the British Airways Board's £800 million debts. Huge capital debts are written off by them without any compunction.

Thus, writing off debts is not new to this House. It has been done by Administrations of both parties without any real controversy when doing so has been put forward as a new type of policy. Indeed, if the Minister were more successful in getting people to pay the car road tax—it is estimated that £175 million a year is not collected— even half of it, if written off over, say, 10 years, would write off the capital debt about which we are speaking tonight.

Finally, there is the combination of debt that arises from write-offs and toll deficiencies. Perhaps each estuary should be treated differently by taking into account the structure of debt and by allowing tolls to be more relevant to the capital structure. There are alternative ways of dealing with tolls and it is about time that the House began to address itself to the real difficulties that arise from financing estuarial crossings by tolls. The Opposition intend to give serious thought to dealing differently with the financing of estuarial crossings and the growing debts they are burdened with.

9.40 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

This has been a fine debate. To take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), if the Government took control of all estuarial crossings and their finances, it would not be possible for the Essex and Kent county councils to go ahead and build their own tunnel. That would limit the powers of a local authority to promote private legislation and to go ahead with its own project.

Consideration needs to be given to the overall position, including the implications of present debt and those of future proposals from within or outside the Government. There are arguments on both sides that are not based on party divisions and it would be appropriate for a Select Committee to consider them as a way of trying to isolate the issues. The House would then be able to ask itself, "What freedom are we willing to give the promoters of estuarial crossings and other undertakings of advantage to vehicle users?" It would be able to consider also what powers should be kept for the House and what should be kept for Government. I shall address a number of remarks in favour of abolishing tolls on the Dartford tunnel but I believe that my hon. Friend the Minister of State has argued her case well. As I see it, the time for tolls has gone and will certainly have gone when the M25 is complete.

My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) talked about what the people of Essex and Kent did when they got together. I am reminded of a man called Wat Tyler who wandered down from East Anglia through Essex to Canterbury where he gathered a few peasants together. From Canterbury he approached London to overturn the Government. Unfortunately, he became stuck at the Well Hall roundabout on the A2 and had to camp overnight at Blackheath. That is why Tony Benn goes there occasionally to make great speeches. As a result of the delay, the authorities in London had forewarning. A traffic jam can have dramatic consequences for the constitutional future of a country as we have seen from that example.

I speak as one of the few Members who have earned a living as a lorry driver. I remember driving a lorry from Vienna to Watford. The only time when I had to stop, except for natural breaks, was on reaching the coast at Rotterdam. It is possible throughout most of Europe to go through or round cities without causing enormous environmental damage, especially when stopping at or pulling away from traffic lights and passing through residential areas. It is clearly essential to have purpose-built roads for heavy traffic. That is what we have created with the M25 and what we already have, thanks to Essex and Kent, with the Dartford tunnel. The situation is changing with the M25.

When I was a lorry driver and I had the choice of spending my own money or my employer's the temptation was to spend the employer's money and to keep mine in my pocket. Different considerations apply and a haulage firm will want to save £10 by not making a 28-mile diversion, but the lorry driver who has spent all his money on sandwiches and does not have any money left for the toll will be prepared to take the diversion. He will probably favour that course also if it enables him to keep the money in his pocket. There is a balance of advantage for every driver when he is considering which route to take.

Many of us who have driven through France know how attractive the scenery is from some of the roads that run parallel to the toll roads. There are many forms of rationalisation for what in transport terms is irrational behaviour. That is the argument that we on the "no toll" side of the House need to advance. By addressing the argument to the Department, it will probably be discussed by the rest of the Government in private discussions. We need to be willing to face the consequences of successful action. We shall put extra burdens on the taxpayer rather than on the user of the Dartford tunnel when we are successful. I have no doubt that we shall succeed in the end. We must find a way of allowing the Government to give way on at least some of the estuaries first. Perhaps the others will follow. However, we cannot expect them to swallow the whole lot in one go. We need to find the easiest cases to go for. The necessary promotion of the Bill has given us the opportunity to start putting forward that case.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) on helping to create the all-party estuarial group in the House of Commons. Together, we can help to make the Select Committee and the Government look more seriously at all the issues.

There are traffic jams at the Well Hall roundabout in my constituency. My constituency shares with those of the hon. Members for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) and Greenwich (Mr. Barnett) the problems caused by traffic in Greenwich. It is clear that the M25 will be a substantial advantage to us anyway. Many people who start their journeys to Europe on the north or north-west side of London now come through London and our contituencies. It is also worth remembering that London has a population of 7.5 million within its boundaries and that much traffic is generated in that area. If the traffic is going to Europe, on the east side of London it will come through our constituencies. In time, I hope that one of the consequences of the Department of Transport's taking over some transport responsibilities from the Greater London council will lead to better radial roads, so that people can conveniently reach the M25. They will not all have to come thundering down the A2 or the A20, causing chaos in my constituency and those neighbouring.

My next point is slightly outside the direct terms of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister referred to the east London river crossing. She knows that most of the people on its route south of the Thames oppose it. Many of us living south of the Thames will find an advantage, as motorists, in using it, but those whose homes are affected will not. Those who are rightly putting forward the case for protecting the woods through which it will go have a strong case. I recommend that if the east London river crossing and its southern route are built, the same environmental consideration is given to protecting the woods as was given to Epping forest. There will be extra cost. Perhaps my hon. Friend will ask me whether I would agree for a toll to be put on the road. I have no objection to tolls in principle——

Mr. Prescott

But the hon. Gentleman minds paying, in practice.

Mr. Bottomley

I do not mind paying tolls. I have paid them in the United States and other areas. The problem is making a correct analysis of their impact in terms of diverting traffic. I have no objection to people paying for services that are of advantage to them. It is when the impact is likely to be extra diversion of traffic to areas that we are trying to get the traffic away from that the problem arises. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give careful consideration to the woods on the southern approach of the projected east London river crossing and to see whether it is possible to give them the same consideration as was given to Epping forest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) has done a service to the House in putting forward the case for the Bill. People like me who are opposed to the tolls for the Dartford tunnel can understand that it is necessary for the Bill to be passed. When I came to the debate I thought that it would be correct to oppose the Bill, but I have been convinced by the arguments that that would be wrong. It is right that we have used this opportunity to make sure that we stop drifting down into ever-increasing debt, ever-higher tolls and more uneconomic and unnecessary diversion of traffic.

Mr. Moate

With the leave of the House, perhaps I might reply to the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) said that this has been a fine debate. It has. It has been one of the most constructive and interesting transport debates that we have had for a long time. Nearly every hon. Member who spoke did so in a reasonable, courteous and analytical way, demonstrating that there is a complex problem, especially in the relationship between one tunnel and all other road crossings in the country. I venture to suggest that if we had been discussing a tunnel or bridge which has less rosy economic prospects, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) mentioned, the theme and atmosphere might have been different. It has been recognised that, largely because of the M25, the Dartford tunnel is now likely to be, perhaps exceptionally, something of an economic success. Therefore, the House has been responsive and conceded the case for giving the Bill a Second Reading and allowing the powers in it to be granted to the Kent and Essex county councils. That is not to say that the House has not examined, philosophically and constructively, the problems arising on all other estuarial crossings in the country.

I shall deal with some of the factual points that have been raised. It would be presumptuous of me to try to answer all the points that have been raised, even if that were possible. Hon. Members have expressed strong points of view on the philosophy of charging. Their case stands. There seems to be an almost overwhelming logic on both sides of the argument. We are, however, dealing with just one tunnel and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading.

The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) asked several questions and mentioned the diversion of heavy lorries into his constituency and the rest of London. As I said before, I do not believe that many lorry drivers will be diverted from the easiest, simplest and best route—the Dartford tunnel—and go into heavy traffic congestion or even make a detour to avoid a toll of only £1.30. It is 60p for a car. Although I understand Londoners' fears that traffic might be diverted by tolls, I do not believe that any significant diversion will occur here. I understand that when prices have been increased there has been a negligible customer reaction. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman's fears will not be justified. I certainly believe so.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about some opinions which were expressed by the previous manager of the tunnel who was worried about the traffic being reduced from six lanes to two. The present general manager has said: The wider plaza does not make it any more difficult to reduce the traffic into two lanes after collection of the toll. That is a detail of traffic management in which there is scope for different points of view.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald), in a fair speech, expressed strong feelings about regular users of the tunnel, especially those who live on one side of it and work on the other. Despite the argument that the tunnel is a great national asset and therefore should be paid for by the national Exchequer, I have much less sympathy for the international or national user contributing to that asset than I do for the local user. I have much sympathy for a person who pays £6 a week to cross the river. That is a matter for management and it is not for me to query it. Many of us have urged that there should be a concessionary arrangement, but, as I said, that is a matter for management.

The impact on ratepayers if the burden is transferred to the ratepayers of Kent and Essex has been mentioned. I quoted some figures earlier, but times have moved on since then and I have some more recent ones. I am told that if targets and penalties in 1984–85 are the same as for 1983–84, the cost to the ratepayer in Kent will be 8.4p in the pound and to the Essex ratepayer it will be 9.7p in the pound. That emphasises even more the serious consequences of not passing the legislation.

Mr. Prescott

The hon. Gentleman has made a very interesting point. Will he now join us in voting against the rate-capping Bill?

Mr. Moate

The answer is no. I welcome these constraints placed upon local authority expenditure. Nevertheless, it is right that we consider the consequences if the Bill were not to pass.

Mr. Bottomley

If the rate capping measures, which I also support, go through, presumably the cost of a Liberal objection, causing an extra cost of £300,000, will double to £600,000.

Mr. Moate

There appears to be not much fear of Liberal objection to anything, because the Liberals have been absent throughout the debate.

Many hon. Members expressed points of view which I think were legitimate and fair. The House has had a wide-ranging and fascinating debate on the problems of estuarial crossings. I thought the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) put it very fairly, and he very fairly gave notice to the House that he wants to start a serious debate on the subject. He described it correctly as an illogical pattern that had been built up because of successive Governments being unwilling, as he put it, to pick up the tab, and I think that is the situation. He continued the theme of an analytical and interesting debate on an important subject.

In conclusion, I thank all my hon. Friends who have spoken in support of the Bill. I thank other hon. Members who have considerable doubts about the propositions that we face. Nevertheless, I understand that, given the present situation with regard to the Dartford tunnel, they feel that the Bill should now proceed to Committee. On behalf of the promoters, I thank the House for the way in which the matter has been received.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.