HC Deb 06 February 1984 vol 53 cc590-2
9. Mr. Proctor

asked the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on Her Majesty's Government's policy with regard to estuarial crossings.

Mrs. Chalker

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave on 24 October 1983 to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter). The policy of successive Governments has been that estuarial crossings should be paid for by users.

Mr. Proctor

Is my hon. Friend aware of local concern about the completion of the M25 and its impact on the Dartford tunnel? Is she further aware that there has been support for the provision of finance for new toll booths at the entrance to the tunnel? Can she give an assurance that the toll booths will be manned on all occasions so that delays or bottlenecks are not caused on the M25?

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming the pleasing nature of the £17 million investment in the approach roads and toll booths. I well understand local consternation. As an occasional user of the tunnel, I hear the comments of those on either side of it. However, the manning of the toll booths is a matter for the tunnel authority. I am sure that it would not have come forward with proposals to extend toll booths if it were not prepared thoroughly to man them, in view of the amount of traffic passing through.

Mr. McNamara

Will the Minister explain why, if we as a nation are prepared to pay for major trunk roads as part of the general expenditure of the Department, we are not prepared to do the same with estuarial crossings, be they tunnels or bridges, when they link major roads?

Mrs. Chalker

When the Department decides to invest in major trunk roads it takes into account any estuarial crossings that might be involved. But if a local authority builds an estuarial crossing on its own account with a debt of more than £140 million, which has now risen to £186 million, as in the case of the Humber bridge, it cannot expect the general taxpayer and the Government to take on the debts into which it freely entered.

Mr. Bottomley

Whatever the merits of the argument for estuarial crossings, does my hon. Friend accept that there are alternatives to the Dartford tunnel, which would involve much traffic coming into London only to go out again to join the M25? Does she accept that there will continue to be a great deal of pressure on the Dartford tunnel?

Mrs. Chalker

I am aware of the concern expressed by my hon. Friend. There is a great benefit to motorists in carrying on around the M25 and through the Dartford tunnel. However, the introduction of tolls has enabled us to have substantial additions to our transport infrastructure, and they must be paid for. What happens in future is a matter for further decision.

Mr. Wareing

Has the Minister considered the proposal by the Merseyside county council for freeing Mersey tunnel users from charges to cross the river? Incidentally, that involves hon. Members coming from her constituency.

Because of the damage caused to Mersey tunnel finances by Government policy and the erection of the bridge across the Mersey from Runcorn to Widnes, will the hon. Lady now consider the claim being made for compensation by the Merseyside county council to cover that damage— [Hon. Members: "Too long."] Will she ask her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to reconsider the position with the Mersey tunnel? Should not it now become part of the trunk road network?

Mrs. Chalker

Out of that lot, I must tell the House that the Runcorn-Widnes crossing existed long before the second tunnel, which is why the Mersey authority now has a debt of £82 million. My right hon. Friend discussed the whole question of the Mersey tunnel tolls with representatives of the Merseyside county council when it visited us recently. We are awaiting proposals from it.

Mr. Moate

Does my hon. Friend agree that if successive Governments, both Labour and Conservative, had not approved the construction of many of the esturial crossings, and approved their financing by tolls, we would not have many of those crossings and the country and the motorist would be very much worse of?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Users of esturial crossings enjoy special benefits because of the saving in time and money that arise from using them rather than going round by a longer route. He is also right to say that without the investment made by individual authorities we would have a far less good road network.

Mr. loan Evans

When will the Government make a statement on the repair work on the Severn bridge, and when will there be a statement on the second crossing?

Mrs. Chalker

As I said to representatives from Wales last week, there will be a statement very shortly.

Mr. Dalyell

Is the Minister not interested in administrative costs? Is it not true that the administrative cost of collecting £100 in tolls from the Forth road bridge is 14 times that of collecting the same amount through income tax?

Mrs. Chalker

That is a question for the Secretary of State for Scotland.