HC Deb 07 February 1984 vol 53 cc763-70 3.38 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a further statement about the Severn crossing, as I promised the House on 17 November last.

As I explained on that occasion, there are three issues which need to be considered together: the strengthening of the existing crossing, the traffic control arrangements while the remedial works are carried out, and the question of a second crossing.

As regards the existing crossing, I have carefully considered the advice of the consultants, and have decided to proceed with a programme of strengthening and repair in order to enable it to cope with the expected loadings while at the same time meeting current safety requirements, as well as to operate without restriction on the flow of traffic. The programme is expected to take five to six years to carry out. The precise extent of the works and the timing of their execution will depend on the outcome of further technical studies. Preparations for the more important works have already been put in hand. I intend that such works will begin later this year.

There will be the least possible interference with traffic while the repairs are being done. Wherever possible the work will be carried out at off peak times; complete closures of the crossing are expected to be few and brief, and where possible limited to overnight hours. Local authorities and user organisations will be consulted about any traffic restrictions that may be necessary. Advance warning of all restrictions will be given, and alternative routes will be signposted as appropriate.

I am confident that when the strengthening and repair works have been completed the crossing should continue to provide a safe, ready and reliable communications link, vital to the prosperity of south Wales. I want to give a double assurance that this vital link will not be interrupted as a result of some unforeseeable event or circumstance.

I have therefore decided that a study should be instituted into how a second crossing might be provided in the general corridor of the existing crossing. The study will examine other forms of crossing, as well as a bridge, and it will have regard to the desirability of convenient links to the M4. It will start as soon as the detailed terms of reference and other arrangements have been drawn up. I expect the study to take about two years to come to conclusions. I emphasise that this is not a decision to build a second crossing. Before such a decision were taken, the Government would need to take full account of the outcome of the study, forecast traffic requirements at the time, as well as of progress of the work on the existing crossing. But the completion of the study will ensure that there is no unnecessary delay in providing a second crossing as soon as it is needed.

The Government fully recognise the vital importance of the Severn crossing to the economy of Severnside and south Wales. The three measures I have announced today —the strengthening and repair of the existing crossing, the conduct of the works so as to minimise traffic restrictions, and the study of a second crossing—all demonstrate the Government's determination to maintain an adequate and reliable communications link between south Wales and its markets in the rest of Britain and in Europe on which its prosperity depends. I believe that they should dispel any doubts among potential investors and the public at large about the Government's commitment to this aim, especially during the period while the strengthening and repairs are in progress. In all these matters I shall act in close consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and shall keep the House informed of progress made.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

The House will welcome the statement and the fact that the Secretary of State now recognises the urgent need to repair the bridge. It will welcome also the possibility of a second Severn crossing. I note that the right hon. Gentleman adopted a different tone today when making his statement from that which he employed in November when he roundly condemned my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) for expressing his fears about a leaked report and accused him of partial leaks which were not helpful and against the public interest. Everything in the right hon. Gentleman's statement vindicated my hon. Friend's concern, and the House would expect the right hon. Gentleman at least to retract his past statement and apologise to my hon. Friend, who performed a public service in bringing the matter to our attention.

I ask the Secretary of State to confirm that the possible cost of the repairs to the bridge is about £33 — [AN HON. MEMBER: "Those were the days."] Yes, those were the days. I lived with the Humber bridge and I fully understand the point.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to confirm that the possible cost of repairs to the bridge will be about £33 million. Will the extra charge be recovered from tolls, which now impose an economic tax on the Welsh economy? To what levels does he see them increasing?

Should those who conduct the feasibility study recommend a second crossing, will the right hon. Gentleman consider adopting the recommendation and will the second crossing be required to carry a toll charge? Will he instruct those who undertake the feasibility study to re-examine the problems of tolls and their failure to reduce capital debt? Does he accept that the increase in lorry tonnage contributed to the serious decline in the state of the bridge? Will he instruct the licensing authorities to lift their instruction to allow 42-tonners to use the bridge, which is contrary to the decision of the House, which introduced a legal limit of 38 tonnes?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman approach the chairman of British Rail to ask whether it is possible for British Rail to make a contribution to reducing the amount of lorry traffic on the bridge by re-routing the traffic through the Severn rail tunnel?

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman thought that he detected a different tone today from the one I employed when I made my earlier statement. I can tell him that there was no such difference. I said in November that I would examine the three measures to which I have referred in my statement and make a report to the House that included my decisions. That is exactly what I have done. I must repeat that leaking partial documents is no public service.

Secondly, the remedial works are expected to cost about £33 million. That is not a precise figure because it has to be updated in the light of the latest technical information. Tolls will remain on the crossing and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, they will be the subject of a public inquiry because of the proposal to raise them. I can therefore say no more about that.

If the second crossing is adopted—that is a totally hypothetical question because we are studying it and not deciding to build it—it will be right at that stage to examine what toll system to apply to it.

I confirm that the maximum legal limit on lorry traffic in Britain is 38 tonnes. Neither my Department nor anyone else has authorised lorries heavier than 38 tonnes to cross the bridge or any other section of road.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that there are still misgivings about the urgency that is being given to the subject of the second crossing? Will he give clear and specific guidelines about the time factor, bearing in mind, for instance, that the Bosphorus bridge in which Freeman Fox and Partners was recently involved took five years from concept to completion? Do we not need to get away from the penny-pinching, monetarist attitude once and for all and give the issue the priority that it deserves?

Mr. Ridley

In announcing a programme that costs about £33 million in repairs, and which could possibly lead to spending a further £100 million on a second crossing, I find it surprising that I should be accused of penny pinching. It is an extraordinary misinterpretation by the hon. Gentleman. My statement demonstrates the Government's determination to make such money available as is necessary to secure the crossing, despite the damage that the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) tried to cause earlier last year. To have misgivings about the sense of urgency with which I have tackled the problem is totally inappropriate, because I came to the House as soon as I could with a full plan to repair and, if necessary replace, the bridge.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Newport, West)

My right hon. Friend's statement this afternoon will be welcomed by business men throughout south Wales—and, I suspect, by people on the other side of the channel. The uncertainty that has affected our region in the past few months is, I belive at an end, and I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Can he assure me that if the bridge has to be closed during repairs there will not only be consultation, but that maximum notice will be given to all businesses in the region, because closure could cause major disruption in its economic life if maximum notice were not given?

Mr. Ridley

I thank my hon. Friend. I think that he speaks with the true voice of south Wales in welcoming the speedy and effective action that the Government have taken to end the uncertainty about this crossing. I do not envisage circumstances in which the existing bridge would have to be closed. Such circumstances could arise only if there were a tremendous gale, as I said on previous occasions. However, lane closures are possible during the repair work, and we are seriously considering the possibility of having narrow lanes so that it will be possible to maintain four-lane working during most of the repair period. We shall consult and warn travellers when that may be necessary.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

If, as the Secretary of State said, it is the Government's intention to repair the bridge up to a standard that will take the currently projected volume of traffic, is there not a strong case for any second crossing to be considered further north, because a link through the M40 development would be of great benefit to the heads of the valley area?

Mr. Ridley

We have been concerned to give total assurance to people in south Wales that the route will remain available and able to carry any conceivable amount of traffic for all time. It is still doubtful whether the present bridge cannot do that, after strengthening. However, to give double reassurance to the people of south Wales, it seems only right that we should stand prepared to build a second crossing in the corridor of the M4, at this time, if it should prove necessary. The hon. Gentleman can, of course, put proposals or ask questions about communications further north, but he will know that much is being done to improve the roads through Gloucester to Wales at that point.

Mr. Stefan Terlezki (Cardiff, West)

I am glad that my right hon. Friend has been able to give this good news to industrialists in Wales and from the other side of the channel. However, there may be some apprehension about the repair period and delays that will occur as a result of the repairs. I hope that statements will be issued periodically so that the local media can tell motorists and business people not to be scared by people who seek to frighten potential investors in south Wales.

At that same time, news that the studies about a second crossing will take approximately two years is most encouraging for all those in Wales, particularly south Wales.

Mr. Ridley

One of the reasons why the repairs will take a considerable time—five or six years—is that we want to keep the traffic restriction on the bridge to an absolute minimum in order to ensure that the present link maintains the traffic flow. I hope that there will be no further scares or alarums about its capability of doing so. We will also consult and inform so that when it is unfortunately necessary to restrict traffic motorists and travellers will have the maximum notice.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

Will the Minister tell us by whom the feasibility study will be carried out? Will he now tell us without demur or hedging whether, if the traffic flow problem points in that direction and the feasibility study is in favour, the Government will be prepared to go ahead with a scheme for a second crossing? Is there any reasons why tolls should be increased if, for the next five or six years, users of the bridge cannot look forward to unrestricted use of it?

Mr. Ridley

It has not yet been decided which firm or group will carry out the study. I hope to be able to give an answer to that question before long.

As I have said throughout the history of this matter, the Government will not hesitate to go ahead and start to build the secod crossing if it is demonstrated that there is a need for it. By having the study carried out, we are simply ensuring that if the need arised at any stage we shall be able to press the button immediately.

The tolls issue will come before an inquiry very shortly, and it would be wrong for me to comment on it before the inquiry has been held.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his orderly and well planned approach to the problem inspires confidence that he has the right answer, and that the progress of the scheme will benefit not only south Wales but the rest of the kingdom and in particular the east bank of the Severn?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful for the typically courteous attitude of my hon. Friend, particularly as there are those on the east bank of the Severn who believe that even an unsatisfactory crossing would be for the benefit of the inhabitants of that region—a view that I do not share.

Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement. However, Welsh business people are very keen to hear what alternative plans the Minister has for making sure that, if the bridge has to be closed during the next two years, the economy of south Wales will be safeguarded.

Mr. Ridley

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I cannot foresee any eventuality in which it would be necessary to close the bridge. There may be restrictions during the repair work, and temporary closure may be necesary during gales of 60 miles an hour or more; but we have lived with that for 30 years.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. My constituents will welcome his clear statement about his plans for the Severn bridge in the immediate and the longer term. I am pleased to hear that traffic restrictionw will be kept to a minimum, but I ask my right hon. Friend to ensure that warnings of possible closure or traffic restriction are set up well back on the Welsh side of the M4. The A48 runs though the Forest of Dean, and whenever there are restrictions on the bridge an enormous amount of extra traffic uses the A48. I know that it is not the Department of Transport's intention that that road should be used in those circumstances. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that care is taken to put large illuminated signs well back on the Welsh side to warn drivers of restrictions on the bridge?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. I assure him that for my part, which is the easiest, I will ensure that there are signs at Swindon turn-off on the M4. That is about the only point where a decision can be made if the bridge turns out to be temporarily restricted or closed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who is sitting here, no doubt heard the much more complicated point about where to place signs in Wales to achieve the same result. I am sure that he will take the necessary action.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the recent conference convened by the Gwent county council during which the builders of the bridge said that the principal problem was congestion caused by bunching. Let me press the right hon. Gentleman again about tolls. Will he abandon them and thereby solve the problem of congestion on the bridge?

Mr. Ridley

It is the worst time to suggest abandoning tolls when a further £33 million has to be spent on repairs and there is the possibility of futher major investment in a second crossing. It would not be right to agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion. Bunching on the bridge is more often caused by people running out of petrol, and having breakdowns or accidents. I urge all drivers to fill up with petrol before they attempt to cross the bridge.

Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)

I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State's statement. I am sure that that will be the reaction throughout south Wales. I was particularly pleased to hear that it is his intention to ensure that the Severn crossing will be safe and reliable. That is in welcome contrast to the unnecessarily pessimistic references that have been made in other quarters about the bridge's safety.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that the feasibility study gives sufficient consideration to the possibility of a barrage crossing as in the most interesting proposal put forward by Messrs Wimpey-Atkins?

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said about the study. I believe that it is exactly right. Plainly the study will take note of any parallel feasibility studies of a barrage. The study that I am initiating will not duplicate work being done elsewhere. It should be borne in mind that barrages are being proposed and will be evaluated primarily as sources of energy.

Mr. loan Evans (Cynon Valley)

Does the Secretary of State realise that, in view of the overwhelming demand on both sides of the Severn for a second crossing, his statement will sound like the curate's egg — good in parts. We welcome the announcement about repairs, but does he realise that the Welsh people expected that there would be a categorical statement to the effect that there would be a second crossing? It should not be a hypothetical matter to be considered by the feasibility study. Will he say today that there will be a second crossing and give the feasibility study the task of determining whether it should be by bridge or tunnel? That would ensure that we had a crossing in the future.

Mr. Ridley

I am no Welshman, but I have met a large number of Welsh interests including the CBI and TUC, and I have heard them say clearly to me that they wanted an announcement of a study into the second crossing, not a decision at this stage to build one. I may be more in touch with Welsh opinion than the hon. Gentleman — a surprising thing to say.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

While I welcome the reply given by my right hon. Friend to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), will my right hon. Friend ensure that he liaises with the Secretary of State for Energy as a number of proposals suggest that there is a strong possibility that a Severn crossing could be merged with a means of power generation.

Mr. Ridley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I should not like to do anything that would result in the delay of the second crossing, if a crossing were found to be necessary. The time scales of the two projects may be different, with that for the bridge or tunnel—whatever it may be—being the shorter than that for a barrage.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

Will the Secretary of State give detailed consideration to the fact that it is peculiar that tolls on the Severn bridge are collected on one side only and, therefore, a large volume of traffic is frequently stationary on the bridge? If that does not seem sensible, what is the right hon. Gentleman doing to correct that nonsensical position?

Mr. Ridley

I examined carefully the hon. Gentleman's question. He will know that on the Welsh side of the bridge a roundabout, which I believe is the Newhouse roundabout, is close to the start of the bridge. Tolls between that roundabout and the beginning of the bridge would cause problems and severe congestion. That is why his suggestion has not so far been adopted. This is a question that I shall continue to keep under consideration, for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

I am not a Welshman either. Is my right hon. Friend aware that his decisive action announced in the statement this afternoon will be warmly welcomed not least because of its recognition of the crucial link which this bridge plays in the trunk routes, as do other bridges throughout the country? Will my right hon. Friend take that point to its logical conclusion and incorporate tolled estuarial crossings as part of the motorway network?

Mr. Ridley

My hon. Friend should draw the conclusion from what I said this afternoon that it is necessary to secure effective crossings of the major estuaries—not that it is necessary to secure them free of charge, which I believe was the point of his question.

Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

Is the Secretary of State aware that the chief executive of the western traffic authority has requested local authorities not to prosecute in the event of lorries being up to 10 per cent. overloaded? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that that will lead to vehicles of 42 tonnes and over using the Severn bridge? Will he take steps to ensure that that request to local authorities is rescinded?

Mr. Ridley

As the hon. Gentleman should know. there is no such request. Traffic examiners apply some tolerance in deciding whether the law is being breached as they do in many other instances of transgression. That is the normal procedure. There has been no such instruction from my Department and there is no 42 tonne-by-stealth policy.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)

I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has emphasised the national and international importance of the existing bridge and the potential crossing. The argument, as I have always understood it, for tolling of the estuarial crossings is that they give exceptional benefits to local people. Would it not be sensible and logical for the criteria given to whichever body will examine this problem to exclude the possibility of tolls on the new crossing—if there will be one—and to allow for the abolition of tolling on the existing crossing in view of its national and international importance?

Mr. Ridley

I should like to separate the existing from the hypothetical. There is an existing crossing which is tolled. The House has agreed that it should be tolled. The question of the future level of those tolls is to go before a public inquiry in accordance with statute. I have not said whether there will be a second crossing or whether such a crossing will be tolled. I have merely said that the policy of successive Governments—not just this Government—is that major estuarial crossings, which have major benefits for those who use them, should bear a toll to provide for the special costs and benefits to those who use them.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Although I welcome the setting up of a feasibility study and the extensive repairs programme, does the right hon. Gentleman concede that his statement is a response to unprecedentedly strong universal opinion throughout the south Wales communities? He should bear in mind that, should the Severn bridge close, south Wales would become economically an offshore island perilously isolated with the prospect of her economy seizing up.

It is disturbing that the authors of the feasibility study are as yet unchosen. Should the study not be starting its work urgently? How much will the feasibility study cost? What is its precise timetable? May we have a guarantee that its timetable will not slip? Can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that the resources promised for the study will not in any way be capped? What is the right hon. Gentleman's estimate of the earliest possible year for the start of the second crossing?

Does the right hon. Gentleman know that on 219 days in 1983 there were lane closures with peak hour lane closures on 92 days of that year? It is thus with some foreboding that the industrialists of south Wales await the additional and inevitable delays associated with bridge repairs. Given the importance of the Severn crossing to south Wales and her economy, is there not a case for assigning the bridge and all developments on a future crossing to the jurisdiction and control of the Welsh Office?

Mr. Ridley

The decision to carry out a study for a second crossing was made entirely because of my desire and that of my right hon. Friend to reassure doubly the growing industry and commerce of south Wales that the link to England, London and Europe will continue to be open and reliable for all time.

The study will be carried out as urgently as possible, and is likely to take two years. The cost is not clear, but, for planning purposes, I have in mind a figure of about £1 million. The question of a starting date for a second crossing will not arise until we decide whether to build a second crossing.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be sufficiently gracious to recognise that I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales have worked closely, urgently and speedily on this project. I hope that my announcement of the decision will encourage the hon. Gentleman to have slightly more confidence in the Department of Transport rather than make him return to his suggestion that this responsibility should be transferred to the Welsh Office. Perhaps Opposition Members for Wales can express a certain gratitude for this decision and confidence in the future, and join me in persuading industrialists that Wales is the right place for them to go instead of knocking this crossing as they have done in the past.