HC Deb 13 January 1986 vol 89 cc756-7
3. Mr Roy Hughes

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what was the outstanding debt on the Severn bridge at the latest available date.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Mitchell)

At 31 March 1984, some £46 million.

Mr. Hughes

Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State said a few days ago that the former Secretary of State for Defence ought to go because he had become an embarrassment to the Government, and bearing in mind also that this Secretary of State is so persistently flouting the law, is he not equally an embarrassment to the Government? Is it not simply ridiculous to impose a 150 per cent. increase in tolls on the Severn bridge when the Welsh economy is in such a parlous condition?

Mr. Mitchell

The judgment was not concerned with the level of tolls or the question which the hon. Gentleman has attached to that. It was concerned with procedural impropriety at the 1984 inquiry, and that is an entirely different matter.

Mr. Stern

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Welsh economy needs assistance from public funds, which may well be so, that can far more clearly be provided through regional aid than through an indiscriminate subsidy to all road users on a particular stretch of road?

Mr. Mitchell

I entirely concur with my hon. Friend's view.

Mr. Anderson

Surely the Secretary of State must realise the problems of attracting new industrial investment over the bridge. Why do the Government insist on persisting in a policy the certain effect of which is to place an additional obstacle before the regeneration of the Welsh economy?

Mr. Mitchell

It is by no means certain that the best use of such money would be to subsidise the tolls on the bridge rather than give more direct help to the Welsh economy.

Sir Anthony Meyer

Is my hon. Friend aware of the steadily growing opinion in all shades of political views in Wales that the trouble of having tolls on the Severn bridge is by no means justified by the sums raised and that it would be far better to sweep them all away?

Mr. Mitchell

I hear clearly what my hon. Friend says, but a substantial debt has to be worked off, and that is slowly being done. By the year 2006 it will have gone. It would be wrong for us to ignore the extent of that debt and pretend that it does not exist.

Mr. Ron Davies

Does the Minister realise that there is no logic in the argument that on the one hand tolls should be retained and on the other that subsidies should be given by regional aid, particularly when the Government this year have already cut regional aid by 50 per cent.? Given the recent legal defeat, why does the Minister not realise that there is massive resentment on the Welsh side of the bridge against the tolls and that the Welsh people regard them as a block on industrial and commercial development? Why does he not take this opportunity to admit defeat and do away with the tolls altogether?

Mr. Mitchell

The question whether there should be tolls is different from that tabled today, but we have given notice of appeal against the judgment and perhaps we had better await the outcome of that.