HC Deb 24 July 1986 vol 102 cc610-9 4.24 pm
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Nicholas Edwards)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about a second Severn crossing.

In February 1984 my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Transport announced the Government's decision to proceed with a programme of strengthening and repair for the Severn crossing. That programme is well under way and is proceeding well. At the same time my right hon. Friend announced that he intended to initiate a study into the way in which a second crossing might be provided in the same general corridor as the existing crossing. Consultants were appointed later in the year and asked to report by August this year. I am glad to say that the consultants have completed their work ahead of time and copies of the report have today been placed in the Library of the House.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and I have considered the consultants' findings and recommendations and have decided that a second Severn crossing should be provided. We propose that this new crossing should be a bridge sited at the English Stones, about three miles downstream of the existing crossing with connections to the M4 on both banks and with an additional southerly link to the M5. The new bridge would carry a dual two-lane motorway with hard shoulders. The consultants advise us that it will be possible to provide windshielding on the bridge.

We are proceeding with the next stage of planning immediately. This is a major project and much work remains to be done and consultations set in hand. I am sure that the House will welcome this commitment to build a second crossing of the Severn on the main route into south Wales. I know that this decision will also be very widely welcomed in Wales. The Government have always recognised the vital importance of the Severn crossing to the economy of Severnside and south Wales. Our action in strengthening the existing crossing, and the commissioning of this report, its completion by the consultants within the timetable set and the decisions that I have announced today confirm our determination to ensure that the crossings are adequate for future traffic needs and underline our commitment to the future economic development of the Principality.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I welcome the statement. It is welcome news and an important proposal in the history of the south Wales economy. The report's conclusions brutally spell out the delays and their economic consequences for the 1990s at the existing bridge. There was no alternative but to build. The Wales Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry and Gwent county council have long sought such a statement.

Will the Secretary of State join me in acknowledging the persistent campaign over a decade of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), who fights so hard for his constituency and the county of Gwent?

I wish to put a series of questions to the right hon. Gentleman. How many jobs will the project create? How much will it cost? How could the right hon. Gentleman telescope the planning procedures to ensure the earliest possible start? Will the new bridge be tolled? There will be implications for the existing bridge either way and for the M4 and M5.

Will the Welsh Office budget bear the cost of the new bridge? Which Department — the Welsh Office or the Department of Transport — will sponsor the bridge? Which Department is in charge in terms prosecuting the building of the bridge? Will the cost of the bridge affect the other budgets of the Secretary of State for Wales? We know that he has many other important economic and social programmes, and we want none to fall aside because the bridge is to be built. What is the right hon. Gentleman's estimate of the construction time? Does he agree that the steel, cement, construction and transport industries will gain greatly from the project? Because windshields for the bridge are mentioned in the report, will be comment on the safety factors?

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the second crossing will give the south Wales economy a major boost and avoid expensive and damaging hold-ups at the existing bridge? Does he agree that south Wales will become an even more attractive location for modern job prospects and especially for the location of manufacturing projects from Japan, Europe and the United States?

This is an exciting development for the 133,000 unemployed citizens of the five south Wales counties, where male unemployment is one in four. It is an immense psychological boost to the economy. It will restore confidence from Cardiff to Brussels and it will create many jobs and buttress others. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to press on with all speed. The Opposition believe in the urgent need for this project and a Labour Government would build a second crossing with ruthless speed. It is the key to a better industrial future for Wales.

Mr. Edwards

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tone and warmth of his welcome and for the support he has given to the decision. I agree that it will be widely welcomed by many and I acknowledge that many have compaigned for a long time.

The cost of the actual construction is given in the consultants' report, at 1986 prices, as £183 million. However, when we come to the total cost involved, including land acquisition and other matters, it will be over £200 million. I would not wish to be more specific than that at the moment.

The hon. Gentleman asked about telescoping the planning arrangements. I hope that when he talked about proceeding at ruthless speed he was not suggesting that there should not be proper consultation with those that will be affected. I can confirm that we are as anxious as he is to waste no time in getting on with the necessary procedures. We are getting on to the next stage at once with a sense of urgency on the basis that a bridge must be provided as soon as it is needed and Parliament so decides. We wish to be in a position to provide the crossing by the mid-1990s but, of course, the decisions at each stage will have to have regard to the way in which the traffic develops.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the process we will follow. As I said, we are going ahead without pause on the planning arrangements. Our intention is to proceed by way of legislation to avoid planning procedures being unduly prolonged. However, as I have emphasised, there will have to be proper consultation with those affected. In order to get the maximum possible speed when we are ready to go ahead and the greatest economic advantage, if the outcome of the present tendering exercise for Dartford tunnel proves successful—there is every sign that it will —we shall consider using similar procedures.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Welsh Office budget and which Department will be responsible for the bridge. Both the Department of Transport and the Welsh Office have worked in the closest possible collaboration on this matter. I should like to pay a tribute to the former Secretary of State for Transport, now the Secretary of State for the Environment, for the considerable effort that he put in to getting this matter going in the fastest possible time. I would also like to express my appreciation for the way in which the present Secretary of State for Transport has thought it right, in view of the importance of the announcement for south Wales, that I should make this statement. I must emphasise that this is a project for which both Departments are responsible. However, the actual construction of the bridge will be the responsibility of the Department of Transport. My Department will clearly be involved in the approach roads on the Welsh side arid the. Department of Transport will be involved in the approach roads on the English side. The Department of Transport has the technical expertise, which clearly makes it appropriate for it to be the responsible Department.

The hon. Gentleman asked about windshields. One of the reasons for going so carefully into the question of the tunnel alternative was because of our concern about the wind. One of the benefits of having undertaken this important and essential study is that it has come to the conclusion that windshields can he provided effectively so that traffic will not be delayed and interrupted as it has been in the past.

The hon. Gentleman emphasised the enormous importance of this decision for the economy of south Wales. May I also point out that it is an important decision for the economy of Avon as well? It is a fact that 60 per cent. of the traffic crossing the present bridge goes from south Wales to the Bristol area and that the proposed plan will shorten the journey by about 14 km. We are talking about a project of importance for the whole of Severnside and south Wales.

Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)

I welcome the statement and the fact that it is being made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. I say that with no disrespect to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. I feel that it further underlines the Government's commitment to the economy of south Wales and the importance of the Severn bridge as a prime feature there. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this statement fulfils a promise previously given that the Government would ensure that a second crossing of the Severn would be in place as soon as it was needed? May we hope that we need have no more unnecessary scare stories about the present Severn bridge, which have certainly done nothing to help the economy of south Wales?

Mr. Edwards

It is our intention to provide the bridge as soon as it is needed, taking account of the build-up of traffic. That must be the right way to proceed. We have gone ahead to ensure the absolute security of the present crossing. The limitation of the present crossing is in terms of capacity. There is now clear evidence that we shall face an increasing capacity problem into the mid-1990s. Therefore, we are going ahead with the planning for the next stage of the new bridge so that it can be provided when necessary. As I have said, we are taking every step to ensure that the time scale is kept as short as possible on the assumption that the traffic builds up in the way we expect.

Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau, Gwent)

I certainly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on the statement. However, many Opposition Members think that a special tribute is due to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) and Gwent county council. They have fought so long for this project. May I say that perhaps the best way of celebrating would be to abolish tolls on the present bridge and make sure that we do not have tolls on the new one?

Mr. Edwards

If it makes people happy to be congratulated, no doubt congratulations will come. The truth is that everyone who has had the smallest knowledge of the south Wales economy has recognised the importance of securing this crossing. The Government have made their determination to do that absolutely plain from the word go. It has not needed any lobbying either by the hon. Member for Newport, East or by Gwent county council to bring the Government to that decision. However, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the announcement.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to tolls. The Government have made a statement about their tolls policy. This enables me to answer a question put by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) that I did not answer. The cost of the bridge will fall within the appropriate departmental budgets in the normal way. However, a toll regime and the possibilities opened up by the Dartford tunnel procedure may offer the possibility of reducing the demand on the public purse and making it possible to build more of the other roads in England and Wales, which I have no doubt hon. Members will continue to demand. I see the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Thomas) agreeing with those views. I know that his party does not want a Severn bridge at all and has argued that frequently. However, I know that he will be pressing me for other roads and I am sure that he will support a private option and a toll regime in order to produce the maximum possible resources.

Mr. Paul Marland (Gloucestershire, West)

It will come as no surprise to my right hon. Friend to know that his announcement will be warmly welcomed in west Gloucestershire. Whenever there was a problem with the Severn bridge, whether it be wind or repairs, the traffic was always diverted up the A48, which runs straight through my constituency and there was absolute mayhem on that road with all the extra traffic.

As congratulations are in order, I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on not simply talking about something but doing something about it. It is all very well to congratulate Opposition Members on their input in lobbying my right hon. Friend but deeds come much harder than words. It is easy to talk and very difficult to grasp the nettle. I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on behalf of all my constituents on what he has done today. The inclusion of windshielding is an exceedingly good idea because often in the past the present Severn bridge has been closed because of high winds.

Mr. Edwards

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's thanks and I know that the decision will be welcomed in his constituency. He talked about deeds, but the House must understand from the consultants' report that the Severn is the most difficult estuarial crossing anywhere in Britain and this is a major undertaking. All the work done in the present study was an absolutely essential precursor to the further work and could not have been avoided. Indeed, without it we would never have reached our present knowledge about the possibilities of windshielding and of maintenance-free depths. We hope that with the form of bridge envisaged, which will have a short bridge section in the centre of the channel, it will be possible to avoid some of the resurfacing and maintenance problems that exist on the present bridge. That sort of fact has emerged as a result of the study.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

We warmly welcome the proposals for a second Severn crossing, and believe that it is absolutely necessary and will be of particular benefit to the south Wales economy. Will the Secretary of State say whether he will publish a timetable for the construction of the bridge? Can he tell us why a two-lane rather than a three-lane bridge will be constructed, when there is congestion on the present two-lane bridge? Why was a tunnel rejected when 100 years ago a certain Mr. I. K. Brunel was capable of constructing one for the railways? Has a Severn barrage been considered in connection with the new bridge crossing? Will the Secretary of State consider writing off the debt of the present Severn bridge?

Mr. Edwards

We are constructing an additional dual two-lane motorway with hard shoulders, which will work in tandem with the existing bridge. I appreciatc that the hon. Gentleman has not yet had the opportunity to read the lengthy, detailed report which makes clear recommendations about the adequacy of the solution, or to read why the consultants recommend a bridge solution rather than a tunnel solution. That has been decided not merely on cost terms, although there is a considerable cost advantage, but on operational terms. It would probably not be possible to provide hard shoulders in a tunnel and we have all learnt the importance of having them. The relevance of a barrage crossing between Cardiff and the Weston-super-Mare area to the general traffic flow from Cardiff along the M4 to London and, substantially, into the Bristol area can, at the most, be extremely marginal. We are also concerned with getting an early crossing when it is required for traffic, and not having to await possible prolonged discussions on a barrage project. The two matters are not related.

Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's comments, particularly as I know of the importance of the project for both Wales and Avon. It could generate thousands of jobs on both sides of the Severn at its peak of construction. May I take this opportunity to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the fact that many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Cope), will represent their constituents' interests on environmental matters during the planning process?

Mr. Edwards

I can confirm the benefit that will accrue to the Avon area and the shorter journey times involved, which is a reason why we decided to choose the M5 link. Despite the need for prompt and effective action, I fully understand the importance of consulting properly and ensuring both that the interests of local people are guarded as fully as possible in building this major road link and that the usual compensation arrangements will apply. The Severn estuary is an environmentally important area, so we must do our best to ensure that the environment is protected, although I believe that in many ways the bridge will be a positive feature in the landscape.

Mr. Michael Cocks (Bristol, South)

The fact that the statement is made by the Secretary of State for Wales rather than the Secretary of State for Transport shows that Conservative Central Office is more worried about election results in south Wales than in south-west England. It was only in a late answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) that the county of Avon and the fact that there is another bank to the bridge was mentioned. I agree with the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) that there is a second bank to the bridge and that those who represent the people on that side want their full share of the work and benefits that will flow from its construction. It is not good enough to present the proposal to the I-louse merely as a benefit for Wales. There are two sides to this and I hope that that will be borne in mind.

Mr. Edwards

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong in saying that it needed my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) to draw attention to the Avon side of the bridge. I drafted that section of the statement and expressly inserted a reference to "Severnside" because I fully appreciate that the proposal affects both sides. I welcome the invitation of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to me to make this statement because it helps to emphasise the close collaboration between the two Departments in what is an essential junction for communities on both sides of the estuary.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, West)

May I join the general chorus of congratulations to my right hon. Friend on his welcome announcement? I wish to follow the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) and the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks). Has my right hon. Friend worked out, or does he intend to work out, any way in which the undoubted economic benefits for the area as a whole— that is, both south Wales and Avon—can be equalised so that contractors on the Avon side of the estuary will compete on equal terms with those on the subsidised assisted area on the Severn side?

Mr. Edwards

I do not know of subsidies for road contractors which would allow one side to have a competitive advantage over the other. Obviously, we shall consider many important matters, such as whether the tender is competitive and the technical ability of the contractor to carry out this formidable engineering task. We shall in the next phase consider the options opened up to us by the Dartford tunnel procedures and the possibility of producing a design and tender operating procedure.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West)

My right hon. Friend and his colleagues deserve the warmest congratulations on having conducted a careful study and on having acted so swiftly on its results. Does he agree that this shows that excellent communications are by far the best way of bringing jobs to areas, whether we speak of north Wales, south Wales or Avonside?

Mr. Edwards

I agree. We have taken the decision in the month in which we are considering tenders for the Conwy tunnel crossing, which will be the largest such operation yet undertaken in the United Kingdom. Therefore, we are tackling with massive new engineering schemes two of the major traffic needs of the Principality, and that should be taken on board.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

The right hon. Gentleman can be assured that there will be a welcome in south Wales for his announcement. Everyone is happy about it as it is important to our economy. Whatever the Secretary of State said in respect of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), he is the man who will have tribute paid to him for his persistence It is a pity that the Secretary of State is insistent about tolls. Will he ensure that if we must have tolls, we have toll points on both sides of the bridge to avoid the problem on the present bridge of traffic waiting on the bridge?

Mr. Edwards

No doubt the world will be amazed at this desperate need to find some form of support for the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes). It will be amazing if the world is ever brought to believe that he influenced the Government's decision on this major project, but if people think that he did, so be it.

The hon. Gentleman will see, when he comes tb read the consultants'report that the consultants address themselves to the question of toll booths and where they might he positioned. Clearly that is a practical matter that will have to be gone into in some detail before a final decision is taken.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Secretary of State has done me the courtesy of quoting what I would have said before I said it so that I do not need to repeat it.

In terms of transportation priorities, both cross-border and within Wales, can he say what the effect will be on his departmental vote? In particular, what effect might this have on the need to dual the Heads of the Valleys road and to improve transportation within the valleys? Does the fact that either he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport propose to introduce a Bill have implications for the environmental safeguards that will he required on the estuary?

Mr. Edwards

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's confirmation that Plaid Cymru in fact is opposed to a second Severn crossing, and wants the road to be built elsewhere. I had not thought he would do that.

Mr. Thomas

I did not say that.

Mr. Edwards

That was what I said, and the hon. Gentleman thanked me for confirming it. If there is some misunderstanding, perhaps it can be settled within his party.

I can tell him that we are consulting on the other priorities for the 1990s in Wales, as he knows, and will consider the various recommendations currently being put to us from all over Wales.

With regard to environmental issues, we clearly have to give an adequate opportunity for those who will be affected to comment, and we shall do that. The object of the legislation is to avoid the possible long delays that can take place if one uses traditional planning procedures, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, can take 10 or 15 years on such a project.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

The sum of £200 million is a great deal of money, but there is no doubt that on commercial criteria alone this expenditure is justified. That being the case, have we not missed an opportunity to contain public expenditure with this project? As it is commercially justifiable, could we not, as with the Channel tunnel, have had it done through the private sector?

Mr. Edwards

What I said about the Dartford tunnel options may not be clear. The whole of the Dartford tunnel tendering procedure was designed to ascertain whether a privately financed solution was practical. My right hon. Friend is at present considering the tenders received. In the light of that experience, we shall certainly want to see whether that is a possibility in this case. As I pointed out earlier, it could release resources for all the other desirable road projects that people want.

Dr. John Marek (Wrexham)

I am sorry to hear the Secretary of State steadfastly refuse to congratulate Gwent county council and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes). I wondered whether the Minister's statement is a result of a sudden realisation by the Conservative party that the general election is well above the horizon. Is there a fund of some sort for these projects that will be announced? If so, will anything be available to other parts of Wales? In particular, could we have a dual carriageway on the A483 instead of the present ragbag of roads — unless, of course, the Secretary of State has already resigned himself to the fact that the constituencies of Delyn and Clwyd, South-West will be Labour gains at the next election?

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman has clearly failed to recognise that we appointed the consultants some two years ago to report in August, and they have reported ahead of schedule. We said that we would report on the consultants' conclusions as soon as possible. Not only have we reported on the conclusions of the report, we have announced our decision on where the road will go. In view of what he said about roads in his part of the world, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will support a privately financed bridge, if that proves a feasible option proposition.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

The Secretary of State well knows that on 29 November 1984 the Government cut the percentage of the working population in Wales qualifying for regional development grant from 90 per cent. to 35 per cent. In order to maximise the advantages of the new bridge to the economy of south Wales, does he intend to restore those losses?

Mr. Edwards

The hon. Gentleman has grossly misrepresented the statistical position because, under the different arrangements, a very high proportion of the population of Wales receives regional assistance. What we have done is to change the pattern of regional assistance so that Wales benefits considerably more from regional assistance, as was pointed out by one of my hon. Friends. What this will do, as the consultants clearly point out, is to give a considerable further boost to regional policy.

Dr. Roger Thomas (Carmarthen)

Can I seek the assurance that this is a genuine additional bridge, a complementary bridge, rather than a replacement bridge? Many people in south Wales fear that the present bridge will never be fully safely operational again. Wales needs two bridges, not one and a half.

Mr. Nicholas Edwards

I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We are pressing on with the programme. It is going well. We are confident that, when it is complete, the present bridge will be absolutely secure as a crossing. As I said earlier, the limitations on that bridge are those of capacity. We are now seeking to enlarge substantially the capacity of the crossing.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

I welcome the statement, and I am glad that it has been made by the Secretary of State for Wales. The crossing of the Severn is a vital connection to and from Wales. I say this with no disrespect to the Secretary of State for Transport who is in his place in the Chamber.

Broadly speaking, the scheme is what I have been advocating for quite some time and, in that sense, I have been backed up by my right hon. and hon. Friends, by county councils like Gwent and by Newport borough council. Will the Secretary of State appreciate that this is the culmination of several years of campaigning that commenced with the famous Adjournment debate on 28 October 1983 when I was alone in the Chamber with the hon. Lady the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker)? [Interruption.] She was promoted after that.

Contrary to what the Secretary of State has told the House today, does he appreciate that there were many fainthearts at that time, some of them in high places, but later on even CBI Wales started to sit up and take notice, and that took a bit of doing?

I regret, of course, that there is no intention as yet on the part of the Government to abolish tolls on estuarial crossings. I advise and urge the Government to think again about this matter, particularly bearing in mind the horrific unemployment situation in Wales, about which so much needs to be done.

Can the Secretary of State tell us about the proposed time scale for the building of the bridge? Will he, apart from being ruthless about planning, try to ensure that the planning procedures are sharpened up? Did he, like me, note a little apathy in the third paragraph in the conclusion of the report in its reference to delays in future years? Can I assure the Secretary of State, on behalf of thousands of motorists, that lane closures, delays and frustration very much exist already? They need to be eliminated as quickly as possible.

Finally, will the Secretary of State assure the House that the contract for the building of the bridge will be awarded to a British company, because there is already speculation to the contrary?

Mr. Edwards

If that was the speculation before the House had even been told of the decision to build, one can see the value of it. I have laid down the criteria that the Department of Transport will have to take into account in choosing the contractors. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is pleased about the decision that we have taken. A great many people, including the hon. Gentleman, have made representations over the years, none more vigorously than my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Robinson), whose first parliamentary question in the House addressed itself to this very topic. If credit is to be given to anyone, it is to the hon. Member within the Government and my Department, who has never ceased to press the importance of the matter upon me.