HC Deb 15 December 1988 vol 143 cc1191-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

10.47 pm
Mr. Allan Stewart (Eastwood)

I am grateful for this opportunity to put to my hon. Friend the Minister a number of points about transport in Scotland.

This debate comes at the end of a week in which this subject has been at the forefront of debate in the House. On Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Scotland made an excellent statement on public expenditure. Yesterday, the House gave a Second Reading to the Transport (Scotland) Bill, after a long debate that was fully answered by my hon. Friend the Minister. After these events, there is a great deal of interest in transport in Scotland. I want to ask my hon. Friend some detailed questions about Scotland in general and about issues of great importance to my constituents in Eastwood.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's substantial extra provision for roads and transport—an increase of about £40 million on the previously announced plans for 1989–90. That enables the implementation of the manifesto commitment to upgrade the A74 to motorway status to begin.

After the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend, I asked him about the Ayr road route—the dual carriageway extension from the M77 at Dumbreck, bypassing the built-up areas of the south side of Glasgow and Giffnock, Newton Mearns and Barrhead, to the present A77 at the Malletsheugh. I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will welcome this chance to expand on what our right hon. and learned Friend said in answer to my question.

The Ayr road route is crucial to the economic health and environmental health of the areas I mentioned, and to Ayrshire. It would help, if not resolve, the critical traffic situation in Eaglesham village, to which subject I will return later. It will mean that, for the first time, a good road link will exist between Prestwick airport and the central Scotland motorway system. That is why the then Select Committee on Scottish Affairs recommended that it be given "a high priority". The Government's response was positive and clear. I quote the Government response dated 2 March 1983, paragraph 19: As regards the A77, preparatory activity is already in hand with a view to starting work on the trunk road section"— that is, the section outside the Glasgow city boundary for which the Government are responsible— in 1986–87. Strathclyde regional council have proposals in the TPP to being work on the proposed section within the city boundary in 1985–86, but with the main work starting in 1986–87. This is the earliest timetable currently considered feasible for the construction of the trunk road section, taking account of the preliminary survey and design work and the statutory procedures that have still to be undertaken. The Government will, however, take all necessary steps to adhere to this timetable. That was very clear and unequivocal: The Government will, however, take all necessary steps to adhere to this timetable. That leaves no room for doubt, but the timetable has slipped considerably.

I appreciate that perhaps this is because of delay resulting from objections and the complexity of statutory procedures. Nevertheless, I welcome Strathclyde regional council's strong support for the road, and disagree with the rather petty objections made by Glasgow district council. However, as I said on Tuesday, answers to parliamentary questions put by the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) have revealed that the northern Ayrshire and Renfrewshire sections of the A77 are much more dangerous than the A74, which is being upgraded to motorway status—welcome though that decision is.

My hon. Friend's predecessor told me in an answer to a parliamentary question on 18 February 1987 that the Ayr road route would take 6 million vehicles a year in 1991. On 8 April 1987, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland wrote to me: The start of the Ayr road route is held back by procedural and not financial constraints. I shall be glad if my hon. Friend will confirm that that is so, and indicate the up-to-date position in respect of the public inquiry and his right hon. and learned Friend's consideration of it. On the assumption that the scheme is approved, can he give the timetable for both the start and the completion of the construction period?

Earlier, I mentioned the village of Eaglesham in my constituency. It is a village that my hon. Friend knows well, as it is the one in which Rudolf Hess landed—as described in my hon. Friend's first-class book. It is a charming conservation village with much new housing. It is represented on Eastwood district council by Councillor Basil Baird, on whose family farm Hess landed.

The village has seen a sharp increase in traffic, and of goods vehicle traffic in particular. That has created serious problems. I quote from one of the many letters I have received from constituents: Over the past few years there has been a dramatic increase in the amount and nature of the traffic using the road. I have recently been involved in a traffic count over a twelve hour period, and I am appalled by the result: 988 heavy goods vehicles, 1,163 lorries, and 8,578 cars. This means one heavy goods vehicle trundles, or more accurately, hurtles, past my front door every 45 seconds". It is a narrow road. There has also been a marked increase in speed and a dramatic rise in the number of accidents. I must also point out the damage to the environment, with the steep gradient and constant gear changes there is an unacceptable level of lead in the atmosphere. That is typical of the huge volume of complaints.

I welcome the interim measures that have been taken by Strathclyde regional council—the roundabout at one end and the lights halfway down Montgomery street in the middle of the village. Councillors and Eaglesham community council have made unremitting efforts, and it was owing to pressure from the previous regional councillor Robbie Robertson that the Eaglesham bypass was put into Strathclyde region's plans. It has, however, been delayed. In his letter of 5 December, my hon. Friend confirmed to me that it was now scheduled for the spring of 1993. Given the extra resources for road investment announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State earlier this week, I should like to know whether there is any possibility of a general speeding up of the Strathclyde programme, which would help Eaglesham.

I appreciate that decisions on such matters will reflect the priorities of Strathclyde regional council, but it is not quite as simple as that. Tonight's Adjournment debate was originally to have been about the causeway to Vatersay, but the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) withdrew his application, for the good reason that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State yesterday announced a special capital allocation to enable the causeway to go ahead. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman: I think that this is the first recorded example of the threat of an Adjournment debate achieving its objective.

I do not necessarily threaten my hon. Friend the Minister with constant Adjournment debates on this issue, but this is an important constituency matter and I know that he or his officials will be having technical discussions with Strathclyde regional council. Obviously, the Scottish Development Department is involved in such discussions when determining Strathclyde's total allocation, and I hope that my hon. Friend will view the problem sympathetically.

On a more general note, my hon. Friend knows of my interest in bus privatisation and the need for proper competition between Strathclyde Buses and the present Clydeside group, which will be linked after privatisation, and also my interest in McGills of Barrhead, an excellent and long-established independent bus operator. These are vital matters for my constituents. We shall, however, have plenty of time to discuss buses in the future. I should like tonight to ask my hon. Friend a number of questions about CalMac.

I congratulate the Government on their proposals, which represent a proper balance and reflect the different circumstances in different areas of the islands. Yesterday, my hon. Friend answered very fully the general debate on Second Reading of the Scottish Transport Bill. There was then an unscheduled—for many of us—addendum, then a closure motion and then a debate on the money resolution, when the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) took the whole of the allotted 45 minutes. It was the first time that I had seen a Labour Front Bencher filibuster to keep Opposition Back Benchers out. Be that as it may, my hon. Friend did not have a chance to put on record his response to the money resolution, and it is that on which I wish to speak tonight. I wish particularly to refer to the investment record of CalMac since 1979.

It is important that the House should hear my hon. Friend's account of the position, and I hope that he will be able to tell us about CalMac's general record and prospects. Perhaps he will take the opportunity, if the information is available to him, to answer some specific questions, which would be of value to everyone with an interest in the future of the services.

Let me ask my hon. Friend four such questions. First, how much grant have the Government provided for ships and piers since they came into office? Secondly, and related to that, how much has CalMac invested since then? Thirdly, how many new ships will be built under this programme? Fourthly, all hon. Members with an interest in the subject recognise the importance of the roll-on roll-off facilities for the islands. Can my hon. Friend say whether those facilities have been extended?

I have two general questions for my hon. Friend. First, what has been the general reaction to the Government's proposals for the future of Caledonian MacBrayne since my right hon. and learned Friend's statement to the House? Secondly, now that the Transport (Scotland) Bill has been given a Second Reading, will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to make a statement about the Government's policy on ferry services?

I could refer to many other aspects of transport policy: to the rail network and air transport. My hon. Friend knows my views about continental air flights from Glasgow airport. However, I want my hon. Friend to have time fully to reply to the questions I have asked. In conclusion, therefore, I congratulate him on the Second Reading of the Transport (Scotland) Bill and on his contribution to a public expenditure statement earlier this week, which is good news for transport in Scotland.

11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

My hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Stewart) serves both his constituents and the House well by referring to such important and relevant matters. It is typical of my hon. Friend's extremely dedicated, hard-working and vigorous approach as the Member of Parliament for East Renfrewshire. It is a particular pleasure for me to reply to this debate. Many years ago, my father was the Member of Parliament for my hon. Friend's constituents.

My hon. Friend referred to the proposed Ayr road route and the possible timetable for its completion. The proposed Ayr road route is a joint Scottish Development Department-Strathclyde regional council project to link the M77 spur at Dumbreck to the existing A77 at Malletsheugh. The effect of this will be to provide a dual carriageway between the M8 on the south of the Kingston bridge and Malletsheugh, which lies to the south of Newton Mearns. The section between Dumbreck and the former Glasgow city boundary, approximately 7 kin, will be a local road for which Strathclyde regional council will be responsible and the section between the city boundary and Malletsheugh, approximately 4 km, will be a trunk road for which my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State will be responsible. The trunk section is effectively a bypass of Newton Mearns. The total cost of the joint project will be at least £55 million, of which the trunk section will be at least £15 million.

A large number of objections were made to the Strathclyde region section of the road, and some 32 objections to the trunk section remained outstanding at the beginning of this year. Accordingly, it was decided to hold a public local inquiry. The inquiry, which was held in Glasgow, began in March 1988 and ended some 10 weeks later in May.

The reporter to the inquiry completed part I of his report, his findings of fact, only recently and it was distributed to the parties to the inquiry on 9 December There now follows a period for adjustment of the findings of fact. Then the next step is for the reporter to compile part II of his report—his conclusions and recommendations—for submission to the Secretary of State. Normally, part II is produced much more quickly than part I, and I would expect my right hon. and learned Friend to issue his decision on whether the new road should go ahead in the first half of 1989.

My hon. Friend also referred to the need to bypass Eaglesham. Strathclyde regional council's latest transport policies and programme submission includes a scheme to bypass Eaglesham. The council acknowledges that the road through the village is carrying increasing volumes of traffic between Ayrshire and East Kilbride, including a high proportion of heavy goods vehicles. The environmental problems resulting from the increased use of the road are also recognised. The promotion of the bypass scheme is intended to remove all the heavy through traffic from the village and to reduce accidents.

The council's financial plans, submitted to the Department in November 1988, show that the scheme is scheduled for a March 1993 start, as are two similar by-pass schemes for Strathaven and Darvel. But the timing of specific projects is a matter for Strathclyde regional council. The council, within its overall allocation for capital expenditure on roads and transport, is free to determine which projects it will undertake and their relative priority in the light of local circumstances.

The Government also make substantial provision for local roads and transport. Strathclyde regional council, as the largest authority, is a major benefactor of the capital allocations given to regional and islands authorities. The council's allocation is £57 million in the current year—a substantial sum.

As for trunk roads, the Government already have a substantial programme from which Strathclyde benefits. The forward trunk road programme for Scotland contains a good number of proposed schemes in Strathclyde. There are 26 major schemes with a total estimated value of at least £270 million. In addition, major works on upgrading the A74 to motorway should be starting in due course. In the Renfrew district area there are four major trunk schemes—the A77 Ayr road route, the A77 Fenwick-to-B764-junction scheme, the scheme from there to Malletsheugh and the M8 St. James interchange. The first three of the schemes mentioned will complete a dual carriageway from Glasgow to Ayr. The trunk element of the Ayr road route along with the other three Renfrew district area schemes represent an estimated Government expenditure of at least £50 million.

I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about investment in Caledonian MacBrayne, and I shall describe the background briefly. CalMac operates passenger, vehicle and freight shipping services to the islands off the west coast of Scotland and in the Clyde estuary. There are 26 scheduled services in addition to which the company provides seasonal cruising, livestock runs and charter/ contract services. The company-owned fleet consists of 28 vessels—12 major vehicle ferries, 14 small vehicle ferries and two passenger-only vessels. The newest major vessel, the MV Isle of Mull, was launched at Port Glasgow on 7 December 1987 and came into service on the Oban-Mull route this year. A further major ferry is on order from Appledore-Ferguson Ltd. Shipbuilders and will enter service on the Oban-Barra/Lochboisdale route in place of two aging vessels in 1989.

Other major new vessels which have come into service since 1979 are the Isle of Arran in 1984, which, as its name suggests, serves Arran, and the Hebrides Isles in 1985, serving the triangular route between Uig in Skye, Tarbert in Harris and Lochmaddy in North Uist. There has also been investment in the smaller vessels which are so important in the short crossings to the smaller islands.

The total of new investment by CalMac in new ships since 1979 is £22 million. Those years have seen a welcome improvement in the standard of ships provided, which is much appreciated by the islanders, as well as by the tourists attracted to visit the islands, in no small part by the modern car ferries provided.

There has also been substantial investment in piers by Caledonian MacBrayne, which has been directly responsible for investment of £6 million in new piers. Of course, it does not own all the piers to which it operates. The Government have also provided substantial grant assistance to local authorities and independent harbour trusts to improve their piers. A special feature, to which my hon. Friend referred, has been the spread of roll-on roll-off facilities cutting out the need for the time-consuming use of side lifts to unload the increasing number of cars carried on CalMac's ships. That is very welcome.

Link spans for roll-on roll-off purposes have been built at Uig, Tarbert, Lochmaddy, Lochboisdale and Colonsay. Work is proceeding on a linkspan at Castlebay in Barra. A total of £22 million has been paid out in pier grants throughout Scotland since 1979.

It may help if I describe the basis on which help is given to Caledonian MacBrayne by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State is empowered to give financial assistance to operators of sea transport to the Highlands and Islands by the provisions of the Highlands and Islands Shipping Services Act 1960. In accordance with that Act, the Secretary of State entered into an undertaking with CalMac and the STG in 1975. The undertaking allows grants to be made to CalMac to maintain and improve sea transport services serving the Highlands and Islands.

Those grants take the form of a revenue support grant which covers the annual deficit which the Secretary of State estimates that the company is likely to incur in providing approved services—23 in all in 1988—during a specified period, in practice the company's trading year between 1 January and 31 December. That grant is at present running at about £6 million a year. Capital grants not exceeding 75 per cent. of the actual capital expenditure incurred by the company are provided for pier works. No capital grant assistance is paid towards the cost of ship purchases.

CalMac's financial target is to break even after receipt of the revenue support grant which I have mentioned. Since 1986, a clawback system to recover any surplus of revenue support grant over actual requirements has been in force. The sytem allows the company to retain up to a maximum of £300,000 of any surplus as an incentive to efficiency. CalMac's performance has shown a healthy upturn in recent years and subsidy requirement has fallen in cash and real terms. That is partly due to increased carrying for all types of traffic and, consequently, increased revenue. Although credit must be given to the company for much improved marketing techniques, the other important factor is lower fuel costs. Fares have been held for several years at or below the general level of inflation.

Last night, we discussed the arrangements proposed under the Transport (Scotland) Bill for Caledonian MacBrayne. The principal objective is to maintain at least the present standard of service. It may be helpful if I remind the House of the proposals.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Hon. Members cannot discuss legislation in an Adjournment debate. I hope that the Minister will not try to do a rerun of yesterday's debate, because that would be out of order.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I shall restrict my comments to the investment in CalMac. For the most part, CalMac services do not make a profit, and a subsidy of about £6 million a year is required. We have always been clear that Caledonian MacBrayne was not a straightforward case for privatisation. The first priority in any arrangements is to guarantee the lifeline services which it provides. It is for that reason that, having studied the issues carefully, we decided that, on the dissolution of the Scottish Transport Group, the ownership of Caledonian MacBrayne should be transferred to the Secretary of State.

We intend to appoint a new board for the company, which will contain persons with commercial expertise, including some with first-hand knowledge of the islands served and their needs. I feel that that is vital to ensure the responsiveness of the company to its customers.

As a matter of priority, we would look to the new board to examine the possibilities of relocating the headquarters nearer the centre of the area which it serves. Oban seems likely to prove a suitable place for that purpose. We shall ask the new board to explore the possibility of transferring to the private sector the Gourock-Dunoon and Wemyss bay-Rothesay routes. I consider it anomalous that CalMac is operating a subsidised service on a similar route to an unsubsidised private operation.

In the longer term, we will expect the board to examine carefully all existing practices in the company's operation with a view to providing more efficient and cost-effective ways of providing at least the present standard of service. No options for the longer term will be excluded, subject to the overriding proviso that we must ensure at least the present quality of service to the Islands. I consider that, with its own board and independence, CalMac will be well placed to continue and improve on the present level of services.

The views of the ferry users are important, and we intend to continue to consult them. At present, the main means of consultation for ferry users to make their views known are through shipping services advisory committees and the Scottish Transport Users Consultative Committee. They are doing a good job and that will continue.

In its 1987 manifesto, the Conservative party made it clear that it would continue the substantially increased financial support for the provision and upgrading of ferries and terminals which are vital to the islands. In Scotland, in the period from 1979 to date, the Government have provided grant for ferry pierworks and vessels in Scotland totalling £23.33 million. In the same period, we have also subsidised ferry travel by a total of £78.7 million. For Caledonian MacBrayne, £22 million has been invested in new vessels and £6 million in new piers over the same period. These are substantial sums and demonstrate the importance which the Government attach to investment in shipping services, particularly in Caledonian MacBrayne.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteeen minutes past Eleven o'clock.