HC Deb 10 May 1988 vol 133 cc293-300

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

1.46 am
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

The subject of this debate is a matter which was brought to my attention by an article in the New Civil Engineer of 28 April 1988, referring to the foundation problems associated with the building of the shiplift and finger jetty in the Clyde submarine base at Faslane. In a moment I will detail the specific nature of the problems referred to in that article. However, I am concerned at the response given by the authorities to the media who attempted to follow up the matter, who were met by a wall of silence from the Property Services Agency—which, regretfully, seems to be the norm for departments with responsibility with anything to do with the Clyde submarine base, whether or not they have any security implications.

There is failure to recognise that my constituents have a legitimate interest in the affairs of the Clyde submarine base. The base itself occupies a considerable part of my constituency. In fact, the MOD owns 16 per cent. of the land within the entire constituency and as a consequence has annexed the most beautiful part of my constituency—the peninsula around Gareloch—with considerable detriment to tourist potential. The latest Garelochhead bypass development, which stretches for more than 10 miles, has scarred the landscape and I have received numerous complaints from residents of both Helensburgh and the peninsula on the environmental destruction that is taking place as the result of the work undertaken by the Ministry.

Within the next few years the Trident programme will mean further inconvenience to the community. An increasing burden will be placed on the infrastructure, with a tremendous increase in traffic moving in and out of the base. MOD figures indicate that more than 1,500 lorries a day will be using the roads of Dumbarton constituency—roads which are already crowded and in need of upgrading. That will undoubtedly result in considerable inconvenience to my constituents and has worrying implications for tourism. Many tourists will be put off from journeying through the area with the knowledge that they will have to negotiate difficult bends and contend with heavy construction traffic. The degree of attention required by drivers will turn what should be a leisurely trip into a stressful journey. Many will decide that it is better to look for other areas of recreation.

Therefore, my constituents have considerable interest in the area, but the MOD and other Government Departments seem content on keeping the community at arm's length. Witness the response to The Observer report about a possible melt-down on HMS Resolution in January this year. I do not propose to go into that argument again. However, it is worth pointing out that the answer given by the MOD was minimal and did nothing to alleviate the fears of the community. There is no doubt that a fuller answer could have been given without detriment to any security requirements. It seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to media interest which betrayed a lack of any thought or recognition of the community's interest in the base. It may well be a characteristic of those involved in defence generally. Recently, when documents relating to the servicing of the United States submarines at the Holy Loch base were washed up on Helensburgh beach, the United States authorities dismissed the documents as being of no interest. That comment was at variance with those expressed by defence experts and revealed the US Navy's answer to be both callous and insulting to the community.

The matter that I wish to bring to the Minister's attention is one which raises questions of safety, as it revolves around the construction of the shiplift and finger jetty designed to lift Trident submarines out of the water. The company responsible for the £120 million contract is Cementation Construction, and it has run into considerable difficulties with tubular steel piles drifting out of tolerence during driving. Hammers have also been breaking down, and an underreaming drill used to form pile sockets in the granite seabed has been lost. Cementation has to drive a total of 1,040 tubular steel piles for a 15,000-tonne capacity submarine shiplift and twin berth jetty. In addition, two concrete cellular jetties extending 285m out into Gareloch and supported on 825 piles of varying diameter are required to be driven. It is extremely worrying that about 150 piles are thought to have been driven so far, and dozens are going beyond the specified 75 mm lateral tolerance, some more than another 75mm out.

The reasons for the difficulties have been investigated by those concerned for over four months, yet no agreement has been reached. It is considered by the project consultant engineers, Babtie Shaw and Morton, that boulders in the soft clay which lie up to 80ft deep above the rock are responsible for knocking the piles off course as they are driven from offshore jack-up barges. However, this is contested by the contractor, Cementation. It has called in a foundation specialist which has decided that the boulders are incidental and that the main problem lies with the unexpected joints and fractures in the bedrock.

The obvious question is: was a terrain survey carried out before the decision to go ahead with the project was taken? I assume that this must have happened. So why was the fault not discovered at the time, over 12 months ago? Who is at fault for the present situation? If a pre-construction survey had been competently carried out in the initial stages, the implication would be that the difficulties were due to the operational procedures now being undertaken. We know that in fact there is a debate over driving procedures between BSM and Cementation which was resolved by way of a compromise. The immediate question is whether the piles that are out of line could feasibly have been driven according to specification, or whether the overburden and bedrock qualify as unforeseen ground conditions. To remedy the problem will be extremely expensive and difficult, as some piles will have to be extracted and replaced, while others will be treated in situ.

I would like to put a number of questions to the Minister. I realise that the complex nature of the matter means that it may not be possible for the Minister to respond fully this evening. If that is the case, I request him to respond in full by writing to me as soon as possible. Has a conclusion been reached on the nature of the problem? Is it the terrain, and, if so, can the problem be overcome, or will the project have to be abandoned? After all, in a report to Parliament last year by Sir Gordon Downie, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the building works programme at the Clyde submarine base was identified as a "high risk area". What is meant by that phrase? Was a proper terrain survey carried out? If so, why was the fault not discovered? Who is responsible? How many piles will have to be replaced, and how many will be subjected to corrective measures whilst remaining in place?

The whole project was estimated to run for 162 weeks, until the summer of 1990. As more than four months have been spent in trying to identify the nature of the fault to no avail, presumably it will be impossible to predict accurately how much the Trident programme will be delayed by the setback. However, I should like to know how many weeks have been lost to date. The PSA refuses to comment. Why? This is not a matter of security, with grave implications. The PSA appears to feel that it has no responsibility towards the community, and does not need to communicate with them. There was an unofficial comment in the magazine New Civil Engineer from an unidentified individual at the base. This anonymous individual was quoted as saying that it was anticipated that the overall contract would still be finished on time. That does not correspond to what is known about the difficulties of identifying the nature of the fault and of rectifying it. It appears to be just another bland assurance that everything is all right and that the public need not bother to ask any questions. It corresponds with the press release in the Clyde public safety document which states that in the event of a release of radioactive material the media should state that "a small quantity" of radioactive material has been released, regardless of the real nature of the accident.

Because of those bland assurances and the unwillingness to communicate on issues that are not directly related to security, my constituents are losing confidence in any statements made by the Government Departments involved with the base. Yet the MOD, with the greatest number of public relations officers in any Whitehall Department, seems unconcerned. This matter should deeply concern the Minister.

The New Civil Engineer magazine refers to the cost of delay and the extra work, which, in its opinion, is currently a highly sensitive issue between Cementation and the Property Services Agency. It adds that, although details of the anticipated ground conditions are unclear, the PSA has confirmed that the Cementation contract has no condition for unforeseen ground. What is the additional cost of the remedial work and who will pay for it? Will it be Cementation or will it be the project consultants, Babtie Shaw & Morton? Will they be considered to have any liability? Will the taxpayer, through the Property Services Agency, finally have to foot the bill? The Ministry of Defence has always been very reassuring about the cost of Trident, yet those costs have escalated year by year. The public have the right to know the additional costs that will have to be borne if the PSA takes ultimate responsibility for this regrettable situation.

The nature of the problem must be discovered and made public. The cost of the remedial work must be estimated and, if the problem is due in any way to human error, whoever is responsible must be identified. Above all, safety must be the overriding consideration in any remedial work. That should be the case in all contracts covering work at nuclear submarine bases. Here, above all, there must be no temptation to cut corners.

I note that since this contract was issued in July last year a clause has been introduced that allows contractors to claim against the Government for additional costs that result from unforeseen circumstances. I welcome the inclusion of such a clause because it gives some guarantee that safety will not be prejudiced by consideration of costs. I hope that the Minister will take it upon himself to ensure that the safety of my constituents, including service personnel, will be the overriding criterion, no matter who bears the financial responsibility for the matter.

I realise that there are many interests of common concern between us in relation to the Clyde submarine base and its economic and social influence in the constituency. In that respect, I freely and graciously acknowledge the Minister's assistance and courtesy to me in the past, and presently in regard to surplus MOD housing in Helensburgh. However, I hope that he will realise that he needs to be as open as he can with the community I represent when difficulties arise at the base. He should give real reasons, not the bland placebos of the public relations men which the MOD all too often provides.

1.58 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) on raising this important issue. I am grateful to him for giving me general notice of the points he proposed to raise.

The Government's decision to replace Polaris in the mid-1990s so as to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent well into the next century continues to enjoy overwhelming public support, as does the decision to use the Trident II D5 missile system with all the advantages of commonality that it will give us in operating a system which is in use with the Americans. Our programme is proceeding satisfactorily and on schedule. An essential part of it is the development of the Clyde submarine base and the construction of new facilities to support the Trident strategic weapon system and Vanguard class submarines at Faslane and Coulport.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of detailed questions and I shall try to answer as many of them as I can. I will study the record and write to him if I am unable to cover all the ground tonight.

Works at the Clyde submarine base amount to almost £660 million of Trident development. That is all taking place within the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The origin of the hon. Gentleman's specific interest may lie, as he has suggested, in an article in the technical journal, theNew Civil Engineer, dated 28 April. That article, aimed at professional civil engineers, described in some considerable detail technical difficulties that need to be tackled and overcome in the course of the development. I shall come to these issues in a moment, but before commenting on them I remind the House of the nature of the development, and in particular the shiplift being built at Faslane.

The Clyde submarine base, which is already the base of the Polaris submarine force, was chosen as the main base for Trident because of its closeness to our primary NATO area of interest, because of its ready access to deep water operating and because it offers deep water berthing.

The Clyde and its approaches is the only site meeting all these requirements without the additional costs of providing additional facilities and new buildings elsewhere. The base, incorporating HMS Neptune at Faslane and the royal naval armament depot at Coulport, is a major home for the United Kingdom fleet, and the facilities being provided will support not only Trident but hunter-killer submarines into the next century. The base will also continue to support Polaris until the system is replaced.

The most important elements of this development programme are the creation of new facilities at Coulport for processing warheads and arming the submarines, including the construction of a floating explosives handling jetty, the development in the northern area of Faslane that will include a shiplift, a new jetty, support buildings and power generation facilities, and external works such as the network of new roads between Coulport and Faslane.

As a construction programme, this represents the largest and most complex project ever undertaken for the Ministry of Defence. Indeed, it is one of the biggest construction projects in the United Kingdom. Much of what we are building has to meet very exacting standards and criteria on nuclear safety, which the hon. Gentleman raised specifically. I am sure the House will realise that this represents a formidable challenge for the Property Services Agency and its contractors and consultants. I pay tribute to PSA, which acts as our agents in managing the project.

Part of this overall redevelopment includes two facilities being constructed by Cementation Construction Ltd. as the main contractor in the northern development area of Faslane, a finger jetty which will provide berths for submarines, and a shiplift to allow submarines to be serviced at short notice in dry conditions.

The concept of a shiplift is not novel. They are in increasingly common use throughout the world as a practical alternative to the more traditional facilities of dry docks, or floating docks. A shiplift consists of a platform which can be raised by a large number of winches—about 100 in the Faslane case—and can be used to lift vessels clear of the water. Our shiplift will be located within a large building and will provide a protected environment from the weather in which to service the submarines.

However, at Faslane there is a feature which adds considerably to the complexity of the technical task. This shiplift will be used to lift nuclear-powered vessels, and since safety must always be of paramount importance in all matters concerning nuclear reactors the shiplift, like many other facilities at Faslane, has to be constructed to the very highest standards required in the nuclear industry. That means that the structures themselves must be designed to remain sound, even in circumstances when a more conventional building would have failed, and, to use them as facilities for nuclear work, it is necessary to demonstrate to a body of independent nuclear experts who are separately advised by the safety and reliability directorate of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority that the buildings, and the equipment within them, will withstand an earthquake of a magnitude that might be expected to occur once in every 10,000 years in the United Kingdom. I am not aware that such an event has occurred in our recorded history. If such an earthquake did occur, most of the other buildings in the area would collapse, but the nuclear facilities would remain sound.

I emphasise this because of the great importance we attach to the safety of the design and because it lies at the root of the matters addressed in the article referred to by the hon. Gentleman. The article describes problems experienced by the contractor in driving the piles needed to support the shiplift and the finger jetty, with the result that his programme is running later than he had hoped. These piles are steel tubes, typically 2 to 3 ft. in diameter, 160 ft. long and they must be driven into the bedrock with their tops located within a very small tolerance of between 3 and 6 in. I am sure the House will understand that such tolerances are not easy to achieve, but, because of the stringent safety standards we require for all our nuclear facilities, these standards must be maintained and any correction must be carefully controlled and monitored. About a third of the piles are now in place and work is progressing steadily. Where the contractor finds that a pile is out of tolerance, this is withdrawn and replaced. Less than 10 per cent. of the piles have been affected and, although the withdrawal and replacement naturally slow up the contractor's rate of piling, it does nothing to imply there is a basic engineering flaw.

The New Civil Engineer article goes on to speculate on the reasons for these difficulties and itself admits that the causes are many and various, ranging from the presence of boulders located in the clay on top of the bedrock to variable sea bed conditions. However, the House should understand that all these possibilities are not really relevant to the final outcome. The designers of the structure fully expected that rock conditions would be variable, and so the design takes account of that. Once the piles are correctly placed, the structure that they support will be safe, irrespective of the underlying ground conditions.

The article points not to a serious engineering flaw but to a slippage of the contractor's planned programme. The House will recognise that in any major construction project there are innumerable sources of slippage and the contractor and the PSA continually adjust their efforts and resources to minimise the effects of slippages on final completion of the project. I can assure the House that there is provision in the programme for the construction of the shiplift to take account of these slippages. We believe that the piling will be completed satisfactorily and that the complete facility will be provided within the time scale required for the Trident and other submarine programmes at Faslane.

Clearly, the requirement to meet stringent nuclear safety criteria has caused some cost increase in the shiplift contract. This is currently being assessed, although overall costs for this package, which includes other support buildings, as well as the syncrolift and finger jetty which I have already mentioned, remain within budget.

I am aware, too, of local concerns about nuclear safety in general, both in the current operation of the base and in the future. The hon. Gentleman has raised the incident involving HMS Resolution on 16 January. The press allegations about near-disaster were quite erroneous and alarmist. For the benefit of the House, let me repeat there was an electrical malfunction which was dealt with by standard operating procedures; at no time was there any danger to the submarine's reactor, its crew or the public. I assure the House that, as a result of the close attention paid to safety in the design and operation of nuclear submarines, together with the high standards of training of Royal Naval personnel, the possibility of any nuclear reactor accident is extremely remote. Indeed, we have never had an accident to a Royal Naval submarine resulting in the release of radioactive material to the environment.

The construction programme elsewhere at Faslane is well under way. Advance works at Coulport are complete and work on the construction of the main facilities and jetty foreshore has commenced. The Property Services Agency has invited tenders for the floating explosives handling jetty. The network of new roads, including the Garelochhead bypass, the northern access road and the Glen Fruin road, have been completed bringing much needed relief to local communities and offering a substantial improvement to the general infrastructure in the area. I understand the hon. Gentleman's comments about the effect of all this development on tourism, both in the past and in the future, but I am sure that he agrees that the efforts of the Ministry of Defence, through the PSA, in improving the road infrastructure have brought great relief to Helensburgh and to through traffic in the area generally.

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Garelochhead bypass has been handed over as a public highway and the private northern access road which is open to the public will be a permanent benefit to the area. The opening of these roads was warmly welcomed by the communities. We have also made improvements to the public water supply to communities on the Rosneath peninsula.

Clearly the development of the Clyde submarine base represents a major investment in the region, and many opportunities have been provided for Scottish-based manufacturing and service companies which won some 80 per cent. of the advanced works business up to the end of 1987 valued at £135 million. Indeed, the two most recent contracts totalling £22 million went to the Scottish firms of A. Monk of Sterling and Norwest Holst of Lanarkshire.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment was able to tell the hon. Member in January that about 1,650 employees of contractors and consultants engaged full time on the development had addresses in Strathclyde region. The comparable figure for Dumbarton district is about 800. Further major contracts let recently are expected to create about 700 job opportunities at peak. As I have indicated to the House, more contracts will be let later this year, including one for the floating jetty at Coulport.

The hon. Member will know, too, that we have paid particular attention to the impact on the environment and to the views of local communities, which we have welcomed at various community briefing meetings. I can assure the House that we are proceeding in an orderly and responsible fashion, taking account wherever possible of the legitimate concerns of local people, local and regional authorities and consultative bodies, including the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and the Countryside Commission for Scotland.

The steps that we have taken to minimise the impact of the development range from major landscaping, conservation work and tree planting to noise insulation and strict contractor compliance with various conditions, such as construction traffic routes and working noise. I have no doubt that the local communities accept the need for what we are doing and recognise the lasting benefits that it will bring and the substantial efforts that we are making to alleviate the temporary burden which such a vast construction project places upon them.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has reported already to the House, the programme for replacing Polaris with Trident is proceeding satisfactorily and on schedule. The House should be in no doubt that it remains the Government's clear conviction that the Trident programme continues to represent outstanding value for money and that no enhancement of conventional capacity could possibly be of equal deterrent value.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Two o'clock.