HC Deb 13 February 1989 vol 147 cc6-7
4. Mr. Bowis

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with London riparian borough councils and the Port of London Authority concerning barge traffic on the Thames.

Mr. Portillo

The recent incident at Battersea is being investigated by a Department of Transport marine surveyor who has had discussions with the Port of London Authority. The authority is now restricting the number of barges that may be towed up river under Battersea bridge to one per tug, and I have asked the PLA to inform me of any other new measures that it proposes to take.

Mr. Bowis

Will my hon. Friend confirm that two such measures might well relate to the competence of pilotage on the Thames and the use of the tides? I understand that in this instance the pilot came up too late on the tide and the barge was too close to the bridge structure. Will my hon. Friend further confirm whether the Department has contingency plans against the day when another such incident occurs and the bridge perhaps being completely destroyed?

Mr. Portillo

The marine surveyor will have to consider whether there was a culpable failure and make recommendations arising from that. The PLA has already said that tow barges should come up river as early as possible on the flood tide. In the unlikely event of the bridge collapsing, the PLA would need to take emergency action and it is well aware of that.

Mr. Spearing

Does the Minister agree that to come up early on the tide is navigationally impractical and that the best advantage is in coming up near the top of it? Does he further agree that, pending protective measures to bridges such as Battersea, which is relatively narrow, such accidents on the Thames are rare and when they occur they cause headlines, which illustrates the safety of water transport by barge on the Thames in general?

Mr. Portillo

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Battersea bridge had been damaged on six occasions this century before the 1988 accident, so it is a fairly rare occurrence. I am not competent to comment on the hon. Gentleman's first point beyond saying that it is the PLA which recommended that tugs should come upstream as early as possible on the flood tide.

Mr. Squire

In addition to echoing the points made by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), may I ask my hon. Friend if he will further confirm that it is in everyone's interest that we continue to send domestic refuse down river by barge, rather than attempting to bring it back on to the roads and increase the already impossible congestion?

Mr. Portillo

That is a good point. The barges keep a large number of lorries off the roads, which is welcome to residents of the area.