HC Deb 14 January 1991 vol 183 cc635-66

Order for Second Reading read.

4.41 pm
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is intended to authorise the provision of a second tolled road bridge over the Severn estuary between England and Wales, and of the road links needed to connect it to the existing motorway network. It also provides the necessary framework to enable the new bridge to be privately financed through a concession agreement between the Secretary of State and a private concessionaire.

The scheme embodied in the Bill is important, first, because of the long-awaited improvement in communications that the new bridge will provide between England and Wales, and, secondly, because it represents a further significant development of the Government's policy of encouraging the fullest participation by the private sector in providing the country's transport infrastructure. Before I describe in detail the background and content of the Bill, I should like to set the scene in terms of that wider initiative.

The Channel tunnel was the original inspiration and that was followed quickly by the success of a privately funded proposal for the Dartford-Thurrock bridge. I have recently been to see work on that bridge and I commend not only the contractors responsible but the local authorities that were previously involved in providing services for the speed of implementation of the construction work. The bridge is progressing well and will be open to traffic this autumn—the first major highway project in Britain in modern times to have been financed and built by the private sector. The next such scheme is, of course, the second Severn crossing, the Bill for which we are dealing with.

Looking to the future, we are assessing the tenders received for the Birmingham northern relief road, and are considering proposals for new road capacity to meet the longer-term needs of the Birmingham to Manchester corridor. We have also been consulting on six further schemes as possible candidates for private finance to which the industry has responded very encouragingly. In Scotland, bids are being considered for the Skye bridge and there is much interest being shown in the proposal for a privately financed link between the A74 and M8. That is, by the very nature of road construction, a long-term policy.

I am, therefore delighted to report that so much has been achieved in such a short time and that the private sector is responding so positively to the challenge. What is crucially new about this policy lies in the creation of a commercial link between the demands of road users and the provision that will meet that demand. Private firms will be able, subject to appropriate safeguards, to build new roads where they have identified that road users need the new capacity or will gain from shorter journey times. In other words, we are extending the advantages and disciplines of the market further into transport provision. That is in the long-term interests of road users themselves and of the economy at large.

The House will, of course, know that the New Roads and Street Works Bill, which has been introduced in another place, includes proposals for new procedures for the authorisation of tolled roads without the need for the present hybrid Bill procedures. Those proposals are aimed specifically to facilitate the involvement of private promoters in future road schemes. They would enable privately funded toll roads to be authorised in the same way as conventional trunk roads are now, under the procedures laid down in the Highways Act 1980—after public inquiry and subsequent orders made by the relevant Ministers. I should, therefore, explain to the House why we are asking Parliament separately for the powers set out in the Severn Bridges Bill rather than relying on the new powers that the New Roads and Street Works Bill would offer.

There are, essentially, two reasons. First, the scheme for the second Severn bridge involves—as I shall explain later—the repeal and replacement of the legislation that authorises the tolling of the existing Severn bridge in order to provide a common tolling and operating regime for both bridges. To do this, a separate Bill would have been necessary in any case, but to try to seek powers for the scheme partly through a Bill, and partly through the new order-making procedures, would have made no sense. It would have been merely a recipe for delay and inconsistency.

It follows that the second key reason for seeking all the necessary powers in the Bill is to enable the provision of the new bridge to go ahead as quickly as possible. The only practical alternative, of a limited hybrid Bill followed by the initiation of the order-making process, would almost certainly mean at least a year's delay. As it is, we hope —subject, obviously, to the outcome of the consideration of the Bill by this House and elsewhere—that construction of the new bridge can start next winter, with completion around the end of 1995.

The existing Severn bridge was opened in 1966, 25 years ago, and throughout that period has provided the main road link between south Wales and England, as part of the M4. As such, it has assumed a crucial importance for the economy of the area, especially perhaps in the Principality. As a result, the bridge, which now carries an average of more than 50,000 vehicles a day, has increasingly in recent years become a victim of its own success. Congestion is now becoming a regular event at peak times of the day and at holiday weekends. That is essentially due to sheer lack of capacity at the bridge—which has only two traffic lanes in each direction—rather than to the transient delays incurred by the collection of tolls. The problems have also been complicated by the need to strengthen the bridge to enable it to carry the amount of modern traffic which now uses it, but which was unforeseen at the time it was designed. In addition, high winds can require restrictions on the use of the bridge by high-sided vehicles and the lack of a full hard shoulder exacerbates the difficulties caused by breakdowns and accidents.

Given those developments, the Government decided in 1986 to begin preparations for a second road crossing of the estuary. Following earlier extensive feasibility studies, it was concluded that the optimum choice for such a crossing would be a bridge across the English Stones, some three miles downstream of the present bridge. After further preparatory work, preliminary bids to provide the new bridge were invited in December 1988. In the light of the successful outcome of the competition to provide the third Dartford-Thurrock crossing, bidders were asked to submit proposals both for a privately funded scheme and for a conventional, publicly financed one: in other words, a scheme involving design, financing, construction and maintenance by the private sector or the more conventional route whereby there is competition between contractors for the design and construction of the bridge.

Eight would-be promoters responded and a shortlist of four was invited in April 1989 to submit detailed tenders, again on both private and public finance bases. After an intensive evaluation of the ensuing proposals, the Government decided that the privately funded bid from a consortium formed by John Laing and GTM-Entrepose offered the best overall value for money of all the proposals submitted. It also offered the way ahead to the earliest practicable date for the completion of the new bridge, which, as I have already said, could be around the end of 1995. The provisional award of the concession to the consortium—Severn River Crossing plc—was announced last April. That was followed up on 29 October 1990 by the formal signature of a concession agreement with the company. The financing of the consortium includes up to £150 million from the European investment bank. Copies of the agreement were placed in the House Library before Christmas. Whether or not that concession agreement comes into effect depends on approval of the Bill, which is now before the House and will shortly be before another place.

In parallel with the competition to provide the new bridge, work continued on the development of the design of the motorway links that are intended to connect it to the existing network. Those roads would be provided under separate, publicly funded contracts to be arranged in the usual way by the Department of Transport for the link roads in Avon to the M4 and M5 and by the Welsh Office for the link road in Gwent to the M4. The two roads in Avon would be to dual two-lane motorway standard—thus providing four lanes each way in total—and the road in Gwent would be to dual three-lane motorway standard, matching the provision on the new bridge.

At each stage of the development of those proposals there has been extensive local consultation on all aspects of the proposed new roads—

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to clause 31. While congratulating my hon. Friend, his Department and its officials on the detailed and largely successful negotiations they have had with the Gloucester Harbour Trustees, the British Waterways Association and others, may I ask my hon. Friend to confirm that when making the regulations he will bear it in mind that ships of up to 10,000 tonnes dead weight currently use the port of Sharpness in my constituency? If the regulations referred to a figure lower than 10,000 tonnes, that could have an adverse effect on the port.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is certainly not the intention of the Department of Transport or the Welsh Office to frustrate shipping already using the estuary. I am aware that ships of up to 10,000 tonnes dead weight already use the estuary and port in his constituency. We have no intention of preventing that. I assure him that the Department—

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West)


Mr. Freeman

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? I did not quite hear what he said.

Mr. Morgan

I just wanted to tell the Minister that if he had forgotten the name of the port in the constituency of his hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Knapman), which he appeared to have done, it was Sharpness.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I had not forgotten the name. The point I was making applies not only to the port in my hon. Friend's constituency but to all ports on the estuary up river from the proposed bridge. I am assuring not only my hon. Friend, but the whole House, that the Bill does not attempt to frustrate any shipping currently using the River Severn. We shall continue to consult not only with the Gloucester Harbour Trustees and the British Waterways Association, but with all other organisations that have a legitimate interest not only in shipping but in wildlife and other amenities on the River Severn. All is not lost. I understand what my hon. Friend said and I hope that he is satisfied with that response.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The Minister referred to the fact that the access roads will be publicly funded. Those roads are an integral part of the scheme. Will he explain the logic in saying that the access roads, which are provided purely to get to and from the bridge, will be provided at public expense, but the profit from the toll on the bridge will go to a private firm? Will he explain why he differentiated between them in that way?

Mr. Freeman

I shall try. The road construction programme, which amounts to about £200 million, will provide the access roads, use of which will not be tolled, but the bridge—

Mr. Alan Williams

The roads will not be going anywhere.

Mr. Freeman

The right hon. Gentleman says that the roads are not going anywhere, but that could also apply to traffic using the M4, M5 or the roads in Wales. All the access roads are untolled and there is no provision to toll them. There were two stages in the Department's consideration of how the bridge should be built, financed and operated. The first stage was to carry out a competitive bidding procedure. The John Laing consortium was chosen as it offered the best possible deal for the motorist, because the lowest total volume—calculated by the number of tolls and the number of vehicles using the bridge—would be charged. The consortium required the lowest revenue payback. We then compared the winning tenderer, Laing, with the other option—the Department building the bridge and its being tolled as the first bridge is at present. We calculated that it was in the taxpayers' best interests for the private sector consortium bid to proceed. Although the consortium has to earn profits, which are taxed and the revenues then flow to the Government, the extra cost incurred and the slightly longer period in which the motorist would have to pay tolls in order that the expenses of the successful tenderer could be recovered are outweighed by the advantage to the taxpayer of placing the risk of cost overrun—not only the cost of the bridge, but operating and maintaining it throughout its life—firmly on the private sector consortium without the risk to the taxpayer. Therefore, we decided that that option provided the best value for money for the taxpayer and the motorist.

Mr. Alan Williams

The Minister has explained why the contract was allocated on that basis, but he has still not answered my question. We are talking about multi-lane carriageways leading nowhere other than the bridge—they would be cul-de-sacs if they did not go to the bridge. All I am asking is, if the Government say that the bridge should be privately funded, what is the logic of saying that the taxpayer should meet the cost of the feeder roads? It should be all or nothing—an option in between does not make sense.

Mr. Freeman

I see the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument. We are not departing from the present position, where the estuarial crossing on the present bridge is tolled, not the feeder roads. The right hon. Gentleman raises the prospect of changing the basis of financing so that tolls are imposed on feeder roads. There is no reason in principle why that option should not apply, but the Government have decided that in this instance it is better for them to fund the road construction part of the project and permit the construction, operational and maintenance costs of the bridge to be recovered from tolls, as at present.

At each stage of the development of these proposals there has been extensive local consultation on all aspects of the proposed new roads, including their effect on the environment. In particular, three series of local exhibitions have been held over the past three years, at several venues on both sides of the estuary, to show the developing scheme and to provide all concerned with a full opportunity to comment at each stage.

As part of this process, a substantial number of alternative routes for the approach roads have been examined and carefully evaluated. The Department's preferred routes have been significantly amended and refined over the period to take account of this work and of the comments that have been received. While recognising that we are never going to be able to satisfy everybody that we have made the best choice of route, I am confident that the final choice—as embodied in the Bill's proposals—represents the best practicable balance between all the conflicting interests at stake.

In the same vein, I should also stress that we fully recognise the environmental sensitivity of this location. The part of the estuary to be crossed by the new bridge is of considerable ecological interest, particularly as a habitat for wildfowl, and it has been designated as part of a site of special scientific interest. There are also proposals to designate the estuary as both a special protection area for birds, under EC legislation, and as a wetland of international importance for birds under the Ramsar convention. The Department has, therefore, taken great pains to ensure that the effects of the new bridge on the ecology of the estuary will be minimised.

We hope that the bridge will make a very positive contribution to the landscape of the area. It will be a most impressive structure both in engineering and aesthetic terms; on the latter count, the Royal Fine Art Commission has been consulted at a number of stages in the development of the design, and has indicated that it finds the outcome acceptable.

The concession agreement with Severn River Crossing incorporates exacting requirements set by the Department to meet the environmental concerns and sets out the details of comprehensive proposals to meet those requirements in full.

Environmental factors of a different kind are equally important on land. Careful account has been taken in the development of the proposals of another site of special scientific interest on the Welsh bank of the estuary, where the flora and fauna are of particular interest. In terms of the effect on people, the aim, in developing the proposals for the connecting motorways, has been to minimise as far as practicable the impact on the local environment and on local communities. That applies both for the period of construction, for which we are proposing wherever possible to keep the inevitable heavy construction traffic away from local centres of population, and for the completed roads themselves, where the aim has been to minimise their visual impact and the severance to local communities. That will be achieved by careful choice of the line and level of the new roads, by the provision of alternatives for local roads and footpaths affected by the scheme, and by extensive landscaping.

A detailed and comprehensive environmental statement has been prepared in parallel with the Bill to explain all the environmental considerations affecting the scheme and the full extent of the work that has been done to ensure that there is the minimum adverse impact. Copies are in the House Library. Although the EC directive on environmental assessment does not apply to schemes authorised by Parliament, the environmental statement meets the requirements of the directive.

The House will, I hope, find it helpful if I now turn to the Bill and give an explanation of its structure and contents.

The Bill falls into three main parts. Of these, part I would provide the necessary powers for the construction of the new bridge and the connecting roads, and other associated works. Part II deals with the arrangements for the operation and management both of the new bridge, following its completion, and the existing bridge. It includes provision for a new tolling regime for the two bridges. Part III covers a range of miscellaneous items not dealt with by the first two parts.

Part I comprises clauses 1 to 3, which each correspond with a schedule of the same number setting out the associated detailed provisions for each element of the scheme. In essence, these provisions would enable the construction of each element of the works, within specified limits; they would empower the acquisition of the necessary land; and they would permit the alterations to the existing highway network required as a consequence of the main works.

Part II, which deals with the operation of both bridges, contains the key provisions enabling the Secretary of State to enter into a concession agreement with a private promoter for the design, building, financing and operation of the new bridge, and for taking over the financing and operation of the existing one. As I have said, a concession agreement has already been entered into, with the Severn River Crossing company. That agreement is, of course, conditional upon the successful passage of the Bill, and would not have full effect until and unless the Bill receives Royal Assent.

Much of part II—clauses 5 to 14—is taken up with the provisions needed to implement a new tolling regime for the bridges. That would take effect, initially only at the existing Severn bridge, on a day to be appointed by the Secretary of State after Royal Assent. The intention is that it would be the starting date for the concession period, on which the concessionaire would simultaneously take over responsibility for the finances and operation of the existing bridge and be able to begin construction of the new bridge.

In part because of the possibility—we hope very remote —that the concession agreement will not be able to take effect on that date, the Bill is structured to provide that the basic power to levy tolls is granted to the Secretary of State, rather than directly to the concessionaire. That power may then in turn be conferred on and exercised by the concessionaire, under appropriate conditions.

The tolls to be levied under the Bill would be set on the same principles, whether it is the Secretary of State or the concessionaire who is levying them. The tolls, which in the normal run of events would be charged only on traffic heading in the westbound direction—that would reduce both operating costs and the disruption to traffic—would be fixed on the basis of the figures in the table in clause 9, indexed in line with the retail prices index.

Mr. Morgan

The Minister will be aware that this country entered the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system a few months ago, since when certain Ministers have been trying to persuade employers and employees to forget all about the retail prices index when they negotiate wages. Would not it be helpful if the Government also forgot all about the RPI and found some more composite, more ERM and EMS-related index? It will be difficult for employees on the construction project if they are exhorted to forget about the RPI when negotiating wage increases when they can see that it has been included in the basis for the annual increase in tolls. Can anything be done to resolve that problem?

Mr. Freeman

The provision in the Bill protects the public because it sets a cap on the yearly increase in tolls, and the RPI is a fairly general and satisfactory measure of the pressures faced by the general motoring public. Furthermore, its inclusion does not weight the rise in the operating costs of the bridge. Any wage increases conceded by the concessionaire would constitute only a very small proportion of the total RPI for the country, so a satisfactory balance has been struck. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will be called in the debate, but I am sure that he will have a subsequent opportunity to suggest an alternative measure of protection. We believe it to be in the interests of the constituents of all hon. Members that there should be a price cap on the rate of increase of tolls—because the crossing is essentially a monopoly.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Why does not the Minister implement on the present Severn crossing the useful and sensible saving that could be derived from collecting tolls only one way? Many hon. Members suggested that at many inquiries and I suggested it again a few months ago in a parliamentary question.

Mr. Freeman

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is intended for both bridges. Changing the present tolling regime would require the approval of the House, so there is nothing that we can do until Parliament has approved the change. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that, when approval is given in six, 12 or 18 months' time—once Royal Assent has been given to this measure—there should be only westward tolling on the present bridge, he has a strong point, which I shall draw to the attention of the concessionaire.

Mr. Alex Cattle (Montgomery)

Are we to take it from what the Minister has just said in general reference to clause 9 that the toll will not rise from £1 to £2.35 as set out in the table for 1992 until there is one-way tolling only? Can he assure the House that the toll will not be raised to £2.35 or anything like it while two-way tolling continues?

Mr. Freeman


We do not seek to hide the fact that these tolls would represent a significant increase over existing levels. The initial car toll for 1992 would mean a cash increase, depending on the RPI, of the order of 40 to 45 per cent. over present levels for a round trip over the bridge. In real terms, the increase would be about one third over current levels. Larger vehicles would face more substantial increases. But the real point is that the new bridge must be paid for. These tolls represent a very reasonable price to pay for the provision of about £300 million worth of new bridge, which will more than double the capacity of this vital road link, and provide the benefits of shorter journey times and the minimisation of disruption from bad weather.

The Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965, which the Bill would repeal, provides for tolling for a period of up to 40 years from opening of the present bridge, in other words, until the year 2006. Under the Bill, which provides for tolling to cover not only the cost of the new bridge but the outstanding deficit of some £120 million on the existing bridge, the concessionaire is permitted a maximum of 30 years' tolling.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Will the Minister enlighten us on the method of increasing toll charges? We know about the procedure that is followed under the 1965 Act, but now it seems that a great deal of power will be vested in the concessionaire. What is the Minister's role in this matter and will hon. Members be able to vote on it? I understand that local authorities will no longer be able to have a public inquiry about objections to the proposals, and certainly not about proposals with regard to the retail prices index. Can the Minister enlighten us?

Mr. Freeman

I shall try. There is an application for judicial review of the recent increase on the present bridge to a charge of £2 round trip per car. The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to comment on that. However, if, after the second bridge is opened, the concessionaire increases the tolls by no more than the retail prices index—and the matter will be monitored by my Department—there is no mechanism for objecting to or controlling such an increase. In due course, the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to study some of the more detailed clauses that provide in certain circumstances for the tolls to be increased by more than the RPI. There may be certain reasons for that, and my recollection is that an affirmative order would need to be placed before the House, voted on and approved by both Houses. If the concessionaire simply sticks to RPI increases, the procedure would be automatic, in the same way as hon. Members' salaries are indexed to movements in civil service salary levels and do not come before the House each year.

Mr. Alan Williams

That was a helpful and clear answer. Will the Minister explain how he arrived at such a proposition and tell us the relevance of the retail prices index to the cost of the bridge? The RPI measures the change in the cost of living of the average family. As has been said, the Government have been lecturing people and saying that the RPI is wrong and that we should look at core inflation, which is substantially lower than RPI rises. However, even core inflation is not relevant to an operation that will consist almost entirely of capital costs, which are interest related. Why on earth has this rabbit of RPI been produced as relevant to the method of increasing the toll?

Mr. Freeman

I look forward to debating that at some length. I shall try to give as rational an explanation as possible, because I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern. Perhaps he thinks that we should substitute for the RPI the actual increases in the concessionaire's costs, but that would trap him into losing the benefit of the protection to the travelling public that is enshrined in the Bill. What happens if the concessionaire's costs for maintenance, operation and even interest rates rise at a rate faster than the RPI? Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that the travelling public should be subjected to increases that may be much greater than the RPI? If he looks at the construction industry index and combines it with movements in interest rates, he will find that that is what has happened in the past.

Mr. Alan Williams

I should welcome that as an alternative, because running costs measured by labour costs and so on, to which the Minister referred, will be minuscule compared with the capital costs. If increases are based on operating costs, rather than the RPI, the people who use the bridge will be infinitely better off. Contrary to what the Minister said earlier, £52.2 million of the £52.5 million from toll payers relates to original design faults at the time of bridge construction. In addition to questions about the RPI, who will meet the costs of any design faults? On the present bridge they cost £50 million.

Mr. Freeman

The right hon. Gentleman talks about design faults. I hope that he does not mean faults in terms of safety but faults in terms of cost overrun. The costs of those are met entirely by the concessionaire and not by the taxpayer, as would be the case if the bridge were to be financed in the conventional way. We are getting into the detail of one of the Bill's provisions. The Government believe that the best protection for the travelling public is the use of the RPI index because it can be related most fairly to the likely trend of annual revenue costs falling on the operator who also maintains the bridge. It has nothing to do with the construction costs, because, once the bridge is open, the cost of the bridge is fixed. Any cost overruns are the responsibility of the concessionaire.

The concessionaire's tolling period is perhaps 20 to 25 years and during that time he will naturally be subject to the pressures of inflation. The RPI is the best way to limit increases in toll charges. The 30-year maximum period of tolling would be reduced if the concessionaire were to collect a certain amount of revenue from tolls before then. On current traffic forecasts, tolling by the concessionaire would not be necessary for more than about 21 or 22 years. If the concession were to start in 1992, it could therefore end by 2014—eight years after the end of the tolling period already permitted under the existing legislation. The Bill allows tolling by the Secretary of State for a further limited period within a maximum of 35 years from the commencement of tolling under these provisions—to meet any outstanding liabilities and, if desired, to set up a fund for the further maintenance of the bridges.

Part II of the Bill also provides the necessary framework for the arrangements under which the concessionaire is to be responsible for carrying out the Secretary of State's functions connected with the maintenance and operation of the bridges. In particular, it provides for the transfer of staff currently employed at the bridge by Avon county council, as the agents of the Department, to the concessionaire. Care has been taken to ensure that the Bill protects the terms and conditions of employment of the transferred staff.

The Bill also provides the necessary arrangements for the eventual termination of the concession agreement, including the transfer of the concessionaire's employees to the Secretary of State. This will help to ensure continuity of safe operation of the bridges, whatever the circumstances of the termination. Part II also provides a regime for regulating traffic on the bridges to prevent obstruction or damage. These provisions, which are somewhat more extensive than those that apply to normal stretches of motorway, are needed because of the special circumstances of the bridges and the constraints on their operation—for instance, the absence of a hard shoulder on the existing bridge. The provisions are closely modelled on those in the 1965 Act, which they would supersede.

Lastly, this part of the Bill provides for copies of the accounts both of the concessionaire and of the Secretary of State to be laid before Parliament. This follows the arrangements provided by the 1965 Act, and, more recently, the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988.

Part III of the Bill contains an assortment of miscellaneous provisions, notably to regulate operations which would interfere with the navigation of the River Severn and to protect the bridge from damage from shipping. It also deals with matters such as rating and planning permission, as well as the usual interpretation and suchlike provisions. I should also mention here the financial provisions, which are covered by clause 37. If the House agrees to give the Bill a Second Reading, we shall afterwards be asking for the House's approval of the associated money and ways and means resolutions.

The examiners have determined that the Bill is hybrid and so, subject again to the outcome of this debate, it would next be referred to a Select Committee, to consider any petitions which may be made against the Bill. The committal motion before the House would allow three further weeks from today, during which petitions might be deposited. Given that the Bill was published on 28 November and that the proposals have been the subject of extensive public consultation for a much longer period, this is a reasonable period to allow. The committal motion also permits the Select Committee to visit the site and to hold hearings. If it does, the Government will do all that they can to facilitate this process.

I must not presume too much on the outcome of the debate on the Bill. The proposals that it contains represent a further major step forward for our initiative to bring private finance and enterprise into the provision of transport infrastructure. They will enable the earliest practicable provision of the long-awaited second Severn crossing. The removal of this bottleneck in the motorway network will provide a direct boost to communications, and, in turn, to the economy of the area, particularly in south Wales, where the need for this link has long been recognised. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.

5.20 pm
Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East)

The Labour party welcomes the proposal for the construction of a new bridge across the river Severn. The first bridge, built almost a quarter of a century ago, even in normal circumstances has insufficient capacity to meet the traffic generated by the economies of the west of England and south Wales. However, we are less than happy with the fact that the new bridge is to be built with private finance which, as a matter of principle, seems to follow the trend towards two-tier road services—one less congested for the motorist willing and able to pay, and another with a poorer infrastructure for those less able to meet the cost or unable to charge their motoring to business use.

The Minister was fairly long on detail but short on figures for the project. We should have liked to hear about the likely costings for the project and the likely revenue from it. As we understand it, the estimates are based on the net present value of the scheme to the promoter, through a complicated and inexact formula involving toll rates, traffic forecasts and the life of the concession. In the view of the Treasury, the lower the net present value to the promoter, the better the value for the rest of us, but that approach could make the likely toll projections unrealistic, particularly during the early years of operation when the burden of private debt will be the greatest.

In any event, the Opposition are unhappy about the principle of toll roads. We consider that the Government's approach to this project is both confused and irrational. Along with such bodies as the Freight Transport Association and the AA, the Labour party considers that the need to pay tolls on a few road links is both anomalous and unfair. The Government's decision to charge at this and other crossings has been applied inconsistently, to say the least. Both the proposed and existing Severn bridges provide a great benefit, but that benefit is to the economy as a whole if the road building justifications of the Department of Transport have any basis in fact. The burden of providing such benefits ought to rest with the nation as a whole rather than with the users, as in this case.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) pointed out earlier that the taxpayers provide the access roads to the project, but the revenues arising from the construction of the bridge will go to the builder rather than to the nation. We merely channel the traffic in that direction. The revenue is collected elsewhere. In any event, other similar crossings are toll free. For example, the Britannia bridge, the M5 Avonmouth bridge and the new A55 Conwy crossing in north Wales are, or will be, toll free. Why single out this project? What guarantees can the Minister offer that the projected tolls are realistic, given that the site chosen for the new crossing is much wider than the original bridge and that the construction will take place in fast-flowing water? What guarantees can the Minister offer that the engineering difficulties inherent in such a project will not increase the risk of cost overrun?

In an article on the subject on 26 February last year, the Financial Times said: The temptation to choose the lowest cost option could store up other problems if the project ran over budget and required re-financing, as has happened with the privately financed Channel Tunnel. It also said that, in the opinion of one of the consortia bidding for the contract, the bridge will need about 40 piers sunk into the river bed, compared with just two piers for the existing bridge. Will the Minister say something about the likely construction costs?

As I have said, the Labour party feels that the history of tolls on projects such as this has been fairly unhappy. I choose just two examples at this stage, although we shall return to the point later in our deliberations on the Bill. I draw the Minister's attention to the case of the Mersey tunnels where severe financial difficulties have been created for the transport authority concerned, despite increased revenue due to higher traffic flows and toll increases. In the Mersey travel policy plan for 1991, paragraphs 4.1.12 and 4.1.13 on page 17, the transport authority says: As at 31 March 1990 capital debt was some £116 million costing some £15 million to service. Of this a net deficit of £8 million was borne in 1989–90 by the poll tax payers, money that could have been allocated to areas such as education and housing or indeed poll tax reductions if the Government was prepared to write-off debt incurred from the construction of the Tunnels many years ago. There is a similar story on the Humber bridge. A recent district auditor's report confirmed that the total toll levy may never be able to meet the full cost of operation and maintenance, interest charges and capital repayments. The report concluded that the situation was a matter of grave concern. These two projects, toll operated as they are, illustrate the unhappy history of projects financed in this way. We hope that, during the later stages of the Bill, we shall be able to persuade the Government that other methods of finance are preferable.

To assist in our deliberations on the Bill, particularly as regards the principle of tolled crossings, we have the second report of the Select Committee on Transport 1985–86, House of Commons 250, parts 1–3. At the time of the inquiry, just 25 miles out of a total of 9,390 miles of motorway and private roads were subject to private tolls. The Committee considered not only that many of the crossing authorities were finding it difficult to manage the debt but that tolls were having an adverse effect on the local economy. The House will be aware that, at that time, the Select Committee advocated the abolition of toll charges on estuarial crossings. Among its reasons for doing that, the Select Committee pointed out that tolls can inhibit the development of commercial activity around such crossings. Another significant argument against the principle involved was the high cost of collection, which varied between 4.5 per cent. of income at Dartford and 25 per cent. of income at the Tay bridge. What estimates does the Minister have of collection costs on this project?

The Select Committee concluded its report by saying: We firmly believe that tolls should not be imposed on any major estuarial crossing which forms part of the motorway or trunk system. We recommend that the Government recognise the inappropriateness of tolling trunk road and motorway crossings and that the Department of Transport, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office work towards the removal of existing tolls. We consider that the Select Committee was right then and that those sentiments are right now.

Will the Minister confirm that the design of the new bridge is French? Have the Government considered the implications for British contractors if that is so? It will not help this country to compete in the international bridge-building market if a foreign design has been chosen. Is this yet another example of the Government's determination to put supposed profit before patriotism?

Can the Minister confirm that, although the existing bridge over the Severn has a cycle and pedestrian way, the new bridge has no such facility, despite repeated requests from Avon county council? Has the Minister considered the provision of such a facility, or have the proposals been dropped so as to keep construction costs to a minimum and to accentuate the attractiveness of the project to the private sector?

The Treasury receives about £15 billion per year from Britain's road users. But with such a massive and ever-increasing sum, the Government should surely be able to fund essential projects such as this without hawking them around the private sector and without the built-in delay, expense and inconvenience that toll projects invariably generate. We believe that, the Department of Transport having proved the need, the need ought to will the means.

5.30 pm
Mr. John Cope (Northavon)

The Bill is important for people in many parts of the country, and especially for those in my constituency. The existing Severn bridge starts, or finishes, depending on which way one drives across it, in my constituency. The proposed bridge will also start in my constituency. It will be very near to the twin villages of Pilning and Severn Beach. The new approach roads will affect my constituents considerably. They will be affected permanently when those roads are completed and, while they are being constructed, they will be affected considerably by construction traffic and other works nearby. The site that has been chosen makes it inevitable that the approach roads will go near and partially through the two villages that I have mentioned.

The basic question in this debate is whether the bridge is needed. If it is needed, is it to be built at the right place? As my hon. Friend the Minister made clear in his opening remarks, that has been the subject of exhaustive study and report over many years. I became convinced some time ago that a new crossing is necessary and that a bridge at English Stones is essentially the right solution. I was confirmed in that by chance a few months ago when I flew over that part of the Severn estuary when the tide was out. The reason for building the bridge in that position then became entirely clear. The engineer's decision stood out as the rock stood out on the river bed. The base of the bridge is already there.

The decisions that have been made on the bridge and on its siting lead to decisions on approach roads. It must be right to connect the new bridge both to the M4 and the M5. Wherever the bridge is sited, however, it will affect many people. There have been long discussions between individuals, groups and the various councils on my side of the Severn and, I believe, on the other side over the past few years.

Several things are clear. First, there is no route that does not affect a lot of people. Secondly, there are different layers of problem. Whichever route is chosen, some property will have to be taken in its entirety and used during the construction of the bridge to be seriously devalued by having a new motorway nearby. Often the motorway will be at quite a high level—for example, where it links with the bridge. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the compensation for the many who will be involved in payments is in the course of being improved by the Planning and Compensation Bill, which is being considered in another place. For example, that measure will double the amount of home loss payments for property that is taken. Compensation payments will be improved in other ways.

Whatever the level of compensation, there will be some who will be badly affected and whose needs will have to be taken into account. I think that the Department of Transport has done its best to assess all factors and to choose the best route that it can. I am grateful to officials of the Department for the time that they have spent with me and with my constituents and others in discussing various routes and the effects that they will have on individuals, as well as the alternative proposals that have been put forward. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, they have held important exhibitions to ensure that everyone who will be affected has the opportunity clearly to see the proposed routes and to discuss with officials the effects that they will have. Some alterations have been made to the routes during the discussions. There have been some important alterations as well to the various noise-mitigating actions that will be taken during construction.

Now we have come to the crunch. The Department of Transport has settled on the route that it thinks is the best. The choice was whether to try to obtain authority for both the bridge and the roads by means of a Bill such as the one before us or to try to secure authority for the roads at least by following the conventional public inquiry route. I think that the right choice has been made. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, there must be a Bill for the bridge, and it is best to have both the roads and the bridge gain authority in the same way and at the same time. The siting of the one will affect intimately the other.

The result for those whose property will be affected —I put this in slightly crude terms—is that they will be able to give evidence to a committee of Members who will report to the House as a whole, rather than give evidence to an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State and who would report to him. I hope that those who give evidence will find that a committee of Members will be just as responsive as any inspector to their submissions. I hope that in some ways they will be even more understanding of their concerns.

My hon. Friend the Minister was right to say that it is necessary for those who wish to give evidence to ensure that they make application in the form of a petition during the next three weeks, if the motion to commit to a Select Committee is carried, as one hopes and expects it will be, at the end of the debate.

To choose such a Bill for introducing the proposals means that the method itself is on trial. It puts great responsibility on the members of the Select Committee. Those Members will have to make decisions that will affect directly the future of some individuals. Unlike councillors, we Members do not usually have the specific responsibility that will be placed on our colleagues who are nominated to be members of the Select Committee. Our colleagues who are chosen to serve in that way must consider carefully the costs and the benefits of the bridge—that will involve its entire construction—and the disbenefits to individuals. The benefits to motorists and commerce and industry can be estimated in various ways. The disbenefits to individuals can be measured by the loss of property values, for example. Indeed, that will have to be measured in assessing the compensation that is payable at various stages during the progress of the works.

There is some controversy about the methods of measuring the costs and the benefit of bridges and comparing the two. That is reflected in today's edition of The Times. I hope that our colleagues who are nominated to be members of the Select Committee will weigh these matters carefully. They have the opportunity to start with a clean sheet and to probe. They will be able to question the calculations that lie behind the design. I am sure that they should take the opportunity to hear the views of those who are affected and are on or near the site where the bridge is to be.

I hope that the Committee will come to the west and to Wales, so that its members can examine the proposals in the areas that will be affected and hear the evidence of those who will be affected by the roads. With a great project of this sort it is inevitable that some people's individual interests will be affected. That is the reason for the private Bill and hybrid Bill procedure that we follow. It is for those who are members of the Select Committee to ensure that things are done properly. That is important in the interests of those concerned and for the reputation of the House when we come to make decisions of this sort.

Apart from routing, important considerations are landscaping, noise abatement and the diverting of existing roads when there is a need for a different route to be adopted to allow them to continue to be used. Modern methods of noise abatement should be used wherever possible to ensure that the inconvenience caused by new motorways to people living in the area is minimised.

My final points relate to the nature of the Severn itself. Much of the land that is several miles from the river bank is below sea level—at least at high tide—and that makes drainage a matter of the first importance. The building of major roads in that area could seriously affect the drainage there, which is sometimes extremely tricky. The drains in the Severn valley carry a great deal of water and the effect of making changes to them are not always understood at the time. Alterations made at one location can cause flooding some miles away, creating great difficulties for the residents concerned. A proper study should be undertaken to ensure that proper drainage is provided.

The Severn is a powerful river, having strong currents. It has the second highest tidal range—between high and low tide—of any river in the world. A difference of plus or minus 10 m during each tide is not abnormal, and with some tides the difference is even greater. The Severn is also an important waterway, and those two facts together mean that the design of the bridge and of the piers—the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) pointed out that the bridge is to have many piers—will affect the currents and the way in which many tonnes of silt will be deposited along the river, above and below the bridge, which will also affect many people living in the locality.

The effects will be difficult to calculate in advance, even by modelling, but the maximum effort should be made to ensure that they are assessed and taken into account in the construction of the bridge. Such calculations have not always been made accurately in respect of past constructions on the Severn, giving rise to flooding and to other consequences that we want to avoid this time. The Committee will need to be alert to all those considerations if it is fully to appreciate the problems arising from the construction of the new bridge and their effect on the local people.

However, the House should acknowledge today that the new bridge is necessary and that the right choice of location has been made. Nevertheless, the new crossing will create many difficulties for those living in the parishes concerned and the Committee must examine whether the damage can be mitigated further. It is in the confidence that the, as yet unnamed, members of the Committee will do their best to ensure that is done that I support the Bill.

5.43 pm
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

Today marks an important landmark, for the Bill is the culmination of many years of campaigning. I pay tribute to Gwent county council and to others in south Wales for the wonderful campaign that they waged, to my hon. Friends, and to late colleagues—such as Mr. Brynmor John and Mr. loan Evans, who played such a valuable part in bringing the project to the fore. The South Wales Argus, South Wales Echo and Western Mail have all been very supportive.

The issue of the new Severn crossing has certainly occupied much of my own time in recent years. We have come a long way since November 1983, when a group of Welsh Labour Members of Parliament lobbied the then Secretary of State for Transport for a second crossing, after the state of the existing bridge had been exposed. The Secretary of State in question was that figure of enlightenment, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who told us in his usual inimitable way that he did not intend to dig another hole in the ground.

Although today is a landmark, our achievement is muted because of the deplorable way in which the matter has been handled by the Government. By handing over to a foreign-backed consortium the main route of access into and out of Wales, the Government have abdicated their responsibilities in respect of a cornerstone of the Welsh infrastructure. Their decision is shameful and an insult to Wales.

The Government have also been indifferent on the major issue of toll charges. It is intrinsic to the no-risk concessionary agreement that there will be ever-escalating increases in toll charges in the years ahead. That agreement will allow increased tolls to be levied on the existing bridge from 1992 onwards—three years before the second crossing is scheduled to be completed. That is wholly unacceptable. The proposed toll regime should not apply until the new facility is available.

At the last tolls inquiry, it was said that the proposed increases would enable debts on the existing bridge to be paid off by 2006, which is in line with the 40-year toll period enshrined in the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965. The Bill, however, provides for an enhanced level of tolls until 2025—a 60-year period.

Incidentally, I recall that Aneurin Bevan once posed the question, "Why not trust the Tories?" On the issue of toll charges alone, it is obvious that the Tories cannot be trusted. It is no wonder that they were reluctant to publish the concessionary agreement. We ask that the notional debt of approximately £122 million on the existing bridge be wiped out before the commencement of the new concession. In that way, tolls could be kept at a reasonable level.

The Bill makes no provision for local authorities and other interested parties to call a public inquiry. I raised that point when the Minister made his opening remarks. The denial of that right is a negation of democracy, and that omission should be rectified at the earliest opportunity.

I also think of those constituents of mine who, when they were made redundant some years ago, were advised by the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) to get on their bikes. They did, and found work on the other side of the Bristol channel. Now they are heavily penalised by heavy toll charges for doing so. Such charges are a restraint on trade and commerce, and constantly add to the cost of goods and services.

There is no consistency in Government policy. The Government claim that charges should be levied at crossings which provide exceptional benefits. In his opening remarks from the Front Bench, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) asked whether the M5 Avonmouth bridge did not provide exceptional benefit, likewise the Britannia bridge in north Wales and the Scottish crossings of the A9 at Moray, Dornoch and Cromarty Firths, and the A82 Ballachulish bridge. The east London river crossing will also be toll free, as will the A55 Conwy crossing in north Wales—I believe that that may be related to the fact that Conwy is becoming more of a marginal seat for the Conservative party.

As the Freight Transport Association points out, to perpetuate tolls on the existing and new Severn bridges will compound the inconsistency and irrationality of Government policy.

Why does the Confederation of British Industry for Wales not realise the significance of this issue? We have not heard a dicky bird from that body, whose loyalty to the Government seems to take precedence over the interests of its members, let alone the general public. Indeed, the CBI must blush when taking contributions from its members in view of the role that it has played in the tolls issue. I am sorry that the leadership of my party did not grasp the nettle in the run-up to the last general election. A report by the Select Committee on Transport clearly set out how it would be done. Apart from minor local authority involvement, the debts from estuarial crossings are essentially notional figures on the Consolidated Fund, with no bank charges involved. The amounts involved are a flea bite compared with the outstanding debts that the Government have wiped out to pursue their privatisation policy.

Road transport is not a poor relation. It makes a massive contribution to the Exchequer—more than £18 billion annually, of which less than a quarter is spent on roads and their maintenance. Despite that, the Government are prepared to squeeze the last penny from this vital sector of the economy. I am worried that in the process they are damaging Wales, which has struggled for new jobs and a little prosperity after so many economic setbacks.

The second Severn crossing is part of a strategic road network. As the poet John Donne said, No man is an Island". That is true in relation to the second Severn crossing, which is one section of a jigsaw made up of interlocking parts. In connection with that, I must express my concern about the delays in a number of important Welsh road improvement schemes. In the context of the second Severn crossing, I am especially worried about the delay over the Brynglas Crindau tunnel scheme on the M4 as it is a major bottleneck, which needs to be tackled. Otherwise, Newport will be choked with traffic congestion. There have been suggestions that that scheme would be delayed, but the Welsh Office seems to have had second thoughts after protests. Mr. Christopher Tapp, chief executive of Newport borough council, points out in a letter to me dated 11 January that the Welsh Office is now planning a start in 1992, and not in 1991, but that would still result in one year's delay. The Minister of State at the Welsh Office seems to have confirmed that in a letter to me today.

In relation to the problems associated with the construction of the second Severn crossing, I think of the people at the sharp end—my constituents in Caldicot, Magor, Rogiet and Undy. I have always been an enthusiastic supporter of the concept of a second Severn crossing, but I have never wished to underestimate the environmental and other difficulties involved. I thank the Government for taking heed of my advice, and for establishing consultative machinery. A committee has been formed, consisting of representatives of local interests on the Welsh side—community councils, Monmouth borough council, Gwent county council—together with Welsh Office representatives. Grievances can be aired and the general public can be kept informed of developments before they are under way.

One major grievance was voiced by the people of Magor and Undy, who formed an action committee with a view to stopping heavy lorries from passing through their villages on the way to the Severn crossing site. Meetings were held and they drew up a large petition, which I handed in at the Welsh Office in Cardiff, accompanied by members of the action committee and local authority representatives. I am pleased to say that the Welsh Office understood the difficulties and the building of an access road for construction traffic was brought forward by a year, with the result that lorries will leave the M4 to the east of junction 23 at Magor.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for paying that compliment to the Welsh Office. However, a few moments ago he referred to the Brynglas tunnels and the Malpas relief road and he implied that work on that scheme would not start until 1992. I actually said that we shall go out to tender in the spring of this year, which would imply a start of work in this calendar year.

Mr. Hughes

I am glad of that confirmation of good news from the Minister as there was great concern in Newport and the surrounding areas about that scheme. However, the chief executive in Newport is certainly of the impression that it would mean a 1992 start.

I have mentioned difficulties which have been alleviated for the people of Magor and Undy. Now Caldicot, led by the mayor, Mrs. Pauline Watts, is requesting that the access road which I referred to earlier be extended to bypass the Pill area of Caldicot. From my local knowledge, I know that that new proposal has a good deal of logic, and I ask the Welsh Office to consider it carefully.

Last Saturday morning I met a delegation from Rogiet community council, which suggested that the direction in which tolls will be collected on the new crossing should be changed from westbound to eastbound. The suggestion was made because of continuing concern in the village about the levels of noise and air pollution emanating from westbound vehicles leaving the toll plaza and accelerating away on a rising 1 in 62 incline. Given the prevailing south-west wind, the village of Rogiet would be in the direct line of exhaust and other noxious fumes. That strikes me as an entirely legitimate point.

The Automobile Association says: The new bridge will have a dual three-lane standard. However, the approach road serving the new bridge on the English side of the River Severn is to be constructed as a dual two-lane carriageway, with provision for a third lane in the future 'when the need arises'. This represents … a planned bottleneck. At least the AA knows something about roads; I hope that its views will be taken into consideration.

The Government should seriously consider the important environmental and other problems associated with the construction of the bridge. Although I welcome the concept of a second Severn crossing, I cannot give the Bill three cheers. First, the Government have handed over an important section of our infrastructure to a foreign-backed consortium, which in turn seems to have milked a no-risk agreement out of the Government. Secondly, no concession has been made on toll charges; on the contrary, they will be increased markedly and paid over a longer period. The debt on the existing bridge should have been wiped out, and no further toll increase should be imposed on that bridge until the new one is completed.

I hope that the Government will reconsider, even at this late stage. Meanwhile, the most that I can give the Bill is one cheer—it deserves no more.

6.2 pm

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Almost every time one approaches the Severn bridge one appreciates the need for a second crossing on that great and turbulent river. Indeed, whenever one crosses the bridge itself, one somehow feels—as one looks at the repairs and the lane closures, and considers the history of the bridge—that one is wearing the torn and tattered trousers of Wales. Wales —with an economy which is always ready to thrive, and is extremely attractive to industry not only in England but in the rest of the world—deserves better than it has received from a congested, poorly designed and poorly repaired bridge in recent decades.

I welcome the decision to build a second Severn crossing. I urge the Department, however, to ensure that the new crossing is adequate—not only adequate for 1995–96, when it is likely to open, but of suitable size, quality and design for the 21st century. The Bill makes positive statements about the state of affairs at the crossing 30 and 40 years from now: the concession is for 30 years and provision is made for the collection of tolls by the Secretary of State for a further five years thereafter. We must be sure—and I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us in due course—that the design that has been sought and provided will meet the needs of the year 2025 as they are envisaged now. We need to know that we shall not be faced in 15 or 20 years' time with the inadequacies and complaints that the existing bridge has brought repeatedly to the House of Commons.

May I ask the Minister to tell us whether the decision to provide a second crossing has been viewed as part of an overall transport and freight strategy or as merely a part of the patchwork of roads to be designed to meet the current obvious shortfall? Are we to expect the new bridge merely to bring more and more freight on to the roads, at the expense of rail transport? Has the Department considered, for example, the desirability of improving rail links at the same time? Has it considered how rail transport can be enhanced—particularly the carriage of freight—to keep cars off the roads of south Wales, rather than their being driven in increasing numbers on to those roads?

I am sure that the Minister knows that, once we move north of the M4 in south Wales and up towards mid-Wales, the roads quickly run out and we soon find ourselves on what are—at least by comparison with the M4—not much more than country lanes. I am pleased to see that the Minister of State, Welsh Office is present. Will part of the overall strategy be the introduction, at long last, of roads that improve the Welsh transport infrastructure, especially through the provision of a proper link from north and mid-Wales to south Wales? Now that a new Severn crossing is being provided and the A55 is nearing completion as a major expressway, surely it is logical to provide such a link between north and mid-Wales to, in particular, the south-east of England. That will enable Wales to thrive rather more easily than it can now, given the present constraints.

Sir Wyn Roberts

I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman knows that a bypass is shortly to be opened on the A470 at Llanidloes in his constituency. That is part of the 100 million investment in the A470 that we have made since 1979; some £70 million is still to be invested in the north-south route.

Mr. Carlile

I am all too well aware of the imminent opening of that bypass, which is currently under construction—not least because of the unhappiness of a number of my constituents about the way in which the construction contract has been carried out, which has often been to the considerable detriment of local residents. The bypass is very welcome; I am sure that the Minister of State will agree, however, that it is quite a long way from the M4, particularly on the existing Welsh roads.

I suggest to the Minister of State that, on current plans, the improvements that he now envisages will do well to knock more than five or 10 minutes off the journey time from Llanidloes to, say, Cardiff or Newport and that much more needs to be done.

Perhaps, tempted by the Minister of State, we are straying a little wide of the subject of the debate. Let me put to the Minister a further point, which has already been made this evening: although I accept the clear terms in which his assurance was given, we must be certain that the construction of the bridge will not inhibit either existing shipping—on which he gave an assurance—or the possibility of the development of shipping facilities at some of the ports on the river. Large ships use the river. As we are considering road development for the next 30 years, we should also consider shipping development over the next 30 years. We should not view the development of merchant shipping with a pessimistic eye, as we tend to at present.

Mr. Freeman

I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that, in terms of the prospective increase in trade and size of ships, the Department of Transport will certainly take into account the representations made by the appropriate trade, conservation and waterways protection bodies so that the design and operation of the bridge and the location of its piers will facilitate both existing trade and, where sensible, increases in the size of ships.

Mr. Carlile

I am extremely grateful to the Minister, not least for the usual clarity of his intervention. To illustrate what I have in mind, there is considerable potential for the development of trade between the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the Community, following the changes that are to take place in 1992. Much of that trade may wish to use Severn river ports as staging posts.

Conditional agreement has been reached about the concession. Considerable concern has been expressed in Wales about the belief that French interests are the most likely to benefit from the contract and the tolls that will be collected during the next 30 years. As a keen pro-European, I do not wish to be insular, but it would help if we could be reassured that every attempt has been made to ensure that domestic interests will benefit from the concession.

A more worrying point is that the Bill refers to the concession being granted for a period of 30 years. If we look at the history of public liability companies during the last 30 years, we see that that is an extremely long time in the life of any company. Large companies that are household names at one moment cease to exist soon thereafter. What steps is the Department of Transport taking to try to ensure—it may be impossible to secure an absolute assurance—that 12 or 15 years' hence we do not find that the Department has been left with an extremely expensive white elephant on its hands because of the financial failure of the concessionaires or because of successive takeovers of the concessionaires? Can we be reassured that those who become the majority shareholders will be unable in a few years' time to take advantage of company law provisions in order to avoid their obligations under the concession?

The Government seem to be convinced that the right approach is to construct a toll bridge, and the collection of tolls between south Wales and England is correct in principle. Much has already been said about that, but it seems to me that that approach places the Welsh economy at a disadvantage compared, say, with Avon's economy. Can the Government assure us that toll levels will remain fair? The table set out in the Bill is helpful, but it will be possible for the concessionaires to come to the House to seek an increase in tolls above the retail prices index. The concessionaires may be able to produce figures that show that they have bought a pup and that they are not making the profits that they expected to make out of the concession. Will the Government at least assure us that they will hold the concessionaires to the principles that underlie the concession and that it will be bad luck for the concessionaires if they find in a few years' time that during the tendering procedure they miscalculated? It is important that that principle should be established. I am grateful that the Minister for Public Transport is nodding in assent.

A powerful plea has just been made on behalf of those villages that will be affected during the concession period. It may be that their position could best be protected if construction of the slip roads took place at the earliest possible stage so that they could be used for the carriage of goods and materials for the construction of the bridge. I hope that the Department will do all that it can to reduce disturbance to a minimum.

The bridge is expected to be completed by the end of 1995. That date may be of great importance to companies that are considering establishing important new factories or office premises in south Wales. In order to ensure the maximum possible confidence for companies that are thinking about coming to south Wales, will the Government ensure that time is of the essence of the contract for that part of the concession that involves the construction of the bridge? The effect of making time of the essence of the contract would ensure that the highest possible incentive was given to the concessionaires to complete the contract on time, particularly if heavy penalties were imposed if the bridge was not completed on time.

I welcome the decision to construct a second river crossing. Despite the misgivings I have expressed, I hope that it will have a fair wind.

6.17 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes), I came here to give three cheers for the new bridge. However, having listened to the Minister's speech—I apologise to my hon. Friend, since I do not mean this in any personal sense—I do not believe that we should give a single cheer for it. The Bill is a rip off by those who will build the bridge and by the Government.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy), who is sitting in the Whips' position, that my late decision to take part in the debate is in no way to be taken as a wish by me to serve on the Committee that considers the Bill. I am sure that those hon. Members who are selected to serve on the Committee will be delighted by my absence, since my presence could only prolong its deliberations.

The right hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Cope) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East highlighted the importance of consulting those who will be immediately affected once the construction of the bridge is in hand. That is correct. However, in his speech the right hon. Gentleman referred to a point that brought back to mind a controversy that arose at the time of the construction of the first Severn bridge. He referred to the rocks upon which the piers and piles are to be laid. I well recollect our late friend, Iori Thomas, the Member of Parliament for Rhondda, waxing eloquently and angrily about the fact that the Beaufort estate derives great benefit from the piers and the piles. Apparently, the Beaufort estate owns the bed of the river Severn. The more the piers and piles, the more the benefit to the Beaufort estate. A rent has to be paid to the Beaufort estate for every pier and pile that is laid on the bed of the river. I should be intrigued, although not particularly worried, to discover whether that is still so. If it is, the more piers there are, the merrier the Beauforts will be.

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) made an important point about the shadow effect of the bridge. I was lecturing as an economist when the bridge was first announced and I remember warning on Welsh radio and television that its greatest benefit would be to the south-east of Wales and that unless a proper transport system and incentives were provided to encourage industry to go beyond the more immediate locations it could present problems for west and mid-Wales. Although the second bridge will have a lesser effect, it will have a similar effect and will increase relatively the attractiveness of the coastal strip to the south-east of Wales.

I hope that the Department of Transport has undertaken full appraisal of all the designs. By failing to observe its normal procedures and by changing the design of the present bridge at the last moment, it caused remedial costs of £52.2 million, all of which are related to design fault. The recent increase in tolls to £1 would not have been necessary had it not been for those design faults, and that increase will raise less money than the design faults cost. The monitoring of the design is crucial.

I said that the Bill is a rip off. I had no preconceived ideas because I had not read the Bill until about half an hour before entering the Chamber. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) took up the Minister's point about approach roads, which will be paid for from public funds. This will not be a minor cost to the public. We are told that the bridge will cost £300 million, but, unless I misheard, the approach roads, which we will pay for, will cost £200 million. The Minister nods. Taxpayers are providing a £200 million subsidy to those who will construct the bridge. The roads that we are building have no purpose other than to lead to the bridge. The constructors are therefore getting a massive capital subsidy from the outset.

Mr. Freeman

Since my opening speech, support for the Bill seems to have decreased rather than increased. I obviously failed to explain that there was a competition whereby each proposed contractor expressed, in terms of revenue at 1989 prices, the minimum revenue that it would accept, bearing in mind all the risks of construction of the bridge and its maintenance, operation and interest costs. We chose Laing because £976 million, as shown in the concession agreement, was the best possible estimate of revenue at 1989 prices. The risk lies entirely with that consortium. The higher the cost, the smaller the profit. The increase in tolls will be set by indexing them with a maximum increase in the RPI each year. The tolls earned by the consortium will be taken back to 1989 prices and added up each year. Once the figure of £976 million is reached, the toll ends and the bridge reverts to the Secretary of State. That is not a rip off. We compared the financial consequences of the consortium, with £976 million at 1989 prices as the maximum revenue to be earned, with designing and building a conventional bridge in the public sector and concluded, in a complicated calculation, that the award of the tender to Laing presented the best value for money for the taxpayer.

Mr. Williams

I shall consider the Minister's remarks, which were detailed. However, it was useful and helpful information. It might have been helpful if we had had an opportunity to absorb it earlier. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) interrupts. We are trying to have a positive and sensible discussion.

The Bill is a rip off of the taxpayer and the motorist. For example, the Government will make windfall profits from the bridge. As the Minister said, the yield from tolls is already £15 million higher than necessary because of an error by the Department in the first instance, but those tolls will be raised higher than the Government thought necessary simply to match the toll on the new bridge. That represents a windfall. The way in which the Minister anticipates dealing with the increases in toll charges is unjustifiable and has no basis in logic. Tolls will increase according to the cost of living index, without any challenge whatsoever; only if they increase above that rate will there be a challenge.

The bridge will cost £300 million. The highest cost will be servicing not the structure but the capital. What relationship has the RPI to that, because that cost is pre-determined? The rate of interest is arranged and is unaffected by changes in cost. If anything, it is possible that the constructors will benefit from a reduction in interest rates. If they organise their finances correctly, their major costs of servicing capital can decrease while charges to the public increase according to the retail prices index. That measures the changes in the costs of the average household, which are unrelated to the cost of operating a bridge.

Not only is there a windfall profit to the Government from the toll arrangements and increases but a massive further windfall to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East alluded. Under the present arrangements, the Government believed that the motorist's debt to the Government would be expunged by 2006, but under the Bill the Minister has the power to continue tolls, at the RPI increased rate, for 35 years. In other words, tolls on the present bridge will continue not until 2025 but until 2030. Is that a correct assessment? The Minister seems uncertain, so I shall err on his side and take the lower figure. Assuming that the date is 2025, inflated tolls will continue for 19 years after the date when the public will have paid its debt to the Department of Transport. We shall pay a £200 million capital subsidy to those who build the bridge and an inflated toll, linked to the RPI, to those who operate it. The Government will sit back, smiling all over their face, drawing in the benefits of not only inflated tolls until 2006 but of income that they did not expect to have, at an inflated rate, from then on. In other words, it will produce a surplus of about £100 million beyond the date until which motorists expect to pay tolls on the existing Severn bridge.

Sir Wyn Roberts

But does not the right hon. Gentleman forget one crucial fact: we shall have an additional bridge?

Mr. Williams

I am grateful to the Minister. With respect, he usually talks about market forces, but there is no question of market forces here. We shall have to pay higher prices on the bridge for which we have already paid. There is no question of market prices for bridge 1 and bridge 2. The idea that we are getting a bargain is nonsense. Does the Minister seriously suggest that a £200 million subsidy, higher tolls than necessary on the new bridge and a windfall of tolls to the Government for almost 20 years beyond the date after which the charges for the present Bill have been met, is anything but a rip off? Can he suggest that that is a good deal for the public? If he can, I suggest that later he will regret his words.

6.30 pm
Mr. Ron Davies (Caerphilly)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) made a devastating criticism of the funding of the bridge. We all look forward to that argument being explored in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) also made criticisms. It is fair to say that the only thing that unites us is support for the principle of a second crossing. There can be no doubt about the benefits of a second crossing. We welcome a crossing principally because communications both into and out of Wales are unacceptable and conditions on the existing bridge are intolerable for both the people who use it and the economic development in Wales. Economic development particularly worries me and it will be the thrust of my arguments this evening.

I am worried about the consequence for regional development of Wales not only under existing circumstances but in those which will prevail after 1 January 1993 when we have to compete in the European single market and possibly face the prospect of a single currency. Unless we have good communications and a proper regional policy, we in Wales will not stand a chance of competing with the dynamic areas of the Low Countries, northern France and Germany.

There is no doubt that there is a need for the crossing. I use in evidence the undoubted benefits that have accrued from the M4. Ever since the Severn bridge was opened and the development along the M4 corridor took place we have seen a measure of industrial development and economic regeneration in south Wales which has gone some way to offsetting the losses that we incurred as a result of the contraction of the coal and steel industries. The most recent developments were the Ford development at Bridgend and the Bosch development in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith). Last Friday there was an exciting announcement by Imperial college that it would set up a new science and research park in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). All those exciting developments have come to Wales as a result of improved communications via the M4.

If we are to ensure that the whole region benefits, we must pick up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East when he referred to a jigsaw and the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West about the need to ensure that there is a proper network of communications. If we do not respond to that need, there will be a corridor of economic activity and prosperity along the M4 but no social, community and economic development in the valleys that do not have good access to the M4. The prospects for such areas will be grim.

Shortly before Christmas my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) and I were bitterly upset by the announcement by the Welsh Office of the road programme for the coming year. The road programme is important because it will provide the link which will ensure that we benefit from the new Severn crossing. My constituency is particularly badly served by roads. We have one principal road—the A469. As the Minister will be aware, it is a narrow, winding road which is invariably subject to unacceptable delays. It brings environmental disadvantages to the people who live along it. It chokes any prospect of economic development in the valley.

To tackle the problems that I have outlined, Mid Glamorgan county council has an ambitious programme of road improvements. It wants to open up the valley and improve the communications. It wants to link the valleys to the M4 and the Severn crossing so that we can benefit from economic growth. The first stage of the programme was the Llanbradach bypass, which was the subject of a submission to the Welsh Office last year. As part of its transport grant submission, the council asked for approval of expenditure of £10.6 million for that one small bypass. The Welsh Office offered approval of only £1.5 million. The importance of the bypass has two aspects. First, unless it is built, the environment in Llanbradach and Ystrad Mynach in the centre of the valley will continue to make people's existence miserable. Secondly, without the bypass, any future developments further up the valley will be stymied. There is no point in building a bypass in the lower part of the valley if there is a bottleneck in the middle, with the traffic whipping round Llanbradach and Ystrad Manach and being caught in Bargoed or wherever.

Exactly the same problem has afflicted the neighbouring constituencies. Funding for the Pontypridd bypass is in jeopardy, as is the link to the A470. The Minister rapidly rose to justify the A470 development, but the link included Merthyr which was also subject to a cash cut-off by the Welsh Office. Again, in my constituency the Bargoed bypass application has failed. All such developments are singularly important to the valley constituencies because they link us to the M4 corridor of prosperity. Mid Glamorgan county council recognised that, because in its preface to the transport policy and programmes submission to the Welsh Office it said: The major schemes planned by the County Council besides contributing to Structure Plan policies are seen as complementary to the Secretary of State's Valleys Programme in that they will encourage new economic activity to locate within the heart of the valleys by virtue of the better communications so created. In addition they will free the congested urban commercial areas of problems associated with congestion and poor environment and will enable the process of urban renewal to gather momentum by breathing life back into some of the County's town centres and by encouraging private investment. We all agree with that. The Llanbradach bypass scheme meets all the criteria set down by the Welsh Office. The scheme was not approved by the Welsh Office and Mid Glamorgan was singularly badly hit.

In the programme approved for 1991–92, Mid Glamorgan was allocated 14.9 per cent. of the available funds; it has 18.7 per cent. of the Welsh population. South Glamorgan has 14 per cent. of the Welsh population; it was allocated 37.7 per cent. of available funds. West Glamorgan, with 12.6 per cent. of the Welsh population, was allocated 16.7 per cent. of the funds. Our community in Mid Glamorgan is disadvantaged. We saw the same pattern in the past. In the past three years, Mid Glamorgan was allocated on average 15 per cent. of the total. The average allocated to South Glamorgan was 25 per cent. of the total funds available and the average allocation to West Glamorgan was 31.3 per cent.

In the next two years the average funds that will be made available to Mid Glamorgan will be 17.8 per cent. but to South Glamorgan it will be a massive 46 per cent. I use those figures to show that we in Mid Glamorgan have been done a great disservice by the Welsh Office. Two decisions have particularly disadvantaged us. The first is the decision that the expenditure of £250 million on the Conwy tunnel in the Minister's constituency should be top-sliced off all the expenditure available to Wales. As a result, the lion's share of Welsh money is going to the Minister's constituency. There is a much reduced pool to share out between the other counties of Wales. Secondly, even from that limited pool, South Glamorgan receives the lion's share because of the Government's commitment. I make no criticism of the Butetown link road; I have no reservations about the expenditure on that. The lion's share of the remaining pool has gone to the Butetown link road and we know why the Government are pouring funds into that development.

If the Minister wants to have public support for his road programme and the concept of a new crossing, and if he wants balanced, stable communities in the valleys of Wales, he must listen when the people of the valleys say, "We must have adequate communications". He must ensure that we are linked to the M4. It is only if he provides that sort of investment that we can benefit from the prospect of a second Severn crossing.

6.40 pm
Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen)

This has been a singularly well informed debate. I hope that the Minister of State, Welsh Office and the Minister for Public Transport can return to the Welsh Office and the Department of Transport, respectively, with many important and useful ideas from this debate.

I remember, as will all Welsh Members, the opening of the Severn bridge and the hope that it brought to the people of Wales that Wales and England would come closer. In many respects, that dream has become a nightmare. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) who, over many years, has led and championed a campaign to improve the conditions on the bridge.

Only last week, many hundreds of motorists and I had to face a 73-mile detour round Gloucestershire into south Wales because the bridge was yet again closed to all traffic. My hon. Friends have highlighted those delays. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) referred to the regular delays on the bridge caused by bad weather, high winds and accidents. Just one accident can mean miles of delays and hold-ups.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) rightly said that the present bridge was badly designed in the first place. We have been paying for that financially, economically and socially. I understand from the Minister that the present repairs to the bridge are due to be finished by August 1991. I hope that that will be the case. The imposition of the 40 mph speed limit and the introduction of the narrow lanes which have been there since 1985 have led to a 40 per cent. increase in traffic, the number of accidents annually varying between 65 and 31. The fact that the bridge is actually damaging the Welsh economy means that we welcome a second crossing into the Principality.

The present bridge carries 6,600 million tonnes of goods into Wales, and more than 800 million tonnes out of Wales. The crossing is vital to Wales because it brings much-needed inward investment. Europeans, Japanese and others see the bridge as a way into south Wales to develop our region. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly rightly said that the much-vaunted valleys initiative, which the Secretary of State for Wales launched some years ago, relies heavily on a proper transport and highways infrastucture with links to the M4 and both bridges. Unless the promised developments and improvements go ahead, the valleys initiative and talk of improvement in the area are nonsense.

The Confederation of British Industry, the Welsh Development Agency, all our local authorities, the trade unions and every political party in Wales recognise the importance of a second crossing for Wales. That is why we welcome it. However, there are essential and important safeguards which I hope will be built into the Bill as it goes through its somewhat complicated parliamentary procedure.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West rightly pointed to the need to have another look at the basis on which the bridge is financed. The Department of Transport is providing £148 million and the Welsh Office £45 million. The linkage of both bridges may bring many problems for the future financing of this bridge. The Standing Conference on Regional Policy in South Wales has never accepted the £122 million historic debt, saying that it should be written off. If that is done, it will bring about a 20 per cent. reduction in tolls on the bridge. We need a thorough financial investigation into that.

There is a need to protect the countryside and wildlife. We must pay special regard to Avon and Gwent which will be affected by noise and visual intrusion. There is also a need to ensure proper connections from the bridge to the M4 and M5. We in Wales believe that if there is a motorway standard of four lanes each way in England, it is right and proper that there should be a similar one in Wales. There is no reason whatever for any differentiation between Wales and England in that respect.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, East said, we must be extremely careful that the building of the bridge is not a precedent for future schemes in Britain. John Laing is backed by French financial institutions which want to break into the United Kingdom market to finance infrastructure projects privately. That might not be good for the British economy generally.

The tolls are of great concern to the people of Wales. Some months ago tolls were increased to £2 for cars. I believed, as did many hon. Members, that that was to sweeten possible buyers and to make the bridge more acceptable to the private sector. Under the present regime the tolls will end by 2006. Today hon. Members have repeatedly pointed out that it is not right that increased tolls should be levied on the existing bridge, before the new crossing is built. That is wholly unacceptable. Under the Bill, tolls will possibly continue until 2025.

The Department of Transport should deal with the maintenance costs after 2006, thus ensuring lower tolls. It is unbelievable—indeed, it is staggering—that in the past 20 years the tolls have increased by 1,600 per cent.—an increase in real terms of 135 per cent. The cost of collecting the tolls amounts to 26 per cent. of the total income from tolls. My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) rightly referred to the findings on tolls of the Select Committee on Transport and I hope that they will form a backcloth to our consideration of this Bill in Committee.

The Bill envisages big increases for private cars—an immediate 42.5 per cent. increase to £2.85 and, assuming 8 per cent. inflation, an increase to £4.50 by 1995. Goods vehicles will pay twice the present level. Those figures should be reviewed during the passage of the Bill. The Bill does not make provision for local authorities and others to object to increased tolls over the next 30 years, as they can do at present. That is wholly unacceptable. In Committee and elsewhere, we shall press to have that changed.

I hope that the Minister will agree that the two bridges should be the joint responsibility of the Secretary of State for Transport and the Secretary of State for Wales. The Bill envisages that only the Secretary of State for Transport will have responsibility. That is wrong. The Welsh Office has an important role to play.

The whole of Wales will look with great interest at what is to occur. The crossing is of great importance to our economy. Unless we get it right now, we shall store up immense social and economic problems for the future of our country.

6.48 pm
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)

It gives me great pleasure as Minister of State to commend this Bill to the House and to have heard the general welcome for it, despite the many detailed criticisms which I cannot possibly answer in the few minutes remaining to me. My personal pleasure is heightened by the fact that I witnessed the key stages of the construction of the existing bridge, and I was present at its opening by Her Majesty the Queen in 1966. It was not thought to be poorly designed then.

I have also had the pleasure of playing a part in drawing up the present proposals since we began thinking about them, as the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) reminded us, in the early 1980s. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the thinking that has gone into the proposals is by no means a negation of the Government's responsibility; rather, it is a demonstration of their total commitment.

Since the bridge was opened 25 years ago, it has made a vital contribution to the major economic growth of south Wales and has added to the attractiveness of the area for incoming investment from the United Kingdom and abroad. However, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Public Transport noted, the bridge has become something of a victim of its own success. The increasing demands placed upon it, particularly in the past decade, have led to the need for increased capacity and we are now seeking to meet that within the provisions of the Bill.

There is no question in our mind, and certainly not in the minds of hon. Members representing Wales, about the need for the second Severn crossing. Its importance to Wales, and to both sides of the estuary, cannot be overstated. I believe that the scheme in the Bill is exciting and presents great opportunities for the future. The bridge will be an international showpiece, and it will provide an impressive gateway to Wales.

The bridge's design features will relieve many of the difficulties experienced on the existing crossing. It will be a dual three-lane motorway, plus hard shoulder, which will reduce the risk of congestion from breakdowns and accidents. Most importantly, the new bridge will have wind shielding throughout its entire length which will ensure that the new crossing will remain open to all traffic except during the most extreme weather conditions. All that, together with the reduced length of the proposed route as compared with that via the existing bridge, will relieve present and predicted traffic congestion. It will also result in considerable savings in time and vehicle operating costs.

On a broader level, the new crossing will help greatly to maintain and increase the momentum of economic regeneration in Wales. It will improve the profitability of industry by facilitating access to the rest of Great Britain and Europe.

I also welcome the opportunities provided in the Bill for participation with the private sector in undertaking such a development. In common with other major infrastructure schemes of this kind, there will inevitably be local concerns. We have consulted widely on the scheme at various stages of its planning and we have been sensitive to local opinion as we have developed our proposals. In Wales we have been conscious, for example, of the effects on villages such as Rogiet, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport, East, which will be close to the route of the new approach road. We have also recognised the concerns expressed in planning the route. We recognise the impact of the new crossing on other parts of Wales and on other roads in Wales, such as the A469, mentioned by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies).

The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) seemed to welcome the scheme, but he was critical about its financing—the tolling—and other aspects. I must tell him, however, that it was a Labour Government who enacted the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965, which originally provided for tolling at the present bridge. In recent years this Government have also recognised tolls as a means by which private enterprise and initiative can be harnessed for the provision of not only estuarial crossings but new roads. A Bill that would facilitate a more general provision in future of new toll roads and crossings is currently being considered in another place.

In the case of the second Severn bridge, two strong arguments lead us to the conclusion that the best way to finance the project is through tolls. I do not want to press the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East on whether he is reneging on the views expressed in 1964 by the then Labour Minister, whose opinion was clear: My policy is that tolls should be charged on expensive new river crossings, such as the Severn Bridge, which will provide exceptional savings in cost and time to a clearly defined category of road users."—[Official Report, 8 December 1964; Vol. 703, c. 186.] The hon. Member for West Bromwich, East also referred to the second report of the Select Committee on Transport for 1985–86. The Government's policy on the tolling of estuarial crossings was explained clearly in their reply to that report, and that policy has not changed. Hon. Members have mentioned other crossings, but it would not be practicable to levy tolls at all estuarial crossings, especially when a convenient alternative to that crossing exists—the A55, for example, is in close proximity to the new tunnel under the Conwy, in my constituency.

I assure the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that the privately funded scheme for the provision of the second Severn crossing was selected on the basis that it offered the best overall value for money of all those schemes submitted, whether for private or public financing, by the selected bidders. Bids for the scheme were sought on terms as near as practicable to being directly comparable. Before a final decision was made, the shortlisted bids were exhaustively evaluated to assess the full range of costs and benefits, direct and indirect, which each offered. The assessment took into account, for example, the implications of cost overruns, the extent to which risks were being borne by the concessionaire or the taxpayer, and the amounts of tax payable.

Mr. Alan Williams


Sir Wyn Roberts

I have just one minute left.

Mr. Williams

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has referred to alternative designs and costings. In Committee it would be advantageous to have those alternative costings and other such information. Once we go into Committee, I will be unable to raise that matter with you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and therefore I want to take this opportunity to ask the Minister to give a guarantee that he will make that information available to the House.

Sir Wyn Roberts

Many of the arguments that have been made in this short debate cannot be answered within the minute remaining. Those matters will arise again at local level before the Select Committee and when the Bill is in Committee.

I stress that the Bill will undoubtedly result in positive benefits to those in Wales and on the Severn side. It represents an important step in bringing the resources of the private sector into a major transport project. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Ordered, That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee of seven Members, four to be nominated by the House and three by the Committee of Selection. That there shall stand referred to the Select Committee—

  1. (a) any Petition against the Bill presented by being deposited in the Private Bill Office at any time not later than the twenty-first day after this day, and
  2. (b) any Petition which has been presented by being deposited in the Private Bill Office and in which the Petitioners complain of any amendment as proposed in the filled-up Bill or of any matter which has arisen during the progress of the Bill before the Select Committee,
being a Petition in which the Petitioners pray to be heard by themselves, their Counsel or Agents. That if no such Petition as is mentioned in sub-paragraph (a) above is presented, or if all such Petitions are withdrawn before the meeting of the Select Committee, the order for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee shall be discharged and the Bill shall be committed to a Standing Committee. That any Petitioner whose Petition stands referred to the Select Committee shall, subject to the Rules and Orders of the House and to the Prayer of his Petition, be entitled to be heard by himself, his Counsel or Agents upon his Petition provided that it is prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of the House, and the Member in charge of the Bill shall be entitled to be heard by his Counsel or Agents in favour of the Bill against that Petition. That the Select Committee have power to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom and to report from day to day the Minutes of Evidence taken before it. That three be the Quorum of the Select Committee.—[Mr. Patnick.]