HC Deb 18 May 2004 vol 421 cc809-11
4. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

What his policy is on encouraging more freight to be transported around the UK through south coast ports. [173496]

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Kim Howells)

The Government are keen to see freight transported by water rather than road where this makes sense. Our water freight grant scheme offers help towards investments, including port facilities, where these will allow freight traffic to be transported by sea or inland waterway rather than by road. The scheme can fund facilities at any port.

Tim Loughton

I am glad to hear the Minister's enthusiasm for sea transport. He will be intimately aware of the capacity of Shoreham harbour, in my constituency, for bringing aggregates and other building materials by sea for use along the south coast nearby. However, getting freight into Shoreham harbour by water will be successful only if we have the road infrastructure to get it out and distribute it. In the interests of joined-up thinking in his Government, will the Minister bring pressure to bear on his transport colleagues to ensure that road improvements around Shoreham harbour, and especially a proper link road to the A27 trunk road, go ahead? Without those, the Shoreham harbour maritime vision will simply be unworkable.

Dr. Howells

I shall certainly pass that communication to my right hon. and hon. Friends, and reassure them that there is one member of the Conservative party who obviously does not subscribe to the £600 million cuts that his party's policy will bring to transport.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

My hon. Friend will know that we are rapidly running out of capacity in the south-east ports, which is a matter of great concern. Will he give me an undertaking that no more decisions will be taken on ports development unless there is a clear and firmly adhered-to plan to expand capacity, rather than to cut it back?

Dr. Howells

I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that we must judge each application on its merits. Sometimes, when there are internationally recognised environmentally sensitive areas that must be protected, we have to take inspectorates' judgments very seriously. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we are well aware of the need to have adequate ports throughout the country to ensure that we can trade properly. We are one nation in the world that depends, probably more than all others, on our ability to trade across seas.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

Is it not clear that on ports policy, as on so many other policies, Labour has let this country down? Why is it that in respect of three key south-coast ports—Dover, Shoreham and Poole—the Minister's Department has not even been prepared to agree with the Treasury definition of those ports as public corporations, which is inhibiting vital investment?

Dr. Howells

In the port of Shoreham, for example—I know that the hon. Member for East Working and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) hoped that I would say more in my answer to him—we are definitely considering an application for an award of freight grant relating to facilities there. I must say to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that this Government take the problems of ports very seriously. They were neglected badly under the previous Government, but this Government will ensure that we have adequate port facilities so that we can trade properly.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton) (Lab)

When considering the development of south-east coast ports, will my hon. Friend also consider all the other ports around the country? Inland waterways are one means of transporting freight and taking the pressure off our roads. My hon. Friend will be aware of the recent launch of a large freight-carrying vessel for our inland waterways, and we need more of those if we are to succeed. Will he support that programme?

Dr. Howells

Yes, indeed. We are very interested in helping the technology that must be developed to carry big loads, including on inland waterways. Our freight grants programme provides help towards the capital costs of equipment such as cranes where that investment will help to make water transport a viable alternative to roads. That applies to inland waterways and coastal shipping. My hon. Friend will be glad to know that this year's budget is £9.5 million. In the past two years, we have awarded 12 new water freight grants worth just over £3.5 million. Those grants will save about 17 million lorry miles during the next 10 years.

Forward to