HL Deb 23 July 1973 vol 344 cc1620-43

7.6 p.m.

THE EARL OF KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will give a review of the progress of the Hovercraft Industry. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in rising to ask the Question on the Order Paper on the progress of the Hovercraft Industry I should like to thank at the outset, as I shall not have a chance later, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, for putting down his name to take part. The noble Earl has played such a distinguished part in the relatively short history of this technology and I understand was virtually at the birth, as a midwife, when he was with the N.R.D.C. It is appropriate, therefore, that he should now be chairman of the Parliamentary Hovercraft Group in succession to the late Lord Delacourt-Smith, whose expertise and interest is much missed on this subject. I hope that later my noble friend Lord Kings Norton may also feel moved to speak, particularly after his close connection with Hovercraft during his distinguished career as Chairman of the old A.R.B.

The invention of the Hovercraft principle by Sir Christopher Cockerell in the late 1950s has proved, in my submission, one of the more spectacular British inventions of this century. Its many wide and varied applications are, I know, well known to the House, in its role in civil transport, in its military capability—with two years' active service in Vietnam—in its industrial application with the hover platform, in its medical application with the Hoverbed for badly burnt patients. And many believe still it has an immense untapped future in the leisure market with small hovercraft. But, above all, its unique amphibious characteristic offers a host of uses which no other form of surface transport is able to perform—from operations over ice packs in the Arctic to rescue operations in swamp conditions in some of the undeveloped countries. These are the characteristics which make the invention so spectacular.

The purpose of the Question to-night is not only to ask the Government what progress has been achieved in the recent past but, perhaps more important, to ask, where do the Government see the industry going over the next decade and what positive policy are the Government adopting to cater for this? When one talks of the future of the industry, my noble friend will be well aware that there is a growing belief, indeed to some an unenviable truth, that Britain is fast losing the impetus and will to remain in the forefront of Hovercraft development. The evidence for this gloomy prediction is seen by the fact that at the very time when the Government's policy includes the termination of their financial support, and the dismantling of their own Hovercraft Directorate within the D.T.I., foreign Governments are announcing substantial financial programmes in the development of their own industries. We see, for instance, in the United States a 40 million dollar programme, which was announced last year, for the development of the second generation craft; and in France the Government, I understand, have just announced an order for two craft worth 40 million francs to compete against the S.R.N.4 on the Channel crossing. These craft, one assumes, will be larger and no doubt more economically competitive. And in Japan there is, I understand, a substantial Government programme of research and development for their industry.

All this points to an unhappy but familiar pattern, where yet another British invention is being forced to surrender, through lack of financial support, to foreign competition. We have seen it in the computer industry and we have seen it in the fuel cell invention. In the case of hovercraft, if no further Government support is forthcoming on new designs, we must surely see the surrendering of the very threshold of a break-through in the commercial viability of the invention—the second generation of the craft. Our foreign competitors will be free to recoup the benefit of our experience over these last 15 years.

Why have the Government seemingly lost faith in the industry? I believe the answer was due to a combination of events: first, a climate of drastic pruning of Government expenditure (which happens to all Governments), and, secondly, because, despite all its potential, the present craft had attracted only a very limited home market and virtually no foreign civil market at all. How, it must have been argued, can the Government justify substantial public investment in developing new craft when there appears a total lack of demand for the existing one? If this was the Government's view I believe it would be a wholly unfair judgment on such a relatively new and advanced technology. I believe it can be shown that the first generation craft, although not wholly a commercial success, have greatly improved over the years: the noise problem is being tackled, existing craft are being stretched, with the same engine power. Both the S.R.N.4 and the S.R.N.6 have been stretched, the former being under development at this moment.

Little direct support has ever been given to the three pioneer operators, and yet two of them—Hovertravel and HoverIloyd—have each demonstrated that they can make a profit with the Mark I craft. The level of growth of passenger traffic by hovercraft has shown a dramatic upsurge. In the case of the cross-Channel route, Seaspeed and Hoverlloyd have won a traffic share in five years from zero to 33 per cent., and this with only five craft.

It is an odd fact that with the hovercraft winning such a dramatic share of traffic across the Channel, in the space of only five years, its future should merit only four lines in the Channel Tunnel Study Report. This is a matter on which I am sure the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, will comment later. Another significant plus factor for the first generation craft is that the industry has earned so far no less than £30 million export sales of military hovercraft, and this from a total Government investment to date of some £14 million, spread over 15 years. In this, of course, I am not including the hovertrain development.

What should the Government do to prevent the industry losing its technical lead to foreign competitors? I believe there are three priorities. The first priority is that the Government should agree now to be prepared to enter into supporting a new design of a second generation craft—a craft that is larger, faster, less noisy and more economical in power. The benefit of such a move would be to retain the impetus of the industry, to compete with foreign development and to keep together the expertise of the present design teams. The second priority, which I believe will prove a great fillip to the industry, would be to restore the financial support for the developing of existing craft and to erase that rather unhappy phrase—the terminal grant. This phrase in itself must have been sweet music in the ears of a foreign competitor waiting in the wings to pick up the British industry's pieces. Perhaps my noble friend could comment later and say whether all the terminal grant has now been used. The third priority is perhaps one which the Government are already actively considering. It is to examine what areas of development could perhaps be carried out as a joint venture with either the French, Japanese or United States industries.

There are other areas in which I believe the Government could assist the industry, at very little cost to themselves. Help, for instance, with the training costs of hovercraft captains, perhaps through the joint Inter-Services Unit; help with the financing of hovercraft purchases, on the lines offered to the ship companies; help by awarding the operators the carrying of mail contracts; help by considering the use of hovercraft within the overseas development programme, particularly as there is now scientific evidence that the hovercraft application can improve the quality of life in certain underdeveloped countries. In saying that it is perhaps significant that over two years ago the United Nations commissioned a British consultant, Mr. Anthony Brindle, to prepare a report on the beneficial use to which hovercraft could be put in the underdeveloped countries. I understand that this report was submitted to the United Nations some 12 months ago, and perhaps my noble friend could say later whether the Government have seen a copy of the report and what action within our United Nations delegation is being sought to press for the publication of the report.

Yet another aspect where the Government could support the industry is in the military hovercraft role. The trials and evaluations carried out by the joint Inter-Services Unit at Lee-on-Solent must be one of the most exhaustive ever undertaken. I know this unit has been of very great value to the industry and it would be of interest if my noble friend could say whether any of the three Services yet sees a requirement for hovercraft and whether the tests are still being evaluated. Again, have NATO shown any interest in military hovercraft; and would the information gleaned at the unit be available to the NATO forces?

Turning briefly to the operators, my noble friend will be aware that Seaspeed operates a parallel service across the Channel and across the Solent in competition with two other operators, Hoverlloyd and Hovertravel. My noble friend will also be aware that Seaspeed has built up accumulated losses of some 3½ million in competing with these private companies that do not enjoy this cushion of support. Would my noble friend agree that it would be wholly wrong for Seaspeed to use this subsidised advantage to drive off the private operators? And would my noble friend also agree that at this important stage of hovercraft transport it would make a great deal more sense if operators could share the facilities of hoverports, rather than having wasteful duplication only a few miles apart? As to the future of Seaspeed, while I appreciate that the policy of Seaspeed is a matter that lies with British Rail, will my noble friend confirm that the Government would have no objection to Seaspeed either merging with independent operators or selling out their interest? Perhaps I may ask my noble friend one final question on an application of hovercraft quite foreign to transport, namely, the hoverbed. Can my noble friend advise us what progress has been made by the Medical Resarch Council on this fascinating invention?

In conclusion, I hope my noble friend can assure us to-night that the Government have not lost faith in the hovercraft industry; that they are ready to support a new development, if called upon to do so, and that they have got a positive policy to assist the industry in the face of increasing foreign competition.

7.20 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to support the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, I am sure that I express the gratitude of all those Members of your Lordships' House who are interested in Hovercraft for the interest he has taken for so long, for putting down this Question this afternoon and for keeping the torch burning. With your Lordships' indulgence I should like to tell you a little of the history of this matter. On April 16, 1958, Christopher Cockerell, as he then was, came into my office bearing close to his heart a letter of introduction from the noble Viscount, Lord Caldecote, the patent specification, a working model of the hovercraft and three pages of mathematics which gave the first explicit formulation of a new principle of the inwardly directed jet. His hovercraft invention had been on the secret list for so long and taken off so late that there was neither time nor money to make foreign patent applications within the Convention date. In this I took rash action, because the whole of the foreign patents would have been lost to the country because there was a Swiss inventor who had filed after Cockerell but before the end of the Convention date, so all those valuable patent royalties that Hovercraft Developments Limited would have earned from foreign sales would have gone to Switzerland.

The next step was the setting up of a little company called Hovercraft Developments Limited. It had a number of functions. First of all, Cockerell was given some active participation in it, patents were assigned to it and it became the focus of the first development contract for the Saunders Roe SRN 1. I call them "1", "2" and "3" but there was only one hovercraft, the SRN, which did not have a skirt; all the others had skirts. About a year after that, I had completed ten years' service with the N.R.D.C. and wanted to return to industry. Through the courtesy of my ex-colleagues I was kept informed of what was going on, but I had nothing officially to do with them because there was further use in industry for their activities. A lot of second-line supplies are necessary for hovercraft operating in different conditions: for instance, windscreen wipers. My energies were often employed in seeing that the right compon- ents reached the hovercraft builders. This was not altogether unsuccessful.

The hovercraft segmented skirt was the invention of Mr. Bliss. The skirt is a pure piece of engineering intuition, and even yet it is still not known fully how it works. Work went on under Cockerell and, with the exception of the team at Saunders Roe, anyone who is anyone in the hovercraft industry started with Hovercraft Developments under Cockerell. The segmented skirt has proved Protean in its applications. As the noble Earl said, one can convert it from the vertical to the horizontal and make a bed, one can strap it round a quarter million ton oil tank of 150 tons deadweight steel and tow it a quarter of a mile across country. One can build a platform the size of a hockey field, strap a skirt round it and manoeuvre it about ice floes. That was done in Canada. Although your Lordships may not think that people really want to move things around in this way, the surprising fact emerges that they do. Next year, a 3,000 -ton hoverplatform, complete with oil rig and living quarters for the crew, will be in operation; this follows the operation of a smaller prototype this year. Then there are the various hover-ferries with which your Lordships are familiar.

To ask, "What are the principal uses of the hover principle?" would be like asking, "What are the principal uses of the wheel?" There are no principal uses; it is a general purpose device. To say that it is general purpose and possibly ubiquitous does not mean that it is universal. One does not use a wheel in ski-ing or skating, unless one is roller skating, and there are contexts where it it better to employ a wheel than a hover machine. For draining marshes and acting as a traction device where wheeled or tracked vehicles would get bogged down, the hover platform is superb.

My Lords, during the 15 years that have passed since it all began, a number of alternatives have been tried out. First of all there are the merits of the soft or H.D.L. type skirt versus the hard or B.H.C. type skirt; there are the merits of the amphibious versus the side wall hovercraft in different contexts; there are the merits of the propeller versus the ducted fan as a means of aerodynamic drive and the elimination of noise, and these are the merits of the screw as a means of marine propulsion versus an updated paddle wheel for hydrodynamic drive. In this connection, Sir Christopher Cockerell, in retirement, looking over Southampton Water, watching the children of his brain ply up and down, is to be found surrounded by the patent literature and the text-books of the last century, re-inventing the paddle wheel as a means of silent, high-speed marine drive, going at it with his usual fertility of mind on a shoestring grant of £5,000 from the Royal Society, now nearing termination, and eked out by whatever amount of his private fortune he is prepared to invest.

With the exception of the paddle, all these matters are reaching resolution. It is beginning to be possible to specify what the noble Earl again called the second generation hovercraft; I call it the third generation, but we are talking about the same thing. It is beginning to be possible to see what the second generation will look like, and other nations are sitting up, taking notice and contemplating their design. Therefore it will be a public disaster if the Government's intention, announced through various Ministerial pronouncements both in public and private, to abandon further support for the first generation hovercraft were to be implemented. This needs to be implemented by turning it into the second generation hovercraft, and the time to do it is now. It is the wrong moment to attempt to withdraw support. Governments of all complexions—I have to address the Government of the day in this context, but if noble Lords on my left were to exchange places with noble Lords on my right I should still find myself addressing the same instruction to them—constantly preach competitiveness to industry. When will they learn to compete with other Governments with respect to the support they all give to their domestic industry in one context or another? One must practise what one preaches.

As the noble Earl has said, further Government expenditure on the hover-train was terminated. If this decision was right, if this was the right thing to do, why is it that the German industry, with Government support, is producing a slow speed hovertrain with application to suburban transport, in Toronto? Once again we have missed the bus. The patent rights are here, the know-how is here; only the will to succeed is lacking. I used to say sometimes to my colleagues at the N.R.D.C., when someone seemed to be dragging his feet, "I can provide the money but not the will power. Someone in executive control has to provide that." In those circumstances this is what we are lacking. It is no good saying that magnetic drive and suspension will be transferred to Hawker Siddeley. The leaders are the chaps with the enthusiasm, and they want to go to Imperial College, where the whole thing started; and that is where they will go if they can get the necessary support. You cannot turn to a free Englishman and say to him, "You will now be employed by Hawker Siddeley". I am afraid this is a non-starter and that is why the whole approach was no good at all.

I have posed problems to the Government, but what is the N.R.D.C. going to do about it? I do not want to address stern parental admonitions to them, but they may perhaps forgive me for a little therapeutic acupuncture, a little pinpricking. They are profitable and prosperous. They have paid off a number of loans from early days. They have several million in the bank and a large positive cash flow; they are making profit. All this is splendid and all this is derived from what my colleagues and I started a quarter of a century ago. What are the N.R.D.C. going to put that money into now? They are no longer the young commandos of mid-thirty-year-olds whom I recruited in those far off days. We are all a little older and all suffering from middle-age spread. I think they ought to try to jack themselves up from down under and work on high risk enterprises. They are ten times the size that they were in my day. That is excellent. I had £5 million to play with and I needed only £2½ million to do all that I did. They have £50 million at their disposal and they have still not drawn on more than £25 million. Their tendency has been, I think, to back low-risk enterprises on a large scale instead of doing what I believe is the right thing; that is, to back a small, select number of high-risk enterprises on a small scale to start with.

What could they do? First of all, they have had what is called a model 58 skirt in cold storage since 1967. They are just sitting looking at it. They could perfectly well put it on to a CC7 or a modified N6. I apologise for these technical names, but I have no others to use, because they go by numbers. One is a little hovercraft and the other is that which goes from Southampton across to Cowes. Scrap the model 58 skirt, which is the ultimate in soft skirt design, and resolve the problem whether you should have a soft skirt or a hard one and thereby contribute to the next generation of hovercraft.

Next, they could help the civil engineering industry to develop the high pressure skirt so that concentrated loads could move about. At the present moment the hover platform does not operate at higher than about 1 lb. per square foot (or is it square inch?—I cannot remember) but they want 10 lb. of pressure. Thirdly, they could give the industry a workhorse, a prime mover designed for hovercraft only and specifically designed. All the amphibious hover ferries currently use gas turbines for lift and propulsion picked from whatever is available in the aero-engine industry. They are much too expensive in prime cost and the upkeep cost is really frightening. They were designed to be super-lightweight objects, because weight is very important in designing a prime mover for aircraft; it is a good deal less important for hovercraft. What we want is a light industrial gas turbine suitably marinised. The Enfield Marine Company's E.M.2 freighter—and this is financed by a Greek shipping line—is using a light industrial gas turbine, but it is bought out in America. It is made by the Waukesha Motor Company and it is the 400 horse power Waukesha T400L. It was developed for standby plant, for pumping stations and so on. What we want is a workhorse hovercraft, possibly in two size ranges, a big one and a little one, or even three; and that is what N.R.D.C. could profitably do with its money.

What can the Government do? They can intervene decisively with a directive to resolve the buck-passing going on between the airport authorities and the airline operators over who ought to own hoverpads for removing crashed aircraft. It is generally agreed that this is the final solution to a most difficult problem. The obvious thing is for the airport authorities to own them. It seems absolutely absurd that every airline operator should have to own one hover platform in order to put it to use perhaps once in five years. It should be the definite responsibility of the airport authorities to own a facility which can remove anything up to a crashed Jumbo off the crowded runway and get it to somewhere where it need not be cut up into pieces. This is what has to happen to them at the moment. Lloyds are in favour of this. There would be a big export potential for this hover platform if only we could say that we are using it in this country. If we are not using it in our country the importer at the other end says: "It cannot be very good if you are not selling it to your own nationals". So here is a clear case for a Ministerial directive.

Secondly, the Government could help the operators. I will not repeat all that the noble Earl has said, because other noble Lords want to speak, and I think he said it all so clearly and ably that it is not necessary for me to do more than to say that I agree with every word. I want to see a situation in which people operating hovercraft are going to compete flat out to knock shipping out of the routes, and then we shall find out whether they really can or cannot. But so long as they are owned by British Rail, which does not want to see either of them win because it means writing the other off, they will never be allowed to compete flat out.

Then we come to the Chunnel problem. Again the noble Earl has put his finger right in the centre of this problem. He mentioned five craft, four of them N6.s and one stretched N5, distributed between Seaspeed and Hoverlloyd in the straits crossing. As the noble Earl said, they are carrying a third of the traffic. Multiply by three, and you want about 15 at about £3 million each, which is £45 million, and they take the whole of the Chunnel motor traffic as fast as the Chunnel, with as much convenience to the passengers, and the terminal facilities would be just as easy to provide—£45 million instead of (what is the latest figure?) £800 million, of which our share is half, £400 million. That is still a nearly ten to one ratio. Ought we not to do some really cool thinking about this?

It may be that the Government want to pull out, but let me again remind your Lordships what the noble Earl said about the rate at which the Americans are pulling in. They are making naval craft of up to 2,000 tons. So far they have spent, apart from current spending, £84 million. There is the £40 million or so that the noble Earl added to the development projects that are now in hand. In Britain, expenditure has been about £17 million, of which £3 million was provided by N.R.D.C. Her Majesty's Government now propose to step that down. France has spent £4 million and is stepping it up; Canada has spent £4 million and is stepping it up on an active lively research and development programme. No one knows what the Japanese have spent, but they are talking of 600 ton hovercraft for ferry work, and it is quite certain, I think, that these craft will not be military craft. But there is a big demand for military craft so far as users are concerned. The Persians seem to be building up what will in the future be a 100-knot Navy of these light craft. Is Britain going to be the only country which has not got a 100-knot Navy in a few years' time?

Remember that the Admiralty, as it then was, fought off every progressive invention from the time of the lightning conductor through the screw-driven ship up to the hovercraft themselves. One must never never listen to marine engineers on a marine problem of this kind. I regret to say that there was an anti-hovercraft lobby in the Ministry of Technology which did a tremendous amount of damage for no worthier motive than competitive empire building. I hope no trace of that lobby remains, and I would invite the noble Lord who is to reply to give an assurance that if anything is hiding under stones in the way of an anti-hovercraft lobby it will be shooed off the premises without any respect to persons.

It has been written that a prophet is without honour in his own country. It has been said that the British are good at making inventions but not good at developing them. This cannot be generally true, because we have developed a lot. But we may be slow in recognising when an invention worth developing has landed among us. It was once my official responsibility to accelerate this progress. It is still my hobby. I therefore ask Her Majesty's Government what they are going to do to practise what they preach, to compete vigorously with other Governments in respect of the support they give to what matters for the future of new growth points; it is not only hovercraft but all new growth points. So far, there has always been a massacre of the innocents every time the Government cut back on expenditure. It is always the growth points that suffer. The hovercraft is just such a growth point. Has it got to be massacred by the Government, through indifference on the one hand, or Departmental lobbies on the other?

7.40 p.m.


My Lords, I did not put my name down to speak in this Debate, but there are just two things I should like to say before the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, replies. First of all, I should like to offer my complete support for everything the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, have said. I think they have again made it abundantly clear, if that was ever needed, that this is a most important industry we are talking about, and one which deserves the utmost support from the Government for the technological advances which are its potential.

I think that all that has been said this evening has been about hovering by means of an air cushion. Indeed, in the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, piloted through this House five years ago, the Hovercraft Bill, the hovercraft was defined as an air cushion vehicle, a matter on which he and I disagreed at the time. I pointed out at that time that just as there are more ways of killing a cat than choking it with cream, as the late Charles Kingsley said, there are more ways of hovering than on an air cushion: you can be sucked up, you can rest on jets, you can rest on magnetic repulsion, particularly electro-magnetic repulsion. I do not think that I am out of order in suggesting that something that hovers by means of electro-magnetic repulsion is not a hovercraft.

If that could be agreed, I should like to make a plea once again for the hovertrain. The hovertrain, which started life as a train propelled by a linear motor but supported by an air cushion, has reached the stage of being a train not only propelled by a linear motor but supported by that same motor by electro-magnetic force. This is one of the great advances that has been made in this country in the last few years. In this field we are ahead of the Americans, the Japanese, the French and the Germans, but we are not exploiting this tremendous invention as we ought. When one learns of the immense sums which are likely to be committed to the establishment of ancient technologies, in Channel tunnels, and in long concrete runways, one feels that surely there must be the odd million or two available somewhere to support some work which could put this country in the forefront of one of the latest means of transport. It is not long since we were struggling to keep the experimental track at Earith in Cambridgeshire on which the hovertrain did its initial work; and then a few months ago Tracked Hovercraft Limited, was disbanded and the people—perhaps they did not want to go to Hawker-Siddeley, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said—went across the Atlantic. There are nine of them in North America, and it is tragic that the sort of expertise that we built up so seriously and so well should be just given away in this fashion.

I heard a rumour the other day that after all this track at Earith was not going to be thrown away, and that the vehicle would still be there for further experiment. I should like the noble Lord who is to reply to comment on this; and if he can tell us that arrangements are being made—and I have some suspicions that they are—to maintain this train so that we can demonstrate to the whole world that the British linear motor, with its transverse induction motors, can provide magnetic repulsion, can provide hovering for this new form of track, I think that we shall have an asset which will be worth many hundred of millions of pounds to us, because we should be right in the forefront of a method of travel which would not only be fast but would be extremely economic.


My Lords, I also did not put my name down to speak on this Unstarred Question put by my noble friend Lord Kinnoull, but I should like to ask whether or not, with the huge exports and home markets that this system has for the United Kingdom, there could be a Government department known perhaps as the Ministry of Hover Power? After all, it is a long time since Sir Christopher and his cocoa tin hit the headlines, and it took longer for his genius to be recognised and rewarded; yet still this Kingdom does not realise the potential of this remarkable invention.


My Lords, I am yet another one who has not put his name down, but I should like to take the opportunity of saying how much I appreciate the way that the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, has put his Unstarred Question. I only hope that if the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, has not got a speech which reacts favourably to what has been said, he will consider putting that speech aside and delivering another.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, when last my noble friend Lord Kinnoull asked an Unstarred Question in this House about the hovercraft industry just over two years ago he said that it was in dire need of confidence. He said it was at the crossroads. He said—and I think that he used the same words again to-night—that the spectacular invention of Sir Christopher Cockerell had been revealed in 1959, but the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said 1958.


May, 1957.


My Lords, he said that although 12 years' work had produced technically viable craft, their commercial viability was still in question. I should like to take the opportunity that my noble friend has given me by asking his Question to-day of bringing the record up to date and saying what the attitude of the Government is. I should like to thank my noble friend for raising this matter. I thought that he was a little doleful from time to time, but in fact he has chosen a particularly auspicious day on which to raise his Question, because to-day we have something to celebrate. For the first time a hovercraft commuter and tourist service is running on the Thames; a service which is supported by the Department of the Environment, the Greater London Council, the Greenwich Council, and a host of commercial interests. This is a venture worthy of success, and I am sure that we all wish it well. Apart from fulfilling its task of transporting passengers up and down the Thames, it will serve as a living advertisement for hovercraft to hundreds of thousands of visitors from abroad—and hovercraft are not all that easy to demonstrate all round the world, as we have found. Here we shall have, right in the centre of the Commonwealth, a visible demonstration of the virtues of hovercraft. Part of the £2 million development that I am going to speak about in a second was used for the benefit of the H.M.2—the Hover Marine side-wall craft, the type now operating the Thames service.

A great deal has happened since our last discussion. In March, 1972, we announced that £2 million would be spent during the following two years to develop and improve existing craft. As could be expected, virtually the whole of the £2 million has now been committed for a variety of projects. The British Hovercraft Corporation's SR-N4 cross-Channel craft has already been enlarged from 180 to 200 tons, and studies for a further stretch, so as to increase the pay-load, are being carried out. The smaller SR-N6 is not restricted to passenger service, and has a variety of roles. It has been used both in the Wash and on the Maplin sands. It is new being redesigned to improve control and reduce noise. In response to the demands of the environmentalists, engineering development of the Rolls Royce Proteus engine for the SR-N4 has been undertaken, and a 10-foot propellor for the SR-N6 Mark 6 and a ducted fan for the Vosper Thorneycroft VT2 have been developed with the assistance of the Government. Skirts take a large share in the cost of maintenance of all hovercraft, and new materials with a longer life and greater strength are being investigated. I take note of what the noble Earl, Lord. Halsbury, has said. These engineering and materials studies and developments are directed towards achieving cheaper operation, lower maintenance costs and greater acceptance by the public. These are almost exactly the words used by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury.

May I say right away that I have no expertise in this subject at all and that I feel rather a dwarf in a house of giants to-night, but I hope that the House will bear with me, and I shall try to deal with as many of the points that have been raised as I can. We were dis- appointed that in the battle of fares between hovercraft and hydrofoils in the Baltic, the hovercraft, as the newcomers, were defeated. Vospers are now turning to a new model, the VT2, a craft with a different type of propulsion which they plan to launch for the first time next year, mainly with an eye, I understand, on the military market.

My Lords, as to the prime mover which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, referred to, he has suggested that this could be an area where useful development could take place. It has been suggested that the industrial gas turbine rather than the aircraft gas turbine would be a more suitable prime mover for the craft and shipbuilders are searching for suitable marinised versions. The noble Earl spoke of one that has recently emerged—I think it was the Enfield Company he mentioned. Studies indicate, however, that industrial turbines are too heavy and too expensive. The weight reduces the effective payload of the hovercraft to uneconomic terms and the other advantages are outweighed by these disadvantages. Again, as the noble Earl said, and I agree with him, the problem is to find a gas turbine which has the cost advantages of industrial gas turbines but without their weight. The normal hovercraft engine is a modified aircraft gas turbine which is lighter but far more expensive.

All these developments taken together may he described as approaching the third generation of hovercraft. The noble Earl talked about the assistance that could be given to this, the sums that are available to the N.R.D.C. I am bound to say to him that it is a matter for the Corporation's judgment as to how they spend their funds. The Government cannot direct the N.R.D.C. to support any particular development, but I should imagine that he has made his views very clear to the N.R.D.C. on the development of a suitable engine. It may be that in time one single type of hovercraft may emerge as preferable to either the amphibious or the sidewall craft, but we have not yet had the benefit of Sir Christopher Cockerell's advice about his latest ideas; nor, I am bound to say, has he sought assistance from us in support of a stated objective. As between the two types, the amphibian can operate in shallow waters or over sandbanks from landing areas quite simply prepared on a beach; the sidewall craft require adequate depth of water and conventional piers, but in these conditions may well be cheaper to operate. The SR-N4 uses a British Hovercraft Corporation skirt; the new VT2 now being developed with Government assistance will demonstrate the HDL skirt on a larger craft than hitherto. Both skirts are subject to continual development and are tending to approach each other in current concepts. The new VT2 will also demonstrate the practical advantages of the ducted fan in comparison with the normal propeller, but it may well prove that the two propulsors are suitable for different types of craft.

One of the interesting features about hovercraft development, even so far as seagoing and water going craft or land operating craft are concerned, is the enormous span in size from the very small to the very large—the American type of which the noble Earl was talking. As I have said, operators are already benefiting from the investment we have made in improving the craft. Public acceptance and liking for the craft is also evident in the continual increase in the number of passengers and cars carried, particularly across the Channel. I note with great interest the figures which my noble friend Lord Kinnoull quoted. In addition to the London Hoverservices operating on the Thames, another commuter service between Southport and Blackpool began this year on May 24; one SR-N6 and one SR-N5 are employed, and outside the scheduled service are available also for pleasure and holidays trips. The scope for new domestic use is always being considered, and I have no reason to doubt that, as the advantages of the new generation of hovercraft become more widely appreciated, the demands from sophisticated communities for high speed transport by water on short haul routes will become substantial. My noble friend Lord Kinnoull referred to the Brindle Report. I can tell him that we are in close touch with the overseas development administration and craft have been sold abroad with their help. At the moment, however, it is doubtful whether the cost of the ideas proposed in the Brindle Report could be within the budget of developing countries.

My Lords, it is not usual to couple sophistication with enthusiasm, although we have certainly had a tremendous example of both in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, to-night. The Hoverclub of Great Britain, a band of highly enthusiastic amateurs who often make their own craft, has as its new President that sophisticated gentleman, Michael Bentine. The club is to be congratulated. It is, of course, the ideal means of encouraging the use of small craft for pleasure and leisure. Although some small craft are produced commercially, such as the Pindar Skima, which was demonstrated on television, the AV2 and the Cyclone, so far the small hovercraft have proved difficult to market successfully.

I have been asked about a merger between Seaspeed and Hoverlloyd. All I can say is that they are known to have discussed a merger of their Channel services—I am afraid I cannot say more about it than that. Among manufacturers, British Hovercraft Corporation and Hovermarine Transport Limited have been notably successful in their efforts to sell abroad. The BH7, produced by British Hovercraft Corporation for defence purposes, has been remarkably well received in Iran. We had already sold two there and Iran have ordered another four. Sales in Europe and the Middle East have opened up new markets, and further sales of the Hover-marine 2 and the SR-N6 in particular are in prospect or under negotiation. The BH7 is at this moment the subject of a presentation in North Virginia. Sales of complete craft do not end there: they bring in their train requirements for spares and possible modifications, besides introducing the craft to new communities.

Commercially, the British Hovercraft Corporation with its major interest in patents and licensing is constantly in touch with manufacturers in France and Germany and with potential partners in Germany. Both France and Germany participated in the E.E.C. Cost 32 project which investigated the merits of large scale hovercraft (about 2,000 tons) and the market potential for such a craft. The conclusion reached was that there would be only a small market for a very large craft, and that only a craft of at least 1,000 tons would justify multinational co-operation. Nevertheless, British Hovercraft are still hoping for co-operation in the production of a craft larger than the N4 but less than 1,000 tons. British manufacturers are already taking part in the United States defence programme. As to Anglo-French discussions, they are in progress at the present time and it is possible that French and British firms may co-operate in future developments. Discussions with other European firms are also in progress. British Hovercraft have a relationship with the Japanese industry which will bring in licence fees. In this sort of field collaboration of this kind is essential, because patents do not endure for ever. They are not extended unless it can be proved that the return has been inadequate, and on this basis it is improbable that the patents held by Hovercraft Development Ltd., the N.R.D.C. subsidiary, will be extended. They still hold some dozens of groups of patents, of which about ten are effectively used at the present time. The oldest of the patents will expire within the next few years, and others will expire within the next 12 years or so. It is difficult to identify which patents will continue to be used or what new ones will evolve, and the situation is continually in flux.

I should now like to turn to industrial applications of the hover principle, which both noble Earls mentioned, and in which some of your Lordships have a particular interest. Air Cushion Equipment is well-known as the major designer of skirts for industrial use, and this company has wisely built up connections in Europe, the Middle East and Canada, with associated companies which are licensed to use their designs. Oil storage tanks and heavy industrial equipment have been moved with ease, as the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, explained, and further applications are being exploited as the possibilities become more widely understood by industry. The British Hovercraft Corporation have sold hundreds of hoverpallets, and platforms and trailers are common.

The hoverbed, about which my noble friend Lord Kinnoull asked, and which was originated by A.C.E. for the treatment of patients with severe burns, has been taken over by the medical profession. My noble friend asked what the future holds. I can tell him that a ward in Mount Vernon in North London is currently being equipped with more installations to enable about 200 patients to be treated there. His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent is due to open the ward later this year. From the burns bed has been developed the low air loss bed for geriatric patients which prevents or heals pressure sores considerably reducing nursing time, but some further development is needed on this bed. A.C.E. also produce an aircraft salvage or removal kit, designed to remove damaged aircraft quickly from runways without further damage to the airframe. The kit costs about £100,000 to £150,000, dependent upon the size of the plane to be lifted. There has recently been an international agreement—and I think this answers the point of the noble Earl—that the home airline should be responsible for this type of equipment. The noble Lord seemed to think—


My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would explain exactly what he means by "home airline". It does not seem to make sense.


My Lords, I mean B.O.A.C. in this country, Air France in France, K.L.M. in the Netherlands and so on. The home airline, not the airport, is to be regarded as responsible. It would be an encouragement to the airlines to invest this kind of money if Lloyd's were to reduce the insurance premiums.

That is a summary of the situation as we now see it. The total market is running at about £10 million to £20 million a year. Sir Christopher Cockerell, writing in The Times just over a week ago, looked forward to a hovercraft which is larger, quieter and highly profitable, and dubbed the Channel Tunnel train the "Victoriana Express". I am certainly not qualified to argue with the inventor, nor am I prepared to question the objectivity of the Channel Tunnel Report prepared for the D.O.E. But at least I can assure your Lordships that a considerable study of the future of hovercraft preceded the Report, even if there were only four lines in the Report itself.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, asked about the hovertrain. As the first managing director of the N.R.D.C., he naturally has a very strong interest in it. I have little to add to the information given by the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping in another place on February 14 this year. We took the views and advice of individuals and organisations in both the private and public sectors into account, including those of industrial companies in the transport and mechanical, electrical and civil engineering fields. The Government did not specifically seek advice from other countries, since they already had information from foreign Governments and agencies, and also from our own posts overseas. The immediate requirement for Toronto was not the high-speed train which was being developed, but a low-speed system over a two-mile demonstration route. The fact of the matter is that there is no market in sight for the hovertrain such as to justify the many millions of pounds that would be required for its development. What the research and development into the hovertrain has brought cut—and here I come to what the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, said—are the prospects for the linear induction motor, irrespective of the means of suspension adopted, be it air cushion, magnetic or otherwise. It is for that reason that the Government accepted in principle the Hawker-Siddeley group's proposal for a linear motor development programme.


My Lords, may I intervene? The point I want to make is that the linear motor, as developed by Professor Laithwaite of Imperial College, provides the sustentation as well. It does not need to have an air cushion or any other form of sustentation associated with it. The one thing does the lot.


My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Lord. I shall certainly convey what he has said to the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping. This programme is to be jointly funded with the D.T.I., and the Government's proposals for the continued development of the linear motor will take account of all potential applications—urban, interurban and others. As my honourable friend the Minister for Aerospace said, the exploratory work on magnetic suspension will be undertaken by British Rail on behalf of the Department of the Environment, and the two programmes will be co-ordinated.


My Lords, may we know the budget for these programmes?


My Lords, I am afraid that at the present time I am not in a position to tell the noble Lord what this is. If the information is available, I shall let him know. In addition, the Select Committee on Science and Technology in another place has been conducting an inquiry into the tracked hovercraft project, and we look forward to the publication of their report in the near future, which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, will read very carefully. As to our future policy, it is unlikely that special assistance will be continued, or that the concessions granted to ships will be extended to hovercraft. The shipbuilding home credit scheme was designed to counteract a situation in which ships were built abroad rather than in the United Kingdom, because foreign shipbuilders were able to offer more advantageous credit terms than were obtainable here. The position for hovercraft is not comparable. The E.C.G.D. offer the manufacturers terms which are on balance, more favourable than those offered for ships. Manufacturers will of course compete for assistance under the Industry Act, on equal terms with other industries. The National Research and Development Corporation will also consider any proposals put to them on their commercial and technical merits.


My Lords, as the noble Lord appears to have left the hovertrain, can he answer the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, about the stretch of experimental track in Cambridgeshire? Is it to be maintained or reactivated?


My Lords, all I can say is that for the moment it is in abeyance. As it is at present, it would not be adequate for any future use. It was originally intended that it would be 4 miles long, but even that is rather scant for what is required for testing at the very high speeds that are contemplated. But I think that the RTV.31 achieved over 100 m.p.h. even on this very short track. But obviously if you are contemplating the sort of speeds that were contemplated as being capable of development, that is another matter. The trouble with the hovertrain really is the market that is concerned. The demand that one can envisage for passenger transport capable of speeds of up to 150 m.p.h. should be satisfied by more conventional transport. It is only if one wants to go above that, that one may look to the hovertrain—but not in the immediate future. The hovertrain has shown what advanced passenger transport can do. It seems logical that it is in the high speeds that, if development is to come about, one can expect development. But one cannot foresee any consumer need for it at the moment.

My Lords, the Corporation is fully aware of its statutory functions and of its financial responsibility. Hovercraft also fall within the area of responsibility for research and development covered by the Ship and Marine Technology Requirements Board, which will accept and consider any proposals put to it. So I can say to your Lordships that there is no question of the Government in any way deserting the hovercraft, but the general principle of assistance of this kind is that it is launching assistance. Further development can also be contemplated when there is a clear need for it; but I can say that the avenue for further assistance is not closed.

1964–65 1965–66 1966–67 1967–68 1968–69
Defence Budget total (current prices) (£m.) 1,998 2,120 2,172 2,205 2,271
Percentages attributable to:
(i) Research and Development* 13 12 11 10 8
(ii) Navy Production 10 12 12 12 12
(iii) Army Production 5 5 5 6 6
(iv) Air Force Production 12 13 13 12 12
Total percentages attributable to equipment* 40 42 41 40 38
1969–70 1970–71 1971–72 1972–73 1973–74
Defence Budget total (current prices) (£m.) 2,266 2,280 2,545 2,854 3,365
Percentages attributable to:
(i) Research and Development* 8 7 8 9 10
(ii) Navy Production 11 10 8 25† 27†
(iii) Army Production 5 4 4
(iv) Air Force Production 13 13 11
Total percentages attributable to equipment* 37 34 31 34 37
* These figures exclude manpower employed on intramural R&D.
† Because of changes in vote structure it is extremely difficult to continue the Service breakdown after 1971–72. The breakdown of production expenditure on Systems Votes for the final two years is:
1972–73 Per cent. 1973–74 Per cent.
Sea Systems 7 7
Land Systems 4 5
Air Systems 9 10
Guided Weapons and Electronics 5 5
Total 25 27