HL Deb 05 December 1983 vol 445 cc953-60

8.18 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The purpose of the Bill is to repeal restrictions contained in an Act of 1870 which determine the type of bridge to be maintained and built at Fosdyke on the River Welland in Lincolnshire. Passage of this Bill will permit the Department of Transport to come forward with proposals under the Highways Act 1980 for a new bridge at Fosdyke. The Bill does not authorise the new bridge, but in repealing four sections of the 1870 Act is an essential piece of preparation in the department's planning of a new bridge.

The A.17 trunk road is an important part of the department's national network. It connects East Anglia, and particularly Norfolk, with Lincolnshire, the East Midlands and the A.1. It crosses the River Welland at Fosdyke by means of a swing bridge. That bridge is now 72 years old. The bridge is narrow, to the extent that it must be controlled by traffic lights, so that it serves only one direction of traffic at a time. It is on a poor alignment with respect to the road approaching it from either side, mainly because it was built alongside an earlier bridge. So there are some rather tight corners to turn where the approach roads meet the bridge. Also, it is in poor condition, and consulting engineers advise that it should be replaced. For the moment it is quite safe, but that will be decreasingly the case without significant expenditure on an overhaul.

The bridge is unsuitable for modern traffic. Indeed, last summer the department was obliged to issue a press notice warning drivers of likely congestion at the bridge. Replacement is the obvious answer, and my right honourable friend has included such a scheme in the road programme which was published in September, in Cmnd. 9059.

There is a snag. The department inherited the bridge and the restrictions governing it when the road was taken into the trunk road network in 1946. The restrictions are embodied in the Fosdyke Bridge Transfer Act 1870, and, in particular. in Section 25 of that Act. Section 25 states: In repairing and maintaining Fosdyke Bridge, the justices or the county surveyor or any other person acting on behalf of the inhabitants of the said parts of Holland"— now, perhaps less picturesquely, that would be my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport since the road has been trunked— shall maintain a middle waterway not less than twenty-seven feet in the clear, and if the said bridge shall be rebuilt"— which it was, in 1911— then a middle waterway not less than thirty feet in the clear, together with an opening or openings of waterway on each side thereof not less than eighty feet, and the centre of the bridge shall be so constructed and maintained as to open at the top for the purpose of permitting vessels trading to and from the town of Spalding to pass through without striking any mast; and the said justices shall at all times employ and shall remunerate one or more fit person or persons to open the said bridge for the purpose of permitting vessels to pass through the same, and to close the said bridge after the passing of the vessels". Just as the 1911 bridge had to be built as an opening bridge so, under present law, must any replacement for that bridge. That is just not sensible. The river traffic on the Welland which the 1870 Act sought to protect has disappeared above Fosdyke. Investigations by the department reveal that the last vessel, trading to and from the town of Spalding", left that port in 1947.I further understand that the local highway authority has since built over the river a bridge which now landlocks the town. There is, I understand, an operational wharf to the seaward side of the Fosdyke Bridge, but this is unaffected by the present proposal.

The river traffic protected by the 1870 Act no longer exists. But like many other waterways the River Welland is used by a variety of leisure craft. This is an increasingly important use of inland waterways, and the Government welcome the sensible use of water space for recreational purposes, though they are conscious of the need for a balance among the various interests in and around the waterways.

In the present case it is fairly clear that the bulk of the leisure traffic on the Welland would be unaffected by this Bill and the subsequent building of a fixed bridge. Over the last few years the present bridge has opened only very rarely, the great majority of river traffic passing beneath without requiring a bridge opening. However, it is important that all interests should have the right of comment on proposals for the new bridge. That can happen only when the department publishes in draft the Section 106 order, which will contain details of the new bridge.

As to the effects on road traffic, I understand that there is local concern at the delays which now occur at Fosdyke because of the inadequacy of the present bridge. We are in the course of spending significant sums on improving the A.17. Late last year we opened a by-pass for Heckington, in Lincolnshire, costing nearly £3 million, and a new stretch of road nearly seven miles long from King's Lynn westward towards Fosdyke. In addition, there are a further five schemes, costing in total over £21 million, which we hope to start over the next few years. They are in the current programme. There is also the proposal for the bridge at Fosdyke, which would cost just over £2 million. To enable that proposal to play its part in our general policy of improving the capacity and safety of the A.17, we need to repeal the restrictions on the type of replacement bridge that we may build. These restrictions are now unnecessary.

I now turn specifically to the Bill before your Lordships. It has two clauses. The first of these contains the repeal of four sections of the 1870 Act concerned with the replacement of the bridge. The sections are as follows. First, there is Section 25, which I earlier read out. Then there is Section 29, which requires the bridgeowner—now, as I have explained, the Secretary of State—in his proposals for rebuilding to submit plans of the new bridge for the approval of the Board of Trade. Section 30 requires the exhibition of lights on or near the bridge during rebuilding, as required or approved by the Board of Trade. Section 32 concerns the recovery of costs of any Board of Trade survey of any bridge constructed in the stead of the bridge then existing.

I think that I have adequately explained why Section 25 should be repealed. The three other sections—Sections 29, 30 and 32—protect the position of the Board of Trade in the event of rebuilding the bridge. Those sections of the 1870 Act are redundant and need to be repealed because the Secretary of State is now, and will remain, the highway authority for the bridge, and now also exercises those powers of the Board of Trade which the sections protect. In promoting a new bridge the Secretary of State for Transport would have to satisfy himself as to the plans of the new bridge and as to the exhibition of lights, as he would do for any other bridge that he proposes to construct over navigable waters. There is no need for a specific requirement. The Bill's second clause contains its citation.

Although the department's proposals for a new bridge lie beyond the scope of the present Bill, it may be for your Lordships' convenience if I explain what are the department's intentions in this regard. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State will promote an order under Section 106 of the Highways Act 1980 describing in detail the proposed new bridge, and he will publish the order in draft for public comment. In the event of opposition from those with a direct interest in the proposal there would be an independent public inquiry into it, since Section 106 attracts the provisions of Schedule 1 to the 1980 Act. There will thus be the opportunity for public consideration when the design of the new bridge has been developed in detail.

To set that course of events in train we need the repeal of those sections of the 1870 Act which I mentioned earlier. That will enable the department to provide at Fosdyke a bridge adequate to modern needs.

Finally, I should tell your Lordships that my department has undertaken extensive advertisement of the present Bill, and I understand that no petitions have been entered against it. My Lords. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Lucas of Chilworth.)

8.30 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for explaining the Bill in detail. This certainly gives those such as myself a much better understanding than hitherto of what is intended by the Bill. Although it is a few years since I was in the Spalding area and travelled over the bridge, I recognise the importance of its replacement. The Minister has made clear that, in recent years, there has been really no commercial traffic at all.

I should like to ask whether there is the possibility of any commercial firm taking advantage of the 1981 Section 36 provision for grants to be made for facilities to assist persons who wish to use the waterway for commercial use. If that is a possibility, one should not overlook the potential of a bridge with a waterway in the middle. I take it from what the Minister says that the matter is completely open and that the type of bridge has not been determined. If it has already been determined in the mind of the Department, the issue of Section 36 grants becomes very important. The House would not wish to approve a measure that may be determined on cost if it will prohibit commercial use of the waterway.

It is important to know whether there are any concerns that are likely in the future to wish to use Section 36 grants. Once a lower bridge—a fixed bridge—is built, there is no possibility of doing that. Has the Minister any idea of what would be the cost of not having a fixed bridge in relation to the £2 million which he says is estimated by the Department. I take his reference to the order being published means that, if necessary. there will be proper planning consideration and that all the organisations concerned will be able to put their point of view. The Minister said that the Government had published the terms of the present Bill. Has there been any direct consultation with the local authorities in the area? Has there been any direct consultation with commercial and other users of the river?

8.33 p.m.

Lord Wise

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of this small Bill. It is a measure of some importance to the communications of East Anglia. I think, if my memory is correct, that I made my maiden speech in your Lordships' House in February 1969. Again, if I recollect correctly, I think I stressed that, in my opinion, improvements to the A.47, continuing to the A.17, were of equal importance to East Anglia as improvements to the A. 11. I stressed that with the expansion of the port of King's Lynn and the other eastern ports and the considerable industrial development taking place in Norfolk at that time, together with the ever-increasing volume of holiday traffic, a modern east-west route to the northern part of the region was essential.

I appreciate that since that time much has been done to improve East Anglia's road links with the rest of the country. The improvements to the A.12 and the A.45 have been most useful, and we now have, not the A.11, but that wonderful motorway the M.11, which I find most useful in journeying to your Lordships' House. However, I also use and frequently travel along the A.17. I have to confess that I still become bad-tempered and frustrated every time that I do so. There is a fair amount of work still to be done on it. Travelling to Norfolk one feels as though one is coming to a remote corner. This is especially true when travelling from the Midlands because it is such a twisty, twirling and shocking road.

The population of East Anglia is growing rapidly and industrial development, much of it light industrial development, is taking place. We deserve good roads. They are an absolute necessity. The A.17 is our main road to the Midlands and to the A.1 and from there to the North of England. The main obstacle in Norfolk has been removed by the bypassing of King's Lynn, Swaffham and Dereham. This constitutes a welcome reduction in the time taken on journeys either way. Recently the stretch of road to the west of King's Lynn has been improved tremendously. Two or three villages have been by-passed. I think that my noble friend said that seven miles of new road is being constructed. I was most interested to hear of the other improvements planned for this road in the road programme. I hope that they will be carried out quickly because it seems a long time since I first asked for them in 1969.

Obviously, improvement or, better still, replacement of the bridge at Fosdyke is an essential part of this programme of improvements. The A.17 is a busy road. I suppose that it is surprising to think of congestion in the middle of the Fens. But this bridge causes considerable congestion especially in the summer when the road carries much visitor and holiday traffic. In fact, it is busy all the year round with all types of traffic, much of it heavy duty lorries. It is a bottleneck. So far as I can see, there is no easy route for diverting the traffic around the bridge. I suppose that one would need to make a detour by Spalding, but that is a long way round. I would not like to estimate the number of miles, but I do not imagine that the townsfolk would welcome more traffic being sent their way. They would probably be calling very quickly for a bypass to be constructed.

It is difficult to see that widening the present bridge would serve much purpose because it is old. It would probably be more expensive to do this than to replace it completely. In fact, complete replacement seems the only sensible solution. I understand from the speech of my noble friend that the department is inhibited from proceeding by the outdated and unnecessary restrictions contained in the 1870 Act. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was concerned about the commercial traffic that may need to use this waterway. I would not have thought that that fear arises. I cannot see much commercial traffic of any size wanting to use it.

Obviously, the building of a new bridge could cause inconvenience to the occasional yachtsman who wants to pass underneath it. Being a yachtsman myself, I can appreciate this. But in all probability the bridge would be high enough—at least I hope that it would be—to enable small sailing dinghies to pass underneath without any problem. Against this, we have to balance the needs of East Anglia and the thousands of drivers who use this road daily. I suggest that the advantages to them greatly outweigh the disadvantages to the occasional yachtsman. There is simply no comparison. I wish strongly to support the Bill, and I hope that your Lordships give it a Second Reading.

8.38 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I have come very late to this problem. In fact, when I came up today I did not even know we were debating the Bill, but I have received some information from the locality of the Fosdyke Bridge. I should like to put some points of view. Whenever we talk about a bridge, we are balancing the interests of two groups of people—the people who go over the bridge and those who go under it. The noble Lord, Lord Wise, devoted most of his speech to the former group. I do not dispute that the bridge apparently needs to be replaced and that many motorists need to use it. We are not suggesting that it should be done away with. However, my information does not entirely accord with that of the noble Lord the Minister on the use of the river at present.

I wonder whether the noble Lord can tell me something or, if necessary, write to me about the question of dredging. If the new fixed bridge is high enough to permit a dredger to pass underneath it, then I imagine that any other normal river traffic would also be able to pass underneath. Certainly I imagine that sailing dinghies will not require as much clearance as a dredger.

I was born in the Fens although I do not live there now. However, I understand that silting up is a constant problem. I am told that the banks are maintained with stone from beyond the bridge so that dredgers must be able to pass underneath the bridge. That is the first and probably the most important point that I want to make. I am also told that fertiliser reaches Fosdyke from the east, from seaward. So it would equally seem necessary that the bridge should permit the passage of whatever boats are involved. Clearly if they are barges they will not need very much clearance. I am told—and this may be a vanishing activity—that there are still fishermen who pass under the bridge on their way to their fishing grounds. It would he a pity if that activity were to be stopped. But again I imagine that if the bridge will permit a dredger to pass underneath it, then it will also permit a normal fishing boat.

Pleasure craft have been referred to by, I think, both noble Lords who have spoken previously. Clearly any bridge that will permit a dredger will also be all right for those craft. I do not want to detain the House. However, I should be very pleased if the Minister would consider these points and feed them, if necessary, to those people who will be concerned with the preparation of the Section 106 order of which he has told us.

8.42 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, my noble friend Lord Wise and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for taking an interest in this small but very important Bill. I do not have anything further to add to what I said when introducing the Bill. However, I shall answer as many questions as I can because we appear to have ample time this evening. Perhaps your Lordships will bear with me if I am a little long winded. Those noble Lords who will be returning for the Committee stage will be some little while yet.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me a number of questions. He specifically asked me about the position as regards Section 36 grants. I can confirm that that matter is completely open. It would probably be a matter for debate in the event of there being a public inquiry. However, we know of no concerns such as those of which the noble Lord spoke. That answer will probably also apply to the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, who spoke about commercial shipping and the fertiliser trade. Apart from a small boatyard up-river of the bridge—that is somewhere about five or six miles from Fosdyke Bridge towards Spalding—there is no commercial activity. The existing wharf shown on any map has been derelict for some years. However, the boatyard has a thriving business in small craft, but the number of times that the bridge has been opened during the last four years is as follows; in 1979 it was opened six times; in 1980 it was opened 21 times—we do not quite know why the number shot up then—in 1981 it fell back to seven times and in 1982 it was opened six times. Not one of those openings was for commercial craft. The waterway gives certain rights for commercial craft but none for pleasure craft. So if these openings were for pleasure craft going to the boatyard, it would seem unlikely that the boatyard would be seriously disadvantaged in the event of any subsequent bridge being too low or in any other way prohibiting the passage of those six vessels.

On the other hand there is a wharf on the seaward side of the bridge which is busy and which I understand has had quite a lot of money spent on it. Their concern, as expressed to the department, is that, in the building of a new bridge access from the road must not be impaired in any way. That again is a matter that would come out in the consultation process that would follow a draft order.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, also asked about the bridge being a fixed bridge. I do not wish to be negative about this matter, which was also referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNair, who spoke about a "new" bridge. I do not know what the new bridge will be, because the design has not yet been put in hand. It would seem sensible, in the light of what I have said, for it to be a fixed bridge. The difference in cost is something between £1.9 million for a fixed bridge and £2.2 million for an opening, lifting bridge. That is the capital cost involved at 1983 prices. There is, however, the additional cost of maintaining an opening bridge. That is reckoned to be, in capital terms, something like £39,000.

Consultations have taken place already both with the River Users' Association and with the local authorities. Perhaps I should add that the navigation authority for the River Welland is the Anglian Water Authority. Upstream of the bridge the Welland is designated as a recreational waterway and it is the Anglian Water Authority Act 1977 that gives them the powers to improve moorings and the river bed, and to levy charges and so on.

Downstream the pilotage authority is Boston/Spalding and they have indicated that they do not oppose this Bill. So there need be no confusion in the minds of noble Lords that anybody is being denied anything to which they have a right. Certainly the light craft interests, to which my noble friend referred, will have an opportunity of making their feelings abundantly clear when the draft order is laid.

My noble friend Lord Wise spoke about the time element. He will recall that I said in my opening remarks that there are five schemes currently in the road programme totalling £21 million. This represents, therefore, a continuing process of improvement to the road. I think my noble friend also asked about the timing of the bridge. One would anticipate, standing here shortly before Christmas 1983, that 1987 might not be an unreasonable time to realise this new bridge.

I think that I have answered all the questions which have been raised by noble Lords. If I have missed anything, noble Lords may be quite assured that I shall write to them. Indeed, if, on reflection, they have any further questions, I shall, of course, be very pleased to deal with them.

The real purpose of this Bill is to prepare the ground for proceeding with a sensible piece of modernisation of an important road. Although it carries some 10,000 vehicles a day, about 2,000 of which are heavy goods vehicles, we are also not unmindful of the half dozen vessels that pass underneath the bridge. This is an important development. If, indeed, my noble friend, who has such knowledge of this part of the country, has any great interest in the old bridge or has any contact with the Industrial Archaeological Society, my right honourable friend will be very happy to receive offers for the old bridge when it is taken away. On that basis, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 9.10 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.52 to 9.10 p.m.]