HL Deb 15 March 1983 vol 440 cc604-16

3.7 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

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

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

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Select Committee.

Lord Tordoff rose to move, That it be an Instruction to the Select Committee to whom the Bill is committed that they should carefully consider whether the power of the councils to charge tolls for the use of the tunnels should not cease on completion of the M.25 motorway of which they will be an integral part.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. In a Written Answer published yesterday from the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to my noble friend Lord Evans of Claughton, the following words occur: Successive Governments have followed the principle that tolls should be charged on estuarial crossings which are exceptionally expensive to construct, and which offer exceptional advantages to their users, as compared with alternative routes.". The Written Answer concludes with the words: The Government are not considering the abolition of tolls".

My Lords, I should like your Lordships to dwell on the words "offer exceptional advantages to their users, as compared with alternative routes", because I intend to return to them later. I make no secret that we on these Benches take a different view on the subject of estuarial crossings and tolls from that taken by the Government. In saying that, I want to make it clear that that is not what I am here to talk about today. The general matter of tolls on estuarial crossings is something which will have to wait for another day. I understand the position of respective Governments; I merely say that ours is different on the major principle.

Today's Motion refers specifically to an Instruction to be put to the Select Committee relating to the Dartford Tunnel, and specifically to the time when that tunnel becomes an integral part of the M.25 motorway. I do not have to tell your Lordships that the M.25 is an important strategic link in the movement of goods and people between the North of England and the Channel ports and vice versa and a means of reducing congestion on the roads of Greater London.

I should like to start with one or two general points on the financing of the Dartford Tunnel. In another part of the Written Answer which Lord Lucas was good enough to supply to my noble friend, he said: Tolls are limited by statute to levels which will cover the full costs of the structure, including operating costs and interest charges, over a specified period.".

I would suggest that experience tells us that the tolls are falling short of achieving that end. It is true that the Dartford Tunnel produces an operating surplus and that after the payment of operating costs and maintenance costs the operating surplus in 1977–78 was £1.7 million and that in the last year, 1980–81, it was £3.73 million. While it may be covering its operating costs, it is not reducing the capital debt charges. These are growing continuously. They have grown from £5.4 million in 1978, through the opening of the new part of the tunnel, to a level of £62.7 million in 1982. Interest charges are now running at an annual rate of around £8 million. The ratepayers of Kent and Essex are saddled with these charges, and there is no chance, in my submission, of these being paid off at any time in the foreseeable future.

It was against this background that the Essex County Council persuaded Kent County Council to join in a delegation to see Mrs. Lynda Chalker to invite the Department of Transport to take over the charges of the tunnel. This was turned down by the Department of Transport for the not surprising reason that the Treasury would not wear it. Kent then insisted on going ahead with this Bill—somewhat against the wishes of the Essex County Council, I understand—on the threat that, if it was not a joint Bill, Kent would promote it and would precept Essex, anyway.

One notable point about the Bill is that, unlike the earlier Bill, no time limit is written into it. It is true that in Clause 33, page 23, line 29, we have the following words: So soon as the excess sum and all moneys borrowed by the Councils … have been repaid together with interest thereon and the maintenance fund and the reserve fund … are fully funded the power to demand, take and recover tolls … shall cease". But that will not happen at the present rate of tolls. It is true that doubling or trebling of tolls could perhaps begin to make inroads into these capital charges. That might be feasible were there no alternative routes for the users of the road. But in practice, as we know, there are several options open to users of the tunnel. They can go through the Blackwall Tunnel. They can use the Central London bridges, but neither of these is a sensible alternative if we really want to reduce the congestion on London's roads. Every time that I travel into London in the morning by car and listen to the local radio I hear that a lorry has broken down in the Blackwall Tunnel. Although I have never been through the Blackwall Tunnel myself I feel that I know it intimately. It is clearly a black spot in the London network of roads. The Dartford Tunnel is likely to offer considerable relief to that.

This would be bad enough without the advent of the M.25. What I am suggesting to your Lordships this afternoon is that the M.25 brings a new dimension to the problem. Its purpose, as we know, is to provide an efficient ring road round Greater London, to divert heavy traffic from the populated areas and, as I said earlier, to provide an easy route from the manufacturing heartlands of our country to the Channel ports and the return. It is also an integral part of the whole strategy of the development of East London. When it is functioning it is expected that about 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. of the traffic at present using the A.2/A.1/M.1 corridor will be diverted on to the M.25 and that as much as 25 per cent. of the heavy goods traffic on those routes will use the M.25.

I suggest that if these tolls continue, and particularly if they are increased, this will be a significant disencentive to people using that route. Instead of using that route, people will continue to drive through places like Newham, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets and the whole of the East End development will be inhibited. It is also possible that people who are inhibited from using the Dartford Tunnel because of the tolls will divert westwards. It is slightly ironic that the crossing of the Thames on the westward side between Egham and Staines has been paid for by the Government as part of the construction of the M.25.

The problem of diverting traffic westward is that it will get into the already saturated conditions—or the conditions which are expected to be saturated—round Heathrow, with the consequent knock-on effect of Heathrow traffic being diverted back on to the local roads again. There is a considerable amount of traffic already using this area and this will be increased when the M.25 is opened on its western sector, even if for no other reason than the traffic moving between Heathrow and Gatwick.

I return to the quotation from the Written Answer of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, which said, tolls should be charged on estuarial crossings … which offer exceptional advantages to their users".—[Official Report, 10/3/83; col. 419.]

I am suggesting that the exceptional advantages in the case of the Dartford Tunnel do not exist in the way in which they do in some of the remoter estuarial crossings. The distances over which vehicles have to divert to avoid paying tunnel tolls are much smaller and the disadvantages of allowing that to happen are very great.

A further consideration is one of safety. Already the traffic will have to funnel down from three lanes into two lanes to go to the tunnel. The standing committee of the Royal Automobile Club, the Automobile Association and the Royal Scottish Automobile Club—an organisation with which the noble Lord the Minister has some sympathy and of which he has knowledge—believes that the presence of toll booths can cause delays with queues building up at the toll booths, additional costs to the users and serious road safety implications. I think we should bear that in mind.

I put it to your Lordships that there is a substantial prima facie case here for the removal of tolls from the Dartford Tunnel when it is intergrated with the M.25. The M.25 is part of the strategic plan, not only for the South-East of England, not only for our capital city, but for the whole country as a gateway to Europe. I believe it is a national responsibility. I am not asking your Lordships to make a hasty decision this afternoon, but I am merely asking that your Lordships support a Motion instructing the Select Committee to consider this matter with due care. I hope that at this stage the Government will not oppose this Motion. I beg to move.

Moved, That it be an Instruction to the Select Committee to whom the Bill is committed that they should carefully consider whether the power of the councils to charge tolls for the use of the tunnels should not cease on completion of the M.25 motorway of which they will be an intergral part.—[Lord Tordoff.]

3.16 p.m.

Lord Irving of Dartford

My Lords, in speaking to the Instruction I want to say that I have lived with the problems related to the Dartford Tunnel for 30 years. In 1952 I joined the Dartford Borough Council and, with the exception of one year, I have remained a member ever since and for the majority of that time I was the Member for the constituency. The first thing I did was to campaign with others for the first Dartford Tunnel. I have increasingly been dismayed at the anomalous position that has been created and is to go on into the future. When the Minister of Transport, then Mr. Ernest Marbles, announced the sanctioning of the tunnel he said that he was sorry it would be a toll tunnel but that in 20 years it would be free as the tolls would go.

Before the first tunnel was completed, people like Sir Peter Kirk, who was then the Member for Gravesend, and I were campaigning for the second tunnel. Right from that moment traffic has never stopped increasing, and it will go on increasing. But here we are 20 years on, and far from being a free tunnel the debt outstanding now is £66 million. There is no prospect of the debt being liquidated until well into the next century and only then if there is a massive increase in tolls. The increase has been steep already—180 per cent. since 1976.

The facts are, as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned, that there is an operating cost of £2 million, an operating surplus of £3½ million, and a debt interest repayment of £8 million, which shows one why there is so much anxiety about the continuance of the tolls and the danger that the tolls will get ever steeper. Incidentally, these figures are based on an inflation rate of 5 per cent. and an interest rate of 9 per cent.

Initially the tunnel was a means of linking Essex and Kent, although right from the beginning it took on a wider significance. This was acknowledged by the European Investment Bank, which made a very large loan for the second tunnel at very generous rates of interest to assist the communications in this part of the world. It was already seen as being a means of reducing the congestion in London. Parallel to the construction of the tunnel there was to be an orbital road around London. It was first proposed in 1905 and was then put in the Bressey Report of 1935. It then became part of Abercrombie's London plan in 1944 but nothing was done for 20 years. As one knows, in this country the mention in a report, however important, is no guarantee of progress.

The M.25 and the A.282 (which is the Dartford Tunnel itself) form a continuous link from the A.13 to the M.20 at Swanley. The M.20 will be opened from the A.13 to the A.1 by the end of January 1984 and this will complete—this is the essence of our case—the important link from the Midlands to the Channel ports, a purpose-built road relieving many parts of London. I should remind your Lordships that the annual load going through London is 250 million tonnes, 92 per cent. of which goes by road. Of the 8,000 miles in London we have only 56 miles of dual carriageway and 22 miles of motorway. We have the worst roads of any major city in Europe, which is all the more reason why we should use the investment we have to bring out of London the traffic which would otherwise go there. We know from Continental experience that a number of people will avoid using toll roads because of the cost. This is happening and will continue to happen as far as the Dartford Tunnel is concerned.

Here in Britain we have set our faces against tolls on motorways, and yet we continue to maintain tolls on an essential part of the most important motorway in the country which has been given maximum priority by all Governments in recent times. Of course, in addition to discouraging some traffic from using it, the significance is that at peak periods there is very considerable congestion. This causes long delays and considerable increases in industrial costs, and brings endless frustration to the people who have to use it. Also, as I think the RAC and the AA have pointed out, it is a matter which has road safety implications.

Rather than taking the logical step of freeing the tunnels from tolls, the committee is having to spend more money on the establishment next year of additional booths to deal with the traffic which is going to come as a further result of the completion of the M.25. As I say, this measure will be overtaken very quickly by events, and those booths will still not be able to handle the whole traffic and to give the maximum relief from traffic coming from London. Can planning or common sense be worse served? I appeal to the Government to free the tunnels and let the traffic flow. The new multi-billion poundsworth of roll-on roll-off installation which is being established adjacent on Stone Marshes near to the tunnels will again add very considerably to the traffic.

Clause 23 is giving a number of local authorities like my own considerable cause for concern because it is diminishing their opportunity to be consulted, and in some places is extinguishing it altogether. If the Thurrock and Dartford Borough Councils have not got an interest in this, I do not know who has, and I hope that the Committee will look very carefully at that when they are dealing with the Bill. There are two ways of dealing with the matter. It has been suggested that a time limit could be placed in the Bill so that when the M.25 has been completed the tunnel's tolls should cease. The alternative is that the Bill could be withdrawn altogether to allow time for this action to be taken and, in the meantime, the automatic repealing of the operation of the 1972 Act could be postponed by ministerial order.

I want to make one final observation. The worst possible thing that could happen would be for this burden of debt to be placed on local authorities. It would be inequitable and unacceptable, and I hope that the Committee will look very carefully at this matter. Let us allow the road, the estuarial crossing of the M.25, to go ahead properly in relation to the new development. Let us get the maximum cost benefit from what has been a massive investment. I hope the Government will understand that it is in everyone's interest to allow this debt to be properly and centrally funded and not to be borne by the local authorities. In that way we shall get the maximum use of a road which is probably one of the finest in the country and which ought to be used to the maximum to relieve the traffic in London.

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, in speaking in favour of the Dartford Tunnel Bill, I must declare my interest as vice-chairman of the Essex County Council and an Essex ratepayer. You Lordships will know that the Bill is jointly promoted by Kent and Essex County Councils to replace the Dartford Tunnel Act 1967. However, I am not a member of the Tunnel Joint Committee.

The Dartford Tunnel Bill, like all local legislation, is caught by the provisions of Section 262 of the Local Government Act 1972 and therefore expires at the end of 1984 and requires renewal. The original legislation was passed by Parliament on the basis that no part of the cost of running the tunnels would fall on the ratepayers of Kent and Essex; and that remains today a very important principle, on which the need for this new Bill especially rests.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, is moving an Instruction to the Select Committee: that they should carefully consider whether the power of the councils to charge tolls for the use of the tunnels should not cease on completion of the M.25 motorway of which they will be an integral part. That point of view will, I understand, also be put by the petitioners to the Select Committee, and so I do not intend to divide the House on that Instruction, as the Select Committee will have to consider the matter in any case. For many years the county councils have been making representations to successive Governments for financial assistance, both individually and as part of the consortium of local authorities responsible for tolled estuarial crossings—the Mersey, Tyne and Dartford tunnels and the Humber bridge. I have letters here in 1976, in March 1979 and in 1980, where successive Governments have always firmly adhered to the principle, and I quote— that the costs of expensive new river crossings like the Dartford Tunnel should be paid for by tolls. The common feature of such crossings is that they offer exceptional saving in both time and cost to those who use them and are very expensive to provide and maintain. The Government think it is right that those who benefit from them should contribute to their cost through tolls". The Government's principle is that the costs should be paid for by the user rather than by the taxpayer. If the councils were not allowed to levy tolls but still retained responsibility for the tunnels, the result would be even more iniquitous, as the ratepayers of Kent and Essex would have to foot the bill for the Dartford Tunnel—an important part of the national road system which will be completed later during this decade. At the present time the ratepayers of Kent and Essex do not pay the cost of the tunnel as the interest is capitalised.

When considering promoting this Bill, and before doing so, Essex County Council decided to make yet one more approach to the Department of Transport to persuade them to take over the tunnels as an integral part of the M.25 to be completed in the next few years. After consultation, Kent decided to accompany us on a joint deputation, of which I was a member. However, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mrs. Lynda Chalker, said that there was no hope of persuading the Treasury to accept responsibility for the tunnels, and consequently there was no question of the Government taking over the tunnels at the present time; and that we must promote the present Bill to allow us to levy tolls and prevent the burden falling on our ratepayers. The councils have a common law liability to keep the tunnels open and the loan debt stands at £62 million; so the power to levy tolls is vital.

The Dartford Tunnel Committee, in accepting the Government's principle, however reluctantly, therefore plan to levy tolls so that the revenue should be sufficient to cover the servicing and the ultimate repayment of the capital debt as well as the maintenance costs of the crossings. It is anticipated that all outstanding capital and interest should be paid off by 1998. This, the promoters believe, can be achieved with reasonable increases in the tolls around the level of inflation, as the traffic is expected at least to double by the late 1980s. It is then intended to set up reserve and maintenance funds so that as soon as possible after that the tunnels should become toll-free. The aim of the councils is therefore the earliest possible removal of the tolls, but at no cost to their ratepayers.

If the Select Committee in coming to their decision were to accept the Instruction proposed then, in fairness to the ratepayers of Essex and Kent, it would be essential for them to recommend also that the Government take responsibility for the costs of the tunnels and make a national decision as to whether or not to charge tolls on a part of the M.25 motorway. The promoters would welcome the abolition of tolls if the costs of the tunnels were to become the responsibility of the Government. But if that is not to be the case, the Instruction leads to the worst of all possible worlds for the councils. If the councils were no longer able to charge tolls, but still retained responsibilities for the tunnels, they would be in an impossible situation, with the costs of an integral part of a national motorway falling on the local ratepayers. I hope that, after carefully considering the matter, the Select Committee will decide to support the Bill as it stands.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certain that the House will appreciate the speech which we have just heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Platt, speaking as she does as a member of the Essex County Council, while my noble friend Lord Irving, supporting a contrary viewpoint, has local authority connections in Kent. I have a number of interests in this matter. First, there are my transport responsibilities; but, secondly, I happen to be one of the ratepayers of the noble Baroness, Lady Platt. I reside in Essex and I use the Dartford Tunnel whenever I go into Kent or to the Channel ports, and the new M.25 will be linking up with the M.11 not far from my home. Therefore, I know the benefit which the M.25 will bring to that side of the county and of London.

We are not just talking about a normal estuarial crossing. The M.25 is to be a major orbital motorway, and as has already been said when completed it will be a vital link with the Midlands and the North for traffic going through to the Channel ports. There is already a considerable amount of construction work taking place on the Essex side, and when the motorway is completed the tunnel will be part of it, as it goes right the way through.

Apart from this important link with the Midlands and the North, a major objective of the motorway is to divert traffic from London, especially the large number of heavy lorries which now go through the capital. Even lorries with business interests in London will find the M.25 of great benefit to them. As we know from the Armitage Report, the majority of vehicles going through London have business there. But the M.25 will still enable vehicles, particularly lorries, to use the orbital route until they have to come into London at whichever point is convenient to them. Tunnel usage is bound to increase and, obviously, delays due to toll collections must be avoided. It has been said that the Standing Committee representing the three private motorists' organisations and the freight haulage interests have opposed the provisions in the Bill.

I must make it clear that I can readily understand that Essex and Kent have to promote a Bill because there will otherwise be a vacuum unless the Government accept this as a national responsibility. We know that many people who use the Dartford Tunnel are not ratepayers of either Essex or Kent. The M.25 will greatly expand that number, and a considerable number of persons using the M.25 will have no interests, connections or associations with either Essex or Kent.

Your Lordships have already heard figures for the mounting debt and it may be argued by the Minister—I hope that it will not be argued—that the way out of this difficulty is to increase the toll charges. But one has to think of what will happen when freight haulage operators are faced with increased toll charges. There are other road developments under consideration, such as the Woodford-Barking relief road. I live in the next district to Woodford, so I know what will happen there. Also, the East London river crossing is under contemplation. If toll charges for the Dartford Tunnel are increased in order eventually to wipe out the debt—and it has been stressed that the debt is increasing each year—what will happen when these relief roads which are being contemplated in a very congested part of East London are completed? Instead of helping to relieve the traffic, motorists and lorries will tend to use those roads rather than use the Dartford Tunnel.

This is an issue which can be helped by the Government. The Government could today assist the Select Committee. If not, I hope that this instruction will be given to the Select Committee. It is an Instruction to them to consider, and in considering the matter I am certain that they will bear in mind all the points that have been made in this debate. Then, if necessary, they can come forward with a proposal, which I hope will be that this should be a national responsibility—because the M.25 will be an important part of our national motorway system—and that the Government should take over the financial responsibility for the tunnel. That seems to be the logical conclusion. We can understand why the Bill has had to be promoted now, but the Government can greatly assist the Select Committee. If they do not, I hope that the Select Committee will tell the Government what should be the position.

I therefore support the Instruction.

3.37 p.m.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, before the noble lord, Lord Aberdare, replies, may I just support my noble friends Lord Irving and Lord Underhill? Recently, I had the privilege of being driven over the beautiful Humber Bridge at six o'clock on a Wednesday evening, for which the toll charge was £1.50. I gather that the charge for freight traffic is £6.50. We were the only car passing either way over that vast bridge at six o'clock on a Wednesday evening. In other words, people were still using the long route rather than using this bridge which has been constructed for them. I suggest that this is exactly what will happen in the case of the tunnel which we are now discussing, if people can avoid paying the toll. Surely, the receipts were not even paying the wages of the people collecting the toll on the Humber Bridge. Our great roads, our great tunnels and our great bridges must be the responsibility of the nation.

3.38 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester

My Lords, I wonder whether I may be allowed to intervene very briefly before the Minister replies. Much has been said about the importance of the Dartford Tunnel to through traffic, and the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, referred to the undesirability of such largely heavy traffic taking alternative routes through London. As a resident of Kent, I should like to say a brief word on behalf of those who live in Kent and Essex, because local traffic in this part of the world is also very heavy. There is a surprising number of people who live in Kent and work in Essex, and vice versa, and the daily toll which they are called upon to pay is a very heavy one for them to face.

Moreover, since the tunnel was opened, one alternative route from Kent to Essex—the ferry crossing at Gravesend—has been brought to an end for motor traffic. That is a loss not so much to the through traffic but certainly to much local traffic. Therefore, I hope very much that the Select Committee will be asked to look very carefully at this matter because I believe that it is of great importance to people in both counties as well as to the big firms that are sending traffic right across the country by this route.

3.40 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My lords, this is a Private Bill. All I can say to the noble Lord who suggested that the Government should postpone it is that it is not in the Government's remit to postpone the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, recognised the necessity for the Bill. Without it, a vacuum will be caused in a year or two.

The Government are in favour of the Bill. In particular, we support Clause 22, which enables the two county councils to continue to levy tolls. The Government recognise that the question of tolls over estuarial crossings is one which keenly concerns your Lordships' House. Noble Lords have this afternoon given support to the arguments put forward by motoring and freight organisations for their version of tolls. It is a matter to which the Government have given thought over recent years. The question was examined most particularly in 1979. As a result of that review, the Government were quite convinced that the policy which had been adopted by successive Governments over many years was sound and should be maintained: the policy that expensive estuarial crossings which confer exceptional benefits on users should be financed by those who use them—not by the taxpayer or, necessarily, by the ratepayer.

The policy is reasonable. The provision and maintenance of this type of crossing over wide estuaries is certainly more costly than building roads on land or bridging narrow rivers. I went to Cardiff about three weeks ago and crossed the bridge at Cardiff. To be asked to pay 40 pence seemed to me to be a very small price for the tremendous savings in time and distance which that crossing achieves. All crossings offer savings in time and money. Surely the right reverend Prelate would agree that such a crossing, at 50 pence, will save an enormous amount of time for business people moving from Kent to Essex; and with the cost of motoring would certainly reflect a saving. The policy to which I have drawn attention has been repeatedly endorsed by Parliament in various enabling Acts under which crossings have been provided, and I can see no reason for change at this time.

May I turn to two points which have been made? The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, referring to the rising debt. The debts were low in the early 1960s because the money to build the second tunnel had not then been borrowed. The bulk of the present interest charges relates to the second tunnel, which was built in 1967. The Kent and Essex county councils say that in a few years' time they will start to repay the debt and that they expect to repay it entirely by 1998, as my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle reminded the House. There is no doubt that the present Government's financial policies, particularly with regard to the reduction in inflation and interest charges, will make that job a little easier.

The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, mentioned the tunnel's capacity. Doubts have been raised as to whether the tunnel can cope with the traffic which will be brought by the M.25. It may be helpful at this stage if I outline what has been done and what is planned. The department have already agreed to provide a 100 per cent. grant to the Dartford Tunnel Joint Committee so that the approach roads which link the M.25 to the tunnel may be widened to three-lane carriageways in each direction. Work on the Essex side is nearing completion. Work on the Kent side, which is technically more difficult, will be started shortly. Together, this work will represent a Government investment of over £14 million. It may also be that the toll plaza will need to be enlarged, and that is being considered now. If there were a further grant towards this work, for which the joint committee have asked, it would add another £3 million to the amount which the department is paying towards this project.

Lord Somers

My Lords, I understand entirely the noble Lord's argument that expensive crossings such as this should be paid for by the user rather than by the ratepayer, but does that not also apply to motorways everywhere? They are not built for nothing. Should not a toll be charged for using motorways?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, whether or not a toll should be charged, the fact is that motorways have been thought to be part of the strategic network of roads and should therefore be provided by central Government and supported by local government. Where, however, an alternative is provided—either a tunnel or a bridge, which in every case has been asked for by the promoting companies—which would show an exceptional saving, albeit at an exceptional cost, it has been felt almost from the beginning by successive Governments that the taxpayer should not have to bear the cost, since he bears the cost of road construction, but that the bridge user should bear the cost. The money is taken from the road user by virtue of the toll. Therefore, if one tries to relate the two, the question which the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has asked is a little different.

I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford, who raised the question of congestion. I can say to him that in the event of congestion occurring there is already in the main building programme for 1986 onwards a major scheme to provide another river crossing in East London at Barking across to Plumstead and the A.2, or, alternatively, a major bridge fitting on to the south end of the extension through East London and the North Circular Road.

If I may turn to the Instruction moved by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, as he has clearly told the House that Instruction would require the Select Committee carefully to consider whether the power of the councils to charge tolls for the use of the tunnel should not cease on completion of the M.25. The noble Lord argues that the orbital road, the M.25, is part of the strategic network. I would certainly agree that the Dartford Tunnel provides the link in that orbital road. As the tunnel already existed when the orbital road was planned, it would have been foolish to provide another crossing. The Government, however, do not accept that the completion of the M.25 is a reason for discontinuing the present practice of charging tolls.

As I said yesterday afternoon in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Plant, the orbital road is due to be completed in 1986. The tunnel was promoted by the Kent and Essex county councils. The second one was built under powers conferred by Parliament under the 1967 Act. Since the need for a crossing and the form which it should take were proposed by the councils, the tunnel is and should remain the responsibility of the councils. It was promoted on the basis of charging tolls sufficient to cover the servicing and repayment of debt as well as the administration and upkeep of the tunnel. The cost of building the tunnel was freely incurred by the county councils, and it would be quite wrong for the Government to take over their debt of some £60 million, £6 million of which is owed to the Exchequer.

I referred to what my noble friend Lady Platt of Writtle said about the debt. There is no doubt in the mind of the Government and of the operating company that that repayment schedule can be met. I cannot accept the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that the tunnel should be part of the M.25. It is the link between two parts of that motorway—as is the Severn Bridge, which is owned and operated by the Secretary of State and for which tolls are made. Even were tolls to be abolished, the debt would remain and the provision would still have to be made for servicing and repaying it by both the county councils of Kent and Essex. I suppose that they in turn would have to turn to their ratepayers. I do not believe that your Lordships would wish to add to ratepayers' burdens. Nor do I believe, as I said earlier, that the debt could be at this time passed on to the taxpayers; that is what would happen were the Exchequer to assume responsibility.

I have outlined the Government's recognition of the effect which the M.25 will have on the tunnel, and I have told your Lordships of the grants which the Government are to provide. The Government would not wish to oppose the Instruction in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff. I may say that the relevance of the M.25 to the question of whether it is proper to charge tolls on the Dartford Tunnel is a point made in all three of the petitions which have been lodged against the Bill. Therefore, the Select Committee will not be able to avoid considering that point, and the Government are happy that they should do so; it is right that the Select Committee should take evidence on this point. The Select Committee is obviously the right forum in which this matter should be debated.

To sum up, the tolls provisions of this Bill are in accordance with longstanding Government policy that the major estuarial crossings should be paid for by those who use them. It makes no difference whether the crossing is part of a motorway, such as the M.4. by the way, the debts incurred in building a tunnel have to be serviced and repaid. As I have said, the Government are not prepared to allow that cost to fall on the taxpayer. The Government support the Bill, and in particular we support the provisions in Clauses 22 and 23.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, perhaps it might be useful if I very briefly remind your Lordships of the procedures that will be followed in the case of this Bill, which, as has already been made clear in the course of the debate, is a Private Bill. It is promoted jointly by the Essex and Kent County Councils and there are three petitions against the Bill. One is in the name of the Standing Joint Committee of the Royal Automobile Club, the Automobile Association and the Royal Scottish Automobile Club; another in the name of the Road Haulage Association Limited; and the third in the name of Thurrock Borough Council. These three petitions relate to the same point, as does the Instruction in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff; that is, the question of charging tolls to those who use the Dartford Tunnel.

Therefore, in any case this Bill will go to a Select Committee. The Select Committee will hear evidence on behalf of the promoters and the three petitioners. If your Lordships pass this Instruction, then that Instruction too will be considered by the same Select Committee. I will ensure that the words that have been spoken this afternoon during the course of this short debate are made available to all members of the Select Committee, so that they will also be made aware of what has been said today. In due course, when the Select Committee has come to its conclusions, it will be making a report to the House.

3.54 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Aberdare and Lord Lucas of Chilworth, for what they have said—and to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The fact that we have had such stimulating contributions from all parts of the House justifies my having put this Motion on the Order Paper today.

Perhaps I may just briefly just pick up two points. First, on the general question of other estuarial crossings, I would submit to your Lordships that the Humber crossing and the Severn crossing are of a different order, in that the diversions which have to be made if people do not use those crossings are considerably greater. As I tried to show in what I said at the beginning, in crossing the Thames there are options open to people other than the Dartford Tunnel, but greatly to the detriment of the environment.

If the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, reads Hansard tomorrow, he will see that I did not say I had doubts about the capacity of the tunnel, but rather that I was worried about the capacity of the toll booths and the congestion that would occur. Even if these booths were extended, I believe that congestion would still occur. I thought that the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas of Chilworth, to the noble Lord, Lord Somers, rather gave the game away. If it is right and proper that motorways are part of the strategic network of the country, then the fact that there is a gap in one that has to be paid for by private users seems to me to be curious in the extreme. The slightly casuistic way in which the noble Lord explained how the Dartford Tunnel was not to form part of the M.25 did not seem to me to really hang together. In any event, the noble Lord has been good enough to say that the Government do not intend to oppose this Instruction and so I hope that your Lordships will support it.

On Question, Motion agreed to.