HL Deb 17 November 1983 vol 444 cc1396-9

4.50 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, with the permission of your Lordships, I shall now repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

"I told the House on 1st November that I considered it prudent to extend the early morning lane restrictions to round the clock, except at weekends, until I received further advice from Flint and Neill. I have now received recommendations from Flint and Neill, agreed by Mott, Hay and Anderson, who carried out an independent check of the former's appraisal of the bridge superstructure. I am satisfied that the crossing will continue to be safe to use, with the adoption of the following three recommendations.

"First, the closing of one lane in each direction every weekday from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m., first introduced in March 1982, will be maintained.

"Second, for eastbound traffic, the M.4 carriage-way will continue to be restricted to a single lane from the Newhouse roundabout, as it has been from time to time since March 1982. Accordingly, one lane each will be available to the M.4 traffic and the traffic from Chepstow.

"Third, for westbound traffic, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays all goods vehicles in excess of 75 tonnes will be channelled through one toll booth. The purpose of this control is to prevent bunching of heavy vehicles: in most circumstances they should be released without delay.

"Round the clock restrictions will cease as from midnight tonight, and tolls will be reintroduced for eastbound traffic.

"I am instituting careful monitoring of incidents causing, or likely to cause, a traffic jam on the bridge. If there is an incident the following restrictions will be applied until it has been dealt with.

"If the incident is on the westbound carriageway, westbound traffic will be held at the toll booths and eastbound traffic joining the M.4 from Chepstow will be stopped at the Newhouse interchange. Eastbound traffic already on the M.4 will not be affected. If the incident is on the eastbound carriage-way, eastbound traffic joining the M.4 from Chepstow will be stopped at the Newhouse interchange; all westbound heavy goods vehicles will be held at the toll booths.

"A different hazard is wind. Traffic will be prevented from using the crossing when both the gust wind speed exceeds 50 miles per hour at deck level of the bridge and the maximum mean hourly wind speed at deck level is forecast to exceed 62 miles per hour. These conditions are expected to occur no more than once in two to three years on average.

"I have set work in hand to improve these systems of traffic control in order to ensure the minimum interference to movement, within the safety limits for the bridge.

"Finally, I will assess with all possible speed the options put forward by Flint and Neill for strengthening the bridge to cope safely with increased loading.

"As soon as I receive the text of Flint and Neill's report on Mott, Hay and Anderson's check, I will place a copy of it in the Library".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I am certain that the House is grateful to the Minister for repeating this very important Statement. I and my noble friends will support any steps necessary for the safety of the bridge and to ensure the flow of traffic which is so essential for the economic wellbeing of South Wales and of Wales in general. But in the light of the Statement that we have just heard, without "narking" on the issue, I must express on behalf of my noble friends deep regret that action was not taken earlier on the first report in March 1982.

In the light of the recommendations which have been accepted by the Minister, does the Secretary of State now accept that when the issue was first raised in the other place it was not alarmist but it was of extreme urgency? Am I right in assuming that the Minister now accepts the previous report that there has been, and still is, severe danger of bridge collapse unless the appropriate precautions are taken? Would it not be advisable to lift the tolls completely for the east-bound traffic to avoid possible bunching of lorries on the bridge? Surely the amount of money involved is not the essential thing in this matter.

I am pleased to hear that there is to be strict monitoring of incidents and that the Minister has said in the Statement that all possible speed will be taken in the assessment of options for strengthening the bridge. Does "all possible speed" mean a matter of real prior urgency? Will finances be made available for whatever steps may be found necessary for bridge strengthening? Also, when the assessment is completed will a further Statement be made to Parliament?

Finally, will the Government also, in the light of the Statement that we have had today, arrange as a matter of urgency for the assessment of possibilities and of possible alternatives for a second Severn crossing and guarantee that the essential finance will be made available?

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, we are also grateful to the noble Lord the Minister for repeating this Statement. We are also glad that some of the fears have been removed from people using the bridge. Clearly, however, the situation is still not anything like satisfactory. What appeared to be a disaster area has now become merely unacceptable.

Is the Minister aware of the feeling in South Wales of strangulation of their economy which is caused by the fact that this bridge is obviously inadequate for its purpose? He is obviously aware that the use of the bridge has increased beyond all expectations over the years; and that is something we can all be pleased about because it means that the original decision to build the bridge was a good one.

However, like the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I must ask him whether the time has not come to examine other possible crossings. Has not the time now come for the Government to take the really important step of convening a feasibility study for the Severn Barrage, coupled with a further crossing of the river? If South Wales is going to be able to take advantage of any economic recovery after the recession then surely the time has come for proper investment to be made in proper river crossings, not tampering with what is clearly a second-rate bridge.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I am most grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of this Statement. The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, suggested that what is now proposed is not totally acceptable, and of course we would accept that. But as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, suggested, there is no cause for alarmist or alarming rumours which have been spreading about. Of course, there is a need for urgency in finishing the assessment of Flint and Neill's original appraisal, which led to the appointment of Mott, Hay and Anderson to check that appraisal: they were, of course, independent engineers. Agreement has been broadly reached between the two sets of engineers, and my right honourable friend very shortly will have before him all the facts to enable him to make decisions as to what should happen in the near future.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked whether that would be done with all possible speed, and the answer is, Yes. We are talking in terms of, perhaps not days, but certainly not more than weeks. For example, we are not talking about some time next year, or anything like that.

He asked whether it would be sensible to stop the collection of tolls for eastbound traffic. No, my Lords, we do not think that that is necessary. We think that the traffic management systems containing the traffic on the M.4 and from Chepstow will deal adequately with any emergency that might arise. He asked, particularly, whether my right honourable friend will be making a further Statement. Quite obviously, this afternoon I cannot commit my right honourable friend in this direction, but I have little doubt that anything of great importance which should be placed before Parliament will be placed before it by way of a Statement or in some other way.

Both noble Lords asked about a second crossing. I am sure they will accept that a second crossing will not help with present difficulties. In any event, whichever kind of crossing might be decided upon, it would take many years. My right honourable friend is considering the longer-term aspects, which these reports have thrown up, and these will no doubt lead him to make certain recommendations in due course. I am afraid that the barrage is a little outside the scope of the I Statement, since it is an energy-based project, and certainly at this time it is not necessarily conceived as providing a second crossing.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for the Statement. Is he aware of the increased difficulty in getting investment into South Wales as long as there is fear about the bridge? I join the noble Lord in saying that we do not want people to be alarmed, but they are already thoroughly fed up with the long delays in getting across that bridge and it is a very expensive business for industry in South Wales. May I ask the Minister whether the statement about contingency plans will be forthcoming within the next month, because we need to know about contingency plans if we are to attract industry to South Wales?

Lord Lucas of Chilworth

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, for his comments, which also enable me to take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, to which I did not respond earlier. We recognise that the use of the bridge has expanded quite considerably in recent years. However, it is interesting that the increased traffic volume across the bridge is in line with increased traffic flows in other parts of the country. Of course, we recognise that it is a vital link into and out of Wales and my right honourable friend will be most anxious to ensure that the commercial life of the Principality is not endangered.

I think that the contingency plans, which the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, mentioned, refer particularly to traffic management schemes which are being considered and which may well have to be introduced while any of the work of strengthening the bridge is undertaken. The exact method by which the bridge might be repaired or strengthened has not yet been determined. That will be considered when all the reports, which are expected shortly, are to hand and the department's engineers have had a chance of making their assessment.