HL Deb 07 March 1985 vol 460 cc1499-501

7.10 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Tay Road Bridge (Scheme) Approval Order 1985 laid before the House on 24th January 1985 be approved.

The Tay Road Bridge, like a number of other estuarial crossings, was promoted by private legislation and on the basis of special financial arrangements. It included provision for a Tay Road Bridge scheme, under which is prescribed a limit of capital expenditure which may be incurred. This limit has been increased by order on two previous occasions, in 1966 and in 1969, and the present capital expenditure limit is £7.25 million. The order that we are considering today raises the ceiling to £9 million.

The need for this arises because the Tay Road Bridge joint board has to incur exceptional expenditure to replace the bridge maintenance gantries and their overhead runways. The cost of this is currently estimated at £1.25 million. This cost will in due course be recovered through tolls, but the work cannot wait until the revenue from tolls has accumulated. It needs to be done now. Therefore, the board needs to borrow temporarily in the meantime. It would like to start the work this year. Therefore, as I have said, the main purpose of the order is to raise the Tay Road Bridge joint board's borrowing limit to £9 million.

The remaining provisions of the order are consequential and, in particular, simply restate the existing arrangements for repaying borrowing, including setting out an order of priority for the different creditors. Your Lordships will no doubt be gratified to know that the repayments to local authorities take precedence over those to the Secretary of State. It hardly needs saying but, for the avoidance of doubt, it may be convenient for me to point out to your Lordships that this order has nothing to do with increasing tolls. The Tay Road Bridge joint board itself instigated an increase in toll levels on the bridge last year. The new levels of tolls were fixed taking account of the expenditure that is now required for the repair and maintenance work to which I have referred. In other words, the need to carry out this work should not give rise to any further requirement to increase tolls and, on the basis of the figures prepared by the board last year, it should be able to repay its loans within the required period. My Lords, I commend the order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24th January be approved. [9th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(The Earl of Caithness.)

Baroness David

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining this order, and as the safety of the bridge is obviously of paramount importance, one has to agree with what is being done. I was pleased to hear that the repayments to local authorities take precedence over those to the Secretary of State, as that is particularly important at this moment, and that there is no intention to increase the tolls. I understand that there is a good deal of feeling that perhaps at some point tolls could be taken away altogether. As the users of motorways do not have to pay for their expenses, why should people have to pay for going over estuaries? I wonder whether the Minister could comment on what will eventually be proposed in regard to tolls. Are the Government hoping to get rid of them altogether? As I said, we shall of course support the order for safety reasons.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady David, for her welcome of this order. She spoke about tolls. As she will appreciate, it was part of the original legislation that tolls would be put on such bridges as this across estuaries. As she will doubtless be aware, the tolls are not so high. I know that they were subject to investigation in an order last year, but I have done a little work on the matter and I have found that the original toll for a motor car in 1966 was 2s. 6d. (or 12½p). Taking into account inflation, in today's money terms that would be equivalent to 73p, when in fact the toll is only 30p. So the charge is not too bad.

As regards the policy on tolls, the Government reviewed and confirmed current tolls policy shortly after they took office in 1979. This policy, which has been endorsed by successive Governments since 1955, is that tolls should be charged on major estuarial crossings which confer exceptional benefits on users in terms of time saved and journeys shortened. It is considered right that the users of the crossing and not the taxpayer or local ratepayer should pay. The Tay Bridge and other toll bridges in Britain were built on this explicit understanding and with the agreement of the authorities concerned that the cost should be recouped through tolls. This agreement is enshrined in legislation. Without it, the bridges might not have been built at all and would certainly not have been built when they were. I hope that that, to some extent, satisfies the noble Baroness. We shall of course keep the matter of future toll bridges under review.

On Question, Motion agreed to.