HL Deb 14 March 1991 vol 527 cc349-58

7.27 p.m.

Lord Peston

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

Noble Lords will be aware that the history of Bristol is in large measure the history of its port which, for centuries, was one of the most important in the British Isles. There are still major port facilities in Bristol but, during the present century, and particularly in recent years, considerable changes have occurred in the pattern of our overseas trade, in the nature of the goods we export and import and in the way those goods are handled.

All of these changes have affected the port of Bristol, and not the least of them has been the shift in emphasis from west coast ports, such as Bristol, the Clyde and Liverpool, to those on the east coast, such as Felixstowe and the Humber ports.

The port of Bristol at present consists of a number of separate dock facilities spread over a fairly wide area. These facilities amount to the City Docks, the Avonmouth Docks, the Royal Portbury Docks and the Portishead Docks, the last of which are the subject of this Bill. Geographically they are the furthest of the docks from the city centre of Bristol, being 12 miles distant and they are outside the administrative area of Bristol City Council.

As regards the history of the docks, they owe their existence to the ambition of a group of local dignitaries, who in the 1860s became strongly opposed to the Bristol Port Railway and Pier Company's plans to build facilities at Avonmouth. In 1862 the Portishead group formed itself into a company known as the Bristol and Portishead Pier and Railway Company which in 1863 obtained parliamentary powers to build a railway and pier at Portishead. Construction of the railway began in 1864, the line opened for business in 1867 and a year later the pier was built.

Then in 1870 the company announced that powers would be sought to build a dock at Portishead in direct competition with one already planned at Avonmouth by the rival Bristol company. Several years of often bitter dispute followed as the rival groups and Bristol Corporation promoted and discussed the schemes and the finances involved. In 1871 the Portishead company received parliamentary permission to build the docks and pressed on with their construction. Even in those days the project suffered severe constructional delays and was not completed until 1879—two years behind Avonmouth Docks. It appears that Portishead's destiny to be second to Avonmouth was already set at that time.

Early competition between the three separate ports of Bristol, Avonmouth and Portishead was particularly fierce but moves soon started with the aim of bringing the Avonmouth Docks and the Portishead Docks under the control of Bristol Corporation. That difficult task was completed in 1884 when Portishead was purchased for what was then the princely sum of £ 250,000.

In 1892 a scheme was proposed to extend the Portishead Docks into Portbury Marsh, but favour was instead given to the Royal Edward Dock extension at Avonmouth. No major development took place at the Portishead Docks in the first 25 years of its life and the docks appeared to settle down to the minor and humdrum role of importing grain and then timber and some petroleum.

By the turn of the 20th century it was apparent that Portishead Docks would never be a resounding commercial success. The lock facility built in 1879 was already acknowledged as inadequate by 1890. Despite being superb engineers, as your Lordships are well aware, the Victorians did not foresee the great advances in ship design and ship size. That was particularly so in the case of Portishead whose design afforded four feet less water at its entrance than. say, the Avonmouth Docks.

The Bristol Docks Committee tended at first to favour the City Docks and neglected the outports until the early 1900s when again it was decided to favour Avonmouth for investment and expansion because of its better communications. In view of all this, Charles Wells, the distinguished historian of the early Port of Bristol, was able to write as early as 1909 that, in the light of subsequent events the making of Portishead Dock appears as a blunder".

I do not usually address your Lordships with such a long tale of woe. However, the tale now reaches a slightly happier moment: namely—as is often the case—that when war broke out, activity in the docks revived. They were well used during the First World War with great increases in grain traffic. Portishead also supplied huge quantities of petroleum in cans to the army in France. Indeed, I understand that 70 per cent. of all petrol for the expeditionary force was shipped from those docks.

During the Second World War the docks were improved by the construction of additional rail sidings and a new quay. However, the tonnage handled was substantially lower than that of the City Docks and represented a small fraction of Avonmouth trade.

Two power stations were constructed at Portishead —one before and one after the Second World War —and they helped the docks, as did the decision in 1949 of Albright and Wilson to lease a 20 acre site adjacent to the docks for a phosphorus factory. That facility went into production in February 1954 and by 1957 to 1958 total trade had reached 820,000 tonnes. Although that sounds a lot, it was just over 10 per cent. of all Bristol's dock trade.

However, in the 1960s trade was maintained at an acceptable level. It was not until the 1970s that traffic serving the power stations declined and both power stations have now closed down. Albright and Wilson continued importing liquid phosphorus averaging approximately 36,000 tonnes per annum, but by the 1980s the demand for phosphate fertilisers and detergents had fallen. To add to the misery, by 1990 the company decided to close the plant. I shall bring noble Lords as nearly up to date as I can. In the year ending 31st March 1990, only 5.640 tonnes of cargo passed through Portishead. That is just over one-tenth of 1 per cent. of the total Bristol port traffic.

I have to say with great regret that the sad story ends even more sadly in that Portishead Docks are now redundant. There is no prospect of them ever again being financially viable. The disadvantages of the docks are such that they have inevitably been the ones to suffer most as the Port of Bristol—I remarked on this at the beginning of my speech —has fought to compete against the background of the shift in traffic from the west coast to the east coast, and has tried to adapt to many other changes, not least the advent of containerisation.

I have spoken at some length on that matter because I felt your Lordships would like to know the background to the decision to seek powers to close Portishead Docks. The council has to come to Parliament to seek such powers because the statutory provisions contained in the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act 1847, and in various other private Acts of Parliament, including those mentioned in the schedule to the Bill, mean that the docks cannot be closed to commercial shipping without further statutory authority. In the absence of such authority, any rights of navigation within the docks will continue, as will the council's obligations to maintain them. Those obligations involve costs which the City of Bristol can ill afford. It is no different from other local authorities in that respect. Furthermore, as long as the statutory provisions remain in force, they effectively prevent the city council from developing the docks in an alternative form.

While the Bill does not in itself seek to authorise development of the docks, it would facilitate development in the future, subject of course to obtaining all necessary planning permissions. In essence the Bill would enable the docks to be treated like any other piece of land. Speaking from my own totally objective position, I have to say that the Bill has the support of all the political parties represented on the city council. I emphasise that I certainly do not regard tonight's discussion as a party matter. I have nothing of a political nature to say. My concern is with economic efficiency and, above all, with the prudent management of the city council's resources. That is especially important in the present day.

I now turn to a matter which is of local interest. Local interest in what happens to the Portishead Docks has focused upon the future of something known as the Parish Wharf. As I understand the matter, we are spending a little time this evening discussing this issue because of the Parish Wharf. Before 1866 a wharf appears to have existed in a creek known as the Portishead Pill. That creek was used by some local people for the loading and unloading of certain cargoes.

As I have explained, the Bristol and Portishead Pier and Railway Company was authorised in the 1860s to construct a pier in Portishead Pill. That pier apparently affected the use of the Old Wharf. As a result, a duty was cast by the 1866 Act on the company to construct a new wharf—the Parish Wharf—which was to be of at least half an acre in extent and capable of accommodating, at any one time, two vessels of up to 50 tons each.

The Act then provided that the Parish Wharf could be used at all times for the loading and unloading of bricks, tiles, coal and culm by all persons who had previously been entitled to use the Old Wharf for such purposes. I was interested to discover what culm was. It appears to be the technical word for coal dust. I was particularly keen to discover the meaning of that word because, as noble Lords know, I am a crossword addict and I am certain that the world "culm" will turn up as an answer to a clue some time in the next year. The Act also provided for a right of way over the wharf for such persons as were entitled to use the Old Wharf. The Act vested the Parish Wharf in the Bristol Corporation as trustees for themselves and all other persons entitled to use the wharf.

In the council's view there is no doubt that in the past certain persons—it is impossible to say who—had a right to use the Parish Wharf to load and unload bricks, tiles, coal and culm. That cottage industry—I hope I may use that expression—existed satisfactorily alongside the much greater commercial business being carried on by the company and, since 1884, by the council at the docks.

It is not disputed that for a long time no one has used the Parish Wharf to load or unload any of the cargoes to which I have referred. However, noble Lords will be aware that there are petitioners against the Bill and they claim that the rights to use the Parish Wharf now extend to a general public right to use it for recreational purposes.

The council does not accept that that is the case.

The council acknowledges that the docks have been used, mainly by an organisation known as the Portishead Cruising Club, for non-commercial activities. That was perfectly acceptable to the council while the docks were having to be maintained and operated for commercial traffic. The problem now is that the cruising club, a sailing club, the Royal Yachting Association and the district and town councils are seeking in effect to force Bristol City Council to keep the docks open in order that a relatively small number of people may continue to make what is at best sporadic use of the facility in a way in which it was never intended to be used.

Not only would that be unfair to the people of Bristol, who would have to carry the cost of keeping the docks open, it could also effectively prevent the docks from being put to some new use. The true costs of responding to the petitioners' wishes would be enormous.

Having said that, I am able to say that the city council is willing to meet the various petitioners to see whether a reasonable solution can be found which would satisfy those who claim to use the Parish Wharf, without placing an unreasonable burden on the residents of Bristol and without preventing a large and unsightly area of land from being successfully redeveloped. If any area of dispute should remain, it will be up to the Opposed Bill Committee to take a view, in accordance with the accepted practice on Private Bills. I ask your Lordships to give the Bill a Second Reading.

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

7.31 p.m.

Earl Grey

My Lords, I wish to speak about a provision of the Bill which has caused considerable concern to local people. That is the proposal to close the public wharf at Portishead known as the Parish Wharf. The first reference appears in Clause 2 where it is described as a wharf constructed under an Act of 1866. It may help if I begin by setting out briefly some of the history of a valued public facility.

From time immemorial there has existed a public landing place at or near the site of the present Parish Wharf. Statutory recognition of the landing place is first found in an enclosure Act of 1814. That provided for the enclosure of an area of land not exceeding half an acre as a public wharf for landing, loading and unloading goods and materials brought in or carried out of the parish of Portishead. An enclosure was made in 1814.

The noble Lord, Lord Peston, has already explained the use of the Parish Wharf under the Bristol and Portishead Pier and Railway Act 1866 and I shall not repeat what he said. Under the Act the company was also required to make and maintain a new road to the wharf and to permit free access to it.

The wharf itself was to be vested not in the dock company but in the former Bristol Corporation on trust for all persons entitled to use the wharf. It is clear that the Parish Wharf was not to be part of the dock undertaking. Accordingly, the Act specifically provided that any vessel not exceeding 50 tons using the Parish Wharf and all goods landed there from such vessels were to be exempt from the company's dues. The docks were eventually taken over by Bristol Corporation as part of its dock undertaking, and Bristol already owned the Parish Wharf, but the Act of 1866 and the general rights of the public continued to apply. Therefore, unlike the dock undertaking the Parish Wharf continued to be held by Bristol on trust rather than as a commercial undertaking. The transfer to the corporation of the Portishead Docks did not make the Parish Wharf part of the dock undertaking.

Although the 1866 Act referred to the use of the Parish Wharf for specific purposes, nothing limited the use of the wharf for any other purpose. In case it should be thought that other uses are more recent developments it is worth pointing out that the 1866 Act would only have mentioned those uses which, but for the exemptions in the Act, would have attracted dues or other payments from users to the dock company. There was no need to mention anything else.

By the time of the Second World War, if not very much earlier, the principal use of the Parish Wharf was for recreation purposes, especially sailing and boating. Here I declare a personal interest for I am myself a keen sailor. I know that the waters in the area can be treacherous and recognise the value to small craft of the ability to embark and disembark in sheltered waters such as those of the dock.

If I may I shall elaborate on the recreational use made of the wharf, which has increased over the years since the war. A docks rally is held there annually with 70 or more yachts from various clubs participating. There are other similar functions, also held at the Parish Wharf, which attract large numbers of local people. I am told that between October and March each year no fewer than 15 yachts are stored on the wharf to allow for repairs to he carried out, and members of the Portishead Cruising Club have for many years moored their boats in the waters adjoining the wharf. As I said, the Parish Wharf is particularly valued because it offers the safest approach to the water in the area. That part of the coast is notorious for its tidal reach, as a result of which it is generally unsuitable for family use. As the Parish Wharf is within the confines of the docks, however, it is protected from that hazard.

At present the recreational use of the Parish Wharf is less than it was, but I am told that it is once more set to increase. There are many local people who remember swimming in the water adjoining the Parish Wharf. That became inadvisable, due partly to the use of the docks by ships carrying phosphorous and partly to general pollution from storm water drains. With the building of a new sewerage scheme (the Gordano Valley sewerage scheme) and the closure of the docks for commercial shipping both those hazards will disappear and the Parish Wharf will again be available for recreational uses which cannot easily be provided elsewhere.

How much the public's right to use the Parish Wharf has always been valued locally is shown by the vigorous way in which that right has been defended in the past. When the former corporation continued to block public access to the wharf after the Second World War—the docks had been enclosed during the war and land access to the Parish Wharf temporarily blocked—an action was brought against the corporation by the commander of the Portishead Cruising Club. The terms of the settlement of that action provided for public access to the wharf for what were evidently recreational purposes. That shows that the corporation then acknowledged the existence of those public rights.

The Portishead Cruising Club has petitioned against the Bill, as have the Portishead Yacht and Sailing Club, the Royal Yachting Association, the Portishead Town Council and the Woodspring District Council—the council for the district in which the Parish Wharf lies. All of those bodies strongly object to the proposed closure of the Parish Wharf.

The Bill provides for the closure of Portishead Docks, which are defined to include the Parish Wharf. Clause 3 provides specifically for the extinguishing of the public right of access to the Parish Wharf. No provision is made for a substitute public landing place. That is quite wrong. It may be that it is no longer possible to run Portishead Docks as a commercial dock undertaking. If that is so nobody objects to legislation being brought forward so as to allow for some alternative use of the dock estate. However, the commercial success or otherwise of the docks has no bearing on the Parish Wharf. The fact that the docks are not prospering does not make the Parish Wharf any less valuable as a recreational facility for local people. In fact, as I have explained, it offers further recreational opportunities.

With the commercial dock undertaking gone there is clearly a need to redevelop the dock estate, and I appreciate that the purpose of the Bill is to allow for that. It is a purpose that I would not want to obstruct, and I should be the last person to say that the redevelopment must be constructed around a public facility. Clearly a balance must be struck. My case is that as the Bill stands there is no such balance. It may be that the redevelopment of the docks will not allow for the continued use of the Parish Wharf in its present position. If so, some equally suitable new site can no doubt be found, and I feel sure that that would satisfy local needs.

I appreciate that it is a convention of this House not to oppose the Second Reading of a Private Bill. Representations from the bodies that I have mentioned will be heard by the Select Committee on the Bill when the points that I have made will be backed up by the evidence of local people and the committee will be able to form its own view. When, as I feel sure will be the case, the committee discovers that the position is indeed as I have described it, it will not need any instruction from this House to lead it to the conclusion that the Bill ought not to proceed unless the committee can be satisfied that the parish wharf will be replaced by an adequate alternative facility in the vicinity of the docks.

I say that no formal instruction is needed but, short of that, the committee should have the strongest possible signal from your Lordships that the existing public facility should not be interfered with and the promoters should know that this is a matter which will be kept in view when the Bill returns to the Floor of the House.

7.50 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I rise to support the Second Reading of this Bill which was so ably moved by my noble friend Lord Peston who said that he was looking at the Bill objectively. I am very partisan in my support for this Bill because I have lived in Bristol since 1941, and for 17 years had the honour to represent in the other place the constituency of Bristol South. Anyone who consults Dad's Parliamentary Companion for the reason why I left the other place, will see listed that I retired. In that, Dod has lapsed from its normal high standard of accuracy. In fact in my mid-50s I was deselected by my local Bristol South management committee as not a fit and proper person to be a public representative. I used to term the people who did it "the rootless academics", but my great friend councillor Vernon Hicks gave me a new description for such an assemblage of the hard Left; he calls them "the corduroy collective". That is probably an improvement on my version.

The noble Earl, Lord Grey, spoke about the yachtsmen involved in this issue. I should like to put the matter into perspective. The port of Bristol is changing because of geology, geography, the EC and containerisation, about which I know a great deal because I served on the committee which considered the Felixstowe Dock and Harbour Bill. Although I say it in the presence of the Chairman of Committees, I think that that must be the parliamentary equivalent of Agatha Christie's "Mousetrap" as a long-running feature.

When my father went to Bristol before the war, he told me that one could still see the tall ships moored in the centre of Bristol where the flowerbeds are now. The area was filled in and further changes made. I studied the petitions to which the noble Earl, Lord Grey, referred. I am reminded of an earlier experience when I entered the other place in 1970 with regard to the Bristol Corporation Bill, which involved the closure of the old city docks. In passing, I may say that the great loss there was the small Charles Hill shipbuilding yard which had produced a number of corvettes for the Navy during the war and was then engaged in building support vessels for the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas. The closure of that yard was a great loss to Bristol. A number of skilled jobs went with it.

However, we were not lobbied so much about the closure of the Charles Hill shipyard as about the problems of yachtsmen and the various difficulties that they saw for their own particular hobby in the closure of the city docks. On one occasion I received a substantial piece of lobbying from Fred Blampeid, who was closely associated with that lobbying. He said that he was writing on behalf of many of my constituents. I wrote back and asked him for a list of the constituents on whose behalf he was writing. He supplied me with two names and addresses allegedly in Bristol South. I checked them with the electoral register and neither of the people involved lived within my constituency. I do not wish to be too hard on Mr. Blampeid because one of those people lived in Ryde Road in Knowle which was within 100 yards of my constituency boundary.

There is a need to consider the financial burden which will be placed on the people of Bristol if this dock continues and is maintained. One must also consider the future development potential of the site, which will be of great benefit to the people of Bristol. It is a Bristol asset and I hope that it will develop and be used to give financial advantage to Bristolians. I know that your Lordships' Committee will give full weight to all considerations in the petitions and if, as suggested, it is possible to reach a compromise, I shall be more than happy. However, in my view, in supporting this Bill the well-being and needs of the people of Bristol must have priority.

7.55 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Transport (Lord Brabazon of Tara)

My Lords, it may be helpful if at this point I intervene briefly to state the Government's view on the Bill.

It is traditional on Private Bills that the Government take a neutral stance and today this Bill is no exception to that rule. The Government have considered the content of the Bill and have no objection in principle to the power being sought by Bristol City Council to close Portishead Docks and dispose of the undertaking.

It is for the promoters to persuade Parliament that the powers that they are seeking are justified. As has been mentioned, there are five petitions against the Bill in your Lordships' House. The petitioners will have the opportunity to present their objections to the Select Committee. The committee will be in a very much better position than we are tonight to examine in detail the issues involved and it will have the added advantage of hearing expert evidence.

I hope therefore that the Bill will be given a Second Reading and will be allowed to proceed in the usual conventional way to committee for detailed consideration.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords who have spoken, and in particular my noble friend Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe for his support. I echo the Minister's helpful reply that the committee is the correct body to deal with this matter in detail. Therefore I hope that noble Lords will accept that it would be inappropriate for me to enter into debate at this time with the noble Earl, Lord Grey, to rebut his points, although I feel that I could do so. I simply reiterate the central point that the council has said that it will discuss these matters with the petitioners. One hopes that a reasonable end to the matter will be achieved.

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