HL Deb 11 March 1997 vol 579 cc162-5

2.53 p.m.

Lord Wilberforce asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy on the construction, maintenance and financing of road bridges over the River Thames in the Greater London area.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, the Government's proposals for new river crossings are described in the Transport Strategy for London. The package includes an additional road crossing at Blackwall and a multi-modal local crossing at Gallions Reach. Considerable importance is also attached to funding the maintenance, assessment and strengthening of existing road bridges to accommodate modern traffic. Funding for the overall London local authority bridge programme has been increased by about 10 per cent. to £22 million for 1997–98, with high priority given to Thames bridges.

Lord Wilberforce

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I wish to pursue it both generally and in the particular. Generally, having regard to the size of this problem, there being 25 plus bridges in the London area, not including tunnels, and having regard to the fact that a number of new bridges are planned, some of a somewhat controversial nature; that there is likely to be increased demand on the bridges in connection with the millennium; and that the maintenance and care of the bridges have sadly deteriorated since the GLC was abolished—I do not know whether the Minister has seen a letter in the Evening Standard last week which said that London's bridges which ought to be London's treasure are now London's disgrace—do not the Government think it right to establish at this time a strong co-ordinated body responsible for the planning and financing of all the bridges either within a general London framework along the lines that we discussed a fortnight or so ago, or perhaps in the Ministry itself under the London Minister for Transport? As to the particular—

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, before attempting to answer the supplementary questions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, on behalf of the whole House I wish him a happy 90th birthday. The noble and learned Lord mentioned the requirement from some quarters for a strategic authority for London to take care of London bridges. The noble and learned Lord is most probably aware that the £22 million the 1997–98 Transport Policies and Programme settlement made available for strengthening and assessment has been reserved in the name of the lead authority of the City of Westminster. The lead authority in consultation with sector leaders and individual authorities is responsible for advising the Government Office for London how the funds should be distributed and for monitoring and reporting on the programme. A framework has been devised under the auspices of the London Bridges Engineering Group which is co-ordinating this approach through the lead authority. Prioritisation of bridge works is in progress through LoBEG which will pave the way to financial allocations being established for individual authorities.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that because of restrictions on Hammersmith Bridge commuters and others are having to drive round by Chiswick adding to traffic congestion and to delays for passengers trying to catch flights from Heathrow? Could millennium money contribute to a new bridge or tunnel instead of being spent on an unnecessary riverside ferric wheel?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, millennium funding is the concern of the Millennium Commission. However, initial fears of traffic congestion on adjacent roads have proved largely unfounded although I acknowledge there have been problems. The effects of the closure are being monitored at local level. As regards increased bus services while the bridge is not able to carry its normal range of traffic, this matter has been taken up with London Transport which has arranged for increases in the frequency of services across the bridge.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that before they abolished the Greater London Council there was no trouble and since they have abolished it there has been nothing but trouble? Is he further aware that the next government will recreate a strategic body for Greater London and it will be an elected body?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, we have covered this area on a number of occasions in this House and in debates that my noble friend Lady Miller has answered. A great deal of the problem with these bridges is that many are old. Many are distinctive parts of the London skyline and of the fabric of London that we wish to preserve. This is a great problem when one considers the volume of traffic going over the bridges. However, these bridges must be preserved.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is there any chance of getting the Royal Engineers to lay out a couple of Bailey bridges around Hammersmith Bridge just to keep the traffic flowing?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, this matter has been spoken about in various places. Unfortunately there are real difficulties such as providing approach roads, securing land and riparian rights, restricting river traffic and diverting time and resources away from dealing with the existing bridge.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, given that Hammersmith Bridge was renovated only a matter of some 18 months ago, can the Minister tell us how much public money was spent on renovating that bridge and how long we may expect to wait for it to undergo its current transformation before it is reopened?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, as the noble Baroness will be aware, Hammersmith Bridge has a seven-and-a-half tonne weight restriction on it anyway. I understand from the London borough concerned that the initial inspection in 1991 revealed no problems, but that the problems have occurred over a later period.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, contrary to the statement made about London bridges being well looked after by the Greater London Council, does the Minister agree that that was not so and that Westminster Council, which inherited Westminster Bridge, was obliged to spend £13 million on repairs and strengthening? The council found that had the bridge been better maintained the cost of repair would have been much lower.

The system of financing gave the council 20 per cent. of the £13 million over the three years. Does the Minister agree that the system of financing is changing? Until now it has been in the form of a transport supplementary grant. As from this year there will be a supplementary credit approval system.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, as regards the first part of my noble friend's question, the noble Baroness is right. All noble Lords will be glad to hear that Westminster Bridge will be fully open in April.

As regards the second part of my noble friend's question, I am sure she is right.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, I join the Minister in congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, on his birthday, and for bowling the Minister such a splendid googly which got him middle stump.

Is it right that the very much neglected bridge repair programme which the Government were supposed to have undertaken is not likely to be completed until the year 2005? In the light of that, do the Government support the introduction of the 44 tonne lorry?

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, perhaps I may make some comments about the safety of London bridges. Hampton Bridge is all right; Kingston Bridge will be strengthened; Twickenham Bridge has been strengthened; Kew Bridge requires some work; Chiswick Bridge is being assessed; and Putney Bridge is all right. I understand what the noble Lord says, but I believe it to be quite wrong.

Costs are involved. The strengthening programme will have to be phased over a period of years. Resources are always limited. Our job is to ensure that they are spent as effectively and efficiently as possible by targeting funding where it is needed most.