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Column 509only 1 km away from the southern side of the bridge. To the north of the bridge, the A476 is only some 6 km away. The 8 km stretch containing the bridge is the only section of major road linking south, west and north Wales which is not trunked.
The Welsh Office's refusal to help the people of Pembrokeshire sharply contrasts with the Department of Transport's attitude towards Humber bridge, which currently has debts of more than £430 million. In the financial year 1992-93, the Department of Transport provided £43.5 million to the Humber Bridge Board and it has promised legislation to avoid the board having to precept local authorities to solve the problem.
It is interesting to note that, per metre of length, the Humber bridge is cheaper than Cleddau bridge. One pence of toll on Humber bridge allows one to travel 13.9 m whereas 1p of toll on Cleddau bridge allows one to travel only 10.9 m. The Government's inconsistent approach to the national importance of estuarial crossings has been highlighted in a report by the Select Committee on Transport in 1985. It said that tolls were a selective monopoly charge and the policy that the costs of estuarial crossings should be borne by the local population was applied inconsistently. It pointed out that the following bridges were estuarial crossings, but were untolled: Avonmouth bridge, Ballachulish bridge, Moray and Cromarty firth bridges, Friarton bridge in Perth, Runcorn-Widnes bridge, the Clyde tunnel and M8 Kingston bridge, the Medway crossing and Dornoch firth bridge.
It is worth noting that, in Wales, the Conwy tunnel and the M4 over the Usk at Newport are untolled. The new extension of the M4 at Briton Ferry, again over an estuary, is untolled. I understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) that the new Dee crossing will not be tolled, even though its estimated cost amounts to more than £50 million.
The Select Committee on Transport report went on to say that, if the Government recognised Humber bridge's problems, they could recognise the problems of other bridges as well. It also said that assuming responsibility for debts would not mean finding cash. Debts to the Public Works Loan Board, like those owed by Dyfed county council for Cleddau bridge, and to central Government need have no effect on the public sector borrowing requirement. The report said: "The transfer of responsibility for servicing all the debt to central government would only be a transfer within the public sector".
Therefore, it would have no impact on the PSBR.
The Government response to that report was to reiterate the arguments about special local advantages for estuarial crossings, but they were
"willing to consider reasoned argument for special treatment in particular cases."
In the case of Pembrokeshire, the Welsh Office has said that the liabilities of the new authority would be reflected in its standard spending assessment. Before I entered this place, I was a county councillor in Dyfed. I regularly heard Welsh Office Ministers assure local government, when particular problems were raised with them and they accepted those problems, that the money would appear in the council's rate support grant. No one was able to find
Column 510it. I have heard promises like that before and it becomes extremely hard to identify where and whether extra money has been forthcoming for particular problems.
If the Welsh Office is to provide extra money in the standard spending assessment or the revenue support grant, why does not it take over financial responsibility directly rather than use the new Pembrokeshire authority as a third party? Its approach implies that the Welsh Office accepts that there is a problem and money needs to be found, so why does not it go the whole way and take over full responsibility? If it will not provide extra money, it is meaningless to say that the burden of Cleddau bridge will be reflected in the new authority's settlement.
It is clear that the new Pembrokeshire authority, which has been welcomed by everyone in my constituency, will face a massive financial problem because of the bridge. The Minister has been warned by the treasurer of the outgoing county council of a potential catastrophe. The problem arises from an undertaking that was made, not even by the present council, but by the previous one. It was greatly worsened by circumstances that were not of that authority's own making. There has been a fatal collapse of the bridge and the problem has been exacerbated still further by the Government's failure to live up to a pledge to provide help. The problem is likely to be doubled again because of the circumstances--the need to strengthen the bridge to meet new legislative requirements, which no one could have foreseen when the bridge was first built. For all those reasons, it would be a clear abdication of responsibility for the Welsh Office to refuse to help.
This is now the second Adjournment debate on this subject. The first was raised by a Conservative Member and this one has been raised by a Labour Member. I urge the Minister to accept that Cleddau bridge can and should be treated in the same way as the Dee crossing, the Briton Ferry crossing and the Conwy tunnel. The Welsh Office should accept its responsibility.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Gwilym Jones): The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Ainger) has raised concerns about various matters relating to Cleddau bridge and to the effect on his constituents. I noticed that he did it in a way that sought to emulate the standards of his distinguished predecessor, Mr. Nicholas Bennett. In going through so much history, I feel that I, too, am following in the footsteps of predecessors--my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Crickhowell and my right hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Sir W. Roberts), who was Minister of State.
Before we go too much into recycling, the reaction might be, "What is new about going down this road or going across this bridge?" The bridge is owned and operated by Dyfed county council. Apart from certain reserve powers possessed by the Secretary of State of Transport with regard to the revision of tolls, the county council has sole responsibility for charging, collecting and reviewing tolls under the Dyfed Act 1987.
It was always intended that the bridge should be a self-financing project, with debt charges being recovered over a 50-year period. Those charges, together with operation and maintenance costs, are met by tolls levied on users of the bridge. That was clear to the then Pembrokeshire county council at the outset and has remained the case since.
Column 511The bridge opened to traffic in March 1975. Construction costs increased from the original estimate of £3 million to £12 million on completion. The increase was mainly due to a delay during construction following the collapse of the bridge superstructure and the need to comply subsequently with the recommendations of the Merrison committee on box-girder bridges.
The Government inspector who took the public inquiry into a tolls review in 1974, under the previous legislation contained in the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965, recommended that the additional costs to the county council of applying the Merrison committee's standards should be transferred from local ratepayers to the Exchequer. The inspector estimated those costs to be £7 million or more.
Dyfed county council, in an out-of-court settlement with the consulting engineers who designed the bridge, obtained compensation of £3 million. That left a sum of £4 million attributable to the Merrison requirements. The Government took the view that, because of the exceptional circumstances, it was appropriate to give assistance to the county council on a one-off basis. A £4 million interest-free loan that was repayable over 40 years was, therefore, made to the council. That represented a full response to the commitment made in 1979 by the then Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Crickhowell.
In 1979, the only way in which the Government could provide financial assistance to the county council was through an interest-free loan. Grant aid was not possible under the Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965, under whose powers the bridge was constructed. If a grant had been paid, toll receipts could not have been used towards any construction, maintenance or improvement costs. As I understand it, Parliament's intention in 1965, under the then Labour Government, was to prevent tolls from being used to meet bridge costs that were also grant aided.
Mr. Ainger: I accept what the Minister has said about the legal impediment--I, too, referred to it in my speech--but the argument concerns whether the loan should have been for £4 million or £7 million. Inspector Rawes argued that the loan should not take into account any compensation that the county council was to receive as a result of a legal challenge against the consulting engineer. Does the Minister accept that the £4 million loan did not fully meet the recommendation made by Inspector Rawes?
Mr. Jones: No. As I understand it, the recommendation was that none of the compensation should go to the Exchequer. It did not; it went to Dyfed county council. To comply, the Government gave a grant for what the county council had not obtained by compensation to ensure that that bill did not fall on Dyfed county council. As the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, and as was confirmed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Conwy, the Dyfed Act 1987 has repealed the old Pembrokeshire County Council Act 1965. I accept that the 1987 Act contains no similar provision restricting the use of toll income. I do not believe, however, that the financial projections prepared by Dyfed county council justify the need for further central Government assistance towards the bridge. Traffic figures and income projections show that, if the highway authority behaves responsibly in reviewing and setting tolls, future revenue will be sufficient to meet future costs. The projections indicate
Column 512that the forecast deficits on the bridge should be containable without grant assistance, subject to regular increases in tolls to cover increased costs, such as the proposed strengthening programme. In March this year, the balance on the interest- free loan stood at £2.6 million, repayable over the next 26 years. The actual total debt was £5.1 million and is steadily declining year by year. The large accumulated deficits, which are often quoted, are misleading. I know that the hon. Gentleman seeks to guard the most extreme case when he arrives at his £40 million projection and the size of future tolls. The county council is empowered to charge interest at 10 per cent. per annum on deficiencies in the revenue on the bridge, but it has chosen not to do so. It is precluded from introducing retrospective charging of such interest. In fact, the bridge generated satisfactory surplus from 1986 to 1992. The 1992-93 deficit of £257,000 was primarily due to higher than usual maintenance charges. The bridge managed to break even in 1993-94.
In response to the Select Committee's 1986 report on tolled crossings, the Government said that they were unable to accept the recommendation that they should write off or discharge the debts of tolled crossings. The Government felt there was no reason that the Exchequer should assume responsibilities for obligations freely incurred by the promoting authorities in accordance with their enabling legislation. It was felt that most crossings were either viable or could become so under prudent financial management. That does not, of course, include the exceptional case of the Humber bridge, which would represent a debt of £220 per person per year as local tax had it not been treated in a different way. The arrangement for that bridge is the legacy that we had to take on from a Labour Government, who were desperate to win a by-election.
The 1991 annual inspection of the Cleddau bridge showed that major items of work were necessary in the following 10 years. In addition, with European legislation introducing a 40 tonne weight limit for vehicles from January 1999, it will be necessary to carry out an assessment of the structure to determine its capacity to carry such loads. An initial assessment by the county council shows that the maintenance and strengthening work will cost between £5 million and £20 million.
Resources for assessing and strengthening bridges are provided via the local government revenue settlement, but strengthening work is not the only option. The costs and benefits of that work need to be assessed. It may be- -I can say no more than that--more sensible for Dyfed county council to consider whether, subject to complying with the necessary statutory requirements, weight restrictions might be applied to the bridge.
Under arrangements agreed with local authorities, transport grant can be available for major road improvements. Priority for transport grant is given to road improvements costing more than £5 million and which meet value-for-money criteria. I would not rule out the consideration of a transport grant bid to strengthen the Cleddau bridge. In the absence of an assessment showing that strengthening would be justified, it seems unlikely that such a bid would be supported within the parameters of the scheme. I will, of course, consider evidence which the authority may wish to provide.
Column 513The hon. Gentleman is right when he says that, following local government reorganisation, responsibility for the bridge will pass to the new Pembrokeshire unitary authority. He is right, too, when he says that the debt associated with the bridge will also transfer to the new authority. He ignores, however, two important points: first, the new authority will inherit the asset and receive the benefit of toll income; and, secondly, the allowance within the new authority's standard spending assessment for debt charges will reflect its total debt portfolio. The creation of the new authority represents a reversion to the original authority that introduced the legislation to build the bridge. I know that the new authority is warmly welcomed in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, as our popular reforms are usually greeted throughout Wales.
The failure of Dyfed county council to use its powers under its veto to consider and, if necessary, revise regularly the level of tolls has contributed to the bridge's present financial position. Tolls did not increase for eight years between 1985 and 1993. The hon. Gentleman has repeated the calls that have been made previously for the A477 between Pembroke Dock and Johnston on the A4076 to be made into a trunk road. The trunk road network is a national system of routes for through traffic. While, at peak times, up to 9,000 vehicles per day might use the Cleddau bridge, in the main it deals with local rather than through traffic. According to the latest statistics for 1992-93, the average is even lower than 9, 000, because a total of 2,582,108 vehicles crossed the bridge, which I equate with an average of slightly under 7,400 a day. The hon. Gentleman also referred to the third Dee crossing, which is used by 24,000 vehicles a day. The new link with the M4, Fabian way, is also a relevant consideration because it carries 30,000 vehicles a day. The bridge was provided by the local authority to meet the local need, and no evidence has been provided to suggest that it meets a broader national need. As the hon. Gentleman accepted, the area already has good access to the trunk road network at Pembroke Dock and at Johnston on the A4076. Those links provide good access to the dual carriageway at St. Clears via the A477 and A40 and thereafter to the M4. Those links are trunk roads.
The Government's commitment to improving road communications in Wales is clearly demonstrated by a high level of expenditure. Since 1979, more than £2 billion has been spent on the construction and improvement of 25 miles of the M4 and more than 160 miles of trunk road. Nine major improvement schemes providing another 30 miles of motorway and trunk road are under construction.
The rate of spend per head of population in Wales is greater than in England and Scotland. This high level of investment will continue with expenditure of about £200 million planned to be spent on trunk roads in the current financial year. Plans for 1995-96 will be announced shortly.
Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales undertook a review of our trunk road priorities in Wales. These were subsequently detailed in our document "Roads in Wales: 1994 Review". Our main strategic objectives for Wales are extending the A55
Column 514dualling in the north across Anglesey and, in the south, completion and further improvement of the M4 and dualling the A465.
Completion of the M4 will be realised in four days' time when the two remaining sections of the "M4 missing link" between Baglan and Lonlas are finished. We will then have a continuous motorway of some 220 miles from Pont Abraham in Dyfed right through to London. Moving eastwards along the M4, work is progressing on the Brynglas tunnels-Malpas relief road scheme and on the approach roads to the second Severn crossing. Future M4 proposals include widening the Castleton to Coryton and Magor to Newport-- Coldra--sections of the M4 and we are assessing responses in the recently completed second public consultation on the route for the proposed M4 relief motorway around Newport.
Those improvements to the M4 underline our commitment to improving road links to west Wales. "Roads in Wales" confirms that improving the A40 to Fishguard and the A477 to Pembroke are high priorities. On the A40, work on the Whitland bypass is due to start next month and preparation work on the Fishguard western bypass is well advanced. Public consultation will take place this month on the planned Robeston-Wathen bypass. A preferred route for the A477
Sageston-Redberth bypass has recently been announced. Also on the A477, the improvement at Red Roses junction is being advanced and we are considering the scope for further improvements on the section between Llanddowror and Red Roses. Those improvements are designed to enable traffic to flow freely. Further improvements will be brought forward where those are justified.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we remain committed to supporting the economy of west Wales, particularly through the west Wales task force. I am glad that he acknowledges our action in setting up the task force and providing the sums of money required. I am certain that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that unemployment has been falling in Wales, as it has been throughout the country.
I have looked at the unemployment figures for travel-to-work areas, and I note that in Haverfordwest unemployment has fallen from 11.7 per cent. in October of last year, to 9.9 per cent. in October this year. Similarly, in south Pembrokeshire, unemployment is down from 14.4 per cent. to 10.7 per cent. In Dyfed, unemployment is down from 9.5 per cent. to 8.2 per cent. That spread of figures compares appropriately with the fall in unemployment for Wales from 10 per cent. to 8.8 per cent.
Mr. Ainger: There is a peculiar reason for that fall in Pembrokeshire between October 1993 and October 1994, which was the fact that the Texaco refinery blew up in July 1994. Literally hundreds of new jobs were created in a short period to make good the refinery. Overall, we were still no better off in October 1994 than we were in October 1993. The fall in unemployment is merely because of the work carried out on the refinery.
Mr. Jones: Part of what the hon. Gentleman says must be true. I know the significance of the Texaco incident, as I visited the refinery a few days after that dreadful explosion. But what he says is not fully borne out, either by the figures which I quoted for the whole of Dyfed--which would not be affected by Texaco alone--or by the Welsh figures which I also quoted. The hon. Gentleman is seeing the fruits and the benefits of the Government's successful economic policies coming home. They are achieving a better framework which business and industry are taking advantage of in creating new jobs in Wales. The hon. Gentleman should know that Wales is leading the UK, as the UK, in turn, is leading Europe.
For the current financial year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced a £4.9 million package of financial allocations under the 1994-95 round of the strategic development scheme in support of a range of
Column 516projects which will benefit the west Wales task force area. Nearly 800 bids were submitted under the 1995-96 round and an announcement can be expected shortly.
I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman as he would wish. The picture which he paints of, on the one hand, responsible action by Dyfed county council and a major problem looming for the new unitary authority and, on the other, an uncaring and miserly Welsh Office does not reflect the facts. The county council is already in receipt of a £4 million interest-free loan. That was an exceptional measure and was taken in specific recognition of the unique circumstances of the bridge following its collapse during construction. The new unitary authority will inherit an asset and its standard spending assessment will take account of servicing its loan debt. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I am not persuaded that there is a case for further assistance.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Six o'clock.
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