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3 Nov 2004 : Column 424

Sharpness Docks

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Woolas.]

7.28 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to have this opportunity to discuss Sharpness docks, and I am also delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), on the Front Bench. I was slightly surprised when I learned that she was responding to this debate, but in the spirit of comradeship that we have in our party, and given that the subject is docks, I am sure that the Department for Transport is as relevant as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is the managing Department.

I apologise for the state of my voice—I have not been to voice training recently, but I have got the lurgy, so if I suddenly splutter, it is because of that and not for some other reason. Sharpness docks are close to my heart because I used to visit them when I was a child. Some of us can remember the days when people used to go out on Sunday afternoon car trips, and I used to go and watch the ships in Sharpness docks, which might show what a sad life I led as a child. There used to be a lovely ship, the Vindicatrix, in Sharpness docks. It was a training ship, and people who trained on it—the Vindi boys—always have an annual reunion. It still sticks in the memory.

It might surprise people to hear that my constituency contains docks, because most think that Stroud is somewhere inland near the Cotswolds, but we have long-established docks that are quite important. Sharpness docks is one of three inland waterway terminals still owned by British Waterways, and I contend that it is an important facility that is in need of some investment. The docks stand on the tidal upper reaches of the Severn estuary: the tidal range of up to 10 m is slightly less than at Avonmouth, 17 miles downstream. Ships carrying up to about 3,500 tonnes of cargo regularly pass through the port—I am pleased that their number has increased over the past three years—and it is possible to take some further up the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, which can take ships up to 900 deadweight tonnes, although the canal is mainly used by leisure craft now.

The river up to Sharpness is one of compulsory pilotage. I am bringing this matter to the attention of the House because of a report undertaken by the pilots which voices concern about the state of the docks. The pilots bring in vessels over 100 deadweight tonnes; they are part of a consortium, the Gloucester Pilots Partnership, which is under contract to Gloucester Harbour Trustees, which is the competent harbour authority. The trustees also provide the navigation aids in the harbour, which extends from the Maisemore and Llanthony weirs at Gloucester to seaward of the Severn road bridges. They provide comprehensive navigation lights cover and an advanced pilot watch radar system to help to guide shipping through the bridges, especially the deep water channel—known as "the Shoots"—under the second Severn crossing.

It is estimated that the docks date back to 1827, but it was only towards the end of the 19th century, in 1874, when the new docks opened and the Severn-Wye
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railway bridge was completed, that the thoroughfare became important for both water and rail transport. The potential use of coal in the forest of Dean—one of the reasons for building the railway and opening up the port—was never really realised. None the less, the facility has been important: connected to the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, it has always served its purpose.

In 1997, the quayside operations of British Waterways were transferred on a 125-year lease to Sharpness Dock Ltd., or SDL, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Victoria group based in Plymouth. The dry dock facility is separately leased to Sharpness Shipyard and Dry Dock Ltd. I wish to express my respect for Mark Gatehouse of SDL, who has seen the docks through a difficult period to the pleasing point at which they appear to be on the up. That is proved by the recent trading position, which shows the tonnage passing through the docks rising from almost 470,000 in 1994–95 to 1, 235,722 in 2002–03. Although the tonnage fell slightly last year, we still think that the port is doing quite well.

The reason for my present concern is a report that I received from Gloucester Harbour Trustees. I pay tribute to those who helped me understand its relevance and prepare this speech, including my old friend Bob Hall, who has been a harbour trustee for many years, Mike Johnson, who helped to edit his notes, and Gary Strickland of SDL. The report highlights the fact that parts of the docks are in a poor state of repair. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to obtain her own copy of the report, but if she cannot, I shall leave one with her. The report shows that the dry dock, and particularly the dolphins and the area where material is loaded and unloaded, is in need of repair.

I have always believed that the dock has a good future as long as it is invested in. The problem is that there are nearly £6 million of arrears in relation to investment, and I should like progress to be made on how British Waterways can be encouraged to take forward a strategy to bring the docks up to a decent state of repair.

We must recognise that the report is worthy of action. By chance, before it was published—although I had been given notice that it was in its incubation stage—I had my own meeting with BW back in September, where I met several people, including Roy Parker, the freight marketing manager, Stewart Sim, the operations director, and Ian Jarvis, the general manager for the south-west. We had an interesting couple of hours' discussion in which, having agreed that the docks have a future and that we are committed to assuring it, we explored some of the arguments. Bob Hall came along to that meeting. Although we left with a degree of optimism because of the commitment shown by the officials whom we met, that was not the same as being told where the money would come from.

There are two sides to this. We need to consider not only putting together a funding package to deal with some of the problems in relation to the docks' state of repair, but how to invest in freight use. No one pretends that it is possible to move dramatically from road to water, or from road to water and rail. However, it would be nice to think that the freight grants that are available to other forms of transport could be made available to inland waterways. That is germane not only to Sharpness but to all forms of inland waterway. Because they do not get access to the same level of grant, it is
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impossible to think about how to change things if and when the opportunity arises. I hope that that can happen at a more general level. It is no less than Sharpness deserves, and it would provide many opportunities to consider what could be achieved with the right level of capital investment and to how to use the revenue stream to move freight about in better and more sustainable ways.

In concluding my remarks to give my hon. Friend plenty of time to respond, I shall deal briefly with other issues relating to the Sharpness area. We cannot isolate the docks from their hinterland. The people who live there would not think of doing that, and I have no intention of arguing for it. I believe that the docks have a strong future. They are a good facility which, with the right level of capital investment, and with more revenue support, can be turned around to deal with the sort of tonnages of which we believe that they are capable. However, that depends on other factors.

The B4066 is the road to the docks. It is partly completed but it needs to be fully completed because of heavy vehicles driving through unsuitable areas. My constituents complain to me regularly about that. Again, we could do with a commitment to complete the road. I appreciate that that is subject to extant planning arrangements, but it would be useful to get a Government view about how progress can be made.

I shall not go into the details about the rail head because they are long and complicated, but we have been talking about trying to get a rail head for the past 10 years. It would act as a catalyst, because there would be a quick way of moving freight to the midlands, with intra-country shipping travelling from the east coast to the west coast, or directly from Spain. Ships bringing phosphates for our agriculture are some of the major users of the port. I want the rail head to be properly evaluated to ascertain how much it will cost. We have not got anywhere yet because the rail freight grant was lost, but I believe that there are still ways of providing a rail head.

On the negative side, there was the threat of an incinerator, which I strongly oppose. If hon. Members will excuse the pun, I believe that it is on the back burner now. However, the docks could be a potential source of an exciting development in waste. We have a firm, which used to be called Plasmega and has recently been taken over by Tarmac, that undertakes recycling. We want to encourage such industry on to the docks. It is an ideal centre for a waste recycling facility but it needs proper investment. We need to use the docks area appropriately.

At a time when Sharpness docks has the potential for expansion, we are in the process of examining what we need to do with Berkeley technology centre a few miles around the corner. It has a genuine impact on my constituency, with the potential loss of 1,100 jobs. We are considering an exciting taskforce investigation into how we can use the facility to develop a high-tech park. I should like some link between the docks, where some of the blue-collar work could take place, and the work that could go on in the Berkeley technology centre.

Other threats could derail matters. As I have said in this place on previous occasions, I have never been in favour of the Severn barrage. It could have a big impact on the docks. We do not seem to be making progress on
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that. Again, if such issues are being discussed in other places, they should be brought to the forefront of our deliberations about what we want to with the docks in future.

The docks have a future. They are capable of sustaining a good tonnage. Their facilities need to be repaired and brought up to standard so that they can be used not only now but in future. We need to get the infrastructure issues right and ensure that employment measures on the docks are suitable for the 21st century. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, in liaison with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will give me some good news that we are serious about using inland waterways. That is not a pious dream but a way of securing a sustainable future.

7.43 pm

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