Forth Road Bridge Scheme.

– in the House of Commons on 28 September 1931.

Alert me about debates like this

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 9th September, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

Photo of Mr George Mathers Mr George Mathers , Edinburgh West

The Debate which has just concluded has involved the Minister of Transport, and I regret somewhat that the item that I am raising also concerns him, because it keeps him here when he has already had enough this time from this side of the House. However, I think it will be agreed that my raising this matter of the Forth road bridge, and keeping it apart from the other considerations that we have been discussing, has turned out for the convenience of the House. The hon. Gentleman will recognise, I am sure, that I have no wish specially to pillory him, he being new to the job, which, I understand, he accepted by wireless when he was on the Atlantic. I want, however, to explain to him that while not openly in this House did I raise the question of the Forth road bridge and developments in that connection, the late Minister of Transport, who, I regret, has gone from his place, will agree that I made his life, to some extent, a burden by the number of inquiries that I made in regard to this matter.

I do not know why the idea first arose in the mind of anyone to put a road bridge across the Firth of Forth near Queensferry. Perhaps in 1882, when I believe a commencement was made with the erection of the famous Forth Bridge which carries the railway over that estuary at the present time, ideas were developing with regard to a convenient road across from the Lothians to Fife; and in 1924 some encouragement was given to the idea of erecting a road bridge by the then Labour Minister of Transport, who agreed to make an engineering survey, of which the Ministry of Transport would bear 75 per cent. of the cost, if the local authorities would bear the remaining 25 per cent. Immediately the question that has hampered development in connection with this matter arose most acutely, namely, who was to bear the 25 per cent., what local authorities were involved, and how could the rate be levied for the payment of the 25 per cent.?

11.0 p.m.

After a number of years of argument on the point, during which it was contended that this being a great national undertaking, the whole of the cost of the engineering survey and of the erection of the bridge should fall upon national funds, an engineering survey was carried through, and it was ascertained that somewhere in the region of £6,000,000 would be required to erect a bridge near the site of the present railway bridge across the Forth. That was a very large item. However, pressure was brought on the Government, particularly on the late Government, to carry through this £6,000,000 job. The argument has been going on for years, and it continued over the period when the Road Fund was being robbed of an amount of money that would have built this bridge out of national funds three times over. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) has that against him. Other schemes have been mentioned. There has been the question of an improved ferry service which at present forms an unsatisfactory link for motor traffic between north and south Queensferry. An estimate has been made as to how that could be made more serviceable. Then there was the question of building a dam across the Firth near that point and snaking a canal through into the old harbour of Inverkeithing. That was condemned out of hand, but I do not know why. I do not know the ins and outs of the engineering difficulties, but I rather thought that the dam idea was one that might have been explored further.

Then we come to consider less costly schemes of dealing with this problem and making a road crossing at this point. The latest information we have was given by the late Minister of Transport on the 19th of May. The late Lord Privy Seal, in the important speech that he made in the House on 16th April outlining schemes of work that the Labour Government would undertake, indicated that, while the £6,000,000 scheme that had been outlined by the engineers who had made a survey was apparently more than could be proceeded with, he was calling further conferences of the local authorities in order that some examination might be made of alternative methods.

Notice taken that40Members were not present; House counted, and40Members being present

Photo of Mr George Mathers Mr George Mathers , Edinburgh West

I was explaining when that rather ungallant interruption took place by an hon. and so-called gallant Member, that the Lord Privy Seal on the 16th April indicated that further conferences were being held of the local authorities in order that this position might be further explored. We learned subsequently that an engineering survey a little further up the Firth, nearer Rosyth, was in contemplation, and in answer to a question by the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Millar) the late Minister of Transport indicated on the 19th May that three months would be occupied with the preliminary surveys and borings and the preparation of the engineers' report. The three months have actually expired, and it was with a considerable shock that some of us heard the present Minister of Transport say last Wednesday that he did not propose to incur the expense of a preliminary investigation into this alternative project for bridging the Forth. When we think of the human issues involved—and there are human issues involved, though perhaps not so acutely as in some of the discussions we have heard to-day—we must remember that this bridge scheme has been looked forward to with hope by unemployed men in Fife and the Lothians as one on which they might be employed when the nation made up its mind and the local authorities made up their minds from the point of view of finance.

It has been suggested that if this had been a scheme involving some connection between English counties it would have had much more consideration from the Ministry of Transport than it has had, and I think we can say, so far as Scotland is concerned, we have not had a sufficient share of schemes of this kind put in hand by and supported by the Government. I want the Minister of Transport to put the position as clearly as he can. I would ask him three specific questions. Has this engineering survey on the Rosyth site not yet begun, although the late Minister of Transport said on the 19th of May that it was anticipated that the survey would be carried through and the engineers' report presented within three months? I would ask him to endeavour to explain the reply given by his predecessor on the 19th of May. Secondly, if this survey has begun, how much has been spent on it, and has that expenditure to be lost, and who is bearing it? Finally, I ask why we should not at least complete the survey, so that when better times do arrive, when the opportunity does present itself of proceeding with this necessary link in the great roads of our country, we shall be able, having the survey ready, to proceed with the erection of the bridge? A bridge at that point seems to be the most favourably accepted scheme. It is a waste of time, and a waste of any money already expended, if we do not proceed with this survey.

Photo of Sir Percy Pybus Sir Percy Pybus , Harwich

I thank the hon. Member for West Edinburgh (Mr. Mathers) for putting his case in such a friendly manner, although it will not give me any pleasure to make the answer that I shall have to give regarding that particular project. After all, this is no new project. It represents 20 years of ambition to have another bridge over the Forth. The hon. Member for West Edinburgh and the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. E. Brown) raised this question some time ago, and the reply of the Minister of Transport at that time was full of hope, and he said that the engineer's survey was proceeding, and that copies would be submitted to the local authorities in order that their opinion on the scheme might be taken. That is about as far as the scheme has gone. I must say, first of all, that, whatever was the answer given to the questions put to the Minister, the fact remains that no actual work has been done on the engineering survey. A certain amount of measurement was done, but no borings whatever were taken. Frankly, when you consider that this project will cost something less than £6,000,000, and when you consider the present financial stringency, what good can there be in carrying on the survey of a certain type of bridge and foundations which science, which progresses so rapidly, may show, when the time comes for the bridge to be proceeded with, to be worthless? That is not a small matter at the present time. As a matter of fact the survey costs not less than £5,000, and I can spend £5,000 in a better way in keeping in employment a number of people who might otherwise be out of work.

I sympathise with every one of these national ambitions, and I should like to see the bridge constructed. Representations in this direction have been made and placed before the Ministry of Transport. Apart altogether from the proportion of the cost which the Ministry had promised, I understand that the local authorities would probably be unable to go forward and provide their 25 per cent. of the £6,000,000. I do not wish to appear in the least flippant in regard to this question, but I ask the hon. Member for West Edinburgh to appreciate the fact that it is not practical politics at the present moment to spend any money upon this survey owing to the fact that the time which must elapse before the scheme can go forward would entail a heavy loss as it would be necessary to do the whole work again at a cost of another £5,000. Therefore, I hope the hon. Member will not feel that I am going about like a diabolical butcher poleaxing his scheme. On the contrary. I feel very tenderly towards it. If it has to be put away, I would rather it were put away with the humane killer.

But I say finally that I am very far from being convinced that in present circumstances it is advisable to spend another £5,000 in further preliminary investigation of a scheme the economic justification of which has, in my opinion, yet to be shown. While I am giving the local authortiies concerned an opportunity of expressing their wishes, I cannot encourage the House to think that the scheme has very much chance of going forward at the moment. In saying that, however, I do not wish to give the slightest impression that the scheme may not go forward at some time. The only point is that I really cannot see my way to spend £5,000 on preliminary work at the present moment. I heard the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day describing his postbag, and, since I have been at the Ministry of Transport, I too have had a postbag. I find that there are two types of letters. The one begins: "If you would like to make your name as Minister of Transport, go ahead with the Little Puddleton scheme"; while the other begins, "If you want to wipe out your bad past, by all means dismiss the Little Puddleton scheme." Keen as the hon. Member is to go ahead with this bridge, there is in Scotland, and in that area, an opinion equally strong that it should not be proceeded with.

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

Doubtless the hon. Gentleman has done his best, but one or two of the statements that he made seemed to me to indicate that he was making more of his case than was warranted by the facts. The cost is not to be £6,000,000 or anything approaching £26,000,000.

Photo of Sir Percy Pybus Sir Percy Pybus , Harwich

I said something less than £6,000,000.

Photo of Mr Thomas Johnston Mr Thomas Johnston , Stirlingshire and Clackmannanshire Western

Yes, about £4,000,000 less than £6,000,000. The second point is that he is not asked to spend £5,000 in boring. At the conference with the local authorities it was stated that they themselves were prepared to bear a proportion of the costs of investigation. They went away after a unanimous agreement that this expenditure should be incurred. Some expenditure has been incurred by way of measuring, and all that remains is to find by boring whether the particular site upon which it is proposed to build the bridge would be a suitable site or not. If the local authorities are prepared still to bear their share of the cost of investigation, and if some part of the £5,000 has already been incurred, it seems to me that the State is losing money now by throwing away whatever expenditure has already been incurred in getting this information.

This is not a Little Puddleton-in-theMud type of scheme at all. It is really playing with this great national project to liken it to such a scheme. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there is no transport at all, apart from the railway, north from the capital city of Scotland, unless you go away round by Stirling or Kincardine? It is a misuse of terms to liken this great national project, this opening to the north from the capital city of Scotland, to some twopenny scheme for Little Puddleton. I beg the hon. Gentleman, when he gets the replies from the local authorities, as presumably he will, as to whether or not they are prepared to go on, under the scheme of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners and com- plete their borings, not, for the sake of a couple of thousand pounds, which I am perfectly certain will scarcely be exceeded, to throw away whatever has already been spent in cash, and the very valuable agreement that has been secured for the first time with all the local authorities concerned and the Ministry of Transport and its officials. I beg the right hon. Gentleman not to be unnecessarily flippant about it and not to waste whatever public funds have been expended, but to recognise that there is a great national necessity, there is a great national sentiment, and there is great economic development for the East Coast of Scotland waiting on some such bridge as unfortunately now, it seems, is to be turned down at the instance of the Chancellor.

Photo of Mr Ernest Brown Mr Ernest Brown , Leith

I agree entirely with the last sentence of the right hon. Gentleman, but I must add that, while it is true that there is a great national sentiment for a road bridge over the Forth, there is a far bigger sentiment for the original scheme which we did our best to press on the late Minister of Transport without success, which we are not at all sure would be successful until borings are made. If the Minister is going to pay attention to what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, we ought to press our point that the original plans for the original scheme should be kept in being and in mind. There is no doubt it would have a far bigger effect from the point of view not merely of the capital city but of the whole district round if the original scheme, with its radiation of roads, one of which would have come through my own constituency, had been looked upon favourably by the late Minister. The hon. Member for West Edinburgh (Mr. Mathers) is entitled to raise the subject, and he has continuously done so when supporting his own Government, but he and I, and others, including the hon. and learned Member for East Fife (Mr. Millar), did our best to push the project, not with very great success as regards the larger scheme, though the right hon. Gentleman who has just spoken took the steps to which he has referred. I put in my plea again that if the later one is to be reconsidered, the bolder scheme should be re-considered and the plans kept in being.

Photo of Dr Thomas Shiels Dr Thomas Shiels , Edinburgh East

I agree with the hon. Member that probably local sentiment was most attracted by the bigger and more straightforward scheme. It was a great deal more expensive, but one of the advantages adduced for the present scheme was that it would utilise a portion of the Rosyth garden city which was to some extent lying derelict. I was a little disappointed that the Minister seemed to anticipate that it would be so long before we should be in a position to put up the bridge, even though the preliminary surveys were satisfactory. It is true that the march of science is very rapid, but we had hoped that the affairs of the country would be in charge of those who would be able to adjust its fortunes even more rapidly than the march of science. I hope the hon. Gentleman will consider on reflection that, whether the Government remains in or whether a better one takes its place, there is no reason why the lessons derived from a survey of this kind should not be applied within a reasonable time. It is true that Scottish opinion has felt that all Governments have to a large extent neglected Scotland. It would be a very desirable thing that Scottish sentiment should be met, especially when it is united in a combination very dear to Scotland, that is, of sentiment and great practical advantage not only to Scotland but to the whole of the kingdom.

Adourned accordingly at Twenty-five Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.