Bo'ness Dock (Future)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th December 1957.

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

12.15 a.m.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor , West Lothian

After our recent exercise in rather old style Parliamentary adventures, I hope that the House will forgive me if, without preamble, I plunge straightaway into the subject of the Adjournment debate. We have not much time, and the subject is a very important one to my constituents.

A month ago, on 16th November, the manager of the British Transport Commission's East Coast Scottish ports wrote to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland. The gist of his letter was that consideration was being given to the closing down of Bo'ness Dock and Harbour on the Firth of Forth. The reason given for such a drastic proposal was that the dock had never paid its way during the ten years that it had been under the ownership of the Commission. It was stated in the letter that the total loss to the Commission during the ten years was almost £292,000. That is a calculation which I shall examine critically in a moment.

The manager's letter does not constitute an official approach such as is required by the appropriate section of the Transport Act, 1947. I am informed that the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland does not so regard it. It takes it as a courteous notification by the manager of a possible approach to one method of solving the financial problems of Bo'ness dock and a means whereby the problem can be brought sharply to the attention of everyone concerned, and it feels that it should be given an opportunity to state its views.

My speech tonight is the earliest indication of those views, and there will be many other indications before the matter is officially discussed by the Consultative Committee. It is an indication that the proposal to close Bo'ness dock, although it is at the moment tentative and exploratory, has caused astonishment, dismay and alarm among the townspeople, tradesmen and shipping interests of Bo'ness.

Within the brief time limit of this debate I shall endeavour not only to state the case for the retention of the dock but to submit suggestions as to how losses could have been avoided in the past and can be eliminated in the future. I shall also state why there is a very strong local belief that there has been undue discrimination by the Commission against the dock and harbour, and I shall also endeavour to submit that it would be more costly in the long term to close the dock than to retain it and put it into proper order.

First let me examine the bald statement that the total loss to the Commission from operating the dock during the past ten years was £292,000. No details at all were given. No information was supplied as to what proportions of this global figure were incurred by dredging costs, maintenance and repairs, wages, administration costs, or any other costs of operating the dock during the period.

There are no details of the annual costs in each of the ten years. There is no breakdown of the figures at all; there is just the bald statement of that global sum, spent over the decade. So far as I can ascertain, no allowance is made for the fact that the dredging and other costs of bringing the dock into usable condition after the war, when it was used by the Royal Navy as a training depot, were charged to Bo'ness Dock, or that any contribution to those costs was made by the Admiralty or by the L.N.E.R., who previously controlled the dock.

It will be seen that without these details it is very difficult to make a proper analysis of the total alleged losses. I am informed that two-thirds of these losses were incurred during the first five of these ten years, and that the remaining five years have accounted for only one-third of the total. In other words, the losses during the immediate post-war years were heavy, in all probability due to the high costs of rehabilitation after enforced war-time neglect, and in more recent years the losses have been a diminishing factor. It is my belief that with adequate dredging, reasonable encouragement and more general trade, this dock could be brought out of the red and could become a valuable asset to the Commission.

It is clear that more dock facilities will be required in the Bo'ness-Grangemouth area. Developments in this area are confidently expected. The House has fairly recently been considering—and it will again be doing so in the future—some very important potential developments in this area. The tendency towards European free trade will demand increased portage in the Firth of Forth, particularly for the smaller type of vessel for which Bo'ness is so well suited. It may well be that after all the various inquiries into the siting of the proposed new strip mill Grangemouth will be decided upon as the venue. I hope that it will, and if it is there will be a very great increase in the portage, wharfage and berthage required in the Bo'ness-Grangemouth area.

At present, in addition to its own trade Bo'ness takes the surplus trade from Grangemouth during the not infrequent times of congestion there. We do not grudge Grangemouth her increased trade in the docks. I am very glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) here at this small hour of the morning in support of this case. I appreciate his attendance, and I assure him and his constituents that there is no grudge on the part of the constituents of the Burgh of Bo'ness about the prosperity of his burgh, which we hope will increase. In fact, the more it increases the more certain it is to require to use the present berthage of Bo'ness Dock.

If Bo'ness closed down additional berths would be required at Grangemouth, and the construction of even equivalent berths would involve a very heavy—I was about to say gigantic—expenditure, because it is a very expensive business to provide new docks, wharves and berths. Obviously, it would be very bad economics to incur this expenditure when the same result could be obtained at a low cost by the adaption of existing facilities as close at hand as Bo'ness, which is 2½ miles away from the dock gates.

Since the development of Grangemouth Docks, and until the beginning of the war, Bo'ness Docks were mainly operated to supply the needs of the coal industry. While, at present, it has a general trade in goods like fertilisers, cement, scrap iron and timber, and while that trade could be developed, it is still possible for some practical encouragement to be given to the National Coal Board to use the dock more than it does.

The Commission has not claimed that its losses have been caused by overspending at Bo'ness, and no one could possibly make such a claim. It would be difficult to spend less than has been spent in maintenance. On dredging costs, the only expenditure of any importance in recent years has been £25,000 on the electrification of a power station, an economic measure, just completed, which is expected to pay for itself within three years. The other was the replacement of a weighing machine, which was absolutely necessary.

I am sorry to say that the Commission does not appear to realise the extent to which it has discouraged the use of the docks by shipowners and traders by neglect and the curtailment of facilities. The dredging arrangements have been consistently inadequate, inefficient and woefully out of date. The harbour has been allowed to silt up and sometimes vessels roll away from the berth because of the condition of the ground under the water and the fact that a vessel cannot settle flat on the ground. The equipment used for dredging is ludicrously obsolete. It consists of a bucket dredger, two barges and a tug. The barges can be filled in less than two hours. They then have to be towed down the Firth to the seaward side of the Forth Bridge. By the time they return it is too late for another load that day. It is estimated that it is costing the Commission 4s. per ton to remove mud from Bo'ness.

At the beginning of the year something very encouraging happened. A vigorous dredging programme began to operate. Great progress was made and conditions were better than anything experienced since the end of the war. Then, suddenly, all dredging stopped. No explanation was given, but there were rumours that the harbour berth was to be left to silt up and the berth put out of action. This welcome but too temporary increase in dredging activity coincided with the appointment of Captain Cooper as dredging master. He was a popular and highly efficient officer whose activities were beginning to transform the port. We now understand that his services have been terminated. Certainly, effective dredging has been stopped and we wonder why an explanation was not given.

The hon. Gentleman may recall that in 1948 his Ministry appointed a working party to investigate the shipping turn-round in British ports. This working party recommended that the crane facilities in Bo'ness should be modernised as cranes became available. In spite of this Bo'ness was informed that the port would not get new cranes. During my youth I worked as a docker and I regard this matter with knowledge of the technical problems involved. It was a good many years ago when I was a docker, but even in my opinion the dock is old-fashioned.

The hon. Gentleman may recollect, if he has looked up the records of his Department, that four years ago the docks manager was in favour of removing the most efficient single piece of equipment on the dock, the turntable turning the best coal hoist in Bo'ness. I had to fight hard in this House to retain that turntable. There is not the slightest doubt that this dock has been neglected to a most reprehensible extent. I am not in the habit of using exaggerated language, but I believe that that statement is not an exaggeration; if anything, it is an understatement. Three or four years ago the dock police were withdrawn and a great deal of avoidable damage has been done to buildings and equipment. There are long delays in the services of maintenance and repairs. Naturally, and understandably, a strong volume of local opinion has grown up to the effect that this dock has been deliberately written down and neglected, and, some go as far as to say, sabotaged. There is a feeling that there is a strong managerial prejudice against the dock.

These views have been expressed with vehemence which is not conducive to good relations. I do not wish to exacerbate those feelings, but I claim that it would be a great injustice to close the dock. It would be an injustice to the shipping agents who have struggled against heavy odds to maintain the trade of the port. It would be an injustice to the dockers who, although they can find alternative work on Grangemouth docks, naturally prefer to work their own dock when trade is available. It would be an injustice to the traders of Bo'ness, who depend on the import and export of goods and do not deserve to be deprived of facilities on which their businesses were founded, and an injustice to the Commission.

I believe that it might be made a paying concern. I claim that it would be possible, at comparatively low cost, to revitalise this dock and make it a port especially attractive to smaller vessels, for which there is a considerable and developing future. The Transport Acts of 1947 and 1953 both imposed certain general duties on the Commission, including the safeguarding of the needs of the public, of agriculture, of commerce and of industry. These needs exist in Bo'ness as well as elsewhere. Apart from the general welfare of the burgh, about 850 people are more or less directly concerned in the operation of the port. They are worried and distressed by the suggestion that it should be closed.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has no direct ministerial responsibility in this matter and that all we can do tonight is to voice the anxieties and hope that they will be taken note of in the proper quarter. In doing so, I speak with the full support of every citizen of Bo'ness.

12.24 p.m.

Photo of Mr Airey Neave Mr Airey Neave , Abingdon

I am very glad to have this opportunity of replying to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. J. Taylor) on the question he has raised as to the future of the Port of Bo'ness, because I know it is of considerable concern to his constituents and that he has presented his case in an admirable and effective way.

The hon. Member realises as well as I do that this is a matter for the British Transport Commission and that it will be for the Commission to decide, eventually, what the future of this port is to be. It has not made any decision yet. So far as the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland is concerned, if it makes representations to my right hon. Friend he will consider them. I will come to that point in a moment.

First, I would like to reply to the suggestion that this port has, in fact been neglected by the Commission, because I do not think that that is really true. I cannot tonight deal with all the figures relating to the years since 1948, when it became vested in the British Transport Commission, but I would like to send the hon. Member some of the figures of the expenditure on this port, both on dredging and on other works.

The hon. Gentleman has suggested that the Commission has consistently neglected the dock and has not given it essential equipment; and that the dredging has been quite inadequate. I think that when I send him the figures he will probably agree that expenditure has been maintained at a consistently high level since 1948. In 1956, it was £27,329, and during the last eighteen months—as I think he himself knows—the electrification of the pumping plant at the hydraulic power station has been completed at a cost of £25,000, and the timber jetties at the dock entrance have been replaced at a cost of £7,000.

I am informed that no equipment has been removed from the port since the Commission took it over—

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor , West Lothian

Mr. J. Taylor indicated dissent.

Photo of Mr Airey Neave Mr Airey Neave , Abingdon

I gather that the hon. Gentleman disputes it.

Photo of Mr John Taylor Mr John Taylor , West Lothian

I do not exactly dispute it, but attempts were made to remove very valuable equipment, and we had to raise the matter in the House in an attempt to prevent that being done.

Photo of Mr Airey Neave Mr Airey Neave , Abingdon

I am informed that, in fact, that has not happened and, if he made those attempts, the hon. Gentleman has so far succeeded.

The hon. Gentleman made a great point about dredging, but in fact, I am told that more dredging is being done now than there was before the war. From 1932 to 1939 inclusive, the annual average tonnage dredged amounted to 71,690 tons. Since 1948, the annual figure has been 78,600 tons; and for 1957 the figure will be even higher—in the neighbourhood of 85,000 tons. It is, therefore, not fair to say that dredging is not being carried out at the highest level possible at the present time.

Perhaps I may go now into the difficulties which the Commission has experienced with regard to the port, which has fallen on difficult times. One of the problems is that there has been a decline in the export of coal for foreign and coastal trade, and in the import of pit props—the two main trades for which the port was primarily constructed. That has, of course, caused financial difficulties for the Commission.

The only coal for export now is the bunkering given to the few coal-burning vessels that come to the port; and pit props no longer need to be imported in the same quantity, because they are now being provided in increasing quantities by the Scottish home timber industry. That has resulted in a decline in the total volume of imports and exports at the port from 200,000 tons in 1948 to 156,000 tons in 1956. The outlook is rather depressing. It is not a very bright picture.

The hon. Gentleman drew attention to the financial position, and I might say that, since 1948, for every £ of revenue that the Commission has received it has spent nearly £2 8s. on maintenance and operation expenses—not counting the interest charges on capital invested. I will not go into those further, because I should like to send him all the figures that I have, so that he can study them, and he will then, I think, find the position to be as I have stated.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware, of course, that neither the Commission nor my right hon. Friend have any power to direct shipowners, exporters or importers, as to which port they should use. He mentioned that he thought the Coal Board should play a part in this matter. It is perfectly true that the coal industry was once the mainstay of the port, but the Board regrets that it cannot see its way to produce the traffic for it, nor do shipowners and merchants seem able to help.

The position, therefore, as the hon. Gentleman states, is that the Transport Commission's Docks Manager for the East Coast Scottish Ports has written, to the various interested bodies, the letter of 16th November which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and, in particular, to the Transport Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland. It is, I think, technically right to state that the Commission has, in part, referred the problem to the Committee for consideration under the Transport Act, 1947. Of course, it has also been referred to other interested bodies. It is for the Transport Users' Consulta- tive Committee to consider what action it wishes to take, and I understand that the Committee has asked these other bodies to inform them of any objections which they may wish to make to the possible closure of the port. I understand that meetings are likely to be held with representative of the Commission on this whole matter. Obviously, my right hon. Friend, as I have said, will give serious consideration to any recommendation that the Consultative Committee may make to him on the subject.

I should like to express to the hon. Member for West Lothian my sympathy in this problem, and I want him to understand that we realise the anxiety which is felt in his constituency. I should not like to go into the question of Grangemouth at this stage, particularly since we have here tonight the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson), who represents that part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for West Lothian will, I hope, realise how matters stand and will accept our assurance that we shall view the problem sympathetically.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.