Post Office (Subway) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th December 1965.

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Order for Second Reading read.

11.12 a.m.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr. Speaker, before explaining the Bill may I congratulate you on the astonishing increase in Parliamentary productivity which you have just reported to the House and, with generous modesty, attributed to others rather than to yourself. It is not without difficulty for Ministers and Members, but I think the main strain must have been upon you, Sir, and I congratulate you upon what in the Post Office is known as increasing the speed of answer, in the House.

I strongly support what you have said about Question Time as the main safe- guard of the rights of the House, and I must say that Parliamentary Questions look a lot more effective when one has to answer them than they sometimes do when one has to ask them. At any rate, I feel sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating you on what you have achieved. I shall try to be as brief in presenting this Bill as I would were it in answer to a Parliamentary Question.

The object of the Bill is to enable the Post Office to construct a subway under Severn Street in Birmingham, to connect New Street Railway Station to a new letter and parcel sorting office to be built in Severn Street. Let me first explain to the House why we need a new sorting office. The existing sorting office is housed in two linked buildings in Victoria Square in the centre of Birmingham. One of these buildings is nearly 70 years old and the other dates from the end of the First World War. By the start of the last war both buildings were becoming congested and the Post Office has been thinking of a new building ever since the war ended. Unfortunately, we have been prevented from doing anything about it until now by shortage of capital and the lack of a suitable site.

The situation in Birmingham has long been grim and is steadily becoming worse. We are suffering from acute congestion in nearly all phases of our work. In particular, the main unloading platform can deal with only six vehicles at any one time. There is no yard, and at night a long queue of vehicles waits in the street until space becomes available for unloading. During such times vans are often forced to drive round the building to ease congestion. Much of our sorting work has to be out-housed in temporary premises. There is no room to install modern mechanical aids. Both the existing letter and parcel offices are connected to New Street Railway Station by a tunnel. This provides direct and quick access through a British Railways subway to all the station platforms. There is no doubt that, but for the existence of this tunnel, the operation of the Birmingham office would have been impracticable long before now.

Recently we have been able to buy from British Railways a piece of land in Severn Street adjacent to property which we already own and use for a postal garage. We plan to demolish this garage and, on the combined site, to build a new letter and parcel sorting office at a total cost of about £4 million. We intend to spend a further £2 million for electronic letter coding and sorting machines in that office.

This new office will be the largest single postal building in the provinces. It will handle all the letter and parcel traffic posted and delivered throughout the Birmingham area and will deal with a considerable portion of the traffic for the neighbouring towns of Solihull and Sutton Coldfield. It will act extensively as a general forwarding centre for towns in the counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire and to a lesser extent for towns over the greater part of the country. It will also include the Postal Customs Depot which is at present located some six or seven miles out of Birmingham at Sutton Coldfield. It is hoped that building work will begin in July, 1966, which is why we need the Bill this year, and be completed in two years. A further period of up to two years will then be required for installing the initial mechanisation equipment and the office will not be fully operational until the early summer of 1970. This gives an idea of the time span in projects of this kind.

The amount of space available at ground level on the site is not as big as we should have liked. The building will, therefore, be built on stilts so that the whole of the ground floor will be a covered yard. Space will be available for 130 vans to be dealt with at any one time and there will be no need for vans to queue on the public highway. This will be a great benefit to the people of Birmingham. Moreover, the removal of the office from its present site in the centre of the city will in some small way help to ease the general peak hour traffic congestion which, as anyone who travels in a great city knows, can be a serious problem. On the other hand, the change of site will break our present underground tunnel link with New Street Station.

The new subway for which the Bill provides is an essential link between the new office and New Street Railway Station. It will enable mails to pass quickly between the new sorting office and the railway subway system which leads to the station platforms. In fact, it would really be quite impracticable to carry all the mails to and from the station by van as the station does not provide adequate access for postal vans and, after its present reconstruction, will provide even less. Therefore, the subway is an essential part of this major reconstruction project.

The subway to be constructed under the Bill will run throughout its length under public streets; that is to say, it will run under Severn Street and the intersections of Severn Street with other streets. It will be under the carriageway of the street and not under the footway except at the frontage of the new sorting office site at one end and, of course, at the frontage of New Street Station at the other. It will not interfere with any cellars or vaults belonging to private property, and its construction should cause no inconvenience to the public. All the work will be done underground except on the Post Office site itself. The surface of the street will not be broken. The top of the subway will be some 15 to 18 ft. below the street surface. Electrically driven compressors will be used; these are reasonably quiet in operation. The method of construction—that is to say, the use of 14 ft. diameter prefabricated circular sections—will be such that there should be no risk of subsidence. When the subway is in use, the electric tractors and the trollies carrying the mail will not be audible at street level.

The Bill empowers us to construct the subway and gives us the necessary right to use the subsoil under the public highway. This subsoil is virtually without value to the owners and so we have followed the precedents set by certain private Bills and provided for use without compensation. The owners of adjoining property will, of course, be entitled under the Bill to compensation on the usual basis for any injurious affection, as it is called, of their property; that is, for physical damage or depreciation in value.

We expect that the subway will be clear of all underground sewers, water and gas mains and electricity cables but we cannot be absolutely certain about this. The Bill, therefore, makes provision in case it should be found necessary to alter the position of such apparatus or to take protective measures. The Bill also provides, purely by way of precaution, for the underpinning or strengthening of nearby buildings, but for reasons which I have given when I spoke of the circular prefabricated tubes, we do not think that there will be any risk. A provision of this kind, however, is usual in private Bills authorising the construction of works.

The construction of the subway is expected to cost £200,000 which will be paid from the Post Office Fund set up under the Post Office Act, 1961, which, as the House will recall, separated the finances of the Post Office from the Exchequer. Hence there is no necessity for a Money Resolution in connection with the Bill. This is a hybrid Bill and the usual procedure will apply. Anyone whose interests are affected and who wishes to object will have an opportunity to petition and have his case heard by the Select Committee.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that my speech comes within the acceptable limits of presentation. This is a major project and a very important one for people who live in Birmingham and the neighbouring area. It gives me intense pleasure to bring the Measure forward, because all too often over the last 50 years postal building has been held back and I think that now we are able to look forward to a period where construction of this kind can go ahead. We had the Western District Office opened recently in London and now Birmingham will have an office worthy of a great city. I hope that the House will give the Bill a quick passage through all its stages.

11.22 a.m.

Photo of Mr David Gibson-Watt Mr David Gibson-Watt , Hereford

I join in what the Postmaster-General has said, Mr. Speaker, about your statement this morning. If on Wednesday last we did not quite get to the end of Post Office Questions there is no blame to be attached to anybody over that.

I do not intend to detain the House long. The Postmaster-General has given us an exhaustive description of the Bill which I say, straight away, we on this side of the House welcome. It will be very much welcomed, of course, by the Post Office and those who work in it. Anything which is destined to improve Post Office services will always have our wholehearted support.

The Explanatory Memorandum says that The subway is needed for the speedy conveyance of mails.…. The word "speedy" is indicative because the sentence could have read, "The subway is needed for the conveyance of mails". Here again the accent, quite rightly, is on speed and modernisation. In a place like Birmingham, which is probably one of the biggest commercial centres of the country and where exports are very much affected, the improvement of this type of service is very necessary. This is not the first Post Office subway. I and others have often seen the subways in London and I remember as a small boy travelling on one of the underground trains of the London Post Office service.

The safeguards in Clause 3 and the provisions in Clauses 2 and 4 are perfectly adequate. I consider them to be unexceptionable and it appears from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that the rights and interests of neighbours will be entirely safeguarded. There is one question, however, which I should like to put to the right hon. Gentleman. He has told us that the subway, with which the Bill is only concerned, will cost £200,000 and he has told us what the new Post Office building will cost. Can we be told, first and foremost, whether both these jobs will be put out to public competitive tender? Subject to an answer to that question, we should like to give the Bill our blessing. We wish it well and we hope that the work will go on to time, as envisaged by the right hon. Gentleman, and that by 1970 there will be a brand new Post Office and subway in the Birmingham area, which is such an important part of the country.

11.25 a.m.

Photo of Mr Henry Hynd Mr Henry Hynd , Accrington

Once again on a Friday we have an example of the drive, initiative and enterprise of the Postmaster-General. We are quite used to this but I am beginning to wonder whether my right hon. Friend is going too fast and piling too much work on his Department. Anyway, it is nice to see this going on and to see my right hon. Friend having new ideas and bringing them before the House.

Apparently we shall not spend much time on the Bill this morning and I wonder whether it is necessary for a piece of work like this to be brought before the House in the form of a Public Bill. Perhaps when the Committee on Procedure is discussing possible improvements it might have a look at this question and consider whether we can simplify the method in some way. This procedure seems to me to be a case of using a steam hammer to crack a nut when we even have a hybrid Bill to construct a subway.

11.27 a.m.

Photo of Mr Joseph Slater Mr Joseph Slater , Sedgefield

I am indebted to hon. Members for their comments on the Bill. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) that we must present the Bill in this way because this is the procedure laid down. There may be changes in the future. Let us hope that those changes will enable us to proceed with greater speed in the operations of the Post Office and other Departments of Government.

I assure the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) that the contracts for the subway and the Post Office will be let out to tender. Payment for the subway is expected to be made by 1967–8.

I do not intend to take up a great deal of time of the House. I am grateful for the support accorded to the Bill and to the new building scheme which will be an immense improvement not only in the Post Office service in Birmingham but in the country as a whole. This, as has been pointed out, is because Birmingham with its size, its geographical situation and favoured position in the railway network is a key office in the postal system.

I know that we are constantly reminded of the shortcomings of the Post Office at Question Time in the House, but if we are to have a postal system which is fully appreciated it is obvious that Birmingham and other key places must have the best facilities that we have to offer. As my right hon. Friend said, the existing offices are old. I have made many trips throughout the country since taking over responsibility in my Department and I am disturbed when I see some of the conditions in which Post Office employees have to work in these antiquated buildings. It is my right hon. Friend's object to do all he can to eliminate these conditions. Accommodation in many buildings is totally inadequate. In the Birmingham offices at present there is no scope for the mechanised sorting of letters and parcels and the buildings are structurally incapable of taking the machinery which we would like to install. The result is that this busiest of provincial offices in the centre of an area of intense manpower shortage has to rely to a large extent on obsolete manual methods for the disposal of the traffic.

Now, however, we shall have a new combined letter and parcel office which will be one of the most modern in the country and has been planned with a view to implementing the latest ideas in mechanical conveyance and electronic sorting. This is a major step forward in the improvement of our postal services affecting, as I have said, not only the City of Birmingham and the Midlands but much of the country as well.

I hope very much that the hon. Member for Hereford and his hon. Friends will on some occasion find time to go and visit some of our post offices to see the work which is going on and the type of machinery now in use.

This new building is important not only for the postal services but also for the staff, in whom I take a great interest. In my time as a Post Office Minister, I have been very conscious of the shortcomings in some of our buildings, and it gives me very great pleasure to see that the staff in Birmingham will now have a new office with good working conditions and with a full range of welfare facilities, kitchen, lounge, dining room, games and quiet rooms. Moreover, I have seen sketches of the new office and, in my view, its architectural appearance is striking and something of which Birmingham will be proud. It is designed in the modern idiom and in keeping with the latest development in the city centre. This is important. Furthermore, by providing this tunnel to link the office with the railway station, we shall also be helping the City of Birmingham in the solution of the traffic problems which bedevil any city centre. This will be welcome to all citizens in Birmingham and, I am sure, to our Post Office drivers in particular.

Thus, with this subway and new sorting office, we have taken a step which is very necessary and very welcome to the community at large and to our own Post Office staff.

I am indebted to the House for support it has given to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Ordered,That the Bill be committed to a Select Committee of Eight Members, Four to be nominated by the House and Four by the Committee of Selection:

Ordered,That there shall stand referred Committee—

  1. (a) any Petition against the Bill presented by being deposited in the Private Bill Office not later than Tuesday, 18th January 1966, or if the House is not sitting on that day on or before the next day on which the House sits, and
  2. (b) any Petition which has been presented by being deposited in the Private Bill Office and in which the Petitioners complain of any amendment as proposed in the filled-up Bill or of any matter which has arisen during the progress of the Bill before the said Committee,
being a Petition in which the Petitioners pray to be heard by themselves, their Counsel or Agents:

Ordered,That if no such Petition as is mentioned in sub-paragraph (a) above is presented, or if all such Petitions are withdrawn before the meeting of the Committee, the Order for the committal of the Bill to a Select Committee shall be discharged and the Bill shall be committed to a Standing Committee:

Ordered,That any Petitioner whose Petition stands referred to the Select Committee shall, subject to the Rules and Orders of the House and to the Prayer of his Petition, be entitled to be heard by himself, his Counsel or Agents upon his Petition provided that it is prepared and signed in conformity with the Rules and Orders of the House, and the Member in charge of the Bill shall be entitled to be heard by his Counsel or Agents in favour of the Bill against that Petition:

Ordered,That the Committee have power to report from day to day the Minutes of the Evidence taken before them:

Ordered,That Three be the Quorum of the Committee.—[Mr. Benn.]