Public Accounts Committee (Reports)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd December 1973.

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Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Fife West 12:00 am, 3rd December 1973

My hon. Friend is too able an accountant to have allowed this kind of nonsense to occur. But, having been a Member of the House at the time, I should bear as much back-bench responsibility as I deserve.

The decision to build this white elephant across the Clyde was taken in 1965. It was expected that the bridge would be completed by 1970. However, like all projects of this kind, it fell behind schedule and was not completed until July 1970. There was to be a trunk road, and a toll bridge for 20 years. The scale of tolls was fixed at a sufficiently high level, it was thought, to provide enough cash to reimburse with interest the capital cost, to cover operating costs, maintenance and so on. The estimate of capital costs made in 1965 was about £6 million for the approach roads. The traffic flow estimate was 3 million vehicles per year by 1970, when it was thought that the bridge would be opened. It was thought that traffic would increase at an annual rate of 7 per cent. compound.

By 1970 it was apparent that gross miscalculations on every possible score had been made. It was clear that the annual rate of traffic growth would not be 7 per cent. but less than half that. Serious errors had been made in the estimates of population growth in the bridge catchment area. Meanwhile, the Department had completely forgotten that there was a Whiteinch tunnel and the Kingston bridge as well, which were free crossings of the Clyde. Any commercial organisation, especially a Scottish one, which sees a free crossing a few miles away from a toll bridge will use the free crossing, whether it is the Whiteinch crossing or the Kingston Bridge.

The result was that when the position was examined in 1970 the experts thought that no toll rate would be enough to pay off the total costs of the bridge. Even with tolls of 15p for a car and 50p for a heavy vehicle the debt would rise from £7·1 million to £19·5 million. The 1973 figures given in the report show that the deficit would be about £35 million to £40 million and that, no matter what happens, the bridge will never be paid for.

So we have a marvellous story of experts, Ministers and civil servants making their calculations—all of them wildly wrong—and saying "What a great job we have done." Now we have a bridge which is a monument to Government and Civil Service comprehensive inefficiency.

The Public Accounts Committee says "We are sorry, but we believe that the bridge was built before the traffic flow justified it and that there should now be an effort to economise. We should do a little more painting, keep it in good nick and hope that better days are ahead."

This story makes the mind boggle. If such a botch can be made of a project costing less than £50 million, how much more likely are we to make a botch of Maplin, Concorde and the Channel Tunnel, which are to cost not hundreds of millions of pounds but perhaps thousands of millions of pounds?

The simple answer is to tell the experts to get out of the way and let a few sensible people like me have a look at the matter and say "If the traffic is there, let us build a bridge and forget altogether about tolls." I have always been against tolls on trunk roads, whether or not they go over a bridge spanning water and into and out of Fife. Fife is the only Scottish county where one pays to go in and one pays to come out. In fact, it is the only county in Britain where one does that. Fife is worth going into and coming out of, but it is not worth the tolls to do it, so tolls should be abolished. Let us get rid of this nonsense.

I hope that the Government will have another look at this problem. As my hon. Friend the Member for Craigton says, by the time the report was made the fuel crisis had radically changed the situation both as regards North Sea oil and, to a lesser extent, as regards tolls on this bridge. Heavy vehicles which make a six-mile or a 12-mile detour will spend much more on fuel than they would on the tolls. Therefore, it would probably pay the Government to get rid of the tolls and save the lorries from having to make the detour to avoid the toll charges.

I make that point to demonstrate how quickly a report such as this report of the Public Accounts Committee can be outdated by events. We have not yet heard the last word about the escalating cost of fuel. As fuel costs increase, so the abolition of tolls on the Erskine Bridge and other bridges becomes increasingly relevant to the fuel factor.

The Minister has a difficult job on hand but he will have very little barracking. His closing speech will be one of the easiest that he has had to make in this House, and he will have no problems at all. He is playing to an empty House, and he probably deserves that.