– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd April 1974.

Alert me about debates like this

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Before I call upon the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) to move the Second Reading, I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker).

8.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

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

I have said has been of some value. I have learnt a little on this ocacsion, as procedure on Scottish Private Bills is rather different and I am slightly unfamiliar with the procedure which has been adopted here. Perhaps I should have indicated the Government's views earlier.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 16, Noes 67.

It will be seen in Schedule 2 that for motor cars and such like it is proposed that the maximum toll should be 10p. The present charge is 5p. For goods vehicles weighing not more than four tons —because the bridge will not bear anything greater than that safely—a charge of 50p is proposed compared with the present charge of 25p. The charge for motor cycles, motor scooters, motor tricars and horsedrawn carts remains, broadly speaking, the same as before. Pedestrians will pay 2p; in the previous Act it was 2d. It is not proposed to raise the toll charges until 1975. The trustees have special powers to issue season tickets at reduced rates. That is not mentioned in the Bill.

If there is no increase in tolls the reserve fund will be used up. This reserve fund has been accumulated over the years and is designed for the eventual replacement of the bridge. It is estimated that, at present, replacement would cost £3 million, although that is probably an optimistic estimate. The size of the reserve fund is currently £606,000 or thereabouts, although some of it is in quoted investments which are somewhat depressed at present.

This sum of money might be called upon at any moment if some large repair to the bridge were necessary, such as the renewal of the chains, which are the original ones, dating from the time when the bridge was first opened. They came from elsewhere, but, being made from wrought iron specified by Brunel, they appear to be thoroughly sound. If the tolls were not to be increased in 1975 the reserve fund would run out in 20 years, and after that nothing would be left to pay for renewal of or extensive repair to the bridge.

Some people think that there should be no tolls, but if they were removed forthwith there would be a 10-year spree while the reserve fund would be run down and after that the reserves would be exhausted. I have other figures which I do not propose to quote in full but which give a fair indication of the trends of the next 10 years, and I shall be happy to answer questions on them.

The situation which obtained before the Local Government Act came into force was that the area of the city and county of Bristol was at one end of the bridge and the county of Somerset was at the other. Those two local authorities were represented on the trustee body. Now, however, there is a district council in Bristol, and on the Leigh side of the bridge, which used to be Somerset, there is the Woodspring district authority. The Avon county authority covers the whole area, having taken over that part of Somerset now called Woodspring. The district council in Bristol has accepted the prospect of nominating a trustee, as has Woodspring. Without the Bill, however, Avon county could not nominate a trustee, nor, for that matter, could Woodspring. Somerset can, although it has no territorial claim to one side of the bridge as it previously had. Local government representation on the trustee body would be somewhat confused wit h-out the Bill.

All the new local authorities involved object to the raising of tolls and have combined around one petition, copies of which the House has seen. The trustees have made various offers to the local authorities about consultations and have suggested that if there is disagreement the Minister might be brought in. I do not know whether the Minister would care to indicate what his position is about the difficulty which has arisen between the local authorities and the trustees. Perhaps he would prefer to intervene later?

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

We shall be hearing from the Minister in due course, it seems.

The objectors to the Bill are supported by at least one hon. Member who has been quoted in the Press, and no doubt we shall have a closely-argued though perhaps not a heated debate. I am sure it is right for the air to be cleared and I shall seek to answer at the end any questions which hon. Members may ask. I shall do so with the help of advisers of the trustees, because they are within call.

A number of related matters are bound to be raised. There is the vexed question of the traffic flow across the bridge and whether the collection of the tolls causes delay to the traffic. There have been comments in the Press about the difficulties in the collection of tolls. I may say on behalf of the trustees that they have conducted trials of a new automatic system; they show most promising results. That system is likely to be introduced in the foreseeable future. It would not only speed up the flow to the maximum possible extent but would get us out of some of the difficulties which have been experienced with the human factor. My constituents would welcome any speeding up of the flow that could be attained because of the considerable queues which have built up on my side of the bridge at certain times.

I know that the trustees have their difficulties because of the lack of available extra land on either side of the bridge. Much of the land on either side of the bridge is jealously guarded by the citizens of Bristol for the use of all the citizens. Part of the Downs lies on one side and on the other side is National Trust property.

The traffic system has shown promising results and holds out some hope for improvement. It has been suggested that a one-way flow of traffic using two lanes at certain times of the day might help the surge of commuter traffic going in and out of the city. The evidence which I have been shown indicates that there is a substantial flow in either direction at certain times. A one-way flow system might cause inconvenience, but it is right to say that no trials have taken place.

Also to be considered is the effect on traffic when at long last the M5 Avon Bridge is completed. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) and my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean), both of whom are present, will have their constituencies linked by the new bridge. We do not know what effect the completion of the M5 Avon Bridge will have on the suspension bridge. I concede that that is a valid point. The suspension bridge will be continually in use as an important local road, but it is a fact that we cannot be sure of the effect that the new bridge will have.

The representative or unrepresentative nature of the trustees and the eventual necessity to bring the tolls into line with modern needs, caused by local costs of various kinds, has brought about the Bill. There have been some unkind things said about the present trustees. I think that it is unfair to attack them. In the eyes of some, they have the local hereditary stamp about them, but there is no harm in that. There are three trustees who could not come into that category and who are distinguished engineers. The other trustees might be called members of the well-established local families. They have all rendered great public service and are well able to discharge their duties as trustees. Bristol is proud that it has families who have been interested and involved in public life for many generations. My family has been involved for only three generations and is still regarded as a bit of a foreigner. I support the idea that we should have continuity.

I am the hon. Member who crosses the bridge more than any other hon. Member. There are Members present who have considerable experience of doing so, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin). I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West both use it from time to time. We have suffered the privations which the public suffer, namely, the clogging up of the bridge at certain times despite the efforts of the trustees to alleviate the situation. It is good for us to experience the same privations. Of course, we have been sent here to try to help the public in every way possible. We hope that we shall be able to explore all the possibilities as the debate proceeds.

The trustees have preserved the bridge well. They have plans to improve the traffic flow, and so on, to make it the more able to cope with modern conditions and an unknown future—because we cannot know what the future holds. Brunel would be surprised that there should be a parliamentary argument about the upkeep of the bridge, because Bristolians built it and have managed it since 1864. Now, 110 years on, Bristolians are asking Parliament to give them the power to secure the financial and structural future of the bridge. There is a certain continuity here, though the world is a rapidly changing place.

If hon. Members wish to ask questions, I will endeavour to answer them, but I have no doubt that we should give the Bill a fair debate, and as the Member of Parliament for half the bridge, I have the pleasure, on behalf of the trustees, to recommend the Bill to the House.

8.56 p.m.

Photo of Mr Terence Walker Mr Terence Walker , Kingswood

The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) has given what I consider to be lukewarm support for the Bill. I feel it right that one should respond to this case although I am something of a rarity here in that I am a Bristolian.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

I would hate the hon. Gentleman to think that, because I used moderation in my approach, I was lukewarm. I said that we should give the Bill a fair debate. I am as good a Bristolian as is the hon. Gentleman. Having been brought up in Bristol Zoo and having used the Clifton Suspension Bridge since I could walk I can perhaps claim an even closer association with it than he can.

Photo of Mr Terence Walker Mr Terence Walker , Kingswood

That is quite right. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) has in the past opposed the Bill, and all credit to him for doing so.

What the hon. Member for Bristol, West did not mention is that Bristol District Council with Bristol Corporation—which ceased to exist on 31st March—presented a petition against the Bill, objecting to certain provisions in it. The district council's basic objection is to Clause 8, which would repeal Schedule 3 to the Clifton Suspension Bridge Act 1952 and substitute a new schedule. The effect of Clause 8 would be to authorise increased tolls to be taken from traffic using the bridge.

I agree that the bridge is a memorial to the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but it is unrealistic to suggest that there is need to build up a reserve fund by increasing the tolls. The bridge is indeed a memorial to Brunel and is in no way part of the traffic network. This point was mentioned previously when the M5 bridge was projected, and when the new bridge is built—we hope it will not be too long delayed—the traffic along the present highway across the Clifton Suspension Bridge will be seriously diminished. It is, therefore, inappropriate that funds should be made available for improving the highway or maintaining it over the suspension bridge.

It is envisaged that motor vehicles will use this bridge for as long as possible, but when it is declared unsafe for that purpose it will revert to pedestrian purposes. If, however, we reach the stage that pedestrians are not allowed on the bridge, it should be kept as a memorial.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

I think that the hon. Gentleman proposes to allow the bridge to stay there even if nobody is able to use it because it is run down. Is he seriously suggesting that the bridge should be abandoned as an avenue for road traffic, and that the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean)—from Leigh Woods —should not be able to come across to my constituency of Bristol, West without going to the bottom of the gorge? Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that he would tolerate the situation that the bridge would stand there and nobody would be allowed even to walk on it?

Photo of Mr Terence Walker Mr Terence Walker , Kingswood

I am saying that what has been put forward in the Bill is completely unrealistic. There is no question of the bridge being removed or superseded. This is a memorial to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and it can never be replaced by anybody in this century. It is important that it is kept up to standard, but it is in no way part of the network of the road. Therefore, for the promoters of the Bill to increase the toll at this time as they envisage is to show that they are out of touch with reality. To say that there is a need to accumulate funds for the purpose of replacing the bridge in due course is wholly unrealistic.

We seek to delete Clause 8. We have considered the implications of the Bill, and we feel that it must be considerably redrafted. That is why we very much hope that the Bill will be rejected tonight, redrafted by the promoters in consultation with the new Bristol District Council and then submitted again in a new form.

9.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Somerset North

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) for promoting this Bill tonight and for giving the House an opportunity to debate it.

As my hon. Friend said, the Bill has two main purposes. The first—the one which easily takes up the biggest proportion of the clauses—is to widen the base from which the trustees are appointed, and, in particular, to include representatives from the new Avon County Council and the Woodspring District Council. I welcome that gesture on the part of the trustees. It is an effective and up-to-date approach to the new situation, and I strongly support it.

The other main purpose of the Bill is to provide power for a possible increase in the toll. I am not so happy about that aspect of the Bill. I have received many objections from local authorities, both old and new, from parish councils in my constituency and from a number of voluntary organisations, women's institutes and other organisations of that kind. I have passed those objections on to the trustees and have told them that I should find it difficult to support this part of the Bill unless they are able to meet the objections which have been put forward.

The trustees have had close consultations to try to meet the objections, but, unhappily, on this aspect agreement has not, as I understand it, so far been reached.

Against that backgroud, I make three points, the first of which is concerned with the main matter raised by the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker), namely, whether it is necessary to increase the tolls. I pay tribute to the trustees for their past record h this respect. Not many organisations can say that they have not increased their prices for 20 years. The trustees can say that, and I am glad to put it on record publicly in the House tonight.

But, having said that, I cannot agree that a case has yet been made out for an increase in the tolls, especially since, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West said in introducing the Bill, increases are not required until 1975 at the earliest. There is in my mind, therefore, a question mark over that. The case has not been made out.

On the other hand, I disagree with the point which, I think, the hon. Member for Kingswood made, that the bridge can be allowed to run down because the trustees do not have sufficient resources to keep it going. I know that that would be against the interests of my constituents. Many of my constituents, and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), use the bridge at present. I shall be extremely surprised, even when the M5 bridge is opened and through traffic is moving in other directions, if there is not a considerable demand for the use of the bridge by people who travel from North Somerset and Weston-super-Mare to do their work in the morning and return in the evening.

There is an obligation on the House to give the Bill serious consideration. If we were to deny the trustees the wherewithal to keep the bridge operating, it could easily be damaging to the interests of our constituents who will probably have to use the bridge for many years to come. I am, therefore, rather unhappy about that aspect of the remarks of the hon. Member for Kingswood.

Another reason why I am unhappy about letting the Bill through with a clause providing for increases in tolls is that this is a difficult time at which to judge this matter. In a few months' time, we hope, the Avon bridge will be open, which will relieve some of the through traffic. Therefore, it is intensely difficult for the House to assess at this moment the case about tolls which the trustees are putting forward. All I am saying is that I have a question mark in mind. I am not yet happy that the case has been made out.

The other aspect which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West was traffic flow. There is no doubt that the problems of commuters travelling into Bristol in the morning and leaving in the evening are acute. They get worse year by year as the population increases, and the road programmes, under both Governments, have not kept up with the steep increase in commuter population.

The trustees have done their best to improve the traffic flow, but when my constituents tell me that they should not even have to think of paying increased tolls unless there is a quid pro quo on better traffic flow, I think they have a good case. I was glad to hear that the trustees are now experimenting with automatic systems to this end. But it would help the passage of the Bill to have a little more information about what is involved and how long it is likely to be before these improvements can he introduced. If we can tell our constituents that, as a result of paying a little extra, they will have a better service and be able to cross the bridge faster, it would strengthen the trustees' case.

Finally, I come to the procedures for the increase in tolls. Both the old and the new local authorities have asked not only for the opportunity, which we all welcome, of having a trustee on the board but an opportunity of being consulted on any increase in tolls and of giving their consent. They have said that in the event of their not being able to give consent, they should like that deadlock situation to be resolved by the Secretary of State for the Environment. That has always seemed to me to be a reasonable suggestion, and I regret that so far the trustees have been unable to meet it. It is a reasonable safeguard in the interests of a large number of our constituents who use the bridge.

I end by putting two points to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West. First, to help us decide our attitude on this debate, will the trustees consider two things? Will they agree to the plea which has been made by the local authorities not only for consultation but for consent and for bringing in the Secretary of State for the Environment in the event of there being a dispute? If they were prepared to agree to this, it would deal with most of the legitimate criticisms advanced by the local authorities, and I should be very much happier about the Bill.

Secondly, if they are not prepared to agree to that, is it necessary, at this point, to have the clause dealing with the tolls? As my hon. Friend said that the increased tolls are not required until 1975 at the earliest, would it not be possible to deal with it later?

It would be helpful if my hon. Friend could, as the debate proceeds, deal with those two points. I should be reluctant to vote against the Bill tonight because there are some clauses which I believe to be highly desirable, and I certainly do not feel that I can say definitely at this point that there is no case for an increase in tolls. There may be.

The procedures which are involved in the Bill are not those which have commended themselves to the local authori- ties. They are not those which give sufficient guarantees as to improved traffic flow on the bridge. If my hon. Friend were able to meet us on some of these points, I would be content for the Bill to go forward in Committee when these matters can be considered in more detail. If it were not possible to do that, I must say, with some reluctance, that I should find it difficult to support the Bill. I should probably feel that it would still be right, if the House so wished, for the Bill to be discussed in detail in Committee, but I should certainly feel obliged to vote against it on Third Reading unless it were possible, between now and then, for the points which I have raised to be substantially met.

9.13 p.m.

Photo of Mr Neil Carmichael Mr Neil Carmichael , Glasgow Kelvingrove

I assure the House, and those who wish to speak, that I am not terminating the debate, but merely conventionally intervening as a Government spokesman on a Private Bill, and it is perhaps better that I speak now to give the general view of the Government rather than wait till everyone has spoken. One is somewhat nervous about speaking when everyone debating the Bill is so knowledgeable and has so much local feeling and understanding of the problem. However, it is customary when a Private Bill is debated that the Government should make a brief statement of their attitude to the Bill.

My Department has the overall responsibility for roads and bridges, and we therefore have an interest in the progress of this Bill. The Bill, as has been said most eloquently by other hon. Members, relates to a very unique and historic bridge which everyone agrees should be preserved as a monument, both in its own right, because of the type of bridge it is and its appearance, and also as a splendid example of the work of I. K. Brunel. Whether its usefulness as a road bridge across the gorge is likely to decline is, in my opinion, a secondary consideration. It is absolutely beyond dispute that it must be maintained as a fine historic monument. Everyone appears to be agreed on that.

The only questions at issue are whether the tolls should be increased, and, if so, whether the trustees ought to seek the local council's consent and go through a formal order-making procedure before they increase the tolls within the maxima provided for in the Bill.

On these questions the Government have a completely open mind and are perfectly happy to leave it to Parliament to decide the precise procedures which should govern the putting up of the charges. I hardly think that a Second Reading debate is the appropriate time to decide this rather esoteric question.

I therefore recommend, on behalf of the Government, that the House should follow convention and refer the Bill to a Select Committee where all these aspects can be examined in detail with the help of experts who will, no doubt, be brought along for both the proposers of the Bill and the objectors to the Bill. That is the line that I advise the House to take.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Somerset North

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman could help a little more on one specific question which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) put to him and which interests me, too, and which I mentioned in my speech. Do I understand that the Department of the Environment would be prepared, in the event of the Bill being amended to meet the views of the local authorities, to be, as it were, the court of last resort in the event of a dispute about the level of the tolls, and also to adjudicate on these matters, on the presumption that its findings would be accepted and agreed to by both the trustees and the local authorities involved?

Photo of Mr Neil Carmichael Mr Neil Carmichael , Glasgow Kelvingrove

Strong recommendations from the Select Committee which examined the Bill and more information would be available at the time of the Third Reading of the Bill. I am sure that we should then have an opinion from the experts on whether it would be advisable for the Secretary of State to become involved in this matter in his official capacity. The thing to do is get the Bill to the Committee, have it examined, and make some of these decisions in due course.

9.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr Martin McLaren Mr Martin McLaren , Bristol North West

It is perhaps inevitable that in a debate of rather limited scope we go over the same ground and make the same points in our different ways. We are concerned here with a beautiful bridge built over 100 years ago to commemorate Brunel. The bridge is very much part of the Bristol and, indeed, the national heritage. It is one of the momuments of Victorian engineering. The view of it from Bedminster Down and elsewhere when it is lighted up on summer evenings is very lovely.

It is right to emphasise that the Bill's main purpose is to extend and modernise the constitution of the trust. This was made necessary by the reorganisation of local government. Thus a trustee is to be appointed by the Avon County Council instead of by Somerset, and a trustee is to be appointed by the new Woodspring District Council. In honour of the engineering and architectural importance of the bridge, it is proposed that trustees should be appointed by the Institution of Civil Engineers, by the National Trust and by the Secretary of State for the Environment as highway authority.

All that is non-controversial. The only controversial point is the proposal that the trustees should take power to increase the maximum tolls. That proposal has been opposed by the Avon County Council and the Bristol District Council.

It is not intended, as has been said, to use these powers as soon as the Bill is passed. No tolls would be increased before 1975 at the earliest. However, considerable expense is involved in applying to Parliament for a Private Bill. The trustees had to do so because of the new local authorities and it was reasonable therefore, that the Bill should include provisions for future tolls in case they should be needed. I fully agree that it has been creditable that the trustees of the bridge have managed to keep their charges stationary for the past twenty years in the face of inflation. If nothing were done, it is possible that it would be necessary to run down the trustee's reserve fund.

Bristol's traffic problems arise mainly because of the difficulty of crossing the River Avon. At present there are four crossings—the Bath Bridge, the Bedminster Bridge, the Cumberland Basin and the suspension bridge. But within a few months an important new bridge, the M5 motorway bridge, will be opened over the river at Avonmouth in my constituency. It is very difficult to judge in advance the future of the suspension bridge until we see the change in traffic flows when the M5 bridge is open. Some people think that the suspension bridge will eventually become a pedestrian bridge, but I think that it will be needed for many years to come to carry a substantial amount of car traffic.

It would be reasonable to empower the trustees to charge increased tolls to help them cope with inflation. They might need large sums if a major repair of the bridge were wanted. One alternative solution would be that the bridge and the road running across it should be brought into the general system of the highway. A drawback to that solution is that the Department of the Environment does not wish it, presumably because it would expose it to potentially heavy liabilities.

If any proposal were made to increase the tolls within a year or so, it would be subject to the Government's prices policy and legislation at the time. Only a few days ago in the Budget Statement the Chancellor warned that railway fares would have to rise by a substantial amount. If so, I fail to see what is wrong with a modest increase in the charge for tolls over the suspension bridge.

Photo of Mr Terence Walker Mr Terence Walker , Kingswood

The point I made is that the fundamental difference here is that, as the promoters say in their statement, the tolls would be increased to meet any extraordinary demand for renewing, improving or extending the bridge. This point has not been answered by any hon. Member. It was never intended to renew or to extend this bridge.

Photo of Mr Martin McLaren Mr Martin McLaren , Bristol North West

When one drafts a Private Bill one puts in a lot of possibilities, though the likelihood of any of them happening is not great. The main possibility is the liability for maintenance and repair of the bridge.

When one reads the correspondence which has passed between the parties, one finds that the trustees of the bridge have leaned over backwards to discuss the matter with local authorities and to reach a friendly agreement. They offer the formal undertaking to consult the local authorities on any proposal for an increased toll and to consider their representations at a meeting. Let it be remembered that under the Bill the local authorities are given representation on the trustees' own body, so they will be able to express a voice on any occasion.

My conclusion coincides with that recommended to us by the Under-Secretary that it would be reasonable to give the Bill a Second Reading so that the detailed points which have arisen in the debate might be considered in the usual way in Committee.

9.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler , Bodmin

I intervene briefly and with some trepidation because, unlike most Members taking part in the debate, I have to declare a non-interest: I do not live and I do not have a constituency close to the bridge. I do, however, have an intermittent interest in that a great many people who come to the West Country—and by "West Country" I mean Devon and Cornwall—travel along this route. Until the M5 is completed, those people will continue to use this route.

I want to ask two questions. I realise that neither of them will be answered this evening but I hope that they will be faced frankly by the trustees when, as I hope, the Bill is given a Second Reading and goes to Committee. It seems to me that those who use the bridge, whether regularly day by day or occasionally, as I use it, require to know two things: first, the way in which any additional charges are to be imposed and how there may be a differential between different types of users; and secondly, what is to be done with the additional funds raised.

On the first point, I hope the trustees will give an undertaking that in Committee they will retain the season ticket arrangements and that they will review the differential between the single toll and the season ticket. It seems to me that a season ticket is a very important advantage for those who use the bridge on a regular basis. I understand that the 1952 Act which set up the trust did not include statutory provision for a season ticket. I hope that in Committee this matter can be reviewed. Similarly I hope that there will be an opportunity to look again at charges for pedestrians. Time has passed on and perhaps the case that was originally made is no longer valid.

Concerning the uses to which any additional funds should be put, I hope it can be demonstrated by the trustees that the additional funds raised will be devoted entirely to increasing the flow of traffic across the bridge. When I recently crossed the bridge, within the last few weeks, two things amazed me. First, the amount of the toll was exactly the same as when I had last crossed it, even in this time of rampant inflation. The other element of surprise was that in 1974 one still queues for an incredibly antiquated method of toll collection. We who benefit from the Tamar Bridge where there is a much more up-to-date method, would find this an anachronism which we would not tolerate daily.

I and my colleagues would be very happy to give the Bill a Second Reading. We recognise that this is the right thing to do at present but we hope that undertakings will be given on behalf of the trustees that the matters to which I have referred will be given the fullest consideration when the Bill is in Committee.

9.29 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Ellis Mr John Ellis , Brigg and Scunthorpe

I apologise for not being present to hear the opening statement. I should like to declare a slight interest in that in my constituency we may have a toll bridge in the not-too-distant future —the Humber bridge. Therefore, I seek this opportunity to make my position clear. I do not like toll bridges. I should like to see all tolls abolished in Britain.

I am a constituent of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren). I do not just stay in his area; I live there. That is where I have lived for some time and where I have my house. I found his speech extraordinary, because, representing the people in the area as he does, he seems to be in favour of people paying higher tolls for this facility when we all know that this bridge will not be renewed.

As has been said, it is a historical monument. It would be an affront to everyone in Bristol if an attempt were made to renew it. No doubt it will be kept as a set piece, and that is what we want. Therefore, this Bill is introduced on the false premise of funds to renew a bridge which we all know will not be renewed.

I am against the Bill on my main point, that I am against toll bridges in principle. We may have this debate on another occasion in relation to the Humber bridge. Furthermore, living where I do, and as a humble ratepayer, I cannot believe that any case has been made for raising tolls or to renew or rebuild a bridge. We all know that would be utter stupidity. I do not represent the people of that area in a parliamentary way. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West does that.

9.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

Unlike the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler) and the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), I can claim a very direct constituency interest in this matter. As in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean), I can say that many of my constituents travel across this bridge once or twice a day to their work in Bristol. Moreover, with the failure to complete the M5 bridge and with the motorway now terminating at Portishead, the bridge is the shortest way back into the city and around it.

I was interested to note the concern of the hon. Member for Bodmin in these matters. It was a pity that the Liberal Party of previous days did not take a little more interest in local government reorganisation. Had they been prepared to turn up, we might have been talking about a bridge from Bristol to Somerset instead of an internal bridge in the county of Avon. But that is now history.

Secondly, the importance of this bridge as part of the scene of the city of Bristol has been raised but not emphasised. I cannot visualise Bristol without the Clifton suspension bridge. Visitors to the city look upon the bridge as a landmark, as part of the city and its history. There is nothing better than a monument which is alive and which is used. It is the functional capacity of the bridge which itself enhances its reputation world-wide.

The traffic situation in Bristol is utterly disastrous and indeed has been so for many years. I hate to think of the number of hours I have spent in traffic jams in the city in the last five years. The opening of the M5 bridge will be of enormous assistance, but it is running two or three years behind schedule. The waste of time and the extra expense has been the subject of other debates in this House.

Those of us who live on the western side of the city have a problem in trying to get from the M4 across the four crossings. If one rejects the city of Bath as being in an even worse situation—and those who have experience of that city in the rush hour will agree that it is no traffic thoroughfare—one is faced with the M32, which is not yet completed. Therefore, one has to experience one traffic diversion after another to get round the construction works. Parkway is congested enough at ordinary times, but when the bridge is being swung, that thoroughfare comes to a halt. Any attempt to get through Cumberland Basin between five o'clock and 6.30 p.m. means a wait of half an hour or more. Therefore, it is convenient to turn to the Clifton Bridge as a quicker way through the top side of the city.

My hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North put his finger on the matter when stating that people would be prepared to pay higher tolls if they were to be assured of a proper service. Those who use the bridge know that the present arrangements are antiquated and irritating. Whoever is responsible, whether it be the Department of the Environment—and in this case I do not think the Department is guilty—or the city of Bristol, little has been done to improve the traffic approaches on both sides.

The approach from Somerset is dangerous and difficult. If one is driving out in the other direction, certainly nothing has been done to try to facilitate that route. On the Clifton side of the bridge, the roads are just as they were in the horse and buggy era of the last century when Bristol was being built.

I should like to hear more about what the Department of the Environment is doing to improve conditions on either side of the bridge. I believe that the bridge could carry more traffic if one could get to it, and this aspect deserves to be given more attention.

Little mention has been made of the financial situation, although my hon. Friend who proposed the Bill mentioned the large reserve funds possessed by the trustees. I am not convinced that on financial grounds there is at present a case for increasing tolls. We have been given some estimated figures showing that by 1974 the absolute operating costs would exceed the tolls that are likely to be received. Obviously that is a matter of opinion, but it is probably a reasonable—

Photo of Mr Terence Walker Mr Terence Walker , Kingswood

The hon. Gentleman knows that there have been various difficulties about the tolls and that the fault lies with the people putting forward this Bill. Those must be sorted out. For that reason, all this is in the air.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I was about to point out that this is purely an operating loss. It takes no account of the revenue received from reserves. If the reserves are £600,000, the interest will come to about £40,000 a year. On the estimated figures, it could be 1978 before the trustees faced a net deficit on their annual operating costs taking into account, in addition, their income from investments.

I remind the trustees that we in this House try to consider Private Bills as carefully as possible. However, this Bill would be better if it came back to us in a year's time. By then we should understand better the case for increasing the tolls. At a time when average rate increases in Avon and Somerset are running, in my constituency, up to 70 per cent., any possible savings, however small, are to be welcomed.

Photo of Mr Martin McLaren Mr Martin McLaren , Bristol North West

It does not follow that the tolls will be raised. The trustees are merely seeking power to raise them if they find, against their will, that they have to.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I cannot go along with my hon. Friend in that argument. It is my experience that when this House gives a power for charges to be raised, it is not long before use is made of it.

In any event, if there is not this great urgency there may be a good case for delaying the matter for 12 months and looking at it again.

I always view corporate trustees with suspicion. There is the unfortunate dichotomy of responsibility which the trustee has—as the representative of the body sending him on to the second body, and in his hat as an individual thinker, in this case as a trustee. Therefore while I welcome the philosophy behind the view that council members of Avon and Wood-spring should be on these bodies, the more important aspect is consultation and not representation. For that reason, that part of the Bill is to be welcomed.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West could see his way to accepting some delay, I should see my own way to supporting the Bill—basically on the lines that he has presented tonight—in 12 months' time after considerably more thought has been given to it.

9.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

With the leave of the House, I shall try to deal with some of the matters which have been raised.

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Walker) was prepared to see the bridge abandoned for road traffic and even to get to the stage where it would not be walked upon and would be maintained merely as a relic of the industrial age.

The hon. Gentleman then made some point about renewal, improvement or extension of the bridge. Those words appear in the Act of 1952 and not in the Bill. I might point out to the hon. Gentleman that "extension" does not mean that the bridge is to be stretched out. It means that land may be acquired. "Improvement" means that new engineering techniques may be used. I think that the hon. Gentleman was making rather heavy weather of the point.

A point of substance was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean). I repeat what I said earlier about the aim of the trustees to improve traffic flow. I have the results of trials carried out with real vehicles on ground which was properly marked out in order to see whether within the constraints of the structure of the bridge the traffic flow could be improved. The results are most encouraging, although I admit that this matter would have to be considered later in detail should the Bill proceed.

Several hon. Members spoke about season-ticket holders. I am sure that many people would buy season tickets if they thought that these would give them immediate admission to the bridge. We who use the bridge have said for years that we would be prepared to pay a large sum if we could be sure that we would not have to queue. The difficulty is that there is only a certain amount of land available to the trustees on either side of the bridge, and more land would be needed to marshal the vehicles in their respective lines. But these points ought to be considered in detail later.

There is also the question of the financial state of the trustees. I have a sheet of figures giving the projected annual deficits in each succeeding year if the present tolls have to remain. There would be a £16,000 deficit in 1974, although there has been an exceptional £30,000 call on the trustees' funds for major repairs. The deficit for 1975 is projected at £16,000, for 1976 at £25,000 and for 1977 at £33,000 and by 1984 there would be a deficit on the year of £77,000.

Photo of Mr Jerry Wiggin Mr Jerry Wiggin , Weston-Super-Mare

I suspect that I have the same figures as my hon. Friend. They relate exclusively to operating losses, balancing the income from tolls against the cost of maintaining the bridge. The figures do not include any of the revenue which the trustees receive by way of income from investments. Although the projected loss figures which my hon. Friend stated may be correct, the trustees will not be losing the total amount of money until 1978.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

The cost of renewing the chains of the bridge, which could arise, would be a great deal more in 1984 than in 1974.

There has been much vexed discussion about the matter of the tolls. I am authorised to say on behalf of the trustees that if it will help the House to come to a conclusion and if the Bill receives a Second Reading the trustees will seek later to remove Clause 8 and Schedule 2, but that is the only undertaking they are prepared to give and I put it to the House for consideration.

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Somerset North

I am grateful for the undertaking which my hon. Friend has given. He has made an important statement on behalf of the trustees. This aspect of the Bill either caused outright opposition in some cases or, as in my case, caused questions to be raised. This is an important statement which has substantially altered the character of the Bill and, therefore, the way it is being approached. In the light of the undertaking which my hon. Friend has given, I should be prepared to support the Bill at this stage, although I reserve my judgment as to Third Reading until we see how it emerges from Committee.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

Because of the powerful argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North and the arguments of my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) and Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Wiggin), the trustees have authorised me to give that undertaking. If the Bill proceeds and this part about tolls is left out, the local authorities which now object will be represented on the trustee body and will be able to exert their influence.

We were grateful for the interest of the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Tyler), who might be described himself as the Liberal Party spokesman for suspension bridges. It was pleasant to hear from him, and next time he crosses the bridge I hope that he will give us a thought. The former hon. Member for Bristol, North-West, now the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. John Ellis), was against toll bridges on principle but in favour of semi-derelict suspension bridges. He would prefer the Clifton

Question accordingly negatived.

Bridge to go into a state of semi-dereliction and not be maintained.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare has been a valiant fighter for many causes in the West, and long may he continue. His experience of the traffic in Bristol seems to be as good as that of any hon. Member for the city. We look forward to his help in trying to get better conditions in future. He said that the bridge should be maintained as a living monument to Brunel. I agree. The suggestion that it should become a derelict relic would have Brunel turning in his grave. Isambard Brunel would no doubt have harnessed even that energy for the public good, because his ingenuity was limitless.

The only fear that Brunel had about his bridge was that troops would march across it in step and break it. The troops that have marched against this bridge and this Bill today are not in step, and I submit that a case has been made out in favour of the trustees.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 20, Noes 60.