Transport (Expenditure)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st May 1975.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 12:00 am, 1st May 1975

There has recently been a slight improvement in the procedure. I understand that the Select Committee Office now issues to the Press, on a weekly basis, the items that are coming before Select Committees, including the Environment Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee. This information is published in at least two newspapers every Friday.

It is with a sense of shame that I say that until recently hon. Members had a better chance of finding out what Select Committees were doing the following week by looking in the Press than by looking at any official document published by the House. I am glad that a change is to be made. The Lord President of the Council has agreed that in the not-too-distant future the Order Paper will carry a list not only of the Committees that are meeting but also the subjects being investigated and the names of the witnesses for the day in question.

Had that procedure been followed when this Sub-Committee was meeting am sure that the evidence given to it by interested voluntary and other bodies would have made the report even more valuable than it is. I look upon this report as a good starting point for a future discussion.

The investigation into public expenditure on public transport track—because this is what this is all about—would have been helped if councils for inland transport, environment protection societies, conservation societies and the various railway invigoration societies had been able to put their views to the Committee so that it could cross-question the officers of these active groups. I very much doubt that these societies knew that the Environment Sub-Committee was investigating this matter. The evidence in the report is, I believe, that given only by the Department of the Environment, which sent the only witnesses to appear before the Committee.

A symptom of the difficulty which I have just outlined is represented in the emphasis which is placed on roads in Britain. Everyone knows my view on the EEC, but I would agree with some of my Continental colleagues when they say that this country must be mad in the emphasis it has placed upon road transport over the last few years at the expense of coastal shipping, inland water transport and rail transport. Unfortunately that matter is not taken up in the Select Committee's report, and I suggest that the Committee might have addressed more attention to it.

There has been vast expenditure on roads of all sorts, and one of the reasons for that is that we have geared up our local government to do just that. I make no complaint of active borough engineers or the very large roads section in the Department of the Environment itself, which is self-perpetuating in its desire to improve roads and build new ones. When large numbers of engineers gather in one place they have to justify their existence. This is why the vast motorway box project in London was not only put forward but was nearly carried into completion.

I was a member of the highway and traffic committee of the GLC and of its successors, the planning and transport committee and the environmental planning committee of that body. I could see how these self-perpetuating professional men—and I make no complaint about their job—dealt with planning and engineering. The cancellation of the motorway box project was a salutary experience for this country and a victory for democracy at the ballot box. As one hon. Member has explained, it is sometimes a good thing to stop a road which has been begun.

Had the motorway box scheme been continued, it would have been proceeding at the time we entered the fuel crisis, with a marked diminution in road demand, even in London. The folly of the matter would have been clear. The irony of it is that we would now have been pulling down about 200,000 houses—I think that was the figure. Later this evening we shall be discussing the question of London housing. I hope that the Minister will pay tribute to the wisdom of the London electorate. I know that he has a strong interest in road transport, but I hope that he will agree that the electorate made a good choice. Our debate on housing would be even more poignant if all those houses were now being demolished to make way for a motorway.

When my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Boyden) opened the debate I raised the question of one of the most extraordinary schizophrenic attitudes in the Department—the difference in treatment between the roads and the waterways. I initiated a debate in this House on inland water transport. I put a number of questions to which I received no ministerial reply. I am not surprised. Everywhere I go I am told that nobody in the Department of the Environment knows anything about canals and waterways. The Department may know something about water engineering, and it hands out plenty of advice on it. We have had a Water Act only relatively recently. But there seems to be a big gap in the knowledge of the Department on commercial water transport. That matter was referred to by the Select Committee, which in paragraph 13 recommends that canals should be eligible for transport supplementary grant.

I assume that there is a difference between grants for the maintenance or minor upgrading of existing canals and the repair of those which have fallen into poor condition, and capital expenditure on vastly improved or new canal track. Unfortunately, the Committee did not make that distinction in its recommendation. This will enable the Minister to give a typical off-the-cuff Department of the Environment reply that such a move would not serve any useful purpose. Nevertheless, everybody in the canal lobby is familiar with the argument concerning the South Yorkshire Navigation, where the British Waterways Board has applied for a capital grant to upgrade the canal. It has shown—and, as far as I know, no one has denied this fact—that if it were given a capital grant of around £3 million, and if that grant were given in the same way as grants are given for roads—that is to say, that there was no calculation of the return on investment and the British Waterways Board would not have to pay the interest—the likely income from increased traffic on that waterway would more than cover the cost.

The Department and Ministers lay down that with canals interest must be paid on the capital, and it has to be shown that increased tolls will cover that interest. That is an illogical arrange- ment. That does not happen with investment in a new road. In the appendix of the report there is a complex computer calculation dealing with cost-benefit analysis, and so on, called COBA. There is no calculation there of a theoretical return. We do not put a turnipke at the end of a road and make people pay a toll for using it, so why should this approach be adopted for canals?

The GLC is at present considering a scheme for widening the Grand Union Canal in the Brentford area, but the Department has stated that a return on the investment must be calculated in percentage terms. When one asks why there is this distinction one is told that the board is not the common user. The canal system differs from the rail system, where British Rail owns the track and the vehicles. On the canals, however, it is not only the Waterways Board which runs vessels. In many canals and navigations there are other craft run by individual owners. There are individual private vessels which are akin to cars on the roads.

I submit, therefore, that there has been a great mistake in the past and that there never has been a justification for the distinction which is made. The Committee offered very good advice on this point. The Minister must now put up a very good case for maintaining the distinction which has always been made between road and canal or he must change his policy.