Northwich (Swing Bridges)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th February 1976.

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9.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad , Northwich

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the important matter of the condition of Town Bridge and Hayhurst Bridge in Northwich and the potentially serious consequences for the town of any failure by the British Waterways Board, which is responsible for the bridges, to exercise the utmost diligence in carrying out its responsibility.

Hayhurst Bridge and Town Bridge were both built at the end of the last century to carry traffic across the Weaver Navigation. They are swing bridges, each with a carrying capacity of 32 tons and a permissible load height of 16½ feet. They were designed to carry horse-drawn traffic, and it is a tribute to their designers and builders that there have been no major accidents on them or repairs to them until relatively recently.

However, in the course of an inspection of Hayhurst Bridge in June last year, deterioration was found to have taken place in the steelwork which called for early attention. The bridge was closed to traffic on 1st July and reopened on 11th July, with a 1-ton weight limit and one-way single-line working. A temporary strengthening scheme was completed on 23rd September, and the bridge was reopened to single-way working in alternate directions and to normal full-strength standard on 24th September. That remains the position, and the British Waterways Board states that major works will be required to achieve continuous two-way full-strength working. These works are being progressed in conjunction with the Vale Royal District Council. It is not know how long they will take to put into effect, although this is a matter of vital concern to Northwich.

A similar inspection of Town Bridge in July last year revealed the need for strengthening work. The scheme of strengthening was devised in August, and the first stage of the work was completed on 23rd September. During this period full two-way working to full-strength loading was maintained. The second stage, involving the introduction of longitudinal steel girders underneath the bridge, was subsequently carried out. I pay tribute to the men who worked in unpleasant climatic conditions to ensure that the necessary work, which was carried out between the hours of midnight and 6 o'clock in the morning over a period of weeks, was completed. The Waterways Board has, however, stated that major works will be required in the long term, as at Hayhurst Bridge, to deal with the problem on a permanent basis.

By way of further explanation, I should point out that Town Bridge and Hayhurst Bridge are the arteries of Northwich.

The matter before the House is not one of purely local interest. Northwich supports on either side of the Weaver not only a substantial part of one of the biggest chemical complexes in Europe, being part of the Mond division of ICI, but a substantial trading community which services a large catchments area stretching into the countryside for many miles around.

It is of vital concern to Northwich that the bridges should at the very least be in complete working order and that in the long term the town should be served by a new high-level bridge. Very long traffic jams have been experienced in recent months. Indeed, even when the bridges are fully operational the fact that lorries and buses cannot pass one another on the bridges inevitably leads to delay. For example, complete chaos took place on 30th October last when Town Bridge became jammed partially open and vehicles had to be diverted to Hayhurst Bridge, which was, and is, restricted to single-line traffic because of the repair work. Many vehicles had to make a detour of several miles. The specter of a simultaneous closure or partial closure of both bridges is of serious concern to the people of Northwich and, I hope, to this House.

Perhaps I may be allowed to illustrate the strength of feeling on this matter, not only of myself but of people in Northwich, by quoting briefly from the editorial in the Northwich Guardian on 25th September last year: The vulnerability of Northwich, because of its reliance on two swing bridges for easy access to the town centre, has long been recognised. Even with both bridges in full operation the present-day traffic pattern is stretching them to the limit. With one out of action or subject to restrictions in its working then the town's normal existence is hanging on a slender thread indeed.Planners have recognised this in the past and the proposed high level crossing of the Weaver to the north of the town was their answer to the situation they saw would arise. It is the answer, but with present restrictions on finance few of us sitting in traffic queues today are likely to be around to use it. That being so, we have no option but to rely on the two swing bridges and their proper maintenance by British Waterways. And this is the real worry of the matter.Are British Waterways aware of the vital part these two bridges play in the town's life? Are they aware that maintenance, when required, should be on a 24-hour a day basis so that interruption to the town's shopping and business life is kept to an absolute minimum? Northwich Town Council and Northwich Chamber of Trade think not—and Vale Royal Council are also doubtful.British Waterways' plans for the huge silt lagoons at Hartford were a classic example of how to get maximum adverse publicity without really trying. The Town Bridge mishap earlier this year was another example of poor public relations and evasive answering of pertinent questions. The present trouble at Hayhurst Bridge suggests to most folk a typical 'couldn't care less' attitude and a complete indifference to the concern of the public. Is there a nationalised industry that really does give a damn about the people who are, in fact, its owners and employers? In its edition of 16th October, the Northwich Guardian proceeded to comment: To us it seems that the thinking of those in control of our rivers and canals also represents an era long since gone. For even after months of complaint and protest British Waterways top people seem unable to grasp the urgency of the situation facing Northwich, with one of the town's two swing bridges only in partial use and fears that the other might also be in trouble.Are they really concerned? As we said here a few weeks ago our own opinion is that British Waterways don't give a damn for Northwich and its people. They have an expensive Press Department in London. So far the only communications we have had from them are those we have telephoned and asked for. Surely the purpose of such a department is to keep people informed of British Waterways' activities?If they are silent over such an issue as that at Northwich can their existence be justified? It would appear not, especially when one remembers they were also equally silent over the setting up of silt lagoons to deface the Hartford countryside not so long since. Just what does the Press Department of British Waterways do?Similarly, at local level, the officials should be able to write letters that do not cause the Northwich Town Clerk to have to write chiding them for their tone and apparent disregard for the gravity of the situation. That is a condemnation that no private industry could afford to accept.We have seen over this affair a miserable performance by British Waterways. It is still not too late for them to sort the matter out and show Northwich that they care. If not, we can only hope our Member of Parliament will go right to the top to try and bring a little 1975 thinking at the head offices of an organisation that can apparently pass a bridge as safe, inspect it every month for five years and then find it is in such a bad condition that it needs replacing. The Waterways Board has said that it has three choices for Hayhurst Bridge—first, to carry out further works to the existing structure; second, to provide a completely new swing bridge at the same site or elsewhere; or third, in conjunction with the highway authorities, to provide a new fixed high-level bridge at the same or another site. It is of vital importance to Northwich to know what is the Board's intention towards Hayhurst Bridge and Town Bridge.

I am extremely concerned also at the reported contention of representatives of the British Waterways Board at meetings with those concerned in Northwich that the concern of the Waterways Board is for waterborne traffic, with traffic flow over bridges being of secondary importance. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that that is not so.

I should like to take this opportunity to pay a tribute to the forceful way in which the Northwich Town Council, the Northwich Chamber of Trade and the Vale Royal Council have represented the views of those to whom the smooth running of the bridges is so vital to the Cheshire County Council, the British Waterways Board and the Department of the Environment.

I very much hope that the Minister, whose Department is responsible to Parliament and to the country for the operations of the British Waterways Board will tonight be able to give the House a full statement of his plans for the crossing of the Weaver Navigation in Northwich in both the short and the longer term.

9.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northwich (Mr. Goodlad) for the tone of his remarks, although he was a little hard on the British Waterways Board, a subject with which I shall deal in a moment. I am particularly grateful to him for what he said about my Department and for giving me such full and adequate notice of the matters which he raised. For a Member who did not wish to chide the British Waterways Board—I took note of his words—for the tone of its letters, I thought he was not doing too badly when he said that the British Waterways Board did not care a damn about his constituents and that it had an expensive Press department, which was obviously a quotation from his local newspaper, and made with its agreement. The number of people employed in that vast expensive Press department can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I do not think he did his case much good by exaggerating the situation.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the British Waterways Board's plans for silt lagoons at Hartford and he sought to illustrate the Board's insensitivity to public opinion. I am advised that that proposal was made about three years ago—there is nothing new about it. It involves the resumption of tipping of dredgings on land which had previously been used for that purpose. It is possible that the Board should have liaised a little more effectively with the local authority or the local population, but there can be no doubt that that was the purpose for which the land was originally bought by the British Waterways Board, that it has previously been used by that Board, and that the Board is fully entitled to resume using it for that purpose.

Similarly, if I may chide the hon. Gentleman a little, he spoke about the Town Bridge mishap which occurred on 30th October when the bridge jammed partly open. On that occasion I understand that the bridge was out of use for 45 minutes around lunchtime. On 26th September the bridge was out of use for 35 minutes in mid-morning and on 17th August it was out of use early that Sunday morning. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that those incidents could not be foreseen. I am sure that the local employees of the Board do all they can to bring the bridges back into use with the minimum of delay.

Photo of Mr Alastair Goodlad Mr Alastair Goodlad , Northwich

I used the example of the time when the bridge was out of action for a short period to illustrate the complete chaos that can result when such a thing happens and to show the serious nature of the danger to the town of the bridges being out of action simultaneously.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman says and I shall deal with it shortly.

The British Waterways Board is not the highway authority. It is responsible only for the canal system. The highway authority is the local authority. I am advised that generally the Board keeps in close touch with Chester County Council, the local highway authority, the Vale Royal District Council and the police whenever there is likely to be foreseen interference with road traffic movements. I am told that there is co-operation.

In fairness to the Board, there is another aspect on which I must comment. The hon. Gentleman referred to local Press comments that the Vale Royal District Council was doubtful about the Board's handling of the emergency repairs to Hayhurst Bridge and to Town Bridge. That is not so. That Council took the trouble to write to the Board complimenting it on its actions—which is slightly at variance with the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

It might be as well to dwell for a moment on the size of the problem facing the British Waterways Board. That Board manages 2,000 miles of inland waterways and its main task is to provide for navigation on the commercial and cruising waterways which total some 1,400 miles. The Weaver Navigation, which is the cause of these difficulties, flows through Northwich and is a commercial waterway. Many roads cross the Board's waterways, and it is responsible for maintaining some 1,100 highway bridges. Hayhurst Bridge and Town Bridge, Northwich, are highway bridges which are maintained by the Board, as the hon. Gentleman said. However, both of these swing bridges were constructed around the turn of the century.

The duty of the Board as regards highway bridges which belong to the Board is laid down in Section 117 of the Transport Act 1968. This means for Hayhurst Bridge and Town Bridge maintaining them to the normal full strength standard. Both bridges were assessed in 1969 under Operation Bridgeguard, which was the scheme for bringing sub-standard public road bridges up to the regulation strength. After minor works to Town Bridge, both were then declared, in 1969, to be full strength.

The roads which the bridges carry are county roads. Unfortunately, in 1975—moving up to date—an inspection of Hayhurst Bridge showed that some of the steelwork had deteriorated, and the bridge had to be closed to traffic on 1st July. Following discussions with the Cheshire County Council, the Vale Royal District Council and the police, the Board carried out emergency works. The bridge was re-opened on 11th July with a 1-ton weight limit and single-way working. Further works were carried out on 23rd September, and then the bridge was upgraded to single-way full strength working, with traffic lights.

The Town Bridge was inspected in July 1975 and showed a similar deterioration to steelwork. Both bridges having been built at the same time, it is not surprising that they started to deteriorate at roughly the same time. Again, emergency work had to be carried out during August, I am glad to say that on that occasion without the need to restrict traffic. More work was done during November and December which involved closing the bridge to traffic each night from midnight to 6 a.m. Two-way full-strength working is now in operation.

It seems, therefore, that the Board has done what it can to accept its responsibilities—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the prime responsibility is the safety of the bridges and putting that matter right—and to carry out its work with the least inconvenience to the local population and in consultation with the authorities concerned.

I should add that an important point is that the traffic restrictions were imposed not by the Board but by the local highway authority. Therefore, whatever criticism there may be locally of that, it cannot be leveled at the British Waterways Board.

Perhaps I may turn to what the Board is doing at present. The Board's engineering consultants are examining carefully the structures of both bridges, and their reports are expected in a few weeks' time. I gather that one of the causes for concern might be that the Board's people and the surveyors are not actually seen constantly working on the site. However, as with all these consultancy works, the consultants do their tests, make their measurements and then go away to do their calculations in their offices. I assure the hon. Gentleman—I hope that he will convey the assurance to his constituents—that the fact that surveyors and so on are not seen on the site for 24 hours a day does not mean that not much work is taking place or that the Board is not concerned.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Board is concerned about the difficulties which arise and the very proper desire of the people of Northwich to have this matter dealt with as speedily as possible. I understand that there are indications that extensive works will be required to both bridges—that is the first indication I have—in order to restore them to the fully satisfactory condition that is normal for two—way working. I am sorry to say that this will involve further traffic restrictions at both or either of the bridges.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Board cannot close bridges at will. It has to keep in close touch with the local highway authority, and that authority decides, in the light of its discussions, when and how traffic restrictions shall be imposed if they be needed. I think that I can give the assurance on behalf of the Board that it will be—as it says it always has been—keeping very closely in touch with the highway authority.

In my view the Board acted very responsibly and in the interests of road users as soon as it became aware of the condition of the bridges and the extent of the deterioration. It kept in close touch with the local authority, the Cheshire County Council Highway Authority, the district council and the police, and carried out emergency work as expeditiously as it could with a minimum of interference with traffic users. The Board called for a thorough engineering reappraisal of the condition of the two structures with a view to identifying and carrying out all the work now needing to be done to restore the bridges permanently to full strength. I believe that the Board is right to do the job properly even if it takes a little longer. The hon. Gentleman's constituents would have more cause for complaint if there were any evidence that the Board was not applying its mind thoroughly to getting the job done satisfactorily in the interests of safety as well as in the interests of road traffic.

If the hon. Gentleman will think for a moment, he will realise that the suggestion that the Waterways Board should have a 24-hour maintenance service on these bridges is almost impossible to implement when one considers the extent of its responsibilities round the country. In suggesting that the Board should provide more resources the hon. Gentleman is really asking for an increase in subsidy to the British Waterways Board. I am sorry to tell the House that at the moment, anyway, the Board is not a nationalised industry which can be expected to make a profit. We have a very old and dilapidated canal system, as I have illustrated.

A little income comes from freight traffic but not much freight goes on canals at the moment. If more could be brought on to the canals, it would help. There is a little income from anglers. I am not sure how far the hon. Gentleman would carry us with him if he is suggesting that there should be an increase in fishing charges on the canals. There is also a little income from recreational boat users. So the scope for increasing the revenue of the BWB is limited. In 1975, out of a turnover of about £16 million to £17 million of the BWB budget, the subsidy from the Exchequer is something over £8 million, almost exactly one half, so the hon. Gentleman will see the difficulty.

I may add, since we are having consultants appointed by my predecessors in a previous Government to look into the whole question of the maintenance of the bridge work in the canal system, that the first reports are not reassuring. A great deal of work has to be done having regard to the age and deterioration of our canal system. It is a great problem for the BWB, which is constantly telling me that it needs more resources to deal with the problems that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

He mentioned two other matters. He asked me to say a word about the adequacy of the crossing over the River Weaver in the long and the short term. So far as the short term is concerned, the town bridges are now fully operational and the Hayhurst Bridge is open to single-line traffic. BWB consultant engineers will report in a few weeks and the Board will then undertake what work is necessary to bring both bridges up to full standard. The local highway authority is content with these arrangements. If the townspeople of Northwich are not satisfied, their complaint lies against the authorities responsible for traffic management in the town, not with the BWB. I understand that the local police have not received any complaints, though I fully accept that the fact that the hon. Gentleman has raised the matter here today means that as an hon. Member he has done so. I will make sure that the points he has raised are conveyed to the BWB, which will communicate with him.

Let me add a word or two on the long-term position. The questions whether the present crossings of the Weaver Navigation are sufficient to cope with traffic in Northwich and whether a third crossing should be provided are for the highway authority, the Cheshire County Council. It must resolve them. They are not for my Department, and they are not the concern of the British Waterways Board. I personally readily accept the need for some improvement in the River Weaver crossings, having myself suffered delays in the past. But the mechanism for starting local transport projects of this nature is through the supplementary grants system. There are many compelling demands on highway authorities in present circumstances, and so far the Cheshire County Council has not found it possible to include this provision in the present TPP proposals.

The British Waterways Board is concerned about that area of its responsibility. It wishes to have good public relations with the people and the local authorities of Northwich. It is anxious at all times to enter into discussions with the local authorities and with the lion. Gentleman and to keep them fully appraised of what is going on. It is acting responsibly. It has called for the engineering consultants' report, which has been very thoroughly prepared. As I have said, regrettably it means that some very severe work has to be undertaken which I am sure everyone will agree is essential having regard to the safety factors involved in these two bridges.

I hope that I have been able to give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance. If he feels that he needs more, I hope that he will allow me to put him in touch with the British Waterways Board, which will be happy to give him any information that he requires and, I am certain, to convince him of its desire to maintain the fullest co-operative arrangements with him and his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Ten o'clock.