Severn Bridge (Tolls)

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 1:49 pm on 28th October 1983.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East 2:04 pm, 28th October 1983

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise the proposal to increase tolls on the Severn bridge by 150 per cent. Needless to say, there has been a storm of protest thoughout south Wales about it. Gwent county council, Newport borough council, the Newport and Gwent chamber of commerce, the AA and the RAC have all protested. Those protests are understandable, because the motoring public are already being soaked by reason of the extortionist attitude of the Goverment. On the one hand, the amount collected from tolls is a mere pittance: on the other hand, the collection causes delay and disrupts the traffic.

It makes no sense to pay a toll for a short stretch of motorway, even if it happens to be across an estuary, for the rest of the motoring network is funded out of the public purse. Moreover, the Severn bridge tolls are an inhibiting factor to the development of the Welsh economy, and new enterprises think twice before going to Wales.

In normal circumstances there is no logical justification for tolls. However, the circumstances of this bridge are not normal. Indeed, the state of the bridge is the main argument that I wish to put forward against the proposal to increase tolls, and certainly the state of the bridge is giving cause for anxiety.

I have repeatedly stressed in the House in speeches and parliamentary questions and in letters to Ministers the importance of this bridge to the Welsh economy. In some quarters doubts have been expressed about its safety. Some of us have been reluctant to enlarge on that aspect for fear of damaging business prospects. In the past few days I have received letters from councillor Aubrey Hames, the leader of the Newport borough council, and from Mr. Ian Kelsall, the director of the CBI in Wales, expressing that view, which I fully understand.

Certainly, there is a dilemma over the issue, but I have reluctantly reached the conclusion that it is better to be frank with the general public. There have been repeated calls for a second crossing over the Severn. However, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), in his brief spell as Secretary of State for Transport and in his one visit to Wales, seemed to give a categorical no, until the end of the century at least, to the possibility of a second crossing. The Minister of State, Welsh Office, told his constituents last month that the complaints about the bridge were exaggerated. On the other hand, the Secretary of State for Wales, in a letter dated 4 October to Mr. David Jenkins, General Secretary elect of the Wales TUC, seemed to give the impression that he fully supported the demand for a second crossing. So there is some confusion among Ministers about the issue.

The latest public information we have is that £33 million is now to be spent on strengthening the bridge. However, last weekend we went from the ridiculous to the sublime when the South Wales Argus published an exclusive article. It quoted the designers of the bridge, Freeman, Fox and Partners, as saying that the £33 million to be spent was a total waste of public money", and that it would be better spent on hospitals, schools, and so on. They said that the bridge could be reopened tomorrow and take a lot more traffic. Of course they have confidence in the bridge that they designed, but I doubt whether they have had the opportunity recently to examine it in detail.

I repeat that the issue of toll charges and their possible increase is an irrelevance, bearing in mind the present state of the bridge. My accusation today is that the Minister has all the information, but he is not being frank with the public.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport on 18 October and suggested that the recent report which he had received showed that there was an element of risk to the bridge in certain circumstances. I pointed out that the public had a right to know about this.

In her reply on 24 October the Minister suggested that I was referring to the original Flint and Neill Partnership report, and that, she said, had been placed in the Library on 12 May. When I sent my letter I understood that the Department was in receipt this month of a further report, and that has since been confirmed. I have it here. It is by a firm of consulting engineers with the highest possible reputation and international standing. It had been asked to produce the report by the Flint and Neill Partnership which, in turn, is acting on behalf of the Department of Transport.

The report is entitled "Certification report—final check". It is dated 14 October, and says: Our investigation has been unusually detailed and searching. On traffic loading, the report says: our assessment is lower than the assessment vehicular loading which you propose. However, only the main cables would be capable of safely carrying either loading. Other vital components would be vulnerable to collapse. We have considered the Bridge under present day loading and find that vital components such as the towers, saddles and hangers are seriously over-stressed. We are particularly concerned about the hangers. In our judgment they are vulnerable to progressive failure under relatively short traffic jams if the weight of traffic exceeds about 700 tonnes over a stretch of about 200 m of the Bridge. That is significant. The report goes on: In our opinion, current traffic restrictions which rely mainly on night-time carriageway closures down to single lane of traffic in each direction provide insufficient safeguard. Effective traffic control to protect the hangers may also provide sufficient protection to the towers and saddles and other critical parts of the structure. We also share your concern about the towers and confirm that they are vulnerable to extreme wind conditions. In our opinion the unladen bridge may not survive at a wind speed of 100 mph and should be closed to all traffic when wind speeds above 70 mph are forecast, or closed immediately during storm conditions if there is a traffic jam. The report, dealing with traffic control, says: Although the current traffic controls reduce the peak traffic load, they are uncertain in their effects and may not provide the intended protection. The bridge would be at risk during possible present-day traffic jams owing to the low strength of the towers, hangers and their connections. It is necessary to limit the amount of traffic on the bridge and this should be done by more closely controlled methods including:

  1. (i) Bridge to be closed to all traffic whenever winds of 70 mph or more are forecast.
  2. (ii) Bridge to be closed to all traffic immediately if a traffic jam should develop in storm conditions."
Under the heading "Overall Assessment", the report says: The bridge cannot safely carry the traffic or wind loads specified. That is a clear report. It goes on: Some components, notably the hangers and towers, cannot safely carry the possible present-day traffic loadings. There may be warning of impending failure of the hanger system, and other parts at risk, but not of the towers. Traffic on the bridge should be subject to a number of more precise controls. The report then deals with individual features of the bridge. It states: The hangers are the components which are most vulnerable to overloading. In the event of accidental damage to a hanger or deck bracket, progressive failure might occur with as little as 700 tonnes of live load concentrated on any 200 metre length of bridge. At this load there is a small factor of safety against failure of hangers by overloading. The report then mentions the splay saddles, and continues: The splay saddle castings and rocker boxes are highly stressed under dead load alone, and can safely carry very little live load, even taking into account that the most critical welds penetrate more deeply than is shown in the drawings. According to the report, the tower saddles are highly stressed under dead load alone and can safely carry very little live load. On towers, the report states: We find that the towers are more seriously overstressed under the assessment loads than is concluded in the Certification Report. Presumably that is the Flint and Neill report. The analysis continues: There is a serious risk of failure with little or no warning under the assessment wind loadings, with or without traffic upon the bridge. In the early morning, when the concentration of lorries is greatest, lane restrictions are already in force to limit the load. Apart from its own weight, the bridge has to carry two main forms of loading. First, there is the weight of the traffic on the bridge. Secondly, there is the effect of a considerable wind blowing in any direction.

Other criticisms of the structure are contained in the "Synopsis of Findings". The report continues: The end box areas of the suspended structure are highly overstressed, particularly the end diaphragms. On the traffic loading, the report states: Although we agree with the basis of the traffic loading specified in the brief, we consider that it may be up to 20 per cent. too high. It continues: The main cables and cable clamps are satisfactory. The hangers and the deck brackets cannot safely carry the traffic loads. They are vulnerable to rupture as a result of a traffic accident and to overloading under traffic jam conditions. The hangers are vulnerable to progressive failure if the weight of traffic over any 200 metre length of bridge exceeds about 700 tonnes. On splay and tower saddles, the report states: All saddles are severely overstressed and cannot safely carry the traffic loading. The report then makes the following important point about the towers: The towers cannot safely carry either the wind or traffic loading which would be imposed upon them. Without considerable further investigation it is not possible to be precise about the combinations of reduced wind and traffic loading which the towers could safely carry. Unlike many other components where there may be some warning of failure, collapse of a tower could be sudden. My next quotation comes from the passage entitled "Implications": an assessment vehicular loading based upon events occurring at and after traffic jams is too high for the bridge to sustain. Only the main cables are capable of safely carrying this load. Other main components such as the towers, saddles and hangers are grossly overstressed.In our judgment the bridge is seriously at risk under possible present-day traffic jam loadings despite the current traffic controls"— this is significant— owing to the low strength of the hangers. Enough heavy vehicles to risk failure could pass onto the bridge in about 3 minutes or less.The towers may not survive the assessment wind loads, with or without traffic on the bridge. We are concerned that they may fail with little or no warning. The report calls for more restrictions and states that the present restrictions are insufficient. At best, the motorist will face more delays and restrictions. That is the context in which the Government are proposing to raise the bridge tolls by 150 per cent. It is an absurd proposal that should be dispatched to the wastepaper bin without delay.

The Government appear unaware of the gravity of the position revealed in that hair-raising report. Why did not the Secretary of State for Transport make a statement to the House immediately he received the report? It is deceit of the highest order. Is south Wales of no concern to the Government? Motorists will have to accept more stringent traffic controls and restrictions. Safety demands it. We do not want another Aberfan in south Wales.

The leader of Gwent county council, Mr. Lloyd Turnbull, in a letter to me a few days ago suggested that road improvements should be undertaken as a matter of urgency between Gloucester and the M50 to provide a fast route to the A40 and the Heads of the Valleys Road which will also provide an adequate alternative route to the Severn Bridge should a diversion be necessary. The Government should act immediately to draw up plans for a second crossing of the Severn. Many organisations in Wales, and, indeed, Committees of the House, have urged that. The need is now most urgent.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey 2:23 pm, 28th October 1983

I noted with care what the hon. Member for Newport, East (Mr. Hughes) had to say. However, the Adjournment debate has been less about the proposed increase in tolls on the Severn bridge and more about a confidential report that has been leaked. The report has not been sent to me, as it was not written for the Department of Transport—it was written for Flint and Neill.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

It may say that on the report, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that the report by independent consultants is for Flint and Neill. It is an independent check on their work, and copies of Flint and Neill's work were placed in the Library on 12 May. I had not seen the report until the hon. Gentleman held it up. I understand that one of my engineers has been sent a copy following the news that it had been leaked to the hon. Gentleman.

I shall say a few words about the toll and then talk about the substance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. When quotations are made out of context by a non-engineer, there is a grave danger of irresponsibly misleading people. Nothing worries me more than that the public should be misled by things that are said in this House concerning matters that are under serious consideration both by my Department and by Flint and Neill. I hope that what I say in a few moments' time will point out to the hon. Gentleman that every single word he has uttered today is already under consideration by Flint and Neill and that the action we are taking at the moment is the immediate action that we put in hand last May. We did not wait for the Mott, Hay and Anderson report from which the hon. Gentleman has selectively quoted in the debate today.

I shall deal now with what is perhaps the more minor issue of the debate—why it has been found necessary to impose an increase in Severn bridge tolls at this time. On the general point, the Government's policy is well known, if not widely understood. It is that expensive estuarial crossings should be paid for by those who use them rather than by taxpayers or ratepayers. It is a policy that has been followed by successive Governments of both parties. It is a policy that has been repeatedly endorsed by Parliament because Parliament has passed the various Acts by which the various crossings are tolled. No one can argue that the users of esturial crossings do not benefit from the shorter routes provided. It is that benefit in time and in money which drivers pay towards when they choose to travel on the tolled crossings instead of going by the shortest alternative routes. In this light, tolls represent a bargain. I may add that tolls have enabled some substantial additions to be made to transport infrastructure. Without tolls it is doubtful whether these highly beneficial structures would have been built at all. Anyone who takes exception to paying a toll to cross the Severn bridge must reflect on the alternative of a long haul through Gloucestershire.

The value of the policy is not difficult to comprehend. Consider the alternatives. The first is that estuarial crossings should be subsidised by the authorities which promoted them or, secondly, that the Government should pick up the whole bill. So far, for all the words that have been uttered, local authorities have not shown themselves anxious to resort to subsidies on any scale. Perhaps they are mindful of the opinions of the majority of their ratepayers—and their electors—who do not use the crossings.

Government could pick up the whole bill. For England alone the accumulated debts are of the order of £350 million at 1981–82 prices—probably nearer £500 million for the whole country. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House could think of better ways to spend that amount of money. It is time to scotch the canard that all the Government have to do is to write off the outstanding debts. That is not possible because much of the debt was raised privately and has to be repaid with real money. Even to the extent that write-off could be an exercise in Government accounting, other benefits would have to be forgone.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that it is anomalous and iniquitous to toll the Severn bridge when the M4 may be used without specific charge, but I suggest that he looks a little further. Similar suggestions are made in relation to other crossings and other roads, but that overlooks the fact that it is not possible or feasible to toll roads in general. Our network of roads is dense and drivers would have no difficulty in finding an alternative route which avoided the need to pay a toll. One of the main reasons for building new roads—and I may say that the Government's bypass programme has been highly successful—is to take traffic congestion out of our towns and villages. Tolls on main roads would be an impediment to that desirable objective, which is not a consideration applying to the major estuarial crossings.

The Government have considered whether they should stick to the policy followed by successive Administrations. I confirmed only this week, in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) that no change is currently contemplated.

I thought it right to explain at some length the general background because the subject generates a fair amount of heat which is not always backed by very much fact.

There is one important issue that the hon. Gentleman failed to take into account when addressing himself to the Severn bridge and the tolls charged for crossing it. When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport considers the tolls, he does not have a free hand, because he is bound by the requirements of the Severn Bridge Tolls Act 1965. He cannot take account of arguments to the effect that tolls are wrong or that the Government should repay the outstanding debts in respect of other crossings. Such arguments were relevant, if not sensible, during the debates on the passage of that legislation as it passed through Parliament. They would be relevant——

It being half past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Archie Hamilton.]

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

They would be relevant to a debate on whether the Act should be repealed, but they are not relevant to any consideration of a proposal to increase the tolls authorised by the Act, section 4 of which obliges my right hon. Friend to set tolls at a level which is just sufficient to meet the expenditure specified in the Act. Anyone who wishes to argue about the proposed increase should keep in mind the requirements of the legislation, a factor that we cannot ignore. The aim of the legislation is to ensure that income from tolls at least covers the cost of maintaining and operating the bridge and repaying the Exchequer the cost of building the bridge and the annual deficits. That has to be done by the end of the toll period, and that is laid down as being 40 years from the date of opening, thus the year 2006. We have to provide from the toll income for maintenance of the bridge after the end of the toll period.

The hon. Gentleman failed to recognise that tolls have been increased only once since 1966, that increase taking place in 1979. The published accounts have shown deficits on interest increasing year by year. There was a deficit of £1·6 million in 1979–80. In 1980–81 the deficit was £2·5 million and in 1981–82, the last year for which accounts have been published, it was £3·2 million. Toll income has been failing to meet the operating and maintenance charges by about £400,000 even before interest is charged. We know that the deficit for 1982–83 is likely to be about £4 million. Toll income is unlikely to have covered existing maintenance and operating charges.

Unless tolls are increased from 20p for a car, which is a low level now, we are likely to face a continually increasing overall deficit which will have to be financed by the taxpayer, with an even greater bill in the long term. On that basis the payment of tolls would have to continue beyond the year 2006.

There have been comments over recent months about annual and biennial increases but there are always the costs of public inquiries to bear in mind and the question whether the Act would need to be reformed before regular increases could be introduced. There would also be the difficulty of coin handling by means of an automatic operation.

The hon. Gentleman is ill-advised to suggest that there should be no increases in the tolls. The costs of strengthening and major maintenance works will have to be met over the next few years. If we do not begin to provide for at least some of these costs by increased tolls, we shall be facing even larger increases in toll levels later. It is so often the apparently easy course to do nothing and, for example, to let deficits increase in respect of the Severn bridge. That is what has happened in the past. It must not happen now because it would lead to a continuing burden that in the end only the taxpayer would end up paying. After all that the hon. Gentleman has said about the Mott, Hay and Anderson report, I fail to understand the logic of his argument that no one should be paying towards the improvement of the bridge.

Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East

Bearing in mind the devastating nature of the report and the concern that it will cause in south Wales, let alone the general anxiety, does the Minister agree that the tolls issue is irrelevent?

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

The report is no more devastating than the report that was placed in the Library on 12 May. I do not know how much consideration the hon. Gentleman has given to that report. Those who have been working to ensure that the programme of strengthening that bridge is properly undertaken while at the same time maintaining traffic to and from south Wales, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman wishes to continue, have been working since doubts about this bridge were first voiced in 1979.

The hon. Gentleman made it sound as if none of this had been considered before, as if it were a shock revelation.

Photo of Mr Roy Hughes Mr Roy Hughes , Newport East

That is what it is.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

It may have been a shock revelation to the hon. Member, but I suggest that he should have read the Flint and Neill reports before today's debate and before he read the Mott, Hay and Anderson report, which had been requested by Flint and Neill.

In 1979, following the concern about maintenance and loading problems, we asked Flint and Neill to undertake the comprehensive engineering appraisal of the main bridge. It reported in June 1982. In brief, the consultants found that although the main cable piers and anchorages were adequate to cope with current traffic loadings, the towers, tower saddles, hangers and rocker boxes would require strenghtening to enable them to cope with the loadings that could occur in certain extreme, but possible, circumstances.

There is no danger of the bridge being overloaded by traffic in normal free-flow conditions, but such overloading could occur if there were a build up of closely spaced heavy lorries following, for example, a breakdown or accident on the bridge. The appraisal revealed also that certain components of the bridge had reduced margins of safety in respect of other load effects, notably wind. In addition, there has been an increased incidence of fatigue and/or corrosion in certain components, such as the hangers and deck plates. I cannot go into all the engineeering problems because it would not be right to do so here. This is why I am being critical of the hon. Gentleman for choosing selective sentences from the report. It may be helpful if I say a few words about the main factor underlying the crossing problems.

The large increase in the volume of very heavy lorries, which was not foreseen when the crossing was designed in the 1950s, is one of the main factors to consider. For the avoidance of doubt, I point out that what is at issue is not the weight of individual lorries but the total weight of traffic on a particular length. The crossing was designed to the then British standard 153, which was first issued in 1954. That standard has been superseded by British standard 5400. However, recent extensive statistical studies have shown that even British standard 5400 considerably underestimates the extreme loadings which can occur if traffic, including a high proportion of heavy goods vehicles, builds up and comes to a standstill. In our view, it is correct to guard against these extreme but possible conditions.

The increase in the total weight of traffic using the crossing has been a contributory factor in the increased incidence of fatigue in certain components. However, it is important to remember that it is normal for some components to have a shorter life than the bridge as a whole. This is why we took action. The hon. Gentleman, towards the end of his remarks, was good enough to mention that for well over a year from 4 am to 8 am one lane has been closed so that we do not get bunching of heavy goods vehicles. We took that action and many others to avoid the conditions described in the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and which could have occurred, without alleviating action.

Photo of Mrs Lynda Chalker Mrs Lynda Chalker , Wallasey

I should like to continue.

Flint and Neill was then commissioned, following the first report, to recommend an appropriate loading standard for the crossing which would take account of future levels and patterns of traffic up to the year 2010, which is about as far ahead as it is reasonable to predict. This standard was endorsed by the Department. It became the basis of Flint and Neill's next commission, to examine whether it would be feasible to strengthen the crossing.

During the course of the feasibility study, the earlier appraisal of the main bridge was updated as we believed that to be necessary. Even the report brought to the Department in June last year-has been updated in the later report which was placed in the Library on 12 May. We also extended the feasibility study to include the remainder of the crossing—in other words, the Wye bridge on the Welsh side of the river.

The Flint and Neill report, published in May 1983, which referred to the feasibility study, concluded that it was technically feasible to strengthen the crossing so that it could carry, without restriction, the flow of traffic and considerably heavier loads than at present. The total cost at current prices was estimated to be £33 million, of which £5 million would be for major maintenance work.

It is most important that the maintenance work which involves the resurfacing of the carriageway should be carried out quickly. I remind the hon. Member for Newport, East that even that maintenance work has not been done, apart from patching repairs, since the crossing opened in 1966. Therefore, it is of little surprise that that work must be carried out.

The Flint and Neill report proposed several options, and we have been busily engaged in evaluating them ever since the report was received in May. As a check on Flint and Neill's appraisal, Mott, Hay and Anderson were requested to do the work to which the hon. Gentleman has referred throughout most of his speech. That evaluation took place because we appreciated the importance of clarifying as quickly as possible the plans for the crossing. I am quite sure that the House will acknowledge that we are dealing with complex engineering problems. It would be wrong not to take the required preventive action, but it would be equally wrong to rush the evaluation of technical issues.

I have no doubt that the Government's broad objective is right. We recognise unequivocally the vital importance of the crossing as a communications link to south Wales. Ministers have not been inconsistent in what they have said about the link. The Government are firmly committed to ensuring that the crossing continues to provide a first class service. We shall do whatever is necessary to achieve that standard. I give my word to the hon. Gentleman that there is no doubt about that.

I also assure the hon. Gentleman that in determining the best option for the crossing a key criterion will be the minimising of interference with traffic during the execution of the works, because interference with the traffic is interference with what is happening in south Wales. Any project involving major road works will cause some interference, as the hon. Gentleman realises. As far as is practical, the works will be carried out at times of least impact. Whatever traffic restrictions are found to be necessary, they will be fully publicised and will take into account the consultations which will have taken place prior to their enactment with the user groups.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the report of Freeman, Fox and Partners in addition to the report by Mott, Hay and Anderson. On the one hand, suggestions were made that we should consult the firm which originally designed the steel superstructure which considered that a modest outlay on traffic control devices would deal with the small risk of overloading and obviate much of the strengthening work. The hon. Gentleman has also said that Freeman, Fox had not had a recent opportunity to examine the bridge. I assure him that it has. It would not have been reasonable to have acted otherwise. On the other hand we have the independent checking report required by the Department, from which the hon. Gentleman has already quoted, implying that the condition of the crossing is perhaps worse than Flint and Neill had previously reported. Each group of engineering consultants will come to its own conclusions, but when one group of consultants says that a modest outlay is required and other groups say that the outlay must be much greater we must consider those professional views together, having already taken the necessary safety precautions. It is that on which we are engaged at present.

The credentials of Flint and Neill as engineers of high standing are not in dispute. We are well aware of what Freeman, Fox and Partners has said, though we have not seen the detailed comments. In fact, only this week I have written again asking one of its senior partners for their detailed comments. We shall study with interest any evidence that it sends us.

Mott, Hay and Anderson was in overall charge of the original design of the crossing. Its role on this occasion, together with Messrs Husband and Company, has been to do what is in accord with normal Department of Transport practice—carry out an independent check of Flint and Neill's appraisal. As an independent checker, it was appointed by Flint and Neill, and that is why I told the hon. Gentleman at the beginning of my remarks that it reports to Flint and Neill and not to me.

My officials have just seen—obviously after the hon. Gentleman's sight of it—a copy of the Mott, Hay and Anderson report. However, it would be wrong for me to comment in detail about highly technical matters in which I am not expert. I am not an engineer. I am a statistician. I wish to wait until we have heard the response before commenting further on what the hon. Gentleman said.

I say to the House and to the wider public outside that if inferences are to be drawn from the report at this stage, such as those which were suggested by the hon. Gentleman, we shall be getting into some very deep water over a very complex subject. It is wrong for laymen to rush into judgments which may not be based on all the available information. When we have had a thorough look at what is going on and when we have had the recommendations from Mott, Hay and Anderson and from Flint and Neill, I shall be in a position to comment. But that is not today.

As for the second crossing, although some people have suggested that, rather than spending a lot of money on upgrading the present crossing, we should be getting on with another one, that overlooks the fact that it takes between 10 and 15 years to plan and build another crossing and that, whatever happens, the present crossing must be made capable of coping with traffic during the intervening period. That will require a considerable outlay.

Some congestion during the time that we are doing work on the crossing is bound to occur. But I have a weekly report on my desk of every closure of a lane, with the starting time, the details of the lane, the number of minutes for which it lasts and the reasons for which it occurs.

In all these matters, the police do their very best to keep the crossing closed only for so long as it takes to clear away an accident or breakdown. The delays are not nearly as great as hon. Members have been known to suggest. Although congestion will occur if we are doing other works on the bridge and the remaining lane has to be stopped for some time, try as we may that is unavoidable. We must keep that crossing in good order pending the time when probably there will be a second crossing. But that is not for decision at the moment.

The huge investment of over £100 million which would be required for a second crossing would have to be well justified before being embarked on, and when it is embarked on it must be absolutely right for the years ahead, and that means using the newest technology possible.

I heard the hon. Gentleman's comments about the effects of high winds. We have here an aerofoil structure and I know something about the aerodynamics of the bridge in relation to the wind because that came into the statistics. A 100 mph wind is a hurricane, and there are not many of those in south Wales. Restrictions are placed on the bridge at far lower figures than he quoted. It all depends on the direction and force of the wind and the angle at which it affects the bridge. We have people doing that job; our own bridge manager is there. Any decision to close lanes it taken using the latest technology and with the advice of the police and engineers.

I am not saying that the concern which has been stirred up by this debate is unfounded because we are all concerned about the bridge, but people should not fear using it. The bridge is closed if the winds are high and it is not safe to be used, and at much lower figures than the hon. Gentleman suggested.

Regular users of the bridge, especially those who commute between south Wales and Bristol, will feel this toll increase more than most, but the increase is not just due but overdue. Commuters using all forms of transport have experienced sharp increases in travel costs over the years. For example, rail fares in London and the south-east have increased nearly fivefold since 1974, mainly while the Labour party was in office. By comparison, the increase proposed is only the second since the bridge was opened. It would raise the toll for cars to just four times the 1966 level, which in real terms is less than its 1966 equivalent. In the same period, the cost of living as measured by the RPI increased over fivefold and the price of petrol over sevenfold. Those figures show how important it is to keep tolls in perspective.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern about the bridge. Nobody likes increases in anything. I come from Merseyside and I know all about tolls. They will never be popular. Nevertheless, for the economy of south Wales it is important to have the bridge, to have it open and running, to have it safeguarded in its present use and to have it strengthened in its use for the immediate future. Looking back, we can see that the benefits that the bridge and the M4 have brought to south Wales completely overshadow any of the proposed toll increases. They are a small price to pay for the fast, convenient and direct route provided by the M4 to get people to and from Wales, which is economically vital.

The hon. Gentleman referred to an inquiry. The Gwent local authority asked this morning for a public inquiry, which means that an inquiry will be held. That is part of the 1965 legislation.

This has been an interesting debate, some of it perhaps unexpected. We shall safeguard the bridge and do what is necessary to strengthen it. I do not want anybody to be scared of using it. It is safe to use under the restrictions which we impose on it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o'clock.