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Portbury Dock Scheme
17 November 1965
Volume 720

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

10.38 p.m.

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Portbury is a place in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) and I have naturally consulted him before initiating this debate. I am the Member for Avonmouth, one of the dock Members on this side of the House. The Port of Bristol Authority, which owns the Avon-mouth Docks, has made a proposal for the construction of a new dock system across the River Avon at Portbury, which would mean an extension of Avonmouth and of the Port of Bristol.

This scheme is technically a "harbour scheme", within the meaning of the Harbours Act, 1964 and it is necessary to apply for, and to obtain the consent of, the Minister of Transport to it. My object in raising the matter is to ask for that consent, and to ask for it without delay. May I first set out the national advantages which I believe the scheme has to offer?

In the first place, it will offer exceptional communications by motorway. It will be on the M.5, the Birmingham to Exeter motorway, close to its junction with the M.4, London to South Wales motorway, and there will be excellent motorway communications to the Midlands and to the North, to South Wales over the Severn Bridge, and to London and the Home Counties. The result of this is that the hinterland of the port, that is, the area to and from which trade will be attracted, will be much wider than anything that the Port of Bristol has hitherto commanded, and this means that our export potential will be increased. A quick traffic flow will be assured. One can envisage quite a new situation such as we have never before seen in this country, of heavy lorries flowing along the motorways through the countryside right into the dock system instead of having to thread their way through congested streets, as they would have to do, for example, in the case of any of the South Wales ports.

Secondly, a new port on this side of the country should draw off traffic which ought naturally to flow in that direction, but which at present clogs the London docks and contributes to the heavy traffic problem in the London area. Thirdly, Bristol has the advantage over London of about 200 miles shorter distance on all ocean routes.

Fourthly, Portbury would be a natural part of the development plan for the South-West. Bristol is becoming a regional centre and is developing rapidly as an administrative and commercial headquarters, and decentralisation from London would be assisted. Fifthly, at Portbury there is available undeveloped meadowland offering a unique opportunity for the layout of a new dock on the most modern lines, with plenty of space for further development and for all the ancillary purposes and industrial trading estates which should be associated with a modern dock.

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Would my hon. Friend agree also that there is a very substantial residential development not very far away from the proposed dock and that another very good reason for an early decision on this is that the people who live in this vicinity are extremely worried about their future prospects in the state of indecision which exists at the moment?

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I quite agree with my hon. Friend. He has made a perfectly valid point. People who live in that part of the world naturally want to know what will happen. That is why we are pressing for an early decision.

I was saying that this really ought to be a planners' paradise, untrammelled by any kind of existing development. It is essential for a modern port to have ample space for assembly areas, for components and unitised loads, particularly in the export trade. Portbury offers two or three times as much space per berth as some other projects, and yet Portbury would have the advantage of being close to Avonmouth with its existing supply of skilled dock labour and efficient port management. The whole scheme is the brain child of a port authority with an assured record of success behind it. So that in that way one would combine the asset of the open countryside with the asset of having a complex of facilities needed by an efficient port.

Sixthly, the undertaking would be financially self-supporting and would cast no burden on the rates or on the Exchequer. I hope that this list will show how many advantages the scheme possesses.

Now I turn, briefly, to the past history of the matter. I will take as my starting point the appointment in 1961 of the Rochdale Committee by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples). That Committee reported in July, 1962. One of the main points which it brought out was the need for a properly planned programme of port development which could provide additional deep-water berths, in view of the rapidly increasing size of ships.

In the Bristol Channel, one of the facts of geography from which one cannot escape is that the deep water happens to run close to the Somerset side, whereas on the South Wales side it is shallow, and a great deal of dredging would be needed for a dock to accommodate large modern ships. This is a main reason why the dock development should go to Portbury rather than to any of the South Wales ports. The fears which have been expressed in South Wales about Portbury have been misplaced because surely a successful Portbury will bring prosperity to the whole region and to both sides of the Bristol Channel.

I now look at the way in which the point about deep-water berths was expressed in the Rochdale Committee Report. I quote from paragraphs 616 and 617:
"One thing that seems to us beyond doubt— we make no apology for repeating this—is that this country needs more deep water berths. … There is a danger that British ports will become inadequate to cater for modern vessels which … are steadily increasing in size; indeed, their adequacy is already in doubt. The seriousness of this danger cannot be overemphasised."
The Committee went out of its way to say some agreeable things about the port of Bristol.It said:
"Bristol has expanded its trade considerably in recent years and we should like to pay tribute to this achievement which reflects great credit on the zeal and efficiency of the Authority itself and its permanent staff. One of the results of their enterprise is that the port's deep water berths are working at or near capacity already. There is a prospect of even more business in the area, including an increase in exports, as a result of such developments as the improvement of road communications with the Midlands and I.C.I.'s new petro-chemicals plant at Severnside, north of Avonmouth. This has led the port authority to consider providing completely new dock facilities at Portbury on the Bristol Channel between Avonmouth and Portishead."
Following the main recommendations of that Committee, the National Ports Council was set up and the Harbours Act was passed. It was to the National Ports Council that the report on the Portbury scheme was submitted by Bristol in May, 1964, 18 months ago. Later some further information was asked for by the Council and eventually, in July this year, the scheme was included with a favourable recommendation in the interim plan for port development submitted by the National Ports Council to the Minister.

This is my best quotation, the blessing of the National Ports Council, which is to be found in paragraph 139 of its interim plan. It says:
"The proposal for constructing a new dock at Portbury is the subject of a separate submission by the Council to the Minister of Transport, in which the Council recommend that the Minister's approval for the scheme should be given. The Council are of the opinion that the advantages of the scheme are that it would produce a number of really deep water berths at which completely new facilities could be constructed incorporating modern ideas, that development at Bristol would provide useful relief for the pressures on London and Liverpool which can be expected to emerge by the time that the first stage of the Portbury scheme can be brought into operation, and that the new dock would have unrivalled road communications when the Severn Bridge, M4 and M5 are complete."
In the synopsis the interim plan says:
"In the Council's view the schemes …"
Schemes including Portbury—
"are urgently necessary and should go ahead as quickly as possible. Even so it will be some time before many of them bear fruit. It is virtually certain that additional schemes will have to be put forward during the next few years as the need for improved and extended port facilities becomes more clearly seen."
This warning is added:
"The Council are satisfied that there is no danger of over-investment in these proposals. The arrears are serious and the prospective growth of traffic considerable."
In the National Plan—which is the holy of holies—the interim plan is adopted and accepted. The Plan states that major investment in 14 ports, including Port-bury, has been recommended and adds:
"Much other investment will also be needed ".
That implies that the programme for at least 14 ports can go forward without delay.

Against that background we had every reason to think that the approval of the Minister would shortly follow, but our complaint is that it has still not been given. The National Ports Council is the body set up by the Government to be experts on the subject. It has gone into all these schemes in great detail— from a financial, economic and commercial point of view—and has assessed the relative merits of one scheme against another.

I suggest that one may apply the homely maxim; if one has a dog one need not bark oneself. In other words, if the work has already been done by the National Ports Council, why should the Government go all over it again? Meanwhile, what has been happening since the interim plan was submitted? What was going on all through July, August, September, October and November and how much longer must we wait?

In a recent Answer to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), it was stated that it was hoped to announce a decision shortly. The word "shortly" is a favourite with civil servants and in their vocabulary it means "Whenever we feel inclined ". It might mean a week or a year.

There are urgent reasons why early approval should be given. The longer the Government delay the more we will have to face increasing costs and competition for the technical resources, which will be strained to the limit in coping with all the major works recommended in the interim plan and which will be going on more or less simultaneously.

Avonmouth is now bursting at the seams, so to speak, and there is not an acre of land available for further development on that side of the river. It is all the more important, therefore, that we should have Portbury to cope with our expanding trade. The trend towards larger bulk carriers—of 30,000 tons or more— means that these ships are too large to get through the lock gates at Avon- mouth or to be accommodated anywhere in the existing port.

We are not supposed to know what goes on while the Government are considering the matter, but I can lift the veil to some extent and tell the House that an inter-departmental committee was set up, with representatives of the Ministry of Transport, the Department of Economic Affairs, the Board of Trade and the Treasury, and that they have been examining the project in a somewhat leisurely style, asking the National Ports Council at intervals for further statistics. We know what happens at these sort of meetings. At the end of them they get out their diaries, find there is no early day convenient to them all and a date two or three weeks further on is fixed.

That sort of thing is not good enough. These were not the methods which made Bristol the city of merchant adventurers in the past.

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Hear, hear.

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It is a shame that our initiative and enterprise should be shackled by this lack of decision in Whitehall. Indignation is mounting in Bristol in all quarters—in the Chamber of Commerce and even in the Government's own recently appointed Regional Economic Planning Council, the chairman of which, Professor Tress, was recently reported as saying that he and his colleagues had not accepted membership just for the fun of drawing up plans which were not likely to be turned into action. The Press has been critical. The time has come when we demand and deserve a decision.

It all comes back to what was referred to in yesterday's debate—the inability of the Minister of Transport to take decisions. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) put it, the Minister of Transport has been overtaken by events and is not even aware of that fact. He ought to recapture the power to make decisions, or he should go. The whole national Press sees him as one of the weakest links in the Treasury Bench chain. To do justice to an old friend of mine, the Parliamentary Secretary, I believe that he would do the job a lot better himself.

10.56 p.m.

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I imagine that this is one of those rare occasions when hon. Members representing the Bristol constituencies find themselves in some degree of harmony. In that remark I might include the hon. Member for Somerset, North (Mr. Dean) and the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Webster). I do not know whether the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare wants us to build deep-water docks there; if so, a lot of mud will have to be cleared out of the way. Nevertheless, we welcome his interest.

I do not at all dissent from the statements of the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), but I have always had some doubt about the best way of achieving what one really wants. I believe that one can press a Minister so hard as to make him commit himself to just the kind of thing one does not want. In other words, I have usually thought it better to go about things quietly rather than bring them into the light of day.

The former Minister of Transport, the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), presented the Rochdale Report to this House almost with a flourish of trumpets. Strangely enough, after all the criticism to which we have listened in the last few days about planning, the right hon. Gentleman referred to that Report as a major national plan. I have with me the notes I made on that occasion, among which the following appears: "When someone is converted to a new faith he strangely becomes more fervent than the missionaries who converted him." That was my comment on the Minister's presentation of the Rochdale Report.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary can take it as perfectly true that there is concern—a sort of restlessness amounting almost to anxiety—in the City of Bristol about this development we want at Portbury. Some of that concern arises from the fact that the Bristol Channel—or the estuary, as the Rochdale Report calls it—ports such as Liverpool have suddenly come to life when they have seen the possibilities of some proposal for new deep-water berths, which the Report emphasise again and again are a vital necessity for our economic needs in the exporting and importing of goods.

It is rather surprising that such ports should now be making representations to my right hon. Friend and telling him how very well suited they are for the provision of deep-water berths. The people of Bristol feel just a little hurt about it, because we were making these plans five years ago. Five years ago, this scheme was on the drawing board. It is reasonable to suggest that, if it had not been for the Rochdale Committee's findings and the introduction of the Measure which vested authority in someone to suggest what the plan should be, it might well have been that Bristol would have presented this to the House of Commons and asked for permission to build these deep-water berths. It is almost certain that the Minister would have conceded that permission, had it not been for the promulgation of the new idea suggested by the Rochdale Committee.

I want to make only one reference to the Rochdale Report. Although it is only five lines, it is an all-embracing passage which emphasises or proves why Bristol is such a desirable place for these deep-water berths. I hope that it will be the full half-dozen and not merely two. Paragraph 62 of the Report says:
"In selecting particular ports for development certain factors must of course be borne in mind. e.g. the particular needs of certain areas, the absolute necessity of good communications, development potential "—
that is a very important factor in Port-bury—
"the cost of impounding and dredging, etc. One most important factor, as we have suggested in the previous paragraph, is the possibility of providing deep water berths."
In short, all these facilities are freely available in this area. There is no compensation to be paid. The land is there. Every opportunity for carrying through the project is there. There is no necessity for compensation. It is an ideal site for deep-water berths. I hope that the Minister will come to his decision very shortly.

11.2 p.m.

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I was worried about getting over-generous to Bristol. First, I want to pay my tribute to the municipally owned port of Bristol. I yield to nobody in my admiration of successful public enterprise. We ought on all possible occasions to encourage successful public enterprise such as has been shown at Bristol. The hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) speaks quite rightly against the perspective of grossly inadequate capital investment in ports and docks over the last few years. That is the basis from which this scheme springs. Under the previous Administration there was a totally inadequate rate of capital investment in ports and docks.

The case for Portbury, put by the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West and as recommended to us by the N.P.C., is an attractive case. We have urgently to consider it. It must not be assumed that it is a cast-iron case. There are other possibilities. My right hon. Friend, who is responsible for the policy of capital investment in ports and docks throughout the country, must consider and evaluate all possibilities. He must consider the relationship between the Portbury scheme as suggested and other ports in the area— for example, the South Wales ports. We must weigh the claims made by Cardiff. Some of the supporters of Cardiff maintain that that port could be developed into an up-to-date liner terminal at a cost many millions less than the Portbury scheme.

I am not tonight pronouncing on the merits of these various claims. What I am emphasising is that the Government would not be doing their duty if they did not very seriously examine all aspects of the differing proposals which are put forward.

The case for Portbury in essence is the need for a third major liner terminal port to help us in handling the large increase in our imports and exports which might otherwise keep London and Liverpool in a permanent state of congestion.

If we accept this need—I accept it— we must ask ourselves if Portbury is the right place to do it, if we should accept the recommendation of the N.P.C. There is Southampton, one of our most important passenger and cargo ports. Its claims cannot be overlooked. We have, with the Department of Economic Affairs and other Departments, to look at the recommendation made to us by the N.P.C, at future traffic trends, at road and rail access, at room for the development of facilities for handling traffic in containers, and so on. We have to study all these considerations in judging the various claims which are put forward and recommended to us by the N.P.C, which was the body appointed for the purpose.

The scheme for Portbury is undoubtedly imaginative and forward-looking. We do not doubt that it would meet an important need. Nor do we underestimate in any way the understandable impatience of Bristolians because of the time which has elapsed since the scheme was first put forward. To a large extent that has been because of the appointment of the National Ports Council and the reference of the scheme to that Council. But we have been considering the scheme only since July, a comparatively short time when one thinks of the commitment to a very large sum which we are considering. It is a very important capital investment which would commit us to a certain kind of development and no doubt exclude developments in other places.

This is therefore a decision of considerable magnitude, not to be under estimated when we think of the millionsof pounds which would be involved. It is natural that a few months are required to study the recommendations of the National Ports Council, to consult its experts and to establish the proper relationship between its recommendation and other recommendations. But there will not be very much delay, and nothing like the delay of years which there has been during which totally inadequate—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.