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Forth Road Bridge (Toll Charges)

Volume 978: debated on Wednesday 6 February 1980

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8.

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if, in view of the deteriorating unemployment situation in Scotland generally, he will now remove toll charges from the Forth Road bridge.

I have no evidence that tolls on the Forth Road bridge have a detrimental effect on employment either in Fife or in Scotland generally. The cost of abolishing the tolls and writing off the debts would have to be borne by reductions in the road building programme elsewhere and I do not propose to introduce legislation to do that.

If that is not the cause of the terrible unemployment, there must be other causes. Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that I, at least, have been consistent on the matter, no matter on which side of the House I have sat? Does he think that it is an absurd anomaly that one can drive from Brighton right up to Dundee and the only bit of road for which one has to pay is the bit across the Firth of Forth—[Interruption.] I refer only to the problem of Fife. Dundee Members should deal with their own problems. Does not the hon. Gentleman believe that it is time that the absurdity was ended, even if the effects of the charges are minimal as regards unemployment in Fife?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that major estuarial crossings throughout the United Fingdom have tolls. Indeed, the local authorities agreed on that basis when the bridges were first built. I have asked the Forth joint board what effect on transport would be produced by the abolition of tolls. It suggested that there would be an increase of about 1 per cent. only in traffic. That suggests that the effect is minimal, as I have indicated.

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is also consistency on this side of the House? Conservative Members have long believed that the tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges should be abolished. Does he hold out any hope of the possibility that that will yet be considered at a later stage when there has not been a doubling of the national debt immediately beforehand?

The tolls were first introduced on the basis that there was a statutory obligation on the joint boards to pay for the total cost of the bridges. If that can be completed within the statutory period, the matter might be reconsidered at that stage. Until the outstand-debt has been paid off—in the case of the Forth bridge, that should be 1994—it is unlikely that any action will be taken.

Does the Minister accept that his party when in Opposition gave an undertaking to abolish the toll, which was welcomed by the present Secretary of State for Scotland? Does he also concede that the total charges on the user have increased enormously? That is the salient point. The Exchequer has no need for revenue from these tolls which are, in effect, extremely costly to take up and detrimental to industrial expansion in my constituency.

The hon. Gentleman is correct that in 1974 at the general election we said that we would abolish the tolls. He will recall that we lost that general election. The hon. Gentleman will also recollect that in 1979 we made no such pledge and we won that election. He can draw whatever conclusions he wishes from that statement.