Skip to main content

Tyne Bridge: Celebrating 100 Years

Volume 697: debated on Wednesday 23 June 2021

[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice to support the new hybrid arrangements. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and also before they leave the room after the debate, and I also remind Members that the Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered celebrating 100 years of the Tyne Bridge.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to share with you and the Minister the details of the celebration of our fantastic Tyne bridge.

We often say of people that they need no introduction, and that is certainly true of the Tyne bridge. It is a great icon of the north-east, of our pride, our people, our culture and our engineering. It is one of the greatest bridges of the world and, in my humble opinion, the most beautiful bridge ever built—or it is when it is looking its best, which is not now. The Tyne bridge is a nonagenarian. It will be 100 years old in 2028. We want to celebrate it and the purpose of this debate is to find out from the Minister what he plans to bring to the party.

First, I will give a little bit of history. The roots of our Tyne bridge go back millennia. The first recorded bridge across the Tyne, near to the location of the current bridge, was the Roman pons aelius, which was built in about 122 AD. The Romans believed that all rivers had a god who blessed the community living by the water, and representations of the Tyne’s river god can be found across Tyneside to this day. In 1270, a medieval stone bridge was built, which stood for 500 years until it was badly damaged by the great flood of 1771 and replaced by a new stone bridge in 1781. That replacement was itself removed in 1866 to allow the taller ships that existed by then to pass up the Tyne, with the swing bridge being built in 1876 by the “Magician of the North”, William Armstrong.

In August 1925, construction of the current Tyne bridge began. High enough for ships to pass underneath, it was built for the new age of the motorised vehicle and to cope with the increased volume of traffic across the Tyne. Made of steel and granite, the bridge was a major feat of engineering. It was constructed using shipbuilding techniques by local shipyard workers—hence the steel rivets, which can still be seen today. When it was opened in August 1928, it was the world’s longest span bridge. I recommend that everyone sees the fantastic photographs of its construction, which can be found online.

The Tyne bridge is sometimes cited as a prototype for the Sydney Harbour bridge. In fact, although the Sydney Harbour bridge was not completed until four years after the Tyne bridge opened, work began on Sydney’s bridge first. Although the two bridges had the same design team, the differences between them are really quite striking, as was explained to me by Vin Riley, a local engineer and historian. The Sydney Harbour bridge is 1,149 metres in length and 48 metres wide, which makes it almost exactly three times the size of the Tyne bridge, which is 389 metres long and 17 metres wide. But what the Tyne bridge may lack in size, it more than makes up for in beauty, being more perfectly proportioned than Sydney Harbour bridge.

The Sydney Harbour bridge is simply flatter, as its nickname of “the Coathanger” implies. That makes for a gentler, less hair-raising experience for those who have walked the bridge arch—I have not done so, but I understand that it is very popular—but it also makes the bridge less inspiring. The arch of the Sydney Harbour bridge is thicker at its base than at its height. The Tyne bridge, on the other hand, is thinner at its earth-bound side and much broader at the height of the arch, which gives the impression that it is bounding up, soaring away, almost as if it were trying to shake itself free of its earthly constraints. What more apt symbol could there be of the people of the north-east, who have so often shown through generosity and social activism, through passion and protest, through hope and hard work, a desire to put an end to earthly pain and a determination to build a better, brighter and more just world?

That is not the only way in which the Tyne bridge represents our whole region. It connects the north and south of the Tyne and spans the region in its construction. It was built by Dorman Long, which went on to become British Steel and was based in Middlesbrough on the Tees. Building the Tyne bridge was a mammoth task, and workmen risked their lives working up to 200 feet above the river without the benefit of safety harnesses, helmets and ropes. One worker died—Nathaniel Collins, a 33-year-old scaffolder from South Shields.

The bridge was officially opened on 10 October 1928 by King George V. The King and Queen were the first to cross it in their State Landau horse-drawn carriage, as thousands of people lined the streets for the opening ceremony and 20,000 local schoolchildren were given the day off to mark the occasion.

It is particularly fitting that we are celebrating the bridge today, as it is International Women in Engineering Day. The Dorman Long design team included the first woman to gain entry to the Institution of Civil Engineers, Dorothy Buchanan. As a chartered engineer myself—though an electrical engineer, not a civil engineer—I want to pay particular tribute to her on this day. She said:

“I felt that I represented all the women in the world. It was my hope that I would be followed by many others.”

It is our hope, too. In 2018, more than 90 female engineers from across the country gathered in Newcastle to celebrate the bridge’s 90th birthday and Dorothy Buchanan.

Today, the Tyne bridge is an important part of our north-east transport infrastructure and is used by more than 70,000 vehicles every day. It was upgraded to grade II* listed status in August 2018 as part of the Great Exhibition of the North, meaning that it is a particularly important structure of more than special interest. It is also home to the furthest inland breeding kittiwake colony in the world. Any work on the bridge must be planned around their breeding season on the towers.

The beautiful granite towers, which stand at each edge of the bridge, used to be open to the public, but in recent years have been used only for the odd illegal rave. It is a huge pity that there is no longer a legal way for north-east communities to use that space. It has magnificent views across the Tyne, from the north and the south, and would be a superb exhibition space, restaurant or other community space.

But the bridge as a whole is not looking its best—far from it. I am regularly contacted by constituents and visitors to our city upset at the state into which it has been allowed to fall. A bridge of that stature and importance requires regular safety checks, repairs, preservation and upkeep. The Tyne bridge was last fully painted in 2000, and the paint system is designed to last approximately 18 to 20 years, so a new paint job is overdue. Repairs are needed to the road deck, the towers, the stonework and the steelwork, and a new drainage system needs to be installed. A major refurbishment takes time—some years—in addition to the tendering process, which may also take over a year. If the bridge is to be ready for its birthday, we need to start planning it now.

We want to celebrate the Tyne bridge in 2028, and celebrate our region. Just last week, Members of Parliament from across the north-east—many Members wished to contribute to this debate but were unable to be here—together with local authority leaders, the North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll and the police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness, wrote to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Transport Secretary to request the £18.5 million needed to repaint the bridge from the levelling up fund. We want to ensure that it looks at its best, as a symbol of our region’s proud engineering past and, we hope, prosperous future. We want to make it fit for a queen—the Queen, in fact. We very much hope that the Queen will consider commemorating the bridge her grandfather opened.

We cannot allow the bridge to continue in its current state of disrepair. It represents our region nationally and globally. It is the familiar backdrop to the annual great north run, as 54,000 runners pass over the bridge, accompanied by a display from the Red Arrows. The bridge is also used for other large events, including hosting the rings for the 2012 Olympics, the 2015 rugby world cup, and, more recently, the 2019 European rugby champions cup final. It was the location for the amazing closing ceremony of Freedom City 2017, when we celebrated 50 years since Martin Luther King’s visit to our city, and also the closing ceremony of the Great Exhibition of the North.

However, the sad fact is that the bridge’s last proper birthday celebrations were for its 75th birthday, hosted by local mayors from Gateshead and Newcastle. The Sydney Harbour bridge, on the other hand, is celebrated annually as the backdrop for the first fireworks display of each new year and had a large, organised 80th birthday celebration, with a special performance by musicians on the top of its 134 metre-high arch. The Tyne bridge, I am afraid to say, had nothing.

The Government make much of their levelling-up agenda, yet the north seems to be forgotten when it comes to celebrating our communities. I have raised with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade that they only seem to use London images—red buses and Big Ben—to promote the United Kingdom abroad. Why not the Tyne bridge and the Angel of the North? Global Britain must mean global Britain including the north-east. If this refurbishment does not happen and the bridge is allowed to continue in its current state of disrepair and neglect, I am afraid to say that it will become a different kind of symbol of the north-east. It will become a symbol of the neglect of the north-east, which has been forgotten by this Government—its great heritage and great future have been forgotten.

What support does the Minister propose to offer my region for this momentous celebration? I do not suppose that the Minister can tell us the Communities Secretary’s response to our levelling-up fund application—although I would be very much pleased if he gave a certain yes—but does he agree that celebrations of such a national icon cannot be left simply to the local authority funds? Does he recognise that 10 years of austerity have slashed local government spending? For example, Newcastle City Council has lost more than a third of its spending power since 2010, with city spending entirely taken up by statutory duties such as social care. Does the Minister agree that local authorities cannot be expected to fund such a major project? Would he expect Westminster City Council to pay for the refurbishment of the Big Ben, for example?

How will the Minister ensure that all the north-east’s communities benefit from the celebrations? How will he work with other Departments to ensure that great engineering stories, such as those of Dorman Long and—this is particularly relevant on International Women in Engineering Day—of Dorothy Buchanan, are celebrated as part of the festivities? We want to inspire another generation of engineers, particularly women engineers, with our celebrations. Will the Minister talk to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure support for protecting our kittiwakes?

In the north-east, we know how to give a party. The north-east will bring our bridge, our passion and our people to the party. What will the Minister bring?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) for securing this important debate and for highlighting the importance of the Tyne bridge to her constituents. The Tyne bridge is rightly a source of immense pride for communities in the north-east. Alongside the Angel of the North, Durham cathedral and Hadrian’s wall, it is recognised the world over as a potent symbol of the region, its character and heritage.

The affection for this iconic landmark and much-loved feature of the Newcastle and Gateshead skyline is clear from the comments we have heard today. The majestic arch of the Tyne bridge is a symbol of Tyneside’s international reputation for industrial excellence. As the hon. Lady noted, the bridge was officially opened on 10 October 1928 by King George V, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth. Constructed from Tyneside steel, the Tyne bridge is a magnificent feat of British engineering.

As a civil engineer, I note with genuine enthusiasm the proposals to celebrate the anniversary in seven years’ time. The bridge plays a vital role in the everyday lives of people in Tyneside, allowing easy access across the river for work and education. It is an exciting symbol of the rich cultural life of Newcastle, Gateshead and the north-east. From hosting the country’s largest Olympic rings in 2012, to celebrating 50 years since Martin Luther King visited Newcastle in 1967, the Tyne bridge has been closely connected to major sporting and cultural moments over the years.

I welcome the hon. Lady’s commitment to the restoration of such an important local and national landmark. I am aware that Newcastle has entered a bid to repair the bridge, through the Government’s £4.8 billion levelling-up fund. I understand that Newcastle is in the high-priority category 1 for the fund. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that I am unable to comment on individual bids at this stage of the process, as applications for round 1 of the fund closed only last Friday. Levelling-up fund proposals are currently in assessment and I look forward to my Department announcing successful bids in the autumn.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is aware of proposals for the Tyne bridge, including £36.7 million of major road network funding developed by Transport for the North. Department for Transport officials are continuing to work with Newcastle City Council officials on a business case, as that is the best way to make progress on securing the funding.

I am also pleased to note that there has already been significant Government investment in Newcastle and the north-east. To support the north-east’s economic recovery, the Government have allocated £47 million from the getting building fund to the North East local enterprise partnership, for local shovel-ready infrastructure projects. That includes £7 million for a landmark regeneration scheme on the banks of Newcastle and Gateshead quayside, set to open in 2023, with a new hotel, arena and conference centre; £5.1 million for public realm and digital infrastructure works in Newcastle city centre; and £780,000 towards NU Futures, a new leisure, careers and skills venue for young people.

I thank the Minister for his comments on the importance of the Tyne bridge as a regional iconic symbol, and for referring to investment in projects on the banks of the river. Does he agree that that makes it all the more important that our bridge, which has not had such investment for decades, should be fit for its surroundings, as well as for its birthday in 2028?

As a civil engineer who appreciates the fine beauty of bridges and has visited Sydney harbour and seen its poor comparative version, I hope that the hon. Lady is successful in securing the funding she needs. There are a number of options open. The bridge deserves to be restored to its former glory.

The Department for Transport has provided significant funding to the north-east, including £198 million to the North East combined authority and the North of Tyne combined authority for local transport improvements through the transforming cities fund. The Government have also provided £82.9 million for 2021-22 to authorities in the north-east for highway maintenance, pothole repairs and local transport measures. Some £700 million has been provided for strategic road schemes between 2020 and 2025, including the A1 and A19 junctions north of Newcastle. The north-east has also received more than £9 million in investment from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport culture recovery fund.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue.

Before the Minister concludes, I hope that he, a civil engineer, will join me, an electrical engineer, in celebrating International Women in Engineering Day and particularly the contribution of Dorothy Buchanan to the Tyne bridge.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to restate my enthusiasm for engaging more women in engineering and construction. As a proud member of the Chartered Institute of Building, I have previously done work not just on attracting women to the industry, which is sometimes successful, but on the less successful aspect of retaining them in the industry, because sometimes working practices do not fit with the way they would like to live. The construction and engineering sector has moved considerably on being welcoming to women and I hope that that continues in the future. When I was at university, only two of the 50 people on my degree course were women. I hope there is a significant improvement and that we will continue to build on it.

I recognise the pride held by the people of Newcastle and Gateshead in the Tyne bridge and I welcome the hon. Lady’s efforts to represent their strength of feeling. Although I am unable to comment on Newcastle’s bid for the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund while those bids are assessed, I look forward to the autumn when we will be in a position to announce those results.

The Government have provided significant funding for Newcastle City Council both during the pandemic and to support recovery from it. We are working hard to ensure that there is a strong settlement for all of local government at the forthcoming spending review, which will provide certainty for the coming period. I wish the hon. Lady all the best in her preparations as we approach the centenary of this iconic feat of engineering and I look forward to celebrating with her in 2028.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.