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The Severn Crossing

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 7 February 1984

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5.52 p.m.

My Lords, this might be a convenient time to interrupt the Report stage of the Agricultural Holdings Bill and, with the permission of your Lordships, to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows: "I should like to make a further Statement about the Severn Crossing, as I promised the House on 17th November last.

"As I explained on that occasion, there are three issues which need to be considered together: the strengthening of the existing crossing, the traffic control arrangements while the remedial works are carried out and the question of a second crossing.

"As regards the existing crossing, I have carefully considered the advice of the consultants, and have decided to proceed with a programme of strengthening and repair in order to enable it to cope with the expected loadings while at the same time meeting current safety requirements, as well as to operate without restriction on the flow of traffic. The programme is expected to take five to six years to carry out. The precise extent of the works and the timing of their execution will depend on the outcome of further technical studies. Preparations for the more important works have already been put in hand. 1 intend that such works will begin later this year.

"There will be the least possible interference with traffic while the repairs are being done. Wherever possible, the work will be carried out at off-peak times; complete closures of the crossing are expected to be few and brief, and where possible limited to overnight hours. Local authorities and user organisations will be consulted about any traffic restrictions that may be necessary. Advance warning of all restrictions will be given, and alternative routes will be signposted as appropriate.

"I am confident that when the strengthening and repair works have been completed the crossing should continue to provide a safe, ready and reliable communications link, vital to the prosperity of South Wales. I want to give a double assurance that this vital link will not be interrupted as a result of some unforeseeable event or circumstance.

"I have therefore decided that a study should be instituted into how a second crossing might be provided in the general corridor of the existing crossing. The study will examine other forms of crossing, as well as a bridge, and it will have regard to the desirability of convenient links to the M.4 motorway. It will start as soon as the detailed terms of reference and other arrangements have been drawn up. I expect the study to take about two years to come to conclusions. I emphasise that this is not a decision to build a second crossing. Before such a decision were taken the Government would need to take full account of the outcome of the study, forecast traffic requirements at the time, as well as of progress of the work on the existing crossing. But the completion of the study will ensure that there is no unnecessary delay in providing a second crossing as soon as it is needed.

"Mr. Speaker, the Government fully recognise the vital importance of the Severn Crossing to the economy of Severnside and South Wales. The three measures I have announced today—the strengthening and repair of the existing crossing, the conduct of the works so as to minimise traffic restrictions, and the study of a second crossing—all demonstrate the Government's determination to maintain an adequate and reliable communications link between South Wales and its markets in the rest of Britain and in Europe on which its prosperity depends. I believe that they should dispel any doubts among potential investors and the public at large about the Government's commitment to this aim, especially during the period while the strengthening and repairs are in progress. In all these matters I shall act in close consultation with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales and shall keep the House informed of progress made".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for repeating this important Statement. At the outset I must comment that I am pleased that the Statement emphasises in a number of places the importance of the Severn Crossing to the economy of Severnside and South Wales. In general, we on these Benches welcome the three decisions, which are somewhat in line with the points made when the earlier Statement was made on 17th November last.

The fact that the repair and strengthening work will take five to six years indicates the degree of seriousness of the structural weakness of the bridge, and should remove any of the thoughts there were in the minds of some that the concern originally expressed about the bridge was creating something in the form of panic. In view of the long period of the strengthening and repair work, it is essential that there should be a sound and effective system of traffic control. Even though it is hoped that the closures, if they are necessary, will be in off-peak times, I presume that the monitoring of incidents will continue, as stated in the original Statement in 17th November. I presume also that there will be a continuous check on traffic arrangements, with opportunities for flexibility according to circumstances.

I am pleased to note that local authorities and users are to be consulted on any traffic restrictions. This is an important point because not only is advance notice required in time but advance notice of signposting is required on important routes if long diversions of traffic are to be avoided.

We welcome the feasibility study on the question of a second crossing. We completely agree that those concerned should keep an open mind on the nature of the crossing. It was stated that there will be a two-year study before any conclusions are drawn. I hope there will be full consultation with local authorities and road users in that study of possible alternatives and possible sitings and that it will not be left to a White Paper after the two-year study is completed.

Is there any estimate available of the cost of the structural work? May we assume that the cost will be met nationally, through the Department of Transport? This leads to the question of tolls. Noble Lords will recall that on 17th November I raised the question of tolls and asked whether, in the light of the traffic restrictions which have to be observed, the tolls could not be abolished at least during the period of restriction. I repeat that question in view of the long period of work that is to be involved. Would it not be sensible to remove tolls from the Severn Crossing?

Noble Lords may have seen from the debate in another place last night on the Dartford Tunnel that my honourable friend Mr. John Prescott questioned whether this is not the time to consider the whole subject of tolls. In connection with the study, could not that aspect be considered as a matter of some importance?

6 p.m.

My Lords, the Statement made is clearly very important because the importance of this crossing to the economy of South Wales cannot be over-estimated, nor indeed its importance to the rest of the country. Therefore, I welcome the three assurances that have been given by the Government. But would the Minister deal with one or two matters which are bound to cause some worry? First, he says that after the work has been done the bridge will provide a safe, ready and reliable communications link. But clearly it has to be used for the next five years in a more limited way. Will he confirm that during that period it will provide a safe, ready and reliable communications link, that though obviously basic remedial work is necessary, with its present limited use it is nevertheless a safe means of communication?

Secondly, in regard to the investigations to take place into a second crossing, there are the limiting words that a second crossing might be provided in
"the general corridor of the existing crossing".
These words seem to me to limit the remit of those investigating it. It might well be, for example, that lower down or higher up the question of the Severn Barrage ought to be considered at the same time, which might provide a means for both a bridge and a tunnel simultaneously. Therefore, why is it necessary to restrict that inquiry with the words,
"in the general corridor of the existing crossing"?
As the Minister will appreciate, this is a very important estuary, not only from the point of view of communication but because of the possible other uses that may be made of it. As necessity forces this second inquiry, it seems to me that a virtue should be made of necessity and the Severn Barrage should be looked at very seriously as a means of providing not only one means of crossing but possibly two.

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Hooson, for their general remarks in response to the Statement I have repeated. Perhaps I could answer the questions in the order in which they were put to me. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said that the length of time for the repairs, between five and six years, indicated the great seriousness of the structural weakness of the bridge which had led to near panic. I have to tell your Lordships that the timescale of five or six years is not resultant upon any structural weakness nor grave serious deficiency. I was unhappy to hear the noble Lord use such an emotive word as "panic". The five-year or six-year timescale is to ensure that there is the minimum disruption of traffic. Quite obviously, if the lanes were even more severely curtailed than they are at the moment work could proceed a little faster. I have already explained that the major works will be carried out particularly at offpeak times. There is no suggestion that the bridge is unsafe for use at this present time—none whatever. That under certain circumstances, particularly wind and excessive loading at peak hours, my right honourable friend has thought that to be doubly sure traffic restrictions should be made, is, I think, quite reasonable.

Monitoring will continue, as will the traffic arrangements, and these are in the domain of the local authority, Avon County Council personnel and the police. So far as monitoring is concerned there is a live patrol across the bridge at most times that it is in use.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked about publicity. Where there are to be major diversions, or in the event of the unlikely but possible necessity to make a short total closure, all responsible bodies, trade bodies, the CBI, and motoring bodies, will be consulted in very good time. There will be at the time what we consider to be adequate publicity via radio and local signing.

The noble Lord also asked about the cost. The estimated cost in September, or it might have been October, 1983 was £33 million, and although there are further technical studies to be undertaken it is not thought that this figure will vary greatly. The £33 million is, of course, at 1983 prices. He asked also about tolls. I can tell noble Lords that there is no intention to remove tolls, and the general principle that major estuarial crossings that give particular benefit to users shall be tolled remains Government policy.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, asked about the condition of the bridge over the next five years. I think I have answered that in my earlier remarks to Lord Underhill. I would emphasise that we are talking about "strengthening" and so on; I would have preferred to have used the general term, "remedial and renewal works". There have been further technologies developed in terms of concrete structures and steel work and so on; so any work undertaken during this five-year or six-year period might be classed as renewal.

The noble Lord asked about the second crossing. So far as the so-called "general corridor" is concerned, the precise area of search will have to be defined when we finalise the terms of reference for the study. The existing corridor of traffic demand is along the M.4 motorway. As was said in the Statement, the study will have particular regard to the desirability of convenient links between a second crossing and the motorway. So to all intents and purposes I suppose one should really be saying that it would be reasonable to suppose that the area of search would be within the area of the existing crossing, as distinct from many miles up river.

The noble Lord asked about the barrage. I think that perhaps all I can say at this stage is that both the barrage proposals, the Bondi scheme and the smaller Wimpey-Atkins scheme, are still at the feasibility stage. Whether a barrage is built will be determined, I think, essentially by energy considerations. If such a project went ahead we would naturally look at the possibility of incorporating a road. At this stage the feasibility study is designed to indicate the various options. The Government have no firm view as to where the crossing need necessarily be. That would be determined in the light of the study in about two years' time.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain why the Severn bridge has deteriorated in such a comparatively short time for such structures? Is it because the designers underestimated the growth and density of traffic over the years? There must be some reason—possibly poor material. I do not want to ask the noble Lord a question to which he has not been given an answer, but if he has any clue I should be very glad to hear it.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard is quite entitled to ask any question, and if I do not have the answer I can promise that I will provide it for him. He asks: why has the bridge deteriorated? There is no evidence of failure at the design stage nor of the actual building. There has been a very marked change in the traffic using the bridge and the densities at which the bridge is used. This has caused concern that, given certain circumstances, the margin of safety would be diminished to a degree which would be unacceptable. Certainly on any bridge or engineering structure repairs or renewals must be taken care of over a period of years. I think that there may have been a good deal of misinformed publicity in the early stages which have not been borne out by the studies undertaken by engineers.

My Lords, in view of the uncertainties and anxieties in relation to the Severn Bridge over the past two years or so, is the Minister aware that the three proposals in the Statement will be warmly welcomed in South Wales? Is he further aware that the proposal to have a study into a second crossing is, in all the circumstances, a sensible step to take?

Can the noble Lord clarify one point in the early part of the Statement which refers to further technical studies? The Statement says that the extent of the works on the bridge and the timing of their execution will depend on these studies. Are we to assume that the work of strengthening and repairing—the remedial work, as he described it—will start at once and will not be dependent on any of these technical studies which the Minister, quite properly, may require?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, and I am glad that he accepts that the Government realise the importance of the crossing to the Principality. The noble Lord asked specifically about the further technical studies referred to in the Statement. A number of points in connection with the strengthening, repairs and renewals require further detailed examination. Basically, these include the choice of the hanger system, any change in the deck strengthening and the use of particular surface materials. It will be necessary for these further studies to be undertaken but in no way will they affect the basic feasibility of the programme.

The noble Lord particularly asked about the time scale and I can assure him—I do not know whether I can assure him, but I can attempt to assure him—that the studies will not delay the programme as they will be conducted while the other strengthening work is being undertaken.

My Lords, the Government will have had impressed on them again and again the enormous economic importance of the bridge link to the Principality and also the importance of a reliable link of adequate capacity, which I think is one of the things which annoyed us more than anything when I had quite a lot of responsibility for inducing industry to go to South Wales. Are the Government also aware that Bristol and parts of the South West also derive enormous benefit from the existence of the bridge because the economies of the two littorals have become, to some extent, interdependent through the existence of the bridge? To deprive either side of this enormously valuable link would be a great blow to both economies.

My Lords, I think I can only agree with the noble Lord, Lord Raglan. The Government recognise the strategic and economic importance of the crossing to Wales, to other parts of the United Kingdom, and to Bristol and the South-West, as the noble Lord said.

As regards the capacity of the bridge, I can do no more than repeat what I said earlier, that apart from the bunching element which is due to the type of vehicle and the journey times now being undertaken there have been chages over the years. It is for those reasons that difficulties have arisen and not because of the total capacity, which remains quite adequate for the forecast volume which we see over the next few years.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us whether it would be possible to instal on the M.4 itself, and on the major roads leading to it, electronic notices which give up-to-date—I emphsise up-todate—information as to the periods of delay when there are considerable hold-ups? Is the Minister aware that there are very many users who, given that information well back from the bridge, could divert, particularly through Gloucester? At the moment one only finds that there is a delay when one gets into the traffic jam leading up to the bridge and by then it is far too late to turn off. Congestion would be alleviated if people could have information which would enable them to divert before they reach the crossing.

My Lords, yes is the short answer, but I think that the noble Lord would like something a little more expanded than that. Diversion signs were put up last year at junctions 15 and 24 on the M.4. They are manually operated and advise of delays on the Severn crossing. They are to be replaced with signs which are remotely controlled—which is perhaps synonymous with "electronically"—from the police point at the Almondsbury M.4—M.5 interchange. It is expected that the sign at junction 15 will be operational in a few weeks' time, at Easter. The sign at junction 24, however, will not be ready until the end of next summer. The criterion for activating the signs are likely to be delays of one-and-a-half to two hours at the crossing. The new signs also will be capable of warning of restrictions on account of high winds. The whole monitoring and sign procedure is continually under review and I can assure the House that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will ensure that adequate warnings are given should those currently planned not prove to be as effective as all of us should like.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that he will take into account the fact that the sign at the interchange between the M.4 and M.5 is too late? Surely motorists want the sign one step back from that.

My Lords, I certainly take note of what what the noble Lord said and will draw the attention of my right honourable friend to that. But I wonder whether, if motorists perhaps slowed down a little knowing that they were coming to the junction, they would have time to stop before they actually got there.