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Tamar Bridge Bill

Volume 590: debated on Thursday 11 June 1998

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7.52 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I hope that some noble Lords will know of the Tamar bridge, a graceful suspension bridge which links the city of Plymouth and south-west Devon with Saltash and Cornwall. Beside it runs the older, historic railway bridge built by Brunel. This bridge is the main road link in that part of the country and, as such, is of very great importance to the local population, who rely on it to get them from one side to the other. The bridge is looked after by a joint committee composed of representatives from Plymouth City Council and the Cornwall county council. It is they who are promoting this Private Bill.

I see the purpose of the Bill as threefold. First, it is necessary to strengthen the bridge. That is of the greatest practical importance. It has taken a lot of traffic, much more than could have been anticipated when it was opened in 1961. Furthermore, the regulations relating to standards have quite properly been increased. And we have the prospect, after a decision taken some eight or nine years ago, of lorries of 40 tonnes being permitted to run on the roads of this country. Therefore, it is essential to strengthen the bridge. If that does not happen, the restrictions on the bridge for traffic will be very great indeed.

The committee looked at the various engineering options. It decided that the best method was to replace the concrete deck over which the roadway itself goes with a steel deck. That is not the cheapest option, but is considered by far the most satisfactory from an engineering point of view and in terms of future maintenance. If it were to be replaced by concrete, as it is at present, we could expect in another 20 years, or possibly less, a further major repair job, with all the inconvenience that that causes, and so on every 20-odd years. With a steel deck—and I asked particularly about this—one could expect a life of 120 years plus. All it would require by way of maintenance would be painting from time to time. So that seems a very good option.

The second purpose is to widen the bridge by building two cantilevers, one on the north side and one on the south side. I should perhaps explain carefully why that was thought to be a wise move. The bridge currently carries three lanes which operate on a tidal principle, so that there are always two lanes operating when the traffic is flowing strongly in a particular direction. That would continue. However, the cantilever lane on the north side would take the local traffic which currently joins the bridge in a very awkward and at times quite dangerous way. There are a number of accidents. Instead, it would kept quite separate from the main flow over the bridge. As a bonus, it is intended that buses should have priority on that local lane. Bearing in mind the increased interest in public transport as opposed to private cars, I am sure noble Lords will agree that that is a wise move.

The cantilever on the south side of the bridge will be solely for pedestrians and cyclists. At present, cyclists find it quite tricky and dangerous, because they are mingling with heavy vehicular traffic. They tend to use the footways that are intended for pedestrians, which leads to undesirable disputes and difficulties. With this arrangement, they will have their own paths and cycleways, quite separate from the rest of the traffic and from each other. I am sure noble Lords will agree that that, too, is a good and wise move when we are trying to encourage people not to use their cars.

I can tell the House from my own experience that the traffic that comes in locally, and at present joins in, can be very trying indeed. Only last Friday I came back from Liskeard to Plymouth and saw the full force of the flow of local traffic blending in rather unhappily with the main through traffic. I therefore believe that this widening of the bridge will be a very good move.

There is a third purpose. It is a financial one. Currently, the tolls that are used to maintain the bridge can be used only for the purposes of the bridge itself. Under Clause 31 of the Bill, it is intended that wider powers will be taken to enable the joint committee to aid good traffic management schemes on the bridge and beyond it. One particular item that it has in mind to support is a park-and-ride scheme on the Cornwall side of the bridge. That will be of great value in trying to prevent too much road traffic going over into Plymouth. The point has been reached at which the committee has said it will allow £300,000 to be set aside to help with the construction of such a park-and-ride facility. The promoters themselves are not in a position to guarantee dates as to when that might happen because there are factors that are totally beyond their control. However, there is already a site which looks likely, and there could be others if that one falls through.

I know that both Cornwall county council and Plymouth City Council are very keen on a park-and-ride scheme. It already features in the Plymouth transportation package, which also has the support of other local authorities. That would add greatly to the traffic management that we all want to see in every part of the country. It would be particularly useful in this instance.

I should add that extensive consultations have taken place, both with the local authorities involved and with the general population. The scheme has been widely supported. I believe that the promoters have been very forward-looking in seeking not only to strengthen the bridge but to make it more useful in traffic management terms. They are seeking to promote the use of transport other than cars by giving priority to buses, by giving greater encouragement to pedestrians and cyclists and by their financial support, if the Bill goes through, for a park-and-ride scheme. I therefore hope that your Lordships' will feel that this Private Bill is worthy of support. I was discussing it the other night with a colleague in the other place, the Member for Salisbury. He told me that in 1961, when the bridge was opened, his father, then Bishop of Truro, blessed the bridge. I hope tonight for your Lordships' blessing upon this Bill.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—( Baroness Fookes.)

8 p.m.

My Lords, I rise to speak about the Bill in general terms and, for the convenience of the House, to speak to the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper, which seeks to ensure that, if a Select Committee of this House is appointed to hear the one petition, it will take into account an alternative and cheaper way of strengthening the bridge, which I shall discuss briefly.

Noble Lords may wonder why I should speak on the Bill at all. I have no known connections with the south-west. I am a civil engineer and I am keen on public transport. My interest stems from discussions I had with the petitioner, the Transport 2000 Plymouth group, which caused me to look at the provisions of the Bill and seek to relate them as a local issue to present government transport policy and, in particular, to the Road Traffic Reduction Act and the more general exhortation to reduce emissions. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, eloquently outlined the local issues, and I congratulate her on her very clear exposition of the objectives of the Bill.

As the noble Baroness told us, the Bill seeks powers to strengthen the bridge. I support that objective, and I commend the promoters on deciding on a steel deck as opposed to a concrete one, which I sure was an excellent decision. I have a few questions with regard to the widening of the bridge from its present three lanes to five lanes, four of which would be in use initially. It is good to hear that one would be a bus priority lane. The fifth lane would be a cycle path and footpath.

I am sure that the promoters are clear about what they want to do. However, with this design, there is nothing to stop someone saying, in a generation or two: "Let us have five lanes. All we have to do is put a different colour paint on the road and the bridge will take the heaviest lorry traffic". I have some concern about that, which I shall come to later.

I had the pleasure of meeting the promoters and the petitioner, and I am grateful to them for the information that they gave me. The first point to discuss is the traffic on this bridge. As the noble Baroness said, it is tidal-flow traffic. I understand that something like 75 per cent. or 80 per cent. is commuter traffic into Plymouth. Therefore, although this is a trunk road, not much of the traffic is long-distance traffic.

I understand that the promoters believe that the strengthening can be done only by adding lanes on the outside first and then closing the middle three lanes for reconstruction. A cynic would say that that was wonderful; they kept the traffic going during construction, which is very important, and increased the traffic capacity across the bridge by, say, 50 per cent. at a stroke, depending on the lane directions used.

I am sure that the intention to keep the traffic going is perfectly laudable. However, having heard the costs of what one might call the two options, I have to query it. I am informed by the promoters that, if they were able to strengthen just the middle three lanes of the bridge, the cost would be about £10 million, whereas the cost of adding the side lanes as well will be somewhere between £25 million and £31 million. My first question is therefore: can the traffic be kept moving during construction without adding lanes on the outside at an additional cost of about £20 million?

I believe there are two possible options, and maybe the promoters have looked at them. I believe that, with modern construction techniques, it would be possible to keep one lane operational in the centre of the bridge and carry out work on the other half of the bridge. That would allow reasonable safe construction space for the workforce. It would, of course, require traffic lights for one-way working, but, sadly or not, that is quite common on trunk roads today. We are not talking of traffic lights over a bridge as long as the Severn Bridge. The Tamar Bridge is quite short compared with many other bridges. I believe that that could be done safely and at a cost considerably less than the cost of what is proposed in the Bill.

An alternative would be to divert some of the traffic across the ferry. I believe that the promoters intend to buy some new ferries to increase the capacity, which would help mitigate the effects.

I am not persuaded that spending an extra £20 million pounds to keep one lane open for, say, two years is justified simply to keep commuter traffic moving. In addition, I wonder whether that complies with the Government's current transport policy. There is a similar example closer to home on the A.40 Western Avenue. It was planned by the previous government to widen that road and to build flyovers, but this Government cancelled that project soon after coming into office. I regard that as a similar problem. It is a piece of road which it might have been good to widen. The scheme involved the demolition of a large number of houses. However, the Government decided not to do it.

Does the project comply with the draft guidance to local traffic authorities on the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997? That is not the Bill we were discussing last week, but the Act, which refers to local authorities. I refer to the draft guidance published for consultation by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, on which comments had to be in by 20th April. The guidance suggests that the first plans for all authorities must be submitted by July 1999. All local authorities have about a year to do this, if it is accepted. The guidance requires local traffic authorities to produce a report containing an assessment of existing levels of traffic and a forecast of expected growth. It should also contain targets for reducing the level of local road traffic; and, if the authorities cannot produce such targets, they must give reasons. The guidance continues:
"The Government will, of course, want to satisfy itself that authorities are giving proper regard to their obligations under the Act, and to this guidance".
Where the capacity of the bridge is increased by 50 per cent., I find it difficult to see how these local authorities will comply with this guidance. We shall have to wait and see.

I now come to the park-and-ride scheme, with which I believe there are two problems. It was good to hear what the noble Baroness said about the promoters' intentions and wishes and the constraints that they are under. One problem is the permissions and the other is finance. It is good to hear that Plymouth already has a successful park-and-ride scheme at the other end of the town.

Turning to finance, there cannot be any excuse that money cannot be found from local authorities in the area. When £31 million is available for widening the bridge, if that cost were reduced to £10 million, there must be some left for a park-and-ride scheme. I know that the same authority is not involved, and I know it is difficult, but I am sure a solution could be found. There are probably precedents in many other parts of the country. I know that at the moment they do not have provision to provide the money, and the agent for the promoters made that quite clear to me in a copy of a letter. Nevertheless, the two promoters are transport authorities. If they had pursued the park-and-ride scheme in the early days with the same commitment that they have now and with which they pursued the bridge, we might well have been a bit further on.

The second comment applies to the permission for the park-and-ride. That is a separate issue because I gather that the two authorities are not the planning authorities. Again, if there is a delay with a public inquiry—as seems likely—on their preferred site, I suggest that they look for a temporary site for however long the inquiry is likely to take. If they cannot get to this stage with a park-and-ride scheme, the argument against widening is extremely strong. I believe that they should bring in the park-and-ride scheme at an early stage, even if they merely strengthen the bridge without widening it.

The promoters have a year and a bit to go before they have to submit proposals for reducing traffic and emissions. I shall be interested to see—I am sure that the Minister will be equally interested—what happens and whether they are able to follow the guidance. Page 16 states:
"submit 6 copies — by 31 July,"
which will then be made public. It will be an extremely interesting document.

I conclude by again congratulating the noble Baroness on her explanation of the Bill in relation to how the promoters intend to go forward. I hope that the promoters will consider carefully the points I made and that the Select Committee, when appointed by the House, will accept the instruction in my name. I have no wish to stop the Bill proceeding, the Select Committee from going ahead or the construction going forward in some shape or form. The strengthening is absolutely essential. However, I hope that some of my remarks are taken into consideration in the ongoing discussion.

8.11 p.m.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Berkeley has drawn attention to various matters so effectively that he has stolen my thunder. I shall, therefore, only rumble gently.

The petitioners against this Bill are seeking two objectives. The first is that a park-and-ride facility be established that operates within certain constraints. The second is that there should be a safe footway across the bridge at all times during construction—and I am led to understand that the promoters of the Bill have agreed to providing a minibus service in lieu of the footpath.

I cannot see anything unreasonable in either of those objectives. After all, as your Lordships know, the vast majority of traffic currently using the bridge is commuter traffic. If the bridge is comparatively empty outside rush hours, what is the reason for widening it? If the widening is being done to attract more traffic to Plymouth, then that is contrary to this, and the previous, Government's policy. It seems to me that the only effect would be for traffic jams to build up more rapidly in Plymouth during peak periods due to the funnel effect. However, if, as the petitioners seek, a park-and-ride scheme is put into operation, at reasonable cost, that will not only reduce traffic levels and congestion in the city, it will also obviate the necessity—in the eyes of the Cornwall County Council and the Plymouth City Council—to widen the bridge.

I can understand the need to strengthen the bridge to take the new lorry weight limit but, when bearing in mind government policy, I fail to see why the bridge should be widened in order to, in effect, create more traffic and traffic related chaos in Plymouth—and at a very much larger cost than that required for strengthening alone. There will, without doubt, be traffic congestion during construction or strengthening work and, to me, it makes sense for a park-and-ride scheme to operate, thereby greatly increasing vehicle occupancy during peak periods and reducing the number of vehicles crossing the bridge. And if commuter traffic was reduced by the effect of a successful park-and-ride scheme, this would allow the A.38 traffic to continue without undue hindrance.

As I mentioned, I am convinced of the need to strengthen the bridge, but I am not convinced of the need to widen it.

8.14 p.m.

My Lords, I am doubtful that I can convince either of the two noble Lords of the rightness of the Bill as I see it. However, I shall make a short attempt to do so, so as not to plague your Lordships' patience too much.

The preoccupation with the cheap option is mistaken. Again, it would involve the use of concrete and, as I explained in my opening remarks, the maintenance would be vastly different if steel was used rather than concrete. Furthermore, the preoccupation with the two extra lanes is overdone. I have already explained that it is the intention to allow buses priority in the one lane and cyclists and pedestrians in the other. I feel therefore that the misgivings expressed are overstated.

What is more, if the cheaper option is taken, my understanding—I have to take guidance on this from those who are engineers when I am not—is that it would so greatly reduce the capacity of the bridge for the duration of the works that real problems of congestion would arise. In practice, I suspect that some of the traffic at least would go the long way round and therefore the roads would be used more, which I gather is what the two noble Lords opposite do not wish to see. I fear that I cannot agree with their understanding of the Bill. I believe that it is highly necessary and highly desirable. I hope that your Lordships will give it a fair wind. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time and committed to a Select committee.

I beg to move, That it be an instruction to the Select Committee to whom the Bill is committed that they should consider whether the transport needs of the area could be achieved at a lower cost by strengthening the existing bridge without widening it.

Moved, That it be an instruction to the Select Committee to whom the Bill is committed that they should consider whether the transport needs of the area could be achieved at a lower cost by strengthening the existing bridge without widening it.—( Lord Berkeley.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.