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Swing Bridges

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the need to secure the urgent repair of swing bridges that block the passage of boats, which risk harming economic growth and domestic tourism.

My Lords, assessments on the repair status of swing bridges would most likely fall to the relevant local authority and/or the bridge owner with responsibility for that infrastructure, which may differ from bridge to bridge. Similarly, we would expect the wider impacts of bridge condition to be assessed by those bodies, or by other local parties with a relevant interest. As such, my department would not generally undertake such assessments unless it had responsibility for a specific infrastructure asset.

I thank the Minister. I declare my interest as a resident of Faversham in Kent. Six years ago, a new swing bridge was promised to the people of Faversham. Money was raised for this purpose. Peel Ports, the sort of organisation that the Minister referred to, has responsibility for providing an opening bridge and sluice gates. Can the Minister confirm that, despite what she says, the Secretary of State has a legal power to issue an abatement notice and order repair by Peel Ports? Further requested documentation was sent to the Secretary of State on 2 March. Can the Minister report on this overdue work, which will greatly assist business and tourism in this heritage town? The Government do have a responsibility.

We might go back and forth on this. I have looked into this matter. I spoke to the Member of Parliament for Faversham over the weekend. She too has raised it with me. We have yet not received sufficient information for responsibility to be determined, and in any event, it is not the Department for Transport’s job to determine responsibility. Local parties must work together to agree who is responsible for the bridge now and who will be responsible for it in the future should there be a change in ownership. I am taking an interest in the Faversham swing bridge. However, there does not appear at the moment to be a commercial reason to re-open it and dredge the waterway. That may change in the future, but a vessel has not gone through that area for some decades.

My Lords, I recognise that maintenance is down to the owner of any asset to decide, but do Governments nevertheless set mandatory maintenance schedules in their activities; for example, when internal components of swing bridges have not been replaced for 100 years?

We do not go to the level of setting mandatory maintenance schedules, but we work with various organisations within the world of highways maintenance. For example, through various channels, we have produced Well-Managed Highway Infrastructure: A Code of Practice, which we developed with the UK Roads Leadership Group. Assets such as swing bridges are very rare and each is usually unique, so setting out more detailed maintenance requirements may be counterproductive.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the commercial use of waterways; for example, the use of water freight for the construction of Crossrail, the Northern line extension and the Thames Tideway tunnel. Those three projects alone took over 350,000 lorry journeys off our roads. Therefore, the importance of waterways for reducing carbon emissions from freight transport is considerable, yet the Government’s Maritime 2050 strategy ignored the contribution of inland waterways to the reduction of carbon emissions and the issue of freight costs. What will the Government do to address that omission in departmental planning and strategy?

My Lords, my department has a fund that exists solely to encourage freight off the roads and on to waterways. It is top of mind; we encourage our own delivery bodies to ensure that they use a variety of modes to transport construction materials. That includes inland waterways, as the noble Baroness has pointed out. If it is not in the maritime strategy, that is not because it is not a priority; perhaps it simply did not fit.

My Lords, does the Minister feel that, when it comes to funding, she has a conflict of interest between being Minister for Maritime and the spokesperson for roads in this House?

Not at all. As the former Roads Minister, I am very grateful that I have that background of knowledge. I am perfectly able to want to transfer freight from the roads to inland waterways, because it is good for carbon.

There are other bodies potentially involved with swing bridges, apart from local authorities. One is the Canal & River Trust. Its current grant agreement with the Government is fixed until 2027 and is now declining significantly in real terms as a result of rising inflation, putting a considerable strain on the trust’s finances. In the light of this, how exactly do the Government think that the long-term resilience of our waterways can be sustained and their decline averted—a decline that will have an adverse impact on the trust’s ability to cover a wide range of risks, statutory obligations and legal liabilities, including the specific issue referred to in the question from the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill?

I am not aware that the Canal & River Trust has an interest in the Faversham swing bridge, but I would be very happy to hear from it about its work and the funding it receives.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government have a fund to encourage traffic off roads and on to water. How much is that fund, and how much has been spent?

I believe that it is about £20 million, but I will have to write to the noble Lord. The fund encourages road freight off the road and on to both inland waterways and trains.