HC Deb 16 March 1962 vol 655 cc1698-747

11.7 a.m.

Mr. Marten (Banbury)

I beg to move, That this House, while recognising that there may be new circumstances in which it is sometimes desirable to charge tolls on some bridges, urges the Government and the highway authorities to take the earliest practicable steps to extinguish those tolls which have existed for many years on certain bridges and which now have no valid purpose. I think that this debate will be short, for it has a very limited area. I am concerned mainly to stimulate the Government and the highway authorities into extinguishing up to a maximum of 30 toll bridges in England and Wales and one in Scotland. These few toll bridges are used by a great number of people; by casual travellers, holiday makers, who cross them occasionally, and habitual users—those who live on either side and have to cross to get to work.

These 31 toll bridges are dotted around England, Wales and Scotland. I have not gone into the history of all of them. I am concerned with those tolls which have existed for many years and should now be extinguished because they no longer have any valid purpose. I am concerned, also, that the Minister of Transport, who is noted for his dynamism, should now get to work and do away with what amounts to an anachronism.

My earliest memories of toll bridges go back to the time when our somewhat large family piled into an open touring car and went across country. After a hectic voyage at about 50 m.p.h. we were rather glad sometimes to stop at a toll bridge, for a variety of reasons. I had nothing more to do with toll bridges until I was elected for the Banbury constituency in Oxfordshire. I very quickly learned that in the southern part of my constituency there was a toll bridge at Eynsham. Naturally, I was brought into this whole question to get the toll extinguished.

If a traveller should go from Whitney to Oxford by the most direct route as the crow flies he would go through this small town of Eynsham. As he would leave Eynsham towards Oxford he would come across a very charming old bridge, architecturally speaking, if not financially speaking. He would go over this humped bridge and have to pay a toll.

This toll was granted by Act of Parliament in 1776, nearly 200 years ago. It may be for the convenience of those hon. Members whose history has become a litle rusty if I remind the House of what happened in this period. It is not entirely without relevance. King George III came to the Throne in 1760. The relevance of this will come out later. He was determined to overthrow the power of the Whig oligarchy and to get back for himself certain rights of patronage which had been taken away from him by this Whig oligarchy. In 1763 we ended the Spanish War with the Treaty of Paris, under which, incidentally, we gained Canada and gave Cuba back to the French, which, looking at it now, was a good deal. In the same year John Wilkes was expelled from the House for being rude about the King.

Then we come to 1766 in which year the Act, which I am particularly complaining about in respect of my constituency bridge, was passed. This was a fairly tranquil year. The war was over. It is hard to find anything of great moment which happened. The Duke of Marlborough laid the foundation stone to Woodstock Town Hall. I say this because many of the inhabitants of the present-day Woodstock use the toll bridge about which I am complaining. The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, but with the repealing of this Act went a declaration that taxation would be imposed. It was not in fact imposed, but a declaration was made that it would be.

In the same year, Cavendish discovered hydrogen, which has a present-day context. It was then called inflammable air, In the same year a gentleman called Henry Brooke wrote a book called, "Fool of Quality". He is an ancestor of the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, who tells me that this Henry Brooke, unlike himself, had 22 children. The other significant happening in 1766 was this Act, giving the Earl of Abingdon the right to build a bridge at Swinford, just outside Eynsham, and charge a toll on it.

That is the setting of this short debate and I should like to describe how the Act of 1766 originated. In 1765, King George III had been on the Throne for five years. He was then doing a tour of the country and was going from Oxford to Cheltenham. Taking the most direct route, he had to go across the River Thames at Eynsham at this little place called Swinford. The land on both sides of this river was then owned by the Earl of Abingdon. Hearing that the King was coming on this trip, he as a good earl rallied round and thought he would make the passage of the monarch's carriage easier. It had to go across a ferry there. He got some logs and made it more secure for the ferry, as he thought. In fact, the ferry got struck and the Royal coach went into the river and the King got very wet.

In that state he turned to the Earl of Abingdon and said, "For God's sake, Abingdon, build a bridge here and, in perpetuity, you can take the tolls for it". No doubt he said some other non-parliamentary words at the same time. With typical Ministry of Transport efficiency, within less than one year of that event, the Act was already a law allowing the earl to build this bridge and charge the tolls. History does not relate whether the Guillotine was brought in to achieve it.

I have had a photostat copy made of the original Act, which is the Library. It is rather too large to carry into the Chamber comfortably. I will just read out one or two Sections, because they are very relevant to my case. The Act starts by saying, Whereas the Ferry over the River Thames or Isis, from Swynford … to Eynsham … is very inconvenient and dangerous, and sometimes impassable". This, to my mind, backs up the story of how it originated with the King falling into the water.

The Act continues: And whereas the Right Honourable Willoughby Earl of Abingdon is the Owner and Proprietor of the said Ferry, and hath proposed"— this is a slight tactical twist in the Act— and is willing and desirous, at his own Expense, to build a Bridge over the said River at or near the said Ferry, whereby many Mischiefs and Inconveniences will be remedied, and great Advantages accrue to the Publick. That sets out the origin of why the bridge was built. Then there is a Section dealing with the vesting of the bridge and the toll in the Earl of Abingdon, which says: And be it further enacted, That for and in Consideration of the great Charges that the said Earl of Abingdon, his Heirs and Assigns, will be obliged to defray in erecting the said Bridge, and repairing and supporting the same, and also the Loss which he and they will sustain by the ceasing of the Tolls of the said Ferry; the said Bridge, when built, shall be and is hereby vested in the said Earl of Abingdon, his Heirs and Assigns for ever. There is still an Earl of Abingdon, who is about 75 years of age. I am sorry to say that he is not very well. I tried to contact him before the debate, but, in view of his state of health. I merely succeeded in getting into contact with his solicitors.

The Act goes on to say: And it shall and may be lawful to and for the said Earl of Abingdon, his Heirs and Assigns … to erect, or cause to be erected, a Gate or … Turnpike … and also a Toll house … and there to ask, demand, receive, recover, and take, to and for his and their own proper use … the several Sums following, Then there is set out an interesting historical list of the sort of traffic which went over the bridge at that date. It is an interesting study of the economic life of those days in 1766. It says: For every Coach, Chariot, Berlin, Hearse, Chaise, Chair"— Waggon, Wain, Dray, Cart, Carr, or other Carriage whatsoever, with Four Wheels, the Sum of Four Pence. That is the same charge as today. This is a quite interesting example of the pay pause having operated all the way through. There is only one slight Amendment to this Act, namely, the Locomotive Act, 1861, under which for large loads they charge per ton.

Then there is a lot more of it with which I will not bother the House, although there are just two more intriguing points which I should read out. One is that it is a monopoly. The Act says this: And be it further enacted, That if any Person or Persons, from and after the passing of this Act, shall for Gain or Reward convey any Person or Persons, or any Carriage or Cattle, over the said River Thames or Isis, within Two Miles of the said Ferry or intended Bridge … every such Person shall, for every such Offence, forfeit to the said Earl of Abingdon, his Heirs or Assigns, the Sum of Forty Shillings. So we get this toll bridge granted in perpetuity to the earl, and, for two miles on either side of it, it is forbidden to build a rival bridge or start a rival ferry—indeed one of the original monopolies, certainly a local one, which might interest the Board of Trade.

Those who drafted the Bill did not miss many tricks. They did not allow any competition to arise in the future. Another trick they did not miss related to taxation on the income from the bridge, because, towards its end, the Act says: … the said bridge, and the Tolls thereof, shall be liable to the same Rates and Assessments, in respect of the Land Tax, and all other publick and Parochial Taxes, and … Quit Rents, Services, Duties and … tithes … as the said Ferry, and the Tolls thereof, were subject and liable to at and immediately before the passing of this Act, and to no other or greater Assessment, Tax, Rent, Rate, Duty, or Payment whatsoever. That meant that any taxes then existing could never be increased.

As it is impossible to establish what taxes did exist then, it has been accepted that on taxes are payable at all on the revenue of the bridge. It was quite cunning, because when the Stamp Act was repealed the King said that there would be this right to tax. That right was never exercised, and taxation, even temporary taxation was, as we know, first imposed only during the Napoleonic wars. In effect, therefore, the income from this toll bridge owned by the Earl of Abingdon and his heirs is not subject to taxation or rates, and the very word "duty" that is used in the Act means that death duties are not payable in respect of it.

I have had to make an estimate of what the bridge yields in tolls. I asked, but I did not get an answer; but I believe that a fairly accurate estimate of what the bridge yields is something just under £6,000 a year. There are other bridges, of course, that yield a lot more. I believe that that case history serves to illustrate that the toll bridge is now an anachronism. I will only add that it was not built with quite the same speed as was the Hammersmith flyover; it was not completed until eleven years after the passing of the Act.

To complete the case history of Swinford Bridge, I would say that my predecessor in the constituency of Banbury took up the matter with the then Minister of Transport, and I have taken it up on two occasions with the Parliamentary Secretary. Again, in December of last year, I led a delegation to my hon. Friend, and took to him a Petition—that I would have presented to the House if it had been properly drafted—containing 4,000 signatures, praying that the toll should be extinguished.

Returning to the more general subject of tolls—

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

The hon. Member is telling a fascinating story and, if I may say so, is telling it extremely well, but how does he see the toll being abolished on a bridge of this sort? Has he some form of compensation in mind, or does he believe in State ownership, with no compensation?

Mr. Marten

I am glad that the hon. Member has mentioned that. I shall deal with it in due course, if he has time to wait.

Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)

Before my hon. Friend passes from that part of his speech, can he say whether what he has described as the yields from toll bridges are gross or net—net after costs of maintenance have been deducted?

Mr. Marten

Again, it has been impossible to get precise information. That is quite natural—why should the owner tell anybody what he gets out of it? I understand, however, on reasonably good authority, that the gross figure is slightly over £6,000 and that the net figure is slightly under £6,000; that is, when the owner has deducted the cost of a toll keeper, and other necessary expenses—

Mr. John Hall

My hon. Friend quoted as an example a yield of £50,000 from one bridge—

Mr. Marten


Mr. John Hall

I am sorry; I misheard my hon. Friend.

Mr. Marten

There are other bridges that give a much higher yield than that.

I will now bring the broader subject up to more modern times. In 1929, when the party opposite was on this side of the House—which, again, has an amusing relevance—

Mr. Mellish

A minority Government.

Mr. Marten

Yes, on this occasion the laugh is on us.

On 8th November, 1929, Captain Peter Macdonald moved the Second Reading of a Tolls Bill, and was supported by Sir Kenyon Vaughan-Morgan, the father of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir J. Vaughan-Morgan). There were then 80 toll bridges; there are now 31.

In essence, Clause 1 of the Bill said that failing voluntary agreement the local authorities could serve notice that within three months the highway authority could take possession of a toll bridge, and the question of compensation would go to arbitration after the bridge had been taken over. It reminds me of those enthusiasts who want to go into the Common Market, and who say, "Join now, and work out the terms later".

Sir Kenyon Vaughan-Morgan said—and hon. Members might here just note that even a mode of expression can be hereditary: The continuance in this year of grace of toll bridges and toll roads cannot but be regarded as out of date and a complete anachronism. Everyone will agree that they should go, and go quickly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th November, 1929; Vol. 231, c. 1464.] Replying to that debate, Mr. Herbert Morrison, as he then was, referred to the Bill, with considerable glee, as a thoroughly Socialistic Measure for appropriating first, and working out compensation later. Indeed, he referred to the father of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate as being positively Bolshevistic. He agreed, nevertheless, that tolls were a nuisance, and should be got rid of at the earliest possible moment. I have not been able to find much trace since then of a wider discussion of this subject in the House, although we all remember the Adjournment debates in which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner) has discussed the Selby Toll Bridge.

In response to a Question by the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Dodds) there recently appeared in the OFFICIAL REPORT a complete list of the remaining toll bridges, and I shall merely mention one or two. There is the Whitchurch to Pangbourne toll bridge, constituted by an Act of Parliament of 1792—again having the restriction that no rival concern could be built for two miles on either side of it. An interesting feature is that that bridge is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. The toll bridge at Bristol originated in 1890, and some hon. Members may have queued for a long time to cross that one over the gorge there.

Then there is one at Shoreham, owned by the British Transport Commission which many holiday makers use. That, again, brings in a tax-free income, but it may possibly have a valid purpose, because it presumably goes towards reducing the deficit of British Railways. The one at Southampton, which crosses Bartley Water, and is owned by Winchester College, formed part of the endowment of the founders of the college in 1385.

I do not expect that any hon. Member has read the annals of the college, but on page 186, in rather typical Wykehamist language, it says: This causeway may be a public utility, but it is a damnosa hereditas to the College. In 1741, it was ruined by floods and the cost of repairing it fell upon the college. A lease, which is in the college library, and which bears the date 1785, provides the interesting economic fact that the charge to cross the bridge was 6d. for a four-wheeled carriage. It is exactly the same now.

The House will by now have recognised that one of the points I am trying to make is that many of these tolls are feudal in origin. I am not saying that they are bad because of that, but they are feudal. Legally, county councils, borough councils and urban district council can purchase these bridges and the rights of the tolls by agreement or by compulsory purchase, the compensation being worked out by the Lands Tribunal. The Government are empowered to make grants towards the purchase of these toll bridges. I believe that loan sanction can be given. All I say is that it is possible to extinguish these tolls, and I urge the Government to bring about their extinguishment by these methods.

It is obvious, in the light of the incomes that I have quoted—and I can assure hon. Members that there are many higher incomes than that derived from the toll at Eynsham Bridge—that the cost of extinguishing with compensation would be fairly high. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, whom I am glad to see here today, takes the view that if a considerable sum of money is available to be spent it should be spent on improving the roads and making them safer.

That is a very worthy and honourable view to take, but there is one objection to it. According to Sir William Glanville, the Director of the Road Research Laboratory, the number of vehicles on our roads increases at the rate of about 8 per cent. a year. There are now over 10 million vehicles on our roads, and in twenty years' time, according to Sir William, there will be approximately 25 million. If the compensation to be paid for these toll bridges is based on the amount of money brought in by them, the more traffic there is on the roads the more money will be brought in, and the greater will have to be the compensation. The longer we leave the matter the greater the problem of redemption will become. That is why I urge my right hon. Friend to get a move on.

Unlike the father of my right hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, I am not yet a very strong Bolshevist, and I believe that some compensation must be paid. I am not saying how much it should be, or upon what basis it should be paid, but I believe that the factors which I have mentioned should in all fairness be brought into account when the assessors are considering what the compensation should be.

We must judge the matter by present-day standards, and it would, therefore, be relevant to consider what has been taken out in tolls so far, and also to bear in mind that the wise man who has looked ahead must have said to himself, "This cannot go on forever in these enlightened days. Therefore, out of my tax-free income I will put aside a little each year to build up a capital fund." We should expect the wise man to have built up at least part of a capital fund, realising that these tolls would be extinguished one day.

On the other hand, we must remember that maintenance expenses will undoubtedly arise, as they did in 1741 in the case of Winchester College, which was under a liability to keep its bridge in repair, as owner, and had to put it up again when it fell down. Further, the great sums that are now coming in to the toll owners have been coming in only in comparatively recent years, as a result of the great increase in the number of motorised vehicles using the bridges. Not many years ago some of these bridges were running at a loss.

Also, many of these bridges—and especially the one at Eynsham—have provided a public service where none previously existed, and credit must be given for that. The great increase in the volume of traffic has not been due to any action on the part of the owners of the toll bridges, and we must ask ourselves to what extent compensation should take account of that fact. How the figures would be arrived at I do not know: but I suggest that we should follow the trend which is appearing in current arbitration matters, where the arbitrator is asked to take into account the broader national interests.

There are some practical disadvantages in toll bridges. They are not safe. They often have humps on them. The one at Eynsham has a hump, and the traffic has to proceed in single line. Even hospital car service vehicles have to stop and pay tolls before crossing the bridge, although they may be carrying ill patients. One of the big snags at Shoreham, in Sussex, is where there is a big build-up of traffic, waiting to cross the bridge while toll tickets are sold. In the summer, perhaps with children in the car, frustration builds up. And when the motorist eventually does pay his 6d., and gets away, his reaction is to put his foot on the accelerator and drive like mad. That is a point which should appeal very much to my right hon. Friend, who is always referring to irritation which is caused while driving.

I must now suggest what should be done about this. After about forty years of procrastination by both sides of the House, the Government should say, "This is the beginning of the end for these historic toll bridges." They should fix a term of years by the end of which they will all be abolished, so that everybody knows where he stands. Compensation should take account of all the factors which I have mentioned, and—I do not know how this would be done—toll owners should be made to publish annual accounts of income and expenditure.

The Minister should take the initiative in the matter. The county councils, who are often the highway authorities, have no real interest in extinguishing these toll bridges, because they gain absolutely nothing from taking them over. I regard them as the reluctant extinguishers. We even find some county councils denying that they have any liability, territorially, because these bridges often cross a large river which itself forms the county boundary. One authority will say, "That belongs to the other county" and the other county says the same thing.

The Minister has a duty to step in and sort the matter out. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not only accept the Motion, but will go into action with his customary zeal and energy. I do not see why my constituents in Oxfordshire should have to pay to cross a bridge just because King George III got wet.

11.40 a.m.

Mr. A. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I wish to intervene for a short time to deal with one or two special points in which I am interested I am reminded of one of our famous toll bridges at Connel Ferry. There was a wonderful system of tolls in operation there. To bring sheep across ½d. was charged, but the shepherd was allowed to bring only one sheep across at a time and he also had to pay 6d. for himself every time he crossed the bridge. I am not sure how the matter has been settled nowadays, but that was the system at one of our historic toll bridges to Scotland.

The principle behind this Motion is that we pay for public roads and that a bridge or a ferry is just an extension of a road. Therefore, when the country pays millions of pounds to construct a motor road there is no logic in saying that the public should pay a tax just to cross a bit of water.

The bridge in which I am interested has not become historical yet. The Forth Road Bridge is just about to be completed. I freely admit that it is in the bond that tolls should be paid and that if we are held to the bond we must in honour pay the tolls. But, after all, this is not just a question of bargaining. It is a question of common sense in running the transport of this country. It already seems apparent from observation at the ferry at Queensferry that in the summer the entrance to the bridge will be cluttered up by cars and large lorries, with consequent irritation, and to a large extent the purpose of the bridge is likely to be frustrated. People will feel that it is far better to travel an extra twenty miles and travel round by Kincardine.

I can understand the Government's reluctance to incur any more liability in the matter. But it is the people driving the vehicles across the bridge who will pay the tolls. I suggest that there is still time to get all the people involved round a table to discuss some more sensible method of financing the bridge which does not involve Government finance.

I will make one or two suggestions. It is the vehicle drivers who will pay the tolls. I am one myself, and I would rather pay in the form of insurance, even if I seldom use the bridge, so that when I do want to cross the bridge I can do so freely. Is there any reason why the cost should not be spread over the millions of vehicle owners? I am sure most people would gladly agree to this course as it would avoid irritation and delay when they wished to use the bridge.

If it is not possible for the Government to do this, I suggest that they should investigate other means by which the crossing of these bridges could be facilitated. In some circumstances it is possible to arrange a consolidated fee. One can, for instance, join the Nuffield Trust if one requires hospital treatment and does not want to use the much better National Health Service. A person who requires snob treatment in a hospital can make some special hospital arrangement of that sort and pay a lump sum. It should be possible to establish a block fund, the contributors to which should be allowed to cross the bridge without further payment

If the Government cannot do this, I suggest that the A.A., the R.A.C. and similar bodies should include such a contribution in their annual subscription. If another 1s. or 2s. were charged for the year, it would probably be sufficient to cover the crossing of most of these ancient bridges and even the new ones. I believe that the A.A. and R.A.C. are in some difficulty in deciding what to do with all the money that they get because vehicles are increasing in number so quickly. This would be an excellent outlet for some of their cash.

It is for the Government to bring the local authorities together, for they ought to make a contribution. In addition, there is no reason why the Government should not slightly increase the road fund tax, provided that they do not "diddle" the motorists as they have done by confiscating much of the revenue from this tax for other purposes. If this small increase were charged for this definite purpose, I feel sure that motorists would be prepared to pay rather than suffer the inconvenience and frustration of waiting in queues at these bridges.

There are some urgent economic factors to be borne in mind. In Glenochil, Clackmannanshire, the pits are being closed down. There are other areas too, to which populations were transferred with a promise of twenty or thirty years employment in the pits at decent wages, where they have incurred various liabilities such as house purchase and hire-purchase of various articles. Now because of the lack of fuel policy on the part of the Government and because of a change in the economic circumstances, these areas will be left almost derelict of industry. Unless new industries are brought in very quickly, great hardship will be caused.

I understand that the Government have been trying to introduce new industry. I welcome that decision and I hope it is successful in the near future, but a vital part of the success of any new industries which are introduced will depend on the free flow of traffic over this vital artery from one side of the Forth to the other. I hope, therefore, that the Government will do all they can to facilitate these developments and also will realise that this whole business of tolls is an anachronism. Everybody agrees that it is so.

All that the Minister is concerned with is the difficulty of finance. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government to find a solution. If the Chancellor puts out the job to the different Departments some sensible way of solving this problem will be found. Vehicles are increasing in number, and I expect that the road bridges over the Forth and the Severn will be used to a far greater extent than the Government anticipate. I hope that even at this late date the Government will say, "Although it was necessary to have these tolls to get the whole project started, let us now find some other way of dealing with this question."

In 1929, when the Labour Government were in power, I wrote a letter to Mr. Herbert Morrison, as he then was, and said, "Get this bridge built." He replied, "We cannot get the money." I said "Charge tolls if you want to get the money," and he replied, "The people would never agree at this stage of civilisation to pay tolls." I said, "Well, get the bridge built and if the people object to paying tolls we can easily shift the tolls once the bridge is there." If he had done that and had got the bridge built at that time it would have been constructed at about a quarter of today's cost. We would have the bridge and we would not be paying any tolls.

I hope the Government will arrange for a conference to find some other way of financing this bridge. We are not going back on the bargain; we will still pay the bond if the Government insist, but it is not a sensible method at this time of our civilisation.

11.50 a.m.

Mr. Paul Bryan (Howden)

I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for introducing this subject. It gets a special welcome from me, for reasons which I will give in a minute. Of the long list of toll bridges that are still in existence—and I saw that in HANSARD the Minister gave a list not long ago—the three most important ones must be three on trunk roads—Dunham Bridge, on the A.57, that at Shoreham, on the A.27 and that at Selby. In view of your connection with that area in the past, Mr. Speaker, you will not be surprised that the one I shall speak about is Selby Bridge.

This debate comes at a very lucky time for me, because my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash (Sir L. Ropner), who, with me, "represents" this bridge in the House, and I have been invited to meet the local authorities on 27th April to discuss the future of the bridge. This may well be only the latest in what I believe have been hundreds of meetings which have taken place since 1792 on this subject, and I am very much hoping that the Minister will be able to answer a series of questions which I wish to put to him for transmission at that meeting to the local authorities.

The history of this bridge and the current news of it has almost always been conveyed to the House in Adjournment debates in fairly uncrowded company, so perhaps I may be forgiven if I say a word or two about its history, so that hon. Members may know what I am talking about. One has only to look at a map to see that this bridge is the natural crossing place for the traffic coming from York, in the north, southwards to Doncaster, and, east to west, from Hull to Leeds and on to Liverpool. It is an absolutely natural crossing, so that it does not surprise me to find that a bridge here was authorised in 1792. For over one hundred years, the bridge seems to have gone on fairly smoothly, and we find nothing in the records by way of complaint.

It was at about the turn of the century that the questions in the House started These, started by Lord Bingley, went on for twenty-five years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Barkston Ash continued for over thirty years. That is on one side of the bridge. On my side of the bridge, my predecessor, Mr. Odey, continued, while I myself have not been quite so noisy. Having been a Government Whip, I have been rather silent, but I am quite ready to take it up now.

This discontent has been gradually working up to a crescendo, and has now come to the point of fury. One has only to go over the bridge to see why the local population is angry. The town of Barlby has grown up on the other side of the river, and, to all intents and purposes, is part of Selby. We get the people of Barlby wanting to cross the bridge every day to do their shopping, and the people in Selby wanting to cross over it in their natural social intercourse, and also to work at the large B.O.C.M. works on the other side.

They have to pay 9d. every time they cross, except in the case of the local people, who pay only once a day, but even to have to pay 9d. a day in the course of one's life is annoying. If one walks, one can cross the bridge for a hafpenny, but that happens only once a year, and is not quite so big a nuisance.

The traffic on the bridge is now up to the rate of 5,000 vehicles a day, so that we are not only talking about the annoyance to people who live in these two towns, but to a large number of other people travelling over these major routes and making major journeys. All through Yorkshire, the Minister will become very popular overnight if he can solve the questions which I shall put to him. I should add that this is no reflection on the people who run the bridge, and I should like to put an end to the myth that this lucrative undertaking is owned by three old spinsters in Blackpool. In fact, it is owned by a fairly competent firm, as far as I can make out, and I do not get any complaints about the way this firm runs it.

It is a firm which has specialised in river crossings, which owns other ferries and toll bridges. But, however prosperous these other undertakings may be, this one at Selby must surely be the brightest jewel in its crown, because the feature about this bridge is the fact that the takings are tax-free. This freedom from taxation is the cause of all the trouble, because, as the traffic has gone up, it has raised the firm's income, and, as it has been tax-free, the bridge, as a commercial asset—it does not look much, and its break-up value could be no more than a few thousand pounds—is obviously worth a very large sum of money, and, so far, too large a sum for the Government to think that they could reasonably buy it.

In the last debate on this subject, on 11th April last, I hazarded an estimate that the tax-free income from the bridge must be about £70,000 a year, and if that is so I estimate that the asset value must be about £1 million. Since then, after that debate, the owners of the bridge—the company running it— checked me on this point, and very courteously but firmly said that I was inaccurate in my figures. I was not in the slightest surprised at that, because the data I had to go on was far from complete. All I can say now is that, if the company would like to give me accurate figures of its income, I will do my best to give it full publicity. Whatever the sum may be, it is quite obviously a very large sum, if not £1 million.

The result of all this, and of the present Government policy, is that it has been said that it is too expensive to buy, and, therefore, the Government will build a by-pass bridge further up the river, which will divert a lot of traffic off Selby Bridge. This, in turn, will reduce the amount of the tolls, which, in turn, will reduce the price of the bridge, so that the Government will be able to buy it and have the by-pass, and everybody will be happy. The local people have no objection whatever to this policy, and look forward to it taking place, but, to be realistic, it is not in sight yet.

Reading through the last list of the Minister's projects to be put into force before 1965, I notice that the Selby Bridge by-pass does not appear, so that if it is not to come in the next five years, my guess is that it will not be with us before at least another ten years. If we have to accept that, is there anything else that we can do meanwhile to make some progress? I should like to know from the Minister whether it would not be possible to buy the bridge now, and to go on charging the tolls for a number of years until the price of the bridge was written off in that way.

Expensive though this is, it seems to me that we should be able to make some progress. If we go on as we are, with the people paying the tolls, the more they pay the more the price of the bridge would go up, and the greater the asset value of the bridge. To do what I have suggested would result in gradually cutting down the value of the bridge and gradually paying it off. In ten or five years' time, or whenever the Minister sees fit to make a start with the by-pass, he would, at least, have got the toll bridge bought, or partially bought, before the other venture started. It is on this point that I should like the Minister to comment.

In our last debate on 11th April last, I made an estimate of the traffic which I thought the by-pass would probably attract, and I quoted, in this context, a letter which the Minister had written to the Clerk of the East Riding County Council, in 1959, in which he said: 'The volume of through traffic using the bridge does not justify the diversion for the immediate construction of a by-pass of trunk road funds which are more urgently required for the current major road programme'."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1961; Vol. 638, c. 206.] Everyone will agree that the only criterion upon which a prudent Government can decide whether or not they should embark upon a £2 million bypass is traffic. I came to the conclusion that 12,000 vehicles might be expected to use the by-pass road. I take this figure from a report of the East Riding county surveyor, who said: I am convinced that the new traffic which would be attracted to a Selby by-pass would be in the region of 9,000 vehicles per day, which, added to the 3,000, gives a figure of 12,000 vehicles. That is the source of my information. The only statistics which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary was able to give in answer to that opinion came from a survey which the Ministry had conducted at Boothferry Bridge. Apparently, 760 vehicles a day crossed there, and the drivers of these vehicles had been interviewed. That is the number which the Ministry thinks would be diverted to a Selby crossing. I did not think that that was very much of a reply, but in fairness to my hon. Friend I must admit that I took longer that I expected and did not leave him as much of the Adjournment debate as he had a right to expect. I hope that there are all sorts of encouraging figures which he did not have time to give and which the Minister can give us today.

On the subject of estimated traffic, I put these questions. What is the Ministry's estimation of the total traffic likely to use a free bridge and a by-pass in, say, 1964? Secondly, what would be the estimated trunk road traffic on a by-pass bridge? I realise that the statistics or estimates for which I am asking are complicated. I am not asking just for a census of the vehicles which now pass Selby Bridge, because that would reveal the traffic against a 9d. toll. The traffic without the 9d. toll would be a very different kettle of fish, and to arrive at that figure one would have to estimate having regard to the cars and lorries crossing at York, Boothferry Bridge, Malton, and so on. Selby is the focal point of six important traffic routes.

The East Riding County Surveyor has said that The removal of this deterrent by means of a by-pass and a free bridge would open the flood-gates to traffic and, in my view, effect a more widespread redistribution of traffic than any other comparable scheme in the North of England. That is the opinion of a man of thirty years' experience in the area; and that cannot possibly be disregarded.

Again on the subject of censuses and estimates, I should like my right hon. Friend to say something about the concluding remarks of the Parliamentary Secretary in our debate on 11th April last. He said: At present, we are considering the results of the traffic census in connection with the possibility of using the abandoned Barnsley—Hull railway line as a trunk road. The surveyors of the East and West Riding County Councils are preparing a report for us on this… I would only add that we shall be announcing our decision on this matter very shortly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th April, 1961; Vol. 638, c. 213–4.] The results of that census would be very interesting in the present context, and I wonder whether the Minister has them by now.

Lastly, how would the problem I am discussing be affected by a major motorway? Looking at the publication, "Roads for Britain", published by the Ministry, I saw marked on it as a motorway for the future a route running from Hull across the country through Leeds to Manchester and Liverpool. I cannot see from the sort of map provided exactly where this motorway will cross the river, but, of course, this is something closely relevant to the subject of Selby Bridge. If it is to cross at Selby, everything we are talking about is put in an entirely different light. Indeed, wherever it is to cross, it will affect very much our judgment on the question of the toll bridge.

Everyone in the House will agree that, during the last two or three years, we have been able to take a more hopeful look at our roads. Things are really happening now. Motorways are being built, and those which we now have are the finest in the world. Roads like the A.1, of which we had begun to despair, are quite a pleasure to use now. Even the Malton by-pass, to my astonished delight, is on the way. All this good news of the roads gives me hope that the Minister will have some good news for us about the Selby Bridge as well.

12.6 p.m.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) has raised this topic, not for constituency reasons but because I consider that it raises very important matters of principle. How far should the Government be expected to accept all the responsibility for toll bridges? There is no doubt that the raising of tolls is a nuisance to a certain extent. I am told that in the United States there is very little difficulty and traffic is not held up much when tolls are collected. In this country, on the other hand, we have a somewhat different situation, in that the Government are already levying such heavy taxation on the motor industry and the motorist. According to figures given by the British Road Federation, the Government are spending £140 million on the roads and raising in motor taxation no less than £730 million.

Our situation in that respect is in very great contrast with what is happening abroad. Even in a country like Sweden, which has advanced social services, the figures are more or less in balance. I am told that in the United States they are in balance. There is here a very, very heavy imposition already put on those who use the roads and motorways, and it seems wrong in principle that they should be expected to pay extra either for new toll bridges or for old ones.

It is high time that something was done about the old toll bridges, with this tremendous load of taxation already imposed on the users. Among the interesting suggestions which have been made was the ingenious idea advanced by the right hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) that the tolls should be levied in some way through the A.A. or the R.A.C. I doubt that the organisations would welcome that because to a certain extent they would be turned into tax collectors. There are other ways of doing it. In the United States, the State Governments which built the toll roads—I see no objection in principle to toll roads—issued bonds, expecting to repay over a period of 20 or 25 years, but the growth of traffic has enabled them to pay off the money very much earlier. It was surprising how quickly the money could be paid back. I entirely agree that there should be some kind of sinking fund in respect of all these toll bridges so that the money can be paid off in a reasonable time.

Mr. Woodburn

I did not suggest that the A.A. and the R.A.C. should collect taxes. I suggested that it would be a wonderful service to their members, inducing everyone to join either one organisation or the other, if they could make block arrangements with the toll bridges so that members wanting to cross could do so without payment. It would not involve the Government in any finance at all.

Mr. Digby

I can see the disadvantage that people who did not belong to the A.A. or R.A.C. might arrive at the bridge and then have to turn back or pay, and there would be certain administrative difficulties. However, I can see advantages in the ingenious scheme which the right hon. Gentleman has proposed. It seems to me that the real test is whether the motorist, who is already paying so much in taxation, will get a better deal through these tolls and whether extra bridges and motorways can be built so that he gets something for his money.

It is on those grounds that I have in the past, and still do, support the principle of toll motorways provided they bring relief on the roads in our lifetime. On my way to the House today I was held up for a very long time at Hyde Park Corner, where an improvement is being made. My hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) spoke of the motorways that there are in the North. I know the M.1 and the improvements which have been made to the A.1.

However, I come from a different part of the country. I come from the Southwest, which my right hon. Friend the Minister knows has been grossly neglected. When I try to drive down the A.30 I find long stretches where there is room for only two lanes of traffic so that overtaking is almost impossible. I am anxious to see something done quickly about this and in my lifetime, not for posterity. It is no good lecturing me about the M.1 and the improvements which have been made in the North if my constituents are to suffer for many years to come. Fortunately, we do not possess a toll bridge. If we did, we should be anxious to see payment on it brought to an end, because, in spite of all the taxation on the motorists in my part of the country, we see very little return from it.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury has raised this subject, and I hope that the Minister will treat it as a matter of principle.

12.12 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) has raised this subject. It could not have come at a more opportune moment for those who represent Scottish constituencies. However, the hon. Gentleman somewhat marred his Motion by stating in it that it is sometimes desirable to charge tolls on some bridges … The gist of his speech did not lend strength to that statement. Nor have we had a speech from either side of the House which supports the principle, either as it existed in the past or as it is likely to exist in the future.

I was very interested to hear what was said concerning tax-free incomes. It is, I suppose, highly desirable for those who are fortunate to have them to have unearned incomes. But to have unearned and untaxed incomes is really paradise. I wish that a representative from the Treasury were present. I hope that it knows about this, because it is intolerable that at a time when everyone else is being chased for taxation on incomes, particularly on earned incomes, people should be getting away with £6,000 a year in unearned income, untaxed income and death-duty-free income. It is an astounding reflection on the society in which we live.

I leave that matter there. I hope that the hon. Member for Banbury will pursue it through Questions. I shall be glad to give him what support I can on it.

Mr. Marten

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hamilton

I wish to devote my remarks to the issue of the Forth Road Bridge. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is here. He knows very well that we have had some extremely grim news in Scotland, particularly in Fife, in the last few weeks. We have had the announcement of the closure of the Rothes pit and the Glenochil pit, which will inflict very grave social, economic and psychological blows. Other collieries are threatened. In Central West Fife, lying immediately to the north of this proposed bridge, we are to lose 3,000 jobs, which will be lost for ever as the pits in that area close, and there is really little or nothing to take their place. If something urgent is not done now, Central West Fife will, as it has been said, become a deserted area.

There are nearly 2,000 people employed solely in mining in the Bowhill area, and the pit there is now under threat. If the Bowhill, Dundonald and Kinglassie pits close, there is not as much as one small industry in the area to take the people who will be unemployed. The Bowhill pit was regarded as a long-term pit. The Fife County Council made enormous capital investments in it. Since 1945, it has spent approximately £17 million on houses, schools, and so on, on the assumption that there would be industrial prosperity. The situation is bound to get worse in view of the enormous increase in the number of school leavers. It is anticipated that in the next three years there will be 3,536 school-leavers in the area. The jobs in the pipeline which have been mentioned on innumerable occasions in the House will do little to solve the problem. It is in that context that I wish to speak.

The Under-Secretary of State will agree that Fife County is making enormous efforts to attract industry. It pins great hopes on the completion of the Forth Road Bridge. We are in no doubt about the advantage of it. But if the Government do anything to jeopardise or decrease the value of the bridge to the future economic prospects of Fife, it will be a contradiction of the policy of bringing industry to this part of the country which they allege that they are pursuing.

I believe that the Secretary of State for Scotland has had representations from almost every local authority in Fife and every local authority concerned directly or indirectly with the bridge. They are almost unanimous in opposing what they regard as an outmoded method of financing the roads system. All the Members of Parliament in the area, with the exception of the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour), support the local authorities. I am sorry that I was not able to give the hon. Gentleman notice yesterday that I would refer to him, but he has been bitterly opposed by the small burghs, particularly St. Monance, in his constituency, because he wrote the burgh a letter saying that he did not think it worth while pursuing the Government to try to get rid of the toll charges, although St. Monance is a small burgh desperately in need of some light engineering industry. The hon. Gentleman, far from joining in what we regard as a very important fight, has taken the Government's side. Indeed, when it comes to fighting the Government, he is an out-and-out pacifist. He is not prepared to take our side and the side of his county in defending its interests.

No doubt the Minister, when he replies, will say that the local authorities promised that they would pay tolls, and that this was one of the conditions under which they got the bridge. That is true. But since the Government have been breaking more pledges in the last few weeks and months than anyone else in the country, it is very strange for them to say that the local authorities have to honour their pledge. I wish to be quite blunt about it. The local authorities made this promise only under duress. They were so desperately anxious to get the bridge that they would have promised anything. Now, however, the economic circumstances, desperate as they were then, are much more desperate, and the economic circumstances of Fife and of the area which my right hon. Friend represents are much worse now, than they were when the local authorities agreed to this imposition. The Government recognise that the economic circumstances are much worse.

The local authorities take the view that the imposition of these toils is bound to have adverse effects on the competitive position of Fife in attracting industry. There are in all areas of the country—indeed, of the world—big and small areas, which are competing for industry, and if anything is done to lessen the competitive ability of one area, that, of course, makes it less likely that that area will get the industry it wants, and Fife feels that it is being put in this position.

My right hon. Friend referred to the clutter-up of traffic on either side of the bridge consequent on the imposition of tolls. I am not sure that that is a very valid point, quite frankly. I understand that already orders have been placed for £90,000 worth of electronic equipment for the purpose of collecting the tolls, and this will weaken to some extent, I believe, the argument of my night hon. Friend. I do not regard this as the main argument.

The main argument, as I see it, is that it will put up transport costs and that it will create irritation, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, among people using the bridge.

I see no valid reason at all why these tolls should be levied. If I may refer again to my right hon. Friend, the bridge is part of the trunk road system. That it goes over a bit of water is incidental. I can get into a car in London and travel right up to Edinburgh with no question of a toll, but once I get to that little bit of water in the middle of Scotland I have got to pay a toll.

The M.1 was opened with a great fanfare—and began to break up in a fortnight. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] It was opened with a great fanfare as a link between two of the most prosperous cities in Britain—if not the two most prosperous cities in Britain—Birmingham and London, and not a penny toll is paid on that. And it cost a lot more than the Forth Bridge.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

It is longer.

Mr. Hamilton

Of course it is longer, but if the right hon. Gentleman is going to charge tolls let him share them out, and let them be in proportion to the prosperity of the areas the roads are linking, if the Government want fair shares for all. The Secretary of State for Scotland now has a Housing Bill before the Scottish Standing Committee, and the Bill is designed to help the poorer authorities by taking from the richer authorities. I do not agree with the principle of tolls, but if tolls are to be applied that would seem to be the sensible way to apply them, in which case the M.1 would bear tolls and not the Forth Bridge. Nor are there tolls for the Whiteinch Tunnel. There are not to be any tolls for the Whiteinch Tunnel which is under the Clyde. So that it does seem, to us anyhow, that this is a deliberate imposition on a part of the country which is much worse hit than most by economic circumstances entirely outside its control.

Let me quote a letter from an industrialist in Fife, an industrialist who, I think, supports the Government. He regards himself as an independent, but this means that he is a Tory who has not declared himself. He is rather ashamed of it. He nevertheless supports them. I have a great regard for him. I do not think he will like my saying that. This is what he says in a letter to me: What kind of bridge is this new one going to be? Is it for holidaymakers and tourist traffic, and is it to be another nail in the coffin of Fife industry? With the possible advent of the European Common Market we will need every possible facility for transport, rather than have another noose round our neck in paying higher costs. It seems to me that the whole idea of the Government today is to have industry moved South of the Border, but certainly not in Scotland. Why should we have to pay a high figure for sending transport over water, as if it was impossible to build a bridge. Sooner or later a trunk road will have to be built round Fife, and I doubt if this would be any cheaper than building a bridge, and would probably cost a lot more. This is just one example of the frustration of industrialists. Local authorities are angry about it, industry is angry about it, and now this is given added point by the recent pronouncements about the Scottish economy and particularly the coal industry.

I know the Government say the bridge has got to be paid for and that £15 million is an awful lot of money, and they say it is right and fair that the users should pay for it. I am not so sure that was applied to the £15 million for the Rotodyne, which was written off; almost exactly the same figure, but just written off.

The simple fact is that the road system of this country, whether it goes over water or over land, ought to be regarded as a State responsibility. Let us have none of this nonsense of sticking a little toll either end and collecting sixpences and shillings. This is really the turnpike attitude towards a modern transport problem. Get rid of it. Come into the twentieth century. It hurts like hell, but come into it.

12.27 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Ernest Marples)

It may be for the convenience of the House if I now say a few words on this subject and indicate the Government's point of view. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will remain here and deal with any other points which may be raised.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) said "Come into the twentieth century" and he said that these were turnpike days. That is exactly what they are. In possibly the most advanced motoring civilisation in the world, in America, they call them turnpikes and have little tolls at each end of a turnpike and collect the money there; and they have, I should think, the most extensive road system of any county in the world, and they are doing precisely this.

Mr. W. Hamilton

The M1.

Mr. Marples

No, not the M.1, because the M.1 is in England.

The hon. Member was kind enough to offer some assistance to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten)—a very unholy alliance in my view, and I would recommend my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury to be very careful before accepting such an offer, for I think it could be very dangerous indeed.

The hon. Member said that we had said that if there were not going to be any tolls there was not going to be any bridge. That arrangement having been made, it has got to be kept, because it was only on that understanding that it was built, and the Government's policy is that tolls are an appropriate method of financing an expensive tunnel or bridge and that great advantages to the traffic which use it are to be gained. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in an Answer on 9th February stated: The Government assistance offered to, and accepted by, the Forth Road Bridge Joint Board in 1956 was based on this policy and the Forth Road Bridge Order, 1958, which the Board promoted to give effect to the agreed financial arrangements requires them to levy tolls to repay the loans which I am advancing."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th February, 1962; Vol. 653, c. 96.] I do not really think we can go back over the years and over the deal. That was the deal which was done, and all hon. and right hon. Members from the other side of the Border always keep to their deals and the letter and the spirit of an agreement which we on this side gratefully accept.

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) gave us some historic reminiscences about Mr. Morrison and how Mr. Morrison had said that it was impossible to build a bridge because we had not got the money and we could not get the money by tolls. That points to the faulty political judgment shown at that time, because we have both built the bridge and have the tolls. He also mentioned the Connel Ferry Bridge where a shepherd had to pay 6d. for himself and ½d. each for his sheep. He will be glad to know that the toll on the bridge has now gone down from 6d. to 2d., which shows that Conservative freedom works even north of the Border.

I am sure that the House feels indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury for bringing this subject before us. He gave us an historical account of some of our old kings in the 18th century in a delightful and agreeable manner. The Earl of Abingdon and his predecessors did well for those who followed them in securing something which was tax-free. The only time that I have felt myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Fife, West was when he expressed envy of someone who had something tax-free. I too should like to have something tax-free, but my ancestors were not so wise or clever—I will not use any other adjective—as were the Earl of Abingdon and his predecessors.

In England and Wales there are three toll bridges on trunk roads and one toll road. There is one toll bridge on a trunk road in Scotland. There are 17—including Tamar on a potential class I route—toll bridges on classified roads and one classified toll road in England and Wales. There are also a number of toll bridges and roads on unclassified roads.

The history of the ownership of these tolls is extraordinary. It goes back to antiquity and to ancient statutes. Tolls often stem from private Acts conferring rights on the builders of a bridge. They can be owned by local authorities, the British Transport Commission, private companies or individuals. Property or rights in the highway land are sometimes associated with the ownership of toll rights. Highway authorities have power to acquire the ownership under Section 233 of the Highways Act, 1959. The Minister or the local highway authority may compulsorily acquire toll roads but not those owned by railways. The compensation to be paid is subject to determination by the Lands Tribunal. If a local highway authority wishes to continue to levy tolls the Minister has to agree to a period of years for their continuation.

The redemption of tolls is extremely rare in practice, because of the substantial amount of compensation involved. Various figures of tax-free incomes have been mentioned in the debate, but how much compensation would an hon. Member expect if he had a tax-free income of £15,000 a year? What amount would have to be invested in funds to give an income of that kind?

Mr. Woodburn

The point has been already put to the Minister in debate that nearly all the increased income from these tolls has not been created by the people who built the bridges but derives from the fact that we manufacture and run so many vehicles. It is the motorists who have created this value.

Mr. Marples

That is not relevant to the point of compensation, because if anyone has a tax-free income under an ancient statute it becomes difficult to compute the compensation.

In recent years the Syleham—Brock-dish road in Norfolk and East Suffolk has been acquired, but that was a case where the previous owners dedicated the toll without compensation. It may be that some other owners would like to leap in and do the same. If so we would give anxious consideration to any such offer. The Hampshire County Council acquired the Langstone Harbour Bridge which is on a classified road and in that case my Ministry did not give a grant towards the cost of redemption but paid towards the cost of building a new bridge. Consent was given to the County Council recouping itself from toll revenue and the tolls were eventually extinguished in 1960.

We must distinguish between old toll bridges on short stretches of road and new constructions like the Forth Bridge, the Severn Bridge, the Dartford Tunnel and so on. I agree in principle that isolated tolls on existing roads are undesirable because they are contrary to the principle that right of passage on the highway is free. By their existence they may distort the natural pattern of traffic and, if the revenue they yield is insufficient, the section of road to which they apply and for which the toll owner is responsible may be badly maintained. Sometimes the collection of tolls causes delay, but I do not think that that will apply to the Forth Bridge because a new method will be employed there and on the Severn Bridge. In America motorists throw their money down on a device. The weight of money operates the machine and the motorist goes through.

We must differentiate also between trunk roads and classified roads. As to trunk roads, while it is policy of my Ministry to further the redemption of tolls as soon as possible, at the present time funds have to be concentrated on the construction and improvement of the country's main industrial routes. If I had to spend some of the money which the Treasury allocates to me to free a toll bridge I should have that much less for my trunk roads scheme. It is better for me at the moment to continue to have new building rather than free bridges on existing roads.

Mr. Woodburn

While this decision has been made, would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that at the same time tolls should not be just an automatic thing? For example, ambulances go back and forth from Fife to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Is there any reason why there should not be season tickets for people who use the bridge every day?

Mr. Marples

There is already an arrangement, in such cases as the Mersey Tunnel with the local authority and the Post Office. When I was in the Post Office I had an arrangement for postal vans to use the Mersey Tunnel on a season ticket basis, and I have no doubt that that could be applied to the Forth Bridge.

Proposals to relieve any tolls have to be considered, therefore, on their merits in relation to other improvement schemes. It will be appreciated that compared with improvement schemes they show a poor rate of return in terms of traffic flow or safety for the heavy capital investment involved. From the traffic point of view, it is often a better long-term proposition to try to by-pass the bridge, and that is what we propose to do at Selby.

I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Mr. Bryan) speak after being silent for so long as a Whip. He spoke genially and confidently this morning, possibly because the Liberals are not here. The by-pass at Selby is planned but traffic conditions in the area are not bad enough to give it an early place in the programme and the cost would be £2½ million. My hon. Friend asked about the possibility of having part of the Barnsley railway line converted into a road, thus reducing the east-west traffic through Selby. This has been shelved because the cost of conversion would be uneconomic. In any case—and I draw the attention of the. Member for Fife, West to this—the British Transport Commission is considering re-opening the line between Hull and Barnsley. I thought the hon. Member for Fife, West would like to know that the Commission not only close down lines but reopen some as well.

On classified roads the same general policy that I have outlined applies. The highway authority is empowered to acquire the tolls either by agreement or compulsorily, but in practice they seldom do so without the aid of a grant from the Minister. Even on classified roads the acquisition of toll rights is often an expensive business and it would be wrong to spare funds for the redemption of tolls when so much needs to be done, especially in relation to urban congestion. There is considerable pressure on the Ministry to assist highway authorities with the cost of redemption of existing tolls on certain classified roads, particularly in respect of the Eynsham-Swinford Bridge and Whitchurch Bridge. I have stuck rigidly to the line that my funds could be used elsewhere to better purpose. Only when the priority of toll redemption, measured in terms of easing traffic congestion, becomes equal to that of other improvements should money be spent on it. To divert money to the redemption of tolls now would be to distort the programme.

The policy of successive Governments about tolls has been that they should be applied to very large and costly bridges and tunnels which effect a particularly great saving in time and distance. It has been decided that the Dartford Tunnel and the Tamar Bridge are to be tolled. The Severn and Forth Bridges are also to be tolled. These bridges and tunnels represent a considerable investment, but they also create completely new facilities, and that is rather important.

On the classified road projects toll revenue is to be used to service the loan raised to cover at least part of the construction cost. So this policy on new and expensive construction works will be continued and we shall toll them where-ever we can. I said on 19th April, 1961, that tolls would not be charged on motorways forming part of the five major projects or early extensions of them.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

Surely the principles which my right hon. Friend has enunciated could be applied to extensions of the motorway system if not to the present roads, so that they could be brought about at an earlier date than would otherwise be possible?

Mr. Marples

They could. The pledge was given regarding the existing projects. At the same time I said that we should go into new motorway programmes and make up our minds later whether there would be tolls. It would be possible to finance them in that way.

My hon. Friend the Member fox Howden asked a number of questions. First, what volume of traffic was likely to use a toll-free bridge at Selby in 1964. Assuming that the present bridge was replaced by a new toll-free bridge and no by-pass road was built, we estimate that approximately 11,000 vehicles would use it each day. I am quite certain however that the best answer to Selby's problem would be to have a by-pass and that would make a bit of a hole in the profits derived from the present toll bridge.

My hon. Friend asked what would be the total trunk road traffic using a bypass bridge. A bridge on the by-pass might be used by about 8,000 vehicles a day in 1964. He also asked about the origin and destination traffic census on which we were to decide whether to build over the Barnsley—Hull railway line. The answer to that is that as I have said we have decided not to build along this line.

Other bridges mentioned included the Eynsham—Swinford Toll-bridge in Berkshire, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has one in his constituency in Oxfordshire, so that it seems to me better that I should reply in this debate than that he should. I am quite sure that a local toll which is an isolated and ancient nuisance to users on a perfectly ordinary road should be got rid of. But I am not able to say, or to accept the suggestion of my hon. Friend, that the Government should fix a time limit by which they would extinguish all these ancient rights. I cannot accept that. But if on new bridges we have the right to charge tolls, on the old bridges the local authorities and my own Ministry can always redeem them. I am sure that with the passage of time the bridges will become completely useless as we build up new routes, but we cannot afford to pay the redemption cost now.

Mr. Marten

Can my right hon. Friend say why we cannot agree on a fixed time limit?

Mr. Marples

Because it would mean that I had fixed a date by which a certain amount of Government money would be spent and it would be a very large amount of Government money. That I am not repared to pledge. It is purely a question of pounds, shillings and pence—mostly pounds. I cannot, therefore, accept that suggestion. At the same time it is a question of priority.

While we accept the terms of the Motion, I must emphasise that the Government reserve the right to toll anything which they consider advisable in the circumstances either now or in the future, and the acceptance of the Motion carries no implication to the contrary. The bridges which we are now tolling are not owned by private people or by firms or by any member of their Lordships' House—they seemed to get most of the old bridges, somehow or other. These new bridges are owned by public authorities and in many cases, such a that of the Mersey Tunnel which links Wallasey with Liverool, the toll has been reduced recently. It has been quite a success. I am quite certain that the average motorist would rather pay and have the tunnel than not have the tunnel and save his money, because the presence of the tunnel results in the saving of a tremendous amount of time and energy, and the avoidance of a great deal of frustration. Any profits from the tolls do not go into private hands, which will please hon. Members opposite, but into the public coffers and I consider that a good thing.

I agree with my hon. Friend that these ancient rights are an anachronism. The only difficulty is that they are embodied and enshrined in our statutes and it would be difficult to unscramble them. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with my answer. We are all grateful to him for the delightful way in which he moved his Motion.

12.47 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) on his luck in the Ballot and the way in which he moved his Motion. He has rendered a service by reminding the House of some of the most extraordinary traditions which we still put up with. I do not believe that the Minister's answer will in any way satisfy the hon. Gentleman. It certainly did not satisfy me.

I must defend my noble Friend, Lord Morrison, against the Minister. It ill becomes the right hon. Gentleman to criticise Lord Morrison. He was the man who was responsible for Waterloo Bridge, in spite of a great deal of opposition, and that is one bridge at least where no toll is charged. Whatever Lord Morrison did or did not do, Waterloo Bridge will always be a monument to him. So let us dispose of any criticism of my noble Friend. I will refer later to the matter of the Automobile Association and the Royal Automobile Club. I think that the idea that they should do the job of collecting the tolls is remarkable.

The Minister said that he objects to some of these old tolls, but does not see how he can abolish them. He said, in effect, that they provided a tax-free income. Just imagine the position of the Government in the face of a situation of that kind. Here we have our so-called modern Minister of Transport—this alert man, who is always telling us how good he is and who is building motor ways all the time—who is unable to deal with the problem created by the existence of tolls which are hundreds of years old because they provide a tax-free income.

How can a modern Tory Government deal with such a matter? I think that it would be simple to dispose of the problem. The right hon. Gentleman could establish a small committee to decide what was the best thing to do and what should be the action of the Government from the point of view of how long these tolls have been in existence and the injustices which they inflict. Then compensation for the tolls could be fixed, and, if the amount of compensation were objected to, there could be compulsory acquisition.

Mr. W. Hamilton

Would not my hon. Friend suggest that the Inland Revenue authorities might assess the amount of tax which ought to have been paid over the last two hundred years and set that against the amount of compensation?

Mr. Mellish

That is an extremely good idea and were it done some toll-owners, such as the Earl of Abingdon, might find that they owed the State quite a few shillings. They might be glad if the Government took away the toll without any question of compensation.

These charges of yesteryear are so stupid as to be hardly worth arguing about. The hon. Gentleman reminded us that the motorist has to pay over £700 million a year in tax and that of this the Ministry of Transport, under the present Minister, spends about £150 million. How can we go on defending a system under which the motorist has to pay more and more? In a recent debate on the Road Traffic Bill the impression went out from this House, unfortunately—inevitably, there have been repercussions; I have received letters, as I think has the Minister—that the new legislation was antimotorist.

I do not accept that. I believe that the danger on the road must be curbed in some way—after all, a motorist, when driving his car, is in control of a lethal weapon—but it is understandable that he should cry, "How much longer and how much more have I to pay for the privilege of owning this vehicle?" The time is coming when we must start to give better value for money. The Minister declares that any new bridges which are built will be tolled. He told the hon. Member for Banbury that, while accepting the Motion, he had to make clear that the Government intended to use the toll system.

I think that the principle is wrong. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) said. All roads ought to be free. If there is any charging of the motorist to be done, it should by the Echequer itself and by direct taxation of licences. If the Minister decides next year to add to his programme by another £100 million and tells us that he will spend that sum in that year on the roads and that every class of motorist has to make a contribution through his licence, I have no doubt that the vast majority will say that it is value for money.

Why should they be called upon to pay the A.A. and the R.A.C. to collect money to subsidise people who now own many of these tolls? I think that that would be monstrous. I have been to Scotland only once in my life and I should like to go again. The last time I went there I was in the Army, and I had to go. I am a Londoner, and Londoners do not travel too far—Scotland seems a very long way to them. I do not see why, in my contribution to the A.A. or R.A.C., I should have to help pay for those who want to go to Scotland and cross bridges which have tolls.

I want to see the motorist have better road facilities. I declare quite emphatically that no one can foretell the future of a Government with any certainty in these days. I say to the Minister that if I ever get the chance I shall oppose the whole principle of tolls wherever they may be found. I think that it is wrong. If I were the Minister, I would appoint a Select Committee now, with terms of reference to decide how quickly we should abolish the sort of tolls that the hon. Member for Banbury is worried about, and so give him the encouragement which I think his Motion deserves.

12.52 p.m.

Mr. Clive Bossom (Leominster)

I welcome the Motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). I feel that it is a matter of getting our priorities right. What is most important is to buy up or liberate the old toll bridges, or to continue to construct desperately needed motorways, expressways and flyovers that are going up today.

At this stage, I would certainly prefer the Government to continue building motorways, which are doing so much to help the flow of traffic. As it is, we are building only about 60 miles a motorway a year, and it is reckoned that 1,700 miles of new road are needed. At the same time, I feel that my right hon. Friend's policy should be to prepare, and even publish, a priority list of all toll bridges. This should be made available gradually. I hope that he will liberate the toll bridges as the money comes in.

I also agree with my right hon. Friend on the point that he made that he was not against charging a toll for very costly new bridges or tunnels, especially if there is a reasonable alternative route. I think that when they are paid for, which, of course, they will be over the years, the tolls should be removed.

Mr. Mellish

One knows from experience that that never happens. Once a toll has been obtained and it is profitable it is never removed. This is wishful thinking.

Mr. Bossom

They have done this in America. Many of the private tolls there have after several years paid for themselves. The new idea is gradually to return them back to the authorities. That is what they are trying to do now. One lesson that we learn from America is that where there are toll bridges they double or treble the lanes of traffic to speed up the collection of the tolls. On going into New York there are ten lanes and there is little or no interruption of the traffic flowing in.

If private firms or commercial firms feel that this saving of time and petrol is worth paying for, I think that they should be given the opportunity, if they want, of paying for new tolls. Therefore, I am not against the idea of having tolls. It is quite clear that the public are willing to pay for parking meters which, a few years ago, it was said that no one would be willing to do.

Another point is that I understand that the Road Research Laboratory has done considerable work lately in examining the set-up of toll bridges and toll roads. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will give the House its findings, because, so far, I cannot discover anything that has been said about this research. Is it because of the economic side, or is it because they find that the tolls slow traffic or divert traffic? It would be useful for the House to have a full report of the findings of the Road Research Laboratory.

Some owners of old toll bridges will not relish the idea of parting with these "gold mines". Others, I think, may have second thoughts, because of the ever-increasing cost of upkeep and the major structural alterations that will be needed as more and more vehicles come on to the roads. This category may be willing to give up their tolls for quite small amounts of compensation. I therefore feel that it is time that they should be officially approached to see what the exact position is.

There is an old toll bridge at Whitney, in Herefordshire. The bridge is very narrow, not in first-class condition and has a low weight limit. I think that it would cost the Herefordshire County Council too much to purchase. As it is in my constituency I have gone into this carefully and I feel that it is an ideal example of one of the toll bridges which should be liberated in time.

12.59 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

It is always a great disadvantage to speak after the Minister. He kindly said that he was doing it for the benefit of the House. I think that, judging by the clock, he may have done it more for his own convenience.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

My right hon. Friend made it perfectly clear that he thought that it would be for the convenience of the House if he intervened at that stage to give the Government's point of view. I am here and I shall take careful note of anything that my hon. Friend says. My right hon. Friend has another engagement and that was made known to hon. Members opposite and to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will not pursue that stricture on my right hon. Friend.

Dr. Glyn

The same thing has happened before on Fridays.

I was going on to say that I was grateful to my right hon. Friend for leaving my hon. Friend here for the rest of the debate. It has happened on many Fridays that the Government have intervened in the middle of the debate when there have been Members on both sides who wished to discuss matters and there has not been a Minister from the Department concerned on the Government Front Bench to answer their questions.

However, I am not one who has good or bad fortune in this matter, because there are no tolls in Clapham. I wish to make one or two points which have not been made in this debate. Under Section 3 of the 1930 Act and also under the 1959 Act the Government have certain powers to take over toll gates and roads. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary could tell me if this applies to tolls which are held under Royal charter. I should have thought that they would be outside the scope of those Acts and that an independent Act would be required either to abolish or to purchase the type of toll which emanated from a Royal charter.

I quite agree with my right hon. Friend that this matter is a question of priorities. In 1947, the then Minister of Transport urged local authorities to purchase tolls, but in 1950 and 1955 ministerial emphasis was put rather on the improvement of roads than on investing large sums for purchasing these rather out-of-date assets. One of the things we have to look at in considering priority is not so much the cost of the toll, but the inconvenience caused to the public.

I was interested in what my right hon. Friend said about the possibility of by-passing some toll bridges. That, surely, is the easiest way of overcoming the problem in many cases. When the bridges are not up to modern standards it would be better not to purchase these assets, but rather to build by-passes. That brings me to a point on which I should also like to have the guidance of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. If it is desired to by-pass a bridge in relation to which there is a charter saying that one may not build within two miles of it, what happens if the Ministry or a local authority does build such a by-pass? Would they then be liable to an injunction from the company concerned? This is an important point, because I am sure that the answer to the problem is to by-pass such bridges and not to purchase the assets.

I was particularly interested in what the Minister said about compensation. I should have thought it almost impossible to assess the amount which should be paid in many cases. One has either to expropriate or to compensate. If one expropriates, that is one matter, but if one compensates the difficulties are immense. With taxation as it is, what sum of money could today possibly compensate for a tax-free income of £70,000 a year? Even with the present rate of interest, with which I know hon. Members opposite disagree, at 6 per cent. there would be a taxable yield of £60,000 a year. So the amount would not be £1 million, but a sum very much greater than that.

The owners of these bridges must have realised that in time these assets could become valueless. The Ministry should approach them and say, "You have an asset which, at present, is extremely valuable, but it may well be that in ten years the asset could be rendered entirely valueless if we build a bridge within a mile or two of your bridge." A little bargaining like that might bring down the price to something of a reality.

Mr. Mellish

As we have heard from the hon. Member for Banbury, there are only 30 of these bridges. We are not dealing with a large number and they are not all in the same category. Probably we would find there was a problem in 10 or 15 cases. I agree with the principle of negotiation, but if it were said that the Minister was thinking of abolishing the system the negotiations would go smoother.

Dr. Glyn

I am grateful to the hon. Member. I would go further. I would not say that we were going to abolish the tolls, but that we had means of constructing alternative routes—which, of course, would be free to the motoring public—and which would thereby decrease the assets. I am grateful to the hon. Member because he has enlarged on my idea that one should go to the owners of these tolls with a bargaining counter. One could say that the Minister was thinking of abolishing the tolls. Although hon. Members opposite do not quite agree on the question of compensation, possibly this calls for some form of, I will not say blackmail, but pressure to make the owners realise that their assets could be completely reduced to nothing if the Ministry or the local authority were to produce other means for transport within prescribed distances.

Mr. Mellish

Will the hon. Member allow me to get this on the record? My party has always agreed that where the State takes over it shall compensate.

Dr. Glyn

The hon. Member earlier referred to the question of price. Let us face it, it is a price. If one had an asset which is tax-free it is very valuable. I wish that my ancestors had thought of it. There has been a lot of jealousy on both sides of the House of owners of these lucrative tolls, but if we were to go to them with a straight deal we would have to pay a very large sum in compensation. I was suggesting a way of reducing the sum in the public interest.

The question whether the £700 million or the £150 million is used on the roads is not so relevant. What is important is that the public have to decide for themselves the priority. I see no reason why if one wishes to travel from X to Y and there is a perfectly good road provided one should not be asked to pay for that road. It could be paid for over a period of ten years. If a firm undertaking were given that ten or fifteen years would be allowed during which the work on the road could be paid for, the problem could be met. In America, this system has proved extremely practical. It has benefited road users and everyone concerned. The same happens in Germany and elsewhere on the Continent.

If the motorist wishes to use an old inferior road he is welcome to do so, but if he wants to use a modern, fast road he has to pay a reasonable sum for so doing. That sum is not excessive, because it must be compared with the wear and tear on one's car and one's time and patience.

Many motorists think it well worth while to pay extra for such a benefit. A great deal has been done by my right hon. Friend and I welcome the idea of the purchase of road improvements if this would bring a better system of transport to the country.

I agree with the hon. Member for Bermondsey that once the bridge construction work has been carried out it would be right in the interests of the community to cease to levy taxes on the road or the bridge. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary would deal with the points I have raised. I hope that he will find himself able to negotiate with bridge authorities. None of us wants to trample on the rights of individuals and owners of historic bridges or tolls. I ask my hon. Friend to look at the matter from the point of view of traffic and not so much as a question of money when considering whether taking away bridge tolls would alleviate the traffic position. Possibly he could negotiate with the owners on the lines I have suggested.

1.8 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I agree very much with my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn). I think that most of us who have taken part in this debate have rather divided feelings about what is proposed, because on the one side there can be no doubt that the development of our road system and the building of bridges in the past has been to quite an appreciable extent dependent on private enterprise. Indeed, I suppose that if one goes back far enough—not far enough to reach the Romans, but a little short of that—one finds that most road-making has been the product of some kind of private enterprise.

I suppose the basic argument which underlies today's Motion and the many speeches which have been made is that this historical motive is now superseded and that we can safely shut ourselves off from that particular source of road and bridge building. I have some doubt about that, as I believe my right hon. Friend has. He doubted whether this was quite a spent force. It is difficult to introduce an absolute prohibition of this kind of development for the future, and equally difficult to justify an immediate and absolute abolition of all the surviving signs of it in the past.

A toll is simply a payment for an advantage or special facility, to use the etymological history of the word. It is difficult to see why a person should not be at liberty to provide over his own land or at his own expense a more commodious or convenient way for the public than that which has been provided by the public authorities, and why those who wish to pay some extra fee for the extra advantage should be debarred by a policy of Parliament from doing so. But no one would doubt that, in general, highways and bridges should be made by public authorities and that it is the general duty of the Government to ensure that there is an adequate system throughout the country.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, who is, no doubt, waiting to go to lunch, must have listened to many debates in this House—as has the Minister himself—in which they have been urged from both sides to increase the national provision of highways, and we are embarked on a considerable programme now. I do not think that in this debate on a Friday anyone is questioning for a moment that the Government and the local public authorities have the general responsibility of providing an adequate network of highways and bridges throughout the country. But that still leaves the question of principle as to whether we should prevent for the future, and abolish in respect of the past, these extra provisions which have been made by private persons.

Public policy in England has been rather on the side of those who have supported this Motion most absolutely today. Oddly enough, the position in English law is that nobody has the right to make a private road open to the public at a charge. It is very doubtful whether one can, in England, dedicate a road to the public subject to a toll. The same applies to bridges. Because of that, virtually all these toll bridges owe their existence to Private Acts. There were in earlier times an enormous number of such Acts. One of the chores of this House was the annual Turnpike Renewals Act, just as we now have the Expiring Laws Continuance Act today.

There is no doubt that progressively through the years, the old turnpikes and toll bridges have been steadily reduced in number, until only thirty are left. Thus, I do not think that anyone would dispute that general public policy in England has been, from the earliest times, against the existence of any considerable number of private roads open to the public. Therefore, this tendency is something that we start with in this debate.

The question is rather the narrow one of whether one should take now a sort of guillotine action to knock off in a single operation the thirty which survive. I am sure that we are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for the Motion. Toll bridges are not the sort of subject which the Opposition chooses for a Supply Day. I think that the Opposition leaders get into trouble from the section of the party which sits below the Gangway if they decide to discuss anything so practical as toll bridges. I do not want to make partisan animadversions, but I see that such is the interest in toll bridges that there are no right hon. or hon. Gentlemen present on the benches opposite, with the exception of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who is waiting to move the next Motion. But for the private enterprise of my hon. Friend we should not be discussing this subject at all.

While we are grateful to him for that, I must enter slight reservations about the Motion. On the whole, this is a process which is proceeding pretty fast. Of course, my hon. Friend's answer to that has been that if we look at the thirty bridges which survive we find that they are not the thirty last to have been constructed. Some of them are pretty old specimens which have shown a great staying power in the race. It may be right, therefore, that this list should be scrutinised very carefully and that we should give our consideration to getting rid of at least some of them.

In particular, a toll bridge on a trunk road is an absolute anachronism. How these three toll bridges on trunk roads have survived I find it difficult to understand. I am sure that it must have been by nothing more than inadvertence, in view of the energetic team which we now have at the Ministry of Transport. The end of these tolls must come, I feel sure. But when we come to some of the details, such as the question of compensation, I find myself again slightly at variance with some of my hon. Friends and some hon. Gentlemen opposite. Obviously, compensation must not be exaggerated, but why should it not be just right? I say that because my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said that it should be modified—that the arbitrator should be instructed to take into account the wider public interest.

This is a nice elastic phrase, and one infers that the arbitrator would be instructed to scale down the figure he thought was right. I think that that is the unavoidable implication. If one were, under compulsory purchase, to instruct the arbitrator or the tribunal to take into account something called the "wider public interest", that would be flying in the face of the trend of the times—which I believe to be a good trend—which is to give the full market compensation on compulsory purchase.

It is only a couple of years since we passed an Act specially to deal with that point. Therefore, I think that the full market value should be paid if there is to be compulsory expropriation of these bridges. My hon. Friend the Member for Clapham is right in saying that, in assessing the full market value, one must take account of a number of factors, including the historical fact that these toll bridges have not always been as profitable as now, when traffic is so much denser than it used to be.

The fact that the person who operates the toll bridge is not entitled to a permanent monopoly in road transport in the area must toe taken into account. However, care must toe taken. It would be cheating to argue that the compensation should be greatly diminished because the local authority could draught out a new line of roadway with a new bridge just beside the existing one and proceed by compulsory purchase powers to take the land and build the road and bridge with a grant from the Ministry. To argue from this that the right possessed by the present owner of the toll bridge is a highly precarious one would be in effect cheating and depriving someone of proper compensation for the enterprise which either he or his ancestors showed.

Dr. Alan Glyn

The answer to this is that it could happen in a commercial undertaking. When the value of anything is being assessed, the possibility of another factory starting up next door also has to be assessed. All these factors must fairly be taken into consideration. It is not that the local authority will say, "We will build here if you do not reduce your price". AH these factors must be taken into consideration when assessing the final price.

Mr. Bell

I quite agree. All these references to the motives of our ancestors would toe more appropriate on the Motion of the hon. Member for Dagenham, who is going to speak about the motives of ancestors presently. The hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr Fletcher), who has just entered the Chamber, need not be confused. We are still discussing toll bridges.

There is the commercial risk that somebody will come and put a new bridge beside the toll bridge already existing, but this is not a substantial risk. There is a difference in kind rather than in degree when it is argued that a public authority with compulsory purchase powers might come and do that, not because it would be commercially competitive, but simply to exercise pressure upon the owner of the toll bridge by virtue of the authority's compulsory purchase powers so as to make the toll bridge worthless. It would be unfair to take that possibility into account when assessing the compulsory purchase price.

Care should be taken when arguing that, if a toll bridge goes on, the local authority in its ordinary public duty to the inhabitants of the area, with the growth in motor traffic and the proliferation of the road system which follows, may well decide that it ought to put a public unrestricted road near to the toll bridge and, to that extent, compensation would be diminished. This is a tempting argument, but once considerations of the wider public interest are introduced into the assessment of compensation we shall be back to the old days before the 1959 Act.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said that in any intervening period, or if some of these bridges were to go on, at least there should be provision for the publication of accounts. I had to leave the Chamber while my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport was speaking. I do not know whether he mentioned this question. I am under the impression that there is an obligation to render accounts under most of the Private Acts. Throughout the nineteenth century under the annual Turnpike Acts, there was a permanent statutory obligation to publish an account of the receipts and expenses of the roads to show what proportion the revenue bore to the expenses.

The continuance of the Turnpike Acts year by year was often made conditional upon the expenditure of a fixed proportion of the revenue upon maintenance. The proportion was prescribed in the Schedule to the annual Act. I do not know whether that has now gone by the board. I should be rather surprised if it had. I have the feeling that provision for the publication of accounts will be found in most of the Private Acts or in whatever succeeded the annual Turnpike Acts.

It is interesting to bear in mind, especially in view of the speech of the right hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn), that in Scotland turnpikes were virtually abolished by the Roads and Bridges (Scotland) Act, 1878, which came into effect a few years later. There are very few private roads and bridges left in Scotland. Therefore, it is interesting to learn that there is now a proposal by the Ministry of Transport to start them up again. The speech of the right hon. Member for East Stirlingshire was interesting because, after delivering an almost emotional appeal to us to abolish these anachronistic tolls, he said that he had appealed to Mr. Herbert Morrison, when he was Minister of Transport, "For heaven's sake let us have a Forth Bridge and charge tolls for it". That is what one is quite likely to do.

This is a Motion and not a Bill. The object is to leave a general impression of the views of the House in the mind of the Minister. We must not be absolute on this. Some of these old bridges are obviously anachronistic. They are a nuisance. They are a survival from the past which ought to be cleared away. However, many highly developed countries, and many countries which have put tremendous emphasis on the development of their road systems, have during the current phase of their operation placed considerable reliance on the turnpike principle. In face of this trend we should not shut our minds to the use of a method which has been established in this country for hundreds of years. This is not the moment to bring down the chopper and put this system behind us as a medieval relic which has no contemporary relevance.

The Road Fund was eroded very successfully by my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) way back in the 1920s. It is now almost hopeless to argue that road fund taxation should be used for road building, though many people will continue so to argue. It is, however, now a politically hopeless argument. We must steel ourselves to the prospect of paying our transport taxation and also for special reasons paying for a period of years a toll to use a tunnel, stretch of road, or bridge, simply on the principle that if we do not agree to do so in the present economic circumstances of the country and the world we shall not get the bridge, tunnel or stretch of road.

Although it may ultimately be desirable to get rid of this system altogether, let us be empirical about this for the future and for the thirty old ones which still survive. I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us that there will be a more pragmatic approach rather than the theoretical one of arguing that whatever has existed for hundreds of years must prima facie be wrong in the twentieth century. It is always a great pity so to argue. It often leads to loss of efficiency. I am sure that nothing is closer to the heart of the present Minister of Transport than efficiency.

1.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Mr. John Hay)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) for keeping him waiting to move his Motion, but I promise that I shall speak for only a few moments—and that only to answer two questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn).

My hon. Friend asked about the powers in the Highways Act, 1959, relating to the acquisition of tolls by highway authorities, and wanted to know whether the power was extensive enough to cover charters. Section 233 of the Act specifically mentions charters, the opening words of subsection (1) being … Where a person has by virtue of a charter or special Act the right to charge tolls in respect of the use of a highway …". The subsection then goes on to give power to the Minister or to a highway authority to acquire the right either by agreement or by compulsory purchase.

My hon. Friend also asked whether the right of the highway authority or of the Minister to acquire the tolls extended also to the provision one frequently finds in old Acts and charters that, in consideration of the right to charge a toll being granted to the toll owner, a prohibition is placed on the building of any other bridge within a certain distance.

The historical reason for that is that many of these toll bridges succeeded ferries, and where there had been a ferry a franchise was frequently granted to the ferry owner to protect him from undue competition from any other ferry owner in the immediate vicinity. When the ferries were replaced by bridges, the same condition was put in.

Subsection (1) of Section 233 of the Highways Act, 1959, quite clearly states that the Minister or the local authority may acquire the toll either by agreement or by compulsory purchase together with the property in the highway and all his other property, rights and obligations under the charter or special Act … Without being unnecessarily categorical about it, I should have thought that the use of the word "rights" in the subsection would almost certainly mean the right of the toll owner to be protected from undue competition in the sense in which I have just used the phrase. Therefore, I think that the answer to my hon. Friend's second question is also "Yes". If I find that I am wrong, I shall certainly write to him and say so.

Dr. Alan Glyn

I am told that it would mean that if the highway authority wished not to purchase the main assets, but to by-pass the toll bridge or whatever it was, the authority would have to purchase that part of the right relating to the prohibition on building within whatever distance it might be.

Mr. Hay

That would be a little more complicated, because those rights to build would probably come under another Section of the Highways Act, and there might be a conflict between those other rights in Sections under which they would seek to build what was, in effect, a new road and the rights of the owners of the ferry or toll under the old statutes. I cannot go into that without proper investigation, but Section 233 seems to indicate that the answer to both of my hon. Friend's questions is "Yes".

Mr. Bossom

Can my hon. Friend say what were the findings of the Road Research Laboratory on toll bridges and toll roads?

Mr. Hay

I am sorry, but I cannot. I heard my hon. Friend mention that matter, but I personally have not heard about it. I will make inquiries, and if there is anything that can be told to my hon. Friend, I will write to him, also.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House, while recognising that there may be new circumstances in which it is sometimes desirable to charge tolls on some bridges, urges the Government and the highway authorities to take the earliest practicable steps to extinguish those tolls which have existed for many years on certain bridges and which now have no valid purpose.