Transport Infrastructure: Warrington

– in the House of Commons at 7:08 pm on 18 July 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mike Wood.)

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South 7:11, 18 July 2023

I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss Warrington’s transport infrastructure. One of my main motivations for doing so is that, during the 15 years I have lived in Warrington, the traffic jams have got worse, principally on the vital routes crossing the Manchester ship canal, which runs through the heart of my constituency.

A few weeks back, during business questions, I raised with the Leader of the House the difficulties that my constituents have been experiencing when trying to cross the canal, owing to the age and upkeep of the swing bridges that carry the traffic. There are three main swing bridges in Warrington—one on the A56, one on the A49 and one on the A50—all of which have been in operation for almost 130 years since the Manchester ship canal opened back in 1894.

The Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885 was passed when Queen Victoria was on the throne, and it did not anticipate the number of vehicles crossing on these routes. The volume of traffic that the bridges carry today makes them critical routes for residents and commuters travelling through Warrington. However, their age makes them susceptible to ever more frequent breakdowns and faults. They are sometimes left stuck open for hours at a time during periods of exceptionally hot or cold weather, when the metal expands or contracts.

During peak hours, the standard opening of a bridge to allow a boat to pass along the canal can result in huge congestion, which takes up to 90 minutes to return to normal. And it is not just one bridge opening—all three bridges open as a boat passes from Liverpool to Manchester. Naturally, this is only made worse when the bridges do not function as they should.

The deteriorating condition of the bridges means that they require essential and thorough maintenance. The sticking point—pardon the pun—is not who is responsible for the repair work, which is accepted to be Peel Ports, the owner of the Manchester ship canal, but who pays for the wider mitigation when the bridges are closed.

Peel Ports estimates that the repair works for each bridge will cost around £6 million and take up to nine months to complete, during which the bridge undergoing maintenance will be closed to traffic and left permanently swung open. This will result in a 2 mile diversion to use one of the adjacent bridges when each bridge is undergoing maintenance. As such, the council has sought appropriate mitigation costs from Peel, particularly to cover the costs of providing home-to-school transport, as the hundreds of pupils who currently walk or cycle to nearby schools would become eligible for free transport to be provided.

The difficultly has arisen from Peel’s refusal to acknowledge any responsibility to provide that bus service or school transport costs, which encompass the majority of the mitigation sought by the council. That has left the situation at an impasse, with the scheduled maintenance works to the A49 London Road bridge, due to have commenced in April, having now been put on hold, with no date agreed for the work to take place.

Unfortunately, the swing bridges are not the only vital transport routes where Peel is involved in Warrington. The Warburton toll bridge over the Manchester ship canal, which crosses the Warrington and Trafford council boundaries, is also in need of upgrade works. To fund that, Peel has proposed raising the toll from 12p per crossing, a price set in 1980, to £1 for every journey. For someone travelling to work each day, as many people do over the bridge, that would mean having to pay about £500 extra per year simply to get to and from work. It is simply not acceptable that the burden should be placed on the motorists for whom this route is an essential part of their daily lives, and I made that point last November at the public inquiry on the plans.

Several of my constituents have also got in touch to raise their concerns about the introduction of a proposed auto-pay system at the Warburton bridge, because of their experiences of having been caught at similar crossings such as the Mersey Gateway bridge between Runcorn and Widnes. In the first quarter of this year, 3.5 million crossings over the Mersey Gateway bridge were recorded. In that period, 149,000 penalties were issued, meaning that there was one fine for every 24 crossings made. That is an incredibly high rate and I do not want to see a similar situation develop at the Warburton toll bridge.

The overarching point I hope the Minister has gathered from that is that my constituents, who depend on these vital canal crossings for work, school and general travel are currently left at the mercy of a private company that just does not appear to grasp the reality of the situation. Owning a major waterway such as the Manchester ship canal brings great responsibility to the people who live and work on either side. Peel should therefore be doing everything possible to minimise disruption to the daily lives of my constituents, yet there has been a failure to acknowledge the enormous impact that the closure of the swing bridges will have on the Warrington South community in particular, coupled with an unacceptable and, for many, unaffordable toll increase on vital crossings in and out of Warrington. These issues have called into question the validity of these vital canal crossings being owned and operated by a private company, and it is time that we looked at whether that should be changed.

Another issue I would like to raise with the Minister concerns the proposed Warrington western link bypass to connect the A56 Chester Road with the A57 Sankey Way in Great Sankey. That scheme has been put forward as a means to significantly reduce congestion in the town centre by providing an alternative route to crossing the Manchester ship canal, meaning that cars would not have to use the swing bridges or go to the Bridgefoot gyratory.

In April 2019, the Department for Transport confirmed that the scheme had been successful in securing programme entry into the large local major scheme programme, and Warrington Borough Council subsequently approved the proposal costs at £212 million, of which £142 million would be funded by the Government, with the borough council providing the remaining £70 million. Since then, the projected cost of the scheme has ballooned into the region of £269 million, leaving a shortfall of some £56 million, on today’s figures. That has left the proposal for the western link in serious jeopardy. My greatest fear is the knock-on effect that this uncertainty has for the infrastructure in the council’s proposals in its local plan to build thousands of new homes and logistics warehouses on green belt in south Warrington. As of now, no one can say for certain whether the western link will become a reality. That is deeply concerning when we are talking about proposals that will see many more cars on the road, increased congestion and worsening air quality if sufficient road infrastructure is not there to support that.

Despite those issues, one area where I can speak positively is Warrington’s bus network. Thanks to various pots of funding from this Government, Warrington Brough Council has finally been able to benefit from a significant increase in bus funding. The largest sum—£21.5 million—comes from the Department for Transport. That will enable Warrington’s Own Buses, a municipal bus company, to replace its entire fleet with over 100 new zero emission electric buses.

The Minister will recall that, a couple of month ago, in this Chamber, I asked him to join me in calling on Warrington Borough Council to get on with ordering our new buses. I am pleased to update the Minister as, finally, 20 months since receiving the zero emission bus regional area funding, an order has been placed. The funding has finally been put to use and a new bus fleet will be rolling out from 2024. Disappointingly, it is not necessarily being made in this country, but at least we are going to see new buses on the streets of Warrington. People reading the council’s press release would be forgiven for believing that the entire project has been funded by Warrington Borough Council.

The buses needed a home and I was incredibly grateful that the Minister joined me in Warrington, back in February, to see the progress on the new bus depot that was being built on Dallam Lane. Again, I am pleased to update him that that has been completed. The project received £5 million from the town deal, but no mention of that was made by Warrington Borough Council in its press release.

On top of the new fleet and depot, the Government have been able to make improvements to routes and services across Warrington, thanks to the £16.2 million we have received from the Department for Transport’s bus back better fund. Because of that, the council has been able to proceed with its bus service improvement plan, capping fares at £2 for adults and £1 for young people aged five to 18 until 2025. Again, people would be forgiven for thinking that was all down to funding provided by Warrington’s Labour council, when, in reality, the funding commitments have come from this Conservative Government.

As I say, the Government have put approximately £42 million into Warrington’s bus network, which I can safely say is one of the largest investments of its kind in the north of England. It is a great example of what can be achieved when local and national Government work together to deliver for people in the north. However, coming full circle, the fundamental weakness in all these initiatives in Warrington is the failure to invest in the road infrastructure to carry the buses.

In conclusion, I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions on points I have raised in the debate. On the issues surrounding the operation and maintenance of the Manchester ship canal swing bridge crossings, will the Government give any consideration to reviewing the original legislation, the Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885, which seems to be fundamentally out of date? Is it not time that cars were given priority and there was a focus on ensuring that the bridges stay open at peak times?

Will the Minister and his Department take steps to ensure that private owners such as Peel are playing their part to minimise disruption and operate the crossings for the benefit of the people who depend on them? Does the Minister know if there are any support packages available to help with the costs of mitigations when major infrastructure work takes place, such as the swing bridge replacements currently proposed?

With regard to the western link, I know his Department has received correspondence recently from Warrington Borough Council requesting that the Government increase their funding contribution to help make up the shortfall caused by the increased cost of the scheme. Will the Minister outline the position of his Department on the funding shortfall? Will he reaffirm that the Department for Transport will be committed to the funding originally approved towards the cost of the scheme when it goes ahead? Does he agree that, while the scheme remains in limbo, it is frankly inappropriate for the borough council to be proposing large housing and logistic developments on green belt, if it cannot commit to funding the infrastructure there to support those projects? Finally, will he reassure me that he will look carefully at any recommendations from the independent inspector to increase crossing tolls for the Warburton bridge? Local residents are already impacted by high inflationary pressure on the cost of living; they do not need a further £500 of tolls simply to cross the Manchester ship canal.

Warrington was designated a new town in 1968. Since then, the population has more than doubled, yet our transport infrastructure simply has not kept pace with the increased demand. An additional high-level crossing, which was planned near to the existing cantilever bridge, has never materialised between Stockton Heath and Grappenhall, despite land being reserved for it. Because of that, a private company is attempting to play catch-up with essential repair work to vital crossings at the expense of residents and commuters who depend on them, and the local authority is pressing ahead with a half-baked local plan that could only severely worsen transport issues in Warrington.

The Government have done a great deal for Warrington residents in the past few years, and I am particularly grateful to the Department for Transport and the Minister for the investment that has been made in Warrington buses. I thank him again for coming to the Dispatch Box to respond to one of my Adjournment debates and I look forward to hearing him address some of the concerns that I have raised today.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 7:25, 18 July 2023

It is always a delight to respond to my hon. Friend Andy Carter. He is a persistent campaigner on behalf of the people of Warrington South and the broader local community. I congratulate him on again securing an Adjournment debate and on speaking so passionately about the issues that affect his constituents in Warrington. Without doubt, he is an absolute local champion for the area. It is great to hear him acknowledge the championing of his community by my Department and the huge amounts of investment that we have made. I might even put him in touch with my communications team at the Department for Transport to see whether he can give us some pointers on how we can ensure that this Conservative Government get the credit for the tens of millions of pounds of investment that have been ploughed into his area.

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to discuss transport in Warrington today. This Government understand the importance of transport to people and businesses, as it powers local economies across our country. Our levelling up White Paper, published last year, set out our plan to transform the UK by spreading opportunity and prosperity across the country, and bringing left-behind communities up to the level of more prosperous places. Transport is vital to achieve that end. It improves access to jobs and services, changes business location decisions, and helps to restore pride across our country. That is why we are investing in both local transport and major infrastructure projects to improve connections across our country.

I will touch on some of the investment in Warrington that my hon. Friend mentioned. This is one of the largest investments in any town by this Conservative Government. We have committed more than £16 million in the bus service improvement plan to supercharge the local bus network; £21.4 million in zero emission bus regional area funding to transition local operator Warrington’s Own Buses entire bus fleet to zero emission—I was delighted to visit the area in February to highlight some of that investment; and £10 million to develop the full business case for the Warrington western link road scheme—overall, we have made a conditional commitment of up to £142.5 million to deliver that scheme, subject to final approval. There has also been an allocation this financial year of £5.5 million to help Warrington support highways maintenance, pothole repairs and local transport measures; an additional £709,000 was announced this year at the spring Budget for pothole repairs.

Warrington has benefited more broadly from many different transport schemes, including the big plans that we have to transform rail across the north. In November 2021, we committed in our integrated rail plan to a £96 billion programme that will transform rail services across the north and the midlands. It is the single biggest rail investment ever made by a UK Government. This includes a Northern Powerhouse Rail network running from Liverpool to York and Newcastle, via Warrington; a commitment to a new high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire; reinstatement of the Warrington Bank Quay station as a low-level station; and upgrading and electrifying existing lines between Warrington and Liverpool. Warrington Bank Quay station, in my hon Friend’s constituency, will also get direct benefits from the HS2-NPR connection there, including better regional services and better services into London. In addition, development opportunities in Warrington, including sites close to Warrington Bank Quay station, will be an attractive draw for local investment when combined with the connectivity improvements that we are planning. That builds on an over £1 billion investment, completed in 2019, that upgraded and electrified many railway lines across the north-west.

Let me turn to some of my hon. Friend’s specific points, particularly in relation to the Manchester ship canal and, importantly, the three swing bridges that serve the town centre. Warrington is a nexus of road, rail and waterways—historic waterways and crossings that echo the glorious industrial heritage of the region, which we both hail from. By its nature, it is an intricate network, and I understand just how disruptive it can be to communities when key arteries are out of action. The three bridges in question, owned and operated by Peel Ports, have served the town for over 130 years and, as my hon. Friend stated, are clearly in need of complete refurbishment. Recognising the dual purpose that the bridges serve—access for the local community and access along the Manchester ship canal for shipping—there will inevitably and regrettably be disruption that needs to be planned for and managed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his efforts to date.

On the matter of managing the impact of that disruption to the local highway network, it is for the local highway authority, Warrington Borough Council, to assess the needs of the local community, including residents, visitors and businesses, and to weigh up the options. I recognise that the bridges are outwith the local authority’s direct control. It is therefore vital that the local authority and Peel Ports work together as closely as possible to manage any disruption caused by the works. I understand that discussions between the local authority and Peel are ongoing, and I hope that a reasonable solution can be found so that the whole local community can benefit. I hope that they hear my hon. Friend’s plea today. I know that he will continue to campaign hard for something that both Peel and his local authority can come together on.

In order to help local authorities to plan effectively for managing their roads and to improve asset management, the Government have moved to a three-year funding settlement for local highway maintenance, amounting to approximately £915 million of capital funding per year. That funding covers us all the way through to 2024-25, and is some of the money that I hope the local authority might be able to use locally. Warrington Borough Council is receiving around £5.5 million of it this year, on top of the £709,000 in the Budget. It will be for Warrington to determine which aspects of its highways maintenance programme it wishes to prioritise. The council may want to look at how it can use some of its money, potentially working with Peel Ports, to look at the issues that my hon. Friend raises.

Turning to the support for local bus services, Warrington is rightly proud of its bus network, and the Government recognise the importance of local bus networks to ensure that communities can stay fully connected. We have provided over £2 billion across the country since the pandemic to help mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus, most recently through the bus recovery grant, which Warrington, along with most local transport authorities, benefited from. In May we announced a long-term approach to support and improve bus services, with an additional £300 million to support services right up until April 2025. That will be made up of two elements: £160 million provided to local transport authorities, including Warrington, through a bus service improvement plan plus mechanism; and £140 million provided to operators through the bus service operators grant plus. Given that Warrington operates its own buses, that BSOG will come directly to it. The flexibility for Warrington around the £16.2 million of BSIP funding that it received has, I think, been welcomed by all.

I must be clear that responsibility for the maintenance and care of bridge and road—particularly in a case such as this, where a road crosses a waterway and has commercial implications, and implications for local businesses and commuters—must fall to local parties to manage. I commend my hon. Friend on his efforts to resolve this locally. I will say a little more on that at the end.

On the Warburton toll bridge crossing, I am very much aware of the issues that he mentioned. The inspector’s report into the proposed Rixton and Warburton toll increase was received by the Department for Transport on 13 July. The report and all the documentation pertaining to the proposals will be assessed, with a decision issued in due course. I assure my hon. Friend, in answer to his question, that the inspector will look very carefully at its implications for local people.

As my hon. Friend knows, Warrington has been progressing the Warrington western link road scheme for potential Government funding as a large local major scheme. This scheme would provide a new 3.2 km link road in west Warrington, including a new high-level bridge over the Manchester ship canal, which people have been campaigning for, as my hon. Friend says, for a very long time. It would also look at other bridges, including over the Mersey, to better connect north and south Warrington and help to reduce the reliance on the swing bridges that were the focus of his speech.

In 2019 the Government made a conditional commitment of up to £142.5 million towards delivery of the scheme, bringing it into the large local majors programme, subject of course to an outline business case. That approval would come after the approval by my Department of a full business case for the scheme.

At the time, as my hon. Friend said, the total scheme costs were estimated at £210 million, with the council contributing £68 million and the Department for Transport £142.5 million. As I have already mentioned, £10 million has already been provided directly by the Department towards the development of that final business case. The council has informed my officials of the challenges that the scheme now faces from cost increases as a result of inflation—I understand that the potential funding gap has now reached about £57 million.

I am of course sympathetic to the challenges that local authorities face. I understand that my officials have asked the council for information from recent business case development for the scheme, to better understand the position and whether the strategic case for the scheme has been strengthened, including perhaps by some of the issues my hon. Friend raised in relation to the swing bridges.

However, I need to be clear that my Department’s policy for any scheme on the MRN/LLM programme—major roads network and large local majors—is that the potential funding contribution is capped at the point of the outline business case. However, we are continually willing to look at that, and I look forward to further conversations between my Department and the council to see whether the business case can be strengthened.

In answer to my hon. Friend’s question about the Manchester ship canal, we are always willing to look at historical issues and legislation. I urge him to write to me about it in detail so that I can give him a properly detailed response. Given that it is a piece of Victorian legislation, it would need to be looked at it in depth, due to the intricacies that it will involve and the many other pieces of legislation that will interact with it across Government.

In closing, I thank my hon. Friend again for securing this debate. I hope that I have reassured him and the House of the Government’s commitment to transport infrastructure in Warrington—not in words, but in the tens of millions of pounds that have already been provided, the more than £140 million that has already been ringfenced for the western link road and the huge investment in the rail network. I look forward to working with him on future plans and developments for Warrington, and I am sure that both Peel Ports and the local authority have heard his voice strongly, calling for them to come together and find a solution for his constituents and for Warrington. I congratulate him, as ever, on speaking up on behalf of Warrington in this House.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.