Tamar Crossings

– in the House of Commons at 10:00 pm on 7 May 2024.

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

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall 10:03, 7 May 2024

Before I start, I give an apology: so many Members asked to intervene in this debate that I have decided not to take any interventions in the interests of time. I do apologise to Jim Shannon. [Laughter.]

I will start by setting out a brief history. In the 1950s, it became clear that a bridge was needed between Plymouth and south-east Cornwall, as the existing ferries could no longer cope. The councils went to the Government, but the Government of the day could not afford the bridge just after world war two. A decision was taken at council level to fund a bridge at Saltash and incorporate what they called the floating bridge at Torpoint. Those integral parts of the Tamar crossings were set out in an Act of Parliament and given the go-ahead. The crossings have become critical pieces of national infrastructure, with around 4,000 vehicle crossings a day in the early 1960s becoming around 4,000 vehicle crossings an hour today on the bridge alone.

Between 2001 and 2005, I was a member of the Tamar crossings joint committee while serving as a Cornwall county councillor. The minutes are no longer easily accessible, but I remember that a sum of money was set aside for replacing the three crossings at Torpoint, as the 50-year-old chain ferries needed replacing. It is important to note that, as far as I can remember, no loans were taken by the joint committee before that time. Around the same time, it was found that the Tamar bridge could not support the European requirement for goods vehicle weights or the quantity of traffic, and money was needed to strengthen and widen it with the installation of two cantilevers.

To carry out those essential works, it was decided to take out a loan to cover the cost of the replacement ferries from the then Cornwall County Council. I do not have the full figure, but I remember that the loan was around £10 million over 25 years. I launched the second chain ferry, Tamar II, at Ferguson boatyard on the Clyde. What could not be foreseen is that this set a trend, which many will say was unavoidable, where borrowing has been seen as the way to cover maintenance costs, and renewing, replacing or even building new infrastructure.

The language since I sat on the joint committee has also changed, with council officers now claiming the crossings are on a “user pays” basis, rather than using what is set out in the Acts of Parliament which clearly state that they should be “self-funding”. That would indicate that the only way to fund the maintenance costs and new infrastructure is from toll income, which is clearly not the case. That is backed up by the fact that income is already generated from other means, including advertising boards on the ferries and operating the studs in the Saltash tunnel on behalf of National Highways.

Today, should the Secretary of State agree the latest toll revision order, the tolls will have increased by 100% in four years. For many people who use the crossings to access the district general hospital at Derriford in Plymouth, travel to their place of work or visit our main city, they face what can only be described as an additional tax of £15 per week. I accept that a concession is available through the TamarTag, but it comes with an initial charge and a monthly service charge, which does not make it cost-effective for the non-regular users among my constituents, or those of my right hon. Friend Johnny Mercer.

The financial situation has now become quite serious. The two local authorities responsible for the crossings should, according to the Acts, fund any deficit, but they say they have no budget for that. Decisions have been taken over the years in a piecemeal way to increase borrowing, rising from around £10 million for the initial loan to around £41 million and increasing. If this was a business, it would be bankrupt.

Various decisions have been taken that have not paid attention to good financial practice. During the covid period, Government grants paid to both local authorities amounted to £1.6 million in total, which I believe represented about 85% of the reduction in income, yet despite the joint committee agreeing ways to mitigate the risk for toll collectors, two weeks later the Liberal Democrat portfolio holder and joint chair for Cornwall and the Labour portfolio holder and joint chair for Plymouth took the decision to stop charging tolls altogether. Had they not taken that decision, which was not put to the joint committee, the additional 15% shortfall in income could have been received. My constituents, and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View, are clear: this cannot go on. Our constituents are being penalised for living and working on different sides of the Tamar, and it would seem that no one cares.

The Road Haulage Association faces similar excessive charges. Figures it has provided me with, which do not take account of the increase outlined in the latest application, show that an average member based in south-east Cornwall with seven trucks ranging from 18 tonnes to 44 tonnes paid tolls of £4,550 in 2020. That rose to £6,881 in 2022. The 2023 cost, to August 2023, amounted to £5,409. Another haulier with a fleet of 50 trucks in 2020 faced tolls of £32,083, which increased to £58,100 in 2022, and the cost to August 2023 with 75 trucks was £90,730. A final example is that of a national operator with a local distribution centre based in Plymouth, with between 150 and 200 trucks using the crossings, who faced toll costs of £50,000 between December 2020 and July 2021. Those costs rose to £86,000 between August 2022 and July 2023, and that will be reflected in the prices paid for goods by people in Cornwall and Plymouth.

My constituents cannot be expected to continue to fund vanity projects such as multimillion pound offices on top of the council tax that they already pay to the two authorities. I notice that other projects are planned such as the refurbishment of the toll collection booths at the Tamar bridge, which are not yet 20 years old, and when an automatic number plate recognition system is already being explored. There is a proposal to upgrade the offices and workshops at the Torpoint ferry. I do not believe that enough attention has been paid to cost savings or to generating income other than tolls, but we need to change that. Income could come from a shop or restaurant incorporated at the offices—an idea that was raised by my friend Councillor Lennox-Boyd. There is land held by the bridge that is not fully utilised. There are also further marketing opportunities at the crossings.

The Minister will know that my right hon. Friend Johnny Mercer and I met with his predecessor, and I have met him about this situation. The Peninsula Transport Group has also submitted a request for some funding towards the annual maintenance costs of the Tamar bridge, which could be awarded from road investment strategy 3. The bridge is an integral part of the A38 trunk road, which was relocated to run through Saltash when the bridge was constructed. Prior to this, the trunk road ran through Torpoint and was joined by the ferry which was described as a “floating bridge”. I believe that the funding that the Peninsula Transport Group has requested should be conditional on no increase in tolls for the next five-year period and be accompanied by the setting up of the promised working group to look at the future funding of the crossings, outside of but including the two local authorities.

It should be noted that there are other ways to cross the Tamar, but they are not local to Plymouth, the largest city on the peninsula. The other main crossing is via the A30 at the Dunheved bridge which is over 20 miles away by road from Saltash. That bridge was built by the Government in around 1978 as part of the Launceston bypass. It is maintained by the Government—indeed, it had to be rebuilt just under 20 years ago due to concrete cancer—and there is no toll at this crossing.

There are also a number of very old bridges, such as the one in my constituency at Gunnislake New Bridge. That crossing is not fit for large, heavy lorries, and has on many occasions suffered damage and been out of action. Indeed, recently the Labour councillor for Gunnislake has highlighted the air quality of the village and suggested that another bridge be built. One could ask if the shadow Chancellor would agree to that.

I also note that in 2012 the Government deferred the debt on the Humber bridge by £150 million, conditional on the tolls being halved. All I am asking is that the Tamar crossings are treated in the same way. The crossings are vital for both Cornwall and Plymouth and complement each other. They are quite rightly linked by Act of Parliament and must never be separated. If an incident occurs on the bridge, the Torpoint ferry service is necessary, and I would ask that any financial contribution is also conditional on the current timetable for the Torpoint ferry being retained at least on current levels of service. Sadly, some local opposition councillors and MPs have made comments in the press about a reduced service for the ferry if no toll revision order is granted, which is unacceptable. It is time to stop this politically motivated scaremongering—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady has made it plain that she is not giving way.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

This important matter for residents of Cornwall and Plymouth should, in my opinion, surmount party politics. I refer Luke Pollard to a report on “Spotlight” this evening saying that a Member of Parliament for a constituency a long way from the bridge and the ferry has suggested that the ferry charge more.

I will now turn to the future of the crossings. The Minister should set up a working group, including representatives of all user groups, MPs, local councillors and local authorities, to consider putting the crossing on the same basis as the Dunheved bridge on the A30, which is one of some 10,000 bridges maintained by National Highways. In the meantime, I ask the Department for a contribution from National Highways towards the maintenance costs of the Tamar bridge.

Finally, I will expand on the modernisation of the toll collection system and updating to ANPR. Queues frequently build up because of tag failure and other matters related to the toll collection system, which results in many people from Plymouth and south-east Cornwall missing appointments and simply not getting to work on time. It also has a knock-on effect on the wider area, with road hauliers telling me that research has found that, for every minute a heavy goods vehicle sits in traffic, it accrues a cost of £1.30. On crossings such as the Tamar, each HGV sitting in traffic for 60 minutes at peak times or during heavy congestion will accrue a cost of £78. An ANPR system would help to alleviate this, and I ask the Minister to consider covering the costs of the tollbooth removal in the next five-year major road network programme.

Some 6,300 people signed the petition sponsored by my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View and me. These people object to the toll increase following so closely the increase in January 2023, which would be a doubling in four years. It is now in the Secretary of State’s gift to refuse, and we ask him to do so. We know that we need to find alternative funding and, as I have outlined this evening, it could be annual funding from the RIS3 programme.

My final ask is for a public inquiry to be held before any decision is made to increase the toll. This has happened in the past for all but one toll revision order, and our constituents must be able to have their say. We received a copy of the letter that the joint Chairs of the Joint Committee sent to the Secretary of State last Friday, which has been copied to all MPs in Plymouth and Cornwall, stating:

“An intervention by your department supporting the crossings may enable the toll to be frozen.”

Our petition was supported by my hon. Friends the Members for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter), for North Cornwall (Scott Mann) and for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Geoffrey Cox and my right hon. Friend George Eustice.

I hope the Minister will look favourably on this request to help freeze the Tamar toll tax for our constituents, and also to immediately pull together a working group, or at least to provide support for us to set one up locally, so that a fairer way of financing these crossings can be found. An intervention by his Department to support the crossings may enable the tolls to be frozen.

Much has been made about levelling up. Doing away with this extra tax on the people of our area would be the single greatest thing that could be done to achieve this. It would create a level playing field for business and stop a regressive tax on residents that is in no way related to how much people can pay. It would also help to allow Plymouth’s freeport status to flourish. I ask the Government to help now, and to look in the longer term at righting what the Government could not afford to do just after world war two.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 10:19, 7 May 2024

It is an honour and a privilege to respond to my esteemed colleague, my hon. Friend Mrs Murray. She has once again made the case for her constituents with her usual assiduity, verve and passion, and I salute her for that. This is not the first time she has raised this matter in the House, and nor, I suspect, will it be the last; and it is not the first time I have received correspondence from her. Indeed, I receive it on a virtually bi-monthly basis, but I salute her for that as well. What she is doing is standing up for her constituents, and this is an issue that dates back quite some time.

I shall have to choose my words slightly carefully, for reasons that my hon. Friend will understand. An application for a toll revision, received on 2 May, will be considered by the Secretary of State in accordance with the Transport Charges &c. (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1954, and that will constitute a quasi-judicial decision that I do not want to prejudice in any way. However, I want to give my hon. Friend as many answers as I can, in as much detail as I can. I am also aware that a petition dated 23 March has been presented by, among others, my right hon. Friend Johnny Mercer, my hon. Friend herself, my hon. Friends the Members for Truro and Falmouth (Cherilyn Mackrory), for South West Devon (Sir Gary Streeter) and for North Cornwall (Scott Mann), and my right hon. Friend George Eustice. It is to their credit that they have made the case, as indeed have thousands of residents of the local area, and it is to their credit that they have been able to come to the House and be heard in an appropriate way.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am so sorry, but not going to give way at this stage.

I am of course conscious of a detailed file of correspondence dating back some considerable time. As the hon. Lady will know, there are a number of bridges and tunnels on local public roads up and down the country that are operated either by the local highway authority or by private companies. Tolls continue to help repay the costs of the construction and continued maintenance of those crossings. I do not want to go into the nuts and bolts of the Tamar Bridge Act 1957, because I think I would fail to speak with the same eloquence as my hon. Friend, who is clearly acquainted with the Act and the consequential secondary provisions, the schedules and all matters pertaining, and has probably read the Committee notes in great detail as well.

The Tamar bridge and Torpoint ferry are tied together under the 1957 Act, which ensures that proceeds from the crossings are ringfenced and expenditure is limited to the operation, maintenance and improvements of the crossings. Crucially, it also limits any unjustified accumulation of reserves. The bridge and the ferry are jointly owned and operated by Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council, but, as my hon. Friend said, they constitute a vital piece of infrastructure, carrying some 18 million vehicles a year. She rightly made the point on behalf of her constituents, but the freight industry benefits massively—today I met representatives of the RHA, who were passionate about making that point.

The money that is needed to operate, maintain and improve the two crossings currently comes from toll charges, with no specific funding from the Government or the owners of the two crossings. However, some money is contributed indirectly. National Highways makes an operational contribution each year, which enables the Tamar bridge and Torpoint ferry joint committee to monitor the Saltash tunnel tidal flow system. As was announced recently, there is funding for the A38 Manadon interchange transport scheme, promoted by the city council, amounting to about £132 million, with an outline business case stage of £156 million. Communications on that will be issued shortly. Welcome announcements have also been made about the A374, A386 and A3064 Plymouth improvements schemes, amounting to £42 million, with a total estimate of £49 million at the OBC stage.

My hon. Friend will also be aware that the Government have, on the back of the increased settlement at the last Budget in 2023, and by reason of the decisions on the second leg of High Speed 2, provided enhanced funding arising from the £8.3 billion that is shared out around the local authorities, but with a £36 million total for 2024-25 for Cornwall, and an increased total in relation to Plymouth, as I understand it.

In relation to the specifics, on 8 February, in response to my hon. Friend’s parliamentary question, and in subsequent correspondence, I have set out the position in relation to river and estuarial crossings. They will usually be funded by tolls, recognising the extra cost of their construction and maintenance, as well as the substantial benefits for users. The Prime Minister then also answered my hon. Friend at Prime Minister’s questions on 20 March, when he was pleased to indicate that the Transport Minister would address the matter shortly, and I was of course delighted to receive that instruction. I will not go into Hansard in detail, but he explained that any application for a toll revision, whereby the responsible authorities can seek a change, would need to be considered by the Secretary of State for Transport, who is my boss.

I can confirm that, since that exchange, a toll revision application in respect of the Tamar crossings was received on 2 May. The next step in the process is that an application for a toll increase will be advertised in the local press with details of the proposal to users of the crossings. There is then a 42-day objection period. If any objections to the proposed revisions—whether from individuals or collective bodies—are not subsequently withdrawn, a public inquiry is held. Where such an inquiry is held, the Secretary of State must have regard to its findings when deciding whether to revise the toll. I cannot address the findings of the Secretary of State, but clearly all representations made on these issues are considered, and clearly my hon. Friend will make many representations—I think that is a given.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will not give way; I will echo the approach of my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall.

It is the responsibility of the Tamar bridge and Torpoint ferry joint committee to work to find efficiencies in the operating costs so that the crossings are run as cost- effectively as possible. I would also like to raise an important initiative that is being taken forward locally: the Tamar bridge and Torpoint ferry joint committee has agreed its new “Tamar 50” approach. I cast no aspersions on whether it is a good or bad approach—it would not be appropriate for me to do so—but it is important that I put on the record that the Government are aware of the approach.

Clearly, the nine-point plan that the committee has set out provides users of the crossings with a more stable and certain future. Ideally, there is a degree of confidence on the way ahead, and people can see visible improvements to the structure. Critical safety works and the operational necessities that apply need to be seen. As I understand it, the plan includes work to look at the feasibility of free-flow tolling. That could be considered when a suitable funding source becomes available. My hon. Friend has addressed that, and I take her points with due seriousness.

As the Prime Minister outlined on 20 March, this is a real opportunity for key stakeholders to make their views about the crossings heard, and I encourage all colleagues and constituents—not just the thousands with strongly held views who have submitted the petition, and not just my hon. Friend with her many letters—to come forward with their views.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

Will the Minister allow me to come forward with my view now?

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I do not think it appropriate in these particular circumstances, bearing in mind the individual restrictions that I have in addressing these points.

My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall has put her points strongly on the record. We take due notice of that. There is a quasi-judicial process that follows, and we hope that will be expedited and take place very soon.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.