Transport: Cheshire

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 10:59 am, 5th June 2019

I agree, and London seems to do better than the rest of the country in terms of per-head transport investment, too.

None of the crossings in Northern Ireland is tolled, none in Scotland is tolled and, as we have heard, London is equally blessed. In fact, more than 90% of tidal crossings in this country are toll free. The argument that tolls harm economic growth seems to be accepted everywhere, except on the River Mersey.

As I said, the tolls on the Mersey tunnels have always been with us. They are not popular, but they have always been part of life. However, an unconscionable decision earlier this year by the Liverpool city region metro Mayor has made them far less acceptable. Regular tunnel users can apply for a fast tag, which gives a discount on the normal fees. From 1 April this year, the fee for those who live in the Merseyside area was reduced from £1.20 to £1, but the fee for those outside the Merseyside area was increased by a whopping 50%, from £1.20 to £1.80. That decision was made with little notice, no consultation and complete disregard for the economic impact on those living outside Merseyside.

Although my constituency is in Cheshire, we are very much in the hinterland of Merseyside—the number of Liverpool shirts I saw over the weekend is testament to that. We are less than 10 miles from Liverpool city centre, and our economic, cultural and family connections mean that people travel there daily. When my constituents ask me whether it is right that they have to pay nearly twice as much as someone who lives just down the road from them to go to work or visit their elderly mother, I tell them, “No, it isn’t.” It is discrimination by postcode, and it is not something I believe anyone who wants fairness in this country can support.

To be fair to the metro Mayor, he would like to be able to get rid of tolls altogether. I am happy to work with him and anyone else who wants to join me on that campaign, but that is a longer-term aim. In the short term, he has defended his decision robustly. He rightly points out that the Liverpool city region has experienced the largest Government funding cuts anywhere in the country, and that the people he represents cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of austerity. His conclusion is that he cannot have non-city region residents’ travel being subsidised. I understand what he says, but he is simply wrong about subsidy.

The Mersey tunnels, for which I understand the tolls are the third highest of their type in the whole country, are operated under the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, which permits any operating surplus to be used by the transport authority to achieve public transport policies in its local transport plan. In 2017-18, the surplus from operating the tunnels was £16.7 million, so my constituents, far from asking for a subsidy, clearly subsidise the rest of the Merseytravel operation—indeed, all tunnel users do. Given that level of surplus, the decision to increase the costs for my constituents by 50% cannot be said to be critical to Merseytravel’s operations. There is no room for doubt about that. It feels much more like racketeering.

One might argue that the surplus is used to provide good public transport services across Merseyside and beyond, which of course benefits my constituents, albeit to a lesser degree than Merseyside residents. However, a closer look at rail fares suggests that when my constituents use cross-border Merseyrail services, they are again subject to indefensible price differences. For example, a day return from Eastham Rake on the Merseyrail line—the first stop in Merseyside when travelling from Cheshire—to Liverpool is £1.50 cheaper than a day return from Little Sutton. That is 25% extra for just two stops down the line. Although Capenhurst station is not in my constituency, it is used by many of my constituents and it is also just two stops down from Eastham Rake, but a day return to Liverpool from Capenhurst costs more than £3 extra.

It feels like the residents of Cheshire are seen as a soft touch—a cash cow. Sadly, I feel there is a bit of reverse snobbery here, the implication being that people who live in Cheshire are a bit better off, so they can afford to pay more. That just is not the case for the majority of people. My constituency has some pockets of wealth, but it also has some of the most deprived wards in the country. Some of the examples constituents have given me of the hardship they have suffered demonstrate that they are not people with loads of spare cash floating about, waiting to be squeezed until the pips squeak.