Transport: Cheshire

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:16 am on 5th June 2019.

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Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Minister of State (Department for Transport) 11:16 am, 5th June 2019

We have just five minutes left, and I wish to get on to tolling. I acknowledge that tolling to support the estuary crossing, and other crossings, is controversial, and it is clear that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has a major disagreement with the Labour Metro Mayor in his region, who changed the hitherto existing position. He is understandably upset about that, but it is a matter for the Mayor, Steve Rotheram. The hon. Gentleman called the tolls “unconscionable” and “racketeering”, and I have noted his comments.

For the Mersey Gateway we were able to ensure that all eligible residents of Halton Borough Council can use the new bridges for free through the local resident discount scheme. It has been the policy of successive UK Governments—both Labour and Conservative—to place tolls on major estuarial crossings, so that those schemes help to pay for the benefits that people receive in those areas. The Government decided to provide free access for the residents of Halton because of their unusual position, given that the existing bridge connects the two parts of the borough on either side of the River Mersey, and that is the only practicable way of travelling between those areas. We looked at the case for extending free tolling to residents of councils beyond Halton, but decided not to do so because the cost to the Government and local authorities would have been disproportionate and substantial.

Since their construction in the 1930s—I think it was 1934—and again in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Mersey tunnels have always been tolled. This is not new. Those tremendous feats of engineering were developed, funded and delivered by the local authorities in the area. The Queensway tunnel, which links Birkenhead and Wallasey with Liverpool, opened in 1934. It cost £8 million at the time and ranked financially as the biggest single municipal enterprise ever undertaken in this country. The Kingsway tunnel, which links Wallasey and Liverpool, opened in 1971 and saw the first example of a giant mechanical “mole” being used in this country. These have always been locally owned assets. Both tunnels have been financed by tolling since they opened, with the toll revenue used to cover the costs of operating, maintaining and enhancing the tunnels, as well as repaying the debt accrued during their construction. Decisions on toll levels rest with the Merseyside local authorities and are now vested in the Liverpool city region mayoral combined authority. They are not a matter for Ministers of the Crown; they are matter for the Liverpool authorities.

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer may have commented on local tolling in a tweet, or whatever it was, as part of the 2015 general election campaign. [Interruption.] Recognition should be given that my Department worked closely with the combined authority on its review of tunnel tolls, which resulted in a reduction of the fast tag toll for motorists. That was good news, and that is what the Department for Transport did at that time. As hon. Members are probably aware, the process for setting tolls for the Mersey tunnels is set out in the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, which requires the toll charge to be increased annually in line with inflation, and allows—subject to certain conditions—some of the revenue to be used for wider transport objectives in Merseyside. I hope I have assured hon. Members of the Government’s strong commitment to transport in Cheshire.