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Warrington (Atlantic Gateway)

Volume 554: debated on Tuesday 27 November 2012

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

Before I got to my feet, I was informed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who is very strong on these topics, that I have until 7.30 pm for this debate. May I reassure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and the Minister that I should be able to complete it in advance of that?

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the strategic road network around Warrington, but before I do so may I give some context to Warrington’s position over the past 100 years? According to the Centre for Cities, Warrington has been the fastest growing UK city, bar none. We have the sixth-highest earnings in the UK, and a large part of the town’s prosperity is driven by our transport infrastructure. The town sits between the M6, the M62 and the M56. More relevant to this debate is the fact that the town is bisected by two significant waterways: the River Mersey and the Manchester ship canal, which moves between Manchester and Liverpool.

I wish to talk a little about the ship canal, because it has some particular impacts on Warrington. There are four crossings in my constituency, three of which are A roads. Every crossing is a swing bridge, which means that each time a boat goes down the ship canal the bridge has to swing and the traffic is stopped for a period of up to 20 minutes. There have been a number of phases to the interaction between the ship canal and the road network. When the canal was first built, many boats used it and there were few cars around. At that time, the Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885 was passed, giving the owners of the canal the right, in perpetuity, to swing the bridge whenever they needed to do so. That was a sensible move as there were few cars around at the time. In the intervening period to the present day there has been a great growth in the number of cars but a much reduced number of boats. Although the bridge still swings, causing quite a bit of disruption, it does so only once or twice a day. That is broadly manageable, even though there can be a 20-minute delay each time. In future, however, we will have more cars and more boats and the consequences are potentially quite severe for the residents of the south part of Warrington. I want to discuss the causes and ask the Minister to give some undertakings on how we can mitigate the problems.

Over the next decade, two strategic projects will affect the area. One is the Atlantic gateway project and the other is the Mersey gateway bridge. Both are very important for the north-west and I support them, as what brings prosperity to the north-west brings prosperity to Warrington, but I am very concerned that the combined effect of the projects will lead to the unintended consequence of a significant increase of traffic—as I said, to more boats and cars.

First, let me talk about the Mersey gateway bridge. This is a significant civil engineering project and will replace the Runcorn bridge, which was built in 1961 and badly needs to be replaced. As I said, the project is important for the north-west but the new bridge will be a toll bridge and although the toll has not been set, the consequence will be that the traffic will be diverted through my constituency and Warrington as people take a detour. A public inquiry into the bridge three years ago found that the level of traffic diverted through Warrington would be sensitive to the amount of the toll. The range of extra traffic movements per day cited in the public inquiry was between 14,000 and 6,000 if the toll was lower. I shall return to the subject of tolls and what I would like the Minister to help us with.

Let me note in passing that another very significant civil engineering project is going on in the UK at the moment: the Forth road bridge in Edinburgh. One issue that I have a great deal of difficulty explaining to my constituents is why the Forth road bridge has no toll and is funded entirely from taxpayers’ money whereas the Mersey gateway bridge in the north-west of England will have a toll, causing some of the problems I am talking about in Warrington. Perhaps the Minister can address that in his response.

The consequence of the Mersey gateway project will be more cars, but the consequence of the second strategic project over the next decade will be more boats on the canal: it is the Atlantic gateway project, a huge and very welcome private sector investment in the corridor between Manchester and Liverpool. Something in the order of £14 billion will be spent and estimates suggest that in excess of 100,000 jobs will be created over the next two or three decades. In broad terms, the container traffic that goes into Felixstowe and Southampton will, we hope, go to Liverpool and a great deal of it will come down the ship canal, partly to Port Warrington, and much of it to Salford and out on to the rail network. I am describing one part of the overall programme and it is hard not to welcome a shift in freight from road to rail and barge.

The problem for Warrington, however, is that the project will increase by an undetermined amount the traffic on the canal. As I said, the swing bridges currently move once or twice a day but they could move up to five times a day, or possibly more. Each movement causes 20 to 30 minutes of delay to traffic, with a significant impact on the south part of the town. I said that our prosperity was to a large extent built on traffic flows. The village of Stockton Heath is very affluent and has a large number of independent shops, but when the traffic stacks up they have to close their doors because of the fumes and everything that goes with that traffic. I worked in Bangkok for part of my life, and one never knew how long a road journey would be—it could be 5 minutes or 55 minutes—and the south of Warrington now has some of those traffic characteristics.

Prosperity and economic viability are not the only considerations. There are problems for the emergency services—fire engines and ambulances get stuck. Ambulances face a particular problem as the hospital in Warrington is north of the ship canal. There are large population centres south of the canal, and if ambulances cannot get through, public safety issues arise. The two large and important projects have unintended consequences, and I am very keen that they are mitigated.

So far Warrington borough council has developed memorandums of understanding with Peel Holdings on the canal movements, with some sensible measures in that regard, and with Halton borough council in respect of the bridge. However, we are tinkering at the boundaries and trying to mitigate what is unmitigable. I have a number of suggestions, to which I hope the Minister will respond. The problem will be with us over the next decade, it will need managing at various points, and I am keen to get it on to his radar screen this afternoon.

First, with reference to the bridge, I mentioned that my constituents do not understand why it is to be tolled, when the only other bridge in the UK to be part of a significant project—the Forth road bridge—will be free. Can the Minister give assurances on the level of toll that will be implemented by Halton borough council? There should be no ambiguity about the fact that the toll is intended only to pay for the bridge as quickly as possible, given the shortfall of funding provided, and that no moneys will flow to Halton or Warrington borough council for other schemes. As I said, the amount of traffic that will be diverted through Warrington is very sensitive to that toll, and £1 is much better than £2. I hope the Minister can give us that assurance.

Secondly, with reference to boat movements on the canal, we are looking to upgrade the bridge mechanisms and to have better sharing of information about those movements. Will the Minister give his backing to the request that has been made to Peel Holdings to group movements of boats and to move them at night, when there is obviously less traffic? That is a reasonable compromise. There is little justification for boats coming through in an ad hoc way during the day. Thus far there has been no agreement on that. One of the reasons is that, as I mentioned earlier, there is a statutory right in the Manchester Ship Canal Act 1885 for the owner of the ship canal to swing those bridges whenever they wish. If we are not able to get the matter resolved in a way that works for the people of Warrington as well as the wider community in the north-west, will the Minister consider amending the Act, for example to give Warrington borough council, through the planning system or some other mechanism, some input into ship movements and some statutory control of the devastation that could potentially be caused in the south part of the town?

The third aspect that I would like the Minister to consider is the medium-term solution of a road upgrade bypassing the very constricted part of Warrington called the Bridge Foot area and joining the M56 to the western parts of Warrington without going through the Bridge Foot area. To do that, work would first be required to a piece of rail infrastructure called the Arpley Chord. There has been a dialogue between the Department for Transport and Warrington borough council on this. It was proposed as a potential project for the Chancellor’s statement last year but it failed to make the cut. I would like to put it on the record that we are lobbying hard for that. Any input or guidance the Minister can offer on that would be most welcome.

Finally, both schemes that are causing problems in my constituency, the Atlantic gateway and the Mersey gateway bridge, are good schemes that are necessary and should go forward. What I am asking is that collectively we do what we can to ensure that we do not undermine the prosperity and safety of the residents of Warrington as we pursue the schemes.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to have the opportunity to speak for over two hours on this exciting subject. I shall of course resist that temptation, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) did. I congratulate him on securing the debate. He spoke this afternoon about two or three really important opportunities for growth in his constituency, and in doing so he spoke for Warrington, its people and its industry.

The two big opportunities my hon. Friend spoke about are the Mersey gateway and the Atlantic gateway. I will respond first to some of his points on the Mersey gateway crossing. It is this Government who have been able to agree and secure delivery of that vital piece of infrastructure after years of planning. Our agreed funding package includes tolling, which is in line with other large pieces of infrastructure across major estuaries and rivers. In his letter setting out his decision on the scheme in December 2010, the Secretary of State for Transport agreed with the inspector that it would be necessary for the promoter to charge tolls for the use of the new Mersey gateway bridge and the existing Silver Jubilee bridge, both to provide revenue for construction of the project and to avoid unacceptable levels of congestion on the existing bridge.

My hon. Friend challenged me to explain why there will be tolling. The issue was of course covered in the public inquiry and is consistent with the inspector’s recommendations. He also challenged me about the fact that estuary crossings in Scotland are free of tolls. As he knows, and as I am sure he has explained to his constituents, that is a matter for the Scottish Government, not this Government.

My hon. Friend also asked about the tolling regime. Let me put it on the record—he might or might not be aware of this—that the Secretary of State has approved the following orders that provide for tolling for new and existing bridges: an order under the Transport and Works Act 1992 in respect of the new bridge; and a confirmation of the road user charging scheme under the Transport Act 2000 in respect of the existing bridge. Those two Acts specify the range of the tolls that can be charged. Although tolls can be revised so that they are lower than the specified range, they cannot be increased above it. For cars and light vans, the range is set at £1 to £2.50, at 2008 prices. The tolls can of course be varied over time, according to the retail prices index. I hope that clarifies his queries about tolling. I think it sets out clearly why the toll is there and the range that can be used.

I absolutely understand my hon. Friend’s point that a toll set at the wrong level would have the potential to divert traffic via Warrington, but I am assured that both local authorities—Halton and Warrington borough councils—are alive to the issue and have committed to holding regular discussions on how that can be most effectively managed once the new bridge is opened. I urge him to speak to them as passionately as he has spoken today to ensure that they bring the tolling levels in at the lower end of the range, or even seek to use the discount.

Turning to the Atlantic gateway proposals led by Peel Ports, I agree that they constitute an imaginative strategic package and have great potential to contribute to regional regeneration across the north-west. However, it is fair to say that elements of the package are at various stages of design and elaboration. Some have planning clearance and some do not. I should therefore preface my remarks by making it clear that in responding to the debate, nothing I say should be construed as prejudicing any future decisions of a planning or licensing authority that may follow as part of the package that will undoubtedly come forth in due course.

That does not mean that we cannot take a wider view. As my hon. Friend said, it is a decidedly good thing that the developer, which already operates on a large scale, is able to see synergies between transport, office development, science, media and other parts of the regional industry mix, and to formulate a joined-up view. I am very pleased to see the developer and the local enterprise partnership doing that in the north-west.

The Atlantic gateway covers the area from Liverpool city region in the west to Manchester city region in the east. The Atlantic gateway and some of the schemes that follow from it have huge potential to put this part of the north-west back into the premier league of world economic powerhouses, as is surely fitting for an area that was at the heart of this country’s prosperity in years gone by. At the heart of the proposition is the connectivity that is being driven forward by the Atlantic gateway board in seeking to maximise road, rail and shipping assets in the region. I am delighted to say that this Government, yet again, have been able to provide significant investment in priority projects. My hon. Friend mentioned the Ordsall chord, and I am sure that he would also want to recognise the benefits of rail electrification.

One of the key transport assets for the Atlantic gateway is the unique port corridor provided by the River Mersey and the Manchester ship canal, which links the thriving port of Liverpool with port facilities in Salford and Manchester, some 35 miles inland. More than 40 million tonnes of freight passes through the docks. Mersey ports is one of the most significant and important ports in the UK and a key asset both nationally and locally. The plan proposes significant investment by Peel Ports in facilities and infrastructure to revitalise and utilise the whole of the port and the ship canal. That should provide a world-class port and logistics corridor. However, with this growth come the ramifications and impacts that my hon. Friend mentioned. Port growth is hugely beneficial, but the benefit needs to be enjoyed by all, and several potential impacts need to be managed. While the scheme can take a number of lorries off the road, it can also, as he said, lead to a number of impacts on local traffic.

I understand the importance of this issue to Warrington. My hon. Friend referred extensively to the movements of the swing bridges. In previous discussions with me, he has indicated that his constituency office is on one side of one of the swing bridges and he has sometimes been trapped on the other side, delaying him for some considerable time. I am sure that he meant that only as an illustration of the frustrations felt by local people, because he is right that the swing bridges are vital to Warrington. They provide strategic road access to the town centre and are therefore vital to the economic prosperity of the borough. It is therefore right, in planning and looking forward, that the increased traffic on the canal could be brought together and moved at night. That is not a matter for the Government; it is for the local authorities to work on it with Peel Ports to ensure that the increased benefits, in economic and transport terms, are secured for all the local population.

I am delighted to hear that Mersey ports and Warrington borough council are working together to develop proposals for a memorandum of understanding. I urge the local authority to consider my hon. Friend’s remarks about timing, frequency and the ability to group some of the traffic coming down the canal to ensure that the disruption that is being faced by him and his constituents can be minimised. I understand that significant progress is being made. There is more to be done, but none the less the issue has been recognised and a solution is being found. Ultimately, as I said a moment ago, it is undoubtedly an issue for local transport.

My hon. Friend tried to catch me off guard and tempt me, as Members often do in the week before an autumn statement, to make commitments that are way above my pay grade and that can be made only by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My hon. Friend made a plea for the Arpley chord, which is, of course, quite distinct from the Ordsall chord, and I am sure that his remarks will be read in the Treasury tomorrow. He said that he made a similar plea last year and I wish him well in continuing to speak up for his constituents on that matter.

Like my hon. Friend, we recognise the importance of joined-up thinking for transport matters locally. That is why the Department for Transport has been at the forefront of the Government’s drive for more localised decision-making in transport. We have announced the intention to give local communities and local business more control over decisions and, more importantly, more control over the budgets for some of their major local transport schemes. That is already having an impact up and down the country, and it will continue to do so.

My hon. Friend has raised some significant issues on behalf of his constituents and I am grateful to him for doing so. I hope that my remarks about tolling were helpful to him. Warrington stands to benefit conspicuously from the two major developments. It is important, as he has said, that any adverse aspects are mitigated, but I am pleased that work has started and I am sure that he will continue to raise issues if they do not come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.