I beg to move,
That this House has considered tolls on the Mersey crossings.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. Although the motion is in my name, it is very much the result of a team effort, as demonstrated by the number of right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches today.
The issue of tolls on the new Mersey crossing has caused consternation across our sub-region and, for me, today’s debate centres on two pillars: deceit and inconsistency. In the mid to late-1950s, the Runcorn-Widnes crossing was a transporter bridge, the likes of which we now see only really in Middlesbrough, so when the new bridge was opened at the start of the 1960s it was a revolutionary leap forward in transport infrastructure. The Runcorn-Widnes bridge, the green bridge, the Silver Jubilee bridge—as it became after renovation in 1975—or even, simply, the bridge, grew as an essential artery for the sub-regional traffic, and it can be argued that the success of the area, from the growth of Liverpool airport to the industrial areas around Speke, Widnes and Runcorn and the new multimodal hub, has all been possible because of the crossing. But with its more than 80,000 vehicle movements per day, it was clear that the old bridge was beyond capacity and that, having been a source of growth in the past, it was in danger of becoming a brake on growth and development.
I say at the outset that I welcome the new crossing. The fact that we have a new bridge is not the issue. I also acknowledge that the tolls did not come as a surprise. How we pay for the new crossing has been a matter of debate since the project was first mooted, and that is where the inconsistency comes in. At this year’s Conservative party conference, the Secretary of State for Wales told the assembled masses, in relation to the removal of tolls on the Severn bridge:
“After 50 years—just think—no tolls, no booths, no charges and no long queues to get into Wales. This decision will immediately boost the economy of South Wales by over £100m a year. Equally important is that it brings the opportunity to bind the South West and Wales.”
He was right of course: infrastructure investment leads to economic growth and brings communities together.
My hon. Friend makes a very good case. Was he concerned, as I was, to hear the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), yesterday dismiss the problem of the tolls for the bridges and the Mersey tunnels limiting economic growth in the region and attribute, I understand, to the Mayor of the city region views that he does not hold?
I was most perturbed to hear that, and perhaps the Transport Minister here today might pass the concerns of the assembled right hon. and hon. Members back to the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse. In relation to attributing views to the Mayor of the city region that he does not hold, I understand that the Mayor, Steve Rotherham, has today written to the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse, asking for a retraction. I hope that retraction will come as quickly as the Minister’s original comments.
In relation to the Severn bridge, I can well understand the argument that the costs of the bridge might have been paid off by the tolls received in preceding years, but the arguments made by the Secretary of State for Wales about economic growth and bringing communities together apply in this debate as well. Indeed, they seem to apply in Scotland, where the new Forth crossing is untolled, and in London, where many millions of pounds of Government money go simply into studying the feasibility of Crossrail 2. The same principle applies in the east of England, where plans for the A14 upgrade to be tolled around Huntingdon and Cambridge were scrapped in 2013. The planned toll was described as a “tax on East Anglia” by the local chamber of commerce. The principle applies everywhere, it seems, except to the Mersey crossing. Indeed, in contrast to the growth potential of infrastructure, the Freight Transport Association tells me that some of its members face an annual cost of £1.5 million in tolls from the new Mersey crossing, which will kill business, not boost it, and that is without the admin costs of keeping fleet lists registered and up to date for so many different toll schemes.
It was announced that most, but not all, residents of Halton Borough Council would get reduced tolls, which is understandable on the basis that it brings together two parts of that cross-river borough. But that brings me on to, if I may use the term, the question of deceit. Just days before the 2015 general election, on a campaign visit to the area, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, late of this parish, announced that free crossings would be extended to Warrington and to my borough of Cheshire West and Chester. In a tweet on 23 April 2015, Mr Osborne said:
“Confirm we’ll extend free bridge tolls to residents of Cheshire W & Chester + Warrington—a victory for”,
and he then named two local Conservative party candidates. That was naked political opportunism, but having said that he would extend the free scheme to neighbouring boroughs, he should have made good on the promise. To make such a clear political declaration and then reverse it after the election denigrates politics, denigrates elected politicians—because the public will not always see it for what it really is—and degrades confidence in our democracy.
I am told, although I cannot prove it for certain, that Mr Osborne took his own officials by surprise, at which point a solution had to be found to implement the promise he had so glibly made in the pursuit of cheap votes. It seems that the solution was to say that residents of the neighbouring councils would indeed benefit from reduced tolls, but that the councils would have to pay for it, which was not what was promised by Mr Osborne. And when we take into consideration that Cheshire West and Chester—I cannot speak for Warrington—had its budget cut by central Government by £57 million from 2015 and is barely able to deliver statutory services, we can understand why once again passing responsibility on to local government to deliver a central Government policy pledge without providing the requisite finance—a tactic we have seen several times from this Government—has engendered such cynicism from residents.
At no point has any Minister either apologised for the deceit or, indeed, recognised the wrongness of it, and that adds to people’s anger about being misled. Nor has Mr Osborne ever faced the required obloquy for his deceit. I am clear that the tolls must go, but I am also trying to find a practical way through the mess for my constituents who use the bridge daily, and the many others who work on the other side of the water who now have to pay upwards of £1,000 every year to get to work. This is a retrospective tax that is simply unfair.
My constituent Clive has proposed a solution to Ministers, which is that anyone who could demonstrate that on the day the tolls were announced they had a permanent job on the other side of the water would be eligible for reduced tolls. He also pointed out that the number would only ever diminish over time; it would never increase. Ministers have rejected the idea on the basis of the cost to the scheme, but they are happy for the public to bear the cost burden. Perhaps today the Minister might consider that option again for those residents who have suffered the double whammy of being told they were to get free tolls only for that to be withdrawn, and then being hit with an annual £1,000 charge just to get to work.
As my constituent Rob, a teacher, told me:
“Recently, I have registered for the Merseyflow sticker for my car so that I can cross the new multimodal bridge to get to my work in a school in St Helens. I am not resident in Halton and I am therefore ineligible for anything other than a sticker, which reduces each crossing from £2.00 to £1.80. Whilst I am grateful for this reduction, my annual bill for using the bridge will surpass £720. This does not include any times where I may have to make the crossing more than twice in a day (Open Evenings, Prom etc).”
The situation has been further compounded because the original bridge, now closed for renovation, will itself be tolled when it reopens. As my constituent Tim pointed out to me, the equivalent would be that when the M6 toll was opened, the original M6 would also have been tolled—a clearly ludicrous suggestion, but equivalent to what we have here.
Operational matters are also causing problems. Now, all four crossings on the Mersey are tolled. The first two are run by Mersey Tunnels and the second two by Merseyflow. I cannot for the life of me see why we should have to register twice with different organisations just to get across the Mersey from Chester. Ideally—the Minister might want to consider this—all the tolled roads in the UK would have one central tagging or registration scheme. To have two in such a short distance is daft. Organised bodies such as road haulage organisations and fleet operators will have to register all their fleets twice because of the two different schemes.
I am told that the signage on the new crossing is inadequate, both to notify drivers that the bridge is tolled and to inform them how to pay. I am also told that upwards of 50,000 instances of non-payment have taken place already, totalling £1 million, which, in only six weeks of the crossing being open, is a staggering amount, if true. It must surely indicate that something somewhere is going badly wrong.
I have raised the issue on behalf of my constituents in north Wales who feel that they do not have clarity on the signage and did not know that the tolls were there. I have had a letter back from Merseyflow, which says:
“I fully appreciate the points in reference to the new scheme which may have led people, particularly from outside of the area to be confused on the ways to pay.”
I have constituents who have paid the toll, who have been fined for not paying the toll and who were not clear, when the toll was introduced, that the toll was even there.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point and leads me into the next part of my speech. I will quote Rachel from north Wales, who has seemingly had a similar experience to his constituents. She said:
“Two weeks ago I drove over to Walton for a long awaited hospital appointment. Not only is it a 120 mile round trip, it’s an area I don’t know at all so subsequently I was reliant 100% on my Google Maps. While crossing this new bridge I did see a brief sign that mentioned Mersey Flow, but as I was concentrating on the road in an unknown area I was paying more due care and attention to the road and not the sign about a method of payment, I just assumed that being a ‘Toll bridge’ there would be a booth at the other side. 3 days after this event I was told via friends that you had to pay online or I would receive a fine. I paid the £4 for both journeys. Today I received a fine like many other people, including one of my sisters after driving there at 1 am to collect my father from Liverpool airport”.
It is precisely the same experience as that of my right hon. Friend’s constituents. The issue does not just affect Halton and the surrounding boroughs, but is spreading its effects right across the sub-region and beyond into other areas.
Does it not seem extreme that within a month 50,000 have made the mistake? As my hon. Friend said, that is £1 million in fines.
It is an astonishing figure— 50,000 people in just six weeks. As I said, it surely demonstrates that something is badly wrong. There are two issues here: first, the toll system is obviously not clear enough; and secondly, it is not just drivers from the immediate Halton area who are affected. Indeed, it seems absurd that the only place that someone can pay in person is in Halton, as that is the area where people, because they live there, are least likely to need to pay. I am told by taxi drivers in Halton and surrounding boroughs that they are not considered as public transport, so cannot register for free crossings. Again, that seems ridiculous. Will the Minister clarify that, not least because so many of my constituents take taxis to Liverpool airport?
The introduction and implementation of the tolls has caused consternation in my constituency and across our sub-region. At a time when other bridges are having their tolls removed, we are having to pay. It is punitive and retrospective. In fact, it must be the first case in history of a crossing being built that has caused greater division than the divide it sought to bridge. Ministers must think again. We cannot allow an important and much-needed piece of infrastructure to cause more harm than good. In the medium to long term the tolls must go, as they have in other parts of the UK. If that is not to happen in the immediate future, will the Minister at least look at alternative arrangements for my constituents and others who are being clobbered by toll charges and fines?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), who made a very powerful case. I will be brief, because there are one or two straightforward arguments that need to be put. Before I get into those arguments, it is important to emphasise the point that my hon. Friend made: a commitment was given to a group of residents on the Cheshire side of the bridge by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that commitment has now been completely ignored by the Government. I have no doubt that in that general election some people voted the way they did in the expectation that exemptions would be made for a wider area. However, that would not have covered my side of the river, and I will talk about that in a moment.
At the outset, I should say that I make no criticism of Halton Borough Council. I know that it was effectively given a choice of having no bridge or having tolls. Given the need for a further crossing, I can well understand why it took that decision. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) will make that point more fully, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Paisley.
Over the past two years, myself and others have been trying to get some further exemptions. If it was right for the people on the Cheshire side of the new crossing to have exemptions, as promised by the former Member for Tatton, George Osborne, it equally would be right for the people in Knowsley, Liverpool, Warrington, St Helens and even north Wales to have some exemptions. I tried to press that point, and I eventually got a reply from a Transport Minister that hinted that it was legally all too difficult to do. The spread of Members attending this morning’s debate tells the story, because if the exemption was extended to, for argument’s sake, the City of Chester, how could that be justified when people from Knowsley or Liverpool have to travel in the opposite direction? I think it probably is too legally difficult to make exemptions.
I also argued that there should be exemptions for those who have to use the crossing for work purposes, or for people who need to attend medical appointments, or—it would be relatively few people—those who have to use the crossing for educational purposes. I think we have exhausted that argument, and the Government, possibly for those legal reasons, are not going to accept the argument, but we are still left with the problem. I have constituents—my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester referred to this—who are paying up to £1,000 a year to go to work and back. I understand entirely why they see that as an additional tax. For those not on a high wage, such as many of my constituents, £1,000 a year is a substantial amount of money to pay just to go back and forth to work. That is not even counting the cost of putting petrol in the car and keeping it on the road. Certainly those who need to use the crossing for regular medical appointments have every reason to be annoyed about what is happening.
That argument has now gone, and with Ministers having rejected further exemptions for people in Knowsley, Liverpool and other places, I have come to the conclusion that, expensive though it will be, the only way forward is for the tolls to be scrapped altogether. I can see no other way of doing it that would not be open to some sort of legal challenge. I realise that is a very expensive option, but it is the only fair one. I hope Ministers will accept that. I put it forward not to be irresponsible, but to be fair to those who need to use the crossing for their everyday lives and to go to work. By the way, the issue also applies to businesses. We have all been approached by businesses that are at best confused about how the toll affects them and at worst furious about the additional costs it puts on their transactions. For the benefit of residents and businesses, the only way forward that I can see is, as some have said, to scrap the tolls.
I will concentrate on the three or four key issues in this area that most constituents contact me about; I cannot concentrate on every issue that every constituent has raised with me.
I would like to put on record my congratulations to Halton Borough Council. It is a fantastic achievement to have delivered this huge infrastructure on time and to budget when the council is probably one of the smallest in the country. If central Government had that record, they would probably be a bit more pleased about some of their recent projects. It is excellent delivery by the council. Of course, there are some teething and snagging problems and other issues that hon. Friends have raised, but I want to concentrate on three or four main issues.
First, I absolutely agree that we should have a bridge with no tolls. That has always been my position. Certainly longer-standing hon. Friends here have supported having a new bridge, but not one that is tolled. Why should we have all the tolled crossings when London and the south-east have crossings on the Thames where people do not have to pay? I keep being told it is an estuary crossing, but why does an estuary crossing differ from the one a little further upriver, as is the case on the Thames? It is bizarre. I totally agree with my hon. Friends that the bridge should be toll-free.
However, the bridge is not toll-free. It was clear from the beginning of the discussions I have had with the Government since the early 2000s and thereafter—the previous Labour Government, the coalition Government and the Conservative Governments—that there would not be a crossing if it was not tolled. The decision letter from the Secretary of State stated:
“The Inspector said that the £604 million cost of the Project would be funded by toll revenues and PFI credits...The Secretary of State wishes to clarify first that the Project is intended to be funded from a mixture of toll revenues, PFI credits and RFA funding.”
That funding range has now changed, but that is what was said. On charging tolls on the Mersey Gateway bridge and the Silver Jubilee bridge, the decision letter stated:
“While noting that there was opposition to both the principle and perceived effects of tolling, particularly as regards the imposition of charges on the Silver Jubilee Bridge, the Inspector said it was clear that the Mersey Gateway Bridge could proceed only if tolled and that an un-tolled crossing would generate significant additional traffic contrary to transport policy. He accepted also that, without tolling the Silver Jubilee Bridge, traffic would not use the Mersey Gateway Bridge and the Project would not meet its objectives.”
I do not agree with the decision letter, but that is what was said at the time.
My hon. Friend is right about the decisions taken and the concern about traffic flows. Does he agree that evidence is now appearing that the tolling on the bridge is increasing traffic flows through Warrington, which is already very congested? And that is after the former Member for Warrington South appeared in the 2015 election in front of a big banner saying, “No tolls”, so people rightly feel aggrieved.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is increased traffic going through Warrington, which was always expected, and that is causing further congestion. Again, it comes back to this: if a bridge is tolled, some traffic will try to find an alternative route. How long that will go on for, I do not know, but it is having an impact.
The reality is that we needed a new bridge. The Silver Jubilee bridge was congested, its capacity was far exceeded, and it was having an effect on investment in the borough because people were regularly queueing to get over the bridge. Sometimes, if a vehicle broke down or there was an accident, people could be there for hours. There was a regular queue of traffic going over the bridge. It is in need of major repairs as well, which is why it has been shut for about a year to carry out the repairs. Imagine closing that bridge with no other bridge in place: there would be chaos not only in Warrington, but all round the north-west. The fact that the bridge was needed is indisputable, and we need to understand that.
There is also an issue of pollution. Communities around the Silver Jubilee bridge had to cope with all the pollution of standing traffic and huge traffic increases. There was no doubt in my mind about the need for a bridge, but as I say, I want an untolled bridge, as do colleagues. However, we have this situation at the moment, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say.
As part of the discussions that I had, I met George Osborne, the former Member for Tatton, along with colleagues Graham Evans, the MP for Weaver Vale at the time, David Mowat and Andrew Miller. My primary aim in having that meeting was to argue that, for Halton people, it is their local road. They use it to go to the hospital, to work and to the train station, to go shopping and simply for normal business. I do not know anywhere else in the country where a borough has a tolled road that people have to cross to get to another part of the borough. It simply does not exist. It would be totally unfair.
George Osborne eventually accepted my argument and agreed that residents in Halton should be able to travel toll-free. He put out a press statement in July 2014 to announce that. I will make this clear for the Minister. The Treasury press release stated that the bridge
“will be free to use for all Halton residents”,
“a small charge”
for registration. It stated:
“The extension of the discount scheme will...apply to...categories of vehicles included in the existing discount scheme.”
I have written to the Department on numerous occasions because around 425 residents in Halton are in bands G and H and, because of the discount scheme, are excluded. The fact is that George Osborne—the Treasury—said that all residents would be able to travel free. I keep getting letters back from the Minister quoting the issue about the local discount scheme, but it is not quoted here. It is clear.
I also wrote to George Osborne, and on 5 December 2015, he wrote:
“I am happy to confirm that as the Government has previously announced, tolls for Halton residents will be free once the Bridge opens.”
That is very clear. There are no ifs or buts, and no mention of excluding people in bands G and H. It is totally unfair for people in bands G and H to be denied the chance to travel free, albeit with a small charge, across the borough. Why should they have to pay? It is completely unfair and not reasonable. I hope the Minister will go away and look at this matter again, because the policy should be changed. Not all of the people in bands G and H are cash-rich. In some cases, people are not on great incomes, but that is not the point. In principle, they should not have to pay. I hope the Minister will look at that issue.
On small businesses, the then Chancellor made a statement—my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) referred to that. I have the press coverage here and witnesses heard him say this. As well as extending the scheme to Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington, the then Chancellor said there would be “a special scheme” to help small businesses. He added that if firms paid nothing, taxpayers could pick up a higher bill, but he said that there will be a scheme to help small businesses. Of course, once he went, the promise to Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington, was ditched, so I wrote to Ministers again. Halton businesses have the same issue as residents because they use the bridge a lot more. It is their local base. Again, the Minister wrote back and said there was no way that could be done, and this time used the argument about state aid rules.
I got in touch with the Library to do some research, and the Library believes there is a way of helping at least some small businesses by having a scheme in Halton. Again, the Government have ignored that, after a promise made by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. I hope the Minister will look at that as well.
Another issue raised regularly with me is about businesses in Halton that might suffer as a result of paying the extra tolls, particularly if they are transport-heavy, such as haulage and delivery companies. Also, the constituents of my hon. Friends here today travel in and have to pay the toll. Some businesses tell me they are fearful of losing experienced and skilled staff who might go elsewhere because they do not want to pay the £1,000-a-year toll. The Minister needs to look at that issue, which has been raised with me by several companies.
The Minister needs to look seriously at some of the promises that were made and should revisit them. Although I want free tolls for everybody, the key issues for me are my constituents in bands G and H, small businesses, staff travelling into Halton and the impact on businesses. Most businesses think faster speed and lack of congestion are great. They are happy with that, but some have expressed concern about paying the toll.
One thing that frustrates many people who have an interest in this debate is the fact that national leaders seek to blame local leaders. It is very clear that responsibility lies with the Minister. We had promises from the former Chancellor. It was the Government that announced the scrapping of tolls on the Severn crossing. Is it not right to expect a real answer from the Minister today and not simply, as we saw yesterday, pushing this issue back down on to local leaders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact remains that it was not Halton Borough Council’s decision to make it a toll bridge. I know that because I have been involved with the project from the very start. It was clearly central Government who made that decision.
The solution that has been raised by my hon. Friends today rests with the Government, not Halton Borough Council, which has had its budget cut by over 50%. It is one of the smallest councils in the country and it is struggling on a daily basis to provide the services that its residents need. The solution rests with the Government alone, and they need to look at that very carefully.
In conclusion, the bridge is a great, iconic structure and it is fabulous to have it, but the toll system is causing untold problems. I raised the issues faced specifically by Halton constituents, but I also understand very well the concerns of my colleagues, some of whom will make further points of their own later on.
I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on obtaining this timely debate, and on the way he set out some of the concerns that have been raised with him. Generally speaking, it is certainly better to have the new bridge than not to have it, and I congratulate Halton Borough Council on taking on the necessary and ambitious scheme to get the bridge built and operating. It is a shame, as a couple of my right hon. and hon. Friends clearly set out, that the bridge has not been delivered in a way that allows my constituents to cross the Mersey at Runcorn without paying a toll.
The Silver Jubilee bridge has been free since it was built in the 1960s. It is now closed, and when it reopens it, too, will be tolled. The tolls, the discount arrangements and the entire administration need to be rethought. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some comfort on that in his remarks at the end of the debate. I accept that the situation is not primarily the choice of Halton Borough Council; its choice was to build a toll bridge or no bridge, thanks to central Government requirements. We must therefore look to the Government for solutions.
Halton Borough Council has acted in a spirit of a long line of entrepreneurial local government organisations on Merseyside, which have been innovative and ahead of their time when it comes to infrastructure development, whether in respect of that original wet dock back in the mists of time in Liverpool or, more recently, tunnels under the Mersey. Unfortunately, Merseyside people often seem to end up having to pay for infrastructure in a way people do not in other parts of the country.
I will make three basic points which I hope the Minister will address. First, I have many constituents who cannot afford to pay the new tolls and are finding that their imposition, without a sufficiently widespread and generous discount scheme, is making their lives financially unsustainable. I will give some examples of that. Secondly, the administration of the tolling arrangements appears secretive and unresponsive. There are, let us say, teething problems—which may turn out to be basic flaws—in the administration of the tolls. I have some examples of that as well. Thirdly, there is not sufficient public accountability, whether by Merseyflow, which operates the tolls; Mersey Gateway Crossings Boards Ltd and Halton Borough Council, which commissioned and look after the bridge; or the Government, who intervene when it suits them, then wash their hands of any further need to get involved when it does not. None of those things bodes well for the future smooth operation of these arrangements.
On affordability, I do not believe it is fair that residents living near the bridge in Halton receive almost free travel while my constituents, who have made decisions about where they live and work based on the longstanding availability of an untolled bridge, suddenly have to factor significant extra costs into their calculations. The Silver Jubilee bridge has been available and untolled since the 1960s; when it reopens, it will be tolled at the same rate as the Mersey Gateway.
Liz Simon is a teacher who works in Stockton Heath in Warrington. She has been in her job for seven years and has two young children. She says:
“I now have this additional bill to pay when we are only getting a 1% pay rise in the education sector. This will certainly not cover the £1000 a year toll charges.”
She has had to stop buying school dinners for her children to try to offset the additional costs she faced in getting to work. She says:
“It is frustrating that people who I work with who live in Halton pay £10 a year when ‘as the crow flies’ I live a lot closer (to work) than they do.”
Yet she pays 100 times more than her workmates—almost £1,000.
Another of my constituents, who works at the Countess of Chester hospital, also has to use the bridge daily to get to and from work. As a relatively poorly paid health worker, his pay rises are also capped at 1%, but he suddenly has to pay an extra £1,000. He has cancelled his home insurance, but does not know where he is going to find the other £500 per year he will need to pay the extra cost of getting to work. Understandably in my view, he calls this
“a no option commuter tax”.
What does the Minister suggest he does, and is it right that he has had to cancel his home insurance?
I have some constituents who have told me that they will have to give up their jobs because going across the river is no longer financially viable. Some of my constituents, when they are diagnosed with cancer, have to attend the Clatterbridge Centre on the Wirral for treatment on a regular basis over many months. Many of them lose a substantial portion of their income and end up relying on sickness benefits. They are now also having to find the money for bridge tolls, at a time when their income is dwindling and their costs are increasing—one more worry for people who need to avoid worry in order to recover. I have been contacted by constituents in that position who, for understandable reasons, do not want me to reveal their names. There are many similar stories, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have also given some examples.
On the administration of the tolls, the arrangements are unfair and are being operated badly, insensitively and secretively. My constituent, Liz Simon, has already drawn attention in the comments I have quoted to the current anomaly: big discounts for those happening to live within one local authority boundary create inexplicable differences between the treatment of those people and that of individuals who happen to live in other places, because such a demarcation does not take account of the travel-to-work area around the bridge. That can mean people in similar circumstances having to pay 100 times more for crossings over the same bridge.
The former Chancellor, George Osborne, recognised that anomaly when he visited Halton ahead of the 2015 general election. As has been said, he promised to consider financing a similar discount scheme to that operating for Halton residents for those living in Cheshire, Cheshire West and Chester, and Warrington. I am sure that it was an oversight on his part to miss out my constituents in Liverpool and Knowsley, as well as people living in St Helens, who also abut the whereabouts of the bridge. The alternative explanation, offered by some Members in today’s debate, that he was offering discounts only to those living in Tory marginal seats ahead of the general election cannot possibly be true; it would be a breach that the Treasury’s accounting officer would not let him get away with indulging in. The fact that the current Chancellor has not gone ahead with his predecessor’s scheme—indeed has not deigned, as yet, even to reply to my letter asking him to consider it—does not negate the great good sense of having a much fairer tolling scheme than the one currently in place.
In addition, can it be right that a £2 toll attracts a £40 fine for non-payment that escalates to £60 if unpaid for a month? I know that payment within 14 days cuts the penalty to £20, but that is still extortionate. The Liverpool Echo reported yesterday that between £l million and £3 million has been charged in penalties within a month of the bridge opening. Indeed, some people feel as if the arrangements are specially designed to catch them out—again, some of my hon. Friends have referred to that in their remarks.
The signage just after the bridge opened was not clear, and it is still possible to drive over the bridge, unable to see the instructions about how and when to pay. The free-flow system has the advantage of not requiring cars to stop, but has the disadvantage of allowing people to incur costs without realising it. Elderly people and those not used to paying for things online are particularly disadvantaged, as are casual visitors, who often do not even realise that the bridge is tolled. I have had contact on social media from people passing by who end up with a fine and—I might say—a very bad impression of Liverpool because they feel they have been trapped into incurring a charge that they were unaware existed. Businesses are also suffering in administrative and financial terms.
What about tractors? You might not be aware of this, Mr Paisley, but I represent a small number of arable farmers. They were told that there would be no tolls for their tractors. After all, they do not pay road tax, or have number plates on the front. In addition, the plate on the trailer does not have to be the same as the plate on the tractor. However, they are having to pay and, as a consequence of the lack of visible number plates on the front of the tractors, they are incurring fines. That may not seem like a large problem, but to a small number of arable farmers it is a serious issue. Merseyflow, the operator of the bridge, has refused to meet them or to address the issue with the National Farmers Union and has just said that it is all fine. I do not think that is sufficiently responsive.
The system has been going wrong. I have heard from people who have had penalty notices when they have paid and people who have had penalty notices when they are exempt. The Liverpool Echo reported that Alison Hill’s husband had received 10 penalty charge notices demanding £220 in total, even though he is a Halton resident exempt from the charge and registered his vehicle in August. My constituent Phillip Grace has had penalty charge notices totalling £616 for 28 crossings because the signage detailing how to pay was missing for the first few weeks of operation.
My constituent Angela Hitchmough paid for a monthly pass for her car—£100 in total, with a £10 registration fee. Three weeks later, she changed her car but was told that she could not transfer her pass to the new vehicle. She has had to lose a week’s worth of travel, register the new car and buy a new monthly pass. She uses the car to go to work part time in Runcorn, so those extra expenses are considerable for her.
On accountability, the organisations in charge of the bridge and the tolling arrangement are not helpful; I do not see why they should not be more accountable for their actions in public. They have not shown much sign of wanting to engage with the public thus far. That needs to change.
Given the complaints I have received, I wanted to know how many people had been fined. I asked a written question, and the Minister told me in a written answer on 3 November:
“The Department for Transport holds no information on the number of people who have been fined”,
and that I should ask Merseyflow. I asked Merseyflow on 6 November to tell me how many fines had been issued since the bridge opened. After further prompting by email and telephone on 4 December, I finally received verbal advice that it would not answer my question and I should put in a freedom of information request to Mersey Gateway Crossings Board.
The Liverpool Echo, as we have heard, was told on 20 November that 50,000 penalty charge notices were issued in the first month of operation. That is a suspiciously round number, but a very large one—fine income of between £l million and £3 million in one month, depending on how quickly people pay their penalty charge notices. That is all money being taken out of the Merseyside economy.
The chief executive of Halton, David Parr, who, according to the Liverpool Echo, has refused to answer a freedom of information request about what he gets paid as a director of the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board, refused to say how much money had been raised in fines. Instead, he waxed lyrical about how popular the new bridge is. It is popular to some and not to others. Operators need to be much more open and transparent about what is going on and the Government need to collect information and give it out when asked.
Does the Minister not agree that the answers to the questions about how much money has been raised in fines and how many penalty charge notices have been issued should be in the public domain? Getting answers should not be like getting blood out of a stone, particularly given that the money is coming straight out of the hard-earned cash of local people and businesses, who are struggling to find it. Should the Department not have the information, particularly given the guarantees it has given to stand behind any shortfall? Why should the details of the contract and the scheme not be published as well? The people of Merseyside have a right to know the answers to those and other questions, and the Government, having insisted that Merseyside could only get this bridge if it was majority-financed by tolls, should be at the forefront of making sure that we have access to and transparency in the information, and should not be indulging in their usual trick of blaming someone else.
Many of my constituents cannot afford the extra costs imposed by the Mersey Gateway Bridge and its current tolling arrangements. There should be, and needs to be, a full reappraisal of how it works, who pays and how much should be paid, which should include looking at getting rid of tolls completely. We need that review sooner rather than later.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me and my colleagues the opportunity to raise our constituents’ concerns about this important issue in the House.
The tolls on the Mersey crossings are a huge issue for hundreds of thousands of people living in the north-west. My hon. Friends have already commented on the regional disparity in the tolls across the United Kingdom and the inconsistencies in the Government’s policies. They proudly claim the economic benefits of scrapping the tolls on the Severn Bridge; I cannot believe that simultaneously, for the first time in the UK, they are imposing a toll on users for what was previously a toll-free bridge, the Silver Jubilee bridge. It is currently closed and there is no pedestrian or cycle crossing on the new bridge. The decision is affecting a huge number of people in the north-west, with little consideration for the damage it will do to the region. The tolling of the Silver Jubilee and Mersey Gateway bridges is quite simply causing misery for a huge number of my constituents.
As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester mentioned, just before the 2015 election, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer came to Warrington and made a commitment to the people of Warrington, and Cheshire West and Chester, that they would be exempt from the tolls. In January 2017, that promise was broken. If I were more sceptical of the Conservative Government of the time, I might suggest that there was some electioneering in the timing of the former Chancellor’s announcement. It is no surprise that the U-turn on the commitment has left many of my constituents with a deep feeling of betrayal.
The new toll leaves residents facing an additional cost of £1,000 per year to make crossings that were previously free. For many, that huge cost is for carrying out everyday activities such as travelling to work or attending hospital appointments. Halton and Warrington hospitals form part of the same NHS trust, yet they are on either side of the bridges so many people are forced to cross them to receive treatment. As one of my constituents with a chronic illness put it to me, the toll is yet another tax on illness for hundreds of people.
I have also been contacted by many NHS staff in my constituency, who we already know far too well are suffering as a result of the public sector pay freeze. They are now expected to take what is in effect a £1,000 pay cut, simply for the luxury of travelling to work. That is a huge financial strain on my constituents, especially for those on the lowest wages. The situation appears even more unfair when we consider that the Government spend more than £1,000 per head more per year on transport in London than they do in the north-west, yet they expect our constituents to spend an additional £1,000, which many of them simply do not have, to carry out everyday activities.
The introduction of the toll is a serious burden on local businesses. One local business, a Freight Transport Association member, has predicted that the tolls alone will cost it an additional £1.5 million.
Is that not the frustration? The bridge was a chance to enhance connectivity, not just across Liverpool city region but with Wigan, Warrington, Chester and right into north Wales, but if workers in St Helens are having to pay £80 a month, and businesses are having to pay thousands of pounds a year, does it not become a barrier and a disincentive to building our economic region?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is so important that the Minister addresses how this is affecting businesses and local people and makes a firm commitment today for the region. My constituent says that it will cost his business £1.5 million per year, and there will be administration costs on top of that for completing the necessary paperwork. The millions of pounds that motorists across the region are being forced to spend to make the crossing is money that is no longer being spent in local businesses or used to boost the local economy.
It is not just the financial burden that is affecting local residents. Since the toll bridge opened, I have been contacted by dozens of constituents who have concerns about the increase in traffic in and around Warrington. The town centre is already highly congested at peak times. Naturally, motorists are keen to avoid paying the toll where they can, and many are opting instead to drive through Warrington town centre. Warrington already attracted almost 200,000 journeys to work before the tolls on the bridges were introduced. Local infrastructure simply cannot take any further increases in traffic congestion. Local people in my constituency and Warrington town do not deserve to suffer any more traffic misery.
Warrington already suffers extremely high levels of air pollution. In 2016, the World Health Organisation highlighted that it had breached air pollution safety levels. The major increase in vehicular movement is having an adverse impact on local residents’ health, and is exacerbating Warrington’s poor air quality problems.
I have raised just a few of the problems with the tolls in the Mersey region. I echo my hon. Friends’ excellent comments, but it is time that words became actions. I welcomed the opportunity to meet the Minister last month, and I am grateful that he took the time to have discussions with me. He assured me that he would do his best to take action on this issue. I look forward to our follow-up meeting in the new year. However, the issue will not go away until real action is taken to alleviate the burden on our constituents. I would like the Government to commit to undertake an urgent review of the tolling of the bridge. The concessions that have been made to Halton residents were part-funded by £350 million from the Government. There is no reason why the Government cannot fund an extension of that scheme to help people in neighbouring constituencies who have no choice but to use the bridge regularly.
I will go even further: I urge the Government to consider renegotiating the ownership of the Silver Jubilee bridge with private investors with a view to bringing it into public ownership and keeping both Halton crossings toll-free for all residents. The bridge has the potential to be a valuable economic corridor connecting local communities and businesses. It should be part of the national road infrastructure; we should not have sought private investment when building it.
I urge the Government to prove to local people that the north matters. This is only the beginning of a long fight to scrap the Mersey tolls. I will fight for Warrington South every step of the way.
Thank you for chairing this crucial debate, Mr Paisley. I thank my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), for securing it.
Like my hon. Friend and other hon. Members, I am opposed to tolls on the Mersey Gateway. As MP for Weaver Vale, I am in a unique position, in that half of my constituents live in Halton and have access to the funding and free travel arrangements that my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) referred to. I echo his point that bands G and H council tax payers and small businesses in the Halton part of my constituency should be included in any concessionary scheme, as the previous Chancellor argued in the past. The other half of my constituents live in Cheshire West and Chester, and therefore, like those of the hon. Member for City of Chester, must pay. If the system is unfair to users who, having paid their taxes to the Treasury, are forced to pay again to use the bridge that they have already helped to fund, it is doubly unfair to my constituents whose friends and neighbours get what they perceive to be free travel simply because of their postcode. For them, they are subject to a postcode lottery that they did not ask to enter in which the ticket cost is, in many cases, more than £1,000 a year, and they have no choice but to play. Like with other lotteries, they pay to enter only to see somebody else rake in the winnings, but the winner is not a fellow player but a private company making a hefty profit from the private finance initiative.
Before I expand on what the situation means for my constituents, I want to be clear about where the responsibility for the unfairness lies and who has the potential to fix it. Halton Borough Council rightly campaigned for decades for a new bridge across the Mersey. To echo a point made by other hon. Members, it was needed. It is a wonderful piece of engineering and infrastructure. It is iconic, and it certainly has improved connectivity and speed flows across the city region. In the public inquiry, the residents of Halton were given a choice between a toll bridge and no bridge, so it is understandable that they chose a toll bridge. Halton Borough Council’s hands were tied by successive Governments. This was the only show in town.
The best way to fund major infrastructure projects—it always seems to be done like this in other parts of the country, particularly the south-east—is from the Exchequer. The only solution is for central Government to address this issue, as they have done for other crossings across the country. If the Conservative Government can abolish tolls on the Severn bridge, they can do so on the Mersey—including for the Mersey tunnels. If the Conservative party can promise free travel for Cheshire and Warrington during the 2015 election campaign, the Chancellor can honour that promise in government. It was not Halton Borough Council or the Labour party that made and broke a promise to my constituents about bridge tolls; it was the previous Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and the Government must be held to account for that.
Although I recognise that the bridge has been good news for travel times and is a fantastic piece of engineering, it is clear that the current-set up, as my hon. Friends said, is posing major challenges for people in my constituency and way beyond it. Money is all too often the reason. More than £1 million in fines—arguably more than that now—has been dished out in one month. I have spoken to many residents who have been dealt with harshly and insensitively. There has been poor communication and signage. An elderly woman in Helsby, which is part of my constituency, was fined £80. She was in tears on the phone because she did not know how to access the internet. It was unjust—she was just a couple of days late with the payment.
Constituents are being hit with bills of £150 if their car breaks down, due to some strange contractual arrangement that means they must be towed by an approved private contractor and pay a charge before their car is released from the compound. Membership of the Automobile Association or the Royal Automobile Club does not count, which is also a frustration for those organisations.
Although it is true that the bridge has created hundreds of skilled jobs during its construction, the jobs that support its ongoing operation are with a private company, Emovis. To be clear, as a Labour MP I am very disappointed that it does not recognise a trade union or pay the real living wage. The true benefit to the economy cannot be measured only in travel times, as crucial as they are; it has to be whether the benefits are shared fairly by all residents, as my hon. Friends have argued.
Recently, with others, I have launched a Christmas campaign. I was disappointed with the clear and quick answer I got from some of the powers that be. The clearest illustration of the crossings arrangements was that clear and quick refusal even to consider allowing free travel on Christmas day. Hon Members may correct me, but we have that for the Mersey tunnels, so on that one day of the year friends and families can visit relatives and so on. They are travelling from all over the country, as hon. Members have said, and we want to ensure that they do not get caught by that interesting arrangement of a fixed penalty notice. I do not believe that the Government should get in the way of a private contractor offering such a concession at Christmas, but in a recent reply about why it is not possible, comment was made not only on the financial arrangements but on the need for Government permission to offer that concession.
The tolls, however, are not just for Christmas but for a period of about 25 years. Ministers will no doubt point to other crossings and say that the scenario is the same there, but the reality is clearly anything but, as people have already said: the new Forth bridge is toll free; tolls will be abolished for the Severn bridge—I have listened to Ministers’ interesting arguments about the economy—and the Dartford crossing is free at night; and my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester has mentioned the option chosen for the East Anglia road toll. There is, however, no respite for users of the Mersey Gateway. Instead, when the Silver Jubilee bridge reopens next year, that will be tolled as well. My constituency has many unique and welcome claims to fame, but being near to the only place in the country that has two tolled bridges side by side—the Mersey tunnels are tolled too—is a scandalous situation for the people of Merseyside. It is a unique arrangement.
We have heard much from the Government about the northern powerhouse. Words have yet to be matched by actions or funding, but I do believe that some Ministers in this Government genuinely—I hope—want to tackle the regional divide. We understand that tolls on the Humber bridge are in line to be scrapped as part of a future Yorkshire devolution deal and, if that is the case, we would welcome the same for Merseyside, Cheshire and Warrington. As one constituent said to me, if this bridge was across the Thames, it would be free. What better way to prove that the Government want to change the perception than by abolishing the tolls?
I recognise that the Mersey Gateway is a multi million- pound project, and if abolition outright is not immediately feasible, extending to others the deal that Halton council secured would be a step forward. I and my colleagues would welcome sitting down with Ministers to see how that could be achieved as a first step. The £1,100 a year taken away from an individual household income is simply not fair to constituents and is a tax on jobs. It is not good for our economy, and not good for our region. I urge Ministers to join me and my colleagues in looking at things again and to abolish tolls.
I am about to call the last Back-Bench speaker, but I would like to call the Opposition spokesperson before quarter to 11. I am not imposing a time limit, but I would like you to bear that in mind—I call Justin Madders.
Thank you, Mr Paisley, but I am sure I will be finished well within the time. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on securing the debate and on the assiduous way in which he and other hon. Friends and hon. Members have pursued this matter for some considerable time. As we have heard, the issue has caused consternation—my hon. Friend used that word several times—as well as frustration and anger locally. Not only are people being asked to pay a toll when they were told that they would not have to, but they see other toll crossings around the country now becoming free.
I have no wish to list all the crossings where there is no charge, but it is worth setting out some of the headlines so that the Minister may see why our constituents feel so aggrieved by the situation. None of the crossings in Northern Ireland are tolled. None of the road crossings in Scotland are tolled. None of the 18 estuary road crossings in London are tolled. In fact, more than 90% of the tidal crossings in this country are toll-free, with several of those that are tolled due to become free shortly.
I hope that I have established that tolls for crossings are a relatively rare thing, and few crossings in recent memory have had charges imposed on their users. What is even rarer, however, if not unique, is the situation on the Mersey, where an existing free crossing is having charges introduced—just because, heaven forbid, people might want to use it: yes, a road charging scheme that is not about managing congestion or recouping construction costs, but about dissuading people from using the crossing altogether.
On the subject of construction costs, the existing Silver Jubilee bridge was partly funded by Cheshire County Council when Halton was part of it. Should not the successor authority to the county council get some sort of refund, or are my constituents expected to pay three times over for this crossing? They pay through the original construction cost, their road tax and the toll for every time they cross the river.
To be clear, my constituents and those of other hon. Members will pay through the nose for the scheme. The toll income is estimated to be about £38 million a year and, as we have heard, fines could well increase that figure. Anyway, Merseylink will be a tidy £113 million better off thanks to taxpayer handouts—the Merseylink accounts put the cost of the bridge at £455 million, yet total Government support for the bridge until 2044 is £568 million. Will the Minister explain where that extra £113 million is going? It is certainly not going to the benefit of my constituents.
To move away from those astronomical figures for a minute, let us look at the human impact. We have heard from hon. Members about how their constituents have been affected. I too have been contacted by many constituents who tell me that they are struggling to cope with the impact of the tolls. Many work in the public sector, be that the NHS, local government or education, where they have, of course, not had a pay rise for seven years, so having to find another £80 a month or so just to get to work is causing them real difficulty. I was very sad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) describe how some of her constituents were having to think about giving up their jobs as a result—that is completely indefensible.
I will read out the personal account of one constituent who contacted me. She said:
“I live in great Sutton but I work in Knowsley. I work extremely hard, long shifts unsociable hours but I love my job (exercise rehab) I have managed to buy a house by myself and can afford a second hand car but have very few luxuries. With the new Mersey bridge being tolled I am going to find it extremely difficult to get to work £2 each way means £4 a day, £20 a week, £80 a month, £1000+ a year all on top of road tax, fuel, and insurance.”
“I personally believe this is highly unreasonable, especially as both bridges will be tolled. There is no escape and there is only yourself to cover the costs.”
The nub of it was:
“I feel penalised for working.”
There we have it: hard-working constituents feel that they are penalised for having a job. Is that the message that the Government want to send? We have heard that employers on both sides of the river already say that staff are looking to leave because of the additional cost. When did the so-called northern powerhouse become a tax on jobs?
Talking of the northern powerhouse, it would be remiss of me not to mention the great architect of this grand illusion, George Osborne, who hon. Members have already spoken of today. His promises in this area have proved to be as meaningless as the Evening Standard circulation figures. I remember coming across a voter during the 2015 election who told me that she was considering voting Conservative because she had heard that the then Chancellor would promise to scrap the Mersey tunnel fees. I expressed scepticism at the time, but looking back, he said:
“They will definitely be cut. I think we might be able to go further, I'm quite optimistic that we might be able to go further and abolish them all together”.
When I heard that, I could see why she might have thought that was a pretty clear statement of intent. In fact, it is almost as clear as what he said about the Mersey Gateway tolls. We have heard a number of Members quote things that he said at the time. He also said:
“I think you've got the balance right by extending the scheme to residents in Cheshire, Cheshire West and Chester and in Warrington.”
It is pretty clear that a promise was made just before the election, but the two statements about the Mersey tunnels and the Mersey Gateway have proved to be utterly meaningless.
Governments of all persuasions are rightly criticised for making election promises that they cannot keep, but in this case the then Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear and unambiguous financial commitments to the electorate. As for his statement on the cost of extending the free scheme to Warrington and Cheshire West residents, it is worth noting that a detailed study on the cost to the taxpayer was prepared and published in July 2016—more than a year after the promise was first made. It looks as though he said what he did with no costings having been done, and with no apparent intention of it being carried out. That is an indictment of the vacuous, tweet-led and dishonest politics we have too much of in this country.
As we have heard, the current boundaries on who pays and who does not make no sense. People can live closer to the crossing in Warrington, or Cheshire West and Chester, than someone in Halton, yet have to pay. I have received complaints, as have other hon. Members, from people about the difficulty they have had in paying. Having no toll booths at all for the occasional visitor is opening people up to unnecessary fines. As my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood said, that creates a very bad impression for visitors to the area. It should not be forgotten that the bridge is located right by an international airport. My constituents should not have to pay fines or fees at all; they should be exempt from paying altogether and this Government should have the decency to honour their promises.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for making such an excellent speech, proving once again that he is the right advocate for the people of the City of Chester. He exposed the fact that across that 20-mile stretch of the River Mersey there is real confusion in the Government’s management of the river crossing and how it is paid for. I thank all my hon. Friends for their powerful speeches.
Before I specifically address the bridge tax, I want to look at what is happening about the disparity and the growing inequality in our country, not least the fact that the north is receiving around a 10th of the economic and transport infrastructure compared with London and the south-east. Of the 18 river crossings in Greater London, not one attracts a toll—Dartford is outside Greater London, of course. Yet in the north-west, we see tolls being extended to bridges that have never had tolls in their 60-year history. This is a region where wages are significantly lower. Therefore, a tax of £4 for a double crossing, which is £1,000 a year, is a real penalty on the north, and is not putting the power back into local people. We heard about the impact that this has on driving congestion in some of the cities, and on air pollution, with air quality deteriorating in places such as Warrington, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) mentioned.
We need to look at why we came to the point where we needed a second bridge. I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) said—that it was absolutely necessary—but we must recognise the completely failed public transport infrastructure. I met people from the region who told me how train journeys took so much longer than driving. Therefore, they had no choice. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Faisal Rashid) that it seems that people do not have the choice of cycling or walking across that bridge. Choices for people in the north are being narrowed. We know that this is all about choices, because we need only to think that last week, the Secretary of State for Transport tried to conceal a deal on public transport with Stagecoach and Virgin, burying £2 billion, which should have gone into the state but was taken out. We could have had an additional £2 billion, which more than covers the cost of these bridges. This is all about choices, which need to be addressed. If that can be done at one stroke, I am sure that this problem can be redressed at one stroke. That makes it even more shocking.
We have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) talk powerfully about the accountability of Merseyflow. People cannot even access information from that company, and we cannot even communicate properly with the company to represent our constituents. It is absolutely crucial that the Minister gets control of that company and sorts out some of those really basic issues. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) and others about the impact on local businesses. A penalty is being put on businesses and our public services, not least on Christmas day, when people not only visit their families but go to work for our public services. We heard how people using the NHS are having to pay this tax to cross the river.
We know that there are 80,000 crossings a day, so it is absolutely clear that this is all about enhancing connectivity, improving social mobility—another issue where the Government are in desperate need of solutions—and improving economic growth in one of the country’s most deprived regions. We have to seriously examine why there are four crossings that have to be paid for in the north-west, when there are none in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, with the removal of the tolls on river crossings there. We are down to just seven crossings. I was just looking at the list: funnily enough, it is mostly in Labour areas where people still have to pay tolls.
It is clear the Government will have to bring redress to back up their rhetoric about economic investment. We have heard about how the former Chancellor seems to be planting money trees all over the place. Unfortunately, he then pulls them up after the polls have closed on election night. It is so important that the promises and commitments are followed through. For the residents of Warrington, Cheshire, Halton and the whole region, those promises must be honoured. There is a huge disparity. We heard so eloquently from my right hon. and hon. Friends exactly how that disparity and the way in which the system operates do not make logical sense.
Local people have been failed, particularly with the signage not being complete, having to understand a system that is not explained to them, and having to use the internet when perhaps they do not have a digital connection. It is a complete mess. The Minister needs to get a grip and get a hold of this situation to make the changes. Why are local residents having to pay so much for the scheme? I understand that in the Mersey tunnels alone, they have already paid for the cost of those tunnels 23 times, and now they have to pay again not just for the building of the bridge but for the public finance initiative scheme, paying about £113 million more. Surely that is a huge injustice.
I will not take up much more time, because I know that Members want to hear from the Minister. We need him to get hold of this problem, not pass it on to someone else. It is not local authorities’ problem. He needs to take responsibility for this issue and to ensure that he honours the words of this Government, who said they would address the charges—the bridge tax—that residents have to pay.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I am grateful to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) for calling this debate. It is testimony to his chirpiness and to the energy of Labour Back Benchers that they have been able to muster such a crowd after a night like last night. I congratulate them on that, too.
Many issues have been raised that will not merely resonate in the Palace of Westminster but be noted by Halton Borough Council and other local councils, and by Merseyflow. I hope that they also have an important wider impact in terms of informing hon. Members’ constituents of the present situation. I have a lot of material to get through, so I am going to be quite quick.
Let me start by pointing out that, contrary to some rumours and suggestions, the Government are very focused on investment in the north, including in the north-west and in and around Liverpool. As the House knows, we have committed to invest £13 billion during this Parliament to improve regional connectivity so that northern towns and cities can pool their strengths and create a single and more interconnected economy. The Liverpool sub-region is a very important part of that policy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a centre of innovation, industry and culture that serves a local population of 2 million and a global population of billions. There are important economic sites in the area, including the Daresbury enterprise zone, Liverpool John Lennon airport and the Omega site in Warrington, but this Government, like colleagues across the House, recognise that the area requires greater investment to support economic growth.
To that end, we have provided nearly £300 million of local growth funding for a number of transport improvements in the region to boost the local economy. Those include the Halton curve, the Warrington waterfront transport infrastructure scheme, improvements at junction 8 of the M62, access improvements to the Knowsley industrial park and the Knowsley expressway, and the M56 junction 11A scheme, which we expect to provide a new junction with the Mersey Gateway bridge and to support the Daresbury enterprise zone. We are doing a lot, and we plan to do more. Subject to future decisions, we could also see improvements such as a high-level crossing of the Manchester ship canal in Warrington and improved access to the port of Liverpool, which is already included in my Department’s road investment strategy.
There has been great growth in this area, and there will be more, with the support of public investment in infrastructure, as has been recognised across the House and in this debate. But it is also clear that, in the middle of all this, the Silver Jubilee bridge in Halton became a victim of the success of the local economy. It is a vital link between the two halves of Halton and one of the few strategic crossings of the Mersey, and it is therefore vital to the wider sub-regional economy, as has been widely pointed out today. It has been upgraded over the years so that it can cater for significantly higher levels of traffic than it was originally designed to accommodate. Nevertheless, as has been recognised, it faced serious congestion, which was holding back local growth. There were delays of up to 10 minutes at peak hours and gridlock on the local network, and there were significant increases in incidents and pollution, as has been recognised. At some point, whether we like it or not, and whatever might have happened to any other river crossing, that bridge would have had to be closed and upgraded. It is important to understand that.
Of course, the new Gateway bridge was itself the product of significant local care, thought and attention. There was a long gestation period, which began before studies in 1994 and included extensive public consultation. It was always clear that both bridges would be tolled, not just the new one. As has been mentioned, there was a public inquiry during May and June 2009, which was chaired by an independent planning inspector. It considered seven planning applications and legal orders, and those orders were confirmed in 2010.
That is a very important backdrop, because it makes clear the context in which we are presently operating. The new bridge, as a striking addition to the local landscape, is already helping to cut congestion, improve journeys and boost the region’s economy. We have heard that there are already 80,000 journeys a day on it, which testifies to its strength. As Members have recognised, it is an astonishing achievement. It is more than 2 km of bridge and road, with 239 enormous beams weighing up to 106 tonnes. It will create nearly 5,000 permanent jobs and will add an estimated £61.9 million in gross value added from new jobs every year by 2030. As the hon. Members for Halton (Derek Twigg) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) said, it is a fantastic achievement to have delivered that scheme on time and on budget.
Will the Minister give way?
I have no time. The right hon. Gentleman can ask his question if he wants to, but I really want to respond to the points that have been made.
The Government have provided £288 million so far to fund this piece of infrastructure, on top of the £86 million already provided to Halton to develop the scheme and to pay for land and for decontamination. It has been the policy of successive UK Governments—this Government and previous ones—that major estuarial crossings should be tolled. That has been the case with similar English crossings and with the Mersey tunnels, and it was decided that the Gateway bridge would not depart from that policy.
The tolling proposals have been integral to the scheme and to the financing package for the new bridge. As was recognised, it is a practical impossibility to have a situation in which the new bridge is tolled while the adjacent Silver Jubilee bridge is not. That would mean that most users would opt to use the existing bridge, which would defeat the objective of bringing that bridge back to more local use and upset the agreed financial package. There is nothing new here. These issues were all considered and debated at the public inquiry into the legal orders that Halton Borough Council sought to construct the new crossing.
It is important to recognise that, at the final approval stage in 2014, the then Chancellor announced that the Government would fund the difference, to allow eligible residents unlimited use of the bridges for registered private cars only. As a result, there is a discount scheme for local residents. The residents of Halton are in the unusual position that the existing bridge connects the two parts of the borough either side of the River Mersey. We continue to feel that it is right that those who live in that situation receive free crossings, as is the case with the Dartford crossing in Kent. Many hon. Members said that there is therefore a case to be made for the extension of free tolling to residents of councils beyond Halton. As I have said, we have looked at that, but it is a practical impossibility, for two reasons. First, the cost to the Government and to local authorities would be substantial. Extending the benefit to residents of just the five neighbouring authorities would cost more than £600 million. We would expect the cost to be split according to the ratio that has been used so far. That would leave nearly £370 million to be found by the five councils.
Will the Minister give way on the point about bands G and H?
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of people in bands G and H. There has to have been a socioeconomic basis for that, otherwise the problem could not have been addressed without a leakage, but I am very happy to revisit the letter that he received with Treasury colleagues to see whether further consideration can be given to that issue.
I want to give the hon. Member for City of Chester a chance to wind up, so let me say very quickly that it is not fair to point to the crossing on the M4 in Wales as a precedent, because that bridge had been paid for through its tolls. Yes, there have been teething problems and snags. Those are issues for Merseyflow and Halton Borough Council.
Let me conclude by reminding those present of the significant transport investment that the Government have made and wish to continue to make in the Liverpool sub-region. These crossings are the subject of local governance by the relevant bodies and I am delighted that the bridge opened successfully on schedule.
There is no time for a wind-up speech—whether to allow one is at my discretion—so I will put the Question.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered tolls on the Mersey crossings.