I beg to move,
That this House has considered transport in Cheshire.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I am glad to see you here, and I thank the other hon. Members present for attending.
The debate is about transport issues in Cheshire, but we could not possibly deal with all the issues in the time available, so I will talk about two issues with a common element that has been causing much anger, frustration and consternation in my constituency and beyond. I refer to the River Mersey and the tolls my constituents face to cross it, be it by the Mersey tunnels or the Mersey Gateway. There is now no way they can cross the river for work, for family reasons or for medical treatment without paying a fee. Of course, there have always been fees for the Mersey tunnels, but not ones that discriminate against people because of where they live.
Let me start with the principle of the tolls. The fact that the Mersey tunnels have always had tolls does not make the tolls’ existence any more defendable. Indeed, it is difficult to understand why they are still in place, given that we have heard repeatedly from Ministers how the removal of tolls can improve an area’s economic performance—an argument that seemingly won in south Wales, where the Severn crossings had their tolls abolished; in Scotland, where the new Forth crossing is not tolled; and in the true blue Tory shires of England, where plans for the A14 upgrade to be tolled around Huntingdon and Cambridge were scrapped.
I agree, and London seems to do better than the rest of the country in terms of per-head transport investment, too.
None of the crossings in Northern Ireland is tolled, none in Scotland is tolled and, as we have heard, London is equally blessed. In fact, more than 90% of tidal crossings in this country are toll free. The argument that tolls harm economic growth seems to be accepted everywhere, except on the River Mersey.
As I said, the tolls on the Mersey tunnels have always been with us. They are not popular, but they have always been part of life. However, an unconscionable decision earlier this year by the Liverpool city region metro Mayor has made them far less acceptable. Regular tunnel users can apply for a fast tag, which gives a discount on the normal fees. From 1 April this year, the fee for those who live in the Merseyside area was reduced from £1.20 to £1, but the fee for those outside the Merseyside area was increased by a whopping 50%, from £1.20 to £1.80. That decision was made with little notice, no consultation and complete disregard for the economic impact on those living outside Merseyside.
Although my constituency is in Cheshire, we are very much in the hinterland of Merseyside—the number of Liverpool shirts I saw over the weekend is testament to that. We are less than 10 miles from Liverpool city centre, and our economic, cultural and family connections mean that people travel there daily. When my constituents ask me whether it is right that they have to pay nearly twice as much as someone who lives just down the road from them to go to work or visit their elderly mother, I tell them, “No, it isn’t.” It is discrimination by postcode, and it is not something I believe anyone who wants fairness in this country can support.
To be fair to the metro Mayor, he would like to be able to get rid of tolls altogether. I am happy to work with him and anyone else who wants to join me on that campaign, but that is a longer-term aim. In the short term, he has defended his decision robustly. He rightly points out that the Liverpool city region has experienced the largest Government funding cuts anywhere in the country, and that the people he represents cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of austerity. His conclusion is that he cannot have non-city region residents’ travel being subsidised. I understand what he says, but he is simply wrong about subsidy.
The Mersey tunnels, for which I understand the tolls are the third highest of their type in the whole country, are operated under the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, which permits any operating surplus to be used by the transport authority to achieve public transport policies in its local transport plan. In 2017-18, the surplus from operating the tunnels was £16.7 million, so my constituents, far from asking for a subsidy, clearly subsidise the rest of the Merseytravel operation—indeed, all tunnel users do. Given that level of surplus, the decision to increase the costs for my constituents by 50% cannot be said to be critical to Merseytravel’s operations. There is no room for doubt about that. It feels much more like racketeering.
One might argue that the surplus is used to provide good public transport services across Merseyside and beyond, which of course benefits my constituents, albeit to a lesser degree than Merseyside residents. However, a closer look at rail fares suggests that when my constituents use cross-border Merseyrail services, they are again subject to indefensible price differences. For example, a day return from Eastham Rake on the Merseyrail line—the first stop in Merseyside when travelling from Cheshire—to Liverpool is £1.50 cheaper than a day return from Little Sutton. That is 25% extra for just two stops down the line. Although Capenhurst station is not in my constituency, it is used by many of my constituents and it is also just two stops down from Eastham Rake, but a day return to Liverpool from Capenhurst costs more than £3 extra.
It feels like the residents of Cheshire are seen as a soft touch—a cash cow. Sadly, I feel there is a bit of reverse snobbery here, the implication being that people who live in Cheshire are a bit better off, so they can afford to pay more. That just is not the case for the majority of people. My constituency has some pockets of wealth, but it also has some of the most deprived wards in the country. Some of the examples constituents have given me of the hardship they have suffered demonstrate that they are not people with loads of spare cash floating about, waiting to be squeezed until the pips squeak.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Although he feels his constituents are discriminated against, does he accept that the same applies to people from Knowsley, parts of Liverpool and St Helens, for whom there is no public transport option that makes sense? They have only one option: the Mersey Gateway. In some cases, it costs them £20 a week extra to travel to and from work in his constituency or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). Surely that is not acceptable.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will talk about the Mersey Gateway later, because we have another very difficult situation there.
As my right hon. Friend says, many people have no option but to cross the Mersey to get to work. Many of those people work in public sector organisations such as the police and the NHS, and have not had a real pay rise for almost a decade. They often work shifts. The only way they can get to work is with their own transport, because public transport does not operate on the routes or at the times they need to get to work.
For example, an Ellesmere Port resident works as a physiotherapist specialising in treating head and neck cancer patients from across the north-west at Aintree Hospital. She pays at least £400 more per year than Wirral residents to get to work. What about the band 5 staff nurse who recently began working at the Royal Liverpool Hospital and, due to her shift times, has to drive from Ellesmere Port to Liverpool? She says she finds it financially crippling to pay tunnel tolls and car park fees. She also makes the point that colleagues who live down the road from her on the Wirral and in Liverpool can pay the lower toll, but they have better public transport options anyway.
We know how hard it is for the NHS to recruit and retain staff, particularly nurses, but this policy seems to be forcing them out. One nurse told me that
“the individual cost of the Toll fees on my current wage may force me to leave my nursing post at the Royal Liverpool NHS Foundation trust and seek employment elsewhere. I find my situation ironic due the desperate need for nursing staff at the hospital but am being forced out by unfair and discriminatory postcode politics.”
I could not have put it better myself. Then there are the people who have to travel across the Mersey at both crossings to get treatment at more specialist healthcare services, such as Broadgreen and Alder Hey. Why should people with the most serious conditions be treated in that way?
I have been given dozens of examples of people who use the tunnels for work and who are thinking of taking their talents elsewhere. Ultimately, this is an economically damaging policy. There are also those who go to visit their family, including elderly relatives. I have a constituent who travels over the Mersey nearly every day to care for her 80-year-old mum, who has dementia. She saves the council a fortune in social care costs, but her contribution does not appear to carry any weight. There are others, including the British Sign Language interpreter, the paramedics, the teachers and the Leahurst veterinary school students. None of those people have been considered, because there has been no assessment of the impact of the decision.
Those are just some examples of the hardship faced by my constituents and others who have no choice but to cross the Mersey—hardship the metro Mayor actually appears to recognise. Last year, he said:
“The introduction of additional tolls has proven to be a significant imposition to many from lower socio-economic groups, who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
He was talking about the Mersey Gateway tolls, but it could just as easily have been the Mersey tunnels tolls. I agree, and his argument applies to both crossings. I also agree with him when he said:
“The economic wellbeing of our city region is a joint responsibility between the combined authority and Government.”
I ask the Minister to set out what he will do to ensure that my constituents no longer face these rip-off charges.
If the Minister does not think it is the Government’s responsibility to ensure citizens of this country do not face postcode discrimination, he must agree that they do have responsibility for promises made by members of the Government. I refer specifically to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who made promises about the Mersey Gateway that have not materialised. In a tweet on 23 April 2015 he said:
“Confirm we’ll extend free bridge tolls to residents of Cheshire W & Chester + Warrington”.
One of my constituents was understandably a little sceptical about that comment, so he emailed the Conservative party candidate for Ellesmere Port and Neston in the 2015 election, who responded in unequivocal terms:
“If we get a majority it’s a firm commitment and applies to all of Cheshire West Council including us. I’ve been involved in making the case to the Chancellor and he’s listened and acted.”
As we know, the Conservatives did win a majority, but the promise was reneged on. As my constituent said, it was a clear and simple promise on which they have totally failed to deliver in any way whatever.
While we are on the subject, I draw the Minister’s attention to a statement by the then Chancellor during the 2015 election regarding Mersey tunnel fees. 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 altogether”.
Please, Minister, do not say in responding that this is for local operators to determine. When the Chancellor of the day makes clear statements—promises, no less—it is incumbent on the Government to deliver them. The reputation of this place has had a real shaking in recent times, and no wonder when unambiguous, incontestable promises are made just before an election and jettisoned without a second thought. It destroys the very essence of what politics should be about—honesty and integrity—and replaces it with cynicism and callous disrespect for the public.
I turn to our continuing problems with the Mersey Gateway, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) referred. According to the local campaign group, hundreds of thousands of fines have been issued, and so far about 7,500 penalties have been appealed to the Traffic Penalty Tribunal, which I understand have all been allowed. If that is correct, it must surely encourage the Minister to make enquiries about what on earth is going on. I urge him to look into how these fines are arising. It is clear there are regular issues with people seeing the signs and paying in time. It is far from clear when people have to pay by and how they should pay. Why does it have to always be online?
Many of my constituents have been affected and are deeply upset, getting continual fines after they thought they had paid when there was a problem with the system. Paying online is immensely difficult for older people who do not have access to online facilities. Why should they have to go to a shop somewhere to pay? It should not be up to them to find that; it should be up to toll operators, if a toll is to be charged, to make it as easy as possible for people to cross.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The system seems to have been set up to make it as difficult as possible to pay the tolls, which is probably why there are so many difficulties and so many fines. It is the major route to John Lennon airport, and how realistic is it to expect people going on their holidays to pay a toll online by the following day? It is not living in the real world.
There are real concerns about the tactics used by the debt recovery firm once a fine is issued, and about the way costs can escalate to nearly £400 in no time at all. A minimum bailiff charge of £380 for a £2 crossing seems totally disproportionate; it is yet more racketeering. I have heard too many stories of bailiffs turning up unannounced and clamping vehicles before they have spoken to anyone to be confident that they are operating reasonably.
I ask the Minister again to consider that those in the public sector in particular travelling in both directions over the bridge face four-figure increases in their costs just to get to work. I have heard many difficult stories about how people have been affected, including one from a young mum whose husband had a stay in Broadgreen Hospital. It was costing her £15 extra a day just to visit him. She had more than enough to worry about at that time.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent case. In view of those issues and the Conservative party’s promise in 2015, does he agree that now is the time to scrap the Mersey Gateway toll? At the end of the day, the people of the whole region are affected immensely.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The injustice of the situation will get worse in the near future, because when the old Silver Jubilee bridge reopens, it will also be tolled. Can the Minister tell us of any other previously toll-free bridge having tolls introduced in such a way? The bridge was partly funded by Cheshire County Council when Halton was part of it. Should not the successor authorities—Cheshire East Council, and Cheshire West and Chester Council—get some sort of refund, or will my constituents have to pay three times over for the crossing, having paid for the original construction, having paid their road tax, and paying every time they cross the river?
My constituents are absolutely fed up with being considered the soft touch of the north-west. They are fed up with being discriminated against because of where they live, and they are fed up with living in a country where the authorities apparently condone a postcode lottery. Most of all, they are fed up with being treated like fools, through promises made that are never kept and not being treated the same as residents of other areas because it cannot be afforded. Minister, it is time to bring back some fairness and equity. Give these people some hope that they will be treated the same as everyone else, and hope that when there is injustice, the Government will step in to correct it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on securing this debate on transport issues in Cheshire. As it happens, I intend to visit his constituency tomorrow—[Interruption.] It is already scheduled. I will visit Argent Energy’s biodiesel-from-waste production facility, which is an example of the vital importance of Ellesmere Port to the local and national economy. It will be my first visit out of London since becoming Transport Minister, and I am delighted to do that.
Cheshire is a powerhouse of the northern economy and the UK economy. It is the gateway to the north. It links strongly to its neighbours, the large city regions of Liverpool and Manchester, as well as to the engine of the midlands and, vitally, to north Wales. I recognise that. With its £29.3 billion economy employing over 488,000 people in more than 42,000 businesses, Cheshire is an economic success story and home to almost 920,000 people. The region has particular strengths in advanced manufacturing, science and innovation, and professional services. In fact, Cheshire’s economy outperforms the UK average on a number of measures. The local enterprise partnership’s strategic economic plan is entitled “Cheshire and Warrington Matters”, and I absolutely endorse that view.
The north matters, and transport matters in and to the north. Transport in all its forms and modes is essential for the prosperity, growth and wellbeing of the whole nation. I therefore commend the hon. Gentleman on raising these matters on his constituents’ behalf. The Government recognise that good transport infrastructure is essential for productivity, which is why we are investing significantly across the country to deliver sustained economic development.
On 1 April 2018, Transport for the North became a statutory body, according the north powers and funding not seen in other areas to develop and drive forward transport plans, which will support economic growth. The Government have also committed to creating a northern powerhouse to rebalance our economy. Northern Powerhouse Rail, the flagship scheme within TfN’s strategic vision, will provide the east-west rail links that the north needs. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unlock the full potential of the region.
That is part of our long-term economic plan—one that we share with the north. As Transport Minister, I am committed to improving journeys for passengers in the north. We are carrying out the biggest investment in transport in the region for a generation. Between 2015 and 2020, the Government will have spent over £13 billion improving and modernising northern transport.
I will come to tolling in a moment, but it is a long-established principle that goes back to the 1930s that those roads and tunnels are tolled. Figures from the Infrastructure and Projects Authority show that in the three years to 2021, central Government’s planned transport capital investment per head for the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humber will be higher than for London, the south-east and the south-west. Each year we will invest an average of £248 per person in the north, compared with £236 per person in the south.
We are investing in a smart motorway from junctions 6 to 8 of the M56, which serves Manchester airport, and from junctions 21A to 26 of the M6, which links Cheshire, Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire. Those are important additions to other localised improvements such as tackling congestion on the A55, which I understand is a major factor, as well as at the Posthouse roundabout. Improvements at junction 8 of the M62 are designed to support the rapid and significant expansion of the Omega employment site, which now employs more than 5,000 people. In the 2018 Budget, the Government published their objectives for the second road investment strategy for 2020 to 2025, and we intend to make available £25.3 billion to further develop the strategic road network. My Department is developing an affordable, deliverable investment plan for that, which will be published in a few months.
I am sorry that I missed the start of the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). Does the Minister agree that the delivery of HS2 is essential for achieving that vision in the north and opening up that capacity?
As the hon. Lady knows, we are investing significantly in rail. The reinstatement and reintroduction of services on the Halton curve means that from last month, after a gap of more than 40 years, a direct rail link between the west of Cheshire, north Wales and Liverpool Lime Street now connects those important areas together, unlocking business and opportunities, and providing improved access to the airport. HS2 is, of course, very important, as is the construction of a new station at Warrington West to serve new housing growth. The Northern franchise will lead to the removal of pacers, and brand-new trains will operate on the new Northern Connect service between Liverpool, Warrington Central, Manchester Piccadilly and Manchester airport, as well as a new direct service between Leeds and Chester via Warrington Bank Quay.
For every £4 of investment put into London and the south-east, the north gets £1—those are the Government’s own figures. The Northwich area in my constituency was promised two trains an hour to Manchester, but that has not been delivered by the failing Northern franchise. On tolls, there was a clear promise, as outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), that a local discount scheme would be extended to Cheshire West, Chester and Warrington, but that promise has not been delivered. Will the Minister answer that point?
I will come to that in a moment, as I want to talk a little more about HS2. Despite speculation and claims that we should scrap HS2, our commitment to the full HS2 network remains. From 2027, high-speed trains will begin serving Cheshire at Crewe, and the legislative process is under way to extend HS2 to Crewe by 2027—six years earlier than originally planned. For Cheshire, Crewe offers a significant opportunity. We are working actively with local partners to maximise the potential of an HS2 hub at Crewe, both for the wider connectivity to HS2 that that will offer, and for its potential as an agent of change and a significant driver for regeneration and development in and around Crewe, Cheshire and the wider region, including Stoke and Staffordshire.
With Transport for the North we are developing a business case for northern powerhouse rail, and exploring the best options to ensure that the huge economic potential of Warrington and the north Cheshire science corridor is served. Through a £200 million-plus growth deal, we are supporting a significant number of local transport improvements that are vital for people going about their daily business. Those include a new bus station in Chester, bypasses for Congleton, Middlewich and Poynton, and a new highway infrastructure in Crewe, Warrington and Birchwood to alleviate congestion. There is a huge amount of investment. We are also supporting the construction of the new Mersey Gateway crossing, which is the largest local transport scheme in the country and benefits residents of Cheshire, Liverpool city region, and beyond.
We have just five minutes left, and I wish to get on to tolling. I acknowledge that tolling to support the estuary crossing, and other crossings, is controversial, and it is clear that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston has a major disagreement with the Labour Metro Mayor in his region, who changed the hitherto existing position. He is understandably upset about that, but it is a matter for the Mayor, Steve Rotheram. The hon. Gentleman called the tolls “unconscionable” and “racketeering”, and I have noted his comments.
For the Mersey Gateway we were able to ensure that all eligible residents of Halton Borough Council can use the new bridges for free through the local resident discount scheme. It has been the policy of successive UK Governments—both Labour and Conservative—to place tolls on major estuarial crossings, so that those schemes help to pay for the benefits that people receive in those areas. The Government decided to provide free access for the residents of Halton because of their unusual position, given that the existing bridge connects the two parts of the borough on either side of the River Mersey, and that is the only practicable way of travelling between those areas. We looked at the case for extending free tolling to residents of councils beyond Halton, but decided not to do so because the cost to the Government and local authorities would have been disproportionate and substantial.
Since their construction in the 1930s—I think it was 1934—and again in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Mersey tunnels have always been tolled. This is not new. Those tremendous feats of engineering were developed, funded and delivered by the local authorities in the area. The Queensway tunnel, which links Birkenhead and Wallasey with Liverpool, opened in 1934. It cost £8 million at the time and ranked financially as the biggest single municipal enterprise ever undertaken in this country. The Kingsway tunnel, which links Wallasey and Liverpool, opened in 1971 and saw the first example of a giant mechanical “mole” being used in this country. These have always been locally owned assets. Both tunnels have been financed by tolling since they opened, with the toll revenue used to cover the costs of operating, maintaining and enhancing the tunnels, as well as repaying the debt accrued during their construction. Decisions on toll levels rest with the Merseyside local authorities and are now vested in the Liverpool city region mayoral combined authority. They are not a matter for Ministers of the Crown; they are a matter for the Liverpool authorities.
The former Chancellor of the Exchequer may have commented on local tolling in a tweet, or whatever it was, as part of the 2015 general election campaign. [Interruption.] Recognition should be given that my Department worked closely with the combined authority on its review of tunnel tolls, which resulted in a reduction of the fast tag toll for motorists. That was good news, and that is what the Department for Transport did at that time. As hon. Members are probably aware, the process for setting tolls for the Mersey tunnels is set out in the Mersey Tunnels Act 2004, which requires the toll charge to be increased annually in line with inflation, and allows—subject to certain conditions—some of the revenue to be used for wider transport objectives in Merseyside. I hope I have assured hon. Members of the Government’s strong commitment to transport in Cheshire.
The Minister is speaking about millions and billions of pounds of investment in the north but he contradicts himself. Part of that investment should come from the national infrastructure fund, rather than from private investors and tolls, including on an existing bridge that was not previously tolled.