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Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend refers to an extremely—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I encourage the hon. Gentleman to address the Chair?

Mr. Miller: My hon. Friend makes a serious point about the ADAC report, which I have read in great detail along with reports from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other United States studies. The money must be spent whether we have the Bill or not. Therefore, does she not think that it is a bit ingenuous of the Bill to talk in terms of using resources to develop other passenger transport services when, for years to come, any surplus that is generated by the tunnels will have to be used to invest in safety?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am grateful that my hon. Friend has raised that point. If he bears with me, I shall address it shortly.

The money must obviously be found and the PTA has recommended that tolls be raised to meet the high costs of refurbishing the tunnels. The alternative—which is to ask local council tax payers to foot the bill, possibly by cutting spending on other services—is simply not on. However, as a result of the arcane procedures to which I referred earlier, raising tolls means a public inquiry that may take up to two years and that will also cost the council tax payers who currently subsidise the tunnels.

I argue strongly that the PTA must be given the authority to take whatever action is necessary to meet the highest safety standards as quickly as possible. That would be achieved by enactment of the Bill, which would allow the PTA to increase tolls in line with the retail prices index.

That in turn would allow tolls to rise by 10p next April, from £1.20 per car to £1.30, thereby enabling the safety improvements in the tunnels to get under way almost immediately. Merseytravel envisages that all the additional revenue raised from the indexation of tolls would be spent exclusively on improvements to the tunnels in the first four years or so after the Bill's enactment; which brings me neatly on to its second main purpose: improving Merseyside's public transport network.

As I said, the Bill contains powers to allow tolls to rise in line with the retail prices index. Thanks to the Labour Government's sound economic policies, the RPI is at an historic low, and the estimated increase for motorists using the tunnel is 10p over three years. Given that the fares for crossing the Mersey by any other means—train, bus or ferry—rise at least in line with inflation, it is eminently reasonable that motorists should be subject to a comparable increase.

It is important to know that, although the Bill empowers Merseytravel to increase tolls in line with the RPI, it would not require Merseytravel to exercise that power. Its use is at the discretion of the elected members of the PTA. For example, if economic circumstances are such that a toll increase would be harmful to the

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Merseyside region, the councillors could choose not to apply it either in full or in part. Users would be protected from an increase above the level of the RPI, under agreements similar to those currently in force. In very exceptional circumstances, Merseytravel would be able to apply to the Secretary of State for an increase in tolls above the level of inflation.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch): In deploying arguments about the financial case, will the hon. Lady address the concerns of the district auditor, who was unable to get access to sufficient management information to assess whether the figures produced by Merseytravel were accurate?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, but it is a matter for the authority and the auditors. I note his concern and will write to him in due course.

Merseytravel would have to justify its request for an increase in tolls above the level of inflation to the Secretary of State, as it does now—for example, on the grounds of emergency maintenance—and the Secretary of State would continue to have the power to hold a public inquiry. Having provided for indexation, the Bill would allow Merseytravel to use creatively any surplus toll income over and above the cost of operating the tunnels and maintaining them to the highest safety standards. Merseytravel would be empowered to use the surplus to fund improvements to public transport, enabling the Merseyside local transport plan, which the Government commended, to be delivered faster.

It is necessary to deliver these improvements at the earliest opportunity so that we provide alternatives to the car for those very people who believe that they have no choice but to drive through the tunnels. The tunnels are operating at, or near, capacity at peak times. As the economy of Merseyside continues to recover and grow, the need for travel will similarly expand. Shall we stand aside and allow the tunnels to become even more congested, causing tailbacks and pollution in Wallasey, Birkenhead and Liverpool city centre; or shall we act now to manage demand by modestly increasing tolls in line with inflation and providing genuine public transport alternatives?

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): I refer my hon. Friend to the front page of the statement by the promoters, which states:

We know that wages keep pace with—and indeed exceed—inflation. We also know—this is confirmed in the document—that the cost of motoring has been decreasing for some time. Why would a toll increase that is linked to the RPI reduce or even manage traffic in the tunnels?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Clearly the dynamics and utilisation of the tunnel are a matter for considerable debate. We can project the use of the tunnels on existing figures, which suggest that it will increase to an unbearable extent. I do not believe that the measures are onerous. As my hon. Friend has said, the cost of travel is decreasing. For a small increase in Merseytravel's fees,

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we will introduce something that might not only contain the level of traffic growth, but offer viable alternative public transport opportunities.

Let me outline some of the projects in the local transport plan which will benefit the Wirral and could be delivered quicker as a result of the Bill. They include: the transformation of the quality of bus services from Liverpool and Birkenhead in the A41 corridor to Eastham and Mill park via Bromborough, in the A552/A551 corridor to Heswall via Woodchurch road, and in the A553 corridor to West Kirby via Bidston and Upton; a major upgrade to the Birkenhead Hamilton square underground station, which is desperately needed; and the progressive upgrade of all Merseyrail stations in Wirral to offer an enhanced passenger waiting environment, including closed circuit television, which is in great demand, real-time passenger information, interactive help points, seating, and secure cycle storage, and the provision of better interchange opportunities with connecting bus services. Who would not want those services in the Wirral, and who would not want them now?

The projects also include: electrification of the mid-Wirral diesel rail line between Bidston and Woodchurch; the creation of a major new multi-modal interchange and strategic park-and-ride at the new station close to the junction of the M53 and A552 at Woodchurch; a new station and a park-and-ride at Beechwood; a major refurbishment programme to the Merseyrail train fleet; an integrated ticketing system including smart cards; improvements to the main underground rail station in Liverpool city centre; and further investment in Merseyside ferries.

A 10p increase in tunnel tolls every three years is a pretty small price to pay for the earlier delivery of that package of improvements, especially as tunnel users would help to fund measures that will provide them either with a real alternative or with a reduction in congestion if they must use the roads.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead): I intervene only because my hon. Friend admirably cited Birkenhead. I will support the Bill on Second Reading because there is much sense in the reforms that she proposes. Nevertheless, does she accept that some of us who support the Bill in principle may be more concerned, on Report, that moneys from the tolls will go to far distant areas in Merseyside and not to Birkenhead, Beechwood and Wirral, West, areas on which she cleverly concentrates when setting out the advantages? We would like to see all those reforms, but many of my constituents and I are less keen on a council tax increase to fund improvements to the far stretches of Merseyside, whose people never use the tunnel.

Mrs. Curtis–Thomas: I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. He will notice that none of the many improvements that I have cited will benefit Crosby.

Mr. Field: Birkenhead was included though, was it not?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Birkenhead will benefit, as will many areas inside the Wirral, but much of Crosby will not. We have a list of priorities that need to be addressed, and the areas that I have identified clearly rank far higher

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than my own. The local transport plan is available for consultation and open for negotiation. I have expressed my concerns and aspirations, and I encourage my right hon. Friend to do the same. However, if I were in his place, I would be very grateful that at least some aspects of my kingdom had been referred to and that they were to have a definite opportunity to secure improvements in the short term—rather than the long term, as I fear it will be for some of us.

On congestion, I point out to the House that the Bill empowers Merseytravel to carry out noise insulation works for about 200 homes near the Kingsway tunnel portals on the Wirral. The Bill will close a gap in the law which has prevented Merseytravel from providing that help in the past.

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