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Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab): I shall begin where I finished my last speech in a recess Adjournment debate by referring to Halton hospital in my constituency. I can report to the House that significant improvements have been made recently including in the use of theatre space, which means that more people in Halton can be treated at Halton general hospital. That is a move in the right direction and I   commend it.

We have also seen massive improvements in the fabric of the building, with £550,000 invested in the minor injuries unit, including a superb area for the expert treatment of children who have been injured. Some £300,000 has been spent on creating a state-of-the-art endoscopy unit, which will also bring benefits to the people of Halton. We will also have more urology surgery, more breast cancer surgery and more vascular surgery at Halton hospital—all to the benefit of the people I represent in the Runcorn area of my constituency.

Improvements in the quality of treatment are becoming apparent, including increased day surgery, improved radiology outpatient outcomes and theatre utilisation. We are looking forward to the establishment of an independent treatment centre at Halton hospital for orthopaedic patients, to tackle one of the most serious waiting lists in the borough. That will mean that people from Halton can be treated in their local hospital, quickly and expertly, and receive fantastic service free on the national health service.

We are also hoping that in the next 12 months we will have an announcement that Halton hospital will get one of the new regional renal units. The borough of Halton has a particular problem with renal failure. No one knows why, but it may be a legacy of the borough's industrial past or a local genetic problem. However, if Halton hospital gets a renal unit, it will mean a major improvement in how it serves local people.
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Halton hospital still has a problem because its level 3 intensive care two-bed unit has been closed for 16 months. The clinical director at North Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust decided to close that unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I have pressed the trust, the executive board, the chief executive and the chairman to find a solution to that problem, but I am sorry to say that we have yet to see any prospect that the two beds will be reopened. Halton hospital may soon face winter pressures, and it would helpful if those beds were reopened, but I know that that will not now happen before Christmas. However, I   congratulate the trust on trying to resolve the problem by inviting the Cheshire and Merseyside Critical Care Network to see whether the beds can be reopened with the 24/7 intensive care that is available at Warrington hospital or if there is any other way to provide intensive care facilities at Halton hospital.

I commend to the Cheshire and Merseyside Critical Care Network the Bishop Auckland study, which shows that cottage hospitals can have intensive care units without any problems with the quality of care provided to patients. I would also draw the network's attention to the report produced by a senior consultant at Whiston hospital, when he examined the issue almost 12 years ago, which said that there was no medical reason why those intensive care beds could not be reopened.

I wish to congratulate my friend, Alan Massey, who has been appointed as the chair of the North Cheshire Hospitals NHS Trust. I am sure that he will do a fantastic job. He lives in the borough of Halton and he will provide the strong leadership that the trust needs. It would be remiss of me not to mention my other friend, Norman Banner, the outgoing chairman, who has done a fantastic job as the chair of both the Warrington Hospital NHS Trust and, after the merger, the new trust. I congratulate Norman on the work that he has done and I appreciate that he has had to leave the post because he has been made a senior partner in his legal practice and no longer has the time to devote to the duties of chairing an excellent trust.

I now wish to raise an issue that I have previously raised in Westminster Hall—the need for a new Mersey gateway. People familiar with the capital know that there are 28 crossings over the River Thames. There are only three over the River Mersey: the new Silver Jubilee bridge between Runcorn and Widnes, Bridge Foot in Warrington, a local road that crosses the Mersey, and the Thelwall viaduct, which, I am pleased to announce, reopened all its lanes to traffic this week.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab) indicated dissent.

Mr. Hall: My hon. Friend shakes his head; perhaps he was caught up in the crashes on the viaduct on Thursday night, which brought the whole area to a standstill.

Mr. Hoyle: It was on Monday.

Mr. Hall: On Monday, too.

The economic benefits for the region of a new Mersey crossing would be substantial. We need a new strategic north-south transport link. It would bring 7,000 jobs to the area and the transport economic benefits are forecast as £1.4 billion. The Silver Jubilee bridge carries
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90,000 vehicles across the Mersey every day, but only 20 per cent. of those are local vehicle movements. It is clearly a vastly over-used strategic link, so we need a second crossing.

The estimated costs for the second crossing are modest: £250 million. If it was free to use—my preferred option—we should need a private finance initiative credit of £500 million over 30 years. The local authority proposed the use of tolls on the new Mersey crossing, with concessions for local people, which would take only £68 million of PFI credit over 30 years, with the Government having to provide £64 million for the   purchase of land connected to the building of the crossing.

The crossing is essential. Halton borough council submitted its report—the revised scheme appraisal for the Mersey gateway: a new Mersey river crossing—on 30 November and we are waiting for the Department for Transport to tell us that the scheme will receive Government approval. I congratulate the leader of the council, Councillor Tony McDermott, who has done a fantastic job in taking the scheme forward. I also congratulate the council and the local government consortium—Liverpool city council, Sefton borough council, St. Helens borough council and Warrington borough council; they have all contributed to the strategic need for a new Mersey crossing.

To stick with transport, the Strategic Rail Authority recently announced that it was looking at local rail services that are, in its opinion, underused. It is challenging local communities to propose schemes to enhance the use of those services, thereby protecting them. One such service is from Chester to Manchester Piccadilly, via Frodsham and Warrington, which runs through the northern part of my constituency. However, as it is one of Arriva's most profitable routes, the reason for its being described as underused is completely beyond me. Constituents write to tell me that they cannot even board the trains because they are full. When Chester races are held, there is not enough rolling stock to carry the passengers who need to use the line.

Another problem on that route is that the ticket-collecting arrangements are not very good, so a head count of people who buy tickets may not actually reflect the volume of use, especially between Frodsham and Warrington. If the SRA were to count the people who use the service rather than those who buy tickets, it would see a major increase in utilisation of the service.

The Helsby to Ellesmere Port line runs through the north-west part of my constituency. That service is underused because there are only two services in the early morning and one in the afternoon. If we want to improve use of the line, services should be scheduled throughout the day, at more convenient times for people to travel.

I finish my contribution by congratulating the Government on a major project that will ensure that Northwich town centre in my constituency does not collapse into a great big cavity. Northwich town centre is built on four disused salt mines, which have been manually excavated, leaving pillars of salt underground that keep the ceilings of the mines stable so that the town
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centre does not disappear. The theory, or the physics, is that the mines are filled with saturated salt solution—brine—so the pillars are stable and nothing happens.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Fill them with nuclear waste.

Mr. Hall: Not nuclear waste. That is at Winsford in the constituency of the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is the most inappropriate use of a salt mine, but I   shall not spend too much time on that point as time is short.

In Northwich, the pillars of salt have started to corrode and if we do not stabilise the mines, Northwich will disappear into a great big cavern. In 1997, I approached the then Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to ask the Government to find a solution. They brought forward a scheme whereby authorities can apply to the Government for funds to assist them in dealing with non-coal mining subsidence. Vale Royal borough council has been granted £28 million for a stabilisation scheme for Northwich town centre, which involves pumping pulverised fuel ash and cement—a grout—into the ground, while simultaneously removing the saturated salt. The ash and cement set like concrete, so the town centre can be stabilised. Pumping will start on 25 January 2005, which is a fantastic thing for Northwich town centre, and the Government rightly deserve congratulations.

My final point is about recycling. Vale Royal borough council has introduced a good recycling scheme, with kerbside collections, but it has reduced domestic collections to once fortnightly, or twice a month. Over the Christmas period, there will be a collection every week and the residents say that that should not be just for Christmas but all year round—they are singing that they wish it was Christmas every week.

1.46 pm

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