Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Question 180-199)

Mrs Charles George and Miss Joanna Clayton

Thursday 30 January 2003

180. MR GEORGE: It is less of a danger in Merseyside than in some other areas because they already have a number of years of working together in a joint way, five districts working together on a shared transport plan are pooling transport expenditure. They have done that now for a number of years. They have managed to produce a Local Transport Plan which they can all agree on and they are going to have 50 more years of working together. For all we know. the whole structure of local government may have gone by then but there is a greater experience of working together on local transport in Merseyside and in Greater Manchester, and there may be some other areas, than anywhere else as far as I am aware. So far I do not believe it has been a political football, although it is not a situation that all of the authorities are controlled by one party, one knows there are several parties involved, there is another party which controls one of the authorities and several are hung. One knows it is not a question of one party domination on Merseyside but they do seem to be able to agree on transport matters


181. MR FIELD: I am very cheered by that prospect. I leave this thought with you, we do not know what is going to happen in 50 years' time. My own party, the Conservative Party, in the 1951 general election had even in the City of Liverpool some 200,000 votes, holding 6 of the 9 Parliamentary seats; in the last election we managed 14,500 votes, so things do change in terms of political goodwill, hopefully they will change in the opposite direction, but that might be wishful thinking. It is a concern on the face of it that this issue of these spare funds is putting too much discretion potentially in the hands of the PTA and therefore in the hands of local politicians and this becomes a massive political issue. I wonder whether the Promoters have given some thought to the prospect of the difficulties that we might be presenting ourselves to at a future point.

182. MR GEORGE: If some of the councils reached a position they were opposed to spending on public transport measures then the Local Transport Plan would itself be taking an entirely different form and one does not know what would be the consequences. I think at present it is unlikely ­ not unlikely there will be a change of political powers, I express no view as to what is likely to happen there ­ that in middle of next century those interested in transport and getting together will be unable to find ways of spending the surplus sensibly for the benefit of public transport and the regions, that is very unlikely.

183. As far as I am aware in recent history one has not ever had the situation where there has been too much money available for public transport schemes and no one knowing what to do with the money. The situation endlessly everywhere has been a situation of having lists of schemes which everyone agrees are desirable but similarly everyone agreeing unfortunately there is no money to start on the first of the major schemes.

184. CHAIRMAN: Mr George, I think Mr Field was making another point as well and that was the democratic deficit in that we believe in no taxation without representation and here you have a situation where taxation is going to be applied on people who cannot vote them out. I leave that with you just as a thought. We will move on, if we may.

185. MR GEORGE: I think we have reached the area in which people can have strong views about, for instance, the Transport Act 2000 and various concepts of democracy and it is probably best if I do not venture into those areas. I suspect they are areas where reasonable people can argue and differ without ever being able to say that one or other party is necessarily right in the argument.

186. MR JENKINS: One area where nobody can argue or differ is that congestion in itself is a cost. Many people are prepared to pay a toll at a lesser cost to avoid congestion and if that means that money is spent on keeping people off the road in front of me I am willing to pay it and so would many people in Liverpool, I think.

187. MR GEORGE: That is the same argument which the transport professionals often call the argument of non-user benefits whereby you improve public transport and it very often brings a great number of benefits to people who do not use public transport because the roads operate that much better. That is exactly the point which I think the hon. Member is making. Again, that is an area in which being very precise about the non-user benefit is difficult. Most people will accept the concept of it but the precise measurement of it is another matter.

188. I move on then to consider this matter. Once one accepts the logic of tolls rising in accordance with the RPI then one is going to have eventually a surplus and one faces the dilemma, and that is is one then going to change the mechanism and therefore allow the tolls to come down and the roads to clog up, or does one accept the fact that one will have a surplus, make sure that the surplus is first spent on the tunnel, that is repair, maintenance and all necessary improvements, and there is an express provision in the Bill to make sure that is always the first call on the money - it is not truly a surplus until you have paid for all those matters - and then put it to what is after all the statutory responsibility of the person who owns and controls the tunnel. The sole responsibility of the PTA is to promote public transport provision in the area.

189. One course which one has to consider would be the possibility of using the surpluses to create a special fund in which surpluses would have to be paid so as to mount up for the proverbial rainy day. That is certainly a possibility, but what the Bill proposes is that those surpluses should be used for the public transport purposes because the policies will be identifying the particular priorities and if the policies at any stage say that there should be a particular contingency fund built up for a particular project then that could all be included within the policies in the plan.

190. We readily accept that the clauses in the initial Bill may have been drafted too widely and that is why there was some criticism of them. I believe that the new clause, which I have taken the Committee to, at page 133 is a better drafted clause and the introduction of the reference to the Local Transport Plan is an appropriate safeguard.

191. It is often said that there is nothing new in the world and that is certainly true of the purpose behind this provision. At the expense of tiring the Committee I want to take two examples, one in England and one in Scotland. The example in England is the Dartford Crossing Order 2002, to which I have already referred. The government made it plain at the time of making that order that initially £2 million from the surplus would be allocated to Kent County Council and Thurrock Council for them to spend on local public transport and railway station improvements. The Committee will find the document dealing with that in the A series at A39, page 266. The government is still considering how it will use the additional surpluses. For the first time last week I saw a quantification of those when the Highways Agency issued a press release on 23 January estimating that there would be £50 million a year in Dartford Tunnel surpluses, so that is twice our most optimistic forecast for 2028 and that is why I said that our surpluses are tiny by comparison with those. Possible projects which the Minister mentioned on 4 April 2002 were, and the Chairman is well aware of this because he has mentioned it, new river crossings, improvements in and around the M25 and transport spending in the wider Thames Gateway area, London, Medway, North Kent and South Essex. That is in our bundle at page 266. The idea is that this money be broadly spent on a bundle of schemes in a very wide area.

192. CHAIRMAN: If I could just interject there, Mr George. The residents in and around other constituencies in Essex whose constituents contribute enormously by paying those tolls were disappointed that Thurrock Council received special treatment in this matter and wondered why they should not share part of the receipts. That was an extremely controversial matter and remains so today.

193. MR GEORGE: Without entering into that debate, I suspect that two propositions are clear. One, whatever one does, someone just over the line is going to say that they would have liked a bit extra and if you paid it to Thurrock I suspect there would be people in the next door constituency to Thurrock who would say they also drive through the Dartford Tunnel. One is always going to have a problem as to where the line is drawn but, as I understand it, the Minister does not plan that all the money is spent just in North Kent or in Thurrock. He is now making it quite plain that he intends that this 50 million is spent over a very wide area indeed but, as I say, we have not yet seen the particular projects.

194. The second example is Scotland and it is what is proposed for the Forth Bridge. The Committee may not be familiar with a measure with which I myself was unfamiliar, until I was involved in this Bill, namely the Forth Estuary Transport Authority Order 2002. That set up a new authority to control the Forth Bridge and it has been given much wider powers than hitherto because it includes a power to undertake roadworks, traffic management and public transport services aimed at reducing road traffic congestion on the bridge and encouraging an increase in the use of public transport across the Firth of Forth. We have included in our bundle at A40, page 274, a copy of that Order and the key article is Article 7(2). So a similar provision of looking at a congested area, looking at an area where there is a toll, providing not only will there be a surplus of the tolls but that it be spent on a variety of projects.

195. When debating the Transport Scotland Bill, which eventually became the Scottish Transport Act 2001 under which the Forth Estuary Order was made, the Scottish Minister for Transport referred to the growth of traffic and congestion on the Forth Bridge and to what she termed a "vital need to encourage a much more integrated approach to the strategic transportation planning of the road bridge, the traffic using the bridge, public transport alternatives and related road traffic routes across the Forth". The Committee may like to turn to A40, page 288, not least to see what the Scottish version of Hansard looks like. You will see there at page 288 that the Minister continued by saying: "The problem is not static, it is increasing.... The new joint board will have wider strategic and funding powers to tackle worsening congestion. That will provide a more integrated approach to strategic transport planning at the bridge....We intend to improve the availability and quality of transport provision, to make it easier for motorists to change their ways of reaching work by moving to different modes of travel, whether they are bus, rail or a mix of bus and rail." Those words might well have been spoken in relation to Dartford and they are equally apposite in the context of what Merseytravel plans to do in relation to the surpluses from the Mersey Tunnel.

196. There has been a suggestion that the surpluses should be entirely spent in the Wirral or entirely spent in the Wirral and the City of Liverpool, those being the two ends of the tunnel. I just suggest to the Committee five reasons why that would not be appropriate.

197. The first, which I term the integrated transport argument, is that public transport schemes do not respect district boundaries. It may be helpful just to remind the Committee of where the district boundaries in this area are. It is A2, which I intended to take the Committee to this morning but I did not. Then, for example, when the Committee have seen the boundary between the City of Liverpool and Knowsley, to turn perhaps to D13, and I am sorry to ask the Committee to leap around the bundle, where one sees a plan of the proposed Merseyside tramway system. I make it quite plain that that system may or may not go ahead. It is at present their number one transport priority but it will have to go through its own statutory procedures. As the Committee would expect, when you put in a major scheme for a tram, you do not just put in a tram within a particular district council's boundaries. Line one, for instance, starts in Knowsley before it comes into the City of Liverpool. I just mention that as an example.

198. Public transport schemes tend inevitably to cross boundaries. It is too obvious to say. The same will of course be true of bus routes. The same is true of railway lines and so forth. Therefore, it seems to us that the whole point of creating the PTA and a single transport authority for the region was so that one should look at public transport needs across the region as a whole and that is a view shared by all the districts in the region.

199. The second reason I call the integrated process argument, and I am sorry if that sounds rather like jargon. The point here is that Merseytravel's budget is spent on projects across Merseyside as a whole in accordance with the agreement of the five districts. There is not a stage of saying "Ah, you, one district council, have contributed x pounds and therefore you only qualify for x pounds of public transport expenditure in your particular area", the matter is looked at globally and there is no attempt to allocate the money in relation to the population or the contributions of the particular districts. The districts have given up that matter. They have said that overall there are benefits in pooling and if there is to be a general pooling, that is the concept, it seems to us appropriate that when one has the proceeds of the surpluses here they similarly should be pooled over the region.

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