Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence


Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON, BIRCHAM DYSON BELL.

The Petition of David Loudon, John McGoldrick and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined

100. MR GEORGE: There is not a similar problem of residential properties near the mouth of the tunnel.

101. CHAIRMAN: So that does not come into consideration. Are we talking of both ends of the Wallasey Tunnel?

102. MR GEORGE: No, we are only talking about the Wirral end. There is no residential property at the Liverpool end. It is simply that as you get on to the Wirral, you have quite a long approach road to the tunnel, which runs immediately beside several estates of residential properties. They are high up, and they look down over the tunnel and over the open road, so it is actually noise from the approach roads to the tunnel rather than from the tunnel itself, but the approach roads count as being part of the tunnel, and they are private roads, controlled by Merseytravel.

103. In summary, the Bill will do three things. It will secure financial stability and remove the need for occasional revision orders or local authority precepts. Financial stability is the first matter. Secondly, it will ensure that the existing balance of costs between public and private means of crossing the Mersey is maintained, and thereby delay the time when the tunnels reach saturation point. Thirdly, it will make available funds for the improvement of public transport in Merseyside in accordance with priorities determined through the local transport plan and following public consultation.

104. My Lords, can I turn to two matters now affecting the Secretary of State? The first is clause 92 of the Bill, which reserves a power to the Secretary of State to sanction an exceptional toll rise. It is page 19 in the bundle, it is clause 92: "If at any time it is represented in writing to the Secretary of State that in the circumstances then existing or in prospect all or any of the tolls fixed should be increased by more than" [the RPI], then he can make an order and he can order a public inquiry if he sees fit. This is aimed at exceptional circumstances, something wholly unforeseen whereby the tolls which you have are simply not enough and so, using the RPI mechanism, one can make an application and the Secretary of State will himself decide whether it is appropriate. It is subject to a safeguard in 92(3) that he has also to consider the financial position and future prospects of the tunnel, matters of a transportation nature and economic, environmental and social nature matters.

105. My Lord, there are those who say surely, if you have the RPI, you do not need this power. It seems to us sensible to have it as a reserve power. It is not a matter which is going to remain in Merseytravel's say-so as to whether it is used because the Secretary of State will have the ultimate control over that, and it seems to us that that is appropriate.

106. The second matter about the Secretary of State is to say that he made two reports when this Bill was before a Committee in another place. Your Lordships will be aware that it is Department practice to do that. On this occasion we have been told that he feels he has made his position sufficiently clear and it is unnecessary to have further reports, but your Lordships will find the two reports in A18 at pages 51 and 54. In short, the situation is that the Secretary of State is entirely content with the Bill. He makes no criticism of it whatsoever. But the Committee should not feel that the Secretary of State has been supine in this matter, because he did initially raise two matters of concern, and both his points of concern have been met by amendments which were made in the other place. First of all, he was concerned about a Directive, Directive 1999/62, which relates to certain classes of heavy goods vehicle, and he wanted to ensure that there would be compliance with that. If your Lordships look in the Bill at clause 91(4)(a), your Lordships will find that there is an express mention made of Directive 1999/62, which has endlessly to be borne in mind by Merseytravel when they are making increases. Therefore, that matter has been dealt with expressly. At page 54 of the bundle the Secretary of State has expressed himself as satisfied with that amendment. It is the very bottom of page 54.

107. The second matter which the Secretary of State was concerned about was the position when the debt had been paid off, and he felt that at that stage there ought to be some review before money continued to be spent on public transport as opposed to reducing tolls. That is the matter which has been dealt with by clause 91(5), a provision for consultation to which I have already referred your Lordships. If one goes to page 55 in the bundle, your Lordships will see that the Secretary of State is satisfied. It is the last paragraph on page 55. There are therefore no outstanding matters from the Secretary of State on the Bill.

108. Supporters now. I have already mentioned that the Bill has the support of all the five Merseyside districts. In so far as it is relevant, two of those are held by the Labour party, two are hung councils and one is held by the Liberal Democrats. That broad measure of local democratic support is, we would say, important, and your Lordships have the letters from the authorities and the reports in A17 at page 37, and I have referred to them.

109. The Bill was subject to widespread consultation before it was deposited, and the document is A15. At page 15 there is the letter which went out, at page 16 there is the consultation paper itself which went out, and the list of consultees is at page 28.

110. So far as the question of the RPI increase, your Lordships may be interested in the voting figures. Forty-six per cent were against and 45 per cent were in favour, the rest not expressing a view. So opinion was remarkably equally divided on that matter. One finds that at A16, page 33. Most of the organisations who were consulted supported the Bill, including the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce, Liverpool Vision and the North West Regional Assembly, and a number of trade unions support the Bill. In your bundle at A23-24, your Lordships will find petitions against alterations from two of the more significant unions, from ASLEF and from UNISON, who are both firm supporters, and indeed, I know that there is a representative of UNISON who has felt sufficiently strongly about the matter to be present in your Lordships' committee room today. At A22 there is a petition from Transport 2000, who are, of course, a very experienced and campaigning transport group, and they welcome all the provisions of the Bill. At page 87 in paragraph 9 they particularly welcome the index linking and the applying of surplus tolls to fund public transport projects, and they refer to the capacity problems at the top of page 88 at the end of paragraph 9.

111. I now turn to the Petitioners, and this is the very last matter. There is a single petition against the Bill, and it is in our bundle at A19. It is brought by two individuals and an Association. I make no bones about it: we did give serious consideration to whether to take a locus point, because in general, individuals are not allowed to be heard, and therefore we were particularly doubtful in the case of Mr Loudon and Mr McGoldrick, not least because they are the Chairman and the Secretary of this particular Association and it did not seem to us that they had really a separate interest. My Lords, it seemed to us that, by the time we had spent a couple of hours debating locus and so forth, it would be better to get on and consider the merits, and there it is. Likewise, your Lordships' House allows you to hear a transport body. That will normally be a wide-ranging transport body, rather than a single interest focus group, such as the Tunnel Users' Group, who were formed particularly in relation to the tunnel, but there it is; they are here, and we are not taking a point, and your Lordships will make of their case what you will.

112. Turning to the petition, my Lords, could I first of all draw your attention to paragraph 5 of the petition, where your Lordships will see the three aims of the Tunnel Users' Group. So far as aims 2 and 3, those are matters entirely outwith the scope of the Bill and your Lordships' consideration, because Merseytravel is charged with running these tunnels, and we have no way of converting them into part of the normal road network, and likewise, they would prefer them to be run by a new organisation rather than ourselves. Parliament has entrusted us with the power, and that remains with us until there is some legislative change.So far as item 1, your Lordships see what their real concern is: that they want their money solely used for the tunnels and not spent on other purposes.

113. My Lord, there used to be a convention that at this stage counsel read out the entirety of the petition. I hope your Lordships feel that is unnecessary. It is a fairly short petition and I anticipate that your Lordships will probably have had a chance already to see it. What I propose to do is merely to highlight what seem to me to be the main matters in it, with cross­reference to the paragraphs, and give you a one-sentence response to the points. I hope that will be sufficient, but if your Lordships would like me to read the entire petition, of course I will do so.

114. CHAIRMAN: We are greatly relieved, Mr George.

115. MR GEORGE: My Lord, it seemed to us that the Petition, really, is under four heads. If I simply deal with the four headings and group together some of the paragraphs. The first point which is made is that there is no justification for the Bill. Under that main heading, as it seems to us, the Petitioners make four sub-points, and it is to those four sub-points which I now turn.

116. First of all, they say that the present system works well and fairly (that is their paragraph 9) and that, therefore, there is no need for change. My Lord, we doubt that the present system does work well. It seems to us that if one looks at what happened in the 1980s and 1990s it is quite apparent that the present system did not work well and that it is appropriate to follow the Severn and Dartford precedents and introduce the RPI mechanism.

117. Their second sub-head is to say that it is highly unlikely that recourse will ever have to be made to the district councils as between 1988 and 1992. On that they may be right; we hope it will not ever be necessary to go back to the district councils, but unless the system is changed there will remain that risk. That is their paragraph 11. The fact that the local authorities concerned support the Bill is an indication that they think that it is necessary to prevent there having to be a fallback on them in the future.

118. Their third sub-head is to say that the safety and other works proposed are either not essential or not cost-effective or they should be financed differently. There, my lords, we simply do not know what works they say are unnecessary. It seems to us that all the works on which we are presently engaged or about to be engaged are essential works and they will be done at the proper price for the works.

119. Then the last sub-head under "No Justification for the Bill", is that they say that it is not necessary to raise tolls to manage demand. One finds this in their paragraphs 8, 13 and 15. They say that demand for the tunnels is largely inelastic. I shall be calling evidence both from Mr Wilkinson and Mr Bates on this matter. It seems to us to be self-evident that there are constraints on the capacity of the tunnels and that unless the tolls are raised in line with public transport costs that capacity will be reached earlier than otherwise.


 
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