Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence

Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)


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

280. CHAIRMAN: Can I just stop you on that. I, too, and, I am sure, all the Committee, are worried by this extremely low response. I do not say for one minute, and I am sure none of my colleagues would, that is any fault of yours, but it is just a statement of fact. If you have only got 300 plus replies to over 12,000, it puts a question mark in my mind straight away on what is the validity of the response.

(Mr Wilkinson): My Lord, if I may say so, I understand that for written consultations of this nature a 2 per cent response is reckoned to be quite normal. We had actually a 2.5 per cent response, so it is slightly above what is normal. I can only say that all the responses were independently booked into the system - not by me but by other staff - and independently registered in one way or the other, and those responses are still on file. We did everything we could to get people to respond to us.

281. CHAIRMAN: I am sure you did, Mr Wilkinson. I hope I made that clear in my opening comments. It is just it is so small, I do not quite know what credence to put on it. I make no further comment.

282. LORD BROOKMAN: I agree with Mr Wilkinson. That is not an unusual response rate. It shows tremendous apathy in various quarters of our society.

283. MR GEORGE: My Lord, all I can say is that the people who are opposed to things are the most likely to respond, usually, rather than supporters. That tends to be the way, certainly, of planning applications and, probably, of transport projects as well. Mr Wilkinson, I just wanted to turn to the Petition. I do not want to take you through every paragraph of the Petition, for a moment. Can you just help me on the question of labour, mobility, competition, inward investment and visitors? It is said they are going to be damaged by this toll. Do you know of any evidence to support that allegation?

(Mr Wilkinson): I can put it this way: I know a man who has got some evidence, and that is Mr Bates, who will put it to you. As I understand it, he will be able to show there is no evidence that increasing or reducing tolls would have the effects which are claimed in the Petition. On the contrary, surveys indicate that tolls are not a disincentive to investment, and actually help to protect the economy of the Wirral from competition from other areas.

284. Second matter: it is said that demand for the tunnel use is inelastic and, therefore, your RPI tolls are not really going to have any effect on controlling car numbers in the tunnel.

(Mr Wilkinson): My Lords, the powers sought in the Bill will have a double effect, in my view, on traffic levels. Putting tolls up in line with inflation will help to manage the traffic growth. Equally, if we can improve public transport facilities and offer them as alternatives to people who are currently coming through the Mersey Tunnels in their car, or who may be tempted to switch to doing so, we can improve the public transport facilities, we will have, if you like, two weapons going at the same time. I do not want to use the word "carrot and stick" but, effectively, that is the best description I can think of. Improvements in public transport facilities as alternatives to users of the tunnel, alongside the fact that the price of the facility will be going up.

285. It is said we are premature pending the decision on the new Runcorn Bridge and, in particular, whether it should be tolled. I dealt with this in opening. Is there anything you want to add?

(Mr Wilkinson): I do not believe that comparisons with the Runcorn Bridge are valid, my Lords. It is true that the total annual traffic over the Runcorn Bridge is roughly equivalent to the volume of traffic using the Mersey Tunnel on a daily basis, but it is not at the same time. The Runcorn Bridge handles something like 60 per cent of our tunnel traffic at peak time; it is not the same facility. It is not a valid comparison, it is 25 miles away from the Birkenhead side of the river and, therefore, it is wrong to make a comparison and it is wrong to even think of an issue to do with the Runcorn Bridge having anything at all to do with this Bill. In my opinion, anyway.

286. Lastly, the reserve power to the Secretary of State. It is Clause 92 of the Bill which retains the right to apply to the Secretary of State. It is said if you have the RPI clause it is otiose and it should not be included. Why do we include it?

(Mr Wilkinson): There are really two compelling arguments in favour of this clause. The first is that in the event of some disaster, that might lead to the closure of one or both of the tunnels to traffic; we could find ourselves in a situation where we could not collect the toll income in sufficient quantity and we would need to subsidise the facility. It would have to be a permanent change, a permanent detrimental change in the tunnels' finances to trigger this clause. We do not expect that if we apply for a toll rise using this procedure that it would be a piece of cake - it would be anything but, because it is almost certain there would be a local public inquiry, and that many people would want to have their say on the issue. The other argument, however, is to do with toll classifications. We have a toll classification currently based on a mixture of a weight limit of 3.5 tonnes, a capacity limit on vehicles carrying more than 9 passengers. Then we have it mixed up with axles - 2 axles, 3 axles and 4 axles. We may find changes in vehicle taxation or licensing in due course that would make it opportune for us to come back and change the toll classification. I am not suggesting, for a moment, changing the tolls themselves but merely the classification of traffic to respond to the sort of statutory changes of that nature. If you think I am overdoing this, can I just point out that the issue here is to resolve disputes with users on the toll plaza? When you set a tolling system you try to set a system that is capable of visual identification without argument with a toll user. At the moment we have a system whereby a toll booth operator can look at the tax disc of a vehicle or walk round the back of the vehicle if necessary and see if they have got the chevron signs on at the back to show they are plated. There should be no argument with users as to what toll a vehicle should pay.

287. One technical point taken about this reserve power is the Petitioners say if it was used there would then be a toll rise approved by the Secretary of State and that would then become the basis for any further RPI increases, and is that fair? What observation do you have on that matter? In particular, if the RPI increase thereafter proved to be unnecessary would Merseytravel make the increase or use the power not to have the entire increase?

(Mr Wilkinson): On the general point I have to say that I think it entirely right that if we undergo a toll revision process of this nature, and therefore establish a new base for the Mersey Tunnel tolls then the RPI trigger should apply to that new base. I see no difficulty with that. I do not really think I can add much to the explanation.

288. LORD BROOKMAN: I am confused. The Bill is a Government Bill. It is not by Mr Wilkinson.

289. MR GEORGE: The PTA are promoting the Bill and, of course, Mr Wilkinson is merely a very senior officer of the PTA.

290. CHAIRMAN: Mr George, I have one question. I may have misinterpreted this. In the Bill, Schedule 1, Clause 91 (page 5) it specifies what the authorised toll will be, as I understand it, if the Bill becomes law. Am I right so far?

291. MR GEORGE: Yes, my Lord.

292. CHAIRMAN: There are there four classes. Again, am I right, so far? £1.20, £2.40, £3.60 and £4.80 for classes one to four. I am then confused when you took us to Exhibit B26 on page 81, which seemed to predicate that Classes 1 and 2 were going to be merged and Classes 3 and 4 were going to be merged. I am lost.

293. MR GEORGE: What is set out in Clause 6 is simply the maximum authorised toll. It remains in the discretion of the PTA to decide what the actual toll should be and if it decides to charge a lesser toll, for instance, for Class 2 but the same as for Class 1, that is within its powers, because all the Bill authorises is the maximum toll; it then leaves it open to the PTA to charge a lesser sum. In that way, it can in fact amalgamate classes of toll in the way in which is indicated.

294. CHAIRMAN: That is a perfectly wonderful legal reply, if I may say so.

295. MR GEORGE: I hope, my Lord, it is correct.

296. CHAIRMAN: I am sure it is accurate. I am not disputing that at all. It is not, with respect, what the lay reader would interpret.

297. MR GEORGE: Mr Wilkinson, did I get it right?

(Mr Wilkinson): Yes, Mr George did get it right. Perhaps I can add a degree of explanation to the thinking behind that. The drafting of the Bill has regard to the toll levels which have been in force since the end of November 1999 and they are as set out on page 5 of the Bill, in Clause 6. What I was trying to say earlier was that if approval was given to an RPI trigger to toll rises, it may be that the first toll rise triggered by that procedure would enable us to put tolls up from £1.20 to £1.40. In the normal course of events all those figures you have seen, therefore, in the Bill would increase by about 20p or multiples of 20p. What I am saying is that we see this as an opportunity to get a 20p toll increase, to give some of that back to certain classes of users. Those users are those who have got four-axle vehicles or who have currently two axles. From an operational point of view, just to explain this, it would mean, for example, that we could have a single toll through the Queensway Tunnel because Class 3 and Class 4 vehicles are not allowed through that tunnel. We have got a weight restriction on that for safety reasons ----

298. CHAIRMAN: You explained that extremely well earlier on, you have again explained it, and thank you for doing so. It struck me as being a confusing issue between Exhibit B26 and the figures produced on page 5, but I do not think we want to dwell on that any more.

299. LADY SALTOUN OF ABERNETHY: I am not sure if this is the right place to ask this. I understand that there are ferries which cross the Mersey. Do they have any relevance to this Bill?

(Mr Wilkinson): Yes, they do.

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2004