Examinations of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)
MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON, BIRCHAM
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.
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
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?
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
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?
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,
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?
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
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
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
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?
Yes, they do.