Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380-399)



380. MR McGOLDRICK: I am not sure I understand that, my Lord. (9)(b) seems to clearly indicate if it is exactly 5p then it would be increased by 5p.

381. MR GEORGE: My Lord, can I intervene, because I believe as a matter of law that as one reads it that in this case Mr McGoldrick is right. If it comes to exactly 5p (9)(b) means you can charge the 5p. If it is more than 5p you can charge 10p and it is rounded up. If it comes to exactly 5p that is administratively inconvenient to collect and we then use the power under clause 92(c)(i) to waive the 5p and we do not collect the 5p, and we wait until it reaches a point where it is above the 5p and we can charge the full 10p. That is how it works. The Act gives us the power to charge the precise 5p, but for administrative reasons we choose not to actually charge it at exactly 5p. We cannot go straight from 5p to 10p because, as Mr McGoldrick points out, we are only entitled under (9)(b) to the 5p and, therefore, we have to forego it until we reach a position when we can charge the whole 10p. The mechanism is under 92(c) which enables us to do that

382. MR McGOLDRICK: Can we then turn to page 80 Exhibit B.25 which illustrates the effect of the RPI trigger. If we look at November 2004 it seems to have a determined level of exactly 5p; and yet that appears to then result in a toll increase of 20p or 10p but it appears to be rounded up?

(Mr Wilkinson) My Lord, in printing the table I chose to show only to one decimal place. The exact calculation is 135.04p. Taking legal advice I was assured that anything over 5p looked as though it would produce a £1.40 toll but not guaranteeing, my Lord, that that will be the case, there is an estimate here of inflationary movements until November this year; but if that happens then my interpretation is that would justify a toll of £1.40p.

383. My Lord, could we turn to page 81, Exhibit B.26 which is headed "Initial Toll Increase/Traffic Reclassification". When I first saw this I must admit I did not quite appreciate what was happening, but Mr Wilkinson explained yesterday that the authorities are intending to reduce the existing four classes down to two classes. Perhaps I can explain the classes: 2, 3 and 4 relate to heavy goods vehicles, and class 1 is cars and light vans. I think Mr Wilkinson said that that would result in a 10 per cent increase in traffic - that is heavy goods vehicles traffic. The average heavy goods vehicles would in fact be paying approximately £1 less even though tolls otherwise would have gone up. Is that correct?

(Mr Wilkinson) Generally speaking, that is correct, my Lord. I would perhaps have chosen a different definition of the classes of traffic which would benefit from this change in classification. I do not think it right to refer to as them as "heavy goods traffic"; there are some light goods and medium goods vehicles in that category.

384. Is it correct that we could have different definitions of what was "heavy" or not? Is it correct that classes 2, 3 and 4 are all over 3.5 tonnes gross weight?

(Mr Wilkinson) That is correct. That is the weight definition I referred to in my earlier evidence.

385. MR McGOLDRICK: I cannot quite figure out what 3.5 tonnes looks like but I would regard that as being a heavy goods vehicle.

386. LORD BRADSHAW: There is a strict definition of what is a heavy goods vehicle and what is a light goods vehicle which is plainly available to anybody coming before the Committee.

387. CHAIRMAN: I agree, from my experience.

(Mr Wilkinson) The 3.5 tonnes is gross weight, a laden vehicle and not an empty one.

388. MR McGOLDRICK: Can I not use the expression "heavy goods vehicles" and just refer to vehicles with a gross weight of over 3.5 tonnes. Why are the authorities apparently encouraging such vehicles to use the tunnels more intensively than they do at the moment?

(Mr Wilkinson)My Lord, it is not in a sense the prime purpose of this initiative, to encourage the traffic. The prime purpose, as I thought I explained in my earlier evidence, is to assist throughput of that traffic and to lead to operational savings.For example, at the Queensway Tunnel at the present moment, only two classes of traffic are permitted through, class 1 and class 2. Classes 3 and 4 are banned from the tunnel on safety grounds as heavy vehicles. At the present moment, however, a class 2 vehicle has to use a staffed lane because it is only in the staffed lane that the distinction can be made between the two classes of vehicles.If we can merge, as it were, class 2 vehicles with class 1 vehicles, then all of the commercial traffic using that tunnel can go through the automatic lanes. They deal with toll collection so much faster. We will remove the height restrictors, we will speed up throughput, and I should not be saying this, but I do envisage the need for fewer staffed lanes in due course with potential operating cost savings. I have now revealed my hand to the trade unions, my Lord!

389. Can you tell us, Mr Wilkinson, when the Authority discussed and agreed this reclassification of vehicles?

(Mr Wilkinson)The Authority has not discussed or agreed this reclassification of vehicles, my Lord.It is a projection based on a range of assumptions, the first of which is that this Bill will be approved by the Select Committee, ultimately by the House of Lords, and will ultimately gain Royal Assent. It also assumes certain movement in retail price indices in the period between now and November 2004. What it does, however, have is the backing of the Chair of the Authority and the Vice Chair of the Authority, both of whom are in this room and can verify, if necessary, that the matter has been discussed and agreed with them.

390. CHAIRMAN: Is it right to say then that this exhibit B26 is a proposal which has not yet been put into effect?

(Mr Wilkinson) It is a proposal, my Lord, quite right, which has not yet been put into effect because the circumstances are not yet in place.

391. MR McGOLDRICK: Can I just confirm that when you say it is a proposal, it is a proposal which has not been discussed by the Authority?

(Mr Wilkinson) I hope I made it clear, my Lord, that it is a proposal which has not been formally approved by the Authority, but it has political backing.

392. Can we turn to exhibit A28 on page 84, which is similar to the figures we looked at on page 74, which were the financial projections assuming there was no toll increase. Page 84 is the final projections assuming that there are regular toll increases, and the main difference between this table and the other table is that obviously toll income is higher and there is an increase in profit. Am I correct in assuming that all the figures with a star by them in the column headed "Losses and profits" are profits that Merseytravel could take out of the tunnels and use for other purposes?

(Mr Wilkinson) My Lord, I would have to agree that that is exactly the correct interpretation of this exhibit, but with the caveat which I indicated yesterday, that this assumes a certain range of economic assumptions, but it also assumes that each toll rise which is justified, if I can put it that way, under the terms of this Bill is in fact implemented and is not tempered or deferred by the Passenger Transport Authority.

393. Assuming that Merseytravel chooses that it will not defer toll rises and implements them on the basis of the assumptions that you have made in this projection, am I correct in thinking that the column of profits which Merseytravel can take out of the tunnels adds up to just over £290 million?

(Mr Wilkinson) I would not dispute that figure.

394. Can we turn to B29, which is page 86, which is entitled, "Noise Insulation Map". There is no scale on this, but at this particular point where the tunnel runs under the river, the river from the sea wall on one side to the sea wall on the other is approximately 850 metres. On that basis, the road edged in red, heading towards the north-east on the map seems to project approximately 800 metres from the tunnel approach road. As Mr George pointed out this morning, the limit is in fact 300 metres with a very small margin which would be the equivalent to about half a house. Why has the illustration been given which seems to be well outside what the Authority could do if it was to use the equivalent of the 1970 Noise Insulation Regulations?

(Mr Wilkinson) Well, the map is not intended to be definitive. It was drawn up by consultants who advised both ourselves and Wirral Borough Council of the potentially eligible roads. It is not intended, as I said, to be a definitive map that includes or excludes particular properties. The decision will need to be made in due course in strict conformity with the Noise Insulation Regulations.

395. Why would consultants make what appears to be such a gross error?

(Mr Wilkinson) I cannot answer that question. The map is indicative of roads that are potentially eligible in accordance with the Noise Insulation Regulations, the decibel levels that prevailed when that consultancy work was undertaken.

396. LORD BRADSHAW:Could it possibly be that the roads concerned are in fact more heavily trafficked as a result of the Mersey tunnels having been built and, therefore, have traffic diverted over them which did not previously use those roads?

(Mr Wilkinson) I think, my Lord, that is entirely true and I did indicate in my evidence to the Committee yesterday that there have been alleviating works which Merseytravel have introduced in recent years, including, if you recall, a reference to whisper asphalt on the carriageway and the planting of trees on tunnel land.

397. CHAIRMAN: Mr McGoldrick, you referred, I thought I heard you say, to the road to the north-east. Do you not mean the north-west? Is it the right-hand side of the "y"?

398. MR McGOLDRICK: It is, yes, I apologise. That is correct. Still on the matter of the noise insulation, you mentioned yesterday that the Wallasey Tunnel or at least the first tube of it opened in 1971.It is now 2004. Why is it that no action has been taken up to now?

(Mr Wilkinson) The issue of noise insulation is one that has quite a lengthy history. I think it perhaps would be helpful to the Committee to understand that the cutting in which the approach road runs to the Kingsway Tunnel was originally a railway line and that many of the properties were built while that railway line was in existence. Leaving all that on one side, the pressure from residents began to grow quite considerably during the 1980s as traffic through the Kingsway Tunnel built up. Now, we have co-operated with Wirral Borough Council in trying to find a solution to that problem. The law, as it stands, does not allow either Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority or Wirral Borough Council to take steps to deal with the issue under the Noise Insulation Regulations. It is, I understand in legal terms, referred to as a lacuna in that it falls between two stools. We have tried seeking a dispensation from the Department for Transport for permission for the exercise of the functions of the incurring of expenditure to deal with this problem as a one-off and that permission was refused because the Minister felt that it might set unwelcome precedent in other areas. We, therefore, felt that the only way to deal with the problem was to seek legislation.

399. MR McGOLDRICK: Still on the matter of the noise insulation, you said yesterday that the Authority wanted to be as generous as possible, and I think you may have mentioned a couple of items which Mr George possibly indicated would not be covered by the Noise Insulation Regulations, such as landscaping and fencing. Can I ask you to turn to page 112 of the Bill, which is A25. On page 9 of the Bill, clause 109A, at the bottom of paragraph (4), the Authority seems to be being given power, "Except when to do so would be inconsistent with the provisions of this section or otherwise inappropriate in the circumstances, the Authority shall determine…" That seems to give the Authority fairly wide powers, wider than the Noise Insulation Regulations as to what money it spends on noise insulation.

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