Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bills Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 680-699)

MR CHARLES GEORGE QC and MISS JOANNA CLAYTON.

BIRCHAM DYSON BELL and MR JOHN McGOLDRICK examined

680. "…the Minister shall…if any person or body which appears to the Minister to be sufficiently representative of persons who have a substantial interest in the use of the tunnel to which the order applies has objected to the order and not withdrawn the objection …" That certainly does not give the impression that they are talking about only one person and that is, to a certain extent, reinforced by the next paragraph which says that there were 177 objections and one of them was a multiple objection from our association which only counted as one and, despite that, they were not definite as to whether they were going to hold a public inquiry or not. I would suggest that if only one person had objected, there would have been no chance of a public inquiry. The Minister would just have confirmed his order.

681. Pages 18, 19, 19A and 20 are extracts from some of the local newspapers. The purpose here is to try and stop any impression which you may have that somehow the petitioners are just odd objectors and that the majority of people on Merseyside are in favour of toll rises. So, these are just samples of some of the headlines. The first one is December 2001 which is shortly after the Bill was deposited in the Commons and you will see the headline there, "Stop the Toll Rise" and you will see the logo that the Liverpool Echo ran, "Stop the Tunnel Tax." The Liverpool Echo is the biggest circulation newspaper on Merseyside by a long chalk. Turning to page 20, the Wirral Globe is one of the two free newspapers which are circulated to every house on the Wirral. This is a slightly more recent one a year ago, the Wirral Globe, special edition, "Scrap the tolls" and you can see their logo there, "Scrap the tolls. Free Tunnels."

682. We slipped in an extra page, page 19A, just in case you might recognise the face, a yet more recent one from last month, "Tunnels fight not over yet. Defeat in the Lords has not killed off opposition to unpopular Mersey tolls Bill" and there is a face that you may recognise holding up the Wirral Globe's logo, "Scrap the Tolls". Over the years that these Bills have been running, there have been various articles contained in various newspapers. Just as an example of one of them, on page 20, we have a Wirral businessman, Frank Brennan. I am not quite sure if this is a letter or an article. It appears as an article. He is saying, as per the headlines, "Kill the tolls and breathe life into business."

683.The next few pages, pages 21 through to about page 30, are basically some of the responses that we managed to get copies of from some of the organisations that were consulted by Merseytravel and, basically, the pattern is that most organisations have no objection whatsoever to insulation grants. They all object to, as the Freight Transport Association letter puts it, the cross-subsidisation of local public transport services. They all oppose the removal of the requirement to reduce tolls when the debt is paid up and some of the letters go into more detail saying that they generally do not like tolls and, in particular, the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce letter goes a bit further than just responding to the question put by Merseytravel and pages 29 and 30 are some additional comments which the Chamber wish to make.

684. On pages 31 and 32, we could not trace if the Wirral Chamber of Commerce had responded. That does not mean to say that they did not because some of the organisations that we contacted that we thought would have been consulted and would have responded, such as the RAC, said there is no record of it and similarly with the Wirral Chamber of Commerce. They are fairly central to the issue of whether the Wirral is being penalised. We asked them for what they thought of the Bill. Do I have time to go through the whole letter, my Lord?

685. CHAIRMAN: If you wish. Nothing is to stop you making your case.

686. MR McGOLDRICK: Basically, the letter has been provided just for this Committee although it has been addressed to us and what they are saying, if you see at the end of the third paragraph, is, "The Chamber's view is that tolls are detrimental to the wider Merseyside economy and that of the Wirral in particular" and go on to say, "The tolls are an added cost to business, a burden which businesses in no other area are forced to bear in the same measure" and comments on the Objective One status and then, turning to page 32, it goes on:

687. "Taking this into account it would surely be a nonsense to enshrine tunnel tolls for time immemorial as an extra burden on the local economy long after the period in which they need to be collected at such a high level."

688. The next paragraph relates to complaints specifically relating to goods vehicles and the following paragraph is about the fact that one of the major industries on the Wirral is tourism and, when Mr George's expert was going through the various sectors this morning, I presume that tourism was lost in "other services" or something like that, but there is relatively little industries within the Wirral District Council area. To a large extent, Wirral is a dormitory suburb and people have to travel out of the Wirral either in the direction of Liverpool and further afield or in the direction of Cheshire and North Wales to seek employment. One of the few industries that we do have that is successful is tourism and obviously that is not helped by having a toll road going into a tourist area.

689. In the next paragraph, the Chamber are saying that ideally they would like to see tolls removed and financed from national taxation and, in the last paragraph, they are saying that it would be a grievous blow to the businesses of Wirral if the Bill were passed in its present form.

690. While I am on consultation, there may be the impression that the councils are 100 per cent behind the Bill and, to some extent, that is true but it is not 100 per cent true. If I can refer you to page 50 in bundle A of Merseytravel's submission, A17, where we have the letters from the district councils which are in favour of the Merseytravel's proposals, this is just to point out that it is not 100 per cent. If you look at the last page of the Wirral Council's submission under item (b) where the question from Merseytravel was, "Should the requirement to reduce tolls when the tunnel debt is paid off be removed?" and the response from the Wirral Council is "No."

691. If I can turn back to the main set of documents that they submitted, you will probably be aware that accountants can always produce figures in lots of different ways which may give different impressions and all we have done here at pages 33, 34 and 35 is give three alternative views of the table that Merseytravel submitted as to the finances over the last 25 years or so. Page 33 is our view and pages 34 and 35 are two earlier views that Merseytravel themselves had.

692. One of the questions was about the financing of the tunnels in the past and to what extent they came out of the rates. We half anticipated that by putting page 36 in but we then supplemented that with page 36A. It relates to the year 1968/69. There is nothing special about 1968/69, we have not picked on that because it is in some way different to any other year. We have only shown 1968/69 because, of the more recent table that Merseytravel submitted, that was the first year. If you look at the two pages that you now have, pages 36A and 36, in fact page 36A is the one you should probably look at first. It is headed, "1-PRECEPT ACCOUNT". In case that is not clear, basically that means that, under the legislation, Liverpool, Birkenhead and Wallasey were obliged to pay a precept towards the tunnels. What then happened, due to the way in which the Acts were worded, which is demonstrated at page 36 where we can see what has happened at the tolls, as you can see, in 1968/69, the tolls in the far right-hand column were approximately £1.8 million and, on the left, you can see some of the items that that went on. A fairly substantial amount went on actually collecting the tolls and there is expenditure on the police and expenditure on debt charges. Another fairly substantial amount is spent on the ferries and then you will see that the next item is, "Statutory appropriation of tolls" whereby the districts were able to get the money back. The bottom item you will see is, "Distribution of surplus" where basically, even after all of that, the tunnels were making a surplus and they were paying money into reserve funds. Again, if you were to compare that with the Merseytravel figures, you will see that they are actually saying that there was a loss in 1968/69 and we are at a loss to see how those figures could be interpreted as being a loss.

693. Pages 37 and 38 are basically the Mersey tunnels published accounts which are published along with Merseytravel accounts, they are just the two pages. I think we were mainly originally including them just to give you some sort of picture of where the money goes now, it is the equivalent of the earlier statements which I have been through and page 38 is the balance sheet. What is not highlighted here, if I can go back on one of the points that Merseytravel have made, is that they have said that the Merseytravel accounts are audited by the district auditor and they are given a clean bill of health and I am sure that that is a correct statement, but one of the things that concerns us is that these published accounts for the Mersey tunnels as shown here are not in fact included in the district auditor's certificates. That does not mean to say that they are wrong but it begs the question as to why the district auditor has not certified them particularly as the tunnels accounts are statutory accounts under the County of Merseyside Act, 1980.

694. Pages 39 and 40 are the draft revenue budget for the Mersey tunnels for the next year, so you can see, at the time this was prepared, what the estimate was of toll etc income which is some £33 million and where that money would be going on.

695. Page 40 is some statistics that Merseytravel produce for tunnels and for other services to support the Budget statement. So you will see, amongst other things, how many employees there are at the tunnels and how many of those are on traffic control, which is basically the police as I understand it, how many maintain the tunnels, which appears to be 35, how many are collecting the tolls etcetera, which appears to be 58, and how many are involved in management and administration, which appears to be 28.

696. Pages 41, 42, 43 and 44 are the latest capital programmes of Merseytravel. It is the latest one or the one that they considered recently. It may have been slightly amended since. One of the figures that has been mentioned during the Committee hearing has been the spending of approximately £10 million on safety work in the Birkenhead tunnel for refuges or escape ways into the bottom half of the tunnel. The reason for submitting this was to put that £10 million or so spending in the context of the overall capital programme which, as you can see, is £91 million over the next few years or so. When you look through the detail it is difficult to put your finger on where the £91 million is going. The impression that we get as tunnel users, obviously not being in any way experts in the maintenance of tunnels and being complete laymen and not knowing anything at all about it, is that it is difficult to envisage with the wide variety of work which is already programmed here that there can be much left that could be replaced or refurbished.

697. Pages 45 and 46 ---

698. CHAIRMAN: Sorry, Mr McGoldrick, just before we go on. There seems to be a discrepancy between pages 41 and 44 and the discrepancy appears to me to be in 2009/10. You have different totals there. Page 41, the total for 2009/10 is 9,800,000 whereas on page 44 it is 5,857,000.

699. MR McGOLDRICK: I cannot explain that. I had not noticed it. These are not our figures, these are taken from the Merseytravel budgets capital programme figures.


 
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