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Posted by: John Brace | 7th February 2014

What did politicians say when they put up Mersey Tunnel tolls and how did they vote?

What did politicians say when they put up Mersey Tunnel tolls and how did they vote?

                               

Budget Meeting, Merseyside Integrated Transport Authority
Thursday, 6th February, 2014 2.30 pm

Agenda Item 4 (Tunnel Toll Setting 2014/15). The report for this agenda item can be downloaded from Merseytravel’s website.

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair, (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): Item four is the tunnel tolls setting process for 2014/2015, Gary and Frank do you want to introduce the report?

Merseytravel officer (Gary Evans, Head of Customer Delivery): Thank you Chair. Members will have the report in front of them, just to summarise the report it’s very consistent with previous year’s toll setting arrangements. Section two of the report details the legal process that the Authority must follow in considering and setting toll levels for the year. Section three actually details the authorised toll levels that were triggered in line with the Tunnels Act 2004 by RPI levels published in November 2013.

Section four covers the actual tolls that have been charged over the past five years and helps give Members a historical view around the authorised levels compared to actual levels charged along with the Fast Tag discount offered and that detail is in section four. Section five of the report, in determining the tolls Members must take account of issues of an economic and social nature in their decision making process. Section five details a range of economic and social data for the Merseyside region for 2013. This range of evidence will allow Members to have a considered opinion.

In section six Members will be aware that some of the principles of the Tunnels Act are to ensure that toll levels are broadly in line with other transport options in the region and section six details the cost of those alternative or comparable cross river transport services in place. Finally section eight of the report it details that any potential toll increase of ten pence, passed on vehicles in other classes generates the Authority approximately £2.4 million per an annum. I’m happy to take any questions on that report.

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): OK thanks Gary. Are there any questions or comments for Gary in the first instance? Steve?

Cllr Steve Foulkes (Wirral Council, Labour): Thanks Chair and clearly as a Wirral representative it’s a highly sensitive issue and a difficult issue for Wirral Members to deal with because I think it is well accepted that the major impact of the tunnel toll increase does fall on Wirral residents and a great number of other residents indeed who use the tunnel on a daily basis as a commuter route or route to work. So clearly it is a difficult issue, I just want to lay out though a few issues.

This is my, having been new to the Authority last year this is the second time I’ve been confronted by this difficult decision and it is a decision we have to make because there’s a little bit of a clue in the name of this organisation, it’s the integrated transport authority and those people who want to separate the tunnel as a separate entity are missing a trick. The tunnel is integral to the things we do. Integrated transport means all routes whether it be bus, whether it be train, whether it be ferry, whether it be people who use the tunnel and the tunnel is in our ownership. So it falls upon us to make this, make this difficult, often very difficult decision.

One of the factors Gary referred to is the issue in and around the economy and whilst we are being told by the government everything’s great and the economy’s on the uplift. The economy always grows slower in the north-west. I think the economy at the moment is the, economic growth is so fragile that the tunnel toll in our sort of own mini economic scenario may be something that doesn’t help the economy, in fact hinders it and slows it down even further. At the same time as hailing that the economy is on the up, Chancellor Osborne consistently refers to further austerity packages.

Austerity for the north west, well austerity for local government means you are singled out and are hit with the biggest cuts. Austerity for north-west local authorities means that you are picked out for the most severe cuts and the highest percentages. I won’t quote the examples but we are always hit hardest, perhaps because we lack a number of Tory MPs. So therefore I think the tunnel tolls, partly by being part of the integrated transport network is also part of the overall budgetary position that the Authority finds itself in.

Now individuals can pick which topic they think extra money made from tunnel tolls is spent on, others can pick ones that are more favourable, others can pick ones that are less favourable, but nevertheless it does form part of the overall budget package. So any money that isn’t, is removed by any resolution today, would have to be found and replaced. So I’m glad that later on in the business the Authority is setting a freeze on the levy for the local authorities and that will certainly ease the position for any council tax payer over on the Wirral. And if the money, if the tunnel tolls say overnight were to be free and passed onto the council tax payer directly I think that would be an enormous burden for every single household particularly Wirral and elsewhere.

That would be impossible to bear and would not get through a referendum Chair I would add. People would vote against something that would lead to a ten percent hike on Council Tax simply to pay for the tunnels. So we are in a position where we have to make a budgetary decision in and around that based on the knowledge we have in front of us.

My argument has been since I’ve come on the Authority and before that position is that this link between across the Mersey or links across the Mersey is such of economic, national economic significance that it should have the right to be included in the national road network and therefore funded directly from national taxation as opposed to what is a local taxation situation. It appears our plea last year was unheard and it also appears that consultation that is taking place at the moment actually picks out estuary crossings for one that will always be tolled under this government’s consultation. So I think, if nothing else happened today, we need to get lobbying and make sure that that exemption is removed and that we have the right to campaign for the tunnels to be taken into the national road network and see how far we get with that. So clearly there’s those issues.

The other issue is that the overall budget of the ITA must be robust enough to maintain the running and safety of those tunnels because we would know that the economic damage done by say one tunnel going down or you know heaven forbid two tunnels in a state that they couldn’t remain open would be massively detrimental to our economic recovery, in fact it would probably see the economy off overnight. So we have to have a robust budget and people think that whilst the tunnels are well maintained, there’s a reason for that because the cost of the serious and major repair and damage to the infrastructure of the tunnel itself would exceed you know many people’s budget, we’d probably have to borrow money to actually do that. So it is well that we remember that, that this budget should be robust and a high level of reserves to dig your .. major repairs if necessary.

So having said all those things I do not believe that this is the right time in the economic cycle for us to increase the tunnel tolls for all the I can see the temptation to do so and from my part I haven’t prepared any resolution otherwise, but will probably unless someone convinces me in the next part of the debate will see myself actually voting against the increase based on the fragile economy that we are part of that the tunnel toll increase at this time would be the wrong route but I do believe, I do believe seriously that if we are serious about getting into the national road network we need to up our game and certainly we have one Conservative MP on Merseyside who should have the ear of government.

It would appear that the ground can change overnight, when we look at the decision on the A14 which was to be financed by tolls and it so happens that the Tory MP had the ear of government and that decision was reversed so they can change their mind if the right people use the right amount of influence. So my view is that we should continue the campaign for the national road network to take over the funding of the tunnels. In the absence of that, I understand the very difficult decision that we make today but I don’t feel on the basis of the evidence that I’ve got in front of me that I could support it today. Thank you, Chair.

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): Thanks Steve, that’s a very helpful contribution at that.

Cllr Les Rowlands (Wirral Council, Conservative): Thanks Chair. I’m not going to rehearse the story because quite frankly I agree with a lot of what Councillor Foulkes has had to say today. I do have a proposal to put forward, I think just to add to what Steve has had to say is that constantly on Merseyside, Wirral as well as a lot of the other surrounding councils are statistically below the national employment levels and have been for some time and quite a difference between those two levels. So it is an area that is actually under the cosh as it were.

Austerity I agree with Steve has hit us for whatever reasons us a lot harder up in the north-west and we’re all feeling it to all the councils and that means right down to the services that we’re giving and to the general public that have to pay for those services. It is really, really tight. Our councils locally will have to pull up their belt certainly and taking difficult decisions to actually keep those services running and to make decisions that are on a lot of occasions non political but have to be made to actually keep those services going to the people and if that means increasing you know they’ve had to do it but in other areas they’ve had to cut the cloth according to their need and take that service and the cost of that service down.

I think Merseytravel should be giving a message out at this time too, I agree again with what Steve said. I think this is the year, this is the time when we as Merseytravel, whilst still being safe in our tunnels, completing all the jobs that we’re expected to do health and safety and all that, should be sending out a message to say look we realise that this is hard, we realise that this is going to have an impact on the local economy ie people going to work it is going to be a hard time to put an extra ten pence on the tunnel tolls. It may not seem a great deal to us but it is to the people who have to travel every day through the tunnel to go to work. It’s a lot of money on their wage packets at a time when their wage packets are not going up, they’re going down.

So I’ve got a proposal that we keep and freeze the tunnel tolls to the level that they are now and then relook at it next year. At the same time I would like to see and I’ll reiterate what I said last year, a discount scheme and I am not talking about Fast Tag which is for everybody, I am talking about a Merseyside discount scheme which I know operates in other parts of the country. I would like to see that looked at and see whether we can do something for the people of Merseyside to have a local discount scheme. Now that’s my proposal to the meeting today. Thank you Chair.

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): OK thanks for that. I appreciate you’re putting forward a motion. I’m going to suggest that we take your motion at the end of the debate and allow all Members who wish to have their contributions first but it is being circulated around the chamber. Does anyone else want to make any contributions? If there’s no other Members from the, oh go on Steve.

Cllr Steve Foulkes (Wirral Council, Labour): It is helpful now to see it in print. Errm, right ok well we do I mean yeah looking at paragraph d it’s probably something I missed out in my contribution before. I you know, in my every day life I have to turn up at Unilever which is an international company and we have many colleagues and employees that travel from this side of the water and beyond through the tunnels to go to work. I’m amazed actually the number because I do think I’m getting a bit obsessive about Merseytravel now, I’ve done my own mini survey and out of nine people I asked who do that trip on a regular basis in their car only one of them had got a Fast Tag and they’d let it run out.

So I have to asking myself Fast Tag there, which is a signficant saving every day, why is these barriers up or why are these people not engaging with something that immediately saves them money. I just wonder if our marketing of the Fast Tag is as great as it should be, because there is an alternative out there. So I actually have no problem supporting Les’s motion, it doesn’t say who’s seconded it. I believe that John has seconded it, so that’s fine and dandy by me so just the issue about Fast Tags, that there is an alternative for people to save money but I’m amazed by the number of people that don’t take them up.

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): Yeah I think that’s a very good point Steve because I was going to say from my position sat here as Chair that I heard everything that you both have said and I think we all take the same view that this always a very difficult and challenging decision and process that Members go through every year. It’s not an easy process and inevitably some of the recommendations that come to us are challenging. Steve’s point is exactly right in the sense that if we were ever to get a free crossing across the river the only practical way of that ever happening would be for the government to take the tunnels into the national road network.

When we’ve asked in the past, government ministers and Department for Transport officials have been unequivocal in the fact that there is no government thinking of taking the tunnels into the national road network and furthermore and I’m glad Steve pointed it out in the government’s consultation on the national network’s proposals for both the road and the railway networks it actually singles out on page fifty-two of the document that estuarial and river crossings will remain on a tolled basis under the government’s policy. Added to that it also makes the point that new road schemes will be looked at under a tolled basis which is government policy but apparently doesn’t seem to count if the proposed road runs through John Major’s former constituency.

So with the government having no clear intent of taking the tunnels off our hands that leaves us in a bit of quandary doesn’t it you know in terms of the way you could finance the tunnels? Either it would be via the levy and the county taxpayer which in any circumstances would be challenging but in its current circumstances where finances for local government are so excruciatingly difficult because of the way the government is behaving. He’s absolutely right that on balance then the cost of the tunnels does fall to the users in that very difficult situation and obviously although the cost of running those tunnels is always significant to make sure we operate them not just in a way that is fit for purpose, but those key assets that they are for the Liverpool City Region but in doing so in a way that actually provides them to be some of the best operated in the world and some of the safest in the world. That does come at a price, but it comes at a price and we’re always very conscious and keen that we operate those in the most cost-effective and most cost efficient way accordingly.

I also take on board everything that’s been said about the state of the local economy. Whilst I think there’s been some elements of encouraging news and some elements of employment growth locally particularly some elements in terms of a report that came out last week about private sector employment increasing .. in the local area. I fully take on board just how fragile things are in the local economy and that remains a very, very difficult and challenging situation that we find and it would be nice to see the government taking a more thorough approach in terms of the way they look to support our region accordingly.

But I think it’s also important when we look at this debate that we don’t just view the tunnels as an isolated part of our transport network. You know we are an integrated transport authority and the tunnels are not only integral to the transport network of the Liverpool City Region but it’s actually vital that they operate in an integrated way and that the decisions we take in regard to the tunnels are not in isolation to the overall transport network as a whole and equally the decision that we take when we go through this process of setting the tolls we can’t take in isolation of our overall budget setting process which we’re going to deal with as the next item which we know is as challenging as it is this year and inevitable that it will get even more difficult as we go into the future.

So with that all in mind and it’s very, very difficult for us to take this decision, I’m on the balance of considerations of the opinion that the ten pence increase that is being proposed is proportionate and on balance the best decision that we can take in very difficult circumstances at this moment in time. However I’m still very conscious of the fact that that still represents a ten pence discount on the authorised toll that could be charged. It’s not going to up to £1.80, the proposal’s £1.70 and furthermore and Steve made the excellent point about the Fast Tag scheme, the Fast Tag scheme will still demonstrate a considerable saving for local users and your point about actively and proactively marketing the Fast Tag scheme is exactly right Steve.

Last year was the first time that we’d ever properly done that and I’m really pleased we’ve managed to get usage of the Fast Tag up to forty percent of all users and let’s remember the vast majority of those Fast Tag users are local residents and local businesses. There is a saving to be had and it works out that every seventh journey if you use the Fast Tag is free so it’s very strong I think from all of us that we want to make sure we continue that proactive marketing of the Fast Tag to make sure we maximise the uptake and make sure that local commuters and local residents and local businesses will get that benefit. If there’s no further contributions from the floor, Les do you want to move your motion?

Cllr Les Rowlands (Wirral Council, Conservative): Thank you. Chair, I take on board the protection that you’ve said and I agree with a lot of it and there is obviously frustrations on both sides but given that reserves are healthy, given there’s been an underspend in the capital program, the £2.4 million could be found and I think it’s important that we send out a message from Merseytravel that we’re not prepared to raise it every year, year on year, year on year and in times we can listen and we can help and that’s all I’m asking for not every year we go against .. item but let’s send a message … to do that Chair that’s all I ask.

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): I think I’ll take that on board Les and I think whilst I’m conscious that reserves are healthy, we need to make sure that we’ve got healthy reserves to deal with any issue that may arise. Both in terms of any sort of significant issue with regard to the operational maintenance and operational things but also any other opportunities on the transport network and the way that we want to develop an integrated transport network that is fit not just for the twenty-first century but is fit for a world class city region which is what we want for the Liverpool City Region. If there’s no further contributions Les do you want to move your motion?

Cllr Les Rowlands (Wirral Council, Conservative): Yes Chair, I’d like to move the motion and if I can remove paragraph c) from the proposed motion to my motion which says maintain existing discount on authorised tolls for cash and Fast Tag tolls to the level that is effective from the 1st April 2014 and d) the authority asks the Director General and Chief Executive to investigate the cost implications as well as any implications under the Tunnel Act 2004 of bringing forward a further discount for Fast Tag users in order to reduce the burden of tolls on regular users of the tunnel.

Cllr John Dodd (Sefton, Lib Dem): Second that Chair

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): Thanks John. Can I see all Members in favour?

Cllr John Salter (Wirral, Labour)
Cllr Steve Foulkes (Wirral, Labour)
Cllr Les Rowlands (Wirral, Conservative)
Cllr John Dodd (Sefton, Lib Dem)

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): All against?

Cllr Joanne Calvert (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Anthony Carr (Sefton, Labour)
Cllr Gordon Friel (Sefton, Labour)
Cllr John Fulham (St Helens, Labour)
Cllr Stephen Kermode (Sefton, Labour)
Cllr Ken McGlashan (Knowsley, Labour)
Cllr Mark Norris (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Marlene Quinn (St. Helens, Labour)
Cllr Mary Rasmussen (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Liam Robinson (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Malcolm Sharp (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Hayley Todd (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Jeremy Wolfson (Liverpool, Labour)

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): That’s lost. In that case can I move the recommendations in paragraph 11 of the report. Is that agreed?

Cllr Gordon Friel (Sefton, Labour): Can I second that?

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): Do you want to put that to the vote accordingly? All in favour?

Cllr Joanne Calvert (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Anthony Carr (Sefton, Labour)
Cllr Gordon Friel (Sefton, Labour)
Cllr John Fulham (St Helens, Labour)
Cllr Stephen Kermode (Sefton, Labour)
Cllr Ken McGlashan (Knowsley, Labour)
Cllr Mark Norris (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Marlene Quinn (St. Helens, Labour)
Cllr Mary Rasmussen (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Liam Robinson (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Malcolm Sharp (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Hayley Todd (Liverpool, Labour)
Cllr Jeremy Wolfson (Liverpool, Labour)

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): and against?

Cllr John Salter (Wirral, Labour)
Cllr Steve Foulkes (Wirral, Labour)
Cllr Les Rowlands (Wirral, Conservative)
Cllr John Dodd (Sefton, Lib Dem)

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): and that’s carried.

Cllr Les Rowlands (Wirral Council, Conservative): Can I have my vote recorded?

Cllr Liam Robinson (Chair (Liverpool City Council, Labour)): Absolutely, that’s why we put it to the vote for you.

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