Councillors on the Merseytravel Committee of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority today met and decided on their recommendation for Mersey Tunnels tolls for 2017-18. Mersey Tunnels is the name for the two tolled road tunnels between Wirral and Liverpool under the River Mersey known as the Kingsway (Wallasey) and Queensway (Birkenhead) tunnels.
Three of the four councillors appointed by Wirral Council (Cllr Steve Foulkes (Labour), Cllr Jerry Williams (Labour) and Cllr Ron Abbey (Labour)) were at the meeting and agreed to the recommendation for Mersey Tunnel tolls. Their recommendation was made to a meeting of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority that meets tomorrow on the 3rd February 2017 to make a final decision.
The recommendation for tunnel tolls (subject to approval by the Mayor of Liverpool and Council Leaders tomorrow afternoon) will take effect from the 1st April 2017.
Tolls are agreed in four “classes” which are set out below.
Class 1 (a) Motor cycle with side car and 3 wheeled vehicle (b) Motor car and goods vehicle up to 3.5 tonnes gross weight (c) Passenger vehicle other than a motor car with seating capacity for under 9 persons
Class 2 (a) Motor car and goods vehicle up to 3.5 tonnes gross weight, with trailer (b) Goods vehicle over 3.5 tonnes gross weight, with trailer (c) Passenger vehicle with seating capacity for 9 or more persons, with two axles
Class 3 (a) Goods vehicle over 3.5 tonnes gross weight, with three axles (b) Passenger vehicle with seating capacity for 9 or more persons, with three axles
Goods vehicle over 3.5 tonnes gross weight, with 4 or more axles
Councillors recommended that all liveried emergency services vehicles (such as marked police cars, fire engines and ambulances) continue to be allowed free travel through the Mersey Tunnels in 2017-18.
Free travel for all classes of vehicle was also recommended from 10 pm on the 24th December 2016 to 6 am on the 26th December 2016.
Below is a table of the tolls recommended by councillors at the Merseytravel Committee meeting today from the 1st April 2017 to the 30th March 2018 for each class of vehicle for both the cash toll and Fast Tag toll.
A look back to a fictional Birkenhead in 1894 and how things hardly change!
As the Christmas special for Sherlock was set in Victorian times, I thought I would write a Christmas special for this blog also set in Victorian times.
INT. BRACE HOUSEHOLD – MORNING (1894)
Queen Victoria is still on the throne and in recent years a railway tunnel between Birkenhead and Liverpool opened in 1886. Mr and Mrs Brace live in the County Borough of Birkenhead in the township of Bidston which is in Cheshire, England.
Mrs Brace is a foreign princess from one of the British Empire’s colonies now called the Dominion of Canada. Mr Brace, a native of Birkenhead edits and owns a small newspaper.
Mr and Mrs Brace sit down to have breakfast together.
MRS BRACE: I hope you slept well, there is much talk in the town about you.
MR BRACE: I’m all ears, what have I done now?
MRS BRACE: Your request using the Public Health Act 1875 to see Birkenhead councillors’ expenses has caused much consternation amongst the political class. They do not approve of you using such modern laws and regard you as a nuisance, in fact Councillor Jones had written a strongly worded letter to a rival newspaper!
MR BRACE: Well dear, I predict that one day Europe will be at peace and the courts will be adjudicating on whether European politicians’ expenses should be revealed. However I fear that will take around a hundred and twenty years. Some things never change!
MRS BRACE: You do have some very fanciful notions my husband! The political class is most perturbed that you have asked for copies of their hackney carriage expenses, the hackney carriage drivers have horses to feed you know!
MR BRACE: Well the voters should know what politicians are doing with their money!
MRS BRACE: But I don’t even get a vote!
MR BRACE: True, true but one day that will change.
MRS BRACE: Do you think the new train to Liverpool will lead to the end of the Mersey Ferry at Woodside?
MR BRACE: Where do you get these strange ideas? No, the trains don’t have the capacity to take everyone who wants to go to Liverpool. The trains carry only 25,000 passengers a day, but the ferries 44,000 passengers a day. It would take at least two further underground tunnels between Wirral and Liverpool to change things! And who has the money to build those tunnels anyway?
Will the 20 councillors on Merseytravel mothball the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside?
One of the reasons I have had not had all twelve days of Christmas off, is because next week there are two Merseytravel public meetings.
The one on the afternoon of Thursday 7th January (starting at 2.00pm in the Authority Room, 1st floor, Merseytravel Headquarters, No. 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L3 1BP) is a meeting of all twenty councillors on the Merseytravel Committee (which is now part of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority). This committee has councillors from Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral. You might point out that although being called Merseytravel, Halton isn’t in Merseyside but Cheshire (but it is part of the Combined Authority).
The Wirral representatives on Merseytravel are Cllr Ron Abbey (Labour), Cllr Jerry Williams (Labour), Cllr Steve Foulkes (Labour) and Cllr Les Rowlands (Conservative (the two opposition councillors who aren’t in the Labour Party of which he’s one call themselves the Merseytravel Alliance)).
It’s not a long agenda and I am looking forward to the Merseyrail question and answer session, but as you’ve probably guessed this piece is going to be about the Mersey Ferries.
Somebody at Merseytravel paid consultants called Mott McDonald to write a report on the Mersey Ferries. You can read the covering report and consultant’s report on Merseytravel’s website. Mott McDonald also involved two other firms of consultants Peter Brett Associates and Graham & Woolnough.
The bit in the consultants’ report that has been causing a lot of political concern this side of the River Mersey is the part that states,
"Unfortunately, due to the extensive capital investment required in the near future, it is recommended that Woodside terminal is mothballed and the pier infrastructure removed."
Obviously this would mean if that was ever decided that the Mersey Ferry would just go between the Pier Head in Liverpool and Seacombe. I presume if that happened that would mean the end of the U-Boat Story tourist attraction which is part of that complex too (all about a German submarine called U-534), the cafe there and Birkenhead would lose out on visitors.
There is an emotional connection people have this side of the water to the Mersey Ferries and I’m sure there are people still alive that remember when it stopped at New Brighton and New Brighton was a bustling seaside resort.
One of the councillors on the Merseytravel Committee, Cllr Jerry Williams is the Heritage Champion and I’m sure he could wax lyrical about how important the Mersey Ferries are for Wirral’s tourism.
For the last twenty-six years the running of the Mersey Ferries has been through a company controlled by Merseytravel called Mersey Ferries Limited. I quote from its latest accounts:
"The results of the company for the year show a loss on ordinary activities before tax of £230,468 (2014 – £243,486). This loss is wholly attributable to the trading activity of the tourism-related business (Spaceport and U534) as the core transport activity continues to receive revenue support grant from its parent undertaking."
So, Merseytravel needs to run/market Spaceport and U534 better, whether this means asking people who buy Mersey Ferry tickets if they’d also like to purchase a ticket for Spaceport/U534 and/or just better publicity/marketing anyway Merseytravel have been criticised in the past by their auditors for the tourism side of matters.
However a more detailed look at the accounts shows that Mersey Ferries Limited employ 52 staff (an annual wage bill of £1.6 million) but Mersey Ferries Limited don’t own the Mersey Ferries or the terminals at Woodside, Seacombe and the Liverpool Pier Head.
These assets (the boats and the terminals) are owned by Merseytravel.
I am now going to make a comparison to the business I’m in as this point is raised in the consultant’s report.
As you can’t get to and from a lot of the public meetings I report on by public transport, sadly some means of private transport is vital.
Being somebody with a bit of foresight I put money aside out of what I earn in case there was a major capital expenditure on that front. Sure enough last year the car failed its MOT and I had the money to buy another at a cost of £2,500 (because I’d had the foresight to put money aside). It was only sensible from a management perspective to do this. Of course in the public sector, it would probably be a risk on a risk register.
Merseytravel (according to the consultant’s report) is in the same situation. The Mersey Ferries are getting older, so are the terminals and both are costing more to repair. However being consultants they seem to view everything through the lens of a business and the private sector, all about making money when the public sector isn’t like that.
The sensible thing would’ve been to have a reserve capital fund to pay for these types of issues. I’ll hear on Thursday afternoon more detail.
However back to the Mersey Ferries, from a political perspective Birkenhead’s politicians are united (including Rt Hon Frank Field MP) that mothballing Woodside is frankly (no pun intended) a bad idea.
Now you will probably ask, is this going to be like the annual vote on whether to put up the Mersey Tunnel tolls? Wirral’s four representatives huff and puff and say what a bad idea it will be, vote against it but are then outvoted by the rest of the Merseytravel councillors? Who knows?
However the Mersey Tunnels are why the Mersey Ferries aren’t as well used as they used to be. The Mersey Tunnels were built using borrowed money. In fact if we look at Halton, £470 million was found (who knows what the final cost will be) for a bridge over the River Mersey there.
Compared to the cost of a new bridge, the costs of keeping the ferries and terminals going seem quite small.
When there’s a political will to do something the money can be found!
Indeed the report states having the Mersey Ferries brings wider economic benefits to the City Region.
Now there will be a future, more detailed reports about the Mersey Ferries brought to a future meeting of Merseytravel.
I am going to make a point I have already made at the cost of perhaps sounding unpopular. There is a large surplus on tunnel tolls used to prop up Merseytravel’s budget and save it going cap in hand to the local councils for more money.
My view was that as the Mersey Tunnels (built on borrowed money) adversely affected the popularity and viability of the Mersey Ferries that one should subsidise the other. As I’ve already pointed out the Mersey Ferries are a big draw to tourists and bring wider economic benefits to the region.
The tunnel tolls (which are decided by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority on the recommendation of Merseytravel) have of course been a thorny political issue for a long time. Many people feeling that politicians have forever promised at election time that one day they will be scrapped but that they never are. Indeed political promises were made in the lead up to the General Election and the Combined Authority requested a report (which seems to be a long time in the writing).
However I am going to state my own personal viewpoint now. Whatever the rights and wrongs are over the Mersey Tunnel tolls, it’s one of the few things that Merseytravel/Liverpool City Region Combined Authority can control as the district council treasurers would no doubt be against an increase in the levy on the district councils (yes I realise budgets are ultimately decided by politicians). Although transport (due to the economic benefits it brings) is a priority from national government, Merseytravel can’t expect large increases in its grant.
Mersey Ferries compete against the trains, buses and other forms of transport that go through the Mersey Tunnels. However tourism is a big part of the economy in these parts. Blue Badge tourist guides take groups of people on the Mersey Ferries and transport has always been subsidised. Transport brings economic benefits.
However the consultants don’t see the big picture. They just see it like running a private business whose aim is to make a profit, the public sector ethos is not like that. The public sector runs services for the benefit of the public paid for through taxes.
It would be very sad if the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside was lost because of the short-sighted nature of consultants. Yes I was born in Birkenhead and most people see the Mersey Ferries at Woodside as part of the fabric of Birkenhead.
I realise what I have stated about Mersey Tunnel tolls will not be popular, I’m not advocating that they should go up. I just feel that as the Mersey Tunnels were built with borrowed money that it’s an unfair form of competition to the detriment of the Mersey Ferries. Hundreds of millions can be found to build a new bridge across the Mersey, yet much smaller amounts to keep the Mersey Ferries and terminals going can’t? It doesn’t make sense.
If you have any comments or a view on all this, please leave a comment below. If you’d like to come along to the public meeting on Thursday 7th January 2015, the meeting will start at 2.00pm in the Authority Room, 1st floor, Merseytravel Headquarters, No. 1 Mann Island, Liverpool, L3 1BP.
If you wish to watch what happened at the meeting you can do so below filmed by myself. If you want to watch me filming the meeting you can do so thanks to Knowsley Council. Also filming was somebody from Liverpool John Moores University Journalism. I think three people filming the same meeting is a record so far (considering that before August 2014 all requests to film Liverpool City Region Combined Authority meetings were refused).
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Liverpool City Region Combined Authority 21st November 2014 item 5 Mersey Gateway Progress Update L to R David Parr Chief Executive Halton Council Angela Sanderson Monitoring Officer Jim Fogarty Treasurer Cllr Phil Davies Chair Wirral Council
However to join, first the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority had to amend its constitution. Now that’s been done, a memorandum of understanding will be sent to West Lancashire Council which will need to be signed by them. However it seems likely that by the time the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority next meets that there will be someone there representing West Lancashire Council.
The area covered by West Lancashire has a population of 111,314 (2013 estimate), which is about a third of the Wirral. Its current political composition is 26 Labour councillors and 27 Conservative councillors. It was (until recently) evenly split at 27:27 but there is now (at the time of writing) a by-election going on in Skelmersdale North due to the recent death of a Labour councillor. The results of the by-election will be known by December 12th 2014.
The rest of the meeting was largely routine. However I welcome both hearing the result of the Skelmersdale North by-election and seeing who West Lancashire Council send to the next public meeting of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority. Pictures of its Leader and Deputy Leader can be viewed on this blog which covers the West Lancashire area.
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Councillors hear how 13 consignments of fizzy drinks, spearmint, crab and rice all failed port checks
Councillors hear how 13 consignments of fizzy drinks, spearmint, crab and rice all failed port checks
The Isle of Man Ferry was late coming in to dock as in front was the Viking longboat Draken Harald Hårfagre with a broken mast. As the same gate was used to get to the meeting on the dock we had to wait for the Isle of Man foot passengers to collect their luggage and leave first.
As the councillors and ourselves strode across the dock to the meeting room, the Viking longboat pulled up alongside the meeting room on a sight-seeing tour of the Liverpool docks which almost seemed to give out the message to the politicians of behave otherwise we’ll add you to our list of countries to conquer next.
So, what was the meeting, bobbing along on a floating dock over the beautiful River Mersey about? Well just as the beer ad used to be about “refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach” we were reporting on the public meetings other parts of the media don’t reach. In fact I doubt there had been any public along to this public body’s public meetings for a very, very long time. In fact anyone curious enough to read the agenda would’ve been sent to the wrong place as the agenda had “Gate 2” whereas those going to meeting entered through “Gate 3” of the Liverpool Cruise Liner Terminal.
Who were this (and pardon the nautical cliché) motley crew of characters?
Mersey Port Health Committee meeting of the 17th July 2014 Councillor Ron Abbey (Chair) points in the direction of the River Mersey. At the far right are Councillor Dave Mitchell and Councillor Gerry Ellis
Well on the Mersey Port Health Committee was my local councillor, who won our award for scowling before the meeting started Councillor Harry Smith. Also were two former Mayors of Wirral, Councillor Gerry Ellis and Councillor Dave Mitchell who were both friendly. As well as these three there was Councillor Ron Abbey (looking rather stylish in sunglasses).
Apologies were first given for councillors missing from the meeting which included various councillors including Cllr John Salter (Wirral Council’s Cllr John Hale was also absent).
The first decision the crew had to make was to chose a captain (sorry Chair) for the next year. The previous Chair Councillor Ron Abbey was nominated, seconded and elected. Another Labour councillor called Jeremy Wolfson was elected as Vice-Chair.
Councillor Ron Abbey decided to give his speech about his time as captain (sorry Chair) over the last twelve months. He said they had had a “varied and very successful year”, that it was a “very friendly committee” but that it was a “Cinderella organisation”.
Cllr Ron Abbey had a new officer to introduce to the assembled throng. Was it a new deck hand? Was it a comedian with the task of making Cllr Harry Smith smile? Sadly the new guy (called Chris) had the rather duller title of team leader for Information Technology.
The Chair continued by saying about the “quality of staff and the work they do on behalf of us”, asked the Committee to endorse his comments and said that these were “most exciting times”.
Due to no microphones and a room the size of a cavern in which sound gets lost, one of the councillors sitting further away (Cllr Gerry Ellis) asked Cllr Ron Abbey to speak up. Cllr Ron Abbey explained that he hadn’t shouted at him as he felt that upset people. Once again this was an error on the agenda which stated “audio equipment provided as standard”.
The Chief Port Health Officer went through the main points of her report, to do with importing foods. They had lost a post which was now vacant but it had been a “very busy year”. There had also been major changes and a redesign of their website.
Chris (the IT guy) talked at length about the changes, so that students could book training courses and so everything could be done a bit quicker as well as updating policies. There had been some teething issues with some applications in the move from Windows XP to Windows 7. He hoped that they’d have a full set of key performance indicators by the September.
The Chief Port Health Officer explained that there had been a 77p reduction in their charges due to EU legislation which was “out of our hands”. Weights of cargo coming through Liverpool docks varied based on consumer demand. They also had a surveillance role at Liverpool John Lennon Airport, as it was not a port approved for the import of food. However the main responsibility at the airport lay with the UK Border Force.
Thirteen consignments of soda (soft drinks) from America had been sampled and found to have excessive levels of benzoic acid. This had been done due to a grant from the Food Standards Agency. In addition to the fizzy drinks failing tests, so had spearmint (pesticide levels), a food supplement (poly aromatic hydrocarbon levels), crab meat (as additional crab species had been found) and basmati rice (that was only 3% basmati rice and 97% other rice).
In addition to this a consignment of chilli powder had been destroyed due to excessive alfatoxin. During the year, 154 consignments had been subject to official checks. There had also been checks done on ship sanitation, water supplies had been sampled and there had been an increase in routine boardings.
Moving to the Wirral, two cockle beds had been declassified and commercial cockling there was now illegal. There had been a report of illegal gathering of mussels, but after investigation and enforcement patrols the activity had ceased.
In order to qualify as an environmental health officers, people needed to do a length BSc (Hons) or a MSc and then do a practical year of training in port health. However they had incorporated the port health side into student’s degrees so that when they qualified they were qualified as both an environmental health officer and port health officer which opened up extra career opportunities.
A port health awareness day had been held in February to promote the work of port health as some external agencies weren’t aware of the work. One hundred and twenty people had turned up to it. It had been a busy year and would be a challenging year ahead, she was happy to answer questions.
Councillor Dave Mitchell referred to it as a “comprehensive report, brilliantly done as always”. He had two questions. In relation to sampling he asked if they had talked with the relevant government department to make it a national rather than local cost?
She explained that it was very difficult but there were provisions. If a sample failed again they could request the importer pays for the cost. Taking the fizzy drinks as an example, if they continued to fail checks then the Food Safety Agency issued guidance and reimbursed their costs.
Councillor Mitchell asked his second question about fish. The answer given was that the importer would have to pay.
The Chair Cllr Ron Abbey referred to the lobbying government so that the activities of the port were funded by central government. Local authorities’ contribution to port health was only small. Another councillor asked about the enforcement of infectious diseases and how this could be effective on short duration flights as the probabilities of symptoms being displayed were small as opposed to a ship?
The officer said that the air regulations were different to shipping in that they placed a responsibility on the airline. A scoping exercise had been done on the countries they say as high risks. For example it was the responsibility of the airline to disinfect its places coming from a country with malaria. This would hopefully minimise the risk.
Another councillor asked if they could increase their charges? Cllr Ron Abbey (Chair) said that they were looking to decrease to make them more competitive but it would be eighteen months before they’d see an impact. Goods consumed locally were still being shipped through Southampton rather than Liverpool. He said it was a “balancing act” which they were monitoring to reduce the burden on local councils to a minimum via the precept. An officer said there was an increase in products coming through the port and the variety.
Councillor Richard Wenstone asked if they would be setting their own key performance indicators or this would be done nationally? The officer answered that they would set their own as there were no national standards key performance indicators. For example the time it took them to process documentation. Other big ports had key performance indicators.
An officer said that theirs were published on their website and in conversations with ship agents certain importers wanted key performance indicators. A logistical benefit of Liverpool was the Liverpool Ship Canal whereas there was more congestion in the ports in the southern part of the country.
Councillor Harry Smith asked about the significant consignments? The officer answered lamb and pork. Another councillor asked about how far ahead the training had been taken up to which the answer was December 2014. The report was noted.
Agenda item 6 was the quarterly report from January to March of 2014. Cllr Gerry Ellis asked about cockling and what was the story? The officer relied that the complaint was of illegal gathering, an officer had conducted surveillance following the complaint but the complainant was unwilling to make a witness statement. As the surveillance hadn’t caught any illegal activity the complaint couldn’t progress.
Councillor Gerry Ellis asked a further question. Cllr Ron Abbey said they couldn’t take further action as the complainant was unwilling and didn’t want to make a witness statement. The officer said that on the surveillance visits they didn’t see illegal gathering of cockles and in the absence of a witness statement they can’t take further action.
Councillor Ron Abbey pointed out they were closed bays and that commercial activity was therefore illegal. Cockling collection however could still go on as long as it was not commercial. They had responsibility for the tidal side and the police had responsibility for further inland. Cllr Gerry Ellis asked if declassified meant closed?
Cllr Ron Abbey said they were closed to commercial cockling as the cockles were too young or there were not enough for commercial cockling. This gave them time to grow again, the cockling beds were worth millions of pounds as commercial cocklers had gathered £90 million of cockles. Cllr Ellis asked another question to which Cllr Ron Abbey replied “closed”.
In response to a further question of Cllr Ellis Cllr Abbey said that there were different categories, but it was a trade thing so they knew if it was declassified it didn’t have a classification. To take (for commercial reasons) from a declassified bed was illegal.
A councillor asked why there was no mention of Peel Holdings in the report? The Chair said that without them Peel couldn’t operate inspection facilities but they had often had to meet with senior management of Peel to sort out issues. He referred to issues raised at the last meeting with Peel about the docks. The officer said that Peel Holdings were the port operator, but that they (port health) had statutory controls over imported food, enforcement of the regulations and health regulations. The port health authority worked together with Peel Holdings in partnership.
A councillor asked about the financial impact. Cllr Ron Abbey said that without the board doing its job and inspection the port would be greatly diminished. So they worked hand in hand with Peel. They wanted to support Peel to bring more goods through the port as it was more money. Bringing more through meant diversifying but as well as delivering they were putting something back through their training. He gave credit to the staff. The report was noted.
The next meeting was agreed to be held at 11.00am on Thursday 16th October 2014 with the venue announced nearer the time.
The Chair announced one item of any other business (referred to earlier involving the vacancy) for which the public (all two of us) were excluded from the rest of the meeting.
We left and found the way out of through gate 3 was locked. I returned and complained but the way out was not unlocked until the councillors had finished their meeting.
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