Posted by: John Brace | 3 January 2016

Will the 20 councillors on Merseytravel mothball the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside?

Will the 20 councillors on Merseytravel mothball the Mersey Ferry terminal at Woodside?

                                               

MV Snowdrop (one of the iconic Mersey Ferries) on the River Mersey with Liverpool skyline in the background

MV Snowdrop (one of the iconic Mersey Ferries) on the River Mersey with Liverpool skyline in the background

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 would like to write to a councillor on Merseytravel, just click on the photo of the councillor you wish to here for contact details.

There are two petitions about this you can sign.

Save Woodside Ferry Terminal (at time of writing 129 supporters) and

Save Woodside Ferry (at time of writing 367 supporters)

A report of what was said at the Merseytravel meeting starts at Cllr Foulkes on Mersey Ferries “we cherish that service and want to maintain it”.

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Responses

  1. I think the nail was in the coffin for Mersey Ferries when M