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Angela Eagle (Wallasey): Does my hon. Friend share my happiness about that? The mistake allowed 200 houses in my constituency which directly abut the tunnel entrance to be plagued with noise for 30 years, and the inhabitants could have no relief because it would have been ultra vires to soundproof their houses. Does my hon. Friend understand how grateful my constituents are that the error has been rectified in the Bill? I shall support its Second Reading simply for that reason, but I share some of the worries expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) about the distribution of other largesse.
Mrs. CurtisThomas: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It is well understood on Merseyside how hard she has argued for significant support for the 200 homes directly affected by the problems associated with the Kingsway tunnel portals. I thank her in advance for her support for the Bill, which will make recompense available to the people who have been placed in that difficult position for many years. I am sure that all hon. Members receive complaints from constituents about noise levels at major road junctions. I am delighted that the Bill will enable the PTA to address such concerns.
Many will benefit from the enactment of the Bill. First, the people of Merseyside will benefit. They are currently required to bear the financial burden of the tunnels, irrespective of whether they use them or even own a car. The current legislation effectively means that the tunnels must be operated at a loss, and the debt must be passed on to local authorities and thus to council tax payers before tolls can be raised to cover any deficit. The Bill corrects that anomaly.
Secondly, the tunnel users will benefit. I referred earlier to the cost of meeting the recommendations of the ADAC report on tunnel safety. Without the guaranteed additional income generated by the Bill, tolls will in any event have to rise significantly to meet the £8.5 million cost of the additional safety works required to bring the tunnels up to the recommended European standards.
Thirdly, those who use or would like to use public transport will be significant beneficiaries. Once operating and safety costs have been met, surplus revenue from the tolls will go towards accelerating the implementation of the local transport plan, benefiting tens of thousands of people on Merseyside. Motorists quite reasonably say that they will be persuaded to leave their vehicles at home
Fourthly, the environment and the quality of life for those living near the tunnel portals will also benefit. So too will the health of others in the region, particularly our young people. Between 199293 and 19992000, despite a small population decrease on Merseyside, there was a 9.6 per cent. increase in traffic using the Mersey tunnels. The tunnels are now operating at 92 per cent. of capacity at peak times, and queueing times at the entrances in the morning peak have increased from approximately 20 minutes in 1991 to 45 minutes today, despite the use of additional contraflow lanes at peak times.
The Bill is not anti-car or anti-motorist, but it reflects the growing awareness, in particular on the part of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Transport, that public bodies have a duty to manage traffic growth. The increase in traffic noise and pollution at the portals of the Mersey tunnels affects some of the most deprived areas on Merseyside, where poor health is already experienced owing to a number of factors. Those areas naturally include several schools.
I draw hon. Members' attention to research commissioned by the National Asthma Campaign which points to a conclusive link between car exhaust fumes and the growing incidence of asthma in children. The Bill is designed to manage traffic growth through modest toll increases and improvements to public transport. That can only be of benefit to the health of Merseyside children.
Fifthly, business will benefit from the Bill. According to the Confederation of British Industry, traffic congestion costs the British economy £20 billion a year. In its progress report on the Government's 10-year transport plan, published on 24 June, the CBI explicitly warned that shirking difficult decisions on matters such as road tolls puts the Government's integrated transport policy at risk. A survey by Barclaycard earlier this year revealed the cost of congestion to industry throughout Merseyside and north Wales to be £700 per worker per year. In the 2001 "Small Business WatchTransport Research" by Yellow Pages, a third of small firms in the north-west claimed that road congestion had a serious impact on their competitiveness. Managing traffic growth is good for business and good for Merseyside.
I should now like to deal briefly with some of the arguments against the Bill. Some people claim that there is massive local opposition to the Bill. That is nonsense. A petition to Parliament opposing the Bill contained 251 signatures. Of the written representations to the former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, 950 were tear-off coupons from the Liverpool Echo and the Wirral Evening News.
As I said earlier, the Bill has the full support of all five local authorities on Merseyside, as well as a number of public and other bodies including Transport 2000, which has petitioned the House in support of the Bill, and, significantly, Friends of the Earth. The Bill is backed by Unison and the railway union ASLEF. The latter has also petitioned the House in favour of the Bill.
The tunnels are a 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year business. At £11.8 million a year, their operating costs are relatively modest. Even if there were cuts, that would do nothing to manage traffic growth or to generate additional revenue for safety improvements and public transport. In any case, like other public services, the tunnels are subject to the best value process, and that will continue irrespective of the Bill.
It is claimed that index-linked tolls will damage local businesses. Given that earnings generally rise faster than prices, tolls linked to the RPI will fall in relation to average earnings; therefore the economic effect of index-linked tolls on commuter traffic and thus on employees in Liverpool will be, at worst, neutral. Finally, opponents claim that commuters have no alternative means of getting to work and accuse Merseytravel of holding them to ransom.
Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South): Before my hon. Friend winds up, I would like to address a point made in a previous intervention. It has been suggested that the revenues from the proposed modest increase in tolls would result in users of the tunnel subsidising wider areas of Merseyside. Does she accept that, for more years than is fair, the constituents whom I represent have been subsidising the users of a tunnel that they themselves do not use in large numbers?
The Bill reflects the need to change an arcane and damaging piece of legislation which forces the Mersey tunnels to be operated at a loss before tolls can be increased, and which compels local authorities on Merseyside to pick up the tab in the meantime. It is combined with a real opportunity to improve safety in the tunnels, to manage traffic growth and to provide additional investment in public transport.
I am grateful for having been given the opportunity to sponsor the Bill. I am proud to be associated with Merseyside passenger transport authority, which is chaired in an exemplary manner by Councillor Mark Dowd, who has spent the best years of his life trying to improve transport provision on Merseyside. His authority has been motivated by the single objective of trying to do all it can to improve transport opportunities and provision for all the people of Merseyside. The authority has been uniquely successful, but there is much more to be done.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport): I rise to speak about something that I have known all my life. I was driven through the Mersey tunnel as a child, anxiously looking up from the back seat of the car to see whether water would come in through the ceiling. That remains a residual fear even today, even though it has been explained to mewith drawingswhy it is not a realistic likelihood. I recall there being traffic lights in the old tunnel, and the people of Liverpool proudly walking through the Kingsway tunnel when it was first opened. All my life I, as a Liverpudlian, have been proud that we have such excellent tunnels. I regard the tunnels as engineering marvelsstructures of which we can be genuinely proud. Whenever I had visitors, I would make some excuse to take them through the tunnelsthus increasing by some measure the traffic congestionbecause I wanted to display what is undoubtedly an engineering wonder.
At that stage, I did not regard the tunnels as being remotely problematic. Only when I became a councillor did I realise the burden of substantial historic capital costs that falls on every council tax payer on Merseyside. I was a councillor during the period when the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Benton) occupied a senior position on the same council. From 1998 to 1992, when we were both councillors on the same authority, the operating loss on the tunnels was £28 million. Both of us know what a substantial effect that loss had in terms of having to make cuts in the council's budget. Sorely needed services were not provided, and one of the reasons they could not be provided was the £28 million that should have been available for Merseyside but simply was not available.
The loss on the tunnels represented a £28 million loss of services. It had to be made up in some way if we were not to cut services indefinitely, but it was funded by a range of people who had little connection with the tunnels.