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Arrangement of Clauses (Contents)

Mersey Tunnels Bill
 

EXPLANATORY MEMORANDUM

This Private Bill is promoted by the Merseyside Passenger Transport Authority (“the Authority”), which is known as Merseytravel.

The Bill relates to the Mersey Tunnels (“the tunnels”), which comprise the road tunnel between Liverpool and Birkenhead called the Queensway Tunnel (also known as the Birkenhead Tunnel) and the two road tunnels between Liverpool and Wallasey called the Kingsway Tunnel (also known as the Wallasey Tunnel). The Queensway Tunnel was completed in 1934 and the Kingsway Tunnel was completed in 1974. Since 1st April 1986 (following the abolition of the Merseyside County Council) the Authority has been responsible for the management, operation and maintenance of the tunnels. During the promotion of this Bill the Authority has formally resolved that it wishes the tunnels to remain in public ownership.

The Bill has four main purposes, namely—

(1) to amend the statutory provisions relating to the levying and revision of tolls for use of the tunnels particularly so that, in future, tolls are revised with reference to inflation;

(2) to remove the present requirement to reduce tolls once debts arising from construction and operation of the tunnels have been repaid;

(3) to allow the Authority to use surplus tunnels' toll income to improve public transport services in Merseyside; and

(4) to allow the Authority to undertake and finance noise insulation work to properties adjacent to the Kingsway Tunnel's approach roads.

The financial stability of the tunnels depends on the amount of tolls collected from those using them. Notwithstanding the removal and reduction of discounts on tolls with effect from 28th November 1999, which has generated an additional £3.3m income in a full year, the tunnels' financial stability cannot be guaranteed in the longer term. Traffic levels through the tunnels may be affected by increases in motoring costs, by changes to the local economy or by high-cost emergency repairs requiring lane closures within the tunnels. The cost of servicing the tunnels' debts would increase if interest rates begin to rise. Therefore further toll increases may be necessary in due course to ensure that the tunnels continue to break even without the need for subsidy from the Authority's levy on Merseyside's five constituent district councils.

Indeed, Merseytravel is in the process of applying for an increase in tolls (to £1.30 for cars) to pay for an accelerated and extended capital refurbishment programme following receipt of Eurotest 2002, the most recent report on European road tunnels safety. Additional funds of £8.5m need to be secured to enable safety works arising out of the report to be completed by 2006 at the latest. The European Commission has recently proposed a Directive on minimum safety requirements for European road tunnels, which is likely in due course to lead to even greater levels of expenditure for health and safety works.

The statutory provisions relating to toll revisions (as opposed to the removal or reduction of discounts, which are within the Authority's discretion) are complex and lengthy. All five toll increases during the last 20 years have involved public local inquiries. Consequently the toll revision process can take up to two years to be concluded, and it entails the risk of requiring subsidy from the local community in the interim period to pay for the operating deficit. The process is also costly and cumbersome to administer.

Other tolled estuarial crossings have a similar procedure for the revision of tolls, and in 1995 the then Government consulted on changing the toll revision procedures for 17 bridges and tunnels in England and Wales. The Authority initiated a local consultation process on the Government's various proposals and most of the local consultees generally favoured the option of partial deregulation, under which tolls would increase regularly with reference to inflation.

Parliament has accepted the principle of annual index-linked toll increases for estuarial crossings by the enactment of the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988 and the Severn Bridges Act 1992, crossings for which the Government is responsible. The Government has perpetuated this principle at Dartford by making the Dartford Crossing Order 2002. The Authority considers that introducing such an arrangement for the Mersey Tunnels would be a considerable improvement on the existing arrangements. The system would be simpler administratively, it would incur little expense and it would make revenue forecasting easier. Tolls would not thereby be increased in real terms. Supplemented by a system providing for further increases in tolls in real terms in certain exceptional circumstances, the Authority believes that changing the toll-levying provisions in this way would not only help to ensure the future financial stability of the tunnels but assist the Authority in implementing this Government's policies on integrated public transport facilities.

Two cornerstones of this Government's policy on integrated transport are to develop public transport and reduce road traffic. The Authority is responsible for all of the modes of cross-river transport, i.e. the tunnels, the Merseyrail network and the Mersey Ferries. Between 1992 and 1999, when tolls for use of the tunnels remained the same, local public transport fares increased at regular intervals and generally faster than inflation. The Authority considers that it is essential that tolls for use of the tunnels should be comparable with the cost of public cross-river transport facilities.

The Authority also considers that in accordance with this Government's policy on road congestion charging, enshrined in the Transport Act 2000 in particular, it is appropriate to use the tunnels as a means to manage the demand for river crossings which are not part of a public transport system. Therefore the local legislation relating to the tunnels needs amendment to allow this and to ensure, subject to the outcome of public consultation at the time, that tolls can continue to be levied in accordance with the retail prices index mechanism, and surplus toll revenue used to improve public transport services in Merseyside, even once all of the various loans taken out to finance the tunnels' construction and operation have been repaid.

Traffic noise on the approaches to the Kingsway Tunnel has long been a problem to householders affected by it and in order to overcome the lack of any power to deal with this the Authority considers that it is necessary and appropriate to seek specific provisions for noise insulation works and grants.

Clause 1 cites the short title of the Bill.

Clause 2 introduces Schedule 1, which would amend provisions of the County of Merseyside Act 1980 (“the 1980 Act”) relating to the levying, revision and application of tolls.

Clause 3 introduces Schedule 2, which would include in the 1980 Act a power to carry out certain noise insulation works and to make grants in connection with such works.

Clause 4 introduces Schedule 3, which would repeal certain enactments consequent on the amendments which would be made by Schedule 1.

Schedule 1

A substituted section 91 of the 1980 Act would provide for the increase of tolls for traffic using the tunnels, with reference to changes in the retail prices index. It also sets out the starting point for those tolls and the classification of vehicles in respect of which tolls may be levied, being those currently in force and established by the Mersey Tunnels (Revision of Tolls and Traffic Classification) Order 1991, and the purposes for which toll monies may be applied. Those purposes include using surplus toll income for directly or indirectly achieving public transport policies set out in the Authority's local transport plan once sufficient tolls have been spent to ensure the safe, efficient and economic management, operation and maintenance of the tunnels in accordance with all applicable statutory requirements.

A substituted section 92 and a new section 92A of the 1980 Act would make provision as respects increases in tolls beyond the level of increase authorised by section 91 and as respects revision of the classification of traffic for the purpose of the levying of tolls. Such increases or revision would be by order made by the Secretary of State. Before the order was made persons having a substantial interest would be able to object to the proposal and the Secretary of State would have power to hold a public local inquiry by virtue of section 130 of the 1980 Act. The increased level of tolls or revised classification of traffic authorised by an order made under section 92 would form a new base line for future index-linked increases in tolls by orders made under section 91.

Section 92B of the 1980 Act would require the Authority to publish notice of an order made under section 91 or 92 in advance of the order coming into effect.

Section 92C of the 1980 Act would be a re-enactment with modifications of the Authority's existing power in section 91(2) of that Act to cease to demand tolls, to exempt vehicles from the obligation to pay tolls and to discount the level of tolls payable. The Authority intends to use this discounting power, amongst other purposes, to ensure that the application of the retail prices index mechanism maintains the current 1:2:3:4 ratio between tolls payable by different classes of traffic.

Section 92D of the 1980 Act would be a re-enactment of section 92(10), and would provide for section 6 of the Transport Charges, &c. (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1954 (which makes provision for the revision of charges by certain undertakings) not to apply to tolls and charges authorised by sections 91 and 92.

Section 96 of the 1980 Act, which makes provision in relation to the evasion of tolls and creates a criminal offence, would be replaced by a modern form equivalent.

Sections 102(4) and 103 of the 1980 Act are proposed to be modernised in relation to fines payable for offences committed under those sections, so that the provisions would refer to level 3 on the standard scale (which is currently £1,000).

Schedule 2

Section 109A of the 1980 Act would give the Authority power to carry out, or give grants for, certain noise insulation works to dwellings and other buildings (or parts of buildings) used for residential purposes in the vicinity of the approaches to the Kingsway Tunnel.

EUROPEAN CONVENTION ON HUMAN RIGHTS

Steve Maddox, Clerk to Merseytravel, the promoter of the Bill, has made the following statement on behalf of Merseytravel:

In my view, the provisions of the Mersey Tunnels Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.


 
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