Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bill Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses(Question 20-39)

Mrs Charles George and Miss Joanna Clayton

Thursday 30 January 2003

20. The Bill which is before this Committee is of course concerned with the two Mersey Tunnels. The oldest of those is the Queensway Tunnel and it is sometimes called the Birkenhead Tunnel because it runs to Birkenhead. The second tunnel is the Kingsway Tunnel and it is sometimes called the Wallasey Tunnel because it runs to Wallasey on the Wirral. These two road tunnels fit rather oddly into the PTA's statutory responsibilities, ownership having been transferred to the Authority by the Mersey Tunnels Order 1986 from the county council of Merseyside. The Committee will find that Order in the bundle at A32 page 186 but again I simply mention that for the record.

21. At the same time the PTA had transferred all the tunnels debts and that was at the time when the metropolitan county councils were being abolished in 1986. That order had the result of involving the PTA in owning and operating infrastructure primarily used by private transport: cars and commercial vehicles although of course also buses go through the tunnels. To that extent the tunnels are an anomaly in that they are primarily a structure for private vehicles whereas the PTA and PTE's function is in respect of public transport otherwise.

22. The tunnels are not, however, the PTA's sole responsibility in relation to crossing the River Mersey since the PTA also owns and operates the Mersey ferries and those operate under a charter and they are bound to continue running them even if it is an uneconomic operation.

23. The PTA is in law a local transport authority as is each of the five Merseyside districts. All six local transport authorities - that is the five districts and the PTA - co-ordinate the development of policies for the promotion and encouragement of safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport facilities and services from and within their combined area and to it through the production of a local transport plan. Such plans are a creation of the Transport Act 2000 section 108 and that is all to be found in the bundle at tab A at A38, page 249.

24. I hold up a local transport plan because it may be that the Committee do not regularly handle these documents but you have been party to legislation which has created them. They are generally regarded as a good thing, if I may put it that way. They are, I think, non party controversial. I think there is general appreciation that it has been a good idea that transport authorities should put their plans down into transport plans and in that way have coherence. They get reviewed on an annual basis and every five years one has a new plan, and if I may put it this way, the procedure for updating them is a great deal more expeditious than is the process for updating other forms of development plans which very often become rather out of date, as I am sure Members of the Committee are aware.

25. Now for Merseyside the key objective in the local transport plan is - and I quote - a single fully integrated public transport network which is accessible to everyone and puts the passenger first. If the Committee wish to look it up it is in the bundle at D18 and in due course the chief executive of the PTE will be speaking about it.

26. Whilst it is recognised that there is and always will be an important role for the private motor car there are no proposals in the plan for enhancing road capacity. The emphasis is entirely on improving buses, trains and the ferries and that we contend is entirely in line with Government policy and indeed also in line with the policies which were being promoted by the last administration, and with which the Chairman will be very familiar from his previous involvement with the Minister of State at the Department of Transport.

27. I make this early mention of the local transport plan because the Filled-up Bill, to which we will come in a moment, contains a proposed amendment providing the tunnel surpluses may be spent on purposes which facilitate the achievement of policies relating to public transport contained in the statutory local transport plan, as revised, subject to public consultation from time to time. I will come to the proposed clause 91(3)E in a moment, it is to be found at A30 page 133 but it is going to give a special role to the local transport plan.

28. I turn then to the legislative context. The Bill which is before the Committee consists primarily of three schedules, as you will have seen, which amend the provisions of the County of Merseyside Act 1980 which governs at the present time the operation of the two tunnels. Those schedules do not make, I was going to say much sense, I am not sure they make any sense, unless one understands firstly the existing legislative system. Therefore I am going to ask the Committee please to turn in the bundle to A31 page 149.

29. If you go through the A documents for a while you will then find that the pages are numbered at the bottom right hand corner and I am asking the Committee to go through to page 149 where they will find the County of Merseyside Act 1980. I am just going to draw attention to the key provisions under five heads.

30. First, there is at the present time a power - it is not a duty but a power - to maintain the tunnels and that power is found under section 85(1) which the Committee will find at page 151.

That is the basic power in section 85 (1).

31. Secondly, there is a power to take tolls. That is to be found in section 91(1) at page 154 of the bundle.

32. Thirdly, there is a power to revise the tolls, and that is section 92(1) at page 155, and normally revise the tolls is going to mean to raise the tolls, but that provision is subject to four matters, and I just mention the four matters because they are important for what comes after.

33. Firstly, they must have regard to financial matters, to transportation matters and to other matters of a social nature. The Committee will find that spelt out on page 155 at section 92(3) where (a) refers to the financial position and the future prospects of the tunnel, (b) to other matters of a transportation nature and (c) to other matters of a social nature.

34. The second matter is that in revising tolls there must be consultation with the district councils, and that is set out in section 92(1) in the second line where the Committee will see provision for that consultation.

35. Thirdly, if there is an objection then the matter is subject to ministerial confirmation, and that is at section 92(2) where one sees that the Order is subject to confirmation by the minister. In fact, that of course is whether or not there is an objection but if there is not an objection it will be straight away normally confirmed, whereas if there is an objection then there is a prolonged process because the fourth matter I was going to refer to is that if there is an objection then there is a right to a public inquiry. The Committee will find that at page 157 in the bundle and it is section 92(8)(d) at the top of page 157. That is the existing toll procedure.

36. I said I would mention five features of the present legislation and I have so far mentioned three.

37. The fourth feature is that there are limited purposes for which the tolls may be applied whilst there is debt outstanding. The Committee will find those at section 99(1) at page 158. Section 99(1)(a) provides for paying money in defraying the costs of collection and recovery of tolls, (b) is the cost of policing the tunnels, (c) is defraying other operating costs, (d) and (e) both relate to various matters relating to the debt.

38. The fifth feature is a requirement to reduce tolls to a level appropriate for the maintenance and operation of the tunnel once the debt has been paid off. The Committee will find that at page 158 in section 99(2), which begins with the words "On the completion of the payment of all sums specified in (d) and (e)..."

39. Of those five features, the first and the second are unaffected by the Bill but substantial changes to the third and fourth features are proposed and it is proposed that the fifth feature be abolished altogether.


 
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