Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Question 240-259)

Mrs Charles George and Miss Joanna Clayton

Thursday 30 January 2003

240. MR GEORGE: Those are the four purposes identified in the explanatory memorandum, and the statutory provisions that will achieve it.

241. Why should there be a private bill? That is not a problem here. As Recital 7 relates, the purposes of the Act cannot be affected without the authority of Parliament. There is simply no other mechanism whereby this can be done. We are seeking to change the 1980 Act. The only alternative to a private bill would be general legislation, and there is no indication that such legislation is forthcoming, nor is it likely to contain provisions dealing with matters like noise insulation and the like.

242. So far as the consequences of the Bill are concerned, I think I can move very fast. There should be the following six beneficial results. The first is that the financing of the tunnel for the foreseeable future should be secured without the risk of recourse to the local authorities. The matter was rather nicely expressed by the Honourable Member for Southport on the Second Reading debate, Dr Pugh, who said that there were those who argued that because there was a current surplus, there was no need for the Bill. He said: "That remark was a bit like someone who tries to persuade me not take an umbrella tomorrow because it did not rain this afternoon. There is nothing in the present system to inhibit or prevent a loss, but the Bill includes a provision that leads one to believe that a loss is far less likely." We would say that that is a very important part of the Bill.

243. Secondly, we believe it will achieve financial stability while being barely perceived by users, because the ordinary costs of life go up with the RPI and if tolls also go up with the RPI, it frankly will not be noticed. Indeed, as Mr Bates will point out, earnings in recent years have risen far faster than the RPI, so that will further mask the effect of toll increases.

244. Thirdly, it is a benefit of the Bill that it gives the Secretary of State that special power to make an upward revision order in excess of RPI when needed, and I say no more about that.

245. Fourthly, it will serve a transportation function in maintaining the existing of balanced costs between public and private means of crossing the Mersey; and I say no more about that save that that is of manifest benefit to motorists as well because they will have less congestion in the tunnel.

246. Fifthly, there will be sums of money - initially quite modest, but likely to grow - available towards the improvement of public transport. Again on that matter, the Honourable Member for Southport on the Second Reading debate at column 832 had various extremely sensible things to say. He concluded by saying: "It is simply not possible to have integrated transport nationally but not locally." He held this up as an example of achieving at the local level what everyone of both parties thought was a good idea at national level.

247. Sixthly, when the debt is finally paid off many years hence, there will be public consultation as to whether the proposed system should continue.

248. Turning to the Filled-up Bill, we have already looked at most of its provisions. It is at page 133. Here are a few places where there were some errors in the deposited Bill: for example the base month was given as 2001 whereas the intention all along was 1999. Small matters like that have been corrected. The other matters are all either clarifications or safeguards that have been introduced. I commend those various amendments to Honourable Members.

249. Those Honourable Members who have been particularly conscientious will have seen at page 133 in the proposed section 91(4)(a) a reference to European Directive 1999/62/EC. In due course, the Honourable Member, Mr Field, may assist the Committee, along with the Committee Clerks on what I find a rather difficult measure fully to understand. We have included its provisions in the bundle at A37, page 240. It is a matter raised in the Petition and in the Secretary of State's report on the Bill. At A240 one finds the Directive. It only applies to HGVs that are 12 tonnes or more. It is at "D" in the top left-hand corner of page 242. It only applies to about 1 per cent of our total traffic; but even if it is 1 per cent, one still has to follow the Directive.

250. One then moves to Article 7 on page 243. The key provision is Article 7, item 9 (page 244) which reads: "The weighted average tolls shall be related to the costs of constructing, operating and developing the infrastructure network concerned."

251. When you first read that one can understand what it is saying, it is saying that HGVs of more than 12 tonnes should not be contributing to a surplus over and above the cost of constructing, operating and developing. That much is quite simple.

252. Where it becomes a little bit more complicated is Article 9, item two, on page 244, which says, "neither shall this directive prevent the Member States from attributing to environmental protection and the balanced development of transport network a percentage of the amount of the user charge or the toll provided this amount is calculated in accordance with Article 7(7) or 7(9)". The Committee is the not concerned with 7(7), 7(9) applies to us. You are constrained on the one hand but there is an exception, you can spend the money on the balanced development of transport networks.

253. The important thing is that those who are administering this Act must have careful regard to the Directive and ensure that the small, and it will be a small amount of the total surplus, which comes from the vehicles of more than 12 tonnes is not spent in a way which contravenes the Directive. We have proposed an amendment to the Bill which has, I am glad to say, satisfied the Department, which incorporates an express reference to the Directive. It may be in due course that the Committee is advised by the House's lawyers that there is no need for such an expressed reference because, of course, the Directive binds in any event, and Mr Field may similarly express the view that it is not necessary. It is there because the Department expressed concern. Of course the PTA is well aware of its legal responsibilities and knows it will have to comply, but if reassurance is needed we are happy there should be an expressed reference on the face of the Act to that matter. The committee may find it interesting that the same matter was raised in the consultation paper in respect of the Dartford Crossing and the Highways Agency pooh-poohed the whole matter and responded by saying there was nothing in the point, the committee will find it a A39, page 270, because all the money was going to be spent in accordance with the Directive in any event. It was raised against us by a number of petitioners and by the Department, we are well aware of the point and we are very happy a safeguard be introduced to the Act.

254. I now come to the Secretary of State's report. The honourable members will know it is the custom of the relevant Department of State effected by a private bill to assist the committee with a report. That was done in October 2002 ­ at the time we were hoping to have an earlier committee than we have. The Report is at A.29, page 130. It may be helpful for the committee to see what the view of the Department is. The committee is not bound by the Department's view but it is given to the committee to assist them.

255. The Secretary of State there says that he is not opposed to the proposed RPI mechanism, page 130, and that he is not opposed to proposed hypothecation to public transport uses as a surplus. He points out that the principle for using revenue from tolling charging in this way has already been established under the Transport Act 2000, that being the Act under which the Dartford Order was made. He also said he has no objection to the financing of noise insulation works, that is at page 132.

256. He raised two concerns, the first related to Directive 99/62, that is pages 131 to 132. As I have already indicated we do not think there is any conflict, in any event we are prepared to put forward the safeguarding provision. If we transfer any surpluses in the conflict with the Directive then the PTA will be judicially reviewable in the normal way. The Secretary of State wants there to be consultation with the people of Merseyside once all the debts have been repaid.

257. As the committee knows we have in the Filled­up Bill included a provision requiring such consultation and therefore we have met that point. It may be that there will be a further report from the committee but at any rate it is our understanding that the Department is now satisfied and no further report has so far been made available.

258. So far as supporters are concerned I simply mention that there are the five Merseyside districts who are all supporting the Bill and in the bundle the Committee will find a petition from Aslef supporting the Bill and a letter from the RMT supporting the Bill and also a petition from Transport 2000, that is at A.23, page 99, saying that they believe the Bill is consistent with Government policy and will bring enormous benefits to the people of Merseyside.

259. I should also mention on consultation on the Bill almost half of the respondents favoured index linking, the hypothecation was unpopular with users but then so was it in the case of Dartford.

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