Toll charges on the Mersey Gateway and Silver Jubilee bridges are at the centre of political debate as the battle to win Weaver Vale at the General Election hots up.
Labour has announced it will review the controversial charges if it wins at the ballot box on May 7. Their Weaver Vale candidate, Julia Tickridge, revealed the vow on Monday, adding that she was ‘delighted’ with the move and said it could affect motorists including her potential future constituents in Frodsham, Helsby and Northwich.
The review pledge comes nine months after July 2014, when Conservative chancellor George Osborne announced that Halton residents would be spared from having to pay to cross the bridges.
This followed an outcry and campaigning over Runcorn and Widnes drivers being charged to travel within the same local authority area. Activist groups sprang up such as Halton Against The Tolls, and Labour MP for Halton Derek Twigg and Conservative MP for Weaver Vale Graham Evans lobbied the Government over the charges.
The question of who deserved the credit for the tolls victory was complicated further by Halton Borough Council leader Rob Polhill’s argument that it was the local authority and Mersey Gateway team who had completed painstaking work to find £250m of savings to make abolishing the tolls for Runcorn and Widnes residents possible.
Earlier last year in February Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls had left Beechwood residents perplexed and underwhelmed when he said would ‘sort out the tolls’.
The effect on residents
Mrs Tickridge said that at present, motorists from Frodsham, Helsby and Northwich face having to pay £90 a month for a discount pass – amounting to more than £1,000 a year.
Critics of Labour’s claims over the tolls have accused the party of being the one that negotiated the finance deals that led to the much-maligned road charging proposals.
The issue has also frequently been used by other parties such as Ukip, the Lib Dems and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), as a stick with which to beat the Labour party in Halton.
Meanwhile, the consortium behind the Mersey Gateway bridge project has responded to scepticism over its pledges to create work which may have benefits for the Frodsham area.
Merseylink said it was ‘working very hard to support employment for residents in Halton and the North West’.
Its comments came after tenants rights chief Michael Gelling OBE questioned whether the bridge was creating jobs for residents or improving public transport, two elements of the argument backers made for the project to go ahead.
The council's response
Halton Borough Council had responded, providing figures that indicated that unemployment fell by between 0.7% and 4.6% on Runcorn’s estates and by 1.8% overall across the town in the past year.
Mr Gelling said evidence of direct job creation should be provided.
A Halton Borough Council employment board report published toward the end of March provided details of the Mersey Gateway’s key performance indicators by which its success or otherwise will be measured. These include:
- At least 10% of all construction employees to be recruited from Jobcentre Plus, ‘work programme and current local employment and career development’ schemes
- Ten per cent of all labour on building work to be carried out by apprentices
- A minimum of 3,000 hours of volunteer opportunities
- A creative arts programme for all of Halton’s primary schools
- Four employability programmes per year with 10 participants on each one
- At least 100 days of Time Bank consultancy support for Halton businesses and organisations
- Two or more ‘meet the buyer’ events for small and medium-sized firms on the supply chain in the ‘local area and wider region’.
A Merseylink spokesman said: “We are working closely with Halton Council and local training providers such as Riverside College to ensure we maximise the opportunities for local people as part of this.
“Merseylink does not have a specific target to reach in terms of job creation because that would be impractical.
“All of our skills forecasts are based on estimates, so it is impossible for us to determine the level extent of supply chain vacancies.
Asked about the penalties the spokesman added: “There is a wide range of key performance indicators and milestones that Merseylink is required to strive for and deliver through its contract with Halton Borough Council.
“The contract includes a range of penalties should Merseylink not have robust processes in place to enable them to deliver on the KPIs linked to the employment and skills delivery plan.”