HC Deb 11 May 2004 vol 421 cc30-52WH

2 pm

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale) (Lab)

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pass on my thanks to the Speaker for granting this Adjournment debate on a subject that is of great importance to the economy of the north-west. I want to start by briefly examining the history of crossings over the River Mersey. There is some debate as to whether the Romans built a bridge over the Mersey between what is now Widnes and Runcorn, but there is no doubt that there was a fording place in the Warrington, South area in Roman times. In 1905, the transporter bridge was built. The current Silver Jubilee bridge—there is an argument over whether it should be called the Runcorn-Widnes bridge or the Widnes-Runcorn bridge; its nomenclature depends on which side of the river people live—was built in 1961, widened in 1977 and renamed the Silver Jubilee bridge.

For some time in our area we have struggled with extreme congestion on the Silver Jubilee bridge. In the early 1990s, the then hon. Member for Halton and I pursued the Transport Minister to see whether a new river crossing could be built, and a case study was commissioned in 1991 to determine whether that was possible. The resulting report confirmed that the bridge was congested, but argued that since it was of no strategic importance to the north-west, a second crossing should not be paid for out of public expenditure.

The Silver Jubilee bridge has a capacity of 65,000 cars a day. About 75,000 cars a day were using it in 1993 and the average is now more than 80,000 cars a day. Moreover, on some days last year, 92,000 vehicles used the bridge, so it is clear that it is severely congested. The Oscar Faber report, published in 1997, concluded that by 2016 between 115,000 and 150,000 vehicles might cross the bridge, which would be massively in excess of its current capacity. The report also concluded that that was a constraint, not only on the economy of Halton and north Cheshire, but of Merseyside and the greater north-west region.

When the then Secretary of State for Transport turned down our appeal on the basis that there was no strategic need for the bridge, he said that we might seek a local solution to the problem. We therefore set up a consortium of local authorities. Some 80 per cent. of the traffic that uses the bridge is not local; 40 per cent. goes straight through the borough and 40 per cent. ends or begins its journey in Halton. It is therefore clear that the congestion is not just related to the borough of Halton.

In 1995 Halton borough council became the lead member of a group of Merseyside authorities—Liverpool metropolitan borough council, as it then was, the councils of Wirral, St. Helens, Knowsley and Sefton, Warrington borough council, and Cheshire county council—which formed a consortium with Merseytravel, the local chambers of commerce, English Partnerships and Peel Holdings. The aim of the consortium was to devise a local solution to the problem. More recently, the North West regional assembly and the Northwest Development Agency have joined the consortium to give real impetus to the demand for a new crossing over the River Mersey.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Coop)

I agree with the important points that my hon. Friend makes about this being a regional matter, reinforced by the involvement of the Northwest Development Agency. Does he agree that it is of specific interest to the development of Liverpool and particularly the port of Liverpool? The movement of traffic and the prevention of congestion are critical to developing the port's trade, and the building of a second crossing would be an essential factor in achieving that.

Mr. Hall

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I was not going to cover it, but she draws attention to the fact that the port of Liverpool is very important to the economy of the north-west. If we are to have a new crossing over the River Mersey, it will enhance the port, the economy of Liverpool and the wider region.

There are two tunnels under the River Mersey directly in the Liverpool area. The first crossing over the river is the Silver Jubilee bridge. There is a very local crossing in Warrington, South—in the town centre in Warrington. Anyone who has needed to travel through Warrington or Runcorn when the Thelwall viaduct is closed will know just how unsatisfactory that is for any strategic access into the north-west. Then we have the Thelwall viaduct itself. A huge amount of money has been spent on dualling the viaduct, only for us to find out that the structures of one carriageway have been seriously corroded. Traffic is now restricted on the viaduct and will be for quite some time. For a 24-mile stretch of river, we have only three significant crossings. That is why another is essential.

In 1997, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and I continued to press the Government to consider the issue, so that we could take forward the ideas coming out of the new Mersey crossing consortium. We were able to persuade the Secretary of State for Transport to provide a £600,000 grant for a feasibility study of where the bridge might cross the River Mersey and what its impact would be in the local area and more widely in the north-west region. As a direct result of that money, we have a clear idea of where we want the bridge. Perhaps I can give a plug to Halton borough council. It has produced on a CD a powerful case for the new Mersey crossing. The CD is available free at the point of need. It explains in graphic detail the benefits of the crossing and shows in interesting diagrammatic form what the bridge will look like and where it will go.

The debate is about whether we should dual the Silver Jubilee bridge or go elsewhere. Clearly, the cheapest option would be to dual the existing structure, but that would have a severe environmental impact in the Dukesfield area of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Halton, which covers Widnes. That option would not be acceptable. We want a better strategic route across the river. The local authority consortium has settled on a link from the Speke Road dual carriageway in south Widnes to the central expressway in Runcorn. That is a fascinating piece of the jigsaw puzzle, because it will provide a strategic link from the M56 to the M62, so creating another piece of improved infrastructure for our area as well as providing a significant crossing of the River Mersey.

The consortium did not stop at considering where the crossing should be. It decided that we needed a road bridge, but there was also the question of whether we could use the structure for something else. The structure is designed—I must read out this technical term—as a multiple cable-stayed bridge with a box structure providing the necessary stiffness. The structure will also provide the ability to use the lower deck for other modes of transport, such as a light railway. Merseytravel and Halton borough council are seriously considering that. They have declared that they are committed to extending Merseytram line 3 to Halton, and the bridge may be the way to enable that to go forward.

There are key benefits to providing a second crossing over the River Mersey. It will provide regional regeneration and better public transport. It will help business with better transport, and the links between Manchester and Liverpool and to Liverpool John Lennon airport will be greatly improved. It will also improve communications in the north-west. Traditionally, communications go east to west, but we want them to go north to south. It is very important for us to establish another strategic north-south communications route in the north-west.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North) (Lab)

My hon. Friend spoke about the benefits—for example, the links with Manchester—that can be derived from a second major river crossing for Liverpool. Does he agree that that is crucial for areas such as St. Helens because 90 per cent. of people who wish to cross the river from St. Helens use the Runcorn bridge?

Mr. Hall

Indeed, they do use the Silver Jubilee bridge. If the second bridge across the River Mersey is agreed, there will be implications beyond the road network for areas such as St. Helens. Both my hon. Friends the Members for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) and for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) have rightly tabled questions on the issue. We must be alert to the possibilities for development north of the borough of Halton if the proposed crossing gets the go ahead.

The project will bring 3,350 permanent jobs and 1,600 temporary jobs to the area; it has a £15 million development value, and it will have a return of £666 million, which is a sound economic investment in the region. Last summer, we were given a good nod from the Department for Transport in relation to the benefits that the scheme will bring. The consultants submitted their views to the Secretary of State and just before Christmas he gave the project "super work-in-progress" status, which was extremely well received in the area. It indicated that at long last we had been able to persuade the Government that the second crossing was essential.

However, several matters are still outstanding. The Government asked for an assessment of the impact that the traffic will have on the major highway networks, including the M6, the M56 and the M62, which is now under way, as is work on the hydrodynamic impact of the bridge on the River Mersey. The best and most effective ways of procuring the bridge and the procedural routes that need to be followed are being considered, and also whether tolling should fund the project.

I understand that the Government want us to consider whether the new bridge could be a toll bridge because every avenue of finance must be explored, but my view is that the bridge should be free to users. The Government are prepared to invest in crossings of the River Thames, of which there are 36–27 between Vauxhall and the M25 and nine between Tower bridge and Dartford—and they have just agreed to partly fund the new crossing over the Thames gateway. It is therefore not too much to ask them to fund the new crossing of the River Mersey. It has few strategic crossings, but the stretch of water is just as significant as the Thames.

My attention was brought to the significance of the river crossings when John Bell, a business development partner at Glenny, said: The question isn't so much 'should Thames Gateway Bridge be built?' but rather 'when?'. It will help to remove the physical barrier that the Thames creates for business investment and stimulate property development either side of the river, as well as easing congestion on the existing crossings which are at breaking point". If the River Thames needs Government investment because bridges are congested in the London area and along the river, there is a strong case for Government funding towards a new crossing of the River Mersey.

The borough of Halton is listed at No. 14 in the 2004 deprivation index. It would boost the economy if we avoided imposing tolls for using the new bridge and ensured that there was no barrier to investment and economic development in the area.

Halton, as lead borough, and the consortium for the new crossing, will submit their plans to the Secretary of State for Transport in the autumn. I hope there will be a decision before the end of the year, giving the green light to go ahead with the project. Then the procurement procedures and the necessary legal processes to agree the line of the bridge, which includes holding a public inquiry, can be sorted out, and construction can begin in 2007. The sooner construction begins, the better. There are city of culture events in Liverpool in 2008 and it would be helpful if the infrastructure were in place by then. The area is of strategic importance in that respect. I know that that is a tall order, but we are looking forward to making real progress.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halton and I have worked extremely hard on the project. It is a tribute to the partnership of the new crossing consortium that we are now close to realising the dream of a new crossing over the River Mersey. Part of our contribution has been to invite successive Transport Ministers to Halton to see the problems. There have been a number of visits, including recently by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty). That was a seminal visit in the campaign to establish the case for going ahead with the second crossing of the River Mersey. I congratulate the consortium on the work that it has done under the leadership of Halton borough council.

I finish by summarising the case that I have tried to set out. The Silver Jubilee bridge is seriously congested, a situation that will only continue to worsen. The lack of a new crossing over the River Mersey is a continuing constraint on the economic health of our region. There is a strong strategic case for the construction of a new crossing of the River Mersey, for the reasons highlighted this afternoon. The preference is for a bridge that is free to users. It would be a sound economic investment with a guaranteed good return. It would also be a positive demonstration of the Government's commitment to strengthening the economy of the north-west. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that the project remains high on the Government's list of priorities and that we can be confident that the scheme will go ahead.

2.16 pm
Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab)

I congratulate my constituency neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall). He will be familiar with the issues that I will raise because he used to represent the southern part of my constituency before boundary changes, so he realises the local impact as well as the strategic significance across the region.

I know that you are well aware of the area, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I wish to draw attention to some of the relevant geography. The Mersey is a big and strategically important river. It is very important to the north-west, which, as we both know, is the most important region in the United Kingdom. The first fordable point of the River Mersey was at Latchford in Warrington. It was identified by the Romans, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and is the reason for the name Latchford. That is also why Warrington, like London, has developed on either side of the river, with the river passing through the centre of the town. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the next two bridges along the river to the east are in my constituency, and one of them is directly in the town centre. There has been a bridge at that point since medieval times and the medieval market went along the same street as it does today to supply the sub-region, as Warrington still provides services for the local area.

For 2,000 years, Warrington has been a centre of north-west communications because it has been the point at which one can cross the Mersey most effectively. That has given us tremendous benefits over the years. During the industrial revolution, we had the first navigable waterway, the Sankey canal, which was constructed in Warrington. The Manchester ship canal passes through my constituency, as does the Bridgewater canal, the west coast main line and the Liverpool-Manchester railway. We have developed the M6 and M56, which go through the constituency, and the M62, which borders the constituency. They have brought tremendous benefits to Warrington and the sub-region over the years, but there have also been challenges.

Those challenges, particularly those relating to river crossings, have serious and significant local consequences. Local residents and businesses must cross the Mersey over the small bridge in the centre of town to get from one side of the town to the other. That bridge is considerably and detrimentally affected if there is any problem on the Thelwall viaduct or the Silver Jubilee bridge. Sadly, because it lies between those two points, the town centre is affected by both. As we all know, and as I have said in the Chamber, the impact of the Thelwall viaduct repairs has been significant. The fact that it is advertised throughout the north-west and, unfortunately, on traffic programmes on national radio, demonstrates the significance of the river crossing and very adequately supports the consortium's claim that we need another strategic bridge across the river.

Significant numbers of local people and organisations in Warrington support my hon. Friend in the debate. The leader of Warrington borough council sends the support of the council, which has been a supportive and enthusiastic part of the consortium and recognises the urgent need for the new river crossing and its strategic impact on Warrington, the north-west and its economy. The northern growth corridor in the north-west between Liverpool and Manchester will bring substantial opportunities for economic growth and development for the constituents of my hon. Friend and his neighbours who are in the Chamber, as well as those of hon. Members who could not get here today. My borough council wishes to express its support for those opportunities.

Warrington chamber of commerce totally supports the proposal. It is very concerned that the current bridge is supposed to carry 60,000 cars a day, but in fact carries 90,000 cars a day between Runcorn and Widnes. We recognise the local impact on congestion in the town centre, as well as on business costs incurred by people experiencing delays on the three bridges. The chamber of commerce recognises that a new bridge is essential for the economic development of Warrington and its sub-region. It pointed out the need to support the Omega site, to which I shall refer in a moment.

The small business service in Warrington also supports my hon. Friend's efforts. It believes that investment in the second bridge will greatly improve the efficiency of the sub-region and asks that the request for another bridge is supported. The regional development agency, which is based in my constituency on the edge of the river, also recognises the strategic impact on the sub-region and the region as a whole as well as for people moving in and out of Warrington.

In short, my constituency is at the centre of a thriving and growing economic sub-region. We are a hotbed of enterprise, technology, science and competitiveness, and the only town north of Birmingham with a top 25 location rating. Our unemployment rate is impressively low and our forecasts predict that the Warrington economy will outstrip national growth by more than 300 per cent. by 2015. We are not, however, complacent about such economic strength. We recognise that the sub-region is a significant centre of employment for parts of Halton, St. Helens and Wigan.

Many thousands of people come to Warrington for employment and service support, but we also want the sub-region to thrive so that unemployment in colleagues' constituencies, which has plummeted as a result of the Government's support, will continue to decrease. We want to continue to have considerable extra employment in the area. The business and academic networks in Manchester, Liverpool, Warrington and the areas in between are very significant. There is a tremendous development of skills in the area, and we want the infrastructure to support it.

We still face the challenge of tackling remaining areas of deprivation in our borough and the surrounding sub-regions. According to the index of multiple deprivation, two wards in my borough are still among the most deprived 10 per cent. nationally, and other wards in Warrington are among the worst 20 per cent. The council and its partners are keen that support for continued economic development should focus on providing opportunities for people in the borough who are suffering deprivation and not getting the full benefit of the employment possibilities that are opening up. We would also like to see significant developments in that respect in neighbouring constituencies and boroughs.

A significant part of Warrington's importance to the sub-region lies in the opportunities for further development and growth. We already have development plans, which are incredibly important for the sub-region. However, they depend on an effective transport infrastructure, and one is not currently fully in place. We must see movement on the issue.

Warrington is already the site for the global headquarters of United Utilities and the regional headquarters of companies such as Hewlett-Packard, AirMiles and O2. However, we want more companies to be based there for the benefit of not only my constituents but the whole region. I am sure that that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will support that concept, as you so often do.

I referred to the northern growth corridor, but I want specifically to mention the Omega site, which is very important for the strategic sub-region. It is located in the west of Warrington, towards the area that is being considered for the river crossing. It is adjacent to and bisected by the M62 motorway, to which it has direct access via the new junction 8. We are thankful to the Government for making the necessary investment, and we are looking forward to further investment to ensure that we get the new river crossing. The Omega site is widely recognised as one of the largest and most important strategic development projects in Europe. It gives us an opportunity to bring many more jobs and considerable investment into the area.

I want to raise what is perhaps a side issue, but it is important. We are all looking with considerable interest to the Lyons review, in which we see opportunities for our region. There is the Omega site in my constituency and my neighbour's constituency. There are also further proposals for high-quality business developments at Centre Park, where the Northwest Development Agency has its headquarters, at Lingley Mere, where United Utilities has its global headquarters, and at several other sites. The neighbouring constituencies are also identifying excellent opportunities for civil servants to move into our region and pursue effective career development.

For those reasons, we deserve a better river crossing. The partnership has been very effective, and we have worked together well to ensure that we get the opportunities that we need. We deserve them because our region is effective and has the resources, and because our constituents are working to ensure that there is thriving economic growth in our region.

In the recent past, we have not had the opportunities that we should have had, but we are now being given them under this Government. We want more such opportunities, and I support my hon. Friend in asking the Government to invest in our region so that we can grow, thrive and contribute to the economy as we have always done and as we have every intention of continuing to do.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton)

I want to help hon. Members. It would be appropriate for the winding-up speeches to start at about 3 o'clock. I spot at least three hon. Members trying to catch my eye, and there may be more. Hon. Members should bear that in mind in respect of the length of their speeches.

2.29 pm
Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on securing the debate and on giving us the opportunity to record our support for the project. That support is very widespread. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who has been an enthusiastic advocate of the project. In some quarters, he has earned the appellation Turnpike Twigg, because he is so keen to push forward the idea of a second crossing, which we need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale mentioned the bridges in London and the preferential treatment that they are afforded. We should bear it in mind that the Mersey is a mighty river from Halton to its mouth. It is not a piddling little stream like the river here in London. Its geography, submarine morphology and hydrology mean that the only practical place to build a crossing is from Halton. going upstream. The need for an extra crossing is without question.

I am probably one of the few people here who recalls travelling across what we called the old transporter bridge when I was a boy. It was a cable-drawn bridge. I watched with increasing awe and wonder as the new bridge was built, but it was not always heavily used. I recall reading an article. in the dark days after the 1981 riots, by a famous Liverpool journalist called Stanley Reynolds, in which he referred to the museum of the horrifying example. The article was so good that it ended up in international copies ofThe Guardian, so it was read all over the world. To give a sense of the downward spiral of Liverpool and Merseyside, Reynolds discussed the lack of a rush hour. He said that nobody rushes and that there was nothing that one would recognise, in metropolitan terms, as people going to and from work in rush hour, and he was right. The bridge was like that, but that is no longer the case. That is a sign of the changing times, which can be seen by anyone who uses the bridge, as I do, between what used to be the independent boroughs of Widnes and Runcorn, which have now combined to become the successful unitary authority of Halton. The bridge is now used quite frequently.

My hon. Friend gave the percentages of who goes where and who uses the bridge. The only issue that I take with those figures is that I would have used a starting point of 200 per cent. because I reckon that half the people who would use the bridge actually turn around and go back because they see the snarl-ups as they approach it. Such delays are a tremendous inconvenience to businesses and private traffic, such as commuters.

I must make a point, which I have made to my hon. Friend in fun, about the new phenomenon after the rush hour when the bridge is jam-packed and the milk floats come out. Someone might be trying to get to a station, or a business might be trying to get its products across the bridge, when the electric milk floats appear, as they do with regular and depressing monotony, and there is a second back-up because the traffic is all stuck behind them. There is no other option: people have to go across the bridge because there is no other viable way of going about their business.

You and I both know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that on many occasions in the past, it has been extremely difficult to get Merseyside MPs to agree on anything—even the time of day.

Mr. Watts

To be fair to the milkmen driving those milk floats, does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just milk floats that cause delays on the Runcorn bridge? It can take up to 20 minutes to cross the bridge. Does he think that that would be an acceptable length of time to spend crossing a bridge in London?

Mr. Kilfoyle

No, it would not be acceptable.

Other problems are caused by the bridge being used to overcapacity and by the constant maintenance work. It is an incredibly difficult issue. It is important to recognise how important Runcorn railway station is, not just to right hon. and hon. Members who catch trains from there to London, but to the many business men who use it for the same purpose. It must be no fun for someone who has an important business meeting in London to be stuck in a traffic jam that they cannot avoid because there is no way around it.

The point that I was making about MPs not previously agreeing on things is that we certainly agree on the need for a second crossing. I notice that hon. Members representing Merseyside, Cheshire and Lancashire constituencies are in the Chamber. There is even one, my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), who is trying, I think, to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, who represents the far-flung reaches of Greater Manchester. That shows what a regional asset the new bridge would be and how important it is to us all, not just to Halton or Warrington. Even in your celebrated part of Cheshire, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am sure that people would cry out with joy if the Minister were to confirm that the bridge is to get the go-ahead and the priority that it deserves.

2.35 pm
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)

I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on securing the debate and on his thorough introduction of the topic.

Some context may help to explain why the bridge is important to me and my constituents. We need to recognise that although there are still some serious black spots on Merseyside, the economy is gaining strength. Many kinds of evidence for that can be found in all sorts of places. The LiverpoolDaily Post pointed out that some major investment decisions could be contingent on the second crossing going ahead. I refer, of course, to Jaguar, which is considering what investments it will make in future and how those would fit into the regional transport system.

The decision is certainly important to the industrial centres of Kirby in my constituency, Huyton and parts of Sefton. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Watts) pointed out, it is also important to those in St. Helens who conduct business further afield.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) was exactly right when he said that serious traffic problems did not arise in the 1980s but now happen during the day all over the region—I prefer to call it that rather than a sub-region, but we shall not pursue that argument today. In parts of my constituency and in Liverpool and elsewhere there are serious congestion problems. However, it is on the bridge that some of the biggest problems arise, several times a day. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the congestion sometimes has very unexpected sources.

Transport links are important and several new developments are taking place. We have a tram scheme that will link Kirby in my constituency with Liverpool city centre. There are still some arguments about that, which it would not be appropriate to go into today, but nevertheless the development is strategically important to my constituency and to north Liverpool, which is so often neglected, particularly by Liverpool city council. It is also hugely important to many people who want to find or keep employment and who move about the region.

After a long campaign, and a great deal of support from Ministers in the Department for Transport, we now have direct flights to and from London. That is important in two ways: first, it means that there is a cheap, quick and efficient link between London and Liverpool John Lennon airport, and, secondly, it provides some competition for the west coast main line and Virgin. Any regular traveller on the route will have felt the consequence of that.

Before I finish, I want to stress a point that my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton and for Weaver Vale both made in a slightly different way. The local authorities on Merseyside, in which I include Halton, have strongly supported Halton in the work that has been done on the second crossing. They have done so because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton explained, some solidarity has emerged between the areas in recent years. I should want to encourage that to develop further.

A second reason for the local authorities' attitude is their recognition that, because of the development's strategic economic importance to the region, it is logical for them to support the important and excellent work that Halton has done with the other partners.

Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab)

I just want to put it on the record that Cheshire county council is a key supporter of a new Mersey crossing, as is the local authority of the city of Chester. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are aware of that. The support for the crossing goes wider than simply Liverpool and Merseyside; it stretches throughout Cheshire.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, which is timely because my next point is that the crossing is strategically important to Cheshire. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that everything that has to do with Cheshire is dear to your heart, too. If the development goes ahead, it will be a win-win situation and, as my hon. Friend said, there will be cries of joy in Cheshire. People will be dancing in the street in Knowsley if the scheme obtains approval. It will not be a pretty sight, but I shall be dancing alongside them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sure that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) will be dancing too.

2.41 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

Not a pretty sight, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) and me dancing. I want to start with an apology to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle). When he described watching the bridge being built, as a small boy, I had always assumed that it was the transporter bridge that he saw being built in 1905. That was an extraordinary piece of engineering, and a great credit to the engineers of the time, but it was built at a time when nobody envisaged the growth of personal transport. At its height, just before its closure, it was carrying a volume of only about 1,000 cars, which was an extraordinary feat for that technology. When the new bridge was opened in 1961, it carried about a quarter of its supposed total capacity—just over 11,500 vehicles. It was never assumed that it would carry the current volumes. By 1999, the figures had risen to in excess of 80,000 vehicles. which is way beyond the bridge's design capacity, and the volume is still growing. The report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) referred—I know that he is an excellent MP because he is my MP—spells that out: the average number of vehicles is now more than 80,000. One day last year, it cracked 92,000, and by 2016, the predicted figure is somewhere between 115,000 and 150,000 vehicles. That is a crazy number of vehicles, which will bring the whole network to a halt.

One thing is certain. Despite the minor differences between Merseyside and Cheshire Members about tunnel fees, one thing on which we agree is the need to maintain the circular network around Greater Merseyside. If we do not keep traffic flowing in the area, business and commerce will grind to a halt. The current situation, as was described earlier, is that at certain key times of the day, the traffic backs up both ways. Not only does that cause disruption to business and commerce but it is starting to create a danger because traffic wanting to go on to the southern side of the dual carriageway and slip off to Runcorn station finds itself banking up with traffic queueing for the bridge. That is inherently a dangerous situation, which is likely to cause road traffic incidents. In turn, that disrupts passenger access to Runcorn station. When we consider the traffic heading south to London and the traffic trying to get across the bridge, it is becoming a serious crisis.

When I first moved into the area in 1977, one could cross the bridge without impediment at any time of the day or night. That is no longer the case and it is putting the long-term economic future of the area at risk.

Those of us living on the south side, such as you and me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may want to use John Lennon airport from time to time. However, the route is not reliable simply because of the blockage that occurs when crossing that bridge. Let us take as an example the superb new flight that goes from John Lennon to London City airport, which should he immensely convenient for businesses in and around my constituency. However, they cannot use that flight because of the uncertainties of crossing the bridge at key times of the day. Work needs to be done to maintain the strong circular infrastructure around Greater Merseyside's road network.

As my hon. Friend the Minister is aware from arguments that have come through his Department and the Strategic Rail Authority, we need to get the railway network around Halton curve resolved once and for all, so that we have a bi-modal arrangement that enables us to have a proper integrated transport structure serving Greater Merseyside, Cheshire and Lancashire. The whole of the sub-region will benefit if that investment takes place.

The Minister is faced with a dilemma. The projects are enormous and the cost will be in the multimillions. I think that the current projected figure is £300 million, a serious sum by any standard. An assessment needs to be made of the kind of payback that the region will receive. My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East has already referred to one of the key business decisions that may be in jeopardy if we do not take a positive view of that.

The opposite side of the issue is whether we can look at the cheap solution. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale described, the cheap solution was dualling the existing arrangements. The problem with that is that, notwithstanding the huge disadvantage to the immediate residents of the area, it would be massively disruptive during the construction period. The kind of imminent decisions to which my hon. Friend referred would still be put in jeopardy if we had a protracted period of several years of construction during which the bridge was almost unusable.

On those grounds, I am delighted to give support to my hon. Friend the Member for Waver Vale and his silent partner, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg). It is extremely pleasing to k now that feeling in the area extends across all the political parties and that there is unity on the issue. There is also unity with the business community. The key environmental issues are solvable, and I urge the Minister to do all that he can in his office to ensure that the project goes ahead.

2.50 pm
Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab)

Some people may be surprised by the hon. Member for Eccles. which is in the city of Salford in Greater Manchester, rising to pass comment on what is apparently a Merseyside concern. I would argue that although it is first and foremost an issue for the people of Halton and the wider Merseyside area, transport issues are inextricably linked across the breadth of the north-west. Whatever happens in Merseyside has an effect on Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cumbria and Cheshire.

The Minister should be aware that taking part in this debate are my hon. Friends the Members for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) and for Workington (Tony Cunningham), who represent constituencies in Lancashire and Cumbria respectively, and myself, whose constituency is in Greater Manchester. That indicates the breadth of interest in what initially appears to be a local issue. Furthermore, my constituency mailbag tells me that transport, in particular public transport, and the highways are among the greatest interests of my constituents; they are up there with crime and health.

We must recognise the historical problems that we have created for ourselves. In the past 20 to 30 years, local authorities' budgets granted by the Government have reduced year on year. Understandably, many local authorities vired money from leisure and highways to protect education and social services. I would have supported that political decision in those years, but the consequence for our north-west region is that its roads, which are some of the most used and oldest industrial roads in the world, have been in great decline. My constituency includes the Worsley interchange. People speak about the spaghetti junction in Birmingham, but it is not the most congested interchange; indeed, the Worsley interchange is the most congested and used interchange in the whole of Europe.

Our road infrastructure and rail network are a wonderful facility and something that we should be proud of, but we should recognise that they are so well used and have been under-funded for so long that their problems need to be addressed strategically. The Chinese have the aphorism that says when a butterfly flaps its wings on this side of the world, a hurricane is created on the other. My view is that whatever happens in Halton is of interest to people in Eccles and Greater Manchester.

Mr. Mike Hall

I tried to make the point that the issue does not concern Halton or Merseyside exclusively, but is a regional issue for the north-west as a whole. The link between Manchester and Liverpool airports will be substantially enhanced by a new crossing of the River Mersey, as would the concept of the M62 corridor that the Deputy Prime Minister is keen to develop. I am sure that my hon. Friend, as an MP for a Greater Manchester constituency, would agree with that.

Ian Stewart

I do and I shall expand on that a little more. My hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) made the same point. Transport infrastructure has a knock-on effect for employment mobility. Indeed, if there were a better transport infrastructure in the Manchester-Liverpool ship canal corridor—I believe that a new bridge would create a better transport infrastructure—people from Greater Manchester would be attracted to travelling to work in the Merseyside area and vice versa.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I hope that my hon. Friend is not suggesting that our jobs be exported to Manchester. We need as many jobs as we can get on Merseyside for Merseyside's unemployed people.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman should not be diverted by that provocative intervention.

Ian Stewart

My hon. Friend is, of course, baiting me. He will not be successful. However, the importance of what he said is that all of us in the region—whether in Manchester, Merseyside, Cheshire, Lancashire or Cumbria—should be interested in how to generate more wealth and more jobs, and how to improve transport across the region. In that sense, I agree with him.

Important as employment is, the debate is also about leisure. The development of Liverpool John Lennon airport has been important for the region. It is the only airport that gives people from the east of the region access to low-cost airlines, which is a significant development. I hope that Manchester airport will offer that service at some point, but for now John Lennon airport is the only such facility. Although that might not be a permanent arrangement—it depends on the development of civil air transport—it is important to note that the initiative was taken on Merseyside, rightly attracting people from Greater Manchester to Merseyside to use the facility.

Mr. Kilfoyle

Does my hon. Friend see the good sense of the project in allowing for the potential for a light rail link that would, presumably, link the two airports so that they could act in concert?

Ian Stewart

My hon. Friend again anticipates comments that I want to make. I am well known at the Greater Manchester end of the region for my commitment to the development of transport. My constituency benefits from the excellent facility of the Metrolink in Greater Manchester. I have been in discussion with colleagues from Warrington and other areas in Greater Manchester and Cheshire about the potential for a Metrolink between Manchester and Liverpool. The Minister might say that that is not the most appropriate mode of transport. Fine; that might be the case. However, I hope that he will acknowledge that we should discuss what is, strategically, the most appropriate type of link to enhance transport in the region.

Going by what I currently know, I have a negative view about tolls. The tolling of such a bridge would decant the congestion problem elsewhere, so I remain to be convinced that tolling would be an appropriate method of funding the project. Although I am not a local MP directly involved with the matter, my impression of the debate is that it is an awareness-raising exercise. Colleagues are not expecting an answer from the Minister, but are raising the issue on the basis that an answer might come at an appropriate time, after consideration.

Finally, if we are to consider the interests of people in my constituency and the surrounding area of Salford and Greater Manchester, when such a significant development is proposed and we think that it is right, we should say so. I think that it is the right thing to do.

3 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on raising this important issue and other Members on speaking with such eloquence and passion. This is an important cause for the whole of the north-west. I preface my remarks by saying that although I am not a Liberal Democrat transport spokesman on a normal day, I seem, after my Mersey tunnel experience, to have become the unofficial spokesman on Mersey crossings.

I live in the north-west, which adds to my credentials. My son goes to Runcorn every day across the bridge. Like the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), I am old enough to recall the transporter bridge. I found it a rather scary experience, as I was always afraid that it would drop me in the middle of the sea.

Mr. Howarth

Particularly if my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton was on it.

Dr. Pugh

Yes. The north-west is booming, as a consequence of two things. First, we have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Secondly, we have made effective use of regeneration funds. Surely, we can all agree that the biggest brake on further development in the north-west is transport links. The two biggest bottlenecks for most people travelling in and out of the north-west is the route around Birmingham and the crossing over the Mersey. The route around Birmingham has been enormously improved by the new toll road. It has certainly been the best £2 that I have spent recently.

The crossing over the Mersey is still an outstanding issue. Every time one approaches the Thelwall viaduct one hopes that it will get better. It never does. The M6 remains one of the worst motorways in Europe as both a driving experience and a transport route. Increasingly, to avoid that route and hold-ups through Liverpool and across the Thelwall viaduct itself, people use the Runcorn bridge. Inevitably, there is a problem, as has been well identified and outlined. The present bridge was built to take 42,000, but takes more than 80,000. It is a scandal. As a number of hon. Members have highlighted, London has so many bridges and the Lancashire-Cheshire area has so very few. I shudder to think what would happen if London were treated as badly as we have been.

The proposal is a good one and I endorse it. There are still some uncertainties. Perhaps the Minister can assist me and perhaps other hon. Members can intervene and help me, too. On two different websites from two different engineers, I came across two different prices; £300 million on the Clifford website and £200 million on the Herbert Smith website. There is an uncertainty about costings and about the mechanics of the finance. Will it be publicly financed? Will it be PFI? Will there be tolls? There is a further uncertainty with regard to time. Will it all be agreed in 2004, or turned down in 2004? Will it be ready in time for the capital of culture?

The fundamental uncertainty that I guess we are all here to resolve is the extent of Government support. The debate endeavours to test that. The Government, unlike hon. Members present, have to choose priorities. Funds are not unlimited. As the Minister would recognise, huge amounts are needed for the north-west. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, agree that huge amounts are needed for the north-west. We could talk about the west coast main line, but we must not. We could talk about Liverpool trams. We could talk about a host of less glamorous schemes. I was hoping that the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) would remain long enough for me to put in a plug for the A570 improvements between Southport and Ormskirk. So be it. The Heysham bypass, the Piccadilly intersections; there are so many examples that I could give.

In the north-west, by and large, we adopt a supportive attitude to one another's schemes. It is not a question of "either or"; inevitably it is a question of "both and". However, the reality that we all know as experienced politicians is that Governments have to choose because resources are finite. Hopefully when they choose, they choose in terms of long-term, non-partisan public interest, rather than party preferences and so on. On that basis, the bridge would meet most criteria that one wants to set. It would score highly.

I conclude on a personal note by giving a word of advice. It so happens that a bridge is being opened this week in my constituency by Her Royal Highness the Countess of Wessex. It is a much smaller but attractive, modern bridge, linking the Southport seafront to the retail shopping area. It replaces a wrought iron bridge, of which people were very fond, but which corroded over the years and became unusable. The new bridge is now massively popular. I campaigned for it, with the help of the Merseyside passenger transport association, and we succeeded in getting funding. From the experience of making a bridge happen, I learned two things.

First, I learned of the poetry excitement of bridges; there is a kind of symbolism about it. I believe that design matters for bridges. We have probably not said enough about design. because bridges have also an economic dimension, but for those driving across them, they have an aesthetic character. I should have liked to hear more, not about what the bridge will do in economic terms but how it will look and how it will affect the Mersey landscape, which is more important.

Secondly—this may have more relevance to our debate—I learned that the best is often the enemy of the good. Some people in Southport, including myself, would have preferred not to have a modern bridge but a wrought iron replica. Equally, most wanted the new bridge to be all that was specified and to be toll-free. It certainly should be and I hope that it can be.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

The hon. Gentleman thinks that the bridge should be toll-free. Why, then, was he in favour of extra tolls on the Mersey tunnels?

Dr. Pugh

I was not in favour of that. If the hon. Gentleman had followed the debate more closely, he would know that we were working out a new mechanism for tolls. For as long as I have lived in Merseyside—I have the advantage in that respectߞthere have always been tolls on the tunnels.

I shall press on. If resources do not match ambition, I accept that there may a need to review the design potential of the bridge. One can wait for perfection, but at the end of the day, Halton, Runcorn and everyone wants results; politics is the art of the possible. I hope that we can get everything. I hope that we can get the bridge as designed; toll-free and attractive, a real visual amenity and an economic benefit to Merseyside. We shall hear from the Minister how near we might get to that.

3.7 pm

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on introducing the debate so eloquently. I congratulate Halton borough council and the other local authorities on pursuing the suggestion, first made by a Conservative Secretary of State, that they should find a local solution. They have made an enormous amount of progress towards that end. The Government have helped by giving £600,000 for a feasibility study. However, I am still concerned about the delays that seem to be built into the Government's consideration of this and other projects, because it took five months before they made their response to the study. As so often in the past, that response was a whole lot more questions and the need for yet more work to be done, a pattern of procrastination that is associated with the Government's attitude to the transport infrastructure.

Mr. Mike Hall

Will the hon. Gentleman put the record straight and say that the then Conservative Secretary of State for Transport turned down the original request for a strategic crossing over the Mersey?

Mr. Chope

That is right; but as we heard this afternoon, the traffic in those days—was it 12 years ago or even longer?—is very different from what it is now. The Secretary of State turned it down; he said that there was a need but that, as a local need, it should be satisfied by local people getting together. That is what the local authority has done.

Mr. Hall

The then Secretary of State for Transport turned it down in 1995, when the traffic flow on the bridge was 75,000 plus vehicles. That was already 10,000 above the capacity figures. The bridge was clearly congested, which was recognised by the Secretary of State. However, he said that he saw no regional significance in the fact.

Mr. Chope

In that case, I stand corrected by the hon. Gentleman. I thought that it was 1991, but if the figures show that it was 1995, it probably explains why he said there was a need but that it should be satisfied locally because it was not of national strategic importance.

Let us try and be more positive, because it has been a joy to behold today the spectacle of seven Labour Members and two Liberal Democrats arguing eloquently and persuasively in favour of substantial additional spending on roads. Whatever happened to the Deputy Prime Minister's pledge to reduce road traffic in absolute terms, which was the Government's transport policy for years? At last, they recognise that an inherent part of economic prosperity is having a transport and road infrastructure to support it. The debate is part of the wider debate, which has been won by those who argue consistently for further investment in transport infrastructure; they are well represented on the Conservative Benches.

The issue of tolls has been mentioned in the debate. I hope that the Minister will say exactly where the Government stand on support for the project. Only when they declare openly how much they are prepared to invest in the project will local people be able to decide whether they wish to proceed with it and raise extra funds through private finance and toll income, or whether it should be funded wholly out of taxpayers' money. Who would be surprised if local people and their representatives said that they would prefer the whole thing to be funded out of money from national taxpayers?

I hope the Minister will say how much money the Government will put in and then the local people can decide.

Mr. George Howarth

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us the official Opposition's view? Does he believe it should be a toll-free crossing?

Mr. Chope

That is an interesting question. We believe that if infrastructure has to be developed and the only way to afford it is through tolls, better to have a toll crossing than no crossing at all. UnfortunatelyߞI regret it every day of the week—we are not in government and we do not have the Minister's great challenge: and to consider all the competing road projects up and down the country, and decide what priority to give them and how to spend the resources. However, when the time comes and we are in government, I shall be happy to give the hon. Gentleman a clear and unequivocal response to his question. I hope he will not have to wait very long for that response from a Conservative Minister.

It is important to give the Minister the maximum time to respond on the issue, which many hon. Members from a particular part of the country have supported in the debate. Part of the Government's agenda is to try and divert responsibility for this type of debate away from Parliament, the centre of our democracy, to regional assemblies. Many who are in this Chamber today are against the idea of an elected regional assembly in the north-west and they are right to hold that view, because it would devalue the importance of debates such as this, in which we can hold the Minister to account instead of being told that we must sort these matters out with the assembly.

The House remains the place where the decisions have to be taken and where the Government are held to account by representatives of the people, elected under a one-person, one-vote system of individual constituencies. I hope the Minister will take the points made to heart, and in that spirit, and come up with the answers that local people want.

3.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I start by telling the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) that if he is so enamoured of parliamentary and governmental decisions taken in Whitehall, he might remember the 1995 position when the Tories turned down the scheme in the first place, and not try to elide that basic fact of history. I shall return to that point later.

This has been a useful and interesting debate, apart from, as ever, the contribution by the hon. Member for Christchurch. Every Back Bencher who opened his mouth revealed a good knowledge of the history of the north-west and of governmental processes and decision making, but there was precious little on the Opposition Front Bench. That is a matter for regret, because—save for the last, rather poisonous contribution—my right hon. and hon. Friends are right that there is cross-party support for the project. That is certainly true in the north-west. I do not think that any Conservatives in the region have raised their voice against it, although it would have been nice if any opponents of the project had turned up to the debate.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Christchurch but I do not think that he said whether he supported the project as it had developed thus far. We are therefore none the wiser—or otherwise—about his position; it was just the usual hysteria.

Mr. Chope

I must say unequivocally that we support the project. I thought that that was quite clear from my remarks.

Mr. McNulty

It was not clear at all. I am sure that my hon. Friends will be grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarity now, after the hysteria.

Before I move on, I want to make one more partisan point, because I must. Indeed, it is terribly important. The cross-party support for the scheme—I shall come in a moment to the details and to where we are as regards a decision—extends to the Liberal Democrats, and I am grateful for that. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) started by saying that "the north-west is booming," and I exhort all my hon. Friends, who have elections coming up in their areas in the next four or five weeks, to hold him to that. They should see whether Liberal Democrat leaflets seek, as ever, to talk down the area and to traduce the Government's economic record.

I am not, by any token, a son of the north-west, although I was at Liverpool university from 1979 to 1981. However, I saw the devastation caused by the empty vessel that is the Conservative party, as the lifeblood was drained out of an area that I have since grown to like and which I have enjoyed on numerous occasions.

As many hon. Members have said, the great joy of this debate lies in the fact that we have congestion and extra economic activity only because affluence, economic development and prosperity have increased, although I am the first to say that they do not cover every part of the region. It is important to make that clear.

In passing, it is worth dwelling on the fact that 15 MPs from the area have been in full agreement today, and that is a real testament to them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) said, the region stretches from Merseyside to Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. As ever, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you have been dispassionate and objective, although you have harrumphed at the right points to move things forward. That is very important.

As my hon. Friends the Members for Eccles (Ian Stewart) and for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) suggested, I will not give a definitive decision either way at this stage because we are only some way through the process. However, everyone involved should be congratulated on that process, which has been open and transparent, and my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) alluded to some of the details. Incidentally, I am sorry that I did not congratulate him when I started, but I was attacking the hon. Member for Christchurch. That aside, the process has been carried out in a mature and sophisticated way.

If the hon. Member for Southport knew anything about such processes, and if he had listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale, he would know that certain outstanding issues need exploring before we can move on. However, I forgive him. The answer to his immediate question is roughly £335 million. I would love to know where he saw the figure of £200 million, because if the costings stood up, they would make the case all the better. However, the figure is £335 million.

Thus far, the Mersey Crossing Group has done important work in garnering support and forming an alliance across the region.

I shall not make any jokes about the unity of the north-west Labour group. Its members are here, and that unity is palpable today. I welcome the group, and long may it continue.

As the Department has said, we recognise that the crossing is a significant issue for the region. We accept that there are significant congestion problems on the Silver Jubilee bridge. I shall not make a joke about the fact that, on the three or four times that I have been up there recently, the bridge was empty. It was halfway through the day, but I take the point that there are real problems at peak hours. Coupled with that, as hon. Members have said, is the fact that any incident that causes it to be closed can cause massive traffic chaos in the entire area. Because of over-use, maintenance is a significant factor; doing it on an ongoing route is clearly problematic.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I beg the Minister's indulgence, but I have nothing against milk floats, or milkmen, but they have no way of going about their legitimate business other than by crossing the bridge. It may seem odd to be obsessed about that, but it is no joke when there are huge queues behind the milk floats on the bridge.

Mr. McNulty

I heard that point, but I shall move on. I have never seen a milk float jam when I have been in the region, but I bow to my hon. Friend's greater experience. Major disruption cannot be avoided when maintenance is required or there has been some incident. I understand that this June, a 14-week programme will begin to renew the 40-year-old expansion joints. I do not need to repeat or rehearse what my hon. Friends have said about having tunnels in one. direction and the Thelwall viaduct in the other, or about the crossing in Warrington.

I understand what the Mersey crossing group and Halton have said about the bridge being strategic, with the Silver Jubilee bridge being the local bridge, and that approach is appropriate. If, as the group is planning, the new crossing were to prevail, the carriageway of the Silver Jubilee bridge could be reduced to two lanes, and all the difficulties caused by maintenance would be markedly reduced. There would be sufficient space on the deck for good cycling or pedestrian benefits.

I do not need to repeat the key benefits that Halton claims for the project: better public transport, help for business, better links between Manchester and Merseyside, more than 3,000 new permanent jobs, £15 million of development value and a scheme that has a return in excess of £600 million. Those points have been well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale. They will also know that just before Christmas, we announced, in response to Halton borough council on the 2002–03 local transport settlement—

3.23 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.38 pm

On resumingߞ

Mr. McNulty

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by the Division, just before Christmas, we announced—in our response to Halton borough council on the 2003 local transport settlement—that we recognised the scheme's importance and high profile, but considered that further appraisal work was needed.

The Secretary of State will make a decision once Halton borough council has completed the additional work that has been requested. That will, of course, be subject to funding availability. We also stressed to Halton the importance of getting the further appraisal work right and explained that we could if necessary be flexible in considering the scheme outside the normal local transport plan timetable. None of that is about procrastination on an important decision. It is a matter of getting the decision right, not just for Halton borough but for the entire region, as my hon. Friends have all suggested.

I congratulate Halton on the way it has taken to the task and brought matters to this point. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale said, the Department has been very supportive of Halton in its efforts to assess the feasibility of the new crossing. We have already provided £600,000 to fund preparatory studies and are liaising closely with Halton on a range of issues further to the initial submission to the Department, which we have asked it to follow up.

My hon. Friend alluded to those issues and our requests are not a way of kicking the matter into the long grass. They are intended to enable a serious decision to be taken on a serious proposal that merits serious assessment, something that it did not receive in 1995 when the Government of the day dispatched it rudely without fear of the consequences for Merseyside. As my hon. Friend said, we do need to consider the matter further and assess the impact of the bridge on the strategic highway network.

My hon. Friends have talked at length about how the project plugs into, and interacts with, the surrounding transport infrastructure and network. We do have to examine in more detail the hydrodynamic impact of the bridge on the River Mersey, a major waterway and river of some significance. There are also serious environmental as well as engineering construction dimensions that need to be considered in some detail. Equally, we must decide on the most effective procurement of procedural routes, and consider whether tolling could help to fund the project. I shall return to that issue shortly.

Government officials have already met officials from Halton, the Government office for the north-west and the Highways Agency to discuss these matters, and we will meet them subsequently to give them all the help that we can to complete the assessment. The new bridge will have a widespread impact on travel patterns, so we need to understand any knock-on effects such as additional traffic on other roads, including the trunk road network, if I may be the butterfly in the Chinese aphorism cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles.

The Mersey estuary is environmentally sensitive and we need to ensure that the impact on the river and wildlife are fully understood and can be properly mitigated where necessary. Equally, the proposals are expensive, and Halton will want an investment of some £350 million in the new crossing, although the figure could well turn out to be at the upper end of the scale. The budget is limited, and there are competing priorities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale kindly said, I have visited Merseyside a couple of times and have seen from the top of the chemical museum the glory of where the bridge may go. I have seen the much loved car breakers yard that, sadly, will have to go to facilitate the road network around the bridge. I am also all over theWidnes Weekly News this week in an article about guide dogs and free private hire passage—an equally important project introduced by this Government—but that is entirely incidental and has nothing to do with this debate.

It is important to dwell on funding, although Opposition Members have raised the issue spuriously and speciously in this debate. In the end, the funding may be a mixture of PFI and tolling, or it may be delivered entirely through public procurement. I simply do not know until we explore the matter fully.

In passing, I should say that a mixture of PFI and tolling is exactly the way forward for the Thames gateway bridge. The suggestion that the bridge would be funded entirely through public procurement is wrong. I should also say that a tiny, tiny weakness in the case put so eloquently by my hon. Friends was the beggar my neighbour approach taken by competing deprived areas. Halton may well be fourteenth on the list, but Newham, which is eleventh on the list, will gain much from the gateway bridge. That is minor point, but the argument that the nation gave cosseted, fat and bloated Londoners another bridge, so Merseyside should have one, is not the best way to make progress in the debate.

A good deal of real work needs to be done. We should not procrastinate.

Mr. Hall

The Thames gateway is part-funded by taxpayers' money. If part-funding is good enough for Newham, part-funding for the new Mersey crossing would be good enough for Halton.

Mr. McNulty

We will leave the circularity there and move on, although we may return to the subject later.

Halton is cheerfully carrying on with the task. The council leader, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) and others in Halton and beyond will have their own views on what the mix of procurement should be and will make those views well known, but it is important to discuss the matter. Halton must assess the cost, time scale and impact of this major project and the appropriate procurement route, and I know that it is up to the task. It is pushing ahead with the work with a view to returning to the Department for Transport in the autumn, which it may well do. We will consider the scheme carefully once we have received that extra material. In the meantime, my Department will continue to liaise closely with Halton as it prepares its case, and we hope to help it to take the right decision on an issue that is significant not only for Halton and Merseyside, but for the whole area.

In the remaining 30 seconds, I apologise for taking no interventions and again congratulate all Back Benchers who have contributed to the debate. In terms of parliamentary procedure, these one and a half hour debates in Westminster Hall are ill-served by fatuous shadow Front-Bench contributions.