Election 2015

The battle over bridge tolls for Cheshire residents

Artist's impression of Mersey Gateway bridge Image copyright Not specified
Image caption Construction of the Mersey Gateway bridge is due to be complete in 2017

Ever since the first road tunnel under the Mersey opened in 1934, motorists have always had to pay for the privilege.

And the prospect of soon having to fork out for trips over the river has been on the cards for people in Cheshire and Merseyside for many years.

With the new Mersey Gateway Bridge between Runcorn and Widnes due to cost nearly £2bn over the next 30 years, there has been cross-party support for applying tolls which could also apply to the current Silver Jubilee crossing not far downstream.

It was anticipated that cars would be charged £2 each way.

Now though, it seems like all the main parties are falling over themselves to exempt people in Cheshire from paying anything.

This race to scrap tolls is playing out in some of the county's most marginal seats.

First it started in the borough most divided by the Mersey - Halton.

With Runcorn on one side and Widnes on the other, there were huge concerns that charges would lead to local people and businesses either having to absorb big new transportation costs, or simply refusing to cross the water.

That led to the idea of tolls for Halton residents being completely scrapped last year, for anyone who pays a registration fee which we're told will be "small".

'Wrong side of the boundary'

The justification, according to Chancellor George Osborne - who is seeking re-election in Tatton - was to ensure that "local people were not penalised". It was something that was welcomed by the Labour-controlled local council, which is picking up part of the tab.

Just outside Runcorn is the town of Frodsham, home to a lot of commuters into Merseyside.

Drivers there would still face paying the tolls by virtue of living on the "wrong" side of the boundary between Halton and the borough of Cheshire West & Chester.

People living on the "wrong" side of the boundary with Warrington would be in the same position.

Labour have paid a lot of attention to the issue in their election campaigns in Warrington and Weaver Vale - seats which straddle that boundary between Runcorn and Frodsham.

Earlier this month, at a rally in Warrington, leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls pledged to review the charges if they are in power following 7 May.

Two weeks later, George Osborne visited the site of the new Gateway Bridge and went slightly further than Labour, announcing a formal review of tolls for residents of Warrington and Cheshire West & Chester.

He labelled it a victory for the incumbent Tory MPs in Warrington South, Weaver Vale and Chester.

Mr Osborne told me: "I don't think it's fair to local residents to ask them to pay to cross."

A press release from Nick Bent, standing for Labour in Warrington South, said the announcement should have been made long ago and called it "desperate, unfunded and uncosted".

Labour's candidate in Weaver Vale, Julia Tickridge, was quoted saying exactly the same thing.

It is all very different to the weeks running up to the 2010 general election, when the Labour candidate and later MP for Halton, Derek Twigg, said: "We need to charge some kind of fee to ensure we can pay for the bridge."

His Conservative opponent, Ben Jones, put it simply: "We need to charge some kind of toll otherwise the bridge will not be built."

The Liberal Democrats' position is also interesting.

Image caption George Osborne visits the site of the new Gateway Bridge

Its candidate in Warrington South in 2010, Jo Crotty, argued that the bridge should be free for all. But her party was part of the coalition government that approved the Gateway project, tolls and all.

This year's Lib Dem candidate in Warrington South, Bob Barr, said Labour and the coalition were wrong not to completely remove the tolls, and told me: "If people are serious about the role of the mid-Mersey region in the Northern Powerhouse, that bridge has to be without tolls."

Free crossing

The Greens are not just against tolling the bridge, they're against building it in the first place. The party has called it a "white elephant" which is "risking huge amount of local money in order to attract outside investors to operate tolls."

UKIP disagree fundamentally with the Greens, staging a "Ban the Tolls" protest at the site of the Gateway Bridge this month.

Its Runcorn spokesman Phil Busow said: "UKIP is totally against tolls on any bridge or tunnel." That stance attracts the same criticism about being unfunded and uncosted from the other three major parties.

Under the reviews ordered by the Conservatives and Labour there will still be many thousands of people who cross both bridges who will have to pay.

All businesses, including those in Halton, will have to fork out. Special help has been promised but the Chancellor said on his visit to the construction site: "You've got to get the burden right. If businesses paid nothing at all the taxpayers would have to pay more."

And with all drivers from outside Cheshire having to pay the tolls, there are big concerns for Warrington's already congested town centre 10 miles upstream - because it will be the nearest location of a free crossing.

And then if you look at a map, you can understand why people on the Merseyside side of the river are wondering where their free passes are.

St Helens, Knowsley and Liverpool are just as close as Warrington or Frodsham - and much closer than Chester - but there doesn't seem to be any prospect of people there crossing for free.

Perhaps it is because they don't live in marginal constituencies.

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