PLANS to invest £6.5m on the historic Warburton Toll Bridge and increase tolls by more than 700 percent has sparked calls for a public inquiry to examine the proposals.
The Conservative Group on Warrington Borough Council has called for a public inquiry following Peel Ports’ proposal that some tolls need to increase by over 700 percent on the Warburton-Rixton Bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal.
Conservative Group Leader and Lymm Councillor, Kath Buckley, said “We welcome Peel Ports’ proposals for upgrades to the bridge and its approach roads. They will improve traffic flow, restrict unsuitable vehicles and ensure the structure of the bridge is maintained for the long term.
Peels Ports have launched a month-long consultation on a so-called Sustainable Investment Plan for the Bridge.
A total of £6.5m is to be invested in the Toll Bridge between Rixton and Warburton by The Manchester Ship Canal Company, which owns and operates the bridge, who have published an outline of upgrades to the approach roads, footpaths and tolling system.
While welcoming Peel Ports’ belated proposals to bring the bridge into the 21st Century by introducing a free flow tolling system and upgrading approach roads, the Conservative Group has also welcomed the proposed long-term investment in the structure of the bridge and automated measures to help control vehicle weights, heights, widths and speed.
But given Peel Ports’ unacceptable proposal that many motorists should bear toll increases of over 700 percent, the Conservative Group has called for a Public Inquiry to look at the long term future of the bridge, potentially without any tolls for motorists. For instance, an Inquiry could look at future funding coming from canal users rather than motorists.
“However, we strongly oppose Peel Ports’ suggestion that motorists should bear toll increases of over 700 percent.
“A Public Inquiry should look at other options for funding including from Peel Ports themselves from their Ship Canal business.
“After long delays, I today also urge Peel Ports to progress the long-awaited maintenance of the three swing bridges at Latchford, Stockton Heath and on Chester Road, ” added Cllr Buckley.
Meanwhile, Lymm based Lib Dem Cllr Graham Gowland has also flagged issues and concerns over the consultation.
He said: “The bridge was built across the River Mersey in Warburton by local merchants to allow trade between Cheshire and Lancashire. The tolling of this bridge was approved by the Rixton & Warburton Bridge Act 1863.
“This bridge was a substantial stone and iron built structure, but now runs over a dry ditch (The Mersey was re-routed and now bypasses the bridge).
“This ditch has been filled in and as such the bridge has become defunct, and may even have been removed as the scrap value of the iron would have been substantial, and was no longer required to support the road embankment.
“It is on this obsolete/removed bridge that the tolls are applied.
“The Act foresaw the building of the Ship Canal, and incorporated a specific clause that a bridge must be provided over the new ‘cut’, and it must be maintained at the sole cost of the developing company – the Manchester Ship Canal Company.
“At the time the toll was introduced, the Act could have had a toll review process, but the Act clearly sets a fixed rate of charges, which caps the cost per crossing to 12.5p, and a maximum daily charge of 25p.
“12.5p a crossing, the costs of the undertaking would have been repaid after 44 thousand crossings – which over the last 158 years would have been met with just 278 crossings a year.
“The act was amended in 1867 by a new act, the Rixton and Warburton Bridge Amendment Act 1867. This Act prevented the paying of any dividends, and prohibited any company money to be used to amend the Act.
“It is fairly clear from the Act that the intention was that while tolls could continue to be taken, the ‘profits’ from any toll would have to be used to maintain and improve the bridge.
“Remember this is just the bridge that now runs over a dry ditch.”
He added: “So we have a bridge that was set up by local merchants, and was very quickly turned into a ‘not for profit’ company, with clauses clearly aimed to maintain this.
“We have a revenue stream that is clearly more than adequate to operate and maintain the bridge and roadway (One has to question where these funds have gone).
“Now of course we have the ‘new’ Cantilever Bridge built in 1893, but it is clear that the maintenance of this bridge must, under the 1863 act be met in its entirety by the Manchester Ship Canal Company, with no ‘call’ on the profits of the now-defunct original bridge.
“So we have a bridge in Warburton that cannot be operated at a profit, and has to be maintained by the Manchester Ship Canal Company.”
Cllr Gowland added: “It is my belief that Warburton Bridge and the associated Cantilever bridge should be returned (IE properly maintained) to its previous 7.5 ton weight capacity, if not brought up to capacity to carry a modern ‘cart’ = a lorry, at the expense of its owners, utilising a small part of the accrued profits, that under the original (and still applicable) Act cannot be used for any other means.
It is of course appropriate for the Manchester Ship Canal Company to charge the 12.5p for the crossing, and this charge delivers a return that more than covers the operating (Including maintenance) cost of the current bridge, and would more than cover the annual running and repair costs of any new bridge, especially when combined with the accrued profit of the last 131 years since the company obtained the Rixton & Warburton Bridge.
“Remember while the original bridge and roads can be maintained from the tolls, the Cantilever bridge and replacement costs is entirely the responsibility of the Manchester Ship Canal Company, and revenue from the tolls CANNOT be used for this part of the crossing.
“Once the crossing is brought up to a modern standard, I would ask that Trafford & Warrington Councils buy the tolls at a nominal charge – I would suggest one peppercorn. The crossing would then become a County Bridge.”
A Manchester Ship Canal Company Spokesperson said: “The public consultation on the proposed upgrades to the Rixton & Warburton Toll Bridge, was instigated as a non-statutory consultation, which we voluntarily launched.
“We understand the importance of the bridge to the local community and motorists and we wanted to provide an opportunity to share our plans to futureproof the bridge, as well as secure feedback from key stakeholders.
“We recognise the bridge is in need of extensive repair work, as well as renovations, which will ultimately provide a modern crossing for road users, improving reliability and cutting journey times.
“After liaising with both Warrington Borough Council and Trafford Council, we recognise that a toll increase is needed to safeguard the future of the bridge. We will present our plans to the Department for Transport, who have confirmed a requirement that we will need to proceed via the statutory Transport & Works Act Order (TWAO) procedures.
“The toll increase will cover a comprehensive package of works in respect of the toll bridge including upgrading access roads and the installation of a free-flow tolling system, removing the need for toll booth collection and reducing delays.
“The new toll will provide the most sustainable way of funding the improvement required, as well as safeguard against future repair and maintenance work – no action is not a sustainable way forward.”
Written comments should be submitted no later than Friday 20th August via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
MSCC’s Sustainable Investment Plan for Rixton and Warburton Toll Bridge can be viewed at https://www.warburtontollbridge.co.uk/