The Mersey recently got a new road bridge. But is it any good?

Driving north across the new bridge. Image: Bazonka/Wikimedia Commons.

It’s been an exciting autumn in the Liverpool City Region. Just after midnight in the early hours of Saturday 14 October the new £600m, 1km long Mersey Gateway Bridge, in our very own Halton, opened to traffic for the first time.

It’s part of an extensive local road investment programme within this part of Liverpool City Region, and what a fine and useful monument it is. The opening ceremony, on the preceding Friday evening, consisted of a spectacular light show and firework display. It’s also been said that there may be a more formal opening ceremony in the new year. 

The bridge is a part of the wider Mersey Gateway project, the largest infrastructure project in England outside London. It consists of a 2.2km elevated route, 12 new bridges and seven new or upgraded junctions over a 9.2km route. It will, for example, make access to the nearby Liverpool John Lennon Airport much easier and more dependable for people travelling across the river from that direction.

Now, I don’t want to rain on the parade, but there is an important issue here. The new bridge will be tolled, whereas the bridge that it has replaced was not. This means that the nearest toll free River Mersey road crossing to the official Liverpool City Region will now be in Warrington, which (bizarrely) is not within the official Liverpool City Region. Since the new bridge opened, there has not been a single toll free River Mersey road crossing within the official Liverpool City Region. 

An artist’s impression of the new bridge.

The good news, however, is that there are plenty of options for crossing the River Mersey within the official Liverpool City Region, as long as you are prepared to use tolled crossings:

  • The Queensway Tunnel, opened in 1934 by King George V, as the longest road tunnel in the world at that time. It consists of four pseudo-motorway road lanes and runs between Liverpool city centre and Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula. The standard cost for a car is £1.70 each way.
  • The Kingsway Tunnel, opened in 1971 by Queen Elizabeth II, consists of four pseudo-motorway road lanes and runs between Liverpool city centre and Wallasey on the Wirral peninsula. The standard cost for a car is £1.70 each way.
  • The new Mersey Gateway Bridge, which is effectively a six lane motorway and runs between Widnes and Runcorn in Halton. The standard cost for a car is £2 each way.  
  • The Silver Jubilee Bridge, opened in 1961 by Princess Alexandra and then opened again in 1976 by Queen Elizabeth II after it was laterally expanded. This has now been superseded by the Mersey Gateway bridge and is being repaired and re-purposed to become a two lane road for local use in Halton, between Widnes and Runcorn – although it will still be subject to a standard toll for a car of £2 each way when it re-opens.

That all equates to eight road lanes of tolled tunnels between Liverpool city centre and the Wirral peninsula less than a mile away, and eight road lanes of tolled bridges between Widnes and Runcorn, again less than a mile apart. That is a grand total of 16 cross river road lanes that exist within the official Liverpool City Region, all tolled, all told.

The new bridge, shown in context. Click to expand. Image: Google Maps.

Many people around here have been campaigning against the Mersey tunnel tolls for years, to no avail. Partly that’s because there is still outstanding debt on the tunnels. But it’s also because the Mersey tunnel tolls are one of the few relatively unencumbered sources of revenue that the Liverpool City Region government has – money which can be used by, and at the discretion of, our local leaders with minimal interference from the nosey and bossy people in far away Whitehall. No such luck with the new bridge tolls, which will be returned to the private investors which built the bridge for the next 30 years.

So, how much does this 21st century highway robbery damage the Liverpool City Region economy? I’ve been unable to find any substantial research into the question based on the current configuration – but back in July, the Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns said that the recently announced removal of the Severn Bridge tolls would benefit the local economy of South West England and South Wales by £200m.

Now, I appreciate that a couple of pounds each way is not a particularly large toll. But I would suggest that it does restrict free movement of people, goods, services and capital within the metropolis, in that it puts people off just crossing back and forth across the river at will, multiple times each day, which they may well would do if it was toll free.

Also, if you are not part of an electronic payment scheme, then you have to pay the correct amount of cash into an automatic toll booth basket when using the tunnels. This inconvenience slows you down, and woe betide if you are a bad shot. ( You have to pay online if you use the new bridge.) On balance then, and given that, as locals, we all live in the same metropolis, I do think that the tolls are a problem.


Coincidentally, the new, third Forth bridge, connecting Edinburgh and Fife, called the Queensferry Crossing, was opened to great fanfare by Queen Elizabeth II on 4 September 2017, and it was even broadcast live on a national BBC news programme. That 2.7kms long bridge will not be tolled and was paid for by national government at a cost of £1.4bn

Generally, though, Liverpolitans seem to be excited by, and impressed with, the new bridge. And the investment of such a significant sum, reported to be £1.9bn in total, into Liverpool City Region’s transport infrastructure indicates strong optimism about the economic prospects of our metropolis, which is very positive.

There are actually a number of other big investments going on in Liverpool City Region currently. For example, there’s the £100 million Liverpool Shopping Park, which also opened in October. That’s described by its developers as “the UK’s biggest, new retail and leisure destination”, who note that there are “1.8 million people living within a 30 minute drive time“.

For now though, let’s enjoy the impressive new Mersey Gateway bridge. After all, more than 1m vehicles crossed it in its first 16 days of operation 

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.

 
 
 
 

Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.


The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.