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.

 
 
 
 

“Stop worrying about hairdressers”: The UK government has misdiagnosed its productivity problem

We’re going as fast as we can, here. Image: Getty.

Gonna level with you here, I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’m a huge fan of schadenfreude, so learning that it the government has messed up in a previously unsuspected way gives me this sort of warm glow inside. On the other hand, the way it’s been screwing up is probably making the country poorer, and exacerbating the north south divide. So, mixed reviews really.

Here’s the story. This week the Centre for Cities (CfC) published a major report on Britain’s productivity problem. For the last 200 years, ever since the industrial revolution, this country has got steadily richer. Since the financial crash, though, that seems to have stopped.

The standard narrative on this has it that the problem lies in the ‘long tail’ of unproductive businesses – that is, those that produce less value per hour. Get those guys humming, the thinking goes, and the productivity problem is sorted.

But the CfC’s new report says that this is exactly wrong. The wrong tail: Why Britain’s ‘long tail’ is not the cause of its productivity problems (excellent pun, there) delves into the data on productivity in different types of businesses and different cities, to demonstrate two big points.

The first is that the long tail is the wrong place to look for productivity gains. Many low productivity businesses are low productivity for a reason:

The ability of manufacturing to automate certain processes, or the development of ever more sophisticated computer software in information and communications have greatly increased the output that a worker produces in these industries. But while a fitness instructor may use a smartphone today in place of a ghetto blaster in 1990, he or she can still only instruct one class at a time. And a waiter or waitress can only serve so many tables. Of course, improvements such as the introduction of handheld electronic devices allow orders to be sent to the kitchen more efficiently, will bring benefits, but this improvements won’t radically increase the output of the waiter.

I’d add to that: there is only so fast that people want to eat. There’s a physical limit on the number of diners any restaurant can actually feed.

At any rate, the result of this is that it’s stupid to expect local service businesses to make step changes in productivity. If we actually want to improve productivity we should focus on those which are exporting services to a bigger market.  There are fewer of these, but the potential gains are much bigger. Here’s a chart:

The y-axis reflects number of businesses at different productivities, shown on the x-axis. So bigger numbers on the left are bad; bigger numbers on the right are good. 

The question of which exporting businesses are struggling to expand productivity is what leads to the report’s second insight:

Specifically it is the underperformance of exporting businesses in cities outside of the Greater South East that causes not only divergences across the country in wages and standards of living, but also hampers national productivity. These cities in particular should be of greatest concern to policy makers attempting to improve UK productivity overall.

In other words, it turned out, again, to the north-south divide that did it. I’m shocked. Are you shocked? This is my shocked face.

The best way to demonstrate this shocking insight is with some more graphs. This first one shows the distribution of productivity in local services business in four different types of place: cities in the south east (GSE) in light green, cities in the rest of the country (RoGB) in dark green, non-urban areas in the south east in purple, non-urban areas everywhere else in turquoise.

The four lines are fairly consistent. The light green, representing south eastern cities has a lower peak on the left, meaning slightly fewer low productivity businesses, but is slightly higher on the right, meaning slightly more high productivity businesses. In other words, local services businesses in the south eastern cities are more productive than those elsewhere – but the gap is pretty narrow. 

Now check out the same graph for exporting businesses:

The differences are much more pronounced. Areas outside those south eastern cities have many more lower productivity businesses (the peaks on the left) and significantly fewer high productivity ones (the lower numbers on the right).

In fact, outside the south east, cities are actually less productive than non-urban areas. This is really not what you’d expect to see, and no a good sign for the health of the economy:

The report also uses a few specific examples to illustrate this point. Compare Reading, one of Britain’s richest medium sized cities, with Hull, one of its poorest:

Or, looking to bigger cities, here’s Bristol and Sheffield:

In both cases, the poorer northern cities are clearly lacking in high-value exporting businesses. This is a problem because these don’t just provide well-paying jobs now: they’re also the ones that have the potential to make productivity gains that can lead to even better jobs. The report concludes:

This is a major cause for concern for the national economy – the underperformance of these cities goes a long way to explain both why the rest of Britain lags behind the Greater South East and why it performs poorly on a

European level. To illustrate the impact, if all cities were as productive as those in the Greater South East, the British economy would be 15 per cent more productive and £225bn larger. This is equivalent to Britain being home to four extra city economies the size of Birmingham.

In other words, the lesson here is: stop worrying about the productivity of hairdressers. Start worrying about the productivity of Hull.


You can read the Centre for Cities’ full report here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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