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.

 
 
 
 

A Century after radical leftists were elected to its city hall, Vienna’s social democratic base is slipping away

Karl Marx Hof. Image: Kagan Kaya.

Karl Marx-Hof, a kilometre-long municipal apartment block in Vienna’s wealthy 19th district, was first named after the father of the communist movement by Austria’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) in 1927. Its imposing structure borrows from an eclectic mix of modernist, Bauhaus, art deco, neoclassical and baroque architectural styles. In the mould of early soviet experiments, the building, nicknamed The Palace of the Proletariat, housed shared childcare services, gardens and washrooms.

The building is Vienna’s most prominent physical reminder of a period known as Red Vienna, when left-wing radicals found themselves at the helm of the Hapsburg’s former imperial capital during the aftermath of the First World War. 

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy in 1918, the SDAP won the fledgeling republic’s first elections held under universal suffrage and commenced an ambitious programme of social and economic reform. Leading intellectual lights of the party sought to unite the two great strands of the 20th-century labour movement, reconciling parliamentary socialism and revolutionary communism under their new current of non-Bolshevik “Austro-Marxism”. Karl Marx-Hof epitomised their radical ambitions. “When we are no longer here”, Mayor Karl Seitz told an assembled crowd of workers at the building’s opening in 1930, “these bricks will speak for us.”

When I visited Karl Marx-Hof on a sunny day in June, Monica and George, two of its residents, were walking their two Chihuahuas around the estate’s leafy, quiet courtyards. “We moved here last year,” Monica tells me. “It’s really nice because you’ve got a lot of green space in the middle of the city.”

The young couple are the beneficiaries of a generous system of public housing provision. Vienna has a relative abundance of high-quality municipal flats compared with most large capitals. “We weren’t waiting long for the flat – moving in here was really fast”, Monica says. Currently, 60 per cent of Vienna’s residents live in either municipally owned, subsidised housing, or in social homes run by not-for-profit cooperatives. The remaining portion of private homes is subject to strict rent controls and regulations.

The social democrats and their less radical successors have remained the dominant party in Vienna since the city’s first election, save for an 11-year hiatus of fascist dictatorship from 1934, followed by Anschluss and Nazi occupation from 1938. The city remains a red statelet in an otherwise conservative country. Indeed, Austria is now more associated with the far right than the radical left. But even Vienna is no longer immune to the trend of waning support for centre-left parties that has gripped European countries since 2008, and cracks are beginning to appear in its social democratic project.

Two exhibitions in the city – one in the former communal wash house of Karl Marx-Hof, the other in the grand Wien Museum MUSA – note the achievements of Red Vienna’s experiment in local socialism: the introduction of pensions and unemployment support; the establishment of a nascent public healthcare system; the opening of kindergartens, schools run on Montessori principles, public baths, open-air swimming pools, libraries, parks, leisure facilities, arts centres; and, of course, a programme of mass council house building, all paid for by a system of progressive income taxation coupled with duties on luxury goods, including servants, champagne, private cars and riding horses.

Unlike the Bolsheviks, (and partly because, as a provincial government, it lacked the powers to do so), the SDAP did not expropriate or nationalise factories or private industry without compensation, but instead paid former owners whenever buildings or land passed from private to public hands. The party built what it perceived to be the chrysalis of a new egalitarian society, while leaving the market and private ownership of the means of production largely intact. In many ways, its policies palliated the worst effects of early 20th century industrial capitalism like slum housing, mass unemployment and extreme poverty. Red Vienna laid the ground for the modern European welfare state, inspiring other social democratic governments across the continent to implement similar policies after the Second World War. 


“Back then the social democrats were good,” Monica tells me, attempting to calm her excitable dogs by pulling on their leads. Does she intend to vote for the social democrats in the upcoming national elections in September? “We vote for the blue ones,” she answers. Monica and George will cast their vote for the Freheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO), the Freedom Party, an organisation founded after the Second World War by a former Nazi minister of agriculture and high-ranking SS officer. “It’s because of all the refugees and all the violence that’s going on here,” she claims. “Shootings are more frequent in Vienna.”

Austria has one of the lowest murder rates in the world, almost half that of England and Wales, and Vienna itself is known for its relative safety compared to other European capitals. But hundreds of thousands of refugees have travelled through Austria over the last four years. Many have made the city their home, but most have transited towards Germany, at Angela Merkel’s invitation. The mass movement of people from across the Mediterranean to central and northern Europe has ruptured the country’s social-democratic pact. In 2016, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party narrowly missed out on victory in the presidential election, receiving 46 per cent of the vote.

“Lots of people say they’re just racists,” Monica continues, visibly uncomfortable with the idea that people would attribute malice or prejudice to voters like herself. But she hastens to add that her views, and those of her partner George, aren’t necessarily typical of Vienna’s affluent 19th district. “There are very rich people here, so they vote for the party who protects their interests… You’ll see a lot of big houses, so I think the OVP, the People’s Party, would do well.”

The OVP is the more traditional centre-right party of Austrian politics, and wins the most seats in the 19th district. Yet the city’s voting patterns are diverse. This is partly a result of the policies of successive social democratic administrations placing the integration of social classes and income levels at the heart of their municipal agenda. Subsidised housing can be found alongside wealthy private apartments in the city centre designed by Renzo Piano, and at the foot of the city’s vineyards near up-market wine taverns. Kurt Puchinger, chair of wohnfonds_wien, the city’s land and housing fund, tells me that the council “do not want to have a situation where you can identify the social status of a person by their home address.”

Despite the SDAP’s century-long efforts to promote social cohesion, recent years have seen the rise the FPO’s vote share at the expense of the left. Favoriten is a more solidly working class area of Vienna in the 10th district. There, according to Monica, “most vote for the Freedom Party because they are for stopping migration.” She pauses to consider her words. “Not stopping. Trying to find a way to filter them and control them. Every country has a problem like this.”

Monica’s feeling for the electoral preferences of each of the various Viennese districts proves accurate. After the war, Favoriten elected communists as their local representatives. The district's loyalties quickly switched to the social democrats, and until 2005 the party could comfortably expect to receive over half the votes there, consistently getting more than double the votes of both the far-right Freedom Party and the centre-right People’s Party. But in the most recent 2015 election, the Freedom Party won 24 seats and 38 per cent of the vote, only two points and one seat behind the social democrats. In Austria nationally, the People’s Party, headed by a 32-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, with Patrick Bateman overtones, has formed a government with the Freedom Party – but their coalition collapsed ignominiously in May.

Neither Austria as a whole, nor Favoriten in particular, are outliers. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally polls well in the Communist Party’s former “ceinture rouge” outside Paris. In Britain, Labour’s post-industrial heartlands are turning towards the Brexit Party, while blue collar workers in America’s rust belt have backed Donald Trump. And in Vienna, neither the impressive legacy of the SDAP nor the continually high standard of living (the city was rated as the world’s most liveable for the 10th time in 2018 by Mercer, the consultancy giant) is enough to stem the tide of right-wing populism.

Until he was unseated as leader following a corruption scandal in May, Heinz-Christian Strache positioned the FPO as the party of the working class, a guarantor of Austrian identity, and the protector of a generous welfare system now threatened by an influx of migrants. “We believe in our youth,” ran one of his slogans, “the [social democrats] in immigration.”

Sofia is a masseuse who has lived in Karl Marx-Hof for 19 years with her partner and his son. “People are angry with the social democrats now because of refugees,” she told me. “They should change this... They should say ‘we are on the left but we can’t accept everybody here.’” The view that the party have abandoned their traditional voters is widespread, but Sofia isn’t fond of the alternatives. “The FPO – the Nazis – you can’t vote for the Nazis… anyone who votes FPO isn’t my friend… But I won’t vote for the People’s Party because they do everything for rich people, not normal people.”

Sofia reserves her strongest criticism for the youthful Sebastian Kurz, who is likely to become head of another People’s Party-led coalition after elections in September. “I’m scared of him,” she says. “I think he’s a psychopath. I think he’s not a normal person.”

Like many Viennese, Sofia admires the legacy of Red Vienna: “The socialists did a lot of really good things. We are the only city in the world that has so much state housing. And they brought in pensions, health insurance, a lot of things.” But she’s not sure they will get her vote in 2019. In an era of polarisation and anti-establishment rhetoric, the most fertile yet unoccupied political ground seems to be for a radical, redistributive economic programme, coupled with a more conservative vision of shared responsibilities and values, national sovereignty, and sociocultural issues.

“Even in the working class areas of the city,” sighs Kurt Puchinger, the city’s housing fund chair, “less people are voting social democrat. And this is a pity.” 100 years since the old radical Social Democratic Workers’ Party was first elected by a restive, war-weary working class, the working class remains restive, but while the SDAP’s flagship Karl Marx-Hof still stands, the bricks no longer seem to be speaking for them.