HALTON residents will have free tolls across The Silver Jubilee bridge and the Mersey Gateway, the Chancellor has announced today.
In an unexpected u-turn, George Osborne said he didn't think it was fair that people living in Runcorn and Widnes should pay to cross a river in their borough.
The cost will be met by the Government.
The decision will be welcomed by thousands of Halton residents who have been campaigning for free tolls.
THE Chancellor George Osborne came to the site of the new Mersey Gateway crossing today to tell Halton residents they will not have to pay any tolls.
The unexpected announcement has been welcomed by thousands of people who have been campaigning for the charges to be lifted.
It comes just two days after the World highlighted the fears of workers and employers about the tolls.
Speaking at the Merseylink consctruction office in Astmoor, Mr Osborne said: “I am announcing that people will be able to use the two bridges free if they are local to Runcorn and Widnes.
“We wanted to make sure that local people were not penalised.
“I have spoken a lot to Graham Evans and Derek Twigg and between the three of us we could see that local people used the bridge a lot.
“I am a neighbouring MP and know this area well. I was stopped in traffic on the Silver Jubilee bridge on the way here.”
The initial discount scheme offered Halton residents 300 free return trips for a £10 annual registration fee.
The 100 per cent subsidy will be funded by the government.
Mr Osborne said: “We can afford these things because the economy is recovering. Efficiencies have been made on the bridge itself. The team has done a great job.
“We are building this new bridge. It will open in 2017.
“It will get rid of all the congestion. I want people to be able to travel freely in their own borough.”
HALTON MP Derek Twigg who has campaigned for many years for free travel across the bridges welcomed the announcement.
He said: “I am delighted that George Osborne listened to the concerns that I and Graham Evans raised with him earlier this year about the placing of a toll on what is currently a free road and the negative impact it would have on my constituents.
“I want to place on record my sincere appreciation to the Chancellor for the additional support he has provided to allow Halton people to continue to travel free on the A533 when the Mersey Gateway opens.
“I am also grateful for the invaluable support I have had from the leader and chief executive of Halton Council in helping make our case.
“Nowhere else in the country was it being proposed that local residents should pay to use their local road.
“It is right and proper that Halton people should not have to pay to use what is currently their free local road, the A533. Local people use this local route to shop, go to work, to visit the hospital, get to the train station and visit family and friends, all within the borough.”
Runcorn MP Graham Evans MP has welcomed free tolls on both bridges.
Weaver Vale MP Mr Evans said: “I have been campaigning strongly for a fairer transport system for all, so the announcement that residents can save up to £300 per year is great news for the people of Halton.
“I have been working closely on this issue with the Chancellor, Derek Twigg , as well and the the leader and chief executive of HaltonCouncil, and I am grateful for their collaboration and hard work addressing local people’s concerns.
“Transport infrastructure is hugely important for improving quality of life across Halton as well as encouraging investment. The Mersey Gateway bridge is a great boost for local employment and will have a vitally important role in invigorating our local economy.
“This announcement shows that this government is committed to supporting growth in Cheshire and Merseyside to build a northern powerhouse as part of our long term economic plan.
“I am delighted that people in Halton are going to get a fairer deal thanks to the Chancellor’s removal of the tolling plans for residents.”
CAMPAIGNERS fighting the tolls have welcomed the free crossings but say they don’t go far enough.
Businesses will still have to pay £90 per vehicle per month.
Chris Kelly from Widnes, chairman of Halton Against Tolls, vowed to continue their crusade. He said: “Although we are very pleased about what the Chancellor said today, it’s a great battle, but the war isn’t over.
“It will still cost Halton firms money.
“We pay fuel duty, income tax, 20 per cent VAT and council tax.
“The government should be paying for all road and bridge infrastructure. There is no need for tolls anywhere.”
HALTON Council leader Clr Rob Polhill said: “Halton Council is absolutely delighted by the Chancellor’s announcement earlier today that the Government will provide the additional funding which will ensure free trips across Silver Jubilee Bridge and the new Mersey Gateway Crossing for all Halton residents
“This is great news for the people of Halton and I would like to say a personal thank you t Derek Twigg MP who has championed our cause in parliament and also to Graham Evans MP who has also played an important role in the cross party discussions.
“We will now begin the process of detailing the new scheme and will release more detail in due course “
Halton Council chief exeuctive David Parr said: “This fabulous outcome for Halton residents is due to the determination of Clr Rob Polhill and our local MPs Derek Twigg and Graham Evans.
“Since the government approved the scheme back in 2006, Halton Council and our MPs have worked tirelessly, with Steve Nicholson and the Mersey Gateway team, behind the scenes, to persuade Government to meet the full cost of tolls for all Halton residents.
“This has been a long process and not many believed we would achieve our aim, but we have.”
Steve Nicholson, Interim Chief Executive of the Mersey Gateway Crossings Board, said: “The £250 million savings we have made on the project through our innovative approach to procurement has helped make a toll free crossing for local residents more affordable to Government. I would like to thank the project team and also our contractors, Merseylink for delivering such vital procurement savings.”
Halton residents will still need to register to use the bridges and there will be a small charge for this.