Let’s take a little trip down Memory Lane shall we? Close your eyes, relax and let your mind wander back to the halcyon days of spring 2015.

The sun shone every day, no one thought the EU was the evil empire (well no one apart from a cabal of Tory disaster capitalists) and the new Mersey Gateway bridge was going to bring unparalleled motoring joy to the hard-pressed drivers of the north west.

Oh, and we had a general election on the horizon scheduled for May 7.

Just to set the scene, opinion polls and political commentators had predicted the outcome would be too close to call and would result in a second hung parliament similar to the 2010 election which had given us the Coalition Government.

With this as the background, the Tories threw everything they had at the election, especially at marginal seats such as our own Weaver Vale. Of course, the polls were eventually proven to have underestimated the Conservative vote as the party unexpectedly won an outright majority.

With this in mind, let’s just look at one of the promises made in the run up to the election, shall we.

Back in 2014, the then Chancellor George Osborne announced that the Government would provide the additional funding which ensure free trips across both the Mersey Gateway crossing and the Silver Jubilee Bridge and for all Halton residents.

Now I happen to think this is fair enough. The two bridges connect both sides of the borough of Halton that just happens to be divided by a river and why should residents have to pay?

But wait, what’s that I hear? Oh yes, it’s Mr Osborne speaking again (and this time just a couple of weeks before the general election).

After a visit to the Mersey Gateway construction site, Mr Osborne tweeted he was vowing to quash the tolls for residents of Warrington and Cheshire West.

Cue joyous celebrations from drivers in those two marginal constituencies of Weaver Vale and Warrington South.

An lo and behold, what happened next? Well on May 7, Tories Graham Evans won in Weaver Vale and David Mowat in Warrington South, both of whom had set great store by the ‘no tolls’ statement of George Osborne.

Now that may just be coincidence but I would suggest in marginal seats, it’s exactly that sort of statement that sways just enough people to make a difference. Of course we all know how this ended. The promise made by Osborne, Evans and Mowat proved to be an empty one and us residents of Cheshire West and Chester and people living in Warrington have to pay if we want to use the Mersey Gateway. I accept at this point you may be asking why I have brought this up again.

Well, I have two reasons. The first is that user figures have been released showing that a record number of crossings were made over the Mersey Gateway in July and the second is that I was one of them for the first time in my driving career. According to toll operators Merseyflow, more than 2.13 million journeys were made over the Mersey Gateway Bridge during July – a new record for a single month.

July also saw record highs for the average daily weekday and weekend traffic flows, with average weekday traffic reaching almost 76,800 vehicles, and the weekend figure running to almost 46,500.

Neil Conway, chief executive of Merseyflow, said: “Traffic levels have increased in six out of seven months so far this year compared to 2018, and for me the real positive is that the number of people paying on time or registered with Merseyflow is also increasing at the same time.”

Which brings me to my next point. As a ‘student’ of the new crossing and its operators, I have seen all the horror stories about people forgetting to go online and pay their tolls who were then hit with monstrous penalty charges.

There’s a story about a woman from Widnes who forgot to pay the tolls, couldn’t afford the penalty charges and ended up owing more than £500 to Merseyflow.

While that story is unusual and extreme, there is real angst about the signage and lack of toll booths. All it takes is a lapse in concentration while you are approaching the crossing and you could be heading for a big penalty charge.

Anyway, on to my experience of the Mersey Gateway. I had an important meeting to get to on the other side of the river and couldn’t afford to get stuck in traffic in Warrington town centre so I parked up my objections and used the new crossing. It was tremendous, yes it really was.

And of course because I know all the penalty charge horror stories, I was determined to go online as soon as I got home and pay my £2. But I forgot.

I didn’t pay it that afternoon and I didn’t pay it that evening. I didn’t pay it the following day either.

Purely by chance a couple of hours before the midnight deadline, my wife happened to ask me what using the new crossing was like and it clicked I was heading for a fine if I didn’t get my backside in gear.

But my sympathies go to anyone who has been caught out by the Gateway crossing. It’s an easy thing to happen.


By Guardian columnist The Fly in the Ointment