The news that the Severn bridges will now accept payments via debit and credit cards before the Ryder Cup is welcome news, even if it is only a temporary measure until a more permanent solution is found. Whatever the nature or duration of this quick fix the problem of the tolls on the Severn bridges remains ongoing - basically they can be considered as a tax on jobs, a tax on commuters and tax on anyone or any organisation that does business back and forth across the bridges.
The news that the Welsh affairs committee is in October set to examine the future of the bridges after the crossings have reverted to public ownership should also be welcomed. At the moment the concessions are operated by a private company, the Severn Bridge will return to government ownership when the firm has collected a fixed sum of money from tolls.
The committee plans to look at how tolls on the bridges affect the Welsh economy, the amount of cash that is spent on maintaining the bridges, their future when they return to public ownership and at the level of the tolls, payment methods, the impact of the tolls on tourism and the condition of the bridges.
It's good to see that some of our local New Labour MPs are fully behind this enquiry, which is what you would expect - Jessica Morden, MP for Newport East (and a member of the committee) has welcomed the move (in June of this year), saying that the tolls could be lowered for people living in the surrounding area: “Like the Dartford crossing I can't see why you shouldn't be able to get a concession for those within a certain postcode area.”
Now this is all well and good and very welcome but a tad late, as lest we forget, that New or Unreconstructed Old Labour (under Tony Blair and then Gordon 'Houdini' Brown) were firmly in power (with significant majorities) from 1997 until 2010 so why did they not do something about the Severn bridge tolls then when they had the opportunity?
It's also worth remembering that the private company that operates the Severn Toll Bridges has raised almost £226m over the past three years – yet has spent barely £15m on essential maintenance on the original crossing's damaged cables - which suggests that the bridge tolls are being used as little more than a cash cow, should not come as much of a surprise to many people.
This little gem was extracted by Plaid Cymru's South Wales Central AM Chris Franks, who obtained the figures (in June 2010) under the Freedom of Information Act. The FOI request showed a significant difference between the large amounts of money raised by Severn River Crossing PLC from the toll, and the relatively small amount being spent on treating the damage to the cables on the old crossing.
The Highways Agency suggested that another £5.8m worth of maintenance will take place over the next five years. This despite the fact that some £225,733,000 has been collected in bridge toll revenue since 2006. People may well begin to wonder if they are going to get saddled with major work to maintain the bridges after the toll profits have been siphoned off by the concessionary company when the bridges are finally returned to public ownership in 2014 or 2016.
Even when you looking beyond the immediate teeth grinding impact of yet another annual increase in the Severn bridge tolls (which we will all face in January 2011) there is another issue – one that is beginning to become worth considering, what's going to happen in 2014 (or 2016) when it has been estimated that the PFI contract will have been covered by toll receipts.
Who actually is going to own the bridge (or bridges) and will they stop collecting the tolls? If not then the bridge (or bridges) which sit on the border - with the toll on the newer bridge being collected in Wales, and the older one being collected in England - will the bridge and the tolls simply revert back to the Department of Transport?
Or if perchance the whole package ends with the National Assembly, by default, then if the current tolls were halved then, what could be accomplished by using a percentage to cover maintenance of the bridge and using the remainder of the toll for ring fenced capital projects – such as new integrated transport systems, reopening railway lines, funding tram systems and investing in rail freight – which would be far more beneficial for all of us in Wales than the finance disappearing into the Westminster coffers or to bail out the bankers?
Something else that is worth noting that in October 2009, Sadiq Khan, the then New Labour Minister of Transport, announced a grant of £6m to the Humber Bridge company, saying that, “the Government was committed to doing everything it can to protect communities and businesses from economic downturn and help the country to recover. That is why I decided not to accept the Humber Bridge board's proposed toll increases” if that's the case in England, then why not in Wales?