I for one very warmly welcome Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls which has recommended that the revenues should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study for the Welsh Affairs Select Committee at Westminster, which is looking at the impact the tolls on Wales amongst other things.
The Professor's study found that Welsh businesses were unfairly penalised by the tolls and concluded that the money should be shared with the Assembly Government and used to improve Wales’ roads and public transport. Under the current stitch up (sorry set-up), once the cost of the Second Severn Crossing is paid off (by 2014 or 2016) the revenue stream will revert straight to Treasury coffers in Westminster.
The study of 122 businesses commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses found the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area. While noting that the economic impact was not substantial for most, the study found that transport, construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings suffered increased costs and reduced competitiveness.
There are also concerns, if not fears that the bridge tolls, which currently range from £5.50 for a car to £16.40 for a heavy goods vehicle (HGV), may stop the development of small-to-medium-sized business in the areas surrounding the bridges.The study 's findings which come only a few weeks after the private company running the bridges blamed growing unemployment and a rise in the cost of fuel on a 20% drop in traffic in the past two years.
Severn River Crossings plc further warned that unless traffic levels pick up, then it could take longer to pay off the cost of the second bridge – delaying the handover of the bridges to public ownership until as late as 2018.
The study, which will be submitted as evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, which is conducting a cross-party inquiry into the economic impact of the tolls and the future of the bridges. concludes that its “highly unlikely” the tolls will be abolished even when the bridges revert to public ownership.
The private company that runs the Severn Toll Bridges (and we can thank the Tories for that) managed to raise around 226m over the last three years (up to June 2010) yet barely spent £15m on essential maintenance on the original crossing's damaged cables. That the bridge tolls have been used used as little more than a cash cow, to fleece bridge user should come as not much of a surprise to many people.
Plaid Cymru's South Wales Central AM Chris Franks, (in June 2010) used the Freedom of Information Act to show the 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. His FOI request revealed that (since 2006) some £15m has been spent on main cable work on the first Severn Crossing (the M48 bridge). 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.
The knowledge that Severn River Crossings plc may, due to falls in traffic levels, take even longer to pay off the cost of the second bridge, thus delaying the eventual handover of the bridges to public ownership until as late as 2018, will bring little comfort to bridge users facing yet another annual increase in the Severn bridge tolls in January 2011.
Yet, despite persistent bleating from Westminster sheep over the years along the lines of there is nothing we can do to reduce or stabilise the tolls! It turns that this is or was not quite true as the last New Labour Government actively intervened in October 2009 in relation to the Humber Bridge.
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”. Very nice - but if that's the case in England, then why not in Wales?
Admittedly the Severn Bridges straddle the Welsh English border something that may complicate the issue of ownership with the tolls on the newer bridge being collected in Wales, and the older one being collected in England. Additionally the questionably worded concessionary agreement (and the Act of Parliament) which enables the tolls to go up each January may also have something to do with it.
One key question that no one appears to be asking or answering is what will happen to the tolls once the concession expires or ends. Will the bridge and the tolls simply revert back to the Department of Transport? Or might a portion of the tolls end up filtering down to the National Assembly, by default or as a result of central government indifference. Will the National Assembly act as merely as a local agent for the Department of Transport? Or is total control of the revenue
If it the whole package ended with the National Assembly, 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 being used to bail out the bankers?