One unanticipated side effect of the recession is that the tolls on the two Severn bridges may continue to have to be paid for almost a year longer than planned due to combination of excessively high fuel prices and the economic downturn which means that less traffic crossing the Severn bridges. The Severn Bridge tolls, rise by inflation every year, something that appears to be set in stone by the exceptionally poorly worded or ill-thought out legislation passed by John Major’s Conservative government some 20 years ago which allowed a private company to construct the new crossing and to manage the original crossing.
This fix only comes to an end when Severn River Crossings Plc, has collected a set target total income from toll charges. The UK Government In 2005) calculated that this target would be reached in late 2016. The reduction in bridge traffic means however, that the target figure won’t probably be reached until the autumn of 2017. Welsh Government figures, part of the consultation on motorway capacity, show that traffic on the busiest section of the M4 (near Newport) began to drop off in 2005 as oil / fuel prices began to rise due to oil shortages.
It is surely no coincidence that amount of rail freight containers moved by rail into South Wales doubled last year, and in February, Tesco launched a rail service carrying supermarket products to its Wentlooge distribution depot near Cardiff, something that will replace around 22,000 lorry trips per year. If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions and congestion then we need to get heavy goods back onto our railways. This won’t be a quick fix and it may not be cheap but it can be done if the political will is there, as has happened in Scotland, where there is a useful combination of the will, the funding and interested private partners.
For some time now Plaid has wanted to see the transfer of powers (to Wales) so that tolls on the bridges can be reduced, this would have a considerable impact on Welsh businesses and our economy. With control over the bridges devolved, Plaid has suggested reducing the cost of the tolls to under £2 a car and would also introduce new collection techniques so that people crossing the bridge would have an alternative to paying by cash. Any profit that is made could be used to maintain the bridges and upgrade Welsh infrastructure.
Back in October 2010, an independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls, by Professor Peter Midmore, recommended that the revenues should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. It noted that Welsh businesses are unfairly penalised by the tolls and that the money should be shared with the Assembly Government and used to improve Wales’ roads and public transport. It is a matter for the public record that, once the cost of the Second Severn Crossing has been for then 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 had suffered (and continue to suffer) increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The bridges are of such importance to Wales that it is only right that control, or at least shared control, over them is in the hands of the Welsh people.
Let’s be honest the day when the Severn Bridges come back into public ownership and the day the tolls are reduced cannot come quick enough. In the meantime, there may be a few other things that would be worth examining. In 2011, the Welsh Affairs Committee chair David Davies, Conservative MP for Monmouth, noted that due to "the inflexible provisions of the 1992 Severn Crossings Act, neither the government nor Severn Crossings Plc is able to freeze or reduce the toll without incurring significant costs." More recently, Alun Cairns, Conservative MP for Vale of Glamorgan, said that amending the legislation wasn’t an option and that “Sadly, we’ve got to live with it between now and the end of the concession.”
Personally I have often thought that if there is a pressing problem then you find away to fix it rather than wait around for it to go away. I have also wondered whether it would be worth enquiring as to how come the Act was so badly written? And also whether or not any individuals (elected or not) directly or indirectly benefited (financially or otherwise) with a seat on the board or with contributions to Party funds? Now that might well be worth a freedom of information request or some investigative journalism – now there's a thought?