As the nights draw in and the autumn days begin to feel colder and drift towards winter, people begin to think about Christmas, paying their extortionate heating bills. If you live in South Wales (and commute over the Severn Bridges) lurking at the back of your mind is the prospect of yet another Severn Bridge toll increase. Back in June (2013) the Welsh Government was told by a UK Westminster government minister that any changes in the running of the Severn bridges must benefit motorists in both Wales and England.
|Merry Christmas from Severn Crossings PLC - not!|
The Welsh government had indicated that it would like to take ownership of the two Severn Bridges when they come back into public ownership in 2018. By then it is expected that Severn River Crossings plc will have milked its cash cow to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. Just to add insult to injury the old (M48) Severn Bridge is periodically closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which continues to be funded by the Department for Transport, from the public coffers.
At the end of the day, it comes down to money, how much there is? How much there could be? And how much will people have to continue to pay to cross the Severn Bridges? If we are not watching the pennies, then the politicians certainly are. Carwyn Jones has said that any money left over from tolls could go towards upgrading the existing M4 (in Wales) and Westminster Transport Minister Stephen Hammond (no doubt nudged by his civil servants) has said that no decisions (one way or the other) can yet be made over either bridge ownership or the bridge tolls.
The Severn Bridges and the tolls may be out or sight and out of mind to most Westminster ministers (and most MPs) but they loom large in the imagination (and the wallets) of long suffering commuters, businesses and visitors on a daily basis. Part of the problem is that our interests and those of our county are almost entirely peripheral to the Westminster mindset, something that does not help us very much especially the Welsh Government needs parliamentary time at Westminster because of the cobbled together devolutionary settlement.
This sorry state of affairs has been aggravated because any concept of long term planning has been abandoned to the ‘free market’ as ‘taking the long view’ no longer fits into the Westminster politicians mindset – this when combined with the current Welsh Governments craven lack of ambition merely makes things worse.
Differences of opinion between Wales and Westminster are not new and will continue as long as the devolutionary fudge continues to exist. Even the Welsh Conservatives have called for control of the Severn Bridges to reside in the hands of the Welsh people. Labour in Wales, has reluctantly said the same thing, although whether or not they would have called for control of the Severn bridges to be passed to Wales if Labour was in power at Westminster is another matter.
In 2012 a report for the Welsh government suggested that abolishing the tolls would increase traffic by an estimated 12% - equivalent to about 11,000 vehicles a day – and that businesses and commuters forked out around £ 80 million pounds a year crossing the Severn bridges. Studies into the impact of the Severn Bridge Tolls on our economy are nothing new.
Before that back in October 2010, 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. This study of 122 businesses was commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses revealed that the tolls had a negative impact on 30% of firms in South Wales, this compared with 18% in the Greater Bristol area.
While noting that the economic impact was not substantial for most, the 2010 study found that transport; construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings suffered increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The 2010 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, once the cost of the Second Severn Crossing is paid off less on-going maintenance costs (now potentially sometime in 2018 due to a drop in road usage) then a potentially handy revenue stream may revert swiftly to Treasury coffers in Westminster.
The various studies are useful, but, to be honest are all grist to the mill, as we are still waiting for any decision to be made in regard to the Severn Bridger tolls and the future ownership of the Severn Bridges themselves. None of this will bring a crumb of comfort to the commuters who are already bracing themselves to face yet another bridge toll rise on January 1st 2013. We have had plenty of talk but little sign of any concrete action or a decision, one way or the other and come January 1st 2014 .