Saturday, 2 November 2013


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 then lurking at the back of your mind is the prospect of yet another Severn Bridge toll increase on January 1st 2014. The  tolls cost businesses some £47 million pounds (2009 prices) per year so by cutting the tolls to £2 the south Wales economy good gain by at least £34 million pounds.

A Merry Christmas from Severn Crossings PLC - NOT!
Plaid has called for the transfer of powers (to Wales) so that the tolls on the bridges can be reduced, something that could have a considerable impact on businesses and the economy. With control over the bridges devolved, Plaid  would cut the tolls to £2 to cover maintenance costs. The costs for upkeep are £15 million per year, but motorists and vehicles using the crossings currently generate £72 million pounds per year.

While the  tolls would form a useful revenue stream for Welsh Governments, the priority of Plaid is to cut the tolls. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, Severn River Crossings plc will have milked its cash cow to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. To add insult to injury the old (M48) Severn Bridge is periodically closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which is funded by the Department for Transport, from the public coffers.

The Severn Bridges (and tolls) may be out or sight and out of mind on a daily basis to most Westminster ministers but they loom large in the imagination (and the wallets) of long suffering commuters, businesses and visitors on a daily basis. There is a risk of the tolls being used to fund a new M4 which would cost £1 billion pounds plus. To do this the tolls could have to stay in place indefinitely and might even go up. This would be against the wishes of the business community and Plaid wants that ruled out.

Back in 2012, Plaid Cymru submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Transport seeking details of any correspondence between it and the Welsh Government on the level of tolls since May 2011, the last Assembly elections. In its response the Department of Transport merely listed emails between the Highways Agency and the Welsh Government advising of planned increases in tolls for 2012 and 2013.

The FOI request revealed that there was no other correspondence between the Welsh Government and the Westminster Government.  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.

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.

When in office the Labour Westminster Government quietly subsidised the Humber Bridge tolls, but, made no move towards doing anything about dealing with the tax on jobs and the tax on commuters that pass themselves off as the Severn bridge tolls. The Humber Bridge subsidy has been continued by the Con Dem Coalition Government, have shown no inclination to transfer control of the Severn Bridges to Wales or offer to help Welsh commuters and businesses out with a simular subsidy.

The various studies are useful, but, 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 braced themselves to face a bridge toll rise on January 1st 2013 and are now getting ready  to face yet another toll rise on January 1st 2014.

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