The toll to cross the Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing into Wales will increase again next year. From the 1st January, cars will have to pay £6.50 - up from the current £6.40 - while small goods vehicles and small buses face a 30p rise to £13.10, and heavy goods vehicles and buses will have to pay £19.60, up from £19.20. Interestingly enough back in 1966, it cost you 12p to cross the bridge, which would be around £2 pound in today’s money.
Back on January 1st 2014, the cost of crossing into Wales by car increased to £6.40 - a rise of 20p - small goods vehicles pay £12.80 (a 40p increase) and HGVs £19.20 (a 60p increase). The Severn Bridge operators rolled out the same old tired excuses for their greed saying that the tolls were agreed by a parliamentary order and in line with the Retail Price Index (RPI), etc, etc.
Oddly enough, when it comes to the Severn Bridge tolls, one often-ignored fact is that the tolls on the Humber Bridge are subsidized by Westminster. When last in office at Westminster, the party formerly known as New Labour chose to quietly (and regularly) subsidise the Humber Bridge tolls, yet made no move what so ever towards doing anything about dealing with the tax on jobs, businesses and commuters which are passed off as the Severn bridge tolls – and our local Labour elected representatives pretty much maintained their silence.
This may explain why our local Labour MP’s do little save trotting out the same old news releases bemoaning the failure of the Government (when in opposition) to do anything about the tolls. The Humber Bridge subsidy has been continued by the Con Dem Coalition Government, who have driven the post Thatcherite ‘free market’ ideology into wholly new areas, yet show no inclination to curb the Humber Bridge state subsidy or offer to help Welsh commuters and businesses out with a simular subsidy.
At some point in 2018 ownership of the two Severn Bridges will revert back to the Westminster Government ‘s Department for Transport, once the take from the tolls reach passes the magic figure of £996 million pounds (that is at 1989 prices). The Labour in Wales Welsh government wants to take control of the tolls when the Severn Crossings return to public ownership and would look to reduce them although it believes abolishing them would leave too great a hole in the budget.
Plaid has called for the transfer of powers (to Wales) so that 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. Maintenance costs are some £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, Plaid’s priority is to cut the tolls.
A consultants' report (for the Welsh Government) suggested that the abolition of bridge tolls could boost the economic output in Wales by £ 107 Million pounds. By the time the two Severn Bridges come back into public ownership in 2018, it has been estimated that this cash cow may have been milked to the tune of about £ 1.029 billion pounds. What adds regular insult to regular financial injury is the fact that the old (M48) Severn Bridge continues to be periodical closed at weekends for routine maintenance, which are funded by the Department for Transport, from the public purse.
Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore's independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls recommended that the revenues from the tolls should stay in Wales, once the crossings revert to public hands. The study of 122 businesses 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.
The 2010 study found that transport; construction and tourism-related companies reliant on regular crossings suffered increased costs and reduced competitiveness. The study also 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.
There appears to be a general political consensus that something must be done about reducing the Severn bridge tolls – which is nice – but not particularly helpful to motorists. The ominous silence from the Department for Transport on the eventual ownership of the bridge and the potential fate of the tolls is also not particularly helpful and should be a real cause for concern.
What concerns me is the possibility that the Department of Transport (and their Westminster based masters) may find the income from the Severn bridge tolls too useful to let go. The ownership of the Severn bridges should be transferred to the National Assembly in 2018, which means that a decision needs to be made now and preparations for the transfer begun - what we in Wales don’t need is silence from the Department for Transport.