|Cross the Bridge(s) and pay the tax on jobs!|
The Severn bridge tolls are a tax on going to work and are a tax on doing business and its time to bring an end to the tax on going to work. Even though the private toll franchise may come to an end in 2018 the tolls may yet continue to be collected until 2027 by the Westminster Government and the Department for Transport.
A Plaid Cymru freedom of information request revealed that while the Severn crossings are likely to finally return to public ownership by 2018, the Westminster Government will still have the right to recover its costs. This right lasts until 2027. With the present toll rates it would take one to two years for the Westminster Government to recoup its costs but at the moment it is deliberately keeping its intentions hidden.
The Westminster Government needs to come clean on its plans after 2018 and whether it intends to keep charging up to 2027 and beyond. With control of the tolls devolve a Plaid Cymru Government would reduce the tolls to around £2 (under today’s prices) to cover maintenance, staff costs and contingencies. Eliminating the tolls altogether would be kept under review and would depend on costs.
The tolls could form a useful revenue stream for Welsh Governments, but the priority of Plaid Cymru 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. The scale of the profits has been helped by the fact that routine maintenance of the old (M48) Severn Bridge (which is periodically closed at weekends) has continued to be funded by the Department for Transport, from the public coffers.
We simply cannot rely on the Department for Transport to act to further our interests at all. It is important that preparations for the end of the privately administered toll franchise begin as soon as possible. The Severn Bridges (and tolls) might well be out or sight and out of mind to most Westminster based ministers but they loom very large in the imagination (and the wallets) of long suffering commuters, businesses and visitors here in the south as they are literally a tax on going to work and on doing business.
The tolls to cross the Severn Bridge and Second Severn Crossing into Wales have risen yet again. From 1 January (2015), cars have to pay £6.50 - up from the current £6.40 - small goods vehicles and small buses received a 30p rise to £13.10, and heavy goods vehicles and buses faced a rise up to £19.60, from £19.20. The current owners of the Severn Toll bridges are Severn River Crossing PLC who are able to increase the cost every January in line with the Retail Price Index.
In a response to a Freedom of Information Act by Plaid, the UK Highways Agency, said:
“Severn River Crossing (SRC) is entitled to collect a defined sum from the tolls (£1,028.9m in July 1989 prices) and the current forecasts indicate that this sum will be recouped in 2018.
“After this time, the crossings will be handed back to the Government. No decisions have been made regarding the future of the Severn bridges. From this point onwards, government has the right to recoup its own costs from the construction, maintenance and management of the bridge until 2027. This would be for costs that fall outside of the scope of the current concession for example costs incurred for cable corrosion work.
“Based on a continuation of current arrangements it is expected to take 1-2 years to recover this money, however, the exact nature of that regime has yet to be determined.”
The Highways Agency listed spending on work on main cable corrosion on the first Severn crossing as £5,272,000 between 2010-11 and 2014-15. Then in the following three financial years the project spending costs will be another £4,767,000 from next April through to 2017-18.
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. An 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.
Back in October 2010, Professor Peter Midmore produced an independent economic study of the Severn Bridge tolls, which 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.
Studies and reports aside we continue to have little choice but to pay what is effectively for many people simply a tax on going to work, doing business or simply visiting Wales.