Scrapping Severn crossing tolls 'would boost economy'

Businesses and consumers spend £80m a year crossing the Severn bridges, the report says

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Scrapping the tolls on the Severn bridges could boost the economy of south Wales by £107m, according to a report.

It would mean an extra 11,000 vehicles driving over the two bridges every day.

First Minister Carwyn Jones said control of the bridges should be transferred to the Welsh government in 2018.

But the UK government said tolls can only be used to pay for building, maintaining and operating the bridge.

Start Quote

It is too soon to say what the best solution would be if we gained control over the tolls ... what is clear is that these decisions should be made in Wales”

End Quote Carwyn Jones First Minister

The report, commissioned by the Welsh government, says businesses and consumers spend £80m a year crossing the Severn bridges.

However, a lack of data makes it difficult to say how these costs are split between vehicles and businesses based in Wales, or elsewhere.

Engineering consultants Arup looked at what would happen if the tolls were halved, increased by 50% or scrapped altogether.

Abolishing the tolls would increase traffic by an estimated 12% - equivalent to about 11,000 vehicles a day, the report says.

It could boost productivity by around 0.48%, improving south Wales' economic output by around £107m.

The report says the effects could take up to 15 years to be realised, but would ultimately result in a permanent increase in economic activity.

Severn bridges: factbox

  • The first Severn bridge opened in 1966
  • The second Severn crossing opened in 1996
  • The concession agreement ends when the operator has collected £996m in 1989 prices
  • Since 2003 the amount of traffic on the M4 second crossing has grown by an average 1.78% a year, compared with 0.63% on the rest of the UK motorway network
  • In 2008, 61,455 vehicles used the M4 crossing per day and 17,772 the M48 bridge
  • The M48 carries more local traffic, with most journeys starting or ending in Monmouthshire, Bristol and the south-west of England
  • Source: Arup report

Although it is difficult to be precise about the effect on the economy, the report says the tolls do have "a measurable impact on overall economic performance".

Cutting or increasing the tolls by 50% would lead to an estimated rise or fall 5% in traffic respectively, it adds.

Operated by private company Severn River Crossings Plc, the bridges are used by about 80,000 vehicles every day.

The company's concession will end when takings from the tolls reach £996m at 1989 prices, estimated to happen in about 2017.

Mr Jones said he wanted to talk to the UK government about what happens when the concession ends, with one option being that full control of the tolling regime is handed over to the Welsh government.

Analysis

Sadly, it's not as simple as scrapping the tolls and having £107m to play with.

Let's say the Welsh government persuaded the UK government to give it the two bridges and let it collect all the money at the present level - that's roughly how the £107m has come.

That would not be a win-win for Wales because presumably we would still have to pay for the maintenance and, if there were no tolls, according to the Arup report that we've got today, we would expect a 12% increase in traffic.

So that wouldn't just be the maintenace which is between £10m and £15m at the moment.

It would be more than that, because we'd have more lorries and more cars.

And in addition to that, you've got to think of the feeder roads. So really for the local authorities around Newport, around Torfaen, Caerphilly and Monmouthshire, they would expect to have more traffic on their roads, and higher maintenance bills.

He said it would be "unacceptable" for the UK government to retain the income from the tolls, as it would create a "strong perception that drivers coming into Wales were being charged - directly or indirectly - to fund Department for Transport spending in England".

"I want to work with the UK government to achieve a situation where decisions about charging will be a matter for the Welsh government," he said.

"It is too soon to say what the best solution would be if we gained control over the tolls.

"There are a number of options available and we would need careful consideration of how any revenue raised would be used.

"However, what is clear is that these decisions should be made in Wales."

The tolls currently range from £6 for a car to £18.10 for the biggest lorries and buses.

The Department for Transport said it regularly met the Welsh government and that conversations about the future of the Severn crossings would continue.

"However, large quantities of debt remain outstanding at the end of the private concession which, must be recovered," a spokesman said.

"This has been the case since 1992 and the legislation is clear that the tolls can only be used for the purpose of paying the costs of building, maintaining and operating the bridge.

"We are not proposing any changes."

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