MPs seek answers over future of Severn bridges tolls

It was, suggested more than one MP, the Roy Hughes Memorial Debate.

MPs spent 90 minutes this afternoon discussing tolls on the Severn bridges, a subject close to the heart of the late MP for Newport East. You can judge for yourself later whether they emerged any the wiser about the future of the bridges.

Mr Hughes, later Lord Islwyn, was keen to see the tolls abolished but failed to persuade several governments, Conservative and Labour, that they should be scrapped.

His successor-but-one, Jessica Morden, led this afternoon's debate in Westminster Hall. She was less ambitious in her aims: seeking clarity about the future and the possibility of discounts for local users.

She told the debate: "We are in this really unfair situation where Severn River Crossings plc gets fully compensated for any change at all that comes along. They get to whack the tolls up year after year in line with the Act. The Treasury are happy because they get to keep the VAT and other tax income and quietly do very well out of the bridges. Meanwhile, bridge users get stung time after time having to pay more for longer."

The bridges will revert to public ownership in the next few years, which will mean VAT won't be charged on tolls. Don't expect a free crossing - ministers say around £88m of debt is expected to be outstanding, which could take up to two years to pay off.

Forest of Dean Tory MP Mark Harper, recently liberated from government, offered a perspective that is often absent from debate over the bridges, pointing out that the whole of the old Severn Bridge (and half the second crossing) is in England. "This isn't just a Welsh issue," he insisted. "It is an English issue as well."

He was anxious to ensure that the bridges remain under the control of the UK government despite a call from the Welsh government that the crossings be devolved - a call echoed by his Conservative colleagues in the National Assembly for Wales. Mr Harper appeared keen to torpedo the Welsh Tory call for nationalisation/annexation of a little bit of England.

Transport Minister Robert Goodwill gave little away in his response, although it didn't sound as if he is in a hurry to hand over the bridges to Welsh ministers.

He said: "No decisions have been made regarding the operational and tolling arrangements once the current regime ends. However, the government has been clear that any future arrangements will need to make proper provision for repayment of government costs, future maintenance and reflect the needs of road users both in England and Wales."

Mr Goodwill did point out that his shadow, Richard Burden, who also spoke, could have committed a future Labour government to scrapping tolls but - to no-one's surprise - Mr Burden passed up the opportunity.