Severn tolls: All assembly parties back scrapping fees

By David Deans
BBC News

  • Published
Severn toll booths

Severn tolls should be scrapped, AMs from Labour, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and the Welsh Conservatives said on Wednesday.

Drivers spend at least £6.60 crossing from England to Wales on the bridges, set to return to UK government ownership at the end of 2017.

All four party groups in the National Assembly supported the abolition of the charge during a Senedd debate led by UKIP.

The party's Mark Reckless called the tolls a "tax on Wales".

But Labour backbencher Lee Waters said the tolls should be retained with the money raised spent on the South Wales Metro project to upgrade public transport.

A Senedd vote calling for their abolition passed on Wednesday afternoon with 45 of the 60 AMs backing its motion.

There was one abstention in the vote and no politicians voting against.

Media caption,
Lee Waters said abolishing the tolls would increase traffic on the M4 by as much as 25%

The crossings - which are not devolved - could return to public ownership as soon as October 2017 when a private concession with Severn River Crossing (SRC) PLC ends.

The UK government has promised to halve the fee, with Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns suggesting a toll of £1.80-£1.90 either way could be charged if a free-flowing system was introduced.

UKIP tabled a debate in the Senedd on Wednesday calling for the charge's abolition once the crossings return to the public sector.

Mr Reckless, UKIP AM for South Wales East, said: "[There is] no other single measure which could give a boost to economic activity and the accessibility of Wales.

"Rather than spending money on subsidising schemes to try to help particular sectors of business, let's lift that extra tax that everyone pays for doing business in Wales."

Image source, David Trotman

The other three parties, including the Labour-led Welsh Government, put in amendments supporting the scrapping of the tolls.

The Welsh Conservatives' motion said the abolition should be a "priority" only if the bridges' future can be secured through existing budgets with no impact on other transport projects.

Party transport spokesman Russell George told AMs that if the tolls could be removed it had "real potential, I think, to to support motorists, provide significant investment in Wales, improve our infrastructure and encourage economic growth".

Plaid Cymru's amendment called for the bridges' ownership to be devolved so the tolls can be scrapped.

Infrastructure spokesman Dai Lloyd said the tolls were an "unfair tax" on motorists who use the bridges regularly, and "send the wrong message to potential investors".

The Conservative and Plaid Cymru motions were voted down, with AMs backing a Labour amendment.

That amendment said that there was "no case for continuing to charge tolls on the Severn bridges to fund ongoing maintenance" once they returned to public ownership as "they represent an unfair tax on the people and businesses of Wales".

But, Llanelli AM Mr Waters believes some tolls should be kept "to pay for improvements in public transport".

He agreed with Plaid that the bridges should be devolved, and said scrapping the fee would cause increased congestion around the Brynglas tunnels or even on the planned M4 relief road.

Image source, Welsh Government
Image caption,
The South Wales Metro could be funded from bridge tolls, says AM Lee Waters

Mr Waters added that the second phase of the Metro needed £125m in EU funds.

"It seems to me to be a self defeating policy," he said.

"If we use all our money on doing that on building the M4, and as a result of Brexit we don't have EU funding, we won't have any money in order for provide people alternatives to driving," he said.

"I would much rather see us giving people an alternative in the form of an ambitious metro project."

He argued around £80m from the tolls could potentially be put towards the Metro or to support borrowing for that scheme.

But he said he would support the government on Wednesday. "It's a theoretical motion. We don't have the power. There's no point rebelling over it," he said.

A UK Department for Transport spokesman said: "The government announced its intention to halve the tolls on the River Severn Crossings in the 2016 Budget."

He said a consultation on the Severn crossings would be launched in due course.