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Bridges And Tunnels (Tolls)

Volume 82: debated on Monday 1 July 1985

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3.

asked the Secretary of State for Transport what information he has as to the total revenue raised by tolls on bridges and tunnels in each of the last five years; and if he will make a statement.

The gross figures for each year starting in 1979–80 were: £20·2 million, £22·3 million, £28·5 million, £34·9 million and £39·2 million, totalling £145·1 million.

The Government's policy remains that estuarial crossings should be paid for by the users through tolls rather than by taxpayers, except where there are counter-arguments on the grounds of traffic diversion or congestion. That is because of the exceptional savings in time and money which these expensive facilities make possible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cost of financing toll bridges and tunnels places a considerable burden on local authorities, especially counties such as Essex and Kent, which must finance the Dartford tunnel? Does he agree that toll booths cause considerable delays at bridges and tunnels? Despite the revenue, does he agree that the country overall would be better off if toll charges were abolished?

Taking the last point first, it would make no difference to the country overall if tolls were abolished and the costs were put on to taxpayers rather than users. The costs still have to be paid, whoever pays for them. I do not think that any direct cost falls on Essex and Kent county councils, because they have a fund to administer the tunnel. In due course it is expected that that fund will be repaid, probably in the early 1990s, and the county councils will not be out of pocket as a result.

Regarding delays, when the toll plaza is complete and there are 12 toll booths in each direction, and when the road widening is completed up to the mouth of the tunnel, I do not think that there will be delays, except those caused by a lack of capacity in the tunnel. We have already announced that we are studying how best to provide extra capacity to obviate that shortage as soon as possible.

Is not this issue of toll charges on estuarial crossings becoming more farcical every day? The latest example on the Severn bridge is of thousands of pounds being extracted from disabled drivers because no one has told them that they may cross the bridge free of charge. Surely such a concession should be advertised nationally and in the local press by the Ministry of Transport.

I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman. Until 1979 he supported the Labour Government who firmly and strongly advocated the continuation of tolls on estuarial crossings. Why does he appear to change his mind now that there is a Conservative Government? The disabled have the concession to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and I hope that he will do his best to ensure that there is a high take-up of it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that Fife region is the only region in Britain that one pays both to get into and out of—on the Forth and Tay bridges? Does he not realise that the sooner we get rid of that nonsense the better?

If the hon. Gentleman feels like that my advice to him is to stay in Fife.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it costs £2 to cross the Humber bridge and return home again? Is there any other county in the United Kingdom where one must pay to go from one part of it to another? Does it not make a mockery of the creation of Humberside, which artificially joins north Lincolnshire and east Yorkshire, much to the chagrin of its inhabitants?

I hope that my hon. Friend will feel like sending a copy of that supplementary question to Mrs. Barbara Castle and, indeed, perhaps an invoice to match it.

If the engineering study announced last week by the Minister of State recommends in favour of an additional river crossing at Dartford, will that new tunnel be subject to the same toll arrangements as the existing Dartford tunnels?

When a question involves two "ifs" I am entitled to say that it is hypothetical. Indeed, that is my answer to the hon. Gentleman.

May I make a further helpful counter argument? Will the Secretary of State consider throwing a lifeline to the increasingly floundering Conservative candidate in the Brecon and Radnor by-election and, consistent with recent other gifts, end tolls on the Severn bridge?

No, Sir. It is not Government policy to seek to buy by-election results as Mrs. Castle did with the Humber bridge. Humberside was lumbered with an enormous debt as a result of that by-election promise. We have no intention of inflicting such a cruel burden on the inhabitants of Brecon and Radnor.

Is it expected that the toll revenue will pay off the cost of these bridges and tunnels? If so, will there be a time limit on the changing of tolls?

It depends on which crossing the right hon. Gentleman means. Some are within sight of redeeming their capital debt, but others are not.