This Government’s commitment to halve the Severn crossings toll is a major boost for the economy and people of south Wales. It will make a positive difference to commuters and small business owners and demonstrates our continued determination to rebalance the economy.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. I also welcome him to his place. It seems only a moment or so ago that we were competing to be the parliamentary candidate for the then safe Labour seat of Gower, which was some years ago.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reduction in the tolls will also hugely benefit the Welsh tourism sector by encouraging people to come to Wales, and that it is time for the Welsh Government to pull their finger out and deliver the investment and improvements to the M4 corridor?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words. It is fair to say that there are no infrastructure projects more important to the south Wales economy than the upgrade of the M4 around Newport. It is hard to believe that our noble Friend Lord Hague was Secretary of State for Wales when a commitment to that was first made, only for it to be cancelled twice by the Labour party when it was in government. Business has called for it; commuters have called for it; visitors have called for it. The Chancellor made money available specifically for this project almost three years ago. We just wish the Welsh Government would get on with it.
The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs found that the operational and maintenance costs of the bridge represented a quarter of the toll, yet, as the bridge goes into public hands, the Government have reduced the toll by half and are therefore creating a 100% margin. When will they reduce the toll to the level of the operational and maintenance costs to give south Wales and the Welsh economy every chance of performing as well as anywhere else, rather than having this stranglehold on it?
I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman, like business groups, be it the Federation of Small Businesses, the chambers of commerce or the Institute of Directors, would welcome the halving of the tolls. We saw no action in that regard from the Labour party when it was in government. However, we have gone further than just halving the Severn tolls. A small goods vehicle, for example, will move from the current rate of £13.20 to less than £4 when the tolls are halved, because we are also removing the second-class toll.
13. The announcement by this Conservative Government of the cut in tolls is hugely welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that in the longer term the revenue generated from the tolls should not exceed the cost of maintaining the two Severn bridges?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his diligent and persistent campaigning on the issue. I know that he was absolutely delighted when the Chancellor was able to respond to his and many other Conservative colleagues’ requests. Of course, a debt will remain on the tolls even when the bridges come back into public ownership in 2018 or thereabouts. That debt will still need to be serviced, as will the innovations on free-flowing traffic that we want to introduce.
I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Minister on their recent appointments. Labour Members look forward to working constructively with them, particularly on the new Wales Bill, whenever that may appear.
To clarify, in last month’s Budget the Chancellor made much of halving the tolls on the Severn crossings, but as we have since discovered that is not quite the bargain it appears to be. The 50% discount includes the 20% of VAT, which disappears anyway when the bridge reverts to public ownership, and of course businesses reclaim VAT. So instead of leaving businesses still paying thousands of pounds a year, why will not the Government do the right thing and scrap these tolls altogether?
We have an election coming and the call from the Labour party is now very different—it is very convenient. It has long called for the devolution of the tolls, but we were fearful that, as soon as the tolls were devolved, they would be used as a cash cow to support the income of the Welsh Government.