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Severn Bridge: Tolls

Volume 762: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what analysis they have conducted of the economic impact of the Severn Bridge tolls.

My Lords, this Government and the previous Government have not made any assessment of the economic impact of the tolls on the Severn River crossings. However, the existence of the bridges, as funded by tolls, has provided significant economic benefits. The Government have announced that they will consider the future of tolls, working with stakeholders involved.

My Lords, tolls are rare in the UK, and the Severn Bridge tolls are by far the most expensive in the country. It costs commuters £1,500-plus per year to use the bridges. Surely that is an unfair tax on employment in the area. Does the Minister agree that these tolls should be scrapped, and does he agree with the Welsh Government report stating that the economy of Wales would benefit by £107 million a year if they were?

We have of course noted the Welsh Government report but I do not agree with the noble Baroness. When the crossings were put together, particularly the second one, the financing necessitated operating the tolls to recover not only the maintenance costs but the ongoing costs. The concessions agreed at that time still need to be applied. Tolls need to be applied until the end of that concessionary period.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that employers and trade unions alike see these tolls as a direct tax on the Welsh economy that is militating against the economic development that is greatly needed? What is the Government’s estimate of the cumulative backlog of maintenance costs for the bridge? After the contract period is over, who will be responsible for paying for that maintenance?

The noble Lord raises a valid question about the issue of maintenance costs. It is estimated that by the end of the concessionary period, £88 million of the actual costs of construction will still need to be recuperated. On current estimates, on the basis of what is currently collected, a period of one to two years will be required after that concessionary period ends. There is no specific calculation with regard to maintenance costs.

My Lords, few would argue that a toll was not justified in order to finance the construction and early development of the second Severn crossing. The question now being posed, as it has been posed by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, is what is to happen in future. At the very least, should not the toll be hugely modified to cover the essential maintenance costs, while no longer being at a level that will impede the development of the Welsh economy by inflicting unnecessary and abnormal costs?

This Government support the Welsh economy. Indeed, the usage of both crossings has actually shown a marked increase. The noble Lord raises the valid issue of the continuation of the tolling. However, if the tolls were taken away today, that would have an impact on the concession agreement that was reached. For that to be recovered, a further period of time would have to be taken into consideration. That said, at the end of the concessionary period all stakeholders, including the Welsh Government, will be part and parcel of the discussions on the ongoing maintenance and management of the two crossings.

I remind my noble friend that when the Dartford crossing was built, the plan was that when the thing had been paid for the tolls would be stopped. It was the party opposite who decided to continue with them, and they continue now.

Is the Minister aware that in Scotland, all parties agreed to the abolition of the tolls? There have been no adverse effects and it has all been beneficial. If it is good enough for Scotland, why is it not good enough for Wales?

My Lords, will the Minister put travellers’ minds at rest and confirm that over the period of this Parliament the Government, through Highways England, will not introduce tolls on new roads in England? Clearly, tolls are a blunt instrument and should not be used for roads because they divert traffic—just as, indeed, the tolls over the Severn have diverted a lot of traffic through the villages of Gloucestershire.

I am sure the noble Lord is aware that where tolls are used, there is a specific purpose. As I have already said, the issue concerning the crossing we are discussing relates to ongoing maintenance. As far as the Government’s commitment to the roads programme is concerned, I am sure the noble Lord is aware that we have already committed to £24 billion-worth of road improvements, and that will continue over the next five-year period.

My Lords, following the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, could my noble friend assist me? Is there any reason at all why the Welsh Government could not pay for this if they chose to do so?

One of the crossings is actually in England. When we come to the end of the concession period, we will discuss such management issues with the Welsh Government.

My Lords, talking of Wales, Jones is a very good Welsh name, and 100 years ago today the body of Commander Loftus Jones was washed up on the shores of Sweden, his having fought to the last with his ship at Jutland, surrounded by cruisers and destroyers, manning the last gun even though his leg had been blown off and a tourniquet applied. I am sure the Minister will agree that in our country we are very fortunate to have large numbers of men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line and be brave. In the Navy’s case, is it not important that it has ships if it is to look after the country?

As I have said previously from this Dispatch Box, the lessons of history I gain from the noble Lord are always welcome. I put that down to the pages of history, as well.

My Lords, the economic impact of the tolls is felt not just in Wales but in the Forest of Dean. I think the Minister said that there has not been an economic impact study. Will he consider doing one, because the tolls have a huge impact on the people of the Forest of Dean?

The noble Baroness raises a valid point about the people of the Forest of Dean—and, indeed, further afield in Gloucestershire. There have been some calls for a third crossing. That is a case to consider at local level, and I am sure the local LEP will put forward a case. On the economic impact study, once we have reached the end of this concessionary period, we will consider the Welsh Government report and that will inform the final decision on how these crossings are managed in future.