THE POLITICS FILE: Which side of the Severn does tolls cash belong?
Wales’ first minister has said that tolls could be used to improve the M4 – even at Brynglas Tunnels. Today we explore the debate around the future of the crossings. FIRST Minister Carwyn Jones has told the Argus that tolls from the Severn Bridges could be used to invest in improving the M4 – possibly at the infamous Brynglas Tunnels bottleneck.
Mr Jones this week reiterated his call for the Severn Crossing tolls to be devolved to Wales.
He told the Argus that it would be “absolutely outrageous” for the UK government to retain control of them after a deal that allows a private company to run them runs out as estimated in 2018.
However, the UK government’s department for transport (DfT) has so far been cool towards the idea – saying there are no proposals to change the current arrangements.
It has said there is more than £100 million of outstanding debt left to pay off on the bridges after the private firm that runs them hands them to the government.
Mr Jones described the toll on the Severn Crossings as a “tax on Wales and particularly a tax on Newport”.
“After 2018 the private company that runs the bridge’s contract will come to an end. It then reverts to the department of transport. If things don’t change the DfT will have a free hand in setting the tolls to whatever level they want and all the money that tolls generate will be spent only in England,” he said.
“We think that is absolutely outrageous and we’re looking for a deal.”
He said it was the Welsh Government’s view that tolls should be devolved as those who pay them are effectively paying to come into Wales.
Mr Jones said he wasn’t going to say they can get rid of the charges with the cost of maintaining the structures.
“What we would like to do is use any extra money we make on the tolls to invest in the M4 in Wales,”
“One example might be Brynglas. The Severn Bridge should be used to finance M4 improvements in Wales.”
Mr Jones said the tolls are free money for the department for transport. “It’s a charge on people who live in Wales to pay for roads in England,” he said.
“I think people in Newport will wholeheartedly agree, and the whole of the Gwent Valleys as well, that it’s absolutely wrong that people should be charged to come into Wales and all the moneys that the tolls make should be spent only in England.
“The department for transport thinks this is great but it’s bad for Wales.”
Asked about those in South Gloucestershire who may want to see money from the tolls spent on infrastructure in their neck of the woods, he said: “We would certainly want the money spent in Wales but we are prepared to be reasonable.
But what isn’t reasonable is not to see a penny invested in roads in Wales.”
However, not everyone has agreed with Mr Jones that the way forward is for the tolls to be devolved to Wales.
David Davies, MP for Monmouth, said three out of the four ends of the Severn bridges are in England, with the old Severn Bridge landing at Beachley before traffic heads onto the Wye bridge into Chepstow.
“The original Severn Bridge is entirely in England. There will be people in the English regions who would say they have a big stake in it.”
Mr Davies, who headed up an inquiry into the Severn Bridges in his role as chairman of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, highlighted the fact that people commute from England into Wales as well as the other way.
“Anyone living in Bristol or Avonmouth will feel just as strongly about it as people in Wales,” Mr Davies said, adding: “I think it’s fantasy politics.”
The first minister’s move was, however, welcomed by his opposite numbers in Plaid Cymru.
The party’s South Wales East AM, Jocelyn Davies, said the Severn Bridges are of huge importance to the Welsh economy, with the high cost of tolls a serious matter of concern because of the impact on Welsh businesses.
She said a Plaid government would immediately start discussions to bring about the devolution of control over the bridges to Wales, and would reduce the cost of the tolls to less than £2 a car.
Kirsty Williams, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, says her party has called for when the concession ends that the bridges should be run by a not-for-profit body – either one run by the government or outside the government.
However, Byron Davies, AM, Conservative shadow minister for transport and regeneration, said they had heard little about how the bridges will be effectively maintained should ministers take control of the crossings, and how repair costs would be funded.
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