The time has come to maximise the many strengths of a natural economic region which has been frustrated by tolling for more than 50 years, Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns has said. The Business caught up with him to find out more after he announced his vision for a Great Western Powerhouse to a Policy Forum Wales seminar in Newport... 

At the end of 2018, one of the greatest economic barriers to Wales’ prosperity will be consigned to history when the UK government removes the tolls to use the Severn Crossings.

Companies on both sides of the border are already benefiting from the removal of VAT on the tolls in January. 

When the tolls are abolished completely, the UK government wants to see businesses pool their expertise to deliver the ideas and projects that will not only benefit the cities of Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Bristol and Bath but the wider South Wales and South West England regions as well.

Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns said: “The cities on the western side of the UK are individually strong, but collectively, we are not strong enough.

“We need to light the blue touch paper and make a real step change to the way businesses, people and industry from the cities and towns from both sides of the Severn work together when the tolls are removed. 

“And I’m not talking about one city taking the lead, but a collection of cities, of communities, of businesses, sufficiently close to each other that, combined, they can take on the world.

“Able to provide jobs and opportunities to the many people who live in or are looking to invest in this region. 

“So we need to seize the opportunity to create an ecomomic region on the Western side of the UK that can compete with the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine and with the economy of the South East.”

He said: “This is not a marketing campaign or a one-off event. It’s got to be a serious, long-term strategy to make this part of the UK greater than the sum of its parts. 

“While differences to our own cross-border region exist, it is clear that we can learn lessons and benefit from each others’ experience. 

“This has got to be driven by you, the experts. It’s got to be about your attitude and about your ideas.”

Speaking exclusively to The Business after the policy forum event Mr Cairns said: “The concept of the Great Western Powerhouse is to encourage people to think differently. The financial barrier between Wales and England on the Severn tolls has simply stopped people from looking over the border either side because the cost has acted as an inhibitor.

“So when the tolls go, we need people on either side to know and understand what’s going on and that’s what the Great Western Powerhouse can contribute to.

“If you live in south east Wales you naturally go to the South Wales Argus in order to understand what’s going on and what business and other opportunities there are in the area.

“Well, I want to create an opportunity where people in Bristol are equally interested in the Argus to find out what those opportunities are as well.

“Ken Skates, the Welsh Assembly cabinet secretary for economy and transport, and I are working closely on squaring the two sets of politics on either side of the Severn. He is someone who is from north east Wales and he sees the joint work that goes on between Flintshire and Wrexham and Cheshire.

“That happens on a seamless basis because there’s never been a charge to move between Cheshire and Flintshire.

“The working towards attracting investments, answering the business needs and ensuring there is sufficient skills development in that region has just evolved between the two areas. In the Great Western Powerhouse region that will develop over time and I am keen that we speed up that process.”

Commenting on calls for the tolls to stay in at least some form from an MP from the English side of the river, Mr Cairns said: “Well, the logic behind that argument is that we’d simply be an independent nation or that we’ve tolls on every road that crossed between Wales and England.

“That’s the challenge for politicians like me, for the Welsh Government, for the Department of Transport, Highways England and Transport for Wales. We have got to come out with solutions to marry the business and social demands rather than saying no, we are going to charge you simply because our infrastructure is insufficient. We need infrastructure to marry the assets and resources contained within communities.”

Mr Cairns said that there would be social issues which would need to be addressed when the tolls are finally scrapped.

He said: “This is part of the reason I want to the engagement of the Great Western Powerhouse. I want us to come together so we can consider what challenges will come forward. 

“Generally as property prices are rising that often can create a feeling of prosperity which encourages further investment but also we have got to recognise that it creates challenges for people who want to buy houses and get on the housing ladder.”

Mr Cairns said he had been calling for an M4 Relief Road for as long as he can remember.

“I remember living in Caerwent and travelling west everyday through the tunnels as the junction just before the tunnels was being constructed. I remember  thinking at the time it was never going to answer the growing demand, although it was a helpful intervention at the time.

“There is only one solution and that is to build a new motorway around Newport. It’s hard to believe that William Hague was the secretary of state who first committed to building the road before it was later cancelled by others.

“It is a matter for the Welsh Government but I am keen and desperate to do anything and everything to make it happen because we have given the resource to the Welsh Government, we’ve doubled their borrowing powers. 

“We’ve said politically we will lend as much support as we believe they need in order to get the road through in terms of its vote in the assembly. We just want to see it happen as it is a matter for UK strategic importance. It is also a matter that is important to the local community.

“I know of businesses that are here which wouldn’t have come here now if they were making the decision at this stage. And those are people who depend on ‘just-in-time’ manufacturing processes where they have a deadline to arrive at their destination and if they were taking their decision now, they’d think twice about coming here.”

Mr Cairns said Newport had gone through a ‘fantastic’ transformation over the last decade.

“I pay tribute to Matthew Evans as a previous leader of the authority who put the foundations in place and to Debbie Wilcox, the current leader of the authority, for the work that she is doing in continuing that ambitious agenda. So I think party politics hasn’t mattered in transforming Newport."

He said: “If you’d have said 20 years ago that Newport would attract an international conference centre, would attract the Ryder Cup, would host international sports initiatives, would be a key part in sporting events across the UK then I think people would have laughed.

“But now we’ve created an opportunity where Newport can really grasp the prosperity it is creating and I think people will benefit locally. Among all of the places in the UK Newport is the most attractive to invest in and I think tolls has been a part of that but not all of it. I think the work of the authorities and of businesses in the area have added equally.

“I’ve been coming back and fore to Newport for 25 years and I think that this the best I have ever seen the city but this is only small scale for what’s to come.”

View from across the Severn

Tim Bowles
West of England Mayor

My role as West of England Mayor is to look ahead and work with partners to plan for future growth. I’m here to look at the big things that improve people’s lives – homes, jobs, skills and transport. 

The West of England Combined Authority (WECA) was established in early 2017, and I was elected as the first Regional Mayor in May 2017.

WECA’s constituent councils – Bath & North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire – came together to fight for devolution because they could see the value in this new way of doing things, looking beyond council boundaries to benefit all of us who live and work in the region. 

I am looking forward to discussing how we can further strengthen the region’s voice on the national stage. The West of England economy looks in all directions and I believe we should too. 

Our geographical position is one of our greatest USPs and our strong road, rail, air and sea links mean we are incredibly well connected. 

We have always been an outward-facing region, sharing connections with our neighbours. I believe more people move between the West of England, Newport and Cardiff than between the cities within the Northern Powerhouse.

We will continue to work closely with our partners from across the region and beyond. 

The evidence is clear, by working together we can amplify the voice of the West of England and South East Wales to benefit everyone living here. 

If we want to compete with the Northern Powerhouse brand, we must continue to work together to ensure we become stronger, our voice is louder and we create a more influential and powerful region across South East Wales and the West of England.

We are in discussions with the Welsh Government, Highways England, the Department for Transport, Wales Office, Network Rail and Great Western Railway about how best to work together to address the impact of the tolls being lifted.