TODAY marks an historic moment in the history of the two Severn bridges, as they are handed back to public ownership.

The two bridges, which opened in 1966 and 1996 respectively, have been owned and operated by private company Severn River Crossing plc, which was set up specifically to manage the bridges, since 1992.

The agreement was signed on the condition the ownership of the crossings would be handed back to the UK Government once the £330 million cost of building the second bridge, as well as that of running and maintaining both bridges, was fully paid off.

And today this figure, believed to be upwards of £1.03 billion, has been recouped and ownership has been officially handed over to Highways England.

Severn River Crossing’s chief executive Phil Smith said: “During the concession Severn River Crossing has built the second Severn crossing, strengthened the Severn Bridge and successfully collected the tolls that have paid for this work to be done.

“These tasks have been achieved safely and responsibly by our employees.

“I would like to thank them for their diligent service.

“We can all feel proud that we are handing over the Second Crossing, and returning the Severn Bridge, in a good and well-maintained condition.

“We have worked with Department of Transport to ensure a smooth handover including all the detailed procedures we have used to manage the bridges.”

Today will also see tolls fall for the first time since the bridges opened, as VAT is removed from the charges.

This means car drivers will pay £5.60, down from £6.70, while charges for small buses and vans will drop from £13.40 to £11.20. Tolls for lorries and coaches will also drop from £20 to £16.70. Tolls are due to be fully scrapped by the end of the year.

But, apart from the reduced tolls, it will be business as usual for the estimated 25 million drivers who use the two bridges every year, as well as the Severn River Crossing staff, all of whom - apart from some senior managers - have been transferred over to Highways England.

Welsh secretary Alun Cairns said abolishing the tolls would “transform the joint economic prospects of both regions, creating a growth corridor stretching from Cardiff through Newport to Bristol”.

But Newport West MP Paul Flynn has criticised the UK Government for not scrapping the tolls entirely the same day the bridges passed back to public ownership, saying the crossings “should be treated in the same way as the rest of the national road system that is toll-free”.

The old bridge is reportedly expected to last another 90 years, while the second bridge has an estimated further 96 years of use - meaning both could still be in use into the next century.

Deputy leader of Monmouthshire County Borough Council, Councillor Bob Greenland, said: "We welcome the reduction in the tolls coming into effect now and the complete abolition of tolls at the end of the year. This removal of artificial barriers to the economy of South East Wales will bring more job opportunities and help to redress the imbalance of incomes in our area compared to neighbouring England. 

"It does however pose challenges in the short term. Already we are seeing an influx of people from Bristol and the West, taking advantage of lower property prices this side of the Severn. This can only make getting on the first rung of the property ladder or even finding suitable rented accommodation for those on lower wages even harder. 

"We issued a public consultation just before Christmas into the need to provide more housing opportunities in the county. We will be considering the responses in a month or so.

"As with all housing development, if we decide to add more land for housing, part of the assessment process will include a survey of necessary infrastructure services such as school places, doctors’ surgeries, leisure services and of course the impact on our roads. All this would be taken into consideration before firm proposals for housing were considered by elected members of the council."