Jessica Morden

Labour MP for Newport East

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Severn Bridges - Westminster Hall debate

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I was pleased to secure a Westminster Hall debate on the future operation of the Severn Bridges this week, and had the opportunity to raise concerns of constituents and businesses with the Government's Transport Minister.

You can read the full transcript of the debate, including the Minister's response here.

Here's my speech and concluding remarks from the debate:

On 13 January the Government announced their consultation on the future management of the Severn bridges. We were promised it in the autumn, with the Government saying it would be about a year to go until the handover, but better late than never. I have called this debate in part to recognise that the Government have moved some way towards recognising how hard hit we in south Wales have been by the level of tolls, although they have not gone far enough—I will move on to that later—but also, crucially, to get more clarity from the Minister on what the Government are planning when, at long last, the Severn bridges concession ends. We need that clarity because there is not long to go now; Severn River Crossing could reach its revenue target in October this year and the Government consultation ends on 10 March. Now that the concession is drawing to a close, this is the first opportunity that Members have had in 25 years to shape the new regime for the benefit of our constituents and businesses.

This is a critical stage to get this right for the future. Given the inflexibility of the 1992 legislation, it is important that we scrutinise the plans now and future-proof them so that we will not need to unpick things in years to come, for example because we had not thought about vehicle categories. That is a very important point. We must be able to shape the new regime for the benefit of our constituents and businesses.

Getting more clarity about the direction of travel is important for my constituents who commute, the businesses who do business across the bridges and those who work on the bridges. In recent years those people have had to suffer the highest toll in the UK, and commuters have just had to absorb the annual increases, however unfair they are. Constituents have had to turn down job offers because the toll is equivalent to nearly an hour on the minimum wage. Just this morning I received an email from a constituent, who said: “The tolls add a considerable amount to the cost of travel to Bristol, where a lot of attractive jobs for young graduates like myself exist. Many of my friends who have graduated from university recently and are looking for a job fail to look at Bristol because in my opinion, the toll gives…the impression that Bristol is out of reach, even though in actual fact, travel time is not much more than to Cardiff.”

Businesses, especially those in logistics and the provision of services, are trying to compete with firms in the south-west that do not have to factor in the toll, and they are losing out. Some businesses in my constituency are hit by up to half a million pounds a year, which just has to come off the bottom line. At present there are no effective discounts or incentives for off-peak travel. The arguments have been well rehearsed over many years, but it is worth reiterating just how hard people have been hit and therefore how strongly they feel about the issue.

The Severn crossings are a key link in our transport and economic infrastructure as part of the M4 corridor—the gateway to Wales—which allows access to markets in the UK, but also as part of the E30 route. As has been said many times before, the Severn tolls have been a tax on Welsh business and commuters. I recognise that the Government have gone some way towards acknowledging that. They announced in January that tolls could be reduced to £3 for cars and vans and £10 for lorries when the concession ends, but the message from many of my constituents and businesses is that the Government are not going far enough.

I want to thank the many constituents, businesses and groups, such as the Freight Transport Association, that have worked with me, other hon. Members and the Welsh Affairs Committee over the years on this campaign. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who attended the Severn bridges summit that I organised with the FTA here last year, so that the people affected could put their views to him directly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned, we should also pay tribute to the maintenance and toll staff, who are incredibly hard-working and knowledgeable about the Severn bridges. I hope that the Minister will ensure that they have a key voice in future decisions, because they have the expertise that we need and that we must keep. I urge him to ensure that there are regular meetings with management and staff so that they are fully informed of announcements and discussions. We should acknowledge that it is a sensitive time.

On tolling, the Government have announced that they will seek to reduce the tolls and that they will use the toll revenue for operations, maintenance and debt repayment. The Minister will be aware that there is a strong consensus in the Welsh Assembly, the Welsh Government and among many users of the bridges that the tolls should be scrapped altogether, not least because removing them would boost productivity in Wales by up to £100 million, as a recent Welsh Government study has shown. Tolls represent an unfair tax. In an ideal world the UK Government would pay for the maintenance, not the people and businesses of Wales, particularly after such a lengthy period with such eye-watering tolls.

Scrapping the tolls would be a symbolic move, especially with the uncertainty around Brexit. It would be helpful to hear from the Government why they have not included that option in the consultation. I am sure that many people would like to back it. I hope that the consultation is a true one, not just a paper exercise, and that the Government have an open mind on it.

The Minister will say that halving the tolls will allow an assessment of the impact on traffic. The traffic using the bridges has increased and, as recent media coverage shows, many people are choosing to relocate from Bristol and the south-west to Newport and Monmouthshire as a lifestyle choice—a very good choice, as it is an absolutely wonderful place to live. In response, the UK and Welsh Governments need to work on a holistic transport plan that includes the metro, and the Government must help to make up the shortfall from the loss of EU funds. While I am being parochial, the Government should support a new station bid for Magor and provide greater rail capacity, especially on the commuter services from Newport and the Severn tunnel junction, which have been dubbed the “sardine express”—I have had debates on that in the past—and the Welsh Government should look at the matters that are devolved.

Will the Minister tell us where the figure quoted in the public consultation of a 17% traffic increase over 10 years has come from? How much of that will be in the first year? In fact, it would be particularly helpful if he could publish all the research that the Government have commissioned on traffic modelling in relation to the end of the concessions and the traffic flows. I know that all hon. Members would be grateful for that.

If, as the consultation indicates, the Government decide to continue tolling, the toll level should not exceed the cost of operating the two bridges. Severn River Crossing collects about £90 million-plus each year, and that is going up. Maintenance and operation costs are between £13 million and £15 million. Based on a rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation, that requires a toll of about £1, which means the Government will still be charging three times more for cars and 10 times more for lorries. The Government argue that they will have to recoup a £60 million debt for fixing defects but, as the Welsh Affairs Committee has documented, they have done very well out of the bridges so far: the Treasury has received £154 million-plus since 2003 in unexpected VAT—more than enough to cover the debt and undertake the resurfacing work, which the Government value at £12 million, with a lot left over.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), why do we have to pay for resurfacing on this stretch of road out of bridge tolls, when for any other stretch of road the cost is taken out of general taxation?
Given that they have absorbed the VAT charges into the general Treasury coffers, surely we should be dipping into the Treasury’s coffers to pay for the resurfacing work.

The Government have recouped a substantial pot of money. We should not forget that they wiped £150 million of debt from the Humber bridge. Wales deserves the same. Has the Minister estimated the date by which the outstanding Government debt will be paid off? I understand that, under their current plans, it could take 18 months. Is their intention to reduce tolls at that point to reflect that?

Will the Minister tell us how the Government calculated the £3 figure? There is no rationale for how it was reached, and it would be really helpful to have a breakdown to know how the tolls will be spent. Will the Minister confirm what ongoing method will be used to calculate the tolls in future? The consultation does not make that clear, and we need to know how the Department for Transport will assess the tolls annually, because we have suffered years of annual increases.

It is also crucial that we know from the Government when the new tolling regime will come into force. We are currently no clearer about the expected timing of the handover of the crossings. It is anticipated that the revenue target will be met in October, and that the actual transfer of services will occur at some stage after that. What is the current plan? It is important that we get clarity about the handover period and know when the bridges are formally to be run by the Department for Transport. If there is a gap, and VAT comes off the bridges but the tolls remain at the current level, there will potentially be a period when businesses that claim back their VAT will, in effect, have to pay more. Have the Government given any thought to that?

The Department for Transport said that it is a year to go until handover. When does it expect that date to be? Does that mean, for instance, that if the formal handover has not taken place by January 2018, we will have to endure yet another retail prices index increase next year?

The mention of free flow is welcome, but many will be disappointed that it may not be seen for some years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, the main benefit is the reduction in journey times and congestion. Although free flow is clearly a future consideration, I ask for two things: first, that under free flow the tolls will not go up for a return journey; and secondly, that all back-office functions for dealing with evasion and administration should be sited locally. It would be an advantage for free flow if those who carry out the back-office functions know the local area and the local issues. Will the Minister give us some clarity about the Government’s current estimate of the costs of free flow?
Free flow will be looked at in future, but what thought has been given to improving the TAG? It is the fastest current form of payment—it takes about six seconds—but it is important to improve it if we are to tackle congestion. Severn River Crossing has made strenuous efforts to promote the TAG, and nearly 30% of users now use that method of payment, but only an improved season TAG discount and a first-time trip TAG discount beyond a halving of the toll will materially affect TAG take-up. With that in mind, will the Government consider a more ambitious future for the TAG to speed up traffic in the short term?

I am pleased that the long-awaited consultation has been published. I will certainly encourage all those with an interest to contribute their thoughts to it.

I think that, after many years of pretty eye-watering tolls on this bridge, it is time we looked for a much fairer regime for people who live in south-east Wales. The tolls have hit my constituents and businesses especially hard. As I have said, there is a strong call, supported by the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government, to scrap the tolls altogether, and I have huge sympathy with that. If this Government are not willing to go that far, as indicated in the consultation, we should surely have a £1 maintenance-only toll.

The consultation contains more detail about the options that are not being considered than about those that are on the table. It says that Highways England will have the responsibility in future, but will it contract out any elements of the operation or maintenance of the bridges? What maintenance charges, other than for the resurfacing, do the Department for Transport anticipate for the bridges in the first 18 months?

The consultation mentions the option of removing tolls between 10 pm and 6 am—off-peak travel—but does not seek views. Will the Government speak to businesses and others to gauge their views? Business representatives I met in my constituency on Friday said they thought it would be extremely attractive to companies based in south Wales, particularly in the logistics industry, so more work should be done to pursue that option.

To conclude, the Severn Bridges Act was written almost 30 years ago. As we have said many times, it was an inflexible piece of legislation that was not future-proofed. I have one plea for the Minister: whatever legislation we have to pass—the consultation made mention of statutory instruments—we as local Members should be consulted properly. We and our constituents need to be able to take part, because in the months to come we will have many more detailed questions, although I hope that the Minister can answer some today. I appreciate other hon. Members supporting the debate and I look forward to their contributions.

I am not sure whether we are that much clearer about the breakdown of the £3 toll. I will hold him to his promise to break that down for us in more detail. I am also not sure whether we are that much closer to understanding the handover plan. The Department for Transport clearly cannot take over the bridges the minute the last car pays up and the revenue target is reached, so it would be useful to know about that, not least because I would not want constituents to face another annual ​increase in January 2018. I would also like more detail from the Minister on what can be done about the tag reduction. I hope that this time we end up with a lasting solution that means we can future-proof the legislation. Will the Minister respond in writing to anything else we have raised in the debate? That would be particularly helpful. As in all our efforts in talking about the Severn bridge tolls, we do so for our constituents, our businesses and the wider economy of south Wales, which have been hit hard by the tolls over the years.

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