Jessica led a debate on the future of the Tolls on the Severn Bridges.

Below is the transcript from Hansard. 


5 Mar 2014 : Column 321WH

Severn Bridges (Tolling)

[Mr Peter Bone in the Chair]

2.30 pm

Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone, especially in view of your south Wales connections. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the Severn bridge tolls. The subject has been debated regularly in this place in recent times and has been given keen cross-party scrutiny by the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, of which I am a member. The level of tolls on the Severn bridges is a thorny issue. It is an ongoing frustration for constituents and businesses. That concerns me, because I have a toll booth on the edge of my constituency, and it concerns other hon. Members who have constituencies in south Wales and England. I am grateful for the turnout today.

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I emphasise that there are ramifications for a much broader range of people than those who represent the M4 corridor. Those of us in west Wales, haulage industry contractors and the tourist sector have a deep interest as well.

Jessica Morden: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. As the Welsh Affairs Committee discovered during our inquiry, the tolls have major ramifications for the rest of south Wales. For that reason, I am glad that other hon. Members are here, and I hope that they get a chance to talk about how they have been affected.

As we approach the end of the concession with Severn River Crossing plc in 2018, we need an openness from the Department for Transport and the Treasury about the plans that are being made for when the bridges return to public ownership. The Welsh Affairs Committee published its report on the Severn crossings in 2010, which urged the Government urgently to set up a future strategy for the crossings and called for tolls to be reduced significantly. Four years later, however, we are no further on. The only progress has been to allow people to pay by debit or credit card on the bridges in time for the Ryder cup, and what a long-drawn-out, tortuous process that was.

The tolls continue to go up every year, regardless of the economic climate and people’s ability to pay, and my constituents need some kind of light at the end of the tunnel. It is generally accepted that tolling was necessary to fund the crossings on the Severn, but what was so unfair about the Severn Bridges Act 1992 was that it introduced a concession so rigid and inflexible that the toll cannot be varied to help in difficult economic times without the taxpayer incurring liability. Any request to modernise the bridges receives the stock response that the Government cannot make any changes without extending the concessionary period even further or charging the taxpayer. The situation is unfair, because Severn River Crossing plc is fully compensated for any change that comes along, and it can whack the tolls up year after year in line with the 1992 Act. the Treasury is happy because it keeps the VAT and other tax income, and it quietly does well out of the bridges, but bridge users are stung time after time, and they have to pay more for longer.

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I called the debate because I want to articulate the real frustration that bridge users feel, and to ask the Minister explain openly where we are and what the Government are planning. We have learned over the years that information on the finances of the bridges is hard to come by. Mysterious debts spring up, and dates and figures regularly change. I hope that today offers us a chance to get some clarity. If anybody is in any doubt about the effect that the tolls continue to have on the economy, they need only hear what a business man said to me this week:

“the majority of business visitors comment within the first few minutes of a meeting about the toll, never positively, and people feel that it develops a negative impression of Wales-both from a business perspective, but also for those who may return as a potential tourist.”

If every meeting in the offices and factories of south Wales starts like that, something has to be done. It is time that the Government listened.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend share my bitter disappointment that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who demanded this week that the Severn bridges be nationalised, is not here to deliver his battle cry to build socialism in our time?

Jessica Morden: The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who is the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, is away. I know that he would have been here otherwise. We note with interest his conversion to the cause.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this extremely important debate. She mentioned the hidden costs; the UK Government dropped a bombshell on the Welsh Affairs Committee a year or so ago, when they said that there would be an outstanding debt at the end of the concessionary period, when the bridges returned to public ownership. There is no clarity about the sums involved or how long it will take to pay that debt. Does she share my concern that many of our constituents believe that the Treasury is using the bridges as a cash cow? Without clarity on the matter, the people of south Wales will feel that the Treasury is intent on fleecing motorists for the foreseeable future.

Jessica Morden: I strongly agree, and I will say much the same thing in my remarks. The Severn bridge tolls are the most expensive in the UK. It now costs £6.40 for a car to cross the bridge, £12.80 for a van, and £19.20 for a coach or lorry. By comparison, it costs just £1.50 for a car to cross the Humber bridge or £2 to use the Dartford crossing. However, the Dartford crossing is free to use between 10 pm and 6 am, and a scheme was recently launched under which local residents can pay just £20 a year to cross the bridge as often as they like. Those are both examples of the Government stepping in after local campaigns and helping long-suffering road users. If they can help businesses and residents in those areas, why can they not take decisive action to help in the case of the Severn bridges?

The tolls are a cost-of-living issue for my constituents, especially those who commute daily over the bridge, and the cost is a big burden for many businesses that operate out of south Wales. Constituents constantly tell

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