Denise Lovering asks how long we will have to pay more than £76 million a year to cross into England
As a Director of Glenside Commercials, a Caerphilly-based commercial vehicle maintenance company, I have been lobbying to get the tolls on the Severn reduced for quite some time. I have attended countless meetings with AMs and MPs trying to get their to support for an inquiry into the impact of the tolls on the Welsh economy, with a view to reducing them. I have also spoken to transport managers and fleet operators, one of whom pays a staggering £200,000 every year in tolls. Everyone agrees that ‘Something should be done’, but what?
The transport sector may not a very ‘sexy’ place to work, but it is a necessary one. We all want fresh fruit, meat and fish in our supermarkets and shops. We want to be able to buy latest fashions (well some do) and want to be able to go out on a Sunday to buy furniture, screw drivers, paint, bedding plants, charcoal and even loo roll (when the dog has grabbed the last one and thinks it’s amusing to chew it up!).
All these things, with a few exceptions, are delivered by road, by the trucks seen as a menace on our roads, and by drivers who work through the night to get our goods to market in other countries. The problems lie not with the trucks or the drivers – although we all have stories about the one that ‘drove like a lunatic’ – but with the road infrastructure they have to drive on.
Of the 33 million or so vehicles registered on our roads, only 460,000 are commercial vehicles.
Take the M4, for instance. Part of the strategic road network of the UK, it was designed to be a road link between Ireland and Europe, as well as giving the people of Wales and the South West easier access to London and the South. The part that runs through Newport does not conform to current motorway standards. It lacks a continuous hard shoulder, has some junctions that are too close together and, worst of all, has a restricted two-lane section through the Brynglas Tunnels with no escape route.
Hopes were raised in the 1990s when work started into the feasibility of an M4 Relief Road. The transport sector in particular held its breath. Yes it would probably be tolled, but they were used to paying tolls. It would ease congestion, improve driving times and in general make travelling easier for all users. And so we all waited. Then, last year, after spending approx £15 million on feasibility studies, the Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones announced there would be no M4 relief road, it would cost too much money.
Yet we simply cannot do without the M4 which is vital to the Welsh economy. The proposed alternative will be a patchwork of roads and roundabouts called the M4 Magor to Castleton Corridor Enhancement, and we will have to endure possibly another four years of road works. By then the traffic flow will have increased again and we will still have to find a solution to the congestion and frustration that the M4 relief road would have helped to solve.
A number of AMs and MPs have repeatedly shrugged me off. The Severn tolls issue was not a ‘devolved’ and I should take it up with the Westminster Government. The former Transport Minister there, Sadiq Khan, wrote to me saying that he couldn’t do anything, as an Act of Parliament governed the tolls. It was like riding on the Magic Roundabout!
Together with a colleague from the Freight Transport Association, I attended a meeting in the Senedd organised by Mike (now Lord) German, a Welsh Liberal Democrat who has long been an advocate of reducing or freezing the tolls. Meeting the Deputy First Minister we gave our case for a reduction in the tolls and again he reminded us that the tolls were not an issue for the Welsh Government.
But I asked him why can’t the Welsh Government work together with the Wales Office and other Whitehall departments to produce a joined-up response, something that will help all the businesses and people in Wales, the people who pay the bulk of some £77.6 million every year in tolls. We asked for an inquiry, along the lines of the Buchanan Report into the Humber Tolls, to find out the impact of the tolls on the economy of Wales. After listening to all we had to say, he said that he would consult with his team and get back to us.
Imagine my utter astonishment and delight when I have received a letter from Ieuan Wyn Jones confirming that, after due consideration, he has agreed to a study into the economic impact of the tolls on the Severn Crossings. This will be undertaken by the Economic Research Advisory Panel.
There is still a long way to go, but this is a start. The traffic on our roads is not getting any less. Improvements to the rail network are years away and without proper facilities for access for vehicles, moving freight onto rail is a long, long way off.