For 22 years, I’ve had to put up with the Severn Bridge and its toll.
For those of us who live on the western side of either of the two bridges that cross the eponymous estuary, we learned first to grin, then to bear and finally to grimly accept our fate. Which is that every single time someone comes to visit us for the first time, they make a crack about why one has to pay to enter Wales when it would be far more effective if people were forced to pay to get out. Staggeringly, they all think they are the first to have thought of it. And the most galling thing of all? I don’t even live in bloody Wales.
You may know by now that the tolls on both bridges (the newer of the two is technically the Second Severn Crossing) will be abolished at the end of next year when, just over half a century after the first was built, the bridges pass back into public ownership.
Round here, we are largely jumping for joy. Although unquantified, the benefit both to the local economy and to that of the whole of Wales will likely be enormous. For Cardiff, Swansea and any other city, town or village located to the M4 corridor, the effects will likely be hugely significant. Everyone will benefit, from the haulier whose trucks have to pay £20 every time they cross the water, to the person who lives in Chepstow and would love to work in Bristol but is put off by the bridge toll. The maths is simple: it costs £6.70 for each return trip by a private car and, if you do that five days a week for 48 weeks a year, it will cost you £1608 of net income. There is a season ticket but it can’t be transferred between cars and will save you a mere £22 each year.
Unless my maths is very wrong (entirely possible), it seems to me that lifting the toll will have the effect of giving a two-grand pay rise to a basic-rate tax payer who has to use the bridge daily for commuting purposes; think how long that would take to achieve through conventional above-inflation pay rises.
Of course, the advantages cut both ways: for everyone who is tempted from England to Wales to work, to live or to so much as buy a cup of tea and a bun in a local coffee shop, so too is it possible that there will be someone else who’ll do the reverse and spend their money in England, not Wales. But at least they’ll have the choice and I know of no one around here who doesn’t think Wales will be the net gainer from the forthcoming arrangement or, I should say, lack thereof.
There’s another factor too, which is less easy to quantify, but I believe no less important. Just knowing there’s a toll to pay creates an important psychological barrier and therefore a powerful deterrent not to go. Remove that and I think people will come across the border in unprecedented numbers even if, like me, they do so only to slip back into that significant chunk of England that lies to the west of the Severn.
But there is another side to all this. Just because the Government now owns the bridges doesn’t mean they’re suddenly no longer going to need maintaining. They’ll cost as much as ever to run, probably more with the increase in traffic they’re likely to see. And there’s no magic money tree; it will all have to be paid for somehow and in future largely from the pockets of taxpayers who derive no benefit from the bridges at all. At least the current system ensures that it’s paid for only by those who use them and in direct proportion to the amount they are used. Then again, if you take that view, you’d presumably also support people lucky enough to enjoy good health not contributing to the NHS or those rich enough to educate their children privately not paying into the state school system. And where would be then?
In short, the decision to transfer the costs of running the bridges from those who use them to all tax payers is demonstrably unfair. I’m all for it.