DfT pulls off ‘risky’ U-turn on Severn bridges

 

On Transport Network’s sister website, Highways, we reveal that Highways England has suffered a hit to its finances of around £45m after responsibility for the Severn Crossings was transferred to it without additional funding.

The issue seems to stem from a change of heart during the 2017 General Election campaign when a Government proposal to cut tolls on the two bridges and definitely not abolish them became a Conservative pledge to...well, abolish them.

As we have reported, tolls to use the original (M48) Severn Bridge and what is now the M4 Prince of Wales Bridge westbound, otherwise known as a ‘tax on entering Wales’, were abolished last month.

This became possible when the crossings came back under public control in January 2018 after toll income hit a financial target, allowing the Department for Transport (DfT) to forego the roughly £100m a year in revenue the tolls brought in.

However it gave Highways England no additional funding to maintain them until the end of Roads Period 1 in 2020.

While the abolition of tolls might at first seem to be not so much as a U-turn as a continuation of the same direction of travel, it’s worth looking back at the DfT’s January 2017 consultation on the proposed reduction of charges, which gave a number of reasons why abolition was not merely ‘not proposed’ but seemingly out of the question.

”Local

These included the stark statement that ‘this would put at risk the future of the Crossings’, not least because: ‘The reality is that given the size and complexity of these structures there will always be a cost to ensuring their safe operation.’

The document pointed out that ‘the Crossings cost approximately £15m each year to operate and maintain’ and that ‘Highways England estimate that likely resurfacing of the Severn Bridge after the end of the concession period will cost in the region of £12m’.

In addition: ‘The Government is also concerned that reduced tolls could result in increased traffic and congestion in areas surrounding the Crossings, both in Bristol and along the M4 in Wales, where there are already concerns about congestion levels. Reducing the tolls by 50% would allow us to assess the impact, on the Crossing and more generally, of increased traffic flows.’

Highways has calculated that the costs of maintaining and operating the bridges between January 2018 and March 2020 will be approximately £33m, plus at least £12m resurfacing costs, which could increase.

The DfT consultation document described the idea that the additional traffic caused but abolishing tolls could lead to increased economic growth and therefore higher tax revenues that could pay ongoing costs as an ‘an attractive theory’ but an uncertain one, warning that ‘the taxpayer could end up out of pocket, or the future of the Crossings could be put at risk’.

It continued: ‘For this reason, and in line with the Government’s longstanding policy that users of estuarial crossings should pay for their upkeep, the Government is not consulting on the complete removal of the tolls. Instead the Government believes it is better to put in place a more sure and sustainable plan that balances the needs of users and taxpayers and guarantees the continued running and upkeep of the Crossings.’

Users of estuarial crossings elsewhere, such as at Dartford or the Humber, who continue to pay for their upkeep have of course noticed. Last September, the Liverpool Echo observed: ‘With a date soon to be released for when South Wales' Severn Bridges tolls will be scrapped, many in the North West may wonder when their own infrastructure to cross the River Mersey will also be free of charge.’

On the other hand, users of the new Queensferry Crossing across the Forth get off Scot-free.

In addition, the DfT consultation stated: ‘During the course of the concession the Government incurred approximately £63m to cover the costs of fixing latent defects on the Severn Bridge and this money still needs to be recovered.’

While the DfT told Highways that the £63m was recovered, presumably from the near £100m income it received before tolls were abolished in December, Highways England has said that it remains committed to resurfacing the original bridge from its own pocket.

It will also have to fund ongoing maintenance from its 2015-2020 budget until it feels the benefit of an increased allocation for 2020-25 under the National Roads Fund.

Who would have thought such a thing possible? Not someone who read the DfT’s 2017 consultation.

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