Severn Crossings Toll

Written evidence from National Alliance Against Tolls (SCT 01)

Introduction

 

1. The National Alliance Against Tolls is a loose alliance formed in 2004 by local groups protesting against tolls in England, Scotland and Wales. The group in Wales that formed part of our alliance in 2004 was the "Campaign Against the Severn Tolls. In September 2010 we made a submission to the Committee’s Inquiry into the Severn tolls, and in November 2010 we made a supplementary submission.

2. Our view is that the tolls should be removed as soon as possible for the reasons that we gave in 2010. In the Committee’s report (Third of Session 2010-11) it was clear that the Committee did not agree with our views though the Committee did suggest that when the concession ends "the current tolling prices should be reduced and concessions for those who depend on the crossing for their livelihood could be introduced."

3. We have seen the Committee’s Report on "Crossing the Border: road and rail links between England and Wales" published on 6th March which said that "We renew our call for tolls on the Severn Crossings to be reduced when the Concession ends in 2018." We have also seen the Government’s response published on the 22nd May.

4. The general understanding used to be that the tolls on any road or crossing would ultimately be removed. If Governments and authorities had not followed that practice there would still be Turnpike Trusts and about 30,000 miles of tolled roads and many hundreds of tolled crossings. Over the last few decades, Governments and authorities have adopted a position where they want more tolls and don’t want to give up any existing tolls. The most obvious example of this has been the Dartford Crossing where the tolls should have ended ten years ago but have been extended and increased using powers under the Transport Act 2000 (powers which were increased in the Local Transport Act 2008). Exceptions to this tolls policy are Northern Ireland which has not had tolls for many years and Scotland where the last toll was removed five years ago.

5. Ii is evident that the UK Government have no intention of ever removing the tolls on the Severn Crossing, though there still is some point under the present law when that must happen even if the tolls are immediately replaced by tolls using the Transport Act powers.

The End of the Concession

6. The date when this invisible transition from tolls to tolls is expected to happen is apparently some time around 2018 which is the year when it is forecast that the Company that runs the concession will have collected their billion pounds or so (the Concession was not for a fixed period). As we pointed out in 2010, the Concession would have ended by about now, but following a European Court ruling the then Government introduced VAT from February 2003 on privately operated tolls. For most of those crossings a scheme was introduced to reimburse the VAT. A notable exception was the Severn Crossings, where instead of reimbursing the Company, the Government decided to keep the VAT; this meant that the Concession had in effect been extended. We have not got the figures available to do a precise calculation but estimate that for the period from 2003 to 2018, the Government will have pocketed £150 to 200 million in VAT. Perhaps the Committee could ask the Minister for a more accurate figure.

7. The Seven Bridge Acts does allow the tolls to be operated by the Government for a short time after the Concession ends. In part this is to recover any costs that the Government claim that they have had to pay rather than the Company. We note that the Government say that this amount is currently expected to be around £88 million. By 2018, 2019 this amount could probably be collected in about 12 months. Though this is of course just playing with figures, the £88 million might as well be Monopoly Money as it includes things like the "pre 1992 deficit" and of course it ignores the VAT windfall that was not expected when the Severn Bridge Acts were passed. And given that the Government takes one billion pounds EVERY week from drivers and has no intention of giving up a single penny from the tolls, it hardly seems to matter what figure the Government say is owed them.


Reducing the Tolls

8. The Committee seems to be operating on the assumption that when 2018 or some other arbitrary date is reached then the tolls could be cut and this would have a major benefit to the economy. That is so, but the benefits of say halving tolls are nowhere near half the benefit of removing them. This is partly because tolls have a psychological impact which deters drivers no matter what the level of tolls. A recent illustration of this is the Humber Crossing where amazingly the Government wrote off a large part of the debt (albeit that it was only a paper debt) enabling the tolls (which had been at about the same level as the Severn tolls) to be halved from April 2012. This reduction was certainly most welcome, but the effect on traffic of this, as it were 50% off offer, has been a lot less than forecast. The annual traffic increased from 6.44 million to 6.95 million.

9. The other effect of not removing tolls is of course you still have the cost of collecting them and the increased accident risks that are associated with tolls particularly where they cause queuing such as at Dartford. Perhaps the Committee could raise with the Minister what is the annual cost of toll collection on the Severn Crossing and what assessment has been made of accidents at the Severn Crossing caused by the usual problems at tolls.

May 2013

Prepared 26th June 2013