Thursday 8 November 2012

End, stick, wrong

A report commissioned by the Welsh Government suggested that scrapping the tolls would be worth £107m a year to the Welsh economy.  The response of the First Minister has been to demand that the tolls from the Severn bridges should be redirected to Wales once the bridges revert to public ownership.  I’m struggling a little to understand the logical process which got him from the one to the other.
There is a good – albeit highly unpopular - argument for road tolls on environmental grounds, as a deterrent to the use of road transportation, whether for people or for goods.  There’s also a logical argument for tolls on the basis that people should pay for the public services they use at the point of use rather than through taxation, although it’s not a view with which I agree. 
I have never, though, understood the principle behind charging only for those bits of road which happen to go over bridges or through tunnels.  Certainly, bridges and tunnels can be more expensive to construct than nice straight bits of road on flat land, but they’re pretty much useless without those roads leading to them. Certainly, the bridges will continue to need maintenance once they are in public ownership, but then, so will the rest of the motorways of which they form a part.  Considering them other than as an integral part of the whole route seems to be an odd way of looking at them.
I’m also confused by the arguments put forward by the First Minister in justification for the tolls being diverted to Wales.  He seems to be arguing that tolls should be reduced to the level necessary to maintain the bridges, but that if it was paid to the UK Government, that money would then be perceived as being used to fund Department for Transport funding in England.  That's more an argument about whether we trust the people setting the tolls than it is for who should get the lolly. 
If the tolls are set at no more than the level required for maintenance (assuming that one can justify that logic for tolls in the first place), and if whichever government receives the tolls is also responsible for the maintenance, then does it make any difference at all which government that should be?  It makes sense only if government is actually planning to set the tolls higher than the level required for maintenance and use the cash for something else - which seems to be as much part of the planning of the Welsh Government as it does of the UK Government.  It’s a plan for a backdoor tax; but there is no more logic in that backdoor tax belonging exclusively to Wales than there is in it belonging exclusively to England.
The Western Mail’s editorial used an analogy with a castle, saying that “just as it would be ludicrous for the occupants of a castle not to have control of a drawbridge, so it makes sense that the Welsh Government should have a strong say on the future of the Severn Crossing”.  It’s not an analogy that worked terribly well for me – the point about a drawbridge is that it’s as much a barrier as it is a conduit.  In the case of a castle drawbridge the castle's occupants are hardly likely to want to share control of that drawbridge with those outside the castle walls.  (And who decides which side of the estuary is the castle?)
What Wales needs is good unhindered access to markets, on the same financial (i.e. toll) basis as the South West of England, rather than the highly uneven playing field which bridge tolls have created.  What we don’t need is politicians and parties squabbling over who should get the profit from restricting that access.


Glyndo said...

I am also confused by the FM's logic. As all bridges have two ends, England has much claim to the bridges as Wales. Indeed in one case both ends are in England.

Unknown said...

Glyndo - the fm himself is notably confused by his own 'logic' - so don't spend any time on it.

G Horton-Jones said...

Glyndo is right
The original crossing is in England
One can argue that its construction day to day maintenance and indeed ultimate dismantling costs have nothing to do with us here in Wales
The Second Crossing and the Severn Tunnel are shared. Mind you I dont think any one has agreed where if at all the boundary between Wales and England lies in the ?? middle?? of the Severn estuary
Perhaps the FM like me believes The Severn river to be the real boundary between our countries not the current cartographical line