Monday 5 January 2015

Another year, another toll increase

This year’s increase in the tolls to cross the Severn bridges is less than it has been in some previous years, but it’s still an increase.  And it remains a deterrent to economic growth in Wales.  There is, as the Lib Dems have been quick to point out, now only one of the four parties in Wales which calls for outright abolition of the tolls; the other three all seem to support retention of the tolls in one form or another.
It wasn’t always that way, of course.  I can remember Plaid conferences in the 1970s and 1980s where members fulminated against the iniquity of the tolls and, whilst I can’t immediately lay my hands on them, I’m pretty certain that strongly worded motions were passed demanding the immediate abolition of the tolls.  I’m not sure how that policy was changed, but I remember when it was changed.  It was November 2010; and the first that I knew of the new policy was when I read about it in the Western Mail. 
As I blogged at the time, it was one of a number of ‘four legs good, two legs better’ moments which occurred during the One Wales period; overnight, the party went from believing that the tolls were an unfair imposition on the Welsh economy to believing that they were a jolly good way of raising money to invest in other infrastructure in Wales.  I’m not sure whether this year’s policy announcement is the same policy or not; there certainly seems to be less emphasis on using the tolls to raise extra money to pay for other things than there was in 2010.
There’s nothing wrong with changing policy per se – as Keynes said, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions”.  I was just never clear what the changed information was, other than the party becoming part of the Welsh Government.  I have no real confidence that a similar change in circumstances wouldn’t lead to a similar change in policy by the Lib Dems as well – it’s not as if they don’t have form on that…
The real issue though isn’t about point-scoring or the policy gyrations of politicians, it’s about whether we should be paying tolls or not.  And it seems to me that the answer to that should really depend on the nature of the Welsh economy – as it is, and as we want it to be.
If the Welsh economy were a largely self-sufficient and highly localised economy, as I’d like it to be, then there would be a good case for a comprehensive system of tolls across all Welsh trunk roads on environmental grounds.  It wouldn’t be a particularly popular policy, but discouraging long distance road transport, whether of goods or of people, would help to build a more sustainable economy in Wales.
On the other hand, if the Welsh economy is a peripheral economy, at the end of a long distribution chain, then an extra charge to travel the roads at what would be seen as the “far end” is inevitably going to be an economic barrier, which will encourage those businesses which have a choice as to where they site their premises to be on the ‘right’ side of the toll barrier.
It hardly takes a great deal of analysis to decide which of those scenarios is the more accurate in looking at the Welsh economy as it is today; and whilst some politicians might have aspirations to move from one to the other, there is no real plan or route map for doing so; nor any prospect of it actually happening in the foreseeable future.  And without such a plan, continuing to charge tolls on a key pinch point will continue to militate against the economic interests of Wales. 

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