The M4 toll scare

George Osborne deals a mortal blow to UK road tolls.

See, some people enjoy paying road tolls.

See, it’s possible to enjoy paying road tolls.

They say don’t believe what you read in the newspapers but even so, pity poor old Oliver Wright from the Independent. Despite protestations from the Transport secretary last week that road tolls were off the agenda, Mr Wright felt able to confidently assert on Monday that a new M4 relief road in Wales would be paid for by tolls.

However, the next day a Welsh government source told the BBC, ‘We have no plans to introduce tolls on any Welsh road.’

Then yesterday, Chancellor George Osborne – coincidentally on a visit to Wales – told reporters the story has been ‘misreported’, continuing, ‘It’s certainly never anything I’ve considered, so I was reading about it in the press and couldn’t work out where it had come from.’

This was surprising to hear considering how keen the new Commercial Secretary to the Treasury Lord Deighton is on road tolls.

And last November we mentioned in passing how Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones had actually called for toll roads in Wales in a speech to the London School of Economics.

For the avoidance of doubt we quote the relevant part in full:

‘The UK Government believes we require a revenue stream separate from the block grant before we can borrow. Tax devolution offers one potential way forward. But there is an additional, substantial, potential revenue stream, which flows from the row of toll booths on the Welsh side of the Severn Crossings.

At present, the Crossings are privately operated, and motorists are charged some £90 million in toll revenue to enter Wales each year; this revenue will grow as traffic flows increase. But in 2018 the current concessions will come to an end and the UK Government’s Department for Transport will determine what happens next about the tolls.

It would be politically unacceptable for the UK Government to levy tolls on the Crossings at anything close to the current rates beyond 2018; there would be a strong perception that drivers coming into Wales were continuing to be being charged for no obvious benefit when the bridges have been paid for. Such an outcome would be completely unacceptable.

Those of you who are familiar with Welsh history will be aware of the famous ‘Rebecca riots’ of the 19th century, when toll gates were attacked and burned by gangs of men dressed as women. Rest assured there is no danger of Rebecca’s sons and daughters taking a similar approach to the Severn Crossings, but surely the fair-minded motorist would view the situation I have described as an injustice.

We need a different way forward. I believe there is a very strong case for replacing the tolls from 2018 with a new road user charge. The revenues from this charge would help to improve the M4 in south Wales, with benefits accruing to the economy of both Wales and the south west of England. The road user charge would provide a source of income against which the Welsh Government could borrow and thus spread the upfront costs of the investment over a much longer period. This proposal offers a route to devolving borrowing powers swiftly and delivering economic benefits to the UK. And, Rebecca, I’m sure, would approve.’ (read the whole speech here)

True or not, the M4 toll scare had the clear ring of plausibility. But by backing off so quickly and so definitively, you have to say Osborne has done the idea of road user charging lasting if not terminal damage. So where does that leave Lord Deighton? More particularly, where does it leave the government’s plans to build, finance and maintain the roads?

At least we won’t have to write about it anymore.

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