HC Deb 02 March 1994 vol 238 cc946-7 3.38 pm
Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend sections 9 and 10 of the Severn Bridges Act 1992. The Bill would freeze tolls on the Severn bridge at the January 1994 level. An observer standing on the English side of the Severn crossing will quickly notice that traffic going out of Wales moves freely, motoring as it should, whereas vehicles going in the opposite direction grind to a halt, belching out their fumes while drivers queue up to pay their tolls for the privilege of entering Wales.

I am reminded of the words of the Welsh poet Harri Webb, who said: Two lands by a span connected By a bridge o'er the waters wide And all the tolls collected Are on the English side. Hardly a day goes by when I do not receive a protest about this iniquitous system. The Severn crossing is merely a short stretch of the M4 motorway and there is an increasing tendency for traffic entering Wales, especially heavy lorries, to divert around Gloucester and thereby avoid toll charges.

In a letter to me dated 7 February, Mr. Richard Wigginton, the Gloucester county surveyor, mentioned the results of surveys that he had conducted from April 1992, when tolls began to be collected only for entry into Wales. The latest monitoring report of September 1993 shows that, on the A40 west of the Highnam roundabout, there has been a 59 per cent. increase in lorries travelling into Wales, compared with a 33 per cent. increase in traffic travelling in the opposite direction.

Similar trends are occurring on the A48 and on the A4136. Mr. Wigginton states that the issue has a very high profile in Gloucester. The effects of heavy lorries chugging through Gloucestershire villages can be readily understood.

Mr. M.S. Owen, the Gwent county surveyor, has complained of what he calls severance problems in Chepstow— people being unable to cross the road because of heavy traffic that is diverting from the Severn bridge.

The monitoring of traffic bears out the findings of the influential Lex report, which was published on 19 January 1994. The report shows that most drivers feel that they should not have to pay motorway tolls, and they divert accordingly.

The difficult position has been aggravated by the decision that Severn River Crossing plc took about six months ago to end the concession agreement for bulk ticket discounts. An electronic tag system has been introduced that requires substantial payments up front of more than £200 per account and £30 per vehicle. Mr. Brian Colley, director general of the Road Haulage Association, said in a letter dated 30 October 1993 that the company did not initiate any consultative discussions about the new arrangements. The system enables the company to bypass the Severn Bridges Act 1992 and to increase substantially its income in the process.

Mr. John Whitehead, the local secretary of Transport 2000, volunteers the suggestion that the arbitrary ending of the concession agreement is directly linked to the loss of revenue due to heavy goods vehicles travelling into Wales via Gloucester. He said that a more equitable arrangement would have been to wipe out the £120 million debt on the existing bridge. After all, it is only a notional figure on the consolidated fund and no bank charges are involved.

Mr. Brian Colley compares the actions of the Severn Bridge River Crossing company with arrangements for the Dartford crossing, where there is no tag charge, tags are interchangeable, and there is a substantial discount of 7.5 per cent. for tag holders. Why is there that discrimination against Wales?

For toll purposes, there are three categories of vehicle. Lorries coming into Wales pay £10.10. A lorry coming to unload a ship in Newport docks would pay that toll, yet if the same lorry crossed the Clifton bridge into Avonmouth docks it would pay nothing. That is another illustration of discrimination against Wales.

The second category of toll is £6.80 for a small van. That charge is punitive for small business enterprises. A plumber or an electrician may need to cross the river two or three times a day, and that exorbitant cost is a disincentive to enterprise.

The third category is £3.40, for a car. Some years ago when Lord Tebbit was a Member of the House he urged people who were out of work to get on their bikes. Many redundant steelworkers in south Wales have followed his advice and secured employment in Avonmouth. But for showing a bit of initiative they are charged £3.40 per day on top of their normal motoring costs. All those charges increase annually at well above the rate of inflation, and even the right to a public inquiry to contest the increases has now been arbitrarily withdrawn under the Severn Bridges Act.

Tourism must be affected on both sides of the channel. After all, in economic terms everything is decided at the margin. The burghers of Bristol, too, must be concerned about the hundreds of Welsh people who, because of those iniquitous tolls, no longer cross the channel on shopping expeditions. In that context, I am glad that my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, East (Ms Corston) and for Kingswood (Dr. Berry) have agreed to be sponsors of the Bill.

Why should south Wales be discriminated against in that way? We have to compete for new jobs with towns and cities in England, and all we ask for is a level playing field. My Bill will be a step towards ending that discrimination, and I appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House to give it full backing.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roy Hughes, Mr. Paul Murphy, Mr. Win Griffiths, Ms Jean Corston, Dr. Roger Berry, Mrs. Ann Clwyd, Mr. Alan W. Williams and Mr. Ray Powell.