‘Cut­ting Sev­ern tolls can power new busi­ness boom with Bris­tol’

Western Mail - - FRONT PAGE - David Wil­liamson Po­lit­i­cal edi­tor david.wil­liamson@waleson­line.co.uk

THE cut in the Sev­ern Cross­ing tolls ahead of the scrap­ping of the charges by the end of next year is an op­por­tu­nity for a new era of co-op­er­a­tion be­tween the cities of south Wales and Bris­tol, ac­cord­ing to Welsh Sec­re­tary Alun Cairns.

The charge for cars is due to fall from £6.70 to £5.60 on Jan­uary 8, be­fore be­ing scrapped al­to­gether by the end of the year.

Chan­cel­lor Ge­orge Os­borne had said in his 2016 Bud­get that the tolls would be halved in 2018, but in July it was an­nounced that the tolls would be scrapped en­tirely next year.

Mr Cairns said: “[We said] we would re­move the VAT as soon as it comes back to pub­lic own­er­ship and halve the tolls as soon as the debt has been re­paid. This is a com­mit­ment that goes much fur­ther, that we re­move the VAT as soon as it comes into pub­lic own­er­ship and abol­ish the tolls by the end of the year.”

The Vale of Glam­or­gan MP wants to

see rail im­prove­ments be­tween Bris­tol and South Wales and ar­gues there is the po­ten­tial for col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween cy­ber­se­cu­rity com­pa­nies and the cre­ation of “one of the big­gest dig­i­tal econ­omy clus­ters in Europe, out­side of Lon­don”.

He said: “Bris­tol is the most pros­per­ous city in Eng­land and Wales out­side of Lon­don and it is so im­por­tant that we draw as much ben­e­fit from that and con­trib­ute as much as we can from the UK econ­omy.”

High­light­ing the need for ac­tion to deal with the ex­pected in­crease in traf­fic around New­port, where there are reg­u­lar traf­fic jams, he said: “There is no doubt that the wel­come re­duc­tion in Jan­uary in tolls will have an im­pact on traf­fic flows. Three years will have passed in Novem­ber since the money has been avail­able to Welsh Gov­ern­ment to build a new road around New­port.

“We’ve been frus­trated by the lack of progress but pleased that steps have fi­nally been taken to al­le­vi­ate that.”

With Wales mark­ing 20 years since the de­vo­lu­tion ref­er­en­dum which paved the way for the cre­ation of the As­sem­bly, for­mer Con­ser­va­tive AM Mr Cairns pressed for the As­sem­bly to de­volve pow­ers to other parts of Wales.

He said: “A pol­icy that suits Cardiff might be very dif­fer­ent to a pol­icy need for Wrex­ham.”

Ar­gu­ing that the rise of elected may­ors in Eng­land means Welsh towns and cities may face greater com­pe­ti­tion for in­vest­ment, he said: “We will have on our doorstep strong metro may­ors mar­ket­ing their ar­eas, at­tract­ing in­vest­ment, and this is a com­pe­ti­tion that we haven’t had pre­vi­ously.

“There­fore, Cardiff, New­port, Swansea, Wrex­ham, Llan­dudno and other parts of Wales also need the pow­ers to be able to mar­ket them­selves to com­pete with the new dy­namic that’s on their doorstep.”

The UK Gov­ern­ment came un­der fire this year when the planned elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of the Great West­ern main line from Cardiff to Swansea was can­celled.

How­ever, Mr Cairns ar­gues there is no need to re­con­sider the de­ci­sion, stat­ing: “The ad­vances in train tech­nol­ogy mean that I can now take the fastest, most mod­ern trains fur­ther west to Car­marthen and be­yond whereas an elec­tric-only train on a fixed line to Swansea would not ben­e­fit West Wales one iota .... So there is no case to re­assess the Cardiff to Swansea line at all.”

The UK Gov­ern­ment has also come un­der pres­sure to re­spond to back the Swansea Bay tidal la­goon, fol­low­ing the pub­li­ca­tion of an in­de­pen­dent re­view in Jan­uary which sup­ported the pro­ject.

Mr Cairns said: “This is quite a dy­namic en­vi­ron­ment. Only this week we have seen the costs of re­new­able en­ergy plum­met and there­fore de­ci­sions will be taken on the ba­sis of the lat­est ev­i­dence that is avail­able...

“I’ve been a strong sup­porter of the la­goon. I would like it to hap­pen but only if it’s value for money and I don’t think any­body in Wales should want it to hap­pen if it’s poor value for money.”

THE scrap­ping of the Sev­ern tolls will bring re­lief to any­one who reg­u­larly has rea­son to make the cross­ing be­tween Wales and Eng­land – but the longterm im­pact could be pro­found.

The pun­ish­ing charge on en­ter­ing Wales has for years steadily ac­cen­tu­ated the sense of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tance be­tween this na­tion and Bris­tol and the south­west of Eng­land.

The driv­ing dis­tance be­tween Cardiff and Bris­tol is 45 miles – just roughly five miles more than be­tween the Welsh cap­i­tal and Swansea – but cul­tur­ally, po­lit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally it can seem much fur­ther away.

One of the up­sides of de­vo­lu­tion is that Welsh busi­nesses, char­i­ties and in­sti­tu­tions have forged closer links with one an­other. There are count­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for net­work­ing and the cre­ation of the As­sem­bly en­sures that politi­cians from every part of Wales hear about the suc­cess sto­ries and the chal­lenges of every part of the na­tion.

The Wales Of­fice hopes that the end­ing of the Sev­ern tolls will lead to a new era of co­op­er­a­tion with the south­west of Eng­land. A re­cent as­sess­ment val­ued the Bris­tol econ­omy at £13.6bn.

The eco­nomic dy­namism of Bris­tol is demon­strated in the value of ex­ports per job. In Bris­tol in 2014 it stood at £11,390 while in Cardiff it was £9,420.

There were nearly 35 patent ap­pli­ca­tions per 100,000 peo­ple in Bris­tol in 2015, while in Cardiff the fig­ure was 16.81. The city is home to knowl­edge-in­ten­sive busi­nesses and has a cul­ture of in­no­va­tion.

South Wales has def­i­nite strengths in the cre­ative in­dus­tries and the au­to­mo­tive and de­fence sec­tors, and there are hubs of world class ex­cel­lence in our uni­ver­si­ties. Op­por­tu­ni­ties to join forces with busi­nesses and in­sti­tu­tions in the south­west should not be missed.

It will take years for the legacy of the tolls to be re­moved. The charges have damp­ened en­tre­pre­neur­ial in­stincts and held back the pros­per­ity of lo­cal busi­nesses. But we can hope that the ab­sence of this tax on travel will lead to a free flow of ideas and the swift de­vel­op­ment of the friend­ships that power joint ad­ven­tures in com­merce, cul­ture and academia and be­yond.

The string of cities along the M4 should push one an­other for­ward.

The ex­pan­sion of Heathrow, and the pro­posed rail link be­tween the air­port and the Great West­ern line, has the po­ten­tial to give each of these cities a greater in­ter­na­tional pres­ence.

Many peo­ple will re­gret that rail elec­tri­fi­ca­tion will stop at Cardiff but there are hopes that the new bi­modal trains will al­low new ser­vices to west Wales, and it is es­sen­tial that it gets eas­ier for peo­ple in Car­marthen and the West to reach these eco­nomic pow­er­houses.

Bet­ter links with English cities in no way di­lutes Welsh iden­tity.

Rather, richer op­por­tu­ni­ties in busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tion can only strengthen the skills and the con­fi­dence of our work­force and give us real hope that well-paid jobs and the eco­nomic re­newal of com­mu­ni­ties is truly on the way. The re­cy­cled pa­per con­tent of UK news­pa­pers in 2016 was 62.8%

Ben Bir­chall

> Sec­re­tary of State for Wales Alun Cairns at the Sev­ern Bridge view­ing point in Aust yes­ter­day

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