‘Cutting Severn tolls can power new business boom with Bristol’
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%
> Secretary of State for Wales Alun Cairns at the Severn Bridge viewing point in Aust yesterday