Minister dashes Severn Bridges tolls cut hope

Motorists who assumed the return of the Severn Bridges to public ownership would mean a cut in the tolls can dream on.

UK Transport Minister Stephen Hammond told MPs that although the current concession with a private company will finish at the end of 2018 drivers shouldn't expect to pay less than they currently do (£6 for cars).

Mr Hammond said: "The government still has its own debts to recover from the building and maintaining of the crossing and even at the time of handover that is going to amount to several hundred million."

Some of that reflected the cost of construction; some of it maintenance. He estimated that repayment of the debt would take until the early or mid 2020s.

The return to public ownership may mean that VAT will no longer be payable - but don't expect a reduction in the price you pay.

Mr Hammond told the Welsh affairs select committee: "In terms of the VAT I think it unlikely that the prices will drop because there may be other factors why prices may move and the removal of the VAT may just be able to absorb some of the other pricing pressures.

"I'm not anticipating on the removal of the concession you'll see a drop in the price."

This surprised the committee chairman, David TC Davies (who happens to be the MP for Monmouth) who thought a toll of around £1.50 per driver would cover the maintenance cost.

"Is it forever going to be used as a cash cow?" he complained. "I think people feel angry in Wales about the cost that they currently pay but some of that anger might be alleviated if they knew there was some end in sight and it doesn't look as if you're able to give us that end."

Mr Hammond confirmed that was the case. If Mr Davies wants re-assurance for his constituents perhaps he should ask the Chancellor to give evidence to the committee. It is less than a year since he promised to look at the cost of using the bridges.

Or he could look at his own party's manifesto for the 2011 National Assembly for Wales elections, which promised to:

"Commission a study into the economic effect of bridge tolls in Wales and options to reduce or remove tolls. We will freeze the Severn bridge tolls for cars at their present level."

The committee concluded, leaving Mr Davies time to join other MPs in the chamber to hear the Home Secretary's statement on extradition. This is how Hansard records events:

Mr Speaker: "I call Mr David Davis."

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con) rose—

David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con) rose—

Mr Speaker: "Order. We will hear from Top Cat in a moment, not just yet. I should have explained. Mr David Davis—he with the slightly greyer hair and the longer service in the House."

The honourable member for Monmouth (his close friends get to call him TC) duly deferred to the other DD, whose hair is indeed slightly greyer even if his service was briefly interrupted four years ago by his resignation to force a by-election on the issue of civil liberties.