Severn tolls to be axed earlier than planned on 17 December

Image caption,
The tolls were reduced in January after the Severn crossings returned to public ownership

The tolls on the two Severn crossings will be scrapped a week before Christmas Eve, earlier than planned.

Charges on the bridges were scheduled to be axed by 31 December but Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns confirmed they will be lifted on 17 December.

Tolls, currently £5.60 for cars, have been in place since the original Severn bridge was opened in 1966.

Mr Cairns made the announcement at the Tory party conference in Birmingham.

"The principle of paying to come in to Wales is something that has irritated us for 50 years," he told BBC Radio Wales.

The toll on the M4 and M48 bridges - that link south Wales and south west England - was initially reduced on New Year's Day in 2018 after they returned to public ownership as the UK government removed VAT on their take-over.

Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones called for the toll, which is worth up to £10m a month for the government, to be scrapped straight away on 1 January 2018.

But the Department for Transport said the fees collected in 2018 would help pay to phase out tolling and pay towards the estimated annual maintenance and operational cost bill of £15m.

Media caption,
BBC archive: the day the Severn Bridge opened 50 years ago

It has been estimated by the Welsh Government that the ultimate abolition of the charges - paid as drivers head westbound into Wales - will benefit the Welsh economy by about £100m a year.

About 25 million journeys a year are made across the two bridges and daily users of the crossings could save about £1,400 a year once the toll has been removed.

But there are concerns that removing the tolls will increase congestion.

"If you work or live in Flintshire or Cheshire, you cross the border seamlessly and it creates a much stronger north east Wales and a much stronger north west of England," said Mr Cairns.

"I want the same benefits for south Wales.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Charges on the two Severn bridges apply only to westbound traffic

"One modest haulier in Magor who used to pay £20 for every lorry that passed over the bridge, that was half a million pound on the bottom line of their operation just because they were in Wales."

Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards said in September that Mr Cairns' "Western powerhouse" plan to strengthen economic links between South Wales and South West England showed his disdain for Wales.

Mr Cairns responded by calling Mr Edwards "anti-English". Mr Edwards demanded a retraction.

The Queen opened the £8m first bridge in 1966 while the second bridge, built three miles downstream across the Severn Estuary, was financed by a private consortium set up in 1992.

The newest bridge, opened in 1996, cost £332m to construct but the eventual repayments including debt repayments, interest and tax totalled more than £1.3bn.

Severn River Crossing's 180 staff were transferred to UK government agency Highways England on 1 January 2018 but with tolls set to be scrapped, 115 jobs are at risk.

The 60-strong maintenance team is expected to continue.