Climate change: M4 drivers asked for views on tolls for older cars

By Cemlyn Davies
BBC Wales political reporter

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A470 PontypriddImage source, Getty Images
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The A470 around Pontypridd is one of the locations suggested for a toll

The idea of tolls for some drivers on two of Wales' busiest stretches of road has been raised by Welsh government.

It asked for the public's views in a survey about some motorists paying to use parts of the M4 motorway and A470 in a bid to tackle air pollution.

The survey asked for views on tolls for older cars on the M4 around Newport, Wales' busiest stretch of motorway, and the A470 around Pontypridd.

But the survey said a "clean air zone" is not proposed "at this stage".

An air pollution expert said any suggestion would be unlike any other air pollution measure in the UK, which normally charges motorists for driving into cities rather on stretches of road.

The Welsh government has declared a climate emergency and has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The government survey asked drivers if their commuting or travelling habits would change if some vehicles had to pay to use those stretches of road.

The survey discussed a toll for petrol cars registered before 2006 and diesels plated before September 2015.

It suggested a charge from January 2023 for the M4 between junctions 25 and 26 through the congestion pinch point at the Brynglas Tunnels in Newport and between Pontypridd and Upper Boat on the A470 in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

While it costs to cross some bridges or use some tunnels in the UK, the only toll road is the M6 toll road north of Birmingham which was built to alleviate traffic congestion on motorways in the West Midlands.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The proposed charge would affect traffic through the Brynglas tunnels - a notoriously busy stretch of the M4

A clean air zone is already in place in Birmingham, while London has a similar ultra low emission zone scheme.

Toll prices could range between £3 to £12.50

Respondents to the Welsh government survey on a possible clean air toll were presented with pricing options ranging from £3 to £8 for cars and from £6 to £12.50 for light goods vehicles.

It asked if drivers would switch to public transport, change destination or route, pay the charge, switch cars or not travel at all.

Non-exempt heavy goods vehicle drivers have been asked for their response to a charge of £50.

The survey explained if such a charge was to be implemented, it would be a "single charge applied on a daily basis".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The M4 around Newport is the busiest stretch of road in Wales

Speed limits of 50mph (80km/h) are already in place on the two roads in an effort to tackle air pollution.

'Improve air quality to protect the health of people'

Respondents were told that pollution levels at the two areas under discussion were above legal limits, so the Welsh government "has been assessing potential solutions and packages of measures to improve air quality and protect the health of people".

"This work is necessary as the Welsh government are legally required to improve air quality and reduce harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide in the shortest possible time and whilst at this stage a clean air zone is not proposed at these locations, all potential options must be developed should they be required in the future," the survey added.

'Different from other UK clean air zones'

Air pollution expert Dr Jordan White of Earthsense said a suggestion to put a clean air or low emissions charge on a stretch of road rather than in a city centre would be unique in the UK.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
London's Low Emission Zone tries to encourage the most polluting vehicles driving into the capital to become cleaner

"It's very different from other clean air zones across the UK," he said.

"More typically it would be to try to stop cars or highly emitting vehicles getting into the city centres, whereas this is for a very very particular roads.

"It's a different approach but it comes from good intentions because these two stretches of road are very, very bad, the air quality is poor in these areas."

'Tolls could hit the poorest in society'

But there are concerns such a charge could hit the poorest in society.

Councillor Sam Trask, chairman of Rhondda Cynon Taf Conservatives, was one of those asked to complete the survey.

"I drive a nine-year-old diesel car and, were I able to afford one, I'd already be driving a less-polluting car.

"I feel that if the Welsh government are going to charge me to use a road that I normally use twice a day to go back and forth to work, then they're actually going to put that aspiration even further out of reach and I'm going to be even less likely to be able to afford a better car.

Image caption,
Charges for using the two Severn motorway bridges were abolished by the UK government in 2018

"I think if these proposals were to go ahead, they would adversely affect the poorest in our society unfairly because these are the kinds of people who can't afford a more modern electric car."

'Move the congestion and pollution to other roads'

Business leaders have also warned that tolls on roads would "just move the problem and the pollution problem elsewhere."

"When you look at tolls on other roads, the M6 for instance, it's an alternative," Kevin Ward from Newport Now Business Improvement District told BBC Radio Wales

"This wouldn't be an alternative because actually what we'd do is just move the problem and the pollution problem elsewhere.

"What we're talking about in Newport is the area around the Brynglas tunnel, the bottleneck on the M4, the area that the M4 relief road was supposed to alleviate and that's now dead in the water.

"I almost feel like the Welsh government are flailing around trying to come up with other solutions to that problem and I'm not sure that tolling is the answer."

He said there needed to be range of solutions including a better public transport system in south Wales with a £750m metro set to be completed in 2023.

Media caption,

"Everything outside gets dirty and it affects our chests - it's dreadful."

A Welsh government spokeswoman said there were "currently no plans for congestion charges".

"In a separate piece of work, in line with our legal obligations to reduce harmful levels of nitrogen dioxide, we have commissioned surveys to gain people's views on clean air zone proposals on the M4 between junctions 25 and 26 in Newport and on the A470 between Upper Boat and Pontypridd," she added.

The survey ran until 31 August by which time 3,017 responses had been completed.