South East Wales

Severn Bridge tolls reduction warning for businesses

The Severn bridges
Image caption The bridges will come under the control of the UK Government in 2018

Monmouthshire businesses and retailers have been warned the reduction and possible scrapping of the Severn bridge tolls could have a detrimental impact.

The UK government will halve bridge tolls in 2018 - they went up to £6.70 for cars on New Year's Day.

Property prices have been rising in south east Wales as Bristol workers "capitalise" on lower house prices in Monmouthshire before the tolls reduce.

But there is a warning lower tolls may hit shops and firms near the border.

There is widespread public approval of a reduction in the bridge tolls when it returns to public ownership next year and all assembly parties and local Welsh councils want tolls scrapped altogether but it's a "wake-up" Chepstow's High Street traders.

Retailers have been reminded lower bridge fees would make the Cribbs Causeway retail park 20 minutes drive away in Bristol - which is to expand by 50% and include a new shops and an indoor ski centre - "easier accessible and more tempting".

Image copyright Geograph/Andy Dolman
Image caption Chepstow Castle is thought to be the oldest surviving post-Roman stone fortification in Britain

Businesses in Chepstow, a town which has expanded since the first bridge landed on its outskirts in 1966, should be "concerned" workers may be able to find higher paid jobs in the booming Bristol market once the "subconscious toll bridge barrier" is removed.

Bristol is the UK's fastest growing economy outside of London and its house prices are the fastest growing in the country so Chepstow is starting to become Bristol's overspill.

Housing

Local estate agent figures show 80% of house buyers in south Monmouthshire are from Bristol.

They say the promised bridge toll reduction is already having an affect with commuters from the other side of the River Severn already looking for a cheaper option to Bristol's expensive property market.

But the warning for Monmouthshire is unintentional gentrification and freezing out local residents who may not be able to afford the inflated house prices.

"The only people who soon won't be able to compete with the prices in Monmouthshire are the locals," said Charlie Heaven, owner of Crown Estate Agents.

"Southern Monmouthshire is fast becoming a commuter belt for Bristol. Houses are in huge demand. In fact, there aren't enough houses."

Monmouthshire council's planning department has more than 1,000 new homes in the south of the county on its desk, with major sites at Chepstow's old dockyard and near its hospital as well as a big development in Undy.

In eastern Newport, near the proposed M4 relief road route, a 4,000-home development on the old Llanwern steelworks site has started.

Monmouthshire has the highest weekly average wage in Wales but statistics show most actually work outside of the county - and according to the 2011 census, 20% of Chepstow's commuters work in the Bristol area.

"It's such an accessible area for Bristol, London and obviously south Wales," added Mr Heaven.

"And add to that the beautiful countryside, houses in south Monmouthshire aren't staying on the market long these days."

Mr Heaven also gave an example of medical migration that is also appealing to some potential house buyers.

Image caption The £40m Severn Quay development on Chepstow's riverbank has 169 properties and is targeting buyers from Bristol

"One client had £200 worth of prescriptions in England," he said. "But in Wales, they'd be free. That's a big potential saving when the bridge toll is halved."

Retail 'needs help'

Chepstow is less than 15 miles on motorways from the 130 stores at the Cribbs Causeway shopping development - and that mall is expected to become one of Britain's top 10 biggest malls by 2021.

And while shoppers in Chepstow seem to universally welcome easier - and cheaper - access to an expanded Cribbs Causeway, the town's small High Street has been warned to "help themselves survive".

Yet Chepstow retail's future "needs help" as with the Valuation Office Agency's recent rate revaluation has hit Monmouthshire hard as the county is looking at an overall 11% hike, the highest in Wales.

"It is a mistake to think Chepstow can go head to head with Cribbs Causeway," said councillor Armand Watts, who runs a hairdressers in the town.

"We need niche shops and sell ourselves as being something different rather than being some homogenized shopping mall where you can see anywhere across the country."

Mike Lewis, of Chepstow's Chamber of Trade, thinks a bridge toll reduction coupled with a proposed £300m expansion of Cribbs Causeway - with a new anchor store and indoor ski slope - should spark Chepstow's traders into a fight for their retail survival.

"That will have an impact on Chepstow and is a wake up call," he said.

Image caption Department store Herbert Lewis has been the staple of Chepstow High Street since 1878

"We all need to work together to make us more attractive. An expanded Cribbs will be a big temptation for shoppers. We need to keep people in the town. We can't let Chepstow die.

"But we need a little help to diversify as if the rate reviews are hiked to the ridiculous levels that are threatened, with Cribbs on our doorstep, it's ridiculous to think all traders can survive."

Monmouthshire council has already called on the Welsh Government to intervene in the rate review row as some traders claim they face increases of up to 200-300%.

'Gap in salaries'

Even the temptation of being able to cut his £15,000 budget for bridge tolls is not enough for one of Chepstow's construction companies to impulsively welcome a reduction in the Severn tolls.

Christopher Rowell, managing director of Architen Landrell construction firm, fears he could lose some of his 12 staff to higher paid jobs in the booming Bristol economy if the "subconscious barrier" of the Severn tolls are reduced.

"My concern, especially if they completely scrap the tolls, is there will be a gap in salaries paid here in Chepstow and the wage they could earn in the Bristol market," he said.

"And that would be the worry for many businesses in this area, there could be a brain drain towards Bristol and so Chepstow's people money is, subsequently, more likely to be spent over the bridge.

Image caption Architen Landrell managing director Christopher Rowell is a little cautious of a Severn toll reduction

"The flip side to all that is that companies that are currently based in Bristol and on Severnside, might look to Wales and see the lower rates, lower rent and lower wages and decide to relocate to an M4/M48 corridor that all of a sudden looks more attractive."

Mr Rowell's family company designed the roof for London 2012's Olympic swimming pool and centrepiece structures for the worldwide stadium tours of rock bands U2 and Rolling Stones.

"Clearly a toll reduction would instantly make savings to our costs," he added.

"But I can see some disadvantages to our local economy in Chepstow for retailers and industry when the subconscious barrier of the tolls have been reduced.

Lower rates, rent and wages

Chepstow, home to one of Britain's oldest stone castles and once a strategic Roman crossing point across the River Wye, was once regarded as the entrance to south Wales.

But it is still the biggest town in south Monmouthshire and home to a hospital that serves the southern half of the county's 92,000 inhabitants.

"It doesn't just need more houses but much better infrastructure," said local councillor Armand Watts.

Image copyright Geograph/Jonathan Billinger
Image caption The 47-bed Chepstow Community Hospital was opened in 2000

"Chepstow Hospital must improve the services it provides, like having an A&E or minor injuries unit.

"We don't have enough schools to cope with the forecasted local development plan. And we need better access as Chepstow is already busy and a bypass has been talked about for about 20 years."

Mr Watts insisted Chepstow's four doctor's surgeries - two on the Welsh side and two on the English side - are "reaching capacity".

"Superfast broadband and improved mobile phone coverage is also essential," he added.

"If we want to be a county fit for the 21st Century, these are just the basics. We're still a little bit in the dark ages."

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