Thursday, 4 April 2013

Welsh toll road report incorrect, says UK and Welsh governments

I'm as guilty as the mainstream media for the simple error - I didn't check official sources for the announcement that the M4 relief road in Wales could be a toll road, for both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Welsh government are denying it.

Multiple media outlets reported that the UK Government was to approve the construction of a major new highway in Wales as a toll road.  It was criticised by some, concerned that tolls would mean the road would not get well utilised compared to the congested stretch of motorway it is intended to bypass.

Subsequently, the Welsh government, which has devolved responsibility for major highways in Wales, was reportedly angry at claims that the UK government, not it, could decide if the new road would be tolled.  Wales Online said a Welsh government source described the idea as "unworkable" (without specifying why).   Some in Wales are upset that as the Scottish government has removed tolls and not faced pressure from the UK government to toll the new duplicate Forth Road Bridge north of Edinburgh (the existing bridge was tolled until 2008, when the newly elected Scottish National Party Government abolished tolls across Scotland), then neither should Wales be pressured to toll.

This is quite right.  The question of tolling is fully within the purview of the Welsh government, although the question of how to raise the £830 million to build the road without tolls remains when the Welsh government has very limited revenue raising powers.   The Scottish government simply decided to use general revenues to pay for the roads.

So it is clear that the Welsh government is not currently pursuing the project as a toll road.  The BBC has also reported that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said he was "misreported" as expecting it to be a toll road. He said:

We're working with the Welsh assembly government. I don't know where this idea of a toll road has come from.

"It's been mis-reported in the papers. It's certainly never anything I've considered, so I was reading about it in the press and couldn't work out where it had come from.

"But I'm clear we can work with the Welsh government to get the funding for this road and improve it.

"And of course it's up to the Welsh government whether they want to do any tolls, but it's certainly not something I'm asking for.

Meanwhile, the various reactions to the tolling proposal has been mixed according to Wales Online and the BBC:

- Conservative Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales West, Byron Davies, was concerned about tolls, given tolls exist on the Severn Crossings, and didn't want the tolls undermining the purpose of the highway project;
- Liberal Democrat Welsh Assembly Member for South Wales Central,  Eluned Parrott, simply preferred improving the railway network;
- Sustrans Cymru, an environmental transport group, was opposed to building the road at all, preferring to shift commuters to public transport (although the option of pricing the existing road to do this was not mentioned);
- Richard Hebditch of the environmentalist transport lobby group, Campaign for Better Transport, claimed that it was about shifting the cost "off balance sheet" and taxpayers would ultimately have to pay (which isn't clear in this case and certainly is not true of the M6 toll road);
- Ian Taylor, of the Alliance of British Drivers, is vehemently against all tolling.
- The Confederation of British Industry is a strong supporter of building the road, although expressed no opinion on tolls in this report.

So for now, it may not be a new toll road in the UK, although the issue of how the road is paid for has not been clarified.

Yet it will have to be.  As the Welsh government has few options to raise revenue, the matter will entirely depend on whether, and by how much the British government is willing to provide the capital grants or ongoing financial support to pay for the road.

If it isn't the full cost then tolling becomes an option, unless the Welsh government thinks it can save money or redirect existing funding it gets from the British government for other activities to the project.

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