Friday, 31 July 2009

Humber Bridge tolls will not go up

The government has announced it will not sanction the proposed increase of the Humber Bridge tolls, despite the Humber Bridge Board's request being recommended for approval by an inspector at a public inquiry earlier this year. The reason given for rejecting the increase is the current economic climate.

Very welcome news but is this just a one-off? The Bridge Board will propose further tolls increases in the future which will be opposed, and there is also the wish to write off some or all off the Bridge Board's debt to enable a reduction in the tolls. Does todays decision mean anything for these issues?

By using the reason of the economy for the decision to reject the tolls increase now, the government has not set a precedent to always oppose bridge tolls increase. By the time the Bridge Board next want to increase the tolls, the economy will have probably picked up and this reason to reject any increase will have gone.

Then there is the issue of the Humber Bridge Board finances. These will take a big 'hit' by not allowing this toll increase. Rejecting another increase could cause serious financial problems - there is provision for taxpayers locally, mainly in Hull, to make up the shortfall but that would just be a political mess, not one that any government would want to preside over. It would probably be better to sanction an increase in tolls.

As for the Bridge debt, it is very small in terms of the national debt, but that national debt will mean budget cuts in many areas, including front line services. In that context dealing with an issue that affects a tiny part of the country is hardly going to be a priority.

While the economic climate is the reason for the decision, is there politics being played here too? There is a general election due within the next year, and this decision will not do any harm to the chance of Labour being re-elected, especially when there are two fairly marginal seats in the area. The decision is a very good way to show concern over local issues without spending any money.

This could create future problems with the Bridge Board finances as described above, but that would come to a head early in the next parliament probably - the time when tough decisions can be made safe in the knowledge of no imminent election.

Today's decision is welcome. The new Department for Transport team has impressed me, especially in terms of the railways, and here too. I believe it is in part responding to local concerns. But don't get too excited medium to long term - it sounds like a one-off; there is nothing to suggest any future tolls increases would be rejected, and nothing to suggest the government would be open to reducing the debt. Add in any element off playing politics and I feel this is only good news short term.

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