The Government is providing £1.6m of additional funding to Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council to cover a proportion of the financial shortfall caused by the impact of Covid 19 on the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry. The funding – to be split equally between the two authorities – means that proposals to increase toll prices at the beginning of next year will not need to go ahead at this stage.
Each council will receive £821,553 from the compensation scheme set up by the Government to help local authorities deal with the impact of the coronavirus. This will cover the period up to July 2020. A further application for a second tranche of funding to cover the remainder of the financial year’s losses is also anticipated to be successful,
The announcement of additional funding follows requests to the Government for urgent financial support for the two crossings from the Joint Chairs of the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee and the portfolio holders from Cornwall Council and Plymouth City Council with responsibility for transport.
Welcoming news of the funding Councillor Geoff Brown, Cornwall Council’s portfolio holder for Transport, and Councillor Mark Coker, Plymouth City Council’s cabinet member for Strategic Transport, Planning and Highways, said
The announcement of this first tranche of additional funding for the crossings is very good news and we would like to thank the Government for recognising the seriousness of the financial situation we were facing”.
Following last year’s increase in toll charges, we had not expected to have to introduce any further changes until at least 2023. Unfortunately the first lockdown resulted in a major drop in the levels of traffic at both crossings, whilst services and maintenance continued. With income continuing to be lower than anticipated pre-Covid, the organisation’s reserves were depleted and we were facing a growing financial deficit, leaving us with no alternative but to consult on reducing the pre-payment (TamarTag) discount and increasing cash tolls.
Tamar Crossings operate the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry, together typically carrying around 18 million vehicles a year. Their operation is governed by the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee. It receives no subsidy from either Central Government or the owners of the two crossings – Plymouth City Council and Cornwall Council – and operates on a self-funded ‘user pays’ principle, with toll income used to operate, maintain and improve the bridge and ferries.
As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, traffic levels at both crossings have been significantly below the level anticipated late last year when the original budgets for this year were set. With the organisation’s modest reserves now depleted, Tamar Crossings has been facing a significant financial deficit.
The legislation does not allow the crossings to operate at a deficit – with any shortfall in funding required to be covered by the parent authorities.
We said at the start of the consultation that the decision to revise prices could be halted at any stage if circumstances changed as a result of additional Government funding or a significant increase in traffic levels, and a toll increase was no longer needed.
The £1.6 million funding covers nearly three-quarters of the loss of income up to the end of July and enables us to avoid an end-of-year deficit and defer an immediate increase. We also hope to get a second tranche of support for the rest of the financial year. In the meantime we will need to constantly monitor traffic levels and income to assess the ongoing effects of the pandemic on our finances.
The consultation carried out by Tamar Crossings during the past few weeks has generated some very useful information on people’s views of the tag discount and travel behaviours. This is now being analysed but early indications show that more people anticipate working from home and travelling less by car in the future.
The results of the consultation suggest that we may well see a long-term reduction in traffic levels as a result of Covid-19 and changing travel behaviours even without further lockdowns. This would inevitably have an impact on our future income.
We will be keeping the situation under constant review and will be using the breathing space provided by the Government funding to look at the future structure of charges and secure the long term future of the crossings
One of the funding options being pursued is securing a financial contribution from Highways England. Earlier this year the Minister of State for Aviation, Maritime and Security asked her officials to enter into discussions with Highways England over contributing towards the costs of maintaining the bridge.
Officers from the two councils are working up a detailed plan of the annual maintenance costs of providing the A38 strategic road across the bridges to identify a specific figure to support these discussions. Work is also taking place to draft the case for supporting the ferry crossing as a strategic link to south east Cornwall and Plymouth.