As a result of the significant financial shortfall caused by the impact of Covid 19 on the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferries, and, as yet, no formal offer of financial support from Central Government, members of the Joint Committee have agreed to carry out initial consultation on proposals to reduce the pre-payment (TamarTag) discount and increase cash tolls.
The results of the consultation will be reviewed at the next meeting of the Joint Committee in December when a final decision will be made on whether to go forward with the changes.
In the meantime the Committee will be writing again to the Minister and local MPs re-emphasising their concerns over the situation facing Tamar Crossings as a result of the drop in traffic and the temporary suspension of tolling during the coronavirus lockdown. Members have also asked Tamar Crossings management to work with Plymouth City Council and Cornwall Council officers to negotiate with the Department of Transport and Highways England over financial support for the funding of the A38 link provided by the Tamar Bridge .
In the initial phase of lockdown traffic dropped to around 30% of normal levels and recovery has been slow, with current levels still only around 85% of normal. Immediately following lockdown, the decision was made to temporarily suspend tolling between 24 March and the end of May for safety reasons to help staff and users to comply with the coronavirus legislation on social distancing. As a result of the loss of income the organisation’s modest reserves have been exhausted and without intervention a growing financial deficit is forecast.
Between them the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry carry around 18 million vehicles a year (16 million on the bridge and 2 million on the ferries), with the two crossings recognised as uniquely important to the economy of the region. The Tamar Crossings are almost entirely funded by toll income, which is used to operate, maintain and improve the bridge and ferries.
After ruling out the options to do nothing or to reduce ferry services, members agreed to support the proposal to revise prices as soon as possible. This would mean reducing discount levels from the current level of 50% to 40% in early January 2021, and beginning the formal process of applying to the Government for permission to increase cash tolls by 20% from 1 January 2022. If fully implemented, this would mean that the discount toll for a car would increase to £1.20 in January 2021 but it is anticipated that it would remain at this rate when the cash toll increases to £2.40 in January 2022, effectively restoring the 50% discount rate relative to cash tolls.
Both the Joint Chairmen and the respective Cabinet Members for Plymouth City Council and Cornwall Council have been active in making the case for Government support for Tamar Crossings to replace the income lost due to traffic reduction and the decision to temporarily cease collecting tolls. However, despite further requests for financial support, there has been no further feedback from the Government.
Expressing his disappointment at the lack of response from the Government, Councillor George Wheeler, the Plymouth Joint Chairman, said that while he still remained hopeful, as things stand, the Committee has been left with no choice but to start the process to revise prices to address the shortfall.
At the start of the pandemic the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government told local authorities to ‘ spend what it takes’ and said that the Government would provide additional financial support to meet the costs. So far this has not happened. While we remain hopeful and will continue to lobby the Government and our local MPs, we cannot rely on any support being forthcoming. As a result of today’s decision we have instructed officers to begin local consultation to seek the views of people using the crossings on the proposal.
Explaining that the Committee would review the results of the consultation prior to any changes being made, Councillor Sam Tamlin, the Cornwall Joint Chair, added 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.
We are facing unprecedented financial challenges and need to ensure that we have funding to continue to deliver these vital services. None of the Committee members want to increase prices for people using the crossings but without additional financial support or a significant increase in traffic levels, we have no other option.
If implemented, the proposal would mean a temporary 10% reduction in the pre -payment discount (from 50% to 40% ) from January 2021 while the application for increasing the cash tolls by 20% is progressed. If the application is approved and the tolls increased, the level of the TamarTag discount would return to 50%.
The proposal will be recommended to the Cabinets of the two parent councils for approval by their full Councils.