USERS of the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry are being urged to give their views on proposed toll rises before a consultation closes this Sunday (October 29).
The charges, currently £2.60 cash or £1.30 for Tag discount holders, look set to go up to at least £3 (£1.50).
The survey by bridge and ferry management Tamar Crossings asks which of a series of options is preferred. Among the choices are a sharper rise for those paying cash, and a bigger charge for those using the cost-heavy ferries.
As of the half way point of the survey (October 18), 5,370 responses had been received.
There has been widespread criticism of the public consultation, including complaints that the online survey obliges those responding to tick their support for one type of rise or another, before the option of ‘no change to toll charges’ is presented.
But joint chairman of the Bridge and Ferry committee Martin Worth says that an open text box has been deliberately included in the questionanire to enable people to express their views freely. All responses will be reported – including those stating that government should subsidise the crossings in order for tolls to be abolished. Cllr Worth has pledged that if users say there should be ‘no change to tolls’ then the committee will take this back to both local authorities.
The Tamar Toll Action Group (TTAG), which campaigns for removal of the tolls, discussed the consultation at a well-attended public meeting earlier this month. The group has now put in a formal complaint about the wording of the questionnaire, and has called for its results to be declared void.
In the letter to the solicitors and monitoring officers for Plymouth City and Cornwall Council, TTAG chairman Mel Priston says: “At numerous points throughout the online questionnaire, participants are forced to agree to an increase in tolls as there is no alternative response option, and the question cannot be left blank. This ‘forced choice methodology’ is a well-known technique to manipulate responses towards a predetermined outcome. Those who disagree with any increase are effectively not able to take part in this consultation.”
The action group also asks the legal officers to consider whether the time frame for the survey – three weeks rather than the usual 12 – adheres to principles for legitimate consultation.
They said: “We believe the consultation data should be declared void; Plymouth City and Cornwall Council councillors should be informed, so that results obtained in this way are not used to justify unfair and immoral decisions.”
Joint chairman of the Bridge and Ferry committee and Saltash Councillor Martin Worth said that he had received complaints about the consultation from “many residents, Saltash Town Council and Cornwall Councillors” but added that the document had been “passed by the legal officers of Cornwall Council and published accordingly”.
The consultation was personally handed to 11,700 users of the crossings on two catchment days, as well as being emailed and posted out to 14,800 Tag holders, and sent to more than 230 other stakeholders.
The 620 postal replies, 1450 Tag user email replies and 3,300 general replies received up to mid October were a disappointingly low response, said the action group. Despite their feeling that the survey is flawed, the group is asking people to fill it in.
“We will be rallying everyone to complete their responses and make good use of the suggestion section to call for a fairer deal for regular users.”
The public consultation over toll rises came about at a meeting of the joint committee in September.
Elected members had originally been due to decide on a way forward from a series of four different options for toll increases. A fifth choice – to make no changes – was presented by officers as a route to financial catastrophe for the crossings operation.
Some councillors argued that it was time to make a stand for government subsidy for the crossings, or for National Highways to take on the bridge and responsibility for its upkeep. But with neither of these scenarios on the near horizon, those running the bridge and ferry stated that these could not be considered as solutions to the current pressure on finances.
With several committee members feeling strongly that it would be morally wrong to introduce any kind of toll increase, and no consensus in sight, the decision was made instead to put the options before all users of the bridge and ferry.
Deferring the decision until after a public consultation would also give more time for the MPs on either side of the Tamar to give their input and state their views on seeking government intervention before the next joint committee meeting.
“There are constant ongoing discussions with our local MPs,” said Cllr Worth.
“They are being invited to a meeting with the joint chairs and Transport portfolio holders before the meeting on Dec 8 when we decide on our future financing.”