SHOULD tolls be increased on the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry – and if so, should one group of users be asked to carry more of the burden?

Cash charges to motorists now look set to rise to at least the £3 mark, and the public will be asked for their views on these questions before the joint committee makes any decision on the best way forward to get the two crossings back into the black.

The three MPs for constituencies closest to the crossings – Sheryll Murray, Luke Pollard, and Johnny Mercer – will also be asked to state their position on seeking government funding before the next meeting of the committee in November.

During a four hour meeting, Tamar Crossings’ management repeatedly underlined the financial status of the crossings. Costs are exceeding income, and the reserves are fast dwindling: without swift action to increase revenue, the reserves will run out by 2025, at which point the two local authorities will be obliged to step in, with the subsequent cost to the local taxpayer.

Originally, last week’s discussion on future financing of the crossings should have concluded with a vote amongst elected councillors to determine which was their preferred option of a set of five prepared by officers. It was stressed by those responsible for the bridge and ferry budgets that by choosing the first option, to ‘do nothing’ and leave toll charges at their present rates, the committee would be setting the course for financial disaster, and leaving themselves with less time to remedy a precarious situation.

But councillors around the table were grappling with disagreement over some fundamental questions: whether the crossings undertaking should be seen as a business, or as an essential service; and where responsibility for the funding of the bridge, particularly, should ultimately lie – with the local authorities, or with government. These long-standing topics have been brought into sharp focus by the growth of the Tamar Toll Action Group (TTAG) whose membership has now topped 3,000, and who are campaigning to see tolls removed completely.

Cabinet member for Transport on Cornwall Council Richard Pears was of the view that the crossings were built by and are the responsibility of Cornwall and Plymouth City Councils and that it was down to the joint committee therefore to find ways to solve the problems. “As a director of a business, if I were to place my company in financial distress, with the intent of hoping that somebody would come along and bail me out, I would be struck off.”

Cllr Wakeham agreed, commenting that “we are a business, and businesses can’t go bankrupt”.

But Cllr Andrew Long argued that the bridge could not be seen as a business, because many of its users can’t choose to shop elsewhere – they have no choice but to use the crossing to access their healthcare and employment.

“We’ve got to keep coming back to the fact that we represent these people. We have got to make a stand at some point and I believe that point is now.”

Cllr Armand Toms reported that “people were leaving jobs in Plymouth to work for less money in Cornwall because of the rising cost of fuel and the cost of the bridge”. Citing bridges and ferries around the UK that have been given investment or subsidy by Government, he questioned why the political will hadn’t been there to support the crossings serving South East Cornwall.

Transport leader on Plymouth City Council Mark Coker said: “We’re in a position now where Government needs to make a decision. We are still confined by the Tamar Bridge Act. Because Government and MPs have buried their heads in the sand, the people on this committee have got a no-win decision to make, and that’s unfair”.

In a statement to the press, Tamar Crossings said: Members of the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry Joint Committee have agreed to carry out initial public consultation on all proposals to address the undertaking’s current financial position. This will enable the views of members of the public to be fully taken into account before any decision is made on a preferred option.  

“Many members have expressed frustration at previous decisions of the Government not to provide financial support for the crossings and have vowed to continue to fight for fair funding.”

Joint chairs of the committee are Cllr Martin Worth (Saltash) and Cllr Neil Hendy (Plymouth)

“The crossings over the Tamar are crucial to local residents and businesses, as well as to people visiting Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall” they said.

“We recognise that many local people have no choice but to use the crossings. Even with the tag discount, the cost of living crisis means that some are already struggling and would not be able to cope with any further increases. However we are facing unprecedented financial challenges and need to ensure that we have funding to continue to deliver these services.   

 “We have already written to local MPs and are awaiting all the responses to come in so we can approach Ministers together with one voice from the South West. However, in the meantime, as our only source of revenue is currently toll charges, we need to go ahead with local consultation to seek the views of people using the crossings on the options which are before us”.