A BID to have Cornwall councillors of all parties formally unite for a toll-free Tamar ahead of an imminent rise in the charges has been knocked back by the Council’s vice-chairman and senior officers.

Councillor for Lostwithiel Colin Martin had proposed a motion to be discussed and voted on by all 87 councillors. The motion, if accepted, requested that the Council’s leader work with the Bridge and Ferry Committee, Plymouth City Council and MPs to press the Government to take four actions: to revoke the Tamar Bridge Act; to abolish tolls on the crossings; to give responsibility for maintenance of the Tamar Bridge to National Highways; and to fund the Torpoint Ferry in order to maintain the essential transport link between Torpoint and Plymouth.

Those supporting the motion, and a growing number of campaigners, argue that the tolls, soon set to rise to at least £3 for cash payments, present an unfair tax on local people and businesses. They argue that both crossings are strategically vital, that there is no viable alternative route, and that while the bridge is actually part of the strategic road network, it receives no central highways funding.

But with full council set to meet yesterday (Tuesday) as The Cornish Times went to press, Cllr Martin said that the motion had been removed from the agenda by the Council’s vice-chairman, and referred instead to the Tamar Bridge and Torpoint Ferry joint committee.

In deciding whether to allow a motion to be discussed by the full council, or sent to the relevant committee first, the chairman Cllr Pauline Giles or vice-chairman Cllr Jordan Rowse have to decide how urgent the matter is, and consult with the relevant portfolio holder and strategic directors – in this case strategic director for Environment and Connectivity Vicky Fraser and strategic director for Sustainable Growth and Development.

In their response, the directors said that the Bridge and Ferry Joint Committee was set up in order to discharge functions relating to the crossings: it would next meet on December 8 to decide a course of action for addressing the financial pressures on the operation. It was important, they said, that the Council’s set procedures be followed, which would mean that the matter of tolls and the committee’s recommendation would ‘in any event come back to the Council’s leaders, and then to full council in February 2024’.

The response from the directors also set out several concerns about the possible consequences of taking the actions described by Cllr Martin:

• should the Government take on the crossings operation, the current debt of some £40m would still fall to the local authorities

• in this scenario, the crossings would have to compete with other parts of the strategic road network for capital investment

• should the Government take on the bridge without the ferry, the ferry service would have to be much reduced

• it was ‘unlikely’ that the Government would fund the ferry as there was no precedent for this in the UK and therefore the motion could ‘raise unrealistic expectations’

The directors claim that the motion is ‘broadly the same ask that the two local authorities have been putting to Government for several years’ and that the Joint Committee has been liaising with local MPs and Government since at least 2020 to try and achieve financial support for the crossings.

Responding to the decision to block discussion of the motion, Cllr Martin said: “This decision is highly questionable. Of course if a motion proposes cutting a service or increasing Council expenditure, it makes sense to consult the relevant committee, but the facts of this situation are already well known: The crossings cost our local economy £15 million per year, and the burden falls disproportionately on the residents of South East Cornwall. Central Government Funding and abolition of the tolls would give a real boost to one of the poorest areas in the UK.

Whilst both the Conservatives and Labour seem unwilling to take a stand, I have already secured unanimous support from the Lib Dems across the whole of South West England.”

The Tamar Toll Action Group (TTAG) has been campaigning since May 2022 for the abolition of charges and has some 3,300 members. Its committee said they were disappointed at the decision to remove the issue from the full council meeting. The group says that parts of the response given by officers to Cllr Martin’s motion are inaccurate: the motion is not the same as the work already done by the Joint Committee, they say, as there has been no initiative from the committee to abolish tolls. And as an example of a ferry supported by Government they cite the Woolwich ferry, which is free to use and funded by a grant to Transport for London.

“Our position is that this proposed motion for a change in policy on the crossings should be decided by the owners of the facilities (Plymouth City and Cornwall Councils) - not the group tasked to operate them,” said TTAG.

“Further, as the motion was proposed to Cornwall Council, it is inappropriate to instead refer it to a committee, half of whose members are not Cornwall Councillors.”

The action group and its supporters have asked Cornwall Council to formally approach the county’s MPs to ask them to speak with one voice in favour of the abolition of tolls.

As a group representing more than 3,000 residents, the group has also asked to be considered a key stakeholder in the discussions set to take place about the abolition of tolls, so that the views of its members can be formally taken into account.

Cllr Martin is calling on anyone who supports abolishing the tolls to sign his petition at www.seclibdems.uk/tamar-tolls