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£300m paid out to Menai Bridge operator despite maintenance failings

  • Welsh Government pays company “shadow tolls”
  • Defects that led to closure have been known since the 1990s

THE CONSERVATIVES have launched another attack on the Welsh Government’s handling of the Menai Bridge’s closure.

The Conservative Shadow Transport Minister, Natasha Ashgar MS, revealed the accounts of the company responsible for maintaining Bridge show Cardiff Bay has paid out over £300m so far for the Anglesey A55 section despite it costing around half that to build and maintain.

UK Highways A55 Ltd earns “shadow tolls” from the Labour Government, determined by the level of traffic on the road, increasing from around £13m soon after the route opened in 2001 to more than £19m last year.

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The Conservatives claim the Labour government made the problem worse by failing to invest in transport infrastructure and public transport.

In the four years since 2018, the Welsh Government paid UK Highways A55 Ltd £69m in “shadow tolls”. Its accounts reveal it spent £22m on “major maintenance” over this period.

In October, structural engineers working for UK Highways A55 Ltd said the bridge should close to all traffic after tests identifying serious safety risks. The footpath across the bridge is open for pedestrians and dismounted cyclists wishing to enjoy the tropical warmth of North Wales in winter.

The defect which led to the Menai Bridge’s closure was first identified in the 1990s. However, no remedial work took place to rectify the problem despite the road company’s claims.

The closure of the vital link has caused delays in transport to and from the strategic port of Holyhead, one of the busiest road haulage ports in the UK.

Traffic is being diverted to the Britannia Bridge, which is not designed to cope with the volume of vehicles forced to use it.
Conservative Ynys Môn MP Virginia Crosbie said: “The Menai closure is not only impacting Ynys Môn but all of North Wales, especially considering the impact this will be having on the haulage industry with Holyhead being a major shipping port.

“Labour’s neglect of our part of Wales is why we’re in this position in the first place.”

It took the Welsh Government six weeks to assemble a support package, including its pet “active travel routes”, extra bus stops, and bicycle hire. Additionally, Anglesey Council has provided additional bus stops close to the Suspension Bridge to allow people to walk across in the balmy December sunshine. It also uses community transport to help more rural communities affected by the bridge closure.

However well-intentioned, those measures have done little or nothing to help local businesses blighted by the closure at a key time in the retail calendar. Some business owners claim the impact of the closure is “worse than Covid”.

Smaller businesses qualify for 100% rates relief in Menai Bridge and pay no non-domestic rates. However, those liable for non-domestic rates must jump through hoops and apply to the Valuation Office Agency for a temporary reduction.

The bridge is planned to reopen with a 7.5-tonne weight limit by the end of January 2023.

Meanwhile, the Welsh Government has floated the plan of a third crossing – long-mooted never delivered – to ensure no repeat of the current closure’s impact. Whether that ever gets off the ground depends on whether the Welsh Government will take a realistic view of future transport needs instead of planning for road haulage’s decline.