Mike Watts has hit national headlines for building the first toll road in England for 100 years – and he did it because Bath & North East Somerset (B&NES) Council have been too slow to re-open a vital section of the A431 between Bristol and Bath. So I went to visit him to find out the true cost of doing local motorists a favour, and heard how the council is charging him for helping out.
A landslip closed the road between Bristol and Bath in February, and B&NES has said it will take them until Christmas to get it re-opened at a cost to the taxpayer of £1.5 million. In the meantime local businesses have lost thousands of pounds in trade and residents have faced nightmare journeys. Mike Watts lives in the nearby village of Kelston and decided to do something about it.
“I used to turn left outside of my village and get into Bath in eight minutes,” says Watts. “With the road closed I had to turn right and it took me one hour twenty minutes to get in. Aside from the waste of time, my petrol expenditure went right up.”
B&NES refused to act quickly on re-opening the road and so Watts was forced to create his own mini-bypass on a field nearby. He’s had to put his house on the line to cover the £150,000 construction costs and £150,000 in running costs. “We need to get 1250 cars using this toll road every day to cover our costs,” he said.
It is to be noted that his construction costs are a tenth of the council’s estimate of taxpayers’ money needed to fix the road and he’s opened it six months earlier than B&NES could deliver. The private sector really is leaner and fitter at dealing with such problems.
One might have thought the council would be delighted at Watts helping them out to create an alternative route for local traffic, but they have refused to endorse his efforts and have carped about safety issues ever since. The really shocking point I learn talking to Watts is that B&NES now wants to make money out of his enterprise.
Watts had had to apply for retrospective planning permissions and claims the council have quoted some £30,000 for doing it – a tenth of his total costs. The Council has disputed the figure.
On top of that Watts has had to employ a planning consultant to navigate his way through the maze of regulations and that’s cost him a further £12,000, plus there are additional costs for surveys and signage. I think a grateful public would expect the council to waive or severely reduce these costs to Watts and let him get on with running the toll road to the benefit of the whole community. This story really makes one wonder what the purpose of local government is when it fails to deal efficiently with a problem like this in the first place and then wants to charge an arm and a leg to those who do help out. Shame on B&NES!
*This article has been amended from its original version after B&NES disputed the £30,000 figure, citing an estimate between £780 and £1,690. Mr. Watts was unavailable for further comment.