Just before Christmas I passed by the removal of the toll booths of the Severn Bridge and it was a 48-hour media sensation. I think the true scale of these changes will not become clear for at least 6 months.
Whilst I am told that by highways experts that traffic modelling suggests there there will not be a huge increase in vehicles I think the psychological impact of these changes will be much greater than most expect. The furore around Brexit has meant changes linked to the removal of the tolls are going unnoticed.
On the Welsh side of the border, particularly around Chepstow there has been a steep rise over the last 12 months in house prices as people working in Bristol look across the water to avoid some of the highest prices in the country. House prices will continue to rise as demand strengthens and there is a real danger that low income families could be priced out of the market. Higher prices have been shown elsewhere to add to homelessness which could be an issue for hard pressed local authorities and charities.
Although new money in the local economy could equally be a welcome boost to welsh businesses as Chepstow has struggled over the last few years. However it is not without its downside. Local people may go across the bridge to shop in Bristol and Bath which are now closer than Cardiff. It cannot be a coincidence that massive new warehouses are popping up by Severn Bridge.
Alongside new opportunities in Wales there may also be new opportunities on the English side of the border for a number of towns. Weston Super Mare and Gloucester need to seize the opportunity to widen its marketing into new Welsh markets. Although Bath has a strong economy, particularly around tourism - business organisations and BID's need to be getting together to look at how smaller independent shops can benefit.
Bristol currently struggling to get its head around a Clean Air Zone should think of this as an opening up of a new market to support is business community currently feeling threatened by these changes. I am sure the implications have not been lost on the mayor for Bristol, despite its challenges remains one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country. There is a huge new market within 10 miles and without the tolls - Bristol has to be in prime position.
For councils keen to increase income facing severe financial pressure the removal of the tolls represents new commercial opportunities as well as threats. As local authorities keep business rates there is a direct financial benefit from a strong growing business community. As many councils are now increasingly buying commercial properties they should be aware of the opportunities that this change presents. Members with economic portfolios should be asking their officers what they are or intending to do and have a marketing plan emerging.
It also remains an important opportunity for the South West Regional Mayor to galvanise the local authorities into action, attract investment (other than large mechanised warehouses) and in so doing create a platform for himself to improve his profile. He has been quiet on these issues.
Undoubtedly with or without council involvement the market will adapt to these changes but the savvy local authorities need to be on the bandwagon and hopefully have marketing plans in place to respond both in terms of regeneration but also their support to small businesses. If they have not started to consider this - it should be a New - Years resolution to do so.