A businessman, Mike Watts, who built the first private toll road in Britain in over 100 years to bypass road works, is set to lose out on any profit thanks to the local council who appear to have gone to war with him over his entrepreneurial scheme. The council have found over £600,000 in order to re-open the damaged road five weeks early – they say in order to prevent more subsidence, but Mr Watts’s wife has accused the council of trying to bankrupt the couple.
Mr Watts built the private road at a personal cost of £325,000 when a landslip on the A431 in Kelston, Somerset took the public road out of action, leaving drivers facing a 14 mile detour to get around the blockage. His detour simply cuts into the neighbouring field which he rented from a farmer, bypassing the land-slipped section, the Daily Mail has reported.
He charges cars £2 a pass, whilst motorcycles pay £1, and goods vehicles £3, and at those rates had hoped to make a profit for himself and the farmer before the official road re-opened just before Christmas. But instead the Bath and North East Somerset (B&NES) council dug deep to find the funds required to open the road early. It will be reopened tomorrow, meaning that the Watts’ will just break even on their scheme.
“It feels like they may have raised the money to take me out of the equation,” said Mr Watts. “It’s quite astonishing that they found this extra cash in September. It’s sped up the process to get the road open early. It’s a catch 22, I want the road back open but we had budgeted for the road to be closed till Christmas. Now myself and the farmer who let me use his land probably won’t see a penny.”
Mr Watts has recounted how the council has blocked his every move, charging £25,000 for retrospective planning permission and even issuing a £3,500 bill for business rates even though the toll road isn’t an official business.
“I’m disappointed in the overall support from the council. If they had supported me things would have been so much better. People would have gotten everywhere quicker and the farmer and I would have made some money.”
Mr Watts and his wife used their family home as a guarantee for the costs of the road. £150,000 was spent by the couple on building the road, including hiring three workmen for ten days to lay the road, made from rolled chippings. A further £150,000 was spent on maintaining it, meaning that they would have had to charge for 150,000 journeys during the lifetime of the road to break even.
That figure was pushed upwards by the added costs for planning permission and business rates, but, as more than 25,000 cars stopped at the tollbooths during the first month alone, the couple were confident of making a small profit on the venture. Now their hopes have been dashed, leaving Mrs Watts convinced that Bath and North East Somerset council are determined to bankrupt them.
“My husband and I have done lots of interesting things in our working lives, but I have to say that the Toll Road experience has been the single most stressful project we have ever been involved in,” said Mrs Watts.
“Kelston Toll Road Ltd has received a bill from the B&NES council for business rates to the tune of £3,500 and yet they do not recognise the temporary toll road as a community initiative. I just cannot believe how blatantly obstructive the council has been during this whole saga. They have done everything they can to hinder us. The Kelston Toll Road is and always was a community initiative to help with the dreadful situation we found ourselves in.
“We thought, stupidly with hindsight, that the council would be supportive. After all, we didn’t want them to cough up any dosh for it – we wanted it to pay for itself. We have used our home as a guarantee for the costs of the temporary road, which was a decision we came to with our eyes wide open.”
Bath and North East Somerset council deny that they have purposefully obstructed the couple’s project, nor do they recognise the claim that the road repairs were brought forward to deny the Watts’ any profit. Rather, they say that £660,000 was allocated to speed up the road repairs in order to prevent further damage from landslides.
In a statement, the council has said: “The council has made a considerable effort to work with Mr Watts and various officers and members have met with him several times. The Council has provided expertise, advice and our ground investigation results free of charge. This road is open to the public and therefore, in the public interest, must comply with the normal safety standards for public roads.
“Councillors made an emergency decision to approve an extra £660,000 (for the A431 repairs) following further investigation works at the site, which discovered that below the land which had already moved, there was another layer of ‘soft’ rock, which was also at risk of sliding. The additional funding was needed for the necessary revised scheme which required two rows of deep piling to ensure that future land-slips are prevented.”
Mr Watts doesn’t regret his decision to embark on the project, however, saying that he has received support from far and wide. “People are coming over the road with beaming faces and I have had letters of support from all over the country. Well, I say all over the country, but it is actually all over the world, from Latvia and Germany, it has just really captured people’s imaginations,” he said.