Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 277 - 279)




  277. Good afternoon and welcome. Although this is the first time we have taken evidence from a committee of the Assembly, we have taken evidence in the Assembly before because one of the features of our committee is that we want to take evidence throughout Wales and we have done many times. But what we see today is a means of liaising with the committees of the Assembly. We have to do this in this formal way because that is the way the committees of the House of Commons work, but in the light of the Assembly's use of first name terms I intend to use that here. Normally in public session we are a bit more formal than possibly the Assembly Committees are. This is the second day we have been here in this visit because yesterday we gave evidence to one of your committees and I think two of you were there, in fact. I thought that was a very useful exercise indeed and I hope this will have the same use the other way round because essentially what the select committee wants to try and do is to work with the Assembly committees because practically everything we look at as a select committee and everything you look at as a committee have cross-cutting areas, areas that are either not devolved in your case and which are devolved in our case. As we at the moment have the constitutional ability to look at everything, as I was saying yesterday, we can fill in the grey areas, I hope, and that is the spirit in which we are taking evidence from you. Do not feel intimidated, that is not the purpose of this committee at all. We specifically wanted to meet with the National Assembly for Wales Transport Committee because we have decided to look at transport in Wales and because it is devolved generally. We would like, as far as possible, to know what you as a committee have done in respect of your work looking at transport. So if you could begin, Richard, by perhaps introducing for the record—we know who is here—who is on your side on your team and also to say a little bit about the work of the Committee.

  (Dr Edwards) Thank you very much, Martyn. Certainly it is a privilege to be here and thank you very much for the invitation. As you know, I chair the Transport Committee in the Assembly and I have with me today three other members of the Committee, Helen Mary Jones, the Plaid Cymru transport spokesperson, Eleanor Burnham, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson, and David Davies, who is the Conservative transport spokesperson. If I could perhaps just say a few things about the constitution of a subject committee and subject committees in general. Basically they mirror the portfolios of the relevant Minister who actually is a member of the committee. That is an important distinction between your committees and ours. There is not any formal distinction between executive and scrutiny committees and that really reflects the Assembly's status as a corporate body. We will not go into the pros and cons of that at this stage. The subject committee has two main scrutiny functions, the first is to scrutinise expenditure and administration, and the other scrutiny function is to scrutinise the sponsored bodies. As far as our committee is concerned, that would be Welsh National Parks, the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency in Wales and CADW. We also have a responsibility for contributing to the development of policy, hence our work on public transport. But when it comes to implementing policy, that is the responsibility of the Minister and of the executive and basically the subject committee will make recommendations to Plenary and then the relevant Minister will indicate what action they propose to take in response to those recommendations. I have to say that in practice most committee recommendations have been taken forward, certainly in some form. We decided, as our first big piece of work in policy development, to focus on public transport, and our terms of reference were to look at the Assembly's public transport policies covering bus, rail and community transport services, and the two big objectives were the first to see what short-term changes we could identify within the existing legal and structural framework so that we can improve delivery and have a more integrated system and then, secondly, to look at longer term changes to the legal and structural framework in order to improve delivery of integrated services. We have actually heard as part of the review from a huge array of interested groups, lots of passenger groups, local authorities obviously, transport providers, etcetera, and we have also visited examples of best practice in the UK and on the European mainland. I do not know if you want me at this stage to perhaps go through some of the recommendations that we made in our consultation report?

  278. That would be appropriate, Richard, thank you.
  (Dr Edwards) We recommended that public transport in Wales should be integrated, accessible, affordable, and a favoured mode of travel for most people, and that it also should act as a positive lever in improving equality of opportunity and accessability for disabled people. We also recommended a quality kite mark, so to speak, to drive up quality in public transport in Wales. We also recommended that there should be regional transport strategies and that they should guide decisions and funding in the National Assembly, and that that funding should be targeted alongside local authorities' own investment in order to maximise the effect. Also at the moment, as you are probably aware, there are voluntary groupings of regional consortia of local authorities and we recommended that they should be strengthened, their constitutional position should be clarified and the National Assembly should have representation on them, that they should be allocated joint staff and financial resources in order to deliver common objectives and also that they should raise their public profile. Then we suggested that there should be an evaluation framework for measuring the benefits of targeted public transport investment and that really would contribute a base of evidence for future development of policy. Critically, we recommended that passengers should be involved in drawing up the framework and also in evaluating individual schemes at an early stage. And also we felt that where there was scope to learn about what does work and what does not work elsewhere that knowledge should be aplied in Wales. Then we looked at whether alternative structures were needed in the longer term and we consulted on three options for long-term structural change, a passenger transport authority for the whole of Wales, that was the first option, the second option was a PTA for South East Wales and the third was strengthening the existing arrangements, making it clear that any model would need to be specifically designed to meet Welsh requirements. That was the consultation report. It might be as well for me to pause at that juncture before going on to the final report which was endorsed by the committee yesterday afternoon and that will be debated by plenary the week after next.

  Chairman: We have come at a good time. We have got the timing right for the first time in two and a half years! Martin?

Mr Caton

  279. We have read your draft report and I found it very interesting. There are all sorts of questions that I would love to ask but most of them are, quite rightly, your responsibility as a committee. However, there are areas where we might be able to play a helpful role. The most obvious one is perhaps the issue that you mentioned last, Richard, where you were talking about organisational changes and you mentioned those three options of an all-Wales passenger transport authority, a PTA for South East Wales, or strengthening the existing local authority consortia. If you go for one of the top two, primary legislation is required and we might have a role to play there. Is that consultation complete now as you have made your final report? Could you tell us what came out of that and if you as a committee have now decided on a favoured option of those three?

  (Dr Edwards) Perhaps I can say something about the consultation, first of all. I should say there was unanimous support from all sectors for the actual vision but there was a difference of opinion amongst consultantees about the proposed structural changes for long-term improvement. Broadly speaking, the division is between passengers, who favour certainly organisational change and some form of passenger transport authority or some form of all-Wales co-ordinating body and, on the other hand, you have got providers who generally do not want to see that happen but would rather see the existing regional consortia strengthened. Just to give you an example of the passenger view. The Welsh Consumer Council said that it felt that an all-Wales PTA would provide a more focus-led transport system and that it would be more responsive to the needs of travellers. It made the point that if cross-boundary issues were to be satisfactorily resolved there needed to be an all-Wales body. Your own adviser Professor Cole also made a detailed case for the establishment of an all-Wales PTA. Basically local authorities, although they shared the vision, the WLGA and individual local authorities all supported recommendations for strengthening the consortia, which has to be the shorter term objective in any case. They did not support the PTA option. They felt they would have little influence on other policies that have an important bearing on transport such as traffic management and land use planning and economic development and the WLGA, in particular, argued they felt that a PTA would be expensice and detract from the progress currently being made and would be remote from the user. The Committee's view is that we think our vision cannot be achieved without some enabling legislation. Certainly in the short term we do support the strengthening of the existing consortia and we accept that this needs to be a passenger-led integrated transport policy, but the passengers feel that unless there is some statutory pressure they are sceptical about whether current arrangements will deliver the objectives. So basically what we did yesterday is we recommended that the Assembly should be seeking enabling primary legislative powers for organisational change and we are asking the Minister to work up proposals, including those for PTA options, and to report back to the Committee and to Plenary within six months. We have also asked the Minister to seek the power for the Assembly to direct the Strategic Rail Authority along the lines of the Scottish model, and also a delegation of responsibility for the Valley lines, also the right to nominate a member of the SRA, and also we are seeking representation for Wales on whatever the successor body to Railtrack is going to be. We think that the Traffic Commissioner should have an office in Wales and should be accountable to the National Assembly. Then of course, in addition to additional powers, more powers, obviously of critical importance is significant investment. That underlines everything. There is an historic underspend in public transport and in public transport infrastructure and there needs to be significant public and private investment.

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