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Welsh Grand Committee Debates

Draft Transport (Wales) Bill

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Welsh Grand Committee

Tuesday 20 July 2004

(Westminster)

[Mr. Win Griffiths in the Chair]

Draft Transport (Wales) Bill

[Relevant Documents: The Fourth Report from the Welsh Affairs Committee, Session 2003-04, on the draft Transport (Wales) Bill, HC 759.]

The Chairman: It might be helpful if I remind hon. Members of the timing of the debate. We start at 9.25 and finish at 11.25. In accordance with the order laid before the House yesterday, we will meet again this afternoon, if necessary, at 3 o'clock and continue until 5.30.

9.25 am

The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the matter of the draft Transport (Wales) Bill.

I apologise to you, Mr. Griffiths, and to others—I have written to Opposition spokesmen—for having to leave the Committee early. That is not my desire; business requires me to do so.

At the outset, I thank the members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, under the able chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), for the diligent and quick job that they did in scrutinising the Bill.

Under the new procedures agreed by the House last month, the scrutiny of the draft Transport (Wales) Bill was the first occasion on which joint meetings were held by the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Assembly's Economic Development and Transport Committee. I understand that members who participated found those joint sessions beneficial.

Transport has a crucial role to play in the development of a diverse, competitive, high-added-value Welsh economy. Our transport infrastructure serves as the backbone to economic growth and allows both people and goods to be where they need to be, when they need to be. Business and trade union leaders in Wales share the view that better transport is among the top priorities for improving the climate for business investment and performance.

Transport is also the key to taking forward the social justice agenda, through facilitating community regeneration and tackling rural isolation. Some of the most deprived areas in Wales also have very low levels of car ownership, and lack of public transport is frequently cited as a barrier to seeking jobs. The Bevan Foundation, in its recent report on the regeneration of the valleys, ''Ambitions for the Future'', identified communications, including transport and e-communications, as major issues that need to be tackled to develop the prosperity of valley communities.

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At the same time, we need to ensure that we minimise the demands that transport places on the environment. That is particularly relevant to the Assembly, given its statutory duty in relation to sustainable development.

Overall, the Welsh Assembly Government, in partnership with other stakeholders, have made good progress in taking forward the integrated transport agenda in a relatively short time. The Wales and Borders rail franchise is now in operation and will deliver a phased programme of service improvements over the next 15 years. There has been major investment in the valleys lines—some 30 per cent. of commuter journeys into Cardiff from the valleys now take place by rail. Investment in the Vale of Glamorgan and Ebbw valley lines will reopen the lines to passenger services.

The introduction of free bus travel for pensioners and disabled people has been very successful in both take-up—400,000 bus passes have been issued—and the effect of the scheme on overall bus usage. The Welsh Assembly Government are developing a scheme for half-price bus travel for 16 to 18-year-olds. Recently published statistics show a 5 per cent. increase in bus trips in Wales in 2002-03, which reverses a long-term downward trend. That is very welcome. The free travel scheme has prompted operators in several areas to invest in newer and more accessible vehicles. Cardiff Bus estimates that, between 2001-02 and 2003-04, there was an increase of almost 12 per cent. in passengers.

The Welsh Assembly Government have published a new walking and cycling strategy and continue to invest in cycle lanes and the highly successful safe routes to school programme. More than 260 schools have been covered since the initiative began.

On roads, there is a commitment to invest £175 million in trunk roads by 2008 and a five-year programme of support for local authority transport schemes worth some £300 million. We have seen dramatic growth at Cardiff international airport, and, following the publication of the aviation White Paper, the way ahead is clear for further development. The Assembly is also investigating the scope for introducing an intra-Wales air service that would link north and south Wales.

The challenge that we face is enormous, given the inexorable increase in the demand for travel. Traffic growth in Wales has outstripped that in the rest of the UK. Traffic on major trunk roads and motorways is likely to grow by up to a third in the next 10 years. In many ways, that is good news, showing the success of the Assembly's and the Government's economic policies. However, congestion places external costs on society through increased pollution and adverse impacts on journey times and their predictability.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) (PC): I shall listen with interest to what the Secretary of State says about congestion. However, I should like to take him back to the intra-Wales air service. We heard yesterday that AirWales was withdrawing services from Swansea, which will be a disappointment to people in west Wales, although the service did not take off as

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AirWales had hoped. That news suggests that an intra-Wales service will need more public subsidy than was initially thought. What are the right hon. Gentleman's views on such a service? Is he keen that public money should go to air services, or is it better to use it on rail and bus services?

Mr. Hain: I share the hon. Gentleman's disappointment that AirWales is to close down the Swansea operation, not least because it asked me to launch it some months ago.

Mr. Thomas: The golden touch.

Mr. Hain: Indeed. It was a strictly commercial decision. I represent a south-west Wales constituency, as the hon. Gentleman does—although I am further to the east—so I am disappointed, too.

The Bill provides that the Assembly will have greater powers under public service obligations to subsidise certain services, but they have to be seen to be commercial. Nevertheless, AirWales has said that it intends to expand its Cardiff operation, and the growing traffic there is encouraging.

Denzil Davies (Llanelli) (Lab): How does the provision of public subsidy fit with the competition Commission in Brussels, which is diligent in ensuring that subsidies are not perceived to be anti-competitive?

Mr. Hain: My right hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is a concern about local authorities owning airports, but the Bill provides that, when they consider whether to support air services, Commission rules must be complied with.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his ongoing support for the development of a regional air network in Wales. He will remember that he and I spent much time about four or five years ago trying to get things moving. Does he agree that, to make air services work, it is necessary to market the service powerfully, and that it has perhaps not been promoted as much as it could have been? Does he also agree that, to make an intra-Wales service work, it will be necessary to invest in the infrastructure of the airports, in a way that does not depend entirely on the airports' stumping up money, for the collective benefit of economic development in and around them?

Mr. Hain: I agree with all that the hon. Gentleman says, and I share his enthusiasm, not least for his constituency, given that I have flown into and out of it. I did not avail myself of his offer to fly the plane coming back, which was probably sensible, given that he fell off a mountain a week or two later. I agree with him, especially about north-south links, which can go through and stop over in his constituency at Welshpool airport.

Linking north to south is a major missing part of the transport jigsaw in Wales. I do not envisage rail and road developing much further, but air could really take off, in the literal sense, in building north-south links, if the Assembly supports them.

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There is a need to step up the pace of change to develop a critical mass of improvement in the public transport system to attract people away from their cars. We must ensure that the Assembly has the right tools for the job. In the past, the Assembly's limited transport powers have restricted its ability to take forward a strategic transport agenda, which has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny and debate, going back well before the establishment of the Assembly.

In 1997, as a Welsh Office Minister, I established a Welsh transport advisory group to prepare a report on the transport legacy for the Assembly.I recall spending a great deal of time considering what was needed to put the right structures and powers in place. Subsequently, the Assembly's cross-party Environment, Planning and Transport Committee carried out a review of public transport, and made a wide range of recommendations. In response, the Welsh Assembly Government indicated that they would seek additional powers.

The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs also made several closely related recommendations in its reports, ''Transport in Wales'' and ''The Provision of Rail Services in Wales''. The Committee recognised that greater flexibility in the Assembly's powers would increase its potential to realise its aspirations for a fully integrated transport policy for Wales.

There is, therefore, broad agreement on the legislative changes that are needed to facilitate the development and implementation of a better transport policy in Wales. Many measures are encapsulated in the draft Transport (Wales) Bill, which will enable the Assembly to take forward its integrated transport agenda.

The main provision of the draft Bill places a duty on the Assembly to publish a transport strategy as well as improved arrangements for local transport planning. The Assembly would have a duty to develop and implement policies for the promotion and encouragement of safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport facilities and services, and to publish a Wales transport strategy setting out those policies. That is a new duty for the Assembly, which want to consult widely in drawing up the strategy. I understand that the intention would be for the draft strategy, building on the non-statutory transport framework published in 2001, to be ready for consultation in the coming year.

Local authorities are currently required to prepare local transport plans, but there is no mechanism to ensure that those plans are implemented or that they are consistent with the Assembly's strategy. The Bill will require local authorities to produce local transport plans that have regard to the national strategy, showing how the principles will be put into practice.

 
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Prepared 20 July 2004