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Mr. Hain: I understand my hon. Friend's point. It is recognisedcertainly by the Welsh Assembly Government and, indeed, by the bus companiesthat low steps on buses are extremely desirable for people with disabilities.
In addition, the Assembly is delivering a five-year programme of support for local authority transport schemes worth £300 million. Following a major review of the Assembly's transport programmes, Andrew Davies, the Assembly's Minister for Economic Development and Transport, announced plans to invest £8 billion over 15 years as part of the all-Wales integrated transport strategy, money that would be put at risk if the Conservatives ever got back to power.
There will be a range of measures designed to reduce congestion, increase consumer choice and improve transport links throughout Wales. These include increased investment in the gateways of Wales, including proposals for a new section of the M4 around Newport, continued investment to improve the road and rail networks, a new internal air service linking north-west Wales with south Wales, and improved integration of our transport network.
In order to build on the impressive progress made by the Assembly, it is essential that it has the powers that it needs to tackle the challenges facing our transport system, such as the inexorable increase in the demand for travel and the threat of gridlock on our roads.
Mrs. Betty Williams: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a need to strengthen the provisions on the Assembly's duty to promote sustainable development, with reference to section 121 of the Government of Wales Act 1998?
Mr. Hain: I think that that is being addressed, but the commitment to sustainable development, and the fact that the Assembly has that as an objective, was one of the pioneering aspects of the Government of Wales Act 1998. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary points out to me that the duty is in clause 1(1)(a) of the Bill, so my hon. Friend the Member for Conwy (Mrs. Williams) can determine whether the provision meets her objectives.
Traffic growth in Wales has outstripped that in the rest of the UK in recent years and, with a booming Welsh economy, that trend is likely to continue. Wales also has higher than average rates of dependency on private cars for travel to work, despite the fact that we have some of the shortest commuter journeys in Britain.
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On public transport, our major cities are lagging behind others in the UK where incremental improvements have been made over several years. However, the Assembly's limited and fragmentary transport powers have restricted its ability to deal effectively with the challenges that we face and deliver a first-class integrated transport system.
The lack of transport powers has long been recognised. As far back as 1997, the Welsh transport advisory group, which I chaired as a Welsh Office Minister, started examining the transport legacy that the Assembly would inherit. Subsequently, both the Assembly's cross-party Environment, Planning and Transport Committee and the House's Welsh Affairs Committee have concluded that the Assembly requires additional powers. There was thus broad agreement on the legislative changes needed to take Wales into a new transport age, which was why we brought forward the draft Transport (Wales) Bill in May last year. Following pre-legislative scrutiny as well as an extensive public consultation, the draft Bill has been refined into the Bill that is now before us.
There will be a new statutory duty on the Assembly to develop and implement policies for the promotion of safe, integrated, sustainable, efficient and economic transport facilities and services. The Assembly will also be required to prepare and publish a Wales transport strategy to set out those policies and how they will be implemented. The Assembly intends to consult widely with all stakeholders when drawing up the strategy.
Where local authorities are already required to prepare local transport plans, the Bill will now provide a formal mechanism to ensure that those plans are consistent with the Assembly's overall vision for transport in Wales. To ensure that local transport plans are consistent with the Wales transport strategy, they will need to be submitted to the Assembly for approval. Refusing approval will be possible only with the approval of the Assembly in plenary session. I anticipate that such cases will be wholly exceptional and that the Bill will thus not mean that local transport planning will be taken out of the hands of local authorities.
Another important element of the Bill is the provision to facilitate greater joint working by local authorities to produce transport plans, which is essential to make real improvements in key transport corridors. The particular geography of Walesa fact to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) referredmeans that transport issues often cross local authority boundaries and thus need to be tackled regionally. The best example of that is of course south-east Wales, which covers 10 local authority areas and contains about half the population of Wales. Here there is a pattern of travel-to-work movements from the valleys into Cardiff and Newport that is superimposed on more strategic east-west movement along the M4 corridor and, to a lesser extent, the A465 heads of the valleys road.
A regional approach would address both public transport and road traffic management and deal effectively with the interface with the strategic trunk road network, which is why the Assembly has identified south-east Wales as an area that might benefit from one
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of the other key powers in the Bill: the power to establish joint transport authorities. Powers granted to a joint transport authority might, for example, include the co-ordination of bus timetables, a standardised approach towards bus lanes and bus stops and improved services across local authority boundaries.
The next main provision of the Bill will enable the Assembly to provide funding for transport services directly to transport operators to ensure that unmet transport needs in Wales are met. Currently the Assembly has to rely on a patchwork of different Acts, some of which date back to 1919. For example, the new power might be used to support services that cross several local authority boundaries to implement the Assembly's long-distance bus and coach strategy. The Bill will also give the Assembly the power to provide revenue payments to airline operators or capital funding for new airport facilities, subject of course to the constraints of European Commission competition law. That will allow the Assembly to implement its policies on intra-Wales scheduled air services, for example.
Albert Owen: The Secretary of State will be aware that public service obligations are working well in places such as Scotland, where the mainland is linked with some of the islands and people can sometimes go on to other destinations. Will the funding under the Bill allow the establishment of not only intra-Wales services, but links to other capital cities, the Republic of Ireland and, indeed, London?
Mr. Hain: I am not quite sure about that. It probably would be allowed, but it would have to be clear that the service was beneficial to Wales and not just a transit arrangement. If the service were funded from within Wales, it would have to be beneficial to Wales itself.
Lembit Öpik: Is the Secretary of State still of the view, as I am, that Wales really needs an integrated intra-Wales network? Connecting Wales quickly with major capitals such as London and Manchester would be an important opportunity, so it might be easy to argue that a multi-stop flight starting from Ynys Môn, perhaps, and finishing in London would be consistent with the requirements of European competition regulations.
Mr. Hain: The problem would be whether an intra-Wales service was being proposed. I do not think that it would be possible for the Assembly's funds to be used to subsidise something that was effectively a UK service, desirable though that might be in principle. The hon. Gentleman has long been a champion of this argument and I have joined his cause politically and, indeed, literally, by flying up and down to Welshpool airport with him, along with the hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott), who was then working for himshe was working her passage, as it were. I am an enthusiast for air services in Wales, which is why I am delighted about the new air service from Valley in Anglesey for which my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn has fought long and hard. There is scope for more such services.
The hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) talked about the transfer of funds. Will
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the Secretary of State confirm my understanding of the Government's response to the Welsh Affairs Committee report, which says:
"There will not be a transfer of funding to the Assembly; any support which the Assembly wishes to give to air transport or air services will have to be found within the Assembly's existing budgetary provision."
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