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Albert Owen: I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. There are many significant things to see in north-west Wales, for example. As I said, although I think he was talking to the hon. Member for Leominster at the time, the cruise industry is growing. According to the Daily Post, this summer alone it is worth about £4 million. That is the potential: 2,500 American tourists, who might go to Southampton or Le Havre, would have the opportunity to come to Wales, and I think that vision should be applauded, not treated with the disdain shown by the hon. Gentleman.
Of course links to Cardiff are problematicI understand thatbut if the people who want to undertake the journey can take 40 minutes to fly from north-west Wales to Cardiff and then spend some time in a car, as opposed to taking four and a half or five hours to complete the journey by train, there will be a net gain for them.
Following our earlier discussion of air transport, I understood that the hon. Gentleman had made the case that this system would be an important business link, relieve traffic congestion and have obvious positive consequences. Of course, we all know that
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people could travel to other airfields should they wish to do so, but he now seems to be making the case that the subsidy spent on transport by the Welsh Assembly would be for the benefit of tourists. That is why I made the case that we need to have this argument. It would be interesting to know how he decided that the aeroplane would have 49 seats and what the reality is likely to be. Clearly, a lot of information about what is to happen is missing from the Bill.
Albert Owen: To get back to the Bill, it obviously deals with the intra-Wales link between Cardiff and Swansea and the north of Wales. I am expanding on the potential for links with other areas such as business and tourism, and I am disappointed that the interventions from Conservative Members seem to run that down. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West commented on the A55 not being complete. The first thing that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did as a Wales Minister in 1997 was to allow that to be completed, because the decay in the port communities of Holyhead was horrendous. During the 1990s, as a consequence of having no infrastructure in place, those communities had the highest unemployment in Wales. That is no longer the case, and I am therefore proud of this Government's record. The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) should acknowledge that having vision is good, as that is what makes young economies grow. I am pleased that the infrastructure now in place will allow the Welsh economy to grow.
I realise that several Members want to speak, so I shall make just two further points to the Minister. First, if we are talking about full integration, I am slightly disappointed that there is less emphasis on sea transportation. Secondly, as I said in an intervention, if subsidies are not given to the intra-Wales service, will he consider whether they could be extended to link Cardiff with Dublin or Dublin with London via the Welsh route?
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Ever since the hills and valleys of Wales were formed some time in the ice age, Wales has been difficult to get around. It has lacked a joined-up transport system. The geography of the nation together with the lack of a cohesive strategy in the past has definitely held Wales back.
Previous strategies launched in the past eight years have, in my view, failed to resolve the incoherence of the Welsh transport system. We all know that when the system works, it tends to work from east to west and then back again, and that there is relatively little strategic investment in north-south routes. What little there has been has tended to go into road transportation rather than other modes.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the Royal Automobile Club estimates that it currently takes almost five hours to travel the 193 miles from Holyhead to Newport by road. It takes almost three hours to get from Cardiff to Aberystwyth, which is only 111 miles, and almost four hours to travel the 150 miles from Wrexham to Haverfordwest. Everybody knows that it is quicker to get from north Wales to London than from
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north Wales to Cardiff. That is not joined-up transportation, and it is not helpful for the long-term strategic intentions that this Government, and any Government, would have for Wales.
The importance of the transport system cannot be underestimated in the context of Welsh development. At present, Wales is in danger of becoming a two-tier nation, with parts of the south booming and areas of the north and west still heavily reliant on objective 1 European funding simply because of comparatively low incomes and comparatively low growth rates. Without proper Welsh-made transport, those without good transport access will be left behind, and we will see an increasing divide between rural and urban economic developments and between the north and south. We are already seeing resentment as the M4 corridor gets significant investment and is accessible, while other parts of the nation suffer in silence. The decline of manufacturing in areas such as Powys is a good example of the pressures experienced when transport links are not in place.
During the general election, a recurring theme for me was the reality of car dependence in rural areas such as mid-Wales, as has been pointed out. Let us face it: there is no point in having a bus service if there is only going to be one person on the bus. In any cohesive strategy for Wales, the role of the automobile must be considered.
Another recurring theme was the poor state of the rail services. For example, there is currently only a two-hourly service during the week between Birmingham and Cardiff. If a train is cancelled, that means a four-hour wait. Few people from that area will have escaped the problems of being left high and dry by a service terminated in, for example, Wolverhampton. I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), as I always do, and while he has been cautious with respect to aviation and so forth, I was disappointed that he did not express his opinion on whether privatisation was the single most damaging thing that any Government of the last 30 years have done to the service endured by Welsh rail users.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman has confirmed from a sedentary position that he has a strong view on the matter. That is fair enoughhe is entitled to his view. I believed at the time, however, and continue to believe on the basis of the evidence, that rail privatisation has decimated the service, which should have been kept intact and, at that time, in public ownership.
At the time I did not think so, but looking back, I would give anything to return to the flawed but much more coherent days of British Rail compared with what we have now. By implication, I assumed that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and his colleagues all continue to believe that privatisation of the rail services was a good idea. It is just as well, then, that their party did not get re-elected, because if, even today, they have not learned the
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lessons of privatisation of the rail service, that suggests that British transport will not be safe in the hands of a Conservative Government.
Lembit Öpik: Unfortunately, because of the decision made by the Conservatives at the time, it does not look feasible to return to those days and reverse their appalling decision. If the hon. Gentleman would like more detail on that, I shall be happy to have a quick session with him afterwards, including a discussion on aviation, to enlighten him on the reasons why the Conservative Members currently in this Chamber are in a minority of four on support for privatisation of rail services.
Another issue that we must bear in mind in relation to the integrated rail and transport strategies for Wales is that these problems cannot be addressed overnight. It would be churlish to pretend that one piece of legislation could do so. However, the Liberal Democrats feel that the Bill represents a prudent move, as it gives the Welsh Assembly the power to make some strategic changes.
The Bill contains many good points. For example, it provides the opportunity for better and faster north-south road links. We all need to recognise that any expansion and extension of road networks must be approached with caution on account of the environmental damage that cars do. We must also recognise, however, that cars are a fact of life and that the north-south roads are nothing like as good as the east-west links, which disadvantages large parts of Wales, especially rural Wales.
The Bill provides the opportunity to modernise and improve the efficiency of the railway system that serves the whole of Wales. It contains a proper appreciation of the current transport situation in rural areas and of the need for fair treatment of those whose only option is the car. If passed, and, I hope, improved a little in Committee, it can directly benefit the economy three ways: tourism, industry and agriculture. It will enable the Welsh Assembly to take a strategic approach to the problems that we face.
As right hon. and hon. Members may have guessed, I welcome particularly the emphasis placed by the Bill on air transport servicesa sector with enormous, and in my view largely untapped, potential in Wales. Airports, including those in Ynys Môn, Welshpool, Swansea, Haverford West, Cardiff and Caernarfon, provide a perfect opportunity to link Wales up in a fast and efficient way with minimal requirement for additional investment in infrastructure. The Secretary of State, no longer in his place, and I flew down together from Welshpool to Cardiff some years ago and my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Jenny Willott) was indeed on that flight, learning the skills that now make her such an exceptional representative as MP for Cardiff, Central. Following that fine tradition
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