With no disrespect to Members of this House and those of the National Assembly who put their efforts into debating and shaping the Transport Bill during the last Parliament, I believe that it is a modest piece of work that may do little to address the fundamental transport challenges facing the people of Wales and the Welsh economy. At the same time, it contains some proposals that require further thought.
I do not object to the notion of transport planning at Assembly level, but I am sceptical of the value of grand transport strategies on paper. Hon. Members can judge for themselves what difference the Deputy Prime Minister's much-heralded integrated transport strategy has really made to travel in the UK during the past seven years. Members will recall the Prime Minister declaring in his first annual report that the integrated transport strategy was "delivered". Delivering words on paper is all well and good, but what matters in terms of transport is funding, as well as tough, and correct, choices over competing infrastructure projects and the ability to manage those projects ruthlessly through to completion.
Giving the Assembly the ability to provide a stronger and more focused lead on transport in Wales is not objectionable in itself, but I have three areas of concern. Let me start with what I believe to be an imbalance in the Billthe heavy focus on public sector passenger transport needs. Any successful Wales transport strategy must have the needs of the Welsh business community at its heart. The efficient movement of goods, services and people is vital to a thriving economy and, to that end, business requires reliable, affordable and safe modes of transport for staff and customers, as well as swift access to markets for freight. Based on my observations of the Assembly Government in action and the specific measures contained in the Bill, I am sceptical about whether the strategy will deliver what business wants. Certainly in my constituency, there is a fairly widespread view within the local business community that the Assembly does not always have the needs of businessespecially small firmson its radar. That view is supported by the Federation of Small Businesses
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in Wales, which fears that the voice of the small business sector is being lost among the voices of public sector bodies in the discussion about Welsh transport needs. That must not be allowed to happen.
The Bill is heavily focused on local authority and public transport considerations. For instance, clause 2 places on the Assembly a clear duty to consult every local authority in Wales and any English councils adjacent to the Principality in drafting the transport strategy. Clause 5(c) permits it then to consult anyone else it thinks relevant. Why does the Minister not think that there should also be a requirement for the Assembly to consult business? Why should not the private sector be seen as an equal stakeholder alongside the public sector in the drafting of a transport strategy? Given the importance of transport to the economy, dialogue with business over the specific contents of the strategy should not be optional. There are precedents for a statutory duty to consult business. Aside from the section 115 requirement in the Government of Wales Act 1998, which I understand would not cover the transport strategy, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 contains a specific clause requiring the Mayor and the Greater London authority to consult
The second area of concern relates to clause 5 and the proposal to create joint transport authorities. At a time when the Welsh Assembly Government are trying, too hard, to persuade the people of Wales that a bonfire of the quangos is under way, along comes a Bill giving the Assembly powers to create yet another cluster of unelected bodies funded by a levy on the taxpayer. The Minister may make the point that those will be lean and efficient bodies, but the costings provided in the explanatory notes are weak. I do not argue with the need for local councils to work closely together to deliver integrated transport networks that match travel patterns rather than merely matching local authority boundaries, but could that objective not be met through other means? For example, my local authority, Pembrokeshire, already participates in the south-west Wales integrated transport consortiumor SWWITCHwhich comprises four authorities working closely together and developing a regional strategic transport framework. Should not that framework form the basis on which each constituent authority can develop its own local solutions tailored to its specific needs? The regional strategy for the SWWITCH area is quite capable of providing the basis for implementing the Wales transport strategy in Pembrokeshire and the three other local authority areas.
There is also a danger that the joint transport authorities could undermine local authorities' attempts to deliver integrated transport by separating decisions on transport and access from those made by the local authority on land use planning, economic development, social services, education and leisure. I would welcome the Minister's thoughts on whether there is a potential disconnection in that respect.
My third concern relates to the provisions in the Bill permitting the Assembly to subsidise air transport services and facilities, which have been discussed at length this afternoon. I want to add my voice to those in
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support of expanded air capacity in Wales. Over the past 20 years, air traffic in the UK has trebled and for the next 20 or 30 years it is forecast to grow by 4 to 5 per cent. each year. That will benefit the major international airports in London, Manchester and the big cities, but the outlook for smaller regional airports is also positive. There is no reason why Wales cannot also benefit.
I listened to the arguments made by the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), which were not without merit. I would have been happier had he supplemented his more visionary arguments with some hard data and statistics about the viability of an intra-Wales air transport network. New routes and services within and from Wales must only be carried forward on the basis of sound commercial principles. The key to successful local airports is the ability to identify and exploit specialised niche markets. That is a risky business and one better left to entrepreneurs, rather than to the taxpayer operating through politicians. The history of state aid to air services throughout the world is littered with examples of subsidies being driven by politicians' vanity, misplaced nationalism and economic irrationalism. For those reasons, I am wary of giving the Assembly powers to subsidise air services.
Mr. Crabb: No, I am not saying that, but I am wary of subsidies being used. I think that they should be used only as seed funding to get a service up and running, after which the taxpayer can withdraw from the relationship, not as a long-term funding mechanism.
Lembit Öpik: That was a helpful clarification. As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman would be concerned if the funding were an open-ended, ongoing commitment, rather than pump-priming funding that could lead to a viable operation or a one-off investment in infrastructure at the airport.
Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman says that he is not against subsidies in principle, but he is worried about ongoing funding. Does he not understand that in areas such as his and mine, that funding would give the Assembly the ability to draw down European structural funds, under objective 1, which would assist the economic wellbeing of the areas in a wider context? That is difficult to quantify, which is why I did not include facts and figures in my argument. It is impossible to quantify the economic benefits to businesses in the area, about which the hon. Gentleman expressed concern.
It is not impossible to quantify the benefit. We know that £2.5 million of taxpayers' money has already been used in Scotland to support lifeline air services. Research can be carried out into the effectiveness of those and the impact on tourism and local economic development. It would be possible to produce greater evidence to support the arguments that you are making. In the absence of such evidence, I am slightly wary of and somewhat sceptical about subsidies for air services that would be used by a narrow range of
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people who, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, would probably be from rather higher income groups than most of the people in your constituency and mine.