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I am puzzled by how clause 11(2) will work in practice. Perhaps the Minister could outline how the Assembly will test whether a service would not be provided without its financial assistance. Given the existence of a pot of subsidy, would it not be rational for any company tendering for a service to demonstrate that there is a shortfall in its business plan?
Lembit Öpik: I just wanted to explain why I focused so much on air transport. It is because this is the enabling Bill that will finally secure an air network in Wales. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the House for their forbearance. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the kind of passenger who would use such services. Yes, they would be small in number and probably fairly wealthy. However, for such a service to be viable, only 15 or 20 people a day would need to go from north to south. In any case, the funding would be an enabling investment for the economy, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) suggests.
Mr. Crabb: I recognise those arguments, but it would be helpful to see further research on the matter. If companies were thinking seriously about providing such services, one would expect that they would carry out their own market research and develop the numbers.
I am also surprised by the wording of clause 11(3), given the heavily constrained regulatory environment in which air transport subsidies can be made. The Bill states that the Assembly "may" attach conditions to financial assistance. Surely it is the case that the Assembly must attach some pretty stringent conditions if their subsidies are to comply with EC regulation 2408/92. I should be grateful if the Minister would take a moment in his winding-up speech to explain the procedure for ensuring compliance and what role the Secretary of State for Transport will play. Will the Secretary of State merely rubber stamp a public service obligation on any route requested by the Assembly Minister?
I hope that the Bill can be improved as it moves through the House. It may be a modest piece of legislation, but that is not to say that it does not merit further deliberation and, perhaps, amendment.
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab):
I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb). This is the first time that I have participated in a debate in this House with him, and he had some interesting things to say. If I may, I will bring this debate back down to earth by focusing on land transport in Wales, particularly in north-east Wales, part of which I am honoured to represent.
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When the Assembly develops transport policy in Wales, it needs to take into consideration certain circumstances that are particularly relevant to north-east Wales. That area is very strong economically under this Labour Government; indeed, my constituency now has an unemployment rate of less than 2 per cent. and a vibrant local economy. North-east Wales also has a peculiarly strong reliance on car transport, which is not a record to be proud of. My hon. Friendsmy good friendsthe Members for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) have the honour to represent the local authority with the highest rate of car usage for travel to work of any county not just in Wales, but in the United Kingdom. Wrexham has the 22nd highest rate of such usage, so north-east Wales relies intensely on car transport.
It is increasingly evident that poor transport links are becoming not just an environmental problem, but an economic one that is preventing the local economy from becoming even stronger than its current state. When the Assembly considers how to develop its transport strategy, I want it to focus on the importance in a modern economy of public transport, its development and access to it. There are some excellent manufacturing industries and strong local employers in our area, but people who want to work for them find it very difficult to get to work. Because 24-hour shifts are in operation, they find it extremely hard to get to work other than by car.
Real progress has been made, however, in north-east Wales. Thanks to a public sector option, the Deeside shuttle, which serves the Deeside industrial estate, now transports people to work there. I am pleased to say that that model has been followed in Wrexham; the large Wrexham industrial estate now has a similar service. In trying to develop that service, I discovered that a vast number of organisations on the ground needed to be consulted, such as local authorities and other regional bodies. In Wrexham, the business community was also heavily consulted. We have an excellent business forum, which was at the forefront in developing the Wrexham shuttle. I agree with the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire that it is important that business be consulted, and I am sure that, even under the terms of this legislation, that will happen. Business often coughs up and funds such projects, and this Government are amenable to funding from various sources for public transport projects.
North-east Wales still needs to turn away from private transport in a much more profound way. Discounting the London line, we have two local rail services: the Wrexham to Bidston line, to which I shall return, and the Chester to Shrewsbury line. Both services travel the border, and both are not as regular as we would like. Progress has been made, however. Later this year, the Chester to Shrewsbury service will become an hourly service, and the Wrexham to Bidston service already is hourly. However, it is very important that the new transport bodies develop local rail policy in a much more imaginative way than has been the case in recent years.
I am going to part company with the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire on the issue of joint transport authorities. I have worked hard on the Wrexham to
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Bidston line project in particular. I have been trying to bring about the electrification of that line, which would reduce the journey time between Wrexham and Liverpool by about half an hour. A direct service would give people in Gwersyllt, Hope and other places along the line much easier public transport access to Wrexham, the largest urban centre in north Wales. They would also be able to access employment more easily than is the case at present.
I have received a lot of help in my work, and the north Wales transport grouping Taith has provided a great deal of support. The consultation process reports in July, and we hope that the project will be taken forward as soon as possible. However, from time to time I have had the feeling that I have been wading through mud as I have consulted with different bodies about the project. There is a strong case for establishing stronger regional authorities in Wales to deal with strategic projects such as the one to which I have referred. By themselves, local authorities are too small to handle important strategic issues such as the railways.
Mr. David Jones : The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, but does it not support the concern expressed earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin)? He said that there was a need for much greater clarity about the cross-border arrangements contained in the Bill. In due course, those arrangements will affect the working of the joint transport authorities.
Ian Lucas: I do not know that what I said supports the point made by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), but I agree that cross-border issues are extremely important. Earlier, I mentioned the Wrexham to Bidston line, but Wrexham is also served by the very important Chester to Shrewsbury line, which I believe should be developed to link Wrexham with the Chester business park, for example. Although that site is on the other side of the border, many of my constituents work there.
Under the present arrangements, it is very difficult to take that development forward. English authorities looking west are not as interested as they should be in providing services in Wales to transport people from Wales to England. Sometimes, I also feel that Wales, looking east, does not work as hard as it should to liaise with authorities in England about service access. The problem is a difficult one, but I think that the best way to deal with it is to adopt a strategic approach through the joint transport authorities.
I am very pleased with the public investment that the National Assembly is putting into public transport in Wales. I noted with great interest the opening of the Vale of Glamorgan line in south Wales, in which £17 million of public money was invested. It is tremendous to have a Government investing in public transport and the railways in that way, and I shall keep close to my heart my press cutting about the Vale of Glamorgan line when the Wrexham to Bidston line project is taken forward. I hope to have some very positive discussions in the future with my very good and hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, and with the National Assembly.
We need to approach public transport in north-east Wales in a very different way in the future. Our attitude has been very unambitious, and my generation has
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fallen foul of what used to be called the great car economy. I was brought up in Tyne and Wear in the north-east of England, in a family where no one had a car. Between 1977 and 1979, however, I used to travel to school on a fully integrated public transport network, in which tickets could be transferred between buses and the Tyne and Wear Metro.
In contrast, however, Arriva now runs both the bus and train services in the Wrexham area. I regret to say that I have been unable to persuade that company to arrange for buses to stop at the local rail station. That shows that we have gone backwards rather than forwards as regards delivery of public transport over the past 25 years.
The Bill offers a real opportunity to adopt a much more strategic approach to public transport, and to persuade people that public transport is an option that they need to take in the future, for both economic and environmental reasons. We need to make public transport responsive to the needs of local industry and to make it a much more attractive option. I believe that the Bill will take us towards that goal, but we need to change profoundly the thinking on and approach to public transport in order to achieve that worthy goal for the future.
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