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Lembit Öpik: I just muse that Cardiff international airport must be the only airport of its size that requires one to drive through two housing estates to reach it. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that that is an enormous waste of resource, as it takes as long to get from the airport into the town as to fly to the airport.
David T.C. Davies: Indeed. That brings me on to why has the Welsh Assembly not developed some sort of viable road link straight on to the M4, which is only a few miles away geographically? I understand, as I have seen loads of figures on the potential costs, that a realistic estimate for such a fast road link on to the M4 would be £37 million. That is a lot of money but not huge in the scheme of things when we consider what is likely to be spent on the M4 relief road going through Newport. Without a shadow of a doubt, however, such a scheme would add to the viability of that airport and even make possible the development of some of the services that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned, without the need for various different subsidies.
That brings me to another problem that could worsen as a result of the Bill. I have noticed a tendency over the last few years for the Assembly Administration to deal with complaints about transport by suggesting impractical and expensive headline-grabbing solutions to meet a need that does not really exist, rather than spending the money at a local level where it could make a difference. We need to ensure that the Bill does not make that even worse by giving the Assembly too many powers to subsidise such grandiose schemes.
A couple of years ago, I well remember that the Assembly wanted to use £20 million of public money to build a futuristic monorail system, which would have transported people in driverless pods 15 ft above the ground at Cardiff bay from the Welsh Assembly building to Cardiff city hall, which is only a few hundred yards further up the road. If that pipedream ever goes aheadI understand from an answer to a written question a few months ago that there is still a possibility that it couldit could end up being the most expensive funfair ride this side of Walt Disney in Paris.
The same mentality seems to be behind the idea to subsidise an air link between north and south Wales. We must remember that in January 2004, Air Wales actually axed a service between Liverpool and Cardiff. In
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October, it axed a service between Cardiff and Londonnot even 18 months after the service was first introduced. It is all very well giving the Welsh Assembly the powers to subsidise air routes that would otherwise not be available in and around Wales, but we should perhaps ask ourselves why those services would not otherwise be viable. The simple answer is that, although they might suit some Assembly Members and the growing army of civil servants, they would be effectively useless for the vast majority of Welsh travellers.
The link will fail because there has never really been the same demand in Wales to travel between north and south as there has been between east and west. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire spoke earlier about the history of Wales from the ice age, emphasising the difficulties of getting from north to south, but ever since Edward I took an interest in Wales, travel has been mainly from east to west. People in north Wales look towards Liverpool, just as those in Cardiff and Newport, where I come from, look towards Bristol and London. The M4 and the A55 were built to meet a demand that already existed, and the Assembly will not improve transport links by trying to service a demand that simply is not there.
Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman says that there is no demand for transport between north and south, but I tried to explain earlierthough I did not have the figures at my fingertipsthat about 150 people per day travel from north-west Wales to Cardiff on business by car. Surely that provides an initial demand that would stimulate developments. As well as people from the health service, members of the business community have to spend a great deal of time travelling by road or rail to Cardiff. The hon. Gentleman should not dismiss such people and should not make up stories about everyone going to Liverpool.
David T.C. Davies: I was not suggesting that everyone goes to Liverpool, and I am not necessarily disputing the hon. Gentleman's figures, though it was interesting to hear him mention people in the health service, which is the public sector. To put that into context, we need to reflect not just on how many people travel from north to southof course, we know that people do that all the timebut on how many travel from east to west every day. Only when those figures are properly established can we take a decision about whether there is a genuine demand for new transport services.
Lembit Öpik: That is exactly why no one is recommending building a motorway from north to south Wales and exactly why a small-scale airline operation would be appropriate for business people and, indeed, the civil servants and others who need to make the journey. The hon. Gentleman keeps on making pariahs out of public servants who need to travel from north to south, but why should they not be allowed to travel quickly? We are not asking for an A380 Airbus, which the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) mentioned, but only for a little aircraft to meet a need. Why are the Conservatives so against having an effective, cheap and fairly environmentally friendly small-scale air service in Wales?
David T.C. Davies:
We are not. We are all in favour of having such a service, but we are not in favour of using
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National Assembly money to subsidise it. If the demand were there, and if 150 people grew to 200, 300 or whatever, we could have a Boeing 747 taking them from north to south Wales every day. Good luck to whoever sets it up. Perhaps the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire could fly the planes, and Labour Members could put their money into buying shares. I do not know, but, after six years in the Welsh Assembly, I do know this. We receive a limited amount of money each year from Westminster, which must fund the health service, education and local authorities, all of which are having to raise their council taxes because not enough money is going in. Admittedly, some of the money is wasted on white elephants such as the new Welsh Assembly building, which was supported by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire and his party. I agree that had some of that money been spent on a north-south air link, it would probably have been better spent. The fact is, however, that there is only a limited amount in the pot. We have no problem with the north-south Wales air link; our problem lies with the use of public money to subsidise it.
Let me return from those grandiose visions to what is important to most people: the Assembly's ability to deal with transport matters. I must say that its record has not been terribly good. People in my constituency are disappointed that the Assembly has thus far failed to sort out a wrangle between ELWaEducation and Learning Wales and certain local authorities such as Monmouthshire over the funding of post-16 pupils' school transport. As many Members will know, Monmouthshire county council received less per head than any other authority in Wales, which has forced it to make difficult decisions. One of those decisions concerns the funding of transport for post-16 pupils doing A-levels. The council has been forced to ask ELWa to fulfil its own obligations to fund post-16 education, and to pay for the school transport that is so necessary in a rural area. ELWa has so far refused to become involved, and the Welsh Assembly is not prepared to give a lead. As a result, pupils are being forced off the buses. If we pass the Bill, we should also ask the Minister to use whatever influence he has to persuade the Welsh Assembly to resolve the matter.
Let me end on a positive note. I have always opposed the idea of a Welsh Assembly. It is no irony that I was a Member of the Assembly, as most of my constituents were against the idea as well. I also believe that having been voted foralbeit by a tiny minoritythe Assembly should be made to work as well as it can on behalf of everyone. Although I do not favour giving it any extra legislative powers, I think we should allow it make the best possible use of the powers that it has. Otherwise all of us in Wales, whether for or against the Assembly, will lose out.
I see in the Bill opportunities to allow the Assembly to make better use of its existing powers over transport issues. It must do so soon, because public transport throughout Wales is frankly abysmal. Not all of that is a result of Government policiessome of it is owing to geographical and demographic factorsbut we should pay most attention to those living in rural areas who depend on public transport to get around and to travel to their jobs. They currently have no access to public transport, because the trains are not there and bus
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services are so poor. They are forced to rely on their cars, although in some parts of Wales senior council officials have said that the roads are so badly maintained that some are in danger of reverting to cart tracks. That phrase was used by highways officer in one of the Welsh local authorities recently.
Those people's needs are not being met, because the transport system in Wales is failing at a basic level. Much more needs to be done. I do not believe that all the answers lie in the Bill, but I am prepared to view it with an open mind. Anything that will improve transport in Wales is a good thing. I recall the Deputy Prime Minister promising us an integrated transport policy for the whole United Kingdom, and I recall the Welsh Assembly saying something similar six years ago. There has been very little action so far, and I look to the Minister to reassure us that there will be action in the future.
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