Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): I too pay tribute to the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Peter Law) on his excellent maiden speech. He and I are old colleagues and friends from the National Assembly, and I know that although there is a certain amount of political distance between us, he will be an excellent constituency Member.
Clearly, one must applaud the aims of the Bill. After all, an integrated transport system is the holy grail that has eluded politicians over the generations, so I suppose that now is the time for Wales to pursue it. However, I must express concern as to what will be the counter-productive effects of the Bill in terms of local government. Since it was established, the National Assembly has shown itself to be an increasingly acquisitive, centralising institution. That was most recently exemplified by the absorption of the Wales Tourist Board, the Welsh Development Agency and Education and Learning Wales into the machinery of the Welsh Assembly Government so that they became, in effect, arms of government. That process continues in the Bill. It is an exercise by the Assembly in stripping local authorities of their functions in respect of local transport, but leaving them, and therefore local council taxpayers, with potentially most of the cost of any failure. That is all the more disturbing given that section 113 of the Government of Wales Act 1998 imposes a positive duty on the Assembly to sustain and promote local government in Wales. The Bill does not achieve that.
The truth is that the Bill is in many respects unnecessary in facilitating the delivery of efficient transport in Wales. Local authorities are already working collaboratively in respect of public transport. We heard earlier about SWWITCHthe South West Wales integrated transport consortiumand the Minister will know about Taith in north Wales. Are the Government suggesting that Taith is somehow failing in achieving the outcome that the Assembly seeks. In what way will the proposed joint transport authorities improve the present arrangements respect of transport delivery?
Clause 2 imposes an obligation on the Assembly to prepare a Wales transport strategy. However, the 1998 Act already empowers the Assembly to prepare such strategies as it wishes, and it can already require councillors to have regard to those strategies in
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preparing their local transport planning by using its powers to give guidance under section 112 of the Transport Act 2000.
I am concerned about the proposed composition of the joint transport authorities, for two principal reasons. First, although the Assembly must consult local authorities before making an order establishing a JTA, it will be at liberty to ignore whatever representations those authorities make. Secondly, clause 4(4) provides that JTAs may include representatives of local authorities among their numbers, but contains no obligation on the Assembly to ensure that there is local authority representation on the JTAs, much less to ensure that local authority representatives are in a majority for voting purposes. Those are matters that I shall wish to pursue at a later date.
While the voice of local authorities is seriously undermined by the Bill, clause 5(10) contains worrying powers for the JTAs to impose levies on those authorities that will in due course be converted into council tax. No assurances have been given, in the Bill or otherwise, as to the resourcing of the JTAs. In that respect, I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). It is unacceptable that council taxpayers may effectively be asked to pick up the tab for the failure of a JTA given that they may have no democratic representation on it.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) mentioned trunk roads in Wales. That is clearly the area where improvements are most desperately required. I remember the days when I travelled from north to south Wales along the A470 with, frankly, horror. Unfortunately, I see little in the Bill that will improve the powers of the Assembly to pursue a trunk road building programme, which is where it should be concentrating most of its effort.
The subject of air travel has exercised many hon. Members today and, to mix metaphors, has been a hobbyhorse of the Secretary of State for some time. Perhaps I should say that it is a kite he has been flying. I well remember that before the 1999 Assembly elections he issued a strict injunction that the 13 Members of the Welsh Assembly from north Wales should be required to take an air service that would fly from Caernarfon via Hawarden to Cardiff to get them there safely, cheaply and quickly, as he put it. The problem was that the plane he was talking about could accommodate only nine passengers. That led some wag to suggest that perhaps the Secretary of State was hoping that among those elected would be two right-wingers and two left-wingers.
Of course, the service failed, as I found to my cost when I was called to the colours of the Welsh Assembly. I made inquiries as to the availability of the service and was told that it had failed and was no longer operating. Subsequent attempts have been made to establish an all-Wales air service and they have also failed. I have no objection to some form of subsidy being used for pump priming, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) described it, but it would be a wrong application of public money to provide continuous subsidy for a service that would be used largely by public employees travelling north to south and back.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) mentioned, the natural routes in Wales are east to west, and air transport links would be
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most useful on those routes. However, the subsidy regime would not permit public moneys to be used for that purpose, unfortunately.
Lembit Öpik: We are beginning to reach consensus. We have established that pump priming is acceptable and that infrastructure investment probably makes sense. If research were to show that the investment of subsidy would be more than exceeded by an increase in economic activity, would the hon. Gentleman think that it was a reasonable investment? I am not about to whip such evidence out of my pocket, but does he agree that it would be a useful area for economic research?
Mr. Jones: It would be a useful avenue to explore, and if some economic benefit could be proved, Conservative Members would not oppose such investment. However, the Secretary of State appears to be blindly committed to an intra-Wales air service subsidised at public expense, and I would not be prepared to support that. I would, however, be prepared to support better links to the important regional airports that serve my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas)Liverpool and Manchester airports. We desperately require an improvement to the road link between the A494 and the M56, which is a significant bottleneck between Liverpool and north Wales.
In many respects, the Bill is an unnecessary exercise in extending the powers of the Assembly at the expense of local government. It is the reverse of devolution, because it will suck up powers from local authorities to the National Assembly. Thus far the Assembly has not commanded tremendously enthusiastic public support. In fact, turnout in the last local government election was significantly higher than in the last two Assembly elections. The Assembly's failure on health in particular is notorious. It would be better applied if it attempted to exercise efficiently its existing powers, rather than seeking to acquire more.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Once again, I apologise for the early departure of the shadow Secretary of State for Wales, and add my congratulations to the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger). If he is as classy a Minister as he was a Whip, it will be to the considerable benefit of Gwydr house.
policy would be to the benefit of the people of Wales? I welcome the responsibility placed on the National Assembly for Wales to publish, and to be held accountable for, a transport strategy for Wales. We want public investment in transport in Wales to contribute to the safer and more efficient distribution of travellers and journeys between different modes of transport, principally rail and road. But ultimately, we want a policy that will contribute to raising the quality of life of far more people in the Principality.
We have had a very interesting and knowledgeable debate. This is the first time that I have participated in such a debate on Wales and I have learned a great deal, having listened to the high-quality contributions from all parts of the House. One of the most knowledgeable Members is certainly the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), who made a thoughtful speech and is clearly a great advocate of ferries and railwaysand now planes. It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik), who, as always, was illuminating, interesting and humorous. I had not realised that if fate had taken just a slightly different turn, rather than sitting on these green Benches, he could have been the Richard Branson of 2005.