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Proposals have been put forward. As I understand it, they are still out to consultation. They are temporary, immediate proposals to try to ease the problem of access to the airport. They are not satisfactory. The upgrading of Five Mile lane is a blessing and is welcome, because it is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the country. The maintaining of the A48, if properly done,
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may improve the situation. Sadly, however, the local authority, the Vale of Glamorgan county council, has completely shelved the proposals to
Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. All parties want that, but it is not covered by the Bill. Responsibility for roads is already devolved. The second problem is that existing successful businesses will not be eligible for the sponsorship that the Bill allows. Those businesses will not get more money. Only businesses that do not exist, or cannot exist without the necessary funding, will be eligible for the funding that the Bill makes possible.
John Smith: My understanding is that the Bill strengthens the powers of the Welsh Assembly Government to direct local authorities and other providers of transport strategies and transport provision. That is exactly the point. We have a ridiculous situation in which the Welsh Assembly Government have put forward an interim measure to help alleviate the problem of getting to Cardiff international airport and the local authority has dumped plans to upgrade the existing road, the A4050, the north-east access to Barry. That is vital not only to the future development of the airport but to the future development of Barry town. Barry has been left out of the transport loop by the proposals.
John Smith: My understanding is that the increase in funding to Welsh local authorities has been substantial over a number of years. How local authorities decide to spend the money has until now been entirely a matter for them. My hope is that under the Bill more pressure will be exerted on irresponsible local authorities such as the one that has shelved one of the most important road building proposals in my constituency.
I hope that the Bill will put that right. It is the hope of everybody in the House that the Bill will put that right and that the local authority will put a vital road back into its roads strategy so that we can improve the links to our airport, which will benefit everybody in Wales. That is why I support the Bill tonight.
I left my office in Montgomeryshire at 10.20 this morning and, thanks to the years of under-investment by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and his colleagues and the failure to turn things round in the past eight years, I arrived in Westminster at 3 pm. It took a little short of five hours, with four extra station stops, three trains, two delays and one cancellation. In fact, the only thing that prevented me from losing my temper was the nice man
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at the information desk at Birmingham International, who said he thought that I should be the next leader of my party and then spoilt it by adding, "Good luck in tomorrow's ballot." [Interruption.] I say that not to seek sympathyor the nomination of the hon. Member for Leominsterbut to give a small and pertinent example of how badly our transport system needs to be sorted out.
Rail services in Wales and across the UK have been allowed to decline in earnest since the 1970s. British transport policy for the last three decades has been confused and ineffective, and the result is that we all have to put up with overpriced and unreliable services. By comparison, to make the same journey by car as I made by train today would have taken a little less than four hours, door to door. While it is a hassle to drive, at least people know that they will get where they want to go. That is the biggest single reason why so many people choose to drive instead of taking public transport.
Transport problems have plagued Wales for a long time now. A lack of good-quality local public transport is a great opportunity for the Assembly to show that it is better than Westminster at solving some basic problems. The Bill does not provide the answers, but it will enable the Assembly to do just that. The problems need to be solved because they have a direct impact on business. Transport problems in Wales have undoubtedly caused serious harm to the national economy. They have accentuated the two-paced nature of the Welsh economy by inhibiting growth across much of the countrythe areas that are difficult to access. Of course, ruralmostly westernareas have suffered most.
Transport problems also affect the quality of people's lives. They have hit rural areas such as mid-Wales particularly hard, and the most vulnerable people hardest of all. Pensioners in Powys are caught between a rock and a hard place: either they roll the roulette wheel of local public transport and hope they do not get stuck, or they take their cars, bear the brunt of sky-high petrol prices and add to congestion.
The Bill is to be welcomed as a new chapter for Welsh transport, and I hope that it will mean brighter times ahead. However, it also provides a great opportunity in the third dimension. We could finally establish a modest but important inter-Wales air network. The signs are good. The long talked-about expansion of Welshpool airport is to go ahead, which is a good example of what can happen when the case is argued with the Welsh Development Agency, the local authority and the Assembly. The facts showed that the expansion would be a good economic investment, with no terrible environmental consequences.
While the expansion seems a small step, it hints that we may be reaching a point at which we can begin to capitalise on the potentially great advantages that a developed Welsh air network could bring. The nature of the Welsh landscape is such that on many routes, air is the swiftest, and most convenient, means of travel. We should not ignore the possibilities.
I always listen with interest to what Conservative Members say about air transport. Much is made of the environmental and economic costs of short-haul flights,
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but that debate usually involves Boeing 737s, which are large 100-plus seater aircraft, which would not be used for trips from north to south Wales.
Lembit Öpik: That does not contradict what I am saying; in fact, it fits in with my point exactly. No one will ever run a Boeing 737 from Anglesey to Cardiff because there are not enough people to justify it. However, as my Assembly colleague said, there is a limited demand for that service. Obviously, it is preferable to make journeys by rail, for example, where that is feasible and effective, but unless it is Conservative policy to build a direct rail link from Anglesey to Cardiff, the only sensible way to provide a fast connection between north and south Wales is by air.
We are looking at small numbers of passengers in some cases, and it is small aircraft that could provide us with the backbone of an effective, quick means of getting from A to B. A Piper Chieftain can easily take eight passengersperhaps nine at a pushfrom north Wales to Cardiff in as little as 50 minutes. As for environmental consequences, such a flight would take about three gallons of fuel per personless than that used by eight or nine people each driving themselves from north Wales to south Wales and back again. We know that oftentimes people drive because they have to get from north to south and the railways would take far longer.
Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman made any assessment of the demand for such a service? I recall that in 2003 Air Wales started a service between Cardiff and Liverpool, which is far closer to the large population centres in north Wales, and it closed within six weeks because of a lack of demand.
Lembit Öpik: I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we have made some limited assessment of demand, although it is notoriously difficult to do so because, with air services, demand often follows supply rather than the other way round. The hon. Gentleman is now asking me about an area about which I perhaps know too much, but as he has asked, I will answer.
In 199798, when the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), now the Secretary of State for Wales, and I were considering these matters, it seemed that there was potential underlying demand, but in my judgment it will justify not 100-seater aircraft but something that will take one or two dozen people. There is a well established precedent: in the south of Ireland a strategic decision was taken to connect the country with a regional air network. That has been fabulously successful in driving the economies in those areas, many of which have a relatively small population, because they can now be quickly accessed by business people.
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