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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 February 2007

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Cross-border Transport (Deeside)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]

9.30 am

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): I am pleased to be in the Chamber this morning. I was very nearly not, because of an incident at Charing Cross. However, that is a different transport issue, which I shall leave for today. It is a pleasure to be here, and I shall begin by addressing where and what the Deeside hub is.

When I first entered the House in 2001, I was struck by the number of invitations that I received from the Scotland Office to attend various events. However, I assure hon. Members that Deeside is firmly in north-east Wales, not in Scotland. The area known as the Deeside hub is an economic sub-region covering Flintshire, Wrexham, Chester, Wirral, Ellesmere Port and Neston. My hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) and for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) apologise for not being present this morning. They were keen to attend, but unfortunately they were unable to. It is an important issue for them, too.

The region spans the Welsh-English border, and it has seen faster economic growth than south-east England over the past 20 years. Growth has occurred throughout a range of industries, including major global sectors such as aerospace, metals, automotive, financial services and petrochemicals, and throughout a range of smaller enterprises.

Overall, the region is probably more dependent on manufacturing than many parts of the country, particularly on the Welsh side of the border. Much of that is value added, and it is important that within the sector, we remain ahead of the game and do not suffer the problems experienced in other parts of the country, where they are losing manufacturing to eastern Europe and to China. It is clearly a problem throughout the sector.

The prospect for continued growth, according to most experts and studies, remains very good. However, we can never be complacent, and from my own experience, things can appear to be going well and then something unexpected can happen. Corning, which produces optical fibres on the Deeside industrial park, had a strong order book, and then suddenly the world market for optical fibres crashed and we lost many jobs in what was considered a strong sector.

I am sure that on entering the House, all hon. Members look at what their predecessor said in their maiden speech. Barry Jones, now Lord Jones, talked about the twin pillars of the area’s economic strength. They were Courtaulds, a textile manufacturer, which has now gone, and Shotton steelworks, which still holds the record for the largest number of job losses in a
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single day at a single plant. They demonstrate that we can never rest on our laurels, and that we must always ensure that we have as dynamic an economy as possible.

To ensure that we build on our success, we need joined-up thinking and close co-operation. It is particularly true of new industrial and business sites, and housing also needs to be affordable. Importantly, we also need transport that meets not only current requirements, but expected needs.

By considering several larger employers, we can see the scale of our transport needs. In my constituency, Airbus alone employs more than 7,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in the Deeside hub area. Almost 2,000 live in my constituency alone. About 8,000 people work at the Deeside industrial park, which covers 800 hectares and includes large employers such as Toyota, making engines, ConvaTec, making medical products, and Iceland, and a range of smaller employers. In other parts of the country, they might not be considered small, but we have a number of large employers.

UPM Shotton paper mill is the largest newsprint mill in the UK, recycling 700,000 tonnes of paper a year and producing 450,000 tonnes of newsprint, all from recycled paper. It is the first mill to achieve that feat. Corus, once the largest employer in the region, based at Shotton, recently invested in a new rail head and in a new venture, Living Solutions, which produces modular buildings. Those are just a few examples of the larger employers, and as I said, it is important that they are balanced with smaller employers. Another key point is that we must encourage the supply chain to provide support and parts to big employers such as Airbus. It is important that we carry on that development.

For the future of the whole region, we are looking at major investment and expansion. The northern gateway proposals, using surplus Ministry of Defence land and Corus land, would produce another big business opportunity. There are other opportunities in Wrexham, in Ellesmere Port and in Chester, so the outlook is good, but they will put added pressure on housing and transport. I shall not touch on the housing debate, however, as I am sure that we could spend at least an hour and a half on it.

Transport must be tackled as part of an overall strategy. One problem in the past was that we tried to sort it out as an add-on when the problem got worse, rather than by considering what the problem was likely to be and by meeting it. Within the Deeside hub, 83 per cent. of trips start and end in the region. If we go back to what I said about Airbus, that percentage explains the scale of the traffic in the region. Many workers at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port live in my constituency or in Wrexham. The 83 per cent. figure relates to people moving around the region as they go to and from work.

Within Flintshire, 80 per cent. of journeys to and from work are by car—the highest percentage in the UK. Some 98.6 per cent. of journeys to the Deeside industrial park are by road, and companies have complained to me that the lack of transport has deterred people from obtaining employment there. Those companies have unfilled vacancies in many areas, so we must examine the issue.

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The Deeside shuttle, which serves the industrial park, has contributed considerably to that problem’s solution, saving an estimated 2,200 car journeys a week. However, it shows that we have not considered the extent of the problem. We did not consider putting the transport system in place before the park expanded to its current scale. We must address that problem before there is development on the scale of the northern gateway; otherwise, we will run up against further problems.

There have been some major road upgrades of cross-border importance in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will touch on issues about the Wrexham industrial estate, so I shall not touch on the road issues. However, transport is a major issue in the area.

The M56-A494 corridor is important. The upgrade of the road at the Shotwick traffic lights is essential to clear what has been a bottleneck for many years. The proposed changes at Ewloe and Aston Hill on the A494, costing upwards of £67 million, are totally out of proportion to existing traffic problems, and even to projected growth. The project could have as many as 13 lanes, which is bigger than any motorway that I am aware of, and that includes slip roads and hard shoulders. It has been actively opposed by myself and Carl Sargeant, my Labour colleague in the Welsh Assembly. There has also been an active and effective local campaign led by Jon Butler, Sally Streeter and Terry Maloney. I ask the Minister to speak to Andrew Davies, the relevant Minister in the Assembly, to examine the issue as a matter of urgency. That development is not needed, and it is certainly not needed to meet the requirements of an integrated transport strategy addressing cross-border issues.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): The hon. Gentleman made an important point with regard to the A494. Does he share my concern about a very expensive bridge, which cost £78 million to build some years ago, called the Flintshire bridge? It is known colloquially as “the bridge to nowhere”. Does he agree that far more use could be made of that route through a link from the bridge to Northop, over undeveloped land, which would cause far less disruption to the residents of Aston and the local area?

Mark Tami: That is one of the options that could be considered. Even if we stick with the A494 proposal, there is scope for one more lane, but the scale of the proposed expansion is totally unnecessary. The bridge is extremely pretty, but I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It could be put to a far better use, and land where there are houses would not have to be used. As I understand it, most of the land nearby is of a farming nature, or does not have a lot of properties on it.

When my hon. Friend the Minister talks to her colleague in the Assembly, I also suggest that she take up the issue of the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line, which would make a major contribution to the requirements of the entire Deeside hub area. By coincidence, the expected cost is about the same as the cost of the A494 expansion at Ewloe and Aston Hill.
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Perhaps the Assembly would be in a position to transfer the money across. I am sure that the process would be slightly more involved than that, but it would certainly be a much better way to spend the money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has been a leading campaigner on the issue of the Wrexham to Bidston line, and I commend his work. It is probably not a line of which a lot of hon. Members have heard. I will be totally honest and say that I have only used it once myself, although I live within a few miles of several stations on the route. There is currently only an hourly service and at the stations near me, people have to stand on the platform and hail the train to stop it, which gives the impression that the service is seen as a backwoods type of line.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) for bringing to my attention a Faber Maunsell report produced in 2005. It contains some interesting facts about the line: more than 200,000 people live within 2 km of a station on the line and by 2020, 35,000 new jobs and 2,800 new homes are planned for the area. Clearly, the line could serve that area well.

I am pleased to see Merseytravel’s plans to electrify the line and to increase the level of service fourfold, meaning that there will be a service every quarter of an hour. In addition, new stations will be built at Woodchurch, probably at Beechwood and, most importantly from my point of view, at Deeside. A station there would serve the Deeside industrial park and the proposed new development, or the northern gateway. Connah’s Quay is the largest town in Wales not to have its own railway station, so a station at Deeside would go some way to addressing that problem. Electrifying the line would halve journey times and make it possible to travel from north Wales to Liverpool in about half an hour. That is a vital project, which should go ahead if we are not to rely even more than we do at the moment on the road network, which creates congestion that I am sure will get worse.

Merseytravel hopes to have its plans finalised by the end of March 2008, but that process will require close cross-border co-operation, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to do all that she can to ensure that the programme comes to fruition. As I understand it, the proposal involves all the interested bodies, councils and agencies on both sides of the border. A planned and integrated transport system is the bedrock on which our economic success will be built.

As I have said, we have tended to worry about and to try to solve problems afterwards, but retrofitting will always be more expensive, take longer and be far more difficult to achieve. The absence of an effective transport infrastructure will probably deter some companies from siting in the area in the first place, or may even lead to companies looking to move away from it to find a place where they could be better serviced. We cannot allow that to happen.

We need joined-up thinking, not a situation where one approach is taken on one side of the border, and a different one taken on the other. In itself, this is a small point, but I am always struck by this example. Anyone who has travelled on the A483 will notice that a large proportion of the road is all nicely resurfaced with
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tarmac. The moment one gets to the English border, that stops, and the old surface is still there. There is not very much of it—

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): It is the Tory council.

Mark Tami: Whatever council it was, it shows that there was no joined-up thinking. I would have thought that by the wit of man, somewhere along the line, someone would worked out that it made sense to resurface the whole road rather than stop at that point. That does not send a great message about how we are working on a cross-border basis. I am sure that the future for the region is bright, but we must not ignore this issue. We must plan ahead so that the future is secure.

9.47 am

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): It is a real pleasure, Mr. Taylor, to be appearing before you this morning for, I think, the first time. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate about an issue that is vital not only for my constituents, but for others in north-east Wales generally and in west Cheshire and the Wirral. The area is not commonly recognised in the UK as being as economically powerful as it is. Part of the reason why Members from north Wales and Cheshire are working together on the issue is that we want to heighten the profile of the area known as the Deeside hub because it is not widely recognised throughout the UK.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, this area has enjoyed huge economic growth in the past 25 years. It has transformed itself from an area that employed people in manufacturing industries such as coal and steel, which have now disappeared from the area. They have been replaced by high-tech and highly skilled industries such as aerospace. Manufacturing is still extremely important in the region, but in order to move forward, it is important that we create an infrastructure to support the industries, service industries and retail opportunities that exist in the area.

The first thing we want to do is heighten the profile of the Deeside hub area. Part of the reason why transport issues in this area have been so low on the agenda for successive Governments is that they have always been regarded as an add-on. The focus has been on job creation, which has been very necessary during the past 25 years. However, in my constituency, we now have unemployment rates of less than 3 per cent. and inward migration of labour for the first time that I am aware of in the history of the area, certainly on the scale that we are experiencing at present. We need to address problems that are problems of success rather than of failure. Those problems are mainly twofold. The first problem is congestion, which is increasingly a bar to economic activity, and the second is sustainability. We need to ensure that the transport systems that will be in place for the future are sustainable.

The failure to recognise the Deeside hub as an area has meant that Governments have not created transport systems to encourage transport within the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said that 83 per cent. of journeys to work that
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commence in the area covering Wrexham, Flintshire, Ellesmere Port and Chester end in that same area. We therefore have a sharply identified area in which people travel to get to work.

The striking thing about the statistics for transport to work in those areas is how little public transport is used. I visited the excellent Neighbourhood Statistics website and obtained some statistics for travel to work for Wrexham, Chester, and Alyn and Deeside. The figure for people aged 16 to 74 who usually travel to work by car is 62 per cent. in Wrexham, 67 per cent. in Alyn and Deeside, 65 per cent. in Ellesmere Port and 57 per cent. in Chester. The average figure in Wales is 61 per cent., and it is 54.9 per cent. in England. We should remember that Wales is largely a rural country, whereas we are talking about urban areas for the most part, although there are also rural areas in our constituencies. We are talking about urban areas in Wales and on the English side of the border; and yet the figures for travel to work by car are higher than the Welsh average.

What is striking is the lack of available public transport facilities, which is reflected in the figures. In Wrexham, just over 5 per cent. of people travel to work by bus—the figure for Alyn and Deeside is similar—and less than 0.5 per cent. of people travel to work by train.

Mark Tami: My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. The problem is not just the lack of public transport, although that is clearly a major issue, as we have both said, but that where public transport exists it does not go in a straight line to where people want to go. People have told me of journeys that should have taken a quarter of an hour or so taking an hour and a half because they had to use convoluted routes on public transport.

Ian Lucas: That is absolutely true. One of the challenges for the area, which I was going to touch on later, is that economic boundaries do not correspond to the political boundaries. My hon. Friend provided the classic example of the half-surfaced A483. It is a straight road that runs for about 10 miles. The first five miles are in Wales and the second five miles are in England. There is no discernible physical boundary—in fact, quite a small brook forms the border—yet one half of the road has been resurfaced but not the other.

One interesting and commendable development in the area over the past three to four years is that the governmental institutions—the Welsh Assembly, the Government office for the north-west and the various local authorities—have made considerable efforts to begin working together much more to reflect the economic reality on the ground and to try to address our central problem. We have a population that crosses the border the whole time for all sorts of reasons, such as work, shopping and leisure. In people’s minds the border does not really exist, yet it does exist for the purposes of the various institutions, governmental authorities and politicians concerned. One of the challenges that we face is to try to remove the systems as barriers to progress. That is why it is so important that hon. Members on both sides of the border are here today.

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We are beginning to make progress on addressing the institutional difficulties that exist. To return to what I was saying earlier, such institutional difficulties have meant that we do not have a public transport network that reflects the reality of how people live their lives, and particularly how they travel to work. I mentioned the figure of 5 per cent. for travel to work by bus. By way of comparison, I had a look at another area, which has a mature public transport system—and which I happen to know well because I was born there—called Gateshead in north-east England. Its figure for travel to work by bus is 17 per cent. The two areas have much in common, but the north-east has for many years enjoyed the benefit of a good public transport system.

Travelling to work by public transport in north-east Wales and west Cheshire is extremely difficult, because the system does not correspond to the reality of how people live their lives. Many of my constituents work at General Motors in Ellesmere, and about 800 of them work at Airbus in Flintshire, which is bigger than any business in my constituency, despite the fact that there are many large manufacturing facilities in the area. We have a mobile population that currently cannot travel to work by public transport. That is a major problem, because it causes increasing congestion on the major roads in my constituency and is also beginning to act as a barrier to the successful management of the local economy. Journeys are taking longer, more time is wasted and the good connections that we had in the past to places such as Manchester airport are being rapidly undermined.

How do we deal with those challenges? The Government have made much progress on transport, even in Deeside. The first aspect that I should like to touch on is buses. I strongly commend the announcements that have been made in this Parliament about a greater local authority role for buses. I also commend the Department for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister for the open and consultative way in which they have dealt with the issue, holding meetings before any legislation has been produced and discussing the issues generally. That has enabled me to speak to my local authority in Wrexham, take the benefit of its expert knowledge in the area and see what needs to be done to design a bus system that reflects the economic progress that has been made in the area and encourages people to use buses.

I always used the bus when I was being brought up. My parents have never owned a car and I used public transport the whole time. However, I must confess that in Wrexham it was only recently that I used the buses again. Using the bus was a pleasant experience, which surprised me. I went to the local bus station and was easily able to identify which bus I needed to take, because of the information systems there. The bus was efficient, quick, clean and very different from how I had pictured it in my mind’s eye—because of my personal prejudices, I suppose. That reflects the experience of many people. If people were to look at the systems in place for bus travel nowadays, they would see that there has been much improvement.

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