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6 Feb 2007 : Column 199WH—continued

However, to return to a point that my hon. Friend made, the services that exist currently are the commercially viable services. It is easy to get from
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Wrexham to Chester by bus, because the service is hugely successful. It is used very often by shoppers and people going to work. Most of the journeys that take people to work will be along that route. However, it is much more difficult to travel from the western side of my constituency, where many live, to the large Wrexham industrial estate, which employs about 12,000 people. The checking-in times for workers do not correspond to what is convenient for bus companies, which do not want to run a bus at half-past 5 in the morning. The Wrexham industrial estate business forum has made excellent innovations. It has worked closely with the local authority to design a shuttle serving the industrial estate, based on the model of the Deeside shuttle, to which my hon. Friend referred.

That project has been successful, but at present it is only a toe in the water. The local authorities need a much more active role so that they can link up the huge development taking place on the edges of my constituency with the employers that want individuals to travel efficiently across the area and come to their factories on time. The local authorities have begun to work closely together on the different issues, but need more powers and guidance on providing bus travel. I hope that that will come in the legislation being taken forward and I look forward to seeing it.

It will come as no surprise to colleagues to hear that I want to talk about the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am delighted to see the Minister present; I do not recall ever having had the opportunity to educate her on the subject. I would have been disappointed if the Minister had been the other Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), whom I have already harangued at length on the matter. It is delightful that another member of the Department for Transport is here to hear about this opportunity.

The Wrexham to Bidston line is not the most attractive; one has to be a real enthusiast to undertake a train journey along it. In fact, it runs from Wrexham to Liverpool; I must start calling it the Wrexham to Liverpool line by way of variation. It is called the Wrexham to Bidston line because Bidston is a platform in the middle of a blasted heath halfway up the Wirral. I am keen on the Wirral—I used to work there and have many friends there—but the location is not the most attractive place in the area.

Unfortunately, individuals who wish to travel from Wrexham to Liverpool have to get off the diesel train at Bidston and wait for 10 minutes before leaping on to the super-duper electrified Merseytravel train that takes them right into the centre of Liverpool.

Mark Tami: Does my hon. Friend agree that the platform is so small that if the train is full—that is a rarity, I accept—it is really crammed? As he says, the station appears to be in the middle of nowhere and does not encourage people to feel that they have a great onward journey ahead of them.

Ian Lucas: Indeed; as I say, one needs to be an enthusiast to pursue the line. Most of my visits to it have been in the company of Ministers. I should be
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delighted to invite the Minister to share the journey with me, so that she can see that the line needs investment.

We have an opportunity to link north-east Wales to Liverpool with an electrified railway line that could operate on a half-hourly basis at least. It would reduce the journey by half an hour and be a direct link through the Wirral to Liverpool from north-east Wales. That is important not only to link the two commercial and retail centres of Wrexham and Liverpool, but—this is crucial—to serve the industrial facilities on the line. They are some of the largest in the UK; Airbus and the General Motors Vauxhall plant are situated there, as well as the rapidly expanding Deeside industrial park, which I think will double in size in the next 10 years.

If that happens, twice as many people will need to travel to the park. If that happens and we do not put in the infrastructure, the roads will be twice as bad and the congestion problem will worsen. We cannot tolerate that situation for two reasons: it would be inefficient and it would lead to increased pollution in the area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, we are talking not about an add-on but about something intrinsically essential to the development of the area. It is a huge opportunity and Wirral Members of Parliament, those with constituencies in north-east Wales and the local authorities on both sides of the border are all in favour of it.

Taith, the transport consortium in north Wales made up of local authorities working together, is likely to make the project its main priority over the next few years and we must not miss the opportunity. As my hon. Friend said, at this juncture the projected cost, based on the Faber Maunsell figures, is in the region of £60 million, exactly the same as that for yet another new road that we are building across the border.

Someone very misguided once said that we had a great car economy and that we could build our way forward to solve transport problems. North-east Wales and west Cheshire are evidence that that approach is really causing problems. We need to invest that money to provide the public transport option to all those in the area who now travel by car.

Mr. David Jones: I know about the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the Wrexham to Bidston line; he has pursued the issue for a considerable time. Does he agree that on that issue, devolution has proven to be something of a stumbling block? It appears that Merseytravel is very much in favour of the project, and as he says, the local authorities on both sides of the border are also in favour. However, the Assembly is dragging its feet.

Ian Lucas: That is unfair. I hesitate to leap to the defence of the Assembly; I have been known to be critical of it. However, the Minister with responsibility for economic development, whom I have harangued on many occasions on that very issue, has responded to my invitations by commissioning work through Network Rail and Merseytravel to take the project forward. If anything, more momentum to take the project forward is coming from north-east Wales than from some parts of the English side of the border. I am hopeful that the Assembly will commit itself to the project.

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Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) said that the Assembly was a stumbling block in the development of the Deeside hub. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Assembly’s policies on developing a spatial plan for Wales, so that we can see what is going on now and what will go on in future, are a positive? There is an acceptance that we are within the north-west England sphere of influence; we have developed techniums—the brainchild of Andrew Davies—across Wales; we have a skills agenda in Wales; and there is business support and a business eye across Wales. All that is helping the Deeside hub.

Ian Lucas: There were some good points in that very long intervention. The spatial plan in particular was extremely important in changing the relationship between the authorities in north-east Wales and north-west England so that we could work together to solve the challenges. We also have real development in both Chester and Wrexham, not only on the manufacturing front, which is going forward quickly, but increasingly on business and retail services. Chester has always been noted for its retail success and has been known for many years as a town—

Christine Russell: A city.

Ian Lucas: I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon; Chester has for many years been a city attractive to shoppers. I am pleased to say that Wrexham is now rapidly catching up. When I visit street stalls in Wrexham town centre, I am often pleasantly surprised by the number of people from Chester whom I meet. They recognise the real benefits of shopping in Wrexham—of course, there are benefits in shopping in Chester, too. Yesterday’s newspaper had a great headline: “1,000 New Jobs for Wrexham”. Although we do not see such headlines every day—I wish that we did—the Wrexham area is experiencing regular development. Those 1,000 new jobs will be a challenge, because we need to manage the expansion.

As far as commuters are concerned, Chester and Wrexham are linked mainly by road. The bus service has improved, but we do not have a suitably developed rail service. It was only a year ago that we got an hourly service from Wrexham to Chester, although the most efficient way to travel from Wrexham to Chester is by train. The journey takes 18 minutes, which, in my experience, is half the driving time, and that is outside rush hour. I thank Arriva Trains Wales and the Government for providing the finance for that hourly service, but its success means that we are already considering a half-hourly service on the line.

There is a real appetite to develop the service further. At present, the trains go past the Chester business park, where many of my constituents work. The business park is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell). There is a real possibility that a station at the business park could relieve much of the road congestion. That is not rocket science. People in the area have been talking about it for years, but it requires investment. The service requires investment because the road system across the border between Wrexham and Chester is broken. It needs fixing, but it cannot be fixed by building more roads in the area.

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I first went to Wrexham as a member of a local community council for the Marford, Gresford and Rossett area. We made a journey at a time when the A483 was viewed as the solution to all our problems. That was in the late 1980s, but now it is impossible to travel on that road at 9 o’clock in the morning—it is impossible to get to one’s destination.

Therefore, because of the development that has occurred, we must invest not just in the Wrexham to Bidston line and the local bus service, but in the Chester to Wrexham rail line. For an economically developed, urban area, figures of 5 per cent. for commuters travelling by bus and of 0.5 per cent. for commuters travelling by train are very small indeed. They must be improved if the region is to go forward.

We must also be conscious of the fact that, at present, the most environmentally inefficient way of travelling is by car. If we are to make any real impact in reducing the carbon footprint of travelling to work, we must increase the figures for bus and train journeys. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to come to the area to see our economic success and the transport challenges that we face. The solutions are in place, but we need money.

10.13 am

Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami)—my neighbour across the border—on securing this important debate. As he said, the Deeside hub, which embraces large parts of Wirral and the whole of west Cheshire and north-east Wales, has witnessed remarkable economic growth in recent years. I can remember in 1997 visiting the poorest parts of my constituency. There was 15 per cent. unemployment on the Lache estate, which is in the south part of my constituency. Because of the economic success of our Government, the unemployment rate in Chester now is virtually nil.

The key drivers of that success have been world-class manufacturing companies such as Airbus, JCB in Wrexham and Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port, as my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said, but also financial services. In my constituency, Bank of America, Marks and Spencer Financial Services, and HBOS have created thousands of jobs. In addition, tourism and retail have contributed to the economy. It is estimated that more than 15 million visitors a year come to Chester and to Ellesmere Port. They come to enjoy the heritage of the historic city of Chester, and to visit destinations such as the zoo and, of course, the shopping meccas of Chester and the Cheshire Oaks retail and leisure park.

As my hon. Friends said, the economic success of our sub-region and the contribution that it makes to UK plc are not widely acknowledged. That must be because it straddles the Welsh-English border. I freely admit that cross-border relationships have not always been harmonious in the past. For instance, a local byelaw in Chester states that a Welsh person found within the city walls after sunset can be taken out with a crossbow.

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Mr. David Jones: Is it not true that the Chester town hall clock tower does not have a face facing Wales because the people of Chester would not give the time of day to the Welsh?

Christine Russell: That is absolutely true. However, there is a close inter-relationship and synergy between north-east Wales and west Cheshire today, except on the odd occasion when there is a local derby between Chester and Wrexham—it might not be quite as harmonious then.

As has been said, it is significant that well over 80 per cent. of all the journeys that begin in the Deeside hub area end within the region. Those journeys are increasing year on year. It is estimated that there has been an increase of well over 30 per cent. in the past 15 years.

People cross the border not only to access employment sites. Large numbers of young people cross the border every day to travel to the university of Chester or further education colleges in north Wales and Cheshire. On an average day, one third of the beds in the Countess of Chester hospital are occupied by patients from my hon. Friends’ constituencies across the border. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, the local housing market mirrors the geographic area of the Deeside hub. As house prices have spiralled upwards in Chester, more and more people who cannot afford to get a foot on the housing ladder there have crossed the border in search of cheaper accommodation.

The specific focus of this morning’s debate is transport. I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues that, to sustain the competitiveness of our local economy for the long term, there is an urgent need to improve transport and accessibility within the sub-region, so that workers can move easily between areas where there are still pockets of unemployment and deprivation to areas of opportunity. There is certainly a need for better integration of transport systems, particularly rail and bus networks. As many people now work in the Chester business park, which is on the outskirts of the city, as work in the city centre, yet bus services to the business park are very limited, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. Access to the Deeside industrial park, which is a major source of employment in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, by public transport is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for my constituents.

A great deal of work and planning was carried out by Cheshire county council, Flintshire county council and other agencies in the 1990s to improve the public transport links between the motorway network—the M56 and the M53—and Chester city centre, areas of high unemployment in Chester at the time, such as the Blacon estate, and key employment sites, such as Chester business park and the Deeside industrial park. Unfortunately, when the Conservative administration took over at Cheshire county hall in 2001, the emerging plans to improve the public transport links between west Cheshire and Deeside were shelved and the focus for the county council shifted to road schemes in east Cheshire.

The downside of the growing prosperity of our sub-region, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, has been the marked increase in congestion on our local
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road network at peak times. There is a pressing need—I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham 100 per cent. on this point—urgently to address congestion hot spots, such as the junction of the A55 with the A483 by Chester business park. It is vital that we upgrade the rail links between Chester and Wrexham with a view to providing a stop for Chester business park.

The partial closure of the Grosvenor bridge in Chester in the past month for the laying of a new gas main and the ensuing traffic gridlock have resulted in renewed calls from local residents and businesses for a third crossing of the River Dee in Chester. That would link the A55 with an existing relief road, which is called the Deva link. The proposal for the Chester western relief road has been mooted on and off for the past 20 years. The city council has now agreed to fund an appraisal of possible routes. There will have to be close cross-border co-operation as part of the route may have to run through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside. Although I support that study, I hope that at the same time the need for a public transport corridor will be considered along with the proposal for a new road link.

My hon. Friends have highlighted the employment opportunities that our sub-region will be able to offer in the future, and the site with the greatest potential to meet local employment and housing needs in my constituency is Saighton camp, a former Ministry of Defence site. However, the site cannot be released for development until agreement is given for direct access on to the A55, as the local road network from the camp through the community of Huntington is already at capacity at peak times. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and her Department will work closely with the Highways Agency and the local authorities to make that direct access road a reality.

I fully endorse all the comments made by my colleagues in north Wales for electrification and improvements to the Wrexham to Bidston rail line. An upgrade of that line will benefit the whole of the Liverpool city region as well as north Wales. The Deeside hub has demonstrated that it can compete successfully in the national and global marketplace, and over the past 12 months there has been an increase of more than 30 per cent. in the number of passengers travelling by rail between Chester and London. Next year, when the major upgrade of the west coast mainline is complete, there will be 11 direct trains a day from London to Chester. That will prove a major boost for inward investment.

There are significant increases, too, in the number of direct flights from Manchester airport and Liverpool John Lennon airport to worldwide destinations, but again we need to improve all modes of travel—rail, bus and road—from our towns and city to those airports. The Deeside hub has massive potential to deliver jobs and homes, but some key transport infrastructure is missing. I hope that the Minister and her Department will work closely with the Welsh Assembly, the Northwest Development Agency and the local authorities who make up the Mersey Dee Alliance to secure the necessary funding for a fully integrated, innovative transport system for our dynamic and forward-looking sub-region.

Several hon. Members rose—

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David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. I hope to call the Front-Bench speakers to wind up at 10.30. I now call Mr. Chris Ruane.

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