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6 Feb 2007 : Column 206WH—continued

10.25 am

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this important debate.

We have hidden our light under a bushel in north-east Wales. We have the fastest growing area in the UK, and that is something that we should be proud of and that should be recognised. It is no accident that that has occurred in north-east Wales. Let us consider the history of the 1980s and the record of the previous Government. We saw the biggest lay-off in British industrial history—7,000 workers in one day. Their record on BSE was the result of the deregulation of health and safety rules, and dealt a £7 billion hammer blow to the agricultural community in north Wales. The pit closure programme, with the closure of Bersham, Gresford and Point of Ayr, saw the loss of thousands of miners’ jobs. That laissez-faire, cold capitalism and free marketeering cost our area dearly.

When we consider the record of this Government, it shows that it is no accident that we have such a fantastic, buzzing area of the UK. We have introduced the minimum wage; we gave the Bank of England control over interest rates; we have a skills agenda; we have massively invested in research and development—billions of pounds are going in—and we are business friendly. The launch aid that we gave to Airbus in the late 1990s—the Government gave £450 million—primed the local economy, while £11 billion has been spent on the upgrade of the west coast mainline. Those were all political decisions taken by the Government that have resulted in the area growing and growing. I shall give one further example. The previous Government did not even decide to apply for objective 1 funding for Wales. That is now priming central and north-western Wales, and it is feeding into north-east Wales. We have objective 1 for Merseyside, too.

I have been holding meetings for the past four years on unemployment in my area, and it is mainly confined to coastal towns in north Wales. The unemployment black spots are in my constituency, in west Rhyl and south-west Rhyl, in Flint, in Pensarn, in Abergele, in Colwyn Bay and the Maesgeirchen estate in Bangor. If we could pick up the unemployed in those towns and transfer them to the Deeside industrial estate or to Airbus and if we could have pull-in stations in those areas of employment opportunity, we would benefit the whole of the regional economy.

I am not only making a plea for trains. Road issues have been highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas). We need to have the big picture of the UK. The population areas are in Birmingham, so we need a fast road link and a fast rail link to Birmingham. At present, we have one and a half lanes on the A483 for about 30 miles, and we have motorway and dual carriageway for the other part. That needs to be upgraded. Manchester and Liverpool airports are growing at a great rate. We need to ensure that the decision is not made to transfer the north Wales connection from Victoria to Piccadilly, because if that occurs there will be no joined-up transport for the north Wales population to Manchester airport.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) is here, and we must consider the importance of Mostyn docks. We are taking huge wings out to France from there. Are there other high-value products made in north-east Wales that we could ship out? Are we tapping into the Irish market and the Northern Irish market for the port of Mostyn? We must ensure that all of the big picture is considered, and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to meet Andrew Davies and to have a summit with English Ministers, Welsh Ministers, Welsh and English councils, Welsh MPs, Assembly Members and the corresponding MPs from Cheshire and Wirral. We must look at the big picture to ensure that all our transport modes in north Wales and north-west England work for the benefit of our economy.

10.30 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this debate and commend him and other hon. Members for the manner in which they have conducted it. Hon. Members might think that I am more familiar with the other Deeside, the one that produces so many Scotland Office invitations for the hon. Gentleman, and they would be right to take that view. He might be interested to know that the other Deeside shares many of his constituency’s problems, but I am not familiar with the Deeside hub, and I will not pretend to have the depth and breadth of expertise exhibited by other hon. Members.

It seems to me that many of the issues that apply to the Deeside hub are the same in microcosm as those affecting other regions throughout the United Kingdom. The remarkable thing is that the Deeside hub seems to have them all. I was particularly pleased to hear the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside speak about the continuing importance of the manufacturing industry. I have often said that we speak of the manufacturing industry as though it were something in our past. It has a very different profile now, but it is still of immense and enduring importance. As he said, we no longer have large, monolithic industries. We have a much more diverse range of manufacturing industries, but they are of far greater importance than the service sector. Important though that sector is, it does not have the enduring depth of manufacturing.

The debate has also highlighted the challenges brought to us all by the process of devolution. I use the word “process” advisedly—I think it was the late Donald Dewar who said that devolution in Scotland should be a process and not an event. Inevitably, however, once one starts to draw lines on maps, issues arise about what happens on either side. I shall not intrude on some of the points raised in that regard by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell), but I shall be careful, as I do not know whether the rules about crossbows apply to Scots as well as to the Welsh. Devolution in the Welsh context should not stop at Cardiff, but extend to the different parts of Wales. For people in north-east Wales, centralisation in Cardiff will be no better than centralisation in London has ever been.

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The problems outlined by hon. Members have largely been problems of success, and I commend them for that. However, success also brings certain opportunities. In a hub in which 83 per cent. of journeys start and end, surely there are opportunities for local authorities and local people to determine and roll out for themselves the transport solutions that best suit their needs.

The hon. Members for Alyn and Deeside and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) made the particularly pertinent point that transport must be considered as part of strategic planning for any region. Our blight for the past 30 years and probably even longer is that we have always viewed transport as something that follows on or as a bolt-on. One hon. Member said that it had been retro fitted, which is absolutely right. We must see that transport planning and proper strategic investment in transport bring opportunities for continued growth.

There are particular opportunities and threats in the Deeside hub because the recent history has been one of economic prosperity, but we cannot rely on that to last for ever. In our globalised economy, there are other parts of the world where people are thinking strategically and planning transport into their infrastructure and economic growth. The UK cannot rely on keeping businesses here just because they have always been here. If we fail to meet the transport challenge, we blunt significantly our competitive edge over other prospective industrial sites in different parts of the world.

I have learned more this morning about the Wrexham to Bidston line than I would ever have believed possible in such a short period. I am due to visit Wales at some point to meet my colleagues there who are concerned with transport issues, and I assure the hon. Member for Wrexham that a trip to that blasted heath in the middle of nowhere, to use his expression, is now very near the top of my list of priorities. It is a good example of an instance in which, in transport and overall terms, a not massive amount of money could bring a significant improvement. The improvement that I identify is the opportunity for modal shift. The large number of car journeys within the hub is a mark of the failure of other modes of transport. If we are to have transport that is not only successful in economic regeneration but sustainable environmentally—after the Stern report, that is now the challenge—investment in such projects is crucial.

The hon. Member for Wrexham made another point that was exceptionally pertinent to the needs of the region—we need to revisit the governance of bus services. We are told that we will see a draft Bill on what will amount to re-regulation of the bus services, although I do not think that we are talking about a return to the pre-deregulation situation of the mid-1980s. A significant amount of public money still goes into the provision of bus services, but there is very little accountability for it. Re-regulation or a limited measure of regulation and proper local authority involvement in the provision of bus services would create the opportunity for accountability.

It struck me that the unemployment blackspots listed by the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) are places where opportunities could be greatly improved by the provision of decent bus services, and where social inclusion could be easily and quickly made
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available by access to education, employment and training. It is a missed opportunity that transport links into the heart of the area are not integrated with other modes of transport.

To be in charge of the transport brief, as the Secretary of State and the Minister are required to be, is a next to impossible challenge. I hope that when the Minister replies, she will answer the very legitimate concerns raised by hon. Members of her own party. More than that, I hope that as well as organising any summit that might be thought necessary, she will start in her Department a process of thinking based on the fact that the proper way to meet the transport needs of the Deeside hub, or indeed of anywhere else in the country, is not to make decisions in Whitehall, but to give people in the regions and sub-regions the power to make those decisions.

10.39 am

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing this debate, which has focused attention on the transport problems—or perhaps I should say challenges—that affect the Deeside hub, which is a dynamic part of north Wales and north-west England.

Many hon. Members referred to the need for joined-up thinking and for transport not to be regarded as a bolt-on extra to economic development. It is fair to say that the level of dynamic growth in the Deeside hub has outstripped the transport infrastructure put in place prior to its development. The hub straddles the trans-European route that links the M56 and the central midlands motorway network to the A55. The construction and dualling of the A55—now completed through to Holyhead—under the last Conservative Administration was a major economic driver and stimulus to the development of the Deeside hub. If the economic experts are correct, the future of this part of north-east Wales and north-west England is bright. We hear that the northern gateway is the largest development site in north Wales and the north-west, with £1.4 billion-worth of development planned over the next five to seven years.

Two issues arise in connection with transport that have been touched on today. One relates primarily to road transport, which is essential if the potential of the Deeside hub area is to be realised, and the other relates to the Wrexham to Bidston line. The hon. Gentleman stressed the need for joined-up thinking, and that is certainly important in an area that straddles the boundaries of England and Wales.

On road links, travellers from the A55 to north-west England have for many years been bedevilled by the lack of a through-link to the motorway network. The A494 and to a larger extent the A5117 have been enormous barriers to the free flow of traffic. As the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) pointed out, it is essential that those routes are opened up, as they are links not only to the motorway network, but to the important airports of Manchester and Liverpool, which are crucial to the Deeside hub and to north Wales.

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We know that the A5117 is in the process of being upgraded—a process that I understand will take some two years. However, although the A494 is already dualled, it is to be upgraded, which is, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the source of considerable controversy in north Wales. Since it is a trans-European route, no doubt the Minister will liaise closely with her Welsh Assembly colleague who is responsible for considering the dualling of that stretch of road. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the project has caused considerable controversy in his constituency and is a matter that has been addressed by him and his colleague, Mr. Carl Sargeant. It has also been addressed by my colleague Mr. Mark Isherwood, the Conservative Assembly Member for North Wales, who has expressed concern that, at some point, residents on Aston hill will find their village bisected by a carriageway of 11 lanes—four lanes going up the hill and three lanes going down, and parallel roads and slip roads in addition. Not surprisingly, local residents are extremely concerned. There is also concern that the Flintshire bridge, which was constructed some years ago and is notably underutilised, is not being considered for that route. As the hon. Gentleman said, it would be possible for the bridge to be utilised and for the new route to be taken across open and undeveloped land to the junction at Northop. I certainly hope that the Welsh Assembly will consider that and that the Minister will point that out to her Assembly colleague.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) referred, as he has done over many years, to the potential of the Wrexham to Bidston line. Having stood on the platform at Bidston, I can attest that it is indeed in the middle of a blasted heath. I am told that Simon and Garfunkel composed “Homeward Bound” on the platform at Runcorn station, but I believe that the platform at Bidston would have defeated their powers of invention.

Chris Ruane: With reference to Simon and Garfunkel, was it not Widnes station?

Mr. Jones: It could have been, and I stand open to be corrected. Either way, however, it was clearly a platform more inclined to inspire invention than the one at Bidston.

Hon. Members referred to the Faber Maunsell report that was commissioned last year. The report refers to what it dubs the borderlands rail line—a phrase that has a more pleasant ring to it than the Wrexham to Bidston line. As the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside mentioned, the report pointed out the potential of such a line. Indeed, it states:

Some 35,000 new jobs are projected to be created within that catchment area by 2020 and 2,800 new homes will be built. The Wrexham to Bidston line has enormous potential to link workers with their jobs. There is already a link to the Merseyrail route and it must not be forgotten that, although the hub is an important sub-region, it is essentially a sub-region of Merseyside. The importance of a link between Wrexham, other stations on the Wrexham to Bidston line, and Merseyside cannot be understated.

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As the hon. Gentleman said, this matter requires joined-up thinking not only between Merseyrail and the county authorities, but with the Welsh Assembly. I ask the Minister to urge her Welsh Assembly colleague to give urgent consideration to the development of this line, which has the potential to be an additional economic generator for this part of the world.

In conclusion, this has been an interesting debate that has focused attention on an increasingly important part of the country with enormous economic potential. Key to that potential is the development of good transport links. I look forward with interest to hearing what the Minister has to say about her proposals for developing those transport links.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) on securing what is an important debate. I commend the efforts of my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends who represent the sub-regions of the Deeside hub. They have promoted cross-border transport by working in partnerships across Wales and the north-west for the benefit of their constituents. It has been a positive debate. The current situation has been described as a success. Clearly, the contribution of my hon. Friends has been considerable for the people of the area.

I am disappointed that there is no interest from Welsh nationalist Members today. I had hoped that they would take an interest in such an important debate. In general terms, I assure hon. Members that I am more than happy to raise with my ministerial colleagues in the Wales Office relevant matters that were raised today. I also assure hon. Members that Department for Transport Ministers and officials regularly liaise closely with the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Ministers. I hope that that provides some reassurance.

Partnership working in the transport sector is strong in the area that we are discussing. The Mersey Dee Alliance has developed a common understanding of the need to develop better transport services in the area. I agree with my hon. Friends that transport is central to its continued economic success. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) that people do not live according to administrative boundaries and we must ensure that investment, development and improvements reflect an understanding of that.

I have been passed a note that clarifies the most important point, regarding “Homeward Bound”. I understand that it is Widnes to which we should give credit.

Chris Ruane: Yes!

Gillian Merron: That has obviously excited a lot of interest.

The Government recognise, of course, the importance of good transport links for economic and social regeneration and for improving access to jobs
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and key services. There is no doubt that better access, whether by rail, bus or car, is crucial. The Government share the objective of improving sustainable transport choices—my hon. Friends called for that—so that residents can access the opportunities in the area that we are discussing.

Chris Ruane: My hon. Friend mentions rail, bus and car. Will she enlighten us on the impact that she thinks bus deregulation and rail privatisation have had on the ability to provide joined-up transport in the Deeside hub?

Gillian Merron: We have recently announced the policy document “Putting Passengers First”, which is about the biggest shake-up of buses for some 20 years. We have done so because we have found that bus deregulation did not provide uniform improvements up and down the country and the Government are keen to give maximum potential to people through improved bus services. Cross-border services are extremely important because they play a very strong part in beating congestion and promoting environmental alternatives. We would have wished to see greater success over the 20 years since deregulation. I hope that now, under the present Government’s policy, we can seek greater improvements.

We have been working in government to address a legacy of under-investment in transport that goes back decades. The growth in our economy, although clearly beneficial, has put further pressures on all transport modes. That is why the Government are committed to sustained long-term investment in transport. We are now spending the equivalent of £260 million a week to improve transport. Almost £74 million of the increased transport funding for the north-west was awarded to Merseyside, Cheshire and Halton authorities. The local transport plans for those three authorities highlight the joint working that they have been undertaking with neighbouring Welsh authorities, and we encourage them to continue that.

Last year, we made announcements on regional funding allocations, provisionally allocating £1.25 billion to support major transport schemes in the north-west up to 2015. That included funding for the Bidston Moss viaduct, the Crewe Green link road and the Crewe rail gateway.

Looking ahead, I refer my hon. Friends to the productivity strand of the transport innovation fund, which will support the funding of regional, inter-regional and local schemes that are beneficial to national productivity. The fund is limited to schemes in England, but that is reflected in the funding allocation for Wales and in the Barnett formula. That there are administrative boundaries should not prevent any good proposal from coming forward. There is no reason why the TIF cannot contribute to the English part of any cross-border scheme.

Ian Lucas: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Gillian Merron: I would like to make progress, if I may. I share my hon. Friends’ view that our transport strategy is focused on reducing social exclusion, tackling congestion and pollution, and enhancing the quality of life by improving all types of transport.

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