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David Jones: Getting Wales moving

Speech on the Transport (Wales) Bill in the House of Commons.

"I broadly welcome the Bill, but I have concerns about its implementation in the hands of the Welsh Assembly which, in the years since its inception, has shown itself to be an increasingly acquisitive and centralising body.

I have two primary concerns about the Bill. First, clause 5 provides for the establishment of joint transport authorities. The power to establish such authorities is permissive, not mandatory.

The Minister was at pains on Second Reading to stress that the Assembly will not be obliged to implement the power conferred by the clause.

However, once it is conferred, the Assembly may be tempted to exercise it as a matter of course, which would clearly be wrong. Local authorities throughout Wales are already working in collaboration through consortiums such as Taith in north Wales and SWWITCH in the south-west.

The consortiums are mostly working effectively, so it would be regrettable if the Assembly usurped their functions without very good reason indeed.

The power exists, and that might prove too much of a temptation for the Assembly. I mentioned my reservations on Second Reading, and I remain concerned that clause 10 contains powers for the joint transport authorities to impose levies on local authorities.

If those are imposed, they will filter through to council tax payers in the form of additional council tax. The establishment of a joint transport authority should be a last resort, and only if the Assembly is satisfied that without it, it would not be possible to discharge the general transport duty set out in clause 1.

I hope the Assembly will not do that without proper consultation and serious consideration of the views of local authorities and all other proper consultees.

My second major concern relates to clause 11, which provides for financial assistance for air transport services starting or ending at airports in Wales. We have heard much about that this evening.

It is clear from the debates on Second Reading and in Standing Committee, as well as the debate that has developed in the National Assembly, that the thrust of the clause is to help promote an intra-Wales air service, primarily between north and south Wales.

That would be an expensive exercise and I must express severe reservations about it.

There has been much discussion about the possibility of developing part of RAF Valley for commercial aviation services.

The concern is that Valley is situated in one of the least populous areas of Wales, remote from large or even middle-sized centres of population.

That is obviously a sensible place to locate a military airbase. I understand that at one time Valley had the second highest number of air movements in the whole of the UK, but it is not the logical place to site a commercial airport.

Despite what the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) says, the sad truth is that north-south air services have a history of failure, as I mentioned in my intervention on him.

The Air Wales Liverpool-to-Cardiff service was launched amid much fanfare towards the end of 2003, and six weeks later it shut down, blaming a lower than average take-up rate.

If an established airport such as Liverpool, which has an existing infrastructure and which is much closer to the large centres of population in north Wales, cannot support a route between north and south Wales, it will be extremely difficult for a smaller airport such as Valley to support such a service.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has produced figures that tend to indicate that the potential cost of subsidy in the first year of establishing Valley would be about £800,000.

The likely capital cost of upgrade would be £400,000. That is a major subsidy from public money.

The Assembly should be very careful before it commits public funds to such a heavy subsidy. It should do so only if it is entirely satisfied that there is a good commercial case for that.

The people of Wales would be dismayed if that level of public subsidy ended up subsidising the movements of civil servants and politicians between north and south Wales.

A reasonable business case could be made for that. My concern is that clause 11 potentially envisages an on-going public subsidy year on year.

The people of Wales would resent that bitterly, particularly if it were primarily to subsidise the movement of politicians and civil servants between north and south Wales. That would be most regrettable.

If the Bill is enacted, the Assembly will have to utilise the powers given by clause 11, and all the other powers, judiciously and sensibly.

I hope that it will exercise those powers wisely and not simply continue the process of sucking up powers from local authorities and spending public money on projects that do not meet the needs of the people of Wales."

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