Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Wales and Aberconwy MP Guto Bebb recently spoke at Policy Forum for Wales’ seminar, “The future for transport policy in Wales - 15 September 2016”.
Guto’s speech and question and answer session are below.
The role of the UK Government in Wales’ transport plans Guto Bebb MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Wales Office.
Right, well good afternoon, prynhawn da and thank you very much for the invitation to be here today.
And can I start by thanking David for his Chairing of today’s discussion and also for the previous speakers for the comments that they made, which clearly identified the importance of connectivity to the future transport policy in Wales. It’s a subject that I will return to during the course of my speech, which will possibly take 15 minutes, but if not you’ll have more of an opportunity to ask some questions I suspect.
So I am delighted to be here today and to be able to expand on what I believe is the UK Government’s significant contribution to transport infrastructure in Wales. Delivering transport infrastructure in Wales which is fit for the 21st century is essential if we are to build on our country’s strengths and drive the economic growth which we all want to see.
And can I just say from a personal point of view after my journey home from Westminster last night to North Wales we sometimes do complain too much in Wales about transport policy, because last night I had a delayed tube, a delayed train and then roadworks on the M56 and the A55, so I was an hour and a half late getting home. As compared to this morning when I had no problems whatsoever getting the airport in Valley flying down to Cardiff and being here in good time. So sometimes we do play down the transport links that we do have in Wales.
But in terms of the UK Government, I think I genuinely am proud of the fact the UK Government is delivering the largest rail investment strategy seen in this country since the age of Brunel and Stephenson. It is a significant contribution to ensure that passengers and businesses in Wales, and the UK, North and South, are benefitting directly from a real investment in railways.
And one of the key examples of that is the electrification work being undertaken on the Great Western Main Line, following decades I would argue of neglect, we are investing in Brunel’s Great Western Railway ensuring an electrification programme from London through to Cardiff and subsequently, to Swansea. And from next year the experience of passengers using the line will be transformed by the introduction of a new fleet of Intercity Express trains. And those trains will deliver almost 5,000 additional seats to Paddington during the morning peak, it’ll cut journey times by 15 minutes and provide a more reliable service for commuters and passengers in Wales.
And Great Western Railways Hitachi Intercity Express trains will not only run to Swansea, but they’ll also be managed and looked after at a new depot which is being developed in Swansea. An investment in South Wales which is bringing in highly skilled jobs to the job area.
So make no mistake, electrification is coming and indeed, only on Wednesday I was very fortunate to be cohosting with the Secretary of State for Wales, a reception at Gwydyr House, which is the Wales Office in London for partners and stakeholders in the Swansea city region project. And it was interesting to listen to the individuals who had travelled up to London by train saying how delighted they were to see Gloucester Cathedral on the way over, rather than the darkness of the Severn Tunnel. And I think the fact that we had a six-week closure of the Severn Tunnel actually has been responded to very positively locally, because it’s a sign that this investment is happening and is coming along, and it is a development that people undoubtedly do welcome. And by the way the conductor on Wednesday was so enthused he was actually pointing out various interesting sights on the trip in question.
But delivering on our commitment to electrify the Great Western Main Line is a clear demonstration of the importance that this Government places on improving connectivity as a means of driving growth in Wales and in the UK, and thus obviously boosting the economy.
And we’re not doing this alone, the previous speaker on the panel, one of the previous speakers, was Debra Barber and I think we should highlight the success that she and Roger Lewis are achieving at Cardiff Airport. There’s no doubt about it that the decision of the Welsh Government to purchase the airport was controversial and certainly became a focus for some political knock about. But the success of achieving a 28% growth in passenger numbers should not be underestimated and should be applauded. And I would stress that that success has been achieved without having any specific tax advantages in Cardiff, so this does really all go well for the future of the airports.
And the importance of improving our connectivity, something which businesses in North and South Wales are never slow to remind me of and I think the Government is responding to those needs, both in terms of connecting Wales to the wider UK and ensuring improvements in Wales as well. So, on the subject of airports we are investing £500 million in the project to link Heathrow Airport to the Great Western main line, cutting journey times from South Wales to the UK’s busiest airports by 30 minutes and making Wales even more accessible to the world economy.
And the developers of Crossrail which is often seen as a London centric project, is again a potential benefit to the Welsh economy, it is Europe’s largest infrastructure project, it will bring the financial centres of Wales and London much closer together. And Crossrail will enhance the shorter journey times offered by electrification of the Great Western Main Line, substantially reducing the time required to travel between Cardiff and Canary Wharf. Again, this is the Government responding to the requests of the business community and consumers.
But obviously it’s now all about the South, the UK Government is also determined that North Wales is not neglected when we are undertaking these investments and that we need to build on the success we have seen in South Wales, in North Wales as well.
Now as an MP for the constituency of Aberconwy in North Wales this is something I do believe in very strongly, and obviously as somebody who does use the rail service to get myself down to London on a weekly basis, it’s an issue which is close to my heart. And the UK Government has already committed to line speed improvements to the North Wales re-signalling programme, Network Rail have currently spent around £7 million on re-signalling in North Wales, which is part and parcel of a £43 million developments projects to improve the North Wales line. And this is a significant scheme that should not be underestimated it is expected to deliver journey time savings of up to eight minutes and will be the foundation of further modernisation of the North Wales main line, so it is a real step in the right direction.
But we should not underestimate as well the importance of cross-border connectivity to the region. I am very strong advocate of devolution in North Wales, I believe very strongly that we should work as a Wales Office and a UK Government with Cardiff Bay and the Welsh Government, but we should not ignore cross-border connectivity as we build a strong and prosperous Wales. And it is undoubtedly the case that businesses and commuters in North Wales do not recognise the border between England and Wales as a hard border. They cross back and forth day in day out and therefore, it is important that politicians don’t get obsessed with that border either.
So last year we committed £10 million to improve the Halton Curve Line, restating a direct rail link between North Wales and the increasingly prosperous city of Liverpool. Now this development has been widely welcomed by businesses and the travelling public, and I look forward to seeing North Wales, the Welsh Government and the Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership working together to ensure that we make the best of that investment in additional rail services, which will be of benefit to North Wales and the North West of England.
And of course modernising the North Wales Coast Main Line would be a significant boost to the region’s transport links, as would improving connectivity more widely in the region. So Network Rail’s Welsh route study has identified a number of potential options to improve connectivity between Deeside, Chester and Wrexham, including the possibility of a new connection between the North Wales Main Line and the Wrexham Bidston Line at Shotton. And again, this ties into the point I was making in relation to the cross-border connectivity.
But our commitments to operating Wales’ rail infrastructure will not by itself bring about the improvements in connectivity that we are seeking. Now the road network in Wales, and the hundreds of thousands of people who use it each day, also deserve the careful attention of both the UK and the Welsh Government. Now the trunk road network in Wales is of course devolved and it is to the Welsh Government that we should look for leadership in developing the network for the 21st century. It’s essential for our prosperity as a nation that our major transport arteries are developed appropriately, which brings me onto the issue of the M4 relief road now. Now one of those vital arteries that we have in Wales and indeed, in the UK, is the M4 it has been clear for some time that congestion on the M4 corridor around Newport is damaging the Welsh economy and that an upgrade is urgently required. And I don’t think anybody in this room would disagree.
Now the UK Government is doing all we can to assist the Welsh Government to achieve this upgrade. We have underwritten Welsh Government’s borrowing powers with up to £500 million to help deliver vital improvements to Welsh infrastructure, in particular the M4. And upgrading the route has been identified by businesses and commuters as a priority, now it is time for the work to begin. And I am really pleased that the Welsh Government has announced a public enquiry into its preferred route for the M4 relief road. I hope that that enquiry’s findings lead to a positive outcome which will be beneficial to both businesses and consumers.
But obviously the UK Government also has responsibility and that’s what brings me to the Severn River crossings, a bone of contention there is no doubt, for the business community in South East Wales and the wider economy of South Wales. Now this year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the first Severn River crossing which is a vital piece of UK infrastructure, and which was of course followed in 1996 with the inauguration of the second crossing. Now together they have undoubtedly combined the right road users and businesses in Wales and England with exceptional savings in time, if not perhaps money, in view of the controversy surrounding the cost of crossing the bridge in question. But I am keen to ensure that the UK Government continues to write good value for those who use these crossings, currently over 25 million uses each year. And that is we are removing higher toll prices for vans and small buses, and reducing the tolls by 50% once the crossings are back in public ownership. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that these changes will be beneficial for the economy of South Wales.
But we are also looking for further improvements, such as the free-flowing tolling on both ways which is an option to be looked at. Now further information about future toll prices and improvements will be set out in a consultation documents which will be published this autumn, and I have no doubt that businesses and commuters in South Wales will look forward to that document.
But before I conclude my speech, I would I like to turn to the future and the possibilities it presents, and the importance of prioritising our objectives if we are to deliver. So in North Wales despite, you know, the UK Government’s record investments, there remains much to be done to improve our connectivity, particularly in terms of the connectivity on a cross-border basis.
Now at the North Wales rail summit in Llandudno in November 2015, the UK Government challenged local stakeholders and partners in the region to come together and to deliver the strongest possible business case to modernise the region’s infrastructure. And I was delighted that many of those who attended the summit were able to arrive, and experience the fantastic new railway station that we have in Llandudno. I am incredibly proud because clearly Llandudno is the biggest town in my constituency. But the beautiful Victorian seaside resort of Llandudno has had a fantastically refurbished railway station provided, and it is a great example of what can be achieved when two Governments and local stakeholders work together with the private sector. And those of you who haven’t been to Llandudno I would recommend it, if only to see the station.
Now a great deal of work has been done since the summit and I pay tribute to the efforts of local partners, including the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, the North Wales Business Council and the North Wales Mersey Dee Rail Task Force in particular. And the Task Force has produced Growth Track 360 a prospectus which was published in July, which set out a very ambitious programme of desirable improvements to rail infrastructure in North Wales and across the border into the North West of England. Now it is now for the Taskforce to establish a governance structure with strong cross-party representation to take forward the prioritisation of their proposals against clear, local and regional objectives.
And this is part and parcel of our proposed North Wales growth deal. At the budget we said that the door was open to a growth deal for North Wales, and I am pleased to see a strategy for the economy of North Wales beginning to develop. But I stress again, these growth deals are not for Westminster, or Cardiff for that matter to decide upon, they should be organic growing from the regions which they’re supposed to serve. Now a growth deal could help to strengthen the region’s economy and make the most of the connections that we have in North Wales to the Northern Powerhouse. Any deal however, has to be about more than simply infrastructure investments and should look to deliver services at a local level through devolution. Now the UK Government will look carefully at the proposals and continue to work closely with local partners in North Wales to strengthen the economy, and to create more opportunities for everyone across the region, but it is fair to say that they have made a good start in North Wales on their proposals.
Now one of the Government’s manifesto commitments was to implement the St David’s Day Agreements in full, and through the Wales Bill we are doing so. This includes the transfer to Welsh Ministers and the National Assembly of a wide range of functions and powers in relation to ports development policy for harbours in Wales. Now this is a major further devolution responsibility and will allow the Welsh Government to consider the development of ports in Wales as part of its wider strategy for economic development in relation to transport and tourism.
The St David’s Day Agreements also confirmed that we were already implementing the Silk Commission’s recommendations to devolve to the Welsh Government, executive franchising functions for the Wales and Borders Rail Franchise. And we are continuing to engage constructively with the Welsh Government to achieve the successful procurement of the next franchise from October 2018. And I appreciate that this is a key priority for the Welsh Government, and it will be for them to conduct the procurements process. I know that the Welsh Government should like to have the flexibility to invite light bids from public sector operators. We’ve committed to consider that in the St David’s Day Command Paper and we’ll return to the issue once the details of the devolution of franchise powers are agreed. But in view of the debate we had in parliament on Monday, which I’m sure you were following with baited breath, when the Wales Bill went through its third reading, I think it is important to say that the current arrangements that we’re talking of devolving does not preclude for example, consideration being offered to an innovative bid from a private or a third sector organisation should one materialise. And I’m thinking in particular of the call from many Members of Parliament for a similar structure to Glas Cymru to be put together to bid for that franchise. The point I’m making is that is a decision which can be made on a commercial basis by the Welsh Government as a result of the changes that we’re implementing.
And as the Government is also determined to work together with the Welsh Government to improve transport infrastructure and the experience of passengers and commuters throughout Wales, I’ve touched upon the North, I’ve touched upon the main line to London, but also we’re very proud of our contribution as a UK Government of £500 million to the Cardiff Capital Region City Deal, which is a clear demonstration of our commitment to the area. The electrification of the Valley lines, again for so long neglected, has the potential to broaden employment opportunities for those living in some of our most deprived areas and to act as a considerable incentive for businesses to invest. So to conclude ladies and gentleman, I hope that through my speech today I have been able to do justice to the investment that the UK Government has been making in UK infrastructure, you know to our railways in particular which is because of devolution, our main area of responsibility. I think that the scale of the investment is truly historic, I think the ambition is there to be seen, and I can assure you that the UK Government and the Wales Office will continue to work with the Welsh Government and local partners in all parts of Wales, in order to develop a transport infrastructure of which we can all be proud.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you.
The role of the UK Government in Wales’ transport plans Questions and comments from the floor
David J Rowlands AM:
Thank you very much for that Guto. And I think that the contents of Guto’s speech shows that irrespective of political affiliations, there is a very real determination by all politicians of whatever hue to deliver on the reinvigoration of the Welsh economy. So we’re now going to have a question and answer session, the same applies as to the last one please, so if you can say who you are and where you’re from, and obviously at this time your questions are directed to Guto. Thank you. Gentleman here.
Thank you very much. Thank you, Chair. I have a considerable interest in rail transport. I’m looking forward to what will happen in the next few years with regard to rail transport in Wales. We’ve heard a lot about connectivity, but we have in Wales a franchise and we also have three other franchises operating into Wales. The one along the North Wales coast, and the one which is undergoing tremendous change, the Great Western one in South Wales. What guarantees have we got that the Governments and the franchisees will coordinate their services to give the best connectivity for Wales, and for Welsh travellers to go to other parts of England, and conversely for people from England to come into Wales. We have for example, the situation in South Wales where two trains leave Newport within ten minutes of each other to Swansea, with a huge gap then until the next service occurs. This is not good for connectivity in Wales, not good for the feeder services, not good for people travelling about Wales. And similarly, the same can happen in North Wales and I think the speaker experienced the problems that the long distance services have in Wales of not being reliable, and in some cases people in Wales have to wait longer than their actual journey time for a late train. So how are the Governments going to get together, how are the new franchisee holders going to get together, to ensure we have much better services, much better spaced services and much better services for the travellers within Wales? Thank you very much.
Guto Bebb MP:
Well first of all I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I regularly have problems with my services from Westminster to North Wales, this is one of the first times I’ve had a problem in a very long time. And apparently it was due to a broken down train in front of me, so I’m trying to protect the company in question last night. But the point you make is well understood by myself as a local MP, we do have more than one franchise in Wales you are correct, and obviously in North Wales we do have utilisation of the North Wales Main Line by more than one franchise holder. And it is crucial that we do try and generate cooperation between those franchise holders and between the companies in question. Because for example, I have every single station on the Conwy Valley Railway Line in my constituency, with the exception of Blaenau Ffestiniog. And yet there was a period when the early morning train from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno Junction would arrive in Llandudno Junction three minutes after the train for London had departed, which was sheer nonsense. Now that has been rectified, because there was an effort made by local stakeholders to ensure that the two franchise holders spoke to each other in order to adjust their timetables to ensure that that connectivity was an option. Because if somebody wants to travel from Blaenau Ffestiniog down to London, it was feasible to do that by rail within four and a half hours which is pretty spectacular I would argue, in view of people’s view that Blaenau is not well connected, if the timetables were coordinated. So I think the responsibility we have is to work in a positive manner with Welsh Government in relation to the fact that the franchise for the Wales and borders will be the responsibility of the Welsh Government, but we also need to ensure that companies are willing to work together. But I also think that we have a responsibility as consumers and businesses to make our views heard, and one of the fantastic examples of local pressure bringing success, is again an example I can offer from North Wales where we now have 59 trains every week between Llandudno and Manchester which is a new development by Arriva Trains, which has proved a huge success and has improved both the frequency of services on the North Wales Line and the connectivity into the North of England, dramatically. And again, that is a development which is welcomed by local consumers and local businesses, but I think it is an indication of what can happen when there’s a willingness to talk to each other, both cross-Government and also between the private sector providers of services, and the business community in general. So I wouldn’t underestimate the responsibility that you will have as businesses and consumers to bring your pressure to bear on decisions made by these companies.
David J Rowlands AM:
Thank you Guto. Any other questions? Yes, the lady here in the orange.
Thank you for the very, very interesting speech Minister. Like Stephen Lawrence earlier I’m another infrastructure engineer, so I’m more involved in building transport. I’d like to understand, the Environment Wales Act recently has committed some pretty big carbon reductions for Wales, and how do you see the Wales transport plans contributing to these ambitious reductions, and how is that going to demonstrate itself?
Guto Bebb MP:
So the Act in question you’re speaking of an Assembly Act in terms of the Environmental Act in question. Well, I can’t comment in detail on that because one of the things I try not to do as a Westminster Minister is to speak as if I’m in a manner condemning or saying a negative comment about anything that the Assembly does. Because I think the key point first of all, is I do believe it’s very important that we do have an agenda where we respect the responsibilities of Westminster and the devolved administration in Cardiff. Now the question, if I understand it rightly, is whether the Act in question will have an impact upon transport developments in Wales.
And my assumption from the question is that therefore transport can play a part if we have a more green means of transportation I would argue. So clearly you know the issues that we have to look at therefore is you know the electrification of South Wales Main Line is considered to be a green development. The utilisation of more train services for transporting people across North Wales will be a more green development. So in effect if there is a legislative framework which is encouraging that approach, then it is something that is taken into account. And I know again, that the proposed developments of a new nuclear power station in Anglesey, the issue of an environmentally sustainable transport policy for the 8,000 people who will be required to work on site, has been taken into account. One of the issues that they’re looking at is a park and ride facility in relation to stations across the North Wales Main Line, to ensure that the carbon impact of what they’re doing is actually reduced in accordance with the demands of Welsh Government. So I think it does have a part to play, but I wouldn’t want to be implying that it is a drag on developments in any way, shape or form, because that would imply that I’m criticising the Welsh Government which would be something that myself and the Secretary of State try not do on any occasion, because our aim is to work in partnership for the benefits of people in Wales, rather than having any comments construed in a mildly negative manner if it sounds as if it is.
David J Rowland AM:
Thank you very much. Are there any other? We’ll take one more, we will take your question this time, sir.
Professor Stuart Cole:
The two key issues, I think which face us at the moment where decision are being made in London rather than here, first is the consequence of leaving the European Union and of course, Wales was a net receiver of investment funds from the European Union. A number of the projects that you referred to, such as the M4 relief road in whatever form, such as other investments further West are going to be affected by the fact that we will no longer be getting European Union money. Do we have any kind of guarantee as yet from HM Treasury that the gap in that funding will be filled by them so that we can carry on with these projects? And the second, again a London decision, what was the rationale behind saying that passenger duty would not be… powers of the passenger duty would not be transferred to Wales, whereas in fact it is with Northern Ireland and Scotland. The only reason we seem to have got so far is one which says, oh well it will be competition with Bristol, which I presumed is what we were always about, which is competing terribly well with Bristol.
Guto Bebb MP:
Right, first of all I’ll take the APD head on because I was the Minister who said no to the devolution of APD to Cardiff, to Wales I should say, but in effect we’re talking to Cardiff. And yes, it was primarily an issue of looking at the potential effect of tax-based competition on other regional airports in the UK. Because I don’t think you can talk about Bristol Airport as anything other than part and parcel of the delivery of air services to both, the South West of England and South Wales. I don’t think you can divorce that from each other because they do serve a similar market. And what we’re seeing in Cardiff as I mentioned in my speech, is a significant improvement in passenger numbers without the need for any tax-based advantages. Now, the question is asked in relation to why is it devolved in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the specific reasons why it has been devolved in Northern Ireland is there was recognition from the UK that first of all there was very little competition issue between Belfast and any other UK airport. And Belfast was obviously facing competition from a very different regime in another European country, namely the Republic of Ireland. When it comes to the situation in Scotland, the distance between Newcastle Airport for example, and Edinburgh or Glasgow is around the two-hour mark as compared to the situation in Bristol which can be as good as an hour if the roads allow. So I think when we come to devolution what we don’t want to be responsible for doing in relation to devolution, is making decisions which cause harm to the services available not just to people in England, but also to people in Wales as a result of a tax advantage which was offered in one part of the country and not in the other. So on consideration of the information that we were provided with, the potential for APD to be abolished in Wales would result in maybe a 25% fall in passenger numbers in Bristol which would have a huge detrimental effect on the number of flights available. And those flights are available not just to people in England, but also to people in South Wales and the decision was taken not to devolve APD. And again, if a tax was devolved then there’s a cost implication to the Welsh Assembly, I wonder if you’re a taxpayer in mid Wales or North Wales what advantage you then get, so there’s a complexity on both sides in relation to the APD issue. On Brexit, I would be completely irresponsible to say that there’s a guarantee because it’s very clear that we’re at the early days of negotiation. I think the Governments and the Chancellor has gone as far as we currently can, in highlighting the projects which are currently approved, or will be approved by the time of the Autumn Statement as long as they stack up and have a reasonable economic outcome, will be supported. So for example, farmers have been given some degree of comfort that the current provision for agricultural support from the European Union is in place whether we leave the European Union in 2019 or later, so that gives a certain degree of certainty. And in the same way projects which are being funded by European regional funding, whether in Wales or other parts of the United Kingdom, if those projects have been signed and then they’re in place for a three-year period for example, prior to the Autumn Statement, then they will be underwritten by the UK Government. And somebody, the speaker I think from Milford Haven just before me, spoke about the need for skills. I had the direct experience of this situation in my own constituency where we had a further education college with a three-year European-funded programme for apprenticeships and there was a question mark as to whether that could proceed. In view of the decision by the Treasury to offer an underwriting guarantee for projects which have been signed which included an element of European funding, that project is going ahead. So it’s not perfect, you know we have a lot of work to do, but I think the Chancellor has given reassurance that those projects which have been put in place, which have been signed for, will be protected. And further down the line we are facing a challenge, and that challenge will need to be worked through as we see the impacts of the decision to leave the European Union work through both Westminster and the devolved administrations.
David J Rowlands AM:
Thank you. I think we have time for just one more question, but no I think it’s being indicated to me that that is the end of the question and answers. And it just comes to me to say thank Guto Bebb. We all know that there are politicians of all sizes and types…
Guto Bebb MP:
David J Rowlands AM:
Sizes, I’m sorry, and a great deal of pressure with regard to their time, so I would like to thank Guto for giving his time up and coming and speaking to us today. Thank you very much.
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