Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280 - 295)

THURSDAY 29 NOVEMBER 2001

DR RICHARD EDWARDS AM, MR DAVID DAVIES AM, MS HELEN MARY JONES AM AND MS ELEANOR BURNHAM AM

Chairman

  280. Thank you, Richard. Do the others want to come in?
  (Dr Edwards) I expect my colleagues are all thirsting to come in.
  (Ms Jones) If I could follow what Richard has said and begin by warmly welcoming your decision as a committee to carry out these investigations. It is one of the areas where the Assembly is beginning to develop quite a clear vision of our forward direction but where our powers are rather confused and where we need to collaborate very closely with colleagues on the Westminster level to make sure that we can realise the vision that is going to develop. I am sure Richard would begin by agreeing that most of the vision is shared by all the parties. David has some different standpoints, but most of us, as regards where we want to get to with transportation in Wales, would all agree but for how we are going to get there, of course, there is a difference of emphasis. With the question of the PTA or the consortia, the tension obviously (from the evidence we received) was between trying to secure local democracy and a system which is accountable on a local level but at the same time to secure co-ordination on a national level and also to ensure that we have some way of securing co-ordination between the bodies in Wales and the bodies in England because there are so many cross-border issues, and also of course transport over to Ireland which is very important on a European level. And that is why we as a committee have asked the Minister to carry out more investigations into the possible models, and perhaps that is something that we could ask you to consider, ie, the kind of legislation required to enable the Assembly to select one of the models rather than the others. From the point of view of my party we believe that it is essential that there is a co-ordination on a national level and at the minimum we will need powers to ensure that the local authorities participate in the consortia because there are problems here and there where some local authorities are not willing to collaborate with the others and that then creates problems for the others. So the bottom line for us is that the Assembly must have the powers to say "you must collaborate". The second thing I would like to refer to, chair, is the whole issue of expenditure on public transport. As we understand it, and perhaps this is something else that you as a Committee can get more information on, the expenditure on railways in Wales does not even reach the Barnett level. We do not even receive what we deserve under the Barnett Formula, although I do not want to discuss that again today. As we understand it, we do not obtain the Barnett level formula. I believe, Richard, it would be very interesting from our point of view for you to carry out work on the level of funding and collect that evidence to help the government of Wales to help in their discussions with Ministers in Westminster.
  (Ms Burnham) I also welcome the fact that you have come to the Assembly. I am relatively new of course to both the Assembly and to this Committee. I have been here for a month now. I am very pleased that you have come here. I think there are so many issues that are dear to the hearts of all parties who are concerned with properly integrated transport in Wales. As we discussed last Friday at our North Wales meeting which Betty attended, we have grave concerns about the lack of investment in the rail system generally. I am particularly concerned about the north-south links, and not just because of a personal matter of getting here on time! I think the SRA is an issue that we would like to commend and we would wish to ensure that somebody from Wales (at least one if not more people) is concerned, and particularly passengers. It was obvious to me, looking at Virgin Trains for instance on Friday, despite the fact we are looking forward to having this fantastic thing across Wales that there are two problems, firstly, the lavatorial arrangements, locking yourself in or out and, secondly, the lack of actual luggage space. I am digressing a bit. It is not your concern but I am talking holistically now. We must have passengers involved. That is the major issue as far as I am concerned, apart from the local authorities obviously. I am very pleased that Richard has been able to chair and move the agenda so positively towards our views on integrated transport. We are looking at a quarter of a century of lack of investment and whether we travel on rail or road it is extremely congested and, as we know, a recent report that came out two days confirms what we all believe. The Liberal Democrats and I are delighted that we can move in such a positive way through the Welsh Assembly and we are absolutely delighted that we can be talking to you because obviously you are the key to the primary legislation that we need. Our plea is for us to work positively together and ensure that, whatever we do, we serve the passengers and the people of Wales because they deserve it and we are looking forward very much to working and having a positive result as soon as possible. I have talked recently to Chris Gibb, the MD of Wales and Borders. I think he hides now when he sees me on the train! I sent him a letter again yesterday again because of lack of connections between Shrewsbury and North Wales, two minutes and the train is gone, another hour, etcetera etcetera. It is pathetic. The other thing I would like to look forward to is that we do not spend Assembly money, for instance, on sending a train to Crewe and not having it come down through Wrexham. I feel as if I live in Timbuktu in Wrexham and these are the kind of issues that I can positively see us working towards resolving as soon as possible. After all, the passenger does not care whether it is you or us that resolves it, they just want the problem resolved. I was so embarassed yesterday. I had a senior director of Tetrapak on the train with me. They have relocated their HQ to Wrexham and I promised him I would send to Chris Gibb about it because obviously they are coming from Sweden, he comes every month now, and if we are trying to help business recover or sustain business and if they cannot travel adequately when they come from across the world, it is sad and it is a very bad reflection, so please let's work together positively and quickly.

  281. Absolutely. I see this as a long series of meetings with yourselves, either us giving evidence to you or you to us, it is all the same thing. We can use the structures and if we can use them and work together you are absolutely right, we all represent people in Wales and we want to see the people in Wales move around in a far easier way than they have been doing. Can I bring David in.
  (Mr Davies) Thank you very much for the opportunity just to say something on this because obviously as the sole Conservative representative on this Committee I find myself holding a slightly different view to everyone else on occasions. Just to follow Helen Mary's point, I just want to say that the Conservative Group think it is very important to raise the standard of public transport in Wales and the question is how can we do this. There are two things that worry me. Firstly, of course I do not think that we need more powers within the Assembly. I think it would be better to concentrate on the powers that we already have in raising standards of transport and also of course it is very important to remember that in North Wales people look towards Liverpool and Manchester and in South Wales we look more towards Bristol. So we must remember this and bear this in mind when we are developing the transport links. I also would like to answer the final point made by Eleanor which is a fair one about the lack of investment in public transport. That has been going on for longer than 25 years. There is an historical reason for that and that is all parties made the mistake of thinking that the car was going to replace other methods of public transport and because of that there was a lot more investment in roads and it became easier for people to buy cars and people genuinely saw that as the way forward. With hindsight we can look back and say we made mistakes. Look what happened with Beeching, that affected parts of my own constituency, and it was a big mistake, but I think it would be wrong, with the benefit of hindsight, to look back and condemn everyone for having the point of view they did at the time and, I am sorry to have to say this, but trying to make a political point about it being one government or another is a little bit unfair. It was a point of view that was widely held at the time, that the car was the future.

  282. The point that you make, David, about the English connection in this (which is entirely without the remit of the Assembly) is we have that opportunity as a UK select committee to look at that. The realistic north-south links, unfortunately, do go through England and our Transport Committee in the House of Commons will not be focusing on the Welsh problem, if you like. Somebody has got to do it and it has fallen to us to do that. I take your point; it is true to say that we have not have sufficient investment for a very long time and whatever the reasons it may well be we concentrated on cars and now we are sitting in traffic jams, as I did on the way here, suffering from those decisions.
  (Mr Davies) I think that is very much the case. Nobody realised 25, 30 or 40 years ago just what an impact the car was going to have. Nobody could have foreseen these traffic jams at the time. Reading modern history books there was obviously quite a bit of optimism that more and more people were able to own cars and that was seen generally as a good thing and now we are seeing the downside of it.

  283. Do you want to come back?
  (Dr Edwards) Just to say the big hurdle we have identified in terms of achieving some integration is that administrative arrangements are not integrated. There is a division of responsibility between Whitehall, Westminster and Cardiff and there is also then a division of responsibilities within Wales between the Assembly and local authorities, and we are not going to have an integrated transport system unless we have integrated administrative arrangements. We focus quite a bit on rail. It is not a devolved responsibility but clearly, frankly, if we are going to have an integrated public transport system in Wales we do need some power over rail alongside our bus strategies and our partnerships, etcetera. Can I just say about the Strategic Rail Authority that in fact although we have no formal influence over the SRA, we have developed a good working relationship, thanks to the Minister and her officials but also the Committee too. I do think this is quite a sound base for a more formalised arrangement in which the Assembly does have a power of direction and appoints a member, etcetera.

Mr Caton

  284. Forgive me if I am being a little bit obtuse but I want to be absolutely clear about your position on this question of the passenger transport authority. When you say something we could usefully do is look at the alternative models, are you talking about the three options that you debated or have you opted for an all-Wales authority?
  (Dr Edwards) We have asked the Minister to look at those options, to work up details and report back. But we have asked her to seek enabling legislation anyway. That is the bottom line—we need enabling legislation.
  (Ms Jones) So that we could have legislation to enable the Minister to enact any of those models as she sees fit. I think it is fair to say, Chairman, that we did not come to a consensus view as a committee about that issue. There were strong pros and cons. It is that balance between getting the local knowledge on the ground, the local democratic control and input but at the same time having some kind of measure of national control, and we could not come to clear view about that.
  (Dr Edwards) There is not a consensus on the Committee about a particular model. At the end of the day that will be a matter for the Assembly and Plenary to decide as a political decision by the whole of Assembly. What we have asked Sue Essex, the Minister, and her officials to do is detailed research on the three options that we have chosen.

Mrs Williams

  285. You have talked about the options and the new powers that the Assembly would require in order to implement the PTA option. As regards the issues you have already discussed, have you looked at the situation in the metropolitan areas in England and do you believe that that would be worth considering? Would your option be likely to reflect that thinking?
  (Dr Edwards) Can I just say that I mentioned that we had paid visits to established best practice elsewhere and I know that members of the Committee went to Sheffield to see the PTA in operation there. Geraint Davies is not with us today but he went there. It is important to say the impression is that existing models do not necessarily provide an appropriate model for Wales and this is really why we are asking the Minister to do some detailed background work on the options that we have put to her. We need a model that is specifically designed for the needs of Wales and the needs of Wales really are quite varied because we have got the metropolitan areas in the south east and north east and then large tracts of rural hinterlands.

  286. What were your feelings after having visited them?
  (Ms Jones) The systems they had were exceptionally effective for the job that they needed to do because it was co-ordinating transport in a defined area where the nature of the community was uniform. It was an urban area and the question was of co-ordinating the transport to ensure people from the poorer suburbs could get access, for example, to employment in the centre of the city. There are models that we can use to perhaps look at the hinterland of the Valleys, the Cardiff Valleys into Newport, the Valleys into Swansea, but we did not believe that the model was going to work in quite the same manner in dealing with the rural problems where sparsity issues, the same questions, are not raised really, and that is why Richard is saying that what we believe is needed is a completely Welsh model, and that is why we have asked the Minister and the Civil Service to carry out greater research on the models that already exist, in the hope that they will come up with some idea that will achieve both aims of securing local accountability and democracy at the same time as ensuring co-ordination on a national level. I believe I am right in saying that we are totally convinced that some legislative powers will be needed in order to ensure that we as an Assembly can insist that a local authority participates in being a consortia or PTA on a Welsh level or some combination of both. I personally ideally would love to see a model where there are central powers and a great deal of accountability and locality flexibility maintained in order to respond to the very different needs of, let's say, Powys as compared to the town of Llanelli.

  287. With your preparatory work you are saying that a combination of various options is going to be the best for Wales, a combination to meet the needs of all the areas and every parish within Wales?
  (Ms Jones) It is a challenge and that is why we are asking the Minister to look for enabling legislation from Westminster, not that one model should be forced upon Wales but that she as Minister and the government of Wales should have the powers to seek out that model and then ensure that every partner does participate. We hope they will want to participate as most of local authorities and private companies want to, but also the government of Wales must have the power in order to ensure that everybody takes part in the co-ordinated model.

Julie Morgan

  288. Thank you, Martyn. I read your consultation document and I think it is very good and I think it is something that we would all want to support. I also note in the recommendations that you were telling us about today, Richard, that some of them are similar to what we recommended in our report on the Transport Bill where, for example, we said that you should be able to nominate two members onto the SRA. Presumably you thought it was too ambitious or that the board too small to go for that. I know we did feel very strongly as a Committee that that was what should happen. I was going to ask you about rail and in your document you say that rail accounts for only two per cent of the average person's mileage in Wales and only one per cent of journeys to work. I wondered where you put rail in the context of the importance of rail for travel in Wales due to the figures that you have got on pages 6, 7, and 8 in your document?
  (Dr Edwards) Without question, the most popular form of public transport in Wales is bus transport—without question. There has been a steady decline in bus travel in recent years, figures of 26 per cent down between 1998 and 1999. Believe it or not, rail travel has increased despite the horrendous increase in problems. I know this from first-hand experience as someone who does try to use the trains as often as possible. I can assure you that the service to West Wales is no better than the service to North Wales. For instance, I mentioned delegation of management responsibility for Valley Lines and on patronage the Valley Line has gone up 24 per cent in the last four years. So I think there is tremendous potential. I think there is a willingness by people to use rail. The problem is that the actual standard of delivery at the moment is abysmally poor. This is one of the reasons why we are focusing so much on rail.

  289. I certainly support those figures because the Valley Lines go through my constituency and there are problems on the platforms with passengers not being able to get on because the demand is so great and there are not enough carriages for the passengers to get on. I certainly support a move towards greater use of rail and any support that can be given. I was surprised the figures were so low when I read them in your report.
  (Dr Edwards) Without doubt there is potential for increasing that, given the right policies and political commitment really to move the agenda forward.
  (Ms Jones) There also has been a cost issue about rail transport as opposed to bus. If you take, for example, somebody who lives in Caerphilly in Bargoed and they work in Cardiff, they do have a choice of using the bus or the train. The bus is incredibly inconvenient because it goes all around the houses and takes forever to get there but it is at the moment quite a lot cheaper than the train. That is one of the things that we touched on in terms of issues of affordability and it can even be less expensive to run a small, cheap, battered car if you live in Bargoed to drive you down to Cardiff every day, particularly if you work somewhere where you can park, than it is to have an annual season ticket on the train. While that continues to be the case we are not going to persuade enough people to use the trains. Affordability is something that came up again and again, particularly when we were looking at transport as a means of social inclusion, as a means of getting access to work, as a means of enabling people to access leisure facilities. That is very, very important, and fitting in with the work that your Committee did about social inclusion, you raised transport poverty as being one of the key issues that excludes people.
  (Dr Edwards) If we are going to have a truly integrated system, if the Assembly has no official influence over rail how can it possibly be integrated? That is a really big problem. The other point I would make is that the Assembly is already putting a lot of investment into rail infrastructure, so it does really make sense for us to have real powers over rail in Wales.
  (Ms Jones) As Richard has said, the Minister has done a very good job of persuading the SRA up to now to respond to the Assembly's agenda but it does not seem appropriate to us that the Minister, who is investing millions and millions of pounds, should only be in a position where she can "persuade". Hopefully, power of direction is something she would not necessarily have to use but it ought to be there, just as it is for the London Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. It could have been so much worse if the SRA had not decided to be co-operative but it does not seem right to us that the Assembly Ministers should depend on their goodwill in that way.

Mrs Williams

  290. We have already discussed the new powers the Assembly would need as far as a PTA is concerned and you have also touched earlier, Richard, on the further powers that you are seeking in relation to railways generally, and you have also mentioned the relationship between the Assembly and SRA and how it has been to date. Do you believe there is any room for improvement as regards the relationship of the SRA with the Assembly? Also what do you believe the main powers are that the Assembly needs as far as the railways generally are concerned?
  (Dr Edwards) As I say, we do actually need to be able to direct the SRA in Wales. We cannot do that at the moment. There is no direct influence with them, it is grace and favour. We have a good relationship but it is grace and favour effectively on their part. So we want the power to direct the SRA, we want a delegation for the Valley Lines. As Helen Mary says, we want at least one member (it could be more but we will settle for one member as a start) in order to secure greater coherence in developing integrated transport. We have got a good working relationship but I think inevitably if we are going to have a fully integrated public transport system, given the money the Assembly is already pouring into rail infrastructure, then we need to have a voice. It is very, very frustrating, I have to say—and this is true of buses—we are throwing subsidies at bus operators and we are throwing subsidies at train operators through infrastructure support, etcetera, but where is the return? There is no public accountability. It is a fundamental problem that we have to address if we are going to have a step change in public transport in Wales, indeed in the UK in general.
  (Ms Jones) We have also discussed, Chairman, the importance of the relationship with the new Railtrack or "son of Railtrack", whatever will take its place. If central government finally decides on some sort of company limited by guarantee—and many of us saw that as a very attractive prospect to keep issues involving safety in public hands in a way that is accountable on a democratic level if the government chooses that sort of model, then we would hope to have the right to nominate a member or members of that board. Then, as we understand it, the board will be formed of members representing the interest groups and we think it is critically important—and I am sure there will be a representative from Wales as there is a representative on the SRA—but as a Committee we feel it is very important that the representative of the SRA is appointed by the Assembly. We would also wish to see the reprentative on the Railtrack board if that is the model to be approved by the government of Wales. We think that is very important. That may be something that you in your on-going work as things develop at a Westminster level could keep your eye on, and if we do end up in a situation where another private company does buy Railtrack (and we all know that is a possibility) you could then try and ensure that there is a strong and direct voice from the Assembly feeding into whatever new system is adopted. You are the key people as Welsh Members in Westminster in this area.
  (Dr Edwards) As far as a successor body is concerned, we certainly welcome a not-for-profit body with any surpluses being reinvested in the network. That is a tremendous improvement, a tremendous step forward. Again I think, frankly, if we are going to have an effective system in Wales then we do need to have a voice of the Assembly, we need to have a voice on behalf of the people of Wales on whatever the successor body is.

  291. Apart from having a strong voice on the new body what, Richard, would you note as your main concerns?
  (Ms Jones) Richard has actually asked me to answer this. The main concern I think is the lack of co-ordination. A lot of public money can be wasted, money which is being invested at the moment in buses and railways, and if there is no co-ordination, it can be wasted. One thing that came out to us time and time again when users of the system talked to us is how difficult it was, for example, to go from your home on a bus to get to a railway station and carry on that journey on the train. There was no co-ordination. Very often the situation described was the bus always arrived five minutes after the train had left. Under the present system it is going to be very, very difficult to stop that carrying on. We can see a lot of wastage of public funds if that does actually continue. We are also worried about lack of investment, as I said earlier. I would like to hear more details of how much money from central funds will be invested in the Welsh railways and whether we will be given the Barnett share or not. The figures we have received suggest we will not receive that share, and I would like to ensure we do see the powers and funding going alongside the powers. That is not something we have referred to before, but it would not be any use to have the powers devolved to the Assembly without the finances to actually implement those powers. Lack of co-ordination, lack of investment and then of course more and more people, as we hope to see the Welsh economy developing, will be in a position to buy a car, we will see more cars on the road, more grid lock in our cities and all the environmental problems that come out of that. Personally, Chairman, I think if we do not sort this out we are facing quite an apocalyptic situation in 20 years' time when all the roads will be blocked fast. I do not know if you have used taxis or driven a car in Cardiff in the morning or evening, but it takes hours for a very short journey. That could get worse and there are environmental pressures. We all know in Swansea and Cardiff the number of children suffering from asthma because of fuel from the cars specifically. But we are also very hopeful. There is a lot of goodwill to co-operate and a lot of ideas and that was something that came out in the evidence we had. There were a lot of positive ideas on transport in the community, innovative ways of using public money. What I would want to see is that we ensure the Assembly has enough power bring all those ideas and positive energy together to transform the system for the future. We know on a United Kingdom level and also on a Welsh level how far we have to go. There are great concerns, Betty, it is true to say, but having heard the evidence as a Committee we were quite positive on the possibilities. But those are the two main points, lack of co-ordination and lack of money.
  (Ms Burnham) I think one of the essentials is simplifying the system. I think that having one company such as Railtrack running the railways and then different companies running the trains causes so much scope for problems with people casting blame. I do honestly think the system is so complicated with Railtrack or Railtrack Mark II running the infrastructure and then so many rail companies. That is the difficulty as a user I think. There is no-one accountable as such. As far as I am concerned, the public just want to have a good service. They do not care whether it is Railtrack's fault or this, that or the other franchisee's fault. The difficulty is in having so many people in the loop and you obviously in Westminster are in a position perhaps to simplify the situation. The whole scenario is one of an absolute mess since the privatisation of rail, as far as I am concerned. I am fairly new, as I said, to the Welsh Assembly, and I have only been to one meeting of the Transport Committee, but I have been a dedicated public transport user for years and, quite frankly, it is third world almost and in the dark ages. We are in the 21st Century, for goodness sake, and we have got technology and yet we cannot run trains. We must surely look to best practice in other countries to simplify the situation so that we do not have the situation on the ground of people being, if they are late in the station, penalised by £1,000. That is why they do not connect. They cannot afford, so the franchisees tell us, to connect because if they are late they are penalised heavily. It is mad, it is, quite frankly, stupid and a complete embarrassment as when I was with the senior guy from Sweden. I do not think their rail transport is such a black hole. I do urge you to look again at the whole infrastructure in a fundamental way and you are the people who have got the authority to do that. We cannot, we are impotent in Wales, I feel, and we need to put it right soon because we are investing a huge amount of money.

Chairman

  292. That is a well-made point. Can I ask Hywel to ask a question and then I will wind up with a general question.
  (Dr Edwards) Could I just apologise for handing the question to Helen Mary. I did not catch what you said and I have got an ear infection so I am not prepared to use the head phones, so I apologise.

Dr Francis

  293. Good afternoon, I am sure you have already answered this question but I will ask it all the same. What about the key services running through England, for example, from the south to the north? To what extent would new powers for the Assembly in this example be useful and appropriate to you, that is to say the powers of directions/power of guidance?
  (Ms Burnham) I am not an expert on that but the way I look at it is whenever I talk to Chris Gibb about why he cannot connect north to south he says basically it is non-economic. He says he runs his trains directly from Birmingham through to North Wales, likewise Manchester down to Swansea, and they come through England mostly. I think the issue is that we need to have the political will to ensure that whatever links you have got that they work. Years ago people who worked on railways did not have any problems with linking wherever they worked from. It is logistics. I have talked to so many people because I am on Shrewsbury station for so and I talk to everybody who is around, people at the coal face, and they tell me it is a very simple issue; the structure is not right, it is too complicated. As I just said before, because you have got so many people in the loop when things go wrong, instead of working together to sort it out, people want to blame each other and fine each other for lack of performance. That is not what we want. We want a co-ordinated system that works smoothly. Instead of them looking at the profitability of running all their trains from Birmingham up to Manchester and not linking them properly because it does not pay them in their view, we need to be able to look at it in a very simple way. We need a good service.
  (Dr Edwards) Once the Wales and Borders is up and running we would obviously feel that the Assembly should have responsibility for funding and directing the SRA in relation to those services and it could be a co-signatory with the SRA across the board for services running into England.

Chairman

  294. That has been very useful, Richard, thank you for giving up your time. I know, like us, you are busy people but it is important that we do liaise in this kind of way. We have learned a lot today about the way that you see things should go in Wales. We hope we have some success. We did fail to get two members for Wales on the SRA, although we were trying for more than the Assembly. Just lastly, is there anything you would like to pick up on that that we have missed?
  (Dr Edwards) I just want to reinforce the point quite strongly—and I am sure you can help us out a great deal—about pressing for formal powers for enabling legislation and also obviously more resources; it goes without saying.

  Chairman: That repeats the two messages we have learned this afternoon. Richard, thank you very much. Thank you very much for attending.

Mr Caton

  295. I think it has been very useful this afternoon. We have got a sense of direction from the meeting but I think we need to put some meat on the bones and I think perhaps we need to exchange some correspondence to find a little bit more detail about the committees's position on things.
  (Dr Edwards) We are very happy to do that.

  Chairman: It is always welcome to take written submissions from your Committee at all stages in our collaborations and I hope vice versa. In fact, we have already done that. We had DTLR officials the other day and there were certain questions we asked which we would not have known had you not told us what you wanted to know about their policies. Thank you again.





 
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