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Holyhead (Government Agencies)

Volume 132: debated on Thursday 28 April 1988

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Peter Lloyd.]

11.30 pm

I am grateful to the Minister for being here to reply to the debate and for the opportunity to bring to the House's attention some important issues affecting Holyhead. It is the largest town in my constituency, where unemployment, currently at over 20 per cent., is unacceptably high.

I have discovered that Holyhead has occupied a great deal of the House's time over the years. A Select Committee in 1808 considered improvements to the harbour. Two years later an Act of Parliament was passed to give effect to its recommendations. In 1819 a further Act was necessary to enable Telford to complete his suspension bridge, and build the A5 through to Holyhead. Various Government inquiries and Select Committees considered the need for a railway linking Chester and Holyhead. That led to another Act of Parliament in July 1844.

That draws me to the simple but unavoidable conclusion that good communications are vital for a healthy economy. In the last century there was a battle royal between Porthdinllaen and Holyhead for the Irish traffic. To quote a recent publication, the contest was really decided when Telford succeeded in bridging the Menai Straits in 1859.

Thus, good road and rail communications have been, and continue to be, vital to Holyhead. But the era of Telford and Stephenson, however glorious, is now over. We must look for improvements and ask the Government and British Rail for the same level of commitment arid investment as their predecessors produced.

I was informed only a matter of days ago that British Rail is firmly committed to the north Wales line through to Holyhead, I welcome that statement. However, the constant delay in the completion of the station complex is a source of much anger in the town. When the old Station hotel was pulled down some years ago assurances were given by the parties concerned—British Rail, Sealink, then a British Rail subsidiary, and the local authority—that a new station complex costing over £4 million would be built. Indeed, one of my predecessors, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, told me this week that he was given that assurance in 1979. The current plan is more modest, and is believed to cost £2·5 million.

In the intervening years, delay has followed delay, promises have been broken, and the site of the old Station hotel is an eyesore. It is the first sight of Wales that the ferry passenger travelling from Ireland sees, and it is a disgrace.

The local authority, Ynys Mô borough council, has put in a great deal of effort and should be congratulated on its determination. We were told at a recent meeting of the Holyhead Port Users Association that the deal was near completion but that there would be another slight delay. One member of the association was moved to say:
"That is what I was told exactly eight years ago."
We must now exert all possible pressure on British Rail to conclude the deal. It will mean so much for the image and morale of the people of Holyhead.

I thank the Minister for receiving a deputation recently which pressed for improvements to the A5 through the island. We were grateful for his announcement that he was considering the inclusion of the dualling of the A5 to Turnpike Nant near Llangefni in the publication "Roads in Wales 1988." With improvements to the A55 under way, that will improve access to the port.

We were also pleased that the Minister is to have, in his words, "another long hard look" at proposals to deal with the remainder of the A5 through to Holyhead. The expected increase in the volume of heavy commercial traffic from the current level of 37,000 to nearly 100,000 units per annum will place an intolerable burden on Holyhead and the surrounding communities.

The Welsh Development Agency has a vital role to play in developing Holyhead's true potential. It must capitalise on the fact that the Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire route is the shortest sea crossing between Ireland and the United Kingdom. That is a vital factor in these days of fast communications. Ferry operators are now keen to exploit short sea crossings, not only because of the fuel costs involved but because sea travel is more time consuming than land travel by a constant factor of three to one, which gives Holyhead a distinct advantage.

I should like to see the Welsh Development Agency working with industrialists and employers to regenerate the town's economy. Recent developments give me cause for optimism that we could be on the move. These involve projects in the fishing industry, in which the local borough council and the Welsh Development Agency have been active.

I should also like to see drawn up a plan of action with further initiatives to create jobs in sufficient numbers to tackle the underlying problem of the long-term unemployed. I am confident that the Welsh Development Agency, working alongside and in partnership with industry, and on occasion with the local authority, could transform the town's prospects and create prosperity. WDA officers are considering establishing an enterprise company in the area. That is one way to start to tackle our problems.

Tourism is, and will increasingly be, an important industry for Holyhead. The Wales tourist board has recognised the potential and has chosen the town for the site of a permanent regional tourist information office. The staff who run the current temporary office from a caravan have done extremely well under difficult conditions. With over 1 million people travelling annually through Holyhead, the great potential must be realised.

There is also the possibility of running steam trains along the north Wales line during the peak summer period. I understand that the original stumbling block—the lack of a turntable facility at Holyhead—has been overcome. Now that that has been resolved, I hope that the Wales tourist board and BR can between them solve any scheduling difficulties.

I congratulate BR on improving its catering facilities and time schedules, particularly on inter-city trains. However, the quality of the rolling stock could be substantially improved, and such an improvement would be greatly welcome by all, including the Minister, who travel regularly on this route.

Holyhead is a unique community in many ways. It is the most cosmopolitan town in north Wales for its size, and that is due to its seafaring tradition. It is also a close community. It has been bound together by the constant danger that men and women face at sea. Many families are constantly aware of the fate that can befall their loved ones by working in an unpredictable environment. These harsh realities have evolved a caring and compassionate community. They have faced economic and sometimes social difficulties with fortitude and I believe that the Government, through their agencies, owe it to them to maintain and develop the skills and crafts that have taken generations to evolve.

I am realistic enough to know that any project must be viable if it is to succeed. I know that the omens are good. We must capture the opportunities that are clearly available with better communications, the advent of the Channel tunnel and the town's strategic and pivotal location as Ireland's gateway to England. The A55 and A5 are part of a designated Euroroute. I am prepared to play my role in bringing about this exciting prospect, a I hope that the Government will respond in equal measure.

11.41 pm

As someone who was born and bred in Ynys Môn, I am naturally anxious to see it prosper. I continue to visit the island and am well aware of its problems and opportunities. Indeed, I was there last Friday. I hope to show the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) that Government agencies have not been inactive in assisting development at Holyhead.

Holyhead is primarily a ferry port. The multi-purpose roll-on/roll-off ferry service that was initiated by the British Railways Board is now in its 22nd year of operation and the lift-on/lift-off container service for Freightliners is in its 17th year.

There was overall traffic growth over the eight years to 1985 for passengers, passenger vehicles and freight moving through Holyhead. However, the growth stopped in 1986. The port is definitely facing competition from air services, influenced by price deregulation, and the troubles in Ireland have not helped.

However, the consultants' report on Ynys Môn concludes that ro/ro ferry prospects are secure in both the short and long term and that the prospects of securing further development in conjunction with the provision of facilities for Channel tunnel traffic appear good.

Improvements to the ferry and rail terminal will provide new passenger facilities, including a new concourse, car parking, a ticket office and a link bridge to a tourist information centre. Earlier this year, B and I introduced an additional daily service from Holyhead and there are now two daily round trips to and from Dublin. Sealink also operates two daily round trips to and from Dun Laoghaire. A new modern fishing harbour is being provided by Anglesey borough council by infilling an existing dry dock and reclaiming land in an area of high dereliction. Work that will cost about £1 million is well advanced and is expected to be completed this summer.

In addition to nearly £200,000 from the Welsh Development Agency, the Welsh Office is contributing over £300,000 in the form of a fishing harbour grant and an urban aid grant. An application for European regional development fund aid for both developments is expected by the end of the year.

I am glad to say that fish landings have doubled in the period 1979–87.

The hon. Gentleman was right to emphasise the north Wales coast railway line. BR hopes to boost business in the off-peak season by slashing one third off all fares on its hourly services into Chester. The campaign, which ends on 31 May, was publicised in a mail drop into households and advertisements in the press. A further campaign will be considered after the summer season ends.

InterCity services out of Holyhead to London are being increased from six trains to eight in peak summer. These services coincide with boat services in and out of Holyhead. BR says there is no question of running down the line.

Clwyd county council has applied on behalf of Gwynedd, Cheshire and itself for ERDF aid of 50 per cent. of the cost of a feasibility study which it hopes will demonstrate to BR that a case exists for electrifying the Holyhead-Crewe line. BR itself has agreed to co-operate in an advisory capacity with the study. At present the application is still being considered by the European Commission. Of course, at the end of the day, electrification and other investment decisions are matters for BR.

The hon. Gentleman and I discussed the A5 trunk road in Anglesey when he led a deputation from Gwynedd to see me on 13 April. I am well aware of local concern to develop the economy in Anglesey, especially Holyhead, and the desire to develop and improve the A5 trunk road particularly between Llanfair PG and Holyhead. I explained to the deputation and the hon. Member that the Department is looking carefully at schemes to improve the A5 on the island. My Department is, as he said, giving particular consideration to possible dualling between Llanfair PG and Turnpike Nant junction, the turn-off point for Llangefni. Our proposals will be made known when "Roads in Wales 1988" is published.

I must reiterate that the economic case for many of the other proposed schemes is very poor, but we will consider any new evidence of economic benefit to Holyhead from the increased traffic flows.

The application for urban development grant for retail development in Holyhead, which would include improving the A5 at its junction with Kingsland road, is currently being appraised by the Department. It is too soon to indicate the outcome of the appraisal.

The hon. Gentleman referred to unemployment. I am aware of the position. I am glad to say that unemployment in the Holyhead travel-to-work area has fallen by 4·5 percentage points since September 1986 and by 2·3 percentage points over the year to March 1988. Of course, there is still much more to he done, but the trends are in the right direction.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that some of the welcome fall in unemployment has been due to the activity of the Welsh Development Agency and other agencies. The WDA is engaged in a series of measures designed to create the right climate for industrial and economic growth in Holyhead and Anglesey as a whole.

On the property side, the agency plans to build 13 factory units totalling 28,000 sq ft in Ynys Môn; seven of these are to be built in Holyhead. The agency is already dealing with a steady stream of inquiries from companies keenly interested in setting up on the island.

The WDA is funding a number of important schemes to bring land back into productive use under its land reclamation programme. In partnership with the local authorities, it is grant-aiding dredging works at Holyhead harbour designed to improve facilities for shipping movements at the port. It is also engaged in preservation and renovation works at the former Bon Sauveur convent in Holyhead as part of a planned housing development.

The WDA is seeking opportunities to increase its venture capital activity on the island and is currently processing inquiries received from nine firms seeking investment finance of nearly £300,000. Three of these are from firms in Holyhead.

Over the past three years, offers of regional assistance to firms in Holyhead have totalled £2·7 million, with forecasts of creating over 900 new jobs.

As to the future, the WDA is represented on the Holyhead study group, whose remit is to work out long-term plans for the development of Holyhead. The agency is working closely with the Wales tourist hoard and county and borough councils, and it has commissioned a study to look at the development prospects of the area. The study's findings have been considered and discussed with interested organisations, including the Holyhead Port Users Association. Several of the study's recommendations are now being explored in more depth.

The Wales tourist hoard is also keen to see development at Holyhead. A number of potential redevelopment projects concerning shopping and environmental improvements, which will assist tourism development, are under consideration.

The WTB also provided support in recent years through joint marketing campaigns and over the three years since 1986–87 the board will have supported total advertising expenditure of £150,000. I am sure that the board would be interested in discussing any proposals that the hon. Gentleman might wish to make to it.

Bringing together the various tourism associations which exist within Anglesey is obviously important. The Ynys Môn borough council has already made significant strides in that respect and, with WTB support, has evolved the joint marketing scheme, which now produces a single brochure for the island as a whole. I congratulate it as I understand that the scheme has done particularly well this year.

In that context, the exhibition of Holyhead in the 1990s, opened yesterday in the town library by the chairman of Gwynedd county council, will be a useful pointer to residents and visitors alike. I understand that the exhibition again demonstrates the co-operation between various agencies and the local authorities.

Because we have been very conscious of the needs of Holyhead, we in the Welsh Office have, in recent years, sought to concentrate, as far as possible, the available urban programme resources for the island on the port of Holyhead. Indeed, since 1984–85 almost £800,000 of urban programme allocations have been specifically directed towards Holyhead. I would expect that concentration to continue in future years provided, of course, that the local authorities continue to submit worthwhile applications to the Department.

In the case of the Holyhead leisure centre, our decision for this year took into account the creamery closure at Llangefni, and we felt priority had to be given to the workshop units there with their job-creating potential. All parts of Wales benefit from WTB activities. An additional £250,000 was made available to the tourist board for marketing in early 1988. Since 1983–84 net Government funding of the Wales tourist board has increased by over 90 per cent., with assistance to projects increasing over threefold. This year, 1988–89, assistance is at an all-time high of £.9·2 million. I am sure that Ynys Môn and Holyhead will benefit from this additional expenditure. There is a proposal, of which I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, for a major new food store in Holyhead, which is currently being considered for urban development grant support by the Welsh Office. A number of issues remain to be resolved before a decision can be made and officials are in discussion with Gwynedd county council and the developers.

I know that Ynys Mô n borough council has applied to the Manpower Services Commission for approved training organisation status. Responsibility for granting approved training organisation status lies with the MSC. The MSC's director for Wales is still considering the application by Ynys Môn borough council and at this stage I can make no further comment on it.

Apart from its mainstream activities, the Welsh Development Agency is conscious of the need to enhance the environment and job prospects, not just in the towns, but in the countryside as well. Indeed, one cannot think of Ynys Môn or even Holyhead without thinking of the rural landscape there. The WDA has approved grants under the rural enterprise initiative to the tune of well over £100,000 for Anglesey as a whole. Applications for a further £130,000 of assistance have been approved and are awaiting payment.

I think that I have at least succeeded in showing that the Government's agencies have not been inactive. Indeed, they have been helpful, so far as Anglesey as a whole is concerned, in doing their utmost to reduce the high unemployment from which I know that Holyhead in particular suffers.

Today's Western Mail reported some exceptionally good news for the island with the announcement of 150 new jobs being created by the Imperial Metals Corporation of Canada which has decided to commence mining operations centred on Parys mountain. That is an enormous shot in the arm for the area and a clear signal that every part of Wales is now benefiting from the continuing resurgence of the Welsh economy. The future prosperity of Ynys Môn and Holyhead depends crucially on the continuation of the economic revival that we are currently experiencing.

For both the island and Holyhead, the vast improvements that are currently being undertaken to the A55, the north Wales coast road, will in due course bring benefits to Anglesey and to Holyhead by way of supporting not only the tourist industry, but industry in general on the island.

I hope that I have said enough to satisfy the hon. Gentleman that we have the interests of Ynys Môn and of Holyhead very much at heart.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.