Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Roy.]
I am pleased to be in the Chamber this morning. I was very nearly not, because of an incident at Charing Cross. However, that is a different transport issue, which I shall leave for today. It is a pleasure to be here, and I shall begin by addressing where and what the Deeside hub is.
When I first entered the House in 2001, I was struck by the number of invitations that I received from the Scotland Office to attend various events. However, I assure hon. Members that Deeside is firmly in north-east Wales, not in Scotland. The area known as the Deeside hub is an economic sub-region covering Flintshire, Wrexham, Chester, Wirral, Ellesmere Port and Neston. My hon. Friends the Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), for Wirral, West (Stephen Hesford) and for Wirral, South (Ben Chapman) apologise for not being present this morning. They were keen to attend, but unfortunately they were unable to. It is an important issue for them, too.
The region spans the Welsh-English border, and it has seen faster economic growth than south-east England over the past 20 years. Growth has occurred throughout a range of industries, including major global sectors such as aerospace, metals, automotive, financial services and petrochemicals, and throughout a range of smaller enterprises.
Overall, the region is probably more dependent on manufacturing than many parts of the country, particularly on the Welsh side of the border. Much of that is value added, and it is important that within the sector, we remain ahead of the game and do not suffer the problems experienced in other parts of the country, where they are losing manufacturing to eastern Europe and to China. It is clearly a problem throughout the sector.
The prospect for continued growth, according to most experts and studies, remains very good. However, we can never be complacent, and from my own experience, things can appear to be going well and then something unexpected can happen. Corning, which produces optical fibres on the Deeside industrial park, had a strong order book, and then suddenly the world market for optical fibres crashed and we lost many jobs in what was considered a strong sector.
I am sure that on entering the House, all hon. Members look at what their predecessor said in their maiden speech. Barry Jones, now Lord Jones, talked about the twin pillars of the area’s economic strength. They were Courtaulds, a textile manufacturer, which has now gone, and Shotton steelworks, which still holds the record for the largest number of job losses in a single day at a single plant. They demonstrate that we can never rest on our laurels, and that we must always ensure that we have as dynamic an economy as possible.
To ensure that we build on our success, we need joined-up thinking and close co-operation. It is particularly true of new industrial and business sites, and housing also needs to be affordable. Importantly, we also need transport that meets not only current requirements, but expected needs.
By considering several larger employers, we can see the scale of our transport needs. In my constituency, Airbus alone employs more than 7,000 people, the vast majority of whom live in the Deeside hub area. Almost 2,000 live in my constituency alone. About 8,000 people work at the Deeside industrial park, which covers 800 hectares and includes large employers such as Toyota, making engines, ConvaTec, making medical products, and Iceland, and a range of smaller employers. In other parts of the country, they might not be considered small, but we have a number of large employers.
UPM Shotton paper mill is the largest newsprint mill in the UK, recycling 700,000 tonnes of paper a year and producing 450,000 tonnes of newsprint, all from recycled paper. It is the first mill to achieve that feat. Corus, once the largest employer in the region, based at Shotton, recently invested in a new rail head and in a new venture, Living Solutions, which produces modular buildings. Those are just a few examples of the larger employers, and as I said, it is important that they are balanced with smaller employers. Another key point is that we must encourage the supply chain to provide support and parts to big employers such as Airbus. It is important that we carry on that development.
For the future of the whole region, we are looking at major investment and expansion. The northern gateway proposals, using surplus Ministry of Defence land and Corus land, would produce another big business opportunity. There are other opportunities in Wrexham, in Ellesmere Port and in Chester, so the outlook is good, but they will put added pressure on housing and transport. I shall not touch on the housing debate, however, as I am sure that we could spend at least an hour and a half on it.
Transport must be tackled as part of an overall strategy. One problem in the past was that we tried to sort it out as an add-on when the problem got worse, rather than by considering what the problem was likely to be and by meeting it. Within the Deeside hub, 83 per cent. of trips start and end in the region. If we go back to what I said about Airbus, that percentage explains the scale of the traffic in the region. Many workers at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port live in my constituency or in Wrexham. The 83 per cent. figure relates to people moving around the region as they go to and from work.
Within Flintshire, 80 per cent. of journeys to and from work are by car—the highest percentage in the UK. Some 98.6 per cent. of journeys to the Deeside industrial park are by road, and companies have complained to me that the lack of transport has deterred people from obtaining employment there. Those companies have unfilled vacancies in many areas, so we must examine the issue.
The Deeside shuttle, which serves the industrial park, has contributed considerably to that problem’s solution, saving an estimated 2,200 car journeys a week. However, it shows that we have not considered the extent of the problem. We did not consider putting the transport system in place before the park expanded to its current scale. We must address that problem before there is development on the scale of the northern gateway; otherwise, we will run up against further problems.
There have been some major road upgrades of cross-border importance in the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will touch on issues about the Wrexham industrial estate, so I shall not touch on the road issues. However, transport is a major issue in the area.
The M56-A494 corridor is important. The upgrade of the road at the Shotwick traffic lights is essential to clear what has been a bottleneck for many years. The proposed changes at Ewloe and Aston Hill on the A494, costing upwards of £67 million, are totally out of proportion to existing traffic problems, and even to projected growth. The project could have as many as 13 lanes, which is bigger than any motorway that I am aware of, and that includes slip roads and hard shoulders. It has been actively opposed by myself and Carl Sargeant, my Labour colleague in the Welsh Assembly. There has also been an active and effective local campaign led by Jon Butler, Sally Streeter and Terry Maloney. I ask the Minister to speak to Andrew Davies, the relevant Minister in the Assembly, to examine the issue as a matter of urgency. That development is not needed, and it is certainly not needed to meet the requirements of an integrated transport strategy addressing cross-border issues.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point with regard to the A494. Does he share my concern about a very expensive bridge, which cost £78 million to build some years ago, called the Flintshire bridge? It is known colloquially as “the bridge to nowhere”. Does he agree that far more use could be made of that route through a link from the bridge to Northop, over undeveloped land, which would cause far less disruption to the residents of Aston and the local area?
That is one of the options that could be considered. Even if we stick with the A494 proposal, there is scope for one more lane, but the scale of the proposed expansion is totally unnecessary. The bridge is extremely pretty, but I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. It could be put to a far better use, and land where there are houses would not have to be used. As I understand it, most of the land nearby is of a farming nature, or does not have a lot of properties on it.
When my hon. Friend the Minister talks to her colleague in the Assembly, I also suggest that she take up the issue of the electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line, which would make a major contribution to the requirements of the entire Deeside hub area. By coincidence, the expected cost is about the same as the cost of the A494 expansion at Ewloe and Aston Hill. Perhaps the Assembly would be in a position to transfer the money across. I am sure that the process would be slightly more involved than that, but it would certainly be a much better way to spend the money.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham has been a leading campaigner on the issue of the Wrexham to Bidston line, and I commend his work. It is probably not a line of which a lot of hon. Members have heard. I will be totally honest and say that I have only used it once myself, although I live within a few miles of several stations on the route. There is currently only an hourly service and at the stations near me, people have to stand on the platform and hail the train to stop it, which gives the impression that the service is seen as a backwoods type of line.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) for bringing to my attention a Faber Maunsell report produced in 2005. It contains some interesting facts about the line: more than 200,000 people live within 2 km of a station on the line and by 2020, 35,000 new jobs and 2,800 new homes are planned for the area. Clearly, the line could serve that area well.
I am pleased to see Merseytravel’s plans to electrify the line and to increase the level of service fourfold, meaning that there will be a service every quarter of an hour. In addition, new stations will be built at Woodchurch, probably at Beechwood and, most importantly from my point of view, at Deeside. A station there would serve the Deeside industrial park and the proposed new development, or the northern gateway. Connah’s Quay is the largest town in Wales not to have its own railway station, so a station at Deeside would go some way to addressing that problem. Electrifying the line would halve journey times and make it possible to travel from north Wales to Liverpool in about half an hour. That is a vital project, which should go ahead if we are not to rely even more than we do at the moment on the road network, which creates congestion that I am sure will get worse.
Merseytravel hopes to have its plans finalised by the end of March 2008, but that process will require close cross-border co-operation, so I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to do all that she can to ensure that the programme comes to fruition. As I understand it, the proposal involves all the interested bodies, councils and agencies on both sides of the border. A planned and integrated transport system is the bedrock on which our economic success will be built.
As I have said, we have tended to worry about and to try to solve problems afterwards, but retrofitting will always be more expensive, take longer and be far more difficult to achieve. The absence of an effective transport infrastructure will probably deter some companies from siting in the area in the first place, or may even lead to companies looking to move away from it to find a place where they could be better serviced. We cannot allow that to happen.
We need joined-up thinking, not a situation where one approach is taken on one side of the border, and a different one taken on the other. In itself, this is a small point, but I am always struck by this example. Anyone who has travelled on the A483 will notice that a large proportion of the road is all nicely resurfaced with tarmac. The moment one gets to the English border, that stops, and the old surface is still there. There is not very much of it—
It is the Tory council.
Whatever council it was, it shows that there was no joined-up thinking. I would have thought that by the wit of man, somewhere along the line, someone would worked out that it made sense to resurface the whole road rather than stop at that point. That does not send a great message about how we are working on a cross-border basis. I am sure that the future for the region is bright, but we must not ignore this issue. We must plan ahead so that the future is secure.
It is a real pleasure, Mr. Taylor, to be appearing before you this morning for, I think, the first time. I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate about an issue that is vital not only for my constituents, but for others in north-east Wales generally and in west Cheshire and the Wirral. The area is not commonly recognised in the UK as being as economically powerful as it is. Part of the reason why Members from north Wales and Cheshire are working together on the issue is that we want to heighten the profile of the area known as the Deeside hub because it is not widely recognised throughout the UK.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) said, this area has enjoyed huge economic growth in the past 25 years. It has transformed itself from an area that employed people in manufacturing industries such as coal and steel, which have now disappeared from the area. They have been replaced by high-tech and highly skilled industries such as aerospace. Manufacturing is still extremely important in the region, but in order to move forward, it is important that we create an infrastructure to support the industries, service industries and retail opportunities that exist in the area.
The first thing we want to do is heighten the profile of the Deeside hub area. Part of the reason why transport issues in this area have been so low on the agenda for successive Governments is that they have always been regarded as an add-on. The focus has been on job creation, which has been very necessary during the past 25 years. However, in my constituency, we now have unemployment rates of less than 3 per cent. and inward migration of labour for the first time that I am aware of in the history of the area, certainly on the scale that we are experiencing at present. We need to address problems that are problems of success rather than of failure. Those problems are mainly twofold. The first problem is congestion, which is increasingly a bar to economic activity, and the second is sustainability. We need to ensure that the transport systems that will be in place for the future are sustainable.
The failure to recognise the Deeside hub as an area has meant that Governments have not created transport systems to encourage transport within the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said that 83 per cent. of journeys to work that commence in the area covering Wrexham, Flintshire, Ellesmere Port and Chester end in that same area. We therefore have a sharply identified area in which people travel to get to work.
The striking thing about the statistics for transport to work in those areas is how little public transport is used. I visited the excellent Neighbourhood Statistics website and obtained some statistics for travel to work for Wrexham, Chester, and Alyn and Deeside. The figure for people aged 16 to 74 who usually travel to work by car is 62 per cent. in Wrexham, 67 per cent. in Alyn and Deeside, 65 per cent. in Ellesmere Port and 57 per cent. in Chester. The average figure in Wales is 61 per cent., and it is 54.9 per cent. in England. We should remember that Wales is largely a rural country, whereas we are talking about urban areas for the most part, although there are also rural areas in our constituencies. We are talking about urban areas in Wales and on the English side of the border; and yet the figures for travel to work by car are higher than the Welsh average.
What is striking is the lack of available public transport facilities, which is reflected in the figures. In Wrexham, just over 5 per cent. of people travel to work by bus—the figure for Alyn and Deeside is similar—and less than 0.5 per cent. of people travel to work by train.
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. The problem is not just the lack of public transport, although that is clearly a major issue, as we have both said, but that where public transport exists it does not go in a straight line to where people want to go. People have told me of journeys that should have taken a quarter of an hour or so taking an hour and a half because they had to use convoluted routes on public transport.
That is absolutely true. One of the challenges for the area, which I was going to touch on later, is that economic boundaries do not correspond to the political boundaries. My hon. Friend provided the classic example of the half-surfaced A483. It is a straight road that runs for about 10 miles. The first five miles are in Wales and the second five miles are in England. There is no discernible physical boundary—in fact, quite a small brook forms the border—yet one half of the road has been resurfaced but not the other.
One interesting and commendable development in the area over the past three to four years is that the governmental institutions—the Welsh Assembly, the Government office for the north-west and the various local authorities—have made considerable efforts to begin working together much more to reflect the economic reality on the ground and to try to address our central problem. We have a population that crosses the border the whole time for all sorts of reasons, such as work, shopping and leisure. In people’s minds the border does not really exist, yet it does exist for the purposes of the various institutions, governmental authorities and politicians concerned. One of the challenges that we face is to try to remove the systems as barriers to progress. That is why it is so important that hon. Members on both sides of the border are here today.
We are beginning to make progress on addressing the institutional difficulties that exist. To return to what I was saying earlier, such institutional difficulties have meant that we do not have a public transport network that reflects the reality of how people live their lives, and particularly how they travel to work. I mentioned the figure of 5 per cent. for travel to work by bus. By way of comparison, I had a look at another area, which has a mature public transport system—and which I happen to know well because I was born there—called Gateshead in north-east England. Its figure for travel to work by bus is 17 per cent. The two areas have much in common, but the north-east has for many years enjoyed the benefit of a good public transport system.
Travelling to work by public transport in north-east Wales and west Cheshire is extremely difficult, because the system does not correspond to the reality of how people live their lives. Many of my constituents work at General Motors in Ellesmere, and about 800 of them work at Airbus in Flintshire, which is bigger than any business in my constituency, despite the fact that there are many large manufacturing facilities in the area. We have a mobile population that currently cannot travel to work by public transport. That is a major problem, because it causes increasing congestion on the major roads in my constituency and is also beginning to act as a barrier to the successful management of the local economy. Journeys are taking longer, more time is wasted and the good connections that we had in the past to places such as Manchester airport are being rapidly undermined.
How do we deal with those challenges? The Government have made much progress on transport, even in Deeside. The first aspect that I should like to touch on is buses. I strongly commend the announcements that have been made in this Parliament about a greater local authority role for buses. I also commend the Department for Transport and my hon. Friend the Minister for the open and consultative way in which they have dealt with the issue, holding meetings before any legislation has been produced and discussing the issues generally. That has enabled me to speak to my local authority in Wrexham, take the benefit of its expert knowledge in the area and see what needs to be done to design a bus system that reflects the economic progress that has been made in the area and encourages people to use buses.
I always used the bus when I was being brought up. My parents have never owned a car and I used public transport the whole time. However, I must confess that in Wrexham it was only recently that I used the buses again. Using the bus was a pleasant experience, which surprised me. I went to the local bus station and was easily able to identify which bus I needed to take, because of the information systems there. The bus was efficient, quick, clean and very different from how I had pictured it in my mind’s eye—because of my personal prejudices, I suppose. That reflects the experience of many people. If people were to look at the systems in place for bus travel nowadays, they would see that there has been much improvement.
However, to return to a point that my hon. Friend made, the services that exist currently are the commercially viable services. It is easy to get from Wrexham to Chester by bus, because the service is hugely successful. It is used very often by shoppers and people going to work. Most of the journeys that take people to work will be along that route. However, it is much more difficult to travel from the western side of my constituency, where many live, to the large Wrexham industrial estate, which employs about 12,000 people. The checking-in times for workers do not correspond to what is convenient for bus companies, which do not want to run a bus at half-past 5 in the morning. The Wrexham industrial estate business forum has made excellent innovations. It has worked closely with the local authority to design a shuttle serving the industrial estate, based on the model of the Deeside shuttle, to which my hon. Friend referred.
That project has been successful, but at present it is only a toe in the water. The local authorities need a much more active role so that they can link up the huge development taking place on the edges of my constituency with the employers that want individuals to travel efficiently across the area and come to their factories on time. The local authorities have begun to work closely together on the different issues, but need more powers and guidance on providing bus travel. I hope that that will come in the legislation being taken forward and I look forward to seeing it.
It will come as no surprise to colleagues to hear that I want to talk about the Wrexham to Bidston line. I am delighted to see the Minister present; I do not recall ever having had the opportunity to educate her on the subject. I would have been disappointed if the Minister had been the other Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), whom I have already harangued at length on the matter. It is delightful that another member of the Department for Transport is here to hear about this opportunity.
The Wrexham to Bidston line is not the most attractive; one has to be a real enthusiast to undertake a train journey along it. In fact, it runs from Wrexham to Liverpool; I must start calling it the Wrexham to Liverpool line by way of variation. It is called the Wrexham to Bidston line because Bidston is a platform in the middle of a blasted heath halfway up the Wirral. I am keen on the Wirral—I used to work there and have many friends there—but the location is not the most attractive place in the area.
Unfortunately, individuals who wish to travel from Wrexham to Liverpool have to get off the diesel train at Bidston and wait for 10 minutes before leaping on to the super-duper electrified Merseytravel train that takes them right into the centre of Liverpool.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the platform is so small that if the train is full—that is a rarity, I accept—it is really crammed? As he says, the station appears to be in the middle of nowhere and does not encourage people to feel that they have a great onward journey ahead of them.
Indeed; as I say, one needs to be an enthusiast to pursue the line. Most of my visits to it have been in the company of Ministers. I should be delighted to invite the Minister to share the journey with me, so that she can see that the line needs investment.
We have an opportunity to link north-east Wales to Liverpool with an electrified railway line that could operate on a half-hourly basis at least. It would reduce the journey by half an hour and be a direct link through the Wirral to Liverpool from north-east Wales. That is important not only to link the two commercial and retail centres of Wrexham and Liverpool, but—this is crucial—to serve the industrial facilities on the line. They are some of the largest in the UK; Airbus and the General Motors Vauxhall plant are situated there, as well as the rapidly expanding Deeside industrial park, which I think will double in size in the next 10 years.
If that happens, twice as many people will need to travel to the park. If that happens and we do not put in the infrastructure, the roads will be twice as bad and the congestion problem will worsen. We cannot tolerate that situation for two reasons: it would be inefficient and it would lead to increased pollution in the area. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, we are talking not about an add-on but about something intrinsically essential to the development of the area. It is a huge opportunity and Wirral Members of Parliament, those with constituencies in north-east Wales and the local authorities on both sides of the border are all in favour of it.
Taith, the transport consortium in north Wales made up of local authorities working together, is likely to make the project its main priority over the next few years and we must not miss the opportunity. As my hon. Friend said, at this juncture the projected cost, based on the Faber Maunsell figures, is in the region of £60 million, exactly the same as that for yet another new road that we are building across the border.
Someone very misguided once said that we had a great car economy and that we could build our way forward to solve transport problems. North-east Wales and west Cheshire are evidence that that approach is really causing problems. We need to invest that money to provide the public transport option to all those in the area who now travel by car.
I know about the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the Wrexham to Bidston line; he has pursued the issue for a considerable time. Does he agree that on that issue, devolution has proven to be something of a stumbling block? It appears that Merseytravel is very much in favour of the project, and as he says, the local authorities on both sides of the border are also in favour. However, the Assembly is dragging its feet.
That is unfair. I hesitate to leap to the defence of the Assembly; I have been known to be critical of it. However, the Minister with responsibility for economic development, whom I have harangued on many occasions on that very issue, has responded to my invitations by commissioning work through Network Rail and Merseytravel to take the project forward. If anything, more momentum to take the project forward is coming from north-east Wales than from some parts of the English side of the border. I am hopeful that the Assembly will commit itself to the project.
The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) said that the Assembly was a stumbling block in the development of the Deeside hub. Does my hon. Friend not agree that the Assembly’s policies on developing a spatial plan for Wales, so that we can see what is going on now and what will go on in future, are a positive? There is an acceptance that we are within the north-west England sphere of influence; we have developed techniums—the brainchild of Andrew Davies—across Wales; we have a skills agenda in Wales; and there is business support and a business eye across Wales. All that is helping the Deeside hub.
There were some good points in that very long intervention. The spatial plan in particular was extremely important in changing the relationship between the authorities in north-east Wales and north-west England so that we could work together to solve the challenges. We also have real development in both Chester and Wrexham, not only on the manufacturing front, which is going forward quickly, but increasingly on business and retail services. Chester has always been noted for its retail success and has been known for many years as a town—
I beg my hon. Friend’s pardon; Chester has for many years been a city attractive to shoppers. I am pleased to say that Wrexham is now rapidly catching up. When I visit street stalls in Wrexham town centre, I am often pleasantly surprised by the number of people from Chester whom I meet. They recognise the real benefits of shopping in Wrexham—of course, there are benefits in shopping in Chester, too. Yesterday’s newspaper had a great headline: “1,000 New Jobs for Wrexham”. Although we do not see such headlines every day—I wish that we did—the Wrexham area is experiencing regular development. Those 1,000 new jobs will be a challenge, because we need to manage the expansion.
As far as commuters are concerned, Chester and Wrexham are linked mainly by road. The bus service has improved, but we do not have a suitably developed rail service. It was only a year ago that we got an hourly service from Wrexham to Chester, although the most efficient way to travel from Wrexham to Chester is by train. The journey takes 18 minutes, which, in my experience, is half the driving time, and that is outside rush hour. I thank Arriva Trains Wales and the Government for providing the finance for that hourly service, but its success means that we are already considering a half-hourly service on the line.
There is a real appetite to develop the service further. At present, the trains go past the Chester business park, where many of my constituents work. The business park is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell). There is a real possibility that a station at the business park could relieve much of the road congestion. That is not rocket science. People in the area have been talking about it for years, but it requires investment. The service requires investment because the road system across the border between Wrexham and Chester is broken. It needs fixing, but it cannot be fixed by building more roads in the area.
I first went to Wrexham as a member of a local community council for the Marford, Gresford and Rossett area. We made a journey at a time when the A483 was viewed as the solution to all our problems. That was in the late 1980s, but now it is impossible to travel on that road at 9 o’clock in the morning—it is impossible to get to one’s destination.
Therefore, because of the development that has occurred, we must invest not just in the Wrexham to Bidston line and the local bus service, but in the Chester to Wrexham rail line. For an economically developed, urban area, figures of 5 per cent. for commuters travelling by bus and of 0.5 per cent. for commuters travelling by train are very small indeed. They must be improved if the region is to go forward.
We must also be conscious of the fact that, at present, the most environmentally inefficient way of travelling is by car. If we are to make any real impact in reducing the carbon footprint of travelling to work, we must increase the figures for bus and train journeys. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to come to the area to see our economic success and the transport challenges that we face. The solutions are in place, but we need money.
I too congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami)—my neighbour across the border—on securing this important debate. As he said, the Deeside hub, which embraces large parts of Wirral and the whole of west Cheshire and north-east Wales, has witnessed remarkable economic growth in recent years. I can remember in 1997 visiting the poorest parts of my constituency. There was 15 per cent. unemployment on the Lache estate, which is in the south part of my constituency. Because of the economic success of our Government, the unemployment rate in Chester now is virtually nil.
The key drivers of that success have been world-class manufacturing companies such as Airbus, JCB in Wrexham and Vauxhall Motors in Ellesmere Port, as my hon. Friends the Members for Alyn and Deeside and for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) said, but also financial services. In my constituency, Bank of America, Marks and Spencer Financial Services, and HBOS have created thousands of jobs. In addition, tourism and retail have contributed to the economy. It is estimated that more than 15 million visitors a year come to Chester and to Ellesmere Port. They come to enjoy the heritage of the historic city of Chester, and to visit destinations such as the zoo and, of course, the shopping meccas of Chester and the Cheshire Oaks retail and leisure park.
As my hon. Friends said, the economic success of our sub-region and the contribution that it makes to UK plc are not widely acknowledged. That must be because it straddles the Welsh-English border. I freely admit that cross-border relationships have not always been harmonious in the past. For instance, a local byelaw in Chester states that a Welsh person found within the city walls after sunset can be taken out with a crossbow.
Is it not true that the Chester town hall clock tower does not have a face facing Wales because the people of Chester would not give the time of day to the Welsh?
That is absolutely true. However, there is a close inter-relationship and synergy between north-east Wales and west Cheshire today, except on the odd occasion when there is a local derby between Chester and Wrexham—it might not be quite as harmonious then.
As has been said, it is significant that well over 80 per cent. of all the journeys that begin in the Deeside hub area end within the region. Those journeys are increasing year on year. It is estimated that there has been an increase of well over 30 per cent. in the past 15 years.
People cross the border not only to access employment sites. Large numbers of young people cross the border every day to travel to the university of Chester or further education colleges in north Wales and Cheshire. On an average day, one third of the beds in the Countess of Chester hospital are occupied by patients from my hon. Friends’ constituencies across the border. As my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside said, the local housing market mirrors the geographic area of the Deeside hub. As house prices have spiralled upwards in Chester, more and more people who cannot afford to get a foot on the housing ladder there have crossed the border in search of cheaper accommodation.
The specific focus of this morning’s debate is transport. I wholeheartedly agree with my colleagues that, to sustain the competitiveness of our local economy for the long term, there is an urgent need to improve transport and accessibility within the sub-region, so that workers can move easily between areas where there are still pockets of unemployment and deprivation to areas of opportunity. There is certainly a need for better integration of transport systems, particularly rail and bus networks. As many people now work in the Chester business park, which is on the outskirts of the city, as work in the city centre, yet bus services to the business park are very limited, particularly in the evenings and at weekends. Access to the Deeside industrial park, which is a major source of employment in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside, by public transport is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for my constituents.
A great deal of work and planning was carried out by Cheshire county council, Flintshire county council and other agencies in the 1990s to improve the public transport links between the motorway network—the M56 and the M53—and Chester city centre, areas of high unemployment in Chester at the time, such as the Blacon estate, and key employment sites, such as Chester business park and the Deeside industrial park. Unfortunately, when the Conservative administration took over at Cheshire county hall in 2001, the emerging plans to improve the public transport links between west Cheshire and Deeside were shelved and the focus for the county council shifted to road schemes in east Cheshire.
The downside of the growing prosperity of our sub-region, as my hon. Friends have pointed out, has been the marked increase in congestion on our local road network at peak times. There is a pressing need—I support my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham 100 per cent. on this point—urgently to address congestion hot spots, such as the junction of the A55 with the A483 by Chester business park. It is vital that we upgrade the rail links between Chester and Wrexham with a view to providing a stop for Chester business park.
The partial closure of the Grosvenor bridge in Chester in the past month for the laying of a new gas main and the ensuing traffic gridlock have resulted in renewed calls from local residents and businesses for a third crossing of the River Dee in Chester. That would link the A55 with an existing relief road, which is called the Deva link. The proposal for the Chester western relief road has been mooted on and off for the past 20 years. The city council has now agreed to fund an appraisal of possible routes. There will have to be close cross-border co-operation as part of the route may have to run through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside. Although I support that study, I hope that at the same time the need for a public transport corridor will be considered along with the proposal for a new road link.
My hon. Friends have highlighted the employment opportunities that our sub-region will be able to offer in the future, and the site with the greatest potential to meet local employment and housing needs in my constituency is Saighton camp, a former Ministry of Defence site. However, the site cannot be released for development until agreement is given for direct access on to the A55, as the local road network from the camp through the community of Huntington is already at capacity at peak times. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and her Department will work closely with the Highways Agency and the local authorities to make that direct access road a reality.
I fully endorse all the comments made by my colleagues in north Wales for electrification and improvements to the Wrexham to Bidston rail line. An upgrade of that line will benefit the whole of the Liverpool city region as well as north Wales. The Deeside hub has demonstrated that it can compete successfully in the national and global marketplace, and over the past 12 months there has been an increase of more than 30 per cent. in the number of passengers travelling by rail between Chester and London. Next year, when the major upgrade of the west coast mainline is complete, there will be 11 direct trains a day from London to Chester. That will prove a major boost for inward investment.
There are significant increases, too, in the number of direct flights from Manchester airport and Liverpool John Lennon airport to worldwide destinations, but again we need to improve all modes of travel—rail, bus and road—from our towns and city to those airports. The Deeside hub has massive potential to deliver jobs and homes, but some key transport infrastructure is missing. I hope that the Minister and her Department will work closely with the Welsh Assembly, the Northwest Development Agency and the local authorities who make up the Mersey Dee Alliance to secure the necessary funding for a fully integrated, innovative transport system for our dynamic and forward-looking sub-region.
Order. I hope to call the Front-Bench speakers to wind up at 10.30. I now call Mr. Chris Ruane.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
With reference to Simon and Garfunkel, was it not Widnes station?
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:
“Over 200,000 people live within 2 kilometres of stations on the line”.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
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.
On regional priorities, English regional and local bodies now have a much clearer picture of the resources from the Department for Transport that are likely to be available to their region over the next 10 years. Via the regional funding allocation process, we have given them the opportunity to advise the Government on how they think that those resources would best be used. That involves setting priorities. To address any concerns about how we deal with cross-border schemes in any future regional prioritisation exercises, we have recently consulted on how the processes for regional funding allocations might be further improved.
I am delighted to hear of the success of the Deeside shuttle bus service. I recognise the value of demand-responsive services. Similar schemes operate in Merseyside, funded by the Government’s urban bus challenge fund, and I understand that discussions are under way about trying to achieve better integrated ticketing between services. I mentioned the “Putting Passengers First” document. I thank my hon. Friends for their contribution in that respect, which has been invaluable. In addition, we can look forward to the draft road transport Bill, which will support the Government’s efforts to cut congestion and to improve public transport.
I am glad that the Government’s proposals to improve bus services in the area that we are discussing are welcome. I am sure that we will continue to work to improve services. Rail has seen significant Government investment and improvements over the past few years, with rail performance exceeding targets, and passenger numbers and the amount of freight transported by rail increasing. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) said that the Government have invested £11 billion on the west coast, delivering benefits to the north-west and to north Wales. As we have also heard, reductions in journey times, improved timetables and an enlarged fleet of trains are all extremely welcome.
I agree that transport problems need to be addressed before they arise. That is why the Department for Transport and the Welsh Assembly Government are jointly sponsoring a study known as the Wales rail planning assessment. That involves the Welsh regional transport consortiums. It will ensure that plans for the railway reflect, where appropriate, the policies and priorities of the Welsh Assembly Government and regional transport plans, which I know my hon. Friends will be keen to see.
I recognise that implementation of the borderlands study, including a new station to serve Deeside industrial park, is a key aspiration of the Consortium of Local Authorities in Wales. Improving connections to major employment centres is one of the options being evaluated by the Wales rail planning assessment.
I am delighted to have had the opportunity to hear the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham regarding the Wrexham-Bidston line. Perhaps when Wrexham and Lincoln next play, I will be able to avail myself of the opportunity to visit his fine constituency. I understand that there is considerable support for improvements to that line and I welcome the co-operation that is already taking place between Merseytravel—the Merseyside passenger transport executive—English and Welsh transport authorities and the Welsh Assembly. Merseytravel and the Welsh Assembly Government, with others, have jointly commissioned Network Rail to undertake a detailed feasibility study of electrification of the line. The creation of a business case, working with Network Rail and the rail industry, is the essential first step in taking forward any rail proposal.
The A494 was mentioned. I understand that the Welsh Assembly has recently published draft orders that are open to objection or comment until later this month. I also understand that no final decision has been reached on that scheme. I am sure that my hon. Friends will continue to make their voices heard. I assure them that the Welsh Assembly, the PTE and DFT officials are keeping in close touch with one another about the progress of Network Rail’s study considering electrification. I look forward to seeing local transport plans and rail studies—
Order. We now come to the next debate.