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Cross-border Economic Opportunities

Volume 635: debated on Wednesday 31 January 2018

Last week, I hosted the first cross-border Severn growth summit in Newport. More than 350 people attended the event, all looking to strengthen the economic links between south Wales and the south-west. Through our industrial strategy, we want to build on this cross-border collaboration and help create prosperous communities throughout the whole of Wales.

Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, relies very heavily on trade with our friends and neighbours across the border in Wales. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly about dualling the A5, which crosses the border between England and Wales? Will he join me in paying tribute to my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who has campaigned assiduously, but who has been very badly injured in a riding accident and is recuperating at home?

We wish the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) a full and speedy recovery, but the fullness of the recovery is more important than its speed.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Both are assiduous and relentless in their pursuit of the dualling of the A5. I would point them to the second road investment strategy for England. I liaise with the Welsh Government Minister Ken Skates regularly to pursue the issue, because it works for much better co-operation if we bring together investment priorities. My hon. Friend’s efforts are paying significant dividends in the negotiations.

Every “Gavin and Stacey” fan knows that the journey from Essex to Wales involves the most expensive toll bridge charges in the country, so I am delighted that this Conservative Government have removed the burden of crossing the border for tourists, businesses and commuters generally. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he intends to capitalise on that wonderful news?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that iconic “Gavin and Stacey” scene where Smithy is struggling to get into Wales because he has to pay the £6.70 toll charge to cross the bridge. I would point out to my hon. Friend that tolls have been reduced by 20% in the interim, and by the end of the year they will be abolished. That will be one of the biggest stimuluses for the Welsh economy in decades. It will provide the opportunity for more and better-paid jobs, and a £100 million boost to the Welsh economy. This is an opportunity for the south-west of England and south Wales to come together as an economic powerhouse to provide better opportunities in the western side of the UK.

My constituents who work in Bristol and beyond have to put up with chronically overcrowded rail services as fares increase. Will the Secretary of State talk to UK Government Transport Ministers—rail services are not devolved—to sort this out?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about public transport in general. The Great Western franchise is out for consultation as we speak, and I encourage her, her constituents and south Wales Members to make representations about the improvements they would like. She talked about overcrowding, but one of the most overcrowded roads in the UK is around the Brynglas tunnels in Newport. I hope the Welsh Government get on with building that road sooner rather than later. After all, the UK Government made money available more than three years ago, and we are frustrated by the lack of response and reaction in building it.

Since assuming office, the Secretary of State has broken a promise to electrify the main line to Swansea; vetoed devolving airport taxes to Wales because he does not want to upset Bristol airport; and not delivered on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Is not the reality that his record on the economy is failure, failure, failure?

I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s tone. I would point to significant wins for Wales over recent years, the most important of which is the fair funding settlement, which provided a 5% uplift—it will be a £67 million uplift in the next financial year and similar sums in subsequent years. Thirteen years of underfunding by the Labour party have been corrected in the first year of a Conservative Administration.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for inviting my district council and my tourism industry to his Severn growth summit. I am also grateful that the tolls will be removed, given that the old Severn bridge is half in my constituency and the gateway to Gloucestershire, not just Wales. May I urge him, as he continues these cross-border opportunities, fully to involve business and industry in my constituency so that we can take full advantage of growth in the western part of our country?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support for the call to abolish the Severn tolls, because that really will be a major boost to his constituency and constituencies across the whole of south Wales. After all, can he imagine a £6.70 charge to do any business between Cardiff and Newport and the impact that that would have? Well, that is really what has been in place between his constituency and the south Wales economy for more than 50 years. Abolishing the tolls is a commitment on which I am pleased to be able to deliver.

I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to his place. They say the first time is always the worst. I understand that he was born on Ynys Môn and that he was a member of the Labour party. We would like to welcome him back, but we might be full.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly: there was an announcement by Stonewall this morning that it is the No. 1 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employer in the UK. I will not mention that Swansea City beat Arsenal 3-1 last night.

Manufacturers across the UK consider the world-leading tidal lagoon industry a lifeline for their businesses. Thousands of skilled jobs in cross-border factories are earmarked to supply the lagoons, and they are at risk because the UK Government cannot make a decision. The Secretary of State has said many times that he would love it to happen. The Welsh Labour Government have pledged millions to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Hendry says, “It’s a no regrets decision.” Has the Secretary of State anything constructive to report? In the words of Gavin and Stacey, “What’s occurring?”

I join the hon. Lady in recognising the Welsh Assembly for its recognition by Stonewall; that is something to be accepted, underlined and recognised. I also recognise, as a City supporter, the success that Swansea had last night. She raises an important point about the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. As I have said previously, I really would like this to happen, as would the whole of the UK Government. After all, we gave planning permission for it after the 2015 general election. We would like to see progress on it, but, clearly, it must be value for money. The Welsh Government have communicated with the UK Government about something that they call “an offer”. Last week, officials from my office, the Welsh Government, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy met to establish what this offer amounts to. We will continue discussions. I point out to her that she needs to look at the jobs that will be created in the long term, and not those thousands of jobs that she talked about, because the project itself will deliver 40 or more jobs.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the jobs, because these cross-border jobs include local government apprenticeships for 16 and 17-year-olds. They are now at risk because of the UK Government’s dithering. Now that the Welsh Labour Government are introducing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in local government elections in Wales, are the UK Government worried that Welsh young people will be able to vote on their future, vote for apprenticeships and vote for tidal lagoons?

Apprenticeships are part of the UK Government’s manifesto, and we are grateful to the Welsh Government and recognise that they have followed the ambition that we set out for apprenticeships. I also point out and pay tribute to the Welsh Government for their action over changing the voting structures, but remind the hon. Lady about who gave them the power to do that in the first place, after it was refused for 13 years by Labour.

Is the Minister aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee has invited the First Minister of Wales to come before us and spell out exactly what the offer is and that, so far, he has refused to do so? If there is a serious offer from Welsh Labour to support tidal lagoons, does he agree that the Welsh First Minister should reconsider, come before the Committee and tell us exactly what it is that he is offering us?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend as Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs—a position in which he has been vociferous in pursuing these sorts of issues and the case for value for money. He has invited the First Minister to give evidence to his Committee. I would have thought that the First Minister would want to respond positively to that invitation, if he wants to be seen to be doing everything—and, indeed, to do everything—to make this project come about and to prove the value-for-money case that we seek.