Wales (Railways and Roads)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 24th November 1966.

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

11.18 p.m.

Photo of Mr Gwynfor Evans Mr Gwynfor Evans , Carmarthen

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring before the House the question of roads and railways in Wales, a matter most important to my constituency and to every constituency in Wales. I am conscious of the grim background of the figures of employment and unemployment in Wales. We have heard this evening that the percentage of people unemployed in Wales has now reached 3·9 per cent. and there are only 7,600 vacancies, whereas there are 39,360 unemployed. I also bring this matter before the House against the background of long-term decline in Wales.

The population of the County of Carmarthen has dropped since 1921 by 10,000, and Wales as a whole has increased its population during that period by only 1 per cent., whereas England has increased its population by 35 per cent. The main cause of this decline is lack of balanced development, which in turn is due to the failure to develop road and rail communications. A high proportion of our railways has been closed and services on the surviving lines, both passenger and freight, are still being cruelly curtailed. The mileage of major roads built has been derisory.

Industrial development follows the motorway. This was the conclusion drawn from a series of articles on the regions some time ago by the Guardian. The Secretary of State for Wales knows how difficult it is to push industrialists westwards. This is why Carmarthenshire has had so few new factories in the two years 1964–66, and why they are so small, employing only 200 men in all. This field of communications is one where one cannot plan for one county alone. The urgent need is to implement an integrated road and rail policy for the whole of Wales. Up to now they have been dealt with separately, almost in isolation from each other.

Not only should road and rail policies be integrated each with the other; they should also be an integrated part of a social and economic policy for the Welsh nation. Regard should be had for the effect of every one activity on every other aspect of Welsh life, which must be considered as a seamless web. Otherwise the best-intentioned actions may do more harm than good. The transport plan must be part of a Welsh development plan which creates the conditions for balanced growth in our industrial, economic, social and cultural life. This requires a Welsh transport board. I see that even the Economist is pressing for 16 regional governments for Britain, although the Economist gives priority to economic values and, therefore, does not respect the national life of Wales and, apparently, would like to see Wales carved up and destroyed. If we had that kind of government in Wales—and why should not Wales pioneer in this field?—a Welsh transport board would of necessity be a part of it. Had such a board been established after the war, Welsh communications would be more efficient today. As a part of an integral system, for instance, we would have in our rural areas, as other countries have, a system of multi-purpose minibuses which would transport adults and school children, mail and parcels. Perhaps we shall learn something of such possibilities when the Clayton Report is published—if it is to be published. I should be glad to hear from the Minister whether the final Report, which was to be made in September, has now been considered by the Government.

A Welsh transport board would have embarked on the electrification of Welsh railways immediately after the war. As things are, the Government do not intend to electrify a mile of them. Compare this with Switzerland, where 99 per cent. of the federal railways are electrified, and with the situation in France. What a good use this would have been for Welsh coal. The main burden of responsibility for the destruction of our railway system falls on administration damage. It is the system of Welsh government which is at fault. A higher proportion of railways has been closed in Wales than in England although there is no evidence that railways in Wales are losing money. The most reasonable deduction to be drawn from such figures as have been published is that they make a profit. If the Government wish to dispute this, let them publish the detailed evidence. Unfortunately, the services of the British Railways in Wales are still being curtailed for both passengers and freight. Freight is the more important from the industrial and economic point of view but the curtailment of passenger services has most injurious social consequences.

When I met the Kidwelly Borough Council recently I was told by one member of the Council that to get to his work at Swansea by 9 a.m. he must leave Kidwelly by the 5.55 a.m. train or the 6.30 a.m. bus. In the nearby village of Ferryside there is no bus or train which will get people to work in Carmarthen by 9 a.m.

The basic reason for the failure of railways to provide a satisfactory service is that their criteria are too narrowly commercial. In their White Paper on transport a few months ago, the Government conceded this and said that commercial considerations may well now be secondary to the welfare of the society which they serve, which must be given priority. The Government have not yet legislated to secure this, but they intend doing so, and I appeal to them in the interim period to use their best offices to ensure that British Railways act according to the spirit of the White Paper and not the letter of the present law.

The Government must make up their mind to take Welsh roads seriously. We suffer doubly in Wales from neglect in this. Largely because of lack of adequate communications there is little industry in the greater part of the country, and now, because there is little industry, we are told that we do not need major roads. The truth is that they are needed throughout Wales precisely because of the lack of industry. Industry follows the road even more certainly than trade follows the flag. In addition, the increasingly chaotic state in the summer must restrict the tourist industry, which has become of such great economic value to us.

But we are told that the expense of building these roads is too great. This is a matter of priorities. For less than the cost of three nuclear submarines, a reconstructed trunk road could be built from Cardiff to Wrexham. For less than the cost of two submarines, highways with the status of reconstructed trunk roads could be built from Neath to Aberystwyth and from Carmarthen to Whitland.

To come nearer home than submarines, the Government consultants said that the cost of a new town that might bring some 60,000 Birmingham people to Caersus would be some £137 million. For that sum we could have the major highways that I have mentioned from Merthyr to Caernarvon, from Swansea to Whitland, and from Neath to Aberystwyth. A set of highways of that kind, serving the nine Welsh counties, would transform the social and economic prospects of great areas of Wales and bring new vigour to the whole of Welsh life.

As things are, the Government seem to have no intention of doing anything else like that. In the six western counties they hope to build three miles of reconstructed trunk roads, less than three miles of dual carriageway and not a yard of motorway. In 1967–68 the proportion of United Kingdom expenditure on motorways that it is proposed to spend in the nine counties of Wales, except Monmouthshire, is nil.

Six years ago these words were spoken: The simple truth is that the Minister of Transport's programme for Wales is completely inadequate, and he has always failed to understand the real problem in Wales".—[OFFICIAL REPORT. Welsh Grand Committee, 14th December, 1960; c. 10.] They were spoken in a Welsh Grand Committee debate on transport by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). They were no doubt true then, and they are equally true now. Whatever party is in power, the Government fail to understand the real problem of Wales.

It would not astonish me to learn that there is insufficient being done to justify the setting up in Wales of a unit corresponding to the six units the Minister of Transport announced yesterday, which are to prepare, design and supervise the construction of large trunk road and motorway schemes in England. Perhaps the Minister will make a statement on this in his reply.

The situation in Wales is unhappy and the outlook is bleak. But there is one redeeming feature in the situation. Because the Welsh people see how little is being done for Wales under the present order—we have the Government's own word for how little was done between 1951 and 1964—the House can expect them soon to insist on establishing a Welsh government as an urgent economic necessity.

11.30 p.m.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomeryshire

I do not intend to follow the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) in everything he said, but would utterly support the point he made that the prosperity of Wales depends on a good communications system, and that the present system is completely inadequate. The fact that there is such a high unemployment rate in Wales is true also of the other peripheral areas of this country—Scotland and Northern Ireland—and is largely because they are away from the centre and need better communications. Because the centre of industry tends to go towards the south, because of the magnet of Europe, there will undoubtedly be a greater need for better communications in Wales if we are to keep our end up at all.

In the short time at my disposal there are two points I want to make to the Under-Secretary. The first is that I and many other Members have been dismayed by the fact that the Welsh Office has had to cut down on the road programme by £400,000. The road programme was inadequate as it was, and to cut down by this measure of expenditure, even if it is only a matter of a hold back for a few months—as we hope it will be, and no more—is a grave disappointment for Members on both sides who had hoped to see something better.

The second point I wish to make is that in my area of Wales, Mid-Wales, we are already very badly served by the rail communications system, and Shrewsbury is about to be cut off, virtually, by British Railways and the whole of the Cambrian coast service is in danger. There is a threat that for next year there will be only one through train a day from Shrewsbury, whereas there are 10 trains a day at present, and people are very concerned about the future of the main artery running from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth up the Welsh coast. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to give an undertaking that this railway will not be closed, and that an adequate service will be run to and from the main communications centre at Shrewsbury.

11.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ifor Davies Mr Ifor Davies , Gower

May I commence by acknowledging that I agree with both the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) about one thing, and that is the extreme and vital importance of the subject we are discussing tonight. I deeply regret that we have not much time, and I look forward to an opportunity on another occasion to discuss these matters, possibly in the Welsh Grand Committee. Having agreed on that point, may I now proceed to disagree with some of the things said.

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Carmarthen that in his opening remarks he indicated that he was not going to blame this Government for all the faults at the present time. He did, however, once again refer to the question of the profitability of the railways, and I am going to take this matter up first. He has said it many times. Indeed, he did it in the Welsh debate the other day when he said that all the evidence shows that the railways in Wales as a whole are paying their way. There is no evidence whatsoever, neither has the hon. Member produced evidence in support of that statement. He went on further to say: … in my conversation with Mr. Hilton I took his words as confirming my standpoint in this matter and confirming the evidence which I put in articles …"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th November, 1966; Vol. 736, c. 96.] This is a serious matter, because Mr. Hilton has completely denied this, and I have his permission to quote his letter to me. He says this: I do not know why the Member for Carmarthen should take my words when he came to see me as confirming the evidence which he put in the article referred to During this conversation, he raised the question of the profitability and I am in no doubt that I made it quite clear to him that the figures he had quoted were only measures of performance of that part of the railway for which I am responsible. … The Cardiff Division of the Western Region is an 'originating traffic' Division. Whilst, therefore, the whole of the receipts are taken into account in this Division's books, there is no transfer of working expenses incurred by the other Divisions of British Railways in working the traffic to destinations east of the Severn Tunnel. It can, therefore, clearly be seen that the figures do not represent the profitability or otherwise of the Cardiff Division. I want to emphasise this point. I have no wish to be ungenerous or unkind to the hon. Member. I find him agreeable, and a different person when I speak to him from what he is when he writes his articles. He may believe all this, and innocently have misrepresented the position, but the evidence suggests that he has deliberately misunderstood—perhaps mischievously—the facts. For example, the figures he himself gave for profitability were not from a balance sheet or a profit and loss account but from a marketing and sales staff circular.

Circular No. 58, dated June, 1964, was marked "Private and not for publication". It was not a statement of account but, in accountancy language, was a measure of performance for staff guidance. But these were the figures published, without authority, by the hon. Member in his article of 28th July, 1964, in the Western Mail. To make matters worse, the hon. Member added a calculation of his own and called it "gross profit".

Those figures have been continually referred to to justify his case. They are being continually written and spoken about by other people. But I say frankly that they are completely misleading. The best way to prove my case is to quote the Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, paragraphs 47 and 48: Under the present system, the accounting returns for British Railways are compiled from regional returns of receipts and expenses. The gross receipts are those for traffic which originates in the Region, wherever it is subsequently carried; the working expenses are those which the Region is responsible for incurring … these figures will not of themselves enable any conclusion to be drawn about the efficiency or otherwise of a particular service. Railway costing is an intricate and complex subject. Paragraph 50 of the Select Committee's Report says: The accounts as they now stand would, in other words, only give a complete picture of a Region's trading if"— the operative word— no traffic ever crossed a regional boundary. That is the point. It explains why the accounts are only partly regional and partly national. In view of this, I appeal to the hon. Member as a matter of intellectual honesty to stop misleading some Welsh people that the railways in Wales are making a profit. What we can say tonight is that British Railways as a whole have incurred a loss of over £132 million in 1965. That is the fact.

Now I turn to rail closures. I remind the hon. Member that most of these were consented to by the previous Government, and he has acknowledged that. As for railways in general, the Government White Paper outlines the proposals for a new basic railway network in order to restore stability to the industry. The general size and shape of the system must be determined soon and I agree with the hon. Member that integration of rail and road services is also important.

The identification and costing of the socially necessary services will be the task of a Joint Steering Group presided over by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. John Morris) who is Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport. That is surely sufficient assurance that the Welsh interest will not be overlooked and I am pleased to see my hon. Friend here. I say with confidence that he will not let down the Principality.

The second matter emphasised by the hon. Member was roads. The planning of a worthwhile road programme must be undertaken at least four to five years ahead of construction. We are planning now for the early 1970s and we can do little to alter the programme we inherited for the late 1960s. We hear a great deal about motorways. The hon. Member instanced the fact that motorways are the things to bring industries to his constituency. The hon. Gentleman is very fond of quoting the example of Northern Ireland, where, he says, there will be 100 miles of motorway by 1970. According to the evidence I have, his information is misleading here also. I understand that the 100 miles of motorway programme in Northern Ireland was intended to be completed not by 1970 but during the early 1970s, and even that has now been substantially rephased so that the actual rate of construction will be a good deal slower.

I wish I had time to say a lot more about the comparisons with Northern Ireland which have played such a great part in the campaigns of publicity and propaganda carried on by the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that the motorways of Northern Ireland are not much different—this is the point—from the best of our new trunk roads which are dual-carriageway roads. The Cowbridge by-pass is a very good example, and so, too, is the new road being built from Monmouth through Raglan to Newport, which will be a splendid example of a modern all-purpose dual carriageway trunk road built to near motorway standards.

By 1970 we shall have over 80 miles of dual carriageways, about half of them either motorways or of motorway standard. It is wrong to consider motorways in isolation. We must not make the mistake of underestimating the advantaages which come from improvements to trunk roads which, in the busiest areas, may be built to near motorway standards.

We are planning an expanding road programme in Wales. When the Welsh Office took over responsibility for roads in April of last year, the value of major schemes, each estimated to cost more than £100,000, being prepared for starting in the four years 1965–69 was £27 million. The major schemes now being prepared—after our being in office for only two years—for the four years up to 1970 total nearly £40 million. In other words, the value of schemes in the pipeline during our period of responsibility has been increased by nearly 50 per cent.

The rate at which we can implement the programme must depend on the state of the economy, but, despite the present need for financial stringency, we have started well. The value of major trunk road contracts actually let so far in the financial year comes to £4 million, compared with £2·6 million worth of major contracts let last year. These figures show our progress conclusively, and we are moving just as fast as resources will allow.

I assure the House—I say this particularly to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery—that we shall continue to improve the most important routes in rural Wales. I remind hon. Members of the recent announcement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Welsh day of the trunking of the A.477 road from St. Clares down to Pembrokeshire. This is a major step forward and is further evidence of our determination in this direction. Over the years, there have been deputations and representations on the subject of this roadway. It has happened in our time, and we were very pleased on a Welsh day to have this acknowledged and to hear the tributes paid to the Welsh Office.

When the hon. Member for Carmarthen pours scorn on the efforts of this Government to improve the roads of Wales, which he does frequently—I remind him that we inherited in Wales years of neglect by successive Tory Governments. Yet I notice that he sits unashamedly on the Tory Opposition benches. But, more than that, our problems have been accentuated because they have coincided with a traffic expansion of explosive proportions.

I, too, can claim to speak for Wales in the House, both as a Member and as a Welsh-speaking Welshman.

I say with confidence that the Welsh people will applaud the efforts of this Government to improve railways and roads in Wales, despite the very serious economic difficulties of the country. The key to solving our communications problem lies in planning designed to reconcile our many-sided needs, regional, economic and social.

We need to put all of our resources to their best use, as part of a coherent and integrated plan. It was in the light of this principle that the Government took the essential step of setting up the Welsh Planning Board and the Welsh Economic Council. In the past the system of communications in the industrial parts of Wales was patterned by the needs of the areas basic industries of coal and tinplate. Both were largely exporting industries and the important requirement was to have good communications from the valleys to the ports.

The pattern is now changing as new industries are established, needing improved communications with the centres of population where the workers and markets are. So the need arises for better communication between west and east. This is what the new road systems being built are designed to do. I ask hon. Members not to under-estimate the great improvements which have been made and are being made on our roads, which carry 90 per cent. of our passenger traffic and 60 per cent. of our freight.

I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman for Montgomery is waiting for a reply to his question. We are giving attention to the problem of these roads. I saw for myself some of the very necessary improvements which we are undertaking. The problem of north-south links in Wales is a long-standing one and a direct consequence of the geographical and historical development of the principality.

Nevertheless there is a good deal of scope for improvement of north-south links and we are exploring every possibility. Some improvements are being carried out and others are being considered. I can tell the hon. and learned Gentleman that we are giving all possible attention to this problem.

I can say confidently that the people of Wales will give us credit for what we have done. We are not responsible for the present situation but we shall be held responsible for the position later and we are looking forward to the time when our record shall stand proudly and we can look back and say that we have run the course and fought a good fight. I look forward to discussing this vitally important matter on future occasions, possibly in Welsh Grand Committee. It is perhaps more important than anything else in its relationship to the economy of our country.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes to Twelve o'clock.