Debate on the Address

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd November 1977.

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Photo of Mr Gwynfor Evans Mr Gwynfor Evans , Carmarthen 12:00 am, 3rd November 1977

There was a time when this House—particularly Labour Members—had a lively interest in the affairs of Spain. During the early decades of the Franco régime they showed great concern and sympathy for the people of Catalonia and the Basque country, in particular. I wish that interest had continued and the Government had seen fit to send a message of congratulations to Senor Taradellas, the President of the Generalitat—the Catalonian Parliament which has just been restored—and to wish the Basques a speedy achievement of self-government, which is essential to a democratic system.

There is an urgent need for the Welsh people to have this power to control their national life and for immediate measures to be taken on some matters. Centralist control has proved as great an abomination in Wales as it has in Catalonia. Erosion of the economy and devastation of national life and culture have been greater in Wales than in Catalonia. My theme will be the need for full national status for Wales, and I shall illustrate it with a number of examples.

The Labour Party, which won a General Election on the theme "Back to Work with Labour ", sees its Government presiding complacently over the worst unemployment situation in Wales since the terrible 1930s. The situation in Wales then was worse than it was anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and hundreds of thousands of people had to leave their land, mostly for England, to find work which awaited them there. The Government appear to have abandoned even their regional policy, inefficient as it was, in Wales and abandoned all attempts to develop the Welsh economy as a national economy. Wales needs as many as 200,000 jobs in the next seven years merely to give work to the unemployed and to raise the level of the Welsh employment activity rate to that of England. But unemployment in Wales is likely to increase, particularly with the decline in the steel industry.

The development of the economy in Wales has never been taken seriously by any Government. That is illustrated by the absence of a development plan for our country. A development plan is absolutely essential to the full and balanced development of our economy, and the lack of a plan underlines the Government's lack of seriousness. Basic to an economic plan would be the creation of an adequate infrastructure, including housing and transport, both of which are in a deplorable state in Wales.

"Crisis" would not be too strong a word to describe the housing situation in Wales. Forty-five per cent. of the houses were built before the war, compared with one-third in England, and 100,000 Welsh houses have been condemned as unfit for human habitation. Over 60,000 families are still on the waiting lists for council houses. The Government seem to have no idea of the magnitude of the housing crisis in our country. If they know about it, they do not seem to care. Although at least a threefold increase in expenditure on housing is needed, there has been a greater cut in housing than in almost any other public service. This situation would never have arisen for Wales if she had had her own Government.

I wish to draw particular attention to the question of transport and to press for effective control as soon as possible. For scores of years we have campaigned for a far better road programme in Wales. In the early 1960s I earned the soubriquet of "Gwynfor dual carriageways" because I pressed so hard for them. We all know the value of a good road for industrial development. It has been illustrated recently by the decision to establish the Ford plant near Bridgend. The major reason for the decision was that before long there will be a motorway in the area. If Clwyd, in the North-East of Wales, had a motorway, the Ford works might have gone to Clwyd. Roads are as important as that. Their importance applies throughout the country—to valley roads in the industrial South and the principal roads in the North. When will something be done about the A55 and the rural roads throughout the country?

Despite the huge leeway to be made up in Wales, my province of Dyfed this year is to suffer a further cut of £1,372,000 in its road allocation, in addition to the £1 million which it has to pay, but which the Government should be paying, in interest on the Cleddau bridge costs.

Unless something is done about the unclassified roads in many parts of Wales, a considerable number of farmers will have to go out of dairy farming, because the bulk tankers cannot travel along the very narrow roads in some districts. The poor quality of the roads inhibits development of the sort of industry that we need, especially in the West. A group of industrialists from that part of Wales told me recently that the inferior roads were the main hindrance to expansion of their factories and new development.

The Government have never accepted the need for a major highway running from north to south in Wales, although the Labour Party promised it is its programme in Wales in 1945. On a map of major highways of the United Kingdom most of Wales appears as a blank. The Government's contention has been that the lack of industry there makes a major highway unnecessary. Fortunately for Italy, a contrasting view was taken there. In building the Autostrada del Sole it was argued that because there was no industry for hundreds of miles there was need for a major road to attract it. A Welsh Government would have taken a similar view and built a spine road through Wales. Industry and commerce follow roads and efficient lines of communication as surely as trade follows the creation of a Government. That is as true of railways as it is of roads.

The southern part of Wales is probably still the most busy railway region in the United Kingdom, outside London. For years it was the most prosperous railway region in the Western Region, and the Western Region was the most prosperous of all the regions. But in the Beeching era there were closures which decimated the railways in much of Wales. In the early 'sixties the railways in Southern Wales were making handsome gross profits, and 84 per cent. of the income came from the carriage of freight. Much of the income still comes from the carriage of freight. Nevertheless, the lines were decimated.

That is a striking example of the injury caused by remote centralised control. Looked at from London, where the decisions are made, a railway system serving 5 per cent. of the people of the United Kingdom—the 5 per cent. who live in Wales—seems small, boring and unimportant, but looked at from Wales it seems very important. The people who had responsibility in Wales for the railways and the buses had no heart in the matter, because they had been brought in from outside and frequently knew nothing of Wales and little of local conditions. To say that they cared passionately for the welfare of Wales would be an overstatement. Posting to Wales was for them as often as not just a step in their careers on the way to better jobs in England. Neither in London nor in Wales have we had people with their hearts in the job of building a flourishing Welsh transport system.

A highly placed official in the British Transport Docks Board told me recently that the only people he had ever known to canvass him for traffic for the railways were trade union officials. In every fight for the defence of Welsh railways it is the trade union officials who are in the forefront. But for them, the position would be worse. However, even they have not succeeded in persuading the Government to invest in the electrification of Welsh railways. In England, 2,000 miles of the railways are electrified. There is not a yard of electrified railway in Wales. Among countries which are not exporters of electricity, as Wales is, in France 27 per cent. of the railways are electrified ; in West Germany the figure is 30 per cent.; in Japan, 33 per cent.; in Norway, 58 per cent.; and in Sweden 62 per cent. Self-government for Wales would have meant electrification and modernisation of the railways.

The few paragraphs about Wales in last year's transport consultative document do nothing to increase our confidence in the future. The problem was simply shunted to the devolved Welsh Assembly—which the Government then betrayed—and to the county councils. The stay on investment renewed fears about some of the remaining lines in Wales. In the document, lines were noted as "national" lines when they were in England. There were only a few miles of "national" lines in Wales. The rest were demoted to local lines in a most arrogant way. It must be insisted that there should be no further closures in Wales until we have our National Assembly and that Assembly has examined the situation in depth. In the meantime, the remaining part of the network should be developed with determination, and the policy of transferring at least heavy freight to rail followed with enthusiasm.

London's attitude to the rail system is typical of the attitude towards every aspect of Welsh transport. For example, the Government have spent tens of millions of pounds on airport development in England and Scotland but none on airport development in Wales, yet Cardiff-Rhoose Airport should have been developed as the national Welsh airport. Again, in addition to its rail responsibilities, British Rail is responsible for some Welsh ports, including Holyhead, where the position contrasts very much with that of Fishguard. At Fishguard, British Rail's unhelpful attitude to Wales has been illustrated by the decision to close the ferry service to Waterford from Fishguard, which employs a substantial number of men. The Irish authorities were more co-operative than was British Rail, which from the outset showed determination to close this service, as it had already closed the Fishguard-Cork ferry service.

The story of the Fishguard-Cork service is most interesting. When British Rail decided to close it, the Irish authorities acted for themselves. They found the money to create a roll-on/roll-off system in both Cork and Swansea. Then they borrowed money in Germany to build a fine new boat, which now plies with great success between Swansea and Cork. But it is second best. It takes five hours more to go from Swansea to Cork than to go from Fishguard to Cork—very often, five hours more of seasickness. If it had had genuine concern for Fishguard and the lines west of Swansea, such initiative would have come from British Rail—and a Welsh Assembly would have assured that.

Then there are the Welsh ports which come under the British Transport Docks Board. Here again, we see underlined the need for autonomous Welsh control. All the Board's ports in the United Kingdom in 1976 made a total profit of £27½ million. Of this figure, £12¼ million was made by the minority of Welsh ports—that is to say, 45 per cent. of the profit was made by the few Welsh ports. Not one Welsh port, even the smallest river port, is losing money. Too much of the profit made in Wales in invested in English ports, whereas Welsh ports very often have to make do with second-best equipment. They do not get a fair crack of the whip.

Situated on the Severn estuary—the biggest estuary in Europe—the major ports in South Wales include six deep-water ports, and at least one of these would probably have developed into a Europort by now if we had had control in Wales. Milford Haven and the Swansea complex both have that capability, but Milford Haven has been all but ruined by oil development and has not developed as a general cargo port. The Government have handed out tens of millions of pounds to huge American companies disgracefully to ruin Milford Haven, but those companies would probably have been only too glad to be paid to develop that port if they had been given the chance.

We should still consider levying a halfpenny or a penny a gallon on the oil which comes in in such vast amounts to Milford Haven, and investing the money in an area which has tremendous unemployment.

As things are, Swansea and Port Talbot —the latter deals with ships of over 100,000 tons quite easily—provide the best site for a Europort. Here, industrial relations, as elsewhere in Welsh ports, are excellent —almost wholly strike-free—due largely to the quality of tie management. The Severn seaports are in a position superior to that of any ports on either side of the English Channel, one reason being that the journey to them from all parts of the world is shorter, but another more important reason being, of course, that the English Channel is so congested and dangerous. There are constant accidents and incidents in the English Channel, and the position will get worse as its traffic increases further.

What is needed is the further development of the land bridge between the Welsh ports and the industrial areas, up to and including London. There are still excellent rail services for freight and passengers—some of the heaviest freight carried in Britain is carried in Wales. I am told that the biggest trains in the United Kingdom operate four times a day from Port Talbot. There is plenty of land for industrial development, as, for example, in the 10,000 acres in my constituency known as Cydweli Flats, between Llanelli and Cydweli; and some of the most beautiful coastline and hill country is within half an hour's run.

Everyone I have spoken to who is involved in the running of these ports—fortunately, they are controlled mainly by Welshmen—agrees that there is the strongest possible case for autonomous Welsh control. The opportunities that exist are not being seized under the present centralised system. The need is for a decentralised system. The need is as great there as in every part of Welsh transport and Welsh life. Had we had control ourselves in Wales, these ports of ours would have been modernised and developed, together with other forms of transport, with great benefit to the whole life of the Welsh people. The whole way that Welsh life is run must be changed in the direction of Welsh autonomy. Not before that happens shall we really see the Welsh economy take off and develop.