Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport – in the Senedd at 1:42 pm on 22 May 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:42, 22 May 2024

(Translated)

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, in your capacity as the Cabinet Secretary for north Wales, can you tell us what action you're taking to ensure that north Wales gets its fair share of investment from the Welsh Government?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour

Well, I could talk for many hours on this subject—and I have done in the past—about the vital role of initiatives like regional indicative budgets, of making sure that Welsh Government Ministers work with the Minister for north Wales on issues that are relevant to north Wales. We have a Cabinet sub-committee that considers major issues relevant to north Wales, and I'm determined to ensure that, as we seek out opportunities for the whole of Wales, we do so in a fair and equal way, and invest fair'y and equally in opportunities to drive prosperity across the country.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative

Well, you make all the right noises, but we're yet to see the right actions from the Welsh Government, aren't we—that's the reality. Local government settlements are usually worse in north Wales. We're seeing a lack of investment in our road infrastructure in north Wales. You're building new hospitals in south Wales, but not in the north. That is the record of this Government, and I'm hoping that you as an incoming Cabinet Secretary, representing a north Wales constituency, might be able to change that. 

The UK Government, of course, has its levelling-up agenda, and it wants to level up across the whole of the UK. We need a Welsh Government to have a levelling-up agenda within Wales, but that is not the reality, is it, because let's take the disparity, for example, between spending in north and south Wales, just on the metro projects. The south Wales metro has been awarded in excess of £1 billion by the Welsh Government, and has a set of major infrastructure projects elsewhere in south Wales that are well under way. In the north, the metro project there has been allocated a mere £50 million. Now, even when accounting for population differences, south Wales is still getting more than five times the investment per capita—five times—than north Wales. That is not good enough, is it, Cabinet Secretary? What are you going to do to address that gross unfairness?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 1:44, 22 May 2024

Well, can I thank Darren Millar for his second question today? Let me just run through the facts of the matter. The south Wales metro is a very significant investment—investment as part of the city deal. The north Wales metro, and the north Wales infrastructure improvements on rail, are not part of the north Wales growth deal—the equivalent. To ensure that we can see delivery of infrastructure improvements to enable a north Wales metro, we have to have those responsible for funding them writing the cheques. We're not getting that. We've had a vague promise of money for the north Wales main line electrification, which, with just £1 billion, would probably only electrify it from Chester through to Prestatyn at best. We need firm commitments from the UK Government not just on the main line, but we need them to make a firm commitment to upgrade the Wrexham-Bidston line, for which they're responsible, the Marches line, for which they're responsible. We need them to promise that it won't just be electrification from Chester to Prestatyn, but the whole way through to Holyhead. And crucially, to enable more passenger services, we have to ensure that capacity constraints at Chester station are resolved as well. These have all been priorities of the Welsh Government, of Growth Track 360, of the Wales rail board, which combines Welsh Government officials with UK Government officials. Unfortunately, time and time again, UK Treasury have said 'no'. That's the reason why we've seen more heavy investment in south Wales than north Wales. Once we get a new UK Labour Government in power at Westminster, I am confident that difference in spending and investment will be resolved.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative 1:45, 22 May 2024

Of course, the current UK Government, the Conservative Government, has actually delivered some electrification in Wales, unlike the promises made and not kept by the previous Labour Government, and it's committed itself to in excess of £1 billion-worth of investment in the north Wales railway network to electrify it. But let's get back to your responsibilities here. The reality is that hundreds of millions of pounds have been allocated by the Welsh Government to projects in south Wales, and a pittance has been thrown, like crumbs from the table, to the people of north Wales, who, frankly, are very angry with the Welsh Government for that situation. 

Let's talk about another issue where there's a huge disparity and unfairness for the people of north Wales. Let's take Transport for Wales, for example. Ticket prices on Transport for Wales: between Swansea and Cardiff, you can pay £5.50 for a single ticket; a similar journey in north Wales between Llandudno Junction and Chester is £13.10. It's a huge, significant difference, which is grossly unfair. Why should people in north Wales pay double for their railway tickets, not get the investment in the metro that you promised them in a manifesto two manifestos back, and why should they put up with the unfair settlements that they receive in terms of capital investment from the Welsh Government?

Your answers, frankly, today are not good enough. I want to know what you're doing to address these problems and what specific action you will now take to deal with this disparity from Transport for Wales. 

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 1:47, 22 May 2024

Can I just pick up on one point regarding rail and north Wales and investment? We were consistently asking UK Government to spend money on the Wrexham to Chester doubling, were we not? They kept saying 'no'. As a result of a deal between ourselves and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, we were able to invest in it. We will go on investing in it. We shouldn't have to. The UK Treasury is responsible for that piece of rail infrastructure, but the UK Treasury, under the Tories, once again said, 'No, we will not deliver for north Wales', just as they said, 'We will not deliver for north Wales on the Wrexham to Bidston line', just as they said that they will not deliver for north Wales on capacity constraints at Chester station, which will facilitate more services into north Wales.

They've said 'no' to us when we've asked for a degree of control over Avanti West Coast. You pick up on rail services in north Wales, so let me tell you: Transport for Wales's punctuality is far higher—far higher—than Avanti West Coast's, which the UK Government is responsible for and refuses to allow us any say in who should control that franchise. Indeed, they reappointed Avanti West Coast without even asking whether we agreed with it. They went ahead with giving Avanti West Coast, a very poor performer compared to TfW, another several years of operating that failed rail service. 

Now, in terms of north Wales investment, let's just pick up on some of the recent investments that we have made. Let's say AMRC, the advanced manufacturing research centre at Airbus, a hugely valuable piece of infrastructure that will drive prosperity not just at Airbus but across the region. Also, the development bank headquartering in north Wales—

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour

Hugely important—I'm glad that you welcome it. And not just that, as I said, we are investing—

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour

It's not crumbs. We are investing in opportunities right across north Wales, but there is more that we want to do and will do. We'll do it in part because we've invested £800 million in new rolling stock. TfW, when they took over the franchise in 2018, had one of the oldest fleets in the UK. By the end of this year, they will have one of the newest fleets. We took over just 270 train carriages in 2018. By the time the orders are finished, we'll have more than 470 train carriages on the lines, brand-new trains operating in north Wales. The franchises the UK Government operate in Wales can't boast the same.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, I'd like to ask you about transport for young people, please. The Welsh Government's most recent child poverty strategy acknowledges that the cost of transport feeds into child poverty and exclusion. Now, there are a number of Government schemes aimed at partially alleviating transport costs on young people. I welcome that. But the Welsh Youth Parliament has found that 72 per cent of young people aren't aware of the discounts that are on offer. Could you tell me how the Welsh Government is helping young people to travel sustainably and affordably, but also how you're raising awareness amongst those young people about the discount schemes that could actually help them to make those journeys?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 1:50, 22 May 2024

Well, can I thank Delyth Jewell for her question? I know this is a subject that she's passionate about, and has raised with me not just in the Chamber, but also in our discussions privately. There are huge opportunities once we've passed the bus Bill, I think, to create not just an integrated transport system, but also to make sure that we have fairer fares, and that includes for young people. Now, there are already, as the Member has highlighted, discounted schemes and free travel for children and young people on public transport in Wales. We keep it under review. It is based on the availability of funding as to how far we can go with it. We are open to considering all options for young people, including those that could come into being once we have started regulating bus services again. 

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 1:51, 22 May 2024

Thank you for that. Now, you alluded obliquely there, possibly, to the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, and some of the discussions that we've had about that. We have been told, on the learner travel Measure, that the current review won't result in any increase in the distance eligibility for free school transport. Now, the costs of school transport for children has led to children missing out on school, because their parents can't afford to get them there on the school bus. Now, I worry about the effects of this on education, on worsening poverty, as we've already discussed, social exclusion, also on the Welsh language, because—again, we've discussed this before—there are cases across Wales where parents want to send their child to Welsh-medium education, but they're not eligible for free transport to their nearest Welsh language school. So, could you tell me, firstly, please, how this links up with 'Cymraeg 2050'? And also, Cabinet Secretary, you mentioned funding there. It does concern me that the Welsh Government isn't pressing the UK Government or Keir Starmer on fair funding for Wales enough about this to help to rectify this issue, which lets our children and our young people down. So, what steps, please, would you take urgently to address that?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 1:52, 22 May 2024

Again, can I thank the Member for her question on this subject? Twenty per cent of young people, I believe, in parts of Wales are unable to get to their job interviews because they don't have access to public transport or because public transport is too expensive. So, there is a huge social injustice in the system that operates today, which is why we're so determined to pursue the bus Bill by the end of this parliamentary term. The review that took place is aimed to provide us with something of a bridge to the point where franchising takes place. And the key point with franchising, insofar as young people are concerned in education, is that it will enable us to utilise all services for the purposes of getting young people to school; it will enable us to blend regular passenger services better with school transport. I should just say that the problem isn't just with affordability, in terms of the bridging plans. It's also about availability of bus drivers and buses, which is a major challenge. And in some parts of Wales, there have been challenges in recruitment to the sector. It's one of the reasons, actually, why we established the diversity in public transport board, because we recognised the need to increase the number of people who were training not just as bus drivers, but also in the rail industry, and we needed to make sure that we had a more diverse workforce. So, that work is ongoing, but it's not just down to the actual funding for the service; it's also about the availability of buses and drivers as well. 

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 1:53, 22 May 2024

Thank you again for that. Now, when it comes to the bus Bill, I welcome what you've said, certainly about the need to bridge that gap. Now, before that bridge is completely built, when those building blocks are still on the side, what can we do to make sure that the cohort at the moment that is missing out on free school transport between now and then don't get let down? And when we do have bus franchising, do you agree with me that we should, actually, go further and introduce a free young person's bus pass? Because I know that Scotland have introduced this in the last few years—free bus travel for five to 21-year-olds. The resulting extra patronage actually allowed some bus companies to increase service provision. So, actually, although there might be upfront investment, it could actually pay dividends and help to free up more money for extra services across the board. So, is a free young person's bus pass something that you are looking at already? And, if not, would commit you to start looking now at the potential for introducing that in Wales when the bus Bill is implemented, please? 

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 1:54, 22 May 2024

I'm very interested in this sort of initiative and the potential to go even further as well, actually. In some parts of Europe, you have free bus transport, which is actually paid for through the equivalent of our council tax. So, there are alternative and additional ways of raising revenue to improve not just the number of services that operate, but also improve accessibility by removing the cost to those who can least afford to pay.

So, with franchising, it will offer up that opportunity to create not just one network, with one timetable, with one ticket, but to introduce a far fairer fare regime on rail and on buses. So, I am keen to learn from other places, because there are some excellent examples across Europe and further afield, and within the United Kingdom, and I'm very, very keen to learn from any experiences that Members in this Chamber may have.