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An air of optimism

Regional spotlight - Devolution has brought engineers closer to the decision-makers in Wales, but could the Assembly do more to improve transport- Ian Lawrence investigates.

Following Tony Blair's landslide election victory in 1997, Labour set about fulfilling its promises of devolved powers for Wales and Scotland.

The resulting referendum on the creation of an elected assembly came out in favour, but only by the slimmest of margins - 50.3% backed the idea in Wales.

Since 1999 elected assembly members have controlled Welsh transport expenditure, and a divergence from the approach taken across the border in England has become apparent.

ICE regional manager for Wales Denys Morgan says: 'For the first four-year term the Assembly was very much on trial. Now the idea has taken root and we are seeing significant benefits.

'I worked for nearly 20 years in Yorkshire, working through an English regional office and never getting near the organ grinders in London. Having decision-makers here is a very significant benefit and we have a close relationship.' He also draws attention to the Welsh Transport Framework, which he says is distinctly different from Alistair Darling's 10 year regional plans.

Announcing an £8bn programme late last year (NCE 9 December 2004), Welsh transport and economic development minister Andrew Davies said: 'This 15 year programme will create a fully integrated, effective and world class transport infrastructure throughout the country, opening up our economy, regenerating our communities, creating consumer choice, and delivering opportunities for the people of Wales.' Included within the framework are commitments to improve the M4 in south east Wales, with a tolled relief road through Newport due to start within five years, and a £95M investment on the Port Talbot Peripheral Distributor road.

While ICE Wales backs these projects, Morgan feels still more is needed.

He says: 'Our assessment is that the public purse is only capable of meeting 50% of the main transport demands over the next generation. Some other form of investment to plug that gap has got to be found. It's the structural renewal of the assets that we are worried about.' He is calling for the Assembly to stimulate and create private sector interest if none is immediately forthcoming.

Davies insists: 'We will work with all public and private sector partners to ensure that this major programme delivers a world class integrated transport network.' Encouraging air travel, both within Wales and further afield, is a key aspect in this drive.

'Airports and air services have a vital role to play in the development of an integrated and sustainable transport system and I am keen to exploit the potential of air services in Wales, ' states Davies.

An estimated 6M journeys a year along the M4 take passengers from Wales to London airports. An Assembly spokesman said work was in hand to develop international routes from Cardiff International at Rhoose.

Opportunities for more internal flights are also under consideration, starting with two daily flights in each direction from Cardiff and Swansea in south Wales to Anglesey in the north.

The spokesman added: 'The service would provide significant time savings for passengers, improve business links and help to bridge the perceived north-south divide in Wales. The Assembly will be working with its partners with a view to launching this service in 2006.' ICE Wales supports this approach, says Morgan. He does not believe a high-speed road link from north to south Wales is feasible, despite Assemblyfunded attempts to improve the route through the introduction of more overtaking points along principal A roads.

'There's a hard push for better access to air travel in Wales, ' he says.

'We argue very strongly that however it develops in Wales, it's going to be low volume but it has a very important role to play in nation building and economic growth.

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