I appeared on a panel at a 'Transport' conference at Aberystwyth yesterday, early evening. It was chaired by Professor Stuart Cole, and there's nobody knows more about transport than him. It was a 'politicians meets professionals' session. I was up for the Conservatives, Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones for Plaid, Sian James, MP for Labour and Mick Bates for the Lib Dems. I suppose I was the only one not claiming my travelling expenses!!
Anyway, I thought Ieuan was in candid form. Firstly, I agreed with his considered approach to dealing with the current jobs crisis. He's the responsible Minister in the Assembly Government, so his opinion counts. When he answered a question about bringing forward infrastructure projects to create financial stimulus, he said they had to be deliverable in a very short timescale and be job intensive. All made good sense to me.
But the Deputy First Minister, with responsibility for transport really struck me with some comments he made about cross-border road improvements. We need to go back a few years here. The issue is the A458 road improvement from Welshpool to the English border, known locally as the 'Middletown By-Pass'. Its been talked about for decades, but seemed to becoming a reality when there was a public consultation on preferred routes around five years ago. At the time I was an Assembly Member and asked, both publicly and privately, whether the cross border financing responsibilities of the project had been cleared. Reassurances followed. Must admit my suspicion was that they were without foundation.
At issue is who pays for the bit of the road improvement that lies over the border in England - only a short distance, but crossing a railway line and perhaps £5 million's worth. For years we've been given assurances that this was 'no problem' - until last night. Our Deputy First Minister informed us that he has now spoken to Transport Minister, Lord Adonis, who has told him that he, Lord Adonis has no power over this issue whatsoever. Allocation of funding for the Middletown By-Pass lies with the West Midlands Highway Agency, and the degree of priority it gives to this road improvement, vital to the economic prospects of Mid Wales is virtually non-existent. All the reassurances we've been given are about as valuable as an IOU from Lehman Brothers.
The truly galling thing is that if the National Assembly had never been established, this 'Berlin Wall' between England and Wales would not have been built. We wouldn't find ourselves being forced into hospitals in Wales rather than those we traditionally used in England. And we would have had a new road from Welshpool to the English Border finished by now. It would have been an infrastructure project that would have brought huge economic benefit to a part of Wales that desperately needs it. At least Ieuan Wyn Jones has finally come clean and told us the truth, which is a whole lot more than you can say for his predecessors.