What does the Welsh Government have in store for Welsh rail services?

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photograph of Arriva Trains Wales

On Tuesday 18 July the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, Ken Skates, will make a statement on Rail Services and Metro. Although the detail of the statement is unknown, the Welsh Government has indicated that the final tender process for procurement of the next rail franchise and Metro operator will begin in July 2017, with the contract expected to be awarded in January 2018.  The successful bidder would then begin to operate services in October 2018.

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Blue Badges: How to apply and how to appeal?

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This is the second in a series of blog articles discussing the Blue Badge scheme. Yesterday’s blog explained the assessment and eligibility criteria for applicants.

The Blue Badge scheme provides a national arrangement of parking concessions for disabled people, and operates throughout the UK.

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A road and street works strategy for Wales: the end of the road for highway misery?

24 June 2016

Note: The Welsh Government has withdrawn the oral statement scheduled for Tuesday 28 June.

23 June 2016

Article by Andrew Minnis, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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This is a picture of highway maintenance

Image from Flickr by Carol. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

The Welsh Government consulted on proposals for a roads and street works strategy for Wales between 7 December 2015 and 28 February 2016. The Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure will make a Plenary statement on 28 June 2016 on Welsh Government plans for the strategy. This post explains what road and street works are, and looks at some recent criticisms of the current approach to their management in Wales.

What is the difference between road and street works?

“Road works” are carried out by highway authorities to repair, maintain or replace highways. In Wales the Welsh Government is the highway authority for the trunk road and motorway network, while local authorities are the highways authority for the local road network.

“Street works” are carried out either by “statutory undertakers”, who have a statutory right to work on the highway, or “licencees” under the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 (NRSWA) who can carry out works under a licence issued by the “street authority” – usually the highway authority. Most utility companies are statutory undertakers and have the right to install and maintain their equipment on or under the street.

What legislation governs arrangements for road and street works?

In England and Wales road and street works are controlled by the NRSWA and the Traffic Management Act 2004 (TMA).

The NRSWA, and associated Regulations and codes of practice, establishes a legislative framework for those undertaking road and street works. It places a duty on street authorities to co-ordinate all works on the highway, and also on undertakers to co-operate.

The TMA provides additional powers to reduce congestion, including placing a duty on “local traffic authorities” to manage their road network to ensure traffic can move freely. It also allows for the introduction of permit schemes for road and street works and enhanced powers for local highway authorities to direct when works are carried out.

Why is a road and street works strategy needed?

The Welsh Government’s consultation document notes that while the NRSWA and TMA improved management road and street works “the incidence of congestion due to over running or conflicting works is still greater than we would like”.

In 2011 the Auditor General for Wales published a report on Major Transport Projects. In considering “whether recently completed major transport projects in Wales have met their objectives and were delivered to time and cost” he concluded:

“The successful delivery of major transport projects requires effective working relationships between all the parties involved. Relationships with utility companies have been problematic at times, contributing to delays and rising project costs, and there is little incentive for utility companies to undertake work in a way that is cost-effective or timely from the perspective of the public sector employer.”

The Auditor General identified a number of issues including the fact that:

  • There is poor communication and lack of government influence over utility company priorities despite the existence of a Welsh Highway Authorities and Utilities Committee (WHAUC);
  • UK and Welsh Government good practice guidance focused on minimising disruption to highway users and communities rather than the impact of poor co-ordination and communication on major projects;
  • Welsh Government officials reported that legislation relies too much on goodwill of utility companies, and offers little incentive to utility companies to complete their work;
  • There is a lack of information from utility companies on timing for works, and cost increases for utility work after the detailed design stage were also identified.

The Auditor General recommended that the Welsh Government:

“engage with local government and the utility companies to develop some clearly agreed principles in terms of how they should work together throughout the lifecycle of major transport projects.”

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the Fourth Assembly reported on its inquiry into value for money of Motorway and Trunk Road Investment in June 2015. While some evidence suggested there had been improvements in recent years, other evidence suggested that difficulties arose from failure to involve utility companies early in scheme development.

While the Welsh Government told the Committee about the actions it had taken, the Committee noted that the “street works strategy was still in development four years after the Auditor General’s 2011 report”, and “during oral evidence the Welsh Government was unable to explain why work on this appeared to be delayed and why the strategy was not yet complete”.

The then Director General for Economy, Science and Transport later wrote to the Committee to explain that “a comprehensive strategy has…been developed rather than individual protocols, in order to achieve wider objectives such as reduced congestion and improved journey time reliability”. However, the Committee expressed concern about the time involved, and whether the strategy would ultimately cover major transport project issues.

The Committee also raised concerns about the management and co-ordination of road works. The report concluded:

“The Committee is concerned that some evidence we have received suggests there is greater work to be done in Wales in terms of providing information and accurate communication of road works.

The Committee believes there should be better co-ordination between the Welsh Government and local authorities when diversionary routes are put into place as a consequence of road works, for example more consideration should be given to re-phasing of traffic lights to assist traffic flow.”

What did the Welsh Government consultation propose?

The Welsh Government consultation document made clear that legislative change was not being proposed. Instead it said:

“We believe that by working in partnership with both statutory undertakers and highway authorities through WHAUC we can make significant improvements to the way road and street works are managed for the benefit of Wales within the existing legislative framework. In addition with direct responsibility for the trunk road network….. we think that the Welsh Government itself has an important role to play in leading the adoption of best practice.”

It proposed action in five areas:

  • The planning, co-ordination and implementation of road and street works;
  • The delivery of major projects;
  • Communication with the public and business;
  • Skills and training; and
  • A culture of continual change.

How far any new strategy will address concerns raised by Assembly Members, the Auditor General for Wales and stakeholders will be only become clear as the strategy is implemented, both in terms of the cost of project delivery and the impact on road users and congestion.

 

Plenary debate 14 June: Motion to annul the Disabled Persons (Badges for Motor Vehicles) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2016

10 June 2016

Article by Hannah Johnson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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Parking space for person with a disability

Image from Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

A motion to annul The Disabled Persons (Badges for Motor Vehicles) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 will be debated in plenary on Tuesday 14 June.

The Regulations extend the eligibility criteria for Blue Badges to include people with temporary impairments that last less than twelve months, such as complex leg fractures, strokes and spinal trauma.

Mark Isherwood AM tabled the motion as he considers that there should be more flexibility around the period for which temporary badges are issued, rather than a strict twelve month limit.

The Blue Badge Scheme

A disabled person’s parking badge (known as a “Blue Badge”) allows the holder to benefit from a range of parking concessions and exemptions from certain charges that apply to other motorists. The badges are issued by local authorities.

The Regulations

The 2016 Regulations amend the Disabled Persons (Badges for Motor Vehicles) (Wales) Regulations 2000 to extend eligibility for the Blue Badge Scheme to people with a temporary but substantial disability that is expected to affect their mobility for at least twelve months.

The 2016 regulations make two changes:

  • Regulation 2(2) inserts a new description of disabled persons that includes people who are more than 2 years old and who have a temporary but substantial disability. The person must be unable to walk, or have considerable difficulty in walking because of the disability and the disability must be expected to last for at least twelve months; and
  • Regulation 2(3) provides the period for which badges are to be issued to people with temporary disabilities, which is one year.

Consultation

In May 2015 the former Minister for Economy, Science and Transport commissioned a Task & Finish Group to review the Blue Badge Scheme. Its report and recommendations were published in November 2015.

The Welsh Government consulted on the extension of eligibility criteria to include people with temporary impairments in January 2016. The consultation outlined:

  • plans for extending eligibility to the Scheme to people with temporary impairments that require extensive treatment and rehabilitation that affect their mobility; and
  • proposals to streamline administrative processes in cases where the applicant has previously undergone a robust assessment.

Following the consultation, the former Minister made a statement on 31 March highlighting that:

‘Some of the [Blue Badge Task and Finish Group’s] recommendations cannot be realised immediately, as they will require changes to primary legislation in order to be implemented. I am clear however that I want to see improvement in the delivery of the scheme by local authorities.’

Mark Isherwood AM has called for temporary Blue Badges in the past, and has more recently called for reforms to the Scheme.

Transport in north Wales

10 June 2016

Article by Andrew Minnis, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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Modernising the main railway line and engaging with emerging English regional transport bodies are high on the list of priorities for transport in north Wales. How will the new Welsh Government make sure the transport network supports the cross-border economy of the region?

The North Wales Joint Local Transport Plan, published by the north Wales local authorities in January 2015, identifies five key transport issues for the region. Among them, the plan highlights the economic importance of strategic road and rail links, and their ability to carry people and freight to ports and to the rest of the UK. This illustrates the importance of cross-border road and rail links to north Wales.

The previous Welsh Government’s National Transport Finance Plan and the Joint Local Transport Plan set out proposed investment projects for all modes of transport in the region. However, two important areas create immediate opportunities and threats for a region closely connected to its cross-border neighbour.

Rail modernisation

While the Welsh Government has powers to invest in rail, responsibility for rail infrastructure in England and Wales sits with the UK Government. Rail infrastructure projects are mainly delivered in five-year planning blocks called ‘Control Periods’. The next block, Control Period 6 (or ‘CP6’), will run from 2019 to 2024 and preparations are getting underway now. The UK Government is expected to publish key documents setting out what projects will be delivered, and the funding available, in the summer of 2017.

The previous Welsh Government wanted to modernise the north Wales rail network, particularly through electrification. This aspiration is shared by local and regional authorities on both sides of the border. The Network Rail Welsh Route Study, which sets out investment ‘choice for funders’ for CP6 and beyond, was published in March 2016. It includes options for both improving line speeds on the current network and electrifying the north Wales mainline.

The Fourth Assembly’s Enterprise and Business Committee held an inquiry into Priorities for the future of Welsh Rail Infrastructure in 2016. The Committee heard evidence outlining the importance of electrification. In particular, evidence from the North Wales Economic Ambition Board and Greengauge 21 argued strongly that a package of improvements, including electrification between Crewe / Warrington and Llandudno / Holyhead via Chester, is essential in CP6 to realise the economic potential of the region and secure benefits from English developments such as High Speed 2 (HS2).

The Committee identified a strong case for electrification, but had concerns about who would fund the project, whether freight needs would be adequately reflected, and whether it could be delivered in CP6. Following delays to Network Rail’s current investment programme, it was concerned that the project might be delayed until after HS2 is expected to reach Crewe in 2027, reducing the economic benefit of HS2 for north Wales.

A cross-border task force including local authorities, the Welsh Government and the business community was set up to identify the improvements needed on the network following a November 2015 north Wales rail summit. The task force developed an outline business case for electrification to be delivered in CP6. The Welsh Government submitted the business case to the Department for Transport (DfT) in March 2016.

Influencing the timing, funding and scope of north Wales rail enhancements is likely to be a priority for the next Welsh Government.

Cross-border links

The previous Welsh Government commissioned a report on the Dee Region Cross-Border Economy which was published in 2013. The report showed how travel patterns in the region do not recognise the border. Similarly, the Enterprise and Business Committee’s rail infrastructure report found                that the border should be invisible from a transport planning perspective. It also found that key network pinch points for Welsh travellers are often in England.

Moves to establish an English Northern Powerhouse include devolving transport powers to new regional bodies in England such as Transport for the North (TfN). This offers the new Welsh Government, local authorities and other important stakeholders’ opportunities to work with and influence these English bodies. Failure to engage effectively might mean investment in the English transport network does not take account of Welsh needs, and could actually undermine the Welsh network. The March 2016 UK Government budget made £300m available for major English projects such as of High Speed 3, linking Leeds and Manchester, and developing a business case for a new Trans-Pennine tunnel. The scale of the planned investment highlights the need to exert Welsh influence on projects that could bring real benefits to north Wales. The budget also opened the door for a ‘growth deal’ for north Wales, providing funding to connect the region with the Northern Powerhouse.

Local cross-border relationships are well established in north Wales, and the Welsh Government has a Memorandum of Understanding with TfN. However, the Enterprise and Business Committee heard evidence suggesting Transport Scotland had closer working relationships with TfN than the Welsh Government. West Midlands Rail, the body working with the Department for Transport to procure the new West Midlands rail franchise, said it had not had any direct discussions with the Welsh Government.

Both the North Wales Economic Ambition Board and TfN recommended that the Welsh Government should engage more with English transport planning bodies to influence decisions and align funding.

Key sources