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It’s been widely reported that rail commuters can expect to see train ticket prices rise by around 8% from early next year. But for some commuters in Wales, it’s still not clear how much their fares will increase.

That’s because the responsibility for deciding how much the increase will be on many services here in Wales is down to the Welsh Government which hasn’t yet decided what it will do.

It’s important to explain that the reason for the forthcoming increase is a formula decided by the UK Government and based on inflation as measured by the RPI figure.

In previous years, fares have gone up by RPI + 1%, but from January the increase will be RPI + 3%.

But when it comes to services operated by Arriva Trains which run in Wales or start and finish here*, it’s up to the Welsh Government to decide whether or not to stick with the RPI + 1% or follow the UK Government’s example and add 3%.

A spokesperson said,

The Welsh Government is currently reviewing the options for the setting of regulated rail fares for 2012 and will make a decision shortly.

It won’t be an easy decision for the Transport Minister Carl Sargeant.

On the one hand he could keep down fare increases on Arriva Trains services here but with the result that there’ll be less money for investment in train lines, stations and carriages.

Or he could match the increase on services running in England (and of course many in Wales such as First Great Western and Virgin). That would see more money come in for investment but risks putting passengers off travelling by rail, something he doesn’t want to see.

His Conservative shadow, Byron Davies, agrees it’s a conundrum, but reckons that ultimately investment is the most important thing. He told me,

If we’re to move forward, replacing ancient carriages and improving rail lines, you’ve got to go for investment. Connecting Wales is important and we have to build for tomorrow.

Although not as high-profile, it’s nevertheless reminiscent of the Welsh Government’s previous decision to hold down student tuition fees.

When it comes to rail fares, which track will it take?

 

* Regulated rail fares the Welsh Government is responsible for are the following on Arriva Trains Wales only:

  • Standard Day single
  • Standard Day return
  • Seven-day season tickets

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This morning’s Telegraph has further details on claims that the Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan would be willing to resign over plans to build a high-speed rail link through her Buckinghamshire constituency. She’s quoted as telling Andrew Gilligan, “I would defy the party whip – be very, very sure of that. My constituency comes first in all instances. The impact on the whole area would be absolutely phenomenal.”

Gilligan explains how this becomes a resigning matter:

“For a minister or whip to break party discipline and vote against the Government is automatically a resigning matter. The three MPs are understood to hope that it will not come to that and are lobbying colleagues to change their minds. Sources close to Miss Gillan said the Prime Minister had stressed that the precise route had yet to be fixed.”

Expect Cheryl Gillan’s political opponents to use this row to call for her to show similar determination when it comes to another controversial rail project: electrification of the Paddington to Swansea line. According to the IWA’s website, Click on Wales, which quotes Rail Engineer magazine, the official announcement on Tuesday is likely to be that the line will be electrified as far as Cardiff, leaving it up to the Assembly Government to pay for the rest if it wants.

UPDATE: I gather the announcement on electrification won’t be made tomorrow (Tuesday) but is likely to come on Thursday.

UPDATE 2: A source close Cheryl Gillan points out that the only published route so far for the new High Speed rail link was drawn up by the last UK government and Mrs Gillan’s views on that have been made abundantly clear. But the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government has made no such announcement on a preferred route and even when it does there would be a lengthy consultation.

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It’s just six months until we vote in the next Assembly election, but today I can bring you some news about the election after that, scheduled for 2015.

The UK government says it’ll give the Assembly – if it wants – the power to delay elections in future to avoid clashing with parliamentary elections.

You may remember the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement includes plans to introduce fixed-term parliaments of five years.

The Assembly (as well as the Scottish parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly) already has fixed terms of four years, so the plan would mean the next UK general election would be held in 2015 – the same year that the next-but-one Assembly election is due.

That’s led to anger from politicians here who fear that the Welsh campaign would be completely overshadowed by UK politics.

Last night in parliament, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party joined forces with Labour to try to alter the legislation that would introduce the new election timetable.

But they were taken aback when the Parliamentary reform minister, Mark Harper, offered an unexpected concession.

He told MPs that the government will consult the parties in the devolved Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly to give them the power to delay their election dates by up to six months to avoid parliamentary elections.

As I mentioned, Assembly terms are fixed at four years and must be held on the first Thursday in May but under the current law,  if two thirds of Assembly members vote for it, they can dissolve the Assembly up to six months earlier.

Mark Harper told MPs “We want to give them the power to extend, because if they have only the power to hold elections earlier, elections would effectively have to be held in the depths of winter. The Government have listened on that point, which is why we want to consult the legislatures on the ability to extend the date, which will give them much more flexibility.”

The Plaid MP behind the original amendments Jonathan Edwards said he was delighted that the government had made such a significant concession.

He said he was”very pleased that the UK Government has finally accepted our sensible argument that elections to the National Assembly for Wales should not be held on the same day as the UK election.”

He said he was assured the consultation would begin today.

Well if that was a surprise, even more unlikely was that Plaid’s joint effort with the SNP was supported in the Commons by Labour, led by the Rhondda MP Chris Bryant, a trenchant critic nationalist parties.

Mr Bryant congratulated Jonathan Edwards and said he would have tabled exactly the same amendments if he’d been quicker.

UPDATE 1415

I’ll post reaction here as I get it.

Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams said “The Welsh Liberal Democrats are fully committed to fixed terms in both Westminster and Wales.  It can’t be right that in an election race, one of the contestants gets to fire the starting pistol. We want to avoid a clash so that the Welsh and UK general elections do not take place on the same day. We understand options are being discussed within government and with the Welsh Assembly Government  to try to achieve this.”

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‘Apprehensive.’ That was the answer the Deputy Minister for Children, Huw Lewis, gave when I asked him how he was feeling ahead of the publication tomorrow of the Assembly Government’s draft budget. ‘Anyone who works in the public realm would be apprehensive about spending in the future,’ he added.

I had been asking him about the possible effect of spending cuts on the Heads of the Valleys dualling scheme , but he refused to speculate on that or any other details before publication which is expected at 3pm tomorrow.

I’d thought that project  might be a target for delay or cutbacks simply because the one thing we know for certain before tomorrow is that capital spending (in other words spending on long-term projects like buildings or transport) is going to see the biggest reduction.

It’ll be cut by 41% over the next four years with the majority of that cut next year. Not only that but, as part of its response to the recession, ministers have already spent part of the capital budget for the next two years.

In an early sign of the political position that you can expect the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition to take after tomorrow, Mr Lewis said that ministers are ‘not simply going to throw up our hands and say we are victims of a bully’  (exactly what the Assembly Government’s critics say it HAS been doing since the UK government’s spending review).

Well no longer, according to Huw Lewis. He said tomorrow will show that ‘we are not passive victims. We have devolution, we have the Assembly government and we have the option of a referendum next year to enhance our power.’

On the other side of the political divide, the Welsh Conservatives have already made their position clear.

They think the health budget alone should be protected from cuts. I asked their leader Nick Bourne if he agreed with estimates made by his opponents that ringfencing health would mean cuts of 20-25% on every other budget.

Yes, he said. And he acknowledged that not protecting health would mean reductions would be more in the order of 11% to each department.

He won’t say, though, where the 20% cuts would come although he insists that his party has ‘done the work’ of identifying potential savings.

The Welsh Liberal Democrat leader, Kirsty Williams, is also refusing to spell out where her party would make cuts if they were making the budget decisions.

What she has said is that she and her colleagues have identified ‘additional waste and capacity’ in Assembly Government spending.

Expect her to keep the focus on the way ministers have spent the money they’ve  had over the last ten years.

So the battle lines are drawn. Bring on the budget.

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A welcome addition to the Welsh political blogosphere is Politics Wales which has 3 authors blogging politics news, video and audio interviews.

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It was businesslike, if not actually downbeat, and only lasted 20 minutes.

And yet today’s vote in the Assembly was one of those rare moments when politicians of all parties put aside their differences and voted unanimously. Rare enough to be described as ‘historic’ by several AMs and ‘significant’ by others.

They were voting on a motion which kickstarts the legislative journey of the long-awaited referendum which, in the event of a Yes vote, would streamline the Assembly’s ability to make laws.

There had to be consensus though because today’s vote required a higher-than-usual majority in the Senedd chamber; at least 40 of the 60 AMs had to agree.

And agreement hasn’t always been on the cards as the First Minister Carwyn Jones alluded to when he said ‘I think it’s fair to say it’s not been an easy journey to get to this point’.’

But there has to be a lot more agreement won yet. Both houses of parliament must give their approval and then the Queen must give her gloved thumbs up in a meeting of the Privy Council not expected until mid December.

So how close are we to seeing official Yes and No campaigns up and running? Some distance yet, it seems.

I gather Yes and No campaigners have been invited to meet the Electoral Commission on Friday (in separate meetings!) to find out more about becoming the official campaign on either side of the argument.

Whichever is designated ‘lead campaign’ will get £70,000 from the Electoral Commission to set up offices and hire staff.

But that decision won’t be taken until mid-January, leaving just four or five weeks for the official campaigns to persuade the people of Wales to vote Yes or No.

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It’s a fascinating time to start keeping an eye on politics for ITV Wales.

The National Assembly is gearing up for a referendum and an election in 2011

As far as the Assembly is concerned, there’s a referendum just around the corner which will strengthen the powers that Cardiff Bay has.

Depending on your point of view, that’s either an exercise in tidying up the way devolution works or an unwelcome step towards independence.

Either way the campaign and the vote itself will be well worth watching, particularly as they come just before the Assembly election itself.

We’ll see the two parties who’ve been running Wales together for the last four years fighting against each other and attacking the two parties who are now governing the UK in coalition.

As for what the outcome is likely to be and what form of Assembly government we’ll see, well, I’m not going to predict that yet.

Then there’s that coalition government in Westminster and the sharp reductions it’s making in public spending. What will that mean for public services here in Wales and all of us who depend on them? And also what will it mean for the parties themselves?

I’ll be trying to get some answers to all these questions for Wales Tonight and for Sharp End on Thursday nights, as well as keeping you up to date with the latest online.

I’ll mainly be posting here, but some of the posts will also appear on the ITV Wales blog will be up and running within the next week but my posts will also appear here. I’ve set up a new Twitter account for politics and any ITV-related business too. It’s @itvadrian if you want to follow me.

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