HC Deb 27 January 1954 vol 522 cc1925-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Oakshott,]

12.29 a.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

In assessing the potential importance of the airfields in the north-west corner of Wales, I think it is necessary to study the general problem of the siting of airfields in Great Britain and the fundamental increase in air traffic generally. If the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation is not careful and not forward looking, then he will find in a very short time that the growth of air traffic and the development in the design of aircraft have outstripped the airport facilities. If such a situation is allowed to develop it will retard progress in the air and will create very dangerous bottlenecks in this country.

The problems of air traffic control are becoming more and more complex, as the Under-Secretary is well aware, and terminal delays are becoming longer and more vexatious in this country with every month that goes by. It is obvious, therefore, that plans must be laid forthwith, and urgent measures taken to ease this particular problem. If we are to have smooth traffic flow into this country, safer landing and more rapid disposal of cargo and passengers then I suggest the present policy of concentration in two or three important airports must be modified. In my submission, the only sensible alternative is properly planned dispersal at key points on the coast of the United Kingdom. There will, of course, have to be internal air services to connect these great coastal terminals with the large concentrations of population, in addition to the ordinary road and rail facilities.

In a small island like Great Britain, it would be a fundamental mistake on the part of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation to site transoceanic air terminals merely in the big cities. There are many travellers who do not want to go to the big cities, and no doubt many who, once having landed in North Wales would never want to leave North Wales. Another factor in the same argument is that the development of air transport is so rapid and so great that air terminal buildings so far constructed are proving inadequate, and in some cases they are outgrown before they are completed. Another factor is that few airports have been located so that they can be readily expanded. Where, for example, in our great industrial and urban densities is there sufficient space available for modern airports? Where airports exist there is rarely sufficient room for adequate expansion.

It is fair again to argue that the same degree of thought and planning has not been devoted to the design of airports as to the design of aircraft types, and this problem assumes very serious proportions when we realise how much the one is dependent on the other. I would go so far as to say that unless the Minister is at present investigating and reviewing the question of the siting of proper landing grounds, then the future free use of large, high-speed civil aircraft in this country will be seriously jeopardised. The introduction, for example, of the Comet service, operating to time-tables of almost double the speed of previous schedules, intensifies the problem.

What will be the position when timetables and speeds of 600 to 650 miles an hour are commonplace? What is taking place at London Airport today? I am informed that in adverse weather conditions aircraft have to be guided in by instrument control, they have to wait, and they are stacked up over a wide area around the City waiting for landing instructions. I realise that at this stage this is inevitable, but I understand that there can be waiting periods of an hour or more before they can land. What will be the position when both traffic and speeds have increased substantially, in five or ten years' time? The delay will then be more serious. Operating costs will be raised and this may reflect itself in increased fares, and an increase in congestion will obviously have very many undesirable results.

I have already said what I consider to be the solution to these difficulties so far as transatlantic services are concerned, and I recognise the existence of Prestwick as meeting part of the need. The only solution to the problems caused by over-concentration is the dispersal of control and the establishment of landing facilities along the coast, and, for transatlantic travel, such coastal airfields must be sited on the Western seaboard.

At this early hour of the morning I make no apology for indulging in a piece of special pleading for the airport of Valley, in Anglesey. I do so not merely because it is in my constituency, and because Wales has been rather badly neglected in the sphere of civil aviation, but also because there are formidable practical and technical reasons why Valley should be one of the main airports on the western seaboard. The suitability of Valley is beyond question. I do not wish to weary hon. Members with a long disquisition on its merits. I mentioned them in a debate on civil aviation on 27th October last.

I am grateful that the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation has seen fit to come here at this hour. He may recall that I enumerated the merits of Valley. This station fulfils all the necessary requirements and, what is of great importance, the weather conditions are excellent. It was used extensively by heavy aircraft travelling to and from America in 1944 and 1945. It is easier, therefore, to obtain statistics for this period. For example, during 1944 there were 257 diversions to Valley and only nine diversions from Valley. Diversions to Valley took place on 81 days, and diversions from the airport on four days only. That was in a period of 12 months.

So much for the weather. In 1944, an average of 40 big airliners a day landed there, mostly Fortresses, Liberators, Dakotas and Skymasters. Again, the biggest single air operation in history—of its type—was carried out from Valley. Perhaps the Ministers will be aware that in May, 1945, over a period of about 30 days, 2,600 large aircraft, of the types which I have mentioned, carrying 40,000 personnel, were flown from Valley to the United States. Why was Valley chosen as the clearing station in this gigantic operation, which, I understand, was executed without a hitch? I can give the House the answer. It is because Valley is the best and most suitable airfield in Britain for transatlantic travel. I should say the same if Scottish Members were here. I am sorry that they are not. The service pilots who participated in this operation were unanimous that this was the case.

On 28th May, 1945, when this operation was in progress, this is what the United States commanding officer said, as reported in the "Liverpool Daily Post" of that date: I cannot understand why all this fuss is made about Prestwick being the best terminal point for a Transatlantic air service. It has nothing on Valley. There are much better weather conditions here to start with, and Valley has much better travel facilities to London. If the Americans had anything to do with it we would make Valley that terminal. It is one of the best airfields in Europe. Those are the words of the man who was in charge of the biggest air operation in history. They cannot be lightly dismissed.

We all know that Prestwick won the day, and that Valley faded out, although it was, in fact, scheduled as a bad weather base. But why has it not been used as such? The number of diversions to Valley since 1946 have been negligible. I cannot help thinking that for one reason or another diversions to Valley have been discouraged. The Parliamentary Secretary informed me, in reply to a Question recently, that diversions from Prestwick are going to Shannon Airport, in Eire. I do not wish to imperil international relations by complaining about this, but surely Wales is not to be snubbed for the sake of any country? In this matter it is England first, Scotland second, Eire third, and Wales a very long way behind.

The Minister says that these aircraft can go where they wish. Is it not the case that if they were diverted they would go to Valley? I really want the Minister to give some explanation about that. I know perfectly well that the Royal Air Force is in possession at Valley and Mona at present, but joint user is an accepted principle. My own view is that it would be easier to find an alternative adequate training station for the R.A.F. than to find a better transatlantic airport than Valley. I had intended to discuss the possibility of using the magnificent outer harbour at Holyhead as a base for seaplanes, but I have used up more time than I expected. Would the Minister say whether Coastal Command could not make the same use of the remarkable facilities that exist there? It was used during the war.

In conclusion, I want to tell the Minister and the House quite dispassionately that feeling is growing daily in Wales about the neglect of civil aviation there, and the lack of interest shown by Government Departments when practical and reasonable projects are put forward for consideration. This is one matter which will be pursued until we have in the Principality an adequate airport for trans-Atlantic travel.

12.52 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Air (Mr. George Ward)

Although I realise that most of the points which the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) has raised concern civil aviation I am replying to him because the airfield at Valley is owned and used by the Air Ministry. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation is in his place, and both he and I will carefully study the hon. Member's arguments. I shall do my best in the next few minutes to reply to some of those arguments, and I hope I shall do so without causing any embarrassment to my right hon. Friend.

No one will argue with the hon. Gentleman when he says that Valley is a good airfield. It is. It has three long runways, the longest of which is 2,000 yards, and it has adequate radio and other facilities. It is well known for being relatively free from fog. The Royal Air Force find it extremely useful as an advanced flying training school for Vampires, and as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is in full use. The hon. Gentleman's main concern was that not enough use was made of the airfield as a terminal point for transatlantic flights and claims that there was too much congestion at London Airport and other main terminal civil airports, and that these terminal points of civil air traffic should be dispersed more widely over the country, and that as part of that policy Valley should be developed and brought into regular use.

Mr. C. Hughes

The congestion is growing.

Mr. Ward

The present position is that, in addition to Royal Air Force functions, Valley is designated as an alternate airfield for aircraft on transatlantic routes. This means that transatlantic scheduled operators may use the airfield for diversion in bad weather. It is also what is known to the R.A.F. as a master airfield, which means that it is open to all aircraft, irrespective of size, number or owner in an emergency. It maintains a 24-hour watch and has a satisfactory standard of approach and landing aids. In 1947 it was designated mainly at the request of American civil operators as an alternate on transatlantic routes. But very little use was made of it in the winter of 1947–48 and in October, 1948, its designation was lowered to supplementary. It was then available in emergency, but not as an alternate airfield at the will of the operator in bad weather.

In the following May, that is, May, 1949, Scandinavian Airlines asked for Valley to be restored as an alternate to Prestwick for the North Atlantic services, and it has remained as an alternate since then. But, once again, in fact, very little use has been made of Valley by the Transatlantic civil operators. In the past year there have been only four diversionary landings there, and they were not, in fact, by Transatlantic aircraft at all. I believe the aircraft belonged to Aer Lingus. This makes it fairly clear that, despite its advantages, it is not popular with civil operators. This is probably because it has geographical disadvantages—as well, I agree, as advantages—and it suffers because of its distance from the main centres of population.

The hon. Member has suggested that it might be possible to transfer passengers on to feeder lines to take them to main terminal points; but that would defeat the very object he is trying to achieve. At some point or another one has to bring passengers to the main terminal points and so the congestion would remain. If, as traffic increases at the main airports, they become unduly congested, no doubt my right hon. Friend will take into account this important factor of convenience to the passenger on his onward journey from the terminal.

I do not want to go too deeply into a hypothetical problem, but I would point out that many difficult problems of flying control would result if it were proposed to add a substantial number of civil aircraft to the large number of R.A.F., jet aircraft now using this airfield. That leads me to the point which the hon. Member made about finding alternative suitable training places. That is not easy. We are continually searching for suitable airfields, and many of the fields we have, both for operational and training purposes are in places where we would prefer not to have them, if alternative sites could be found. It has to be remembered that we live in a small, thickly populated island, and the hon. Member would be surprised if he knew how difficult it is to find new sites.

So, I am afraid that the short, if disappointing answer, to the hon. Member's main point about the increased use of Valley for trans-Atlantic air services, is that facilities at civil airports combined with the facilities offered at present by Valley seem to meet the existing requirements quite adequately. If further civil requirements arise, they will be looked at together with the other considerations about the situation of Valley and its Royal Air Force use.

On the question of the use by the R.A.F. of Holyhead harbour, I expect the hon. Member knows that there are two flying boat moorings there which are in charge of a civil agent. Coastal Command do not ordinarily use these moorings, but maintain them—as we do in a number of places round the coast—in case of flying boats having to make a forced landing in the neighbourhood. The main flying boat bases are at Pembroke Dock in Wales, Wig Bay in Scotland and Castle Archdale in Northern Ireland. I do not think that on present plans an additional main base is needed in Wales or anywhere else. There may be a case for stationing a Royal Air Force marine craft unit in Holyhead mainly for research and rescue duties and we are considering that matter at present.

I hope I have answered the points raised by the hon. Member and I will certainly examine his speech in the Official Report to see whether there is anything I have omitted to answer fully.

Adjourned accordingly at One Minute past One o'Clock.