HC Deb 17 June 2003 vol 407 cc194-6
4. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)

What plans he has to secure access to (a) Gatwick and (b) Heathrow for regional air services. [119405]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

The issue of access to London airports for regional services will be addressed in the air transport White Paper, which, as the House will know, I plan to publish before the end of the year.

Mr. Stewart

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the major lack of capacity at both Heathrow and Gatwick, and that regional air services are most at risk? Does he share my view that future aviation strategy must include a mix of public service obligations, specific slot allocations and regional-only runways?

Mr. Darling

As I have said to my hon. Friend in the past, PSOs should be granted sparingly and only where they are justified. At present, there are a limited number of PSOs on loss-making routes, including those serving some of the islands in the west of Scotland. In relation to his constituency, he will be aware that there are four flights a day from Inverness to Gatwick and that a service to Luton has recently been introduced. Of course, if services from different parts of the country were withdrawn, the Government would have to consider that situation, but it would not be a good idea for us to change our policy and to start granting PSOs on the chance that a problem might arise, as the inevitable result would be that airlines would conclude that the Government were willing to pay for something that they were willing to do commercially. I have no intention of doing that.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that any further expansion at Gatwick by, say, building a second runway means breaking a legally binding agreement?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman will recall that when the High Court decided that the Government were wrong to exclude Gatwick, I made a statement to the House, on 28 November last year, in which I said that the reason the Government had not made proposals for a second runway at Gatwick was the long-standing agreement between the council and the then British Airports Authority, which precluded development before 2019. The High Court held that we were wrong in making that decision and that we had to consult on the basis that there could be development both before 2019 and afterwards. Subsequently, we extended the consultation process to the whole country, including proposals for Gatwick, as the hon. Gentleman must know.

The general point that we must all face up to, and which relates to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) a few moments ago, is that there is no doubt that, on any view, the south-east airports are under severe pressure. That means that we will have to take some difficult decisions. As the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) is well aware, most of us can probably agree that something needs to be done, but there is an awful tendency to suggest that it ought to be done somewhere else.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

Surely, given the earlier question about Inverness and the withdrawal of the service to Heathrow, there is an overwhelming case for the extension of runways and for new runways. Heathrow must be given that option sooner rather than later, with runways designated solely for regional use.

Mr. Darling

I am not sure about the latter point, but I agree that we need to consider how we meet the pressures that the London and south-east airports face in particular. That is why the Government are conducting a very extensive consultation, which finishes at the end of this month. I have said on a number of occasions in the House that we cannot allow a period of uncertainty to continue too much longer beyond then, which is why I intend to publish a White Paper setting out the Government's strategic direction for airport development over the next 30 years; and I will do so by the end of this year.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Secretary of State will be aware of the strategic role that the British Midland flight from Teesside to Heathrow plays as a lifeline for businesses in the north of England. Will he ensure that that flight is guaranteed, not just through the air transport consultation paper, but through his slot allocation policy? What mechanism and channel does he intend to use to consult the Secretary of State for Scotland on air transport capacity in Scotland?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Lady has clearly been working all night to produce such a contrived question, but not a very good one if I may say so. On her substantive point, the BMI flight from Teesside to London is an example of a very good regional service—it helps Teesside, and the position is similar to the services from Inverness and from Plymouth, which, as the hon. Lady will know, are currently under discussion because British Airways is withdrawing them. Of course, if a region makes a request to us about a flight, we will consider it, but it would be a mistake, as some countries have done, to start to designate PSOs in advance even though a problem may never arise. I should have thought that the hon. Lady agreed that the best possible option is to base such flights on commercial propositions, because that is a much better way to ensure that they last in the longer term. I find it hard to believe it, but perhaps the Conservatives now advocate wholesale subsidies where none are required.

Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of bird strikes that would occur if an airport were created at Cliffe would make it impossible to operate and far too dangerous? Given that it is a non-starter, can he confirm whether Cliffe is now well and truly off the agenda?

Mr. Darling

I understand the position that my hon. Friend advocates, but I have made it very clear that the Government will take the decisions in relation to the whole consultation and airport development in the UK at the same time. It would be quite wrong of us to start taking piecemeal decisions, as that would soon lead to great difficulties and, I have not the slightest doubt, to rich pickings for m'learned friends in the courts. I understand my hon. Friend's position, but he will have to wait until the end of the year, when we publish our White Paper setting out the strategic direction that we think necessary for the next 20 to 30 years.