HC Deb 24 June 2003 vol 407 cc850-1
4. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West)

How many responses the Government has received to the "Future of Air Transport—Scotland" consultation document. [120212]

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

As of 23 June, we had received 1,097 responses to the questionnaire and 520 letters and e-mails.

John Barrett

I thank the new Secretary of State for that answer. Is he aware that figures he has just released to the House show that less than 3 per cent. of the 61,000 consultation documents were returned? Does he agree that in view of the importance of air transport to the economy, transport and the environment, in the remaining six days before the deadline for responses he ought to do everything he can to ensure an increased response?

Mr. Darling

It is important that everyone who wants to respond to the consultation does so, but for various reasons many people probably do not want to respond, and the Government cannot dragoon them into doing so. With regard to Edinburgh airport, in which the hon. Gentleman, like me, has an immediate interest, and other airports in Scotland, it is important that we get a wide range of views about the projected growth and that we plan accordingly. So far, as I said, we have had a large number of responses. It is a matter of live interest, as the hon. Gentleman knows, not just in Edinburgh but in Glasgow.

In relation to the questionnaire, it is not surprising that many people who do not have any immediate views on the subject may choose not to respond. That does not weaken the strength of the consultation. We are giving people as much opportunity as possible to make their contribution, if they wish to do so.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I, too, welcome my right hon. Friend to his new duties. He knows how anxious I am to see building work recommence on the new Scottish centre, which is so vital for the future of air transport in the UK. Can he tell the House when we are likely to receive an announcement in that regard?

Mr. Darling

In the not too distant future, I hope. My hon. Friend knows that I visited the Prestwick control centre last summer, and I am well aware of the fact that people in Prestwick and the surrounding area want the second centre to be built as soon as possible. May I reassure my hon. Friend and the House that a second centre is an essential part of the National Air Traffic Services strategy? It is necessary for operational reasons and for back-up. It is a great pity that it has taken such a time to get a decision, but I am optimistic that we will be able to say something in the not too distant future.

Pete Wishart (North Tayside)

Will the right hon. Gentleman have a long discussion with himself about landing charges at BAA airports? He knows that Glasgow airport recently lost a BMI service from Cardiff, and easyJet has branded Scotland's airports as far too expensive. What will he say to himself in order to address the problem?

Mr. Darling

In relation to the charges, if there is any suggestion that BAA is not acting properly, there is provision in competition law for that to be investigated. One of the reasons that low-cost airlines have been able to cut their prices so significantly is that they have driven hard bargains with airports in order to reduce landing charges—in some cases down to pretty negligible amounts.

The hon. Gentleman speaks from time to time about the need for a sustainable transport policy. There comes a point when someone somewhere must pay to renew airport infrastructure. I know, because I have spoken to just about everyone involved in the airline industry, that it is the view of some low-cost operators that that is someone else's problem. They want to drive a hard deal, and in some cases they are not interested in an airport being done up, because they are not willing to pay for the cost of that. For the long-term sustainability of air transport, we need to make sure that infrastructure is replaced and upgraded, and that must be paid for.

If the hon. Gentleman has a specific complaint about BAA airports in Scotland, I am sure the competition authorities will be happy to hear from him.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

lf the consultation on the right hon. Gentleman's airport strategy should suggest that increased capacity requires a northern hub at either Manchester or Edinburgh-Glasgow, how will he speak up for Scotland's airports and advise his fellow Cabinet members as Secretary of State for Transport?

Mr. Darling

When I set up the consultation exercise in July last year, the question was not Manchester versus Edinburgh or Glasgow; the question was whether it would be possible or desirable to have a Scottish hub airport. The hon. Lady may know, although perhaps the view from Beckenham is rather different, that that has been a long-running argument in Scotland. [Interruption.] The argument in central Scotland is between Edinburgh and Glasgow, both of which are in Scotland. I do not think there is a problem there.

What I will have to decide during the course of this year, prior to publishing the White Paper at the end of it, is whether there is an argument for trying to build a hub airport in central Scotland or whether Edinburgh and Glasgow can carry on working in tandem, as they do at the moment. Frankly, that is the argument. Manchester is competing increasingly with airports in south-east England rather than Scotland, although people from Scotland use that airport because it is a very good one.