HL Deb 04 February 1976 vol 367 cc1388-405

7.53 p.m.

The Earl of KIMBERLEY rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the damaging result of any closure of the flight test centre at Fairford on the United Kingdom's chances of actively participating in research and development of new multinational and European aircraft projects especially Concorde. The noble Earl said: My Lords, in view of the wonderful news that Mr. Coleman has just announced, that Concorde will have 16 months' trial period between New York and Washington, I feel that the timing of my Question has become even more important than it was an hour and 55 minutes ago. I feel that the question of the possible closure of Fairford as a flight test centre needs as wide an exposure as possible.

It can basically be divided into three parts: first, employment; secondly, the future of the British aerospace industry and, thirdly, the future research and development of the world's first supersonic airliner. As regards employment, 400 people's livelihood may seem infinitesimal compared with the 1½ million unemployed which, alas, we have in this country today; but as a supporter of the policy of not cutting public expenditure in order to stop the rise in unemployment I feel very strongly that these skilled workers and craftsmen are just as important as the workers at Chrysler, and the money which the Government are going to invest in Chrysler is nearly 60 times that needed to retain the most skilled and experienced flight test team in Great Britain, if not in the world.

The British aircraft industry is one of our largest exporters. Last year it earned something like £700 million and at the same time it can considerably reduce the need for expensive aircraft imports. If we are to continue to build aircraft, civil and military, either in collaboration with other countries or by ourselves, we must maintain our capabilities and lead in design, manufacture, research and development and the flight testing of future projects. If BAC is withdrawn from Fairford these capabilities will be severely jeopardised.

I should like to give certain relevant facts about Fairford and its advantages over other flight test centres. First, it is geographically well sited in relation to current manufacturing centres: it has easy access to the M.4, the M.5 and British Rail. It is also a relatively short distance from the sea for supersonic and low altitude performance testing. Local residents have made no significant protest about noise. Concorde has been tested there for a long time. In fact the area has a very low density of population. I myself live only three miles from Fairford and have seen and heard Concorde on many occasions. Only once has the noise factor been very loud and that was on a test flight which I believe was done with one engine aborted so that the other three engines were on very high power.

Fairford also comes under military airspace control and thus has ready and easy access to existing communication networks. The zone clearance air traffic procedures are less restrictive than many other airfields in use for test flying. The runway is infinitely superior to any existing airfield in the British aircraft industry, having a length of 10,000 feet. Only two other test centres, Boscombe Down and Bedford, have such a length. It also has a good runway profile and, as I have already mentioned, it is clear of highly populated areas. It has suitable hangers for large aircraft. With BAC at Warton, it has a fully integrated computerised flight test system. Its load-bearing capacity is higher than any other flight test centre except Bedford. It also has the only taxi- way, parallel to the runway, which is both wide and flat enough to carry out a large proportion of flooded runway testing. This important facility does not exist anywhere else in the United Kingdom. In addition there are numerous other facilities which I shall not go into in great detail but will briefly mention. It has more than adequate hard standings for aircraft. It has numerous unused buildings which with nominal investment could be used as habitation, storage and office accommodation for a number of test teams. It has an approved compass swinging base; it has extensive storage facilities and a modern instrument landing system. It also has hydrant refuelling, storage tanks and a pipeline direct to a refinery, and is therefore not dependent on bowsers.

To revert to the personnel there: the BAC team at Fairford, as I have said, is the most experienced civil flight test team in Great Britain, and in the last seven years it has built itself up into a team of bilingual engineers. The team has developed a clear working relationship together. There are present this evening four members of this flight test team, any they do not yet know their redundancy fate. Let us take warning. I believe that it is proposed that Fairford is to lose 25 per cent. of its strength before the end of this month. These specialists will be lost to us, but they will be gained by Boeing, MacDonnell Douglas or some other foreign competitor. This flight test team has coped with the complexities of testing the world's most advanced airliner and has thereby gained unrivalled experience in supersonic testing. The necessary computer complex is already set up and the computer personnel have the expertise to deal with any future test data requirements. As such, BAC is currently in a very strong position for tendering for the installation and check-out of Boeing AWACS contract. For any noble Lord who does not know what that means, it means "airborne warning and control system".

It may also interest your Lordships to know what this team has achieved. It has achieved the only transportable computer system. This was developed at Fairford and it cuts down the cost of testing aircraft by performance trials in suitable overseas environments. It was first made in 1968 for the BAC 111 at Madrid and was upgraded for Concorde in 1972. It has since been used in that aircraft for trials at Johannesburg, Madrid, Bahrain, Tangier and Casablanca. Further, the team is already housed and lives in the area.

To refer to the Concorde facilities, those include a ground running silencer installation, the only weighbridge for large aircraft in the United Kingdom, an ICL/Elliot/GEC computer complex with peripherals and distant terminal facility which originally cost £300,000. It has the base services of security and canteens. It has a photographic section, an X-ray process room, hydraulic component test laboratory, clean rooms, telephone exchange, camera towers for airfield performance test measurements, a comprehensive VHF and HF telephone communications system and a high standard pressure instrument calibration laboratory designed for civil supersonic aircraft. If Fairford should be closed, these facilities will be redundant and they will not be able to be moved economically to another site.

To return to our resources and our leadership in the European space industry, I have no intention tonight of going into the whys and wherefores of nationalisation, but I feel very strongly, as do many others with more knowledge than I, that some form of amalgamation between BAC and Hawker Siddeley would be a great benefit to all concerned. I am sure that the Government must realise that, if that is to come about, there is only one unit which is capable of supporting comprehensive certification for future civil aircraft, both supersonic and, eventually, hypersonic. That is Fairford. I feel confident that, from what I have already said, your Lordships will realise that, as a result of the expertise of Fairford, flight testing times and, therefore, costs have been reduced. A much improved accuracy of measurement has been achieved, thus enabling a more competitive performance by an aircraft. It has also been operated at a minimum manning level.

Only Fairford—and I appear to be repeating this, but it is intentional—has both the expertise and the hardware which are essential if this country is to compete with the United States aircraft industry. Also, Fairford is eminently suitable as a base for all airline crew training activities. This capability does not apply to Toulouse, due to community constraints, and the French have to train their crews at Dakar. Assuming that we manage to sell or lease more Concordes to other airlines, what better place than Fairford for training new crews?

With this background, it is essential that the know-how and hardware purchased and developed for Concorde be retained and that Fairford should remain the principal flight test centre in the United Kingdom. Just because Concorde is now in service with British Airways does not mean there will be no more research and development. Indeed, it would be absurd to pension off Concorde 202 as a museum piece. What could we then use for further research and development in new take-off and landing noise abatement techniques? That is now perhaps more important than ever in view of the fact that the majority of the protests in America were about noise.

When land overfly clearances on new routes are opened up and granted we shall have no aircraft to test those routes unless we withdraw one from live service. Should 202 be withdrawn, all outstanding flight testing will go to Toulouse, as the French will have the only aircraft. We should consider the consequences which will befall us if this policy is adopted. British Airways' route structure is not directly competitive with Air France and I believe that in some areas of the world British Airways' requirements, which will involve further flight test work, will be in danger of receiving a low priority in a monopoly situation and will in some cases be in danger of receiving no recognition at all.

I turn to future sale prospects. With only the French production aircraft available for sale demonstrations and customer assessments, there will be a reduction in BAC's influence and recognition of their contribution to the project. BAC will be regarded only as a production unit. Also, if there is any truth in the rumours that the production line is to move to France, the situation will be even bleaker. The peripheral effect on British aircraft equipment manufacturers will also be felt. Should there be a choice of equipment, the bias will naturally be in favour of the French. In addition, where further flight equipment is deemed necessary, British manufacturers will be at a disadvantage compared with the French where British Airways interests are involved.

I turn to development work sharing on future civil projects. We in this country must remain viable in the development flight testing field in order to keep a negotiating position in any future multinational and European project. The keystone of our viability is our ability to carry out large aircraft development. Otherwise, the same sad story will once again befall us as happened to Hawker Siddeley and the airbus, not forgetting the many other aircraft projects which we pioneered and then let slip through our fingers.

Rolls-Royce is very near Fairford and that is an advantageous factor for the development of future supersonic and hypersonic engines. Concorde 202 could become a flying supersonic test bed. That would be a very great asset and would greatly help Rolls-Royce to remain the leader in world aero-engine production. Let us not forget the £1,100 million of taxpayers' money already invested in this wonderful and unique aircraft. There are detractors who call it the "golden albatross" and the "flying white elephant". Let us make them eat their words by keeping Fairford open, thus ensuring that Britain keeps ahead of the world in supersonic travel. It need not be very long before we have a stretched version flying, with more passengers, a longer range and a quieter performance. If we let this chance go by, I will have a very large wager that the Americans will have an SST within a few years, in spite of denials on their part. They have played this kind of game with us before and will do so again.

To conclude, it is not that the French do not play cricket, but that they like using their own rules. If we lose Fairford, all the matches will be played on their home ground. I should like to add here that the French are discussing second generation SSTs with America. Finally, Concorde's enemies will now become even more dangerous and strident in view of Mr. Coleman's decision. Let us not give them any unnecessary ammunition through our own weakness. So I ask for the Government and, in particular, the Department of Industry, to consider very earnestly and sincerely the case which I hope I have made for retaining Fairford and thereby retaining our lead—slender though it may be—in the European and world aerospace industry.

8.10 p.m.


My Lords, we on these Benches wish to thank the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for raising this question, particularly on this day of all days. Our congratulations are also due to him upon his informative and excellent speech. But there are a number of questions we should like answered, and we hope that the noble Lord who is to reply for the Government will be able to satisfy us on most, if not all, of the points.

The first, and, to my mind, the most important point, is one of cost. We have heard from various sources that the financial support which will be needed to keep the test centre open until the end of 1977 would be in the region of £3 million to £3½million. What do the Government consider realistic? And could the noble Lord give any indication of keeping the airfield open, at least on a care and maintenance basis, if the Government do decide to reduce it from its present operating level? Additional information that we have been able to gather indicates that the cost of such action would be measured not necessarily in millions of pounds a year, but in hundreds of thousands of pounds.

We are aware that Fairford was developed as the flight test centre for Concorde in the United Kingdom, and it seems that this airfield satisfies a number of criteria, as we have heard from the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley—criteria of noise, density of population, location and excellent technical facilities. But could the Government give some indication of what alternatives exist within the United Kingdom? We understand that there are a number of alternative airfields, and that some fulfil various conditions; for example, length of runways, remoteness from centres of population, and availability of technical facilities. But we also understand that no single airfield meets so many conditions as well as does Fairford. Two possible alternative candidates we have heard of would be Boscombe Down and Bedford.

The first, Boscombe Down, is primarily military, but we wonder whether the airfield could not be adapted so that civil crew training and flight testing could take place there. Security is of paramount importance, but it is quite possible that the United Kingdom could retain the leadership in availability of sophisticated flight testing and data analysis at a relatively low cost. It seems that the second alternative airfield which could carry on a similar type of flight testing operation would be Bedford. This apparently meets the runway criteria very well, so far as length and strength of runway are concerned. But there is a problem of density of population, which we feel the Government will take into account when examining any alternatives, if there are any, to Fairford.

The second main question we should like to ask the Government is: does the ending of Concorde's main flight testing programme mean that a decision has been taken on Fairford which could jeopardise further major developments; for example, improved and different types of engines, which may (and we hope, will) be necessary in the future? It is not inconceivable that Concorde will be a major commercial success, and this closure of Fairford would mean that further testing and development would be necessary, especially after the happy news of this afternoon.

We appreciate that such commercial success in the future is possible—no more, but equally important, no less than this. It is for this reason that we seek an answer from the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, on this point. We should also bear in mind that there is a risk that this excellent team of technicians, which has been formed at Fairford during the past seven or eight years to carry out the flight testing programme, may be dispersed; and we should be interested to hear what views the Government have on this prospect.

We understand that there is a flight simulator for Concorde at BAC Bristol, which is due to come into operation later this month. It is indeed gratifying to have such advanced facilities in the United Kingdom, as well as the simulator which, I understand, has been used up to now at Aerospatiale, in Toulouse. But the noble Lord will be aware that actual flight training is essential, and that there is no substitute for that. We believe that the danger exists that should the facilities at Fairford be allowed to run down, or perhaps even to disappear, such a programme of actual flight training would be carried out only elsewhere in Europe, and possibly in France—or elsewhere in the world.

I understand that it is the opinion of the flight training management staff of British Airways that Fairford is the only available airfield at the moment within the United Kingdom currently suitable for such training of their air crews, particularly on Concorde. No doubt one of the alternative airfields could possibly be made into a suitable location for this flight training, but would the cost of such alterations to another airfield justify such a step, particularly as we understand that financial factors are those which are weighing most heavily on the Government's thinking at present?

My Lords, I do not wish to continue for too long this evening, especially after the excellent speech—it was particularly comprehensive by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley. But it is a matter of the greatest concern to the aerospace industry that such facilities as are afforded at present at Fairford should not simply disappear. The excellent and, as we have heard, bilingual team of experts should not just be dispersed, as there is a very great chance that similar types of flight testing will be carried out within the next 10 years—but certainly at some time in the future. I hope I have indicated that there are some alternatives to Fairford, some of which may be made suitable for all kinds of flight testing, while others may never fulfil such a role. If the retention of Fairford is to be a matter of finance, we shall await the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, with the greatest interest.

Finally, my Lords, it is fitting that the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, has chosen and raised this matter on the day that Concorde has, we understand, been granted provisional landing rights at New York and Washington International Airports, which we hope is an excellent augury for the future.


My Lords, I do not want to detain the House long at this relatively late hour, but we all owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for opening this debate, particularly in such a masterly fashion, and for giving so many facts and figures. As a member of the Royal Commission on the standards of conduct in public life, it would be right that I should declare an interest as chairman of an electronic company, and we would not be a worth while electronic company if we did not make some of the equipment for Concorde, which we do! I also wish to say that over the past 13 years I have always been convinced that, when Concorde got on to the airways, it would be a success.

All of us, even those who have had doubts, must have been greatly encouraged by the news from America that it is to be given landing rights during the next 16 months at Dulles Airport and at New York. Last time we debated this matter, we on this side of the House were pressing the Government very hard to give a greater sense of priority and urgency to clearing air routes for Concorde, particularly on from Bahrain to the Far East and to Australia. I was asking them that a Cabinet Minister—so great was the importance—with knowledge and drive should be appointed to mastermind this. I am only sorry that more progress has not been made in that direction in the past six months.

Like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am equally convinced that onward development of Concorde will be essential. The engine, no doubt, will develop and improve, as all engines have. Although the 593, designed and developed at Rolls-Royce Bristol division is a well-proven engine, I am sure that further improvements will be made, and that there will be further improvements to the aircraft in general. Here I underline what previous speakers said: we definitely need a flight test centre where this testing can be undertaken. I am not as convinced as other speakers have been so far that it must be at Fairford. I understand from talking to BAC and others that they employ there at the moment between 450 and 500 personnel, and that they are in close touch with the unions and the staff in a run-down plan. I believe it was announced that a run-down would start last November; that the first phase would be finished by May; that that would account for a run-down of about 150 personnel and that the remainder, 300, would be slowly phased out during the rest of 1976.

Of course, it is tragic—and I speak as a scientist and engineer—to have to break up any team, particularly a team with high technology and a scientific background, which has worked so closely together, and so successfully. But there are other areas of BAC where the great majority of these people can be redeployed: in the guided weapons sections, which are doing so well for Britain in exports and at home; at Stevenage and at Filton, and in Lancashire as well. I am told that the load is an extra £1½million for this unit every year, and one has to ask: can we afford this particular flight test centre at Fairford? I should have thought, as my noble friend said from the Front Bench, that one ought to look very carefully, particularly to see what other airfield there may be, where there is already occupation and where flight control and all the necessary services are provided, where the overheads could be shared with a flight test centre suitable for a Concorde. RAE Bedford certainly has the length of runway, 3,000 metres, and sufficient LCM, 100 LCM—and I am told that the Concorde's LCM is in the low 90s—so that, both on strength and on length, is all right. At Boscombe Down the strength of the runway may not be fully up to standard, but certainly in other features it is excellent. Some of the testing and the long-term testing of military aircraft over many decades has been centred at Boscombe Down, so it would be admirable, perhaps, for civil aircraft as well. But there must be other RAF airfields which should be considered by the Government.

When the Minister comes to reply, I would ask him particularly to deal with the assurance that we are not going to abandon all chance of having a flight test centre which can carry on with the development, stretching and improvement of Concorde, because if we are going to abandon this to the French then the writing is on the wall. We have already abandoned too much of our aerospace to French leadership. We have given them enormous contracts for missiles—Exocet was the classic example, involving £150 million of development and purchase—in order that they can compete with us all over the world. In the case of the Jaguar, again, although it is a joint aircraft the design leadership was given to France; and there are many other instances that I could quote. If we are going to run down our own flight test facility without having a replacement, we shall be throwing the bounty and the future to France, and France will not be slow to pick it up.

Lastly, perhaps, when the Minister comes to reply, I would ask him to give us an assurance, not only that a flight test centre will be provided but also that if a new order is forthcoming as a result of Corcorde's success we shall not, without the most careful consideration, give the production of the follow-on to France, because they will then outsell us all over the world for both the test facility and the production facility, and we shall be in second place. So there are two assurances that I want, and I hope that the Minister will give them when he comes to wind up: first, a flight test centre somewhere which can carry on with the development and flight testing of Concorde in its improved states; and, secondly, that we will not without the most careful thought and debate in this House—not the day before we rise for a Recess, but in plenty of time—consider where the next production lot is to be built.

8.24 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I should like to apologise to the House for not having put my name down on the list of speakers, but I was not sure that I could be present at this early hour. I rise briefly to support the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, and, like other speakers, I should like to congratulate him on the very clear and pungent way in which he has asked his Question tonight, as he always does. I should also like to congratulate him on the timing of the Question because, as he said, the news from America must give a geat fillip to the Concorde programme. Indeed, I am sure it gives enomous pleasure to both BAC and all their staff, to the Government, and to a great many people in the country. For what I believe this historic decision today means is that Concorde will be allowed to prove itself on what must be the most important commercial air route in the world; not only that it will prove itself on its noise level—that it is not so incompatible as is made out by a number of environmental Jonases—but also that the period of time which has been granted will prove, both to passengers and to other airlines, that Concorde is a viable commercial aircraft. The news from America makes one ponder whether this indeed is the breakthrough, is the dawn of Concorde orders. Will we now see that over the next year, perhaps, airlines will place firm orders once they see the attraction that the Concorde gives to British Airways and to Air France?

My Lords, the noble Earl's Question of course concerns particularly Fairford and I should like to support everything that he said and, particularly, what my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing said about the need for a flight test centre. It is obviously very worrying for all the staff at Fairford to know what their future is, and I hope that tonight the noble Lord, when he comes to reply, will be able to give an assurance that as many as possible of the staff at Fairford will be kept as a unit and will not be broken up. My Lords, the skill of this staff has already been described, I think, as being admired by the aviation world, and it would be a great tragedy if many were lost through any cut-backs.

I hope that the noble Lord will also give an assurance that, if it is true that the British Aircraft Corporation are leaving Fairford as regards Concorde testing, it will always be there available for BAC in the future. I hope that the noble Lord will also be able to say that the Government are not contemplating handing the building of future Concordes to France alone. A succession of Governments, for over ten years now, have held a heavy responsibility on the Concorde programme. I think this is the first occasion on which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has made a sortie on Concorde subjects, and I am sure he will win a great number of friends in this House if he can give us an assurance tonight that the Government are determined not to waver in securing the worldwide success which lies so close to Concorde's grasp.

8.28 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to start by mentioning, as all other noble Lords who have taken part in this very well-timed debate have done, the decision made by the United States Secretary for Transportation on the application for British Airways and Air France to operate Concorde services to New York and Washington. The decision and the arguments on which it is based are both long and complex, and are already under intensive review by my right honourable and honourable friends and their advisers with a view to a Statement being made to Parliament as soon as possible, hopefully tomorrow. In the circumstances, I am sure that noble Lords would not expect me to do more than to acknowledge that this is clearly a decision of prime importance to the future of the Concorde project, and that it marks a new chapter in the long history of this unique aircraft.

My Lords, the British Aircraft Corporation have leased the RAF reserve airfield at Fairford for flight testing of Concorde and for related activities for the past eight years. The centre was established exclusively for the Concorde programme, and it is not used for the testing of other aircraft, for which satisfactory facilities exist elsewhere. It is supported entirely out of public funds. I am afraid that the figures I am going to give both on costs and the number of people employed do not match either of those given by the two noble Lords opposite and I shall check to make sure that they are accurate. The total cost to date of establishing and operating the centre is about £20 million. The present annual cost is about £2.7 million, and I understand that about 350 people are presently employed. As part of a general programme of staff reductions in the BAC's Commercial Aircraft Division about 110 of these people will become redundant by the end of May. I understand that most of these 110 redundancies will be voluntary or by retirement.

The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, if I understood him aright, said that the team was to lose 25 per cent. of its strength by the end of this month. That does not accord with the information I have been given. I understand that approximately one-third will have left by the end of May. My understanding is that the company will be informing the individuals concerned this month. The company are, correctly, talking to the trade unions involved before contacting the individuals.

Now that Concorde has received its certificate of airworthiness and has entered regular airline service, the development programme, which has involved an amount of flight testing unprecedented for any civil aircraft, is virtually completed. Some development flying is continuing, and the remaining production aircraft will require a limited amount of pre-delivery flight testing. But the company's view is that the flight test programme will diminish during the second half of 1976 to a level where it is no longer economic, from the standpoint of management and costs, to maintain a separate flight test centre. They have therefore decided to close the centre later this year, and have told the trade union representatives this. We endorse the company's assessment, and tile main question now outstanding is the exact timing of the closure.

On this I can confirm that the Department of Industry have discussed with the company, on a confidential basis and on a number of occasions, the timing of closure, its implications for those concerned, and the alternative arrangements that will need to be made to enable flight testing to continue so that the aircraft may be fully supported in airline service. We now await formal proposals from the company on these points. When they are received—and I hope they will not now be too long in coming—we shall study them urgently so that the company may inform the employees' representatives as soon as possible of the agreed date for closure and of other arrangements, and discuss with them their implementation.

Throughout those discussions with the Corporation, and also in the discussion of the redundancies to be completed by the end of May, the company has emphasised its wish to continue to act as a good employer and, consistently with the need to avoid any unjustified expenditure of public funds, to give the maximum period of notice possible to those affected. We endorse these objectives; and the Government have done and will continue to do all they can to help in relocating through the services of the Department of Employment the hopefully small proportion of employees who cannot be found jobs elsewhere in the Corporation, as the noble Lord, Lord On-Ewing, suggested might be the case. I and the Government very much regret the need for any redundancies and particularly the need to break up this successful group of highly-skilled people.

The achievements and expertise of the team which the British Aircraft Corporation has built up at Fairford are outstanding. But the hard fact is that the volume of work will soon be falling below the level at which the maintenance of a separate flight test centre can be justified. Flight testing of the remaining aircraft from the presently authorised production run of 16, of which 8 are being assembled at Filton, might be done out of Fairford. This is one of the possibilities which the company is investigating. But neither this nor such development flying as still needs to be done would require the continuing presence on a permanent basis of company staff at the airfield, nor the maintaining there of other facilities such as the computer. There are no current proposals for the production of further aircraft beyond the 16 already authorised, three of which are being delivered in the first half of 1976 and the last of which will be ready in 1978. Even if further production were to be so authorised immediately, the earliest the first of this new batch could be produced and flight tested would be well into 1979.

Nor is there any foreseeable need for the centre for other projects. Both the major aircraft companies operate other airfields which are entirely adequate for such test flying as is needed on the aircraft currently in production. There is therefore no current requirement for a national flight test centre which was suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, as a possible new role for Fairford under British Aerospace when it is set up. The future requirements for civil aircraft are very uncertain in the currently depressed state of the world market. Much effort is going into attempts to forecast the future growth of air traffic on a reliable basis and then to decide on what types of planes will be required. Future aircraft will almost certainly need to be built on a collaborative basis with other countries. The major European aircraft manufacturers, the so-called Group of Six, are jointly studying the possibilities and the major European airlines are similarly co-operating in an effort to define their requirements.

At Government level we are engaged in a continuing round of discussions with other member countries of the EEC towards the same end. Discussions have also been held with the major US aircraft companies. There is however little prospect of early decisions on future projects. Moreover, it appears unlikely that any such project would require the specialised kind of test centre which Concorde did, by reason of its very special characteristics and the formidable range of problems which had to be solved to make commercial service possible. Even if they were, it would be some while, perhaps two to three years, before a prototype would be ready for initial flight testing.

My noble friend Lord Beswick, the chairman designate of British Aerospace, has been kept fully informed of the position at Fairford. The setting up of the new, national Corporation is intended to improve the ability of the United Kingdom industry to play a substantial and commercially successful role in meeting the future world market for aircraft. It will not of itself, however, introduce any requirement for the Fairford test centre which does not exist at the moment.

Several noble Lords mentioned the French facilities. As I understand it, the French Concorde flight test facilities are an integral part of the flight test centre of the Toulouse production complex where other aircraft, notably the airbus, are both manufactured and flight tested. Therefore, a similar closure of their facilities does not arise. The situation is totally different from that of BAC where the special flight test facilities needed for Concorde had to be installed at a separate location. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, that there is no question of our handing over anything to the French in closing Fairford. BAC will be maintaining the necessary flight test capability for Concorde and are expected to retain equipment such as the ICL computer which the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, mentioned. They will retain that when Fairford closes, probably at Filton. Both they and Hawker Siddeley have adequate flight testing facilities for other production aircraft. The United Kingdom's prospect of obtaining a fair and reasonable share in any future collaborative European projects will not be jeopardised by the closure of Fairford. Several noble Lords also mentioned the question of pilot training for Concorde. Until recently, it was our understanding that British Airways would carry out their Concorde pilot training at a civilian airfield. British Airways now say there is no civilian airfield which meets their requirements. This problem is being urgently considered by the Government. If British Airways are right, alternative proposals will be considered, including the use of Fairford or some other military airfield. In any case, British Airways' training programme will not call for the sophisticated facilities now provided at the Fairford centre.

I am sure that noble Lords will agree that there can be no argument for retaining valuable resources of skilled people and expensive equipment at a substantial cost to public funds, and thus to the taxpayer, on a facility for which there is no longer a current need nor as yet a foreseeable future requirement. BAC will be maintaining a flight test capability for Concorde and this will pass to the new Corporation. Fairford aerodrome itself will not disappear. Hence. a flight test centre could be re-established in the future if the need arises. There is, however, no case for maintaining the existing centre on what can be nothing more than a contingency basis.