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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 29 October 2002

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Regional Air Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Derek Twigg.]

9.30 am

Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber): I welcome the opportunity to debate the important subject of regional air services. I thank the many right hon. and hon. Members here for attending today. I also thank the many Members who attended the debate that I organised in July in Portcullis House to consider the subject, especially my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), who spoke at it.

I shall touch on several issues. I shall define what I mean by regional air services and consider current issues and problems and the report of the former Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. I intend to analyse the role of government, not only here but in the United States and France, and the prospects for government intervention. I should like to summarise briefly the points that I made almost a year ago to the day in this Chamber on a similar Adjournment debate, and analyse the south-east and east of England regional air service study—SERAS—which is crucially important to the debate.

What do I mean by regional air services? They could be defined as routes from London in its broadest sense—from Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, London City and Stansted to domestic UK airports such as my constituency of Inverness, Aberdeen, Newquay, Belfast, Plymouth, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh and, let us not forget, the Channel Islands, for which regional air services play an important role. Of course, the two primary hubs in London are Gatwick and Heathrow. Journeys tend to be of two types: point to point or interlined, by which I mean domestic flights that continue to international destinations. Heathrow is undoubtedly top of the interlining league, Gatwick is mid-table, and Stansted and City, to continue the football analogy, are unfortunately very much in the relegation zone.

What current trends and problems are evident in United Kingdom regional services? Mr. Laurie Price, from Aviation and Travel Consultancy Ltd., analysed daily flights from Heathrow to regional airports between 1986 and 2001. In 1986, 19 regional UK airports had direct flights to Heathrow, with an average of 106 flights daily. However, in the summer of last year only eight regional airports had direct flights to Heathrow, and the daily average of flights had fallen to 88. In 1986, 15 airports had direct flights to Gatwick, and by 2001 that figure had fallen to 11. To be fair, Gatwick's daily flight average is now slightly higher, in part because of the transfer of domestic flights from Heathrow, including my own route.

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Which airports have lost out? Heathrow services were slashed from Inverness and from Plymouth—where the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister lies—in 1997, from Dundee and Carlisle in 1987, from Liverpool and East Midlands in 1992, from Birmingham in 1993, and from Norwich in 1990. Why do such cuts occur? Services in the UK are a free market and in simplistic terms the profit per mile per passenger is better for intermediate and long-haul flights than for domestic UK routes. In effect, commercially viable daytime slots at Heathrow and Gatwick are full.

I have asked some questions on the subject. Last summer there was 20 per cent. excess demand for slots at Gatwick. On a typical summer's day in August 2001, demand exceeded capacity by as much as 22 per cent. every minute between 6 am and 8 pm. That, of course, is fully reflected at Heathrow as well.

Aviation was badly affected by the tragic events of 11 September. Airline costs rose and initially growth and traffic were reduced. The traffic in question, however, has fully returned. As the Minister well knows, his Department has predicted a 4.25 per cent. growth rate in passenger numbers every year. In London, there is no new capacity to take that growth. The last substantial runway built in the UK was in Manchester more than a decade ago. In the competition for slots, therefore, regional air services will always lose out to their older and bigger brothers: international and transatlantic flights.

In 1998, the then Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs undertook a comprehensive inquiry into regional air services. The Committee made several recommendations to the Government, which I fully endorse. It argued for different categories of slots—domestic, intermediate and long haul—so that swapping of slots could be controlled, as in the United States. It also suggested that, in the allocation of slots at domestic airports, priority be given to airlines bidding to operate domestic regional services. That would be similar to the US essential air services programme. The Committee recommended an end to airlines' own companies allocating slots at airports, as they do at Heathrow and Gatwick. It also argued for the development of public service obligations—PSOs—at Heathrow for a specified minimum level of air services.

The current European slot allocation rules—governed by European regulation EC 95/93—have been due for revision for some time, although I understand that we will not have a complete spring clean until 2003. In my view, they must be adapted to allow greater protection for vulnerable regional air routes, otherwise there will always be a trade-off between domestic routes and more lucrative international destinations.

What role can the Government play? What examples of best practice have there been throughout the world? In simple terms, under the EU regulations member states can reserve slots in two ways: first, on a route to an airport serving a peripheral or development region, if that route is considered vital for the economic development of that region; secondly, on routes on which the Government have imposed PSOs to make sure that a service is maintained that would otherwise not be.

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There are demanding regulations for the first option: the slots concerned must have been used on that route when the regulations came into force in 1993; only one carrier must operate that route; and, it must not be possible for the route to be covered substantially by any other mode of transport. The reservation ceases once a second carrier covers the service with the same frequency.

Only in France has the first option been used, at Paris, Orly airport. It is now using the second option of imposing PSOs and I believe that some 30 per cent. of services at that airport now have PSOs. At present, there are no English PSOs. In Scotland there is a long track record of them, particularly in the island services, such as the Western Isles. They are all exclusively subsidy PSOs, however. I am certainly not calling for subsidy PSOs today, which are not needed on routes that are commercially viable.

In the United States, the essential air services programme has operated since deregulation in 1978. That was the price that Congress demanded for passing legislation. Congress now spends $50 million per year on that important programme, which serves 75 cities in the US. Most are in remote areas, such as Alaska. At very congested airports though, the United States Department of Transportation can demand that EAS status be given to certain routes. The Government have a strong power of intervention, in a country that is arguably the most unregulated in the industrial world. We should examine that closely—if it fits, why not copy it?

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): On that point, I know the Welsh air service opportunities best. America also seems to have accepted the idea of having a large number of hubs, with the regional airports acting as spokes. What does the hon. Gentleman think of the idea that we cannot sustain the increasing pressure for international flights through London, so we should use places such as Cardiff, Birmingham and Manchester to ease that pressure? Should we have spokes going into those hubs?

Mr. Stewart : The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is important that we develop alternative hubs and I note that Manchester is doing so. That does not put an end to the argument that many of our tourists and business people want to get to London and that therefore we need the capacity in London. However, developing alternative hubs and super-hubs, as they have in the rest of Europe, is vitally important.

What are the prospects of a Government intervention in this case? The bulk of witnesses before the Select Committee inquiry to which I referred argued that there was a case for public sector intervention to protect key vulnerable regional air services. In my constituency, the Highland council, the enterprise agency, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, the local chamber of commerce and more than 90 per cent. of local businesses argued that we should have a public service obligation on the Inverness to Gatwick route. The Minister may wish to comment on a letter that proposed a draft PSO, which his Department received from Sarah Boyack, a former Minister for Transport and the Environment in the Scottish Parliament.

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In paragraph 93 of the evidence to the Select Committee, the Minister's Department stated that the United Kingdom would have a chance to suggest amendments during the revision of the European slot allocation regulations. It stated:

British Midland criticised the new entrant rule in slot allocation and used the example of Heathrow, which has had 53 new entrants since 1991. There have been too many low-frequency long-haul services, which have frustrated prospects for domestic air services. Effectively, they have been squeezed out by low-frequency long-haul services.

It is often said—and it may be a cliché—that politics is the art of the possible. However, it is also the art of the practical, within a range of competing priorities.

Angus Robertson (Moray): On the art of the possible, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the case has been convincingly made for a PSO between Inverness and London Gatwick? What possible explanation can he suggest for the Government delay in acceding to such a reasonable request from the Scottish Executive?

Mr. Stewart : I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. My track record on this matter is well known, because I argued for the PSO for many years before the hon. Gentleman became a Member of Parliament. It is important that, if we meet the criteria, we get that PSO. However, before that decision is made, we need to persuade Europe to open up the regulations, so that it is much easier for routes such as Inverness-Gatwick to qualify. There are legal arguments, too, but as I am not a lawyer I shall not take them up. I am sure that the Minister will want to comment on them in his reply.

A simple solution to the problem is to build more runway capacity at Gatwick and Heathrow. However, this may not be a suggestion that wins me much favour with my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent London seats. Judging by the experience of Manchester airport and Heathrow terminal 5, one must allow 10 years for the lead-in time for planning, because of the large number of likely objections. However, technical solutions may be found. For example, the Cranford agreement that covers Heathrow and governs the speed and direction of take-off and landing times could be varied to create more slots for regional air services.

There may also be creative solutions. Laurie Price, the aviation consultant to whom I referred earlier, argues that 70 per cent. of aircraft using Heathrow and Gatwick use a 1,800 m runway. RAF Northolt has such a runway and could be adapted as an overflow airport for Heathrow. Redhill aerodrome, which is not too far from Gatwick, could perhaps be adapted for the same purpose.

What future is there for regional air services? I welcome the Government commitment to the new White Paper and I commend the effort that is going into

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the consultation process. However, I and many other hon. Members from peripheral regions want immediate solutions. We need the bread of new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow today—or at least in the next five years—rather than the jam of possible new runways and protection in 10 to 15 years.

I also welcome the commitment and key objectives set out on page 277 of the Scottish regional consultation document, which refers to allowing

The achievement of such objectives will in large part depend on maintaining links with London Heathrow and London Gatwick, the UK's leading network hub airports. On the Government's admission, however, in the SERAS consultation mentioned earlier, both Heathrow and Gatwick are full today. The viability of additional slots at those airports is limited, particularly at peak times. In such circumstances, there is no prospect of improving schedules or frequencies to peripheral regions. According to the SERAS consultation, the earliest time that additional landing capacity is envisaged is 2011. Realistically, the date is more likely to be 2015 if bold initiatives like the new runway at Sipson at Heathrow are to be developed.

Against that historical background, it is difficult to accept assertions that a proportion of any new capacity would be kept for regional air services. It cannot be in the best commercial interests of commercial airlines to do so. Some would argue that that would be failing in their duty to shareholders. In 10 to 15 years, capacity will be an even more difficult problem and new capacity will just be taken up through expansion of short-haul and long-haul services. The regions will still be left in limbo. The only practical way forward is to include immediate capacity solutions in the White Paper.

I commend the Government for recognising the importance and contribution of the air transport industry. Its contribution to the economy is £10.2 billion. It accounts for 1.4 per cent. of gross domestic product and, directly, 200,000 transport jobs. Heathrow and Gatwick are leading international network airports, with more services to more places than competing continental airports. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport said,

We now have a comprehensive process of researching, identifying and consulting on airport and runway options. I welcome the Government's commitment to a new aviation White Paper by spring 2003—the first for almost 20 years. However, there are some negative points to be made.

Seventy per cent. of demand is in the south-east. That will always take precedence over the needs of the regions. As I mentioned, Heathrow and Gatwick airports are full. Stansted will be full by 2005. There will be no new runway in the south-east until 2011 and 17 regional routes have lost London services since 1986. No new runways for 10 years will mean that airlines will gradually trade slots used for regional services for use by higher revenue long-haul services. For example, British Airways dropped Belfast-Heathrow after 54 years last year. There is no prospect of additional regional or domestic routes or of reinstatement of lost services such as the route that Norwich lost in 1990.

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Increased reliance on low-cost, point-to-point services from regions to secondary airports will leave many regions off the international development radar. The no-frills carriers provide excellent low-cost links to some peripheral regions, to the benefit of passengers and regions, but those areas must have full service network links to London hubs, with worldwide interline access to services, as a key to economic development. That means maintaining access to Heathrow or Gatwick via the services of a full service network carrier such as British Airways, British Midland or British European.

I spoke to representatives of the largest employer in my constituency a few weeks ago. It is called Inverness Medical and is owned by Johnson and Johnson. The American who runs the company, which has 1,400 employees, made it clear that he would not be in Inverness if there were not direct links to London Heathrow and Gatwick. I am sure that many hon. Members could echo that experience with reference to their constituencies.

As Amanda Francis, the UK representative of the States of Guernsey, told me yesterday,

The SERAS proposals include a new runway at Sipson, Stansted or Cliffe. Gatwick, which is of course London's second largest network airport, has been left out, for unsupported reasons based on the 2019 agreement, a planning agreement with the local authority that there can be no new runway before 2019. None of the options is deliverable in less than 10 years, possibly longer. Only the Heathrow option takes account of where market demand is greatest, and Gatwick has largely been ignored as a major regional UK focus by the SERAS study.

What is the solution? The Government must now accept the crucial importance of specific regional air links to specified London airports and work with the EU to secure designation and protection of the slots for those links, just as has happened in France and in the Republic of Ireland, where the Irish Government have secured a PSO designated link between Londonderry and Dublin. The Government must afford the same protection to air links from peripheral regions to London. Concurrently, we need to develop Northolt at Heathrow and Redhill at Gatwick to provide specific capacity for regional and short-haul services for those airports with runways up to 2000 m long.

In paragraph 14.17 of the SERAS document, the Government called for maximum use to be made of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports. However, without more runways, many of their proposals will remain undeliverable. We must develop Northolt now and Redhill within four years. That could increase the capacity of the London system, where demand is greatest, by 60 million passengers. Developing Northolt and Redhill may require concurrent ring-fencing of slots through PSO or similar designation.

Some people may ask why capacity must be provided at Heathrow and Gatwick. What about other airports? I answered that question in a reply to an earlier intervention. Heathrow and Gatwick offer a range of

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destinations and connections to the worldwide network of air services that is unrivalled by any other UK airport and, arguably, by any airport in Europe. We must encourage airlines that want to run domestic links to bid for more local services. We need to divide slots into domestic, intermediate and long haul, to stop the trade-off between Belfast and Bonn, Aberdeen and Athens and Plymouth and Paris. We need to create a regional policy for aviation, which recognises the legitimate need of regional airports to have access to at least one of the two key hubs in London, Heathrow and Gatwick.

We need to protect peripheral routes by ring-fencing slots and routes. We need published route development plans for Gatwick and Heathrow, which take account of the need for regional travel and national priorities for airports. We need more London hub capacity and more 1,800 m runways. Then, we can truly say that we have a UK-wide regional policy, which develops the regions and builds social inclusion.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Not all right hon. and hon. Members indicated beforehand that they wished to speak, so I have only just formed an impression of how many would like to contribute to the debate. As it is customary for the Front-Bench spokesmen to commence their speeches at 10.30 am, I hope that hon. Members will exercise some self-restraint so that the maximum number of voices can be heard.

9.52 am

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute briefly to the debate and to support my neighbouring colleague, the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart). I congratulate him on securing this morning's debate and on his parliamentary and political persistence over many years on the issue. I shall focus in my remarks on our collective concern, the Inverness-London link, and issues that arise from that.

The hon. Gentleman will remember that, after the 1997 election, we both contributed to a debate in the House, which I initiated, with the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport who was responsible for these issues. With some amusement, I noticed some oral exchanges in Hansard between the hon. Gentleman and the Minister earlier this year. At column 134 of Hansard for 23 April 2002, the Minister noted that his hon. Friend had cheekily introduced the subject of Plymouth. I say "cheekily" because, during party campaigning before the 1997 election in that neck of the woods, I remember seeing prominent regional newspaper coverage of the then Labour Opposition transport spokesman pledging a Labour Government to a public service obligation for the Plymouth-London link. The Government have form in opposition; I can provide the Minister with chapter and verse as I have a voluminous file on the matter. All that we seek is the consistency to which the Government have long since pledged themselves. It will have full support from all quarters of the House.

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The current highlands campaign is broad based. It represents the whole business community and traverses the Highland council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish Council for Development and Industry and Inverness and district chamber of commerce. They have set themselves five key policy objectives in making the case for the public service obligation order for the continuing guaranteed link between Dalcross Inverness airport and London. The first is secured guaranteed regional air services, to which the hon. Gentleman devoted the bulk of his speech, and the second the need to secure the public service order. The third is to establish a minimum level of guaranteed air service from London to the regions. I underscore what the hon. Gentleman said. This is not just a selfish argument about one link; it is part of a UK-wide recognition of the importance for regional economies of regional links into and out of the metropolis.

Fourthly, there is the thorny issue of capacity in the south-east, to which the hon. Gentleman fairly alluded. Again, that is part of a much bigger consideration. Finally and importantly, there is the ability of the regional interests involved effectively to own their air slots, which would give them a greater degree of locus where decision making is involved.

I hope that the Minister can update us further vis-à-vis the European Union and the lengthy ongoing discussions—discussions are always lengthy where the EU is concerned. We have made the case so many times that I do not need to rehearse the excellent points made by the hon. Gentleman, which I completely endorse. However, I would like to stress that the Scottish Executive fully support it. Lewis Macdonald, one of the transport and planning Ministers involved, wrote to me some time ago and stated:

I hope that that support can be reciprocated by Whitehall. Equally, the previous Secretary of State for Transport wrote to me on the same issue. He said:

He went on to say—this was just over a year ago—that

We have more recent, speculative press reports about the possible downgrading of what is publicly acknowledged by the commercial interests concerned to be a profitable route. That can be damaging. Some of us remember commuting between the Highlands and London almost 20 years ago using the old Dan-Air service. In the 1980s, a huge battle had to be fought to secure Dan-Air's access to Heathrow. Then commercial matters took a turn for the worse due to European routes, and Dan-Air went bust. British Airways moved in again, having given up the franchise before Dan-Air took it on in the 1970s, and made a commercial success of it. Then came the battle to retain the Heathrow link, which was lost, and we moved to Gatwick, where we are at present, but there is now further speculation about Gatwick.

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Businesses, community and public representatives and many other interested groups from across the political spectrum are saying, "Use it or lose it", and they have put that message over successfully. However, it is undermined by continuing speculation and uncertainty. The sooner public and commercial opinion can be reassured, the better. I hope that the Minister will take this opportunity to go at least several steps in that direction.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Taylor (in the Chair): Order. The House will have heard the remarks of Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that five Back-Bench Members wish to speak during the next half-hour. I ask them to confine their remarks to that time scale, so that I can call them all. First, I call the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint).

10 am

Caroline Flint (Don Valley): Thank you, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate you on acquiring your position. I am not sure whether this is the first time that you have overseen debates in Westminster Hall, but it is certainly the first debate that I have attended when you have been in the Chair.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing this debate—I think that I was here a year ago for a similar debate. I have the utmost sympathy for and understanding of the need for communities to have access to quality air services—not only for social reasons but, as my hon. Friend ably outlined, for economic reasons. However, I come to the debate from a rather different angle.

I hope that a regional airport will be developed in my constituency at Finningley, the former Royal Air Force base. It is a huge brownfield site, although it is now in the hands of a Government Department. Today is a good opportunity to flag up why a regional air service in Yorkshire is important and, in a roundabout way, to consider whether airports outside London would be sustainable and whether they could offer the sort of long-haul flights that I believe Finningley is capable of providing. If so, it would mean that three out of four people who now have to leave Yorkshire and Humberside to fly with the service of their choice could choose to stay there. That might make a small contribution to alleviating the impact on Heathrow and the south-east. It could also allow us to consider more imaginative and creative proposals, as well as additional runway capacity, to ease the situation and allow more slots to other United Kingdom airports.

I take the opportunity today to place on record—a number of Members have heard this many times before, but it is worth flagging it up again—that in July 2000 I presented a petition to Parliament with 21,000 signatures in favour of the former RAF base at Finningley becoming a commercial regional airport and against the holding of a public inquiry. That was an historic first for a Member of Parliament. Today, we have a petition from 150,000 people from Doncaster and the immediate surrounding areas who would be affected by the development of an airport at Finningley who would support such a proposal. Against that stand 505 individual representations against the development.

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As I said before, three out of four people from Doncaster, Sheffield, south Yorkshire and Yorkshire and Humberside currently leave the region to fly with the service that they need, whether for social, economic or business reasons. The truth is that existing airports at Humberside and Leeds have not proved themselves capable of developing the air services that Yorkshire people want—so why Finningley? The former RAF base is entirely a brownfield site, and hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has already been invested in it. It has a 1.7 mile runway and, without a hole being dug, it is capable of taking practically all major aircraft used by charter and scheduled airlines. They could fly direct to the west coast of America, or to the far east, without refuelling.

Despite the weekend's gales, which affected people throughout the country, and despite its position on the eastern side of the United Kingdom, Finningley has favourable weather conditions, which is important to commercial airlines looking for sites for new services. This is also about the north-south divide, about giving communities the opportunity not only to regenerate and rebuild their economies, but to rebuild their social structure, and giving people the opportunity to go to work and have access to the variety of jobs and skills that airports can help to bring to a community.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber said that if the major employer in his constituency did not have access to major routes around the world, that would have a huge impact on that employer's decision to stay in the area. For those of us who represent deprived parts of the United Kingdom, there is also the question of attracting investment. The issue is huge. Doncaster—considered not on its own, but in the family of south Yorkshire—is a coalfields area, so people are looking for opportunities to develop a new future through infrastructure.

This is also about consumer choice and people having the opportunity to decide that they want to live in an area that has access to services. That point is as valid for my hon. Friend as it is for me in Doncaster in south Yorkshire. The issue is about flying from local airports and the environmental impact of people having to make long journeys, often by car, because local airports do not provide the services that they need. So, consumer choice is involved, as well as environmental impacts. We have to consider the consultation on airport development in its widest sense. Different parts of the jigsaw affect all four corners of the United Kingdom. In my hon. Friend's case, there is the issue of direct access to areas around the world for business and social reasons.

It is also important not to look a gift horse in the mouth. When I hear many of my colleagues say, "Yes, we need more airport capacity, but I don't want it in my backyard," I say, "Please, don't look at Finningley in that regard." Here is an opportunity. We have the brownfield site and there is local support. Local opinion is not divided: there is support from Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency, and the business community. Some £100 million of taxpayers' money has been put towards the site. All that we need to do is build a terminal building and we can fly. Let us do that.

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10.7 am

Angus Robertson (Moray): I commend the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing the debate. He is clearly passionate about improving air links and, although we may have our disagreements, I say that most warmly.

Other hon. Members are much better placed to talk about the needs of their areas, so I will concentrate my comments on the need for improved air links to the north of Scotland. Responsibility for air links is now shared between the Scottish Executive and the United Kingdom Government. The Scottish Executive make decisions about land use, planning, surface access and the management of publicly-owned airports, but sadly we are still dependent on the good will of London Ministers for licensing safety, security and environmental policy, international agreements, economic regulation and slot policy.

This is the third debate on air services in which I have taken part since my election last year. Unfortunately, there has been little positive progress on what is an important matter for the north of Scotland. The issue is crucial to the region's economy. This week, the annual regional trend survey showed that the lowest level of pay in Scotland is not in urban, central-belt Scotland, but in the constituency that I represent, Moray.

Many of my constituents who live in fishing communities are worrying about their future this week—there have been warnings of thousands of potential job losses. So, air links are not just about jetting off on holiday, they are an economic lifeline. The current underdeveloped links to the north of Scotland are an impediment to social and economic progress. When one compares Scotland's economic position with that of our better-connected neighbours in northern Europe, it is hardly surprising that our country is in an economic recession.

I commend Scotland's shadow Minister for Tourism, Transport and Telecommunications, Kenny MacAskill, and the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber, Fergus Ewing, for their innovative work on a route development fund, an idea that is supported by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. That is a concrete example of how the debate in Scotland has been led by the Scottish National party and it stands in stark contrast with the farce that we witnessed earlier this year—so far unmentioned—when Ryanair's efforts to secure regular links with the north of Scotland were all but rebuffed by the intransigence of the Scottish Executive and their publicly owned agency, Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. Despite the imperative for rapid action, the Government and the Scottish Executive spend more time reviewing than delivering. Aviation is worth £0.6 billion to the Scottish economy and 15,000 jobs, with perhaps the same amount again indirectly employed.

Future levels of traffic are set to increase. Will the Minister explain why Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd. is forecasting that 1.8 million passengers a year will use Inverness airport by 2030? The Department for Transport estimates that the figure will be only 800,000. Why does the Department estimate 1 million fewer

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passengers than HIAL? I am assuming that the Department and the Scottish Executive work as closely as they say.

Mr. Kennedy : It must be a decimal point mistake.

Angus Robertson : The leader of the Liberal Democrats says it is a decimal point mistake. Perhaps it is. The Minister will have the opportunity to comment on that later.

People in Moray and the rest of north Scotland are asking themselves what a local Labour Member, a Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive and the Labour Government all have in common, when none of them has delivered a PSO guaranteeing the Inverness to Gatwick link. We have heard the Secretary of State for Transport say in the House in February, March, April, and May that he would make an announcement on his decision on the PSO "soon". I do not know how soon "soon" is. Perhaps the Minister will be able to comment on that. Unfortunately, the new Labour Government have been ducking and diving on the issue for more than a year, constantly saying that a decision on the PSO for the Inverness to Gatwick service will be made "soon".

In July, the Secretary of State for Transport and the Scottish Executive published a consultation paper on air services, "The Future Development of Air Transport in the United Kingdom and Scotland: A National Consultation". There is no mention in the document of a PSO being considered for the Inverness to Gatwick link. Despite letters from Scottish Executive Ministers saying that it is an important issue, and despite the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber confirming that it is an important priority, there seems to be no progress whatever. The SNP has repeatedly demanded that the Government should announce a PSO for the Inverness to Gatwick service, and the Minister has an opportunity to do so today.

Inverness has already lost the link to London Heathrow and it is inexcusable that the Government should let north Scotland down by not delivering a PSO for the service that we have left. At present, Inverness has among the highest landing charges in the whole of Europe, which undermines the entire economy of north Scotland, particularly tourism. Scotland's economy, tourism industry and its people have long been seriously disadvantaged compared to nations such as Ireland, which has far better, cheaper and more direct air services. Scotland must become a premier league nation for aviation services, not continue to endure second-rate options.

10.13 am

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing this important debate and for laying out in such a clear and cogent way the arguments and challenges that lie before us on behalf of all of us from constituencies with peripheral airports.

As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, Plymouth faces similar challenges. We should really refer to Plymouth and Newquay because our two airports go hand in hand, and rely on each other. Newquay is central to Cornwall's objective 1 status. My remarks on

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the importance of Plymouth airport to our economy and Plymouth are even more the case as far as the future regeneration of the Cornish economy is concerned.

Plymouth airport has a wider catchment area of 1.2 million people, and a working population of 558,000. A recent survey of 40 companies in Plymouth, which was part of a wider study of Devon and Cornwall, found that 32 companies, employing 20,000 people, had overseas parentage. Another 33 companies, which export to 49 countries, employ 7,000 people, so that is 27,000 in the catchment area of Plymouth airport. There is about five times that number if we take into account Devon and Cornwall, so people will understand that Plymouth is greatly appreciated as a city airport. It takes 113,000 passengers from Plymouth each year, and there has been a growth of 3.2 per cent. per annum., which I understand is about half the national growth between 1991 and 2000.

Two issues concern the business community, however. There is uncertainty about the slots, to which other hon. Members referred, and the loss of the Heathrow slots, which my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber outlined was part of a national trend in loss of links to Heathrow. Apart from the general convenience and the fact that they keep Plymouth on the map, those air routes are vital to maintaining and developing inward investment.

American and Japanese businesses in particular, such as Toshiba, Kawasaki, Wrigley's and Gleason Corporation, are now joined by a number of new and small but growing science businesses built around Derriford hospital and the science park. It is becoming a medi-science park. New developments are also being built on our area's rich legacy of marine science and technology. All those businesses are the sort that need quick and easy access to worldwide destinations.

Typical comments in the recent survey of businesses carried out for Sutton Harbour Holdings plc, which operates the airport, include:


That was from one of the bigger companies. Another comment was that

In other words, some certainty that businesses can have access to international destinations that are important to them is vital.

Let us consider the people who do not fly because of the loss of the Heathrow service from Plymouth, but who travel by road and rail. The Civil Aviation Authority 2000 estimates show that about three times the number who currently fly from Plymouth airport—more than 300,000—travelled to Heathrow by road and rail. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said, that travel has environmental implications.

Let us also consider the sort of destinations that people were looking for by travelling to Heathrow: 17,000 flew to Brussels, 32,000 to Frankfurt, 17,000 to Dubai, 10,000 to John F. Kennedy airport New York

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and 9,000 to Bahrain. Other destinations that are not available from Gatwick, but that are important to the local business community in Plymouth include Boston, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) received well over 120 submissions, including some from Plymouth, for the 1998 report on regional air services by the Select Committee that she chairs. That report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber mentioned, advocated feeder reliever airports, such as Northolt for Heathrow and Redhill for Gatwick, as fast-track solutions while greater capacity was developed. There is certainly great interest from our end of the country—as was mentioned by those at the northern end—in developing that proposal as it could address the problem in the medium term.

Alongside the desire for better access to destinations of importance to them, businesses are desperate for some security of knowing that the present services can continue. In fact, I am talking not just about businesses, but about those who have responsibility for the economic infrastructure. A 1997 Plymouth city council study, carried out by KPMG, suggested that 3,000 jobs depended directly or indirectly on the availability of our city airport. I am aware that other lower values have been put on that—the thin routes study attached a lower figure—but as paragraphs 5, 6 and 6.4.4 of the current consultation report, "The Future Development of Air Transport in the United Kingdom: South West" notes:

I greatly appreciate the courtesy that my hon. Friend the Minister extended in receiving representations from local MPs led by Glyn Ford, MEP, Sutton Harbour Holdings and the chairman of our regional development agency in July this year. I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm his commitment to helping us all find a way through the complexities of what can be done in a way that puts our city, our community and the other regions on a more secure footing, whether through slot protection or overcoming the barriers through configuration of access to airports, including certain airports in London that, as I said, connect us to those parts of the world that matter. I look forward to his observations, which, we can be sure, will be made with the benefit of his experience as a constituency MP with a long track record of understanding and championing the interests of the important subject of this debate.

10.21 am

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) for instigating the debate. Undoubtedly, airports are an important topic for many Members. This is also a crucial time in the development of airport policy.

As hon. Members know, Biggin Hill in my constituency is famous as the front-line fighter station in the battle of Britain. With regard to today's news, it is

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mentioned in the south-east and east of England regional air services study as a bottom-tier airport. The top-tier airports in the London area are Heathrow and Gatwick, and the second-tier airports are the City of London, Southampton and Norwich. The bottom-tier airports are Biggin Hill, Cambridge, Farnborough, Lydd, Manston, Shoreham and Southend, about which the SERAS reports says:

Of course, the last part of that statement is likely.

On Biggin Hill, the document says that

and provide, "very serious constraints." They do indeed. I would add that the airborne approach to Biggin Hill is over densely populated residential suburbs in which more than 200,000 people live. Their quality of life would obviously be adversely affected. Access by air is overly complicated by proximity to flight paths in and out of Heathrow. The beacon over which the incoming and outgoing Heathrow and Gatwick planes circle and are often stacked, is above Biggin Hill. There are therefore three levels of aeroplanes—those from Heathrow, Gatwick, and Biggin Hill on the bottom level—over my constituency. Access by road is extremely poor, and there are no close rail links. Bromley's new general hospital has been built under the flight path only two miles away from the airport runway, and the major part of the airport lies in the London area green belt. For all those reasons, as the Minister may imagine, most of my constituents are strongly opposed to any significant development of Biggin Hill airport.

I would like the Minister to reply to my final point. There is, as he will be aware, a lease between Bromley council and the Biggin Hill airport company. This stipulates the numbers and types of aircraft that can use the airport to comply with specific noise levels. That lease is not mentioned in the SERAS document, whereas other leases, such as those relating to Farnborough airport, are. The Farnborough report says that because of the lease there will be no further development at Farnborough airport. The lease restricts business at Biggin Hill airport to training, business aviation and private flying and the company does this very successfully. Could the Minister make a formal reference to the lease in the White Paper and correct the passenger forecasts accordingly?

10.25 am

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland): May I join the line of right hon. and hon. Members congratulating the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing the debate? I also endorse his comments about the need for a public service obligation on the Inverness-Gatwick route and commend him for a long and hard-fought parliamentary campaign. I am pleased to see that it continues in as much that I recall that in July he was told by the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland that we

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should not worry too much because she has spoken to British Airways and it said that it had no intention of going off the route. I found her faith in British Airways particularly touching but it is a faith that I suspect my constituents might find it difficult to share, given their recent experience. If we are to continue to have a Scotland Office, which exists to promote Scotland's interests in the UK Government, there is an awful lot more that it could do.

I add my words of welcome to the Minister's joint consultation with the Scottish Executive on "The Future Development of Air Transport in the United Kingdom: Scotland". It is a worthy tome. The hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber said that at present the regulation of the air services market is left at the mercy of market forces. That is true. It seems to me, listening to the contributions from various parts of the country today, that it produces a most unsatisfactory situation. On the one hand, people in south-east England quite justifiably express concern at the impact on their environment of more airports, more runways and more traffic, while at the other end of the country in my constituency, we are desperate for more runways and a better infrastructure. In this age of joined-up government, there should be scope for a light-touch regulation of air traffic and for using it as a tool for economic development and regeneration in some of the most vulnerable and peripheral communities.

Like other hon. Members, I have been to other PSO debates. The most recent was on 8 May. The Minister may recall that on that occasion he said:

That is a statement of the obvious. He continued:

If the market can only provide a return fare to Shetland in excess of £250, in my definition that is a market that has failed. When he responds to the ongoing consultation, will he give some serious consideration to the definition of some of the terms, in particular what is considered to be a commercially viable route? Will that simply be left to the accounting practices of British Airways or will there be coherent Government guidance on the point?

Subsidy has already been mentioned. The routes are already subsidised through the public purse in many indirect ways. My fare to Westminster, which is about £580 return from Orkney or Shetland, is paid every week and every time I board a plane to or from Orkney someone from the council is there. There are many ways in which subsidies are given at present. What is needed is an open and transparent system, the first part of which would be a public service obligation order.

10.30 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): I congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing the debate, which is one of a number that he has secured on the subject. The debate's importance is underlined by

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the presence of many hon. Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). It is a topical debate, as the 30 November deadline for responses to the consultation is approaching. The subject has often been debated in this place. In the past three years, the Select Committee has produced a couple of reports on the matter and the Government have responded.

Massive expansion is planned in the provision of airports and runways and reasonable air services should not be neglected in the Government's dash for airport expansion. It would be sad if the Government insisted on pushing ahead with predict and provide, making as many airports and runways available as possible, but with only international travellers being allowed to take advantage of increased slots at key airports, while those living near those airports and runways and below the flight paths, suffer the environmental consequences and those living in the peripheral regions derive no economic benefits.

In an ideal world, a network of fast rail links would do away with the need for many regional air services. Indeed, the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee said in its eighth report:

Unfortunately, we do not inhabit such an ideal world, and even if we did, regional air services would still be a necessity for the remotest part of the United Kingdom.

The Select Committee report of 27 July 1998 made several important points. For example:

I hope that the Minister will be able to explain what mechanism will be used to ensure that whatever decisions are taken in response to the consultation that is being conducted, the outcome will maximise the contribution regional hubs make to meeting the demand for those services. If a wider range of European and intercontinental services were available from the regional hubs, it would reduce the demand for regional air services flying into Heathrow.

The report also called on the Government to advocate changes to the European slot regulation, a matter to which the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber referred, and to give priority to airlines bidding to operate domestic regional services rather than to new entrants in the allocation of new slots at congested airports. The Government's response stated:

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what progress has been made on that matter.

Another interesting point in the Government press release that was issued at the time of the Government's response to the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee's report on regional air services was a programme of surface access studies by DETR, as it then was, and Opraf—Office of Passenger Rail Franchising—considering the potential for developing long-distance rail links to London and the south-east

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and improving connections between the London airports. This may be an opportunity for the Minister to update us on the progress of those studies.

The most recent Select Committee report on the air transport industry was published on 4 July. I do not believe that we have yet had the Government's response to it. The Government, in their evidence, said that the current availability of slots was sufficient to preclude the need to intervene to ensure the protection of regional air services. As other hon. Members have pointed out, British Airways withdrew the important Heathrow to Belfast route immediately after that. Will the Minister comment on whether any other services have been withdrawn? Will he also comment on the public service obligations, the number of services withdrawn, and whether he expects that number to increase or decrease within the next five years?

The future of regional and other air services depends on safety and the reliability of National Air Traffic Services. Hon. Members will be aware of the concerns expressed about those systems and, in particular, about the character sizes of the displays on the screens that are used. I take this opportunity to ask the Health and Safety Executive to review its assessments of the screens' fitness for purpose, because its report was based on information supplied by NATS that was incorrect with regard to the screen character sizes. I hope that NATS will set out its timetable for addressing the HSE's concerns. NATS must guarantee that all the HSE's requests for action are fulfilled.

It would be ironic if the future of regional air services were put at risk at the same time as the Government are producing their plans for airport expansion for the next 30 years. I hope that the Minister will use the debate to set out how, in the absence of a fast rail alternative, he will ensure the survival of regional air services.

10.37 am

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): May I say, Mr. Taylor, that it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I hope that it will be one of many such occasions. I join in congratulating the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on securing this very timely debate.

I remind right hon. and hon. Members of my interest in the airline industry. My husband works for Delta Airlines. I personally have an interest in the form of personal equity plans with British Airways and the British Airports Authority. For 10 years, I was the Member of the European Parliament for North-East Essex and South Suffolk, and at one stage I had both Stansted and Southend airports in my constituency.

When the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, left the Chamber, I thought that he might have received a timely telephone call from the BBC to rejoin the programme "Have I Got News For You?", which is his, and my, favourite programme. I gather that its presenter is undergoing personal difficulties. I am delighted, therefore, to see the right hon. Gentleman resume his seat here with us.

The number of direct flights from regional airports to London, and particularly to Heathrow, has been reduced. The Select Committee investigated that. The airlines are redeploying their resources to more lucrative international routes.

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It would help if we could agree, at the outset, a definition of a regional airport. There is no statutory or legislative definition. The original definition was in the 1978 White Paper on airports policy, in which category B airports were described as

Outside the south-east of England, Manchester was designated as a category A international gateway airport. Newcastle and Leeds-Bradford, however—the latter subject to the extension of its runway—were classified as category B regional airports. Local airports were described as including Teesside, but I do not know whether that particular definition has been revised. In a White Paper of June 1985, the Conservative Government used the term more loosely than in the original, suggesting that regional airports were merely those not in or near London.

In its inquiry into regional air services of 1997, the Transport Sub-Committee of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee described regional airports as including UK airports other than the five London airports, including airports on Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. In the past 10 or 15 years, or even longer, considerable looseness has clearly applied to descriptions of regional airports.

Perhaps the most vexed question that the Minister must address—several right hon. and hon. Members have already commented on it this morning—is the allocation of slots. Will they be treated like milk quotas and recognised as an economic commodity? In fact, only a scheduling committee allocates them and no price attaches to the allocation in the first instance. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are still pressing for slot auctions? On the Government's first attempt, I understand that slot auctions had little support among other member states. If they are to succeed and become the way forward, what support is there among other member states now?

When the deadline was initially set on a system for allocating slots in December 1992, I welcomed the allocation of priority to new entrants. It is regrettable that the deadline for review of January 1996 has slipped. Can the Minister predict—perhaps we could have a sweepstake—when that review will take place?

I support the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber in asking what criteria must be met before the Government will intervene to create a public service obligation. What specific resources will the Government allocate to the creation of a PSO and from which part of the budget would such an allocation be taken? I am unclear about that and it would help all of us if we knew.

The hon. Gentleman selected regional air services—from regional airports to Heathrow and Gatwick and other lesser London airports—as a priority. My alternative view is to boost services from regional airports to the UK and other European cities. The Library helped me by preparing a selection of such routes. I understand that the hon. Gentleman and Members with neighbouring constituencies have only ever enjoyed one international route from Inverness—to

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Amsterdam—and only for a short time. Otherwise, its routes have been only to London airports. I come from Scotland, so I understand the importance of opening up the economy through London routes.

Let us consider Glasgow airport as another example. What is available is impressive, but there are few scheduled international routes. Otherwise, it has a healthy smattering of charter routes. In that regard, Manchester has led the way. In the 1980s, it was regarded mainly as a charter airport. Twenty years later, it is now regarded as a leading international airport. The hon. Gentleman could be mistaken in persisting entirely with all routes accessed to London, though I understand the prize placed on a London route for that particular corner of Scotland.

As the Member representing Vale of York and North Yorkshire, I would prefer direct routes from Leeds-Bradford, Manchester, Teesside or Newcastle—here and on other issues I part company with the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—to bypass London whenever possible. Alternatively, I would welcome international routes to other regional airports. Manchester, which would be closer for me than Finningley, now has two flights a day to US airports. I leave the Government with that thought.

As the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber so eloquently argued this morning, Heathrow and Gatwick have unrivalled international access. However, with investment—most of it private rather than public—and improved public transport links to airports such as Manchester, direct routes from Scottish and northern English airports to European and transatlantic airports would emerge.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether, if limited funds are available, it would not be better to use them to develop new routes from existing airports than to create an entirely new airport.

10.46 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Taylor. I echo a number of hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on having secured the debate. He set out the arguments with his usual clarity, charm and forcefulness. Tomorrow, it will be a year since we had a similar debate. He and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) clearly outlined the importance to their local economies of securing the future of flights in and out of those areas. I note that Plymouth was mentioned a number of times. I do not know why it is important to so many hon. Members, especially those from north of the border, but perhaps that will be revealed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber made some important points. I shall deal with those after I outline our general thinking on regional air services. We are making progress, partly thanks to the light shed on the issue by the many debates that we have had about it in the House. I read with interest the notes from a regional air services seminar held by my hon. Friend, which some of my officials attended.

Since the last discussion on the matter, the Government have issued the consultation documents on the future development of air transport in the United

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Kingdom, in which hon. Members will have seen the high profile given to regional services—they are a key issue—and a number of policy options suggested for their protection. My officials are now exploring those and I should like to set them out as a basis for debate.

The first is to discuss with airlines ways in which they can involve the Government at an early stage when they are considering withdrawing from a regional route. That has been of particular concern to my hon. Friend in his area. That could mean developing an informal agreement with airlines whereby they have to give certain notice if they are considering discontinuing a regional service. Such a notice period would allow the Government and regional bodies to consider options and possibly to apply for the imposition of a public service obligation on a specific route.

I think that I gleaned from the words of the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) that the Conservative party is in favour of the public service obligation. She is now shaking her head. Certainly the Conservatives did not favour it when they were in government. In fact, when I lobbied Ministers, it was specifically ruled out. The hon. Lady may want to give some clarification.

Miss McIntosh : I recall putting a number of questions in response to points raised by right hon. Members and hon. Members this morning. I asked whether the Government would make good the pledge that they made when they were in opposition. Will they push for a PSO, and what resources will they make available?

Mr. Jamieson : That was not an answer to the question whether the Conservative party is now in favour of PSOs. I am sure that those in the regions affected will have noted the hon. Lady's comments.

Secondly, we are examining ways in which regional bodies or stakeholders could provide additional financing for an airline if it should consider pulling out of a route. The hon. Lady raised that important matter, too. Thirdly, we are examining whether the United Kingdom could propose amendments to the relevant European regulations that would provide member states with a more appropriate means of protecting regional air services. United Kingdom officials have already proposed alternative wording to the Commission's proposal to amend the slot allocation regulation 95/93 so as to preserve the option to ring-fence slots and loosen the existing criteria.

My hon. Friend rightly said that Heathrow is full to overflowing and that Gatwick is under enormous pressure. At one stage he said something like, "We need new runways at Heathrow and Gatwick today." In a debate last week, a rather different view was expressed by hon. Members representing constituencies around Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. That difference in views highlights one of the difficulties. If we are to allow the expansion of air travel for leisure and business purposes, we must tackle the important question of where those flights should depart from.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, made some interesting points. He seemed to suggest that rail services should take over some routes. Perhaps it is his party's policy to accept that there is an extra demand

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for flying and that it should be met—we might ask his leader about that. If the answer is that the demand should be met, we must deal with how it should be met.

I fully understand the anxiety of those who live in the south-east, especially around Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. People living in all regions of the country should consider the development document for the south-east because it is key to what is happening in the country, but they should also consider the documents and consultation for their own area. They should consider what facilities there are in their areas to create sub-hubs that could provide services. Scotland is a good example of the difficulties of that situation. There is the question whether both the Glasgow and Edinburgh airports can survive as sub-hubs, but it is up to Scotland to decide what will serve the Scottish economy best.

There has been much discussion about PSOs. We differ from the Conservative party in that, when it was in government, it entirely ruled out PSOs, whereas we have said that we shall use them when the circumstances are appropriate. However, additional information can be helpful, and my view on the matter has changed somewhat. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) alluded to views that we held previously. I still hold the views that I held before, but one must consider what might happen in the event of a PSO.

A PSO would not be route specific or designed for a particular airport. It would be specific to London, which means that it could apply to any London airport—possibly, including Luton. That may not be an option wanted in Inverness, or in Plymouth or Newquay. The PSO is intended to create exemption from state-aid regulations and it is not designed for profitable routes; it is designed for loss-making routes on which operators have threatened to pull out.

I am not aware of any threat at present to the routes that have been mentioned today. One limitation is that if a PSO were imposed, we would need to find an airline to fly the route and it would need to obtain slots at the appropriate airport, so that the route could be flown. That presents considerable difficulties. Merely imposing a PSO does not secure particular slots into particular airports at particular times. It is not especially helpful to an area if an airline is given a slot at 4 am instead of 8 am. That does not guarantee the survival of the service, although it may guarantee a commitment, which does not currently exist, to securing the service through the use of public funds.

Mr. Kennedy : The Minister mentions some cautionary notes about the implications of imposing a PSO but, at the same time, he prefaces his remarks by saying that he still holds to the views on a PSO that he held in opposition. There seems to be a contradiction there—or is he obeying orders?

Mr. Jamieson : Not at all. I am saying that where a route is threatened because an airline is about to pull out, where there is no alternative public transport into an area and where it is vital for inward investment and economic development, we would consider imposing a PSO. We carefully considered the Scottish Executive's request regarding Inverness and we are still discussing the matter with them. The fact that it has taken so long

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shows the merit of our discussions. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) would have been right to criticise us if we had made the decision rapidly without proper consideration, but we are still in correspondence with the Scottish Executive on the matter.

Angus Robertson : The Minister will appreciate that many people in the north of Scotland have waited a long time to hear the Government's decision on a PSO application. Instead of saying "soon", will the Minister tell us when we can expect an announcement on a PSO for the Inverness-Gatwick route?

Mr. Jamieson : I can only repeat what I have said before. I hope that there will be a decision in good time, but discussions are still taking place. I have set out the limitations to the PSO and the hon. Gentleman may want to consider whether that obligation would provide what he wants for the Inverness-Gatwick service. My discussions with people in the south-west have caused them to reflect further on their requests regarding a PSO, once they have realised that it will not provide all that they want. It is easy for the hon. Member for Moray, who is in opposition and has no prospect of being in government, to make bald statements about what should happen, but I have to consider the issue in a hard, realistic way and ask whether a PSO would genuinely benefit the people in a certain area. Unlike the hon. Gentleman's decisions, any decisions that we make will have an effect on an area.

Miss McIntosh : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Jamieson : No. I want to cover some more points.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) mentioned Finningley. The consultation documents on the north of England and other regions set out options and requested responses and possible solutions. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the petition, which, I hope, will form a valuable part of the consultation.

The hon. Member for Moray mentioned the difference between the highlands and islands prediction and our prediction. I think that the two were formed from different bases, using different information. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to write to him on that, I shall be happy to do so as an explanation is needed.

I do not want to go into detail on Biggin Hill, so I would like to jot a line to the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) about it.

I thought that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington was proposing that we build a railway line from Skye to London. Frankly, he did not say anything to illuminate our debate on regional air services or any other subject.

I shall certainly write to hon. Members about the many questions that I have not covered.

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