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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): The Government recognise the importance of regional air services and have undertaken a programme of studies on them. The Government will shortly undertake a consultation exercise on the findings of those studies through a series of regional consultation documents. Those documents will examine how regional air services could develop under a range of scenarios.
Mr. Stewart: The Minister will be aware of the worrying trend in the United Kingdom of regional air services being cut in favour of more lucrative international destinations. In my constituency, for example, we lost our link with Heathrow in 1997. Does my hon. Friend share my view that we have to beef up our protection for vulnerable geographic routes, such as those to and from Inverness and Plymouth? Does he agree
Mr. Jamieson: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) on so assiduously following up this important issue on behalf of his constituents through questions, correspondence, meetings with constituents and Adjournment debates. He has left us in no doubt about the importance for Inverness of the London air links. I noticed that he cheekily introduced the issue of Plymouth in relation to Inverness; I am not quite sure why.
The Government have shown that where there is a demonstrable need for regional air services, we will take the necessary action to provide themas we have in the highlands and islands, where there are public service obligations on certain flights. However, I remind my hon. Friend that public service obligations and the ring-fencing of slots are governed by strict European legislation, and we have to test each application to determine whether it meets those criteria.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Will the Minister acknowledge that any further expansion of Heathrow that involves the construction of a third runway would be completely unacceptable to the vast majority of local residents, and will he take this opportunity to rule it out?
Mr. Jamieson: It is too early to speculate on that matter, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to wait until the regional air services consultation documents are published. I assure him that many hon. Members, not only those in the south-east and east regions, will be interested in the outcome of studies in their areas.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The Minister will be aware that in France, major airports in the Paris area have vast numbers of slots that are protected for public service obligations, allowing regional air services to connect people with goods and services. Given that it is possible to protect regional air services, will the Minister give an undertaking that the Government will put that at the top of their agenda in order to defend the interests of the regions?
I can also tell my hon. Friend that my Department is considering the European legislation to see how it can be strengthened and to see if other policy options could be used to provide protection for regional air services. It has not generally been Government policy to protect and ring-fence the slots, because where they are protectedfor example, in the highlands and islandsfunding issues must be addressed as well.
Angus Robertson (Moray): The Minister will be aware that a campaign for a public service obligation order for the Inverness to Gatwick route has been running for years, not months. He will also be aware that there have been debates in the House and Ministers have repeatedly been questioned about when the Government will announce a decision, yes or no, on a PSO for the Gatwick to Inverness route. The longer they take, the more it will be perceived as a rebuff to the Scottish Executive, who are in favour. The delay is inexplicable to the people of the highlands and islands, given the contrast with the situation in France, where there are at least 34 such PSOs, even on routes where there are competing airlines. When will the Government announce their decision?
Mr. Jamieson: I note the hon. Gentleman's interest in public service obligation orders and look forward to seeing ideas from his party about how they might be funded in certain circumstances, because that issue must be addressed at the same time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber has made clear to me the importance of the Inverness service. An application for a public service order was received from the Scottish Executive last year. We are in correspondence with them about the matter, and an announcement will be made shortly.
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): Last December we announced an allocation of more than £1.5 billion for local authority transport schemes. By 2005, we will have invested over £8 billion in a five-year package of local transport improvements. That funding represents a long-overdue increase in levels of investment.
Spending on integrated transport has gone up from £1.7 million to £4.52 million and on public transport improvements from £212,000 to £1,005,000. The facts speak for themselves. Now here comes the question. The people of Rugby and Kenilworth have said for a long time that they want to use public transport, but, through the efforts of the Conservative party, it was not there to use. There is now more public transport, and we need to continue the investment. Does my right hon. Friend share my pleasure in the refurbishment, undertaken under the Government, of Rugby station, which will officially be reopened on 27 May?
Mr. Byers: I am sure that we all look forward to celebrating the opening of Rugby station on 27 May. My hon. Friend made an important point, and Conservative Members' reaction was all too typical. They do not want the facts to get in the way of their prejudices. The Conservative party starved local authorities of funding for their transport projects. Consequently, many parts of the country have a local transport system that desperately needs significant investment. We are putting in that money now: £1.5 billion before Christmas and more than £8 billion by 2005. That investment will make a genuine difference in Rugby and Kenilworth and throughout the country.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): The Secretary of State is considering the allocation of resources for local transport systems. He knows that in London, investment in the tube has decreased in the past four years and that long-term investment strategy has still not been determined. Delays have doubled in that period, and London Underground has missed its seven targets.
An article in the Evening Standard today describes London commuting as the worst in Europe. How can any voter in the next four years trust the Government to provide a decent transport system in London or anywhere else in the country?
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman makes the case for the modernisation plans for the London underground, which has been starved of investment for too long. He must acknowledge that under 20 years of Conservative rule as much as under any other Government, money was not invested in the London underground system. We are consulting about a proposal to provide investmentsome £16 billion a year over 15 yearsin it. That will remedy many of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I hope that he will support our proposals for investment and modernisation.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): What influence will regional government have over local and regional transport plans? What will be the division of powers between local and regional government and national Government? Will the forthcoming White Paper spell that out? When can we expect it to be published?
Mr. Byers: As always, my hon. Friend presents a strong argument for involving the regions, in this case in transport. He will have to await the White Paper, which will be published shortly after the local elections on 2 May. When he reads its proposals, he will realise that, for the first time, we have a Government with an active regional policy that provides choice. People can vote for an elected regional assembly if they wish, but, most important, the White Paper will value the regions of England. I am delighted that so many hon. Members are wearing red roses on St. George's day. Perhaps they have been out campaigning for Labour in the local elections. On St. George's day, it is right to celebrate the regions of England, and the White Paper will do that.
Mr. Byers: The hon. Gentleman is right to stress the importance and the valuable role of community transport in his constituency and in many others. The figures will show that we have doubled the funds being made available to that initiative. The hon. Gentleman makes the strong pointboth in relation to certainty and to the achievement of value for moneythat if we can plan not only on an annual basis but perhaps over a three-year spending programme, it will allow people to plan ahead with confidence, which they perhaps cannot always do at the moment. We will certainly want to look carefully at how we can extend the benefits of the Government's three-year spending programme to those agencies, local authorities and bodies involved in community transport which want the certainty that we can now provide as a result of that three-year spending programme.