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Regional Airports

4. Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull): If he will make a statement on the future of regional airports. [85782]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): We shall encourage the growth of regional airports to maximise the contribution that they make to local and regional economies, always consistent with sustainable development principles.

Mr. Taylor: Would the Minister welcome and encourage the involvement of Birmingham airport, the National Exhibition Centre, Virgin and Railtrack in the development of an efficient transit system between the airport, the railway station and the exhibition centre, with the private sector in the lead? Will she pay a visit to Birmingham airport to find out what transport needs it has?

Ms Jackson: I should be delighted to make another visit to Birmingham. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, we strongly support the development of a public transport interchange, including a new people mover system. We have forwarded an application to the European Commission for trans-European network funding for phase 1 of the interchange scheme, and we expect to receive a reply in the next few months.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Will my hon. Friend hold urgent talks with the companies that are increasingly using the slots of south-east airports which enable the regional airports to use their services? They are losing their slots because they are being handed over to transatlantic flights. Will she look hard at what is happening to regional airports, because if they lose their access to the south-east, they will be badly damaged, and passengers will be very upset?

Ms Jackson: As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have been concentrating on that issue for some considerable time. We have been at the forefront in urging the European Commission, when it eventually submits its proposals for slot allocation, to make its main consideration our arguments about protecting the regions.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I hope that the Minister will not mind if I mention Manchester international airport, which is also a regional airport. Does she accept that it is essential not only to have integrated public transport to ensure that the second runway at Manchester is fully used--as I believe it will be--but that the road network feeding Manchester airport, particularly from the east, north-east and south-east, is completed if the area around the airport is not to be submerged under an unacceptable volume of commercial and domestic traffic?

Ms Jackson: I am of course delighted to highlight the success of Manchester airport, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to congratulate the Government on their policy for our regional airports. We have ensured the relaxation of borrowing limits for those airports that have demonstrated that they are eminently capable of balancing their books, and of course Manchester is one of those airports. We have consistently made it clear that surface

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access to all airports is central to their being able to operate within our requirements for sustainable development.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): It is nice to hear my hon. Friend's warm words about Manchester airport because it has just purchased an 82 per cent. share in Humberside airport. Will she congratulate Manchester airport, particularly on its announcement of a £6 million investment in Humberside? Also, will she guarantee that regional airports will have the necessary commercial freedom to develop their capacity?

Ms Jackson: I have already sent my congratulations to Manchester airport, and I am delighted to send them also to Humberside. I am sure that my hon. Friend shares my delight in the practical application of the Government's foresight in making possible a relaxation of borrowing controls for our airports. It is another indication of the Government's long-term aim of ensuring that regional airports work together in the interests not only of their own regions, but of the entire United Kingdom.

Mr. Alasdair Morgan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale): What progress has been made in investigating whether a public service obligation can be imposed for the provision of regional air services, particularly those between London Heathrow and Inverness?

Ms Jackson: It is my understanding that there were fruitful discussions with representatives from Inverness. The hon. Gentleman raises an issue on which I have already touched--the importance that we attach to access from the regions to important airports in the south-east, which is why we have consistently argued to the Commission that when it eventually presents its revised proposals for slot allocation, regional factors should be at the forefront of its consideration.

Radioactive Waste Disposal

5. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What plans he has for research on the disposal of radioactive waste. [85783]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): The Department's plans for environmental research are contained in the environmental protection group research newsletter 1999-2000, a copy of which is available in the Library. These include two projects specifically on the disposal of radioactive waste--an assessment of the long-term safety concerns that determine confidence in waste management options, and the continuation of the high-level waste and spent fuel disposal research strategy project.

Dr. Gibson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree with the recent national consensus conference on radioactive waste management that was held in London, which reached the conclusion that there should be no further development of the nuclear industry until we learn how to deal adequately with the waste problem?

Mr. Meacher: We certainly agree that the disposal of radioactive waste--an issue that has defeated previous Governments on a number of well-known occasions--is

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a matter that needs to be resolved. For that reason, we will publish our response soon to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. We agree that there should be wide-ranging consultations before final conclusions are reached as to whether radioactive waste should be stored above ground or in deep underground repositories. Until that matter is resolved, there will continue to be serious problems for the industry.

Beacon Council Scheme

6. Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): If he will make a statement on progress in the implementation of the beacon council scheme. [85784]

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Ms Hilary Armstrong): We invited councils to apply for beacon status with the publication last month of the beacon council scheme application brochure. The deadline for applications is 31 July, and we anticipate announcing the first beacon councils in November.

Mr. Salter: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Is she aware of the enthusiasm of many forward-looking councils for the beacon council scheme?

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Not Reading!

Mr. Salter: Well done! Indeed, Reading council is applying for beacon council status in two service areas. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that it is high time that forward-looking councils such as Reading, which are virtually Tory-free zones, had an opportunity to share their best practice with the rest of local government, and their electoral tactics with other parts of the Labour party?

Ms Armstrong: I am delighted to hear of the enthusiasm in Reading. In response to the consultation document, only two councils--Liberal Ribble Valley and Conservative Wandsworth--opposed the beacon council scheme. The remaining 144 respondents fully supported it. Today I am arranging for the full responses to be placed in the House of Commons Library.

Tory Wandsworth described the scheme as

By contrast, the Confederation of British Industry described it as

    "a mechanism by which councils can improve the services they provide and learn new ideas on how to tackle problems their communities face."

We know that Conservatives are not interested in tackling problems in new and innovative ways, but I welcome any council that wants to do so. As my hon. Friend said, the scheme is primarily intended to spread good practice. I hope that all local councils will look at how they can learn from others and improve their service to their citizens.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): Does the Minister agree that, given Labour's appalling record in local government of waste, mismanagement, incompetence and downright corruption, the Government are in no position to lecture any local authority on standards of quality in local government? Does not she have to agree that the

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reason the electorate up and down the country so decisively rejected Labour in the local elections recently, as they did in the European elections this week, is absolutely clear? Labour is going down to rejection by the electorate at the next general election.

Ms Armstrong: I think that the hon. Gentleman has some way to go and a bit to learn yet. I see that he is up for sale; perhaps he can get a price that will mean that the Conservative party has a future. In the meantime, local government recognises its responsibility and, although the hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, Labour local government is considered by independent bodies such as the Audit Commission to be improving year on year. That is our target and that is what we will achieve. We will make sure that local councils are able to face the real challenges of the 21st century, and it is a pity that he is not with us on that.

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