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That on Thursday 25th May there shall be no sitting in Westminster Hall.--[Mrs. McGuire.]
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House in the Adjournment debate, as it allows me to raise an important issue--the crucial role that Cardiff international airport in my constituency plays in the development of the Welsh economy. I am delighted to see that so many hon. Members have found time to stay behind and listen to the debate at such a late hour.
I welcome the opportunity because of the timing. It is my belief, and the view of the overwhelming majority of the business community throughout Wales--not just in my constituency and not just in south Wales--that the future development of our only international airport is vital to the future economic success of our country.
However, a number of decisions taken recently cause me concern. One is the decision to shelve the construction of phase 1 of the airport link road, which was taken by the National Assembly for Wales a couple of months ago, on good grounds. I understand the reasons why the decision was made. The road was considered to be extremely expensive but, sadly, there are no obvious alternatives to the provision of that road.
I also believe that the timing of the debate is important and helpful because of the European Commission's recent rejection of the Government's concerted efforts to get Wales's only international airport on the assisted areas map for Wales. They were unfortunately rejected because of the European Commission's guidelines and rules.
I fear that the enthusiasm for the growth and development of Wales's only international airport, its key role in the Welsh economy and, more important, ensuring the right infrastructure to serve it and thus facilitate growth, is waning. I hope that I am wrong. The most important reason for the debate is to get that airport, and road access to it, firmly back on the political agenda, especially in the light of recent decisions.
My main reason for choosing Cardiff international airport as the subject of the debate is not the benefits that a positive decision would bring to my constituency, although it would benefit considerably; my prime motive is the benefits that the airport could bring to the whole of Wales. Together with objective 1 funding, such a decision would help us to bring Wales back on a par with the United Kingdom for wealth creation per head of population. In 20 years of Tory Government, gross domestic product per head sadly declined to 83.1 per cent. of the United Kingdom average. The gap continues to widen. All our energies must now focus on closing it.
The airport is important because I am not convinced that we can achieve our objective even with objective 1 funding, which is vital for the valleys and mid and west Wales, unless we get our act together on the airport. There are several reasons for that. No region in the European Union has succeeded in regenerating its economy--even with European structural funds--without a first-class, viable international airport, which provides regular, scheduled business flights. Stuttgart airport in Baden- Wurttemberg is a major facilitator for business in that
Let us look a little closer to home and consider the fastest-growing economy in Europe, which is that of the Irish Republic. It has a population of between 3.7 million and 4 million; it has three major international airports, which cater for 16 million passengers a year. In Wales, our population is roughly three quarters that of the Irish Republic--between 2.7 million and 2.9 million--yet our international airport handles only 1.3 million passengers a year. We will not be taken seriously as a region if we do not develop a first-class regional airport which provides international flights, especially for our business community.
My view, which, I believe, is shared by business throughout Wales--if not by decision makers of all political persuasions--is that air travel is the most important mode of business transport. It is at the cutting edge of business communications. If sophisticated air travel is not available to the business community, the right investment decisions will not be made in the interests of Wales.
Key decisions, especially on overseeing major projects or the expansion of existing investment, may not be taken simply because those at the top of business organisations cannot fly to the region to observe projects and the investment location. A lot of people outside the business community do not understand that such a facility is crucial to business decision making. Nor do they realise--because of the advent of the internet, the telephone, video conferencing and all the rest of it--the importance of interpersonal contact and of decision makers being able to visit a site before recommending whether an investment should be made. Wales lost out on investment because it did not have such a facility.
Time is money in business and the business community has told me that, if people cannot get to a location to assess the value of an investment, the chances are that the key decision makers will go elsewhere. Wales cannot allow that barrier to remain if we are to succeed over the next six or seven years in our endeavour to regenerate the Welsh economy. The role of business will be crucial and, in the foreseeable future and over the period in which European structural funds will come to Wales, air travel will become more important to business communication in a global economy.
All the expectations are for large-scale growth in European air travel in general and exceptional growth in business travel across Europe. Air travel is the cutting edge of business communication in the United States, which is the most developed single market in the world. Walk on/walk off intra-continental business flights, which are increasingly becoming a feature of successful business, are available throughout the United States and, increasingly, in Canada and Mexico, which are part of the North American Free Trade Area.
As the European Union continues to develop as a single market--Wales has a closer trading relationship and depends more on trade with Europe than does any other part of the United Kingdom--what will become domestic flights within the single market will grow in importance. Therefore, it is vital that we get the airport's development right. However, let me make it clear to the House that Cardiff international airport is one of the most modern
Those who have the privilege of visiting the airport will discover that it has a fast-track terminal facility, modern baggage-handling facilities, walk-on gangways that go straight to the aircraft, modern shops and restaurants--it is first class. I should not mention other areas, but I will on this occasion: Bristol does not get a look-in. It also has one of the most advanced air traffic control systems in the United Kingdom. Although it handles civilian aircraft--mainly charter planes, a limited number of scheduled flights and an even more limited number of business flights--it also deals with the considerable number of military aircraft at RAF St. Athan and en route transatlantic flights over Wales.
A sophisticated modern facility could provide huge benefits for the area. There is a 100 acre business development site adjacent to Cardiff airport and, in a three mile radius, there is a 200 acre development site at the port of Barry, which my hon. Friend the Minister visited only recently. He recognised the huge potential for growth there. A 240 acre site at Rhoose point is also in striking distance. In short, Cardiff international airport's development potential is greater than that which existed at Shannon, which is one of the best examples of using an airport to drive forward investment and an enterprise zone, on the west coast of Ireland. We have seen how successful the Irish have been. Ireland is now the largest software exporter in the world apart from the United States, and part of that is due to the development and enhancement of its business communications.
What, then, is the problem with the development of Cardiff airport? It is a very simple problem: how on earth are we to get between 3 million and 4 million extra passengers--for that is the number that we need if we are to have a successful airport--along the road that services it? First, they will have to negotiate the nightmare of the Culverhouse Cross junction, which is gridlocked between 8 am and 10 am and between 4 pm and 6 pm every day. That puts a stranglehold not only on the development of the airport, but on the western part of the capital city: commuter traffic is now so snarled up that it has become a local joke.
A single carriageway, the A4050, is interspersed with roundabouts throughout its length. It can only be described as the sort of road that one might expect to see when approaching an international airport in a third-world country: that is how small it is, given the job that it is expected to do. Those 3 million or 4 million extra passengers will be competing with industrial traffic going to Barry docks, and with holiday traffic going to Barry island and the beautiful Vale of Glamorgan; they will also be competing with the commuter traffic that becomes snarled up daily at Culverhouse Cross.
The Civil Aviation Authority tells us that the catchment area for the airport has the potential to contain 5 million air passengers. I have already said that the airport handles 1.3 million, and could handle more than 4 million. We are talking about achievable targets, but to ensure that they are met we must provide appropriate access.
It would be a tragedy if we did not do all that is humanly possible to ensure that Wales can exploit its additional funds to use this unique opportunity to rebuild its economy and return it to what it was some 20 or 25 years ago, when people were highly skilled and highly paid and Wales had a high percentage of the UK's average gross domestic product per capita. Twenty years of Tory rule saw us become a low-wage, low-skill economy with 83.1 per cent. of GDP. We must put that right--that is the challenge that we all face--and I think that we can put it right.
Wales has enormous potential for economic development. The M4 corridor in the south is probably the most attractive investment location in the European Union. It is highly competitive, it has direct access to the core consumer markets in Europe for products and services, and it provides a high quality of life. The A55 corridor provides a splendid environment for commercial and service sector industries, and also provides access to a good airport: I will not name it, but we all know which it is. However, the same does not apply to the other three quarters of Wales and Welsh business.
In central Wales and the valleys, we have enormous potential in terms of human capital. We have an enterprise culture. We have talents and skills. We can use objective 1 money to invest in and to exploit those, and to ensure that we get all the benefits out of the strategic advantages that Wales has, but the development of the airport is crucial. There is a direct correlation between the growth of the airport, the growth of business travel in Wales and the success of the economy, so I call on my hon. Friend the Minister to bear that in mind and to do whatever he can.
I realise that the issue affects every level of government--not just the House, the National Assembly for Wales or the local authority, which has a big responsibility in the matter--but we must as a matter of urgency find an alternative access to that airport. If one has been rejected on cost grounds, and it was a bit of a belt-and-braces project, we must find an alternative and we must find it together quickly. We must have an open mind on the matter. We must consider joint ventures, partnerships with the private sector or whatever. As a nation, we must find a mechanism for providing that vital link to the airport, which will provide a vital engine of growth for the Welsh economy. I am sure that we can do that and I look forward to my hon. Friend remarks with anticipation.