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David T.C. Davies rose—

Lembit Öpik: On the assumption that there will be further praise for my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central, I happily give way.
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David T.C. Davies: If we secured a north-south Wales air link, would the hon. Gentleman consider leaving his parliamentary position to fly the planes? If so, it could change our minds about the viability of such a service.

Lembit Öpik: If the hon. Gentleman would like to see the benefits of a north-south link, I would be happy to take him—without a parachute—for a flight in my own aircraft. Having just passed my class 2 medical, which entitles me to be a private pilot, I would not want to push for a class 1 medical, but I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's encouragement. I shall regard his suggestion as a fall-back option in case everything goes belly up in my current employment.

Ian Lucas: I heard a great deal during the general election campaign from the Liberal Democrat candidate about his opposition to air transport as a non-sustainable form of transportation. Is it Liberal Democrat policy to develop a regional network of air transport within the UK?

Lembit Öpik: On the first point, the Liberal Democrats view emissions trading as the right approach so that account can be taken of the environmental damage that various modes of transport cause. On the second question, the hon. Gentleman will know, having closely studied the Welsh Liberal Democrat manifesto, that one of our commitments was support in principle for a regional air network in Wales. That is the jurisdiction about which I speak. We have already touched on the environment and environmental damage, and I will come to it later, if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, because I want to deal with the issue in the context of what the hon. Member for Leominster has said.

Having seen the benefits of air transport at an early stage in Wales, I was surprised that the hon. Member for Leominster was so cautious in expressing a view on behalf of his party. He says that he has an open mind, but I believe that it is open to a fault. Many members of the Conservative party have, as the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) said, already committed themselves to the benefits of a regional air network in Wales. For the hon. Gentleman to say that the Conservatives do not have a position on that matter implies that he has not been looking at the facts to the extent that he should have. In fairness to him, he has said that he will consider the arguments. I have no hesitation in expressing my hope that he will be persuaded, particularly in Committee, of the benefits of having a regional air network.

Some of the arguments made by the hon. Member for Leominster were rather curious. For one thing, he and the hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) were badgering the hon. Member for Ynys Môn about how many seats the aircraft would have as if that were the key consideration—it is not. Partly owing to environmental considerations, a regional air network in Wales will never be a method of mass transportation. That is not what it is for: it is a method of fast transportation for the small number of people who really need to get to from one part of Wales to another quickly.

Mr. David Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the take-up for such a service is more likely to
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include civil servants, Members of the National Assembly and Members of this House? Frankly, commercial demand for that service is minimally low.

Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman has obviously done his own research, but I want to ask him what conversations he has had with Pierre Sarre. Has he even heard of Pierre Sarre? Probably not, but everyone in Montgomeryshire knows about Pierre Sarre's company Control Techniques. It employs hundreds and hundreds of people in Montgomeryshire. It is one of the most important employers in my area. Pierre Sarre needs to get in and out of Wales quickly and he often comes from abroad. He lands at Welshpool airport, he does his business, then he heads off again. He will often bring customers from around Europe into Wales specifically to seal deals that are worth millions of pounds to the mid-Wales economy. That is a classic example of the importance of having a regional and accessible air network to enable such high-valued passengers to come in and out and make an unquestionably significant contribution to the economy of Wales.

Bill Wiggin: The hon. Gentleman is being unnecessarily uncharitable to me. The Bill is not about whether or not air transport in Wales is a good thing, but whether the Assembly can subsidise it. My mind is open because I believe that the Assembly must make the case when it spends the money. It is no more complicated than that; it is very straightforward.

Lembit Öpik: The only reason I am going on about it is, if I may say so without sounding childish, that the hon. Gentleman started it. [Interruption.] Oh, yes he did. If he had not told us that he was sceptical about the case for regional air networks, I would not be telling him that he should be more confident about it.

Mr. David Jones: I fully take the point that there is a demand for regional air services both coming into and going out of Wales. The hon. Gentleman has referred to the example of Pierre Sarre, but my question related to an intra-Wales service. My point was that the demand for and take-up of an intra-Wales north to south service—whether it be from the valleys or Cardiff to Caernarfon—was likely to be from the public, not the private, sector.

Lembit Öpik: I could provide many examples of industrialists who regard access to good airport facilities in Wales as very important. There is Carlo Sidoli, who runs Sidoli's ice cream in Welshpool. He often brings customers in and out. We all agree that that is an important reason for having an aviation infrastructure.

As to whether civil servants or others use the network, I believe that there is a good case for having aircraft with fairly small capacity to take the small number of people who go from north to south Wales on a regular basis in an efficient fashion. The hon. Gentleman mentions civil servants using it. That may well be the case, but he must recognise that one of the things that suppresses north-south economic development in Wales is the fact that people cannot make the journey quickly. The hon. Gentleman disagrees, but I can assure him that there would be a feasibility study before any system was set up. John Pritchard of KPMG has just completed a
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feasibility study of the expansion of Welshpool airport. He took the view that there was an economic case for having an extended runway and two new hangars in the area.

I will resist the temptation to argue in any further detail about what sort of scheduled services should be set up, but it is possible to find an aircraft for every occasion. One could use an eight-seater Piper PA31 Navajo, for example, which can transport people at about 195 mph or one could opt for a Dornier 328 or Dornier ATR42. Aircraft can be found to fulfil the demand.

Albert Owen: The hon. Gentleman knows that a study of intra-Wales air links has already been undertaken by the National Assembly for Wales. There has also been a consultation process in respect of the aviation White Paper in the House, in which I and many others had the opportunity to participate. The research has already been done, and it is surprising that the Conservatives do not know about it, particularly when one of their number was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales.

Lembit Öpik: Actually, there were two of them. I am surprised by the apparent level of ignorance of the existing information. What we do not have is a detailed assessment of what the schedules should be and precisely which aircraft should be used, but all that will be done in time. I am satisfied that enough work has been done to convince me and others that such a small aircraft network is a viable proposition for Wales.

David T.C. Davies: If the hon. Gentleman is so convinced that it is a viable business proposition, would he be willing to put any of his own money into it?

Lembit Öpik: That is the most extraordinary question that I have been asked in the House for a long time. I am a politician, not an airline mogul. Since the hon. Gentleman asks, however, in the late 1980s I was, as it happens, on the verge of setting up—jointly—a charter airline operating from Newcastle to national airports. The only reason we did not do it was our realisation that owing to the bankrupt economic policies of the Conservative party, the business would have gone down the tubes. So I blame the hon. Gentleman, by proxy, for the fact that I am in Parliament.

Environmental considerations are very valid when it comes to air transport, but we must recognise that any intra-Wales air network would contribute a relatively small emission, because the aircraft would have relatively small engines. I return to the example of the eight-seater aircraft. It flies on about 28 gallons per hour. If there are four passengers, that works out at about 22 miles per passenger gallon. That is not wonderful, but it is an extremely small percentage of the overall contribution of aviation to pollution. I still think that the importance of emissions trading cannot be overestimated.

The other irony is that the Conservatives complain about the environmental damage caused by aviation, although I seem to remember the leader of the Conservative party, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), endlessly
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flying about in a twin-turbine helicopter. Presumably the hon. Member for Leominster has run off to the Conservative party leader's office to complain about that environmental damage. As I have said, the hon. Gentleman has been somewhat at variance with his party. I hope that he will think again about his caution in regard to aviation, with the benefit of hindsight.

While welcoming the Bill, we hope that the following matters will be considered seriously. We feel that the Bill attaches insufficient weight to the importance of sustainable development—which, of course, includes aviation. If the Wales transport strategy is to achieve optimum outcomes at environmental and community levels, there must be a strong emphasis on sustainable development. Sustainability is mentioned in clause 1(1)(a), but I think it should also be mentioned in clause 4(3) and clause 7(2). The goals of economy, efficiency and effectiveness must be achieved in a sustainable context. One possibility that is not often mentioned in the context of transport is the elimination of certain trips that are currently necessary. All Governments should consider promoting home working from now on. Given the availability of information technology, people's quality of life could be improved in that way, while congestion on both roads and public transport could be reduced.

Will the Minister tell us what impact he expects the Bill to have on the Welsh railway network? It is impossible to have a coherent, comprehensive transport strategy without efficient rail networks. The hon. Member for Leominster made the valid point that we need to understand the interrelation between services that start in England and finish in Wales, and vice versa.

People feel that the differences in the Scottish and the Welsh arrangements have come about in a rather arbitrary fashion. I should be grateful if, either now or in Committee, the Minister would give us an idea of the differences that the Government perceive between Scotland and Wales, and of the rationale for the changes. I think it instructive to look at what has happened in Scotland.

As I said in an intervention, Northern Ireland provides a very good example of a successfully integrated rail and bus system. There is also a degree of integration between Belfast city airport and the rail service, although I do not want to push that too far. Will the Minister assure us—especially in view of the Secretary of State's dual role—that the Government will look at best practice in Northern Ireland and ensure that the Bill we pass facilitates its implementation in Wales?

Let me return to aviation. The Bill gives us an opportunity to invest in the air network. Notwithstanding the criticisms that I have made of comments by Conservative Members, I think that the hon. Member for Clwyd, West made a fair point: we must justify any money that we put into the network. Perhaps, now or when we reach the relevant clause in Committee, the Minister will explain how he thinks the Assembly would make the calculation. He may be interested to learn that Andrew Davies, the Economic Development and Transport Minister in Wales, is flying to Welshpool airport to review developments there. I believe that he too advocates a regional air network service.
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The Bill is very straightforward, and we will support it. Some points of detail need clarification, but if it fulfils its promise, we shall not only have a further opportunity to devolve important powers to the Assembly, but have the best opportunity in a generation to do something that has not been done before—to integrate the air, rail and road services that make Wales not a two-tier nation, but a one-tier tiger economy.

2.5 pm

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