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Channel Tunnel

Volume 15: debated on Monday 14 December 1981

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2.

asked the Secretary of State for Trade what is his assessment of the likely reduction in demand for capacity at airports in the South-East as a consequence of the diversion of traffic through a Channel tunnel.

This has been considered by the air traffic forecasting working party, which states in its report that the most modest tunnel schemes are expected to divert well below a year's growth of air traffic. The promoters of one of the more ambitious schemes claim that as many as 3ยท9 million passengers a year could be diverted from air routes by the end of the century, but even then the effect on South-East air traffic would be relatively small.

Is not the demand for airport and runway capacity more a function of the number of flights than of the number of passengers? As the Channel tunnel is likely to divert traffic from short-haul flights, will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his answer, as the Channel tunnel might make some planned expansion in airport capacity unnecessary?

My answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is "No". Demand depends on flights and passengers. There is no point in running flights if there are no passengers on them.

The fixed Channel link would probably draw some passengers away from the regional as well as the London airports, but the lead times for construction means that it is unlikely to have a significant impact during this decade. On the estimates provided by the promoters, the number of passengers diverted from air travel by the end of the century is likely to be very small in comparison with forecast air traffic demand.

Bearing in mind the importance and potential of Southend airport, will the Government maintain the principle of fair competition and not pour funds into the Channel tunnel project, when it may not be needed?

I and all my colleagues are acutely aware of the importance of Southend airport, but my hon. Friend should speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about the Channel tunnel.

In the light of that encouraging information, will the Minister tell the Secretary of State that, in the present state of the economy, the need to make progress in constructing the Channel tunnel is urgent, as, if it is not built soon, it never will be?

I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.