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Daedalus Airfield

Volume 467: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

I know that my constituents share my appreciation of the fact that I have this opportunity to raise in the House the issue of the future of the Daedalus airfield in my constituency. Part of the airfield falls within the borough of Fareham, and I am delighted my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban) is here this evening, as I know that he shares my interest in this matter.

The Government care about general aviation, which is most simply defined as all aviation of a civil nature other than scheduled air flights. I know that they care about it, because Ministers have said so. The hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron), the predecessor of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who will respond to this debate, is on record as having said at a conference on general aviation in November 2006:

“Government have in the past failed to understand general aviation and its role in the community…It is vital that the interests of the general aviation sector are not ignored…We understand the value of the network, and we are looking at a policy statement on a national network of airfields…We recognise that we must strengthen general aviation as a vital asset with benefits for all of us.”

I hope that those sentiments will be continued. I see that the Minister is acquiescing.

There is no more important issue for general aviation than the establishment and retention of suitable airfields, and the Daedalus site in Lee-on-the-Solent is just that. It entered service with the Royal Naval Air Service in 1917 and continued as a naval air station until 1996. Some of my earliest memories are of visiting the Daedalus station and watching the Fireflies, the Sea Furies, the Wyverns and the Gannets. They formed the basis of my enthusiasm for flying, which I later followed as a pilot in the Royal Air Force.

The Daedalus site is an important part of the local community. In March 2006, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the South East England Development Agency acquired the site for about £20 million. The Maritime Coastguard Agency took runway 0523, a blister hangar and the control tower, and the SEEDA operation took the rest of the site. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency celebrated initially by spending between £500,000 and £1 million on building a rather unsightly new fence round its estate. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm the cost of that fence.

Now I want to move forward and to consider the future of the Daedalus site. I should like to put this in its context. On the Gosport peninsula, there are about 40,000 working people, but only 19,000 jobs. The result is a tidal flow of people out of the peninsula and back each day. The paramount need is therefore for jobs in and around the peninsula. There is strong support for the development of Daedalus as a business park with an aviation and maritime engineering theme. Indeed, the SEEDA consultation has revealed that some 57 per cent. of the local population consulted would like to see aviation activity continue on the site, and some 60 per cent. would like to see jobs being developed there. The concept of a business park—of which I have some previous experience as a Minister—would fit well with the retention of the Daedalus site and its use for aviation and marine engineering. I hope that it will be possible to continue the aviation link, and to provide a forward link to the business park that so many of us would like to see.

At the moment, the Daedalus site is being used by the police, whose Britten-Norman Defender fixed-wing, high-wing aircraft operate from runway 0323. The site is also being used by the air-sea rescue helicopter operated by Bristow on behalf of the coastguard. The Portsmouth Naval Gliding Club operates from Daedalus; many of my friends glide from Daedalus, as I do, and I am delighted that they have been able to make a longer-term lease arrangement to retain their interests there.

Finally, the site is used by general aviation and 30 aircraft operate from Daedalus—there were many more. I am putting forward the general aviation interest this evening.

It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Watson.]

That intervention will no doubt confuse anyone who may be watching our debate.

The interests of general aviation are under threat because operators have been told that they must vacate the premises by Saturday 17 November, so I very much hope that even at this late stage the Minister can give us some hope for the future of general aviation at Daedalus.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has now joined us in the Chamber. He has taken a key interest in the issue and I am grateful to him for attending the debate.

SEEDA’s consultation led to the revelation that 63 per cent. of those consulted hoped that the site would be used to create job opportunities, 53 per cent. hoped that it would be linked to marine activity and 57 per cent. hoped that it would be involved with aviation, but only 7 per cent. felt that the site should be used for housing. When SEEDA decided on a study, it chose Erinaceous—a public listed company—to carry it out. I have four points about the study.

First, there are some doubts as to the credibility of Erinaceous; the company has breached its banking covenants, shares are down from 389p in January to about 20p and the founders have been put on gardening leave, so there are some problems. Secondly, the main people involved at Daedalus—the general aviation interest—found it difficult to obtain a copy of the Erinaceous report. It was produced in July 2007 but not made available to the general aviation interest until 18 October, the date on which operators were given a month to vacate the site.

Thirdly, paragraph 1.7 of the report states:

“We confirm we know of no conflict of interest”—

between the company and users of the site, yet one of the authors of the report is manager of Shoreham airport, which is owned by Erinaceous and is a competitor airfield on the south coast. Finally, the report merely offers alternatives and does not come to a firm conclusion.

I am grateful to the individuals at SEEDA to whom I have spoken, including the chairman, for their support for general aviation at Daedalus, but ultimately it is not their judgment that applies. Others will decide about the future of general aviation, and although individuals at SEEDA are supportive they are not capable of overruling a decision.

I have spoken to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is directly involved as owner of part of the site and through the operation from the site, on its behalf, of the coastguard helicopter. The agency is indirectly involved through the lease to the police force. As was made clear to me recently, the MCA is not involved in management; it has delegated that responsibility to the police.

Among the dramatis personae is the Lee Flying Association—the group representing the general aviation interest. The association is profoundly concerned; it offered to control movements and run the airfield on a voluntary basis but the offer was rejected. Others involved include the Hampshire Microlight Flying Club, from which I received a letter today, pointing out:

“The airfield at Lee has the potential to represent all that is good in a community based airfield. Until recently the field was home to a wide range of machines including gliders, helicopters, fixed wing and flexwing aircraft.”

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has been particularly assiduous in putting forward well-informed debate and argument on the issue. I have meetings and discussions with the association, and it states in a letter to me dated 12 November that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Hampshire police air support unit

“inherited a complete operational aerodrome with all the necessary equipment to provide the basic air traffic service of an air/ground radio service. Both concerns would appear to have at Lee, staff able to provide an air/ground service, subject to an appropriate radio frequency being allocated and the operators being trained and certified as competent in accordance with CAA procedures. The cost of providing such a service at Lee is negligible.”

The association has been forceful in arguing in favour of the retention of general aviation.

The Portsmouth Naval Gliding Club is strongly supportive of general aviation, and it is now fortunately secured in its position through the intervention of the Second Sea Lord, who has arranged for the lease to be prepared in its favour. The executive leader of Fareham borough council, Councillor Seán Woodward, has written a forceful letter to the chief constable of Hampshire constabulary, in which he advises that the

“matter was considered at a Council meeting on 18 October, and it was agreed that I should write to you expressing our dismay and deep alarm at the way this decision has not only been taken, but also the communicated to the general aviation businesses at Daedalus.”

My hon. Friend is making a cogent argument for the retention of general aviation at Daedalus, Lee-on-the-Solent. I have also received a number of representations from my constituents who use the airfield and who are also concerned about the way in which this matter has been handled and the lack of notice that has been given to general aviation businesses on the use of the site. Will he ensure that their representations are also made known to the police and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in support of his campaign?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and his comments show that the concern is widespread. There is a very special ethos in south Hampshire, deriving from the link between the area and the Royal Navy in particular. There is a strong services tradition and a strong tradition of aviation and maritime engineering. Many of the companies in the area employ people who have been trained at some point by the Navy or by companies associated with the Navy. As has been pointed out by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, there is much stronger support for aviation use at Daedalus than it has discovered at any other location in the United Kingdom, and my hon. Friend’s comments reflect that.

The Hampshire police air support unit is the body that, under the lease between the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the police, has become the airfield manager, perhaps rather reluctantly. Perhaps the police did not set out as a mission statement to become an airfield manager, but that is what they have become. Effectively, the airfield manager is the manager of the police flight, Bob Ruprecht, whose attitude has been passed on to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

The Minister wrote to me in a letter dated 5 July to say that “safety must remain paramount.” Of course, it must. I am a trained pilot, and anyone who flies knows that safety comes first—it is the first thing that anyone involved in aviation thinks about—but I have to submit that this is not about safety; it is about liability. By becoming the airfield manager, the police have accepted liability for the operations that take place there, and no one has suggested that safety has suddenly deteriorated. There has not been a mixed-flying accident in 57 years of gliding operations at Daedalus, for instance. So the record is extremely good and nothing has changed. This is not about safety deteriorating at all; it is about the police authority realising and being advised by its lawyers that it has liability if anything goes wrong at Daedalus. On that basis, the decision has been taken to discontinue flying.

The manager of the police unit explains in an e-mail:

“In the medium to long term there maybe a future for Business and other Aviation as part of the development process, and I believe that SEEDA have that in mind to explore.”

The e-mail continues, however, saying that it is not the core role of the Hampshire police air support unit or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency

“to provide the infrastructure and investment”

to operate general aviation in the meantime. No one could disagree with that—it is not the core role of the police or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. However, I submit that the Minister—following the enthusiasm his predecessor showed for general aviation—does have a responsibility and a role to play in encouraging general aviation. It is his role to knock heads together to try to make sure that a satisfactory solution emerges.

I have discussed procedures with those responsible. Daedalus is a Government aerodrome. Some people seem to have woken up to that fairly recently. The Air Navigation Order 2005 definition of a Government aerodrome is one that is

“in the occupation of any Government Department or visiting force”.

Government strategy for Government aerodromes is as follows:

“It is the policy of the MoD to encourage the use of active Government aerodromes by UK civil aircraft on inland flights, provided this is consistent with defence requirements and local interests”.

What is the Minister doing to encourage the use of this Government aerodrome by civil aviation interests?

As my hon. Friend knows, as a currently practising aviator I fully support his campaign. The chief constable of Hampshire has told me that there are absolutely no security issues involved at all. There are no objections on security grounds to general aviation occupying the site. What my hon. Friend has just said about encouraging the use of Government-owned airfields is apposite, because there is no security consideration involved at all; it just seems to be a question of cost.

Indeed. Many of the people involved in Daedalus do not see it as their particular task to encourage civil aviation, but it is the Minister’s task. He is the person responsible for ensuring that somebody accepts responsibility, and for identifying that person and the procedure to follow that through.

As for the history of flying at Daedalus, the air traffic zone of Daedalus overlaps with that of royal naval aircraft yard Fleetlands, which operates aircraft that have been repaired or serviced. Fleetlands has a regulator—that is specifically and carefully defined in law. The regulator of Fleetlands is Colin Smith, who works for the test and evaluation support division of the Ministry of Defence—the section responsible for air traffic control, airfields and hangers. I have his authority to quote him:

“If the Department of Transport were to ask him to undertake the regulation of Daedalus he would be perfectly happy to do so.”

He went on to say:

“I would require the airfield to meet certain standards. If then having met those standards there is…no reason why general aviation should not continue, providing that the activities are properly risk assessed and appropriate safety management processes were put in place.”

He has talked to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency about a review and overall appraisal. In his role as regulator, he would call that “a gross error study”. It would be an overall study, checking for serious risks and ensuring that there is a “deconfliction of different interests” at Daedalus.

There is no valid reason why flying should not continue at Daedalus. Nothing has suddenly made it more dangerous. Everybody in sight is on the public payroll—most of the people in sight are responsible directly or indirectly to the Minister—except the poor general aviation interests. Those people are either operating their own aircraft privately or they have commercial interests. Their interests have been prejudiced by the decision to discontinue general aviation as of tomorrow night.

There is no reason why the Minister should not say that he has spoken, or will speak, to all those concerned, and that flying can continue for a limited period of, say, a month while an arrangement for the longer term is hammered out. I wrote to him asking specifically whether he would say that tonight. If he cannot say that, will he at least spell out the programme that will enable us to ensure that general aviation returns to Daedalus, as is the wish of the local community?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) on securing this debate, which gives me the opportunity to explain to the House the facts about aviation at the former HMS Daedalus site at Lee-on-the-Solent. I acknowledge the significance and importance of the issue to his constituents, as well as his own interest, and his distinguished service to his country, in aviation and in other fields.

I know that hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to the excellent work performed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and specifically by Her Majesty’s coastguard. Each year the coastguard receives about 18,000 calls for assistance via the 999 system or through very high frequency radio. Every year, across the United Kingdom, the coastguard co-ordinates rescues that help about 25,000 people to safety. Our search-and-rescue helicopter capability is a mixture of military and civilian aircraft. The Ministry of Defence provides RAF and Royal Navy helicopters from eight bases around the UK.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency operates civilian-crewed helicopters from four bases: two in Scotland at Stornoway and at Sumburgh on Shetland, and two along the south coast of England at Portland and at Lee-on-the-Solent. It is one of those civilian search-and-rescue helicopter bases that is of concern to the hon. Gentleman, and it might help the House if I outline some of the history and background to the issue. As the hon. Gentleman said, HMS Daedalus opened in 1916 as a Royal Navy air station. It remained the Navy’s leading flying training base, and provided military search-and-rescue helicopters, until 1988. It was formally decommissioned in March 1996, and until 2004 the future of the site was unclear. Since 1988, the MCA and its predecessor organisations have operated Her Majesty’s coastguard search-and-rescue helicopters from the site through a commercial contract. Typically, the helicopters at Lee-on-the-Solent deal with about 200 search-and-rescue incidents each year.

In June 2004, Defence Estates, part of the Ministry of Defence, formally declared the whole HMS Daedalus site surplus to requirements. After consultation with Hampshire constabulary, which managed the airfield on behalf of Defence Estates and operated a fixed-winged aircraft from the site, the MCA submitted an expression of interest in acquiring 71 hectares of the land to safeguard its ability to operate helicopters as part of the Government’s continuing commitment to providing a 24-hour maritime search-and-rescue service and the necessary infrastructure. The area of interest to the MCA represented about two thirds of the existing airfield. The South East England Development Agency was interested in acquiring the remainder of the site.

The MCA acquired part of the Daedalus airfield from Defence Estates in March 2006, protecting the operation of the search-and-rescue helicopter facility. The remainder of the site was purchased by SEEDA. In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, I can confirm that the cost of fencing under the arrangement was approximately £750,000. The MCA’s part of the airfield continued to be managed on a tenancy basis by Hampshire police authority. As the airfield operator responsible for safety, Hampshire police decided to close the airfield to general aviation on safety grounds. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says on that point, but those are the words in front of me, and that is the explanation that I have to give to the House tonight.

The Government know that general aviation is an important, integral part of the UK aviation sector, recognising that it makes up about 8 per cent. of the economic size of commercial air transport, and that it makes a significant contribution to the UK economy, both in terms of direct economic value and the number of people it employs. Following the recommendations in the Civil Aviation Authority’s strategic review of UK general aviation, the Government are considering whether to make a policy statement on the value of maintaining a viable network of general aviation airfields across the UK.

I am aware that Fareham and Gosport borough councils issued a joint planning statement for Daedalus in April last year. One of the aspirations of that planning statement was that future development of the site should seek to maximise the benefit of the existing runway for general and private aviation use. But the current decision to close the airfield to general aviation has been taken on the grounds of safety, not planning or general policy, and as such it is a matter for Hampshire police as the operator of the airfield, not for the MCA or for the Government generally.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there might be a stay of execution of Hampshire police’s decision so as to give operators a chance to agree a safe and sustainable future flying regime. However, as I pointed out, the decision to close Daedalus to general aviation was taken by the airfield operator on safety grounds, and it would therefore be for Hampshire police to consider whether general aviation might safely be continued while further discussions take place, and if so under what conditions. Safety is and, I assume, must remain the primary consideration.

SEEDA has said that the potential long-term future of general aviation at the Daedalus site may be worthy of further consideration and will continue to explore options as part of its ongoing development work.

Let me summarise the position from the Government’s perspective. The Government’s primary concern is to safeguard the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s ability to respond effectively to maritime emergencies. The Daedalus facility is an important element in that infrastructure and the MCA must ensure the continued availability of its search-and-rescue helicopters. It was to protect that position that the MCA acquired the land when it was declared surplus to requirements. The Government remain fully committed to providing maritime search-and-rescue facilities in that busy area for commercial shipping, leisure sailing and the use of our coasts and beaches for recreation.

The House will recall that the Maritime and Coastguard Agency recently let a new contract for the provision of faster helicopters with greater endurance. Those to be based at Lee-on-the-Solent will be in position in the new year. I am confident that hon. Members would not want anything to jeopardise the continuation of the excellent emergency response service that Her Majesty’s coastguard provides for the south coast of England.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency cannot have acquired the Daedalus site in order, as the Minister said, to allow the helicopter to continue, because the helicopter does not require a long metalled runway to take off. Runway 0523 was acquired by the MCA and leased to the police, who require it for fixed-wing aircraft. The airfield cannot have been acquired specifically for the helicopter.

I entirely accept the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. My assumption—it can only be an assumption at this point, as I do not have the definitive reasons—is that the MCA acquired the site to protect the continuance of search-and-rescue helicopter operations from the site. The size of the site and the future lease of other aspects of the aerodrome would have been part of its business considerations in assessing what the MCA could get back from the Hampshire police authority, in order to justify public expenditure to provide the services that we expect. I have no further information on that.

I know that this sounds as though we are absolving ourselves of responsibility but, sadly, we are not the decision makers in this case. That lies firmly at the door of the Hampshire police authority and Hampshire constabulary, and the whole tenor of my response to the hon. Gentleman’s very effective explanation, if I may say so, of the importance of Daedalus to the local community, which we fully support and understand, is that it is Hampshire constabulary’s decision to say that the runway is no longer available. That is where the matter rests.

I can reassure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the MCA’s operation has not been affected by the decision to close the airfield to general aviation. I hope that he and the House will accept that the decision taken by the police is their decision.

The Minister referred to the review of light aviation airfields around the country. Does he accept that if this airfield were to close, one fewer facility would be available for the network that he is anxious to create throughout the country? Secondly, will he tell us what safety facilities would need to be in place to satisfy the Hampshire authority?

In response to the first point, as I mentioned earlier, following the Civil Aviation Authority’s review, we are in the course of reflecting on whether we should publish the specific policy statement in support of general aviation. If we are minded to go down that path, it is likely to occur some time next year.

On the second question, my understanding is that the decision to close the airfield to general aviation requires the managers of the airfield, Hampshire constabulary, to conduct a risk assessment. It is very much a matter for them to determine, on the basis of that assessment, whether operations can continue. That is why I have stressed that this is very much their decision. I would expect them to be able to supply the appropriate documentation to interested parties.

We are committed to general aviation and we certainly recognise and acknowledge the role that general aviation plays in the UK economy. Indeed, I articulated that a few moments ago in the course of my remarks. The outcome is disappointing, and I hear what the hon. Member for Gosport says about the shortage of notice, which just adds to the frustration people feel when they have not had an opportunity to put their case as fairly and squarely as they would otherwise have done. One cannot tell whether that would have assuaged them in some way.

I fully understand and expect that the campaign will not stop here. This evening’s debate has at least put down another marker. I would be very surprised if those who are centrally involved in this matter do not pay attention to the comments of the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues or, indeed, to my response for the Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have some further success, following his success in securing this debate. I fully acknowledge, as I say, that this is not going to be the end of the matter, but from the Government’s point of view, we are not the ones who took the decision and we do not have the locus to determine any change to it. I apologise, but I cannot assist the hon. Gentleman in the way that he hoped I would when he tabled this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Six o’clock.