Skip to main content

St Helena Airport

Volume 708: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when the contract for the St Helena airport will be given the go-ahead.

My Lords, we announced on 8 December 2008 that there will be a pause in negotiations over the St Helena airport contract. We are reviewing whether it is right to proceed with this project in the present difficult economic climate and we will announce the outcome of our considerations just as soon as we can.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, but is he aware that the whole future of the island depends on the award of the contract for the airport? We have had an early decision that the contractor will withdraw, which means that hotel developments and St Helena becoming a leisure centre will not come to fruition. The island will still be dependent on the Government, so this is penny wise and pound foolish. Can my noble friend give me a little more definite information on when this will proceed? If it is not going to proceed, what plans do the Government have for the island?

My Lords, I cannot add very much detail to my response. Her Majesty’s Government have had discussions with interested parties on this issue. We do not believe that the situation is black and white. Prior to and during the tender process, officials from the department undertook detailed consultations with interested parties to accommodate their concerns. More recently, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Mike Foster, met Impregilo, the bidding company, to explain the Government’s current position. He has also met the Governor of St Helena to explain where matters stand and to hear his views. The bidding company has decided to extend its bid until the end of April.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that I visited St Helena a couple of weeks ago. It took two weeks to be there for 56 hours. Does he agree that, in the DfID annual report, the overall budget for overseas development is £5 billion and that the year-on-year cost of the airport for St Helena is likely to be less than 1 per cent of that? Does he agree further that, although the developed world has responsibilities for international development, the United Kingdom has a specific duty to those dependent overseas territories such as St Helena?

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on his commitment in getting to St Helena for 56 hours. I am briefed that it was a pleasant experience. It is a wonderful island. I also congratulate him on his assiduous study of the DfID annual report—if only more would do that. I cannot entirely agree with his conclusion that the amount would be less than 1 per cent, but it is in the order of magnitude of 1 to 2 per cent. It is a little more than people realise. It is a significant sum of money and one has to take account of that in these difficult times. We accept that we have a specific responsibility for the three territories, to look after them and to sustain communications with them, but I can go no further on any assurances on this project.

My Lords, the noble Lord will forgive me for mentioning that, in 2000, I asked a series of questions pointing to the urgent need for the building of an airport on St Helena. I made a number of speeches to the same effect. Many years have passed since then, during which St Helena has not prospered and the population has fallen dramatically. I do not want to make a party-political point, but I urge the Minister to do his level best to get things cracking, because time is not on the side of St Helena. Something has to be done and done quickly.

My Lords, I can assure the House that I shall do all that I can to urge the Secretary of State to make an early decision, if only out of the sheer terror of returning here to give this sort of answer.

My Lords, will the noble Lord say what nature of airport is intended for St Helena? Will it take the largest aircraft or will it just be for regional flights?

My Lords, my understanding is that in the outline project the runway was to be 2,200 metres. As an ex-aeroplane driver, I can say that that means that you can cater for very large aeroplanes, but to get the sort of range that you need for St Helena, which, as has been illustrated, is in the middle of nowhere, you would be talking about relatively modest 737-type aeroplanes, producing the average journey to, say, South Africa.

My Lords, if there is to be an airport, there will be a need for a heritage experience for tourists to encounter. Do the Government have any idea how much would need to be invested in St Helena’s heritage, of which there is plenty, to provide that experience?

My Lords, my understanding is that the island has considerable tourist-attraction potential. I have seen no figures that would require any non-commercial investment in that heritage experience other than the provision of communications links to enable it to happen. Those who have studied this say that, given the communications, the island will be a specialist, upmarket holiday destination. Despite all those encouraging words, this project will be expensive in difficult times.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is further evidence of the strength in depth and quality of this Government that, when we get a Question about an airport runway, it is answered by a former airline pilot?