My Lords, the new airport that the Government have built in St Helena will enable the country and its people to overcome the challenges of being one of the most remote island communities in the world. The St Helena airport is open and able to receive flights.
My Lords, what the Minister says is not my understanding of the position, which is that because of wind shear—a problem that was not anticipated—no commercial flights have gone in and only one medevac flight, which was welcome. Can she explain why commercial aircraft are not going in? Why was the wind shear problem not anticipated? What will be done to remedy the situation? If she cannot say now that there will be regular flights, as anticipated, to make sure that the investment in the island is worthwhile, will she or her department report on that to Parliament before we go up for the Summer Recess?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right that commercial airlines are not currently running. He asked why. We have intensive work under way to identify options to enable commercial air services to start as soon as possible. We are considering a range of potential providers. The timing of the commencement of scheduled services will, of course, depend on securing the right aircraft and regulatory approvals. But, as the noble Lord is aware, in the interim we have services going to and from St Helena.
My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that many St Helenans live and work on Ascension Island, although they have no right of abode there. Given that Ascension has one of the longest runways in the world, does my noble friend consider that it is worth negotiating with the Americans to make sure that we can get commercial flights into and out of Ascension Island, which would be of great benefit to a lot of St Helenans who live there? Is it worth revisiting the issue of right of abode on Ascension Island?
My Lords, we do work closely with the Americans. My noble friend is right: we use the airport on Ascension Island. But, if we are going to uplift the economy of St Helena, it is right and proper that we continue to work to ensure that we find a solution for St Helena. I am afraid that I will have to come back to my noble friend on the issue of residency.
My Lords, it was announced last Friday that RMS “St Helena” will do three more return trips to St Helena from Cape Town, concluding on 27 September. That means that the last voyage out of Cape Town will now be on 9 September, a mere two months away. Does the noble Baroness not think it right that both the people of St Helena and potential visitors should know where they stand in terms of travel to and from St Helena beyond two months from today? Secondly, does she agree that RMS “St Helena” should certainly not be sold until the airport issue is resolved?
I can reassure my noble friend—or rather, the noble Lord, although he is my noble friend, too—that we will continue to ensure that while the airport is not open and running there will be a service with RMS “St Helena”. But, of course, the longer-term solution has to be that the airport opens and is commercially viable. We are looking at short-term options to establish coverage, perhaps with smaller aircraft. These are all things that we are discussing. But the residents of St Helena can rest assured that they will be able to go backwards and forwards from St Helena.
My Lords, clearly the Royal Mail Ship “St Helena” will need to run until the shambles of the airport is sorted out. It is the only British-owned ship that regularly goes through the territorial seas, the exclusive economic zone and the maritime wildlife zones of Ascension Island and St Helena. However, at the moment it does not call on Tristan da Cunha: there is no guaranteed service at all to Tristan da Cunha. Looking to the future, is there any way that the Government can ensure that the royal research ships of the British Antarctic Survey regularly call on all three of those islands on their way to the Antarctic and back again as a matter of course, which would establish a shipping timetable for carrying heavy goods and people and would also establish a regular presence in waters that belong to us?
My Lords, the noble Lord has asked a number of questions. To give due importance to each of them would need a letter. But I can assure the noble Lord that we are working very closely with the St Helena Government to make sure that the airport finds a commercial solution and that landings will be possible on the island. In the meantime, we do work with all our partners in the area.
My Lords, two years ago I asked the then Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, what risk assessment had been made in the contract for the new airport. Her response was:
“The fixed-price lump-sum contract”,
“the risk transferred to the contractor”.—[Official Report, 9/7/14; col. 138.]
Does the Minister think this may be a reason why no assessment was done of the problem that is now causing this airport to not open?
My Lords, I must correct the noble Lord: a feasibility study was undertaken. But, as the noble Lord is aware, wind shear is an unpredictable phenomenon. It is not always possible to predict with confidence whether it would be experienced at St Helena Airport before planes attempt to land. During the project management, the UK Meteorological Office assessed the probability of wind shear as low. Many airports around the world have developed operational procedures to overcome the challenges of wind shear: London City Airport is one. We are working on it.