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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Airport development on St Helena

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Meg initiated a debate in Westminster Hall on the delays by the Department for International Development (DFID) in confirming constructing of an airport on St Helena.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): I am pleased to have secured this debate on St. Helena and its transport links with the rest of the world. I welcome colleagues from different political parties who have come along to show their support for the people of the island.

When I put in for the debate, my intention was to press the Department for International Development to make a decision on building an airport on the island and to go ahead with this vital project. We now know that DFID has once again decided not to make a decision, but to put the issue out for yet more consultation, engage yet more consultants and spin things out until the turn of the year. No doubt the Minister will try to put a positive gloss on that, but, in reality, these events have more to do with trying to avoid a judicial review of the Department’s handling of the scheme.

DFID’s history on this project is shameful. It has used delaying tactics and done anything it can to avoid settling the issue of St. Helena’s transport links with the outside world—links that could mean life or death for any one of the thousands of British citizens on the island. Those people are British citizens because St. Helena is a UK overseas territory. Just because it is situated in the south Atlantic does not make those people less British, although it perhaps makes them more forgettable for DFID.

St. Helena is one of the most isolated places in the world. It is approximately 1,400 miles west of Namibia, 1,800 miles east of Brazil and 700 miles south of Ascension Island. The only way to get there is by ship, with the island being served by RMS St. Helena, the last Royal Mail ship still in service. This purpose-built ship was constructed in 1989 and is obviously towards the end of its operational life, rather than the start.

That raises the question of how to ensure that the islanders have reliable transport links in the future. Replacing the ship with another purpose-built vessel is possible, but expensive. The jetty at St. Helena would also require remedial work, but that, too, is expensive. In addition, the islanders are concerned about that option because they remember what happened in 1999 when the current ship broke down, leaving them stranded until repairs had been made.

Let us be clear: if the supply ship breaks down, people and supplies, including vital medical drugs and equipment, cannot get to the island. It also means that islanders cannot leave, including those requiring urgent medical attention that is not available on the island. Even as I speak, the ship is on its way to the UK and will not return to the island until 11 April, but the shops have run out of potatoes.

The obvious answer—it has been obvious for a number of years—is to build an airport. Of course, there is the cost. Building an airport anywhere is an expensive undertaking, and building one on an island in the middle of the south Atlantic, with all the problems of supply, would not be cheap. Until recently, however, the Government supported building an airport. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office supported the project, and we can take it that the Ministry of Defence would welcome an additional landing strip for its air bridge to the Falkland Islands. Incidentally, those islands have fewer residents than St. Helena, but they have flourished thanks to British Government support.

No doubt the Minister will say that the recession provides a new context for delaying the airport project. Taken on its own, that argument might appear to have some worth, but this is at least the ninth year that DFID has appeared unwilling to give the project the go-ahead.

Although the Government have continued to give British citizens at home commitments about infrastructure projects, this vital project for British citizens abroad is once more being delayed. Given the positive support, or acquiescence, elsewhere in the Government, it is not surprising that minds begin to wonder why DFID is the one Department of State that prefers to park the scheme. It will not say yes, but will not say no either.

The Government have accepted that overseas territories should be self-governing as far as possible, that they can remain UK overseas territory as long as they wish and that Britain will continue to fulfil its responsibilities to each territory, as set out in each constitution. Citizens of the overseas territories have also all been granted British citizenship and the rights that come with it.

When DFID was set up, it was also recognised that the overseas territories would have first call on its funds. To my knowledge, no one in the Government has suggested that the relationship between the UK and the overseas territories should change or that the right of such territories to have first call on DFID funds has been rescinded.

St. Helena is an overseas territory and the islanders are British citizens. The island’s economy is weak and deteriorating, and life is becoming increasingly desperate for the population. The infrastructure is poor and not sufficient to realise the island’s potential or to sustain the population without subsidy. In 2007-08, the Government’s bilateral aid to the island was £17.5 million. In addition, the RMS St. Helena requires an annual subsidy of at least £3 million. The average salary is £4,500, with goods and food being more expensive than in the UK because of freight charges. Many people are forced to leave families and work abroad.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. A number of the islanders have friends and family in the St. Helena community in this country; indeed, Swindon has the second largest number of people from that community. Would not an airway allow those people to visit their friends and family? At the moment, they are isolated from them.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is correct. Indeed, one of our Doorkeepers in the House of Commons comes from St. Helena.

Since 2000—this very much illustrates my hon. Friend’s point—the population has fallen from approximately 7,000 to fewer than 4,000. As a result, more than 150 children and young adults are in informal foster care. The population increasingly comprises the elderly and children.

The health department has to select which seriously ill patients qualify for further care and treatment in Cape Town or the UK, and that practice will only increase with an ageing population. Access to medical supplies is poor. Residents rely on supplies delivered by RMS St. Helena. As we saw in 1999, when the ship broke down, the island is vulnerable.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East): I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the debate. Does she share my concern about the fact that the hospital has been unable to use a scanner for a number of months because of the difficulty in getting an engineer from Siemens—the company that provided the scanner—to look at it? That is another example of how the lack of access impacts on every walk of life, whether in health, education or the economy.

Meg Munn: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has had the opportunity to visit St. Helena, although many of us have not, because of the time it takes to get there. By contrast, the scanner in the hospital on the Falkland Islands, which I have visited, is state of the art. The hospital can scan patients and send the scans to Brazil for advice on what treatment to use. The fact that the scanner on St. Helena cannot be used is an indictment of the current situation.

Discussions about building an airport first took place in 1947, but the current project goes back nine years to 2000. Over those years, there have been many twists and turns, feasibility studies and consultants’ reports. I will not spend time discussing all that; suffice it to say that it does not reflect well on DFID’s ability to develop and implement projects.

The Government have already earmarked £234 million for the airport and associated infrastructure improvements. DFID has selected an airport contractor via competitive procurement and spent substantial amounts of taxpayers’ money in the process. The contractor—Impregilo—has already invested significantly and has a team on the island ready to start work. Significant inward investment is ready to go as soon as the airport scheme is given the go-ahead.

Shelco—the St. Helena Leisure Company—has been set up specifically to develop the leisure facilities to support the development of St. Helena’s economy. It has substantial investors in place to underwrite between £80 million and £100 million of investment. Shelco has acquired options on an area of St. Helena and the Oberoi group is its hotel partner. They propose creating low-volume, high-value tourism, including a six-star eco hotel. That is the local preference, and it was recommended in a UN report and supported by two DFID-commissioned reports. That would create jobs and future income for the island.

Developing St. Helena and building an airport would be in the UK’s strategic interests in the south Atlantic. It would substantially help the economies of other British overseas territories—the dependencies of Tristan da Cunha, Ascension and the Falkland Islands. Opening the island to low-volume, high-value tourism would create opportunities for new local business ventures.

The infrastructure and economy needed to support the influx of tourists would provide the many islanders working abroad with the opportunity to return to the island, which would help to generate a self-sustaining economy. That would enable the island gradually to reduce its financial dependence on the UK. We understand that the modelling undertaken by DFID economist’s shows that the airport is the best-value option to achieve the Government’s policy of creating a sustainable economy. I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is the case.

It is not an overstatement to say that DFID’s recent decisions threaten the viability of the airport project. They also threaten the regeneration project put forward by Shelco. Impregilo, the preferred airport contractor, needs certainty. If that does not happen, DFID will lose the company, and the lengthy and expensive airport tendering process will have to start again. It is most unlikely, given its history, that other parties will come forward. The delay will exacerbate the difficulties faced by the islanders, who are already dealing, month by month, with economic decline.

Building an airport is the choice supported by the people of the island. In a 2001 public referendum, 72% of the islanders voted in favour. Without an airport, there are no positive prospects for St. Helena—nothing except continued, steady economic and social decline. At the same time, the UK taxpayers’ subsidy will be steadily climbing, but the people of St. Helena do not want UK handouts. As British citizens, they deserve—and need—the Government to take them seriously, and to support them in a way that will open up possibilities for developing their economy and securing their future.

The airport option would do that, and do so immediately. The stimulus to the economy once the project started would be substantial. These are dark economic days for most of the world. By keeping the long-standing promise to build an airport, we would stimulate recovery and hope in one of the poorest British areas of the world, and we would do so in a manner that created growth and self-sufficiency. The recession provides an additional reason to get on with the project, not a lame excuse to delay it further. At this late stage, I urge DFID to support St. Helena, agree to the building of the airport and invest in the future of the island. 

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