There should be no expansion at Gatwick Airport but a high-speed rail connection with Heathrow – dubbed 'Heathwick' – should be looked into.

That was the message this week from Liberal Democrat Transport Minister Norman Baker.

Mr Baker, the MP for Lewes, was speaking at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton during the debate on the Policy Motion, “A Sustainable Future for Aviation.”

Mr Baker outlined his strong commitment to ensuring that the environment does not play second fiddle to airport expansion.

He underlined the Lib Dem manifesto commitments - “no” to a third runway, “no” to airport expansion in the South-east and “no” to an airport in the Thames Estuary.

Speaking on the future of aviation capacity, Mr Baker highlighted the investment made in rail and the effect that this will have on a shift from air to rail travel. He also said that there is no shortage of capacity at Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Luton and Stansted, stating this was contrary to what is often reported in the press.

And he stressed that utilising such capacity must be where attention is focused in the short-term. He urged the recently appointed independent commission to think laterally and look carefully at options such as Heathwick – linking Heathrow and Gatwick by a 14-minute high speed rail connection to create one unified hub.

The Lib Dem delegates passed the motion rejecting major aviation expansion in the South-east.

Mr Baker said: “With this Motion, the Lib Dems have sent a very clear message - we are pro economic growth, but we cannot, and will not walk away from our commitments to the environment. “We said in our Manifesto that we are against the third runway. “We said it again in the coalition agreement, and I said it again to conference today. There will be no third runway on our watch.”

But Mr Baker’s opinions were strongly attacked by Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of Gatwick Diamond Business, the Crawley-based business group which represents business and commerce in the region to provide what it calls “a united voice to influence Local and Central Government issues.” Mr Taylor said: “Mr Baker is remarkable for being a Minister of Transport who has no idea of transport.

“He is partially right in as much as there is capacity at Gatwick, depending on who you talk to, for an additional eight to 12 million passengers per annum.

“There is capacity there, and some room at Stansted – but then we’re full.”

He said: “At that point, the business community will go somewhere else because we won’t be able to grow.

“Economies don’t just stand still. They want to keep growing.”

He continued: “To try to deny aviation capacity expansion in the South-east is totally misguided and very damaging.

“It’s not practical to completely cease runway expansion in the South-east because we will completely lose our place in the world as an economic destination.”

And on the Heathwick issue, Mr Taylor said: “It depends how quick, what route, who’s going to pay for it and when is it going to happen?

“And the key question to make the route work; is it possible to create a sealed link that connects airside at Heathrow with airside at Gatwick, because the only way the Heathwick link would contribute would be if it allowed passengers arriving on international flights at one airport to move seamlessly to the other airport, without going through customs, baggage reclaim and immigration.”

A spokeswoman for Gatwick Airport said: “Our position is we have the capacity today and for the next ten years, as outlined in our master plan for our single runway.

“We are looking to do everything we can to use that capacity.”

She said: “Our policy on our runway expansion is guided by our 1979 agreement.

“We have safeguarded land as requested by the Government, should the opportunity come about in the future.

“We are watching current developments and assessing the relevance to Gatwick, but we have plans within our master plan about how we intend to grow with our two-terminal, single runway.”

She added the airport does not have a stance on the Heathwick issue, saying: “If that’s what they want to do, that’s up to them – if they are wanting to look into that.”