HC Deb 11 March 1955 vol 538 cc907-18

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)

The subject I wish to bring before the House on this Adjournment Motion is the question of the flying facilities from the airport in the county borough of Southend-on-Sea. The county borough is a very large and important one, and it had the foresight some time ago to go in for the development of a municipal airport. I do not think I am exaggerating or that it is merely a question of local pride when I say that the municipal airport is one of the finest in the country, and it is fortunate enough to have an airport manager whose experience, ability and devotion to his job are an outstanding example of devoted service.

The activities of the airport at Southend-on-Sea are being hampered in a variety of ways, and it is these that I wish to bring to the attention of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. First, I invite his attention to the situation at Southend, not only at the present time, but as it has always been. Southend is situated on the coast, and normally the only method of going by road from Southend to anywhere is back through the City of London, because we are separated from the South by the Thames and communication between Kent and Essex is not easy in that sense. I invite my hon. Friend to remember also that communication with Kent, such as it is, is by the Tilbury Ferry, which is one of the worst run and most expensive in the world. Consequently, there is not a great deal of opportunity for development of transport between the two counties of Kent and Essex. Nevertheless, although in some ways Southend finds itself disadvantageously situated from the point of view of transport, it has certain other advantages to which I hope my hon. Friend will give his attention.

The Southend County Borough Council has devoted a great deal of time and money to building up an industrial estate with a view to transferring to the county borough some ancillary industries which would help to keep in employment the people of the borough, many of whom are engaged in the seasonal trade of catering for the visitors from London and elsewhere. The provision of employment for the people is a matter of some importance, and we are delighted that, in addition to our own efforts, steps have been taken for the building up of a big trading town at Basildon, in which many people will be employed. Consequently, the South-East Essex area is a growing and thriving area in which new industries are being developed.

Although in earlier years Southend suffered from the fact that mostly for all long journeys one could move only in the direction of London on leaving Southend, the introduction of modern forms of air transport have made it possible and desirable that she should take advantage of her quite useful position on the coast to be the means of forging a link between London and the Continent. Many endeavours have been made to forge that link.

The endeavour to which I want to draw my hon. Friend's attention today is the attempt which has been made by a company known as B.K.S. Air Transport Services to provide a link between Southend and Amsterdam. It may be within the knowledge of my hon. Friend, and it certainly is within the knowledge of the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones) whom I see sitting opposite to me, that this company has suffered in its activities in the past from another Government Department which withdrew Customs facilities and thereby prevented the company from expanding, as it might have done, in another direction.

Its headquarters are based on Southend, and it is naturally anxious to develop Southend as an important flying centre. It has the unanimous support of the Council of Southend, which is naturally anxious to see that its airport should thrive. Whenever an application is made by the company to provide services from Southend, and particularly when it makes an application to provide a service from Southend to Amsterdam, it meets before the Air Transport Advisory Council the strongest possible opposition to any such proposal, the argument being advanced by the corporations that the needs of the public travelling from this country to Amsterdam are perfectly well served by British European Airways Corporation, and that there is no reason why people should want to travel from Southend Airport because it is in the London traffic area.

This is really nonsense. I know it is nonsense because I live in Southend, and I know that if I want to go from Southend to Amsterdam, as I may possibly wish to do—certainly other people may wish to do so—I can accomplish that journey by B.K.S. in one hour 15 minutes, whereas I could not get anywhere near London Airport in one hour 15 minutes even if I exceeded the speed limits laid down by my hon. Friend's right hon. Friend.

It seems to me that this measurement of the distance within which the London transport area is supposed to lie, the measurement on the mileage principle, is a little obsolete, and that what we ought to do is to calculate the amount of time it takes to go by road from one place to another. It is quite impossible to get from Southend to London Airport under two hours, and one is going it pretty quickly to get there in two hours. In that period of time, however, it would be possible to fly from Southend to Amsterdam and to have a meal.

Why this opposition should be put up by B.E.A. to the provision of this service I do not know. I do not imagine that the people who live in London will be attracted away from B.E.A. to Southend Airport. What is desired is to serve the legitimate needs of a large number of people in south-east Essex who would be more adequately served by a flight from Southend Airport than they are by a flight from London Airport.

At the risk of being thought very reactionary, old-fashioned and unreasonable, I admit that I am one of those people who believe that transport exists to serve the convenience, comfort and needs of passengers. I know that that view is a bit old-fashioned. People seem to think that transport is provided for the benefit of companies and corporations operating the system. I believe that the convenience of the passengers is of some importance. If passengers desiring to go to Amsterdam choose to go from Southend Airport or from any other place, what on earth is the ground upon which B.E.A. or anybody else can seriously object to that? It seems to me to be a dog-in-the-manger attitude taken up by B.E.A. to prevent the development of a competitive service, which, in fact, is not anything like as competitive as they believe it to be.

It is designed to serve the needs of the people of South-East Essex. It is capable of providing a very useful air transport service. There is, of course, another aspect of the matter. Southend Airport is conveniently situated in relation to Tilbury Docks, and, indeed, some of the East London docks as well, and it is quite possible that a very considerable benefit would result from the provision of a quick and proficient freight service from Southend to Amsterdam.

I am advised that in the last resort the company would be prepared to operate a freight service if there were any chance of its being given permission to run it, but the company would certainly much prefer the opportunity to run a mixed type of service, which would enable it to run services throughout the year. I am sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation appreciates that seaside towns are faced with the problem that they have full employment for people in summer but it is difficult to give them full employment in winter. Here is a firm which employs 200 people in Southend at full pressure in summer, because most of the services are of a holiday nature, but is anxious to ensure continuity of employment for those people.

If the company cannot secure continuity of employment by means of the services which it operates from Southend, it seems to me obvious that before very long it will be forced to close down its services from Southend and operate from some other part of the country not so close to the London area as to meet with obstruction from B.E.A. In that event, Southend Airport, one of the best in the country, will lose the services of an enterprising company which will not go on for ever putting up applications, unless there is a clear indication that prejudice is not being exercised merely because the company wants to fly aircraft from Southend direct to the Continent.

Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that Southend will not for ever be regarded by B.E.A. as an area from which air services to the Continent will be opposed by every possible means? I should like to feel that my hon. Friend will be able to tell the House that, although objection has been raised from time to time, there will be fair treatment in the future and Southend will be regarded as a place which it is desirable to develop as a link with the Continent. It is surely the height of folly to expect people who want to go to the Continent to travel two hours in the wrong direction by road in order to come back again by air. It seems to me a waste of time and a waste of manpower and it adds to the traffic congestion in London, which is already bad enough. I hope that my hon. Friend will give very serious consideration to that point.

I want to mention one other point, which is of a more technical nature and upon which I do not pretend to be fully versed. I should like some information from my hon. Friend about Hermes aircraft. On 16th August, 1954, this company commenced negotiations for the purchase from B.O.A.C. of these aircraft, to which was attached the condition that they should be used only for trooping. One naturally assumes, in that case, that whoever bought the aircraft would be at least considered for trooping contracts, otherwise they would have been sold something of no real value.

I understand, however, that the following day the company was informed by B.O.A.C. that there was no Hermes aircraft for disposal but that should there be a change in the situation the company would be advised. From that day to this the company has heard no more, and it has assumed that no further Hermes aircraft has been available to independent transport operators. Perhaps my hon. Friend can say something on that point.

In view of that situation, the company has purchased Viking aircraft surplus to B.E.A. requirements. I understand that these aircraft are fully recognised as suitable for trooping purposes. I do not pretend that trooping is any substitute whatever for a regular, all the year round service of scheduled flights from a conveniently situated part of the country to the Continent. But it would help the company if it thought that it had the possibility of obtaining trooping contracts which would enable it to retain people in employment at Southend.

In order that there should be no question that the county borough of Southend presents a united front on this occasion, I assure the House that that is so and that, if he is fortunate enough to be called, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) will confirm that the people of Southend are proud of their airport. They do not want it to become a white elephant and something which will be a burden upon the ratepayers. They want it to become a thriving and useful airport, and it can only become so if we can have the backing of the Minister and his assurance that the provision of services from Southend to other parts of Europe will be considered on its merits and will not automatically be referred for consideration to the Air Transport Advisory Council, because we know of this persistent opposition on the part of B.E.A. and its desire to include Southend within the confines of the London area. If this kind of thing goes on, airports could close down.

I suppose B.E.A. would have the right to say that Manchester was in the London area, but it is not and there is no reason why Southend should be regarded as within the London area. I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friend will give consideration to this question of a fair deal for the Southend Corporation and its desire to see the airport developed.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. David Jones (The Hartlepools)

I rise only to support the hon. Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden). It looks to me as if a number of characteristics about this complaint are a repetition of something that happened in the northeast. West Hartlepool is a very important county borough, and it is on the coast. It had air services which a company was operating. It looks to me, from what the hon. Gentleman has said, as if the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation has carried into the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation some of the ideas he imbibed while he was at the Treasury. While he was at the Treasury he declined Customs facilities for this company which was operating its services to the Continent for almost the same kind of reason—that there were Customs facilities at Newcastle 30 miles to the north, and that was considered good enough for the north-east.

It looks now as if West Hartlepool was regarded as being part of Newcastle in precisely the same way as Southend is being regarded as part of London. I did have the impression that the job of the civil aviation part of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation was to encourage air travel. I thought that with the advent of the hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends to power they would encourage it, and the development of private air lines. It looks now as if that is not to be the case, and that there is to be a very limited network of air services in this country, which is not to be extended.

It is fairly clear to anybody that no private company could succeed in making a success of its job if it confined its flights to this island, and unless a new view of the matter is taken at the Ministry it looks as though most of the private airlines will have to close down. Because of the similarity of the circumstances between West Hartlepool and Southend, I have much pleasure in supporting the protest of the hon. Member for Southend, East.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. Henry Channon (Southend, West)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. McAdden) for raising the matter which has caused some comment and, indeed, some bewilderment in Southend. The airport is not in my division but on the fringe of it, and many people are employed there who live in my division. So it will be seen that this is a matter of some importance to me.

I have watched the airport grow, and with its many amenities it is a very fine airport indeed. I should have thought that it had claims for development into a major airport, and whenever I have pressed for that I have been told about the technical reasons that exist for preventing that further development. On one occasion, when I pressed the predecessor of my right hon. Friend on the matter, I took the trouble to look at the weather conditions at Southend Airport when it was cloudly at Northolt and Heath Row, as it was then. In Southend at that time it was a beautiful sunny day. Weather conditions are probably better there than at either of the London airports, which is a matter of some consideration.

I know now that this application has been refused, but the principle has been conceded because, in the summer, we have aeroplane excursions to the Continent, particularly to Ostend. Therefore, I cannot conceive why, if the technical objections are such that they allow summer services to which the B.E.A. does not object, there can be objection to winter services, which would give employment to many people in the borough and would also serve the convenience not only of Southend but of all East Anglia. Indeed, people living near Regent's Park can get to Southend Airport almost as quickly as to London Airport.

For some reason that I cannot understand, the claims of this airport, which are great and of long standing, have been ignored, and I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend can explain why that is so.

4.22 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)

I have listened with great interest to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend. East (Mr. McAdden) and Southend, West (Mr. Channon), and also to the hon. Member for The Hartlepools (Mr. D. Jones), whose argument I know only too well. I hope he will not attribute to me any form of rudeness if I do not reply to his case in detail, because a deputation is coining to see me on that subject in the not distant future.

I will deal first with the question of trooping. I must make it clear at once that the Government agency in this matter is the Air Ministry. Air trooping is carried out under charter contracts based on competitive tenders, and these are let by the Air Ministry on behalf of the three Service Departments. My right hon. Friend therefore has no responsibility in this field.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East asked me about B.O.A.C.'s Hermes aircraft. The Corporation had a fleet of 19 of that type which became available for disposal in 1953. These aircraft were on world-wide offer for some months but by August, 1954, the Corporation had already sold them to or earmarked them for, three independent companies and the Corporation had no other Hermes aircraft for disposal. I hope this answers that point.

I am aware that B.K.S. have recently acquired three or four Vikings. This company is one amongst many eligible for trooping contracts, and I can only say that, having been invited by the Air Ministry to tender for a forthcoming trooping contract between the United Kingdom and West Africa, the tender which it has submitted will most certainly receive due consideration along with others. I know that my hon. Friend will not expect me to go further than saying that.

One thing I would add is that it is totally unrealistic to regard trooping as a seasonal occupation to be resorted to at the completion of a programme of summer flying and as a means of avoiding the redundancy of employees of any company. Trooping may be required at any time of the year, and the incidence of the trooping programme cannot be organised in such a way as to suit the convenience of operators.

I believe that the hon. Member for The Hartlepools will agree that since 1951 there have been increased opportunities afforded to independent air operators by the policy of Her Majesty's Government. The terms of reference of the Air Transport Advisory Council were most carefully drawn up in order to give greater opportunities in the independent field, but at the same time to avoid impairing the competitive strength of our international air services which have in the main been provided by the Airways Corporations.

My hon. Friends and I are at one in our belief in competition, both as a stimulant to public service and as an incentive to increased efficiency, but we have to recognise the unique and important position which the Corporations occupy in relation to our air transport industry as a national asset. International air transport has now grown to such a pitch as to make it essential for our great flag carriers of the air to be operated under the auspices of the Government and with the backing, where necessary, of the Exchequer.

The risk, the cost and the magnitude of the task make this essential. That being so, any Government must see to it that the Corporations are given every chance to make, as I think they are doing, a success of their task, and that the taxpayers' money is not being unduly jeopardised.

The Corporations are, of course, subject already to the fiercest form of foreign competition, and, therefore—this is the point—in drawing up their new policy in 1952 the Government avoided any measures that would undermine the existing international network of the Corporations. Accordingly, they reserved to them the routes which they were already operating.

This has not, of course, meant that the independent companies have had no opportunities to provide all-the-year-round passenger services. In fact, services of this type have been approved conditionally or finally for operation by independent companies to a very large number of the main traffic centres of Europe. My hon. Friends will, I know, appreciate that all-the-year-round services of this type from Southend have already been approved to Paris, Ostend and Calais. This shows that the companies are not precluded in toto from operations of this sort from that airport.

I well understand the concern of my hon. Friends that Southend, which is indeed a fine airport, should continue to be a flourishing aerodrome, but I know that they will not expect me to accept the principle that it is any part of my right hon. Friend's responsibility to influence the introduction of services in order to assist specific aerodromes. Rather, surely, is it that airports exist in order to cater for the proven requirements of specific services.

All applications for new services have to go before the Air Transport Advisory Council, which works to special terms of reference setting out the criteria to be applied in dealing with any particular type of application which is made. We are very fortunate in having an extremely fine body of men working for us on that Council, and I can only assure my hon. Friends that in reaching their decisions they certainly do not overlook the needs of the travelling public.

However, these companies, as well as other companies, may well find that some of their applications are turned down. Even if at the hearing of an application of this sort, B.E.A., or some other company, claimed that the service was to be operated in the same traffic area as some other service already run by the Corporation, it does not necessarily mean that that would be the sole reason why the A.T.A.C. might turn the application down. There may be other reasons why the A.T.A.C. is not able to agree to such services being run.

B.K.S. is, of course, at liberty, as is any one else, to renew its application, if it wants to do so, for a service from Southend to Amsterdam on an all-freight basis. It would have to show that existing services would not be likely to be undermined by such operations.

I would say, in conclusion, that I well appreciate what my hon. Friends feel, and I hope they understand that I have a high regard, not only for Southend, but for every other civil airport in the country. I should like to draw their attention to the fact that of the 24 applications which have been made by independent companies for services from Southend Airport since the new terms of reference were issued, only four have been rejected by the A.T.A.C. and by my right hon. Friend. Five applications are under consideration, three of the others were withdrawn, and the remainder have been approved. I suggest that, on the whole, this is not too unsatisfactory a result for Southend.

I know that my hon. Friends would not expect me to comment in any way on the findings of an independent tribunal such as the Air Transport Advisory Council. My right hon. Friend and I will continue to do everything in our power to build up the services of the independent operators so long as they do not conflict with the established network of our great flag carriers, the Corporations I am sure that is possible, and I believe that, in future, Southend will play a very considerable part in this over-all Government policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.