HC Deb 14 November 1958 vol 595 cc778-810

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gibson-Watt.]

1.35 p.m.

Mr. Frank Beswick (Uxbridge)

On 31st December this year Croydon Airport, which is bound up with the history of civil aviation in this country, is due to close, and if it goes London will be one of the few capital cities of the world around which there is not one airport available for the use of light aircraft. I am told that within a 10-mile radius of Paris there are seven such airfields available, and within a similar radius of New York there are 11 available. If this decision is put into effect we shall have London without any airfield of that kind. Croydon Airport is due to be closed as the result of a decision made in 1953.

There are so many informed and responsible people who believe that a mistake is being made that I thought that the matter ought to he fully discussed in the House. I am looking forward to hearing what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has to say. At the outset, I might say that in 1945 I attacked the use of Croydon as an airport, and I used some strong language which I have no doubt the hon. Gentleman has taken the trouble to read; but in 1945 I was very much concerned with the necessity for building an international airport for the use of heavy transport aircraft and I did not then have in mind the great need there would be for light aircraft. Apparently, when he made the decision in 1953 about the future pattern of London Airports, the Minister was not even then considering the potential of light aircraft.

What, briefly, is the case for Croydon Airport? It is that we need in or conveniently near London one airport, at any rate, with Customs facilities which can be used by aircraft severely restricted in size and weight and. I might add, noise—club aircraft, privately-owned machines, the executive type of aircraft now being built and developed in so many other parts of the world in increasing numbers, and, possibly, in addition, some passenger-carrying aircraft up to the size of the Dove or the Heron.

The Government have always accepted the need, in theory, at any rate, that there should be such an airfield and have promised on several occasions an alternative if and when Croydon Airport was closed. I shall have more to say about the alternatives later, but I must say now that in the consideration of those alternatives there seems to be a sad story of muddle and contradictions and I shall expect to have some explanation of some of the offers which have been made.

Different reasons at different times have been advanced to support the closure decision. I should like to examine them. They can be grouped in the following categories: defence and security reasons, to which only vague allusion has been made; the problem of public amenity; the problems connected with aircraft control and safety; and reasons of economics and finance.

Let us consider, first, the security plans. Like most of these top secret plans, they are fairly well known to those who take an interest in these matters, and I will not go into them more than to say that I know of the matters to which reference has made, I have considered them and I do not think that there is anything in the proposal for development around London which means that there could not be at any rate a temporary extension of the life of Croydon. I say no more than that.

The next question is that of public amenity which, as the Parliamentary Secretary knows, I have very much at heart. If it were argued to me that on grounds of noise and public amenity the use of Croydon as an airport was not possible, and if it were shown to me that there was an overriding argument in this connection, I should be inclined to accept it, but as far as I can see this argument is not seriously put forward by the Ministry as a reason for closing Croydon.

Indeed, with the length of the runways there, the contemplated size of aircraft, the possibility of these light aircraft climbing to a reasonable height before they reach the boundaries of the airport, and the fact that silencers are being used more and more and there seems no reason why they should not be developed even further, I think that noise of itself is not a very important factor in this argument. Certainly, it is not a factor which the Minister now appears seriously to advance.

Let us next consider the question of control and safety generally. Here again, if a convincing argument were advanced by the Minister that it was not possible, because of the control and safety problems involved, to have Croydon within the London control zone, I should be inclined to accept the closure for that one reason, but as far as I can make it out this argument seems to be brought in only as a makeweight and does not seem to be a conclusive argument. It is certainly not advanced as a conclusive argument.

Moreover, I cannot accept this argument as long as the Minister is offering Biggin Hill as an alternative. I have tried to obtain the advice of people with more knowledge of this subject than I possess, and as far as I can see there is no substantial control problem at Croydon which would not equally be encountered at Biggin Hill. Moreover, Biggin Hill is nearer to Gatwick than is Croydon.

If we are talking about control, we must remember that the Minister has offered Gatwick as an alternative. If the Ministry is seriously thinking of accepting the problems which will be involved by bringing into the Gatwick circuit all the light aircraft now using Croydon, and if it feels that it can overcome the difficulties at Gatwick, then I do not accept that it is beyond its power to contrive some arrangement which would entail the continued use of Croydon. I go as far as to say that the suggestion that all these light aircraft, piloted by men of varying experience, as is necessarily the case, should be mixed with the jet aircraft, cannot be considered as a serious alternative to the separate operation of Croydon. I therefore do not feel that the closure decision is justified on that ground.

We come next to the economic argument. Many believe that this is the explanation of the Minister's obstinacy. Some people say that it is because of a wish to cut down the financial Estimates of one Government Department that the Minister ignores completely the interests and economics of this field of aviation generally. In other words, it is believed that some people are trying to make paper economies for submission to the Treasury, even though these would undoubtedly involve considerably greater loss to individual enterprises and to the country's economy generally.

Let us look at some of the alternatives which have been put forward. There was the suggestion that the clubs and aviation firms now operating from and working around Croydon should move to Biggin Hill. This was held to implement the promise to provide alternative accommodation. The organisations were expected to leave the accommodation which they at present enjoy, most of which is only of specialist use and which would be wasted if they left, and to build new hangars or to adapt old hangars and to provide the necessary technical facilities and office accommodation at Biggin Hill. In addition, they were to provide various fire, ambulance and control services.

When all this expensive capital equipment had been set up afresh, the longest period of tenancy which the operators could expect would be seven years, with a possible break at four years. I do not think that any concern could spend money on fixed capital assets of this kind for such a limited period of secured use. I might say that even these terms were offered only after earlier and even less reasonable proposals had been put forward by the Air Ministry.

I should emphasise that, in any case, the situation at Biggin Hill is quite unsuitable for this kind of air traffic. It has nit the necessary surface communications with London. If we are serious about developing a centre for light aircraft, with the possibility of attracting the kind of machines on the kind of business from the Continent which we expect, it is essential that there should be very quick and convenient access to the centre of London. This is now available at Croydon and it is not available at Biggin Hill.

This alternative has been pat forward in such a piecemeal fashion, such a halfhearted fashion, that do not believe that it was put forward in the belief that it was acceptable. Certainly, very few people seem to have given it serious consideration.

I understand that last Friday the present users of Croydon were summoned to a meeting to be held at the Ministry on Monday. They were there presented with fresh proposals purporting to be an implementation of the promise to provide alternative accommodation to Croydon. Some of these people were offered accommodation in an old hanger, which I believe had to be moved and erected at Gatwick, at a rental, exclusive of maintenance, insurance, rates, heating and other outgoings, of 8s. 6d. per square foot. This compares with the present cost of their accommodation at Croydon of about 1s. 9d. per square foot.

Alternatively, it was suggested that a new hanger should be erected at a minimum cost of £168,000, without workshops, without offices and without any boilerhouse, to be available, unheated, at a rental of 10s. 6d. per square foot. I am told that the unfortunate Croydon users who attended the meeting on Monday and were presented with these proposals were expected to make a decision on the spot about accepting them. I do not think that people can be blamed if they say that the proposals did not bear the mark of any responsible action. They were hurried proposals, hurriedly put forward, and it was unreasonable to expect an immediate answer.

There was an additional proposal to look into the economics of a grass strip at Gatwick for the use of these light aircraft. On other occasions I have suggested that there might be a strip of this kind, but it is only at this late stage that consideration is being given to the provision of a grass airstrip at Gatwick, when on 31st December these people are supposed to be getting out, and when it will be impossible for them to carry on their businesses because they will have no airfield from which to take off.

In this connection, it is significant and indicative of the state of mind of some people who are considering this matter that, whereas they were prepared to consider the economics of a grass strip at Croydon for the use of these light aircraft, if they have to consider the licensing of an airfield for such a use anywhere else in the country, a licence would not be given unless there were two alternative runway directions. Yet here, apparently, it is being seriously suggested that we should have one grass airstrip mixed into the circuit of this major airport. The users of Croydon Airport are expected to give up their accommodation there in favour of this hypothetical facility.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

The hon. Member keeps referring to a grass airstrip, but those of us who are interested in private flying want to go further and have a grass landing area. We do not want the position to be misunderstood. I am sure that the hon. Member agrees with me in this matter.

Mr. Beswick

Yes. I am now talking about the proposal put forward in a somewhat vague fashion at the meeting on Monday. This was to be considered as a serious alternative to the use of Croydon. Accepting the advisability of a landing area, all I say at present is that I understand the proposal was merely for a grass strip in one direction, although the Ministry would not license such a single strip on any other airfield. I first looked at this matter from the outside, and I was able to go only upon newspaper reports, but the more I have gone into it the greater is my feeling that the present users of Croydon have not had a fair deal in this matter; nor that any fair alternative proposals have been put to them.

Let us consider the possibility of going to Gatwick. If the users of Croydon Airport could afford to pull up their roots, abandon their present fixed equipment and incur the cost of rebuilding at Gatwick; if they could accept the quite extraordinary rents which are being asked of them, there would still be no security for them, as I understand it. They would make this move to Gatwick and still not be able to make certain of their future. If Gatwick traffic develops as I think it will, despite all the present pessimism, and in a few years' time it is found impossible to cope at Gatwick with the 7,000 additional light aircraft movements which we now have at Croydon in certain months, any Minister would find it his duty to tell those users that they would have to move again. With such a limited security it is unfair to expect these people to move.

I agree that the Minister must have a proper regard for costs, but I would put certain considerations before him. Different figures have been quoted of the gap between present income and expenditure at Croydon, and I believe that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has used figures varying between £30,000 and £50,000 a year. I do not know whether these estimates include the cost at present incurred for the accommodation of such activities of the Ministry as the training of the constabulary.

Aside from that, whatever may be the gap at present, it is due partly to the fact that there has been no long-term plan for the development of the airport either for the use of aircraft or for factory accommodation around the field. Some of the hangars are at present empty as a result of deliberate policy of the Ministry, and that is understandable if the airfield is to close. If the accommodation which is at present empty could be tenanted; if the rents of the other tenants were revised, as they could and should be, and some of the land which is at present sterilised were used for the development of commercial buildings of one kind or another, I see no reason why the gap should not eventually be closed.

If all that were done, and if the airport were managed in a proper businesslike way, I believe that we could get pretty near to balancing revenue and expenditure at Croydon Airport. Indeed, I know a little about these matters and I would go as far as to say that if the Minister decided to provide an airport for the use of these light aircraft somewhere else around the Metropolitan area; if he started afresh and built new facilities, he could not provide an airfield at a cost less than that which he would incur at Croydon if the airport were managed properly and had a proper long-term development plan. I believe Croydon would offer the best chance of being self-supporting because, in its present position and with the present facilities around it, it is possible to spread the overheads in a way which could not be done with any other new airfield. Properly developed, Croydon could be a lively and economic centre for light aircraft.

Compare with that constructive and imaginative possibility as a centre for light aircraft the Minister's proposal. He intends to abandon valuable fixed assets and literally to cut the ground from beneath the feet of some of the small companies which are now providing useful employment around the airfield for some 1,200 men.

I very much hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary can give us some other very good reasons—which have not been available to the public so far—for closing the airport. If he cannot, it would seem that there is a very sound case for having an outside, independent inquiry into this decision, and I therefore look forward to what the hon. Gentleman has to say.

1.58 p.m.

Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett (Croydon, North-East)

Perhaps I should begin by explaining that Croydon Airport lies outside my constituency and within that of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health who, as the House will see, is in his place, but is, by convention, barred from taking part in the debate. One of the more trying situations for Ministers is that they have to sit and hear somebody else saying what they would like to say, and probably saying it far less forcibly and eloquently.

I know that I speak for my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. F. Harris), who had intended to take part in the debate, but did not expect it to come on so early and cannot be present because he has an engagement for this time.

Croydon Members want to make it clear that it is not through any lack of interest that they have not raised this matter in Parliament. On the contrary, we have all been much involved in this problem—this dispute, one might say—ever since it boiled up rather over a year ago. We have received delegations, on which members of the Corporation have been represented, with members of the chambers of commerce concerned, and, of course, representatives of the users of the airport as well.

I should like, in passing, to pay a small tribute to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, who has been courtesy itself in explaining to us some of the difficulties and the reasons which have actuated the Government in reaching the decision which has been reached. As a result of all these talks, meetings, and the correspondence which we have had, we have all very reluctantly reached the conclusion that the reasons which have actuated the Government in their decision are unanswerable.

I will not recapitulate them now, because no doubt that will be done in a few minutes' time by the Minister, but I would say that I remember that, at the first big discussion we had, the question of safety came up and occupied most of the time. There were present at that time representatives of the airport control, who came to argue that safety was not an overriding difficulty. I must say that they did not convince me, nor did they convince my hon. Friends. It seemed to us that safety was a very big factor indeed, but no doubt the Minister will elaborate on this point in due course.

Once we have reached that conclusion, we really had no option but to accept the Government's decision, and, once we were satisfied, from what we have been told by the Minister, that there was no question of going back on it, we felt it would be a mistake, and, indeed, that it would not do any service at all to the present users, to pursue this battle too far in Parliament and raise false hopes that the decision might be reversed. In fact, I think I should say quite frankly that there is a suspicion locally that some of the present users have perhaps been tempted to delay their efforts to find alternative accommodation or to make alternative arrangements, because they hope that if they sit tight the Government will eventually give way and the airport will remain open after all.

Mr. Beswick

I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for giving way. Is he not being a little unfair to his constituents there? The onus of providing alternative accommodation does not rest upon the people concerned, but upon the Ministry. It was the Ministry which said that it would provide alternative accommodation if and when Croydon was closed. It was said from that Box on several occasions. It really is not feasible for these people to provide their own airfield.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I shall await with interest what my hon. Friend the Minister has to say on this subject, but I would remind the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) that anybody who believes a Government when they announce their long-range decisions would have come to the conclusion as far back as 1953 that Croydon Airport would be closed. This is not a new project. The facts were originally announced more than five years ago.

I should like to say that I have the greatest sympathy with the private owners of light aircraft and perhaps even more with the flying clubs. I have a personal reason for that. I used to do a bit of flying before the war, and I got quite a lot of fun out of it. After the war, in spite of the fact that I was on the full pay of a senior captain, I found it beyond my pocket, and how other people afford it in these days I would not know. To those young men disappointed in having to give it up, I would say that I took to motor-cycling instead, found it much cheaper, and, on the whole, got quite as much fun out of it.

Although I have sympathy with the clubs and private owners, I also have sympathy with the people who live in the immediate vicinity of the airport, and who object to the noise. I am thankful to say that the airport is not in my constituency, but I am assured by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. R. Thompson) that quite an appreciable proportion of his correspondence is supplied by people complaining of the noise. It is an unfortunate fact that, if one lives close to an airfield on which circuits and bumps are practised hour after hour, once one becomes aware of the noise it is a remarkably irritating thing.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge also raised the question of the finances of the aerodrome, and here again I should be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say, because of a suggestion made to me by the private operators who are anxious to continue the use of the aerodrome. I communicated it to my hon. Friend, who replied some time ago, giving in some detail the precise conditions under which the airport would be allowed to continue in use by these people as a private aerodrome, or, at any rate, a useful aerodrome. I understand, though I speak subject to correction, that there is still nothing to prevent the Croydon Corporation taking over this airport and running it under these limiting conditions. That proposition has found no favour, or not sufficient favour, to carry a majority on the council, and I suspect that the reason for that is that, financially, it is not an attractive proposition.

There is a very understandable sentiment which comes into this question. Croydon is associated with the early days of flying in this country, and everybody regrets when the time comes to close an aerodrome which has so many associations in the memories of the pioneers of flying. But, of course, The old order changeth, yielding place to new and, although I have not studied the proceedings of Parliament of a hundred years ago, or whatever it was, I cannot help feeling that probably similar debates to this one took place when it was finally decided to close Bucklers hard as a great centre of shipbuilding activity. There is a little difference, but these things are inevitable. London has grown up round the airport, and engulfed it, and that, I feel, is the real and inescapable reason for this decision.

Having said all these things, I should like to close by saying that, on behalf of my two colleagues, we very much appreciate the spirit which the hon. Member for Uxbridge has shown in raising this matter in Parliament. Although we cannot agree with his conclusions about the airfield, and I say that with great regret, none the less, we fully endorse everything he has said about the need to ensure that the present users get a square deal.

2.8 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

It is a very happy thing that today the Government have managed to get through their business in a commendably short space of time, and from the moment when the Question, "That this House do now adjourn," was put from the Chair, it became a private Members' day, which I as a back bencher very much welcome.

I find myself immediately and completely in support of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) and absolutely against my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), who was speaking for himself and his two colleagues, the three Members for Croydon all being on my own side of the House.

Before I go any further, I must declare a personal interest in this matter. It so happens that I am the Chairman of the Royal Aero Club, and my right hon. Friend has been good enough to receive a deputation from us on this subject. The Royal Aero Club, as the House will know, is probably both the father and mother of private flying.

I would say, in passing, that it is not generally known that had it not been for the existence of the Royal Aero Club before the outbreak of the first war in 1914 I doubt very much indeed if the Royal Naval Air Service would ever have come into existence at all. It certainly would not have been the immediate and unqualified success that it was had it not been for those early and intrepid flyers, all members of the Royal Aero Club. I will not mention arty names, but all hon. Members of the House know that that is indeed a fact. I would go further and say that the vast majority of the early members of the Royal Flying Corps in 1914 and 1915 were also members of this Club. I say that because I have today this onerous responsibility of speaking on behalf of private flying generally.

Before I go further into that, I wish to address a few remarks to my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East. I think it is really rather unfair to the House that my hon. and gallant Friend should say that the Minister has some reasons which are unanswerable and then not to deploy any arguments whatsoever about those reasons. In fact, he mentioned no reasons. He certainly mentioned the question of safety, and he said that he attended a meeting at which the airport control officers were present and that he did not believe a word they said.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Not at all. My hon. Friend has it entirely wrong. What I said, and what I am now repeating, was that we were convinced that the reasons were unanswerable. I believe that there is a distinct possibility that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will catch the eye of the Chair before the debate is over, and I shall be surprised if he does not himself deploy the reasons with greater accuracy than I could. I should be the last to waste the time of the House by saying something that will be repeated.

Mr. Gough

With great respect, I shall be equally surprised if my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary does, because none of us has been able to find any of the reasons put forward at different times. We have never got to the real reasons for the removal of Croydon beyond the fact that there was a statement in the White Paper of 1953 to the effect that when Gatwick was completed Croydon would be shut down. If we could get an assurance from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that Gatwick is completed, and that means that there will not be a second runway, then one might think differently. But Gatwick is not completed.

There are one or two other points in regard to my hon. and gallant Friend's speech which I think should be answered, if only for the purpose of the record. He said there was a suspicion that the users have delayed their efforts to find alternative accommodation. That point was answered by the hon. Member for Uxbridge, and I hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will not think that I am being too strict if I say that his remarks on this point were rather unworthy of him.

It is not in the hands of the private fliers at all. They have been waiting to get really proper alternatives from my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I propose to submit during the course of my speech that they have not as yet got anything that can measure up to the criteria that are absolutely essential.

The other point mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend—I think he underlined it fairly sincerely—was the question of noise. I believe I am right in saying—and I do not want to forecast what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is going to say—that the matter of noise is really nothing serious at all. After all, as my hon. and gallant Friend said, Croydon is one of the very earliest of our airports. Many of the inhabitants of Croydon have been there all their lives and the newcomers to Croydon came there knowing that an airport existed. Therefore, I do not attach any great importance to that matter.

I wish to deploy very simply the case for private flying. I believe that it would be a complete tragedy for the country if private flying were allowed to die. I entirely agree with my hon. and gallant Friend—I hope he will be pleased that I agree with him on something—that it is very difficult indeed for people to afford private flying. I think that makes my point, that the Government should give more sympathy to the matter than they do. I acknowledge both the sympathetic interest that my right hon. Friend is taking in private flying, and, if I may say so with respect, I acknowledge much more that of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, who has taken an interest in the matter which is very much appreciated by private fliers.

I come back to the point that this decision if implemented will, as I see it, be a death blow to private flying. I say that for the reason that private flying must be centred round London. Private flying throughout the country will still depend on its development within London. I think I am right in saying—and I believe that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will endorse this—that the Government agree that there must be some centre for private flying within easy reach of the centre of London which carries out the following criteria.

The first criterion is that there must be security of tenure. Secondly, as I have said, the centre must be within easy distance of London, preferably in south London, in order to attract visitors from the Continent. Thirdly, there must be good public transport facilities, adequate airport buildings and hangars, and there must be a grass landing area—I underlined that point when the hon. Member for Uxbridge was speaking; a grass landing strip is not enough—and there should also be Customs facilities and hotel and restaurant facilities. I believe those requirements are generally agreed by the Minister and the Parliamentary Secretary.

To go back on those points, I will first take security of tenure. We have been offered Biggin Hill and we have pressed to know how long we could be there. We are now told that we could be there for seven years, with strings attached. I seem to remember strings being put on Gatwick when I was arguing about the cost, so I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will not think me cynical or disbelieving when I say that seven years seems to me a rather improbable period, and that it may be less. In any case, seven years is no good at all; it is absolutely useless.

If the private fliers are to go to Biggin Hill, I say that the absolute minimum that they should expect is a period of something between fifteen and twenty years. Without that they cannot arrange their facilities for building hangars and doing the other things that have to be done.

Then, again, we are told—and we are very grateful indeed, and I want to emphasise this point—that we can have the use of a portion of Gatwick. We are extremely grateful, but I hope we shall not be considered to be ungrateful if we say, again, that that also must be a temporary facility. Indeed, we hope that it will be a temporary facility, because I believe that hon. Members on both sides look forward to the time when Gatwick will develop fully as a great international airport. If it does, then, again, there is no security of tenure for us at Gatwick.

I would point out to the Minister that we have the gravest possible doubts that there would be any security of tenure at either Biggin Hill or Gatwick. It has been mentioned that we might use London Airport, but I do not think that that would be anything but a very temporary expedient. The hon. Member for Uxbridge has already discussed the question of public transport facilities. I would like to say that these facilities are infinitely better at Croydon than at Biggin Hill or at Gatwick.

I have come to the conclusion that far too little time has been given to private fliers in which to make alternative arrangements. I feel very strongly, and I think I can say this as a staunch supporter of the Government, that they simply must leave us at Croydon for as long as it is humanly possible if the reasons to which my hon. and gallant Friend referred are really unanswerable, which I do not think they are.

Who knows what the shape of civil aviation will be in five or ten years' time? All of us must surely realise that we shall not go on having aircraft landing on and flying out of aerodromes at 100 miles an hour. We see great inventions taking place such as the Fairey Rotodyne. It seems to me to be quite possible that within a decade aircraft will be able to land and take off vertically. If that be the case, then all the arguments advanced at the moment regarding traffic control will have no application whatever. But if this decision is implemented London will have lost for ever a centre which is far more suitable for private flying than any alternative which has yet been put forward. I ask my hon. Friend, therefore, to ask his right hon. Friend to have another think about this subject and at least to say, "You can stay at Croydon until the end of 1960, and then we will review the situation."

Keen people, people with character who fly their small aeroplanes, are in a worried state at present. I feel it incumbent on the Government to give them some reassurance, first, that they will not be moved out from Croydon until an alternative site has been found for them, and secondly, when that alternative has been found, it will not be changed again within a decade.

2.21 p.m.

Group Captain C. A. B. Wilcock (Derby, North)

I am at a grave disadvantage in not having heard my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), who I am sure made one of his customary excellent speeches, or the other hon. Members who have spoken, because I was not able to be present in the Chamber in time to hear the commencement of this interesting and important debate.

I wish to underline certain things I have beard said by the hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough), which I am sure were referred to adequately by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Uxbridge. I believe that the question of private flying is still not thoroughly understood by the Government, and it may be that it has not been understood by any Government which we have had so far. It is a very important matter. Little aeroplanes do not require big aeroplanes, but big aeroplanes do require little aeroplanes, otherwise we should have no trained pilots at all.

It is obvious to everyone that Croydon is the natural place to which flyers from the Continent can land when they come to Great Britain. It is a name which is well known on the Continent and in every flying club in the flying world as a London terminal. We know that Croydon is not suitable for large aeroplanes, and I shall not advance the argument that it is suitable even for twin-engined heavy aircraft, although they have been operated very well from there with magnificent regularity. But certainly, for club flying Croydon is ideal and something which we want in this country. We have no place to which foreign flyers can come unless they skirt London or go to White Waltham, which is miles away; or round to my own club at Elstree—ans that they have to go through the London control—or endeavour to miss it by making a detour of many miles. Croydon is therefore the obvious centre.

I suggest that the Air Ministry as well as the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation might take more interest in this question of private flying. There would appear to be a considerable lack of sympathy between the two Ministries, and this is illustrated by the difficulties regarding Biggin Hill. The Air Force does not really want Biggin Hill, it cannot want Biggin Hill. We do not need Royal Air Force aerodromes so close to London for the defence of London or the south of England, or indeed, of any part of England. We do not need our fighter planes to go up from a place only about twelve miles from Westminster. When one considers the speed of present-day fighter aircraft, it is ridiculous for the Air Ministry to be haggling about whether it needs this or that building and whether it should or should not be handed over to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation for civil operators at Biggin Hill. Incidentally, I must confess that in my opinion Biggin Hill is by no means an ideal alternative solution.

But to return to Croydon. In my view, it would be very shortsighted to allow Croydon to be given up. I do not know the present opinion of the inhabitants in that district because it has changed. A few years ago they did not want an aerodrome at Croydon, but the last time I spoke to several local inhabitants I was told that they did want it; that they did not want to see the aerodrome covered with little houses. Suddenly they had conceived a great liking for the aerodrome. Mr. Deputy-Speaker, we really must encourage flyers from overseas to visit this country, not only on pleasure but on business. Croydon is the ideal place for them to come to, and, indeed, there is no other airfield South and near London.

Perhaps the Minister is to suggest some other airfield. Hendon was a possibility except that there is the trouble of the London control, and, of course, the Air Ministry would not allow Hendon to be used; it can remain full of furniture and junk, but it must not be used as an aerodrome.

I ask the Minister to give further consideration to the matter of Croydon's future, as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Horsham, and, I am sure, by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge. Give the private operators at Croydon a little longer to get themselves organised at Gatwick or Biggin Hill. There are no maintenance facilities at Gatwick; indeed my own company is seeking permission to put a caravan at Gatwick in which to keep some tools, and so hon. Members will appreciate how fantastic it is to suggest that any operator can operate efficiently from Gatwick at the present time.

I therefore add my plea to what has been said already, that Croydon should stay, and that for the time being the private operators should be allowed to remain there.

As a long-term policy, for heaven's sake let us keep Croydon for flying clubs. Let Croydon be the rendezvous for the private flyers. Let the businessman, flying his Dove, come in from the Continent to land at Croydon and then travel on to London to do his business. As one who is a supporter of private flying clubs and who has an interest in them, I consider that a legitimate request to make to the Government. This Government, and indeed previous Governments, have made some dreadful errors over their aviation policy in my opinion. This will prove another error unless a halt is called now and further consideration given to the closure of Croydon.

2.27 p.m.

Mr. J. A. Leavey (Heywood and Royton)

I know that hon. Members wish to hear what my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has to say and, therefore, I shall be brief.

I do not wish to go over the arguments about whether Croydon should be shut down at all or whether it should be shut down at some later date; or whether Biggin Hill is a good alternative. I do not think that Biggin Hill is a good alternative. I do not wish to argue whether Gatwick would be suitable. My point is that the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation seems to be acting in this case in a way which will have a considerable impact on private flying one way or the other. I think it will prove disastrous if the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation gives the appearance of opposing the true interests of private flying. If anybody ought to be fighting the battle for private flying, it is the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.

The psychological effect resulting from the Government using the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation as the instrument to close Croydon will be most unsatisfactory. If I understand its functions aright, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation should be on the other side. It could be argued that the Ministry was unable to pursue its policy of developing private flying because it was baulked by the Treasury, or because there was a demand for the Croydon aerodrome site from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. But, in the present circumstances, private flyers regard the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation as their opponent rather than as their friend and sponsor. Perhaps I have misunderstood. I very much hope that during the next few minutes my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to disabuse our minds of that idea so that we shall not look back on 1958 as a time when the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation showed itself to be the opponent rather than the sponsor of private flying.

2.30 p.m.

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

This debate is extremely important, and I am very glad, as my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough) said, that we have a little longer than usual for an Adjournment debate, because I shall have an opportunity to tell the House the reasons why the Government came to their decision, to close Croydon, which they did as long ago as 1953. I am sure that the House will agree that I should do this at a little length. I am glad that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), who, as he always does, presented his arguments in a most attractive way, has given me this opportunity. The Government have been asked to state their reasons, and they will certainly do so. Although these reasons have already been discussed with the numerous bodies concerned with Croydon, the fact that the operators do not accept them does not mean that they are not reasons. I shall begin by referring to the consultations which we have actually had.

I was glad that hon. Members said that my right hon. Friend and I had shown our interest in private flying. The Government certainly have a very considerable duty in regard to private flying. That is one point. The Government also have a grave responsibility for safety and air traffic control. That is another point. My right hon. Friend and I have had a great deal of personal consultation with the different interests concerned, and I will tell the House who they are. At Croydon, there are the independent operators. There are the flying clubs, the operators of private executive aircraft, and also the aircraft construction and maintenance firms which work on the airfield. Those are the people concerned in the decision to close Croydon.

We do not rejoice at all in the closure of Croydon. I want to make that quite clear. We recognise that it has played a great r—le in aviation in this country, and we recognise also that, in some respects, the facilities that it offers will be hard to replace. However, the Government have now decided, through the setting up of a standing joint committee on private flying, to examine the long-term prospects of private flying, to which hon. Members have referred and, in particular, to look at the establishment of what has been described as an aviation centre or a suitable aerodrome for private and club flyers.

I think that many of us here have been interested in the history of Croydon since we were boys. It was opened for flying in 1915 and was the original home of Imperial Airways. We are not, however, concerned with that today. One hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that air transport is a growing and dynamic industry with an ever-changing demand, and big changes have taken place even during the past two years. Croydon is, by modern standards, a small airport That is not in dispute. It is in the middle of a heavily built-up area and, in our opinion, it is not capable of further development.

In 1953, we decided that, if we were to deal safely with the growing air traffic, the pattern of London's airports must be simplified. I should like to read some extracts from the White Paper on London's Airports, which was published in July, 1953. In paragraph 2, we said: The most important problem is that of the control of aircraft in the air near London. The control organisation is already heavily burdened and unless radical changes are made it will, in a few years' time, be unable to provide a safe and efficient service for the increased traffic. It is essential to simplify the pattern of air traffic and this can only be done by reorganising the system of airports near London. At present, the Ministry of Civil Aviation operates seven airports in the London area:—London Airport, Northolt, Blackbushe, Bovingdon, Croydon, Gatwick and Stansted. Her Majesty's Government propose to reduce this number to three operational airports (London Airport, Gatwick and Blackbushe) and one (Stansted) to be held in reserve. The reasons for this choice and the uses to which the three airports will be put are explained in this Paper. Hon Members know that that was done.

Mr. Beswick

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will allow me to call his attention also to paragraph 8, in which it is said that Of the five minor airports near London (Blackbushe, Bovingdon, Stansted, Croydon and Gatwick) none can be used intensively, the first three because of air traffic control problems and the last two because they are too small. In other words, it was specifically stated that it was not an air traffic control problem which ruled out Croydon from further consideration. It was the fact that it was too small, but, of course, too small only for the larger aircraft, not for the type of aircraft we are discussing.

Mr. Neave

In the Appendix to the White Paper, to which I referred, it is said that Croydon is a small grass aerodrome in a heavily built-up area. It could only be extended and used at such great expense and disturbance to amenities as to make its selection out of the question. That is what was said at that time.

Mr. Beswick

I think that we ought to have the matter quite clear, because, although the White Paper was published in 1953, discussions had been going on for some time before that. It should be made clear that that was a consideration in regard to Croydon as an international airport for use by large transport aircraft. No one is seriously suggesting that Croydon could or should be developed for that type of aircraft. The fact is that there is not a word in the White Paper which justifies the closure of Croydon for the light aircraft which we are now discussing.

Mr. Neave

It is quite clear that the point about air traffic control was very much in the mind of the writers of the White Paper at that time, but, of course, if air traffic control were the only reason I had to deal with, the matter would be very much simpler. We have a good many other reasons, and the air traffic control problem has, since 1953, become very much more complicated and important. I shall deal in considerable detail with the air traffic control problem as it stands today, in answer to the hon. Member for Uxbridge.

There was, therefore, a clear statement of policy to which we have held. I do not think that anyone can claim that the operators were not warned that Croydon would close. We believe that a good many other reasons—I shall deal with the changes that have taken place—underlie the same policy. Some traffic, of course, has shifted away from Croydon, but there remain based on the aerodrome two commercial operators, several firms dealing with the building and repair of small aircraft or parts, and a number of flying clubs, to which I have already referred. We have had the pleasure of talking to them a good deal.

I quite understand that Croydon remains attractive to those who are still interested in it. It is close to the centre of London and, as I think the hon. Member for Uxbridge would accept, the rents there are very low at present. They are, in fact, uneconomically low. I do not say that we have not been right in maintaining that situation, but they are uneconomically low and, since we are to discuss the question of finance, there are certain matters that I shall have to talk about in that respect. Some of the firms have hitherto objected to moving to Gatwick because of difficulties in raising capital to erect the new buildings which they will need. We have done our best to meet these difficulties, and I shall talk about certain detailed proposals a little later.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge and my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham put the view that Croydon offered us the best possibility for providing a base for private flying in South-Eastern England. I think that that is the basis of their case. We have been repeatedly told of late that if we knew our business we could develop Croydon into a paying proposition. I shall certainly deal with that point in a moment. It has been suggested that it would be a fine site for a flourishing centre of aviation. Frankly, that is not true. The plain fact is that without a great increase in commercial traffic, there is not a chance of making Croydon pay. Such an increase could not be tolerated for air traffic control reasons, as I shall explain.

This airport has been operating at a considerable loss. The total revenue for the year ended March, 1958, was approximately £84,000, made up of about £47,000 from rents and concessions and £37,000 from aviation revenue. The costs of running the airport and providing technical services amounted to £177,000, to which must be added interest on capital at £43,500, together with a sum of £11,500, representing a proper share of divisional and headquarters costs, making a total in outgoings of £231,000.

This means that if the interest on capital, and the sum to which I have referred for the share of divisional and headquarters costs, are included, one gets a total loss of £147,000 for the year ended March, 1958. I answered a Question about this matter for the period 1956–57, in which those charges were not included. At that time the total loss, without those charges being included, was £72,000. If one excludes the charges to which I have referred, the loss has risen for the year ended March, 1958, to £93,500.

Mr. Gough

Would my hon. Friend think it very unkind if I put down a Question asking for the same figures for Gatwick, including interest on capital?

Mr. Neave

I do not object to any questions asked by my hon. Friend, but I understand that there will be an Adjournment debate about Gatwick next week, in which I shall be delighted to answer all the points raised. We are, however, talking about Croydon Airport, which was opened in 1915 as distinct from an airport which was opened in June this year, and which is of a very different character.

It may be claimed that the loss has been inflated by the use made of Croydon as a training ground for Gatwick. In 1957–58, this might account for about £15,000 to £20,000 of the loss, leaving about £130,000. The loss could be reduced if rents were raised by 85 per cent. to make them compare with rents elsewhere. Assuming that all accommodation was let, an additional £40,000 might be obtained in this way. Even then, there would be no prospect of Croydon ever breaking even unless revenue from landing fees could be substantially increased. Most of this revenue comes from a relatively small number of commercial movements, and now that Gatwick is in operation these have been reduced to less than half of what they were previously in the comparable last year.

I have figures for the Croydon movements with which I shall deal. There remains the possibility—and this will show the House that we have considered these matters anxiously and seriously—of an increase in the light air traffic by way of private, executive and club flying. Private aircraft do not in most cases pay landing fees, as hon. Members know. They present a landing card which is obtained through the Royal Aero Club, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham is chairman, and which is valid at any Government-owned aerodrome. The part of the landing card revenue attributable last year to Croydon was only £225. If private aircraft had to pay landing fees, the revenue from the present number of such landings—about 2,400 a year—would be no more than about £5,000.

It is clear, therefore, that not even an increase of four or five times in the use of Croydon by light aircraft would bring in sufficient revenue to enable the airport to meet its operating costs and other charges. If an increase of this order were feasible, it could hardly be allowed because of the risk to safety. The development which would have to take place at Croydon and in the traffic using it before the airport could pay its way is of an order which we do not think would be right to undertake in such a built-up area.

Mr. Beswick

I am sure that every hon. Member will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting his cards on the table and presenting these calculations, which are very interesting, but he spoke about a possible increase in rentals of 85 per cent. If the rentals were increased by 85 per cent. they would still be only about one-third of the rentals now being asked for the unsatisfactory accommodation at Gatwick. I think that this is a field in which the hon. Gentleman could easily look forward to an increase in revenue. I wonder if he has discussed rentals with the present users of the airport?

Mr. Neave

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to rentals at Gatwick, that matter has not been discussed yet. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was referring to Biggin Hill.

Mr. Beswick

I am saying that an increase of 85 per cent. in Croydon rentals would only mean a rental of one-third of the amounts which have been put forward for Gatwick, not Biggin Hill. If the Department has gone into the possibility of making ends meet, has it discussed rentals with the present users of the airport at Croydon?

Mr. Neave

I do not know what the position is at the moment. I do not think we have, because, in view of our proposals to close Croydon, we had to keep the rents at this present level, which is an uneconomic level. I do not think that we can take the rents in isolation. There is the question of increasing the traffic, and other matters which I have discussed regarding air traffic control, and so forth. But I mentioned, after various circumstances, what figure would be needed to make Croydon break even. I did not think that that could be done. The rents at Gatwick are still the subject of negotiation. Users have already been told about the rents at Biggin Hill.

The House ought to know exactly what the position is at Croydon in regard to traffic movements, so as to put the matter in perspective. The air transport movements from March to August, 1957, were 5,842; March to August, 1958, 3,674, which is a considerable decline; June to August, 1957, 4,055; June to August, 1958, 1,638. This shows that in the March-May period there was a slight growth between 1957 and 1958, but since the opening of Gatwick the Croydon traffic of the kind to which I have referred has been less than it was a year earlier. So there has been a considerable decline in air transport movments.

I think that the hon. Member for Uxbridge suggested that we could solve this matter if we knew how to run aerodromes by reducing the area of Croydon that we are now holding. I looked into this point most carefully, but it is not a practical proposition. If we sold the land on which the buildings are, we should have to meet the loss in rents. If we sold part of the landing area we should not markedly reduce our costs. Moreover, the development of the land sold would have to be severely restricted for safety reasons. I do not think that that would be a practical way of dealing with this matter, even if it were possible to alter the decision that we have made.

I hope that the House does not mind my pursuing this matter at length, because it is very important. I want to come now to the question of controlled air space and air traffic control. For a long time, we have been very concerned about Croydon in regard to air traffic control. If extra traffic were to fly up into the controlled air space, it would interfere with the flow to and from London Airport and, later, Gatwick. Aircraft movements in any appreciable number into or out of Croydon through the airways system are already a serious embarrassment to London Airport. That is our advice.

Hon. Members will realise that although my right hon. Friend has a duty towards private flying—and I have explained the methods that he is taking—he has a national responsibility, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge himself particularly realises, concerning the safe operation of our airways. Traffic getting instru- ment flight rules clearance to enter or leave Croydon is bound to fly at a height otherwise available to London or Gatwick and would slow down London traffic when passing over Epsom. There has to be a rallying point in bad weather, but there is nowhere to act as a rallying point for Croydon exclusively.

When a holding area has to be used for two airports, the runway might be clear at one of them while an aircraft bound for it was held up in the circuit. Efficiency, therefore, demands an exclusive holding area for each aerodrome. It must be obvious that we have taken the best advice we have on this matter, which is that of our expert traffic controllers.

Mr. Beswick

Will the hon. Gentleman now answer my question, namely, which of these control problems, which, he says, apply to Croydon, and which are so conclusive, would not equally apply to Biggin Hill and, in another form, to Gatwick?

Mr. Neave

I am coming to that. The question of whether the points I am raising would apply to Biggin Hill depends upon who goes there. As it would be mainly the clubs who did so, the hon. Member will see that there is a distinction. I will, however, deal with the point in detail.

Departing aircraft would have to climb away from Croydon to join an airway quite close to the airport. Where there is one airport, departures can be timed precisely and closely. Where there are two, delays will arise. That may seem a simple proposition to those concerned with air traffic control, but it is important that it should be realised. For that reason, we do not consider that it would be right to jeopardise the prospect of a proper return on the considerable investment which the development of London and Gatwick Airports represent.

The aircraft which would use Croydon would almost certainly be smaller than those which they would displace at London and Gatwick Airports. It is likely that in terms of aircraft movements, the total achieved at the three airports would be less than would be achieved at London and Gatwick alone. It may, however, be argued—this point was made by the hon. Member and by one of my hon. Friends—that small aircraft of the private or executive type, for which Croydon is so convenient, would not use the airways system. I have heard this argument several times.

Such aircraft can use the free lanes. The modern position is that the free lane southward from Croydon is now blocked by the Gatwick control zone. Another free lane over Sevenoaks will be blocked by aircraft operating from the R.A.F. Station at West Malling. The Air Ministry has undertaken to keep the fighter aircraft either below or to the east of the London control area and for some years to come there will be large numbers of fast fighters flying below 2,000 ft. in this area, entirely precluding a free lane from Croydon along the route of the railway line through Sevenoaks. Croydon aircraft would have to go via either Rochester or Guildford, which would be a serious handicap to commercial operators. Even where free lanes are available, I do not like the prospect of a considerable use of them over built-up areas. I hope that the hon. Member will agree upon this.

It may be argued that Biggin Hill is no better a proposition than Croydon. But for club flying—and it will be mainly club flying as there will not he scheduled services from Biggin Hill—it must be remembered that it is outside the control zone, so that operations will be less restricted and local flying will not be taking place over such built-up areas. I am not pretending that Biggin Hill is the final solution. For a time, perhaps, it will be.

What I have mentioned will also be of some advantage to any charter operators using Biggin Hill, although it has always been accepted that airways flights from Biggin Hill would have to be positioned via Gatwick. On the financial side, a much smaller build-up of traffic would be required for economic operation of the aerodrome.

I now come to a point which has been worrying many hon. Members, in particular the hon. and gallant Member for Derby, North (Group Captain Wilcock) and a number of my hon. Friends, who like myself, are very interested in flying and the extent to which the Government have a duty and a responsibility concerning Croydon, in addition to the serious question of safety in the air.

We are at present considering the problem of providing a centre for private aviation in the South-East of England. It is a difficult matter. Looking at the map, it is difficult to find a suitable place that meets all these difficulties if one accepts that Croydon must be closed. It is a matter at which I am looking with the help of my committee on private flying.

Hon. Members will know that the committee on private flying, of which I am chairman, includes representatives of all the different associations and clubs who have been represented in the great pressure which has been exerted upon my right hon. Friend and myself not to close Croydon. Putting that aspect aside, we are examining constructively—our first meeting went very well—all the possibilities that such an aviation centre presents. One thing of which I am certain, however, is that for the reasons I have given. Croydon is not the right place.

While we may, as the hon. Member for Uxbridge will know, be able to place some of the operators at Gatwick, we still have to consider the idea which has been put forward that a suitable airport or aviation centre with international aspects is the right thing for the future. The whole of the Government's policy on private flying is now being considered by my committee.

I am asked why we cannot extend the life of Croydon. I have given the reasons why it is imperative that we should take the action that we are doing, which we take with considerable regret. I was told that there was some possibility that the closure might cause local unemployment at the airport. We have considered this with the Ministry of Labour and I propose to give the facts.

The risks should not be overrated. Excluding the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation staff, about 1,250 people are employed at Croydon, over 1,000 of them by non-aviation tenants who do not need to be at an aerodrome. Of the remaining 250, it is expected that many would move with their firms either to Gatwick or Biggin Hill if the operators finally reach agreement with us and with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air on the terms of their transfer. Our intention is that the progressive withdrawal already begun by the move of Transair and other traffic to Gatwick and by the reduction in hours of watch at Croydon should now continue and that it should do so as speedily as possible.

The alternatives of Biggin Hill and Gatwick have been thoroughly discussed with the tenants and each, I have no doubt, will now be considering which of the alternatives to adopt. Much has been said about the terms which have been offered at Biggin Hill for the present tenants at Croydon. The short term of the leases offered has been particularly attacked by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham. I should tell him and the hon. Member who suggested that there was some difference of opinion or attitude between ourselves and the Air Ministry on this matter, that we have found my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air most helpful. He has extended the original offer of a four-year term to seven years, although, as hon. Members who have been concerned with this matter know, that might involve some reduction in aerodrome space after four years. I know that there is pressure for an extension of this term of years to a considerably greater degree.

I cannot make any promises as to whether any further extension can now be foreseen, but these matters are being put to the Secretary of State for Air and the question of extension is, in fact, being considered.

Mr. Beswick

Would it not be eminently reasonable if an extension could be made until at least the committee of which the hon. Gentleman is the chairman comes to some decision about a future centre for light flying in the south-east of England? Surely it is quite impossible to expect those people to make a decision on the basis of the present offers when in a few months' time, possibly, the committee might throw up a much better solution.

Mr. Neave

Perhaps the hon. Member will allow me to conclude on this question.

Mr. Beswick

I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon.

Mr. Neave

I am coming to some of the things that we may be able to do, but I am afraid that in the circumstances I do not agree that any extension is possible. I cannot leave entirely out of account the question of disturbance, and so forth. I have not said anything so far about the views of hon. Members from Croydon who have been pressing me to do the opposite from what the hon. Member for Uxbridge is now pressing me to do, but that is a matter which cannot be left entirely out of account. I am sure that the House will forgive me for spending so long on this subject, but it is important to private flying.

Now about an extension of the terms of the lease. It is not intended that tenants of Biggin Hill should be turned out at the end of seven years if that does not prove necessary. It is not to be excluded that they may be allowed to continue in occupation for a longer period, but matters of defence are notoriously uncertain and that is something which my right hon. Friend feels at present cannot be guaranteed. That is the position of the Secretary of State for Air. The other terms of the leases provide that the tenants shall meet the outgoings of that part of the airfield they occupy. That is a matter which involves future Government policy on the question of private flying and it is a matter we are considering in the committee I have mentioned.

For reasons I have explained in some detail, it has been necessary to rule out the operation of scheduled services from Biggin Hill to prevent interference with traffic from London Airport and Gatwick such as we have considered unacceptable in the case of Croydon. It is unlikely that all the tenants at Croydon will find a new home at the same aerodrome. We should expect members of flying clubs from south of the Thames to be more likely to go to Biggin Hill since club flying cannot conveniently and safely be accepted at Gatwick. There is no reason why clubs should not go as soon as possible to new homes and re-establish themselves there in conditions quite as agreeable as those under which most flying clubs operate in this country, but I agree that there are a number of important outstanding matters to be settled and we hope that will be done by the end of the year.

There are several points to be considered about Gatwick. In the case of the non-club tenants, especially those concerned with air charter business, we have long considered that Gatwick is the better solution. So far as I know a good many operators feel that to be the case, but, if that is their choice, some further hangar accommodation will have to he put up. The hon. Member for Uxbridge was rather concerned about the rents of hangars. We have decided that if the tenants generally are unable to raise the necessary money to finance the building of hangars, the Ministry will put them up and let them to the users. We are also willing to consider the provision of a cross-wind landing strip for small aircraft if that is shown to be necessary. It was suggested that what was wanted was a grass area and I shall consider that point.

It is not, in fact, the case that we could not accommodate these operators on a grass strip at Gatwick. The grass strip at Gatwick is for use when cross winds on the main runway are too high for light aircraft, but both the grass strip and the runway could be used for light aircraft as required. That is my technical advice.

This has been a very important debate, and I am grateful to hon. Members, in what is a highly controversial matter and one on which there are strong feelings in aviation circles, for presenting their cases in such a way that it has enabled me to state the Government's position on this matter. My right hon. Friend has said that Croydon must be closed for flying on 31st December. He is prepared to do everything in his power to make the transfer of operators to their new homes as smooth as possible.

The position, therefore, is that all flying activities by clubs must cease on 31st December next. The business of their transfer to Biggin Hill should be effected more speedily than the transfer of charter and executive flyers and other business firms using Croydon. In their case, my right hon. Friend is prepared to allow Croydon to remain open for a very limited period after 31st December, during which there will be a progressive running down of operations concurrently with the transfer of tenants elsewhere. But he is willing to make this concession only provided that these tenants make genuine efforts to avail themselves of one or other of the alternative offers which have been put to them.

We shall continue to conduct our negotiations with them in a sympathetic spirit. I hope that we shall reach a conclusion to these matters which will be suitable for all. But in the meantime, we are examining the Government's long-term policy on private flying more closely, and we hope that we shall find eventually a more permanent solution than the one which I have been able to offer today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Three o'clock.