HC Deb 20 November 1958 vol 595 cc1495-502

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

12.26 a.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the statement made by he Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation on 2nd April, dealing with the reconstruction of Prestwick Airport. On that occasion, the right hon. Gentleman assured the House that he had the necessary finance and plans to go ahead with the expansion of Prestwick main runway and the development of the terminal area. We are now near the end of November, and nothing has so far been started.

While the Government have been shilly-shallying, time has been wasted, and Prestwick is now at the pistol point presented by the Exchequer—£2 million, or extinction. That is the choice, because, of course, if the runway is not quickly completed the big jets aircraft, with their increased carrying capacity, will pass us by, and, having passed, will probably not look round again to see whether we are ready to take them. That, of course, is something we simply cannot risk, but the Government have created the risk, and it is no defence to say that they had to await the opinion of their advisers, for some of those advisers were themselves divided on many of the issues.

One consideration, and one only, should have guided the Minister. It is that Prestwick is our second international airport. But it has not been treated as such. To date, £29 million have been spent on the development of London Airport, and £6 million on the development of Gatwick. The total amount expended on Prestwick so far, is £2½ million. Yet, when fog enwraps London, this Scottish Airport alone remains open for our international air traffic.

Plenty of lip-service is paid to Prestwick, but when it comes to unleashing the purse strings the Government show the mediaeval parsimony of good Queen Bess. We are promised an extended runway and a terminal area which will take several years to complete, thus meanly compromising with the Treasury, because the only immediate development is the extension of the main runway.

The Minister said that he was in favour of a road diversion, knowing full well that this decision ignored the advice of the Scottish Council of Development and Industry, the Ayrshire County Council, Prestwick Town Council and various experts; knowing, also, that the long road round the western end of the runway will discomfort the residents of Monkton, and provide nothing more than a temporary solution to a problem that can be met only by the provision of a tunnel. Road traffic will still be interrupted, as it was last July. It is difficult to believe that the captains of these large aircraft, flying low, as they must, at take off and landing, will allow traffic to proceed underneath them at that point in their flight.

Most serious of all, further extension of the main runway in future will in all probability be restricted by this road diversion. That arises from the fact that the Government now grudge investing the comparatively small sum of £6 million on the reconstruction and full development of this our second international airport. Prestwick is not just a Scottish project and its future should not be contained by the overall sum set aside for Scottish needs. It is the ever open door for the entry and exit of the rising North Atlantic traffic. It is the Minister's duty to see that the door is kept wide open. This he has been slow to do and for this he must bear responsibility.

We must recollect that one out of every four trans-Atlantic passangers begins or ends his flight at Prestwick. Therefore, in the view of most responsible people in Scotland the full development of the airport is absolutely necessary. This demands the extended runway; that is an absolute. It also means the new terminal area. We must also have a modern hotel to meet the needs of our ever-increasing number of visitors and a speedy rail link-up with Glasgow, plus the tunnel under the runway to allow free passage for road transport.

Less than these projects merits no thanks. The situation which faces us is not something which has developed suddenly. As far back as early 1956 the Government were waiting on information about the performance and requirements of the large new jet aircraft. They waited and waited. In that period I often wondered what telephones were for, because in my view it would not have been difficult to have obtained from Boeing and Douglas, by trans-Atlantic phone, the particulars the Government waited so many months to get. It seems that now Prestwick is to suffer for this Micawberlike attitude.

Is it the case that the Ministry have decided to put all our eggs in the Britannia basket and that, like the Government, they have become a little addled? By March, 1957, 132 Boeing 707 and 120 Douglas DC8 machines were on order to American companies. This was no secret. In the month of December, on whose doorstep we almost stand, Pan-American will receive its first batch of Boeings. After that the assembly lines of Boeing and Douglas will start supplying the balance of the 252 big jets to the chief American airlines before the end of 1960. In that year a new jet medium of air transport is scheduled to be introduced which will offer non-stop flights from Prestwick to Montreal or New York in 6½ hours.

I therefore ask the Minister: will the runway at Prestwick be ready by then for these large aircraft and will our air traffic control facilities be adequate? These are questions to which we ought now to receive a clear answer, because time marches on. The Government have not been keeping pace, and I ask them now, through the Minister, whether they will try to make up for the months that they have lost.

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

The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Rankin) has always taken great interest in the future of Prestwick Airport, and he knows that I share that interest. Prestwick has always been regarded by the Government as the country's second international airport, as he said. We have in no way retreated from our intention to maintain its capacity to deal with the most modern aircraft.

The cost of the scheme which my right hon. Friend announced on 2nd April in answer to the hon. Member will be well over £2 million and probably nearer £3 million. I think my right hon. Friend stated that when he was answering the hon. Member on 12th November. We have pressed ahead as fast as is prudent with so large a project. We plan to begin construction work on the airport next spring and to have the extended runway ready to accept the big new jet aircraft by the time the operators have said they want to use it. The date which they have given us is mid-1960.

We should not minimise the difficulties in getting detailed requirements for the big jets, and there is one point which I wish to make very clear. The aircraft about which we are talking is not the Boeing 707, already operating into London, but the much larger inter-Continental model of this and the DC.8. I point that out because the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) also mentioned the point in a supplementary question about noise at London Airport on 5th November. These aircraft have not yet been certificated by the airworthiness authorities and an earlier decision on their requirements has been out of the question.

Mr. Rankin

Is not this the machine that Boeing will be supplying to the American trans-Atlantic companies by the end of 1960?

Mr. Neave

That may be so, but it is clear that we have not been able to make final decisions on a number of matters because we are not yet dealing with an aircraft which is flying and has a certificate of airworthiness. Many engineering studies have been necessary and there has had to be a great deal of consultation with local interests.

During the course of the past few years planning for future development has been continuous. We have built a subsidiary runway and extended the main runway to a length of 7,500 feet, which enables it to accept the long-range Britannia. Also we started work on plans to construct a new control tower and fire station in the intersection of the main runway and the subsidiary runway and subsequently to construct a new terminal building in such a way that the control tower and fire station would form a part of it.

I listened to the hon. Member's speech with great interest. But I would point out that these plans could not take account of the big American jet aircraft shortly coming into service largely because nothing was then known of the characteristics and requirements of these aircraft arid the extent to which operators would want to use them at Prestwick. When the main runway was extended it was also strengthened, however, with these jets in mind.

About a year ago it became apparent that the big jets would need much greater runway lengths and that their requirements for concrete aprons alongside terminal building might raise new problems. We began to have serious doubt whether there would be sufficient scope for development for a terminal area in the intersection of the runways and whether the proposed site for the terminal area was the right one.

The whole project had, therefore, to be re-examined in the light of the information then beginning to become available about the Boeing 707 and the DC.8 aircraft. On 2nd April, my right hon. Friend was able to announce, as the hon. Member rightly said, that the Government had decided in principle that Prestwick should be developed to accommodate the big jets. For this purpose, the runway would be extended and a new terminal area provided. Planning and surveys would proceed as rapidly as possible while airlines were being consulted about their precise operating requirements.

We came to the provisional conclusion that it would be necessary to extend the runway to the north-west to about 9,800 ft. and for the new terminal area we decided that a site at Redbrae, alongside the runway extension, appeared to be the best.

Following my right hon. Friend's statement, local interests were taken into consultation and the Department's proposals were explained to them. It was at once urged upon us that an attempt should be made to save the St. Cuthbert's golf course by finding somewhere other than the Redbrae site for the terminal area. We were also asked to consider putting the A.77 road in a tunnel under the runway instead of diverting it around the end.

We have since looked fully into those proposals. We have made an intensive study of the alternatives and have decided to choose Redbrae for the terminal area. I think that the hon. Member knows the reasons why we have decided that. We have, I think, selected the site offering the best prospects for the future of the airport. The Scottish Aerodromes Board agrees with us in this and there seems to be a general preference for Redbrae.

I would like now to turn to the question of a tunnel, in which the hon. Member is interested, that is, the proposal for a tunnel under the runway extension. As the hon. Member knows, we have studied this at considerable length in co-operation with the road engineers of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. At present, the A.77 trunk road crosses the main runway very near to the west end. Road traffic at this point is controlled by the Ministry's police, with traffic lights and barriers as supplementary aids. The Scottish Home Department started action to build a bypass road to the east of the airport earlier this year and it is hoped that this new road will be ready at about the same time as the runway extension. The new road will be a trunk road and will divert about half the traffic from the present A.77, which will be re-classified as a Class I road.

One point will be obvious. Once a road is in a tunnel, possibilities of improving it in the future are very circumscribed. Future increase of road traffic must be thought of and, ideally, at Prestwick dual carriageways should be provided. Any tunnel would be costly, but dual carriageways would be very costly indeed. A tunnel would require a great deal of planning and design. Taking into account the time necessary for construction this would mean that the extended runway could not be ready for the big jets before March, 1961. Our present information, however, is that operators would be ready to bring them to Prestwick in mid-1960, as I said earlier. The consequences of this for the airport could be serious.

One possibility is a tunnel on the line of the existing road. This would have the disadvantage that while it was still being constructed, the existing runway would have to be closed to trans-Atlantic traffic for a period of eight to twelve months. The serious implications of this for the future of the airport are obvious and I hope that the hon. Member will take this into account. A short tunnel on this line, some 1,500 ft. long, would cost about £880,000 with a single carriageway only, or about £1½ million with dual carriageways. Moreover, the sunken approach road would severely restrict future development of the apron at the Redbrae site. That is a very important point, as the hon. Member will understand.

A long tunnel on this line, passing under the apron as well as the strip, would cost about £1¼ million with single carriageway and £2¼ million with dual carriageways. Any tunnel on this line would also involve demolition of properties where it came to the surface in Monkton. These figures may sound high, but we are sure that they are not overstated. After all, we have experience with the tunnels at London Airport to guide us. We know that the water table is high and there is also the danger of encountering running sands. That could put costs up further and perhaps introduce more delay.

We have studied other possible lines for the tunnel. In particular, we considered a line about 500 yards north-west of the present road. Such a tunnel would cost about £800,000 for a single carriageway or £1,330,000 for a dual carriageway. But, compared with a road diversion, it would reduce the distance between the village of Monkton on one side of the runway and the town of Prestwick on the other by only about 800 yards. For such a comparatively small advantage the expenditure in our view is not justified.

The Government do not consider that the expense of either of these tunnels can be justified. The one on the line of the existing road would very seriously jeopardise the future prospects of the airport. The other, though having a lesser effect on operations at the airport, would give relatively little advantage compared with the road diversion. We have, therefore, decided to divert the road round the end of the runway and I would like to explain some of the details of the plan.

The diversion is to follow the line of the railway on the west side of the run- way and sweep round the end of the runway extension between the runway and the railway line to meet the new bypass road north of Monkton. A spur branch will be provided to Monkton village. This spur road will reduce the additional distance to be travelled each day. The present distance from the point where the A.77 crosses the railway near Prestwick to Monkton village is rather over 1,500 yards and the distance by surface diversion is rather under 3,200 yards. The increase is about 1,600 yards. The hon. Member will remember that the second tunnel I mentioned would only have halved this distance. Therefore, the advantage gained would really not be very great.

The end of the runway will be raised above the surrounding level, and matters will be so arranged that traffic on the road will not have to be interrupted while aircraft are using the runway. That, of course, will be a considerable improvement on the present state of affairs.

I have considerable sympathy, and so has my right hon. Friend, with local people who may have to travel to and from their work across the end of the runway. There can be no disguising the fact that those of them who at present travel by bicycle or on foot will suffer inconvenience. They are, however, a minority of those concerned and the livelihood of many of them depends directly or indirectly upon the airport. I am sure that they would prefer us to choose a course that will help it to prosper. I am confident that is what we have done.

While I recognise the hon. Member's assiduous interest in this matter and the care with which he has studied the whole problem, I think that I may say that this is certainly the right decision for Prestwick at the present time.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to One o'clock.

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