HC Deb 10 July 1967 vol 750 cc379-86

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

6.17 a.m.

Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)

I have tried to raise this matter since April, and it is a pity that it should follow 20 hours of other debates, as it is an important subject.

A few years ago, Hum was a busy, international airport, seemingly with every prospect of continued expansion. Today, it is in decline. Why? In 1961, the Government published a White Paper, Cmnd. 1457, on their decision to transfer certain airports, including Hum, to the relevant local authorities. Bournemouth, Hampshire, and Dorset formed a consortium of local authorities to negotiate for its purchase. Six years later, the negotiations are still proceeding. Why?

There seems no logical explanation for the sudden reversal of policy which has led to the decline of Hurn. Some suggest that it is because Eastleigh would make a better airport, but no one who has made even a cursory study of the two would accept that it could take the place of Hurn. Of course, Southampton must have its airport; I recognise its growing importance as a centre of communications. There is destined to be a substantial expansion around it. There is proposed a new city region, based on Southampton and Portsmouth, which in due course may well bring an increase of population of about 250,000. There is already a fine new rail link direct with London, and an important new goods terminal has recently been approved. Also new trunk roads are planned.

There must obviously be an airport to meet the growing needs of this important concentration of commerce, industry and population. But this is not to say that Eastleigh should be advanced at the expense of Hurn. Let them both develop together. I am certain that there is a need for both. Because of its location and the limitation which is placed upon its further extension, Eastleigh can never replace Hum as the airport of the South. I use that expression "the airport of the South" because it is one which has been used in the past and it has been referred to, I believe, by Ministry spokesmen before in connection with the development of Hurn. Eastleigh is in the midst of a vastly populated residential area. It has at the moment only one runway and that is not capable of taking anything larger than a Vanguard at full commercial weight. It is frequently affected by mist and by weather.

The picture when one comes to Hurn is substantially different. There, the airport occupies a quite unique position, making it one of the safest airports in the country. For pilots the approach is ideal. It is already equipped with advanced technical and navigational facilities which are far superior to those at Eastleigh. It already has more than one runway and it is capable of taking the largest civil aircraft now in use. It has frequently been used as a diversion landing ground for aircraft prevented from landing at London Airport, although I regret to say that now this is not so much the case.

There was the extraordinary situation, brought to my attention the other day, when an aircraft flying from Nice via Zurich to London Airport with some Bournemouth passengers aboard, was unable to land at London Airport and was then diverted to Paris when Hurn was completely clear. It was unable to land at Hurn for reasons which the Minister will know full well, namely, that the staff has been decimated and the services have been severely reduced.

Hurn has many other advantages, and perhaps one of the most important, certainly when considering its future development, is that it lies in a thinly-populated area and there is considerable scope for the expansion of its runways over comparatively poor agricultural land or over heath. Hum, therefore, is ideally placed for serving the growing commercial and tourist needs of the whole region. It is not an airport which is restricted in its application to the requirements of one city or one centre. It is at the heart of a region which stretches from Portsmouth in the east to Wiltshire in the north and to Devon in the west. Before very long there will be a new spur road linking one of the main trunk roads with the centre of Bournemouth, and Bournemouth itself is now just 100 minutes from Waterloo.

Hum's attractions are well-known to the airlines. When the Ministry decided to stop the further employment of East-leigh as an airport the airlines flocked to Hurn, and their number increased substantially. At one time regular services linked Burn with London, Coventry, Manchester, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cherbourg, the Channel Islands, Basle, Belgium and Holland. A new terminal was planned, and I remember agitating at one stage to try to get the work or it expedited. The services which were and still are provided for the British Aircraft Corporation's great plant building the B.A.C. 111, and also for the air traffic school, were fully employed. Now they are employed only when those particular users need them.

All that activity at Hurn augured well for the future. But now the most extraordinary thing has happened. For some reason the policy has been completely reversed and far from holding out great promise for the future, Hum has suddenly been precipitated into a steep decline of activity. The manning of its facilities is new down to a single watch. The airport operates an eight-hour day on weekdays only.

This makes a complete mockery of an airport. It is being operated as though it were almost worth less than the average office in my constituency. I understand from Answers I have received from the Minister that this is being done because, he says, no demand is proven for increased facilities. Yet when Channel Airways was granted a new licence recently it took more than 1,000 bookings within 10 days.

Had the Ministry not taken so long to come to a decision about extending the facilities for U.T.A., the French airline it would have joined Channel Airways. There is a very substantial student population in that part of the country. Because of the Anglo-Continental schools, students are brought to Bournemouth, primarily from Switzerland and Germany.

Therefore, the decision to run down Hurn is strangely difficult to explain. In any event, operating as it is now on the basis of an eight-hour day and without any facilities for weekend activity it makes a complete nonsense of the so-called forward looking, dynamic Britain entering the air age. The air age is just beginning, and Hurn should be playing its full part in it.

I want to find out whose decision it was that Hurn should run down. Who decided that there should be a switch? Was it an unaided decision of the airlines? How were they suddenly lured away from Hum, which they enjoyed to a great extent, and where they had excellent facilities, and persuaded to go to Eastleigh? Was it Government policy or was anybody in the Ministry influential in persuading airlines that Hum had no future and that they had better pack their bags and go to Eastleigh quickly? What lies behind the policy of a switch to Eastleigh? Is there a deliberate attempt to destroy Hurn in favour of Eastleigh? Why were these decisions taken while negotiations for the acquisition of Hurn were still proceeding?

With regard to the negotiations, why have there been so many delays? It is fantastic that these matters should have been held up when there was clear willingness on the part of the Government to sell the airport as quickly as possible. Why has the Town Clerk of Bournemouth had such difficulty in getting some of the information needed? Sometimes he had to wait months to get even an answer from the Ministry. Why is it that only in February this year the district valuer set about making a valuation of the airport?

These are some of the questions which disturb me and I hope that I have indicated clearly enough to the Minister my reason for being unhappy about what is happening. It is not simply a question of one airport competing with another; that I am prepared to face. But there seems to be some element in all this which I find it impossible to explain and which does not seem to have any answer in logic. Hurn, although it has had a chequered past, has, I am convinced, a very assured future as an airport provided it is allowed to go ahead. If these negotiations drag on, however, its restoration and onward development as the leading airport of the South is being delayed, perhaps even jeopardised altogether.

I would say to the local authority that if it does not want it it had better say so straight away, because there are many private and commercial interests ready to take it on. But, having mentioned local authorities, I am bound to admit that I do not know exactly what is the attitude of Hampshire and Dorset. I am not absolutely sure whether they are really serious about this project. If they are not really serious, the sooner they stop pretending to be the better.

But about one authority I have no hesitation at all. For Bournemouth, the acquisition of the airport is the key to its own future expansion and development and prosperity. I am convinced that Bournemouth must get this airport even if means going it alone. The quicker that this valuable national asset is taken out of the wasting hands of the Ministry and put into the hands of an authority which recognises the opportunities which it can bring the better.

6.32 a.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) has no need to apologise for raising this subject at this time. It is a matter of great importance to his constituency and I am only too delighted to try to answer some of his points.

First, I agree that there is no dispute that Hurn is a good airport for the short and medium haul. It has a very good runway and reasonable buildings. It is well situated in one respect. But I must make it absolutely clear that there has been no change of Government policy. There has been no sudden decision to run down Hum Airport. What happened, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, is that last year Southampton increased the length of its runway and was able to take Nigger aircraft.

Because Southampton is nearer to the high density of population than Hum, the airlines, of their own free will, switched to Southampton. But I agree entirely that the long term prospects of Hum are likely to be very much better than those of Southampton, for the reasons which the hon. Gentleman gave. I am convinced that we shall see a continuing and rapid increase in air traffic, with bigger and faster aeroplanes. Because of the limitations of this site, these planes will not be able to use Southampton in time to come; and I should have thought that, when that time comes, they will move hack to Hurn.

Even as things are, Hurn is an important airport. A number of I.T. operators are working out of it and, as the hon. Gentleman said, there is alongside it one of the manufacturing and assembly plants of B.A.C. There is also a repair and service department for military aircraft, and if the Board of Trade wishes to find a home for air traffic control the skill and experimental air unit is available here. While Hum is important now, its prospects through the '70s and'80s are very good indeed.

It would be wrong or premature for the Government to try to designate Hum at present as being "the" regional airport, as some authorities have been suggesting. Before there is any designation of an airport as being the one for the region, we must await the South Hampshire Study to see what it produces, as well as the considered views of the Regional Economic Planning Council.

The hon. Gentleman has recently been bothered about the rundown in traffic and staff. It is an attractive idea to build up the airport and see if that produces the traffic, but unfortunately that would cost a considerable amount of money. The airport is today faced with a substantial deficit and I will give the House the figures to show the increased deficit that would result if we lengthened the number of hours worked by the staff. If we put on an extra eight hours, that would cost £11,500. An extra 32 hours would cost £45,000. If we went back to the figure of October of last year, adding another 65 hours, that would cost £85,000.

Compared with figures often mentioned in the House, these may not seem large, but they would be a continuing drain. It is not that the Board of Trade wants to see Hurn run down. On the contrary. We would like it to build up because we genuinely and anxiously want to sell it and, within reason, we will do what we can to maintain it as a saleable proposition. Indeed, it is such a proposition.

I agree that the negotiations about the transfer of ownership have been going on for a very long time. I do not want to apportion blame for this. Certainly, the Board of Trade has not been dragging its feet. However, there are always difficulties about agreeing a price in negotiations of this sort. I hope that an agreement will shortly be reached with the consortium of Bournemouth, Hampshire and Dorset. Indeed, this week—I think that it is this week; as a result of these all-night sittings I am not sure which day is which—officials of my Department are going to Bournemouth to carry on the negotiations.

I add my plea to that of the hon. Gentleman's for local authorities to "come clean", as it were, and to say whether they want this airport. Provided that we can reach a reasonable agreement on the price—and I assure the House that we are not being exorbitant in this matter—and provided they really do want it, then, if they say so, I am sure that we can get agreement. if not, there are, as the hon. Member says, other people, including the British Airports Authority, who are interested, which does not suggest that there is any intention whatever to run the airport down.

If the local authorities do not want it, we want to be able to open up negotiations with other people. This is a good airport. I am convinced that it has a future, and I hope that the transfer of ownership will take place very soon.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Seven o'clock a.m.