HC Deb 24 July 1970 vol 804 cc1058-71

12.44 p.m.

Mr. John Rankin (Glasgow, Govan)

The matter which I wish to raise affects Glasgow Corporation considerably. In my view, the city corporation is having a somewhat raw deal.

It was encouraged by the Government of the day, with the aid of a loan of £3 million, to build a new airport. The venture prospered and expansion soon became necessary. As a consequence, a development plan was drawn up in 1967 which provided for an extended main runway to be completed by 1970. Partly from runway development and partly from forecasts of traffic growth, a plan was also prepared for the development of the terminal building to handle 5 million passengers a year, to be completed in 1973. There was also the construction of a new cargo terminal, to be finished by 1972

However, other problems arose and, amongst these was a serious increase in the number of bird strikes during the the winter of 1967–68. Next to Heathrow, Glasgow Airport over this period had the largest number of bird strikes reported at any civil airport. Fortunately, none was dangerous. But, because of this and the need for runway development, an application was made to the county planning office on 8th April, 1968—two years and three months ago—for permission to in-fill the land so as to reduce bird strike hazards and to prepare it for subsequent runway extensions.

That application was called in by the previous Secretary of State for Scotland on the grounds that a runway extension could … affect the type of traffic using the airport, could have an effect upon social amenity, and the availability of other facilities in Scotland might be a relevant factor. Despite repeated meetings, no reply to this application was received until 7th February, 1969. The overall programme of airfield development was thus set back by ten months. The delay resulted in an increase in costs from £340,000 to £372,000 for the initial in-fill contract.

At the same time, the corporation was advised that if and when application was made for a runway extension it was unlikely to be granted if the requirement exceeded 8,400 ft. But this statement was without prejudice to the ultimate decision which might be reached.

As a result of the discussions and revisions of the earlier plan, an application was made to the county planning office on 19th December, 1969. However, for various reasons, the Secretary of State's Department did not call in this application until 20th January, 1970, and did so only after several informal requests from the town clerk's office. Yet newer, faster and bigger planes were waiting to use more modern civil airports, and longer and better equipped runways were necessary.

The treatment which later was meted out to Turnhouse appeared to match these new conditions more generously. An £8 million loan was offered to the Edinburgh complex, and every encouragement was given to the improvement of its facilities and the expansion of its services.

These were not enough. The prospective owners of Edinburgh Airport were not enchanted with all those gifts. So, the British Airports Authority wants still more. As Glasgow, after two years' frustration, waits patiently for a little, the London combine from its Prestwick watchtower seeks to make that little less. Here is the proof. On 18th March I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland: … what objections have been lodged … and by whom against the proposal of Glasgow Airport Authority to lengthen its main runway? The reply was: … I have already received ten representations about the proposed runway extension."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th March, 1970; Vol. 798, c. 367.] These on examination showed that six separate individuals objected to the plan. Five lived in the town of Paisley and one in Milngavie—which I may say as a warning to listeners does not spell the way it is pronounced. There were none at all in Prestwick. There were two town councils in Renfrewshire and one in Ayrshire which objected to Glasgow seeking permission to lengthen its runway by 1,400 ft. The chief objection, was, however, away in London, in the person of the British Airports Authority will be little less in Scotland than it about the noise effect if Glasgow's request was granted, despite the fact that already in London not one or two people but literally thousands were finding immense and widespread difficulty in having to bear the noise thrust upon them by the operations of the Authority.

If Edinburgh Airport comes under its management along with Prestwick and with the advent of the jumbo jets the noise contribution from the Authority will be little less in Scotland than it is in London. I submit that the B.A.A. is the last body on earth to protest against the creation of noise in Scotland, where in fact little extra noise will be created.

Because of these harsh facts the Authority has modified its tactics and based the main ground of its objection on what it calls the implications for airport policy in Scotland that would be involved in lengthening the main runway at Abbotsinch by 1,400 ft. In my view, this produces a new low in airport relations. It is the first occasion on which any airport in the United Kingdom has tried to establish a case against a British airport improving the conditions under which it operates. An attempt was made some years ago to object to another operator bettering himself but this faded out and since then the operators have allowed each other to run their affairs to their own advantage.

By asserting that airport policy in Scotland has been defined by Government as meaning that Glasgow Airport is confined to medium and short-haul traffic while Prestwick is allowed to deal solely with long-haul traffic, the Authority is putting an interpretation on the ministerial outline of policy laid down in 1968 which is completely false. The secondary rôles of airports were left open and no one has taken greater advantage of that fact than B.A.A. It is true that along with the associated organisations it has waged a relentless campaign to obtain domestic services and constantly approaches airlines among them B.E.A., B.U.A., Channel Airways, Dan Air and, in their day, British Eagle, to try to get them to operate short-haul domestic services to and from Glasgow.

At no time has Glasgow objected to this, although it has watched it with interest. It may be right that more domestic services should be operated to and from Prestwick, because already there are services operating between London, Manchester, Birmingham and Prestwick while Belfast is also served from time to time as part of the B.O.A.C. network. Glasgow does not object to this believing as it does that passenger preference should be paramount. What we do object to in Glasgow is the "dog in the manger" attitude of the B.A.A. and its associated concerns. Greedily they seek an extension of their own short-haul traffic at the same time as they try to prevent by every means in their power any development however small and however much desired by passengers and airline interests in long-haul operations from Glasgow.

If it is in the passenger's interests to leave from or arrive at Preswick for short-haul flights, Glasgow says that they should be allowed to do so. On the other hand, Glasgow sees no reason why the same ruling should not be applied to those long-haul passengers who prefer to leave from or arrive at Glasgow.

What is fair and right for Prestwick must surely be fair and right for Glasgow. It is significant that the application of the agreement has been entirely for the benefit of Prestwick so far. Now that Glasgow with a longer runway in prospect may be about to enjoy those same rights the British Airports Authority object long and strong. It is significant too that the only previous formal objection ever made and sustained was lodged by the Authority against Air Canada's operations to Glasgow in 1968. Recently the Scottish Council drew the attention of the Secretary of State to the slow growth of direct continental services from Scotland. Many reasons are advanced for this slow growth, but beyond any doubt the most important one is the segregation of air traffic by designating which type shall use which airport. This policy is strangling the growth of direct services.

It is worth noting that at Copenhagen and Amsterdam smaller indigenous populations enjoy a much higher level of air traffic services than we do in Scotland because of their sensible policy of mixing long, short and medium haul flights. It is beyond doubt that interlining creates additional demands and provides a far better level of service for local users.

The policy of B.A.A. is currently bantling this sort of growth in central Scotland, even though the opportunity exists at Glasgow and Prestwick Airports for a great leap forward in air traffic services, provided that there is a good mixing of traffic at both airports.

For example, the costly Highlands and Islands services would receive a life-giving injection of tourists from abroad if the policy I am advocating could be introduced, and there is no real reason why it should not be.

Glasgow can play its part. With its new 320-bedroom hotel due to open at the end of this year, and with a suitable runway extension, combined with a sensible air services policy, we would be able to generate from central Scotland the level of air services so necessary to sustain the industrial development now taking place and so urgently needed to promote the vital traffic, both business and tourist, to those remoter parts of Scotland still in need of better air communications.

I must strongly urge the Secretary of State to review the present unsatisfactory situation created by this existing one-sided arrangement.

It must be noted that B.A.A. is seeking to limit the extension of Glasgow's runway to a total length of 8,020 ft. Glasgow's extension request is for 1,400 ft. to give a total of 8,400 ft. Prestwick has 9,800 ft. The runway at Manchester's Municipal Airport is 9,400 ft.

Glasgow's original intention, to meet future needs, was to extend to 9,500 ft., but the former Secretary of State laid down the figure of 8,400 ft. when approving the infill programme. This is why the airport authorities at Glasgow were more than surprised when he then declared that a public inquiry was necessary.

During earlier discussions B.A.A. considered that 8.500 ft. was not unreasonable for Glasgow's Airport and the Chairman of Prestwick Airport Consultative Committee said on 28th May 1968 that a runway beyond 8,500 ft. would be a waste of natural resources". This seemed to imply that 8,500 ft. was a reasonable length, and it is worth noting that in the negotiations about the length for the runway at Turnhouse recently the Authority suggested 8,400 ft. as the new length for Turnhouse. It was only as a result of financial discussions as to who should pay the cost that a more modest requirement was accepted by B.A.A. in keeping with Edinburgh's requirements.

Irrespective, however, of commercial or political arguments, the overriding factor must always be safety, and the London group seeks to impose on Scottish-operated airports standards below those which are enjoyed at its own airports. For example, in the case of Glasgow's extension B.A.A. seeks to relate the total runway length against the Trident II landing requirements exactly. That is one of the reasons why Glasgow is lodging this objection. It does not allow for the Trident III which will be available this coming winter. It makes no provision for an increase in national or international safety requirements, and it allows no provision for the airbus that B.E.A. expects to have in two or three years' time. No forward looking airport authority could be so short-sighted or foolish as to construct a runway extension tailored exactly to the requirements of one specific aircraft, but that is precisely what the British Airports Authority is seeking to impose on Glasgow.

It must be noted that while B.A.A. is advocating those dangerous provisions for Glasgow Airport it is proposing to build a third London airport, it is extending the runway at Gatwick, and it is seeking to lengthen even further its under-utilised runway at Prestwick. It is not, as far as I can see, constructing them to meet the specific requirements of just one current aircraft, but is providing a composite length based on calculated future requirements. This is precisely what Glasgow wants to do and it is just as precisely what the British Airports Authority is saying now that Glasgow should not be allowed to do. That we are resisting.

I should like to ask the Minister to inquire into the validity of the objections which B.A.A. is offering to the expansion of Glasgow's main runway. As I have pointed out, it has not been normal practice in Britain for one airport to lodge objections to improvements which another airport regards as being necessary for the improvement of its services. As I have already indicated, there is only one recorded example of this, and the objection was not proceeded with. Since then, there has been no recurrence.

However, the case presented by B.A.A. appears in a worse light than the one which was abandoned, for the objection in this case is against what the complainant describes as airport policy in Scotland. And the complainant is based in London.

If an objection based on London is tenable, there is nothing to prevent one from Northern Ireland, from the Channel Islands or some other outlandish part of United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will consider carefully the potential trouble which is concealed in this attitude of the British Airports Authority. These matters are far more sensibly dealt with among the operators themselves than they will be by transferring them to the jurisdiction of Parliament, but, of course, the argument now taking place is really concerned with the fact that, so far, Parliament has not defined the secondary rôle of the airport. If and when Glasgow airport is extended to 8,400 ft. and is operating the larger types of aircraft, it will be unjust to try to bar it from a secondary rôle such as Manchester has, which, like Abbotsinch, is also a municipal airport.

There is much I could add on this topic. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has come here to represent the Secretary of State for Scotland, will be fully able to deal with these matters affecting the planning of airport preparation in Scotland. Naturally, since this is primarily a matter under the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland, I assume that the President of the Board of Trade, who has been very helpful to Abbotsinch all during this trouble, will continue to be as helpful in the months ahead until we have the planning dispute settled.

I hope that, when it is settled, the Government will see that no difficulties are placed in the way of developing what is one of the best positioned airports in the United Kingdom to its fullest extent. The length it wants for extension is necessary for its success. Its position so near to a great city, with a background possessed by no other airport in Scotland, must not be affected deleteriously. Yesterday, I wished the hon. Gentleman all success. I hope that he will make as part of his success a decision to see that Glasgow's airport is allowed to expand in a way worthy of a great city.

1.14 p.m.

The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Frederick Corfield)

I thank the hon. Gentleman the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) for giving me some idea of the points which he intended to raise. I did not think that we should have quite such a comprehensive review as we have had, and, in that connection, perhaps I might now express the apologies of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland who, unfortunately, is unavoidably detained and cannot be with me here as he had hoped to be.

I cannot claim—it would be wrong for me to do so—that I am here to represent the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am here to speak on behalf of my own Department, the Board of Trade. In this respect, our responsibilities are for general matters in relation to airports and their functioning, within defined limits, and not for the town and country planning aspects or amenity aspects, which in Scotland are the responsibility of the Secretary of State and in England and Wales the responsibilities of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Wales. I must make clear at the outset that planning functions are entirely within the purview of my right hon. Friends.

As I understand it, there would have been no objection to Glasgow Corporation putting in its original planning application for the infilling of this land and for the extension of the runway which it desired as a single application, which would have meant a single planning inquiry or a single hearing or consideration by my right hon. Friend, whichever procedure was adopted, and would itself have saved time. But, however that may be, the actual time taken to call these applications in by my right hon. Friend—in fact, by his predecessor in the previous Government—is not something on which I can comment, though from my knowledge of these matters in a previous incarnation, I did not think that it was excessive to take a little over a month between the middle of November and the middle of January, bearing in mind that Christmas and, more important, perhaps, in Scotland, the New Year come in between. I should have thought approximately four weeks of working days at the most not bad, judging by the way these things go.

Mr. Rankin

The hon. Gentleman will realise that that is only part of the difficulty. The preliminary application for the infill took over 10 months.

Mr. Corfield

It was not even the same Government. That was the Government of which the hon. Gentleman was a supporter. I never intimated any strong support for that Government myself, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can blame me, let alone my right hon. Friend, for that.

Coming to the closely connected matter of noise, I was surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman say that passenger preference must be paramount. On all the evidence before us, certainly in this country—one has only to read the correspondence columns of The Times, let alone any of the more technical journals—people are becoming immensely, and understandably, sensitive to noise. Therefore we can no longer regard these as matters to be decided solely in the interests of civil aviation and those who travel by it, but we must take careful account of the effects upon amenity of these airports and the operations emanating from them. That, of course, is a planning matter and will, no doubt, be considered at the planning inquiry which, I understand, will take place in September this year.

I gathered that the hon. Gentleman's main concern was with what he would regard, I think, as the intereference of the British Airports Authority, which, as he constantly underlined, is based in London. Peraps it would not be unfair if I said, in a private capacity, that quite a lot of the money comes from London, too. But it is purely an accident, if that be the appropriate phrase, that Prestwick is one of our main United Kingdom international airports. In a sense, it is unfortunate that it is an immensely good airport and is situated in a place in which the pattern of traffic cannot, perhaps, make quite as much use of it as would be in the general interest of the country's airports as a whole if it could, and thus take some of the load away from the congested airports in the South.

But Prestwick and Glasgow are only 30 miles apart. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that a journey of 30 miles on a good railway line probably means that a large proportion of passengers in the catchment area of the two airports can probably get to Prestwick a good deal quicker than most Londoners can get to Heathrow. If we are to justify the existence of the two airports on economic grounds, that justification can be based only on the policy enunciated by a previous President of the Board of Trade. He made it clear that this could be justified only on the basis that the two airports would be regarded as entirely complementary. That must mean a degree of distinction between the types of aircraft to operate from them.

What is abundantly clear is that if Glasgow were to develop Abbotsinch to its maximum, perhaps running two runways up to 10,000 ft., which I know is not a matter before the planning inquiry, there would be a growth in the pressure of a great deal of transatlantic and other international traffic to go that little bit nearer the city, which is presumably the destination, or at any rate the interim destination, because it is a centre of communications, instead of Prestwick. What I cannot contemplate as a Board of Trade Minister is Prestwick becoming a complete white elephant, which it might do, kept open solely for the diversions which might be necessary from time to time owing to its rather superior weather conditions.

Mr. Rankin

If the Minister is doubting the operating efficiency of Prestwick and Abbotsinch, why are his Government proceeding to re-create another airport nearer to Glasgow than Prestwick is, at Edinburgh?

Mr. Corfield

With due respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am not proceeding to do anything of the sort. There is an airport at Turnhouse. I have not got a map with me, but I would have thought that Turnhouse is substantially further from Prestwick than Abbotsinch is. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the Edinburgh authorities are anxious for the British Airports Authority to take the Edinburgh airport over and run it on their behalf. It is only fair to make it absolutely clear on behalf of the British Airports Authority, its Chairman and staff, that this is most certainly not a question of empire-building by the Authority. It is a mutual arrangement which is taking a long time to come to fruition. I am not sure exactly what stage it has reached, but this is not a matter of concern in this debate.

The fact that the B.A.A. owns Prestwick—and it really does not matter whether its headquarters are in Timbuctoo or London—must give it an interest in what happens at Abbotsinch. If Abbotsinch is to be developed to the full international standards to take the full range of long-haul aircraft, it will be very difficult either to avoid an enormous annual subsidy to keep both airports going or to justify the continuation of two airports in such close geographical proximity. Therefore, in so far as I have had time to study the matter, I support the policy laid down by the previous President of the Board of Trade that there must be a degree of definition as to which types of traffic use the two airports. If we accept that as the basis, it must follow that the B.A.A. has a perfectly legitimate interest in expressing its views on developments at Abbotsinch which may have an effect on the dividing line between the types of traffic for which the two airports are predominantly designed and predominantly cater.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned, more in passing than as a main point, the question of generating inter-line traffic and so on in Scotland. I would be the first to agree with him that the basis of much regional development policy must be good communications. But I am sure that he will agree on reflection that this is like the traditional problem of which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

There is a limit to the extent to which even the State with all its finances, which people think to be limitless but which we know are not, can produce air traffic facilities in the hopes that people will use them. There must be a matching of supply and demand. I have no evidence that there is a substantial unfilled economic demand for further large-scale international air services, let alone intercontinental, from the lowlands of Scotland. But, if there are, it is up to the local people to express that demand. I have very little doubt that B.O.A.C., B.E.A. and the independent airlines interested in scheduled services will be very quick to make an application to the Air Transport Licensing Board, which is the responsible authority in this respect and over which the Government, from a day-to-day point of view, have only very limited influence.

Finally, I must make a comment on the question of safety. It is not fair to say that the B.A.A. is trying to inflict upon Abbotsinch Airport or any other airport a lower standard of safety than is appropriate or is available at the airports in England. It is purely an argument as to which category of traffic the two airports are to cater for, and what is broadly the definition and the facilities required for the two types. I am the first to admit that this is a matter open to some argument, but it is an argument to be put forward at the planning inquiry, where the two views can be heard and supported in evidence and the people giving the evidence can be cross-examined and so on. An argu ment as to whether a runway should be 8,200 ft. or 8,400 ft. is not one that we can sensibly carry on across the Floor of the House with any hope of reaching a conclusion.

As to the expansion of Abbotsinch and the Board of Trade's sponsoring responsibility for the B.A.A., it must be realised that in addition to Prestwick the B.A.A. owns Heathrow, the busiest international airport in the world—situated many people would think in entirely the wrong place from the point of view of amenity, noise and so on, and Gatwick, which is becoming a very busy airport. Many of its personnel were looking after those airports before the transfer and have acquired a great deal of expertise. It is a little arrogant for people to say that it is interference if they express views that arise from that expertise.

I am the last person in the world to suggest that a nationalised airport should have priority over a municipalised airport for that reason alone, but as the Government we are responsible, and so is the House, for the expenditure of public money, and B.A.A. is a nationalised organisation and its funds are public money. If Scotland wishes to retain Prestwick, as no doubt it does, and no doubt it is in the interests of Scotland that it should, there must be a reasonable degree of differentiation to give it a chance to remain a reasonably viable proposition.

Mr. Rankin

In view of what the hon. Gentleman is saying and the thoughts which he has expressed about the various airports in Scotland and the way in which they are functioning, would he give some thought to the creation of a Scottish airports authority, whose existence would help to iron out many of the difficulties which now exist and which would give a coherence which the airport business in Scotland now lacks?

Mr. Corfield

That is a suggestion which is frequently voiced. Long before I moved from the Opposition side to the Government side of the House, this was a matter to which I have given consideration. But the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to announce Government policy on it in a debate of this sort and after so short a time in office. He must realise that, although there are arguments for it, that in itself would not solve the problem of the two airports so close to each other which we want to keep complementary, but which could so easily become so competitive as to drive one into a completely unviable situation. The fact that there was a Scottish airports authority in charge of airports would not resolve that difficulty noticeably more easily.

The corollary of a Scottish airports authority is the loss from the ownership of Glasgow Corporation, from the municipality, of the airport to such an authority. I leave it to the hon. Member to decide whether he thinks that that is desirable and that it is a price which Glasgow would wish to pay. It is an aspect which would have to be considered if the matter were carried further. I am prepared to keep an open mind on it.

I am not unsympathetic to the demands for the best possible facilities for Scottish aviation, nor to the plea that improvements of communications of whatever type could well be a valuable aid if not the key to regional development, but it must be within art overall pattern which makes sense in the expenditure of national resources. I know that the hon. Member is no nationalist and "national resources" must mean the resources of the United Kingdom as a whole as well as local resources. If the resources are localised, how the functions of Prestwick and Abbotsinch can be kept complementary becomes even more questionable. It becomes even more difficult to avoid the sort of rivalry which the hon. Gentleman has spoken of and which I much regret. It is wrong to talk in terms of the B.A.A. trying to prevent the expansion of Abbotsinch in view of its obvious responsibilities and its responsibilities to the House for an airport which the hon. Gentleman will agree is of great value to Scotland and which we want to remain of great value to Scotland.