HC Deb 20 March 1978 vol 946 cc1278-89

6.27 a.m.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

I wish to raise the question of increased expenditure on the British Tourist Authority, with special reference to international flights. As we have waited a considerable time for this debate, I shall do my best to concentrate the essence of what I wish to say in a relatively few words.

The matter is topical and relevant to my constituency. It is topical because, last Thursday, Edinburgh District Council gave planning permission for an exhibition centre at Ingliston, beside the airport. It is relevant because the airport is in my constituency and because the views of the local residents are violently hostile to excessive noise, very naturally, and, of course, I have other constituents working for the Scottish Tourist Board whose headquarters is also just beside my constituency.

The question that I put to the Minister is whether a balance can be found, when the British Tourist Authority is disseminating information to potential tourists, which will meet the requirements of those constituents of mine who are resident near the airport and represented by the Cramond Association, and also the requirements of those of my constituents working for the Scottish Tourist Board, which is doing so much to promote tourism throughout Scotland. It seems to me that a balance can be found.

This matter is topical because, with the granting of planning permission for this exhibition hall, this will lead to a completely new development in Scotland, which will have a spin-off both in terms of employment for the service industries and in terms of industries being able to win export orders. I may say that the Under-Secretary of State for Energy—the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie)—in whose constituency this exhibition hall is to be, has strongly supported the venture, and I have been glad to lend my support to his.

As the Under-Secretary of State has said, there is an undoubted need in the east of Scotland for such an exhibition hall for trade and commercial exhibitions, which would surely make it easier for Scottish industry to win export orders. The airport terminal, being next-door to this proposed exhibition centre, provides easy access for long-distance visitors. That makes sense, if we are to have international specialised trade exhibitions or international conferences to which persons may come from all over the world. Also, if there is the prospect of transatlantic or intercontinental flights, all these may help with employment prospects.

Many persons throughout the world are well aware of Edinburgh's international reputation. The White Paper, says in paragraph 138, on page 39: The increasing importance of Edinburgh as the capital of Scotland and the industrial development on the eastern side of Scotland both suggest that the relative importance of Edinburgh is likely to increase. This raises the question of the relevance of the British Tourist Authority. Should there be intercontinental and transatlantic flights to Edinburgh, including charter flights, provided there is no extension of the operating hours of the airport?

It seems that there is a case, subject to two very important qualifications. Some years ago the Minister welcomed Mr. Ronald Macintosh, the distinguished representative of the Turnhouse Airport consultative committee, along with the hon. Member for Midlothian, on behalf of his constituents at Newbridge and myself. Mr. Macintosh set out the position of the Cramond Association. He wrote: The Cramond Association does not oppose some increase in traffic at Edinburgh Airport that might arise from direct trans-Atlantic flights. It considers that the granting of permission for such flights must be dependent on there being no extension of the hours of opening of the airport. This would imply an acceptance of the fact that any aircraft that was late in landing would be automatically diverted to Prestwick.

Strong arguments can be put forward in support of this by reference to the views expressed, in paragraph 68 of the White Paper, by the Secretary of State for Trade. Surely it would be unthinkable that when the Government were contemplating restricting night flights in other parts of the United Kingdom they should consider extending them in Scotland. There is strong feeling on this.

The second qualification is that Prestwick Airport should remain viable. The Minister will have received representations on this point from the trade unions involved.

Even taking these two qualifications into account, there may well be a case for intercontinental flights, and it is hoped that the European airbus will be a great deal quieter than the Trident. I notice that the White Paper states that British Airways are giving greater priority, in their fleet planning, to the replacement of Tridents with the new quieter aircraft. If the Minister could give the time scale for this, it would be welcome.

The arguments for intercontinental flights come from a number of sources. All these sources have noted with interest the statement in paragraph 40 of the White Paper: The Government have concluded that existing policies relating to the allocation of traffic among the three Lowland airports should be maintained generally, but that some greater flexibility could be followed in the development of traffic at Edinburgh. The key words are "greater flexibility." It is relevant to mention that the travel agent, Globespan and Dixon Travel, is taking bookings for transatlantic flights between Edinburgh and Canada. The airline is Quebec Air. It has been refused permission to operate from Edinburgh by the Department of Trade, and I understand that it is appealing against this decision. I mentioned the matter to show that there is considerable demand in Scotland for intercontinental flights from the East Coast.

A flexible approach will be welcomed by the Scottish Tourist Board and I would be grateful if the Minister would pass on the essence of its views to the BTA. The Board says: Tourism is an extremely important industry for Scotland. In 1976 Scotland received nearly 12 million visitors, of whom about 900,000 were from overseas. These visitors spent between £350 million and £380 million in Scotland which undoubtedly has had an effect on economic growth in certain areas. The benefits which acrued to Scotland were significant, not only in terms of bringing foreign curency into the country, but also in terms of bringing increased job opportunities for service industries. The dissemination of information overseas by the BTA will be a great help, and the authority has the expertise and the network of offices overseas to do the necessary advertising and to deal with the distribution of literature.

The Scottish Tourist Board is in no doubt that the countries which in particular send tourists to Scotland are North America, Scandinavia, West Germany and France. The STB thinks that efforts overseas should concentrate principally on providing information to guide holiday decisions. In the longer term, it considers that there should be efforts to build up scheduled services and charter traffic to the three major airports for the promotion to operators, licensing and financial incentives.

The STB points out that nearly 90 per cent. of overseas air traffic enters Britain by way of Heathrow or Gatwick, and that at present there is an overwhelming bias in favour of South-East England. From its studies and those carried out by the British Tourist Authority it thinks that many Europeans believe that Scotland offers equal if not greater attractions than London and the South-East of England. It feels that if the Government are serious about redressing an imbalance in the economy they must accept responsibility to try to influence the shape of air services into Britain from Europe and the rest of the world. It thinks that one reason why Scotland receives such a low percentage of overseas business is that it is much more difficult for European visitors to get direct to the east of Scotland. It feels that increased opportunities exist for the Minister to consider this matter, and it is proposing to have discussions with interested bodies.

Its case is substantially strengthened by the stance of the Lothian Regional Council, which has the largest population of any region in Scotland with the sole exception of Strathclyde. The council came out almost unanimously in favour of establishing a small group of members from every party to prepare an action strategy for Edinburgh Airport. The group has met, and it is unanimous in its view that the evidence it has so far obtained is to the effect that there is a cases for intercontinental charters and flights.

The number of aircraft movements into Turnhouse every day is 55. If the Government permit a certain number of intercontinental charter flights, subject to certain safeguards, there will probably be two more landings and take-offs every day, which would amount to a relatively small overall increase in air traffic. I understand that the working group set up by the Lothian Regional Council is likely to receive the support of the chamber of commerce in Edinburgh and of the Turnhouse Airport consultative committee, representing many different interests.

On 27th January this year the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce wrote to the Secretary of State: The existing policy is detrimental not only to the entire region but to tourism in Scotland as a whole. The large majority of members of the committee, including the local authorities, are in support of the views of the Chamber". In conclusion, I make one request to the Minister. When the working party set up by the Lothian Regional Council has prepared all the evidence and has had the opportunity to consider it with other bodies, such as the Scottish Tourist Board, the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and the Turnhouse Airport consultative committee, will the Minister be prepared to consider the evidence, and will he keep an open mind on this subject and, if necessary, meet a delegation on it?

6.38 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) has properly paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), who is a most zealous Member and an excellent Minister. If my hon. Friend makes representations along similar lines to those outlined by the hon. Gentleman, I shall have to give him a response identical to that which I propose to give the hon. Gentleman.

In representing his constituency interest the hon. Gentleman is faced in local terms with a problem not dissimilar from that which I face in national terms. On the one hand, he argues the case for the increased use of Edinburgh Airport—an objective which, I assume, must be desired by the aviation and tourism interests which have approached him. On the other hand, he is, I know, confronted by people living around the airport who object to the prospect of increased aircraft noise.

It is a curious act that we are asked to perform—the hon. Gentleman on a local basis, I on a national basis. Indeed, there are two acts. One is to ride two horses at one and the same time, and that is made more difficult by the fact that the horses are pulling in opposite directions. Unless the horses can be controlled, the results may be disastrous. Secondly, without any roll of drums, we must try to achieve the greatest balancing feat of all time on a high tightrope. Perhaps in future the hon. Gentleman will have some sympathy with me in the balance that I have to try to maintain in national terms. The hon. Gentleman asserted that the balance can be established, but I do not think he addressed himself, in an interesting speech, to the overall problems that exist, because they will not go away. I think the hon. Gentleman's suggested balance is somewhat illusory.

The hon. Gentleman raised two matters to which I shall address myself before coming to the substance of his speech. The first is the question of quieter aircraft, which is not just a Scottish issue. He will see in the White Paper that we intend to prohibit the use of non-noise certificated subsonic jet aircraft acquired by United Kingdom operators after 30th September this year. The second leg of the exercise is that we shall prohibit from 1st January 1986 the use of all non-noise certificated subsonic jet aircraft on the United Kingdom register.

The hon. Gentleman argues for the dispersal of air traffic away from London and the South-East to Scotland in particular. I wish that we were in a position to have some real effect on the coagulation of airports in London and the South-East. But the fact is—and this is explained clearly in the White Paper—that 80 per cent. of people who use airports have their point of origin, or wish to arrive at airports in the South-East. We cannot penalise people for not falling into line with what we want them to do.

I need not rehearse this case at length because it is set out clearly in the White Paper. What I believe will still stand is a national strategy we have developed which will concentrate resources in a number of airports and will have some effect in causing those regional airports to become more attractive. But the fact is that in Scotland we are retaining the present airport system, and it is virtually unaffected, in this regard at least, by the proposals we have established for the regions of England and Wales.

I must point out that we have proposed the retention of the present distribution of traffic between Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick, with Glasgow and Edinburgh to cater for short and medium-haul traffic, and Prestwick to continue as the long-haul intercontinental airport for Scotland, primarily scheduled and charter transatlantic services, although charter flights may go to Edinburgh or Glasgow in certain circumstances. The Scottish Tourist Board has not argued for any redistribution of traffic among the three airports on tourism grounds. The board's representations are directed towards increasing the total use of Scottish airports as the point of first landfall in United Kingdom or international tourist traffic.

I am unable this morning—I am not sure at this hour whether it is a physical matter or otherwise—to comment on suggestions made for increase expenditure on scheme designed to attract more tourists to Scotland. These are matters for the tourist authorities. The promotion of tourism in Scotland is the responsibility of the Scottish Tourist Board. Publicity abroad for Scotland is co-ordinated by the British Tourist Authority. No doubt these those bodies will note what has been said in the debate tonight.

The Government and the tourist authorities are in complete agreement on the desirability of spreading the benefits of tourism more widely. Far too many foreign visitors come only to London or Edinburgh and see little of the rest of the country. I see present hon. Members representing the Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme area, and we all know the attractions of that area—and perhaps the other Newcastle, too, since I see present my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas). Officials of my Department and the Scottish Office will be meeting representatives of the Scottish Tourist Board shortly to consider the possibile implications of the White Paper for the development of tourism in Scotland.

The hon. Gentleman argues that more international flights should be allowed into Edinburgh, but the more that such traffic is concentrated at Edinburgh the more difficult it is to persuade tourists to go anywhere else. One of the factors that we must recognise is that, even within present policies, international short-haul traffic will increase. That includes, especially, the important European traffic. The BAA survey on the operation of Edinburgh Airport that was published recently shows that that traffic is expected to grow rapidly over the next 10 or 12 years. There will be a substantial increase in the use of Edinburgh Airport.

It is not the policy of the BAA or of the Government to try to limit the growth of short-haul or medium-haul international traffic at Edinburgh, but for a long time it has been our joint policy to concentrate Scottish long-haul traffic, and especially North Atlantic traffic, at Prestwick. That is a point that was touched on by the hon. Gentleman but not really developed.

There are valid reasons for that policy. Many of the passengers originate or have destinations on the West side of Scotland. Prestwick has a good weather record and the longest runway of the lowland airports. It is well placed environmentally. However, it has the disadvantage of being not very accessible to Edinburgh.

We have recently considered whether there should be any change in the policy for the location of traffic between the lowland airports. This is not a matter that affects Edinburgh alone. A former deputy chairman of the BAA, now chairman of the Scottish Tourist Board, once said that Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick were effectively one airport with its runways rather far apart. Certainly they are closely related. It is, for example, impossible to think of allowing long-haul traffic into Edinburgh without allowing it into Glasgow. That is a matter that was not touched on by the hon. Gentleman. The full consequences of such a move cannot be predicted accurately, but it is fairly clear that it would seriously affect the viability of Prestwick and employment in the area.

The hon. Gentleman says "Let us have a balance". He suggests that long-haul traffic should be allowed into Edinburgh at least experimentally. I do not think that that would be feasible because it would be virtually impossible to put the clock back once the experiment had started, even if the consequences were unacceptable.

We have, none the less, gone some way towards meeting the suggestion that the hon. Gentleman has put forward. As he said, the White Paper provides for a policy that will operate flexibly in future. I have engaged in correspondence with the hon. Gentleman on this issue, and it means specifically in this instance that if a charter flight has a clear link with Edinburgh—for example, bringing in visitors to the Festival, the Highland Show, a conference or other event—I would expect even a long-haul flight to come into Edinburgh and not Prestwick. Whether a particular flight, or series of flights, comes into that category is something for the BAA and the Department to decide on the merits of the case.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in saying that we have refused the application made by Quebecair. An appeal is currently being considered by the Department of Trade, and for that reason, as the hon. Gentleman will understand, I am not able to comment on the matter.

Another reason why we should not adopt the hon. Gentleman's suggestion is the effect that it would have on the environment of Edinburgh Airport. The hon. Gentleman says that he wants more transatlantic flights, but he does not want those flights to take place at night. Unfortunately, as the BAA pointed out in a survey that the hon. Gentleman has seen, up to 70 per cent. of scheduled services into Prestwick from North America and 35 per cent. of charter traffic land before 7.30 in the morning. That does not happen simply because the passengers want to arrive at that hour of the morning. It is a consequence of the complexities of airline schedules, which, possibly, could be altered only with considerable difficulty.

Transatlantic flights imply a number of night movements. This was recognised in the public inquiry into the new Edinburgh runway at which noise was a major issue.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davis

I think not. It is very late and unfair to the hon. Member who has the Adjournment debate.

It is also a matter that affects Newbridge at the other end of the runway. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that, in any event, the Government are not responsible for matters relating to aircraft noise at Edinburgh Airport. The airport has not been designated under Section 29 of the Civil Aviation Act 1971. There is no reason why it should be. Therefore, the matter rests entirely with the British Airports Authority, and the hon. Gentleman is at liberty to communicate with the chairman, Mr. Norman Payne.

The hon. Gentleman then asked, why not allow some of these flights from the North Atlantic to arrive or depart during the day? That would be a concession of a quite different order from allowing local-interest charters into Edinburgh. It would create a substantial precedent and, in my view, lead inevitably to complete freedom of movement at Edinburgh. Of course, that would necessarily argue for similar treatment at Glasgow and, for the reasons which I have already adduced, would be bound to rebound to the disadvantage of Prestwick.

Clearly, this is a matter where there are conflicting Scottish interests. At this time—not simply at this time of the day—I think that it would be ill-advised for us to make a final judgment on these matters. Difficult arguments have to be balanced here, and they are essentially matters for the Scottish Assembly.

The issues that have to be considered are clear To abandon the policy of successive Governments for the allocation of air traffic among the Scottish lowland airports will undoubtedly lead to a transfer of traffic from Prestwick. That traffic might be expected to move partly to Edinburgh and partly to Glasgow, since it would be quite unreasonable to allow freedom at Edinburgh while at the same time restricting the use of Glasgow. The consequence would be to place seriously at risk the viability of Prestwick and the employment which is provided at that airport. At Edinburgh a build-up of transatlantic traffic, a large part of which arrives early in the morning, would increase the problem of noise disturbance. Let there be no doubt about that. Traffic at Edinburgh is growing at a faster rate than at the other lowland airports, and the Government see no obvious justification for a concentration of traffic at Edinburgh which has no necessary ties with the Edinburgh area when this would be at the expense of Prestwick.

Against this background we have reached two main conclusions. The first is that the right course is to allow into Edinburgh long-haul charter operations which have clear ties with Scotland's capital but otherwise to maintain the existing policy on the allocation of traffic between the airports at Glasgow, Edinburgh and Prestwick. The second is, in matters which are the subject of different opinions not only throughout the central belt of Scotland but within the Edinburgh area, to defer any irrevocable decisions until the issues can be considered within Scotland by the Scottish Assembly.

In this, as in other matters, the Government have to strike a balance between conflicting positions. I believe that in the conclusions which we have reached, which involve a flexible response to the points made by the hon. Gentleman, we have adopted a solution which should command a wide measure of support throughout Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House; immediately considered in Committee pursuant to the Order of the House this day; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 93 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.