HL Deb 06 July 1965 vol 267 cc1249-72

7 p.m.

THE EARL OF SELKIRK rose to call attention to the Fourth Report of the Air Transport Licensing Board, and in particular to paragraphs 40 to 43; and to move for Papers. The noble Earl said: My Lords, at this hour, and with the shadow of the noble Lord, Lord Egremont, in front of us, I will endeavour to be as brief as I can. I want, if I may, to say first of all that it is possible that the way I have worded my Motion may not have made it quite clear to everyone reading it exactly what it is that I am seeking to say. I wish to draw attention to what I regard as the urgent need for direct air services from points outside London to points overseas, and I want to give the reasons why I think this is a major element in (shall I say?) the lack of balance in the air services in this country, and concerns an urgent economic need of the country at the present time.

Since the war we have seen a considerable development of the air services in this country, as indeed there has been elsewhere. I do not wish to criticise in principle the two great air services we have, both of which are now among the leading air services in the world to-day. I accept that. I could criticise them on many grounds; but I think the ground I am putting forward now is one of the major defects in the general lines on which aviation has developed in this country to-day. In this connection, we have recently shown a steady annual development of the order of 15 per cent. With an expansion of this sort you are in a position to mould the direction of development far more than you would be if you were dealing with a static organisation. Therefore, there is the chance of developing the course of evolution properly. The major defect from which we suffer is over-concentration on London. Many of us, when we discussed the formation of these Corporations twenty years ago, anticipated that this might happen. To my mind, this has happened at least as fully as I ever expected it would, and perhaps more so. The control of aviation has been centred on London, and the whole emphasis has been on making the services London services rather than provincial services.

My Lords, how bad is the situation? I do not want to go into a lot of detail. I want, if I may, to put forward one or two general statistics to show just how bad it is. I put down a Question the other day, which I am afraid must have entailed rather a lot of trouble to those people who had to answer it, but certain statistical facts emerged from it. The first is that 85 per cent. of our overseas services take off from London and the Home Counties—that is, from the South-East of England—and the rest of the country has to do with 15 or perhaps 16 per cent. of the services to overseas points. May I put it in a different way? Weekly—and these figures are for a given week at the beginning of May—1,600 British and foreign aircraft take off for points overseas. As we look round the country we see that Wales has 5, Northern Ireland has 10, Yorkshire has 18 and Glasgow and Edinburgh airports have 34, but none of them are British. That means that these areas (which, if you like to put it in this way, are the capital areas outside London) have an almost negligible overseas air service. These figures compare with that of 1,600 a week for the two main airports of London. Indeed, on the map of Europe which B.E.A. publish there is no sign at all of Cardiff, Belfast or Edinburgh. I should have thought that, even from the point of view of the tourist, it might be of some value to include them.

Three things have happened in the last six to nine months to which I should like to draw attention. The first is that last autumn the Air Transport Licensing Board described as satisfactory the situation that overseas services should come into London and that the rest of the country should be content with feeder services. This view was put forward and explained, as I have said, in paragraph 41 of the A.T.L.B. Report which was published last year. They said that the acid test as to whether any proposals were right or wrong was profitability. I am not against any organisation making a profit, but I would say that, so far as a semi-monopoly or a monopoly is concerned, profitability is not the acid test. This is not the test to which we should put an organisation of this sort.


My Lords, would the noble Lord excuse me one moment? I did not quite get the source of that statement.


The source of that statement is the Report of the Air Transport Licensing Board which it put out last October, and with which the noble Lord is, I am sure, familiar. One of the first statements it makes in paragraph 41 is—and I will read the words out so that there will be no doubt about it: … to be justified commercially by reference to the acid test of profitability; …". All I am saying is that I am not against profit—I think every organisation ought to make its own ends meet properly—but this is not the acid test when you come to a monopoly. The second point the Board makes, of course, is that aerodromes cost money, and are expensive. But I am not raising this question in regard to new aerodromes. I am saying: use the existing aerodromes, and I am saying that the philosophy of the A.T.L.B. as shown in this Report is wrong.

The next thing that has happened is that the Minister has rather tightened the monopoly. I am not quite certain what the point of this is, but I think it is that he does not want any increase in the competitive running on trunk routes. The third thing that has happened is this. I am informed—and I should like the noble Lord to confirm it or otherwise—that the Minister of Aviation has in at least one case told the Air Transport Licensing Board that they should not even hear an application; that is to say, it is not a question of hearing an application and then refusing it, but the Minister has actually told the Board that they should not listen to an application. I mention these things because most of us, I think, foresaw this development, this concentration of overseas services on London, but we hoped that, in due course, probably through the Air Transport Licensing Board, there would gradually be an expansion of those services from the areas outside London. I have therefore got to say that these recent developments have been extremely discouraging to independents which might take part, and have increased our dependence on the monopoly which exists.

I should like to make this point, too, if I may. The noble Lord may say that they have not had any applications to start up new services. But, of course, applications made before the Air Transport Licensing Board cost money. Not only that, but to survey a route, whether it be between Manchester and Dusseldorf or Glasgow and Hamburg, costs the developers money. The cost may run into tens of thousands of pounds before it can be shown to be worth doing. Therefore, unless these independents are given some encouragement, they will not put forward their serious suggestions. If we do not use the independents, then I think we must go back to giving instructions to B.E.A. I must, in fairness, say that I think this is sufficiently serious for the Minister either to get someone else to run services to provincial areas or, alternatively, to give instructions to B.E.A.

I should like, if I may, just to state the situation as I see it, which I think is fairly stated in the Guardian. It says: Passengers are not forbidden to leave England, but they must leave by the right pen. That was in a leading article on February 20. They have all got to go through the right pen. From the same paper, I would also quote from an article by a gentleman who feels very strongly about it. Writing on May 18, he said: Manchester can boast one of Britain's most modern, best-equipped and—other than Prestwick—least-used international airports. This is a great pity, not only from the point of view of the ratepayer who is responsible for this magnificent installation, but even more so from that of the air passenger on business, who is forced by the fiat of the State airlines to travel to most destinations abroad either at ridiculous hours, or via London". I am quoting that to show that there is considerable feeling in many parts of the country about what is happening.

I suspect that the noble Lord will say one of two things. He will say that the other lines from provincial centres do not pay. There is no answer to that; for no one knows until it is tried out. If he thinks that, then I beg him to let those people try who wish to try. Or he will say that there are great difficulties about landing rights. I do not know the position about landing rights; and nobody does, except the Minister of Aviation. Frankly, it may be argued—though I am not going to argue strongly on this—that this work could be done better by the Foreign Office than by the Ministry of Aviation. I am not expressing an opinion; but I am asking, if we cannot get landing rights to enable us to provide essential services, what are we doing about it? Is the Minister complaining to those countries which will not provide us with adequate landing rights at the present time?

It is common knowledge that the services to Paris are highly inadequate to-day. What is being done to supplement them? Or are we in a position where, in fact, the whole of aviation in Europe is being held up by a form of Governmental cartel using its own air services really as a mean of "skinning" the flying public? Is this the situation? Are we up against a cartel of Governments in Europe using the facilities of aviation to get as much money as they can from the travelling public, and not providing adequate services? I do not know whether the noble Lord will say this. If so, let him explain what action is being taken to overcome the difficulty and the reluctance of other countries to provide the adequate services which we can provide; because, in fairness, I must say that in this country the number of domestic services is high. It is, I believe, nearly double the equivalent domestic services in North America at the present time. There is plenty of room, I believe, for development in this.

May I say why this is important? This Report, the fourth Report of the Air Transport Licensing Board, says that we must not give way to local pride. I agree that this is not a question of local pride. This is a question, first, of over-congestion in London, of over-congestion from the point of view of passengers, which makes London Airport a very unpleasant airport, indeed, and one which I hope Mr. Peter Masefield will be able to improve, but I believe, with regret, that there is an Augean stable to be cleared out there. Secondly, I believe that a development of this sort is essential for export trade. As I have said, on the map of Europe used by B.E.A. you do not see Newcastle, Leeds, Bristol and a number of other towns. It is a matter of tremendous importance to trade. It is not enough simply to have feeder services. If you have someone coming from Germany, say, to see your plant, then it is better that he should be able to come direct from Hamburg to Glasgow, for example. It is a tremendous encouragement to him; besides which, of course, there is the saving of time.

We are to-day talking about, and have been talking about for a long time, a better-balanced spread of economy in this country. I believe that this is the Government's policy. I hope it is. I am sure that this is essential for the well-being of the country. But we shall not get this unless we get better facilities for travelling all over the country. I will end by saying this. We have been warned for twenty-five years that the drift of the industrial population to London and the Home Counties constitutes a social, economic and strategic problem which demands immediate attention. It may not be a strategic problem, but I am sure that it is still a social and economic one, and it is one to which I believe very few Governments have paid more than what I would call lip-service. Twenty-five years is a long time. I am going to ask the noble Lord three questions. First, will the noble Lord say that he does not accept the philosophy in paragraph 41 of the Fourth Report of the Air Transport Licensing Board? Will he recognise that better air services are urgently required to the provincial centres of this country? Will he say that he is open to receive any suggestion on how those services could be provided? I beg to move for Papers.

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, this debate has opened later than many of us expected, and I have to say at this moment, to my great regret, that I shall have to leave before being able to hear the speech of the noble Lord who is to wind up. I have expressed my regret; and it is a particular regret in view of the fact that I know how informative he always tries to be. He has assured me that he does not regard this as a discourtesy. I shall be questioning, though less captiously than I should have been had I been able to remain to the end; and I propose to follow my noble friend in calling particular attention to paragraphs 40 to 43 of the Report we are now debating.

If I had to declare an interest, then it would be an interest shared by all of those in this country whose homes and businesses lie beyond easy reach of London Airport. But I believe the interest is, in fact, more widely embracing than that. I believe that London and the South-East will themselves benefit if further overcrowding of Heathrow Airport is avoided. Clearly, one means of avoiding such overcrowding would be the expansion and creation of other airports. I am going to ask the Minister whether the disadvantages of this solution have been fully taken into account and whether the advantages of regional international airports have been fully examined. Together with my noble friend, I doubt whether they can have been fully examined.

To me, the opening sentence of paragraph 40 is defeatist in its essence, and all the conclusions flowing from that opening sentence tend to be defeatist in character. The opening words read: For good or ill, London is the hub of the nation's international air services. In conceding that it may be for ill, I should have thought that the authors of this section of the Report would have applied themselves to the possibility of overcoming this ill. In fact, they do the reverse. They follow with an assumption that this ill must always be with us. I find this regrettable and unnecessary. I agree that this is a problem which successive Ministers have found difficult. Modern airports require a great deal of capital, and Ministers of spending Departments very properly question whether the fruits of such expenditure are in large-scale demand—and whether they will bring in returns. It is especially hard to calculate what demand there is, for instance, among businessmen and others—I say "for instance"—in the North of England for better air facilities. But that, it seems to me, is no reason for making no effort to calculate that demand. I have tried to discover what effort, if any, has been made, and all the evidence I have found is negative. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong in thinking that the Ministry of Aviation has almost no idea as to the origin and final destination of passengers using London Airport.

I quote, in support of my belief, from the Report of the Technical Panel of the Standing Conference on London Regional Planning, from the printed agenda of November 25 last year: We thought it very desirable to know something of the origins and destinations in Britain of air travellers using the London Airports; how much of the traffic is for business purposes, how much is for holidays, and how much of the expected increase might be of the latter. We also thought it important to know the extent of the freight traffic increase referred to in the Report and how much of it would need to be based on the London airports. The data available is very limited. A recent survey at Heathrow showed that about three-quarters of all outgoing passengers originated in South-East England. My noble friend gave the figure of 85 per cent. of passenger-carrying capacity leaving for abroad on international flights from London Airport. I think he spoke in those terms.


My Lords, I said: "from South-East England". This, of course, includes Gatwick, Southend and Lydd. I should like to be clear about that.


I stand corrected; I am sorry. I should have expected that to be the terms in which my noble friend was speaking.

Clearly, the Technical Panel was not satisfied with the precision of these data. So far as this serves at all, it poses the question: why did only one-quarter of all the outgoing passengers originate from other regions? May it not be that other air-minded businessmen capable of making their contribution to the export drive—this reinforces the point made by my noble friend—were put off by the difficulties and delay, the obliqueness of reaching London and continuing from there to their destination?

I am told that businessmen from Hull frequently drive to London Airport to fly to the Continent, but I believe that a time-and-motion study would condemn the inconvenience and delay thus imposed upon them, and would recommend a more direct and streamlined journey. As noble Lords will doubtless know, a survey has been carried out by a body of people who have formed themselves into "The Yorkshire Airport Development Association". I should like to know how carefully the report on this survey has been considered by the Ministry and by the Air Transport Licensing Board. It happens that I live in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and the recommendations in the Report would greatly benefit that area; so I must be explicit in saying that I introduce this survey only as an example of what could be done for other regions in the country according to their characteristics. My noble friend has already spoken of the benefits to Scotland.

The report is quite firm and, to me, convincing in finding a demand for regional international air facilities and a dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs; that is to say, the lack of these facilities. If I may, I will quote three short paragraphs describing the principal factors which it claims have brought these demands to a head: The drift to the South and West of the younger and more skilled population, and the greater concentration of new industries in Southern England. The inadequacy of the air transport facilities for passengers and cargo east of the Pennines, the inaccessibility of Ringway to most of the North-East area, and the lack of scheduled air services from points within the eastern sector of Britain bounded by Newcastle, Leeds, Derby, Coventry and Cambridge. The economic need to strengthen the marketing position of the North-East, bearing in mind the growth of trade with Europe, whether Britain moves within or remains without the Common Market area, and the wider need to avoid segregation from the political and social forces now shaping the growth of all countries of the Western Alliance. To my mind, in the paragraphs we are discussing the Board does not face these factors. The members tend to avert their eyes from the need, and from the dissatisfaction involved. They point out in paragraph 42 that airports are expensive—which we all know—but assume that, because they are expensive, they must be rejected. Obviously, cost effectiveness must command, but I see no sign that the possible cost effectiveness has been allowed for. In fact, the Board says: The financial side of this equation is outside our terms of reference and is of only indirect interest to us. It is, however, very much within the terms of reference of industry, and of the most direct interest to industry in all parts of Britain within and beyond convenient range of the South-East boundaries.

At this point I think I might ask, what is to happen when Heathrow Airport reaches saturation point and Gatwick has to take more and more international flights? Many of the transit passengers will be obliged to cross from Gatwick to Heathrow, or vice versa, a thoroughly inconvenient and doubtless irritating additional "leg" to their journey. The situation would be further complicated by the proposed new airport at Stanstead. Is it right to condemn from the outset the solution proposed by certain thoughtful people in other areas, to take the increasing pressure off London Airport by direct links, in increasing numbers, between the major industrial areas and their counterparts in Europe or the capitals of European countries? As I said earlier, it seems to me defeatist to suggest that this solution does not exist, and never will.

There is, of course, the argument that the English weather imposes problems on regular flying which do not exist in other countries, but with the development of automatic landing, this is becoming a less and less important factor. I am told that within eight years it could disappear. As many noble Lords will know, the de Havilland element of the Hawker-Siddeley Aviation Company is taking us ahead of other countries in this branch of technology, and it seems to me that this development offers particular benefits to our country and its industry. It would be lamentable if we left it out of account in our long-term planning.

My Lords, I do not think it can be denied that the provision of direct international air services from strategic industrial points offers a substantial benefit to the economy of the area so served. This is recognised in the Report which we are debating. The service from Newcastle to Paris is specifically referred to as having been licensed. I believe that it is now in operation, but it can serve only a smaller industrial area than would be served by international flights from other industrial areas. The speed of modern communications undoubtedly requires direct services to make us truly competitive with other industrial nations. The more congested Heathrow Airport becomes, the less competitive we shall be, and I do not believe that three airports, widely spread and at different compass points from the centre of London, can be expected to overcome this disadvantage.

I cannot see where or how it can be argued that our industrial effort can be properly expanded without a communications system which keeps pace with this modernisation. It must be right to enable, indeed to encourage, all those who wish to contribute to this modernisation to do so. How far are the Government looking ahead in the matter of those requirements? In the United States of America a vast and comprehensive review of present and future requirements is produced in the form of the "National Airport Plan". The hard factors of demand and cost efficiency are tabled and the deductions are drawn. What is there to parallel this in our own preparations for the future? All the Report has to say is: Hurtful though it may be to local pride, London will for many years to come be able to offer a range and frequency of services to places overseas that cannot be matched by direct services from other places in the United Kingdom. Is this true; is this desirable, and, if so, why?

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, I should like warmly to support the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, who has raised this most important subject. He mentioned policies of regional development. There is, I think, no disagreement between noble Lords on both sides of the House in wanting to see policies of regional development succeed. We want to see industry more evenly spread throughout the country. Unless we develop to the full the economic resources of all parts of the country, and unless we put a halt to the overcrowding of the South of England, with all its inflationary effects, we shall not solve the national economic problem.

In the development of new industry the key is communications, because it is by the meeting of minds that results from personal contact that all the main processes of industry develop, whether it be research, invention, production or sales and very important export sales. This meeting of minds from personal contact is one of the key factors. We know from experience that the greater the distance from the main centres of population, the greater becomes the importance of communications.

The first question that many companies ask when looking for a new location is, "What are the air services?" The availability or otherwise of these has influenced many decisions, as I am personally aware. That is why those of us who are working in the regions to make these development policies a success are insistent on the need for speedy and direct air communications overseas, not only from London, but also from other parts of the country. We are not so much concerned with long-haul inter-continental services. For one thing, the time factor is not so vital, and, for another, there are adequate and good transatlantic services, certainly out of Scotland and to some extent out of the North of England. One interesting result of that is that in Scotland a large number of North American companies have taken root there because they have direct access to the home country.

The real problem is access from these parts of Britain to the continent of Europe. That is the reason why we take great exception to the views on this subject expressed in the paragraph of the Report to which the noble Earl has drawn attention, the view that, by and large, it is profitable to channel air traffic with the Continent through London Airport. As most of us know, the conditions for transit through London Airport are nothing short of disgraceful at the present time. I say this not lightly, but from recent personal experience, both there and of other international airports on the Continent and in North America. That even B.E.A. recognise this situation is shown by a note appended to one of the recent timetables, saying that the minimum connecting interval for passengers transferring from domestic to international flights of B.E.A. will in future be one hour, and therefore certain connections shown in the timetable will no longer be valid. That is a situation which surely does not reflect a satisfactory state of affairs. For further evidence, I commend the report, referred to in The Times yesterday, of a study of the Westminster Junior Chamber of Commerce, who have been investigating the state of affairs at the airport.

Let us hope, as did the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, that the new management will bring much-needed change. Like the noble Earl, we should all wish the new Chairman well in taking on this immensely important job. But the last thing that will help him in that job is to allow more and more services to go through London Airport. I know that, on one side, it is argued that if there were the demand for services from the regions, if there were likely to be enough traffic to make them profitable in the foreseeable future, then they would be provided either by B.E.A. or by private British operators, or by overseas airlines. This is an over-simplification of the state of affairs because, unfortunately, as the noble Earl pointed out, there are too many vested interests conspiring against the travelling public. The B.E.A. argument on profitability was used frequently fifteen and more years ago when, as the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, may remember, the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, and I were both advocating more frequent services between Scotland and London. The argument always was that there was not enough traffic to justify them. Look at what has happened. To-day there are over 2,000 seats a day in each direction between Scotland and London, and at this time of the year they are just about all full.

Of course, these services require money to develop. The trouble is that, with their existing profitable network, their main base in London and their effective shelter from competition, there is no inducement for B.E.A. to go out and pioneer these routes. It is all very well for the Minister of Aviation to say that he will encourage private operators to open up any new route. They cannot be expected to do so unless they are given, first, enough flights to occupy fully a minimum number of aircraft and enable them to be in the right places for those flights, and, secondly, an opportunity to operate some profitable routes to enable them to build up the new one.

Finally, there is the question of the foreign operator. Here we have the restrictive situation of the international Agreement about services between one country and another. Many foreign operators are aware that they can get a right to operate to a British provincial centre only by surrendering a right to operate into London, and that they can hardly be expected to do. A year or more ago, there was a regrettably restrictive affair, when Scandinavian Airlines were cut back on services which they operated directly from Scotland to Scandinavia.

I think that this is a clear case of double thinking in the Government and in their creature, the Air Transport Licensing Board. On the one hand, they are seeking to encourage the economic development of the regions and expressing concern at the growing congestion at London Airport—indeed, the near-saturation of it—and, on the other, they are giving no encouragement—in fact, I fear, active discouragement—to the provision of direct overseas services from other parts of the country which would both help the regional economies and relieve congestion at London.

I do not blame B.E.A. in this matter. In many spheres, they are doing a first-rate job. They brought me from Edinburgh between lunch and tea to-day, smoothly and efficiently. I am glad to see what might be the beginning of a new policy in the recent announcement that they are starting more direct services from Manchester to Continental centres, with adequate connections from Scotland. If this comes about, we shall indeed be grateful for them. But, after all, they are in a privileged position, almost of monopoly on some routes. They are perfectly entitled to take advantage of it. It is up to the Government to ensure that the privileges are matched by obligations. One of them is to pioneer these direct services to the Continent. I am sure, from what I have seen, that it will not be long before they come into operation.

The alternative is for the Government to give private operators a real chance to operate these new routes and not a mere shadow of one. Finally, if it is international Agreements that are preventing the start of these services by overseas airlines, then I hope that the Government will openly denounce the restrictive Agreements which are in operation in this whole field of aviation between one country and another and which operate so greatly to the detriment of the travelling public. In any case, like the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, I sincerely hope that they will dissociate themselves from the line taken in this paragraph in the Report.

7.39 p.m.


My Lords, I shall be even briefer than usual to-night because I am not feeling in the best frame of mind at the moment. Having failed to get a seat last night, I had to get up at half past five this morning to get a seat in order to reach your Lordships' House this afternoon. I should have liked to be able to support wholeheartedly the noble Earl's plea that some Continental traffic should be syphoned off from London Airport, but I am not sure that I can go the whole way with him, because I feel that the timing is not quite right for that. I do not think that the noble Earl need shed a tear, because I am certain that it is something that is going to come about, whether we want it or not. There is a big jam of traffic at London Airport at present, and we are told that traffic will probably double there in the next four to six years.

Apart from the difficulties at London Airport, I am doubtful whether this is the right time to move Continental traffic from London. The reason is that domestic flights are absolutely the lifeblood of Scotland, not only for industry and business, but also for the remoter parts. At last domestic flights are beginning to get going. And, what is more important, domestic flights are also the feeder services for the Continental services: in other words, these services are dual purpose, and this is a tremendous help. This is an important fact that we simply must not lose sight of. Whatever happens, we must not at present take away traffic from our domestic routes until these have been fully developed. The Air Transport Licensing Board recognised this in their Report, and I think they have come to the right conclusions at the moment.

Another point is that it is far better to have a regular service than to have an irregular service which is split between London and Scotland. The Air Transport Licensing Board have a vital part to play over air transport. I believe that they should insist that we should have maximum expansion of domestic routes, even if this leads to increased competition. Operators must be able to expand on an equal footing. Some time ago, one of the independent operators got a licence to put a second 'plane on to a route on which B.E.A. already had seven or eight 'planes running a day. This operator, having obtained the licence, had to find a time to put this 'plane on, and they found that B.E.A. in the summer had been running a 'plane leaving (I think it was) at 5 o'clock. Winter was approaching, and the independent operator found that B.E.A. were not going to continue this 'plane in the winter-time. So they published their schedule showing their 'plane leaving at 5 o'clock. B.E.A. had already published their winter timetable. But, believe it or not, about a week later B.E.A. published an amendment to their timetable showing a 'plane leaving at a quarter to five. That is more than cutthroat competition; it is what I call unfair competition.

Another matter which I suggest the Air Transport Licensing Board should look into is the question of issuing licences. I believe that licences should be issued for at least ten years. 'Planes are extremely expensive these days, and operators should not suddenly find themselves with a number of 'planes on their hands, their licence taken away, and nowhere to fly.

Air transport is vital to England, but owing to the distance factor and also the fact that London is situated where it is, it is doubly vital to Scotland. This is not a Party political matter. No Government of recent years has had the right attitude of mind towards air transport. Here I believe we have absolutely the wrong attitude of mind to air transport. We look at air transport rather like a vehicle in the air—like travelling by train. If you are lucky, you get a sleeper; but more often than not you are on the waiting list; you do not hear anything for some time, and eventually a second train is put on: it is all a question of uncertainty. Air travel is a completely different concept. The ultimate aim of air travel must obviously be the walk-on/walk-off service. We must realise the vital role that air transport can play in this age of speed, when time is so precious. Our whole approach to civil aviation needs reconsideration. The main consideration for the Government and for the Air Transport Licensing Board is to have the right attitude of mind. The Government themselves must become air minded. Otherwise, it is not just going to be a question of people being left behind on the waiting list; this country will find that it has missed the bus and is itself on the waiting list.

7.45 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, I should like to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, on the adept way in which he switched at a moment's notice from a consideration of the Highlands and Islands to this Motion which we have before us at the moment. Indirectly and directly, of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, mentioned, there is a connection between the development of air transport and the development of the Highlands and Islands. I have always taken the view, as the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, probably remembers, that the key to the development of Scotland is possibly the development of the air transport service. I remember once, after a convivial evening with the late Sir Patrick Dollan, making a great speech in which I talked about the development of air transport in Scotland. Re-reading it now, I do not think I should disagree with anything I then said, even though the enthusiasm of "Paddy" Dollan was greatly responsible for the terms in which the speech was couched.

I am glad that the noble Earl has raised this matter this evening. If I may say so, I was particularly glad that he should have put so forcibly a Socialist philosophy. I do not think all noble Lords heard what he said about the iniquity of regarding profitability as the acid test of a public service. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl.


My Lords, the noble Lord must complete my sentence. I said that profitability was not the acid test of monopoly.


The noble Earl said that profitability should not be the acid test. I must say that I only wish my noble friend Lord Stonham had had his vigorous support when he was having controversy with Dr. Beeching over profitability as the test of transport services.

The issues which have been raised today are important. I am certain that if our air transport affairs were discussed rather more publicly, and in a proper and constructive way, as we have had them discussed this evening, there would be a much greater likelihood that we should evolve, in the changing circumstances, a transport policy which is understood and accepted. On behalf of the Government, I welcome this opportunity of stating the attitude of my right honourable friend the Minister of Aviation upon these issues, dealt with in paragraphs 40 to 43 of the Report of the Air Transport Licensing Board.

May I say straight away that I absolutely agree with the noble Earl that we want to see more international scheduled services starting from centres other than London. This I say as a matter of Government policy: to the extent that the noble Earl has proposed that the international network should be thickened, from centres other than London, he has the sympathy and support of my right honourable friend and of the Government.

Apart from its desirability of giving better air transport services to the growth points in the Provinces, there is another practical reason why it would be foolish to try to attract all international air services to London. The noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, mentioned that there is a problem developing in the air space over London. Congestion is a serious problem. In the early 1970s almost certainly it will be necessary to sectorise the traffic in London's air space as between London Heathrow, London Gatwick and the third London airport. I cannot see that this will be popular with the operators, who will have to divide their administrative services as between three airports, and may not be entirely advantageous to the travelling public. But this will be necessary because of the volume of traffic which is expected in the 1970s.

To the extent that we can encourage more services to use to the maximum extent airports in the Provinces, we shall set back the time when it will be necessary to make this division within the London area. Although the Minister of Aviation, in his quasi-judicial capacity in relation to appeals from the decisions of the Air Transport Licensing Board, will obviously listen to each case on its merits, as a general principle there is no intention at all on his part to restrict the development of these provincial services and, on the contrary, there is every reason why they should be encouraged.

In this connection one might misconstrue the Statement of policy made by the Minister of Aviation and by my noble friend Lord Shackleton in this House on February 17. I think it was possibly from that Statement that the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, took one phrase about refusing to consider certain further applications. But this Statement was not a discouragement to the line of development we have been talking about. On the contrary, this Statement made it quite clear that any operator, whether public or private, who wished to provide a genuinely new service, or open up some fresh market for British aviation, would have the full support of the Government.

Those words were in the same Statement as that in which he said he would not be prepared to accept further applications for running a parallel operation on an international route when there was already a British operator providing the service. Even this was not a decision to eliminate competition, because there would already be competition as between the British operator and the international operator.

Having dealt with the position of the Government, I now turn to the Report and the views of the Air Transport Licensing Board. I must agree with the noble Earl that the paragraphs to which he has called attention this evening have given rise to criticism before they were discussed this evening. It seems to me that there has been misapprehension about the Board's intentions and con ceivably there was some room for misunderstanding. May I therefore try to make the position clear? The Board, of course, are a licensing authority who cannot themselves operate services, nor have they the power to compel others to operate services. The provision and development of British air services is the commercial responsibility of the operating corporations or companies, subject, of course, to their securing the necessary licence from the Air Transport Licensing Board or, in appeal cases, from the Minister of Aviation.

As I understand it, in paragraphs 40 to 43 the Board were considering, or ruminating over, or cogitating upon, the kind of consideration which they have in mind when deciding whether to grant a particular licence, and they were trying to analyse the reasons why the development of provincial air services had been slower than would have been hoped. They were not laying down a philosophy, as the noble Earl seemed to think. They were certainly not laying down any doctrinaire opposition to provincial services. They were trying to warn against unreasonable optimism, and trying to show why it was that, so far, we had not gone along more rapidy in this field than had been hoped for.

At this point, as criticisms have been made of the Board I think I ought to say—and I have no doubt that noble Lords would agree with me—that, whatever controversy there may be about particular decisions of the Board, and although I know they are often criticised for not doing things which the Act says they should not do, I am sure we all recognise that their care, courtesy, and impartiality in dealing with applications is absolutely impeccable.


My Lords, may I warmly second what the noble Lord has said?


I am very much obliged to the noble Earl. It seems to me that it was with their readiness to help that they went out of their way to analyse in these four paragraphs some of the factors involved, without making it clear that the views they were stating were not always their own views. They were trying to interpret what was in the mind of a variety of people in these various independent operators and Corporations who had the responsibility for operating services. It is, of course, as noble Lords will know, part of !the statutory duty of the Board to assure themselves that an applicant for a licence is competent, economically and technically, to operate the public service which they want to licence. Similarly, the Board have to take into account the possibility of a new service draining off traffic from existing services which are probably already having a struggle to remain viable. There really is no point in licensing a second service from a given area if this means that in the long run neither service survives. Obviously, in the short run it may be said that the travelling public are benefiting from competition. But in the long run if, because of the economic difficulties of both operators, the services are curtailed or run in an unsatisfactory manner, then the travelling public does not benefit.

I would say that probably it is only natural that in the first place the services in this country should have developed much more rapidly from London. It may be hurtful to local pride to say that London is the hub of our international airport system but, surely, this is one of the facts of life. It was natural that London should develop more rapidly, and I agree absolutely with the noble Lord, Lord Forbes, that it is desirable, in the first place, to see that there is a high frequency of service available to the travelling public, especially the businessman, and one cannot have a high frequency if there is a low traffic offering. To the extent that it has been possible to have a very high frequency from London, it may have been desirable in the first place to have a degree of concentration within the London area.

But, having said that, I return to my original point, that we have now reached the stage when it ought to be possible to do much more from the provincial centres. Looking at the record, I cannot say that the provincinal centres have been absolutely discouraged in the way in which the noble Earl rather suggested. I find that there are international scheduled services to Continental destinations from some twenty places in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Midlands, North, South and South-West England. Man chester and Prestwick, of course, have very important transatlantic services to various points in North America. There are also numerous inclusive tour services to the Continent which provide for holiday traffic from most of the large centres of population throughout the country. I will not bore the House with a list, but I have the list here and it makes quite an impressive service altogether.

I have said that the Board are not expected to initiate services. But it is a fact that, again in an effort to be helpful, they have recently undertaken a survey into the possibility of developing freight services from Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, asked whether it is possible to say from which parts of England traffic originates, and what the terminal points are. It has not been possible to say that with any degree of certainty, simply because in the past we have not always insisted that the travelling public should fill up forms, and unless they put it on a form one cannot have this sort of information collected. The Ministry has now undertaken a survey of points of origin and destination, and this background information will be available to companies or corporations, enabling them to estimate the sort of services which in the future might be worth while operating. Of course it will still be a matter for the corporations and companies to do research further in depth and make the ultimate decision. Nevertheless, this information is now being collected. My personal view is that this kind of information or market survey is something which, either in the Ministry or the Board, ought to be taken very seriously indeed in the future.

There is one other development which I think is of some interest, and that is the way in which B.E.A., sometimes criticised for not wishing to encourage services in the Provinces, have taken a financial interest in Cambrian Airways, operating from South Wales, and in B.K.S., operating from North-East England. Both these companies operate a number of flights to the Continent from their respective centres, and of course the technical and financial backing of B.E.A. is not unimportant.

The point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Polwarth, about the services to Prestwick from Scandinavia, and I think reference was also made to the fact that traffic rights were denied to Sabena in the case of services from Manchester. Here it was not a question of discouraging a service from Prestwick to Scandinavia, or from Manchester to Brussels; it was simply a matter that in both cases these carriers were using the British centres for the purpose of picking up trans-Atlantic traffic. We placed absolutely no limitation upon the S.A.S. services to Prestwick from Scandinavia. The difficulty arose when they wanted to exercise their fifth freedom traffic rights and carry an undue amount of British traffic from Prestwick across the North Atlantic.


My Lords, might I just say that of course these things are all interlinked, and a mere Scandinavia-Prestwick service would not necessarily be viable except as part of an overall operation?


No my Lords; but the criticism in the first place was that we were discouraging services from this country to the Continent, and what I am saying is that there was absolutely no limitation upon services from Prestwick to Scandinavia, or from Manchester to Brussels. It was simply that S.A.S., in the one case, and Sabena, in the other, were carrying traffic which properly should be carried by the British operator. I might say that the Minister has undertaken to discuss this matter further with S.A.S. in the winter, and I understand that these discussions are likely to take place.

In this connection, I would also point out that a number of foreign operators have traffic rights to provincial centres in this country but have not taken them up. I think the number of cases in which licences have been granted certainly runs into double figures, but the services have not been operated. This does not seem to suggest that there is an undue restriction placed upon these services by the Board, and certainly not by the Government.

I hope that I have lived up to the reputation given to me by the noble Lord, Lord St. Oswald, of being as informative as possible. In any case, I trust that the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk, will feel that this discussion has been worthwhile and that some of the fears he expressed were possibly unfounded.


My Lords, I certainly should like to thank the noble Lord for replying as fully as he has done, and I am glad to find a measure of agreement in principle, as I expected there would be. I am not wholly happy that anybody is going to do anything about it, and I say again to the noble Lord that I think this is a matter of far-reaching importance. The whole economic development of this country will in certain measure be affected by it. The noble Lord says that we have to weigh these things up; in fact they generally come down in London Airport, and I will only say that I beg to withdraw this Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.