HL Deb 08 December 1977 vol 387 cc1821-42

6.54 p.m.

Lord BOYD-CARPENTER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the future of the Highlands and Islands airports. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking the Question may I express my appreciation to the noble and learned Lord, Lord

On Question, Whether the said Motion shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 48; Not-Contents, 21.

Amory, V. Halsbury, E. Rankeillour, L.
Avon, E. Henley, L. [Teller] Rochdale, V.
Boyd-Carpenter, L. Hives, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Broadbridge, L. Hornsby-Smith, B. St. Davids, V.
Cathcart, E. Hylton-Foster, B. Sandford, L. [Teller]
Colwyn, L. Kilmarnock, L. Sandys, L.
Croft, L. Kinnoull, E. Somers, L.
Cullen of Ashbourne, L. Lloyd of Kilgerran, L. Strathclyde, L.
de Clifford, L. Lyell, L. Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.
Denham, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V. Swinfen, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Meston, L. Trefgarne, L.
Duncan-Sandys, L. Molson, L. Vickers, B.
Elton, L. Montgomery of Alamein, V. Ward of North Tyneside, B.
Faithfull, B. Mowbray and Stourton, L. White, B.
Falkland, V. Northchurch, B. Wigoder, L.
Grafton, D. Phillips, B. Young, B.
Ardwick, L. Lovell-Davis, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Birk, B. McCluskey, L. Stone, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Melchett, L, Strabolgi, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Murray of Gravesend, L. Torphichen, L.
Kagan, L. Northfield, L, Wallace of Coslany, L, [Teller]
Kirkhill, L. Peart, L. (L. Privy Seal.) Winterbottom, L. [Teller]
Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. Shepherd, L. Wootton of Abinger, B.

McCluskey, who I am afraid has been somewhat inconvenienced by being here tonight but who, with his habitual courtesy, has arranged to be here to answer the Question.

The airports as to whose future I would invite the attention of the House are two on the mainland of the Scottish Highlands—namely, Inverness and Wick; Kirkwall and Sumburgh in the Orkneys and Shetlands respectively; and four in the Western Isles—Stornoway, Islay, Tiree and Benbecula. Within the compass of this Question I shall not raise the matter—as the title of my Question might suggest—of some of the even smaller airports which are operated by local authorities, such as that at Barra where, as some noble Lords may know, one has the exciting experience, subject to the tide, of landing on the beach.

Under the Civil Aviation Act 1971 those eight airports that I have just listed, plus the rather larger one at Aberdeen, were vested in the Civil Aviation Authority. The guidance given under that Act in February 1972—it is Cmnd. 4899, paragraph 21—directed that Authority to make recommendations to the Secretary of State as to their future and as to the arrangements to be made, if possible by 31st March 1974. In compliance with that direction, the Authority submitted such a recommendation in February 1974 during the last few days of office of Mr. Peter Walker and the Government of which he was a Member. But as Mr. Peter Walker demitted office within a few days of receiving this recommendation—though not, I hasten to say, as a result of receiving it—he can hardly be blamed for what followed.

What followed was, in fact, an indication of the usual dynamism of the Department of Trade in its civil aviation capacity. That is to say, nothing happened for three and a half years except that Aberdeen, having become a larger airport, on the direction of the Government was a couple of years ago handed over to the British Airports Authority. I now understand—and that is why I seek your Lordships' permission to raise this matter tonight—that the Government have in contemplation the possibility of transferring the remaining eight airports which I listed to the British Airports Authority. If that be so, I beg them to think again before committing themselves to such action.

In saying that, I have nothing but admiration for the British Airports Authority, with which I used to work in quite close collaboration when I was chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, which I was for five years. The British Airports Authority is an admirable body; it is admirably skilled in the operation of large airports, and fortunate and skilful in its use of its powers to grant concessions for restaurants and duty-free shops which greatly help it to turn in the admirable financial results which it regularly produces.

However, the point I wish to put particularly to the noble and learned Lord who will reply, is that there is all the difference in the world between large airports and the techniques involved in operating them, and the small airports which are referred to in this Question. In an office in Whitehall—perhaps I should say Victoria Street—it is very easy to deal with a matter on paper, to reason that the British Airports Authority is a competent body in managing airports, that the Civil Aviation Authority is not primarily an airports authority at all and that, therefore, these small airports should be handed over to the British Airports Authority.

But the essence of the point I wish to put to the noble and learned Lord is the profound difference in the job of running airports of two different kinds. If one looks at these airports—not from an office in Victoria Street or on paper, but in person and on the ground—one sees that the difference is immediately, violently apparent. I shall take as an example some of the airports in the Western Isles, where apart from the fire services—which, I am glad to say, as I understand it, are still being most loyally operated—very often the handling of traffic is done by one man whose traditional form of duties takes the place, first, of chasing the sheep off the runway, then talking the aircraft down, and then carrying the baggage to the terminal. All that is done by one man. Almost always he is a local man, locally recruited, whose heart is in the job and who is proud of the fact that he is running the airport which, under modern conditions, is the hub and centre of these remote islands. The job structure is very different from that of a British Airports Authority airport, where the very nature of the organisation means that those jobs must be divided between several categories of workers. Their structure and their agreements with their trade unions make that quite inevitable.

Another reason why the operation of these airports by the Civil Aviation Authority has proved to be so economical is that it is done with the aid of the organisation which already exists, and must continue anyhow to exist, for the provision of air traffic control over the Highlands and Islands. The British Airports Authority is not qualified to provide that air traffic control, and indeed, as the noble Lord will recall, the Civil Aviation Act explicitly provides that the provision of air traffic control at British Airports Authority airports must be given by the Civil Aviation Authority,

So the consequence of transferring these tiny airports from one authority to the other would mean that two complete background organisations would be required to offer legistical support, technical advice, and the whole machinery of a central organisation. With the probable exception of Sumburgh, none of them will in the foreseeable future be economically viable propositions. They are there not for economic but for social purposes. Indeed they provide the only means of maintaining civilised standards of life for the people of these remote regions. They are a crucial part of the social infrastructure but, with the possible exception of Sumburgh with its association with the oil industry, they do not pay. I doubt whether they will pay in any time about which noble Lords need concern themselves.

Therefore, it seems the height of folly to alter what is plainly the most economical system, in order to substitute for it a system which, in the nature of things, must be more expensive and therefore must increase the bill which the taxpayer, in one way or another, will have to meet. In raising this matter, I do not wish to seem to be unconstructive. On the contrary, I would remind the noble Lord that when the Civil Aviation Authority, as I have said, carried out its duties under the guidance of making a recommendation to the Government, it recommended that these airports, together in fact with Aberdeen, which is no longer in issue, should be vested in a subsidiary company registered in Edinburgh, with a Scottish board, but receiving their service and their support from, and the use of the staffs of, the Civil Aviation Authority.

Although three and a half years have passed during which no answer one way or the other has been given on that recommendation—and that is a fact which I do not think is very creditable to the Government Departments concerned, but be that as it may—there is really no reason why that should not be done, because those who made that recommendation at the time deliberately conceived it on lines which would enable it to fit in with any major changes which took place in the government of Scotland, or indeed to fit a situation in which no such changes took place. It fits into any general picture which Parliament, in its wisdom, may draw.

However, if the Government are still not prepared to accept a recommendation which was made after a great deal of study by people directly concerned with the subject and knowledgeable about it, then I would really beg them not to take action at all at this moment, because to take any other sort of action at this particular moment seems odd in the extreme. The Scotland Bill, as we know, is proceeding in another place under the guillotine, with large areas of it undiscussed. I understand that the part of it which is relevant to the point I am raising tonight—that is, the proposed transfer of authority for aerodromes to the devolved Scottish Authority—is likely, as a result of the guillotine, not even to be discussed in the House of Commons. None of us in this House knows whether the Bill as a whole will pass, or whether that particularly silly proposal to which I have referred may be amended in this House.

Faced with that uncertainty, it seems odd to transfer these airports from one authority to another against the background that if the Bill goes through in anything like its present form they would inescapably have to suffer yet another transfer—perhaps in a matter of months. Therefore, my plea to the Government is not to go forward with their alleged intention of transferring these airports from the Civil Aviation Authority to the British Airports Authority. If they wish to make a change—and there is a case for action because three and a half years of uncertainty has not been wholly fair to the devoted staffs concerned—why not adopt the recommendation which has been on their desks for three and a half years and which, as I have suggested, is wholly consistent with whatever picture may eventually appear of the future government of Scotland? If they are not prepared to do that, I would say to them, in the words of Lord Melbourne, "Why not leave it alone?"

7.6 p.m.


My Lords, I find myself in almost total agreement with the conclusions of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. For that reason, if no other, I am especially grateful to him for bringing this matter before your Lordships tonight. It is very satisfactory that my noble friend was able to find an opportunity to bring this matter before the House before the Christmas Recess. Therefore, I join with him in expressing thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, who is to reply, and who we know had to alter his personal arrangements to be here to answer tonight.

Although I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions which my noble friend has reached, and which he has described to us tonight, there are some additional reasons which occur to me which I would put to your Lordships and which will, I hope, add weight to what my noble friend has said, and what I understand my noble friend Lord Kinnoull is to say a little later. There is one point, however, where I venture to disagree with my noble friend; that is, upon the general performance of the British Airports Authority, particularly in recent years.

I would not dispute the fact that the British Airports Authority has produced consistently satisfactory financial results, and indeed in recent years has generated almost all of its capital requirements from internal sources. It has done this because it has access to what is, in effect, a monopoly market; namely, the major airports of the South-East of England; Heathrow, of course, first and foremost, Gatwick and, to a lesser extent, Stansted. As noble Lords will know, it also operates Prestwick, Aberdeen, as the noble Lord mentioned, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Most of these—indeed I believe all the BAA airports except Stansted and Prestwick—at least break even. Of course, Heathrow and Gatwick make a substantial profit. Much of the profit is generated from concessions such as restaurants and duty free shops, and the like. But there are areas in the BAA's sphere of influence and its activities which give rise to some comment and some complaint. I am, for example, particularly concerned with the consistent difficulties which general aviation aircraft have experienced at BAA airports. I know that the BAA is alive to those criticisms, and recently it invited me and others to listen to its views, while it explained its problems and how it was going about them.

But talking is not enough, and the actions by which we must judge the Authority in these matters are less than satisfactory. Only now, in 1977, has the Authority got round to constructing a general aviation facility at Heathrow. From a photograph of it, it will be seen that it is a very modest facility. Believe it or not, this facility, essential for British aircraft operating between Europe and the United Kingdom and elsewhere, is not to be available to international flights, but only to domestic flights. Your Lordships may regard it as surprising that this much trumpeted facility having been produced at Heathrow, and having, I believe, been opened only recently, has no customs or immigration officials at all. That was an Answer which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, gave me recently to a Question put down for Written Answer, and I must say—


My Lords, if my noble friend will allow me to intervene, may I ask whether he is being just a little unfair in putting the blame for this situation on the British Airports Authority? Is it not his experience, as it was mine, that the difficulty in these situations is the somewhat mediaeval attitude adopted by the Board of Customs and Excise?


My Lords, before the noble Lord replies, may I ask whether he is not being entirely unfair in speaking on this Question about the matters to which he is now addressing himself? The British Airports Authority is not impugned in some way before this House. The relevance of Heathrow, and the operation which the noble Lord is describing, seem to be a world away from the Question which is being discussed, and I hope that the noble Lord will consider that before he continues on this line.


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble and learned Lord takes that view. I am afraid that I do not take that view. I am endeavouring to show what is my most sincere and considered opinion; namely, that the BAA is not the best body to operate the airports in Scotland, which is the matter under consideration, and the matter which is the subject of the Question tonight.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, asked me whether it was not the case that the difficulty at Heathrow for example, was the archaic attitude of the customs and immigration officials. That may be. But my information is that the British Airports Authority has not sought to have any customs or immigration officials available at the new terminal which it has recently constructed. I would contrast that with the terminal at Gatwick, which is indeed manned by customs officials. However, that was a facility which was arranged a long time ago, when Sir Peter Masefield was the chairman of the BAA.

Let me now come, if I may, to the question of the Highlands and Islands aerodromes themselves. I have explained—apparently to the dissatisfaction of the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey—that I do not consider that the British Airports Authority is very good at providing facilities for general aviation aircraft; that is to say, for small aircraft. I admit at once, as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, would know, that there are of course difficulties at Heathrow which makes the Authority's task there in that connection very difficult. None the less, the authority has not, in my view, set out to solve those problems.

I now turn to Scotland. The eight aerodromes which it is now suggested in some quarters may be transferred to the BAA are very much used by general aviation aircraft. Indeed, at Sumburgh (which my noble friend mentioned), I should imagine that the great majority of operations are from small aircraft operated by the oil companies. Of course, there are scheduled services operating there, but the great preponderance of operations is from general aviation. I believe that the British Airports Authority is not best equipped to provide the very necessary facilities for these operators.

The reasons for this are sometimes difficult to discover, but, for example, I am told that the manning levels which were applied by the BAA at Edinburgh (which it took over a couple of years ago) were greatly increased shortly after the authority took over. I do not deny that Edinburgh then, as now, is operated efficiently, and no doubt to the satisfaction of the operators. But I find it hard to believe that the substantial increase in staffing levels which took place in Edinburgh was altogether in the best interests of, in particular, the small operators.

I am persuaded that the transfer of these aerodromes to the BAA would not be in the best interests of the majority of the users of these airports in Scotland. Therefore, I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to say in reply that the Government do not have that in mind. Speaking personally, I should like to see consideration given, at any rate, to a merger of the CAA and the BAA, but that is hardly a matter for tonight's debate. Let me reiterate that I believe that the set-up which the BAA has organised for operating the major airports of this nation is in many respects satisfactory, and indeed the financial results must surely prove that. But I also believe that some of the smaller operators, the efficiency and wellbeing of whom is so essential to the Scottish economy, would not be best served by this transfer, and I hope that the noble and learned Lord will agree with me.

7.16 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I believe that it is almost an unhappy habit of this noble House that those who have held high office outside the House in some specialised field seem often too rarely to give us the benefit of their experience. That is why it always gives me great pleasure to listen to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter speaking on the subject of aviation. I believe that he has unrivalled experience, both as a politician and as the former distinguished chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority.

I am tempted to support my noble friend in those brief words and then sit down, but I feel that his case has been so fairly and so well presented to the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, that it would be a little discourteous if I were to do so. I take part in the debate for two reasons. First, I have a small connection with the glorious island of Barra, and I was sad to learn this evening (which I had not realised previously) that the Civil Aviation Authority does not have the responsibility for that unique airport and unique runway, which disappears twice a day. There are 1,200 people on this island, which was made famous by the late Sir Compton Mackenzie, and I know how much they appreciate, as I am sure do all the Hebridean islanders, the air connection that they have.

The second reason I take part in the debate is that I have enormous respect, and indeed affection, for the Hebrides, and I believe that those who live in the remotest part of Great Britain deserve a good air connection such as has been given in the past. It is for that reason that I want to see it continued in the future.

The air services to the Outer Hebrides, or the Hebrides, or the Highlands and Islands, are, I believe, a symbol of connection for those who live in those isolated spots. The eight airports, or airfields, as my noble friend has explained, run on a shoestring—and a very successful shoestring, if I may say so. Here, I should like to pay tribute to the Civil Aviation Authority for the way it has run these airports in the past. I believe that these airports employ about 100 people, and both the air fares and the management of the airports are heavily subsidised. I believe that, in the case of the Civil Aviation Authority, it runs to about £1 million a year. I am not sure what the subsidy is to British Airways and Logan Airways, but perhaps the noble and learned Lord can tell us later what these subsidies are.

When one reads that the Minister is considering a change in the management, I think it is perhaps very natural, not only for my noble friend to query this but for those who live there to ask what good industrial logic there is in any change of management. For the present management has carried out its task splendidly, and, so far as I know, there have never been any local grumbles. One would indeed ask the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, this: Have the views of the local people, who benefit from and often depend upon these airfields, been sought? Has there been any indication of their views? Or, as I think my noble friend suggested in his speech, is the possibility of a change in the management a matter of administrative tidiness; a matter which, at least on paper, looks more tidy so far as London, Whitehall or Victoria Street is concerned?

If that is the reason, I believe that it is a bad ground for the change—and I do not say that because the British Airports Authority is incompetent, or does a bad job. It is the most respected of all the airports authorities in the world. I am not sure my noble friend agrees with that but the BAA carries out a magnificent job on the major airports of the country. The obvious reason is the connection between Heathrow and the fine airport at Tiree, and this has no connection at all with the expertise required.

The second reason why I believe it would be bad to transfer to the British Airports Authority is because it is bound to lead to a need for extra staff, extra manning. That is not to say that that is a bad thing in the Hebrides, but it is a bad thing when one looks at the services which are already subsidised. The reason why I say that extra staff will be required is because I am advised that the Civil Aviation Authority will still have to be involved in the air traffic services of the airfields and there would therefore be a possible duplication, particularly where one had the example which my noble friend was quoting in one case.

My noble friend raised the issue of devolution—and rightly so—and asked whether this decision, if it is to come, should not be delayed until the legislation, if it goes through, has been passed. I support that view and should like to ask the noble and learned Lord whether, if the devolution Bill goes through, there are any grounds to believe that all Scottish airports will become the responsibility of Scotland. This is perhaps one reason why the Minister is considering it now. I hope that, tonight, not only will the noble and learned Lord be able to say that, because of the persuasive arguments of my noble friend, the Government are not planning to transfer the management of these airports to the British Airports Authority, but also that he can give an assurance that the Government will continue to recognise that the air services to these outlying, remote islands are an essential feature—indeed, are socially essential—for those who live in these isolated but glorious islands.

7.23 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise to the House for intervening in this debate without having put my name down. I do so because I had some responsibility for taking the Civil Aviation Bill and the guidelines that followed it through this House, and I remember something of what was in our minds at the time in the Department of Trade and Industry. I was at that time in it rather than of it, in a sense, but, quite naturally, as a Scot, I took a particular interest in (to use the words of the Question which we are debating tonight) the future of the Highlands and Islands airports". The problem was an obvious one. None of them was ever likely to pay. My noble friend, who presided with such distinction over the Civil Aviation Authority and who has asked this Question tonight, I think suggested that Sumburgh might pay its way—I do not know whether it does yet—but for the rest of them it is very unlikely that any of them will; and this was the basic problem. Which of the authorities wanted to have attached to them something which was bound to cause a loss to offset against the profits which were expected to be made at most, if not all, of the other airports? This was the problem.

I think there are really two main questions here, and they were the questions we had to face then. First, what is the best way to run them, and who should run them? Secondly, how can we be sure that they will continue to be run? I congratulate my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter on the economy with which he has run these airports. What we were afraid of, among other things, was that there would be a degree of overmanning of these airports of such a character that the losses would cause the body running them to say, "Look, we cannot do this any longer; we must close the airport down" —not all of them; we wanted to maintain them all in existence. To my mind—and I understand my noble friend's point of view—I think the really essential thing (and he made this point very strongly) is that these airports are the focus of activity nowadays. They are places from which people who are sick go away to the hospitals. Both socially and commercially they are the focus of activity, and they are absolutely indispensable. Therefore, the first question we must ask the noble and learned Lord is: If they are to be handed over to a new authority, what guarantee will that new authority give that these airports will always be maintained?

The second question is: If my noble friend is right in thinking that the intention is to transfer them to the British Airports Authority, on what grounds is that transfer to be made and in what way will this be an improvement? I ask my noble friend, what happens now, so far as the British Airways Authority is concerned, in their control of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Prestwick and, presumably, Aberdeen? I understand there is some degree of decentralisation, although not decentralisation with financial control. I would regret it if the only reason for transfer was simply to get the whole thing under that devolved unit, so to speak, in Scotland. I think this would be an error, if that is the only reason. If there are other reasons justifying it—reasons of greater economy, of greater efficiency and of greater safety and overall control—then of course, let us hear them. This is what we want to know.

My Lords, I have intervened briefly to emphasise what I see as the two major points here. I have not got what I suppose is now the avuncular interest of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter in one of the authorities, but this is a matter on which, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, will know very well, feelings in Scotland are very strong indeed, and I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for having asked his Question tonight.

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, may I, first of all, express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for their special concern about the interference with my personal arrangements. I consider it such a privilege to speak from where I am now speaking that for that privilege I count one plane well lost.


The last plane.


Yes, my Lords. I am also indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for the measured care with which he presented his arguments. Let me say this at the beginning, because all the speeches have been directed against a transfer to the BAA or some such transfer, and in replying to the points that have been made I do not want to appear to commit the Government to such a transfer. So that if I try to reply to the points, I hope that noble Lords will not consider that I am advancing a totally one-sided case. If it has that appearance, it is because of the situation in which I find myself.

I would remind the House of the particular eight aerodromes with which we are concerned. As the noble Lord acknowledged, we are not tonight debating the future of Barra, an island made famous long before Compton Mackenzie made it notorious. The airports range from Tiree at one end, with some 3,000 passengers per year, to the largest, Sumburgh, in the Shetlands, with nearly a quarter of a million passengers a year. That is almost the same number of passengers as at Stansted Airport. I mention it because the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, spoke of the smallness of the airports in the eight; in fact, in terms of terminal passengers the numbers are comparable between Sum-burgh and Stansted.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord does not want to mislead the House, but is he comparing apples and pears? Is he not aware that whereas most of the traffic from Standsted, which is rapidly rising, is long-haul, most of the movements into Sumburgh are helicopter movements to and from oil rigs and, therefore, are short-haul? They are not really the same thing.


My Lords, I accept that. I was making a limited reply that, so far as size is concerned, you find more aircraft movement at Sumburgh and it is roughly comparable in the number of passengers. I want to say specifically and clearly in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, that the future of these airports, their existence, is not in doubt. What is at issue at the present time, and has been for some time, is the balance of advantage in relation to the possible change of ownership.

I should like to say also, specifically, in relation to a point made, that until the call of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, tonight no one has been suggesting that one should simply settle for the status quo. Indeed, the report which came from the CAA in 1974 made recommendations for a change. I need not detail those. Other recommendations, too, have been made and there has been a good deal of discussion; but no one is saying that the present position is ideal.


My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord allow me to intervene? Can he say whether the CAA recommendations in 1974 have been published; and, if not, can they be published and can a copy be placed in the Library of the House?


Yes, my Lords, they have been published. The document is entitled Air Transport in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and was published promptly in accordance with the request of the Minister. It contains a great deal of well-expressed argument about the whole matter. I want to quote from one paragraph of this—in a sense against the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, who, I thought, quite unfairly suggested that the Department of Trade had dragged its feet and nothing had happened. To quote from the document which came from the Authority of which he was then the chairman, they said in the report: Any change can be disruptive. It might be sensible to await the outcome of the negotiations"— about Aberdeen and Glasgow— over Glasgow and Aberdeen before considering the possible transfer of the Highlands and Islands aerodromes to the BAA". The CAA themselves suggested, "Do not rush at it". That was sound advice.


My Lords, if the noble and learned Lord relies on that, perhaps he will tell us how much time has elapsed since the situation in respect of both Aberdeen and Glasgow has been determined.


My Lords, I cannot give the precise dates, but the noble Lord will know that Glasgow was first—and that was certainly after this date—and Aberdeen was much later. The development of Aberdeen following on the take-over has been considerable and is now near completion. The report said: No significant economic advantage would result from their transfer "— the transfer of these aerodromes— to a different owner or manager. I am not an unduly cynical man, but I would point out that the CAA, having investigated their management of these airports, found it good. That is perhaps not a totally surprising conclusion and one is certainly entitled to have other views on whether they should retain control. The whole discussion of the matter is contained in chapter 15 of that document.

Since the publication of that report there have been, as the report foresaw, some significant developments. I mentioned Aberdeen and the development there; I mentioned Glasgow. There has also been the very successful redevelopment of Edinburgh Airport and the effect of that on the pattern of air travel in Scotland. There has also been developments within the BAA in the setting up of the division called Scottish Airports.

The report rightly foresaw that developments of this kind could have a bearing on this important matter; but another development of significance is the very considerable growth of Sumburgh's traffic, well beyond what the authors of that report foresaw at the time. The Government's consideration of this matter since that report has been influenced by a number of such considerations of which I should mention a further three; although the Government are considering many matters, including those raised in this debate. These matters can be found again discussed in the Board of Trade document which was to precede the White Paper. It is called Airport Strategy for Great Britain, published in June 1976.

The three factors I will mention are these. First, aerodrome management, as the noble Lord would acknowledge, is peripheral to the CAA's main role, which is to regulate civil aviation and to run the National Air Traffic Services; whereas the running of aerodromes is the sole function of the BAA. Secondly, the rapid expansion of Sumburgh, as with Aberdeen, involved issues including the control of investment, the development of new airport facilities and the exploitation of commercial opportunities where the BAA have particular expertise of a kind not available within the CAA.

Noble Lords have mentioned their concern about the losses that these airports necessarily suffer. One way, the present way, of making good those losses is by means of subsidy, whether it comes directly from the Government to the CAA or whether it comes perhaps from an air service operator like British Airways.

Another way to reduce the losses is to exploit other means of income which airports have. There is very little of that done at Sumburgh at the present time. It is a matter in which, as Lord Trefgarne pointed out, the BAA are expert. They can bring their expertise to that airport, maybe the only one, but certainly to that one. Thirdly—and I mentioned the devolution proposals—unlike the CAA itself, which would not otherwise be affected by the devolution proposals, the aerodromes in Scotland are to be devolved if the Bill becomes law in its present form. I shall come back later to that. The transfer of the eight Highlands and Islands aerodromes to the BAA and their incorporation with the other Scottish airports in a single organisation with headquarters in Glasgow, perhaps or, possibly, Aberdeen, would therefore be wholly consistent with, and would facilitate, the Government's approach to devolution.

It was, for that reason among others, that the chairmen of the two Authorities, the CAA and the BAA, were invited by the Secretary of State for Trade, in 1976, to let the Government have their views on the future of the aerodromes. The chairman of the CAA was at that time the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the present chairman of the CAA was then the chairman of BAA. Earlier this year, the present chairman of the BAA, Mr. Norman Payne, advised the Secretary of State that his Authority was prepared to take over the aerodromes if the Government so wished on certain terms. I want to make clear that the British Airports Authority are not grasping at these airports. They are not seeking to take them into their maul, into their empire. That is not the approach at all. They are willing to take them over on certain terms. The present chairman of the CAA advised the Secretary of State that he saw no benefit to be gained by his Authority relinquishing the aerodromes and there, essentially, the matter rests as far as advice from these two bodies is concerned.


My Lords, I am obliged to the noble and learned Lord. I wonder whether he is being entirely fair when he says that the BAA do not want to take these airports over.


My Lords, I did not say that. I did not want to give the impression that the BAA were grasping at the airports; that is all.


My Lords, they have been at some pains—if I may use a pun—to explain the benefits of transfer to the BAA.


I think that is only right and proper. The Government are still considering whether the eight aerodromes would be run more effectively as part of the CAA, perhaps on the lines suggested in the 1974 report, or as part of the BAA. Let me deal with specific points. I hope I can do it shortly, although as I have no plane to catch I need not be too short. First of all, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, donned the mantle of the late Dr. Schumacher to proclaim that "small is beautiful"—an odd posture, in a way, from an ex-chairman of the CAA.


My Lords, I did not say "small is beautiful". I said that it was different from big.


My Lords, in that event, I shall say no more about sheep or other matters he raised. Of course the BAA is a large organisation, but it is certainly not as large as the CAA. One would think that it can appreciate the problems of small aerodromes, just as the CAA did when it was founded and took over these aerodromes in 1972. It has no experience of running small aerodromes of this kind, like Tiree. But it is a matter of judgment whether the BAA, nevertheless, has the capability effectively to adapt to and run small aerodromes. I emphasise the diversity between the smallest and the largest. It becomes a matter of judgment. A point has been raised, and I want to answer it particularly, about likely airport charges and costs and the effect upon the whole economy of these aerodromes. But first let me say this: the Government acknowledge as a central point that these airports will not pay their way, and that there will be a continuing responsibility in one way or another to ensure that the social need which these airports help to fulfil will be met.

In that context, there is no evidence to suggest that if the British Airports Authority were to take over the aerodromes and run them that would lead to any increase in costs which would reflect in the costs of air travel. There obviously might be some savings in relation to management costs. Concern has been expressed by the employees of the CAA at Space House in Edinburgh that their jobs might be lost. There might be extra jobs created. As the noble Earl acknowledged, from an economic point of view, in the Highlands and Islands it may be unfortunate to create extra jobs; but from the point of view of jobs in that part of the world that cannot be wholly bad.


My Lords, would the noble and learned Lord give way? We are very much obliged to him. Is he not aware that the be-all and end-all of these airports is to promote the operation of air services to these airfields? If there are more staff and more employees, is it not the case that there will be fewer air services because the costs will inevitably rise?


My Lords, it would be a very foolish airport manager or management body which caused the costs so to rise as to diminish the services. That is a judgment which would simply not be made.


My Lords, may I put this to the noble and learned Lord?—he is so patient. He has not dealt—and it is germane to the point I put—with the fact that there would have to be the CAA's air traffic control services in this area. If an organisation has to be built subordinate to the BAA as well in this area, as the air traffic control services must be kept anyhow, there will be duplication.


My Lords, I accept of course one has to separate the air traffic control function and the airport management function if there are two separate bodies; although one supposes that that may have been implicit in the suggestions made by the CAA in 1974. But when one considers the size of the airports and their likely growth—take Sumburgh, Inverness, and the airport at Orkney for example—it is not unlikely that one will have to divide up these functions anyway in some of these airports.

The Government have not been shown convincing evidence that transferring aerodromes to the BAA would in itself result overall in increased costs. The Government's policy is that those who use the air services should in principle meet the cost of providing those services. That policy cannot be applied in its pure form, as indicated, to these airports and the Highlands and Islands generally. This is a region in which people who rely upon air transport as an essential social service cannot be expected to meet the full cost of the service which must therefore he subsidised. I do not therefore wholly agree with the way the matter was put by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, when he talked about commercial air services.

There are airports—and Sumburgh is the striking example—where much of the use is the use by the oil industry. There is a certain amount of such use elsewhere, and surely it is right that the air services provided for these people should be, so far as may be and without detriment to the social needs of others, run as nearly as possible on commercial lines. There is no reason why the taxpayer should subsidise passengers engaged in the oil industry. So a balance has to be struck. I do not think that noble Lords would suggest—and certainly the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, would not—that that balance could not be properly struck by the body for which he has such a regard, the BAA.

I should like to repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, that I regret he chose to base the first part of his argument upon the alleged unfitness of the BAA. I repeat that I do not think that the examples he gave have any relevant bearing upon the issues raised by this Unstarred Question. I do not propose to follow him through those examples. I will simply say this: certainly in Scotland the BAA enjoy a well-deserved reputation for competence and concern in the running of the airports that they now run.

I have mentioned Barra. I was asked about the size of subsidies. It is difficult to give a picture to the House that does not possibly mislead. The subsidies have been very substantial; and to Sumburgh, for example, it was over £2 million in 1976, but that is because there are exceptional works going on. The subsidies overall have been of a very high order indeed. I was also asked about employment; but I have dealt with that and I need not detain the House further. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, asked about consultation with local people. He will know the Highlanders and Islanders as well as I do—perhaps better. They have not been slow in coming forward to make their views known to the Government, and the Government have been well-informed of their views, particularly, of course, through Members of Parliament, and others.

I am not able tonight to announce the Government's conclusion on the future ownership of the Highlands and Islands aerodromes. The Government have not in fact reached a conclusion. The Government accept that a decision has been long delayed and that the matter should now, if possible, be settled—not least to remove the uncertainties affecting those who work at the aerodromes and, indeed, at Space House in Edinburgh This may seem to some a relatively minor matter, but not to the Government or to those who depend in one way or another on the aerodromes. The decision cannot be entirely divorced either from the debate on devolution, and I believe that a decision will be taken and will be announced within a matter of a few weeks. Around the end of the year, the Government plan to publish a White Paper—that was referred to earlier—on airports policy, and it is my expectation that a decision on the aerodromes will be reached by them and announced at that time. In reaching that conclusion, the Government will study the views expressed in this House today.

My Lords, finally let me commend the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, for bringing this matter to the attention of the House and for reminding the House that these aerodromes, small and remote though most of them are, are of vital importance to the communities which they serve. The noble Lord and the Government are agreed on at least one thing—indeed, I think we are all agreed on this—that a decision on the aerodromes must take account of that basic fact and of the need to ensure that the aerodromes are run as efficiently as possible and with the minimum cost consistent with safety and with the social need of which noble Lords have spoken.