Motion Made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Anne Milton.)
I am most grateful, Mr Speaker. Before I go any further, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, on taking through this evening a measure that my hon. Friend described in his peroration as being of national importance, as indeed it is. I think that the matter I am about to raise with the House, although it has perhaps not attracted the same attention as the previous business, is also of national importance.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that is of importance not only to my constituents in North Thanet, but to those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Laura Sandys), who has been so loyal and staunch a parliamentary neighbour and who has joined me here in the Chamber tonight.
There has been an airfield at Manston in east Kent for getting on for 100 years. Manston served with distinction, and took a great deal of punishment, as a front-line airfield throughout world war two; as an RAF base post-war, it hosted American fast-jet squadrons; and to this day part of the original Ministry of Defence base remains the home of one of the country’s foremost RAF firefighting training schools. Post-war holidaymakers, with their cars, flew on Silver City from Manston to Jersey, and the dual military-commercial role became established. Manston was leased by the MOD to Seabourne Aviation in the 1980s, when the modern and friendly air terminal was built, and the freehold was sold during the 1990s. Throughout this time, and until the RAF transferred its flight to Wattisham, Manston was the home of Sea King search and rescue helicopters covering the strait of Dover. PlaneStation, EUjet and more recently Infratil, a New Zealand based company, in turn flew from or operated from Manston.
The airport was acquired at the end November 2013 by the present owner, Mrs Anne Gloag, one of the shareholders of the Stagecoach company. With strong links to transport and with the promise of a commitment to two years’ of development, that transfer of ownership was welcomed. Sadly, after less than four months, on Budget day in March, consultation on closure, following losses that were regarded by the new owner as unsustainable, was announced at the very moment that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was informing the House of the help for regional airports that my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and I had been pressing for.
That was, as one may imagine, rather unwelcome news; however, it quickly became apparent that there is now serious and funded interest in taking over Manston, to maintain the site, which would be extremely difficult and costly to transform for other purposes, as an airport to develop and broaden the aviation, airport-related and ancillary businesses. As we speak, that interest is the subject of talks. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet nor I can properly become involved in negotiations that clearly are a matter for legal and commercial agreement, and I would not expect my hon. Friend the Minister to become involved either at that level, but I was heartened, in a meeting with Mrs Gloag here at the House before Easter, to be assured that she was willing to discuss propositions. I naturally hope that those discussions will prove fruitful in the interests of all concerned. I would like to be able to return positively to that in a future debate.
As I have said, I believe there is not only a local, but a national interest that has to be taken into account. Locally, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet will know, there are immediately about 150 jobs at issue. Each and every one represents a family breadwinner. That is of overriding importance to my hon. Friend and me. There is also the job-creating potential of an airport that is crucial to the economy of east Kent. That potential has already helped to contribute, by its very existence, to the success of Discovery Park, which my hon. Friend has been so instrumental in promoting, following the withdrawal of a significant part of the Pfizer company from her constituency. As an important aside and visitor attraction, the Manston RAF and the Spitfire and Hurricane museums, together with the memorial to the unknown overseas airman, unveiled by Her Majesty the Queen Mother shortly before she died, represent a significant contribution to our local heritage and one that cannot be discarded.
In the national interest, Manston occupies a literally unique location. It offers proximity to the channel ports and mainland Europe, a largely over-water take-off and landing facility and, partly as a consequence, a safe diversion location. Indeed, I am advised that since the start of the consultation period, two aircraft have taken advantage of Manston as a safe haven, and I know that the airport is able to receive inbound traffic at times when London’s other airfields, within the central London traffic control zone, have been compelled to close or restrict services. With its expanded responsibility for maritime search and rescue and firefighting services, Bristow Helicopters still wishes to return to Manston to provide cover once again for the strait of Dover, one of the busiest sea lanes in the world. With its very long and abnormally wide runway, Manston has been able to accommodate Concorde in the past and more recently—in fact, very recently—the British Airways Dreamliner during her trials.
We also believe that Manston can and must be allowed to make a significant contribution to the immediate demands for additional runway capacity in the south-east. I would like my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the following. When, as Transport Secretary, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) published his airports Green Paper in 1990s, he omitted Manston from his plan. When I questioned him at that time on the Floor of the House, he said that Manston was too far from London. In the interim report on capacity in the south-east published shortly before Christmas, Sir Howard Davies also omitted Manston for the same reason. He has made the same error in measuring distance in miles from London, rather than in time.
It is a fact that east Kent is indeed 76 miles from the House of Commons, but we are now served with a good road network and, with the proposed extension of High Speed 1 from Ashford to Thanet—a project that will commence in autumn this year with the upgrading of track and signals—we are looking at a realistic under-one-hour journey. In real terms, and allowing for check-in congestion and related time-wasting activities at airports, that means that, from central London to a backside on a plane taking off, Manston will actually be closer than Heathrow.
I am not suggesting that Manston can or should be an alternative to a Boris island, an additional runway at Heathrow or any other suggestion that Sir Howard puts forward that may meet our needs in 15 or 20 years’ time. I am, however, suggesting that, alongside Luton and Stansted, Manston can help to relieve a pressure that has already seen London fall into second place behind Dubai as a major hub airport, which is costing UK Ltd business lost to Frankfurt, Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle, and which we do not have the luxury of time to address. I understand that Sir Howard is reconsidering the opportunities afforded by regional airports. Manston is available immediately and it must be included in that equation.
Nor am I proposing that interlining passengers currently using London Heathrow or Gatwick should be routed through Manston, although we might well be able to take some holiday traffic to free up space at London’s two major airports. I note, however, that London Heathrow capacity that might otherwise permit passenger business is currently being used for long-haul freight from the far east.
I know that 82% of goods transported by air come into Heathrow as belly cargo in passenger aircraft, but that still leaves 18% of dedicated freight movements occupying slots that could be used for much needed additional long-haul passenger traffic if the cargo was moved to, for example, Manston airport, where we have a skilled and dedicated cargo handling team and facilities that can have goods off an aircraft and on to road or rail in short order. There are those who say that Manston’s freight handling is second to none. I therefore have a specific request. Will my hon. Friend the Minister instigate an immediate review of cargo traffic with a view to promoting, in the national interest, the release of prime slots with passenger potential from London’s airports? It has to be in the national interest to do that.
This morning the inaugural meeting of a Manston taskforce was held here in Portcullis House. In addition to the chairman of the company that owns Manston, that meeting was attended by representatives from the Departments for Transport, Work and Pensions, Communities and Local Government, and Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as the Home Office, the Skills Funding Agency, UK Trade & Investment, the local enterprise partnership, Locate in Kent, Kent county council, Thanet district council and, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and myself. The meeting followed discussions with relevant Ministers, all of whom have been supportive.
There is good will and political cross-party unanimity at local, county, trade union and parliamentary level. There is also huge and growing local support. Last Saturday my hon. Friend and I received a petition from the Save Manston group and Why Not Manston? containing 15,000 signatures that had been gathered in just three weeks.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for his leadership across Thanet and all the different Government agencies pulling together the huge opportunities Manston offers. We need to highlight that this is not just about the straightforward passenger and freight opportunities; there is a wide range of business opportunities around aviation that my hon. Friend has identified as an opportunity for Manston itself. I hope the Minister will be able to respond on the opportunity that Manston specifically can offer due to its location and its potential capacity.
I return the compliment. My hon. Friend has been instrumental in the revitalisation of the Pfizer site as Discovery Park, and she has a proven track record in demonstrating how it is possible to attract ancillary business. We both are absolutely convinced that Manston has a viable future and that it will attract new cargo traffic and, as she says, other businesses—aviation engineering and other aviation-related businesses. We really do have to capitalise on that if we are going to make Manston work. In the local and national interest, we want to get Manston working and succeeding in the role for which it was designed and is best suited—as an airport.
In conclusion, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his encouragement to date. I hope and still believe that, with a further shove and with the participation of a willing seller and a willing buyer, we can get to where we want to be. My hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet and I remain absolutely committed to this project and wish to state once again that we will use our best political endeavours in support of anyone who is ready and able to realise the new potential of one of the great assets of British aviation.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) for securing this debate about the future of Manston airport. In recent years, the increasing demand for commercial air travel has heightened the need to improve the capacity and efficiency of UK airports. This is absolutely essential to meet the Government’s commitment to maintain the UK’s aviation hub status.
In the 2013 aviation policy framework, we recognised the crucial role that regional airports play in providing airport capacity and the vital contribution they can make to the growth of their local economies. Indeed, I prefer to refer to them as local international airports, rather than just regional airports. We are therefore determined that the UK continues to benefit from the services that regional airports offer, and we welcome the ambition of those that are investing in their infrastructure, increasing accessibility and facilitating more services to more destinations.
I am aware of Manston airport’s proud history, which can be traced back to the first world war. It also played a crucial role in world war two, first in supporting troops during the Dunkirk evacuation and then by playing a front-line role during the battle of Britain and providing vital air support during the D-day landings. During the war, the length and width of the runway were improved, meaning that it can now handle the largest jets, such as the new Airbus A380. Manston was even identified as a contingency runway for landings of NASA’s space shuttle programme. It was after the war and during the 1960s that the airport began to be used by commercial airlines and enjoyed relatively steady commercial air operations for several years. That allowed many people in the area to experience their first foreign holiday. However, services and passenger numbers declined steadily from the 1970s onwards, as charter operators moved to larger airports with better surface transport connections. In recent years, Manston has struggled to attract and retain consistent air passenger services, and there have been periods when the airport has had no regular services.
I am aware that Manston airport’s owners have begun a consultation with staff regarding the airport’s future, and I recognise concerns about the impact its possible closure could have on the local and regional economy. I hope that a resolution can be achieved which sustains the commercial viability of Manston airport to keep it as a going concern. I welcome the news that my hon. Friend held the first meeting of the Manston working group earlier today. The meeting brought together representatives from Thanet district council, Kent county council and the local enterprise partnership, and was supported by Departments to explore options for the airport’s future. I commend his tireless work in this regard, but whatever the result of efforts to secure such a resolution, the Government are unable to intervene directly, as we believe that UK airports and airlines operate best in a competitive and commercial environment. It is therefore for individual airports to take decisions on matters of future economic viability.
KLM’s decision to discontinue the route between Manston and Amsterdam will undeniably impact the profitability of the airport. The route was the airport’s main source of passengers and offered a connection with KLM’s international services through the airline’s Schiphol hub. The remaining passenger services offered by the airport are mainly summer charter services, and will likely offer limited air traffic. I am aware that Manston also serves as a destination for air cargo operations, as well as a number of aviation maintenance, repair and overhaul, and airframe breaking and spares recovery businesses, which operate on the airport site. As with airports, airlines must take commercial decisions regarding the routes they operate according to what is in their best interests. It is not possible for the Government to compel airlines to operate certain routes.
There have been additional concerns about the closure of the airport and the possible loss of the Lower Airspace Radar Service—LARS—unit, an information service used by some airspace users. Although closure would result in a gap in the LARS system, it would be no larger than elsewhere in the UK. More importantly, the loss of the system would not be seen as a safety-critical issue. We have been assured by the Civil Aviation Authority that the London Flight Information Service provides an appropriate alternative, and the CAA has stated that it would not support the retention of an airport or air traffic unit for LARS provision, particularly as it is unclear how costs would be covered.
As I said earlier, the UK’s aviation sector is overwhelmingly in the private sector and operates in a competitive international market. The Government support competition as an effective way to meet the interests of air passengers and other users. I restate our determination that the UK continue to benefit from the contribution that regional airports can offer. The Chancellor recently announced that applications will now be allowed for start-up aid for new air routes from UK regional airports. To be eligible, airports must handle fewer than 5 million passengers per annum and meet new European Union state aid guidelines. The Department for Transport is working with the Treasury to determine how the funding process will operate in practice, and over this summer will develop guidance for those organisations seeking to make applications for supporting air routes. Should Manston airport be eligible, we would encourage it to apply for this funding.
As hon. Members will be aware, the independent Airports Commission, chaired by Sir Howard Davies, was established to identify and recommend options to maintain this country’s status as an international hub for aviation. In preparing its interim report, the commission undertook a detailed assessment of the UK’s future aviation demand and connectivity requirements. The commission's interim report, published in December 2013, details its shortlist of long-term options for further study to increase airport capacity along with recommendations for the short term to make the best use of our existing infrastructure.
The commission has explained in the materials supporting its interim report why the expanded use of Manston airport was not selected as an option for further consideration. It concluded that Manston’s distance from London and other significant population centres meant that it was unlikely to be able to play a substantial role in meeting future passenger demand in London and the south-east in the long term, although I did hear what my hon. Friend had to say in relation to transport times as opposed to distance.
The commission also recognised that, in the short and medium term, Government do not have effective levers to redistribute traffic to less congested airports such as Manston, even if it were desirable to do so. The Government are carefully considering the recommendations in the interim report and intend to publish a response to the short-term recommendations shortly. All the shortlisted long-term options will now be the subject of more detailed analysis and consultation by the commission. To protect the integrity of the process, the Government will not comment on any of the shortlisted options.
My hon. Friend also raised the issue of landing and take-off slots in relation to freight. The allocation of slots is governed by EU airport slot regulations, which prescribe the allocation, transfer and exchange of slots at London Heathrow and other “co-ordinated” airports in the UK—that is, those airports where capacity is shown to be insufficient to meet all actual or planned airline operations.
Any decisions about how airlines use the slots allocated to them at busy airports like Heathrow are a commercial matter for those airlines to determine, and that includes freight slots. The European Commission looked at recasting the slot regulation in 2011 as part of the “better airports” package, but progress stalled in late 2012 owing to issues with other aspects of the package. However, the European Commission hopes to reinstate the slots element of the “better airports” package within the European presidency’s transport agenda, and my officials will continue to engage with the process to ensure that the UK aviation sector's interests are fully represented.
Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. The Government are committed to improving the capacity and efficiency of UK airports to maintain the UK's aviation hub status. Though fully aware of the importance that regional airports play in this, the Government are unable to intervene directly in the case of Manston. It is ultimately the responsibility of the airport owner to determine whether or not it is commercially viable.
Question put and agreed to.