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Regional Airports

Volume 584: debated on Thursday 10 July 2014

4. What assessment he has made of the level of domestic and international connectivity provided by regional airports. (904756)

The Government value the domestic and international connectivity that the UK’s regional airports provide. They make a vital contribution to the growth and recovery of regional and local economies, benefiting businesses and passengers alike.

The first hovercraft passenger service in the world was from Rhyl to Wirral more than 50 years ago, and currently three hovercraft companies want to restart that. One of them—Hoverlink—wants to establish a link to Liverpool airport from north Wales. Will the Minister meet a delegation of MPs involved in that, and Hoverlink, to establish what could be the first hovercraft link to an airport in the world?

I was expecting to be asked about surface connectivity, but travelling on the surface of the water is a novel idea. That is an exciting idea, and I would be delighted to meet those involved, and possibly even take a ride on one of those vehicles.

In the light of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s statement about the importance of a northern hub, should we pay more attention to that having a hub airport? Manchester has the possibility and potential increasingly to become a port of entry to this country, opening up the whole of the north of England and north Wales, as well as easing pressures on connectivity in the south-east.

I am a great fan of Manchester airport, and many of my constituents on the east coast use it because it has such good connectivity by rail. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is also keen to take pressure off other airports in the south of England, and Manchester airport and other regional airports have a great part to play in relieving pressure on the south-east. Indeed, with more point-to-point destinations being served, such as the one I saw at Newcastle recently, that is the way forward.

I apologise, Mr Speaker, for missing my earlier slot, as it were.

Newcastle airport grew its freight from £20 million in 2006 to £250 million last year, mainly on the back of the new Dubai route, but because it attracts more than 3 million passengers per year, it cannot have access to the regional connectivity fund, so what is the Minister doing to bring new routes to Newcastle and improve the economy?

I was pleased that the Chancellor announced the regional connectivity fund. When I was at Newcastle airport in February, there was excitement about that. It is also looking to serve further routes. Although the limitation is for airports of fewer than 3 million passengers, there is a provision under exceptional circumstances to allow airports such as Newcastle with fewer than 5 million passengers to participate. We are having conversations with the European Commission to ensure that we can do something and that we do not breach any state aid rules.

One way of encouraging airlines to establish new routes from regional airports is to allow them to operate free of air passenger duty for, say, the first two years. Will my hon. Friend discuss the possibility of introducing that measure with Treasury Ministers?

I am sure Treasury questions will be along very soon, when my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to ask the Chancellor that very question.

The regional airports of Munich and Barcelona have been named as two of the best airports in Europe and the world. Both have direct links to emerging economies throughout the world. The situation in Scotland is very different, with the UK Government imposing the demand-management, London-centred approach of having the highest air passenger duty in the world, which they have no intention to devolve. Could not Scotland do an awful lot better if it had the powers to help its airports to catch up with the likes of Barcelona and Munich?

I suspect that this matter will be decided in September, but I am pleased that the Government have taken the opportunity of offering public service obligation flights to London. Dundee has put a deal together, and I hope other airports will come forward with good proposals to tap into that fund.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming business leaders from across the globe to the aerotropolis conference in Manchester today—Cottonopolis itself? Does he agree that we must rebalance the economy in this country, and that to do so we must turn our focus away from Heathrow—the Transport Front-Bench team have a rabbit-in-the-glare obsession with Heathrow—and rebalance connectivity to our regional airports such as Manchester?

I represent a constituency in the north of England and my constituents rely on regional airports. In fact, I would rather call them local international airports. Manchester is one of the premier local international airports and I very much enjoy using it. It has exciting plans for further development.

Regional airports fear that the Government are not doing enough for connectivity, not least to London. Those concerns are reflected in the most recent Davies commission report. In his Budget, the Chancellor grandly announced more money for the regional air connectivity fund, but name-checked airports that are not currently eligible. The ones that definitely are eligible still have no guidance on how to apply. In addition, Ministers still have no green light from Europe to say that airports with 3 million to 5 million passengers, such as Newcastle, can apply. Only one airport—Dundee—is confirmed to get any money so far. How can we be sure that airports such as Newcastle, Leeds Bradford and Norwich, or anywhere else for that matter, will get more support from the Government by 2015?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government are very successful in negotiating in Europe when we need to get a deal. Having spent five years in the European Parliament, I know that we are always keen to engage and ensure that like-minded member states can come to an accommodation. We are optimistic that we can have a positive outcome with the European Commission. We will have further information for airports wishing to apply during the autumn when the details have been hammered out, so that we can comply with the state aid rules and ensure that the money goes to important regional airports such as Newcastle, which I know has aspirations to have flights to the United States.