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Heathrow Airport Expansion

Volume 617: debated on Thursday 17 November 2016

13. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that air connectivity between Northern Ireland and London is improved by the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport. (907306)

Heathrow airport expects to add six more domestic routes across the UK when the new runway opens in the middle of the next decade. This will strengthen existing domestic links to regions such as Northern Ireland, Scotland and the north of England, and allow the development of new connections to regions such as the south-west. We expect Heathrow to meet these pledges. We will ensure that the Government hold the airport to account; that is an obligation, not a desirable.

I thank the Secretary of State for that excellent answer, and for the hope and expectation contained therein. Is he, like me, taken aback by the EU’s decision to block a multimillion pound aid package to United Airlines, which has effectively removed one of our air carriers out of Northern Ireland? Will he investigate who lodged the complaint to the EU that has effectively destroyed this business in Northern Ireland?

I fear it probably will not tell us, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the decision was deeply unwelcome. My Department spent a fair amount of time working alongside the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive on trying to make sure that we sustained this route for Northern Ireland. The loss of the route because of EU action is deeply unwelcome and precisely the kind of unnecessary decision from Brussels that led this country to vote to leave the European Union.

Could air connectivity between Northern Ireland, Heathrow and other parts of England be improved by changes to air passenger duty, especially in response to the impending cut to APD in Scotland?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is listening carefully to representations on this issue. The Scottish National party stood on a platform of getting rid of air passenger duty in Scotland, but it is now discovering that it is more difficult to make ends meet than perhaps it had previously realised. That is one of the challenges of actually having to take decisions, rather than just talking.

What further discussions have taken place with the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Executive on lowering air passenger duty to underpin our local economy?

The Treasury has held detailed discussions about this, and lots of Members representing different parts of the United Kingdom have made representations, but I fear that it is a matter for the Treasury to indicate whether it plans to do anything in response.

Lord Empey’s Bill in the other House would have guaranteed slots to Northern Ireland. As the Secretary of State knows, air connectivity is very important to us, but the Bill fell because of EU regulation. Can we ensure that it is put back after Brexit?

We have to be quite careful about the mechanism. I am not personally of the view that the solution is just about slots. There are slots at inconvenient times of the day. We want connectivity at times that maximise benefits to the regions of the UK, so that Northern Ireland, Scotland, the south-west and the north of England have proper, good, effective international links. My commitment to the hon. Gentleman and to the House is that we will ensure proper protection for that connectivity, but the actual mechanism needs to await more detailed work.

Just to correct the Secretary of State: it is Ruth Davidson and the Tories who are trying to stop the APD cut in Scotland.

Additional regional capacity is of use only if there are airlines willing to fill it. The lack of a Brexit plan has seen businesses literally in flight from the UK. For instance, easyJet has confirmed that it is in the process of setting up a separate airline based on the European mainland. It said:

“We are not saying there will be no agreement. We just don’t know the shape or form. We don’t have the luxury of waiting”—

and neither do we or those counting on these services. What is your plan?

I do not have any plan on this matter. The hon. Gentleman is a well-meaning fellow, but the question was too long.

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman who does have a plan. Bombardier has a plan: it is now investing in a major international rail hub in the UK based on the excellent work in Derby. Nissan has a plan: it is expanding its plants in the north-east. Honda has a plan: it is investing more money in Swindon. Google, Facebook and Apple have plans: they are opening new headquarters in London. In an economy that continues to grow well post-Brexit, that proves that this country will do well regardless.

Instead of deflecting, will the Secretary of State at least agree to a meaningful update of route development and assistance for supporting additional services on existing routes, as well as new services, and—crucially—will he bring forward, before March 2017, firm proposals for specific airport-to-airport public service obligations?

The Government have not shied away from public service obligations when necessary—most recently, between Londonderry and Stansted airport. There are routes in and around the UK that are essential to the maintenance of our regional economies, and we have always been committed, and will remain committed, to ensuring that those obligations are met when necessary.