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Doncaster Sheffield Airport

Volume 721: debated on Monday 24 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if she will make a statement on the imminent closure of Doncaster Sheffield airport.

Following the strategic review of the airport announced in July this year, the Government are incredibly disappointed that Peel Group has taken the difficult decision to announce the potential closure of Doncaster Sheffield airport. While it was a commercial decision made by the owners of the airport, I fully appreciate the impact it has had not only on passengers who use the airport, including the constituents represented by many hon. Members in the South Yorkshire region, but on those businesses, organisations and people who work at the airport and within the supply chain.

As I know from growing up underneath the flightpath of Manchester airport, regional airports are key in serving our local communities, supporting thousands of jobs in the regions and acting as a key gateway to international opportunities. That is why during the pandemic the Government supported airports through schemes such as the airport and ground operations support scheme, through which Doncaster Sheffield airport was able to access grant funding.

I need to be clear that, while the UK Government support airports, they do not own or operate them. However, devolved Administrations, local and combined authorities are frequently shareholders in airports that serve their communities, as is the case with Manchester Airports Group, Birmingham airport, London Luton airport and, most recently, Teesside International. The UK aviation market operates predominantly in the private sector. Airports invest in their infrastructure to attract airlines and passengers. We will continue to support all parties to seek a commercial or local solution.

Since the announcement by Peel Group on the airport’s future on 13 July, the Government have been actively working with local stakeholders to encourage a future for aviation at the site. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and the Department for Transport have met Peel, and I understand that the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and Doncaster Council have been working during the review to explore options for a locally led solution. The local authorities have now written to Peel Group to pass on the details of those who are interested in potential options to invest in the airport, and I understand that Peel has begun to engage with those parties.

The aviation Minister, Baroness Vere, met Peel on 19 October and strongly encouraged it to look seriously at any commercial interest. She has also been proactively encouraging Peel Group to strongly consider the local and combined authorities’ offers of bridging support if it requires extra time to take forward any discussions with investors.

The Government remain engaged and we look forward to seeing further progress. The House has today highlighted the importance of Doncaster, and I will convey the strength of feeling among Members present to Baroness Vere as she continues her work. I call on Peel Group to continue to work with stakeholders to find a commercial solution or to minimise the impact of its review of the airport.

Doncaster Sheffield airport is an important regional economic asset with thousands of jobs dependent on it. Despite Peel Group’s announcement of its closure, local leaders have made every effort to work with the group and press the Government to secure the airport’s future. The South Yorkshire Mayor made Peel Group an offer of public money to keep the airport running, and local leaders have helped to find three potential investors who are seriously interested in keeping the airport operational, but those efforts have met resistance at every turn. Having already run the airport down, Peel Group is still refusing to confirm whether it is willing to suspend its closure, or whether it is even in a position to sell Doncaster Sheffield Airport Ltd.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, who could not even be bothered to turn up today, will not engage with interested parties and is refusing to invoke powers such as those in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to protect the airport. She refused three times on the Floor of the House to meet local leaders and is yet to respond to a petition signed by more than 125,000 people, despite assurances from the outgoing Prime Minister that the Secretary of State would address the issue “immediately” and “protect the airport”. Actions speak louder than words. Having created a climate of uncertainty, neither Peel Group nor the Government are using the powers and influence they have to explore every option to ensure the airport’s future. That is not good enough—for workers, for businesses, or for all of us who rely on the emergency services stationed at the airport.

I thank Doncaster Council, the South Yorkshire Mayor, my right hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton) and for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). Local leaders want the Government to work with us rather than taking a hands-off approach. Potential investors in the airport need certainty in the next 24 hours. It is imperative that Ministers step up, take action and use their powers to do everything they can to save Doncaster Sheffield airport.

The hon. Lady speaks with passion and partisanship in not mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). I think she is a little late to the party; even a cursory glance at my hon. Friend’s social media feed will show that he is on day 105 of his campaign to save Doncaster airport. He has met a series of different parties, and it is slightly beneath the hon. Lady not to recognise his efforts to protect his local community.

Baroness Vere, the aviation Minister, met Peel on 19 October, and it assures her that it is open to meeting potential investors. The Secretary of State has met Peel twice. The implication that we are not doing everything to find a solution for regional airports, which we recognise are incredibly important, is not correct.

I am sure that the Civil Contingencies Act will come up in other questions, so let me allude to it briefly. The Civil Contingencies Act is for absolute emergencies only. Even one of the operators at the airport has written to the Prime Minister to explain that it can still find contingency efforts elsewhere, so the threshold for the last Labour Government’s legislation has nowhere near been met.

This issue also came up in the Transport Committee session with the Secretary of State. We asked her whether there would be any intervention. She made it clear that it would not be financial, but that all technical assistance would be offered in the hope that there would be a solution similar to that for Teesside International Airport, where the Mayor of the Tees Valley found a solution.

I ask the Minister, notwithstanding the disrespect from the sidelines, whether she can provide more detail about what that technical assistance could be for those of us in the Chamber who do not think it is a laughing matter.

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for the question. As I do not have the aviation portfolio, I will not commit from the Dispatch Box to things that are not exactly accurate; I will ask Baroness Vere to write to him with the specifics of the technical assistance. I do know that there have repeated meetings at a number of levels. When it comes to regional airports, he makes a good point. As I outlined in my opening remarks, in Manchester, Liverpool and the Tees Valley, among others, local authorities are investing to support a commercial solution. That option is available to the South Yorkshire mayoral combined authority and to Doncaster Council in this case.

I like the Minister very much and I wish her well in her ministerial duties, but she is not the aviation Minister; the Secretary of State should be here to answer this urgent question. A critical regional airport is days away from closure and she cannot be bothered to turn up. What message does it send to the people of South Yorkshire, 125,000 of whom signed a petition to keep the airport open, that she will not attend the Chamber and cannot even attend meetings with South Yorkshire MPs and leaders to discuss how we can protect Doncaster Sheffield airport? The Government have repeatedly refused to meet the Mayor of South Yorkshire and other regional leaders to discuss what options are open. It is truly a slap in the face to the hundreds of people whose jobs currently hang in the balance.

When the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—the Prime Minister for the next few hours at least—came to Yorkshire, she gave a commitment on behalf of the Government to protect Doncaster Sheffield airport. That commitment must outlast her Government, not least because this airport is of strategic significance: it has one of the longest runways in Britain, it is the base for the National Police Air Service, and it is a home to national coastguard operations.

Thanks to the leadership of the Mayor of South Yorkshire, credible investors have been identified, but it is obvious that the Peel Group never had any intention of negotiating in good faith, so it is not an option for Doncaster Council or the Mayor to purchase shares in the airport, given that the Peel Group is refusing to sell. It is willing to let the airport close, to let infrastructure be degraded and to remove any chance of its being reopened in future.

The case for action from the Government is crystal clear. The use of emergency powers under the Civil Contingencies Act is the only possible measure to keep the airport running. Potential investors have made it clear that the Secretary of State’s refusal to use those powers is creating far greater uncertainty and instability, and is making purchase at any point in future even more unlikely. Can the Minister outline precisely why the Secretary of State has refused to consider the use of the Act? That decision is political, so it is beholden on her to explain to the people of South Yorkshire why she refuses to use it. If she continues to refuse, will the Minister lay out what powers exist anywhere else that could keep the airport running?

As we await the third Prime Minister in seven weeks, there is less than a week left to save the airport. If the Government do not take the action that the people of South Yorkshire desperately need them to take, the people will conclude that this is final proof that the Tories’ levelling-up agenda is dead.

The message to the people of South Yorkshire is that they have an incredibly strong local champion in my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who has been working tirelessly to make it happen from day one. The previous aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is present, has already met the combined authority. The hon. Lady asks where the power lies; it lies with the Labour mayoral combined authority—the local council. [Interruption.] Well, let me address the Civil Contingencies Act: it was introduced by the Blair Government. When the Minister brought it to the House, it was envisioned that it would be used in only the most serious circumstances and

“would be used rarely, if ever”.—[Official Report, 19 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 1109.]

No Government have used it in 18 years. The Opposition—[Interruption.] The Labour party bringing in a law that was not serious; that would astonish me! What you are doing is trying to find a piece of politicking, instead of sitting down—[Interruption.] Sorry, it is my first go, Madam Deputy Speaker. You are—[Hon. Members: “You’re doing it again!”] The hon. Lady will forgive me, as it is my first go. [Interruption.] What we need is for the Peel Group to sit down with the commercial people, and that is what it promised to do when it sat down with the aviation Minister on 19 October.

I believe that this urgent question has been raised today to take away from the Adjournment debate on this subject tonight. The Opposition have actually shown an interest in this issue for the very first time. We have a combined authority that has been sadly lacking for over three years, and the people will learn the truth tonight about that. There are Opposition Members who have only shown any interest in the last fortnight. Certain Members on the Labour Benches, who have thousands of likes on their Facebook account, pin their books to their page rather than share the petition to save our airport, and they should sit there in disgrace. Does the Minister agree with me that, if the combined authority had done its job properly, we would not be in this position now?

I think my hon. Friend gives a wonderful preview of tonight’s Adjournment debate, and I look forward to it greatly.

I warned many times, while the attention was disproportionately on the Heathrows and the Gatwicks of the world, about how the perilous position of regional airports—their recovery from covid has been far slower—was being ignored. The closure of Doncaster Sheffield is a blow to vital regional connectivity. What is—and, indeed where is—the Government’s strategy for regional connectivity? Regional connectivity is not just about flights to London, which the current public service obligation legislation solely supports, and such flights are always the first to go when slots are needed for more lucrative routes. Direct regional links with European and global destinations have to be the priority.

I have also said many times that retail is a much higher proportion of regional airports’ revenues, but we have seen VAT-free shopping at the point of sale abolished. It was to be replaced by a less generous VAT reclaim scheme, but that has also been abandoned. I ask that this issue is looked at again. At the very least the Government must look at arrivals duty-free, which has cross-party support. Will they do so?

Finally, what plans does the Minister or her colleagues have to meet people from the regional airports, including Glasgow in my constituency, to find out and act on what they need, rather than what Greater London wants?

The hon. Gentleman may be able to guess from my accent that London is not always at the forefront of my mind when making decisions. As he well knows, Doncaster airport does not have any domestic internal flights, and airlines will set those up primarily from the perspective of commerciality. I agree with him about the importance of regional connectivity. On how communities can best work together to engage with what airports want and how regional connectivity work, I refer him to models mentioned previously in which other airports have a mixture of private and local engagement that really grounds operations within them. On the position on VAT, I am afraid that I will have to write to him rather than commit a snafu at the Dispatch Box.

The Minister mentioned the Civil Contingencies Act earlier. She knows—indeed, the whole House knows—that it is a very specific piece of legislation that is intended only to be invoked in the face of a military assault, a terrorist attack or an unprecedented threat to the life of the nation. It is frivolous for the Opposition to call for it in this way, and they know that were it to be invoked by her or any other Minister, it would be subject to judicial review and struck down in the courts. Can she remind us of anywhere else that a mayoral combined authority has constructively acquired an airport, and might the person who did so be a Conservative who is more interested in delivering for people than in posturing on the Floor of this House?

It is important to commend hugely the work that has been happening at Doncaster airport with the National Police Air Service fixed wing, as well as 2Excel Aviation, the commercial company that in no small part is a preventive for oil spills and provides other important environmental protections. Not only is my right hon. Friend correct about the scale of intervention under the Civil Contingencies Act, but 2Excel has confirmation that it can meet its contracts and determinations in a different way with contingency plans, even further lowering that. I thank Members for their service, but this is not the nature of the emergency for which the Act was set up by a previous Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in 2004.

I declare an interest as the first South Yorkshire mayor. For four years I dealt with the complexities of the airport, and I am trying to be constructive and help the Minister out. She said a moment ago that powers were invested in the mayor, and I would be grateful if she could say a little more to clarify what she thinks those powers are, as I think there is some confusion about that. More generally, I know she understands that there is huge concern about the potential closure of Doncaster Sheffield airport, and the impact that that would have not just on Doncaster but across our region. There is cross-party agreement about the importance of trying to keep the airport open, and also an acknowledgement that time is running very short. This is an important matter and I appeal to the Minister: we need to sit down and have a proper meeting that brings together MPs from both sides of the House, all of whom want the airport to stay open. I cannot understand why the Secretary of State and the Minister will not meet us. That would be the right thing to do and, even at this late stage, I hope that on a cross-party basis, including the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and Conservative Members—I could not have been clearer about that—we can sit down and work together, and see what can be done to keep the airport open.

In terms of what a mayor acting in the interests of his local community could do, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would permit me to ask Ben Houchen to set something out for him, rather than have me talk about it. As I pointed out, there has been a series of meetings with the previous aviation Minister and the current Minister. They have met Peel Group and local businesses affected, and they continue to do so. Any cross-party offer is welcome, and perhaps the hon. Gentleman could have a word with local leaders to engage them over a longer period of time than they have been engaged.

I declare my interest as the previous aviation Minister—that has just been referred to. Once the political bluster is over we are all on the same page, and we all have an undoubted understanding of the value of regional airports for areas such as Doncaster and Sheffield. Does the Minister agree that although the Government can bring people together and facilitate conversations, they are not in the business of owning and running airports? Local authorities sometimes are, however, and coming up with a credible commercial solution for how the airport can be bought and operated is something that must be locally led.

I thank my hon. Friend for the expertise that he brought to his previous portfolio. I would not dare to gainsay him, and yes, he is quite correct.

This is an issue not just for South Yorkshire but for my subregion of Hull and the Humber. Will the Minister reflect on the fact that emergency services are based at that airport, including as we have heard the National Police Air Service? If that is to be disrupted in any way, that might well meet the threshold of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, so will she look at the issue again?

The right hon. Lady will be pleased to know that when the aviation Minister met Peel on 19 October she raised that very issue, and she has its assurance that it will work through to ensure that there is no potential disruption to the NPAS or 2Excel, should no commercial solution be available. It was also happy to commit absolutely to meeting anyone with commercial interests, and to engage with interested parties to find a commercial solution.

As has been said, Doncaster Sheffield airport has strategic importance as a regional airport, not only for South Yorkshire but for the Humber area and Lincolnshire. South Humber is one of the fastest growing industrial areas in the country, and we must ensure that we protect Doncaster airport. Does the Minister agree that devolved administrations exist to ensure that they think strategically when working with business? They should ensure that they help those areas with huge amounts of development and growth, as Doncaster Sheffield airport has had, and that they work strategically, and not in the last few dying minutes when commercial decisions have already been made?

Many of my constituents really value Doncaster Sheffield airport and want to keep it open. I hope that, putting aside party politics, the Minister will congratulate Oliver Coppard, the Mayor of South Yorkshire, on the efforts he has made on a constructive, cross-party basis to engage with Peel and other potential investors to try to keep the airport open.

The Minister referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) as being partisan. Does she not accept that it looks partisan indeed when Ministers are prepared to meet Government Members but not Opposition Members? Will she correct that and have a joint meeting?

I would love to meet hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I do not hold the aviation portfolio; perhaps the hon. Member slightly misunderstood me. I know that the aviation Minister has met a number of different representatives and I am happy to pass on the request. On working together, Peel has committed to meet anybody who can move forward with a medium-term, viable commercial strategy. I encourage both parties to do so.

The loss of Doncaster airport would be devastating across the South Yorkshire region, including in my constituency of Rother Valley, but this is not the first time that Peel Group has done this. In the Tees Valley, it did exactly the same thing, but the Mayor there stepped in to save the airport. Will the Minister outline what different powers the Mayor of Tees Valley has from those of the Mayor of South Yorkshire? If the Mayor of South Yorkshire cannot step up to the plate, he should step down.

I do not want to mislead my hon. Friend, who makes an extremely good point. I will write to him and get him the proper answer.

I am bamboozled by Government Members’ comments. Our smaller, regional airports are in deep trouble, and Peel will not do anyone any favours at Doncaster or anywhere else. However, it did do a great deal with the Tees Valley Mayor. It got him to part with tens of millions of pounds for the loss-making Teesside International Airport a few years ago. Since then, the Mayor has had to prop it up with tens of millions of pounds more of public money, and the losses continue today as he fails to deliver on his changing forecasts for making it profitable. I invite the Minister to look at the numbers—it is losing millions every year. How will Ministers ensure that regional airports such as Doncaster and Teesside can have a sustainable future without the need for further subsidies?

I am genuinely confused about what the hon. Member wants the Department for Transport to do. Either he wants a solution for Doncaster airport to survive or he does not want that because it will require further investment from a local authority. What Government Members know much better than Opposition Members is how to generate economic growth. Policies such as the recently announced investment zones that are currently under examination, which could include Teesside airport, are the type of thing that attract businesses and drive investment in local communities.

As the Conservative candidate for Don Valley in 2017, I know how important the airport is to the people of the constituency. I invite the Minister to join me in praising my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for, two years later, doing rather better than I did, and for fighting an incredibly tenacious campaign on behalf of his constituents. He has been on the case for more than 100 days, contrary to some of the Johnny-come-latelys on the Opposition Benches and, contrary to what the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) said, he has been shut out by the Mayor of South Yorkshire, Oliver Coppard. Will the Minister praise my hon. Friend for his tireless efforts and ensure that she listens to tonight’s Adjournment debate in which he will set out everything that he has been doing?

Not only will I be listening to the Adjournment debate, but I have the joy and honour of responding to it. I should imagine that once we have concluded today’s urgent question and tonight’s Adjournment debate, the day 105 update from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) will be an absolute bumper edition.

The Minister and I share one thing in common: our birthplace is the city of Manchester. Peel has a considerable presence in Greater Manchester and Merseyside, and in Cheshire where my seat is. What leverage have the Minister and the Secretary of State used to ensure that Peel is effectively around the table to help our good colleagues in the likes of Doncaster? It really would make sense for this place to be at its best and to work together right across the piece with all parliamentarians and stop the partisanship.

It is always good to have two Wythenshawe people having a bit of a chat across the Dispatch Box. I agree that we are better in this place when we work together and are not partisan. On the exact details of the meetings and engagements with Peel, I will probably have to write to the hon. Gentleman because that is within the aviation Minister’s responsibilities. I note, however, that Peel services his constituents in Cheshire within the Liverpool Airport framework. There is a positive sign for the future if that can be replicated elsewhere.

It is disappointing that the Minister seems to have no jurisdiction over the matter concerned for the urgent question. In light of the fact that this is a really urgent issue, may I also say that she needs to get all stakeholders around one table now to resolve it? It will have a significant impact on the local economy and across Yorkshire, including in York. Most importantly, the Government need a regional airport strategy to address the issues we are seeing across the country.

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I encourage her to go back to the South Yorkshire Mayor. There is, I think, an opportunity for a locally led review, with the convening power of the South Yorkshire Mayor. I am sure that colleagues across the piece would be happy to engage with that.

Some of the contributions have been disappointingly and shockingly partisan. As I think the Minister recognises, the South Yorkshire Mayor, with Doncaster Council and others on both sides of the House, is doing everything possible to keep alive the hope of an airport in the region, pressing for an alternative operator with some success. However, there is concern about Peel winding down key services such as air traffic control or the fire service, or removing specialist infrastructure like navigational beacons, making the sort of commercial solution that the Minister talks about far less viable. Will she contact the aviation Minister—it is a shame that neither the Secretary of State nor the aviation Minister can be here—to urge Peel not to run down the airport in the way it seems to be doing? Peel has form in switching use of airport sites to more profitable activities, having benefited from public funds that have enhanced their value.

I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on the details of where the airport is in terms of any wind-down. I can reassure him that the aviation Minister—unfortunately, she cannot speak in this place because she serves in the other place; that is why she is not here today—has assured me that she has spoken to Peel and that it is open to ensuring every service is maintained during the transition period. However, I do not have the details to hand, so I will have to write to him.

The tens of thousands of people who signed the petition and the hundreds of people whose jobs are hanging by a thread will be watching these proceedings with their heads in their hands. A political blame game is emanating, rather than any sense that we have a Government ministerial team attempting to actually save the airport. It is not the Minister’s fault that she does not hold this portfolio, but it is the Transport Secretary’s fault that they are not here. They should be able to answer questions on this. I cannot imagine another city the size of Sheffield in all of western Europe that does not have an airport. Will the Minister pass on to the Transport Secretary the fury of the people of South Yorkshire and the north midlands that this has been so loosely dealt with, and start getting hold of this issue? It is impossible to negotiate with a company that has no interest in selling and wants to hold on to it for alternative purposes.

I hear the passion with which the hon. Member speaks for people, and I understand why people want regional airports. I gently point out that my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) has been pushing this issue for weeks and weeks, so the implication that nothing has happened or that people have only just been heard is not true or fair. The Secretary of State has met Peel twice. Aviation Ministers past and present have been engaging, but ultimately, we are talking about a commercial business in this instance and the Government do not own the airport. We cannot compel commercial businesses, but we can encourage, suggest and get people around the table, and we will continue to do so.

I thank the Minister for her answers. She mentioned the important strategic position of Doncaster airport—as did all Members on both sides of the Chamber—and she mentioned the changing scene for small airports. Connectivity has also been mentioned, and that is very important. In Northern Ireland, we have had to fight for our airline staff. I have written to the Minister responsible for air travel about this issue: in the past few weeks, the removal of bodies such as Aer Lingus from UK operations from Belfast City airport to Heathrow means job losses and has an impact on connectivity. What steps can Ministers take—I am ever mindful that the Minister is not directly responsible for this, but I would appreciate her passing it on—to secure regional connectivity in all parts and regions of the United Kingdom?

Belfast City airport is, I believe, the George Best international airport, and as a committed Manchester United fan, it would be an honour to fly into it. I am happy to write to the hon. Member with those answers when that is possible.

To be honest, I am disappointed with some of the comments that have been made across the House. It is on us all to work together to find a solution to this situation. Investors have cited Government inaction as a core reason why they might not be confident in investing. What do the Government think about that? Do they agree that Government action or inaction will have consequences for whether the airport will stay open?

Government action, the action of local authorities and the action of local leaders are important. I would be happy to hear of any specific actions that the hon. Lady would like us to take to help two commercial businesses in a negotiation. If she wants to pass that to me, I will make sure that the aviation Minister is aware of it.