Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)
On 13 July this year, Peel shocked my constituency with the announcement of the potential closure of Doncaster Sheffield Airport. This is the reason for the debate. Let me tell the House the story. I shall start with the place, then the stakeholders, how we got here, where we are now, questions for this House, and, finally, one last glimmer of hope.
Doncaster Sheffield Airport was originally RAF Finninglay. I remember going there as a very young boy. I was in the back of a Ford Escort, sat between two older brothers, with my legs sticking to black vinyl seats. It was not a pleasant journey, but, oh, what I saw when I got there: I saw Concorde for the first time, the Red Arrows, Harrier Jump Jets lifting vertically from the ground and then bowing in front of us before roaring off into the distance, and I heard the deafening sound of the Vulcan—what wonderful memories.
Sadly, Finninglay closed in 1996, but, to the joy of the people of Doncaster and beyond, the airport reopened in 2005 as Doncaster Sheffield Robin Hood Airport—a silly name, but that is for another day. I was fortunate to fly from there the second day after it opened. It was a wonderful place, and Members can see why it is now so dear to me and my constituents.
I have briefly talked about the place. I want now to talk about the stakeholders. We have the employees who are to lose their jobs, the businesses that will no doubt have to move, and the public who love our airport. We have Peel, the landowners and operators of Doncaster Sheffield Airport, the combined authority and its elected mayors, past and present, Doncaster Council and its mayor, central Government and me.
Let us talk about the people first. The airport has won many awards. It is a great building in a great place with a great car park, but it is the people who make it. The friends of Doncaster Sheffield Airport, the staff of DSA, the contractors who make it all work, and the firefighters and security who keep all safe. Then there are the businesses on site and in the hangars nearby: 2Excel and the Yorkshire Aero Club to name just a couple; Tui and its staff; and the public from across the region. All of these have been amazing and have kept me going through their continued work to keep the airport open in tough times. Tens of thousands of people have signed petitions—a Facebook page of 15,000 people. They are great people, all wanting to save the airport. To all of them, I say thank you.
Now let me talk of the two key players: Peel and the combined authority. Peel is a huge landowner across our country. Board members include: John Whittaker; Steve Underwood; and Robert Hough. Peel owned Sheffield Airport. It closed that and built houses on it. It also owned Teesside Airport, and would no doubt have closed it had it not been saved by Mayor Ben Houchen. Peel has a precedent for doing that.
Oliver Coppard is Mayor of our combined authority and has been in position since May this year. Before this, it was the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). Oliver has devolved powers and moneys. Let me explain what that means. When people are asked whether they want more powers locally, they will say yes every time—why would they not? And that is what has happened here.
In 2018, under the leadership of the hon. Member for Barnsley Central, South Yorkshire became a combined authority with an elected Mayor. That means that powers move from central Government—this place—to the combined authority now led by Oliver. Our Mayor has powers over economic growth, education, infrastructure and transport. He also has a substantial amount of money that he can use to drive growth. This is gainshare money and is set out as £30 million a year for 30 years— a total of £900 million. He can borrow against this, too. Peel and our Mayor are the key players.
Doncaster Council is the local authority in which the airport sits. It has compulsory purchase powers and obviously deals with planning. The council is led by an elected Mayor, too.
Where do the Government sit? If these powers are devolved, there are only so many levers that they can use. The use of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has been raised by Members. I, too, have written to the Secretary of State on this issue. The Act states that if there is a disruption to a service that could cause potential loss or injury to human life, the Act could be used. Why is this so relevant at Doncaster Sheffield Airport? For those who do not know, our airport has companies on site that offer coastguard and oil spill services for central Government. We also have the National Police Air Service operating from a specialist-built facility—good people doing good things across our nation.
When I read about the Civil Contingencies Act, I too believed it was a way forward. Sadly, at least at present, it appears not to be. I spoke to the company that offers those services and, although there may be disruption to its business operation, it can still offer the services. Is that argument dead? Maybe not, but it does not appear to be as fruitful as first thought. Perhaps the Minister can advise us.
So what can the Government do? They can use the weight of their office and the Department to press for combined authorities and companies to do the right thing. I thank Baroness Vere and my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts) for their help and support. As the Prime Minister at the time said, we must do all we can to protect DSA, and I believe they have done much. Some may wish they could do more, and so do I—but that, I am afraid, is devolution. For them to do more, we would need to return powers to Government. Maybe that is the real answer.
Finally, there is me, a Back-Bench MP. Let me tell the House what I have done. Well, no, let us just say: much. This debate is not about me. It is a debate about saving Doncaster Sheffield Airport, and any other regional airport in the future. We have spoken of the site and we have spoken of the stakeholders. The question is how we got here.
It must be said that, as much as Peel has annoyed me, more than most over the past three months, it has at least put its money where its mouth is in the past. Many people believe that the Great Yorkshire Way, a wonderful road connecting the M18 directly to Doncaster Sheffield Airport, was paid for by the taxpayer, but no—much of the £60 million project was private investment, £11 million of it from Peel itself. As much as I would like to haul Peel over the coals at this stage, I cannot.
The sad fact is that Peel sought financial support from the combined authority for approximately three years, in the form of an equity share worth £20 million and then, reluctantly, in the form of a loan. For three years, I have been informed, Peel was led a merry dance by the combined authority, which provided a catalogue of excuses and delays without clear process. I have been led to believe that first, it claimed there was no money, despite devolution; secondly, it failed to grasp state aid issues and made no effort to lobby on them and finally, environmental concerns were given as the reason why the £20 million loan was not even put to the leaders of the combined authority in March this year.
We are all here to support the hon. Gentleman and we want to engage in a constructive debate, but I must say that what he has been told is not the case. If I am fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will clearly articulate what the mayoral combined authority did for Doncaster Sheffield Airport and to support Peel over the period when I was the Mayor. I completely understand why the hon. Gentleman makes that point, but I can assure him, as I can assure all hon. Members, that in the period from 2018 to the point of the mayoral election we worked incredibly hard to support Peel and to work with the airport. If I get the chance later on I will be very clear about precisely what we did.
I will come on to that, because I want a public inquiry to get to the truth of this matter, but I will cover that in my speech.
The combined authority appears never to have properly embraced Doncaster Sheffield Airport as its own airport, and to have badly underestimated the economic loss to the region. It was complacent with Peel and favoured investment closer to its own patch in Sheffield.
This region has failed to behave sensibly under devolution, continuing to act in silos rather than devising and implementing a cohesive economic plan. The economic loss could be simply catastrophic. I asked Peel whether, if the £20 million had been made available this April, we would be in this position. Peel said no. Let me just leave that there for the House: if the £20 million had been made available, Doncaster Sheffield Airport would not be closing. The combined authority may disagree, but the fact remains that the £20 million never appeared and Peel has said it is the fault of the combined authority. That is why I want a public inquiry. If that is not the truth, then what is? A public inquiry will find out.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. In April 2022, DSA indicated that it did not wish to continue developing the loan proposal at that time. It is hard not to conclude that what he has been told, although I think he is presenting it in good faith, is not the case.
May I put one point to the hon. Gentleman? He has raised concerns about devolution, both today and previously, referring to the powers and the money vested in the Mayor. For the sake of clarity, it would be helpful if he could say precisely what powers—he has mentioned the gain share—and precisely what money he thinks the current South Yorkshire Mayor should be deploying in support of Doncaster Sheffield airport. What powers and what money?
Maybe we need to sit down with the Mayor of Teesside and see how he worked it out, because I have been told that he has exactly the same powers as Mayor Oliver Coppard and that Mayor Oliver Coppard has twice as much money as he does, yet he has bought an airport and he is moving forward with it.
Regarding the fact that DSA said it did not want the loan in April, this is why I want a public inquiry. I have been very careful about what I am saying, although I know I can say what I choose in this House, because I am telling the hon. Member what I have been led to believe. I want a public inquiry so that the people of Doncaster and South Yorkshire can get to the bottom of this question. If what I am saying is true, it is a disgrace.
The hon. Gentleman was just asked a direct question. It does not need a public inquiry to work out what the factual position is. Will he say very clearly what powers he thinks the Mayor has to go in and intervene with Peel, which clearly does not want to engage and does not want to sell?
Exactly the same again: Peel did not want to sell to Ben Houchen, but it did sell to Ben Houchen. It is no good sitting there and saying it did not—it did. Oliver Coppard has twice the money and exactly the same powers, and his job is economic growth for the area. Ben Houchen bought an airport off Peel that Peel never necessarily wanted to sell.
I will make some progress. The next question is where we are now. The combined authority failed to set up a mayoral development corporation and Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council failed to start a compulsory purchase order. They both say they cannot, but it is the threat that counts in a business deal. That is why I have championed the Civil Contingencies Act; it may not be viable, but it is the threat that counts.
I have tried to work collegially on this and, to be fair, in week 10, on the Friday before the announcement was to be made, the combined authority came up with a deal to cover Peel’s losses for 13 months. Although that is not a Ben Houchen deal, at least it was something. Peel would not lose any money, it would get the local council, the combined authority and the Government on-side, and it would get me off its back. If, 13 months from now, no buyer had been found and the airport was still making a loss, at least Peel would have tried; local jobs would have been saved during a cost of living crisis, the airport would have supported the local economy through this period and businesses on site would have had time to get their contingency plans in good shape. But no—Peel still says no.
There is something Peel is not telling me, and again, a public inquiry is needed. Why would Peel want to annoy local and central Government, its customers, its staff, the local people and me, when it could have its losses covered, and still say no? There is something Peel is not telling me, so a public inquiry is needed.
In the last week of the initial six-week consultation, the combined authority’s big idea was to put the airport on the market. These are the people in charge of economic growth for South Yorkshire. Five weeks after I, a Back-Bench MP, had written to Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Ryanair and numerous other airlines, our devolved authority in charge of economic growth went to the market.
I really cannot get my breath, but it is day 45 of this saga, and the combined authority is only just going to the market with our airport. I have tried to be collegial throughout my time dealing with this matter, to show a united front against Peel, but it has been harder than anyone can imagine—not being allowed to join meetings and, when I am, having to sit and listen every to reason why things cannot be done rather than reasons why they can.
Finally, we have three consortia around the table with Peel. Those talks went on through last week, but as yet I have heard no more. There is little time; people are about to lose their jobs. I have to ask whether we would have stood a better chance if the combined authority had gone to the market in week one instead of week five. I am sure we would.
Apologies, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful for the work that my hon. Friend has done, on behalf of the people of South Yorkshire, trying to rescue the airport. Does he believe that the local authorities and the combined authority have underestimated its economic and social value? If so, why does he think that is?
Yes, massively. The important word in “combined authority” is “combined”—it is Doncaster, Rotherham, Barnsley and Sheffield coming together. I do not think the combined authority leaders, past and present, have told the leaders of those councils how important the airport is for the growth of the entire area and beyond. They have not sold it. They should have sold it; if they had, we would not be losing our airport. As I said, we need a public inquiry to find out the reasons for that, but I am afraid the silo working that I spoke about earlier is typical of Labour councils up and down the country.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way. He said a moment ago that the current Mayor has twice the money that Mayor Ben Houchen has in Tees Valley. I would be grateful to hear the facts that underpin that, and I am sure the House would be most illuminated, because that is not my understanding. Let me also return to the crucial point about powers. What powers does the hon. Member think are invested in the Mayor that he is not using?
On the money, the South Yorkshire Mayor has £30 million per year for 30 years. That is £900 million. Ben Houchen, the Mayor for Teesside, has £15 million a year for 30 years. That is £450 million. I believe we are two years behind where we should be because Doncaster and Barnsley councils wanted to create a Yorkshire-wide mayoralty. Nevertheless, we are where we are.
With regard to powers, I say again that we have powers to set up mayoral development areas, we have compulsory purchase powers, we have community asset powers—we have all these different levers but, unfortunately, none of them has been used.
I am intrigued by those powers, and I think where the power lies is the nub of the issue. We have all seen the great success of Mayor Ben Houchen in Tees Valley, but why is that not happening in South Yorkshire? My hon. Friend talks about compulsory purchase powers. Is he saying that if the Mayor wanted to, he could—perhaps with Doncaster Council—buy the airport to save it, similarly to what Ben Houchen did, but that he has chosen not to do so?
The compulsory purchase powers sit with the local authority, and it could have used them. The argument will be that, to use compulsory purchase powers, it is necessary to go through a series of phases first: compulsory purchase has to be the last resort. I understand that, but the threat of its use would have made Peel sit down at the table far sooner, and we may have stood a chance of saving the airport. Using compulsory purchase orders when the airport has closed and been asset-stripped by its owners is not going to help anyone. We are where we are. As I said a moment ago, we have consortia around the table. Let us hope that things change in the next few days.
I could speak for another hour, but I know my time is limited. I want to leave the House with three questions. First, what can this place do to stop this happening again? Should we make all airports community assets? Should any sale or closure of an airport have to be agreed by the local Mayor or the Secretary of State? Should any operator have to give a notice period of, say, two to five years? I do not know, but something must be done.
Secondly, before any more devolution can take place, can it please be explained properly to the electorate what that means? I believe it has been a disaster for South Yorkshire so far. People really need to know what they are signing up for and voting for.
Thirdly, can we have a public inquiry? I need the people of Doncaster to know what has happened. It is important. They really need to know where to put their cross the next time they vote.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Before he winds up his excellent speech, in which he has clearly laid out the issues, the work that he has been doing to solve them, and some solutions, may I just say that my West Yorkshire constituents have lobbied me too? This is a regional airport that they use, so on their behalf I say to my hon. Friend, “More power to your elbow.” I congratulate him on everything that he has been doing to campaign for this important regional airport.
I thank my hon. Friend. That just proves that the airport is used by people from all across the north of England and is such a fantastic asset.
Peel has been stubborn—I believe desperately so—and its board, mainly John Whittaker and Robert Hough, will have to live with what it is trying to do and what its legacy will be. I am told that John Whittaker is a good man, and he can stop this at the click of his fingers. The question is, will he do the right thing? I hope so.
However, Peel is a business, and businesses make profit. Although I do not believe that greed is good, Peel is doing what businesses are supposed to do: making money. Sadly, I believe our elected Mayors have not done what they are supposed to do. They have been left wanting—absent at first, then slow and, in the words of local business leaders, chaotic. They have shown no vision and are championing our airport only now, when it is probably too late.
Just look at the difference between our Mayor’s social media account and Ben Houchen’s. Our South Yorkshire Mayor is tweeting childish memes when the people he represents—the people who voted for him—are losing their jobs and South Yorkshire is losing its future, while Ben Houchen’s social media is littered with success stories of investment, jobs and giving the next generation an inspiring future.
If we lose our airport, Peel will need to be held accountable, but the combined authority should be dissolved. It is not working, and it is not working for Doncaster. Our combined authority Mayor is buying trams for Sheffield while Doncaster gets second-hand buses and a closed airport. It is simply not good enough. And where is our Doncaster Mayor? Nowhere to be seen.
If, as is reported, Peel is planning to sell the site or get rid of it for houses to be built on it, who exactly would benefit from the council tax on those houses? Would the South Yorkshire Mayor and Doncaster Council get money directly from the rate payers who bought those houses? Does my hon. Friend think there is anything weird about that way of doing things?
My hon. Friend makes his point; as I say, I hope that those sorts of things will come out as part of the public inquiry.
I have said throughout our campaign that we must keep the faith. I am so saddened. I know that we cannot keep an airport open because people are fond of it, but Doncaster people really are fond of the airport, and I am too. I therefore want to try to end on a note of optimism that we still have a glimmer of hope. The consortia and Peel are still in the room and the combined authority offer is still on the table. I want them to know that if they save our airport, I will be their champion, and so will the good people of Doncaster.
It is a great airport and I know that, with the right owner and the right support, it would be viable. I therefore ask Peel one last time to do the right thing, reverse this ridiculous decision, accept the combined authority’s offer, give the sale the time it needs and let us turn Doncaster into the aerotropolis its founder, John Whittaker, once dreamed of.
I speak as the constituency Member for Doncaster North. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing the debate and for his efforts to help save the airport, which he has talked about. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton), the Mayors of Doncaster and South Yorkshire and their teams, and my colleagues, including our shadow Transport Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh). I also mention Mark Chadwick of the Save Doncaster Sheffield Airport Facebook page, who has run a brilliant campaign, as the hon. Member for Don Valley said, and the local trade unions, which organised a rally on Saturday.
It is one minute to midnight as far as the airport is concerned. We in this House owe it to the workers who are at risk of losing their jobs, and to the whole community, to work together and do absolutely everything we can in the days that we have left; not to point fingers or play the blame game, but to try to keep the airport open. That is the focus of my remarks. On Saturday, I heard from people who have worked at the airport since it opened in 2005 and I heard the uncertainty, anguish and sense of pessimism that they felt. They expect us in this House to leave no stone unturned in seeking to keep the airport open.
Let us get the position clear: responsibility for this decision lies with Peel. Peel has taken the decision. It has refused the offer of a 13-month subsidy from the South Yorkshire Mayor to cover its losses and keep the airport open while a buyer is found. Indeed, looking at the situation, one can only reach the conclusion that it is determined not to sell because it wants to use the land for other purposes. The problem with the idea that the airport should somehow be purchased by the South Yorkshire Mayor has a flaw at its heart: Peel is refusing to sell. The issue of the compulsory purchase order is important, but it would take at least a year to go through that process.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has ever done a business deal—I really do not know—but what we do is put on as much pressure as possible and use every lever from day one. That way, when we have the people in the room, they are thinking, “Is this going to happen?” I have kept quiet all the way through and have not said what I have wanted to say, because I wanted to show a united front with Opposition Members and the Mayor, but it has been like watching child’s play in front of my eyes. We should use every lever we have, pile on the pressure and hope that Peel will sit down and talk to us. I honestly believe that if I had not started this campaign on day one, the issue would have been swept under the carpet, because nobody on the Opposition side of the House wanted it.
When the hon. Gentleman looks back at this debate, I honestly do not think that he will think that kind of partisanship does him any favours. Of course the council has talked about doing a CPO and has discussed it with him, but it has tried to explain the time that would take.
Our focus needs to be on Peel. We need to send a united message from this House that it can still do the right thing, because there are credible bidders. I urge it to accept the generous offer of the South Yorkshire Mayor as it considers those bids from credible buyers. If it does not do that, its name will be mud in the city and region forever more, and deservedly so.
I also appeal to the Government through the Minister, although I know it is not her area of responsibility; she already answered an urgent question on it earlier. I will explain the background to the legal advice that my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central and I commissioned around the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. We commissioned that because of the national dimension of the services run from the airport, which include the National Air Police Service, search and rescue, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the airport fire service, oil spill dispersant work and military activity. They are national activities, which is why we think the Civil Contingencies Act is engaged. The short notice given to these services, which have been told to cease operations by 18 November, also gives them little time to prepare and find alternatives.
I will briefly turn to the legal advice of Lord Falconer of Thoroton, who was a co-sponsor of the Act. He is not a lawyer who we found on the street; he was the Lord Chancellor and was responsible for co-piloting the legislation through the House. We have made the legal advice available, and we can obviously make it available to Members here if they have not seen it. He says:
“It is my opinion that under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, the Transport Secretary”—
or, by the way, any Government Minister—
“has clear legal authority to intervene to prevent the closure of Doncaster airport...due to the disruption of essential services run from the airport”.
He goes on, and this is the key point:
“The shortness of the period before closure means for many, if not all, of these services an interruption of their life-saving services, and for some of them potentially a permanent reduction in quality. No doubt some of them will find alternative bases. How good they are and when remains to be seen. In this truncated timetable, in breach of the lease, there is the potential for disruption to these life-saving services.”
For those familiar with the Act, Lord Falconer is applying the test in section 1, which defines an emergency as an event or situation that
“involves, causes or may cause…loss of human life,…human illness or injury,…damage to property,…disruption of facilities for transport, or…disruption of services relating to health.”
He also says:
“There is no doubt that the disruption or interruption of the services described above constitute an event or situation which ‘causes or may cause’ any one of the circumstances described above.”
I want this to work—the Civil Contingencies Act to work—and I have spoken at length with the people offering such services, but they have said there will be no disruption to their services. I actually asked them, but it is not something I want to raise on the Floor of the House because we are again showing our cards to Peel.
The right hon. Member keeps on pressing this point, but I have been through it. I wrote to the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of State has written back to me and said that she cannot use the Act. This is a Labour peer passing advice to a Labour Member of Parliament, but I still backed it and I still went to the Secretary of State. I have tried it, and I think this is taking us away from the argument that we are here because a £20 million loan never appeared, and that is why we are losing our airport. We have the consortia and Peel around the table, and what we now need to do is press as hard as we can for them to make the right decision. Going on about the Civil Contingencies Act, which we have gone through many times, is not helping.
I say to the hon. Gentleman, because he keeps wanting to play the blame game, that there will be time to do so. If we do not succeed, there will be time for him to do all the finger pointing, and for him to put this on his election leaflet and try to blame the Labour party, but do not do it now. Do not do that while we are trying to save the airport. If he wants to do that, let him do that, but do not do it now. Let us work together to try to save the airport.
Would it require boldness and commitment to use the Civil Contingencies Act? Yes, it would. I have to say that the hon. Gentleman says he has clear advice from Government, but the Secretary of State for Transport will not even meet me. I have been in this House for 17 years, and I have never had the experience of a Secretary of State refusing even to meet me, or indeed other Members of Parliament or the South Yorkshire Mayor, over an issue as important as this.
The Government’s position has been that they will do everything they can to save the airport. Lord Falconer is happy to make himself available. Let us get around the table with the Secretary of State. Maybe her advice will be that there is nothing she can do, but why not have the conversation? There is nothing to fear from the conversation. It is almost as though the Government think that somehow they will be culpable if they have such a meeting and engage. They will not be culpable if they have the meeting and engage; they will be culpable if they do not have the meeting and do not engage, and I am afraid that is what they are doing.
I am going to end my remarks, because other Members want to speak, by appealing to the Minister—I know her from another life when she was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the COP26 President, which she did very well and we had a good relationship—that courtesy and commitment demand that we get around the table with the South Yorkshire Mayor and with Members of Parliament to leave no stone unturned. Maybe we will not succeed, but let us try to work together on this. Time is incredibly short, and we owe it to all the workers and to the community to fight all the way until our options have run out. Responsibility lies with Peel, and I appeal to Peel to do the right thing, but I also appeal to the Government to get around the table with us and see whether there is a way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for securing this important debate and for his tireless work over the past 105 days to save our airport. And it really is our airport across South Yorkshire, with Barnsley, Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield—we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney), near Huddersfield and West Yorkshire, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) is here to show support and how important the airport is for Nottinghamshire. The airport is a community asset and something close to our hearts. My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley mentioned Concorde and the Vulcan, and it is an iconic and important part of our history and culture.
This is also about jobs, and the economic and social value that the airport brings to our region. There will be many things we disagree on—there already are—but we all agree on one thing: we want to save the airport and try to make it work. No one wants to play the blame game and we all, including Labour Members, want to pull levers to put on Peel the pressure that my hon. Friend for Don Valley was talking about. Let us be honest: Peel is ultimately at fault, as we have seen in Sheffield, Manchester and the Tees Valley, where it wants to close airports and build housing or industrial estates in order to get the rent. Let us be honest about what it is trying to do, and say that we as elected Members want to try to stop it doing that.
In some places Peel has been successful, as we have seen in Sheffield, but in other places it has not been. That is crucial, it is not a partisan point, and we should look at a case study. I was a geographer at school, and we would write case studies and give an example of something. We have the case study of Teesside and the Mayor of Tees Valley, when Peel was in a pretty similar situation—obviously we have more money in South Yorkshire than they do there—and Peel wanted to sell the land for its airport and build houses and an industrial park.
I looked intensely at why Ben Houchen has been so successful. I do not believe it is just because he said, “I want to save an airport,” which he clearly did and has done. That was not his game. His game was, “I want to make the Tees Valley a better place, with better jobs, a better community and better society, and the airport is part of that.” We do not have the same approach. We talk too much about the airport in isolation—of course an airport is important—but we should be talking about how the airport in South Yorkshire is integral to the prosperity of South Yorkshire, and how it fits in with wider plans, whether those are freeports, industrial zones, or bus franchising—Members will know I am a big advocate of that. How does the airport fit in with the wider communication plan? We cannot see the airport in isolation, because ultimately that might fail. We need to see how it combines the whole of our region together.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is asking for. He must accept that the airport in Teesside is costing an awful lot of public money. Presumably he is happy for the Mayor of South Yorkshire, if Peel agreed, to put in just as much money, perhaps £20 million out of the £30 million a year. He then argues for franchising. Does he accept that choices have to be made? The Government have not given the Mayor an unlimited budget. Presumably he wants everything to be spent out of that £30 million, when that clearly is not possible. Is he saying we should give Peel an open cheque and it can have what it wants? That is what he seems to be saying.
The hon. Gentleman has brought my speech on a bit, because what I am asking for is vision. I am asking the South Yorkshire Mayor for a vision of South Yorkshire. I want to know where South Yorkshire will be in five, 10 or 20 years’ time, and what my children will experience when they grow up in South Yorkshire. I do not want them to have bus franchising here or an airport there. I want to hear,
“South Yorkshire is going to be a better place, and this is how we’re getting there.”
We are talking about money and bus franchising, but ultimately we need that to feed into a wider vision. The whole point of the South Yorkshire Mayor, or any Mayor—I still have great reservations about the mayoralty, because I do not see that vision coming.
We speak about being unpartisan, and I will pay credit to what happened in Manchester, as well as in Tees Valley and the west midlands, where the Mayors have visions of what they want their regions to look like. I do not know what vision our Mayor has for our region. He probably wants to save the airport, and we have talked about bus franchising, but that is not a vision. In order for the airport to work, it needs to be part of a wider vision of prosperity. It is about how Sheffield is linked to Doncaster, and from Barnsley down to Rotherham, and how each part of it fits that vision. When the Mayor has set out the vision—I hope that it will be a good vision—he should use the levers of power available to him to make it a reality. He should say to the people of South Yorkshire, “I have my vision and this is where the airport fits into it. These are the levers—the powers and the £900 million given to me by the Government—that I will use to make that vision happen.” He may or may not say, “We need to save the airport,” but I want to see how that fits into the vision and how it all goes together.
We have already heard about the Civil Contingencies Act, the £20 million loan and lots of things. That is too piecemeal. The failure here is not necessarily the failure of the airport. The failure is of vision and of the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority. The success in the Tees Valley is because its Mayor has a vision, knows what he wants to do and is combining those. We do not have that in South Yorkshire. That is the ultimate failure.
I am talking about the current Mayor. Of course, I have read the plan. We can all see where the airport fits into it, but that is not how it links together. It is too piecemeal. We may disagree on whether that plan is correct—I disagree with it—but it is too piecemeal. We need an overarching vision for how that works together with the industrial zones and the freeport.
I commend once again my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley on his cross-party way of working. He is a far nicer gentleman than me when it comes to working cross-party.
My hon. Friend mentions cross-party working. That is similar to what my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) is trying to achieve, working across South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire on the Penistone line—another transport-related project—and all the MPs and the Mayors are fully in agreement on it. Does he agree that it is important that we try to work together on a cross-party basis?
Of course, I agree. It is incredibly important that we work cross-party. That is why I have been saddened by some of the debate as well as by the urgent question earlier. We are not working cross-party. There are too many red herrings being thrown about—we have heard about civil contingencies and this law and this stuff—without working together. We need to unite to pull all those levers to save our airports. We should look at all options, including compulsory purchase if necessary. We have dealt with the situation before in Tees Valley, where we beat Peel. The only difference now is that we have a different Mayor in charge. That is the only conclusion that I can come to.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing this important debate. Thousands of jobs are dependent on Doncaster Sheffield airport, and the stark reality is that there are only days left to save it. Conservative Members have made a number of assertions that the Mayor has the powers to step in, but no one has been able to explain what those powers are. Those cited would take years to exercise.
While Peel is not willingly offering the airport for sale, the reality is that the South Yorkshire Mayor has made Peel Group an offer of public money to keep the airport running until next October and has helped to find three potential investors interested in purchasing the site and keeping the airport operational. Discussions are ongoing between the Peel Group and potential investors. They are non-political, and we hope for a positive outcome, but the Peel Group still refuses to confirm whether it is willing to suspend closure and whether it is even in a position to sell Doncaster Sheffield Airport Ltd. Indeed, if Peel is refusing to sell the airport, the Civil Contingencies Act remains the only way to save it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) outlined.
The Conservative party seems to be forgetting the assurances made by the outgoing Prime Minister in the last few weeks that the Secretary of State would address the issue immediately and protect the airport. I am really disappointed that the Transport Secretary has not turned up to the debate and that the Government still refuse to meet Opposition Members. This is a grave situation for people across South Yorkshire, including the thousands of workers whose employment relies on the airport, local businesses and, of course, all of us who rely on the emergency services stationed at the airport. It may well be that they can continue to fulfil their contractual obligations, but no doubt they will be disrupted. Has the Minister met the emergency services to discuss that? It is imperative that Ministers step up, that we work together and that Ministers use their powers to do everything they can to save Doncaster Sheffield airport.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) on securing the debate and on the tireless work he has put in to try to save the airport, which I think is widely acknowledged. However, as has been observed by a number of right hon. and hon. Members tonight, we need to work together. We cannot afford for this to turn into a political row, because the stakes are too high. I think all of us recognise that Doncaster Sheffield airport is a huge economic asset for our region. South Yorkshire and the surrounding areas would be weakened and undermined if the airport were to close, so we all have an absolute responsibility to do everything we possibly can. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) said, the focus has to be on Peel.
I say this with all humility, but I have a pretty comprehensive understanding of the powers that are invested in the mayoralty and the money that is available to the Mayor. For four very difficult years, I worked with local leaders and national Government to make the most of that particular arrangement. I was sorry to hear the hon. Member for Don Valley say that he does not think it is working for South Yorkshire. Many very, very senior members of his Government and very many Conservative Members on his side do think it is working for South Yorkshire. I worked closely with a number of Government Ministers to ensure that it did.
Let me just make a bit of progress, then I will give way. I want to reinforce the very important point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North made about making sure that Peel does the right thing.
A very good and reasonable offer from the Mayor was put to Peel. That offer would have enabled it to continue to operate the airport for up to 13 months. That crucial 13-month period would have provided the time and space to ensure that the ongoing negotiations with the three parties that have stepped forward were given every chance to succeed. Even at this very late hour, I still hope that Peel—I hope it is watching this debate tonight—does the right thing and gets back around the table with the Mayor and the combined authority to look at whether it might be prepared to reconsider. I am happy to give way if the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene.
I thank the hon. Member for giving way. I just want to go back to the fact that he believes devolution is working for Doncaster. The city region sustainable transport settlements bid was for £570 million. Some £110 million of that was taken off the top straight away for the trams in Sheffield. The rest of the money, the £460 million, was then divvied up between Doncaster, Rotherham, Sheffield and Barnsley. Another item is the cultural money that has just come to South Yorkshire—£1 million from central Government to the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority. How much did Doncaster get? It got £38,000, or 3.8%. I just want him to confirm that devolution is working for Doncaster people, because I do not think it is.
What I can confirm—I am, frankly, uniquely well placed to be able to confirm it—is that for the period of time I was the Mayor, I moved heaven and earth to work very closely with all local leaders to ensure that the money we had available to commit was committed in a way that was fair and equal. Frankly, I am very proud of the fact that none of the leaders were ever able to come to me to say, “You were favouring Barnsley or Sheffield or Doncaster.”
The hon. Gentleman makes a specific point about the money invested in Sheffield in Supertram. That is a very legitimate question for him to raise. I advise him to talk to colleagues on his own Government Front Bench, because it is almost always the case, as a mayoral combined authority, that you are bidding for—I hope the Minister will confirm this, because this was absolute in my experience and it was the experience of other mayors—pots of funding that are controlled by national Government. Always it is the case that there are very strict rules governing the way that money can be spent. While I was the Mayor, I moved heaven and earth. The hon. Member will remember that we had a number of good-natured constructive conversations to ensure that Doncaster got its fair share. I can look him and the House in the eye and say that Doncaster, along with Barnsley, Rotherham and Sheffield, always got its fair share.
There are issues relating to how national funding pots are structured and created. We do not really do devolution properly in this country. We do not devolve pots of money to mayoral combined authorities for them to commit based on their priorities. The money that comes from Westminster and Whitehall always has very stringent conditions attached. That is not how it should be, but that is the reality.
I was sorry to hear the hon. Member raising concerns—admittedly, that had been raised to him—about the approach from the combined authority in recent years. I categorically assure him and the House that, over the four years that I was the Mayor, we worked tirelessly to make sure that we did everything that we possibly could to invest not just in Doncaster Sheffield airport, but in GatewayEast, as he knows well, because it is in his constituency. GatewayEast is an area that has huge economic potential not only for Doncaster, but for the wider region. Throughout my tenure as the Mayor, there were numerous and significant interventions.
Let me give a flavour of those interventions so that the hon. Member might be a bit reassured. In referring to the Great Yorkshire Way, he made the point, rightly, that private investment went into funding that, but he should also understand—I hope he does—that, in March 2017, the mayoral combined authority provided £9.2 million for the construction of the Great Yorkshire Way. In March 2019, we granted a loan of £3.5 million for capital works, helping to support a key source of the revenue at Doncaster Sheffield airport. In March 2020, there was a second loan of £5 million to enhance passenger capacity. In June 2020, the MCA agreed to extend the £3.5 million loan period for the car park enhancement and defer all interest payments until 2024 to support the airport through the pandemic, which was clearly an incredibly challenging time for airports around the world.
In November 2020, discussions about a significant equity investment began. The MCA took that very seriously at the time: I appointed my then chief exec to lead on the negotiations and we appointed consultants to look very carefully at the business case. It was ultimately determined that the investment would not comply with the subsidy control rules. We sought to work around that, and that is why discussion started at that point about a £20 million loan.
We are talking about the jewel in the crown of South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority—the one thing that can set the entirety of South Yorkshire area alight and bring investment into our area—and the hon. Gentleman said, “It has been given an £8.5 million loan in the last five years”. That is what it has had: an £8.5 million loan in five years for the jewel in the crown, for 1.8 million people’s economic growth and economic future. The Mayor has just spent £24 million, I believe, on some new trams. I am lost for words—I am sorry.
No, I will not. I will make a bit of progress. I then went on to detail a series of other financial interventions that were set alongside a huge amount of activity that was going in to support the airport. Here is the critical point, which I made to the hon. Member earlier: in April 2022—bear in mind that, as he will recall, we were in purdah at that point—the Peel Group indicated that it did not wish to proceed with the work around the £20 million loan.
No, I will not; I am going to make some further points and I will give way to the hon. Member in a moment.
The truth of the matter is—I say this with all humility—that I was there; I was in the room, did the meetings, had the conversation and directed my officers to do the work. We worked very closely with Mayor Ros Jones, who has been a tireless supporter of Doncaster Sheffield airport for many years. The truth is that we completely acknowledged the huge value that DSA added to our regional economy and, as part of the work that we were doing, underpinned by a very detailed strategic economic plan that I am not sure that the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) has read, we produced a renewal action plan that provided the wider vision for the kind of economy—
On a point of order, I said in my speech that I had read the plan; the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) is now saying that I have not. For the record, he cannot just say things completely contradicting something that I have said a few minutes before. It is completely disingenuous.
That will do. It is obvious to me that there are differences of opinion about facts and the interpretation of facts. That is why there are different sides of the House and why we have a system in which everybody gets the chance to state their opinions and facts. Let us not get heated about it.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
The other really important point for hon. Members to understand is that, in addition to the significant financial interventions and the clear recognition of the importance of DSA as part of the economic future of South Yorkshire, we did three other really important things as well; the hon. Member for Don Valley knows about them because he and I discussed them at the time. I was always of the view that one of the greatest things we could do to support the long-term economic viability of DSA was to continue to invest in the supporting infrastructure, to make it easier for people to get to the airport. That is why my then officers, working closely with Doncaster Council, did a huge amount of work to draw together the basis of a proposal that would have put an east coast main line station at Doncaster Sheffield airport. That, I think, could have been transformative for the airport and a lot of work, done closely with Transport for the North, went into drawing together the basis of that significant infrastructure proposal.
The hon. Member for Don Valley knows where we got to with that; it was a credible proposal that went forward to national Government. Unfortunately, it was not supported by national Government. Additionally, we also looked at what we could do to better enhance intra-regional connectivity. I was very conscious that there were transport infrastructure interventions that we could have carried out that would have made it easier for local people in the South Yorkshire area to get to the airport. Again, we were not successful in drawing down money to support that.
The third point, with which the hon. Member for Don Valley is very familiar, is that we put a lot of time and investment into developing a freeport proposal for the GatewayEast site. I will let the House into a bit of a secret: not everybody in South Yorkshire was necessarily in favour of that proposal because it potentially came with a range of measures that were not universally popular. However, the decision I took, working closely with the mayoral combined authority, was that, as part of the process of supporting Doncaster Sheffield airport and making it more economically viable in the longer term, we would play the game and work closely with national Government. On that basis, I took the decision to put forward a freeport proposal for GatewayEast, adjacent to Doncaster Sheffield airport. That proposal was not successful even though the Treasury’s own analysis, I think, subsequently scored our South Yorkshire bid better than other bids that were ultimately successful.
We tried to get the east coast main line station put in, and we put forward a proposal that was unsuccessful. We did work to improve intra-regional connectivity; that was unsuccessful. Then we put forward the freeport proposal and that was unsuccessful.
The hon. Gentleman has questioned my maths. I am very good at maths: £5 million and £3.5 million is £8.5 million—that is the loan—and £9.2 million was used for the road. Peel put in £11 million, which is £1.8 million more than the combined authority put in. That is what I am trying to say.
I am not making excuses. I am asking why, if the airport is the jewel in the crown of South Yorkshire—I am sure that those are the combined authority’s own words—it is not being supported more. I am not giving excuses. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments about freeports; I am trying to get an investment zone for the area now, which will hopefully be even better than a freeport. But if the combined authority is not seen to invest in its own infrastructure and its own jewel in the crown, what does that say to the Government? “Are you prepared to invest in your own?” “Well, no, we’re not.” What is the point?
We need vision, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) says, that is what has been lacking. With silo working, it has become “Sheffield is trams and Doncaster is planes.” I am afraid that that is just not good enough.
I recommend that the hon. Gentleman spends a bit of time with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) to get a sense of the realities of local government finance. The reality is that the revenue that the Mayor has at any one time to expend is very limited. The hon. Member for Don Valley mentioned the £30 million of gainshare; there is a very strict split between capital and revenue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East made the point that there are a range of other financial commitments that the mayoral combined authority has to service. There are other infrastructural investments that have to be made. The job of the Mayor is to look at things in the round and work out what money is available and where it can best be deployed.
The hon. Member for Don Valley did not mention the sum of £20 million, which is a very significant commitment from the mayoral authority. As I have said to him previously, in April 2022, when we had gone into purdah and I was going to be Mayor for a couple more weeks, the Peel Group indicated that it did not wish to continue developing the loan proposal at that time. That was an offer in good faith that had been worked up between senior officers in the mayoral combined authority and senior officials in the Peel Group, but they took the decision that they did not want to continue those conversations. That is the reality of it.
Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that parts of South Yorkshire sometimes think that the way forward is to have a row with other parts of South Yorkshire rather than working collectively, as the Manchester authorities appear able to? This is not about Doncaster’s airport versus Sheffield’s trams. Sheffield is a major city. Major European cities have light rail systems; Sheffield needs and wants a light rail system. It should not be about having one or the other or fighting over the scraps; it should be about arguing collectively for extra money for the infrastructure that we need in each of our areas. That is why Sheffield MPs are here tonight to support Doncaster Sheffield airport—
Order. I am getting confused about who is intervening on whom. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) has the Floor. The hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) has intervened on him. Have I just let the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) intervene on the hon. Gentleman intervening? I do hope not?
I am sorry if I confused you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I hope that I did not confuse anybody else at the same time. I was intervening on my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) to ask whether he agrees that it is unfortunately all too common among some people in South Yorkshire to start a blame game between the constituent parts of the authority, rather than working collectively as Sheffield Members are here to do tonight.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s important point. The truth of the matter is that every Member of Parliament in South Yorkshire wants Doncaster Sheffield airport to stay open. We all want that, which is why we are collectively frustrated that we have not had the opportunity to get around the table with a Minister and voice our concerns in that kind of forum. It is a good thing that we are having this debate tonight, but let us be honest: it is only a quirk of fate that we have been able to have this elongated discussion. It is only because today’s business ended sooner than normal that hon. Members have the opportunity to put their concerns on the record.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman on one point? He has just referred to Members of Parliament in South Yorkshire, but Members of Parliament in west Yorkshire are also very concerned about this, which is why I have been supporting my hon. Friends the Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) in their campaign. Quite a number of fingers are being pointed at the Mayor and at the Government, but it is the Peel Group on which we ought to be focusing, and what I want to ask the hon. Gentleman is this: how do we get the Peel Group to the table so that this can be discussed and subsequently resolved?
The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I entirely recognise, and am grateful for, the support that has come from Members outside South Yorkshire. I know that there is strong support from Members in West Yorkshire and North Yorkshire, and indeed from further afield—from north Nottinghamshire and the east midlands.
I do not think anyone in this place does not want the airport to remain open. That is why I am expressing so much frustration. Given the importance of the asset for the region and given the overwhelming cross-party support, I honestly cannot understand why the Secretary of State does not act. I am not having a go at the Minister, because I know that this is not within her brief—the Minister responsible sits in the other place— but I think that those who have been around for a while will understand that Ministers have a duty and a responsibility to sit down and meet their colleagues, which is why I am genuinely frustrated that there has not been such an opportunity.
Even at this late hour, I still think there would be merit in a meeting between Members on both sides of the House, from further afield than South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and the Humber. I think they should get round the table in the Department with the Minister and the Secretary of State so that our concerns can be voiced. That, I think, would be a constructive gathering, because in the end we all want the same thing. None of us wants to see the jobs go; none of us wants to see South Yorkshire’s economic potential undermined by the loss of this strategic asset. All of us want to see a regional airport strategy that works in the best interests of our regions.
I have never been one of those people who pit the north against the south. That is an entirely unhelpful metric. The Minister is looking around; I do not suggest for a moment that anyone present is doing that, but sometimes in the context of a conversation about levelling up, the north is pitted against the south and vice versa. I note that an airport in Kent which closed a number of years ago is about to reopen. The Government are supporting that proposal, and I think they are doing the right thing. I want people in Kent to have the best possible access to such facilities. However, I also want people in South Yorkshire, in Doncaster, in the north of England, to have access to this kind of infrastructure.
We will have a new Prime Minister very shortly. He is a Yorkshire MP. There is a big opportunity for him to do something significant at this late hour. The new Prime Minister knows his way around the Treasury, and he knows what the art of the possible is.
The hon. Member says that there is an opportunity for the new Prime Minister to do something. Apart from having a meeting with Members who are in the Chamber tonight, what is the “something”, which keeps being alluded to, that Members want the Government to do? Is there a lever that the Government are not pulling which the hon. Member wants them to pull? On our side, we are saying that the South Yorkshire Mayor will want to make a compulsory purchase. What lever does the hon. Member believe the Government should be pulling?
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North made very clear, the option involving the Civil Contingencies Act does provide a mechanism—[Interruption.] The Minister laughs. The legal advice that underpins the excellent work done by my right hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster North and for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton) comes from one of the pre-eminent legal minds in our country, described by the hon. Member for Don Valley as a Labour peer. The truth of the matter is that this is someone who is highly respected within—[Interruption.] The Minister chunters from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] We are trying to be constructive here, and the proposal that was brought forward was absolutely worthy of merit. I very much hope that officials in the Minister’s Department have looked at it closely and taken legal advice. The letter from my right hon. Friends the Members for Doncaster North and for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton), which many of us co-signed, invited the Minister in a sensible grown-up and constructive way to meet us to have a conversation about this, but we have never had that meeting. It is very frustrating that we have not had the opportunity to sit round the table and have a grown-up conversation—[Interruption.] The Minister is yawning and looking at her watch. People’s jobs are on the line and Government Ministers will not get round the table and meet us —[Interruption.]
I will take the hint, Madam Deputy Speaker, and draw my remarks to a conclusion.
Members put it to the Secretary of State at Transport questions recently that we thought there was merit in having a grown-up conversation. The Secretary of State said that she did not want to do that. That is a great shame. Imagine what it must feel like tonight for the people who work at Doncaster Sheffield airport. They can see the clock ticking down and they are days, hours, away from losing their jobs, yet Government Ministers will not even sit down with Members of Parliament to hear their concerns. I would be happy to give way to the Minister if she can tell me that she is happy to arrange an urgent meeting with Members from across the House. In my time in this House, I can never remember a situation where a matter of such importance as this has not led to a ministerial meeting.
I just want to quickly go back a bit, and then I will address the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I believe that the £20 million loan was withdrawn around about 12 March and never actually made it to the cabinet meeting that was going to sign it off. That is when it should have been signed off. I believe that there is no record of it in the minutes. As I say, this is only what I am led to believe. There was no record of it in the minutes; it was not there. I do not believe that the Mayor for Doncaster raised it either. That is an important point, and maybe we can look at those minutes to see if it was there.
This is why am asking for a public inquiry. I am trying to be collegial here. I have tried all the way through this, and I will continue to try, but I have been excluded from meeting after meeting of Labour Members with regard to working groups and suchlike. I have also spoken to the Minister and the Secretary of State several times about the Civil Contingencies Act.
I am mindful of your advice to draw matters to a conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker, but would say to the hon. Member that we are trying to save the airport here. He might want to dig into the minutes but, as I said to him previously, the offer was on the table and in April 2022, Peel indicated that it did not wish to continue with developing the loan proposal at that time. That is the absolute fact of the matter.
My final point is to return to the frustration, which is held by many, that we have not had the opportunity to meet Ministers to impress upon them the importance of this issue. I very much hope that when the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box she will take the opportunity to confirm that she will urgently convene a meeting and give Members from right across the House and from all in the region who have been represented in the debate the opportunity to have a constructive meeting with the Secretary of State, given the importance of the issue. I very much hope that she will take the opportunity tonight to confirm that the Secretary of State will be prepared to do that.
Let me first apologise to the House. The hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) was correct: I was yawning. That is because I was up at 5.30 this morning to go and open Bond Street tube station, which is a cracking example of the type of investment that people working together can deliver for people. But he is correct, I am flagging a touch, so I will attempt to keep my remarks brief.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). He is possibly the best Fletcher in this House. It is obvious how important this debate is to people, and I praise his tenacity in championing this issue. He cares about the future of the airport, he cares about his constituents and he cares about his friends and family. I was touched listening to him talk about watching the Vulcans. I saw them as a child at Woodford aerodrome, which is no longer there. I miss seeing them, and I share his passion for it, even though I do not have the aviation brief.
The Government are deeply disappointed that the Peel Group has taken this difficult decision to close Doncaster Sheffield airport. It is a commercial decision made by the airport’s owners, and I am aware of the concerns about this decision among passengers, constituents across the South Yorkshire region, businesses and organisations in the supply chain and people who work at the airport.
I set out many of the issues during the urgent question, but I will give a brief recap. I make it clear that, although the UK Government support airports, we do not own or operate them. Several Opposition Members have suggested that a meeting would magically unlock the situation, but I do not believe it would—I will return to the topic of meetings.
The devolved Administrations, local authorities and combined authorities in other areas of the UK are frequently shareholders in the regional airports that serve their communities, as is the case with Manchester Airports Group, Birmingham airport, London Luton airport and, more recently, Teesside International airport. The UK aviation market operates predominantly in the private sector. Airports invest in their infrastructure to attract airlines and passengers, and airlines are well placed to deliver services to their customers by responding to the demand for different routes.
Since the Peel Group’s announcement on 13 July of a review into the future of Doncaster Sheffield airport, the Government have been actively working with local stakeholders to encourage a future for aviation at the site. I understand that South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and Doncaster Council have been working to explore options for a locally led solution. The local authorities have written to the Peel Group to pass on the details of the parties who are interested in discussing the potential to invest in the airport. I understand that, as of today, the Peel Group has already begun to engage with the parties interested in a commercial deal.
The aviation Minister, Baroness Vere, met the Peel Group on 19 October and strongly encouraged it to engage seriously with any interested parties, and has received assurances that it will do so. She has been strongly encouraging the Peel Group to consider the offer of financial bridging support from the local authorities and the mayoral combined authority if it requires time to take forward discussions with investors. I understand that there are some questions that need to be addressed about the stepping stones to medium-term strategic viability, but she has discussed that with the Peel Group.
The Government have remained engaged with all parties throughout the review. Since the decision to close the airport, there has been regular contact between officials and representatives from the Peel Group, the South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and Doncaster Council. The Government are committed to encouraging local leaders and the Peel Group to work together to find a solution for the site that will benefit local people and the regional economy.
The hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) mentioned that Doncaster Sheffield airport currently offers a base for the National Police Air Service and for 2Excel Aviation, a private company that delivers search and rescue services for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. I am happy to confirm that Baroness Vere has met 2Excel and understands that there are contingency plans in place. Officials have also engaged with the Home Office about the National Police Air Service fixed wing support.
The right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) mentioned Lord Falconer, who I am sure is an eminent legal brain. He has had the opportunity to meet Baroness Vere and to engage on whether the threshold for civil contingencies has been met. The threshold is necessarily extremely high, as the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out when the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 was introduced by the Blair Government. Unfortunately Baroness Vere, despite Lord Falconer’s suggestion, is not happy that this is a national emergency, because both services have engaged with her and can put in place contingency plans. She is further assured that the Peel Group is working with them to make sure that any bridging period is covered. That does not cover the essence of the debate, but I just want to offer the hon. Lady that assurance.
The Government have made it clear to Peel Group that it needs to manage the closure process effectively and in consultation with operators at Doncaster Sheffield Airport. The Peel Group has publicly stated that it will work with those operators to minimise the disruption to their operations and customers. We have pressed Peel Group to honour that—when I say “we”, I mean my colleagues within the Department—and to avoid disruption to those important operations.
The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 has been mentioned. It requires a high bar to be engaged. It requires an emergency, which is defined as a situation that threatens
“serious damage to human welfare…damage to the environment…or war, or terrorism”
which affects the security of the United Kingdom. As someone who has used Robin Hood airport, as it then was, I understand how important such an airport is. However, the advice the Department is getting is not that the threshold has been reached to engage the 2004 Act. As the Transport Secretary has highlighted, we are just not persuaded on that. I think we can all agree that it would be much better for all if a commercial solution could be found to minimise the disruption to these operations.
Obviously we have a disagreement, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) has outlined. May I just press the Minister to explain to the House and to us why the Secretary of State is refusing to meet Opposition Members? Can the Minister not this evening just commit to a meeting?
I ask the hon. Lady to bear with me for a moment, because I am planning to address that. I will first just address the call for a public inquiry made so passionately by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. A very high bar needs to be cleared for a public inquiry. Although we have gone away to look and understand the potential grounds for one, the recommendation is that a locally led review and solution could have similar and perhaps more positive effects in a shorter timescale than the full public inquiry that he calls for. He notes that South Yorkshire Mayoral Combined Authority and Doncaster Council are integral to developing commercially viable solutions. Discussions between the authority, council and Peel are still ongoing, to assess the credibility of investors. As he outlined, powers sit with the local authorities and, as such, I think it would be right for the local authorities and their leaders to push for a locally led review, rather than having a public inquiry at this time.
I am probably at the point where my expertise in the aviation portfolio is far outweighed by that of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who is sat on the Bench in front of my hon. Friend and perhaps would be able to offer him some advice on that.
I wish to return to the point about meetings. I have mentioned Lord Falconer and his legal advice, and the meeting with Baroness Vere about the Civil Contingencies Act option. I am reliably advised that meetings with Department for Transport officials have been offered to the South Yorkshire Mayor by the Secretary of State as a prelude to further meetings. DFT officials are also having weekly meetings with the local authorities, often involving the chief executive of Doncaster Council. I will happily give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Witney if this is not correct, but I am also informed by officials that when he was previously aviation Minister he convened a meeting between Mayor Ben Houchen and Mayor Oliver Coppard in which this was included.
It is great that the Minister has listed those meetings, but she has failed to answer the point that I have made, along with many of my colleagues: the Secretary of State sat there at Transport questions and three times refused to meet us. She is not here this evening. Why will the Minister not just agree to meet Labour Members?
Unfortunately, I cannot acquiesce to the hon. Lady’s request, because the issue is not within my portfolio. I am extremely happy to pass on her request to the aviation Minister, but I am sure the hon. Lady would not want me to make commitments for her at the Dispatch Box when she is not here.
We have met the emergency services, Lord Falconer, 2Excel, the police and the local Mayor, and we have organised other meetings. I gently say to several Opposition Members that this all seems a bit panicky when I have given a bit of a to-do list of what is being done and my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley has been running such an effective campaign for 104 days.
I am going to make some progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) spoke passionately about Yorkshire’s vision and future and about his desire to join up the dots. As a nascent Transport Minister, I share the idea that joining up the dots and setting out a coherent vision for the future is really important, be that for the north-west, South Yorkshire, the northern powerhouse or the whole country, and I commend him for his point.
To conclude, I congratulate everybody who has participated in possibly one of the lengthiest Adjournment debates—as my first Adjournment debate, it will certainly last long in my memory. I am delighted to hear everybody share their memories and their passion. In the spirit of working together, I look forward to results perhaps coming through.
Doncaster Sheffield airport is important to constituencies across the House and the region, and I have no doubt about the strength of people’s feelings. I call on Peel Group to continue to work with stakeholders to ensure that the impacts of its decision to close the airport are minimised or that another solution is found. The Government are clear in their wish to see local leaders work on a solution that best serves the interests of the wider community, and the Department stands ready to help. I am pleased that potential investors have come forward and registered an interest, and I reiterate my desire for Peel Group to engage in the best possible way. I have been assured that it has given that commitment to Baroness Vere, and I hope that it will consider the bridging support offered, to allow for commercial decisions to move forward.
The Government will continue to work with all parties to exhaust all options to preserve the airport.
I am nearly done.
However, we recognise that the final decision on whether an offer is accepted sits with Peel, because this is a commercial airport site. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I think this has been a really good debate.
Question put and agreed to.