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Doncaster Sheffield Airport

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 24 October.

“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 honourable 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 honourable 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.”

My Lords, the Opposition have called for this UQ since I understand that it is the Minister’s personal responsibility. Would she like to expand on the points made—or, indeed, not made—in the other place? In particular, why has the Secretary of State refused to meet local representatives? Further, is it not the Minister’s responsibility to support a solution between the combined authority, Peel Holdings and potential buyers? Why have the Government refused to use the Civil Contingencies Act?

The Government have had several—actually 13—ministerial-level meetings since towards the end of July. The Transport Secretary, for example, met Mayor Oliver Coppard from SYMCA on 22 September and Mayor Jones from Doncaster County Council. She has also spoken to Peel Group twice. I have spoken to Peel Group, to 2Excel, to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, who I see is in his place, and to local MPs. The reality is that my officials are in constant contact with all the relevant parties. If I feel that I can help further, I certainly will. On using the Civil Contingencies Act, we looked very closely at it, and it has a very high bar. I should note to noble Lords that, despite all the emergencies we have had in this country since the Act was passed 20-odd years ago, Part 2 of that Act has never been used: no emergency has managed to reach that high bar. We did look at it and we have challenged ourselves to ensure that the contingency plan is in place. Those tenants who will be leaving DSA are robust, and therefore their contracts can continue.

My Lords, many local airports have been in trouble since Covid. However, this airport is of great strategic significance. It has one of the longest runways in the UK, it is the home of the national coastguard operations, and it is the base for the National Police Air Service. This is, therefore, of very great national significance, not a little local difficulty. Will the Minister therefore undertake to treat this as a problem of national significance, and does she agree that the Government need to provide tangible support—not just warm words—for local representatives?

The Government do not own or operate airports; local authorities and devolved Administrations do—for example, Manchester, Birmingham, Luton and Teesside. We very much feel that, if there is a local solution to be had, it will come from local knowledge, from those local authorities. For reassurance, I have spoken to 2Excel about its contingency plans, which wrote to the former Prime Minister setting out that it would be able to continue with its work, and the Home Office is content that the NPAS will also be able to continue its work. While we are deeply disappointed by Peel’s decision, I have strongly urged the group to engage with all interested parties should a commercial solution be available.

My Lords, the National Police Air Service’s entire fixed-wing aircraft fleet is based at Doncaster Sheffield Airport. The fixed-wing element of the UK’s life-saving search and rescue service is based at Doncaster Sheffield Airport. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has aircraft on-call there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Peel will close the airport within two or three weeks from today. The consequence is that 2Excel will move all of these and the engineering facilities to what it describes as “boltholes” spread across the United Kingdom. What assessment has the Department for Transport made of the extent to which services will be disrupted or degraded permanently as a result? What effect will that have on the risk to life, particularly as we go into the winter? What steps is the Department for Transport taking to ensure that there is no danger to life in those circumstances?

As the noble and learned Lord will know from when he encouraged me—fairly robustly, I might add—to look at the CCA regarding this issue, we have been in touch with 2Excel. I have spoken to the company myself, and it is fair to say that it feels quite aggrieved at the way it has been treated by Peel. I have to say that I have some sympathy with that. Peel has publicly stated that it will work to minimise disruption to its tenants; I very much hope that it will honour what it has said, rather than leaving it to the courts to wrangle over the leases, which will be brought to an end early. We have spoken to 2Excel and have had written confirmation that the contracts in place for search and rescue for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency will not be impacted. As I said previously, I have also had assurance from the Home Office that NPAS will also be able to function.

My Lords, associated with Doncaster Sheffield Airport has been a huge amount of public funding of infrastructure such as roads. Are the Government going to make any attempt to recover some of those funds from the Peel Group? We went through the same cycle with what was Sheffield Airport, when a huge amount of public money went in and then Peel Group pulled out. Will the Government ensure that the future use of that infrastructure and, indeed, the airport will support small and medium-sized enterprises, co-operatives and genuine prosperity in the local community?

Regarding the infrastructure that was put in around Doncaster Airport, such as roads, I have travelled along a road there, which was fairly new and of incredibly high quality. It was of course put there to support the airport and to enable passengers and workers to get to and from the airport, but it should be said that Peel Group invests for the long term. I do not know what its plans are for the longer-term site at Doncaster Airport, should it eventually no longer be used as an airport. However, it is a prime, very large site in an area with a significant number of people who would have the skills to develop various businesses there. I anticipate that any infrastructure that has been put in would be utilised by whatever takes place at the airport.

My Lords, as Members of this House may know, I very seldom, if ever, praise the Scottish Government. However, in the case of Prestwick Airport they have done the right thing and for the right reasons. It seems to be very similar to Doncaster Sheffield Airport. Prestwick has a very long runway, and it has a search and rescue facility—the parallels are amazing. Will the Minister therefore give one clear assurance today: that she and her colleagues will have a word with the Scottish Government and look at what they have done to keep Prestwick Airport? The father of the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, and I did a lot to protect it way back in the 1970s and 1980s. Will the Minister please talk to Ministers in Scotland and see if the United Kingdom Government can follow their example in respect of Doncaster Sheffield Airport?

As I said at the outset, it is not unusual for the devolved Administrations or local authorities to take stakes in or have interests in airports, and some of them have been incredibly successful. It is pleasing to see that Prestwick is now successful; there was a time when it was not. Certainly, Manchester and Luton have recovered from the pandemic particularly well. As I said previously, the Government do not own or operate airports and will not be stepping in with UK taxpayers’ money in these circumstances.

My Lords, can the Minister explain how the closure of Doncaster Sheffield Airport, in an area that desperately needs investment, contributes to the Government’s growth plan?

The question is more relevant to regional connectivity, which is absolutely key for growth. As we set out in our 10-year strategic framework for aviation, we are very much focused on regional connectivity. Anybody who knows the geography of the area around Doncaster Sheffield Airport knows that it is not the only airport in the area. Other airports are easily accessible from many of the places around there, so it has quite a limited, unique catchment area, which may have contributed to Peel’s decision that it was not viable in the medium term. I understand that other consultants have looked at it, potentially, for the local authorities and reached the same conclusion.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that Doncaster has a very long runway, and my noble friend said that it was like Prestwick’s. Manston in Kent has an equally long runway, or maybe longer, and so does Newquay in Cornwall. Newquay is being used by Virgin to get the first rocket into space, I believe. Do the Government think that long runways are important, or are they quite happy for all these to be sold because we have short take-off and landing and do not need long runways any more?

Of course, they do not get sold. These runways are in private hands or the hands of local authorities. I am grateful to the noble Lord for raising the issue of Newquay. It just goes to show what airports can do. By adding a spaceport to the airport, it is broadening its revenues and looking to the future. The Government very much hope that the launch of the Virgin Orbit rocket will take place as soon as possible.