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Blackpool Airport and Levelling Up

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022

I will call Scott Benton to move the motion. I will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Blackpool airport and the role of commercial passenger flights in levelling up.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. The recent levelling-up White Paper rightly identified the areas that need to be addressed if we are to transform the UK and bring prosperity to left-behind regions. The UK Government have set themselves 12 national missions that they must achieve if this country is to level up. There are two areas, in particular, that I believe are pertinent to regional airports, including Blackpool, and I will demonstrate how they can play an important role in supporting the Government’s broader aims.

The Government’s first emphasis is on the restoration of pride of place. Regional airports are often important symbols of pride for local residents, offering a unique link to a town’s history and representing modernity and wealth. For example, on the grounds that are now Blackpool airport, Squires Gate hosted the UK’s first official aviation meeting in 1909, when 200,000 people gathered to watch Henri Farman set the first official British flight record of 47 miles. That would be the start of Blackpool’s long and proud aviation history, with a fully fledged aerodrome opened in 1931, offering passenger flights to the Isle of Man.

During the second world war, RAF Squires Gate was established as a training wing for the No. 3 School of General Reconnaissance, and over 3,000 Wellington bombers were constructed next to the airport, with the factory buildings still in existence. This history is celebrated in Blackpool and continues today, with a Spitfire visitor centre, our brilliant annual air show, and the development of military aircraft at nearby BAE Systems in Walton. I know how important the airport is to my constituents and those of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). In 2019, I started a petition urging the local council to restore commercial passenger flights, and I was delighted by the brilliant response it received, with over 8,000 local people signing it.

The second area I want to highlight in the case for levelling up is improving connectivity and infrastructure. The levelling-up White Paper makes clear the importance of connectivity and better transport links across the regions of the UK. Regional airports offer quick and easy connections, often at a fraction of the time and cost of rail travel.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the important issue of Blackpool airport—a real jewel in the Fylde crown. Does he agree that one challenge the airport faces is very high fixed costs for air traffic control, fire brigades and security, which larger airports do not face? Does he also agree that the Government need to look again at repeating the airfield fund that a certain previous aviation Minister launched on his last day in the job? That would match funding for investment in meeting these fixed costs.

I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour for his intervention. He has been a brilliant friend and advocate of Blackpool airport over many years, and during his work as aviation Minister. From speaking to him in the past, I know that a number of the things he was looking at while in post could support regional airports and help Blackpool to grow, benefiting the local economies of both our constituencies. I know he will be a brilliant advocate and supporter of this campaign going forward.

Regional airports offer quick and easy connections, often at a fraction of the time and cost of rail travel. They are also able to connect us to the furthest corners of our United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech, and it is music to my ears. As the Minister is aware, we have had a campaign in the far north of Scotland to do similar work for Wick airport. We have a destination—Aberdeen—which is great, and is a step in the right direction, but does the hon. Member agree that having a choice of destinations helps? In the case of Wick, we are seeking to get Edinburgh or Glasgow included as destinations.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He makes a good point. He will know about the importance of public service obligations, especially in the regional context of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and the work we do in England to match the PSO offers in the devolved Administrations. He will no doubt be championing that for his own constituency.

The Union connectivity review emphasised the need for Government to support journeys too long to be reasonably taken by road or rail. That is especially significant in the case of the devolved Administrations and other parts of our United Kingdom, all of which would benefit hugely from greater links between them. More practically, regional airports offer economic opportunities, increased tourism, better business connections and more investment opportunities, and they provide the chance for unique service delivery, as my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, alluded to with Blackpool airport.

Where does Blackpool airport fit in the levelling-up agenda, and what can the Government do to support it? As I mentioned, Blackpool airport has been in operation since the 1930s and operated commercial flights through the 20th century. However, the airport really took off—pardon the pun—in the early 2000s, with low-cost airlines such as Jet2 providing routes to international destinations, including Spain and Portugal, and smaller carriers, for example Citywing and Flybe, providing a strong regional network to destinations such as Belfast, Aberdeen and Southampton.

Unfortunately, following the financial crisis of 2007, passenger numbers began to fall and the operator of the airport, Balfour Beatty, ran into financial difficulty. Despite a number of routes still being well attended and the airport being used by over 200,000 passengers per year, in 2014 Balfour Beatty decided to put the airport up for sale. Sadly, a buyer could not be found and a subsidiary of Balfour Beatty purchased the airport and reduced operations, ultimately leading to the end of commercial passenger flights.

During this time, a decision was taken to demolish the former passenger terminal, despite protests from local residents. In 2017, Blackpool Council had to purchase the airport to save it from being permanently closed and demolished and to secure its long-term future as part of Blackpool Airport enterprise zone. That allowed for essential infrastructure to be maintained and investment plans to be explored.

Sadly, following my petition to ensure that commercial passenger flights were restored, the Labour council voted against the idea, citing the costs of bringing the airport up to scratch. While I appreciate the large capital cost of modernising the airport infrastructure, there have already been positive movements by the Government to support regional aviation, making investment more appealing. The cut to air passenger duty in last year’s Budget has provided a brilliant opportunity for domestic flights from small airports such as Blackpool. The Government have effectively halved the amount of tax paid on domestic return journeys, allowing people to travel for less. That is much fairer than the previous system, which would charge those travelling domestically more than those flying internationally, despite travelling a much shorter distance and contributing less carbon to the environment. The cut could prove especially beneficial as more people choose staycations rather than holidays abroad following the pandemic.

In the case of Blackpool, our resort is already a great destination for tourists, and exciting future developments assisted by Government regeneration funding will mean that there will soon be even more attractions to offer to visitors. That point has been echoed by many of the tourism and leisure businesses in my constituency. For example, Amanda Thompson OBE, managing director of Blackpool Leisure Beach, has stated:

“Blackpool Airport was a wonderful asset for the town and direct flights to and from London and various European destinations show how important it is to have connectivity to the city and Europe. The resort needs to establish inbound tourism from well as from…London—this is needed to encourage investment within the resort and the Airport can help to deliver this.”

The Union connectivity review has provided great insight into how to use regional airports to achieve the Government’s aim to improve transport connectivity and enhance quality of life and economic opportunity across the UK. The report made a number of suggestions that would greatly boost the case for restoring passenger flights to Blackpool airport and increasing the role of regional airports more broadly. Alongside the cut in APD for domestic flights, the report also recommended re-examining the role of public service obligation routes and the way in which they operate.

Currently, PSO routes are eligible for support only if they run to and from London and are exclusively operated by one airline. That has limited their use and has meant that such routes mostly exist outside of England, where devolved Administrations have stepped in. The report recommended liberalising the process to allow PSOs to operate between regions. It also recommended selecting a number of routes that would not have been previously operated and removing APD on those altogether. That would not result in a loss of revenue for the Government as, without the reforms, those journeys would not previously have been made at all. If the reforms were to be adopted, they would offer a great opportunity for Blackpool to offer flights to the Isle of Man, Belfast and possibly even London or Glasgow. Blackpool’s location makes it ideal to serve those routes. I hope the Government will seriously consider that recommendation and explore the policy further in the coming months.

These are positive steps and if properly pursued would allow Blackpool and other regional airports to play a vital part in UK connectivity and levelling up. However, the barrier to Blackpool and many other regional airports in taking advantage of such developments is the need for capital investment. Although the Treasury provides many funding pots, particularly for infrastructure projects, one area not currently covered by any schemes is regional airports. That makes it very difficult for airports such as Blackpool to get off the ground, with local government administrations often unable, or in Blackpool’s case unwilling, to invest sufficient time and money in large projects.

A bespoke scheme to provide capital investment would be very welcome and would allow regional airports to modernise, invest in green technologies and take the pressure away from key hub airports. As there are only 26 regional airports, the fund could be relatively small and could deliver significant improvements quickly, certainly in the case of Blackpool.

I want to address the concerns regarding the environmental impact of flying, especially in the context of the Government’s commitments at COP26. First, it is worth noting that domestic air travel makes up only 1.2% of total domestic transport emissions—a tiny fraction compared with cars, HGVs or trains. I am concerned that in reading reports like the Union connectivity review we are not looking to the future and considering upcoming technology. I was also concerned to see the media backlash following the cut to APD and the calls from newspapers such as The Guardian to ban domestic air travel altogether. Many environmental activists seem content to return to the stone age rather than innovating to maintain our wonderful way of life. For example, the Danish and Swedish Governments are both working with their aviation sectors to make domestic air travel fossil fuel-free by 2030. That is an ambitious target, but we must surely try to improve aviation rather than abandon it altogether.

I welcome the Department for Transport’s jet zero strategy consultation and hope it will lead to constructive discussions with the aviation industry. We are now seeing the development of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft both in the UK and around the world, and we have already seen low-carbon aircraft becoming more popular. For the technology to continue to develop and become widespread, it will have to be economically viable, and that will mean starting small. Domestic flights with their short airtime and lighter-weight aircraft would provide companies investing in low-carbon solutions with a perfect market for the technology to grow and mature.

I hope that the Government will look carefully at the role of regional airports—Blackpool in particular—in meeting their aims of levelling up, improving connectivity and moving towards net zero. It would be disappointing if, when so many opportunities are being created for regional airports and domestic flying, Blackpool with its long history of aviation and its great location were unable to benefit, particularly from the cut to APD, which could be tremendous for Blackpool’s tourism industry.

I also hope that the Government will look carefully at the reforms suggested in the Union connectivity report, especially the case for the expansion of PSO routes. Blackpool would be ideally suited for connecting to the Isle of Man and Belfast in particular.

Lastly, I hope that the Government will consider the creation of a bespoke funding pot or other targeted support to ensure that regional airports get the support they need to modernise, invest in those green technologies and take the pressure off our busy hub airports.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Davies. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) for securing this critically important debate, touching as it does not just on Blackpool, which is of such huge significance to his constituents and to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), but to wider regional aviation. Many of the issues on which we have touched today apply to many Members throughout the United Kingdom. I know that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), with his advocacy for Wick airport, will share in many of those points.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South is a hugely powerful advocate for this sector and for his area and I commend him for his energy, enthusiasm and vision for Blackpool airport and for the wider regional airport ecosystem. He has made a number of points to me throughout his time here, many of which the Government are considering. I hope to address some of those points during this debate.

I was particularly struck during my hon. Friend’s speech by the history of Blackpool airport—everything from Henri Farman in 1909, with his record, through to Vickers Wellingtons during the war, and today’s modern aircraft and aerospace technology at Warton nearby. I look forward to hearing more about that. We touched on it when we met recently and I look forward to seeing more when I visit this Friday. The importance of Blackpool airport to his area has been made vividly clear during this debate. The 8,000 signatures to his petition also show how important it is to his constituents.

I will touch on as many points as I can in the time that I have, particularly those relating to Blackpool and wider regional aviation. If we look at the issue as a whole, the UK is lucky to have one of the best-connected, best-value, safest, most innovative aircraft industries in the world—aircraft and aviation. It creates jobs, encourages the economy to grow, connects the United Kingdom and all of us with the wider world. It consolidates and grows our position as a dynamic trading nation.

Regional airports link us and serve our local communities, as we have heard vividly today. They support thousands of jobs in the regions and act as a gateway to international opportunities and economic growth. They foster, never let us forget, social and family ties and strengthen the bonds between us.

The figure that is perhaps most vivid is that before the pandemic, the aviation sector directly contributed at least £22 billion to the UK’s GDP, supporting approximately half a million jobs. It is vital that, as we build out from the pandemic, the aviation sector is a key part of that. As far as this Government are concerned, it will be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South rightly mentioned air passenger duty. That is part of our plans to boost regional connectivity and why, as he mentioned, the Treasury announced in the recent Budget a package of APD reforms to bolster air connectivity within the Union. That is a new reduced domestic band to support precisely the regional connectivity that he rightly pays tribute to, aligned with an ultra-long-haul additional band to ensure that our overall policy aligns with our environmental objectives. The reforms will take effect from 1 April 2023. That will be part of a package that aims to assist our domestic and international connectivity in the aviation world as we build out of the pandemic.

It is no exaggeration to say that levelling up is a key part of the Government’s agenda and a key part of what aviation can enable. We must have our local communities and businesses connected not just with London but, as the hon. Gentleman quite rightly points out, with other parts of the UK, and level up the regions and build a truly global Britain. Our objective is to ensure that all nations and regions of the UK have the domestic and international air transport connections that they rely on, while ensuring that we meet our net-zero commitments. Maintaining the national network of aerodromes and airports is the foundation of the success of the wider UK aviation sector, be that general, business or commercial aviation.

We have touched upon Union connectivity. In November 2021, Sir Peter Hendy published his independent Union connectivity review. As the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has pointed out, I know the importance of Wick to him and to the wider UK; that has been emphasised during this debate. For Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and all parts of England, we will be looking to improve access to opportunities and everyday connections across the United Kingdom.

I am grateful for the Minister’s kind comments. Does he agree that the operation of Wick airport is crucial to our endeavours, with Britain’s first vertical space launch in Sutherland?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He draws attention to some of the future opportunities that regional aviation can sponsor. We have the space launch in his part of Scotland, with Wick enabling that, and a similar story in Newquay, at the other end of the United Kingdom. We see there vividly what regional aviation can bring to communities, wherever they happen to be. That is why the Government place so much importance on regional aviation. I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point so clear.

The review shows the importance of airports and air connectivity, for all the reasons that we have touched upon. It also mentions the benefits of jobs, trade, investments and the strengthening of social ties. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South rightly draws attention to PSOs. We currently jointly fund those from Londonderry, Newquay and Dundee into London and that protects air connectivity from some of the more peripheral areas of our UK. As we consider our response to the Union connectivity review, we will explore what further opportunities there are to use PSO policy to support regional connectivity and the levelling- up agenda. We will continue to consider Sir Peter’s recommendations and we look to respond later this year.

As part of the rebuilding out of covid, we are looking to produce a strategy on the future of aviation in the UK. That will explore the sector’s return to growth. It will explore many of the issues that we have touched on in this debate and some that we have not had a chance to mention—not only the return to growth, but workforce and skills, aviation noise, innovation, regulation, consumer issues and, critically, regional connectivity, alongside climate change and decarbonisation and the critical role that aviation plays in retaining that global reach.

The hon. Member for Blackpool South is quite right. When we talk about decarbonisation, regional aviation will be a key testbed and he is right to draw attention to that. Indeed, on that, the consultation on jet zero—as we call it—was published in July 2021. While press headlines often tend to focus on transatlantic aviation, regional aviation is key to that as well. The consultation outlines our vision for the aviation sector and its decarbonisation. We are looking to publish that final strategy later this year.

One of our key proposals included a sustainable aviation fuels mandate consultation, which sets out our level of ambition for future uptake. We have published a summary of the responses that have come in already and we aim to confirm a mandate, targets, timescales and the design following a second consultation later this year.

The Government continue to support progress towards low and zero-emission aircraft technology, which includes some of the technology that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South has been referring to, through the Aerospace Technology Institute programme, providing £1.95 billion of funding towards aerospace research.

I will quote something that my hon. Friend said, because I wholeheartedly agree with it. He said that we should innovate to maintain our wonderful way of life. He is absolutely right and I am keen to emphasise that flying is not the problem; aviation emissions are the problem and it is those emissions that we have to tackle. We are tackling them, and by doing so we will create guilt-free flying.

On Blackpool airport and some of the work that has been going on with it, we published a general aviation road map in April 2021, which set out the Government’s vision, strategic priorities and forward programme of work to support the general aviation sector. As part of that, the Government delivered the Airfield Development Advisory Fund to support local airfields and associated GA businesses to grow, thrive and upskill. I am delighted that Blackpool airport has made use of that consultancy service. The ADAF provided technical support on the potential relocation of the air traffic control C tower to a new location, as well as advising on the adoption of new air traffic control technology named virtual remote towers.

In addition, in October 2020 the Department provided funding to establish the Civil Aviation Authority’s Airfield Advisory Team, to provide complementary support and technical aviation advice to GA aerodromes on a range of matters. The AAT is an independent non-regulatory advisory team within the CAA, which also liaises with organisations to ensure that the economic, educational and community benefits of GA are understood, so that local planning authorities can make informed decisions. I encourage Blackpool airport to draw on that valuable service and support to help it advance its operations.

As I touched on at the start of my remarks, the UK has a world-leading, competitive commercial aviation sector, with airports and airlines operating and investing to attract passengers and respond to demand. Airports have a key role to play as part of that commercial sector; as I have said, they boost global connectivity and levelling up in the UK. Where opportunities for growth exist, it is key that local partners can come together with industry to develop the business case for new commercial flights.

I wholeheartedly commend and pay tribute to the energy and expertise of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South on this issue. I can see how passionately he cares. He has a key role, which I can see he is doing already, in convening some of those local partners. He has mentioned his local authority and I encourage it to engage energetically with him to explore the options that may exist. He will also be able to bring together local enterprise partnerships, local businesses and other stakeholders to work together as a holistic whole, to establish the case for commercial flights and then to work with airline partners to create new connections for the communities. He mentioned the connections that existed in the past; hopefully, by bringing all those local partners together, he can build the case for those connections to exist again in the future.

We know that this process can work and I have given the example of Teesside International airport. This work happened there, with local authorities, the Mayor and local businesses coming together with airline partners to identify the need for new connections and then to develop the business case for them. Thanks to that effort, for the first time in over a decade Teesside International airport has direct flights to Heathrow. Also, just last month the combined authority and the local Mayor announced the creation of a new business park at the airport, which is expected to create up to 4,400 jobs when fully operational. That is an example of what can be done with leadership like that provided by my hon. Friend; we can look for such progress at Blackpool airport as well.

In the minute or so that I have left, I will say a little about diversification. I am conscious that Blackpool is already a highly diversified airport, which means that we have the option for highly skilled, dynamic and innovative businesses to grow and flourish—for manufacturing and the maintenance of aircraft; aviation services; and for research and innovation. That means that the wider economic benefits of airports and aerodromes can be fed through to the entire wider community, which of course increases the financial viability of those airports and aerodromes, and helps them thrive. Additional functions include pilot training. Also, as my hon. Friend said, there is the example of Newquay airport, which will also host a spaceport. That is a particular example of innovation, but there are other examples of such innovation.

Regional airports and regional connectivity are utterly critical to the UK’s aviation sector because they unlock investment, jobs and trade across the country. I am in no doubt of the critical importance of airports such as Blackpool airport, which is why I look forward to visiting it on Friday and to hearing more from my hon. Friend and his campaign.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.