Skip to main content

Domestic Air Travel

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 20 April 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the passing of a law by the National Assembly of France to prohibit domestic flights to destinations that can be reached by train in two and a half hours or less, what consideration they have given to reducing domestic air travel in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, domestic air travel in the UK ensures regional connectivity and often assists ongoing international travel. It is also vital for supporting jobs, trade and investment and ensures that social connections can be maintained. The Government recognise the critical role that aviation plays in delivering the UK’s net-zero commitment, and we support a variety of technology, fuel and market-based measures to address aviation emissions.

It is interesting that our Government are slower to see the societal changes happening because of the pandemic than the French Government. In France, people do not want to travel as much; they have found that remote working is very effective and it has not affected the economy of most big businesses. Will the Government, after all their fine promises today, stop airport expansion and create some policies which will enable jobs to be green instead of planet-destroying?

The noble Baroness has deviated far from the Question at hand. Of course the Government are very focused on a green, sustainable recovery. As she will have noted in media reports today, the Government will announce further details on carbon emissions later this week.

My Lords, as high-speed rail lines seem to attract stronger opposition in this country than in France, does my noble friend agree that a better course of action than that suggested by the noble Baroness would be to prioritise investment in electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft to better serve the regional network?

My noble friend is quite right that we need an aviation sector strong enough to be able to invest in decarbonisation for the future. Alongside the aviation industry, the Government are investing in the Aerospace Technology Institute, which is leading work on the delivery of zero-emission aircraft. This includes FlyZero, a £15 million project that will last for 12 months and is an in-depth study into the potential for zero-emission aircraft by 2030.

My Lords, given the Prime Minister’s very welcome endorsement of climate control, does the Minister agree that the statistic that on a similar route an aircraft emits 77% more CO2 than a train is clearly striking? On the other hand, does she also agree that France will probably scrap only five routes as a result of this initiative, so in this country—depending, as we have heard, on the efficiency of trains—there are sadly not many routes to which this initiative would apply?

The noble Lord is quite right; I have looked at this and there are probably three routes to which this would apply—for Manchester, Leeds Bradford and Exeter. Our expectation is that many passengers travelling on those domestic routes would be making an international connection, so even in France their flights would not be banned. This Government do not propose to ban domestic flights; we propose investing in high-speed rail and ensuring that our aviation sector as a whole contributes to decarbonisation.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that the speed of the French TGV had an enormous impact on the internal aviation market in that country and that timings under HS2 such as two hours and 17 minutes to Newcastle and 67 minutes to Manchester, as well as the hope for three hours to Glasgow and Edinburgh, will have a similar impact on Britain’s internal aviation? I know that she is not a member of the Green Party, but perhaps she could help me out and explain on its behalf why it is in favour of slower trains on Victorian infrastructure yet against modern high-speed trains on new infrastructure.

I would love to help the noble Lord. I fear that I am unable to explain it, and the irony in this Question is very clear to me; investment in High Speed 2 is clearly good for the environment and should be continued. As he identified, the journey time savings can be significant as well as capacity.

My Lords, yesterday I obtained the figures of the cost of travelling from London to Manchester and Newcastle, and from Paris to Lyons and Marseilles. The costs in France by train in all classes are at least half what they are here, and in France you go twice as fast. You get a double benefit for the money spent. A lot of answers need to come from the Treasury as to why rail fares in Britain are so much higher than they are elsewhere.

The noble Lord is quite right that customers could and should make various decisions based on price. That is why the Government asked for the Williams Rail Review to be done; I recognise that it has not yet been published, because of the pandemic, but it will come out shortly. The way we reform our railway systems should have a very positive impact on fares.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a group of Green Party members who call themselves Greens for HS2? They say on social media:

“we should support HS2 because it has a big role in a low-CO2 sustainable transport network for the UK in the 2030s and beyond. HS2 supports our sustainable transport goals, nationally and locally.”

Does the Minister agree that our HS2 project will support the climate case to shift travel from air and road and, indeed, improve wildlife biodiversity? While we are about it, can she confirm that there is no question of delaying the eastern leg of HS2 to the East Midlands, Sheffield and Leeds?

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, indicated to me in the Chamber just then that they are a very small group within the Green Party. I, for one, offer them my wholehearted support, given that they are able to take over the Green Party’s transport policy and align with the Government, who want to see HS2 built.

I point out to the Minister that the Greens are now a very respectable party. They will probably go into coalition with the CDU and they are on the point of destroying the German Social Democratic Party. It is therefore not surprising that they support HS2; it is completely in line with the way in which they are re-evaluating themselves. Will the Minister welcome this change from the Green Party, stick a note on her office wall and use it regularly in debates in this Chamber?

I do not have a great insight into the Green Party of Germany, but I thank my noble friend for his contribution.

My Lords, may I suggest to the Minister that she too establishes a new party, “Conservatives for the eastern leg of HS2”? She used to support this policy, but it has now been delayed and no date has been given. As a result of the delay, there will be no through trains on HS2 between London and Edinburgh—a route that is one of the main sources of domestic aviation. I strongly urge her to be the founding member of “Conservatives for the eastern leg of HS2”.

I have neither the time nor the energy to set up a new political party, but I reassure the noble Lord that the integrated rail plan will be published soon and will set out plans for the north of England. We are taking great interest in journey times to, for example, Scotland, under the auspices of the union connectivity review being undertaken by Sir Peter Hendy.

My Lords, I must declare an interest as I am speaking from France. Does the Minister agree that this is about not only the practicalities—it may affect only four routes—but setting an example in the year in which we are to host COP 26? Does she agree that by taking this action on domestic flights, scrapping support for electric vehicles and slashing the Green Homes Grant, the Government are setting a very poor example?

I wish the noble Baroness well in France—and I am sure that I join many in this House in saying that I would quite like to join her. On the premise of this Question, I have outlined that the Government clearly do not support banning domestic flights. That would be absolutely wrong. The noble Baroness also mentioned some other interventions. We have not scrapped electric vehicle grants, as she well knows. The amount of money available is the same, but we want to ensure that it gets to the people who need it most: those who will buy slightly less expensive cars because they probably have a lower income. Therefore, we wanted to make sure that the support that the Government give goes to those cars. Of course, it also encourages the manufacturers to reduce the prices of their cars.

Sitting suspended.