The London airport expansion debate and Scotland's interests
Report from the Gatwick fringe event on UK airport expansion during the SNP conference
With a government decision expected later this year on UK airport expansion, both sides have been keen to highlight the advantages they offer to businesses and the public in Scotland in a bid to court Scottish support.
However, at a Gatwick-sponsored fringe event at the SNP conference, the key question was whether the debate around expanding one of the London airports serves Scotland’s interests at all.
“I think the answer to the question is no, in the sense that it’s taken too long,” said Ross Martin, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.
He said that a lack of political leadership had led to “delay and obfuscation” which did not help the Scottish economy and there was a risk of further delay if the decision got caught up in the EU referendum or David Cameron’s succession.
“Whether it’s Heathrow, whether it’s Gatwick or a reliance on greater choice […] for us the important thing is to make sure it happens,” he said.
The same message came from Drew Hendry, MP for Inverness, Nairn Badenoch and Strathspey and SNP spokesman for transport, who made it clear that the SNP was “absolutely neutral” about whether it was Gatwick or Heathrow.
“If the UK Government is going to make a decision, a decision that’s going to affect the travelling public in Scotland - and indeed their own people in the rest of the UK - then they shouldn’t beat around the bush and prevaricate about it, they should get on and make a decision and allow people to actually get on and do business,” he said.
Hendry highlighted the cost of connections and the reliability of routes as his two main concerns.
He described the “here today, gone tomorrow” flights from Inverness to London as a “precarious situation”, with direct flights from Inverness to London City only lasting eight weeks.
He also brought up a “lack of attention” to Dundee.
“I say quite clearly to Gatwick and Heathrow, tells us what are you going to do to guarantee those slots for those people,” challenged Hendry.
“Let’s see it in black and white” because everything else can be “weaseled out with”.
Ross Martin echoed this with calls for mechanisms such as public sector obligations to be put in place to avoid the stop-start nature of routes.
He also said the airport debate should be set in the context of connectivity of all transport and not played off against high-speed rail routes.
Gatwick’s CEO Stewart Wingate pointed to a £20m fund for the first 10 years set up by Gatwick to “risk share” with the airlines to incubate and create new routes.
However, he said he would not commit to anything that was not within his gift.
He promised to work with the Government, but said it would need a legislation change to guarantee slots.
“We actually need the Government to help that happen. Anyone that tells you that an airports can guarantee slots to guarantee routes, they are kidding you on,” said Wingate. “To run a route, you need something called an aeroplane.”
This promise offered “nothing new” though, said Hendry, and did not address the concerns that when a slot becomes more lucrative for another destination, Scotland loses out.
Hendry said he did not accept that’s not possible for an airport to guarantee a slot for a particular route.
Making the case for Gatwick, Wingate described the Gatwick proposal as a “dispersed model” that would offer more choice, more connections and a stronger network of routes, allowing Scotland’s own direct routes to flourish.
The message that Heathrow is putting across is ‘let us be your Scottish global gateway’, he said.
“Why on earth would you surrender that to Heathrow when there’s absolutely no need for it?”
He said that Scotland has “very well-functioning” global gateways of its own and should be nurturing and building its global routes that have been developed over the last 10-15 years.
Further points in favour of Gatwick, according to Wingate, are that it could be delivered faster and “significantly cheaper”, with guaranteed airport charges of no more than £15, it would not require any public funding and it would offer greater choice.
With Alex Salmond having indicated recently that he expects any public funding used for Heathrow expansion to be subject to the Barnett formula, the issue of public funding is potentially a sensitive one.
The Government has yet to announce which option it favours, but the message from Scottish business at this event was that the decision needs to be reached soon.
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