§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Studholme.]
§ 10.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Paul Williams (Sunderland, South)
It is not a very far cry from barometers and thermometers to cold weather in the North-East, nor a very far cry from cold weather in the North-East to aircraft not flying or otherwise from an airport which may or may not exist in that part. It is upon the subject of an airport for the North-East that I must detain the House now for a few minutes.
In the North-East counties there has been since 1944 some considerable discussion about the possible development of an airport there. It has been commonly called an international airport. I have never been quite sure whether those who have talked about such an international airport have ever flown, or have even known what an international airport is, but 1 shall return in a few moments to what type of airport may or may not be needed.
Those who are concerned with air development in the North-East need to clear their minds as to what type of airport they do, in fact need. If we are thinking in terms of a Prestwick or a London Airport then I am afraid we have to think again. There could never, in the foreseeable future be the sort of traffic which could make an international airport of that standing a going concern.
Since the war there has been reserved near Boldon, Co. Durham, a piece of land for future airport development. Over the last ten or eleven years there have been discussions by various bodies and committees, but at each succeeding stage there has been an absence of any finality and, as it seems to me, an absence of that co-operation between the local authorities which could have led to a Boldon airport being developed—as opposed to being merely a paper plan for discussion between local authorities and the central Government.
However, the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation, in reply to a Question not long ago by the Member for 1026 Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), answered that the site at Boldon had ceased to be reserved. Although I agree with that decision, I think the House should have, in a short form, some reasons for abandoning the Boldon site. I personally believe that what I assume to be the reasons are valid.
First, there is the question of weather. Although some believe that the weather there, is adequate, and although I got an answer to a Question stating that the weather was no worse than at any other industrial site, I still believe the weather at the proposed Boldon site is not as good as the weather at the present Newcastle airport site at Woolsington, which can be deemed to be outside an industrial area, for this lies to the north-west of Newcastle, out of the prevailing wind and away from the smoke, fog, dirt and dust of the industrial region.
Another reason why a decision was needed, and why Boldon needed to be abandoned, was that the coal mining and getting of coal from beneath the land was necessary in the national interest, and now that coal, which had been sterilized for ten or eleven years, can be mined.
A third reason I adduce for ending the Boldon scheme is that at the moment there is nearly £250,000 of capital lied up in the development of an existing airport in the North. For the central Government to throw overboard £250,000 worth of development would, I think, have been regarded as a scandal by anyone who has the solvency of this country at heart, and on that ground alone the ending of the Boldon scheme is worth while.
The conclusion I come to at this phase of my remarks is that there is at this moment an airport in the North-east, operating Continental services of such quality and regularity, weather permitting, as to deem it to be one of the better of the smaller airports. Perhaps, geographically, it does not meet the bill for the whole of the North-east, but for the reasons I have given I believe the Minister has been right in abandoning the Boldon project. I believe that Woolsington meets all the present and all forsee-able needs of aircraft operations in the North-East.
On this, there are two major points I want to raise. The first is the addi- 1027 tional requirements which I deem to be essential at Woolsington, and how the developments are to be financed. As far as I can make out, four major developments are needed to bring any airport in the North-East—and I assume that to be Woolsington—into a full and efficient state of readiness for all civil operations.
First, I imagine, is an extension of the existing runway so that it will be completely safe for the operation of the latest Viscount aircraft. I believe that it is now regarded as being safe, but I should like some confirmation about the present runway and whether, in fact, it needs extending. Secondly development is needed on the present site by the expansion of the hangar accommodation which is vitally needed if the services going through Newcastle airport are to be of any success in the future.
Thirdly, there is the improvement of the terminal buildings and—I hardly dare to use the phrase—the "passenger handling facilities." I am always rather shocked when I hear people using those words because it sounds as if we, the passengers, are brown paper parcels tied up with pink string and sealing wax, and perhaps, red tape as well. But not, of course, in the present Administration.
I believe that considerable financial help is needed to develop the terminal buildings and the passenger accommodation at this airport. Finally, to get it into a more complete state of readiness there are also needed radio and further radar aids. If I assume correctly that Newcastle airport is the most likely site to be developed for an airport in the North-East, and these are the developments which are needed, the real, key question is: how are they to be financed?
At this stage I think there is need for the Government to say how further development should be financed. As I see it, there are three ways by which this could be achieved. It could be done by direct Government grant or loan, but I should give little approval to such a method, partly because of the direct expense on the Government and partly because it would inevitably mean less control by the local authorities in the North-East, which is something that it is necessary to maintain if the airport is to serve the purpose for which it is required.
1028 One might suggest, secondly, that the full burden might fall on Newcastle itself, because the Woolsington site is the site for the Newcastle airport at the moment; or alternatively, on the local authorities in the North-East who are most directly concerned. I am not convinced that the local authorities in the North-East could finance the whole development, but a strong case could be made out for asking them to get together to see how they could contribute, and in what measure, towards the necessary development.
That brings me to my third suggestion for the method for financing this development; that there should be an arrangement between the Government and the local authorities. For example, when the local authorities had agreed to pay, say 50 per cent., the Government could accept the other 50 per cent. as their burden. I am not suggesting those as hard and fast figures. It might be 90 per cent. on the local authorities and 10 per cent. on the Government. But a strong case could be made out for the local authorities to get together and guarantee x per cent. of the finance, and the Government could then be asked to provide the remainder.
I believe that the Minister was right to abandon the Boldon airport for the reasons which I have given. There has been some controversy because of the geographical situation of the Newcastle airport. It is away from the Tees area. But if, by an airport for the North-East, we mean one which will attract Continental travellers to the North-East, people even from Tees-side would find it better to travel to Newcastle to get to the Continent than to go to London Airport. I am happy about this decision. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will indicate that the development which I foreshadow is correct and what is the best method of financing it.
§ 11.3 p.m.
§ Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)
The House is obliged to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams) for raising this matter. I do not wish to be unduly controversial, but I think he would agree that he has not expressed the general view in the North-East. He has expressed the view of the Newcastle Corporation and others, but I think that the general view is against him, and I differ from him on two points in particular.
1029 The hon. Member said that the history of the North-East airport has been marred by an absence of co-operation and decision. I should have thought that, on the contrary, there had been a remarkable example of local co-operation. As the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be aware, the North-East Airport Joint Committee was set up in 1944. It comprises representatives of all the local authorities concerned in Durham, Northumberland and the North Riding; and not only the local authorities, but public bodies such as the chambers of commerce and the leading industrial concerns. Whether or not we agree with it, the committee has, since 1944, been able to express a view which was also that of the Newcastle Corporation, and I believe still is, because the Airport Committee is anxious to meet the Minister and I assume that it is still speaking for the Newcastle Corporation.
I would again differ from the hon. Gentleman about what has been said about the absence of decision. From 1944 onwards the North-East Airport Joint Committee, speaking for the whole of the North-East, has spoken for Boldon. Rightly or wrongly, it has pressed the claims of Boldon while conceding Newcastle's legitimate and proper claims to develop Woolsington. This matter has been taken up with the Ministry on several occasions. I agree at once that this is not the first time that the decision taken by the Government has been altered. Lord Pakenham, when Minister, changed his view about Boldon. In view of the strong pressure put upon him by the Joint Committee, he went to the North-East, inspected the Boldon site, had a full discussion with all the local interests and then reversed his decision and again upheld the Boldon site as the best site available in the North-East.
Lord Pakenham therefore safeguarded the site, but I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that that does not affect the position regarding coal. After discussions with the National Coal Board it was agreed that coal could be worked without prejudicing the site. It was a decision of the previous Minister's predecessor, and safeguarding of the surface was upheld until the change of policy which has recently been announced. I would emphasise that it is a question of safe- 1030 guarding the surface and that it does not affect the coal-getting position.
I should have thought that this was a most inopportune time to announce a decision on finance. It so happens that the Joint Committee met as late as 20th December last and decided to form a working party to examine the financing of an airport, to decide what contribution should be made by local authorities and other interests, and, presumably, what support could be obtained from the Government. The question of finance is now under most active consideration.
§ Mr. P. Williams
My point is that it has taken since 1944 to get to that stage. There does not seem to be a very dynamic approach towards what is a rather dynamic industry.
§ Mr. Willey
I think the Parliamentary Secretary would agree that that is not any fault of the Airport Joint Committee. A decision was taken, and then it remained in abeyance, and the previous Minister's predecessor indicated that there was no likelihood of an early development. In these circumstances, I do not criticise the Committee for the steps taken, but it so happens that the Committee is now discussing the matter and it is at this point that the Minister takes the unfortunate step of making his pronouncement.
I wish to reply to the various points that the hon. Member has made. I think that the provision of a first-class airport is an arguable matter. I do not know how valid it was, but, originally, it was to be a transatlantic airport to serve the Continent, being an alternative to Prestwick and having feeder services. I do not know whether that would be so or not, but the matter was under consideration by the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the B.E.A. and both bodies decided that Woolsington would not do and that there would have to be a better site. All the technical advice was that the airport should be at Boldon. Thus, on technical grounds, which we are not discussing tonight, Boldon was the better airport.
Furthermore, if we were to rely upon Woolsington we should not be able to have the sort of airport that the Ministry of Civil Aviation, B.E.A. and the other interested authorities had in mind. I think it is agreed by the hon. Member that 1031 there would in any case be difficulties about Woolsington satisfying the needs of Tees-side and the southern part of the North-East Coast.
As I said, I am not so much anxious to argue the merits of the case as I am to appeal to the Minister to meet the Airport Joint Committee, which, I notice in Press, has met again. The circumstances are similar to those in 1950–51 when the Minister announced his decision. I do not complain of that now; that decision has been made: but I ask him not to close his mind, and, instead, to discuss the matter with those who have devoted a considerable amount of effort and energy to the project. I am sure he will agree that that would be by far the best way to resolve these difficulties.
§ 11.10 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)
Both my right hon. Friend and I are grateful to the hon. Members for raising this subject tonight, which we both realise is of considerable interest in the North-East. It seems to me to divide itself into two parts. First, what I might call the question of Woolsington versus Boldon, and, secondly, the method of financing an airport in the North-East.
On the first point, my right hon. Friend has given his reasons for ceasing to safeguard Boldon, or, let me say, for wishing to cease to safeguard Boldon. It was not entirely due to weather, although I understand that the weather at Woolsington is as good as, if not better than, the weather at Boldon.
I would like to recall these reasons. When Lord Pakenham originally decided to safeguard Boldon, there were fears of subsidence caused by coal workings under the surface at Woolsington. This is no longer considered a risk. Secondly, I cannot foresee any requirement for air Services which could not be adequately met at Woolsington. Improvements at present under consideration will fit Woolsington for Viscount aircraft, and I cannot conceive that any requirements in the North-East for runways longer, or stronger, than are required for Viscounts will show themselves for some considerable time.
So long as Boldon was safeguarded, public uncertainty about the Govern- 1032 ment's intentions must make Newcastle hesitate to invest further capital. Furthermore, it must dissipate the efforts of all those in the North-East interested in developing a first-class airport there. Removal of the safeguard will focus public support in the North-East on Woolsington. Boldon is certainly better placed for Sunderland and Tees-side generally. However, no single airport in a wide area such as this could be so placed as to serve the needs of all with equal convenience, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams) has said, the Government could not seriously consider expenditure of millions of pounds on Boldon while another aerodrome, equally capable of taking these services exists about 12½ miles away; especially if, as has been stated tonight, considerable sums of money have been invested in that aerodrome.
The hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) spoke about the North-east Joint Airport Committee and its interest in this matter. As I must make plain, this is a self-appointed Committee formed in September, 1944. My right hon. Friend is under no obligation statutorily, or otherwise, to consult it. As he has made plain, he is at the Committee's disposal should it wish to make representations. As long ago as February, 1954, my right hon. Friend who is now the Secretary of State for the Colonies expressed the view that Woolsington was adequate for the foreseeable needs of international services for the North-East. I think that my right hon. Friend was entitled to assume that as the Committee has not, so far, made representations since that statement, it was in agreement with this view. However, as I am sure we must make a decision as soon as possible, my right hon. Friend is prepared to consider any representations the Committee may make in the near future.
On the question of the financial aspects, I am aware of the initiative and enterprise which the Newcastle Corporation has shown. I have been to Woolsington and seen the airport. But I must make it clear that the decision against continuing to safeguard Boldon does not automatically carry with it an undertaking, nor, even, the implication, that Woolsington should be entitled to a State subsidy. My right hon. Friend certainly does not rule out the 1033 possibility that a contribution by the Government towards further development at Newcastle may be necessary in certain circumstances, but he does not, as yet, feel satisfied that those conditions have so far actually arrived.
In removing the safeguarding of Boldon my right hon. Friend has recognised the importance of Woolsington, and shown his confidence in Newcastle's ability to meet the requirements of the North-East. Traffic may develop in that part of the country to the level at which, but for Woolsington, the State might well have to set up a Government-controlled aerodrome. Such a situation has arisen in Manchester, but that case is not comparable with the one which we are considering tonight. I do not suggest that Newcastle must reach the same level of traffic as Manchester before assistance can be contemplated. We feel, however, that any aerodrome which considers itself entitled to a State contribution must raise itself well above the average of other airports in the same position.
Now let us look at the projects in respect of which Newcastle Corporation is asking for Government assistance to the tune of £300,000. One hundred and eighty thousand pounds is for the provision of additional hangar age. Hangars should be self-supporting—not only architecturally but economically—and, therefore, the only projects at Woolsington which should represent a significant charge upon the rates are the proposed terminal building and the control tower. How much these will actually represent I should not want to hazard a guess tonight. Terminal buildings of which parts are let off as offices, restaurants and other concessions bring in revenue, but assuming the whole cost of the terminal building—which is at present estimated at£100,000—were to fall upon the rates, this would represent an annual charge of £8,000 and should not add as much as Id. to the charge of Id. already being borne. This would not appear to place an excessive burden upon the rates in comparison with what seems to be acceptable elsewhere.
In providing Woolsington aerodrome the Newcastle Corporation is providing a highly valuable service, not only to its own ratepayers but also to the ratepayers of many local authorities between the Tyne and the Tees. It is reasonable to expect that before a charge is borne by 1034 the Government, local authorities other than Newcastle should make their contribution to this local amenity. The decision about Boldon should make it plain to all who are interested that Woolsington need fear no rival in the North-East, certainly so far as any projected State aerodrome is concerned. Perhaps through the agency of the North-East Joint Airport Committee, which has shown its enthusiasm for a North-East airport, a scheme under which the local authorities of the area jointly contribute could be devised. This is a matter to which the Committee might direct its attention.
Having said that under certain conditions it may be that Woolsington would qualify for Government assistance, it might be helpful if I run through some of those conditions. First, the traffic offering would have to be substantially greater than it is at present. I am unable to put a figure on it at the moment. Secondly, we should wish to be satisfied that the contribution of the ratepayers had reached a limit beyond which it would not be reasonable to expect them to go. Thirdly, the plans for the terminal buildings for which we might be called upon to make a contribution must be designed on the most economic lines. As hangars should be self-supporting there should, I think, be no reason in any circumstances for a capital contribution being made towards the cost of these.
If traffic increases substantially this summer and the Newcastle Corporation can give further evidence as to prospects, I and my right hon. Friend will be very ready to look once again at this question in a few months' time, having regard to the extent to which other local authorities are ready to contribute and to the resultant charge on the rates. In the meantime, my right hon. Friend has suggested to the Newcastle Corporation that it may feel that designs for the terminal building should be re-examined and, as he has already announced to the House, he will be very ready to see the North-East Joint Airport Committee before he takes a final step about the safeguarding of Boldon.
§ Mr. Willey
I am sure that the House is very much obliged to the Parliamentary Secretary for repeating that assurance, but may I point out that if Boldon is 1035 abandoned, and we have to rely on Woolsington, the question of the Tyne toll tunnel will become more important?
§ Mr. Profumo
No doubt the hon. Member will seek an opportunity, Mr. 1036 Speaker, to bring that matter before the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Eleven o'clock