Prestwick Airport (Redevelopment)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th July 1959.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

3.46 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

Two reasons prompt me once again to raise the problem of redevelopment at Prestwick Airport. The first was provided by the Minister's reply to me on Wednesday of last week, and the second by the Report of the Parliamentary Commissioners appointed to consider the Stopping of Highways Order (Ayrshire), 1959. In the course of the exchanges at Question Time last week, the Minister said that: … they have to choose between Scotland having its international airport or failing to have it in time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th July, 1959; Vol. 608, c. 1359.] That statement has been widely understood to carry a threat, which is that Scotland may lose its international airport because of the attitude of the Ayrshire County Council.

Any attempt to blame the Council would be a complete misrepresentation of the difficult position in which the Minister confessedly now finds himself. The Ayrshire County Council merely exercised its right as a public authority to oppose the draft Parliamentary Order. Nor was it the only opponent of the Order. Those who made the decision which annoyed the right hon. Gentleman were the Commissioners appointed by Parliament, whose chairman is a respected Member of this House and a staunch supporter of the Government.

After examining impartially this problem of closing the level crossing over Prestwick's main runway, and having heard the experts on both sides, the Commissioners said this: It is not impracticable either from the point of view of time or cost to select a line and site on which a tunnel could be constructed". Therefore, they refused to close the road. By declining to make the Order as submitted, the Commissioners have confirmed the view of every responsible Scottish authority which considered this matter. It may well be that the Minister is disappointed to find such a large body of informed Scottish opinion so strongly opposing his cheese-paring plans for Prestwick. Yet, even in that light, there is no excuse for a Minister of the Government getting peppery and saying, in effect, that if we did not accept his diktat in Scotland, he would find a landing ground in some other part of Britain.

He may even say that the Commissioners were concerned only with roads, but it must be made clear that it was the promoters who raised the issue of the tunnel, not the objectors. Four different sites were actually suggested by the spokesmen of the Secretary of State for Scotland and no one can hold Ayrshire County Council responsible for that.

We might even take a step further. When the Secretary of State made the suggestion, through his experts, that scope could be found for different sites, he believed what the Commissioners have told us, that there was still time to construct the tunnel. However, if the Minister has a mind to go to other parts, will he tell us where? If he does, I will tell him this, that there is no single airport in the United Kingdom which can play the rôle of Prestwick in handling overseas transport.

The proof is found in last winter when, at one time or another between last November and the beginning of February of this year, every airport in the United Kingdom was closed for varying periods because of fog. During that time, Prestwick remained the ever-open gateway to overseas traffic from and to this country, and to that airport the Minister is still denying its proper status. Or is it no longer our second international airport? May I have a clear and simple reply to that question? If the reply is in the affirmative, must we then hail the attainment of the status quo as a great victory?

There is a tendency on the part of some people to treat Prestwick as though it were a regional airport or solely a Scottish airport. Every airport, of course, must be located in some region, but some serve regional purposes. Prestwick does not belong to either of those categories. By Parliamentary designation it ranks next to London, and the Treasury and the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation between them are refusing to accord it the financial support necessary to live up to the dignity which Parliament has conferred upon it.

No one expects parity of expenditure on London and Prestwick. That absurd suggestion has never been made at any time. Qualitatively, however, there ought to be parity of esteem, and if that has to be translated into facilities then we should have not only the extended runway but also the tunnel, up-to-date terminal accommodation with a modern hotel, which we still lack, and speedier transport to the City of Glasgow.

Indeed when I touched on those topics in April, 1958, the right hon. Gentleman. gently chided me in his reply. These were his words: We have all those things under consideration.… I try to set myself a high standard and try to do better than the hon. Gentleman hopes for."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd April, 1958; Vol. 585, c. 1205.] Those were cheering words. I would ask this afternoon, keeping those words in mind, whether anything at all in the concrete sense has happened at Prestwick since the flowers of that now faraway spring bloomed like the Minister's promises and faded like my hopes.

In this argument one must take note of the traffic at Prestwick. In 1948 240,472 passengers crossed the North Atlantic by air. In 1958 the number was 1,193,000. That is an enormous increase. One out of every four of the passengers leaving or coming to this country used Prestwick Airport. They represent industry and employment to Scotland; a new and expanding industry which may help to make up for some of the decaying industries in our country at the present moment.

Even the implied threat of a Tory Minister that he would be prepared to destroy this to salve his wounded prestige may bring its due reward on judgment day—next October. I understand that the General Election will be on 15th October this year. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to deny or confirm that, then the opportunity is his.

As I have said, the airport represents industry and employment in Scotland and a new and expanding industry, and in view of Scotland's unfortunate experience during the slump it would be criminal if the implied threat of the Minister took effect.

To avoid the inconvenience of the loop road round the western end of the runway, it has been suggested that the present level crossing should be maintained. This shabby escape from Ministerial responsibility is typical of the Government's attitude to Prestwick. On the average, 14,133 vehicles were shown to be using the crossing over the runway every day during a test period last July. That number was given in reply to a Question by me. I am certain that it has not decreased since. Probably it has increased. Nor can we say how far the diversion of A.77 round the eastern end of the airport will affect this traffic, because no one knows, and as far as I am aware, no one has tried to find out, how much of that traffic would be bound for the town of Ayr. In any event, this would be a cheap and possibly dangerous expedient, not a solution. Neither is the loop road, because it would prevent the further extension of the runway that might become necessary if we decided to enter the "Big League" and produce a supersonic airliner.

We have had a long argument over Prestwick and its tunnel. I suppose that this, at least in the Parliamentary sphere, is the last opportunity we shall have to wage it so far as this Government are concerned. If reasons of cost have tied them to a mean escape from their public responsibility on this matter, let them pause and think of the millions——

It being Four o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

I was saying that if reasons of cost have tied the Government to a mean escape from their public responsibility in this matter, let them pause and think of the millions that they have squandered in less worthy enterprises than the redevelopment of Prestwick Airport. We had samples of that in the debate yesterday afternoon.

On 20th November last year, the predecessor of the present hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary informed me: We plan to begin construction work on the airport next spring.…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th November, 1958; Vol. 595. c. 1498.] The summer of 1959 is drawing to its close. We are far beyond the spring and no construction work has yet begun. Yet ever since he announced his plan in April, 1958, the Minister has pleaded the urgency of completing the runway as one main argument against building the tunnel. In the months that have been wasted, the tunnel could have been completed. The Parliamentary Commissioners have said that there is still time to do so.

As my final word, may I appeal to the hon. Gentleman to treat Prestwick in keeping with the status that Parliament has given to it. London Airport has eight tunnels, all of them necessary either for passenger transport or for the ordinary administrative work of the airport. Prestwick has none, although one, as I have been trying to show for months on end, is regarded as absolutely essential for the proper redevelopment of the airport.

Neither I nor any other hon. Member, Scottish or of any other nationality on either side of the House, grudges one single penny of the millions that have been spent on developing London Airport, and I am making no extravagant demand when I say: let Prestwick have its fair yet moderate fraction of that vast sum, a fraction which so far has been denied by the Government.

4.3 p.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore , Ayr

I am naturally very grateful to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) for his constant interest in my constituency.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that the money expended on Prestwick Airport is money voted by this House? Is it not the case that it is the second international airport in Great Britain and not by any means an exclusive Prestwick privilege?

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore , Ayr

I concede everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, but the fact remains that Prestwick Airport is in my constituency. I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for granting me these few minutes out of his time so that I can express not only my own feelings but also the feelings of my constituents about this confused problem. It is not only a confused problem; it is also a confusing problem.

In the few minutes at my disposal, I should like briefly in simple words and in simple sentences to state the position as we see it. Glasgow and Kilmarnock are separated from Ayr and the lovely coast of South Ayrshire by the main runway at Prestwick. Monkton village, a rapidly growing village, which is the home of many workers at Prestwick Airport, is separated from the busy shopping centre of Prestwick by the same main runway, and worshippers in Monkton are similarly separated from their parish church of St. Cuthbert.

The main runway is admittedly to be extended and strengthened to take jet aircraft by next June. The use of these heavy jet aircraft—and I am taking this from both Ministerial statements and common knowledge—will make the use of the present road across the runway, which is already somewhat dangerous, very dangerous indeed for both motor and pedestrian traffic.

It seems obvious, therefore, that an alternative route to Prestwick and Ayr must be found for those coming from the Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Monkton direction. As we all know, there are two alternatives, a tunnel under the runway or a loop road round the end of the runway. I remember that about twelve years ago, when I was discussing this problem of the future of Prestwick Airport with Group Captain Mclntyre, that amazing man and wonderful personality, he forecast that ultimately the runway would have to be extended as is now contemplated, and in his opinion, owing to the railway problem, a tunnel might well have to be constructed under the main runway. He forecast a diesel train service to Glasgow, which would reduce the time taken to get there and which would make Prestwick just as convenient to the centre of Glasgow as Renfrew is today.

What are the arguments against the tunnel and against the loop road? The arguments against the tunnel as put forward by the Minister himself are expense and time. While expense two years ago would undoubtedly have been a formidable argument against the construction of the tunnel, when financial restrictions were being imposed on the country as a whole, today in view of the greatly improved financial and economic position of the country, brought about by the helpful attitude of the Government, the question of cost is not of such importance.

The second argument was that of time, but we have the evidence of the Parliamentary Commission. We were told by the Minister that it would take up to two years to construct the tunnel, yet a reputable and responsible engineer appeared before the Commission and said that he could do it in ten months. I suggest that these doubts must be cleared up, for they are confusing the people in Ayrshire, those in my constituency, and myself.

What are the disadvantages of the loop road? They are obvious. As I have said, it will mean an additional mile for the people of Monkton to get to the shopping centre of Prestwick. There will also be an intolerable strain on old and feeble people in Monkton and its surroundings, because they will have to walk nearly a mile to their village church. There is furthermore the possibility of a further extension of the runway and the possible removal of the railway should aircraft become increasingly heavy.

As has been said, the Parliamentary Commission reported unanimously against the Government's present proposals. All local opinion, with which I agree, the county council, Prestwick Town Council and Monkton residents are hostile to the loop road and in favour of the tunnel. Is it too late to make this final appeal to my hon. Friend and to his right hon. Friend the Minister to take the risk of the extra cost involved and authorise the tunnel to go through?

4.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

As my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) has said, this is not the first time the House, at the instance of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin), has had the opportunity of discussing the future of Prestwick Airport. This subject has had a long and somewhat chequered history and today we have had a particularly vigorous speech from the lion. Member for Govan. I hope he will forgive me if I say that he sometimes had his eye rather more on the future events, which he forecast so glibly as likely to happen in October, and the possible consequences, than on some of the difficult technical problems that my right hon. Friend has to face.

The problem that really confronts us is how we are to deal with the arrival of big jet aircraft at Prestwick Airport. As the House knows, we sought to extend the main runway towards the west by a considerable distance to provide a suitable runway for those aircraft to operate. We then came up against the difficulty that by doing so it would cut across the line of the A.77 road which links Monkton village and Prestwick and divide what I am told is a homogeneous community into two.

We had to decide how to deal with the communication problem. Again, as the House knows, there were two possibilities before us. One was to construct a tunnel underneath the extended runway. The other was to build a loop road round the end of the extended runway with a link road going down into Monkton village. This required a good deal of thought and eventually my right hon. Friend opted for the loop road for a number of reasons, principally, as my hon. Friend has made clear, the grounds of the time involved in constructing a tunnel and the question of cost. Undoubtedly it would have cost something of the order of £1 million to construct a tunnel of this kind.

Having decided to go ahead and build a loop road, we had to invoke the assistance of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland because he is the highway authority involved in these matters in Scotland. We then ran up against the difficulty that there is a rather complicated procedure of a special kind in Scotland under the Private Legislation Procedure (Scotland) Act, 1936, which required the proposal to close the A.77 road across the runway to be considered by the Parliamentary Commissioners. As the hon. Member for Govan explained, a hearing was held by the Parliamentary Commissioners and certain results, which have not been altogether satisfactory to my right hon. Friend emerged.

In the draft Road Closure Order, which was the subject of the inquiry, we sought powers to close certain minor roads across the line on which it was proposed to extend the runway. The Commissioners approved these powers, but they did not approve the powers necessary to provide an alternative route. We sought powers to close the A.77 where it crossed the runway and provide in its place a route round the end of the runway extension.

The Commissioners refused these powers indicating that on the evidence they were not satisfied that a tunnel rather than a loop road was impracticable. My right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for Scotland have studied the Commissioners' Report with great care because it confronts them with serious difficulties.

The Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation recognises the care and thoroughness with which the Commissioners undertook their not altogether easy task. Although the Report has not given us the powers we asked for, and which we still consider necessary for the proper development of Prestwick Airport, we have considered our future course of action with one dominating thought in mind. This point has already been referred to by the hon. Member, and I want to underline it. The motivating idea in all that we are doing is the best interests of civil aviation in the country as a whole, and especially in Scotland.

My right hon. Friend is satisfied that despite all these difficulties the development of Prestwick Airport must go ahead, and that it would be quite wrong to deprive Scotland of the immense benefits of the most advanced air services, which in future will mean jet services. But he has always made it clear that in his view this must mean that Prestwick is ready to receive the big jets when they are ready to go there. On our present information, both B.O.A.C. and Trans-Canada Airlines will want to start a jet service through Prestwick Airport as early as May next year. In fact, I was informed only today that it could be earlier. If this date is to be met, the construction of the runway extension, which will take nine months, must begin in the next few weeks, and the contract must be placed without any further delay.

The hon. Member for Govan began his speech by expressing some dissatisfaction at a remark made by my right hon. Friend in answer to a Question asked by the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) on 8th July. I am sorry if there has been any misunderstanding in Scotland as to what my right hon. Friend meant, but to set the record straight I want to quote the actual exchange that took place. In one of his somewhat provocative supplementary questions, with which we are so familiar, the hon. Member for South Ayrshire asked whether my right hon. Friend was aware: that the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry has amply justified the county council opposition to this proposal?"— that was the loop road proposal— Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that it would be wise on his part to adopt a more conciliatory attitude to the county council and discuss things with them again? My right hon. Friend quite openly and clearly stated exactly what I have just said. He said: I am always ready to discuss things with the county council, but I hope that all concerned will realise that in the end they have to choose between Scotland having its international airport or failing to have it in time. I believe that it would be a very sad thing if it failed to be ready in time."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th July, 1959; Vol. 608, c. 1359.] I see nothing exceptionable in that. My right hon. Friend was merely saying that the main problem that we are up against is time, and that if Prestwick Airport is to be ready for the jets we must get ahead and get it ready in time.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

The hon. Member surely sees how this misunderstanding or misinterpretation arose. The choice was between having an international airport and having it in time, and if we did not have it in time we obviously would not have it at all.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

I repeat what my right hon. Friend said: they have to choose between Scotland having its international airport or failing to have it in time. That is somewhat different from what the hon. Member has quoted back at me.

In their Report, the Commissioners said that they were not convinced that on grounds of time and cost the development was impracticable, but I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that in the evidence given to the inquiry the very earliest date by which it was claimed that a tunnel could be built under the runway strip, and the runway completed for the jets, was not May next year but August, and this in itself would have involved a delay of about three months. But even this could be achieved—and here I come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr—only by taking a number of short cuts in the contracting and financial procedures which my right hon. Friend would find quite impossible to justify, and which he has no doubt would be open to very severe criticism in this House. For example, if he were to try to keep to the timetable he would not be able to put this out to competitive tender, which is the normal practice. He would have to choose one contractor. Secondly, it would have required—and I think that Mr. Banks, the architect, gave evidence on this—twenty hours' working per day, double-shift working, and this would be the equivalent, I am advised, of 15 per cent. or more in extra costs which we should have to pay.

Again, to carry through this crash priority programme, which was what Mr. Banks was advocating and which the Commissioners appear to approve, would have meant that we should have had to ride roughshod over the rights of a large number of individuals, including the various landowners, if we were to acquire the land within the next three months. Frankly, I think that that would have been an unrealistic programme to have tried to maintain.

That is the situation as it stands on the building of the tunnel. Moreover, it was pointed out at the inquiry that a tunnel on the direct line of the A.77 road is impracticable and that the only remaining feasible line for a tunnel is on the line sometimes called the "green" line by those interested in the subject. That would have saved only half-a-mile in distance to the people passing from one community to the other, by comparison with the loop road, but it would have had an additional cost of about £1 million. The "green" line is a considerably longer way round than the "red" line.

From that, I think, the House will see that my right hon. Friend was right in considering that even if there were no difficulty over time, the additional expenditure on this matter would hardly have been justified to reduce the distance which the people would have had to travel by about half-a-mile. We have every sympathy for them, but we have to keep this matter in some sort of perspective. Incidentally, it is worth noting in passing that in consultations last December the Scottish Aerodromes Board, which is very knowledgeable on these subjects, agreed with the Minister that a tunnel on this "green" line could not be justified.

Photo of Mr Jon Rankin Mr Jon Rankin , Glasgow Govan

The hon. Member must know that when the Scottish Aerodromes Board considered this matter in the first place, the members were equally divided on the issue and the chairman did not give his casting vote, but when they had an invitation by the Minister they came here to meet him and were converted.

Photo of Mr John Hay Mr John Hay , Henley

That is a very good testimony to the persuasive powers of my right hon. Friend. It is a compliment for which I am sure he will be most grateful.

I must come to the crux of the matter. I must tell the hon. Member frankly that in the light of all these considerations my right hon. Friend regrets that he is not able to accept the Commissioners' view and that he has decided that if the runway extension is to go ahead at all, it must be without a tunnel. The result is that when the runway extension is open it will be necessary to continue to operate the present controlled crossing of the runway by traffic lights.

We have always accepted that complete closure of A.77 was not necessary immediately and we had already undertaken to keep the crossing open as long as possible. But it is unthinkable that a situation should continue indefinitely in which a main road crosses the runway of a major airport at which yet aircraft are operating, with their heavy loads. The closure of the crossing, therefore, to vehicles and to pedestrians must inevitably become more and more frequent as time goes on, and it might well become intolerable, even after the building of the proposed new by-pass The hon. Member for Govan quoted figures of 14,000 vehicles a day on average at the height of the summer last year. It may well be repeated. It may be extremely uncomfortable.

The Commissioners themselves said in their Report that they were anxious not to prolong the existing system of control by traffic lights. It is an unsatisfactory situation, but although my right hon. Friend cannot agree to a tunnel for reasons which I have stated, his offer to build the loop road remains open. If in time it is found that the continued operation of the crossing is creating intolerable inconvenience or danger to traffic, perhaps some of the local interests concerned will have second thoughts and perhaps we can reach a compromise at that time.

However, there is a further point that I must mention. Since the Road Closure Order, as amended by the Commissioners, does not give my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland the legal power to close the A.77 road to traffic, we shall have to take steps to secure appropriate powers in the next Session of Parliament. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State will not proceed further with the Parliamentary procedure on the amended Road Closure Order for the time being.

Quite apart from the legal powers to close the two minor roads which cross the runway extension, there are other practical problems to be solved in the process of expansion. An alternative access to Monkton Station which lies to the west of the airport has got to be provided. A sewer and certain other services have got to be diverted. A burn has to be culverted. For these things the co-operation of the local authority will be essential. Given such co-operation, we can start the extension now in advance of the necessary legal powers being obtained and thereby we could achieve our timetable.

I fully realise and understand that the county council will be disappointed that the Minister has had to take again this decision that the runway must go ahead without a tunnel, but we welcome the general statement which the county council made recently on its willingness to co-operate in the development of this airport, and we trust we shall have its help in solving the problems that I have mentioned. We propose to invite the council to immediate consultations so that acceptable solutions to these problems can be worked out. As soon as we can count on these, the contract for the runway extension will be placed.

Finally, may I turn to the somewhat critical remarks that the hon. Member for Govan made about our attitude towards the development of Prestwick in money terms. I gave some figures in a Written Answer on 15th July about the amount of capital expenditure involved both at London and Prestwick airports, and I do not propose to reiterate all these, but I should like to pick out two main figures. First, since we acquired this airport in 1946 we have spent £3¼ million on its development, in addition to £2¼ million spent by the Royal Air Force during the war. Therefore, I think that we can say that we have not exactly starved Prestwick of finance. I got the impression from the way in which the hon. Member put his criticisms earlier that he rather felt we had been niggardly and cheeseparing. I hope that these figures show that we have not been at all cheeseparing or niggardly.

Moreover, the question of development which I have been discussing this afternoon includes not only the runway extension but the building of a new fire station and control tower, another small road diversion and a new terminal area at Redbrae at a total cost of £2·9 million over the next few years.

We believe that Prestwick, as I said earlier, and as I have said on other occasions elsewhere, has an important future as one of the great international airports of the world. It must continue to be regarded as the second major international airport of the United Kingdom. We shall for our part in my right hon. Friend's Department do all we can to secure that future, but I am afraid that in the light of the circumstance which I have tried briefly to outline this afternoon we have come to the conclusion that we must proceed in this particular way.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.