Aviation Industry — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of Worker Exploitation: Leicester Textile Industry – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 18th November 2020.

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Photo of Paul Holmes Paul Holmes Conservative, Eastleigh 3:00 pm, 18th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Chris Grayling on securing the debate. It is good to see the Minister in his place; he visited Southampton airport within days of becoming the Minister, for which we are grateful. I will focus predominantly on Southampton airport this afternoon.

The pandemic has dealt the aviation sector a huge blow —Southampton airport, in my constituency, in particular. With airports predicted to lose around £4 billion by the end of 2020, and with possibly 20,000 jobs under threat, it is clear that a number of things need to be done urgently to support the sector. I want to raise two points in the short time that I have.

First, as has been discussed, we need a proper airport testing regime. The 14-day quarantine rules are inflexible and the process of setting up an airport testing regime is too slow. Airports are willing, but the speed of the Government response has hampered progress, and the delay in the committee’s reporting is regrettable. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, advice now needs to be re-examined to see how we can get that regime set up as quickly as possible, to unlock the industry.

Southampton airport has its own unique set of circumstances. With the collapse of Flybe, which represented 94% of all flights, and an application for a runway extension of 164 metres to allow larger planes to land, Southampton airport is now in a fight for survival. That situation could be exacerbated because any application, if refused, could take 18 months to appeal and any application, if successful, could be subject to judicial review.

The Minister and I have spoken about this before, but it seems bizarre to me that I can receive letters from the Cabinet Office for numerous special development orders being awarded for Brexit preparedness, but special development orders are not forthcoming or being examined by the Department for Transport or the Cabinet Office for a major regional airport like Southampton. I would ask the Minister to look for further advice on that as time goes on.

That brings me to my second and final point. I know that this is a Treasury issue and I know that the Minister is sitting on the Front Bench, but I would reinforce many of the comments made by other hon. Members: airports such as Southampton and Exeter, which are operating at 10% of the capacity of this time last year with the same running costs, are still paying the same business rates to local authorities and the Government while they are not operating at full capacity.

I really hope that the Minister will raise with the Treasury the prospect of extending the business rate relief that has been made available in the devolved Administrations. That would show some fairness in the industry and make a vital difference, going forward. Southampton is paying £1.5 million a year in business rates and it has not had that relief. For an airport that is fighting for survival, taking that figure off the balance sheet would be appreciated.

We have all acknowledged that the aviation industry is facing a fight, nowhere more than in Southampton. I am asking the Minister to speed up the support around testing and business rate relief to the industry, so that airports around the country such as Southampton can survive, and we can have a vibrant regional airport offer when the pandemic finishes.