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Transport links 'key to UK unity'

Published 19/06/2015

Lord Empey's Bill aims to protect air routes between Heathrow and the regions (Steve Parsons/PA Wire)
Lord Empey's Bill aims to protect air routes between Heathrow and the regions (Steve Parsons/PA Wire)

The Government must take practical steps like protecting good transport links to ensure any future UK constitutional settlement is underpinned by a sense of belonging, a former home secretary has warned.

Labour peer Lord Reid of Cardowan said some people living outside the London "metropolitan bubble" had become "considerably alienated" and described a "real questioning of what it now means to be British", particularly in post-referendum Scotland.

Central to that feeling of being part of a wider entity and to "cohesion" is being able to travel easily within it, he told peers.

He said: " From the recent election results, from my own part of the country in Scotland, there is a real questioning of what it now means to be British.

"I believe that that will not be responded to merely by constitutional provisions, but by the application of ... minds to what practical measures can be introduced by the Government that in real practical terms mean people feel more British, more part of the UK, than they do today.

"Because if we do not, on each one of these subjects bear in mind we have to reconstitute the feeling of being part of a wider entity, which is the solemn state of the UK in all our deliberations - cultural, sporting, transport, employment - then I believe that ultimately whatever constitutional arrangements we make will not be underpinned by that feeling of belonging.

"Central to this surely is the facility to move, whether on leisure or on business, between parts of the UK.

"For that wider political reason I hope there is a ... self-interested understanding of the Government that this is not just a matter of transport policy, it is a matter of the UK's cohesion in many dimensions."

Lord Reid made the remarks in support of Ulster Unionist Lord Empey's Airports Act 1986 (Amendment) Bill, during the second reading debate in the House of Lords.

It aims to give the transport secretary the power to direct airport operators in the interests of protecting air routes between Heathrow and the regions by ring-fencing domestic slots.

Lord Empey warned of the risk of airlines pulling out of certain routes as they become less commercially viable.

He told peers: "I would ask you to consider how you would develop and sustain a northern powerhouse if it was proved to be difficult, if not impossible, to get from the northern powerhouse to the national hub airport.

"What kind of impact would that have on the success and credibility of such a policy if you do not have that fundamental piece of connectivity."

He said the UK had a "unique problem" in that its "only hub" in the present circumstances - Heathrow - is almost at full capacity all the time.

This means - unlike at most European hubs - there are no spare slots the Government can subsidise an airline to take up to fly to a particular place it believes is becoming "isolated", known as the public service obligation.

Conservative peer the Earl of Caithness said he did not support the Bill because private providers could not be forced to run unprofitable routes in a commercial market.

Viscount Younger of Leckie described Lord Empey's intentions as "admirable" and accepted the Government had limited powers to intervene in the market

But, replying for the Government, he pointed to the current "healthy demand" for flights in the regions and warned interference could distort competition.

He also said that to implement the Bill would open the Government up to legal challenge because EU regulations currently only permit intervention via the public service obligation when slots are available.

He told peers the Government could already step in where necessary and had done so on occasion, for example in relation to a Dundee to Stansted route.

Lord Empey said demand could fall in the future and asked what would happen if, for instance, Emirates was to buy British Airways.

He called on the prime minister to raise the UK's particular situation as he conducts his renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU.

As a private member's Bill, the legislation, which peers gave its second reading, is unlikely to become law without Government support due to limited parliamentary time.

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