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Aviation and tourism in the UK General Election: largely ignored

The UK is about to hold a general election (12-Dec-2019) which will determine the political direction of the country for the next five years. It is probably the most important election since the one in Jul-1945 immediately after the end of World War 2.

The referendum vote to leave the EU in Jun-2016 and the opposition to it that has arisen in the Houses of Parliament since is at the heart of the election. Other issues will have an impact, too.

Britain’s transport future will be determined by this election and the government that arises out of it.

But air transport in particular, along with tourism, has been universally overlooked this time by nearly all the parties, at least in their manifestos. 

Summary

  • A general election will be held in the UK on 12-Dec-2019.
  • All the political parties have now released their manifesto (statement of intent to govern).
  • The election issues are dominated by ‘Brexit’.
  • Only one party has much to say at all about air transport, and only one about tourism.
  • Matters might become clearer once the UK leaves the EU at the end of Jan-2020 because much policy will have to be made on the run.
  • The most recent polls anticipate a clear Conservative victory (although the leadership gap is narrowing), to be followed by Brexit almost immediately.

The most important election since the end of World War 2 - and aviation takes a back seat

In case anyone missed it, there will be a general election in the UK on 12-Dec-2019 and it is probably the most important election since the one in Jul-1945 immediately after the end of World War 2, in which a Labour landslide unseated the wartime Churchill government.

The 2019 election was called by the Prime Minister of the minority Conservative government because 40 MPs were blocking the enactment of ‘Brexit’, i.e. leaving the European Union, decided by popular referendum in Jun-2016.

As with any election though, other policies have been thrown into the ring in order to try to garner advantage; the failing National Health Service being the main one. It was never going to be an election in which transport was a vote-demanding topic, but bearing in mind that the Parliament elected on 12-Dec will be in situ for five years (unless the Fixed Term Parliament Act is repealed, as some parties have promised), Britain’s transport future will be determined by it and the government that arises out of it.

UK’s Airport Operators Association sets out its own manifesto, but the political parties pay no attention

To put the political parties into context, the UK’s Airport Operators Association released its own ‘general election manifesto’, outlining how the industry can work with a new Government to build on the existing success in the aviation sector and ensure future airport growth is sustainable.

The manifesto outlines the following key priorities:

  • Deliver a national aviation policy which supports sustainable airport growth;
  • Prioritise a new legal framework for the UK's aviation connectivity after Brexit;
  • Support industry in modernising UK airspace;
  • Ensure a secure UK border regime;
  • Review and reform air passenger duty to boost the UK's international competitiveness.

So, do the political party manifestos match this? Hardly.

The Conservative Party Transport plans

The Conservative manifesto was released on 25-Nov and is regarded as a ‘safety first’ one, not attempting to match the extravagant spending promises of the Labour Party (below) in particular, although even so, a GBP100 billion spending commitment over five years has been made.

Very little of that money will be directed towards aviation, although heavy commitments have been made in the rail and bus sectors, including GBP100 billion in additional infrastructure spending on roads, rail, and other “responsible, productive investment.”

Rail would receive many tens of billions of pounds in investments. There is a firm commitment to build ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ (formerly known as High Speed 3) between Leeds and Manchester, “and then to focus on other northern cities".

A ‘Midlands Rail Hub’ would mean that links would be strengthened there. Much of the 3,000 miles of railway closed in the 1960s would reopen.

But a review into HS2, the rail line from London to the Midlands and North now costed at GBP81 billion at least, will be “considered”. It is looking bleak for HS2, which could be scaled back or even cancelled altogether.

“HS2 is a great ambition, but will now cost at least £81 billion and will not reach Leeds or Manchester until as late as 2040”, says the manifesto.

Conservatives' Aviation policy statement: minimalist and not good for Heathrow

There is little that is eye-catching in the aviation strategy, but what there is addresses mainly environmental issues. The Conservatives say they will “use new air traffic control technology to cut the time aircraft spend waiting to land, reducing delays, noise nuisance and pollution”.

That is an oblique ambition given that the current work for making more efficient use of airspace is being done at a European level, and leaving the EU is likely to complicate and slow any progress in the UK.

On Heathrow airport expansion the manifesto says of the third runway plan: “It is for Heathrow to demonstrate that it can meet its air quality and noise obligations, that the project can be financed and built and that the business case is realistic. The scheme will receive no new public money (which could have added up to GBP10 billion).”

This is hardly surprising. Heathrow’s expansion plan passed through Parliament under a previous (Conservative) Prime Minister. But current PM Boris Johnson vowed in 2015 when he was contesting a local constituency, “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway”.

It is looking bleak for Heathrow too, as in fact it will now have to find money it wasn’t expecting to. No mention is made of alternatives, anywhere.

No mention is made at all of aviation taxes and duties.

As for ‘tourism’ the word appears just three times in the manifesto: twice in reference to ‘health tourism,’ (visitors travelling to the UK for medical treatment), and once in the context of improving tourism in Northern Ireland.

Again, that is rather odd in the light of Brexit and the potential tourism pitfalls, and opportunities, it brings.

The Labour Party: nationalise surface transport; no comfort for Heathrow here either

Labour plans to spend hundreds of billions of pounds and the manifesto generally supports nationalisation or renationalisation.

In the rail sector, it would effectively renationalise the railways. All of it. And all lines would be electrified. There is support for HS2 and it would be extended to Scotland - probably because Labour city mayors in the North and Midlands want it.

There is also support for what it calls a ‘Crossrail’ for the North (referring to the delayed east-west line across London and a proposed north-south one). This idea dates back to when John Prescott was Transport Minister in the late 1990s, so this is unsurprising

A Labour government would take public ownership of all bus networks.

In the air transport sector, the manifesto says: “Any expansion of airports must pass our tests on air quality, noise pollution, climate change obligations and countrywide benefits”. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, who is also an MP in the Heathrow area, is set against any expansion there.

As with the Conservatives, there is precious little about tourism. The only reference at all is a passive one in the ‘Culture’ section of the manifesto, which reads, “Britain’s thriving arts, culture and creative industries drive investments and encourage tourism.”

The Liberal Democrat Party: “cut demand for flying" and “zero-carbon fuels blending requirement for domestic flights”

The ‘Lib Dems’ are opposed to Brexit and insist they will ‘stop’ it either directly or by forming an alliance with other parties and do so irrespective of the consequences.

While that is their main thrust, the party has also made a point of vying with the Green Party (see below) to establish their environmental credentials. Much of their transport policy revolves around attempting to ‘clean up’ transport, for example by promoting electric vehicles on road and rail.

A new Railways Agency would oversee the operations of the railway network and no diesel trains would run beyond 2034. That would elicit some opposition from rail operating companies which are in the process of introducing new, cleaner diesel trains with a 40-year lifespan.

On account of its impact on decarbonisation goals, HS2 will be prioritised along with Crossrail 2 (the north-south route through London and other “major new strategic rail routes”). The fact that none of those routes is specifically identified, and that London is again prioritised, will not win support in the Midlands and the North in particular, where Labour has a distinct and popular policy.

Again emulating the Green Party, the Lib Dems intend to “cut demand for flying, particularly from the 15% of individuals who take 70% of flights” (i.e. regular business travellers). This echoes the recent report from the Imperial College of London, prepared for the government's Committee for Climate Change.

The party's tax reforms would “focus on those who fly the most while reducing costs for those who take one or two international return flights per year”. Passengers would be allowed two trips per year (the Greens would only allow one) before they are penalised through taxes, but beyond that, they do not say how they would implement the policy or deal with any of the multitude of questions that arise of it.

There will be a “zero-carbon fuels blending requirement for domestic flights”.

Heathrow airport expansion is rejected outright, along with any additional runways at Gatwick or Stansted airports. Also, oddly, the Thames Estuary airport proposed by Boris Johnson while he was Mayor of London as an alternative to Heathrow was also rejected, even though it has been dead in the water for five years. While this policy would diminish the international role of London, again, no specific mention was made of the regions.

But the Lib Dems manifesto does say a lot more about tourism than do the Conservatives or Labour. The most important feature of the policy is that the Liberal Democrats would add tourism as a specific function of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with a designated Minister of State for Tourism, and would enable local authorities to bring in tourist levies to fund local tourism infrastructure.

The Green Party: predictably extreme; ideas may merge into mainstream

In the light of the above, it is appropriate next to consider the Green Party, whose policy documents on transport that were already published this year are enormous and mainly – though not exclusively – concerned with the impact on the environment.

(Policy document Jun-2019. https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/tr.html). It goes into immense detail, far more so than any other party. But the policies are also vague. For example:

‘TR569. The Green Party is committed to proper precautions against air piracy and adequate public sector inspection of those on aircraft and at airports. Consideration should be given to refusing licences to operate from the UK to airlines that operate from airports overseas considered to have inadequate security.’

The decision on which airports have ‘inadequate security’ is left open, although this is a longstanding role of national regulatory authorities, mostly acting in unison.

In a nutshell, the Greens would renationalise the railways within a decade, enhance capacity in the South West, Midlands and North, and connect currently unconnected urban areas.

However, HS2 would be scrapped and instead, the money would fund “three electrified rail lines running from Liverpool and Manchester to Sheffield, Hull and the Tees Valley”.

While the prospect overall for rail travel is good (although it could be argued that scrapping HS2 would perpetuate bottlenecks), it certainly is not for air travel.

Domestic flights would become 20% more expensive due to losing their exemption for VAT and there would be an additional surcharge on domestic aviation fuel “to account for the increased warming effect of emissions released at altitude”.

A 'Frequent Flyer Levy' would apply to anyone who makes more than one round trip every year.

All plans for airport expansion in the UK, including the planned third runway for Heathrow, would be scrapped.

On tourism, the Greens say: “We will encourage more domestic holiday travel, through removing VAT from UK hotel and holiday homestays and attractions.”

The prospect of the Greens forming a government, or even holding a controlling stake in a coalition, looks remote. Yet over the years a number of the Green Party's initiatives have been picked up by mainstream political parties, and the increasing populism of party policies tend to embrace outliers to an increasing extent.

The Brexit Party: aviation not addressed - and no mention of Heathrow

The Brexit Party is fighting more than 200 seats, but none of the 317 won by the Conservatives in 2017, principally on the grounds of ensuring that a “full and proper” Brexit is achieved with a ‘clean break’ from all European institutions. The party has declined to publish a ‘manifesto’, opting instead for what it has described as a ‘Contract with the people’.

Hence, much of the ‘contract’ deals with the implementation of Brexit and financial matters concerning that implementation.

Other policies are slim compared to those of other parties.

There is little about transport other than to scrap HS2 entirely, and a vague promise to invest instead in regions outside London where much better transport is needed. Also, the provision of free WiFi on all buses.

Free ports would be established in certain (unspecified) areas of the country. There is nothing specifically about aviation.

UKIP, the ‘predecessor’ to the Brexit Party that has all but disappeared now (although it is still hosting some candidates of its own in this election), wanted to halt the expansion of London Heathrow Airport in favour of Manston Airport in Kent, but such a policy has not been repeated by the Brexit Party.

The Scottish National Party (SNP): climate trumps lifting air passenger tax

With 35 MPs out of 650 seats, the SNP is currently the third largest party in the House of Commons, although it is only represented in Scotland. It intends to form an alliance with other parties after the election in order to further its aims.

Its raison d’être is Scottish independence.

It will demand that full control of Scotland’s railway system be devolved to the Scottish Parliament, operations and track.

While not demanding that HS2 is extended to Scotland, it insists the need for “fair treatment and reduced journey times between London and Scotland.”

There is no reference whatever to aviation in its manifesto. However, earlier in 2019 the SNP-led Scottish government abandoned plans to cut and eventually scrap air passenger tax, saying that the policy was no longer compatible with its climate change goals.

Its dilemma is to accommodate both public demand for cheaper flights out of Scotland (which might adversely impact on some areas of England) and public demand for fewer flights for environmental reasons.

PLAID CYMRU (The Party of Wales): also silent on aviation

As with the SNP, Plaid Cymru intends to take Wales back into the European Union as a separate country after the UK leaves on 31-Jan-2020.

Its transport policies are focused almost entirely on HS2: it put out a seven point briefing on why that rail line would be “bad for Wales” and how it would transform the rail and bus infrastructure in Wales.

It does promise to spend heavily on a raft of ‘green’ measures, including many more buses and trains (both of which are still heavily reliant on diesel), but it does intend to electrify rail lines across Wales; also three ‘metro’ systems in different parts of the country.

There are no discernible policies on aviation or tourism.

In conclusion: neglecting aviation and tourism is not what the UK needs post-Brexit

These manifestos are important because while Britain’s role in the world may have diminished, policies on transport can have a much wider impact, in Europe and across the world.

Other governments are watching to see if the tide of environmentalism – especially that of heavy ‘punishment’ taxation of passengers – is reaching the inner core of the British establishment, but there seems to be no immediate danger of that, despite what is being said in some of these manifestos.  

Referring back to the UK Airport Operator’s Association’s own ‘manifesto’, only one of its five main priorities – ‘support industry in modernising UK airspace’ – is even mentioned in any of these parties’ manifestos (by the Conservatives).

The chart below is a poll up to and including the week commencing 18-Nov-2019. It puts the Conservatives well in the lead over Labour.

However, it gives no indication of how people will vote constituency by constituency. That is what determines the result in the UK, where there is no proportional representation and where the result is decided on a ‘first past the post’ basis in each of the 650 seats.

The very latest poll (26-Nov) indicates an 80-seat overall majority for the Conservatives and that was before a very damaging statement by the UK's Chief Rabbi accusing Labour of anti-Semitism and of being “unfit for office”.

However, polls can be, and have been, comprehensively inaccurate in the recent past in the UK. And as they say, a week is a long time in politics.

In that event though, and with many of the ‘Remain’ (in the EU) MPs gone, the support of Brexit Party MPs or the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party would not be required, and they could not halt the Withdrawal Act for being inadequate, either.

A vote would be held in the House of Commons before Christmas and the UK would leave the European Union on 31-Jan-2020 under the terms of the Act and the subsequent Agreement.

But when push comes to shove, little of this says anything positive for the air transport and tourism industries, which have been pushed to one side amid the lingering rancour of the Leave/Remain argument.

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