3rd February 2016
Prestwick has featured prominently in my Parliamentary work in recent weeks. In January, I secured a backbench debate on UK Space policy to mark the occasion of astronaut Tim Peake’s space walk. In my speech I called on the UK Government to make the most of the huge potential there is to expand our space industry and outlined the case as to why Prestwick should be given the opportunity to play a leading role in this, specifically in terms of its bid to become the UK’s first Spaceport. Prestwick is ideally suited to this for many reasons, including its renowned clear weather, long runway, good transport links and surrounding aerospace cluster. The associated economic, scientific, cultural and technological benefits would be many, not least a significant jobs boost to the area.
The debate generated huge interest with actor William Shatner (Star Trek’s very own Captain James T. Kirk) sending me a personal statement to be read to the House of Commons and George Takei (Mr Sulu) welcoming the debate on Twitter. While there was no shortage of space movie puns, the debate was a serious discussion on the growth potential of this industry. The resultant media coverage, including an interview with Andrew Neil on BBC Two the following day, undoubtedly helped raise the profile of Prestwick in the minds of those who are interested in the future of the space industry in the UK.
Prestwick remained to the fore as I took part in a Westminster Hall debate on Regional airport and UK airport capacity last week. Given the amount of discussion there has been, and still is, on the expansion of Heathrow or Gatwick, I believe smaller, regional airports have lost out and I used my speech to call on the UK Government to develop a strategy to support connectivity to regional airports.
As it stands, expanding Heathrow or Gatwick will be of little benefit to those who travel from regional airports such as Prestwick unless slots for domestic flights are guaranteed. Given the option, travellers would often rather fly direct to their destination but the number of flights in and out of Prestwick, as with many other regional airports across the UK, has diminished greatly. This doesn’t just reduce the opportunities for us locals flying out but also the potential for thousands of tourists to fly in. During the 1990s, tourists were flying into Prestwick daily to play golf, go walking, experience our culture, and access our beautiful west coast. However, much of that stopped during the noughties and one of the major contributors to this was Air Passenger Duty (APD).
I have spoken before about the need to reduce or, indeed, remove APD which was effectively introduced to reduce the bottleneck at Heathrow and Gatwick, but has resulted in stifling business at many other, smaller airports. APD adds a significant cost to air tickets and when faced with a choice, most travellers choose the more cost-effective option. When you consider that VAT on tourism and hospitality in the UK sits at 20%, there is a double whammy when you’re competing for tourists with somewhere like the Irish Republic where no APD and a VAT rate of 9% make a fortnight’s holiday there considerably cheaper than here.
Tourism is vital to growing Ayrshire’s economy and we have so much to offer visitors, which is why I intend to keep up the pressure both in Parliament and at a local level to help facilitate the development of a successful and sustainable Prestwick Airport.