This generation of politicians must save the UK’s General Aviation sector
Local airfields are essential to the UK’s £53bn aviation sector. But as they continue to decline at an alarming rate we are reaching a critical point, writes Grant Shapps
I suspect most people would struggle to define the term ‘General Aviation’. So how about these stark facts instead. Without General Aviation, no youngster would have the opportunity to train as an air cadet, and one day join the RAF. No future engineer would start as a flying school apprentice, gaining experience to work for companies like BAE or Rolls Royce. And no future commercial pilot could learn to fly by obtaining their pilot’s licence at their local airfield, before going on to traverse the Earth enabling Britain to be a global economic and social player.
General Aviation is in fact the glue that binds UK aviation together. It directly contributes £3bn every year to the UK economy, but more importantly enables the wider £53bn aviation sector to exist.
And yet, despite 40,000 high tech jobs directly supported, and hundreds-of-thousands more in the wider aviation sector, General Aviation has surprisingly enjoyed little parliamentary or government attention. That is, until now.
Aerodromes are a scarce national asset. They were virtually all built during the World Wars, but their number has been declining for decades. With around 100 licenced airfields left, we have reached a critical point.
Perhaps you’re thinking, ‘If smaller airfields are not profitable then of course they have to close and make way for development.’
Yet profitability is in part a product of government policy.
First, taxation. I challenge you to name a single profession in which students are expected to pay VAT on their education or training? I can’t think of one. Yet for some inexplicable reason pilots are expected to pay 20 percent VAT for the privilege of learning their trade.
Meanwhile, Boeing projects the world will need 500,000 new pilots by 2032. Yet if the UK insists on making its flight training more expensive than anywhere else, we won’t be part of this global pilot training bonanza – even though our pilot training is widely regarded as the best in the world.
Next up, tax on fuel. When you fill up your car, you are at least notionally getting something in return through the government building and maintaining the roads. Yet the same cannot be said for tax on Aviation Gas. Not a penny comes back to the UK’s General Aviation infrastructure.
It’s not just tax, but also planning law that meditates against a level runway when it comes to General Aviation.
Let’s assume that your local railway station happens to be on a tasty bit of prime land. A developer has chucked in a planning application to the Local Planning Authority. And now, rather than considering the interconnectivity the railway line provides, local Councillors are able to take a decision entirely ignoring all out of area consequences.
That is precisely the situation that currently exists for UK airfields. Through a quirk in the National Planning Policy Framework, only local matters are considered. Never mind that this airfield connects the locality to the rest of the country and Europe. Disregard the economic and social impact of this STEM, sports and recreational facility. And ignore the fact that we’re down to the last 100 licenced airfields in Britain. The airfield’s future will only be decided on local factors.
Over the past couple of decades ministers have discovered how difficult it is to plan and build just a single additional runway in the southeast. Yet we blithely allow our nation’s aviation infrastructure to be decimated each year.
With 132 parliamentary members, the APPG includes 12 former Cabinet ministers, 20 privy councillors, three former transport ministers and a serving party leader. Few are aviators, but all want the government to recognise the enormous contribution General Aviation makes to this country’s welfare. From defending us in WWII to providing engineers and aviators for Britain’s future.
Saving this vital sector will require a cross-government approach. There’s lots to do. And it falls to this generation of politicians to save General Aviation for the nation. Because there will not be a second chance.
Grant Shapps is Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for General Aviation