Brian Monteith: Don’t land Prestwick on taxpayers

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Did Elvis Presley really die in 1977? Is that a bottle of Blue Nun and a slice of Black Forest gateau I see before me? Am I wearing loons, a scoop-neck tank top and platforms? Just what is it with the 1970s at the moment?

No sooner is Red Miliband trying to seduce voters with old Seventies-style price fixing that will put the lights out so I have to shave by candlelight (also very Seventies) than Nicola Sturgeon is popping up to tell us that Prestwick Airport is going to be bought by the Scottish Government like Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and British Leyland were back in the time that fashion forget.

Well get this, the Seventies was also a time that economic common sense forgot and it took the whole of the Eighties and some of the Nineties to recover. For those not gracing our Earth back then, trust me, for all the fun we had there was a great deal of pain we don’t want to go through again.

There is a reason that Prestwick Airport is costing its New Zealand owner at least £2 million a year. In fact there are quite a lot of them. They also happen to be the same reasons that no other company is willing to take the airport off its hands.

It may be the only hallowed ground in Britain that Elvis set foot on but unfortunately that does not a profitable airport make.

And it may have the longest runway in Scotland and be less affected by fog than its competitors – but these are no longer crucially important considerations for modern aircraft. The fact is that Prestwick is in the wrong place and now that Glasgow and Edinburgh operate commercially they are far more attractive to airlines and passengers alike.

Just look at how Edinburgh has cornered much of Glasgow’s scheduled passenger market. Why? Because for most of Scotland you don’t have to travel through Glasgow to get to it. All it had to do was spruce itself up by making its use an attractive and pleasant experience and its location would make it a magnet for business and leisure flights.

Glasgow has meantime cornered the chartered traffic as it can still handle big numbers, especially from the central belt.

Meanwhile, Prestwick is another 40 minutes away from Glasgow, never mind Stirling, Falkirk, Fife or Edinburgh. Its brief revival came about because it could offer attractive deals to low cost airlines – but these have been undermined by the competitiveness of Glasgow and Edinburgh coming back with their own offers. The result? Only Ryanair flies out of 
Prestwick.

With a referendum less than a year away the SNP’s offer to take on the troubled airport is nothing more than a mad panic to keep Ayrshire people sweet by saving locals jobs, although for how long and at what cost Nicola Sturgeon cannot say.

The life-belt deal prompts many more questions that appear to scunner her. Why, for instance, should Edinburgh taxpayers subsidise a competitor that will be given limitless support? Why, even more pertinently, should Glasgow taxpayers finance a project that will try to take business away from Glasgow Airport?

It is true that the Scottish Government already operates Barra, Benbecula, Campbeltown, Islay, Kirkwall, Stornoway, Sumburgh, Tiree and Wick, but these are lifelines to remote communities. It also has Dundee and Inverness but there is no reason they could not be privately run or, failing that, owned by their local authorities so that it is local taxes that fund them, for they have no national or international role.

Saving jobs in a loss-making business is counter-productive as it allocates scarce resources to investment that would be better made elsewhere (by reducing the taxes of everyone or helping growth where it is successful). It makes better sense that 300 Ayrshire employees travel to work in an expanding Glasgow Airport than it does that the one million passengers travel to Prestwick.

When Edinburgh Crystal – once Britain’s market leader in cut glass with 350 workers in a town the size of Penicuik – closed its doors it was devastating news but, correctly, there was no attempt by the government to run a crystal glass factory.

Prestwick Airport is no different – it is neither a vital communication lifeline to an isolated community or of strategic commercial importance.

With £3m spent on foreign aid one day then £2m a year for an airport the next, when the SNP says it has no money for cancer drugs just remember that.

Take the Michael

Farewell then, Michael Moore, no longer cabinet minister for Scotland. I don’t know the chap, he may be the best all-round guy in town, but the best Scottish politician in the government to take on Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon and achieve a No victory? Only if the intention was to bore people into surrendering, but that’s hardly a positive attitude.

Still, it could have been worse, we might have had solo Tory MP David Mundell in the position – in which case I’d be down at the bookies betting on a Yes victory before you could say Liberace.