On Monday, Conservative-led Cornwall Council announced with a fanfare that flights between Newquay and London will be resuming next month. Curiously, it omitted to mention just how much this will be costing council taxpayers in Cornwall. Tom Scott explores the inequity behind the headlines.
The so-called public service obligation (PSO) deal struck between Eastern Airways, national government and Cornwall Council will see the council cough up almost half a million pounds a year towards a total subsidy of £5m for the airline that will be running flights between Newquay and London Gatwick. These will start next month with a daily return flight, increasing to two daily flights from January and three during the summer season in July and August.
Congratulating himself on his role in securing this arrangement, Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, said:
“This PSO route shows that both the Government and Cornwall Council recognise the importance of maintaining an air route between London and Cornwall, for visitors and business travel alike, and I am pleased to see them take action to secure it for the future, while also taking steps to practicably minimise the impact of air travel on our environment.”
Cornwall Council cabinet portfolio holder for transport, Philip Desmonde, enthused about how the deal “contributes to the Government’s levelling up agenda for Cornwall” and offers business and residents “an alternative to a five-hour plus journey by road”. The existence of a mainline rail connection between Paddington and Penzance seems to have slipped Mr Desmonde’s memory.
The news comes a few weeks after Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a cut in air passenger duty, which will make flying even cheaper relative to the costs of train transport.
The council’s decision to subsidise air travel has not gone down well with many in Cornwall, especially in the light of cuts to other local services – including sports and leisure centres in several towns that the council had previously contracted out to the private operator GLL.
Amanda Pennington, the Green Mayor of Wadebridge who has been campaigning to keep local sports and leisure centres open, said:
“We understand that under the terms of the deal with Eastern Airways, from December, Cornwall Council will be paying the airline £439,000 a year to subsidise these flights. By strange coincidence, this is exactly the same amount it would need to pay GLL to keep open the public sports centres and swimming pools in Cornwall that are now under threat of closure.
“There’s a reason why Eastern Airways cannot operate this route without subsidy, and that’s because many of the flights that previously ran between Cornwall and London were virtually empty. Effectively, what the council has agreed to do is to pay for empty seats on aircraft that pour carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
“This is a grotesque misuse of our council tax. It benefits only a very small number of people who prefer to use the most damaging form of transport to and from London rather take a train like the rest of us. And it goes directly against the council’s stated aim of reducing the emissions that are causing catastrophic climate impacts.
“By contrast, using this money to keep the leisure centres open would benefit the health and wellbeing of large numbers of residents, enabling them to continue accessing sports and exercise facilities in their communities without having to drive long distances, with all the carbon emissions that would involve.
“It’s particularly ironic that this decision comes just after COP26. When he was urging world leaders to take stronger action on climate, Boris Johnson told them that the clock stands at one minute to midnight. For once he was right, and the Glasgow Climate Pact stressed that both national and local governments need to dramatically up their game in tackling carbon emissions.
“Subsidising carbon-intensive flights to and from Cornwall is doing exactly the opposite, and it makes a nonsense of the Council’s commitment to strive for ‘greener travel’ as part of the effort to achieve net-zero emissions.”
Four leisure centres in Cornwall face closure, in Falmouth, Launceston, Saltash and Wadebridge, along with a hydrotherapy pool in St Austell. A petition calling for any final decision on their closure to be debated and put to a vote at a full meeting of Cornwall Council has attracted well over 5,000 signatures, which means that the proposed closure will now be debated by councillors.
It remains to be seen whether this will prompt Conservative members of the council to think again about whether the money they are lavishing on subsidising aircraft emissions can possibly be described as ‘levelling up’ or ‘building back better’.