Nats PPP: Labour's poll tax on wings?

Labour's 1997 manifesto promised better standards and safety for the UK's airspace. But at the start of a new millennium, has its...

Labour's 1997 manifesto promised better standards and safety for the UK's airspace. But at the start of a new millennium, has its part-privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services (Nats) delivered safer skies?

The ever-increasing pressure on airspace demands that British air traffic control be built on a solid foundation; a foundation that is focused entirely on safety. Labour argued that the private sector could run these highly complex and safety-critical IT systems more efficiently and effectively than government employees.

But the truth is that since the new £623m air traffic control system at Swanwick was switched on, and the public-private partnership (PPP) deal completed, air traffic control has been the subject of many scare stories.

During the summer months, safety and Swanwick have featured in many news reports. Public perception of British aviation is being influenced by leaked information, vicious backbiting and select committee reports highlighting the precarious state of Britain's skies.

Nats' chief operating officer Colin Chisholm recently described the company's service as "truly awful". Is this a damaging corporate mutiny - in true Gerald Ratner style - or a candid assessment of Nats' strengths and weaknesses?

His views are consistent with those of other Nats staff, who are constantly warning of limits being reached, of tolerances in danger of being exceeded, of inadequate user interfaces. Their views appear to be being marginalised. Yet this is no workforce ignorant of the business and technical issues. These are professional people, ever conscious of the responsibility of a stressful job, where mistakes can have catastrophic consequences.

Through the Government's desperate desire to complete the part privatisation of air traffic control Nats has been left with an unprecedented and unsustainable level of debt. Financially, PPP is costlier than government control. The advantage of this type of funding is supposed to be that risk is transferred to the private sector but this transfer is artificial.

If Nats were to hit the financial rocks, government will still be held accountable for providing safe and efficient air traffic control services.The structure for Nats chosen by this Government might have introduced risk of a different type. A number of airlines now have a major financial stake in air traffic control. What happens if these airlines become economically unstable?

Liberal Democrats are totally opposed to this model of PPP for public services; better models exist. The Labour-dominated Commons transport sub-committee has also expressed opposition to plans for a public-private partnership.

We do recognise that substantial sums need to be invested in new air traffic systems. If the Treasury is unwilling to authorise necessary borrowing, then Nats could be set up as a trust (Canada has adopted this model) which falls outside the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement, but remains a non-profit making organisation. This would provide the funds to renew the infrastructure. It would also maintain our reputation for not compromising on safety, which should not be taken for granted.

Only this summer, the European air traffic control centre, Eurocontrol, advised airlines to find routes "avoiding UK airspace". While this incident related specifically to severe delays on 25 July, it is like thunder before the storm in an industry where international perception of British aviation is crucial.

This Government has developed an unhealthy obsession with PPP. It is about to sign a 30-year deal covering the maintenance of track and signalling on London Underground which many have described as a "poll tax on wheels".

The handing over of a substantial share of our air traffic control system to a group of airlines could yet prove to be Labour's "poll tax on wings".

Tom Brake worked in IT for 13 years, before being elected MP for Carshalton and Wallington in 1997. He is the Liberal Democrat spokesman on transport
This was last published in October 2002

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