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Johnson considers air tax cut in plan to connect UK

Plan aims to improve travel links

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing for a cut in air passenger duty as part of a £20 million plan to unite Britain’s regions and nations.

The controversial tax hikes the cost of travel and is seen by critics as an impediment to the growth of the aviation sector and a barrier to travel for those on lower incomes.

The plan also includes a proposed tunnel linking Scotland and Northern Ireland, and upgrading the west coast rail line and the A75 in the south west of Scotland.

There have claims that the plan seeks to over-ride the powers of the devolved administrations and Michael Matheson, the Scottish Transport Secretary, said there had been consultation. He also said some of the initiatives, such as the A75 upgrade, were already part of the Scottish Government’s plans.

Mr Johnson sees a better connected transport network as a key plank in advancing the case for the union. He said he wants to “harness the incredible power of infrastructure to level up parts of our country” and wants to cut passenger duty on domestic flights “so we can support connectivity across the country”.

He is keen to build on the recommendations in Sir Peter Hendy’s Union Connectivity Review, published today.  Sir Peter was tasked by the Prime Minister last June with exploring ways in which transport can better connect all parts of the UK.

The report says a UK Strategic Transport Network would help deliver this ambition across road, rail, sea and air, helping to reduce delays and bottlenecks and stimulate economic growth.

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Mr Johnson will consider the environmental and social impact of expanding the transport network and take into account how it will improve people’s quality of life.

The potential network will now form the main focus of Sir Peter’s continuing investigations, with his final report in the summer looking to identify specific transport upgrades that could form the backbone of the plan. 

To jump-start some of the projects identified, the Government has today committed £20m towards exploring projects such as: 

  • Improved rail connectivity between the North coast of Wales and England
  • Upgrading the A75 between Gretna, Dumfries and Stranraer, a key route for south-west Scotland and Northern Ireland but almost entirely single-carriageway. 
  • Significantly faster rail links from England to Scotland, including looking at options to enhance the West Coast Mainline
  • Rail improvements in South-East Wales building on ideas from the Welsh Government’s Burns Commission

The Government is also announcing that the consultation on aviation tax reform, announced in last year’s Budget 2020, will be published in the Spring.

The consultation will include options to change the APD treatment for domestic flights, such as reintroducing a return leg exemption or creation of a new lower domestic rate.

In addition to looking at the case for increasing the number of international distance bands, the government will continue to decarbonise domestic aviation as part of its ambition to reach net zero, including through mandating the use of sustainable aviation fuels. All domestic aviation emissions are captured in carbon budgets.

Such a move would put pressure on the Scottish Government to follow suit by cutting air departure tax – its equivalent to APD. This may reopen divisions over the Scottish government’s commitment to carbon targets.

Mr Johnson, said: “It’s now time to build back better in a way which brings every corner of the UK closer together. We will harness the incredible power of infrastructure to level up parts of our country that have too long been left off the transport map.

“This pioneering review by Sir Peter Hendy gives us the tools we need to deliver on our ambitions for a UK-wide transport network that encompasses sea, rail, and road – and I also want to cut passenger duty on domestic flights so we can support connectivity across the country.”

His comments were supported by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce and by Jonathan Hinkles, CEO of Loganair who said a cut in APD was particularly beneficial to cross country routes such as Derry to Birmingham and Edinburgh to Newquay which were far more suited to air travel than rail.

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UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added:  “As we build back better from Covid it is more important than ever that we level-up every corner of our great country.  

“Quality transport infrastructure is key to achieving that, which is why we are committed to boosting connectivity and bringing communities across the UK even closer together.” 

The UK Government will work closely with relevant devolved administrations on development studies. For example, the UK government will work closely with the Scottish Government on any feasibility study on the A75.

Sir Peter has spoken with over a hundred organisations and received nearly 150 submissions to his call for evidence. As a result, he has been able to identify some of the most pressing issues for connecting all parts of the UK.

He said: “Devolution has been good for transport but it has also led to a lack of attention to connectivity between the four nations, due to competing priorities and complex funding. A UK Strategic Transport Network could resolve this, with its core objective centred around levelling up across the whole of the UK.”

The Government will receive the final UCR recommendations ahead of the Spending Review, where it will consider and confirm funding plans for delivering improved connectivity across the UK.



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