Wales should control air passenger duty – but is scrapping it the right option?

Touchdown at Cardiff Airport. Picture by Clint Budd (CC BY 2.0)

Matthew Hexter

Carwyn Jones has this month repeated calls for the devolution of air passenger duty (APD) to Wales.

He said it would only cost £1m of the Welsh Government’s £16b budget: ‘It’s a small amount of money, but the economic boost would be far more than £1m.’

It’s hard to disagree that this is a decision that should be taken in Wales for Wales. The power has already been devolved to Scotland. Why must Wales wait?

Labour and Plaid Cymru are both supportive. But the Conservatives remain opposed.

Back during the debates surrounding what eventually became the Wales Act 2017, amendments were laid down for the devolution of APD.

Guto Bebb, a Wales Office Minister and MP for Aberconwy, however, argued that such a development would negatively affect Bristol airport just down the M4.

It has now emerged, however, that because Bristol airport cannot accommodate long-haul flights such a move would have little to no economic effect on Bristol airport.

Cardiff airport has recently attracted long-haul flights to Doha, Qatar and already runs flights to Orlando, Florida.

Abolishing the tax could certainly encourage more providers to operate flights from Cardiff.

Environment

But then the First Minister went further, saying that ‘we start from the position of looking to get rid of it, certainly not to increase it.’

Whilst this could provide more of a boost to the Welsh economy what will the environmental effect be of encouraging a huge increase in air travel in South Wales?

In Wales, Cardiff, Swansea, Port Talbot, Newport, Chepstow and Wrexham are already over the limit set by the World Health Organisation Air Pollution Guidelines.

What effect would a mass influx of air travel do to Wales’ air? Could it cost Wales more money in the long term by negatively affecting the public’s health?

Should a progressive, green Wales actually take steps to increase APD in order to tackle climate change?

With Labour and Plaid both backing the plans to scrap the tax, it seems unlikely that the environmental consequences will be placed ahead of the economic advantages.

Any move to abolish the duty, however, remains, for the moment, hypothetical. The UK Government remains reluctant to engage in discussion on the devolution of APD no matter how much the First Minister tries.

The shambolic St David’s Day process which created the Wales Act remains fresh in the memory, and there is pressure from conservative MPs in the Bristol and Shropshire area.

The only way that Conservatives in Westminster will make the change is if it becomes an issue they think will win them votes in south Wales’ marginals.

They quickly became sympathetic to a change of policy on the Severn Bridge Tolls when they realised there were a few marginal constituencies along the M4 corridor.

On the basis of subsidiarity and of equality between the devolved administrations, it is clear to most that APD should be devolved to the Senedd.

Though if that power is devolved we should have a discussion about how those powers can be used to improve Wales holistically not just economically.

A quick grab and cut would see us win the race to the bottom on tax, but is it a race that Wales wants to win?

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