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Ministers must say how Prestwick will be viable

The Scottish Government made the right decision last October when it took Prestwick Airport into public ownership, but the new status of the airport imposes certain responsibilities on ministers, not least the obligation to be open with taxpayers about the implications and costs of the decision.

Instead, the Government has said a taxpayer-funded report on the viability of Prestwick will not be published.

The decision to withhold the full report, which was put together by the finance executive Romain Py, has been criticised by the opposition parties, and with good reason: the investment of public money means there is a public interest in knowing what the report says. As Labour MSP James Kelly put it, the £5 million committed to the airport entitles the public to know how the money is being spent and when it will be returned to the public purse.

The response of the Scottish Government is that there are commercially sensitive factors at play but the owners of both Glasgow and Edinburgh airports are worried about the damaging effect state ownership of Prestwick could have on their business and deserve to know what the strategy for the Ayrshire airport is and what effects it could have on them. Many of the smaller airports in Scotland, including Inverness, are already in state ownership, but Prestwick is close to Scotland's biggest airports and the Government must be careful to maintain a level playing field and avoid it being given an unfair commercial advantage.

That does not mean the Scottish Government was wrong to take Prestwick into public ownership - far from it. It was a bold decision that does at least give an important economic and transport hub the chance of a future. The airport has been losing money recently, but it generates many millions for the Scottish economy and more than one thousand jobs are dependent on it, either directly or indirectly. If the Scottish Government had refused to step in when a buyer could not be found last October, considerable economic damage, local and nationally, would have followed.

On a more positive note, the airport could still be a good commercial bet. It has the longest commercial runway in Scotland, which can accommodate all kinds of aircraft, and boasts a direct rail link, something both Edinburgh and Glasgow lack.

Even so, making Prestwick profitable again will be a considerable challenge. There are other models for public ownership: Manchester, for example, which is co-owned by ten local authorities, although that sits right next to a huge conurbation, something which cannot be said for Prestwick.

The Scottish Government appears undaunted by the scale of the challenge and says the airport can be made to turn a profit again. It also says it will publish a document on its strategy in due course, although its stance on Romain Py's report is not a promising start. Prestwick does deserve another chance but if taxpayers are to finance a rescue plan, taxpayers must also know the details of that plan.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

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