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Thursday, June 11, 1998 Published at 15:32 GMT 16:32 UK

UK Politics

Air traffic control privatised

Air traffic service: cleared for sell-off

Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has announced radical plans to reform the UK's finances - including a number of sell-offs of unwanted assets to fund investment in higher-priority areas.

One of the most controversial of these is Labour's first partial privatisation - of the UK's air traffic control service. While out of power, Labour had opposed such a measure.

Brown: "safety will be paramount"
In a simultaneous announcement, Mr Brown and Transport Minister Gavin Strang revealed that 51% of National Air Traffic Services, which is part of the Civil Aviation Authority, would be sold off to private investors, including employees.

The government will keep 49% and also a 'golden share' in order to retain a measure of control over the service's future.

Mr Brown described the move as a prime example of a partnership between the public and private sectors, citing the recent example of the way Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had similarly saved the Channel Tunnel rail link by bringing in private investment.

Dr Strang said that the partnership "would help NATS finance the investment it needs to operate effectively and would mobilise private sector resources."

'Playing politics with air safety'

The chancellor insisted, however, that safety would be paramount. He said that an independent regulator would ensure that the UK's air traffic safety standards were the best in the world.

Dr Strang added that the government would bring forward proposals to ensure that air safety regulation would be conducted independently from NATS, as recommended by the Commons Transport Committee.

The move is bound to be controversial, however, as Labour had opposed privatisation while in opposition.

The main air traffic controllers' union, the Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, has described the sell-off as "playing politics with air safety".

It said that privatisation would do nothing for air traffic and was all about releasing money to put into other forms of transport such as roads.

Barry Reamsbottom, joint general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, said he was disappointed the government had rejected the option of commercial freedom within the public sector, but pleased the state and staff would have a shareholding.

British Airways said it was "delighted" and believed the move was "an excellent solution to the constraints of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement while ensuring that the system is properly funded in the interests of safety and efficiency".

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