Previous Section Home Page

Column 567

My constituents are worried and will continue to be worried until the Government make a clear statement. They must do so within a short time limit.

2.44 pm

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) on securing the debate. I know that it is an important subject for him and for all the people in his constituency. It is also important for the economy of London and the whole country. I am glad to have the opportunity to describe the Government's position. Before I begin, I shall join my hon. Friend in congratulating Mike Roberts of Heathrow. I agree with my hon. Friend that he did an excellent job during the recent security incident.

Heathrow is a major source of employment : 50,000 people work there either directly or indirectly. It is a great motor for the creation of employment in the surrounding area. At the same time, it is undeniable that large airports can be uncomfortable neighbours. It is right that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members who have constituencies in the area should bring those concerns and fears to the House, to Ministers and to the British Airports Authority. It is in all our interests that those concerns should be followed through. I shall go through the subjects that my hon. Friend raised one by one. We had the opportunity to discuss night flights at some length last May in an Adjournment debate. My hon. Friend asked some detailed questions about movement numbers. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not answer them at this second, but instead say that I shall look at the record and write to him with detailed answers on the points that he has raised.

We recognise straightforwardly that noise at night can be disturbing. That is why since 1962 there has been a restriction on aircraft operations at night. However, there has never been a total ban on night operations at Heathrow. That was given serious consideration in 1976-77, but after consultation a decision was made to allow night operations to continue while seeking to ensure that eventually all such operations would be carried out by quiet types of aircraft. That policy was confirmed in the 1985 White Paper on airports policy and again before the introduction of the restrictions that applied from 1 April 1988 to 24 October 1993.

The current restrictions reflect the wide consultations undertaken last year. They are intended to maintain the balance between the needs of the airlines to operate at night and the wishes of local people to sleep without undue disturbance. I hope that the arrangements for monitoring the night restrictions introduced last October, including the audit trail announced on 1 February this year, will reassure local people that monitoring is working satisfactorily.

Various other noise abatement measures such as noise preferential routes and use of quiet take-off and landing procedures are used and Heathrow Airport Ltd. has introduced a noise and track-keeping system, which is used for monitoring the performance of airlines. Infringements of the noise limits at night and at certain times during the day are penalised by fines.

My hon. Friend mentioned the fifth terminal. General passenger forecasts suggest strong and continuing growth of demand for air travel. It is clearly appropriate for the airport operators to take into account those forecasts. In the

Column 568

past few years, the proportion of United Kingdom passengers travelling from London has decreased as a proportion of total United Kingdom passengers. That reflects the ability of regional airports to attract viable direct services. It is a good thing. It enables regional travellers to achieve shorter journey times and frees up capacity in the London area, as my hon. Friend suggested. Clearly, an assessment will need to be made of future demand at Heathrow, but there is no sign-- that should be underlined to my hon. Friend--that demand for the London airport system will not continue to grow for some time to come. That demand will need to be met. Following consultation with the local authorities, BAA submitted a planning application for the fifth terminal in the spring of last year. The application has been called in by the Secretary of State for the Environment, which is the right way to proceed. The proposal will now go to a public inquiry, where all the issues of national and local significance can be assessed and discussed. The inspector will form a view, taking account of all the evidence that has been presented, and he will then duly report. It will be for the Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment, jointly, to make a decision on the application, based on the inspector's report.

I know that some people have said that the inquiry process is extremely lengthy. We have recently tightened procedures, but it is only right that all those with views should have a chance to comment on the details openly and transparently, not least my hon. Friend and his constituents. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that, because of the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial position in relation to the final decision, it would not be right for me to comment on the application, except to say that, of course, we retain an open mind. There can be no question of the outcome of the inquiry having been prejudged by either of my right hon. Friends. I should like to clarify one point that my hon. Friend raised about surface access. There has been some confusion over the motorway proposals for access and it has been said that they somehow suggest that the Government have made up their mind about the planning inquiry. As I have already said, that is not the case. As a result of BAA's application for a fifth terminal, the Highways Agency is obviously promoting motorway schemes to provide adequate access. Those involve the provision of a dual carriageway spur road of motorway standard from terminal 5 to the proposed M25 link roads north of junction 14 at Poyle and improvements to the M4 between junctions 3 and 4B.

The spur and M4 improvements will be necessary only if terminal 5 receives planning consent. As those schemes are contingent on the development of terminal 5, BAA would, if those schemes go ahead, make a substantial contribution to the costs of preparation and construction. That is standard practice where a road scheme is being promoted to provide access to a development and where such a scheme would not otherwise be provided at that time.

The public inquiry into the planning application for terminal 5 will consider the access proposals. It is only right that they should be put forward for consideration and debate at the same time. My Department held a public consultation in September and October of last year and, in view of the public response to the M4 improvement

Column 569

proposals at junction 4 and to the west of it, the Highways Agency is currently reassessing other options. It hopes to make an announcement in the summer.

My hon. Friend also raised the issue of the third runway and runway capacity in the south-east working party, RUCATSE. I appreciate that it is an extremely important issue for my hon. Friend. It is only right that I clarify some of the background to the study for his benefit and that of the House.

In 1988, the Civil Aviation Authority was asked by the then Secretary of State for Transport to look at the adequacy of runway capacity in the south -east. That advice was submitted in the document known as CAP 570 and it had three strands. There was forecast to be a need for a new runway's worth of capacity around the turn of the century. Several sites were identified that seemed technically feasible for meeting that demand, including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, and that made full use of Luton's existing runway. A number of smaller options at more remote sites were also considered. Finally, the authority considered that, as I have already mentioned, although regional traffic would grow faster than in the south- east, capacity in the regions was unlikely to be a substitute for new capacity in the south-east.

To take that forward, the RUCATSE working group was set up to examine the CAP 570 options from a wider perspective and identify the benefits and the impacts that would flow from development at each site. I know that some think that this should not have been done in the case of Heathrow, but given that the CAA had identified Heathrow as being technically feasible, it was only right that it should be considered as part of that process.

To get as wide a viewpoint as possible, the RUCATSE working group included not only representatives from Government and the airports and the airlines, but local interest groups from the areas that might be affected by the various options. That report was published in July last year and it concluded that only the existing London airports would be able to cater for substantial amounts of traffic. It agreed with the CAA that regional airports were not a substitute for south-east capacity. However, most importantly for the purposes of today's debate, RUCATSE gave the fullest assessment of the consequences of developing further runway capacity at the four main London area airports.

There are considerable impacts at each site, which the report fully sets out--the effects on designated land, demolition, including listed buildings, and one must not forget the noise impact that would arise from the additional traffic. Against those must be set the considerable economic benefits that would accrue as a result of any development and it would be wrong to overlook those.

In summary, the impacts of a third runway at Heathrow would, as my hon. Friend said, be the greatest of all the sites that were contemplated. The scales of impacts of new runways at Gatwick and Stansted would be equal in noise and environmental terms, but overall I do not think that it is a matter of dispute that the Heathrow option would have the most serious impact.

Our aim in the process has been to gather as much information as possible so that we can enable the most appropriate strategy to be adopted. The RUCATSE process has not been easy for those people potentially affected, so

Column 570

it is important to understand that none of the options considered are proposals. My hon. Friend was right to make that clear and I can understand why he was so forceful in putting that point across. Those were indicative options to give some assessment of the impact of development at each site and they do not represent planning proposals. I can say to my hon. Friend and to the House that there is no question of any development proceeding without going through statutory procedures.

We are now undertaking a thorough consultation exercise on the basis of the RUCATSE report. That will end on 31 May. I am acutely aware, and I am frequently reminded in correspondence and by colleagues, of the view that exercises of that type create difficulty for people attempting to move house. The Government will therefore act speedily to reduce the uncertainty for all those affected, as my hon. Friend requested. We shall take account of all the views that we have received and we aim to produce our responses before the end of the year.

I appreciate that there are people who would like us to reach a firm view today, but it would be inappropriate for the Secretary of State to prejudge the outcome of the consultation and the consultation must therefore run its course. I can assure the House, and especially my hon. Friend, that all efforts will be made to resolve the matters as soon as we can.

Mr. Dicks : Will it be possible for a statement to be made before the summer recess ? To put my constituents through--one hopes that it will be for all of us--a long, hot summer, of uncertainty, discontent and further blight is too much to ask and too much to expect of them.

Mr. Norris : Any person involved in the planning of large projects-- in the past couple of years, I have been involved in some of the largest that we have undertaken--is aware that one of the most insidious consequences of those proposals is the creation of informal blight. That is to say that the minute that a proposal is mentioned it, not unnaturally, has an impact on the local area, which can have very real impacts on individuals who, for a specific reason, need, for example, to sell their homes where there is no statutory arrangement available to them to compensate them as eventually there would be if a proposal became a substantive application and was approved on inquiry and embarked on.

Therefore, I fully understand the argument that my hon. Friend makes. He urges me to make a decision on those matters before the summer recess. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be crucially involved with the decision, and I hope that my hon. Friend will allow me to let matters rest at that point. We shall bear in mind very carefully the forceful argument that my hon. Friend made about the desirability of ending informal blight wherever it is needless. I hope that he will merely allow me to say that those are important and far-reaching matters.

We are discussing the development of our airport strategy, the implications of which will stretch far into the next century. It would be wrong to arrive at a decision speedily which was of a lesser quality than a sensible decision taken after proper deliberation. I shall bear in mind the observation that my hon. Friend has made. This has been a useful debate. I have no doubt that we shall return to similar debates in future. Heathrow is a huge national asset and a great success story, but a business of that size inevitably brings problems that we cannot sweep

Column 571

under the carpet--we must find solutions. I hope that what I have said today will give confidence to those involved and to my hon. Friend that we are actively tackling the problems.

The public inquiry into the proposed fifth terminal will conduct a thorough investigation of that proposal before the inspector comes forward with his recommendation. The Government's response to the RUCATSE report is a separate matter, but one in which we will examine all the

Column 572

evidence before we make any recommendation. We are aware of the concern that the subject has aroused, not just at Heathrow, but at Gatwick, Stansted and Luton. We shall consider all responses thoroughly and reach our conclusions before the end of the year. Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock till Tuesday 3 May, pursuant to the Resolution [17 March].

Written Answers Section

  Home Page