Previous SectionIndexHome Page


12.58 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I welcome the opportunity to introduce a short Adjournment debate on the future of Heathrow, a subject that is topical in south and west London and in the counties surrounding Heathrow.

I welcome the new Minister and congratulate him on his job. I do not know whether he likes controversial appointments, but I am sure that he realises that he is at the centre of what could be one of the biggest decisions that the Government will make during the next few years.

To state where I am coming from, I represent one of many constituencies that have a dual interest in this problem. There is a major preoccupation in my constituency with aircraft noise and pollution and air traffic safety concerns, but I also have a significant number of constituents who work at the airport and who value their employment there, and a significant number who use it for business travel. There is clearly a trade off to be made between those different interests. Personally, I emphasise the environmental aspects—that is the centre of gravity of public opinion in my constituency—but I realise that there are two sides to all the arguments about airport development.

I have secured this debate for two reasons. First, I want to register some concern about the way in which the public debate is evolving. I appreciate that the Minister is not responsible for speculation in the press. However, in the past few weeks a debate that has been conducted for several years on the future of terminal 5 has suddenly broadened out into the possibility of a third runway. Again, this is pure speculation, and I would not expect the Minister to be able to give any definitive comment on it, but it is none the less a worrying matter for those of us who have airport-related constituencies.

I hope that the Minister can help us. I should like him to give us some reassurance that the airport-related questions will be looked at in a holistic, coherent way, and that there will be a properly managed national debate. The interconnected issues of terminal 5, a prospective third runway, a new system of regulation using market mechanisms for slot allocation—which even the Chancellor of the Exchequer endorses—and flight capping should be examined together and in a consistent way.

I realise that the Minister is circumscribed because of the dual role of the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions in setting policy and as a last source of planning appeal. I recognise his difficulty and do not expect too much from him. However, I should like him to give us some indication of the Government's thinking on flight capping and the level of flights. That is not a land use issue; it is quite specifically an aviation policy issue. The Government have direct say in the area. The Government's decision on future acceptable legally binding flight limits sets the framework within which the planning issues will be pursued.

That is where I am coming from, and that is why I have raised this subject for debate. Within that broad context I should like to touch on several specific issues.

3 Jul 2001 : Column 53WH

I do not want to make a speech on terminal 5—I am sure that there will be a statement soon, probably from the Secretary of State, and we will all have an opportunity to comment on that. The arguments have been endlessly rehearsed.

I want to raise the way in which the process has been managed during the past six months, since when, I understand, the Vandermeer report has been in the hands of the Government. People who seem to know what they are talking about—although I cannot verify it—tell me that large-scale works are being carried out on the site of terminal 5. I am told that an underground road is being constructed, the sewage farm is being cleared and major capital investments are being undertaken. I find it difficult to believe that a public limited company would be risking its shareholders' money on a purely speculative venture, unless it had a pretty clear indication of what was happening.

There are only two explanations for those stories, with which I think all the Members who represent constituencies in our part of London are familiar. One is that they are complete fabrication—it may well be that nothing is happening, and that this is entirely incorrect information. Somebody may be scaremongering and putting around rumours that are untrue. The other explanation, which is equally worrying, is that the British Airports Authority, the developer, is confident that it knows what the outcome of the inquiry will be and is acting on that assumption.

I do not expect the Minister to give an answer today. I simply hope that when the statement is made we will receive assurances that the process has been properly honoured and that there has been no premature action on the planning inquiry report. It is a simple matter of fact as to whether the gun has been jumped or not. That is the only point that I wish to make about terminal 5.

The second issue that I want to talk about is a more important issue of substance: the resurfacing of the debate about a third runway at Heathrow, which for some years has been in abeyance. The British Airports Authority, as the developer of terminal 5, always made it clear that it did not see a third runway as necessary to the logic of its project; indeed, it specifically asked the inquiry to rule it out as unnecessary. In the past few months, we have heard more persistent reports that a third runway is being considered. I shall read the Minister some quotes with which I am sure that he is familiar. The first in the series appeared on 1 April, and we might have thought that it had something to do with April Fools' day. An article in The Observer said:

3 Jul 2001 : Column 54WH

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Has it crossed the hon. Gentleman's mind that the source of those stories might be the anti-T5 brigade, which is desperately trying to wreck the future of my constituency by opposing T5 and putting pressure on the Government to do something other than what I hope they will do?

Dr. Cable : There are all sorts of possible sources for the reports, and one is indeed the protest movement. Another is the company that would have an interest in the matter, and still another is the Department, although I hope that that is not the case. Clearly, however, there is a lot of what seems to be informed speculation that the process is under consideration.

I am well aware that, as I am sure the Minister will point out, the south-east regional airport study by the Department is considering a variety of runway options. Hitherto, we had assumed that that would preclude a third runway at Heathrow, but it might well now include one. I shall simply say in passing why many residents consider that to be a worrying development. First, it will be wholly contrary to people's assumptions and to the assurances that we have been given in the past few years, particularly by BAA. Furthermore, I am concerned that it comes at the same time as the Government's announcement of a new approach to planning. We have yet to see the details of the legislation, but the Government have made it clear that they want a much more truncated and permissive approach to large planning projects. Indeed, one of the Minister's colleagues has responsibility for introducing new powers to ensure that that happens. Under such new powers, it would be much easier for a Government who were so minded to introduce a runway project without the planning difficulties that have occurred in the past.

Clearly, I cannot expect the Minister to say yes or no in response to questions about what is happening, but I wanted to bring up the concern, wherever it comes from, about the possibility that Heathrow expansion is going ahead far faster and on a far bigger scale than we had hitherto thought likely.

That leads me to the third issue, on which I hope that the Minister will be able to comment, which is flight capping—the level of flights that should be permitted into Heathrow. That is the key factor, which affects the environment and the balance between it and economic development. As I am sure that the Minister knows, BAA assumed, in the various projections made for future demand for flights, that the level of flights into and out of Heathrow around 2015 would be about 453,000 a year. On another set of assumptions, I think that the final figure was 470,000. The striking fact is that that level has already been reached. That raises questions about how committed the Government are to managing demand. Do they believe that it is the task of the Government to provide infrastructure to meet whatever level of demand exists? Are they willing to manage it and insist that it be managed? At what approximate level of flights should the cap apply?

3 Jul 2001 : Column 55WH

Should the cap be legally binding? How should any legal bind apply in practice, considering that it has not been effective in the past?

Although I cannot expect the Minister to comment on the planning inquiry or prospective planning inquiries about a runway, I hope that he will suggest how he sees this key area of aviation policy, for which he is responsible. I also hope that he will suggest something on one dimension of the broad issue of flight capping. He will know that protesters from the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise have taken the issue of night flights to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Government have been asked to provide evidence to that inquiry to demonstrate whether a national interest justifies the intrusion into family life arising from early morning and late night flights, which is considerable if one is under the flight path. I hope that the Minister will suggest how that evidence will be provided. Will it be published, if so, when, and what form will it take? The night flights issue and the capping of night flights have disproportionate importance in terms of the wider debate.

I want to touch on how Government thinking is evolving on regulation of airports, as it applies to Heathrow. There is some common ground between the objectors to and the supporters of further development at Heathrow, which is that one cannot operate indefinitely on the basis of predict and provide. There must be some management of demand. Hitherto, the market for landing at Heathrow has been highly distorted. The landing charges are low by comparison with other major international airports and landing slots are provided free of charge because there is no optioning of slots.

I convened a debate on the subject almost exactly a year ago, which was answered by the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill). He gave a helpful and forward-looking approach, which suggested that the Government had an open mind on revisiting the regulatory problems and reopening the issue—the rules were set in the mid-1980s—about how the airport should be regulated. It suggested that the Government were willing to consider adapting landing charges and licensing slots. The Chancellor has taken that fully on board. In his Mansion House speech, referring to the economic reform agenda, he included:

I mention the matter not simply because it makes for an interesting academic debate, but because if the system of charging is radically changed—if airlines have to pay substantially more to land at Heathrow, which is the implication of the reform—the demand will be considerably less. I want some suggestion from the Minister as to how the new approach to regulation will affect expectations about demand for Heathrow flights. How will the two elements of the exercise be knitted together coherently?

3 Jul 2001 : Column 56WH

I shall bring my remarks to a close to give the Minister plenty of time to reply and to give those hon. Members who represent other constituencies near Heathrow to intervene if they wish. I reiterate the two central points. First, I am concerned about how the debate on people's fears and anxieties about the third runway has evolved. Secondly, I ask the Minister to reassure us on the dangers of over-development and to say what is the Government's view of flight capping.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing this important debate. This is my first aviation debate since taking up my post as Minister, although plenty of debates seem to arise on other transport matters, and I am sure that it will not be the last.

It is important that the Government respond to such debates as fully as possible; I realise that hon. Members are raising important matters on behalf of their constituents. I appreciate, too, that the matters raised today are of considerable importance to the hon. Gentleman and to those whom he represents. I know that he has been assiduous, as other hon. Members here today have been, on the matters raised today, and I assure hon. Members that they are being considered most carefully. However, just as there is an imperative on me to answer as many questions as I can, the hon. Gentleman will know from answers to previous questions that, to a large extent, Ministers are restricted in what they can say about the enlargement of and the other major proposed changes to the airport. I know that the hon. Gentleman is thoughtful, and that he appreciates the limits within which I speak today. Notwithstanding that, I shall attempt to answer many of his questions. I shall put them in a more general framework, and he may be able to draw out some of the answers to the specific questions that he was right to ask.

The hon. Gentleman asked about recent press speculation on Heathrow, but it is not for me to speculate on that speculation. However, I assure him that the underground road that is being constructed stands entirely remote from any other decisions that may be made at Heathrow. I can also tell him that the Perry Oak sludge works is being decommissioned and will be replaced. Again, that is not relevant to other issues raised today.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks, I state clearly that I will not be answering questions on any issues that concern the planning application or the inquiry into the fifth terminal at Heathrow. To do so could prejudice the Secretary of State's consideration of the inspector's report, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the reasons for that. I also recognise, as did the hon. Gentleman, the strategic and national importance of Heathrow and the contribution that it makes to the local and the national economy. Its contribution to the United Kingdom should not be underestimated.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): We all understand that the Minister is restricted in the comments that he can make on terminal 5, but I wish to

3 Jul 2001 : Column 57WH

raise a matter that he may wish to pass back to the Department and perhaps to the Leader of the House. The statement on terminal 5 should be made on the Floor of the House and it should be given adequate time for debate. It should not be part of a grubby process one day before a recess. All Members should have the opportunity to address the long-term implications of the new terminal.

Mr. Jamieson : I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I am sure that what he says will be carefully noted.

The trade handled at Heathrow makes it Britain's largest port and it is a major employer in the area. Indeed, 68,000 people are directly employed there, a proportion of whom live in the constituency of the hon. Member for Twickenham. It is estimated that as many as 250,000 jobs nationwide are related to the airport. It is recognised as a key asset in the promotion of London as a world city. I also recognise, as the hon. Gentleman said, that Heathrow has a substantial impact on the environment and on a great many of the people who live in its immediate vicinity. Far more people suffer from aircraft noise caused by Heathrow than by any other airport in the United Kingdom.

There has, however, been a substantial improvement in the noise climate around the airport during the past 20 years. I restate our policy: the Government will continue to do everything practical further to improve the noise climate. We are well aware that the role of Heathrow in the future provision of air travel in the UK is central to our aviation and airport policies. We said in the Labour party manifesto that our plans for aviation and airports in the next 30 years would be produced next year; and so they will.

Heathrow handles more international passengers than any other airport in the world and, in 1999, the overall number of passengers made it the fourth busiest, trailing only behind Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. However, other European airports are catching up.

The previous national airports policy statement was published in 1985, so a new one is long overdue. The aviation world has changed dramatically since 1985; UK airports now handle more than double the number of passengers. Our forecasts show that demand for air travel in the UK might almost double during the next 15 years from approximately 170 million a year to about 340 million passengers by 2015.

The Government are aware that some of our major airports, particularly in the south-east, are already working close to their capacity. The demand for air travel for business and for leisure is rising inexorably—and from both UK residents and foreign visitors. We need urgently to decide how to respond to the problem, and that is what we shall do.

Our drive to review national airports policies was established in the 1998 "New Deal for Transport" White Paper, which announced our intention to prepare a UK airports policy that would lay down the framework for the sustainable development of UK airports for the next 30 years. Those policies will be brought together in a new air transport White Paper, which will assess the social and—most importantly—the environmental and economic impacts of airports and of aviation.

Mr. Wilshire : I am concerned about the delay suggested by the Minister. I am not being party political;

3 Jul 2001 : Column 58WH

successive Governments have dithered. The Minister referred to what is happening elsewhere in Europe and the fact that other airports are catching up. Does he accept that it is crucial that Heathrow remain Europe's No.1 hub? If it does not, the impact on the jobs in my constituency will be catastrophic.

Mr. Jamieson : The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are mindful of the need to carry out these policies in due time. However, many other matters, such as those raised by the hon. Member for Twickenham, have to be balanced in our discussions.

The Government are aware of the uncertainty that surrounds airport development and we are conscious of the need to put policies in place as early as possible. However, before we prepare the White Paper we need to consider carefully the options for the development of airports, to appraise thoroughly their impact, and to consult all those who have an interest. I hope that that answers some of the hon. Gentleman's points.

There are three main building blocks to the formation of the new White Paper. First, in December 2000 we published the "Future of Aviation" consultation document, which is concerned with national policies and does not deal with specific airports. The deadline for responses passed in April, and we received more than 500 responses. That is encouraging and shows the level of interest in aviation in the UK. There are many detailed and constructive comments and we shall make a summary available.

The other two building blocks are consultation on options for the development of regional airports and consultation on options for south-east airports. That is probably of interest to the hon. Member for Twickenham and is related to his arguments today. We plan to issue those documents around the turn of the year. The South East and East of England Regional Air Services study is examining a wide range of options at existing airports and new sites in the south-east. Options for the future development of Heathrow are clearly key considerations in this work.

I must stress and make it patently clear that, contrary to recent press speculation, Ministers have not seen and do not know what options are being considered in the SERAS study. Consultants carrying out the work on the Government's behalf have identified a large number of options at all the south-east airports, and I understand that the number of options runs into three figures.

Some of the options being evaluated would provide additional terminal capacity to make the maximum use of existing runways; other options would provide additional terminal and runway capacity. Obviously, it would be impractical to carry out detailed appraisal of all the options. However, I understand that officials will shortly ask Ministers to decide on a much shorter list of options, which will go forward for full and detailed appraisal in the next stage of the study.

It has sometimes been suggested that we should release details of the options that have been eliminated and those that have been taken forward. We do not

3 Jul 2001 : Column 59WH

agree with that approach. We understand that it might reduce the anxiety of some people. However, even when we have narrowed down the number of options, there will still be a substantial number in the frame, and to publish them would do far more harm than good. It would be premature, would spread unnecessary blight and anxiety and would not enable meaningful public consultation. I hope the hon. Gentleman will therefore understand my lack of references in this debate to Heathrow.

Following Ministers' decisions, the next stage of the SERAS study will involve more detailed analysis of options. Once this work has been undertaken, we will then decide on a shortlist of options for public consultation. I should make it clear that the study does not include projects for which planning applications have been made or are imminent, as we do not want to be studying those at the same time as they are being considered in the planning system. That would lead to duplication and delay.

Although we are keen to retain and promote the contribution airports make to the economy—nationally, regionally and locally—we also acknowledge that there are strong environmental and social concerns associated with airport development, both at Heathrow and at other airports. That is why in the SERAS study we have devised a full and rigorous appraisal framework, which will be a crucial tool to assist Ministers to reach the right decisions on where and how airports are allowed to develop.

The appraisal framework seeks to be comprehensive and evaluate all issues relevant to expanding existing airports and creating new airports. It also seeks to ensure that proposals brought forward to meet or restrain demand can be compared on a consistent basis. The issues covered are grouped under four main headings— economic effects, environmental impacts, accessibility and integration.

Indicators for each of the issues will be set out in appraisal summary tables. They will highlight the trade-offs between the various options. In addition to the south-east airports study, work is continuing on options for our regional airports. As I have said, we aim to consult on those around the turn of the year.

Airports affect all our lives and there are many conflicting views about what action the Government should take towards airport development and some of those have been reflected in the contributions to today's debate. I am sure that, when our policies emerge, we will not please everyone. However, in establishing our policies we will consult widely with all organisations and individuals who have an interest in airport issues and we will consider their views carefully.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issues again and for the way in which he raised them. If he feels that I have not done justice to some matters in the short time that I have had, and if he brings them to my attention, I shall happily ask my Department to write to him.

Next Section

IndexHome Page