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Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) to his new post, and I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today. I begin by entirely agreeing with him that doing nothing is simply not an option. However, given that the Deputy Prime Minister accepted that "predict and provide" simply had not worked for our roads, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that it will not work for our airspace either? It is important to develop sustainable approaches to the difficult issues that the statement addresses.

The Secretary of State referred to rail substitution for domestic flights, but does he have any targets for the amount of substitution that he would like to see, given that there are currently some 365,000 domestic flights?

Given that the Secretary of State also rightly referred to the importance of our regional airports, both for their economic benefits to the regions and in reducing pressure on the south-east, will he acknowledge that it is vital that all airports operate on a level playing field, especially as regards landing fees? Is he aware that landing fees at Heathrow are among the lowest in the world?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement, although strong on environmental rhetoric, is rather weak on the details? For example, can he tell the House his plans for the development of an EU-wide aviation fuel duty, and what action he is taking to ensure that the increases in flights do not compromise the Kyoto agreement?

Having told us that he wants to make quick decisions, can the Secretary of State tell us why we have to wait for further consultation on night flights? Could he not simply rule out any increase in night flights to or from airports in urban areas?

Why has the right hon. Gentleman given us only one option—and a highly environmentally sensitive one at that—for a new airport for the south-east, when a range of alternatives could, and should, have been provided?

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar): Where?

Mr. Foster: May I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman considers Manston as one possible base?

The Secretary of State said that the flight cap of 480,000, rightly imposed on Heathrow by his predecessor, is now up for grabs. Can he explain why it is up for grabs while the legal limits on a new runway at Gatwick seem to be set in stone? Why is there an inconsistency?

The Secretary of State will be as concerned as I am about the current problems with National Air Traffic Services and the various emergency measures that have had to be implemented, such as overtime working and retired air traffic controllers having to help out. Will he give us an absolute assurance that he has plans to ensure that there will be sufficient air traffic controllers to cope with the growth in flights discussed in the paper?

Mr. Darling: We are not in the business of what is known as predicting and providing; no one in their right

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mind would build an airport on spec. The whole point of the consultation is to obtain people's view of the likely demand and of how we respond to it in future.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that regional airports are very important. I am sure that everyone on this side of the House would like to think that when we land at a regional airport it is a level playing field—and a level landing field as well. I am aware of his point about charges. The industry is examining that, especially in the context of low-cost airlines.

On the environment, when the Government make definite and firm proposals in their White Paper, that will be the time to consider, in respect of specific proposals, what we can do to honour our international and European obligations. The hon. Gentleman asked about the fuel duty. It is not only a matter for the European Union, but for world aviation. It would be curious if there was one regime in Europe and another for the rest of the world—all sorts of difficulties would arise.

On night flights, I said that I want to consult as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that a court case is pending in relation to the decisions taken by the last Conservative Government. That is before the court, and we shall have to consider it, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we were not looking at options other than Cliffe. It would be interesting if the Liberal party could actually come up with an option—a real proposal that we could consider.

Mr. Foster: I mentioned one.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman mentioned Manston and I appreciate the interest of Kent county council in Manston. However, the problem is that it is about 60 miles further to the east and that would pose difficulties as regards journeys into London. In addition, the further east one goes, the more one has to deal with air traffic considerations in continental Europe.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to NATS and air traffic controllers. NATS is addressing the matter; there is a problem throughout Europe in attracting enough people to deal with the increased demand. Generally, however, it is doing a good job and is coping with the amount of traffic. On his point about the consultation paper, NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority were of course consulted and will need to consider any concluded proposals following the consultation.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I say to the House that when I call a Back Bencher, I expect only one question to be asked?

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): The Secretary of State should be aware of the sense of betrayal, anger and worry felt by my constituents who live near Heathrow. They feel betrayed and angry because at the terminal 4 inquiry we were told that there would be no need for a terminal 5. At the terminal 5 inquiry, the British Airports Authority wrote to every one of my constituents at Heathrow saying that there was no need for a third runway. Six months ago, the Secretary of State told me that the environment of my constituents would be

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protected by a cap on Heathrow, and now they are coming back for more. My constituents do not believe that this will be a short take-off runway. It will be a full runway, at the end of the day, affecting the homes of 4,000 families, three primary schools and villages and communities that have existed for 1,000 years.

I ask the Secretary of State for an assurance that he comes to the consultation with an open mind. Will he also give a commitment that, for the first time in 30 years of Heathrow's expansion, the interests of my constituents will be protected?

Mr. Darling: This is a consultation, and I made it very clear in my statement that the Government are looking at what we do to ensure that we maintain an international hub airport in the south-east. I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes about his constituents—I would expect that from any Member of Parliament representing a constituency containing an airport. However, he knows that Heathrow employs 68,000 people. There are about 100,000 people whose employment depends on the future of Heathrow. When we look at these matters, we must realise that although an airport's expansion or extension will cause some people concern, many people live around Heathrow and work there, while others fly from there on a number of occasions every year. It is not easy to marry those factors, but we need to consider the bigger picture.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): There will be widespread agreement with the Secretary of State that, whatever its exact path, there will be significant growth. The demand must be met, and much of it must be met in the south-east. I suspect that there is also agreement that there should be a dominant international hub airport in the south-east. However, does he accept that there is a powerful case that, to secure the long-term prosperity of Britain's civil aviation industry, with all the jobs that he rightly says depend on it, it would be better to consider the option of a new coastal airport, as other countries that have that option are doing, rather than endlessly bolting on capacity to existing inland airports? Does it not make better sense to locate flight paths over water rather than over houses? I do not know whether Cliffe is the right area, but new investment and jobs are urgently needed in the east Thames corridor.

Mr. Darling: The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is worth bearing it in mind that 65 per cent. of passengers who use south-east airports live in the south-east of England, so the majority are local. On his point about a coastal airport, Cliffe is just that—it is an option to build a new airport on the Thames coast. There will be counter-arguments in respect of Cliffe, just as there are for every other airport. One of the problems in the south-east of England is that there is a limited amount of open space that has no complications and wants an airport. If he finds such a site, he should drop me a line, because I would be interested to see it.

The options are fairly straightforward. The advantage of Heathrow is that it is there already, the advantage of Stansted is that an existing airport could be extended, and the advantage of Cliffe is that it is a new site. However, I readily recognise that there are pros and cons for every site and airport. It is for us, through the consultation process, to try to reach the right answer.

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