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Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway): Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be huge opposition

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to the construction of a new airport at Cliffe? It will not be based on selfish nimbyism or rejection of the economic benefits but on the massive damage that will be done to the most sensitive ecological sites in Europe, which are irreplaceable. Will the Secretary of State give my constituents at least this comfort? If, during the course of the consultation process, it appears that a new airport can be ruled out on the grounds of cost or anything else, will he give swift notice of that fact, so that the blight overhanging so much of north Kent can be lifted?

Mr. Darling: It is appropriate that my hon. and learned Friend should follow the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude); perhaps they should have a conversation with each other. That illustrates the problems that we face. I say to my hon. and learned Friend that I propose to announce the Government's conclusions after the consultation period—in one announcement rather than in bits, I hope. The whole consultation period has to run.

I say to my hon. and learned Friend, as I have said to other Members, that we must put in the balance the fact that we all know that doing nothing is not an option. There are more and more people who need or want to fly, and our future prosperity depends upon it. Indeed, many people who live near airports fly themselves.

There is no easy answer and, whatever the decision, I dare say that there will be difficulties with it. But I hope that when my hon. and learned Friend approaches the consultation, he will do so in the spirit of recognising that there could also be benefits from airport development at Cliffe and in other places, and reach a final view next year.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): In his statement, the Secretary of State repeatedly suggested that environmental considerations would be of the utmost importance. As someone who has worked in the aircraft industry, supported Heathrow and always argued its merits as a premier international hub airport, may I say that constructing a new runway to the north of the existing one at Heathrow would be a development too far? Would it not be a supreme irony for many people who owe their livelihood to the airport, or who work there, to find themselves dispossessed of their homes by the construction of a runway that would fatally prejudice the environment of west London? May I therefore urge a balanced strategy, developing the London airport system as a whole, right round the capital, and the construction of crossrail through London, past Stratford, out to Stansted, to ensure the surface transport access that has so often been denied to passengers?

Mr. Darling: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about Heathrow and I know that, over the years, he has supported development to maintain Heathrow's premier position. The question that we must consider in this consultation period is how to ensure that a major hub airport is maintained in the London area. The question is whether we extend Heathrow—I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about that—or develop Stansted or a new site instead. The consultation also seeks views on whether Heathrow and Stansted could be developed together and complement each other, so the options are all in play.

I would say to the hon. Gentleman—he no doubt does this—that he must also talk to people who currently use Heathrow, who are now taking a long-term view in

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relation to that airport. I know that the hon. Gentleman sometimes has difficulty in looking across the channel to Europe, but he is aware that while we in this country consider these matters, major hub airports are already being developed in Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. If we do not decide what to do in a way acceptable to both residents and the industry, we could be in some difficulty in years to come.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The Secretary of State will know that for decades British Governments have run away from the difficult questions in aviation, so he is to be most warmly congratulated on his statement today. He will also be aware that this is a matter of some urgency. Will he therefore give me an undertaking that under no circumstances will the decisions in relation either to extra runways, or to possibly a new airport, take place after the next general election? Will he also give me an absolute assurance that the private partners of National Air Traffic Services will be able to fund the expansion of air traffic services without which none of this will be possible? Above all, will he remember that although regional airports will certainly expand, they must have the right to come into the south-east airports protected? Otherwise, regional transport will become a pariah in terms of the development of the economy.

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her introductory words. As I said, I am determined that the Government should come to a firm view, which will be set out in the White Paper next year. It is in no one's interests that the matter should drag out. Clearly, if specific proposals are then made, some will take time to work out for obvious reasons. The uncertainty ought to be brought to an end as quickly as possible, but especially in places where there is not to be any development. She is also right that successive Governments have considered the subject and that some of them have run away from it. In the past few weeks, there have been times when I have seen why. My judgment is that in transport matters it is better to make decisions than not to make them, even though the consequences may be difficult.

My hon. Friend is also right that, on any view, we will have to cater for an increased use of air space, which will have consequent effects on air traffic control. It is important to ensure that NATS and the air traffic control system can cope with that. The consultation document touches on that. It is also important that the necessary funding comes—it is a partnership between the public and the private sectors—to ensure that air traffic control operates effectively.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley): The Secretary of State will accept that it is obvious that there will be huge demand for development around any new runway or airport. With the London proposals in mind in particular, has his Department done any research into the extent to which it anticipates that happening, and if so, will it be published? If not, is such research anticipated and will it be published before the end of the consultation period?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman knows that the Deputy Prime Minister published proposals on housing last week. My Department and his remain in touch, of

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course, and if the hon. Gentleman has questions relating to that, he can ask them in the normal way. He is right that airport developments have consequential effects, not only for housing but for businesses.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): My right hon. Friend is right to propose additional runway capacity, but does he agree that an equally strong case can be made for effective ground transport links to airports? With reference to Manchester, will he consider the proposal to extend heavy rail from the airport to the west coast main line? More immediately, will he continue to liaise with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to ensure that the Metrolink extension to the airport goes ahead as quickly as possible?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend and other Greater Manchester Members will know that my Department is in touch with Manchester council about the metro. He will know that our concern relates not to the development of light rail, which we very much want, but to the fact that the costs have escalated dramatically recently and we need to get to the bottom of that for obvious reasons. He is also right that public transport links not only to Manchester but to all airports leave much to be desired. For example, Heathrow only acquired a heavy rail link recently, which is astonishing. That is something that we need to attend to in other parts of the country too.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): Given that the areas immediately around Heathrow and Stansted are congested and overheating, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a wonderful opportunity, in principle, irrespective of which site is chosen, to create jobs and investment in the Thames gateway, which is the poorest part of the south-east region?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman has a point. I said that one of the advantages of a development at Cliffe would be the gains that it would bring to the Thames gateway—an area that the previous Conservative Government and this Government have been anxious to help to regenerate. The difficulty, as he probably recognises—I appreciate his generosity of spirit in suggesting that the airport should be developed somewhere other than his own area—is that people who live in the area concerned sometimes take a different view. This will be an open consultation. There are powerful arguments for development in each and every case, but we also need to take other considerations into account. That is the object of the consultation period.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): The Secretary of State reminded the House that the polluter must pay is an important principle. I disagree with him that airport communities are being compensated for the disruption to their environment caused by aviation and regional airports such as east midlands airport. Will he reassure those of us who represent constituencies near regional airports that could be expanded that he will put in place at least a minimum and decent environmental framework to protect the people who live in such communities, in particular from the corrosive and damaging effects of night noise? As he said in his statement, east midlands airport is second or third for

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freight carriage in this country, but it has a very weak framework indeed. I can tell him that doing nothing is not an option.

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