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5 Nov 2002 : Column 47WH—continued

New Midlands Airport

12.30 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I am sure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that one or two Labour Members may wish to make short interventions. I have spoken to the Minister about that, as they may have done. This is not a partisan political issue; it unites the people who live in the area potentially served by the airport. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue. It is the first occasion since the announcement on 23 July that the proposal to build a new airport between Rugby and Coventry has been properly aired in the House.

The proposal has galvanised opinion in the area, not least in my constituency. Driving through places such as Ullesthorpe and the Claybrookes one sees hundreds of signs saying "Stop Rugby Airport". I have received hundreds of letters—too many, in fact—from people opposed to the airport. There are already many thousands of signatures on a petition that I started. Other hon. Members in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, particularly, I suspect, the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Andy King), may have received even more letters. Feelings are even stronger in those areas than in Leicestershire. A protest march through the villages of Church Lawford and Kings Newham attracted 7,000 people despite the pouring rain.

The proposal arrived out of the blue on 23 July, although many people in the Department of Transport had been working on it for many years. I shall not forget the shock on the face of the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth when he questioned the Secretary of State about the issue. Half his constituency was about to be covered by a runway. It is an extraordinary proposal—it harks back to the days of central planning in the Soviet Union. Central planning like that has not been practised since the 1950s or 1960s in the United Kingdom. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

He was referring specifically to housing, but I think that his words apply here too.

The proposal to build an entirely new airport seems to run contrary to the whole tenor of public policy and contradicts various policy documents. First, the flood plain of the Avon would be covered in concrete and tarmac, contrary to all the pronouncements following recent heavy flooding. We all know that flooding is likely to get more frequent and worse as a result of climate change. Government policy, as laid out in planning policy guidance 25 on development and flood

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risk, rules out such large developments on flood plains. The accompanying press release dated 17 July 2001 states:

It quoted the then Planning Minister—now the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble)—as saying:

She added that high-risk areas should be avoided unless they were absolutely essential for development. The policy guidance itself states:

That is fairly plain.

A second contradiction is that all Government policy is against major construction on such greenfield sites. PPG 3 precludes such developments in general. A former Minister for Housing and Planning said in March 2001 that draft regional planning guidance for the east midlands recommended that

for industrial development

We shall see not only the destruction of the countryside, including historic villages, but real damage to the local environment on a scale that is hard to imagine.

An airport of that size with three runways—bigger than Heathrow—would require an enormous infrastructure with warehousing, homes for employees, car parking and so forth. Those familiar with Heathrow will know what that would look like and will also be aware of the volume of traffic. The M6, M1 and M69 in that area are already grossly congested. The proposal refers to an extra motorway lane and points out that the volume-to-capacity ratio would be 200 per cent. on the M1 down to London—twice the traffic that the road was built to accommodate. An extra lane is a charming idea. If people tried driving, as I and other hon. Members do, up and down the M1 on a Friday evening, they would realise that the congestion between London and junction 17 with the M45 is simply horrific.

The development would create a concrete urban sprawl all the way from Rugby to Wolverhampton with the Arden forest as a narrow corridor. Why would we create such an environmental disaster? To some extent it is the function of civil servants to predict and plan, though few get it right. To quote the Deputy Prime Minister, "predict and provide" is dead.

It is predicted that air transport will keep on growing at the current rate, trebling by 2030, and we should ask whether that is desirable. We hear every month or so reports of near misses in air traffic control over our skies. That is hardly surprising because our air space, like our land mass, is limited and crowded. What will be the impact on air traffic control and safety of trebling the number of flights? It is also predicted that business travel as well as leisure travel will keep growing, but new technology, particularly video conferencing, is likely to reduce that growth in the long term. A meeting in an

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office via video conferencing might take only an hour and stop the need to fly to the United States and spend a couple of nights in a hotel, so that is sensible. The impact of 11 September has already had a major effect on business travel. That, coupled with technological advance, will mean that it will not continue to grow.

On leisure travel, one wonders how many foreign holidays we can all have. It is a matter of choice, but I suspect that an infinite number of people could fly an infinite number of times on holiday—but perhaps not. The front of yesterday's Daily Telegraph featured an advertisement to fly to Gerona—apparently near Barcelona—for £9.99 each way. My taxi ride in London last night cost rather more.

As for cargo, while it is convenient to have vegetables grown in Africa in our supermarkets all the year round, the environmental movement is deeply disturbed by the problem of embedded carbon, and so am I. I try never to buy green beans from Zambia, Zimbabwe or Kenya, or apples from the Antipodes, because it is ridiculous to pollute the atmosphere transporting such goods for our convenience. Again, it is a matter of choice, but we must all confront that issue.

Air travel has a disproportionate effect on climate change because carbon emissions are delivered high up in the atmosphere, damaging the ozone layer. Let me quote Friends of the Earth, of which I have been a member for many years:

After Rio, Kyoto and Johannesburg, it is not fanciful to think that international action may soon result in duties being imposed on air fuel to deter the growth in air travel, as predicted in the plan.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): An airport of that size is presumably only justified by the hope of displacing traffic congestion in the south-east. Would my hon. Friend accept my judgment as a former Minister for aviation that that is based upon erroneous conceptions? First, people in the south-east will not travel to Rugby to fly out. Secondly, because of hubbing and interchange in the south-east, an airport in Rugby is a totally unrealistic proposition.

Mr. Robathan : I accept what my hon. Friend says. It is unrealistic to suggest that such an airport could supplant an airport in the south-east. Of course, the overwhelming reason why a greenfield site should be chosen is that fewer people will suffer from noise. People who buy houses next to a noisy airport know that they are doing so, but airports are getting quieter, and international agreements ensure that in future aircraft engines will be quieter still. The European Commission says:

In January, an international agreement was reached in Montreal by the International Civil Aviation Organisation's committee on aviation environmental

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protection, which sets a new noise standard 10 decibels lower on a cumulative basis than the current standards. We all welcome that, as it undermines the case for not using existing capacity at airports.

One reason why a new airport might be preferred is that 27 per cent. of its passengers may travel by rail. I am keen that people should travel by rail—I do so myself as much as possible. However, it takes one hour 22 minutes to get from London to Birmingham international airport by rail at the moment , which makes me greatly worried about the grandiose proposal. Everything has been set out in expensive documents costing more than £500,000, according to a written answer to a parliamentary question of mine. We are told that everyone will have the opportunity to respond. Well, not quite everyone, because my constituents—I received a message from one this morning—are finding it difficult to obtain the consultation document and questionnaire. Yesterday, one constituent received 1,000 copies, which he had asked for in August on behalf of many people. Some people who asked for documents in August or September have yet to receive them.

The situation is worse, however. Government policy is to be determined on the basis of the questionnaire. NOP has been employed—I am sure that that is costing a great deal of money, although my parliamentary question received a rather fudged answer. Whoever devised the questionnaire should be sacked, and I suggest that the Government get rid of NOP.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if there has to be any extra capacity at all, he is making a case for looking seriously at Birmingham's proposal for a short, wide-spaced second runway, which would not pose the environmental problems to which he referred?

Mr. Robathan : I have read Birmingham airport's document, but I do not wish to shift the problem to Birmingham. I shall merely say that its airport is not fully utilised at the moment.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): In the interest of saving time, will my hon. Friend accept my complete association, on behalf of all my constituents, with his powerful argument? I would simply add that the behemoth wished upon us would create huge stress on the infrastructure between the midlands and the south-east, and on scarce resources of building and development land.

Mr. Robathan : My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that I entirely agree.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): For good measure, may I too support my hon. Friend? We in Bosworth are appalled at the threat to the green belt.

Mr. Robathan : I thank my hon. Friend. It takes one hour 22 minutes to get from Birmingham international airport to London and just over an hour to get from Rugby station to London. I make that journey most weeks. It takes well in excess of half an hour to get from Heathrow, Luton, Gatwick or Stansted to central London.

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It is therefore not surprising that there are no scheduled flights from the midlands to the south-east, contrary to the questionnaire's expectations and assumptions. Question 5b says:

The current number is zero. Question 6a says:

Question 7 includes the phrase:

but there are no such air services. Can the Minister tell us how much this ludicrous questionnaire is costing the taxpayer? Frankly, he has been ditched in it by NOP.

The cost is said to be almost £7 billion—£6.9 billion, I think—before the figures are revised, and as far as I am aware, figures are always revised upwards. For all the reasons I have given, my constituents and I oppose the proposed option almost unanimously. I will present a petition before the end of the month with many thousands of signatures. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the many letters of opposition that he receives will be considered equally, as will responses to the utterly flawed consultation questionnaire. Will he also explain how it came to be so pathetically and badly flawed? I trust that the Government will see the strength of the opposition and of our arguments, and not pursue this damaging proposal any further.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am prepared to call one or two Members before the Minister if they wish to speak, but I hope that they will speak for no more than one minute each.

12.46 pm

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): I sympathise entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). The proposal for an airport in the Rugby area is quite crazy.

Another quite crazy proposal is that Birmingham airport should be closed. I should like to make it clear to hon. Members and to the Minister that my constituents in Solihull would say of Birmingham airport, "Make the most of what you've got." We do not want a second runway at Birmingham airport; that would be a great blight on my constituents, and it is my trenchant duty to speak for them in opposition to a second runway at Birmingham.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) on securing the debate. Discussing the important topic of the future of air services in our country now seems to be a weekly occurrence. That subject is vital to our economy, and, as we have seen here today, generates strong views. It is right to air those views in this Chamber and elsewhere.

The hon. Member for Blaby asked whether the views expressed here and by his constituents will be taken into consideration. They most certainly will. We are listening

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to all those making representations to us as we progress towards the White Paper. We will be canvassing views on the wide range of issues and options published in the seven consultation documents that cover the whole United Kingdom.

It is worth reminding ourselves of the questions that underpin the consultation. The first, to which the hon. Member for Blaby alluded, is how much, if any, additional airport capacity is needed. The second is where any new capacity should or could be located. The final question is what measures will be needed to control and mitigate the environmental impact of any airport growth. The answers to those questions will help us to decide how to respond to the projected growth in air travel and how to provide a framework for sustainable development during the next 30 years.

The debate on future airport capacity should be set firmly in context, and I shall briefly give some background to the plan. In 1970, some 32 million passengers passed through United Kingdom airports. Today, that number of people passes through Gatwick alone. The national figure is now 180 million passengers per annum. People increasingly want to travel by air for leisure and holidays—we have a shrinking world and an international economy—and our forecasts show that demand for air travel will continue to grow with the UK's national prosperity, and that of other countries. Air travel for business and leisure is a fact of life. Last year, half our population flew at least once. For our parents, 40 or 50 years ago, that would have been unimaginable. Set against that, our major airports are already full or filling up rapidly. Birmingham international airport is experiencing severe pressures at certain peak periods, and our analysis suggests, under all the policy scenarios that we have examined, that it would run out of runway capacity before 2030 unless air travel throughout the United Kingdom were to be severely constrained. I shall return to that in a moment.

Airport development is a matter of national interest with wide-ranging implications for people and the environment, and it is right that a Government should look ahead and plan strategically. That is contrary to what the hon. Member for Blaby implied. Previous Governments ducked the issue. In more than 100 years of aviation in this country, we have never looked intelligently and dispassionately at the problems, consulted people on them, and tried to find a solution.

Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): It is important that regional airports should act as the core of the economic development of our regions, so a regional airport needs to be in the right place and to serve its region well. Birmingham airport does that for the midlands, and we are all united behind using Birmingham and East Midlands airports wisely. Some of the assessments that were undertaken in advising the Minister were fundamentally flawed. The projections for the Rugby option are out by millions of passengers, so that is no go.

Mr. Jamieson : My hon. Friend makes some powerful points. That is exactly why we are holding the consultation. We need to hear such views expressed—not only to raise local matters, but so that the figures can be challenged. That is what a good consultation is about. If we thought that we had everything right and

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that all the information were correct, there would be no point in having consultation. I underline the fact that we have not taken any decisions on these matters. Our airports consultation document put forward various options and invited views so that we could have an informed public debate on the important issues involved.

Mr. McCabe : With all due respect to the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), who rightly represents his constituents' interests, the key point is that we should be addressing, in the long term, wider regional economic and environmental issues that go way beyond the interests of 40 or 50 residents in a particular area.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I remind hon. Members that this is a short debate, and the Minister probably has a lot to say. Unless interventions are absolutely vital, I suggest that he be allowed to finish his speech.

Mr. Jamieson : Thank you Mr. Deputy Speaker. I will, of course, consider as many matters as I can in the seven minutes that I have left.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) is right to say that there are wide economic issues, but there are also very important environmental and human issues such as damage to the environment and people being affected by noise and other side effects of aircraft. We are having the consultation to try carefully to balance the increased need to fly with the needs of the environment and of people on the ground.

Mr. Robathan : I am grateful to the Minister; I shall be brief. It is about balancing the economic, environmental and social needs of everybody, and the proposed airport represents an imbalance.

Mr. Jamieson : The options include additional runways at Birmingham and East Midlands airports. However, each proposal has its drawbacks. For example, the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) could tell the hon. Gentleman of the increased aircraft noise and road congestion that would be created if Birmingham were the chosen option. East Midlands airport, on the other hand, is not thought to be in the best location to meet demand.

Mr. John Taylor : May I make it perfectly clear that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) is completely out of order in saying that just 40 or 50 people would be affected by a second runway at Birmingham airport? A whole borough would be affected, and many people are registering their views. I emphatically state that it would not be 40 or 50 people.

Mr. Jamieson : We can see the passions now being aroused, and quite right too; we are in this Chamber to discuss an issue that has aroused passion around the country. I fully appreciate the points of the hon. Member for Blaby. I know that he wants to represent his constituents robustly, as do the hon. Member for Solihull and my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) who has not spoken but who takes an interest in these matters.

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I sat on the Opposition Benches for a while—

Mr. Robathan : The hon. Gentleman will be there again.

Mr. Jamieson : Perhaps, but not in the lifetime of this Parliament.

In addition to making points on behalf of one's constituents, one needs a certain intellectual integrity in one's arguments. The first question that we must ask is whether we should constrain the opportunities to fly. The hon. Member for Blaby asked how many foreign holidays people have, and whether it was desirable or possible to increase opportunities to fly. In the hon. Gentleman's questionnaire to his constituents he should ask whether they want, in future, the opportunity to fly on holiday or on business.

If opportunities to fly are to increase, the question is, from where should flights fly? The hon. Member for Solihull says, "Not in Solihull, if you don't mind." The hon. Member for Blaby says, on behalf of the people of Sapcote, Sharnford, Broughton Astley, Lutterworth and the other villages in Blaby, "Not in my area." Is the solution to increase the capacity in the south-east? We have listened in this Chamber to hon. Members representing constituencies near Stansted, Gatwick and Heathrow, who make precisely the same arguments as those of the hon. Member for Blaby. There is no intellectual integrity in an argument that states that on the one hand we want to allow people the opportunity to fly, and to increase that opportunity, but on the other we will not make the necessary provision.

If the Government did nothing, and had not held this consultation, the situation would grow as it has over the past 100 years. It would grow in an unsustainable manner that would affect the environment and people. We would see a constant pressure on Heathrow for new runways and stands, and pressure would grow on Birmingham, perhaps on Solihull. This debate to see how we can meet people's wishes without creating environmental damage would not have taken place. Does the hon. Member for Blaby think that the people of Blaby should be constrained in the future in their opportunities to fly?

Mr. Robathan : The question is one of balance between everybody's needs and wishes, and the economy. Building a brand new airport would create an imbalance.

Mr. Jamieson : I did not get an answer to my question, which has to be answered yes or no. If we want to increase the opportunities for people to fly, we have to find somewhere to do it. I accept that a balance must be struck, but the Government have been bold in putting these questions forward. Should we increase people's opportunities to fly on business? In the interest of economic prosperity, should we increase the quantities of freight going in and out of the country? The argument that we need to increase opportunities to fly while providing fewer airports and passing air traffic into other people's areas has no intellectual integrity.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I thank the Minister for his reply. We now move on to the next debate.

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