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28 Nov 2002 : Column 478—continued

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): Leaving aside the irony of a court of law reproving the Government for their reluctance to overturn a binding legal agreement between two public authorities—and leaving aside the merits of the case, which I believe are substantial—does the Secretary of State accept that his original decision to exclude Gatwick was correct, if only on the basis of that legal agreement? Does he also agree that the case for a new airport for the south-east, located on the coast—whatever configuration or option is chosen—remains very powerful, in that the flight paths of the growing aviation industry could be located over water rather than over people's houses? Given that a number of alternative proposals to the one in his original options paper for Cliffe have been put forward, will he use the enforced opportunity of an extended consultation period to ensure that those three or four different options for a new airport are fully exposed and consulted on?

Mr. Darling: Yes, the whole point of the consultation is to receive recommendations and representations, and if we receive serious, worked up proposals, of course we will look at them. That is the whole point. On the right

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hon. Gentleman's first point—I remember that he said something similar in July—it is an irony, but it is one of those things that we have to live with.

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): I firmly believe that my right hon. Friend has made the right decision not to appeal the judicial review, because to have done so would have left us with more discontent and a greater sense that there was no future for our airports in the south-east. Gatwick wants to be part of the future, and I therefore firmly believe that the right decision has been made. Will my right hon. Friend assure me and my constituents in Crawley that the process of deciding the future of airports in the south-east will be dealt with in Parliament? My constituents want to know where we are going and what the future will hold, and that we have a proper plan in place.

Mr. Darling: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. It is very important that we publish a White Paper next year, because to let the matter drag on would do no one any good. On my hon. Friend's point about an appeal, I do not think that any good would come of the Government's engaging in lengthy litigation that would take months and months. Whatever else the Government do, I do not think that it is our job to provide a living for more and more lawyers when we could be getting on with the job. I speak as a former lawyer, and I am not too bitter, although when I see what some of my learned friends are getting up to these days, I wonder whether I made the right decision all those years ago. It would be quite wrong to prolong this process, and I want to bring it to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire): To please the Secretary of State, I shall tell him that I was responsible for the last review of airport policy in the south-east, so I know how difficult the issues he faces are, and I commend his statement today. In that review, we were careful to leave open the possibility of an additional close parallel runway at Gatwick, not least because it would be less disruptive than building a new runway at one of the other airports, or, indeed, at Gatwick. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how much importance he attached to that possibility when he made his decision to exclude Gatwick from the consultation?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his initial remarks. I know that he was involved in these considerations in 1995, and I always find it instructive to look back—so far as we are able, within the normal constraints—to see what happened to Ministers in earlier years. It is often very clear why nothing ever came of various proposals, and that does not apply only to transport.

In relation to Gatwick, as I told the House a few moments ago, because the Government decided as a first step, for the reasons that I set out, that it would not be right to overturn the 1979 agreement, it followed that we could not ask what were the best options for it. Clearly, however, they were considered earlier as part of the studies carried out before the consultation. Now that Gatwick has to be considered as a result of the court

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ruling, we need to publish a further paper that will give options, no doubt including the question of the close runway referred to by the right hon. Gentleman.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): May I commend the Secretary of State on his urgency? It is clear to me that, whether or not the court's decision is right, it can only be right for our economy and our environment to reach a conclusion on this important matter as swiftly as possible, because the longer we delay, the more damage will be done on both issues. In the consultation, will he ensure that people have an opportunity to raise the question whether we need only one hub airport for London or whether a different approach might be possible?

Mr. Darling: I strongly agree with my hon. Friend in relation to urgency and whether there ought to be one hub airport or more. That is one issue that is canvassed in chapter 4 of the south-east study. There have been almost 50,000 respondents so far, some of whom have addressed those points. She is absolutely right that they are matters that we need to consider and we will consider them.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): Whatever the rights and wrongs of the consultation process, does the Secretary of State agree that the overarching priority must be an early decision and early action, which is why I welcome his decision not to drag matters out by appealing? Does he accept that the UK, the south-east region and Heathrow are already suffering from delay and uncertainty? Will he make it his new year's resolution to summon the courage to complete the consultation process and start building runways as soon as possible?

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport): Where?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman is right about the fact that the south-east is already congested. The analysis of the problem is relatively easy; the solution as to where is rather more problematic.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): Leonard Cohen has a lot to answer for:

always to be true. If we are to be true in the next stage of the consultation process, will my right hon. Friend consider re-issuing the documents so that they are accurate, including, in particular, information on compensation; information on public meetings, which should be advertised locally in my area, not in the Evening Standard only; BAA's commitment to a sixth terminal linked to the third runway; and BA's proposal to shift the runway to the east, which would demolish another part of my constituency? Also, will he meet community representatives, as he has met industry representatives over the past few months? Even if the decision were not one that my constituents could be happy with, at least they would be able to accept the process as relatively fair.

Mr. Darling: I am glad that we have found something in common. Clearly, we both listen to Leonard Cohen.

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On Heathrow, as I have said to my hon. Friend and, indeed, to others, if there are problems with the consultation exercise relating to either documents or procedure, he should let me or one of my fellow Ministers know and we will try to put them right. The matter is important and it is important that we get it right. We shall endeavour to do so.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): For my constituents in Bishop's Stortford, east Hertfordshire and the surrounding communities, the 16-week consultation process was rushed and ill prepared from the beginning. Now it has turned from tragedy to farce. Having accepted that the High Court judgment says that the Secretary of State's original decision was irrational and unjust, does the right hon. Gentleman now accept his responsibility for any resulting blight?

Mr. Darling: The court reached its decision on the narrow question of Gatwick. The judge held that people ought to be able to have their say; he was not asked to address the entire consultation.

It is regrettable that the delay and uncertainty will continue for longer than any of us wanted, but we are where we are. We have the court judgment and I sense that the majority of Members want to bring matters to a conclusion, certainly next year. That is precisely what I want to do.

Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford): May I tell my right hon. Friend that an early decision is essential? We do not want a repeat of the fiasco surrounding the uncertainty about the channel tunnel rail link's final route, which caused years of blight and other problems in my constituency. May I also tell my right hon. Friend that I deeply regret the action taken by Kent county council, which will cause blight, delay, uncertainty and misery for my constituents? Will he do all that he can to shorten the process? The four-month period he has recommended is too long: it will allow yet more months, possibly even years, of blight and uncertainty.

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