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28 Nov 2002 : Column 481—continued

Mr. Darling: I understand the position of my hon. Friend and other north Kent Members who have made representations about the delay. When Kent county council took that action, it asked the judge to set aside what we were doing. The delay is a direct consequence of that, and we will just have to live with it. As I have said, this means that the White Paper will not be published until later next year, but I cannot try to short-circuit the process, not least because I do not particularly want to provide a fertile hunting ground for yet more lawyers who may seek to challenge the decision. The thing must be done properly, and I think that it can be done properly with a four-month consultation period. We must then try to reach a conclusion, because there will be an awful lot more debate to come.

Mr. John Taylor (Solihull): It is difficult to imagine a greater cock-up—the most magisterial Government consultation, made more pompous by statistical assertions, extrapolations, tendentious questionnaires and bogus economics, all now in ruins. What comfort

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has the Secretary of State for those of my constituents who would have been well content with natural growth at Birmingham airport within its existing perimeter?

Mr. Darling: When I spoke to the hon. Gentleman the other day, he was rather more reasonable. If he still wants to come and see me to discuss these matters, he would be well advised to go on being reasonable. However, I understand that he has a point to make, and I understand why he is doing so. Many people have made the same point about Birmingham, not least when I was in Birmingham recently. I would be happy to discuss it with the hon. Gentleman—and with one of his hon. Friends, who I think wants to come along with him.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): I realise that my right hon. Friend has been put in a difficult position by the court decision, but does he appreciate the implications for the west midlands of what he has said about extending the consultation period? The siting of a new international airport near Rugby is being considered. The area has been seriously blighted by that proposal, and people were looking forward to an early resolution of the matter; but now the consultation period has been extended by a further four months. Can my right hon. Friend say anything of an interim nature about the west midlands, or must everything be delayed for four months?

Mr. Darling: As my hon. Friend knows, I wanted to bring the matter to a conclusion early next year. I expected to do so well before the summer, precisely to deal with the concerns felt by him and by other Members, not just in the west midlands but elsewhere. Unfortunately, because of Kent county council's action and various issues raised by it, I must proceed in a manner that is entirely proper and does justice to all the consultation. That means that the White Paper cannot now be published until the end of the year, which is regrettable, but people are perfectly entitled to go to court if they think it right. The judge took a different view from the Government. I have explained a number of times why I think it better not to prolong matters by spending months in the appeal courts—I think we should now get on with it—but I entirely understand what my hon. Friend has said, not just today but on previous occasions.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, but given this opportune hiatus he will clearly have to republish a number of documents. Could the Government spell out more clearly their position on such questions as mitigation and guarantees, especially in the context of noise of pollution and air quality? As the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) implied, during the consultation process hitherto people have raised such matters repeatedly with us, as their representatives.

Mr. Darling: As I said, my intention is to publish a further consultation paper that flows from the Gatwick decision. However, the existing consultation continues, and it is important to make it clear to people that they need not resubmit everything that they have submitted already. As I have pointed out, some 50,000 representations have already been received.

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I shall reflect on mitigation and the various environmental concerns that the hon. Gentleman and others have raised, but I want to avoid prolonging matters for month after month, because that is in nobody's interests. For a start, that is not fair on those who live near airports; nor, indeed, is it good for anybody. I want to proceed as efficiently as I can, consistent with my obligations to consult and to behave in a way that is beyond criticism.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and for the speed with which he has entered into the undoubtedly sensitive area of tackling this country's long-term aviation needs. That is in marked contrast to the Conservatives, who simply ran away from this subject during 18 years in government. Could he ensure that public consultation is advertised much more widely than in just those areas closest to Heathrow airport? My constituents suffer—as do many people in London and the south-east—from overflights, and it would help if public meetings were advertised much more widely across London. On the environmental concerns, I hope that my right hon. Friend will confirm that this Government are arguing in the international community for a date by which a tax will be placed on aviation fuel.

Mr. Darling: On the latter point, as the consultation documents make clear, we believe that this issue ought to be resolved. My hon. Friend is doubtless aware from her previous experience that achieving international agreement on these matters is difficult, because many countries start from a completely different point of view.

As for the next few months, I should again make it clear that it is open to anyone throughout the length and breadth of the country to make representations. There is no restriction on that—indeed, I understand that some quarter of a million letters and pieces of information have been sent out to people across the country. In publishing the further document that will flow from the Gatwick decision, I want to ensure that people are aware of that point, but it is not necessary to retramp over every inch of the ground that we have covered; we simply need to ensure that we pick up what is necessary following the Gatwick decision, while emphasising that it is open to anyone, anywhere to make representations. Of course, whatever we decide on the London airports has implications not just for London and the south-east, but for the rest of the country.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West): Twice the Secretary of State has said that he regrets the extension of the period of uncertainty as to the future of several of the communities affected by this lengthening process. What message will he give to those communities affected by the blight of this uncertain period, who live under flight paths and very close to airports? I am thinking of villages such as Kirkliston and Newbridge, in my constituency, which the Secretary of State knows well.

Mr. Darling: I do indeed know them well. Because Kent county council challenged the Government and succeeded—at least to the material extent of getting Gatwick back into the process—we have inevitably had to consult on these issues. There is no getting away from that. It is of course regrettable that the period of

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consultation has extended as a result. It would have been nice to be able to say, XLet's treat Gatwick separately," but we cannot because, as one of the major London airports, it clearly has an impact on the rest of the UK—not least on Edinburgh, which the hon. Gentleman has in mind. There are many Edinburgh flights to Gatwick, as well as to London Heathrow, and I am afraid that we must consider that. I hope that we can bring these matters to a conclusion as quickly as possible next year, but I am certain that we are now talking about the autumn, because we cannot possibly do justice to a consultation and get something out before the summer recess.

Paul Clark (Gillingham): May I commend the Secretary of State on his clear response to the situation within 48 hours of the judgment—an action that will be warmly welcomed by the people of north Kent? Yesterday's written statement, which pointed out that he will not seek to appeal, was also warmly welcomed by the hundreds of people who lobbied Parliament against the Cliffe proposal.

The Secretary of State said that a White Paper should be published next year. I urge him to stick to that, for all the reasons of continuing blight and anguish that have been given. In light of the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), is he aware that the people of Essex were very concerned yesterday that they had had no exhibition or involvement, even though some of them, for example at Canvey Island, are very close to the Cliffe site?

Mr. Darling: There is no need for people to wait for an exhibition or an invitation to respond. There is no reason why anyone with a view on Cliffe or Stansted, whether they are affected or not, should not make representations. About 50,000 representations have been received on the White Paper, as I have now said two or three times. My hon. Friend knows that my original intention was to publish the White Paper early next year, and I hoped to resolve the matter in that way once and for all, but unfortunately the decision taken by the county council resulted in the very delay that, I suspect, many people in Kent did not want.

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