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15 Jan 2003 : Column 291WH—continued

15 Jan 2003 : Column 292WH

North Bristol Airport

3.30 pm

Mr. Steve Webb (Northavon): Perhaps I may begin by sympathising with the Minister, who, I assume, will carry on and show himself to be a man of many talents by dealing with a different topic.

In many ways, the proposed north Bristol airport at Pilning is the dog that did not bark. With all the row and fuss about proposed new airports at Cliffe and Rugby, the possibility of one in north Bristol has somehow not managed to hit the headlines. Indeed, I was rather taken by surprise when the Secretary of State for Transport made a statement to the House last July about the consultation. He went through each of the regional papers and the possibility of a north Bristol airport was not even mentioned. That is not a criticism, just an observation. The airport was not deemed sufficiently important or likely to warrant mention in the oral statement. The possibility of a new airport at north Bristol was first mentioned on page 148 of the consultation document.

I should like a steer from the Minister on how serious a possibility that airport is. I have raised the matter with a number of people in my part of south Gloucestershire, and there have been two reactions. Some local residents, many of whom have written in response to the consultation document, have said that it would be a completely unsuitable place for an airport. As the Minister might expect, I shall suggest one or two reasons why they might be right. However, the other people to whom I have spoken have said, "Don't waste our time. It's so implausible. This was obviously just thrown in as an afterthought. It's a decoy for expansion somewhere else."

The Minister looks sceptical. I am glad to have this opportunity to ask him to put on the record the Government's approach to a north Bristol airport. Is the scheme a runner? Is it pie in the sky, or do the residents of Pilning and Severnside need to think seriously about it? In addition to the proposed north Bristol airport mentioned in the consultation document, a different group this week has proposed a Severnside airport on the other side of the Severn estuary and is putting plans before the Government. It would be helpful to have a steer from the Minister about what the response will be. I do not expect him to pre-empt a long consultation process, but the people I represent will be disappointed if he does not say something about how realistic some of those schemes are. Is the north Bristol airport a slim possibility, or are the Government taking the scheme very seriously? I hope he will at least tell us that.

Last year, the Secretary of State for Transport announced:

It is fairly clear that when the White Paper comes out—and I appreciate that it has been delayed—it will be about not just "How much?" but "Where?" I gather that the most recent suggested date for the White Paper is autumn or perhaps slightly later. I am sure that the Minister will comment on that. It might be expected

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that, when it comes out, the residents of Pilning and the greater area will be put out of their misery one way or another. I am pleased to see the Minister nodding at that suggestion; that is encouraging.

In the short time available, I do not propose to discuss the background to the entire consultation, or the modelling and projections. I should like to give the Minister a quick tour of Pilning and some idea as to why it might not be the right place to put an international airport. First, the runways might run from north to south through Pilning. As they fly in from the north, passengers will have a scenic view of Berkley power station. Further on, they will be able to have a nice look at Oldbury nuclear power station. So, just a few miles from the proposed site, they will pass one closed power station and one active nuclear power plant. Could the Minister clarify the current rules on flying over nuclear power stations? There is obviously heightened sensitivity because of 11 September, but what general constraints are there on flying over nuclear power plants? In this case, aeroplanes coming from the north would go near a nuclear power station. We all occasionally hear of tragic accidents in which aeroplanes come down just short of airports, and one gets very nervous when nuclear power plants are involved. One, therefore, worries about proposals to build an airport next to a nuclear power plant.

If the planes came from the south, they would pass the major chemical plants at Avonmouth and Severnside. Underground oil and gas stores and the gas-fired power station at Hallen are also very close to the proposed site. Again, those are not places over which we would want planes to fly.

Perhaps the idea is that the planes will fly east to west. However, they would then have to fly over the densely populated areas of north Bristol, such as Bradley Stoke, and perhaps over the new north field at Filton airport, which is used by BAE Systems. Some 2,000 houses are yet to be built there. One starts to wonder whether the proposed site is the best place for an airport.

Pilning, which is at the centre of all this, is a fairly small village with many rural characteristics. There are excellent views across the estuary, and the area is flat and level. I have never seen an otter there, but I am reliably informed—I have learned a lot about the habitat around Pilning in the past few months—that it is quite the place to be for an otter. I assure the Minister that we are also working on great crested newts. Seriously, however, part of the area is a site of special scientific interest, and areas of nature conservancy would have to be taken into consideration.

That green-belt site nestles among power plants, chemical works and heavily populated inland areas. Across the area, there are high-voltage, high-tension power cables that take power across the Severn estuary to Wales. Talking of going across to Wales, I can add that the old Severn bridge and the new second Severn crossing are within spitting distance of the proposed site. From my conversations with the authorities at Bristol's existing airport, I understand that the proximity of the bridges and of some of the higher inland areas may present real problems with using the site at Pilning.

The document says that there are considerable environmental implications of using such a greenfield site, because the damage could be considerable. The

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area is also prone to flooding, so there are reservations about proposals to build thousands of houses there. Again, is that the sort of area in which we want to build an airport?

Building an airport at Pilning would result in massive urbanisation of a rural area. The consultation document refers to a car park that would hold 25,000 to 35,000 cars, so the area would never look the same again. The document also mentions 15,000 jobs. During Prime Minister's Question Time, I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) demand an airport for her area because of the regeneration that it would bring. However, page 140 of the consultation document states:

such as south Gloucestershire—

Essentially, Pilning airport would not be about jobs for local people, but about massive urbanisation, massive house-building and a massive inward migration of labour. Claimant unemployment is 1 per cent. to 1.5 per cent. in my constituency, and the project would not bring much benefit to people in the area. Rather, it would cause a huge inward movement and urbanisation.

The flipside of Pilning airport is the end of Bristol airport. It is clear from the consultation document that Pilning will be viable only if Bristol airport shuts—I see that the Minister is nodding at that. Bristol airport is south of Bristol and much closer to areas that are in need of regeneration, such as south Bristol and Weston-super-Mare. Shutting that airport and bringing more jobs to overheated parts of south Gloucestershire cannot be right in terms of the Government's regeneration strategy.

We have two options. We could take the single runway option, which would offer limited extra capacity. Indeed, much more capacity could be created by expanding operations at Bristol and Cardiff and making greater use of other regional airports, with which the Minister will be familiar. The alternative is a multi-runway airport in the longer term, which, as the consultation document admits, would have vast environmental implications for a green-belt site.

On the viability of the site, page 153 of the document concedes:

at Bristol "is closed." The Minister will not be surprised to learn that Bristol International airport is not a great fan of a new north Bristol airport. The private company that owns, runs and has put millions of pounds into upgrading Bristol airport—it has moved on a great deal in recent years—is not simply going to sit back and watch.

I have a genuine question for the Minister because I do not understand the proposed mechanism. Let us suppose that the Government give the go-ahead and say that north Bristol, or Pilning, is the right place for a new international airport and the way in which we can meet our 20-year or 30-year strategic objectives. What will happen to Bristol airport? Will the company just go on

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running that airport until the new one comes on stream and it realises that it is losing money, shuts and goes away? Or will the company be invited to run the new site and shut its existing operation, in which case what will be done about the millions of pounds that have been put into that? I simply do not understand. If north Bristol airport will work only in the absence of south Bristol airport, by what process will we get from one to the other? Can the Minister clarify that?

I hope that he will mention the Severnside proposal that has been raised only this week. That would be on the other side of the estuary but would also have implications for the viability of Bristol airport. When I have consulted local residents, the possibility of using underused military sites has been mooted. I am not trying to use that idea to put an airport in someone else's back garden, but how well have the Government considered that proposal?

I have read previous debates that have taken place on the consultation during recent months and the Minister's comments in them. Quite understandably, to any Back-Bench constituency MP who says, "Don't put the airport near me", he has replied, "Well, where would you put it?" It is a perfectly reasonable question. I point out, however, that it is not only me as the hon. Member for Northavon who is saying that Pilning is not the right place for a new airport; the regional development agency has backed the expansion of Bristol and Cardiff airports rather than the building of a new north Bristol airport. South Gloucestershire council has set out a structure plan and a local plan, which north Bristol airport would violate, and has objected. My point is not just a local constituency one. In my judgment, there is potential for further expansion at Bristol and Cardiff airports. We could do much more on accessibility and transport, to make it easier to get to Bristol airport. More could be done with other south-west airports.

The consultation document makes the case for Pilning almost half-heartedly. It feels like an afterthought. There is no detailed assessment of it. For that reason, some people have asked why their time is being wasted even talking about the idea. Yet the Government consultation document is raising a village in my constituency as a possible airport site. My constituents want to know whether that is in the running or not. That is the key question.

To draw all my threads together, I believe that existing south-west airport sites have the capacity for expansion, especially if the transport infrastructure is improved. However, if another single site is sought, we should not choose a place that is a few miles from a nuclear power plant to the north and a few miles from chemical plants to the south, is in an area that high-power, high-voltage electricity runs across, is in the green belt and environmentally sensitive, has underground oil stores and gas plants on the doorstep, and is near areas of vast population, over which aeroplanes might end up flying. Pilning is a lovely place to live, but the worst possible place for an airport.

3.43 pm

Mr. Jamieson : This is my third scheduled debate in this Chamber today. I should perhaps congratulate myself on securing all those debates but instead, I

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congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Mr. Webb) on securing a debate on an issue that is of concern to his constituents. There have been similar concerns in other constituencies since the consultation document on air services throughout the country was issued.

I am very pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Dr. Naysmith) is here, keeping a careful eye, as always, on matters that relate to Bristol. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) also takes an interest in such matters.

The hon. Member for Northavon asked me whether I could give him a steer on the probability of a new airport. I am afraid that that question was a triumph of optimism. He will understand that I cannot comment on the merits of any one scheme because we are in a consultation period. The consultation is genuine; we are listening to people's views and weighing them up.

The hon. Gentleman asked how realistic the north Bristol airport proposals are. He is an academic, so he will know that one should carefully weigh matters up after listening to the various arguments, and that is what we are doing. The Department is receiving information all the time, and we will have to weigh it up most carefully in the coming months, before publication of the White Paper.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we will take seriously representations that are made. I assure him that we will. We are scrutinising all comments that are coming in; the process has started and will continue until the entire consultation is over.

I can give the hon. Gentleman a more positive answer on the White Paper. He asked whether it would address how much extra capacity is needed. He also asked whether we will address where any development will take place, and the answer is that we will, because it is clear—especially with the elongation of the process following the Gatwick appeal—that some properties are blighted. The more rapidly such decisions can be made—commensurate with proper consideration—the more helpful it is to those people in many parts of the country who are blighted. We have empathy for those people, which is why we do not want the process to last any longer than is absolutely necessary for proper scrutiny of the comments that are made.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point about what would happen to Bristol airport if the new scheme were given the go-ahead, and I hope to be able to provide some clarification on that, although he will appreciate that it is a complex matter. Any decision on an airport is dependent on several factors—what may be happening in other parts of the country, for example, or recommendations that may have been made. I shall try to cover that point in some detail.

Air travel is a fact of modern life for both business and leisure. Last year, 50 per cent. of the UK population travelled by air at least once. In my parents' time, that would have been unheard of—even 20 years ago, the percentage would not have been so high. Our forecasts suggest that demand for air services will increase significantly over the next 30 years, from 180 million passengers per annum in 2001 to between 400 million and 600 million in 2030. Additional airport capacity will be required if that demand is to be met.

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The Secretary of State has already made it clear that the one option not available is to do nothing. We have to ask the following question: do we carry on increasing the ability people have to fly—including the hon. Gentleman's constituents? If we are to increase capacity, we must address the important question of where people will fly from. It would be irresponsible of any Government not to do that: development would happen on a piecemeal basis, and there would be no structure or plan to what was being done.

That is why we are currently consulting on the future development of air transport across the UK. The consultation documents set out potential demand under a range of policy scenarios from facilitating growth to constraining growth. They also set out the airport and associated developments that would be required to meet demand under the different scenarios. The documents also set out the positive and negative impacts of each scenario and seek views on the arguments for and against airport development. All responses to the consultation will be taken seriously, and when the White Paper is produced we will need carefully to balance economic, environmental and social needs.

The hon. Gentleman raised some specific issues. South-west airports currently handle about 2.9 million passengers per annum. However, more than 5.3 million people whose journeys begin or end in the south-west—about 65 per cent. of the total—travelled by surface modes, predominantly road, to access air services outside the region. Of that leakage, as it is sometimes called, more than 4.1 million passengers went to Heathrow and Gatwick, although I believe that about 15 per cent. travelled to Birmingham to catch their flights.

Bristol airport is the largest international airport in the south-west, and it handled about 2.1 million passengers in 2000. In 2001 it experienced significant growth of about 26 per cent., following the decision of the no-frills carrier, Go, to base aircraft there, serving a wide range of business and leisure destinations. Similar growth is expected in 2002. Bristol is well placed to develop further as it serves a wide catchment for population and businesses—particularly for sectors that use air transport often, such as banking, finance, information and communications technology, and advanced engineering. Many of those industries have grown rapidly in the Bristol area.

Other airports in the south-west are much smaller than Bristol and are expected to grow to a lesser extent as they serve smaller catchments and smaller markets. Bristol is therefore likely to remain the primary airport for the south-west for the foreseeable future. I hope that what I have said partly answers the hon. Gentleman's questions. I shall move on to deal with the future.

By 2030, if current policies are continued—that is the so-called RASCO reference case scenario—demand for air services from the south-west airports could rise to 15.9 million passengers per annum, with around 8.6 million of those at Bristol. However, if it were decided to constrain capacity in the south-east—the south-east constrained scenario, as that policy is called—many of the 50 per cent. of passengers who currently travel to the south-east airports to use air services would no longer be able to do so. Some might not fly at all, but most would use other airports and there would be pressure to use airports in the south-west.

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That clawback of passengers could mean that the total traffic through south-west airports would increase to nearly 28 million passengers a year by 2030, with around 13.4 million of those wanting to fly from Bristol. The hon. Gentleman may see that a strong argument could be made by people living in the south-west that they would want facilities that would obviate the need to travel to Birmingham or London to take business or leisure flights.

Our analysis suggests that Bristol airport could handle around 6 million passengers per annum from its existing runway, subject to the expansion of terminal facilities. With a runway extension and a second terminal, the airport's capacity could increase further—possibly to around 12 million passengers a year—although that would be subject to resolving constraints arising from important environmental, land, property take and surface access issues. Topographical constraints also make expansion beyond 12 million passengers per annum an unrealistic prospect.

If those issues can not be resolved, or if we seek to accommodate the higher demand forecast under the south-east constrained scenario, we would need to consider developing additional capacity at another site in the locality. Need would also be exacerbated if no new runway capacity were to be developed in the midlands. Additional capacity, in the form of new runways, will be required in the midlands by around 2015 under all the policy scenarios that provide for growth, irrespective of decisions on capacity elsewhere. We have therefore examined options for new runways at existing airports in the midlands, and an additional detailed study has been carried out on a new site. That included a site search and the drawing up of an airport plan, with appraisal of the impacts.

As the need for a new site in the south-west will emerge only towards the end of the forecast period under scenarios giving the highest levels of demand, and is highly dependent on decisions regarding major capacity constraints being imposed elsewhere, it was decided that a full study of the north Bristol airport was not justified at present. Instead, a less detailed appraisal of a new airport on a site previously proposed by a consortium—the so-called UK One proposal near Pilning—was assessed. That allowed a means of comparing the costs and broad impacts of building a new site in the Bristol area, including its possible impact on the existing airport.

The results of the analysis are set out in the consultation document. The site would be well connected, close to the M4, M5 and M49 motorways. It would therefore offer good surface access from many parts of the south-west, south Wales and further afield to the north and east. For all we know, people from Birmingham, the hon. Gentleman's old city, might even travel down to use it. It would be more easily accessible to a wider catchment area than is the existing airport, but the analysis suggests that a new site north of Bristol would be financially viable only if no new runway capacity were provided in the south-east or the midlands and the existing Bristol airport was closed. The building of a new site would have to be predicated on all those issues.

We have received several responses, including responses from relevant local authorities, regarding the potential for a new airport north of Bristol. We are

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aware of concerns about the proximity of potentially hazardous installations, such as nuclear power stations and fuel storage facilities, as well as the impact on designated wildlife sites and the risk of flooding. Local concerns will be considered carefully in our analysis of the consultation responses and when we draft the White Paper.

Clearly, if the new Bristol airport proposal or any other significant development were to be taken forward in the White Paper, detailed plans would be drawn up, planning permission sought and an environmental impact assessment prepared. Detailed issues would have to be considered as part of the process. I am aware that the extended consultation will also extend the period of uncertainty for those who may be affected by the development.

Mr. Webb : Will the Minister clarify something? If the White Paper suggests that a new north Bristol airport is the way forward, do the Government have the power to shut Bristol airport? How would Bristol airport be closed in order to make the new Bristol airport viable?

Mr. Jamieson : If the White Paper suggested that a new site offered a viable option, there would still be many bridges to cross. The case would need a promoter, who would have to go through all the necessary processes, and market forces would then put pressure on Bristol airport. If such a decision were made, a lot of thinking would be needed over the next 20 or 30 years. There is a long way to go and views in the area may change over time. It is interesting that existing airports are backing some proposals for new airports in other areas, and some interesting reconfigurations of view may take place. It is difficult to answer the hon. Gentleman's question at the moment because so many things would have to happen before a new airport could be opened. Were I to go further, I would be entering the realms of speculation.

Extending the consultation has afforded the opportunity to consider alternative schemes suggested as part of that process. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Severnside proposal, but I shall not go into detail on that because I would be straying from the subject of the debate. When we drew up the consultation documents, analysis of the initial scheme suggested that a new airport in the Severn estuary was unlikely to be commercially viable in its own right. However, we have just received a formal, detailed response from the scheme's proposers and have yet to analyse it in depth. Unfortunately, at this stage I cannot rule any options in and I cannot rule any options out—I have heard that somewhere before. We hope to publish the White Paper by the end of the year.

I appreciate how important this issue is to the hon. Gentleman's constituents. It is important for them to be able to access flights for business and leisure purposes, but there are other issues relating to blight and the environment. No decisions have been made and we shall carefully weigh up all arguments made during the consultation process. I dare say that some of what has been said today will help to inform that process.

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