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2.29 pm

Mr. Alan Hurst (Braintree): I take the opportunity of this debate to raise an issue that was raised earlier this week—the White Paper on the future of air transport and the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport on Tuesday. All hon. Members with an airport in or near their division came to hear the

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statement with some trepidation. Some were greatly relieved, and those who represent constituencies in north Kent will have been greatly relieved that the cloud that hung over Cliffe was finally dispersed. There were those of us who thought that Cliffe was a red herring and that there was no realistic prospect of the proposal ever being moved forward. Indeed, all of us would say that that was right and that Cliffe should not have been chosen. There were so many environmental and heritage arguments for not in any circumstances contemplating putting a major airport on the Cliffe marshes that that option was rightly dismissed.

Those from areas with other airport facilities, in particular Heathrow and Gatwick, at first breathed a sigh of relief, but on contemplation and consideration of what was said realised that the cloud was not lifted from them. The prospect may have been put a little further into the future, but it is still there, and will be an ever-ready prospect for some time to come.

One place did not even have the privilege and benefit of looking into the future and saying, "Not yet." That was Stansted. I have the privilege of representing a constituency close to Stansted, which is in the constituency of the Chairman of Ways and Means. The hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who will speak for the Opposition today, is also geographically close to the proposed site.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that local opposition to the proposal is almost unanimous. I know of a certain Australian writer who occasionally delivers pieces in national newspapers about how much she welcomes the fact that this monstrosity is a few miles down the road rather than next door. Not everyone who lives in the area has sufficient financial resources to move away with ease and profit, if the proposals come to pass.

Stansted is in the strangely named district council of Uttlesford, which undertook a referendum in which the turnout was higher than that at the last general election. Of the votes recorded—again the number was higher than in any parliamentary constituency, at least in modern times—89 per cent. were against the proposal and 11 per cent. were in favour. Uttlesford covers a vast area from close to the airport site to many miles further away. That underlines the extent of the opposition to the proposal.

The local authorities are also united. I am not an expert on Hertfordshire local authorities, but I suspect that they are opposed. Certainly Essex county council is opposed on a tri-partisan basis. Uttlesford district council, which was formerly Conservative controlled and is now Liberal controlled, has been completely opposed in both phases. Braintree district council, which was formerly Labour controlled but is regrettably now Conservative controlled, has been united in opposition to the extension in both phases.

What is the position? At present there are about 19 million passengers going through Stansted airport. Some Members may have travelled on those flights. The most incredible bargains imaginable are offered. My constituency assistant, who comes from Ayrshire, regularly travels back to see her relatives for about £17 return. Frankly, that is a ludicrous price. It is almost as expensive to travel from Braintree to London as it is from Stansted to Ayrshire and back. I am told that some of the flights are valued at £1 to the company. No doubt

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all sorts of other sums come into the equation that make it worth while for the airlines to operate in what, on the face of it, is amazingly uneconomic mode.

One of the advantages of being a person of increasing years is that one has seen things before. There used to be an entrepreneur known as Freddie Laker who brought cheap air travel to the millions. Mr. Laker is no longer flying aeroplanes, or rather his company is not. That passed away. Whether flights at giveaway prices can be maintained in the long term is for the market to decide. While the market makes up its mind, there may be devastating effects on the people who live near entrepreneurial experiments.

The number of passengers at the moment is about 19 million, having increased from about 7 million only a few years ago. Now there is permission to increase to 25 million, and as the airport stands, without any more runways, it has a capacity for 35 million. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has announced a second runway, which will extend capacity to 47 million passengers per annum.

People mainly travel to Stansted on the motorways. It is difficult to travel by train, although it is possible from London. The line from Braintree was taken out many years ago. Most travel by road. Whizzing—or, in due course, crawling—along the motorway, one may not appreciate the nature of the countryside surrounding Stansted. It does not have the splendour of Ben Nevis or Snowdonia or the picture postcard charm of the Lake District, but it has a particular character all of its own— England as it used to be in the eastern counties. There are low rolling hills, streams, copses, woods and quiet little villages. There are literally hundreds of historical and listed buildings. Great Bardfield, which is in the Braintree division, is an amazingly picturesque old village. It should be a town, as it used to have a quarter session. It attracted a colony of nationally renowned artists in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, who settled there because of the scope it offered them to paint, draw and express themselves in art.

The area does not suffer from high unemployment. Unemployment is effectively nil. Therefore, employees to service increased passenger numbers will have to travel into the area. As Members can imagine from my description, property prices are not on the lowest rung, so employees at the airport will find it difficult to afford houses, even if they are suffering from blight. That means that they will have to travel in, thus creating further environmental difficulties, which have not been fully analysed for the White Paper.

The White Paper admits that certain things will have to change. It talks of the need for a thorough environmental assessment before the change is undertaken. I hoped that a thorough environmental assessment might take place before we had the announcement in the White Paper. The White Paper states that capacity needs to be considered on the west anglia mainline, the M11 and M25, and on local roads. None of that has yet been assessed, but the announcement has been made, with all the consequences that will follow.

If the second runway is built, we face the possible loss of 1,000 properties, two scheduled ancient monuments and 29 listed buildings—to say nothing of the devastation of the countryside and the inconvenience

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and distress caused to local people within a huge radius, way outside the acquired land. A general blight will fall on this historic part of Essex for many years to come. The White Paper talks flippantly about the new runway being expected to be in operation by 2011–12. That might have been possible at one time, but in these days of endless consideration and looking into things, I cannot see anything happening as early as that. The longer the consideration, the longer the blight, and the longer the distress to people who may have spent all their lives in that area and now fear what is to come.

The Government accept that it is for the airport operator to prepare a scheme to address the problem of generalised blight. Airport operators are not social institutions or foundations with charitable status, and, with all due respect to them, I cannot imagine that that will be high on their agenda for next year. The problem will therefore persist.

The White Paper seems to have made the situation even worse with regard to the second runway because of where it has been placed. One would not favour this, but the second runway could have been placed within the present boundaries of what is already an enormous airport. It could have been placed relatively close to the present runway, but that has not been done. The White Paper places the new runway almost as far away as possible from the present runway and from the boundaries of the airport. It concedes that extensive acquisition of land will be required in order to achieve that.

That raises two points. First, how many other runways can be slotted in between the first and what people fear will be the fourth: will there be four rather than two? The other matter is the sheer increase in expense of the whole operation and the greater uncertainty and damage to countryside and buildings and the great undermining of people's domestic security.

I have no idea what the cost will be. I do not think that the Government have said what it will be, and when I questioned to the Secretary of State on Tuesday, he replied:

To use a phrase from the 19th century, the whole thing is very much a leap in the dark. We do not know what it will cost and are waiting for the private operator to say what it will cost. Meanwhile, the concern and anxiety continue.

I appreciate that it is sometimes tiresome for Members who may know little about these places to hear people speak about them at length, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. There is great concern and fear among people who live in that part of Essex and in Hertfordshire. The sooner the whole thing is resolved, the better, and preferably that will be done in the negative sense that the proposal does not go ahead because it does not stack up and exists only because of

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cross-subsidy from Heathrow and Gatwick, which will soon become illegal and will have to be lifted if the proposal is even to be considered.

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