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28 Feb 2006 : Column 59WH—continued

Southampton Airport

1 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I am very grateful for this Adjournment debate and the opportunity to talk about the expansion of Southampton airport. I hope that I am speaking up on behalf of those of my constituents who will be worst and most directly affected by the proposed expansion. The plans that I shall be discussing today were set out in the airport master plan that was published last summer. It is because that plan will eventually find its way to the desks of Ministers that I thought a debate in the House of Commons would be appropriate.

I must admit that I am not quite sure what the Minister will do with the airport master plan when it arrives. I hope that one thing that we shall clarify today will be what will happen in Government when the master plans are received from various regional airports. I hope that Ministers will take responsibility for what happens at a local level as a result of national Government policy. My fear, I am afraid, is that Ministers may wash their hands of the problems and challenges that arise; that the master plan will be noted but that nothing will be done nationally to ensure that there is protection from the environmental damage that is currently proposed.

The master plan was produced in direct response to the Government's aviation White Paper. The first thing that I want today is an assurance from the Minister that the Government will take whatever measures are needed to ensure that the local environmental impact will be properly assessed, taken into account and dealt with. Secondly, the master plan is, as I shall explain, a very big change from the figures published in the White Paper. I shall be interested to know from the Minister whether the Government are in any way committed to the projections that were published just a couple of years ago.

There is a certain amount of déjà vu for me in the debate. The first ten-minute Bill that I introduced into the House of Commons after my election in 1992 called for greater local planning powers over airport expansion. It is with some regret that I say 14 years later that very little has changed. There are no direct local or strategic planning controls over airport operations. The only controls—I think that this is true in many ways even of massive airports such as Heathrow—come from the need for planning permission for works on the ground. In Southampton's case it is only because new hard standings and improved terminal buildings will be needed that local authority planning will come into play at all.

I still do not believe that it is acceptable that planning controls kick in only because of an accident of the current physical layout of the airport. In any case, the structures are wrong. In our case, the planning authority is Eastleigh district council, which covers the airport but not my constituents, who lie to the south of the site. Southampton district council, the city council, has no direct planning powers at all in relation to the airport.

I presume that Governments have resisted a better planning process because they fear that it might prevent all airport development. I do not think that that is true. As I shall freely acknowledge, the development of
 
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Southampton airport has brought significant economic, development and employment benefits. Strategic planning processes are often well able to balance different considerations, and there is no reason why airport development should be the one major industrial activity in this country that is not subject to proper planning. Many people in Southampton would find it extraordinary that, although Ministers recently turned down the vital expansion of the port of Southampton—a decision with far greater economic consequences and far fewer environmental consequences—after a lengthy planning process, no similar process has been followed with respect to the development of the airport.

At the same time, I want the Minister's assurance that the Government will not try to overrule the limited planning powers that currently exist by using the new strategic planning process. It would be quite unacceptable if any future local public inquiry were to be rendered largely irrelevant by a Government declaration that the expansion has regional significance. I hope that we can be given an assurance that the new strategic planning powers will not be used in that way.

One thing is perfectly clear. We cannot rely on the airport operators, BAA, to safeguard the interests of my constituents who live under the flight path. As I will make clear in a moment, I am not as critical of the local airport management as many of my constituents, but it is a sad fact that the master plan made no mention of the immediate environmental impact of airport expansion. It made no mention of the means of controlling, limiting or mitigating the impact in the areas closest to the airport. To do that, we need to look to the local authorities and to the Minister.

It may help the Minister if I provide a sketch of the airport and its environment. The airport lies between Southampton and Eastleigh, occupying the entire gap between the M27 motorway and what is left of Eastleigh's rail works. The single runway runs more or less north-south, ensuring that all takeoffs and landings are directly over residential areas in either Southampton or Eastleigh. The simple truth is that if there were no airport there today it is inconceivable that anyone would give planning permission for any type of airport in that location.

At the southern, Southampton, end, the ground rises relatively sharply to a height of around 300 ft; the rise begins a short distance from the south of the end of the runway and the M27. The rising ground is almost entirely developed as a residential area, with some important local schools. It is that area, Townhill park, that bears the brunt of the noise and disturbance. A small distance to the south is Bitterne park, a contiguous residential area that is also badly affected.

The majority of complaints come from those living on the hill, but there is also a significant impact on those living at a lower height along the east bank of the river Itchen. I should declare an interest at this point, because that is where I live, although somewhat further to the south than most of those who complain about the airport. The impact on those living in the lower area is partly caused by the deliberate decision to route as many flights as possible along the river route—a decision that I support, even though those flights go over the top of my house.
 
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The airport may still be best known outside the city as the site of the maiden flight of R.J. Mitchell's Spitfire. For much of the postwar period, it was a fairly sleepy local airport. The first major development took place in the early 1990s. It was that that prompted my earlier private Member's Bill. At that time, low-cost flights had not been developed. The airport was seen primarily as a "briefcase" airport, concentrating on the business market, with a limited number of charter flights.

The local authorities were able to use their limited planning powers to extract a number of agreements on airport operations, including a ban on night flying. The voluntary agreement to route flights along the river was brought in around this time. It would be wrong to suggest that those controls produced a satisfactory position for local residents. Noise, vortices and general intrusion continued, but to some extent the economics of the airport operation limited the full impact that we had feared in the early 1990s.

That all changed with the advent of local low-cost flights and the operation in Southampton of Flybe. There was a substantial increase in the number of flights by older and noisier aircraft, particularly the BAe 146. The number of early morning flights also increased significantly. That development, with its huge impact on local people, needed no new planning procedures. It was just a change in the economics of airport operation. The public response was very sharp; at that time the airport became—it has stayed—the most significant local constituency issue in my postbag.

Over the past two years there has been pretty constant engagement between local people and the airport. I believe that the airport manager, who has just retired, David Cumming, made a serious effort to listen to what local people were saying, and within the constraints of his job, which was of course to manage and expand an airport, to improve things to some extent. Flybe has also been engaged in that process.

A number of things were attempted. A trial was run which involved alternative routes and allowing the four-engined planes to climb to 3,000 rather than 1,000 ft before levelling out. Unfortunately, the assessment showed a limited impact from those trials, although I and others firmly believe that the local impact on the worst affected areas was positive. It was a shame that the trials were not continued. At long last a better monitoring system was brought in so that aircraft deviating from agreed routes could be identified. Sadly, that has been inoperable for much of the past two years because of problems with the Pease Pottage radar system.

The process of engagement with the airport was not always satisfactory for my constituents. Some meetings became dominated by people who lived a pretty long way from the airport. They had legitimate concerns, but the impact on their lives was far less. It is important at this point to get across to my hon. Friend the Minister exactly how much the airport has grown, and how much it is planned that it will grow. In 1997 there were just under 600,000 passengers and 25,000 aircraft movements. By 2001 there were 803,000 passengers and 27,000 aircraft movements. In 2003 there were 1.138 million passengers and nearly 32,000 movements.

It was in 2003 that BAA made its submission to the Government's consultation on the development of air transport. In that submission it said that Southampton
 
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airport could grow to accommodate around 2.5 million passengers by 2030 within its existing boundaries and assuming, as is planned, additional runway capacity at other airports in the south-east. Thus the long-term aim is for 2.5 million passengers by 2030. The Government seem to accept that view. In their White Paper, they referred to

the airport—

7 million passengers—the figure floated in the Government's consultation—

2 to 2.5 million passengers per annum. That expansion to 2.5 million passengers was greeted with some horror by local residents, but at least it was spread over a lengthy period, with the possibility of quieter aircraft and further restrictions. However, those projections have been torn up in the new master plan. By 2004, the annual passenger numbers had reached 1.5 million, with 37,400 passenger movements. According to the master plan, the number of passengers will be 3 million by 2015—not 2.5 million by 2030—and 6 million by 2030. The number of passenger movements will be 62,000 at the end of that period. It is not surprising that local people have had enough.

The planning controls are very limited. Development will take place on BAA land over the next nine years, although permission will be required for aircraft stands, taxiways and improved check-in facilities. That brings the issue a bit within the local authorities' remit, and Southampton and Eastleigh have considered the master plan. I am on record as saying that both local authorities have been too weak in their dealings with the airport over the years, although I accept that their powers are limited.

In September, Southampton city council resolved that:

Unfortunately, the city council's formal submission to BAA did not reflect that strong unanimous resolution and no reference was made to reducing noise pollution. Why that happened is an internal matter for the city council, but I note that its final position was almost identical to the much more positive position taken by the Liberal Democrat leadership of Eastleigh council.

There is no doubt that the airport has brought significant benefits. There are 1,500 jobs there, many of which are done by my constituents, who value the opportunities that the airport has brought them. It is also valuable for business to be able to fly into and out of Southampton as a premier south coast airport. Local surveys also indicate wide public support. I acknowledge all that, but sometimes our job as Members of Parliament is to stand up for the minority and to ask difficult questions that no one else wants to ask.
 
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My constituents who live under the flight path are perhaps the minority among those with an interest in the airport, but their rights must be protected. The airport's impact can be judged against several different factors, including noise, vortex damage, pollution and safety. Many of those are not amenable to simple measurement or assessment. As we have found in the past, noise readings taken over an extended period do not capture the impact of individual flights. Nor is it easy to measure the combined effect of noise, disruption, the loss of useable amenities—such as a garden on a summer afternoon—or, indeed, fear.

We had a large public meeting in November, and the position that emerged from it was clear. It is essential that future plans for the airport start from the recognition that the current impact on local people is unacceptable. It is no good asking how much more people can take, because they cannot take any more. On the contrary, the master plan's starting point should be that local residents' quality of life should improve year on year over the entire period covered by the plan. When the plan is finalised, it should identify the key issues raised in the consultation, setting out how they should be measured and assessed and what measures will be taken to reduce their impact.

It is pretty clear that, left to itself, BAA will not take such an approach and that local authorities' powers to enforce it are limited. The Minister must therefore assure me that the Government will do everything they can to ensure that we achieve a strategy to bring about a continuous improvement in the environment of Townhill park and Bitterne park. To start with, key elements of such a strategy will include the need for noise reduction. That will partly involve ensuring that the airport puts in place a good monitoring system so that it can track flights into and out of the airport, and it is beginning to do that. However, there must also be an effective and continuous system of noise monitoring so that we can identify not only levels of background noise but the impact of individual flights. In addition, I hope that the Minister will support moves to put pressure on the airport to require operators to use quieter aircraft. We have been promised that the noisy BAe 146s will be replaced with Brazlian Embraer aircraft, which are supposed to have a quieter profile. The problem is that we have no means of forcing through changes faster than the airlines, for commercial reasons, wish to implement them. I hope that the Minister will tell me today that stronger powers will be made available to enable planning authorities to force the move to quieter aircraft.

The Government's White Paper made the remarkable claim that

but there are no effective controls. It says:

I agree, but I hope that the Minister can tell me exactly how that is meant to happen. Can she assure me that a local authority could refuse planning permission for further development on the grounds—and solely on the
 
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grounds—that no agreement had been reached to reduce noise impacts over time? Such measures will be essential for the future life and well-being of my constituents. We need similar measures to monitor, assess and tackle vortex damage, as well as to assess the current levels of air pollution and ensure that they are reduced.

We also need to ensure that safety is properly addressed. A few years ago, the major secondary school under the flight path—Bitterne park school—wanted to build a sports centre, which would have been used for a variety of public activities and would have attracted a large number of visitors. However, the school could not get planning permission, because it was under the airport flight path and it was against Government policy to encourage developments that would attract a large number of people under a flight path. Yet, it is now proposed to have almost three times as many planes flying over the same area, which was deemed unsuitable for a development that would attract a large number of people. I hope that the Minister can explain how safety considerations will be taken into account when Government priorities seem so confused. In my view, it will not be possible to have the scale of expansion currently proposed for Southampton airport while delivering an acceptable environment for my constituents. We need to explore ways in which the airport could be required to have a business model that, for example, put more emphasis on business traffic and less on continuous expansion of the low-cost holiday business. In that way, we can keep the elements of the airport that are essential to local economic development, while minimising the harm to local people.

My final question—I apologise to the Minister for going on slightly longer than I intended—is simply this: does it make sense to plan for 6 million passengers in 2030, given everything that we know about climate change and the rapidly increasing contribution of air transport to greenhouse gases? I do not believe for one moment that public policy will be able to allow the increase in air transport that is implied if we are to deliver what we need to deliver to save our environment. At the Liaison Committee a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister told me that, in his view, the global community would need, by 2012, to have taken the key decisions needed to address climate change. It is difficult to believe that those decisions will allow the uncontrolled expansion of air transport that the present figures imply. I hope that the Minister will tell me that the Government recognise the problem and that the planet's long-term sustainability is, at long last, and after too much delay, being taken into account in aviation policy.

1.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Ms Karen Buck) : I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr.   Denham) on securing this important debate. I certainly recognise that the points that he addressed are legitimate and growing concerns, both for the communities in Southampton around the airport and, as he mentioned in closing, in terms of the contribution of aviation—among many other strands of the transport industry and domestic use—to climate change and how we address that.
 
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Before I come to those issues, I remind my right hon. Friend that the air transport White Paper, which we published in 2003, was the first attempt to set out a long-term framework to match the development requirements of industry. It provided guidance to communities about how air traffic was likely to develop and gave some confidence to that development process. Explicitly, the White Paper did not do so as part of a "predict and provide" approach—the Government wholly reject the accusation that it did—but to reflect the fact that aviation is a growing sector that has an important contribution to make to the economy, as he recognised in his local context, and reflects people's increasing desire to travel.

Many UK airports are reaching the limits of their capacity. It is therefore important that we consider how some of those benefits and demands can be accommodated, while absolutely rejecting a "predict and provide" model and ensuring that we build in the necessary measures to mitigate some of the disadvantages of air traffic growth at the local, national and global levels.

I shall start with my right hon. Friend's concluding remarks about what the Prime Minister has said is one of the most important challenges facing the planet. The Government recognise that we must ensure that aviation, which is a growing sector, makes a contribution to addressing the urgent challenge of climate change. We know that unilateral action is not likely to be effective, because aviation is by definition a global industry. We are therefore working with other nations through the International Civil Aviation Organisation to promote and develop ways in which aviation can contribute to those aims, developing and introducing better technology, and improving operating practice.

An important achievement that was driven through during the UK presidency of the EU was to bring nearer aviation's entry into the European emissions trading programme. We see emissions trading as the way to ensure that aviation makes a proper contribution to tackling climate change. Compared with the other instruments that are currently available, emissions trading is the most likely to be effective because it provides an economic incentive to reduce emissions. That contrasts with, for example, a more generalised taxation measure, which we have also been called on to introduce.

My right hon. Friend understandably focused his remarks on Southampton. We recognise the economic benefits that regional airports such as Southampton generate for their regions and we support their growth to serve regional and local demand, subject of course to the necessary environmental constraints.

The White Paper invited airport operators to produce master plans setting out their development proposals in response to the conclusions reached in the White Paper. Master plans provide a transparent means for airport operators to explain their development proposals. They help airport operators to take forward the White Paper policy regionally and locally, and to inform stakeholders at all levels. That enables stakeholders to have a say on how the local airport develops. However, I should make it clear that master plans are owned by airport operators, not the Government. As such, master
 
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plans do not have development plan status, although the level of detail that they contain may inform local and regional planning processes.

As my right hon. Friend recognises, Southampton airport makes a key contribution to local economic prosperity. More than 1,000 people are directly employed there, more than 500 work in related jobs and, according to an economic impact study of 2004, the airport makes an annual contribution of £86.5 million to the local economy. The air transport White Paper referred to smaller airports such as Southampton as having an important role in the future provision of airport capacity in the south-east. It recognised Southampton as a regional airport and supported growth to allow it to cater for local demand.

The airport expects passenger numbers to grow from the current 1.5 million a year to around 3 million in 2015 and 6 million by 2030. Those forecasts are not subject to Government approval—there are many reasons why forecasts for airports that do not have movement limits set on them may differ from those in the White Paper—but we expect forecasts to be scrutinised in the planning process. If there is an expansion, the figures on which it is based can be brought before the planning process and the forecasts tested for their validity.

BAA published its draft consultative master plan for Southampton in July 2005. The plan detailed how the airport intended to meet the growing demand for regional air travel and gave a commitment to sustainable development and responsible growth. BAA is currently studying the responses to its consultation and I understand that it will write to respondents shortly to outline how it plans to address the key themes that emerged from their consultation. As reflected in my right hon. Friend's comments, those themes were noise, air quality, the potential impact on climate change and surface access.

BAA expected to publish its final master plan by the end of 2005, but the number and content of the responses that it received—800, of which I understand that 100 were quite detailed—encouraged it to carry out further work. BAA now expects to publish its final master plan this summer, alongside a noise strategy, an air quality strategy and a revised surface access strategy.

I hope that it is clear that the master-planning process and the consultation that underpinned it have provided an effective means of identifying local concerns and that they in turn have directly influenced BAA's planning for the airport. I take that as a confirmation of the value of such plans, which were introduced for the first time in the 2003 White Paper.

That is not to suggest that such plans confer planning approval for development, however. Any proposal for expansion would be subject to the planning system in the normal way, taking account of the policies set out in the White Paper and Eastleigh borough council's local plan. It is for the local development plan to address the development of the airport. The local plan and the local development frameworks must take account of the regional development strategy when it is finalised next year.

My right hon. Friend is concerned about noise. Southampton airport is designated under section 35 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982, which requires it to provide a proper forum for consultation with users, local
 
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authorities and local representative organisations. All airports so designated, including Southampton, have chosen to establish consultative committees. The airport is subject to normal planning controls, and the local planning authority may set such noise-related or other environmental conditions on new developments as it considers appropriate. I hope that that goes some way to answering my right hon. Friend's question.

I understand that the airport has a range of noise mitigation measures. Scheduled night flights are banned and a flying controls agreement is in place with Eastleigh borough council, which lays down operating guidelines to ensure that noise is kept to a minimum and hours of operation are limited. Noise-sensitive operations are restricted and noise preferential routes are in operation to avoid, as far as possible, the most heavily populated areas.

I understand that the airport began a trial of new take-off and landing procedures last July to try to minimise the impact of noise on local people. The trial is due to be completed at the end of October and the results will be reviewed by the airport's technical working group. The Government's policy, reflecting the individuality of airports, remains that local noise problems should be tackled with local solutions. The airport's flying controls agreement with Eastleigh borough council is a good example of that approach.

The provisional local transport plan for Hampshire notes that many factors contribute to air pollution, which my right hon. Friend mentioned. It also records the preparation of an air quality action plan, which is intended to address the issues that have resulted in Eastleigh being declared an air quality management area.

Unfortunately, I am about to run out of time, but I undertake to write to my right hon. Friend about the other issues that he raised. I very much hope that BAA will read this debate with interest and take proper account of the concerns that he expressed on behalf of his constituents.


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