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We are not told by how much the delay would be reduced if proposals go ahead. On that shaky, unsubstantiated and unquantified edifice rests the whole case.

By the time we got to the end of the consultation process, with the “Stakeholder Consultation Feedback”, there was no mention of delays. In that document NATS shifted its ground and instead said:

Ashmansworth parish council has pointed out that

If the benefits are doubtful, the disbenefits are clear, and many are indeed conceded by NATS. The consultation document says:

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and they produce

This is what the Government said:

There are also the downsides of noise, loss of tranquillity and visual intrusion, and the impact in villages quite high up on the north Wessex downs from civil aircraft where there are none at the moment. The proposed flight path covers highly environmentally sensitive areas—not only the north Wessex downs but the Test valley and the New Forest national park. Those who represent the North Wessex Downs area of outstanding natural beauty have made it quite clear that:

What should happen now? I believe that the Minister should tell the CAA that he is not satisfied with this exercise, and that NATS should go back to the drawing board. There is no urgency about this, and no critical issue of safety. I do not see how the Minister can just tick this one through. Basingstoke and Deane council has said:

Hampshire county council agrees:

I look to the Minister tonight to restore the credibility and integrity of the consultation process, for which he is ultimately accountable, and to say that this is not good enough.

10.36 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing the debate, and to thank him for the leadership that he has shown to me and to communities in my constituency such as Inkpen, Kintbury, Coombe and West Woodhay, and others that are alarmed by this proposal.

I want to take just a few seconds to reaffirm some of the points that my right hon. Friend has made. The consultation was undoubtedly flawed. When I received the document, I contacted National Air Traffic Services and asked it to send the document to every parish council in my constituency that would be affected. In a letter to me of 24 May, it refused to do so. I then contacted the parish councils and told them how to access the document via the internet. The problem was that the parish councils and members of the public
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had access only to the online document, and they could not read the last appendix, which details the estimated altitude of flights over their villages. The councils were therefore denied the full information that they needed in this process.

My right hon. Friend mentioned that, according to the response document, 56 per cent. of responses were rejections and only 9 per cent. contained no objection at all. In the final submission, however, not one of the original proposals had been even slightly tweaked. There has been no real explanation of why this extra airspace is needed at night, or why there is a need for more flights. If flights do not have to go over the area during the day, there must also be an alternative for night-time flights.

My right hon. Friend made an important point about noise levels. The consultation document refers to the impact on people of the aircraft noise, which according to one appendix will be equivalent to that of a car travelling at 60 kph 7 m away. The document does not, however, distinguish between such noise occurring in an urban environment with a lot of traffic and in a tranquil, rural environment. Some of the villages that my right hon. Friend and I represent are also quite high above sea level.

I hope that the Minister will address the conflicting responses that we are getting, including in a letter from the Secretary of State about the effects on Heathrow. The 57 dB limit seems very important to her, and follows detailed analysis. We are now talking about a minimum of 61 dB, rising considerably higher with certain other aircraft. I hope that the Minister will respond to those points.

10.38 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): I congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) on securing the debate. Before I attempt to answer the points that have been raised, I would like to restate that sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment are at the heart of the Department’s aviation policy-making processes. The policy that we set out in the 2003 air transport White Paper and reaffirmed in the 2006 progress report is in line with both the Stern report and the Eddington study. We recognise that a balance must be struck between tackling environmental challenges, enabling people to fly and allowing the industry to compete internationally. As a former distinguished Transport Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the role of any decision maker on airspace changes is to find the right balance in going forward.

Turning to the ongoing terminal control south west airspace change development, I would like to make it clear at the outset that that proposal is still subject to the Civil Aviation Authority’s independent airspace change process. As part of the regulatory process, the CAA might consider seeking the Secretary of State’s view on environmental aspects of the proposal and also seek her approval for the change. As such, it would be inappropriate and premature for me to offer comment on the specifics of the proposal while it is still subject
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to the rigours of this independent regulatory review process. I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for not being able to offer the more substantive response that I know he wanted me to make.

That being said, I think that it would be helpful if I summarised the sequence of events to date and provided clarity on the process of airspace change. In May this year, National Air Traffic Services began a 14-week public consultation on proposals to extend a portion of airspace termed the terminal control south west airspace development. The consultation was undertaken in accordance with CAA guidance. I shall turn to the details of the CAA’s airspace change process in a few moments, although I acknowledge that the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed strong views about the validity of the process.

Sir George Young: I am sorry to arrest the Minister in mid flight, but would he be concerned if the guidance that his Department had set out, which needs to be pursued for proposals such as this one, had not been followed?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I will express my view about the guidance in a few moments. At the moment, the best I can offer are the words that I have just used: I fully acknowledge the strong comments of the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. and hon. Friends about the validity of the process. That is clearly on the record this evening.

Following a large number of replies received near the end of the consultation period, NATS extended the consultation into the middle of September. That was done to ensure that all interested parties were given adequate opportunity to comment. NATS then undertook an analysis of all responses, which was forwarded to all who responded to the consultation and has been placed on the NATS website. That analysis, along with all consultation materials, was then submitted on 21 September by NATS to the CAA for regulatory review. The CAA will give regulatory approval for the airspace change only if all regulatory requirements are met. I understand that the CAA’s decision is expected in January 2008. If approved, the proposed change would be implemented on 10 April 2008.

I have stated already that it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the specifics of the proposal at this stage, but I would like to take this opportunity to restate NATS’s aims for the development. NATS stated in its consultation materials that the proposed development aims to enhance the safety and efficiency of air traffic control procedures. I know that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that aviation safety must remain paramount. The UK air transport industry, and NATS in particular, has an excellent safety record, and accident rates have stayed low despite a rapid rise in traffic levels, although we must never rest on our laurels. That is why NATS constantly reviews its airspace management and makes proposals for airspace changes where it believes them necessary. In the case of terminal control south west, NATS believes its proposals will reduce air traffic control complexity, reduce the work load on individual controllers, reduce delay and bring efficiencies to all aircraft passing through the region.

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It is important that I emphasise that the NATS proposal is not associated with, and will not enable expansion of, services at Bournemouth or Southampton airports or at any other airport in the region. I recognise, as I have already made clear, that the right hon. Gentleman has concerns about the consultation process, but the CAA, as owner of the airspace change process, has advised that the consultation process has been conducted in accordance with its guidance.

I think that it would be helpful to set out the process for delivering airspace change. The CAA must manage the airspace to meet the needs of all users, having regard to national security and economic and environmental factors, while maintaining a high standard of safety. The process for making changes to airspace is governed by the CAA’s airspace change process, known as CAP725.

Following review and consultation, a revised version was published in March 2007. The new guidance provides greater clarity on the roles and responsibilities of an airspace change sponsor such as NATS and of the independent regulator, the CAA. It also provides greater detail about the activities of a consultation exercise and the environmental assessment of any proposed change. A change sponsor is responsible for developing and consulting about a proposal and ensuring that it satisfies and/or enhances safety, improves capacity and mitigates, as far as is practicable, any environmental impacts in line with the Department’s environmental guidance to the CAA.

Mr. Benyon: Does the Under-Secretary agree that, when something that is so important for communities throughout the country is happening, it should not be for Members of Parliament to cascade information? We are not experts. One had to get to page 40 before reaching the meat of the document. I am sure that NATS followed the regulations, but the regulations are clearly at fault.

Jim Fitzpatrick: Later in my text, I will refer to the fact that lessons are always learned from each process. The comments that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have made this evening are now clearly on record and I would be surprised if they were not noted.

The CAA assesses a formal airspace change proposal against regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives, and either approves or rejects it. It is only when the CAA considers that a proposal might have a significant detrimental effect on the environment that it is required to advise the Secretary of State for Transport of the likely impact. It must also advise of plans to keep that impact to a minimum and to refrain from making the airspace change without first securing the Secretary of State’s approval.

Let me be plain: airspace changes are made only when it is clear, after consultation, that an overall environmental benefit will accrue, or when the airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and his colleagues also mentioned aircraft noise. I recognise that, locally, noise is a significant issue. That is why the CAA’s revised guidance on the airspace
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change process includes substantive guidance on a range of environmental requirements, including noise, air quality, tranquillity and visual intrusion. In practice, it would be impractical to prevent widespread over-flying of areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks in the south of England or elsewhere.

I cannot offer comment on the terminal control south west airspace development while it remains subject to CAA scrutiny under its independent airspace change process. However, I emphasise that the consultation has been conducted fully in accordance with the CAA’s guidance and that that guidance was recently reviewed and strengthened to provide clarity on roles, consultation activities and environmental assessment. However, as with all guidance, it remains a living document. That is why the CAA and NATS have welcomed comments on the current consultation to help their planning for any future such consultations.

Sir George Young: I sense that the Under-Secretary is about to touch down. Surely if a national park authority makes representations against a proposal such as the one that we are considering, he would expect the CAA to touch base with a Department before ticking it through?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have outlined as best I can the way in which the process works and that it is a matter for the regulator—in this case, the CAA—to make the assessment. It has to satisfy itself that the change cannot be practically done other than in the way that has been proposed for safety reasons, or that it does not impinge on the environment, as I described. Given the number of objections that Conservative Members have outlined and that have been submitted to the proposal, I would be surprised if the CAA did not fully take on board the strength of feeling and the objections raised for scientific, environmental or other reasons. However, it is not my job to pre-empt or anticipate the conclusion of the review of the regulator, who has the expertise, scientific advice, knowledge and experience to make those decisions. The structures were put in place long before I came to the Department. I have confidence that they will deliver the right results for UK plc and take into account all the issues that were raised in the consultation process.

I fully acknowledge the criticisms and concerns raised by the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen about the cascade process, and about other aspects of the consultation that they do not believe have been robust enough. As I said, I would be very surprised if those comments were not taken on board elsewhere.

Finally, I want to repeat my reassurance to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire that airspace changes are made only where it is clear, after consultation, that an overall environmental benefit will accrue, or where the airspace management considerations and the overriding need for safety allow for no practical alternative. I am sure that the record of this debate will be noted by all the organisations involved in, interested in or affected by the proposed airspace change process.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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