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12 Dec 2007 : Column 116WH—continued

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3.18 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): I am pleased to contribute to the debate. Many hon. Members will have heard me speak at length outside the Chamber about my concerns regarding the impact of the expansion of Heathrow on my constituency, but it is useful to be able to put some of those concerns on record.

Underpinning all the comments that we have heard today are a few key issues, of which the most important for me is trust, or rather people’s lack of trust, in the consultation document on which they can currently give their views. There is lack of trust because, although people expected BAA to provide data for the modelling process, they never expected Heathrow’s operator, which stood to gain so much financially from a yes decision, to do so much modelling of the environmental results. Conveniently, those results now say that it is okay to go ahead and expand Heathrow and that there will be less noise and pollution, even though the airport will be nearly twice the size.

Bias, therefore, is our other key concern. Some of us had hoped to have, perhaps for the first time, a balanced debate about how to strike a balance between the difficult issues of a growing city’s needs for airport capacity and the needs of its residents, including my constituents, who drive London’s economy day to day. We needed a reasoned debate, which would feature unbiased facts. The biggest tragedy and disappointment from my perspective is the loss of that opportunity.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) mentioned my requests for information, and in spite of six months of effort, I have still not managed to obtain any detailed modelling of the environmental impact of an expanded Heathrow. I have now asked for an internal review of the decision not to give me any data. Even that request has not had an answer. That is a month late, having been due on 6 November. It is now 12 December, and still there is no yes or no. That is the critical answer that I need, because without it I have no potential to complain—should I receive a no—to Richard Thomas, the Information Commissioner.

The matter is important for my constituents, and it is of great concern to me that public health has not yet been considered. The impact that the development could have on family life in Putney is of great concern to me. In the recent study, “Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England”, which examined how aircraft noise affects people across England, many of the people who identified themselves as most frustrated and annoyed by aircraft noise were, ironically, professional people—the very ones who are about to get on to crammed tubes every day, struggle in to the City and do those deals that keep the wheels of our economy turning. It is therefore particularly worrying that the Government and the Minister are so cavalier about the risks.

I want to keep my comments short, but I have a few final key questions for the Minister. What independent review has been undertaken of the environmental work, and is the Minister willing to say which bodies did it and to put their comments in the public domain? What independent review was undertaken of the public consultation exhibition boards that are being shown to people? That is not happening in my constituency—
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according to the Government, my patch apparently does not have a problem with aircraft noise, so it does not need a consultation.

Who reviewed the boards? One of the bullet points on them says, for example, that nine out of 10 companies in the area close to Heathrow say that it is very important or vital, but it fails to point out that that figure refers to nine out of 10 companies that responded to the questionnaire, which was sent out as part of the Oxford Economic Forecasting report.

I understand that just 5 per cent. of companies that were asked for a view bothered to respond. So, one in 20, rather than nine out of 10, thinks that Heathrow is critical or very important. What process was used for the questionnaire that people were asked to fill in? Many of us are concerned that it is very technical. I appreciate that this is a technical area, but what review process was there for the document, so as to provide a reasonable check of its intelligibility?

I make a final plea to the Minister for some assurances. Many different groups and individuals, including my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), London First and all the MPs present for the debate, say that environmental issues are important. Will the Minister at least give an assurance that if—when I eventually get the facts about what has been modelled—it turns out that the expansion of Heathrow will be as catastrophic for the local environment as some of us suspect, he will go back to the drawing board and take on board the grave concerns that we all have for the environment and London’s economy?

The Government will not be able to persist in sticking their head in the sand. We need a reasoned, balanced approach that confronts environmental issues, rather than pretending they do not exist. Whether by this Government or another, the issues will have to be confronted eventually. The cost to the population of London of getting the decision wrong will be very dear. The Minister should be careful before pressing on in such a cavalier way.

3.25 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate. The brief time that I have available will allow me to register three messages with the Minister.

First, Hillingdon speaks with one voice on this issue through its elected representatives in Parliament and in the council. The community that I represent is not losing houses, schools or churches, but it feels tremendous solidarity with the outrage at the putting of business before people, as my hon. Friend put it. My constituents are worried about the impact of new take-off flight paths over Harrow and Northolt. They are worried about what the expansion means for the future of RAF Northolt, because there have been mixed messages about that in the past, and they are worried about what it means in terms of the costs that they will have to pay.

In the interest of joined-up government, the Department for Transport should be aware that the expansion of Heathrow presents the people of Hillingdon with a real issue, because a bigger airport means more unaccompanied
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minors seeking asylum. That is not an issue that affects every constituency in the country, but the numbers are big and the economic reality is that Hillingdon supports those unfortunate people and pays for them. The numbers run into hundreds, and the costs into millions of pounds. Hillingdon takes enormous pride in the service and support that it offers, but is deeply disappointed by the Government’s reaction to its need for funding support. The reality, of which the Minister should be aware, is that this year Hillingdon council tax will rise 3 per cent. to fund those costs, which the Government do not meet. That problem touches people in their pockets and we in the community are concerned that it will begin to affect what have been, up to now, very good community relations. I give that example to show the many facets and angles of the debate that the Government need to think carefully about.

Secondly, the process may drive another nail into the coffin of public trust in the political process and the Government. Other hon. Members have made that point adequately, but it is a simple one: promises have been broken, so why should anyone believe what the Government say on the issue in future?

Thirdly, I want to reinforce the point that the process is in danger of driving a coach and horses through the Government’s climate change policy. Are we serious about that or not? If we are, why do we continue to adopt a predict-and-provide approach for the fastest-growing source of emissions? We should remind ourselves that aviation is the fastest-growing source of emissions in this country: it has grown 90 per cent. between 1990 and 2004 and is expected to double by 2050. On some models it will represent 100 per cent. of Britain’s carbon budget by 2050 if it is left unchecked, yet we continue to give a green light to further expansion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge pointed out.

What on earth are we to say to our constituents when they say, “Hang on, the Government are telling us that climate change is the most important challenge we face, but they are expanding Heathrow”? The Minister may talk about emissions trading in his reply, but I sat on the Environmental Audit Committee for two years and we examined emissions trading exhaustively. It is a cap and trade scheme, and cap and trade schemes are only as good as the cap. The history of the emissions trading scheme should not, if it is the only tool in the box for controlling aircraft emissions, give the Government any of the comfort that we desperately need in the face of the threat.

My final point is that the Government argue that the expansion is in the interest of national competitiveness and the national economy, but I seriously doubt whether that proposition has been tested adequately. The growth in aviation is due not to business, but to cheap leisure. With the growth of sophisticated video conferencing technology, I do not expect that trend to change. What proportion of the new passengers will be interchange passengers, who contribute nothing to the national economy? What consideration has been given to the tourism deficit—the difference between what British tourists spend overseas and what overseas tourists spend here—which is calculated to be about £15 billion annually? How has the London economy
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suffered during the time when Heathrow has not grown as fast as other international airports? I have not noticed such suffering.

Have the Government really caught the genuine voice of business? The last British Chambers of Commerce survey that I saw said that 70 per cent. were not in favour of Heathrow expansion. The last Institute of Directors survey showed that only 1 per cent. of directors considered the expansion of Heathrow to be a priority. The voice that I hear says that people want a better airport, not a bigger airport.

We have an opportunity to stop the rot. The Government have an absolutely golden opportunity to take a lead and stop the nonsensical game of, “My airport is bigger than your airport,” as if it were a significant symbol of a nation’s status. The Prime Minister has billed the issue as an example of his ability to take a tough decision; the truth is that the only brave and visionary decision would be to say no.

3.30 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I speak not only on behalf of my party as its transport spokesperson, but as the Member for Richmond Park, a constituency that is very definitely under the flight path. If I have a conflict of interest, it is that I live under the flight path and within the 57 dB benchmark area.

My party is unequivocally and without question opposed to the third runway, to the sixth terminal and to the end of runway alternation and its substitution for mixed mode. We oppose each proposal that was offered in the Heathrow consultation, which would create a Gatwick next to Heathrow. It would not be expansion; it would essentially be the creation of a second airport on the Heathrow site. I hope today that I hear from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman equally unequivocal opposition to the expansion plans.

This must be one of the most ironic debates ever. Government representatives are in Bali, supposedly at the heart of negotiations on how we as a global economy can combat climate change and on the changes that we must make to every aspect of life; but here we are, at a debate in which the Government are proposing probably the most significant carbon emission-increasing measures that will pass in front of any Department in the next decade. I shall use my time in several ways. This is not a moment to reiterate the general debate about carbon emissions, but with air transport already producing about 5.6 per cent. of emissions, and well on its way to producing 25 per cent. of UK emissions by about 2030 if nothing is done, it strikes me as completely ludicrous to think that that strategy could possibly be in keeping with the thrust and urgency of tackling climate change.

The proposal is the last throe of an old era—a project that has been in the stocks for a long time and that represents an old way of thinking. When I hear the business case, I am very much reminded of all those discussions with business back in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when every city needed more and more motorways carved through its centre and every road needed to be expanded, because if one did not constantly predict and provide and stimulate and meet demand, one’s economy would simply turn in on itself
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and begin to disintegrate. That thinking has ended—thank goodness. When we talk about the motor car, we recognise its foolishness, but the same thinking still seems to capture the Government when they deal with aviation.

If the Government really were to spend some time with the business community, they would find that opinions have shifted dramatically. People who did not question the conventional wisdom one or two years ago question it today. If the Government were to talk to small and medium-sized businesses, particularly, in this city, they would find general disinterest in what happens at Heathrow. The businesses would like a decent service at Heathrow, but there is no sense that we are short of the capacity to move people across the globe or across continental Europe, or that additional flights are desperately required at Heathrow.

The hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) and others made the point that the strength of the London economy has depended on its ability to attract headquarters, particularly in major industries such as banking and finance. The Minister knows that those companies move to London only because the families of senior executives are willing to live here, which is one reason why Frankfurt has not expanded as many in the Germany economy anticipated. That situation has given strength and opportunity to London, but on the day that those additional flights come overhead and the third runway means that planes fly intensively over Kensington and Chelsea, there will be a fundamental change in the attitude towards living in this city. Quality of life is not simply a nicety, a luxury or an add-on; it is essential to the functioning of London’s economy, and as we lose it, we put the future of London at risk.

Justine Greening: The hon. Lady knows that planes already fly overhead for half the day, so it is not a question of imposing on people something that they do not have. They already have half a day of planes flying overhead; they are asking for the other half to be kept free.

Susan Kramer: I can only agree with the hon. Lady. Mixed mode and half a day of peace certainly make a huge difference in my constituency. People can plan things like weddings in the afternoon, and schools can have a sports day during which their children can be outside and hear each other in the afternoon. The difference is phenomenal. I am conscious of other constituencies that are so close to the airport that children’s education and lives are generally disrupted by the constant impact of noise, but the loss of that half day is the final straw for my community. People who have put up with the insistent and intrusive level of noise have been able to do so only because they know that there will be relief from time to time. To take away that relief is so utterly fundamental that the Minister should meet some of my constituents to understand how it changes their views, turning them from people who are generally opposed to Heathrow into active militants.

Noise was inadequately dealt with during the consultation. I spoke to a noise expert who visited
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Barnes wetlands recently. The hon. Member for Putney also attended, because it was the nearest exhibition to her constituency. The expert and I agreed that decibels are a measure of interest to physicists who are interested in the behaviour of sound waves, but that they do not tell anybody very much about how people hear noise. The value of the “Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England” study has been to demonstrate that noise is becoming more intrusive, disturbing and annoying. If the Government will not take it into serious consideration and understand that the standards of noise that they used in the past will not do today, just as the standards of pollution, cleanliness and responsiveness that we used in the past will not do today, they do not understand the dynamics of my city.

The issue that exercises me more than any other is the consultation process. Several hon. Members have said that there is a question about trust. Indeed, one promise after another has been broken over the years, so we start from a position of grave distrust of the Government and of BAA and its motivations. It bothers people enormously that BAA was so intensely involved in the development of the consultation documents and of the documents behind them, such that it is impossible to tell where one organisation stops and the other begins. There was obviously no independence in that process.

I ask once more, will the Minister come, or will he direct his senior officials to come, and answer questions directly, face to face? Some 700 families will lose their homes, thousands of people will lose their half day of peace and thousands more will come under the flight path for the first time, but no Minister is willing to enter into dialogue. We live in a democracy, and such dialogue is essential. The mistrust extends to the planning process, which is quite frightening when one considers the issue in the context of airport expansion.

The possibility is that without consultation, the new proposals for Heathrow will be fast-tracked into the new Planning Bill. Someone said to me—it struck me as wise—that we ought to call it the “Planning (More Runways and Nuclear Power Stations) Bill”, because that is what it is—a mechanism for a fast-track decision, which essentially means that local people will be carved out of any effective consultation. I have said to the Minister before—I think perhaps he smiled and laughed at the time—that many of the questions in the consultation document are just about unintelligible. To work one’s way through it and give a positive or sensible set of responses is nearly impossible.

Those of us who oppose the expansion are backed by the 2M group, which comprises local councils representing more than 2 million residents. As a group, collectively and across parties, we are determined to fight the expansion in every way we can, by every means. I suspect that we will succeed, because we have the populace behind us. We are all determined to ensure that the expansion does not happen.

3.40 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on obtaining the debate. He has been a most effective campaigner for his constituents on the
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issue over the years and has made his mark again and again. In March, I visited his near neighbours in Hounslow, and the vexation of local people was evident. Many felt that they had been, and continued to be, ignored. One would have needed a heart of stone not to be affected by some of the sights. Lampton school, which I visited, did not even have an air-conditioned room for students to take their exams in, so the teaching staff were faced with the choice of frying them in a boiling hot room in June or their having to be deafened every 90 seconds by a jumbo taking off.

My hon. Friend represented the views of his constituents colourfully, and when he mentioned the highland clearances and we heard the vigorous speech of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), it struck me that if the Scots had had those two at Culloden, history might have taken a different course.

The debate presents an opportunity to put many people’s concerns to the Minister, and there have been some very good speeches. In fact, we all welcome the opportunity to question the Government. We have been told by them, not least by the Prime Minister, that the expansion of Heathrow is an issue of the utmost national importance—so important, in fact, that the decision to launch the consultation did not even involve the Secretary of State coming to the House. Instead, it was slipped out in a written statement.

Meanwhile, a report appeared in The Times on 22 November under the headline, “Stansted runway plan scrapped in favour of Heathrow growth”, saying that the Government were prepared to drop backing for expansion at Stansted to get it at Heathrow. Is that true? The Opposition are firmly against further runway expansion at Stansted and Gatwick. Nobody with a serious commitment to combating climate change—we heard a brief but remarkable speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd)—could consider the three extra runways that were in the Government’s original White Paper.

We, as a party, are committed to reducing the growth in aviation emissions towards a rate that could be covered by efficiency savings. Nevertheless, we recognise as a party that the economic case for expanding Heathrow is much stronger than those for the other two airports. With characteristic vigour, my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) made some points on that. However, before any decision can be made on a matter of such importance, four tests must be met—those set out clearly by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), who has taken the trouble to join us today. They are on NOx pollution, noise, examining alternative ways to meet demand and free up capacity, and, above all, meeting our climate change targets.

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