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15 Jan 2008 : Column 242WH—continued

A much expected and much welcomed housing scheme was sadly put on hold and then lost to us because of the airport debate. I fully supported that action—it would have been utterly unfair to have left Gatwick out of the
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debate—but we need clarity about when we can move on. Much of that land still needs to be safeguarded in order to protect the environment for those who live in the area, but some of the land will provide much needed affordable housing for those many constituents who have no other opportunity for housing. It is now clearly off the agenda, and we want to get many of those issues settled as soon as possible.

I believe that Gatwick airport is the life-blood of the Gatwick diamond area. It gives us a quality of life that many people would never have achieved because of the quality of the jobs and opportunities that it offers. Of course it also brings challenges, but I believe that those challenges are worth facing. We should tackle them in a way that allows our airport to thrive and prosper but that also allows us to deal with environmental concerns. Gatwick is an important player in the UK’s aviation industry—and it wants to remain one.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tom Harris): I begin by apologising on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is absent today. As Minister with responsibility for aviation he should be responding to this debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) does not mind that while he is away on official duty I have been taken off the subs’ bench.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on the future of Gatwick. I pay tribute to the work that she continues to do on behalf of her constituents, particularly with regard to the airport. Earlier in my period of office, I had responsibility for the railways, and she was one of the first to knock on my door to canvass support for the retention of the Gatwick Express when that franchise was redrawn—and she was very successful. If someone were to ask me the name of her constituency, I would have to think twice before rejecting the name Gatwick.

The Government fully recognise Gatwick’s position and importance as a significant international airport and as a major contributor to the UK aviation industry and to the economy of the south-east. Gatwick airport remains the UK’s second busiest airport, the seventh busiest international airport and the busiest single-runway airport in the world. It is open all year round, 24 hours a day. It handles more than 35 million passengers and sees almost 250,000 air transport movements. About 90 airlines operate from Gatwick’s two terminals, which serve well over 200 destinations worldwide.

My hon. Friend spoke of the many people that Gatwick employs directly—about 25,000—and the 13,000 people employed indirectly, and of the airport’s impact on the local and regional economies. Her record in the House testifies to the importance that she places on Gatwick as the centre of employment in her constituency.

Gatwick is well known for serving holiday destinations around the world, particularly in the charter market, but it also supports a significant number of business passengers. It is well connected to the south-east’s motorway
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and strategic road networks and it has good public transport services, including a regular non-stop express rail service to London Victoria station.

Gatwick airport is a major employer in the south-east, directly providing about 25,000 jobs on site, with more being provided by associated companies and organisations away from the airport itself. As the second largest UK airport, it makes a significant contribution to the regional and national economies. The Government are keen to see that contribution continue. Indeed, our most recent passenger forecasts, published in November last year, continue to show strong demand for Gatwick. However, the Government also recognise that Gatwick has faced challenges to its future development, including the capacity limitations of its single runway during high demand periods.

Given Gatwick’s important contribution to airport capacity in the south-east, it was clear when we were preparing the 2003 air transport White Paper setting out our strategy for airport development for the next 30 years that we would need to consider options for its development as part of the process. In the lead-up to the White Paper, we therefore considered a number of new runway options at Gatwick, and we concluded that there was a strong case for a new wide-spaced runway.

However, the White Paper also concluded that a 1979 planning agreement preventing the construction of a second runway at Gatwick before 2019 should continue to be honoured. The White Paper therefore indicated that land should be safeguarded for the option for a wide-spaced second runway after 2019, in case the environmental conditions specified for a new third runway at Heathrow airport could not be met. Our policy has not changed.

As hon. Members know, the Secretary of State launched the consultation on adding capacity at Heathrow airport last November. That meets the commitment made in the White Paper to consult on proposals for adding a third runway and to explore the scope for making better use of existing runways. The consultation closes on 27 February, so there is still time for all interested parties, even those who have more specific interests in Gatwick, to respond.

In the light of the results of the consultation, we expect to be able to take final policy decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow by this summer at the very earliest. Depending on the outcome of the consultation, it will be for the airport operator to obtain the necessary consents in accordance with applicable planning rules and within relevant statutory and other criteria. However, even with the new proposals contained in the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament, preparing suitable planning applications and achieving planning approvals for a third runway will take several years. I know that, on this particular occasion, that will not be a surprise to my hon. Friend.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend about releasing land for housing; I know that this is a subject that she feels very strongly about. However, the option of a second runway at Gatwick remains a possible alternative depending on the outcome of policy and planning decisions relating to the expansion of Heathrow. We do not intend to lift the safeguarding of the land that might be used for a second runway at Gatwick
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before firm and final decisions on a third runway at Heathrow are taken. I do not believe that it would be prudent to do so.

For Gatwick, our forecasts for the White Paper showed that additional runway capacity would be very attractive to travellers. The option for a wide-spaced second runway at the airport would generate around double the economic benefits of an alternative close parallel runway option and it would provide additional capacity of about 40 million passengers a year, taking the airport to a total of about 83 million passengers every year. However, in examining the full picture and the wider economic benefits, the Government still concluded that they wanted to prioritise developments of new runways at Stansted and Heathrow.

In line with the White Paper, Gatwick’s operator, BAA, published a master plan for the airport in October 2006. That outlined plans for maximising use of the existing runway and identified land for a possible new runway after 2019, and it also outlined plans for enhancements to the existing terminal facilities. Developments since the master plan have included the opening in 2005 of the impressive north terminal pier 6 air passenger bridge, which is a major engineering achievement and the world’s largest passenger bridge at an airport. It spans an existing taxiway and cuts out the need for about 50,000 short-distance coach journeys across the terminal aprons, helping to reduce the airport’s environmental impacts as well as providing greater convenience and time savings for passengers. Investment also continues to improve the airport’s facilities with a comprehensive programme of refurbishment and maintenance works, including flooring, lighting and redecoration in the two terminals, which is designed to enhance the passenger experience.

Gatwick is committed to being a good neighbour to communities around the airport and is keen to address issues such as reducing the impact of aircraft noise, managing air quality and helping to reduce traffic congestion on roads around the airport. It is working with local authorities to review its environmental management and community and economic strategies, to ensure that the local authorities support the implementation of the airport’s master plan. This will lead, later this year, to a new legal agreement with local authorities that will set out how the commitments will be implemented and monitored. The airport operator also continues to work in partnership with local authorities and other groups and organisations on activities and projects ranging across many facets of local community life.

I have already mentioned Gatwick’s excellent links to the surface transport network, but we acknowledge that there is room to improve those links even further. We are pleased, therefore, that Network Rail plans to redevelop
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and improve Gatwick’s railway station facilities in time for the London Olympics in 2012. Of course, we also welcome the prospect of improvements to the Gatwick Express rail service planned for later this year, when the operating franchise is integrated with the Southern franchise. The improvements will include provision of 85 refurbished rail vehicles to provide extended express services between London and Brighton.

The non-stop Gatwick Express service will not only remain fast and frequent but will continue to be geared to the needs of air passengers by providing luggage storage and multilingual onboard announcements. The Gatwick Express franchise has been very well run by National Express and its early termination, in June this year, is no reflection at all on that company. An agreement allowing early, no-fault termination was agreed between the Department for Transport and the company some time ago, and this is now being invoked to allow the implementation of improvements to the London to Brighton rail service, including for the Gatwick Express service, under the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy.

The Government have always considered that Gatwick would remain a lynchpin in the development of future airport capacity in the south-east, in recognition of its significance to the region and to the country. We reflected that in our air transport White Paper and we remain confident that Gatwick will retain its position.

In conclusion, I would like once again to thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. I would also like to agree with the comments that she has made about the trade unions’ effective working at Gatwick and I would like to join her in paying tribute to the cleaning staff at Gatwick too, because I know that they perform what is often a very undervalued and overlooked service, which is, of course, extremely important. They form part of a work force at Gatwick who have helped to bring Gatwick into the 21st century and to create first-class, world-class services at Gatwick.

I know that my hon. Friend, as the Member representing the constituency in which Gatwick resides, will not allow the importance of Gatwick to slip from the Government’s agenda. I am more than happy to pass on the comments that she has made today to my hon. Friend, the Aviation Minister.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I am sorry that your successor in that chair, Mr. Harris, has not taken the Gatwick Express to get here a little quicker. Unfortunately, the sitting is now adjourned until 1.30 pm; no, he has not come in the door. We could have started earlier, but thank you all very much.

1.26 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Science and Technology Facilities Council

1.30 pm

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): It is a great pleasure to conduct this debate under your elegant chairmanship, Mr. Hancock.

The title of our debate should perhaps be “The Crisis in the Science and Technology Facilities Council”, rather than the “Science and Technology Facilities Council”. As the Minister for Science and Innovation knows, I am lucky enough to represent two of this country’s pre-eminent scientific institutions. One is the Diamond synchrotron, which has recently opened, and we thank the Government for that, because it represents a significant investment in science. The other is the Rutherford Appleton ISIS station and laboratory, which has been open considerably longer. Those are major scientific institutions, so it is with some consternation that we learn that the STFC has circulated a letter to employees at Rutherford Appleton asking for voluntary redundancies, and the same has happened in Daresbury and at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh. As a result, certainly at Rutherford, between 300 and 600 scientists could be made redundant.

That is not the only crisis facing physics. There will also be a 25 per cent. cut in university research grants, which amounts to £20 million. In addition, there will be cuts to nuclear physics research programmes—in the same week that the Government have announced their commitment to nuclear power. Finally, the STFC has withdrawn from major international projects, such as the Gemini observatory and the international linear collider.

One might ask how on earth we have reached such a position. The STFC says that it has an £80 million deficit, so it is looking to make savings of £120 million and it is making scientists redundant. At the same time, the Minister is going around saying that he has increased the STFC budget by 13.6 per cent. We know that is what he will say again today because that is what he said at departmental questions last week. The attitude of the Minister and the Government seems to be that there is nothing that they can or should do. They are nowhere to be seen during this crisis and they say that they are not responsible for it—in effect, they are saying, “Crisis? What crisis?”

Indeed, the Minister has gone further. Apparently, the media were briefed before his now infamous appearance on the “Today” programme on 11 December that his Department—the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills—would not give in to “complainers”. Unfortunately for the Minister, the complainers are some of the country’s most eminent physicists. If anything is more complicated than a comprehensive spending review, it is probably particle physics, so I am indebted to those physicists, who have put their intelligence to use analysing how the STFC’s deficit has come about at a time when the Minister is going around saying that he has given the council a 13.6 per cent. increase.

If we analyse the extra £185 million in funding to the council, we find that £11.6 million, or 6.8 per cent., represents the increase in capital, £81.7 million, or 52.4 per cent., represents the non-cash increase and £91.9 million, or 8 per cent., represents the near-cash increase. Non-cash represents the provisions on the balance sheet for things such as future liabilities and depreciation,
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and the important point is that it cannot be spent as cash at all. What matters is near-cash, which can be spent on facilities, university grants and subscriptions. As I have shown, the annual rate of increase for the next three years is 2.7 per cent., which in effect constitutes a flat-cash settlement and is far below the 17 per cent. average given to other research councils. Of the so-called increase in funding, £40 million has already been eaten up by redundancy costs at the synchrotron radiation source at Daresbury and £35 million will go to meet the additional costs of running Diamond and ISIS 2. The important point, which has had to be teased out through freedom of information requests by some of our scientists, is that the STFC has been telling Ministers about the problem since July and painting clear scenarios of what will happen, depending on which settlement it was given.

Other factors that have come into play include the fact that money previously channelled to university research through the Higher Education Funding Council is now being channelled through the research councils. Although it looks as though the research councils have had a cash uplift, they are in fact spending not new money, but old money that was going towards research costs. That money is certainly welcome, and we welcome the reforms that the Government have made in terms of meeting full economic costs over the past few years, but the money that is being channelled through the research councils is not new. There is also the ongoing problem, not caused by the Government, of the growing cost of our international subscriptions, which are linked to gross domestic product growth.

Let me add as an aside that the cause of the STFC’s huge deficit was emphatically not cost overruns at Diamond. A rumour was put about just before Christmas that Diamond had somehow exceeded its bill costs, but that is not the case, and the project came in on budget and on time.

The Minister goes around saying that there has been a huge cash increase, but the STFC is slightly more straightforward. In its circular 01/08, which contains the news that staff at Daresbury, Rutherford and the Astronomy Technology Centre will be asked to apply for voluntary redundancy, the STFC states:

On 7 November, the STFC wrote to the Minister, saying:

synchrotron radiation source—

So the STFC is saying that it has had a flat-cash allocation, while the Minister is telling Parliament that it has had a 13.6 per cent. increase. It will be interesting to see how the Minister squares that circle.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate on what he rightly describes as a crisis in the STFC’s funding. Is he aware that the crisis affects not only the organisations and institutions in his constituency that he mentioned, but similar internationally renowned facilities elsewhere, including those carrying out physics and
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astronomy work at Leicester university, in my constituency? That vital work is being brought to a dramatic conclusion as a result of the council’s announcement, and the prospect of redundancy and of major programmes being halted is as great in Leicester as it is in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Mr. Vaizey: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. In fact, my entire speech could be a catalogue of the cuts that are taking place throughout the particle physics community. As far as I am aware, every physics community in every university is affected by these cuts.

As I said, it is impossible to square the circle: on the one hand, the Minister is saying that there has been a 13.6 per cent. increase, but on the other hand, the STFC is saying that it has had a flat-cash settlement. One wonders whether our scientists are living in a parallel universe—perhaps some physicist has discovered one in their research. The Royal Society says that

The Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics say that the reductions

A member of the Standing Conference of Astronomy Professors has told me that there is a

A senior member at Rutherford, who must of course remain anonymous, tells me that

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