Previous Section Index Home Page

2 Apr 2008 : Column 841

Norman Baker: I am grateful for that intervention, and for the hon. Gentleman sharing his knowledge on the matter.

I deal now with noise pollution in particular. There is no doubt that the expansion of Heathrow will result in extra noise pollution for local residents. The key figure quoted by the Government is 57 dB, as that is the level at which community annoyance sets in. BAA has estimated that more than 250,000 people now live inside the 57 dB contour. They are therefore affected already, but the proposed expansion will make the problem much worse.

In fact, the problem is even more serious, as the World Health Organisation has challenged the Government’s view on noise thresholds. It has argued that 50 dB is the appropriate level for determining annoyance, and that 55 dB constitutes serious annoyance. Therefore, even according to the BAA figures, it is clear that all the people in the immediate area are experiencing serious annoyance, according to the WHO definition.

In November 2007 the Government published a study entitled “Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England”, and Ministers will know that it reinforces the WHO’s argument very strongly. Although there are “only” 250,000 residents in Heathrow’s 57 dB area, another 2 million people live within the 50 dB area. Adding those figures together gives us the total number of people the WHO believes are being affected by noise pollution at the present time, so what will the total be if the planned expansion goes ahead?

The Government said that they would not go ahead with Heathrow expansion if the number of people living in the 57 dB area increased. How will the Government square having a third runway with that pledge on noise? We have heard nothing about that.

In addition, the new flight path will pass over such places as Heston, Chiswick, north Hammersmith, Kensington and Chelsea, Langley, Slough and Maidenhead. A total of 150,000 people live in those areas, but do the Government believe that they do not count?

On top of all that, Heathrow expansion would have significant impacts on health. The 1999 study into public health impacts at large airports that was carried out for the Dutch Government found evidence to suggest that exposure to the air pollution levels observed within an airport’s operations system—and in that sense Heathrow is the largest airport in the world—was linked to higher mortality rates, and to more frequent hospital admissions as a result of the aggravation of respiratory and cardiovascular problems. The study also found that air pollution was linked to decreased lung function, and an increase in chronic respiratory conditions. What assessment have the Government made of the current health implications for people who live near Heathrow, and what assessment have they made, seriously, of the implications if a third runway is given the go-ahead?

Mr. Wilshire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman twice, and the last time it was not worth doing so, so he will forgive me if I do not give way now.
2 Apr 2008 : Column 842

Mr. Wilshire: I was going to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman said that he would be helpful last time. On the issue of children and education, I refer the Secretary of State to the European Commission’s RANCH project on road traffic and aircraft noise exposure, which found a clear link between aircraft noise and delays in reading age. A 5 dB increase in noise level was linked to children being up to two months behind in their reading age. Those are serious issues for people who live in the Heathrow area, and they are not being addressed; they are being skated over. The Government are not taking into account health or the environment; they are considering only BAA.

A third runway would increase flights at Heathrow from 477,000—we were promised that that would be the maximum—to 720,000 a year. That is a huge increase, and it is contrary to a statement made in 2001 by one of the Secretary of State’s predecessors, the right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers), who said of terminal 5:

That pledge was made firmly by her predecessor less than seven years ago, but it is being torn up, and the Government apparently anticipate a virtual doubling of flights into Heathrow.

Susan Kramer: I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, because it touches on the sense of betrayal that my constituents feel. Not only did the Government agree that they would cap flights at 480,000, but Sir John Egan, chairman of BAA, said that BAA would urge the Government to rule out an additional runway at Heathrow if permission were given for terminal 5. On the basis of that trust, approval for terminal 5 was given, only for that agreement to be torn up three weeks after the planning inspector’s decision.

Norman Baker: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we can draw three lessons from that. The first is that the aviation industry is insatiable, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, South has said; the second is that Governments always give way; and the third is that when it comes to aviation, they do not keep their promises. In fact, they forget their promises and pretend that they have not made them. Another issue—the number of issues to do with Heathrow is almost endless—is the question of whether expansion is safe. That is an important and serious consideration.

Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that he has not mentioned in his motion, although it is very much on my mind following the tragic air crash in Farnborough in my constituency on Sunday, in which five people died in a plane. It is a miracle that more people were not killed in the residential area that abuts Biggin Hill. When planning airport expansion, the Secretary of State ought to pay attention to the question of how close expansion should come to built-up residential areas with hospitals, schools and houses. It is a serious issue.

2 Apr 2008 : Column 843

Norman Baker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; he makes an important point. Of course, because we are expanding Heathrow incrementally and constantly, the expansion will come up against existing settlements; some will be demolished, but others will be left very close indeed to runways. That is worrying and needs to be considered.

Another safety issue is the question of how much traffic we can accommodate in the skies around Heathrow and over London. Will we have a system of stacking, which is environmentally unsustainable and churns out huge amounts of carbon emissions for no benefit? It is also suggested that stacking will result in a greater number of planes attempting to land at Heathrow than air traffic control can deal with. At the last Transport Question Time I put that point to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is responsible for aviation, and who is present today. I quoted to him a report in The Sunday Times that said that NATS and the CAA were of the view that there was insufficient airspace to accommodate the scale of predicted traffic growth, according to current predictive technology. In his response, the Minister said:

I wrote to NATS, because I am a suspicious sort of person, and I got a letter back from it only yesterday. It is from the corporate and technical centre, so I suppose that the writers of the letter know what they are about. It says:

NATS has not carried out detailed work, and it has not been asked to carry out detailed work. How does that square with the assurance that the Minister gave me in Transport questions? More to the point, why has it not been asked to carry out that work? I should have thought that that was one of the first things that the Government ought to do.

Let us move on to the economic case. If there are all those environmental downsides to Heathrow, which there undoubtedly are; if there are concerns about health, which there are; and if there are concerns about safety, which there are, what are the overriding benefits that suggest that we should go ahead with the proposal? The Government keep saying that it is terribly important for Britain’s economy, so it seems that in the equation they have set out for themselves we have the economic benefits on one side and virtually everything else on the other. Are those economic benefits so strong and so enormous that they outweigh all the disbenefits that I and many others have identified in the last weeks and months?

A couple of days ago, the Aviation Minister dealt with the urgent question on terminal 5 and told the House that

That does not suggest that there is much of a consultation exercise going on, as the Government have already concluded that they will be proved right.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, whether we like it or not, the situation with Heathrow is as it is, that it is important to protect the landing slots from Scotland and, in particular, that there should be an expansion of landing slots from Inverness? We should have direct access to Heathrow from the highlands of Scotland, which is a large area. I hope he supports that.

Norman Baker: I understand the position of those remote communities in particular, which have a stronger case for aviation links to London than do, dare I say it, those who are rather nearer to London but still arguing for expansion.

We have heard the arguments about Heathrow being important to the national economy, but how important is it? On the question of who uses Heathrow—this comes from another parliamentary answer that I received—26 per cent. of those passengers are international-to-international transit passengers. Apart from the benefits to BAA’s airport shops, I am not clear about exactly what benefit is brought to the UK by 26 per cent. of passengers transferring from international airline to international airline. I say to the Minister that if all those people went to Schiphol, I do not see what the impact on the British economy would be.

There is a further contingent of passengers, which is those who transfer from domestic to international—a substantial number of people. Those passengers, of course, could be better served if there were perhaps more flights from places such as Manchester out to international destinations, rather than flights always going from Heathrow. But it suits BA to use Heathrow as a hub, moving planes into Heathrow and passengers—

Mr. Wilshire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman again in this debate. I am sorry, but I have already given way to him two or three times.

It very much suits BA and BAA to move passengers into Heathrow and then move them out again, because it means that those people can stay at Heathrow and use BAA’s shops, spending lots of money. It does not much suit passengers, who would benefit from more direct flights. Nor does it suit the environment to have two flights instead of one. Does the Government’s consultation paper consider whether there is a prospect of moving flights from Heathrow to other UK airports, which would obviate the need for a third runway?

Mr. MacNeil: Unfortunately, I am a frequent traveller to Heathrow and, unfortunately, I had the largest travel expenses of any Member of this Parliament last year, given geography and the many flights that I have to take each week. I am often struck by the fact that, after coming down from Glasgow at high speed, flights end up stacking at Heathrow. Is there any way to slow flights down so that the need for stacking would be
2 Apr 2008 : Column 845
reduced and people could arrive in some sort of sequence, rather than spending their time stacked up over London, which, believe me, is very frustrating for passengers?

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and what he refers to is a fault of the current system. We could eliminate some carbon emissions if we had better planning of flight arrivals. Trains do not all arrive at Victoria at the same time and have to wait outside the station for a platform to become vacant. There is a timetable, which brings those trains in at the appropriate time. That works most of the time at least. It ought to be possible for NATS to introduce a better system to avoid stacking. I am disappointed that the Government have not progressed that satisfactorily. If there are so many downsides to Heathrow environmentally, on health grounds and economically, what is the Government’s amendment about? What is their consultation paper about? What is the motivation behind what they are trying to achieve? One must look carefully at the links between BAA and the Government to try to find some rationale for the position that the Government have adopted.

People in London particularly have been badly served by the consultation process so far. The Minister will know that the consultation form, which was eight pages long, was widely regarded as full of jargon and technical language and difficult for the average person to understand, so already people were excluded from the consultation process. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) reported the consultation process to the Plain English Campaign, which described it as “atrocious” and stated that

BAA had a significant role in the consultation document. I notice that it even has the copyright for the photograph on the cover. The Government came out in favour of a third runway in 2003. They insisted that strict environmental targets should be met on air and noise pollution. That was a sensible policy, but what happened?

We found out from an article that was published recently in The Sunday Times that a senior civil servant, David Gray, was tasked with showing how the runway could be built without negative impacts, and showed that an additional runway would mean a lot more air pollution. How could that be avoided? That was his task. He was not tasked with receiving the data and producing a neutral report; he was tasked with fiddling the data and producing a report that was skewed towards BAA and produced the right result at the end.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) on her freedom of information request, which showed that the unsatisfactory initial results led to executives from BAA being given unrivalled access to Whitehall and confidential data so that they could select alternative input data for environmental predictions until they got the right results. That is a disgrace and it shows that the Government concluded in the consultation paper that a new airport the size of Gatwick, effectively, could be bolted on to Heathrow as a new runway without any adverse environmental impact. It is astonishing that they could have reached that conclusion.

We know from BAA that it now has as its director of public affairs Tom Kelly, Tony Blair’s former Downing
2 Apr 2008 : Column 846
street spokesman, who famously called Dr. David Kelly a “Walter Mitty” character. It is perhaps Tom Kelly who is a “Walter Mitty” character living a fantasy life where there is no pollution from aircraft, where clean cars exist so there is no impact from the road movements to Heathrow, and where international flights can be discounted in the calculations of the air pollution that will result from any third runway.

Even the Government’s advisory body, the Environment Agency, has unpicked the Department for Transport document and concluded that it is not sufficiently robust to support the construction of a third runway. It states:

I have not heard that uncertainty from the Government or from BAA. They appear to be quite certain that the environmental impact will be negative. They seem to dismiss concerns about health. They appear, however, to be sure that the economic benefits will be substantial. Is it not curious that the position that they have adopted is very similar to that adopted by BAA?

We know from BAA’s previous predictions that they are unreliable. In the mid-1990s, BAA predicted that smaller aircraft would disappear, and when it lobbied for terminal 5 it said that there would be 453,000 flights at Heathrow by 2013. That is what BAA said in 1995. That figure was reached by July 2000. What it predicted would take 18 years took only five years.

Can the Minister answer one specific question? Why was it thought appropriate to exclude international flight arrivals from any calculation of the environmental impact arising from the third runway?

There is a revolving door between the Government and BAA; not only Tom Kelly is involved. Joe Irvin was a special adviser at Downing street and went on to become a director of public affairs at BAA. Another former BAA public affairs director is Stephen Hardwick, a former policy adviser to the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), the former Deputy Prime Minister. That new revolving door syndrome is a new version of Labour spin that goes round and round between BAA and the Government.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am concerned about the notion that BAA, which at the height of the construction project for the new terminal had 60,000 employees on site and a budget of £4.3 billion, might operate on its own without any reference to the Government. Frankly, I am delighted that it went to the Government and sought consultation on the exercise. Any investment of that scale, employing such numbers of people, should be of interest to the Government.

Norman Baker: It is perfectly proper for any institution in this country to seek investment, and it is appropriate that a consultation exercise is undertaken. It is perfectly normal for large corporations, bodies, pressure groups or others to engage with the Government at the appropriate juncture; there is nothing wrong in that.

Next Section Index Home Page