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2 Apr 2008 : Column 865
5.56 pm

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): I shall be as brief as possible, although even eight minutes would not have been enough for me to make a proper argument about the important issues that we face.

The Secretary of State said that I was passionate about Heathrow airport and air transport. I used to be very proud of Heathrow, and in fact 45 years ago this week I first started work only a few miles away from the airport. I have lived and worked within six miles of it ever since, and I understand the air transport industry very well. More than anything else, however, I am passionate about my constituents who suffer from the noise. Improvements to aircraft engines may lead to greater quietness, but that is irrelevant: unless engines become completely silent and planes are able to take off and land vertically, many thousands of people in west London will still be affected to their detriment.

I shall put a very simple argument on behalf of my constituents, but if I get time I shall also read out some of the comments that I have received from them. I shall then leave it to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to stop me.

If I seem a bit shaken, it is because a note from my office was passed to me a few minutes ago. The note said that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen)—who has campaigned against a third runway for five years—would be unable to attend the debate because she was on a maternity visit. I only hope that she is making the visit in her capacity as a Health Minister. If that is not the case, I hope that the House will wish me well—and that it is a girl. [ Laughter. ] She will kill me later.

In the short time available to me, I shall concentrate on the two main problems facing my constituents. The first is the Cranford agreement; the consultation asked whether people wanted it to be scrapped. The agreement has existed since the 1950s. It has never been written down, but it ensures that planes always take off from the southern runway when the wind is blowing from the east. The agreement does not suit everyone, but it means that people in the village—which is very close to the airport fence—do not have to suffer the dreadful roar of engines when a plane takes off. If the agreement were done away with, life for the people in Cranford ward would be absolutely unbearable. We would have to give them money to move—an awful lot of money.

If the continued expansion of Heathrow is so desperately important for Britain’s economy, where would a fourth runway go? I can tell the Secretary of State that no such proposal is going to work. If we are to expand the air transport industry, we will have to look for a site for a new airport, where the noise will not affect people. The industry is very short of sensible, long-term planning, and we cannot trust the people who lead it. They lied during the terminal 5 inquiry, as has been noted in the debate already. I previously always supported expansion at Heathrow. I supported terminal 5 because we needed extra capacity in Heathrow. It is relevant to note that three Members of Parliament who previously supported expansion—my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth, John Wilkinson who was a previous Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and I—changed our minds. It is
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significant that people who always supported expansion changed their minds when it came to expanding outside the present boundaries, and I support my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). It is a desperate situation.

To return to my constituents, I have mentioned the Cranford agreement, which prevents planes from taking off on the northern runway when the wind is from the east, as the noise is absolutely unbearable. For 13 years, I worked under the flight path half a mile from the touchdown point on the southern runway—half a mile from where a plane crash landed a few weeks ago. The mixed mode is absolutely unacceptable; I could read quotes from constituents who say that they cannot enjoy their gardens at all when planes are landing or taking off. That problem extends a long way—to Richmond Park and even further east. If mixed mode comes in, it will be the end of runway alternation. I do not need to explain that to people on the Liberal Democrat Benches; I am sure that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) will get her own back on colleagues later this evening. If we bring in mixed mode, thousands of people will never again be able to enjoy their gardens. We are not talking about 1,000 or 2,000 people, but many thousands, and that is not acceptable.

Let me address the Ministers. I know how the system works. Ministers are suddenly transferred into a new Department. The technology on air transport is not straightforward, but there are civil servants who understand it, and obviously the air transport industry understands it pretty well. People like me are never asked for advice by Ministers. Only one Minister has asked me for advice, despite the fact that I have lived under a flight path for 45 years. I understand the position, and things are very difficult for Ministers. It is difficult to come into a new Department determined to change the policy that is already in place. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), and the Secretary of State have a chance to show that they have guts and determination—that they are politicians who will work for the people of the United Kingdom. By that I mean that they will look at the long-term future of air transport. I care about the industry, and so do the people in my constituency who suffer its noise. They care about it because it is they who built up and worked for the industry.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman’s time is up.

6.2 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): May I start by declaring some interests? I represent 70,000 people who live right up against the boundary fence of Heathrow, and a work force 26 per cent. of whom depend directly on the airport for their jobs. I represent a constituency in which the majority of residents support another runway, and I represent a borough council that formally supports another runway. Heathrow has serious problems, and those problems are already costing it business and will soon cost us jobs.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Am I right in thinking that there is more or less full employment around Heathrow, and therefore that the creation of more jobs is not part of the case for continuous expansion?

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have never argued for more jobs at Heathrow; all that I
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have argued is that there should be no redundancies in Spelthorne. That is the job-related issue that bothers me.

Before terminal 5 was built, there was a lack of terminal capacity. Heathrow’s capacity was 40 million people, but 60 million were using it. Hopefully—I stress hopefully—terminal 5, the replacement of terminals 1 and 2 and the renovation of the other terminals will solve the terminal problem, but it will not solve the problem of the lack of runway capacity. Solving the lack of runway capacity at Heathrow is crucial and urgent, and I advance that argument not only for economic reasons. I accept the environmental problems, but there are, curiously, further environmental issues that we should consider.

For example, another runway would mean that those living under the flight paths of the existing two would have fewer flights overhead. If we end up with mixed mode operation—I oppose but fear we will get it—another runway would mean that we could bring back alternation. That would stop fuel being wasted as aircraft queued at the end of runways. It would stop fuel being wasted by aircraft going round and round and round until somebody found them a runway slot. It would stop some minor events, such as bad weather, causing enormous local Heathrow problems, which again, damage the environment.

Add to that little list the advent of much quieter, far less polluting aircraft and the new rail link, which the Liberal spokesman, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), did not seem to know anything about, and we have the beginnings of a case—a much lengthier case, which I cannot make in six minutes—that the environmental issues can indeed be overcome.

I want to discuss for a moment the details of the Liberal Democrats’ motion and their spokesman’s ill-researched speech. He began by admitting that there is a mistake in his motion, but the mistake is what he will vote for. That is extraordinary. He spoke about alternation, but when challenged he demonstrated that he has no idea what mixed mode and alternation are. He went on to say that transit passengers are irrelevant. That proves that he does not even begin to understand what the significance of a hub airport really is. Without those transit passengers, many long-haul routes at Heathrow, irrespective of which airline operates them, would no longer be viable and the UK would suffer from the lack of international communications through a major hub airport.

Susan Kramer: In relation to a hub airport, will the hon. Gentleman not concede that increasing the number of transit passengers has a diminishing return? The requirement is an adequate number of destinations with an adequate number of flights. An ever-increasing number of destinations with an ever-increasing number of flights brings nothing additional to the economy. That is the point that has been missed in the economics of this farce.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Lady fails to point out to the House the fact that the problem is that Heathrow is losing routes. It is a question not of gaining them, but of stopping the haemorrhage and getting back the ones we have lost.

The hon. Member for Lewes went on to show even more clearly that he did not have the slightest idea what
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he was talking about when he said that a new high-speed rail link was an effective alternative. In an intervention on the Secretary of State, I rather made the point that the choice of flying to Amsterdam or of catching a train to London and then a tube is a no-contest. People would simply fly somewhere else. High-speed rail is essential for people who want to travel to London from the north, but not if people want to go to Tokyo.

The Liberal Democrat motion claims that the consultation is “deeply flawed”. The justification advanced for that is that the Department for Transport has consulted with BAA. I should have thought that we would condemn the Department for not consulting BAA, because when, tragically, there is a crash, I have never yet heard anybody say that the crash inspectors must not consult the airframe and engine manufacturers. It is common sense to talk to those people.

Norman Baker: That is a gross distortion of what I said. I said that there was nothing wrong with BAA talking to the Government and that it was perfectly proper that it did so. My concern was that BAA had influenced the Government to an unnecessary and unhealthy degree.

Mr. Wilshire: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I do not have time to get locked into a debate. I will happily answer him afterwards.

The Liberal Democrat motion claims that the economic case is overstated. It is not. Heathrow is this country’s only hub airport. Its continuing success is essential for the future of the British economy and for the UK’s ability to compete internationally. It is essential for Heathrow to see off foreign competition. It is essential to safeguard tens of thousands of jobs, many of which are those of my constituents.

A Labour Member raised the question of a brand new hub airport somewhere else. Yes, if the map was blank, we could have a discussion about whether Heathrow was a sensible place for our hub airport, but we are where we are. If we built a brand new airport somewhere else, the first thing that would happen, as happens at any other new airport, is that people would build houses next to it. It would require the most massive subsidy from public funds. It would result in a huge number of jobs in west London and in my constituency disappearing, even if all they had to do was move across to the Thames estuary. It would lead to a serious loss of foreign business and foreign investment. If the foreign people round Heathrow were forced to go somewhere else, my guess is that they would go to Paris or Frankfurt rather than scuttle out to the Thames estuary.

My case is simple. Solving the runway problem at Heathrow is essential for my constituency, for the Thames valley, for London and for the whole of the United Kingdom. I beg the House not simply to take my word for it. Listen to the majority of my constituents. Listen to the formal opinion of Spelthorne borough council. Listen to the trade unions, which also want to protect their members’ jobs. Listen to local, regional and national businesses, and then listen to the passengers. Heathrow urgently needs another runway, provided we can overcome the environmental problems.

6.11 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): I am grateful for a six-minute chance to explain my difficulty. I certainly
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cannot support the Liberal Democrat motion, which is deeply flawed and appears to want to abolish runway alternation or, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) called it, runway alteration, which might be a better idea. I have sympathy with some of the other points, such as keeping the cap on flights at 480,000.

I could not have supported the Conservative amendment if it had been selected. The Conservatives are deeply divided on the fundamental issues. I also cannot support the Government amendment, because it refers to the economic case for expansion, presupposing that there is an economic case for expansion at Heathrow. The title of the consultation document, “Adding capacity at Heathrow airport”, also presupposes that the outcome of the consultation will be additional capacity.

I want the present limit, 480,000 flights, to be maintained. That is about 40 planes an hour. I have confidence that Ministers will approach the consultation with an open mind. I hope that they will have the courage to say no to British Airways and to the British Airports Authority and come up with the answer that I think is the right one, which will not allow any expansion of Heathrow or any added capacity.

I shall make two short points in my brief contribution. First, I reiterate the point that I made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the 54 dB contour. People who live within the 57 dB contour suffer far more. I understand the difficulty of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), but they are only tens of thousands. People who live within the 54 dB contour are hundreds of thousands. The end of runway alternation and the imposition of mixed mode would increase the number of people within the 54 dB contour from the present 633,000 to 750,000. That is almost 120,000 more people being subjected to aircraft noise.

People may think that 54 dB is nothing. I had a public meeting in my constituency with 250 people there complaining about 54 dB noise. I can promise my hon. Friends in the rest of south London that if mixed mode comes in and the 54 dB contour goes right across south London, they will have public meetings full of exactly the same kind of people protesting about the amount of noise above their heads. The maps provided by the Department for Transport show that the 54 dB contour, which currently reaches as far as Battersea, would extend as far as New Cross, so a whole new slice of London will be subjected to it.

I have taken a group of nine Battersea residents to see my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), the Minister, who has been understanding and co-operative. I have written to him with the bones of a solution to the problem; it lies in the part of the consultation about westerly preference. It is a huge anomaly that of every 40 aircraft that land at Heathrow every average hour, 30 land over London and only 10 land going east. Almost all those 10 land over Windsor rather than the southern runway.

There is a flight path into Heathrow that crosses Windsor great park, reservoirs and farm land; hardly anybody lives under it at all. An aircraft using that path to land would disturb only deer, fish and cattle. There is only one village under that flight path and it has a population of 1,609. I am not saying that it should get something that we do not get, but if there were fairness and equal numbers landed from each direction, that
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would be a huge improvement for the long-suffering residents of south London. I am advocating not that that village should bear the brunt of the noise, but that there should be a fair share through the ending of unnecessary westerly preference.

There is a huge snag, which is the Cranford agreement; I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen), in whose constituency there is a small pocket of streets right up against the fence near the northern runway. Clearly, people living in them should not be subjected to aircraft taking off above their heads. As my hon. Friend said, the answer is money for them to move. That would unlock the potential for aircraft to land at Heathrow going east and save a huge amount of disturbance.

Alan Keen: I did not say that those people should be given money to move. They do not want to move; they work at Heathrow airport and are proud of it.

Martin Linton: There should be compensation of some kind because unnecessary agony and pain is put on residents around Heathrow because of this problem. I could go on to talk about the longer-term problems of Heathrow. No other capital city in western Europe has an airport situated to its west, with the prevailing winds implying that practically every aircraft has to land across the capital. However, that is a long-term problem.

As far as this consultation goes, there is every possibility of finding a way through the problems and reducing—not just capping—the impact on the whole of south-west London of noise from aircraft landing. I look forward to the Minister’s finding a way to announce such a measure in respect of the consultation.

6.17 pm

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I am very conscious of the time available and the number of people who want to speak, so I shall take as read my very strong views on a lot of issues—climate change, the negative impact of the third runway, the damage to Sipson, the impact on schools, learning, air quality and traffic congestion, and the huge potential loss for the air-rail hub at Heathrow.

I shall also say little about the quality of the consultation, but it so offended my constituents that Richmond council put out its own survey that had almost 10,000 responses, of which 90 per cent. opposed expansion. That gives an idea of the strength of feeling locally. Furthermore, we did our own little survey, to which there have been 850 responses. Having tabulated the first 450 of them, we know that 99 per cent. of those oppose expansion at the airport.

Noise is the issue mentioned over and over—people who cannot have weddings outside or sit in their gardens whenever aircraft are overhead. There was a wonderful little letter from a certain young William, who cannot hear “Thomas the Tank Engine”. The impact on kids and families is very significant. The very thought that we would end up with mixed mode makes life unbearable; a phenomenal number of people in my area have said that they would simply have to move.

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