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Air travel is an integral part of the lives of the vast majority of people in the UK, like downloadable music and community-based websites such as Facebook. The availability of cheap air travel has brought the world to our doorstep and allowed our citizens to enjoy a degree of travel inconceivable a couple of generations ago. However, the current rate of aviation growth cannot continue. The gap between the 5 to 6 per cent. that people were predicting, pre-recession, and the 1.5 to 2 per cent. that we could achieve in annual carbon dioxide emission savings has to be closed somehow. The Government’s predict and provide approach to airports, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) mentioned, is part of the problem.

We all know that NATS has a huge responsibility. The great growth in aviation in the south-east means that our skies are becoming more crowded, so everyone accepts the need for a re-examination of the issue. However, I wonder whether NATS was the right body to undertake a consultation of that size and complexity. It has carried out a number of consultations before, but never on that scale. Putting to one side the grossly confusing name, terminal control north, which means very little to most people, the relevant area affects a population of up to 12 million people—more than with the Heathrow consultation, in which NATS had only a subsidiary role.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk has explained in some detail, the proposals in the consultation would create areas in which there will be multiple stacks over land—in some cases, as low as 4,000 ft—with aircraft to Luton crossing over aircraft for Stansted. In some cases, crosses will occur as frequently as once a minute. An immediate contrast with the Heathrow consultation is that, for all its unsatisfactory nature, the Heathrow consultation at least involved alternative proposals. As all my hon. Friends have said, it is extraordinary that this document contained no alternative proposals. We know that NATS considered alternative proposals, but none of them has been published.

I was grateful for the opportunity to meet representatives from NATS, and I asked them about the alternative of stacking over the sea. They said that it would have implications for efficiency and military flying, which was mentioned earlier, and that it would involve pushing large numbers of aircraft out to the limits of airspace. I am not sufficiently well qualified to comment on that, but if NATS had at least published, as an alternative, the option of stacking over the sea, people who have specialist advisers would have had the opportunity to evaluate the pluses and minuses. What about other options over land? NATS has not consulted the general public; it consulted only so-called key stakeholders such as MPs, local councils, airport consultative committees, environmental groups, business organisations and airlines, of course. The process then relied on an indirect dissemination of information to local people, if at all.

My hon. Friend mentioned that large numbers of people who will be affected have heard nothing about the matter. I am told that NATS has been reluctant to provide paper copies of the consultation document, and that people could get hold of it only online—although that version worked only for those with broadband—or by visiting their local library. People have had problems
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with trying to reply to the NATS website consultation and with the postcode finder. There were also errors in the consultation. For example, figure G50 has been labelled as referring to Luton, but it actually refers to Stansted. There have also been technical problems with online responses. For example, the “Stop Stansted” campaign tells me that respondents were not allowed to be neutral on the question asking whether arrivals should fly by “direct flight path” or by “specified routes”. People might have strong views on some aspects of the consultation but have no view on that, but if one did not express a view on that point, the system crashed and one was taken back to the start of what was a very complicated process.

I am not being frivolous when I mention the complications that have occurred when people have tried to respond to that process, because they come on top of the fact that this area is technically complex and difficult to understand. One gentleman who was kind enough to brief me showed me why some of the diagrams were quite difficult even for him—a retired airline pilot—to interpret. They had confusing colours that printed out differently from how they appeared on the screen.

Will the Minister tell us how many paper copies of the Heathrow consultation have been handed out and how many public meetings have been held? How many of the 12 million people who might be affected by the plans have been able to respond?

Flying is vital to our country, but there are two great environmental problems linked to it: climate change and noise. Of course, with noise, there are also issues to do with NOx—oxides of nitrogen. Many people who live close to airports and along flight paths, or who are potentially affected by the changes, feel that decisions are consulted on after they have been taken. They feel that they have absolutely no real say over something that has the potential to blight, or that already blights, their lives.

The Government have sought to stifle intelligent debate on serious aviation issues such as flight-path reorganisation or the expansion of Heathrow, Stansted and regional airports. The NATS consultation, like the Heathrow one before it, has done nothing to reverse that sense of “them versus us”—the aviation industry and the Government versus the citizen. What we need is proper co-operation. In this case, the production of a reasonably understandable document that contained clear alternatives, showing the pluses and minuses, and that was much more widely available, could have taken us some way towards that.

I have said repeatedly that the Conservative party would like a commercial flights officer position to be created. The post-holder would act as an ombudsman for formal complaints about noise, whom people could approach via their MPs. The ombudsman would have the power to compel NATS, airports and other bodies that are concerned with the movement of aircraft to co-operate in investigations. The ombudsman would have powers to name and shame, to monitor quality and to publish details of noise abatement and compensation schemes. That simple and extremely cheap measure would give people a voice—it would not be used irresponsibly because MPs would have to be part of the process—and a feeling that their views and concerns matter.

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My office tells me that we have had more letters on the NATS proposals for the reorganisation of terminal control north than on any other aviation issue. Those letters express deep concerns about what people’s quality of life will be if the proposals go through, and an overwhelming feeling of being disfranchised. Many people have complained that they did not hear about the proposal until it was too late. NATS claims that 20 per cent. fewer people will be affected by noise from departing aircraft flying below 4,000 ft, but the consultation document confirms that the number of people affected by noise levels of 57 dB, which the Government consider to be a level that causes significant disturbance, will more than double near to Luton, and will increase by 9 per cent. near to Stansted.

The Government have tied the hands of NATS, showing once again what a mess they have got themselves into over aviation and the environment by adopting a predict and provide approach to aviation expansion. The document states:

That basically means that we are going to sacrifice aircraft noise considerations for climate change considerations, instead of looking at the issue in the round.

The Government have again ignored their own ANASE—“Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England”—report, which was mentioned earlier. As several hon. Members have said, that report makes it absolutely clear that people in quiet areas are inherently much more aggravated by noise than those in noisy areas. We sometimes hear planes going over the House of Commons, but the disturbance is mitigated by the noise that is already here. In contrast, in an area with low ambient noise—the Government’s own study confirms this—people are much more heavily affected by aeroplane noise. The consultation document is very blunt, and effectively bins the report. The Government guidance says:

In other words, shift it to rural areas.

Under the proposals, perhaps fewer people will be overflown, but the guidance forces a disproportionate blight on those living in rural areas. Peaceful areas such as the Chilterns have been mentioned by my hon. Friends. For the first time, the historic city of Cambridge will hear the roar of jet engines overhead. I was relieved to hear that Oxford, so far, remains untouched.

The fate of Newmarket race course and the concentration of world-class stud farms around it have played a pivotal part in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk. As he rightly said, they account for a third of all jobs in Newmarket. However, the impact is not just on Newmarket. As the hub of Britain’s highly successful racing and bloodstock industries, the proposals have the capability to strike at a highly successful local, regional and national industry.

John Bercow (in the Chair): Order. I know that, in the interests of an equal distribution of time with the Minister who will be asked to reply to the debate, the hon. Gentleman will be bringing his remarks to a close within a matter of seconds.

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Mr. Brazier: Indeed, Mr. Bercow. Given that such an important issue is being so badly handled, is it any wonder that the aviation debate has polarised? We need a proper consultation with published alternatives, and one that does not devastate an industry.

4.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is pleasure to see you presiding today, Mr. Bercow, and thank you very much for the protection. However, I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and I know that his usual protocol would be to give to the Front-Bench spokesman an equal share of time in which to respond to this very interesting and useful debate.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing the debate and thank him and other hon. Members for their contributions. I will make some opening remarks and then try to respond to some of the points that were made, because it is important to put the Department’s position on the record.

The Government’s commitment to sustaining economic growth and protecting the environment is at the heart of the Department’s aviation policy-making process. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, there is a balance to be struck between tackling environmental challenges, enabling people to fly, and allowing the industry to compete internationally. The role of any decision-maker in relation to airspace changes is to find the right balance.

The terminal control north airspace change proposal is subject to consultation response analysis under the Civil Aviation Authority’s independent airspace change process. As part of that regulatory process, the CAA might seek the Secretary of State’s approval for the change. It would, therefore, be premature of me to offer comment on the specifics of the proposal while it is subject to the rigours of this independent regulatory process.

However, I will give some background to the proposals and the current consultation, and explain the process by which changes to UK airspace are made. As many hon. Members have said today, the airspace known as terminal control north is among the most complex in the world, with routes in and out of major airports, including Heathrow, Stansted, Luton and London City, as well as smaller airports such as Southend and RAF Northolt.

Increasing air traffic has led to congestion in the airways, resulting in delays and extra fuel burn. The proposed changes are designed to reduce delay, maintain safety and improve environmental performance. I must stress that the proposal is not associated with, and does not assume, future development at Heathrow, Stansted or any other airport. I know that Heathrow and Stansted have featured quite strongly in the comments from some hon. Members this afternoon.

It is business as usual for NATS which, under the terms of its operating licence, is obliged to make the most efficient use of overall airspace. The consultation by NATS—it is not the Government’s consultation, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said—on terminal control north is the largest of its kind to be undertaken. As the hon. Member for Canterbury said, the affected region has a population of 12.6 million. NATS directly consulted more than 3,000 primary
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stakeholders, including MPs, county, borough, district and parish councils, environmental organisations, and chambers of commerce.

Before the launch of the consultation, NATS arranged briefings for local MPs and national and regional media. To make information accessible for the general public, NATS divided the consultation region into five areas. Consultation materials for each area were colour-coded to help people locate the information relevant to them. Materials included a consultation document, an information DVD, summary leaflets for each of the five areas and a dedicated website.

In response to concerns that there was not enough time to consider the details of the proposals, NATS extended by four weeks the consultation period, thus giving interested parties a full 17 weeks in which to consider the proposals and register their views.

NATS is now examining the consultation responses. I understand that some of the key areas of concern that have been highlighted are the proposed route changes west of Luton airport and over the Chilterns, the proposed new holds near Newmarket and Southminster, and changes to noise-preferential routes north of Stansted airport, all of which have been mentioned by hon. Members this afternoon.

Mr. Ellwood: Will the Minister give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will continue with my responses to the points that have been raised. If I have time after that, I will be very happy to take interventions.

NATS is looking in detail at those and other concerns and investigating whether adjustments can be made to accommodate them. It might be helpful if I now explain the procedure for making changes to airspace in the UK.

Airspace planning and regulation is the responsibility of the independent regulator, the CAA. The process for making changes to airspace is governed by the CAA’s airspace change process. A change sponsor is responsible for developing and consulting on a proposal for an airspace change, ensuring that it satisfies and/or enhances safety standards, improves capacity and mitigates, as far as practicable, any environmental impacts in line with the Department’s environmental guidance to the CAA, as mentioned by the hon. Member for West Suffolk.

Informed by the consultation, the airspace change sponsor must then submit its proposal to the CAA. It is the CAA that then assesses the formal proposal against regulatory requirements, including environmental objectives, and either approves or rejects the proposal. If the CAA considers that a proposal could have a detrimental effect on the environment, it is required to advise the Secretary of State for Transport. It must refrain from making the airspace change without first securing her approval. Therefore, airspace changes are made only when 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.

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The hon. Gentleman raised the issues of aircraft noise, air quality and visual impact. Let me assure him that I recognise that, at a local level, those are issues of significant concern. That is why the CAA’s guidance on the airspace change process includes substantive guidance on a range of environmental requirements, including noise, air quality, tranquillity and visual intrusion. However, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will appreciate that the development of UK airspace has to take place within a number of immobile constraints, such as the geographic location of airports.

The hon. Gentleman is also rightly concerned about the impact of the proposal on the horse-racing industry. Let me say that we fully recognise the importance of that industry and its value to the local and the UK economy. I know that representatives of the industry have submitted their concerns to NATS in response to their consultation, and that NATS will give them due consideration.

I come now to the hon. Gentleman’s points regarding the height and location of the proposed new holds. As I have already said, I am unable to comment on the detail of the NATS proposal, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is right that local residents were given the opportunity to raise those concerns in response to the consultation. NATS is now analysing all the responses received and considering whether any changes can be made to accommodate them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) raised the question of the Heathrow consultation and alternation as well as mixed mode, the Cranford agreement and adding third runway capacity. The consultation on Heathrow already covers alternation and mixed mode. Obviously they will be examined in the consideration of the responses that have been received. As he knows, the responses are now subject to independent analysis. An airspace change consultation by NATS would have to follow any decision to produce with mixed mode or a third runway.

My hon. Friend also asked about derogation of EU quality limits. I can tell him that the EU is likely to seek derogation. I will write to him with the exact details. However, that derogation is in line with derogations being sought by many other EU member states and it has nothing to do with the Heathrow added-capacity situation and will be resolved by 2013-14, well in advance of any additional capacity that may arise out of the Heathrow consultation. As I say, I will write to him with the details.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) raised a question about the lack of clarity in paragraphs 11.6 to 11.9. I can reassure him that the CAA will assess the NATS proposal, including the documentary evidence against regulatory requirements, and it is also for the CAA to consider the adequacy of the consultation material, as well as the issues that are submitted. He also expressed a hope that the Chiltern countryside group submission would be looked at closely by the CAA and I hope that I have reassured that that submission will certainly be taken into account.

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