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4.41 pm

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): I am actually quite new to the House, having been a Member for only three years, but in that time I do not think that I have ever seen a Secretary of State more isolated in a debate. The right hon. Gentleman asked me several times whether I was listening to what he was saying, but I wonder whether he has been listening to what his colleagues are saying. Has he listened to the 70,000 people who responded to the consultation, or to the thousands of our constituents who send postcards to us every day about the urgency of tackling climate change? I think that the Government are deaf to the concerns of people in this country about the environment.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: No. I will in a moment, but I want to kick off with my remarks.

Labour’s determination to press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow is deeply misguided. If the Conservatives win the next general election, we will scrap Labour’s plans for a third runway at Heathrow. We will also scrap the Government’s proposal to end runway alternation at Heathrow. The simple fact is that the environmental and social costs of a third runway outweigh its potential economic benefits.

Ms Smith: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: No, not at the moment. The potential economic benefits of a third runway are unclear and unproven. We recognise the importance of the aviation and aerospace industries and the major contribution that they make to our economy in providing both jobs and world-beating technological advances. We also understand the benefits of flying and its importance to families across the country. We want to make Heathrow better, not bigger, so that we have the top-class international airport that we need for business competitiveness and for holidaymakers, but without the negative environmental impact of a third runway.

Ms Smith: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: Yes, I should be delighted to.

Ms Smith: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She has mentioned the environmental impact of a third runway at Heathrow, but has she also looked at the impact on jobs if capacity at Heathrow or somewhere else in the south-east is not increased? Some 200,000 people are employed either directly or indirectly as a result of Heathrow, and 1.1 million passengers a year connect into Heathrow via the north.

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Mrs. Villiers: I well understand the economic issues in connection with Heathrow. There is absolutely no evidence that those jobs at Heathrow will start disappearing unless there is the major expansion that the Government plan. There is no evidence to suggest that Heathrow will go into terminal decline if it does not get a 46 per cent. increase in flights.

A third runway at Heathrow would mean that there would be 220,000 more flights there every year, which amounts to a 46 per cent. increase from current levels. It would be the equivalent of bolting on to Heathrow a new airport the size of Gatwick. An increase on that scale would clearly make it significantly harder to deliver the 80 per cent. cut in carbon emissions to which the Government signed up just a few short weeks ago.

Labour’s own advisers on the environment have asked the Government to think again. The Sustainable Development Commission has strongly disputed the data underpinning the Government’s whole aviation strategy. Chris Smith, Labour’s choice to head up the Environment Agency, has directly challenged the case for a third runway. The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who, I believe, is Labour’s vice-chairman for the environment—at least he was this morning; I am not sure whether he still is—has signed early-day motion 2344, calling for the Government to think again, as have 51 of his colleagues on the Labour Back Benches.

The environmental concerns are not confined to climate change. A 46 per cent. increase in flights would blight the lives of thousands of people because of the increased aircraft noise and pollution. Heathrow’s proximity to the M4 and the M25, two of the busiest roads in Europe, means that pollution from the combined effect of aviation and road transport is already a very serious problem around the airport, even at its current size. The Government’s 2007 revised air quality strategy confirms that the airport is already in breach of the rules in the EU air quality directive, which should become legally binding by 2010. I fail to see how Heathrow could possibly handle another 222,000 flights, or have any chance whatever of complying with the directive.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Lady said that she was aware of the economic consequences of capacity problems at Heathrow. Will she explain why, if there are no capacity problems, the number of international destinations served by Heathrow fell from 227 in 1990 to 180 in 2006, and why the number of domestic airports served by Heathrow has fallen from 18 in 1990 to nine? Amsterdam serves 21 United Kingdom airports; Heathrow, by comparison, serves nine. What explanation does she give for that change, if it is not the result of capacity constraints?

Mrs. Villiers: One of the reasons for that change is BAA’s decision to try to sweat the more profitable routes at the expense of the less profitable ones. [Interruption.] No, we all accept that there are capacity issues at Heathrow, and that it is a crowded airport. The Conservatives have presented a credible plan to relieve the overcrowding problems by providing a viable, high-speed rail alternative to thousands of the flights clogging up Heathrow. That would free up slots and make Heathrow a much better airport.

Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): Will the hon. Lady accept my congratulations on the leadership that she has shown in the internal debate within the
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Conservative party, which led to us securing this policy position? Does she accept, albeit perhaps with more difficulty, that there are strong arguments, concerning jobs and green transport plans, for Gatwick eventually to have some additional expansion? That would be much more convenient for residents in south London, in terms of shorter journeys, and it would provide extra jobs, as has been mentioned. Gatwick is an important area for employment and extra jobs within the A23 transport corridor.

Mrs. Villiers: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. Certainly we will keep the issue under review. We oppose another runway at Gatwick, but I am always happy to hear his representations on these matters.

Mr. Hendrick: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: No, I think I will make a little more progress, but I promise that I will come back to the hon. Gentleman in due course.

To come back to the point about NOx, when we talk about the EU air quality rules, we are not talking about some dry point of EU law. The health damage that NOx pollution causes to people suffering from respiratory conditions is clear. They include the increased risk of early death, in some cases. The Environment Agency has warned of the risk of increased morbidity and mortality if the third runway goes ahead. Neither the Government nor BAA have come up with any convincing plans for the major shift away from the car and on to public transport that would be needed if we are substantially to reduce surface pollution around the airport. BAA has failed to meet the 40 per cent. target that the Government set it eight years ago. Labour’s analysis rests on the assumption that there will be such a dramatic step forward in vehicle technology that cars will become clean enough to provide the headroom to allow a major increase in flight movements, as well as to allow the number of car journeys to increase from 67 million to 122 million, as a result of passenger growth at Heathrow, without breaching the terms of the directive.

The Government’s assumptions are hopelessly optimistic, and their credibility is further undermined by the documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening)—I shall come to that later. Greenpeace has used the Act to reveal another worrying development—the Government are going to apply for a derogation from the directive. Labour’s clear promise that it would not press ahead with expansion if it violated EU air quality rules turns out to be worthless. A third runway would mean a new flight path over one of the most densely populated areas in the country, with thousands more people living with a plane overhead every 90 seconds.

Mr. Hendrick: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made the point that there has been a reversal of the ratio whereby for every two passengers going to London by air, one passenger travelled by train: it is now the other way round, and the trains are taking most passengers. When, on the odd occasion, I fly from Manchester to London, the plane spends as long circling Heathrow as it does on the journey. Surely, an extra runway would halve emissions from such aircraft.

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Mrs. Villiers: The plans that we have set out for a high-speed rail link connecting Heathrow with Manchester and Leeds would provide relief from capacity problems at Heathrow. That would free up slots and relieve the overcrowding problems without a negative environmental impact both on quality of life and on climate change. The Government’s plans to scrap runway alternation would rob residents of the precious quiet time that they value so much. They would also have a major negative impact on schools under the flight path, with lessons disrupted by high levels of aircraft noise throughout the day.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am sure that the hon. Lady would agree that it is not just people who live near Heathrow who are affected by the flight patterns and by noise. Many of my constituents who live in Vauxhall, Oval and Stockwell write letter after letter trying to get something done about their early morning wake-up call. They have made it very clear indeed that they do not want another Heathrow runway until that problem has been sorted out, and that has certainly not been done yet.

Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point. Indeed, aircraft noise is already an issue in areas as far apart as Windsor and Camberwell, Brixton and her constituency. A key issue is that the 57 dB contour on which the Government have focused underestimates the extent of the problem. It would be useful for the House to consider the Government’s ANASE—“Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England”—study, which concluded that annoyance sets in at much lower levels than the 57 dB threshold that the Department for Transport uses. Labour spent £15 million of taxpayers’ money on that report, which was the first major study of aircraft noise for 30 years. When the Government commissioned it, the aviation Minister at the time said:

However, the Government dismissed the study’s conclusions as soon as they were published.

Far from commanding the widest possible confidence, the research underpinning Labour’s approach to Heathrow is deeply flawed. Yes, planes have become quieter over the past 20 years but, again, Labour has relied on a massive leap forward in aircraft technology to enable it to reconcile its promises on noise with the increase in flight movements that it wants at Heathrow. The freedom of information documents indicate that when the fleet mix data provided to support the air transport White Paper was fed into the Civil Aviation Authority’s noise model, they failed the noise test that the Government had set. The documents then show the DFT and BAA working together closely on a subsequent “re-forecasting” of both aircraft types and numbers—a process that went on until a few weeks before the publication of the November 2007 consultation. To all intents and purposes, the projections for the future flight mix were reverse engineered to try to meet the noise and NOx tests, and get the answer that the Government wanted. The document even revealed that Department for Transport officials were worried that the final BAA projections were not credible, but it seems that they did little about it.

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I draw the House’s attention to a document entitled “ERCD Report 0705”, the technical annexe on noise, which was published alongside the consultation. The document makes it clear that the compliant fleet mix that the Government expect to be delivered by 2030 includes a new 450-seat, twin-engine, wide-bodied jet, and that, according to table 2.3 on page 11, the Government assume that, by 2030, that new green jumbo will completely replace the four-engine Boeing 747. Not only that, they assume that it will replace almost all of Boeing’s successor to the 747—and it is not even on the market yet. The freedom of information documents reveal that the percentage of four-engine, 747-type aircraft with their higher noise levels was steadily reduced every time the figures were recalculated and failed to produce the result that the Government wanted. That new green jumbo is crucial to the final calculation, but, as BBC’s “Panorama” programme highlighted, the plane does not actually exist—it is a virtual plane. When the BBC approached Boeing and Airbus, it was told that the aircraft was not even in their design portfolios, and that neither company had any plans to produce it. It is a fantasy plane.

In the face of major blows to the credibility of their data, all the Government have said is that if the new cleaner and quieter aircraft do not materialise, the airport will simply scale back the flight numbers to meet the 57 dB noise contour area, but, frankly, no one believes a word that the Government or BAA say on flight counts—not after all the broken promises that have been made about Heathrow expansion over the years. It is clear that the Labour party is making every possible effort to try to wriggle out of its promise that expansion at Heathrow would not be allowed to lead to a deterioration in the noise climate around the airport.

Ms Angela C. Smith: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way once again; she really is generous with her time. However, I must challenge the notion that the aerospace industry is not working hard to reduce carbon emissions in construction, because engineering interests in my constituency are working hard to produce better, lighter and stronger aerospace steel to reduce aircraft carbon emissions.

Mrs. Villiers: I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for making that point, and I absolutely agree that the British aerospace industry works incredibly hard at delivering technological advances. I made that point at the beginning of my remarks, and I pay tribute to the industry. Indeed, I believe that aircraft will become cleaner and quieter, but I challenge the Government’s assumptions. I do not believe that the Government’s predicted time frame for delivering those advances is realistic.

As a result of the revelations in the documents that were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, it is necessary for us to consider the Government’s heavy reliance on BAA’s data and modelling. It is a cause for major concern. Leaving aside BAA’s obvious commercial interest, why should we believe a word that it says when so many times over the years, it clearly said that it would not seek to build a third runway at
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Heathrow? One of many examples is a “Dear Neighbour” letter that was sent in April 1999 by Sir John Egan, the then chief executive of BAA. In it, he said:

Mr. Jenkin: I have no criticism to make of BAA for lobbying as hard as it can to get its way, because that is the process, but is it not extraordinary that the Department for Transport appears to have been manipulated in the way that it has? Is it not even more extraordinary that, while my hon. Friend has read out those statistics and an account of how the data were manipulated to get that result, the Secretary of State has sat there on the Front Bench and not contested a single word that she has said?

Mrs. Villiers: My hon. Friend’s point is excellent, and I do not need to add to it.

I turn to the alleged benefits of a third runway. The economic arguments simply do not stand up to scrutiny. Their main sources are the 2006 study by Oxford Economic Forecasting and the “Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport” consultation document. Both contain serious flaws. Neither makes any attempt to include the cost impact of NOx pollution, a point made strongly by the Environment Agency, the Government’s own environment adviser. Nor is the cost of noise in the areas around the airport assessed. Anyone who owns a property under the flight path will say that noise has a real financial impact. It has even been reported that Hounslow primary care trust is considering attempting to recoup from BAA the costs of health care for noise and pollution-related illnesses in the borough. Neither document includes the carbon cost of inbound international flights. The consultation document incorrectly lists revenue from air passenger duty as a net benefit to the UK, although clearly much of that would be simply a transfer from the private to the public sector. In its study for the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, the Dutch economic consultancy CE Delft concludes that Oxford Economic Forecasting considerably overestimates the extent of suppressed business demand for air travel at Heathrow.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady. I am not sure whether she knows much more about aviation than she knew about buses during the debate that we had two or three weeks ago. Her point about house prices is simply wrong. I advise her to look at a York Consulting report that studied house prices around prisons and airports. She will find that in fact house prices are elevated, not depressed, because of the economic activity represented by airports.

Mrs. Villiers: That is simply not true. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that noise has no impact on property prices, or that noise impact has no cost, he is not living in the real world.

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I am a resident of Old Windsor, and I am clear that aircraft noise and flight paths over homes definitely reduce house prices.

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The Oxford Economic Forecasting report was also flawed in not taking into account the extra money that British tourists flying abroad spend beyond what is spent by tourists flying into Heathrow. Having studied economics, I think it absolutely bizarre that the report did not take into account the enormous sum—£15 billion to £18 billion—that leaves the UK in that way.

Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes a valid point. I pay tribute to his hard work on behalf of his constituents on the vexed question of expansion at Heathrow.

Mr. Wilshire: On the issue of house prices, will my hon. Friend accept an invitation to meet estate agents in my constituency? They will tell her that house prices go up because of the area’s proximity to the airport.

Mrs. Villiers: I would certainly be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituents to discuss Heathrow expansion.

Martin Salter: I may be the only hon. Member here born within a stone’s throw of the perimeter fence of Heathrow airport. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) is right: an airport drives economic activity and the prosperity of an area. However, living directly under a flight path is a negative factor and is included in all estate agents’ particulars.

Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point, which is a valid one.

The argument that transfer passengers bring economic benefits is now hotly disputed. Such passengers generally spend no more than the price of a cup of coffee, and the economic case for the new runway falls even further with the increasing challenge to that argument. There is simply no evidence to back up the Secretary of State’s claim that Heathrow will go into some kind of terminal decline if it does not become a much bigger hub with thousands more transfer passengers. For example, BAA representatives have repeatedly told me that a pair of Alitalia slots at Heathrow reportedly changed hands last year for £30 million—clear evidence that predictions of the airport’s imminent decline do not stack up. There is every reason to believe that even without major expansion millions of people will still want to fly to and from Heathrow.

Norman Baker: I am wrestling with the Government’s concept that Heathrow will be badly hit if there is no third runway, with jobs lost and disappearing airlines and flights. However, at the same time they suggest that high-speed rail would make no difference and Heathrow would still be up to capacity if it were introduced. That does not add up.

Mrs. Villiers: I am delighted to find myself agreeing with the Lib Dems. Almost every aspect of the Government’s position on Heathrow does not add up.

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