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11 Nov 2008 : Column 678

Norman Baker: That is true. I have asked such questions a couple of times, and I have found that five officials are working on rail projects to extend the network—that, presumably, relates to electrification and everything else. I suppose that that is better than nothing.

Mr. Martlew: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that he is being churlish, because as a result of this Government’s actions this country has a high-speed line, which was not the case under Mrs. Thatcher? He should stop talking down the railways.

Norman Baker: That is the first time I have been accused of talking down the railways. I am not sure who was responsible for the channel tunnel, although I have a feeling that it predates this Government. Never mind that, because we have it now and it provides an opportunity to expand. Logically, we should do what other European countries have done very successfully and roll high-speed lines out across the country. Paris to Lyon was a corridor along which the vast majority of traffic went by air, but 91 per cent. of it now goes by rail, so the potential for a switch from air to rail is enormous.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked rightly and powerfully about the impact on the local area. I do not want to dwell on that—not because it is not important, but because it is better that local Members do that.

John McDonnell: In all the consultation documents thus far, we have seen BAA’s costings for building the terminal and the runway, but no costings for the impact and the collateral damage across the whole area. I am talking about the loss of schools and homes, compensation for the loss of whole communities and the wider ramifications of the noise impact across London. That is one issue that has never been debated in this House, or addressed in such a publication.

Norman Baker: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that matter. If I were the local MP I would be heartbroken at the plans to wipe Sipson off the map, to affect Cranford and Longford so badly, to increase the noise significantly for many local people in his area and more widely, and to increase air pollution. It seems that all these people and their views do not count; there will be a consultation exercise whereby they can tick a box and send back a postcard, but ultimately, the Government are listening, in the same office, to BAA, and not to the thousands of people who are affected. That is a betrayal of the population of this country and an affront to democracy.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this approach takes no account of the fundamental fact that the people who live in London drive its economy, and that the Government are wrong in attempting to try to decouple residents from London’s success?

Norman Baker: I agree with that. Business in London has been mentioned, and I should say that when London First met me, it was sceptical about the value of all those transit passengers. Part of the cause of passenger congestion at Heathrow is people who come in, spend £5 at Heathrow on a cup of coffee and give nothing else to the economy. It is about time we reassessed what the
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point of Heathrow is; it is about serving this country, rather than serving people who are getting off one plane and on to another to go somewhere else. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State is keen to intervene from a sedentary position, but I am keen to put British residents first, and if he does not want to do that, that is a matter for him.

Nitrogen dioxide is the issue that the Government do not want to address, but they will have to do so, either through litigation or through a vote in this House. Alternatively, judging by today’s Evening Standard, they may have to do so because of the European Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, who has made it very clear that the Government’s policy will not be acceptable and that he will insist on NO2 limits being respected.

I know from a letter that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sent me on 21 October—to be fair, the Secretary of State confirmed this today—that the existing pollution from traffic in London, including around Heathrow, will already put the Government beyond the NO2 limit. They have a major problem even in present circumstances, so how will that be solved by increasing the number of flights at Heathrow, which will mean increased road traffic, and even low-carbon rail journeys to Heathrow? How will those increases help the Government to meet a target that they already fail to meet? Even their non-existent planes and other attempts to find ways around this major problem will not solve that issue.

From Department for Transport papers and internal documents that have come my way, we know that officials have been working with DEFRA officials on the interpretation of the relevant EU directive to try to ensure compliance. The DFT is a hopeless basket case on climate change, but we might have expected DEFRA to be more sympathetic to attempts to meet climate change targets. However, that does not seem to be the case.

The Government have got into a hole on this matter. They are on the wrong side of the argument. From the top down—the Prime Minister and the previous Prime Minister—they have bought the line that Heathrow must go ahead. They have also misread the mood of the business community, not all of which is in favour of the Government’s proposals. They have certainly misread the opinion of the population in London and elsewhere. Most importantly, the Government have misread the environmental challenge they face. They have a potentially good story on climate change, and could credibly claim to the electorate that they have done something on that issue. But they will be shot out of the water if they go ahead with the third runway at Heathrow. People will not remember the 80 per cent. target or the Climate Change Bill, but they will remember being betrayed over the third runway.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I wish to give notice that the Chair might review the time limit that has been imposed on Back Benchers’ speeches in view of the time now and the number of hon. Members who wish to contribute. It would be very helpful if Members tried to keep their remarks well within the present allocation so that the Chair will not have to make a formal change.

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5.52 pm

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): This is an important debate and it is clear that hon. Members on all sides of the argument have very strong feelings. I shall attempt to highlight some of the key problems that need to be considered carefully.

The Transport Committee has considered this issue on three occasions in the context of inquiries into broader aviation matters. First, in 2003, in a study on aviation, the Committee concluded that the targeted development of existing sites was one way to deal with the anticipated expansion of aviation. The Committee said that

The Committee recognised the significance of the environmental concerns and said that a decision must not be taken lightly.

More recently, the Committee conducted two further inquiries—on passengers’ experience of air travel in July last year, and this year in March on the future of BAA. In both inquiries, the Committee considered poor conditions at Heathrow, which is currently overcrowded. It castigated the monopoly airport owner—BAA—and advocated its break-up. The Committee found that inadequate runway capacity was a major cause of the problems that passengers experienced at Heathrow. The report supported the Government’s proposal to add capacity at Heathrow, subject to strict environmental conditions being met. That is a key condition.

Underlying many of the comments in support of the expansion of Heathrow was the recognition of it as an international hub, important to our economy and the jobs in it. It is our only such hub, with 68 million passengers a year and 56 per cent. of freight. It is because of the high volume of transit passengers that the hub is able to operate long-haul flights to multiple destinations, including to centres of economic growth in China and India that are important to our economy. If the arguments in favour of expansion are to be challenged, the whole issue of whether Heathrow should be an important international hub needs to be considered.

Susan Kramer: Can the hon. Lady cite the studies she has seen that determine what level of transit passengers is necessary to ensure a wide range of destinations? I question whether she could find such a study, because many other hub airports have a wider range of destinations than Heathrow on much lower percentages of transit traffic.

Mrs. Ellman: The fact is that transit passengers are important to enable international flights to develop. Heathrow is full—it operates at more than 98 per cent. capacity, and that is why it is losing some of its flights to rivals such as Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt, where more runways cater for fewer passengers with greater reliability. That fact was highlighted in the recent Competition Commission report, which examined BAA’s operations. The importance of regional routes for regional connectivity should also be taken into account. I am a strong supporter of high-speed rail, but I would pause before advocating that we should sever aviation links between the regions and the capital. That would be a major step.

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Several key questions must be asked before deciding how expansion of Heathrow could take place, if that is felt to be desirable. First, we should ask whether there are other ways of achieving that aim. A partial proposal for high-speed rail from limited destinations has been put forward as an alternative. It appears that that would deal with only some 3 per cent. of flights, and would not make a significant difference. That proposal may need to be developed further, but it is not the alternative at present.

It has been suggested—

Mrs. Villiers: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Ellman: I am sorry, but I am unable to do so in the time allowed.

An alternative airport has been suggested in the Thames estuary, but it would face major problems. Perhaps that proposal should be considered more seriously.

Several issues that have been identified need more scrutiny than they have had so far. Can the environmental conditions that we have set be met? They include noise and air quality in the locality of Heathrow, and the contribution to climate change. We must also consider our obligations under the Climate Change Bill to reduce emissions. We must remember that a transfer of flights to Schiphol or elsewhere in Europe would mean only a transfer of emissions, not a reduction. We should look much more closely at changes in technology and aircraft design, including alternative fuels. That point has been mentioned in today’s debate, but I do not think it has been scrutinised very deeply.

The recent provisional decision by the Competition Commission suggested that BAA should be broken up, and steps have already been taken in that direction with BAA stating that it wishes to sell Gatwick airport. That will have implications for financing and the efficiency of BAA as an operator.

What are the implications of the current recession for long-term aviation trends? Much has been made of the recent reduction in aviation caused by the recession—indeed, we may only be at the beginning of what may prove to be a prolonged recession. However, these plans are about the future—about 2020 and beyond. We need to take a further look at what the recession might mean for long-term aviation trends and for trends in our economy.

Those are all important questions that need to be addressed in the planning process. It would be helpful if the Secretary of State said how he envisaged any proposal for the expansion of Heathrow proceeding. Would it be conducted under existing planning legislation or under new planning proposals? How would that scrutiny take place in both those scenarios?

Stephen Pound (Ealing, North) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Ellman: I am sorry, but I cannot because of the time constraints.

It is extremely important that the implications for Heathrow as an international hub are considered seriously. It is vital that we look at the economy of the United Kingdom and do not throw away our economic competitiveness at a time of recession. All the factors that I have mentioned need to be examined, both as they are now and as they will operate in the future. We
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need to recognise the importance of Heathrow as an international hub and we need to take decisions for the long term.

6.1 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): Parts of Heathrow are in my constituency, so this debate is very important to the people who sent me here. They rightly expect me to speak up for them. However, if I do that I face a dilemma. The majority of my constituents, and my local council, support another runway, but my party’s policy is the exact opposite. Making a constructive contribution is quite a challenge but, happily for my colleagues on the Front Bench, I do not see that there is much to be gained by setting out all over again what I see as the overwhelming local, regional and national case for another runway. That approach has been done to death. I doubt whether there is anyone in this Chamber who did not make up their mind, one way or another, long ago.

Instead, I want to echo what my neighbour, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), said about seeing whether we could find any consensus. I thought I might see whether there was anything on which we could all agree.

John McDonnell: Would the hon. Gentleman be willing to have the runway and terminal in his constituency?

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman has asked me that before, and I shall have to give him the same answer. If that is what is necessary, that is what is necessary.

I believe that the answer to the question, “Can we all agree on anything?” is—to quote someone else—“Yes, we can.” Do we not all agree that shutting Heathrow is a bad idea? Do we not all agree that Heathrow has problems? Do we not all agree that we want a better Heathrow? If I am right, and we all agree on those points, that means that we are all signed up to keeping Heathrow open, curing its problems and deciding how to make it better.

If Heathrow is to survive it has to prosper, which is the opposite of what is happening at the moment. To keep Heathrow open, we all need to be against the proposals made by the Mayor of London. As he rightly says, for his scheme to work Heathrow will have to be shut. If that happened, where would it leave the 70,000 people who work inside the boundary fence? They would face redundancy. I hope we all agree that redundancies are a bad thing.

Heathrow’s key problems are all horribly familiar to us: frustrating departure delays, annoying landing delays, cancelled flights, missing bags—[Hon. Members: “Noise.”] I shall come to noise later; do not worry. We all agree that those problems have to be overcome. The problems of planes queuing to take off and circling overhead before landing can only sensibly be solved by another runway. Many cancellations are caused by delay: if runways are 99 per cent. full, when flights are delayed they simply cannot be slotted in between the other flights that are waiting to take off, and they become cancellations.

Many bags go missing because of landing delays. Those delays leave too little time for a bag to make it from the flight that it has come in on to the flight that it
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should go out on. Again, the solution is to get rid of landing delays, for which we need another runway.

Justine Greening: Does my hon. Friend accept that there is another solution? Instead of focusing on quantity, BAA should start to focus on quality, and perhaps it might do that if it had a bit of competition—it might then decide to provide a better service to people who use the airport.

Mr. Wilshire: I am coming to the fact that Heathrow’s competition is already doing damage.

Heathrow also has some lesser known problems, some of which have already been mentioned tonight. The airport is losing routes—down from 230 to 180. By comparison, the competitors which my hon. Friend is concerned about are gaining routes and passengers. If Heathrow loses its transfer passengers, as some suggest it will, it will lose even more routes and become less viable.

Mr. Greg Hands: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Wilshire: No, I am sorry, but time is against me and Mr. Deputy Speaker urged us to be brief.

We would lose even more routes, including those to such places as Madras, Seattle, Bangalore, Osaka and Johannesburg. Heathrow is losing passengers to continental competitors, and that is already costing us jobs.

Heathrow is losing passengers as businesses start to relocate because a declining Heathrow no longer meets their needs. The computer firm Dell has begun to move its operations from London to Frankfurt for that very reason. Heathrow’s inability to accommodate new intercontinental airlines, especially from such crucial places as India and China, is forcing those airlines to set up their European hubs across the channel. Jet Airways, one of India’s most successful new airlines, can get only two slots at Heathrow and has therefore decided that its European hubs ought to be Brussels and Paris. That will cost us routes and jobs and will damage Heathrow.

I am sure we all agree that we want a better Heathrow. “Better, not bigger” has in fact become something of a mantra. However, there is one thing wrong with that analysis. A better Heathrow requires additional runway capacity, not so that Heathrow can expand but because that is the way to sort out its problems. Terminal 5 was not all about expansion, but represented an effort to sort out the chaos in the four other overcrowded terminals.

Susan Kramer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilshire: No, I am afraid not.

A better Heathrow requires the runway capacity to sort out those problems. Interestingly, those people who live under existing flight paths need to think about the fact that if we take the use of a runway down from 99 to 75 per cent., fewer flights will go over the houses of those people who live under the flight paths. We all agree that we do not want to end runway alternation, and another runway would make that unnecessary. To cheer up those on my Front Bench, I want to tell them that the policy of opposing the scrapping of alternation has my wholehearted support.

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