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It is significant that I get more complaints about noise from aircraft approaching Heathrow, which is approximately 14 miles away, than I do about London City airport, which is just across the river, only 1 mile away. That gives an indication of the existing problem and it is why residents in my area and elsewhere regard
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the 5:7 dBA LEQ contour, which is used as an indicator of noise, with deep suspicion. Noise nuisance is much broader than that contour suggests. It is a genuine problem, which, even at my distance from Heathrow, I experience.

The worst consequence of proceeding with the proposal for a third runway is that no one believes that that would be the end of the story. If the previous restrictions were swept away, and we were told that a third runway and a sixth terminal were essential, what would stop a future Secretary of State saying in a few years, “We need a fourth runway. After all, Schiphol’s got four runways, so why can’t London? It’s time for terminal 7 or 8”? The process would continue, there would be further demands for airport capacity and, therefore, further conflict with the needs and aspirations of people whose lives would be blighted by the expansion, and a scenario that would lead to even more unacceptable noise nuisance and pollution.

Heathrow is simply not in the right location for London’s hub airport. If we started from scratch today, no one would propose putting London’s hub airport at Heathrow. The location is the product of planning decisions that were made in the 1940s in a completely different world for traffic movements, noise and other matters, and in the curious absence of any new airport building in this country in comparison with others. Let us look across the channel to France. In the same period, France has moved its main airport from Le Bourget to Orly to Charles de Gaulle. There was no problem about moving it to a new site. France felt that that was necessary and did it. We ended up simply adding capacity at Heathrow, thereby aggravating the problems that I have mentioned.

If there was no alternative, and the proposal was the only way we could expand an airport that is essential to our economy—I entirely accept the arguments for its economic importance—it would be understandable. However, 40 years ago people began to realise that there was an alternative, and that we could plan an airport in a location in the Thames estuary, where there would be less conflict between the needs of the surrounding population, the environment and the economic demands than at Heathrow. Unfortunately, Maplin did not proceed. I personally believe that the subsequent Cliffe proposal was unsatisfactory and bound to fail, and I wonder whether it was made with that outcome in view.

However, I still believe that the estuary is the right location, although any decision will have to be carefully planned. There are genuine concerns—my hon. Friends who represent constituencies in that area have expressed doubts about estuary locations—but there is the potential to achieve an airport on reclaimed land. That has been done in other places, such as Kansai in Japan and Hong Kong in China, where reclaimed land has created a far better environment for an airport, as flights can approach and land over water, thus reducing noise nuisance and, incidentally, the risk to public safety. I must emphasise that having flight paths approaching and leaving Heathrow over densely populated areas raises genuine concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) rightly highlighted the risks implicit in that.

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In the words of the Secretary of State, who earlier argued for a strategic approach to airport development, the issue is one that we really need to address. We need to address it in the context of the Thames Gateway regeneration, which gives us an opportunity to transform the entire economy of south-east England, by improving the performance and development of some of the more deprived parts and thereby rebalancing the economy, which has shown a heavy tendency towards overheating to the west of London and too much dereliction and underdevelopment to the east. The Thames Gateway opportunity, aided by the siting of an airport there, holds out a great economic opportunity for our country.

My final point is that siting an airport there also holds out the prospect of far better integration of different modes. Good high-speed rail links via Ebbsfleet could easily be established at an appropriate site in the estuary, which would then connect both to London and the rest of the country, and to Europe. That would give people opportunities to travel to Europe by rail rather than by aircraft and would improve links throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), the former Transport Minister, who is no longer in his place, argued the case for Crossrail, which could provide a link between Heathrow and an estuary airport and further enhance those opportunities.

I am not one of those who believes that an estuary airport is an alternative. The estuary is the right location for the hub in the long term, but that is compatible with continued operation at Heathrow for many years to come. That would help us to begin to overcome the dreadful consequences of our failure to grasp the nettle and get the right location for our hub airport over the past 30 years.

7.32 pm

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I welcome this debate about the huge proposed expansion of Heathrow, which would obviously affect my constituents considerably. Many hon. Members will be wondering what problems Reading might have with such expansion— after all, we are more than 30 miles away. I will try to explain to the House over the next few minutes.

Reading already suffers from considerable flight traffic, as most of the traffic flying out of and into Heathrow goes over some part of my constituency. I have written to Ministers on a number of occasions to express my concern about the growing levels of noise and pollution. I have also raised concerns about the proposals for increased air traffic with NATS. The general arguments about Heathrow expansion are well rehearsed, including from the Front-Bench spokesmen today, and I do not wish to repeat them. I want to focus on local matters that are important to my constituents. Their quality of life is every bit as important as a flawed decision to expand Heathrow with a third runway.

I acknowledge that Heathrow is operating at capacity, handling nearly 68 million passengers a year, when it was designed to deal with many fewer. Heathrow plays a disproportionate role in UK aviation—it caters for 35 per cent. of the UK’s aviation business traffic, is used by 90 per cent. of airlines and handles nearly 500,000 air traffic movements a year. Heathrow is already a colossus in aviation terms, however we measure it. However, is the answer to the problem really to build a third runway and add terminal capacity at Heathrow?

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The Government looked into the issue in their White Paper, as the Secretary of State said, and set out three conditions. I do not want to repeat them in detail, but they can be summarised as noise, pollution and public access. My constituents are interested in the first two—noise and pollution—both of which I have received regular complaints about. It was therefore a great disappointment to them that the Government appear to be focusing the case for expanding Heathrow on the airport’s role in supporting the UK economy. It is almost as if the Government have decided that the best way to get their own way is to frighten or bully the public into agreement, rather than fulfilling their own criteria for any decision. Indeed, that was reiterated somewhat by the Secretary of State’s performance at the Dispatch Box today.

The conditions that the Government have set have been overlooked and I am deeply concerned about how the expansion will play out among my constituents. As I am sure hon. Members can imagine, I have had a sizeable postbag on the matter, as many of my constituents, especially those living in the north of my constituency in Caversham, are getting a daily taste of life under the flight path. The strength of feeling about the issue cannot be ignored. Indeed, I have received many letters urging me to oppose any third runway.

My constituents in the north of Reading already believe that they are experiencing a substantial increase in flight traffic and all the noise that comes with that. They are rightly discontented with that. I know that many hon. Members have constituencies that are much closer to Heathrow and constituents who suffer the daily torment of low-flying aircraft. My constituency is 30 miles away and yet we, too, suffer similar problems with noise and pollution.

I have corresponded with several Ministers in the Department for Transport over the past 18 months or so. I recently wrote again to the Minister who is due to wind up this debate. His reply confirmed that Reading, East suffers from substantial air traffic noise. Indeed, I have become quite a nerd on the subject, because it has become so important to my constituents, although I shall try not to go into too much detail.

It has been confirmed that a westerly preference for take-offs, owing to prevailing westerly winds, has been operating at Heathrow since 1962, as the airport attempts to reduce the number of departing aircraft taking off over areas to the east of the airport. That is quite sensible, because the areas to the east of the airport are more densely populated. Generally, the westerly preference operates for 70 per cent. of a typical year. An aircraft taking off towards the west is slightly less of an issue for my constituents, because departing aircraft have to follow set routes known as noise preferential routes or NPRs. When an aircraft reaches 4,000 ft, air traffic control can leave it on that NPR or put it on a more direct route to its destination. The key point, aircraft experts tell me, is that aircraft today can reach 4,000 ft pretty quickly.

Normally, an aircraft would be above 4,000 ft by the time it reached Reading and still ascending. In those circumstances there is not really a problem. But—and it is a pretty big but—because aircraft departing to the west must have a vertical separation of 1,000 ft from arriving aircraft, which descend from the southern holding stacks for safety reasons, they have to lower their altitude until there is a clear crossing area. That basically means
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that aircraft have to lower their altitude at Reading for safety reasons. Many aircraft are now so low that my constituents have written to me to express their concern that they are in fact flying below 1,000 ft. I do not know whether that is true without getting out my measuring tape. It seems unlikely, but even so, it may be worth the Minister taking a look at that claim, because it could be quite dangerous if it were true.

Matters are made much worse for my constituents when Heathrow changes to an easterly operation for 30 per cent. of the year. The Department for Transport has sent me the landing maps, which show that Reading is a blizzard of low-flying aircraft. Aircraft are held in holding stacks and then join the airport’s instrument landing system. That brings aircraft much lower over my constituents. Again, the situation is not as bad as it is in the areas closer to Heathrow, but the noise makes a difference to my constituents’ quality of life. Expansion will mean more noise and pollution for them, and the number of flights to and from Heathrow could rise from 480,000 a year to nearly 800,000 with a third runway. More and more people, including my constituents, will be under Heathrow’s flight paths, and the effects will be intolerable. We all know that the south of England is increasingly overcrowded, particularly regarding road transport. Any expansion of Heathrow will make matters much worse. One constituent who wrote to me put it simply:

In the absence of anything like a compelling case from the Government, my party has decided to oppose the building of a third runway at Heathrow, and is instead advocating high-speed rail as part of the alternative.

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilson: I am running out of time.

I am absolutely delighted that my party has taken that bold initiative. I am not going to rehearse all the arguments in favour of rail; suffice it to say that the experience around the rest of Europe clearly shows that high-speed rail provides an attractive alternative to short-haul flights.

I am deeply worried that the Government made up their mind about expanding Heathrow even before they finished the consultation. More noise and pollution is not the answer for Heathrow. My constituents want to maintain their quality of life. They want us to concentrate on making Heathrow airport better, not bigger.

7.41 pm

Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West and Royton) (Lab): The debate has made it clear that there are essentially three issues before us: first, the national economic role of aviation; secondly, the impact of the third runway on the long-suffering people of west London; and, thirdly, the compatibility or otherwise of that runway with an 80 per cent. cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, to which the Government are now firmly committed. I believe that on all three counts, the balance of evidence is clearly now against proceeding with the expansion.

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On the first point, the airline industry has of course staked its demand for continued expansion on the claim that it is central to the UK economy, but it is not. No one will deny that the aviation industry has an important role, but it ranks as only the 26th largest industry in the country. It is half the size of the computer industry and, until a few months ago, just a 10th the size of banking and finance —[Laughter.] That figure will now be slightly different, but I hope that the point is still made. Far from being key to the balance of payments, as the industry often argues, it helps to create a tourism deficit of some £17 billion a year—that is what British tourists spend abroad over what visitors to Britain spend in this country.

In addition, the UK airline industry gets a subsidy of some £10 billion a year from VAT-free tickets and planes, and tax-free fuel. That is taxpayers’ money that could be far better spent on promoting sustainable transport systems, not least as a substitute for domestic, short-haul flights. In the past decade, the subsidies have been so large that they have allowed a 40 per cent. reduction in air fares at the same time as rail fares have rocketed by 70 per cent.

The economic case for the third runway is a lot more questionable than has been made out. Indeed, that view was recently expressed in a report released in February this year by the respected consultant CE Delft, which argued that the official figures greatly overestimate both the number of jobs that the runway would generate and the value brought to Britain by extra business travellers.

Mark Hunter: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that today’s debate is about far more than simply the expansion entailed by the third runway at Heathrow, important though that is? Rather, today’s debate marks a significant end to the uncontrolled expansion of the aviation sector, which is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable in future.

Mr. Meacher: I entirely agree, and anyone who has listened to this debate would certainly draw that conclusion. As the hon. Gentleman says, the debate is not only on the third runway at Heathrow, nor on Heathrow in general, but on the need for a national policy review and a statement of exactly what aviation means to the national economy, and how we should deal with the requirements given all the options. Like many other hon. Members, I agree that a great deal has happened in the past five years that should cause us to look at the situation again. I am thinking of the volatility in the price of oil; the fact that peak oil supply is probably, on some calculations, only 40 years away; the increasing tightness of carbon budgets worldwide; and possibly—I realise that this is uncertain and that it could be challenged—the gradually changing attitude of many consumers to air travel. For all of those reasons, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman.

The second issue is the local environmental impact on 2 million people in hard-put-upon communities in west London. Jets roar over densely populated areas, in some periods as frequently as every 30 seconds. Bad air quality hot spots already exist, and they will certainly increase if the expansion goes ahead. I am glad to leave talk of the road links back to London, which are often
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snarled up, to those who are far better acquainted with the situation—we heard powerful speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and Opposition Members on that. I shall say simply that those issues, which were eloquently expressed in the Chamber today, will have widespread political, economic and social consequences. We ignore that at our peril.

I wish to concentrate on the third issue, which I think is decisive in its own right. To put it bluntly, tripling Britain’s airport capacity is irreconcilable with meeting our climate change mandatory targets. A parliamentary answer in April this year made it clear that aviation already accounts for 13 per cent. of the UK’s total climate change impact. That is quite a high figure, but the key point is that it is now the fastest-rising generator of greenhouse gases in Britain. That has awesome implications.

The Tyndall centre in Norwich, which is widely respected worldwide for its climate change research, is now predicting that aviation emissions on their current trajectory will account for up to 100 per cent. of the UK Government’s carbon budget by 2050. In other words, even if we retired every car off our roads, unplugged every electronic device and closed every factory, we would still not be able to meet the climate change targets, because of aviation. I recognise that a Secretary of State for Transport may not be overly concerned about climate change targets that, after all, have to be met 40 years in the future. However, it is extremely unwise not to take account of the fact that we now have five-year carbon budgets. If aviation continues disproportionately to increase its share of that limited budget, others, which can only mean industry and private households, will have to take a sharply decreasing share. That could cause extreme difficulties, to put it mildly.

Norman Baker: The right hon. Gentleman has a strong record on this subject. I invite him to make a link between his first point about the economy and his current point about climate change. The Government’s costing of the damage done by a tonne of carbon is estimated at £19, but the Stern review made it clear that £53 would be a more appropriate figure. If that figure is used for carbon damage, does it not entirely wipe out any supposed theoretical economic gain from aviation in any case?

Mr. Meacher: I entirely accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, to which I am sympathetic. There is considerable argument over which base figure to use and it is possible to produce very different conclusions depending on what is chosen.

Of course, it is possible to argue—the Secretary of State did so afternoon—that we should not worry too much because the Government are going to include the aviation industry in the EU emissions trading scheme. I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the fact that Ernst and Young calculated in June last year that even in the toughest EU scenario—I must say that, bearing in mind we are talking about the EU, I would not bank on that—aviation emissions will grow by 83 per cent. by 2020. That is fractionally less than business-as-usual scenarios.

Another argument that is often used and which needs to be put on the table is that the airline industry will get round the problem simply by buying carbon credits
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from other industries or from abroad under the emissions trading scheme, while still expanding with impunity. I think that that is extremely perverse and the fact remains that the EU will almost certainly set the credits allowance well below the level that is needed by the industry.

Finally, one environmental constraint, which will apply very quickly, is mandatory under EU law and cannot be circumvented. I refer to mandatory EU targets on nitrogen oxide, which come into force in 2010—only a little more than a year away. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs admitted at last week’s Question Time that NOx levels are already being breached in London. I hate to say this, but, frankly, it is ridiculous to pretend, as the Government do, that if the number of flight movements goes up by 50 per cent.—from 480,000 to 720,000—it will not push up NOx pollution and noise above lawful levels.

Mr. Brazier rose—

Mr. Meacher: I have not got time to give way.

In a very revealing article in March last year, The Sunday Times showed how the Government created that canard—by allowing senior executives from BAA to

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