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11 Nov 2008 : Column 734

I see the Secretary of State in his place; he must be regretting the tone he struck in his most unfortunate speech earlier this afternoon. He must be thinking that he will not be here to see this third runway opening; he will not be where he is sitting today and he will not have the responsibilities he has now. He will not even see the first sod of earth turned on this new project, which is miles down the track. This is a pre-election exercise. My goodness, if Boris Johnson’s proposal was window-dressing, what is this in comparison? I doubt that it will happen.

Once the nail has finally been driven through the heart of this proposal and once it becomes clear that constraints on the expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are fixed by public opinion, which does not want airport capacity so close to where people live, the proposal for a Thames estuary airport so ably floated by the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich—and, perhaps not so ably, but just as vehemently by me—will move rapidly up the agenda as the only viable alternative, providing a real hub international airport to the east of London. That will be to the benefit of this country and, I believe, the whole of Europe.

9.32 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I hope that the Government have listened to tonight’s very good debate. The message has been pretty clear, as we have heard speeches of passion and knowledge.

I am not going to be uncharitable to the Secretary of State, who is new to his job, but I cannot pass over one element of his speech. I understand that he has not had time to be fully briefed on all the weaknesses in the Government’s position on noise, but his reply to the perfectly reasonable interjection by the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews) was astonishing. He suggested that he was going to apply the same criteria to the possibility of ending runway alternation as he was going to apply to the prospect for a third runway. That was truly astonishing, as one issue is about levels of noise and the other is about the crucial matter of timing: they are completely different.

The hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made a remarkable speech, as he passionately set out his concerns for his constituents. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) made a thoughtful speech, in which she liked the idea of looking further into high-speed rail, but queried whether it could make enough difference to justify its use as an alternative to a third runway. I shall return to this in a few moments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), in a thoughtful speech, sought to find areas where consensus could be achieved—another matter to which I shall return. He made the case for the other side of the argument passionately—not quite alone, but very nearly alone—from the Back Benches. I associate myself with the generous tribute of the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) to Sir Michael Bishop.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) threatened to lie down in front of a bulldozer. I must say that it would have to be a brave bulldozer. The right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) made a strong case for regional airports, and was the first to
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draw attention to the importance of all the spare capacity in them at a time when “point to point” flights are increasingly on the agenda.

It was a remarkable coincidence that we should hear first a strong speech from the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) and then one from my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson). Both those Members, whose constituencies are a long way from Heathrow, said how much their constituents were affected by the existing operation. We then heard three speeches, of which the most remarkable was that by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who explained just how seriously the proposed development would damage the credibility that the Government are rightly trying to build on climate change.

We heard a typically punchy speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who defended his constituents vigorously. Other forms of impact were are all very well, he said, but what about the health impact? He also reminded us that a cap-and-trade scheme—or emissions trading, as we call it in Europe—can work only if a country has a sensible cap, which, sadly, we have not.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) produced his usual well-informed defence of the Government’s argument—the only one apart from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne—and I shall return to some of his points later. We heard a powerful speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), whose remarkable investigations, through a series of freedom of information requests, have revealed so much about the gaps in the argument. We also heard strong speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin).

There are two propositions on which I believe we can agree. The first is that aviation is an important part not just of our economy, but of our way of life. Not only is it our fifth biggest industry; it provides opportunities for businesses and ordinary families of which our grandparents never dreamt. The second proposition is that we all want to make Heathrow a successful airport of which we can be proud. Where we disagree is on the question of how to balance the case for extra capacity presented by BAA and a number of airlines—and still, for a little bit longer, it seems, by the Government—against the huge environmental price to be paid by the local area, the wider region and the globe. The hints that we have been given by the Secretary of State in the media recently and what was said at the BAA conference—welcome as those comments are—suggest that the Government are suddenly warming to the idea of high-speed rail, but they also seem to involve a degree of selective amnesia.

We have argued that high-speed rail could replace a significant chunk of Heathrow flights. The Government and BAA now respond by saying that we should have both, but that was not the position even a few months ago. As recently as March the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), the then Under-Secretary of State for Transport, confirmed that not a single official in the Department was working on high-speed rail proposals. Indeed, until a few months ago, BAA was still committed
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to a programme of redevelopment of its terminals 1 to 4 and the Queen Elizabeth building which, had it gone ahead as planned, would have involved the Airtrack route through Feltham—which has pluses and minuses—but would have ruled out for a generation the proper construction of the Heathrow hub that is at the heart of our proposal.

Today, passengers at Heathrow can take a train directly to very few major United Kingdom destinations. Either they must climb on to a frequently crowded underground train to reach a station where they can change to a train that can take them somewhere, or they must take the purpose-built Heathrow Express route to Paddington. Then, to reach most destinations, they must take an underground train or taxi to another terminus from which they can travel to their eventual destination. We say that that they should be able, in the terminal, to climb straight on to a high-speed train to the north of England or to Europe, or directly access the rail system to the west—including, Cardiff, for which the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley made such a strong case, and, indeed, Reading.

The Secretary of State has made hints. If he wants to intervene, he is welcome to do so. So far he has been remarkably reluctant to challenge any of the attacks made on his alleged facts. The Government are welcome to move to our view on high-speed rail, but it is incredible for them to pretend that it was their policy a few months ago or even that they were looking at it seriously.

It is very sad that the International Air Transport Association report of 2008 picked out Heathrow alone of all airports in the world for special mention for overcharging. Some of its problems are undoubtedly related to runway overcrowding, but not one of the issues for which BAA plc was slated by the Civil Aviation Authority a fortnight ago was related to runway capacity. They ranged from lack of lounge seating to slow provision of disembarkation piers to dirty facilities, strengthening the case for the break-up of BAA, to which a number of Members have alluded.

Another area that needs to be addressed to make the airport better is security. My noble Friend Baroness Neville-Jones is carrying out a comprehensive study on security, which, by learning lessons from best practice abroad, should both improve security and reduce unnecessarily burdensome queues. The CAA has rightly highlighted that and threatened fines over it.

The Government have been unwilling to focus on the issues affecting either local or global environments. Locally, people face serious problems with nitrogen dioxide, noise and mounting road congestion, which in turn feeds back into still further NOx problems. The Secretary of State has confirmed that NOx readings in excess of those set by the EU for 2010 have already been taken, and that is with existing levels. They are outlined in a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs document published last year, and the Environment Agency has pointed to:

It took a Greenpeace freedom of information request for this information to be dug out.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) pointed out, both the M4 and the M25 suffer from severe congestion, as do many of the lesser
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roads in west London. Congestion is bad for drivers and bad for business, and, of course, it contributes to NOx. I ask Members to imagine adding the equivalent of Gatwick to the existing Heathrow operation, and then let us remember how much bigger aircraft are getting. Many extra passengers will be arriving, a high proportion of them by car—more than 60 per cent. if present patterns continue.

Time does not permit me to rehearse all the arguments made about noise, but my hon. Friend presented a devastating case. There is the brushing aside of the ANASE—Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England—study, and the fictitious aircraft that nobody is planning to build that plays such a big role in the profiling. Let me add one point. BAA has not helped itself by the stinginess of its insulation scheme. Boeing operates a useful website comparing the performance of various airports in this regard, and it shows Heathrow to have one of the stingiest arrangements in the world. Indeed, if Heathrow were to adopt tomorrow the approach voluntarily adopted by City airport, it would be insulating buildings as far away as Kensington. However, insulation is not the main issue. The plan for this scale of expansion, combined with the threat of an end to runway alternation, represents a potentially devastating blow to the peace and enjoyment of hundreds of thousands of people.

There is not sufficient time to go back over the arguments on climate change, and after several excellent contributions, particularly that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal, I do not think I need to do so. We cannot on the one hand say, “We want to lead globally on this”—which all the main parties agree on—and then on the other hand say, “We are going to build this extra runway.” The arguments on the other side are twofold. First, it is said that the aviation industry requires this expansion if Heathrow is to remain a world-class airport. It is certainly true that Heathrow has lost a small number of its thinnest routes in the past decade, but it remains connected to 180 airports, and eliminating some short-haul connections—not just the 3 per cent. to Manchester and Leeds, but also those to Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam as the high-speed rail link kicks in—will release some spare capacity. When slots are changing hands for tens of millions of pounds, nobody will persuade me that Heathrow is close to the edge.

Mr. Wilshire rose—

Mr. Brazier: Sadly, I do not have time to give way, and I apologise to my hon. Friend.

The wider issue that is constantly put forward is of a threat to the British economy. Let us remember that a recent presentation from BAA and Flying Matters conceded that only 36 per cent. of passengers are business passengers. Government is about making choices, sometimes difficult ones. We have to choose between increasingly thin economic arguments, on the one hand, and a severe and sustained devastation of quality of life for hundreds of thousands of people, on the other. We have to make that decision against a background of climate change.

Through a high-speed rail alternative, our plans offer some of the growth that the economists want, a much better connected journey for passengers, a railway system fit for the modern era, protection of the local environment and a worthwhile step on climate change. I commend them to the House.

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9.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that he was well aware that the topic of Heathrow would arouse strong opinions in today’s debate, and clearly he was not wrong. Heathrow plays a key role in the country’s economy, as was made clear in the 2003 White Paper and in the Eddington study, and its importance has been reinforced again today. The economic arguments demonstrate that the capacity of the airport requires the level of attention and scrutiny that is rightly being given to the issue in this debate, and in the many steps that have brought us to this point. I acknowledge that a number of contributions have challenged the Government’s economic case, and I shall return to that. However, it is our stated position that Heathrow is vital, as the UK’s only hub airport, not only to the economy of London or of the south-east alone, but to the country as a whole. Aviation in the UK delivers £11 billion of economic benefits, employing 200,000 people directly; Heathrow employs 100,000 directly and indirectly.

With regard to Heathrow, we must consider the serious questions of environmental impact. It is right that any decision we make on Heathrow must take into account all our responsibilities as a Government, including those we owe to the environment and to the people who live and work around the airport.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I have less than 15 minutes to respond to a six-hour debate, so if I have time at the end, I will come back to my hon. Friend.

To that end, I hope that the House accepts that we are making great efforts to involve as many people and organisations as possible, at every level, in what has been a lengthy and exhaustive consultative exercise. We have been clear that any development would depend on the strict environmental criteria being met; again, a huge amount of work has been carried out in that area.

I turn to some of the points raised in the debate. The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) claims that we are scrapping alternation. I am sure that she knows we are consulting on that, as we are on the Cranford agreement and westerly preference, as well as on the crucial question of the third runway. She says that we have no plans on surface access, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned Crossrail, the improved Piccadilly line and Airtrack, to name just a few. On her allegations of collusion and reverse engineering, she knows, because we have discussed this before, that we need to lay down restrictions within which the airport must operate.

The 2003 White Paper clearly stated that the airport operator, BAA, should work with the Government, the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS to develop proposals consistent with conditions laid down by the Government. It would not have been sensible or possible to attempt that work without the technical and operational expertise of the airport operator. BAA was therefore asked to advise on how operations at the airport might need to be adjusted or aircraft movement numbers lowered to help meet environmental constraints.

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The hon. Lady also claimed that the Government invented the 450-seater plane to meet the Heathrow challenge. The aircraft in question was assumed to be a stretched version of an existing aircraft, the Boeing 777-300, and to be due to enter service some time after 2020. It is a fairly standard approach by manufacturers to extend the life of an original design by upgrading it in this fashion over time.

The hon. Lady said that the forecasts for 2003 were not still valid. In 2007, revised air traffic forecasts were published alongside the consultation. Further updates will be provided at the time of the decision later this year.

On the economic arguments, the hon. Lady claimed a negative impact on local prosperity and housing prices. However, that was disputed by other Conservative Members. She also claimed that there would be no effect on Heathrow if present levels were continued, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State clearly spelt out both the reduced number of destinations being served by Heathrow, the increasing number of UK residents flying to the continent to connect, and the reduction in access from regional airports.

The Opposition announced on 29 September that a full high-speed rail network could add £60 billion to the UK’s wealth, with £5.2 billion for Birmingham. Earlier this year, Atkins estimated benefits of just over £60 billion over a 60-year period for a full network of high-speed lines at a cost of approximately £30 billion—not the benefits associated with the Conservatives’ scheme.

The Opposition also claim that a high-speed rail link could replace up to 66,500 flights a year and free almost a third of the capacity that would be provided by a third runway. The total number of flights from Manchester and Leeds-Bradford was less than 3 per cent. of Heathrow’s total flights—approximately 13,000 over the past 12 months. Even if the capacity of every flight from Manchester and Leeds-Bradford were transferred to a new high-speed rail line, Heathrow would still be operating at 97 per cent. capacity.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said that this decision was about BAA’s profit margin, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out that it was about the economic case for UK plc, not for BAA. My hon. Friend asked about the Sustainable Development Commission and said that the Government should revise their aviation policy. If I may advise him, I can tell him that the SDC’s views ignore the extensive consultation before the White Paper and our thorough and detailed analysis. He also stated that the consultation said nothing about land and compensation costs. I can assure him that the impact assessment, published last November, did assess compensation costs and impacts in terms of land take, heritage, green belt and other matters.

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