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28 Jan 2009 : Column 304

Mrs. Villiers: I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I will respond to that point in more detail later.

The Secretary of State’s assurances on noise simply lack credibility because the Government have made every effort to duck their promises in the past. Let us take their assurance that expansion would not lead to an increase in the area covered by the 57 dB noise contour. Even setting aside the criticism of the validity of that contour—such criticism came from both the World Health Organisation and the DFT’s own research study, “Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England”, or ANASE—the Government use the 2002 base year for their calculations, a year when Concorde was still flying. The way in which the Civil Aviation Authority’s noise model operates means that the demise of Concorde allows the headroom to give the green light to major increases in flight movements by conventional planes, without exceeding the noise tests set.

Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: Not just at the moment.

Even more controversially, as I have said, the documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the DFT and BAA working closely together on a re-forecasting, and reverse-engineering the projections for future flight mix to try to meet the tests that the Government had set and get the answers that Ministers wanted. Even then, the Government are still relying on a massive leap forward in aircraft technology to enable them to reconcile their promises on noise with the increase in flights that they want to see, including the delivery of the now notorious twin-engine “green jumbo” which is not in the design portfolios of either major aircraft manufacturer, and yet is expected by the DFT to replace completely all 747s by 2030 and virtually all units of Boeing’s successor to the 747, which is not even on the market yet.

It is this history that undermines the Government’s credibility when they make more promises on ‘green slots’. When challenged, the Secretary of State was unable to give one single example of a model of plane green enough or clean enough to qualify to use the new slots, and it is a major concern that documents published alongside the statement on Heathrow contain no explanation of how the system for regulating the use of new slots will work. Most controversially of all when it comes to noise issues, The Sunday Times recently reported that figures passed to the Civil Aviation Authority by BAA predict an increase in flights between 11 pm and 7 am from about 27,300 in 2006 to 35,000 once the third runway is operating at full capacity—an increase on today’s levels of more than 25 per cent. We strongly and successfully resisted the Government’s attempts to lift the cap on night flights, which can have such a corrosive impact on quality of life. Yet again I urge the Secretary of State to guarantee the future of the ‘night cap’, and to drop his plans to review it.

Then, of course, there is the climate change impact of a third runway. With 222,000 more flights, the airport could well become the largest single source of carbon dioxide in the United Kingdom, emitting nearly 27 million tonnes every year. According to research by Greenpeace, by 2050 emissions at that level could take up around a fifth of the entire UK carbon budget under the Climate
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Change Act 2008. Even with the increase in flights restricted to 125,000, and even if optimistic estimates of efficiency gains are factored in, Heathrow could still consume approximately one eighth of the nation’s total carbon budget by 2050.

Emily Thornberry: Can the hon. Lady assist the House by telling us what carbon dioxide emissions would result from the proportionate expansion of regional airports to which she has referred?

Mrs. Villiers: I shall say something about regional airports shortly, but I think the hon. Lady is wrong to dismiss their importance. They can have a significant impact on regional development, and as I have said, they can play a part in relieving pressure on capacity in the south-east.

Emily Thornberry rose—

Mrs. Villiers: I have answered the question.

While the Secretary of State may have placated his Cabinet colleagues, I am afraid that his proposed climate change safeguards do not stand up to scrutiny. Let us take the proposed 125,000 cap on the use of the new runway. There is no guarantee as to how long it will last. It is expressly stated to relate to the initial use of the runway, and a review is promised in 2020, but it is unlikely that a new runway—

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): It is up to the Committee on Climate Change.

Mrs. Villiers: Why should we believe that the Government will take any notice of the Committee on Climate Change, given that they are currently ignoring the Environment Agency, the Sustainable Development Commission, a huge coalition of environmental groups, Lord Smith, who is one of their own former colleagues and who chairs the Environment Agency, and their own vice-chairman for the environment, the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter)?

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): I strongly agree with my hon. Friend about the role that regional airports can play. I think she is aware of the two misconceptions about Conservative policy in this regard. One is that the party is opposed to aviation per se; she has already dismissed that idea, which is welcome. The other is that we would rule out any expansion of aviation capacity in the south-east. Will she now debunk that myth as well, for the benefit of the House?

Mrs. Villiers: My hon. Friend is right. We do not rule out the possibility of airport expansion in the south-east; nor, as he says, are we against flying.

Let us return to that 125,000 cap. As I was saying, there is no guarantee as to how long it will last. There is to be a review in 2020 anyway, and it is unlikely that a new runway will even have been built by then. In reality, the Secretary of State’s assurance about 125,000 flights takes us no further than the promises that Labour has already made, many years ago.

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Edward Miliband: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: In a moment.

The consultation document acknowledged that the full uplift to 702,000 flights could not take place until 2030 in any case, as not even the Government, with their optimistic approach to aircraft technology, believe that there is any prospect that before then technology will deliver aircraft clean or quiet enough to comply with the promises on noise and pollution that Labour made as long ago as 2003.

Edward Miliband: On the subject of carbon, the hon. Lady said something very interesting. She said that she did not rule out aviation expansion in the south-east. She has also said this:

How does she reconcile those two positions?

Mrs. Villiers: That last statement does not represent my view. I am happy to acknowledge that my thinking on the economic arguments relating to Heathrow has moved on. [Laughter.]

Edward Miliband rose—

Mrs. Villiers: No. I am happy to acknowledge that I did, at one stage— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am trying to hear the hon. Lady. It is unfair for Members to do all this shouting.

Mrs. Villiers: I make no secret of the fact—indeed, I said this on the “Today” programme—that I once thought that the economic arguments in favour of expansion at Heathrow were stronger than they are. Having looked at the detail, I find the economic arguments wholly unconvincing.

Edward Miliband: This has been a most illuminating exchange, I must say. The whole country will now realise that the hon. Lady is disowning a statement that she made on 22 November 2007—a statement made 15 months ago. How can we possibly trust what she is saying now?

Mrs. Villiers: I believe very strongly that the economic arguments in favour of Heathrow expansion are not convincing, following detailed reflection on them.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: No, I will not.

Lynne Jones: I am trying to help.

Mrs. Villiers: All right, then.

Lynne Jones: Was it not Keynes who said “When the evidence changes, I change my mind”? I congratulate the hon. Lady on having had a change of heart on this issue. I am still unsympathetic towards her view that airport expansion is possible in the south-east, but I hope she may come to review that as well.

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Mrs. Villiers: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the point that she has made.

Let me return again to the 125,000 cap. I am afraid that the credibility of flight caps is undermined by the long list of broken promises that has characterised the history of Heathrow, and by the fact that Labour was pushing hard to lift the flight cap that it promised to impose when it gave the go-ahead to terminal 5, years before the terminal had even opened its doors for business.

Then there is the target of reducing aviation emissions to below 2005 levels by 2050, not mentioned in the voluminous document published alongside the Secretary of State’s statement earlier this month. I am afraid that this has all the hallmarks of something cobbled together at the last minute to paper over internal divisions.

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

Mrs. Villiers: No. I have given away to the Secretary of State already. He will have his chance later.

Leaving aside the limited impact of having a target so far in the future unless demanding interim milestones are imposed, let us look at page 84 of “UK air passenger demand and carbon dioxide forecasts”, which was published alongside the Secretary of State’s statement. Table 3.7 predicts that by 2030 Heathrow will emit 23.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and that the combined total for all the London airports will be 31.6 million tonnes. Yet according to the target set by the Secretary of State, in 2050 the entire industry must emit less than 37.5 million tonnes, the 2005 level. The Government’s calculations, as set out in that document, leave no room at all for regional airport expansion, which would need to be constrained below the 2005 level to avoid breaching the limit. Some regional airports might even have to close to allow for the uplift in flights in the south-east, even if we assume no emissions growth at Heathrow between 2030 and 2050.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: No. I have been very generous in giving way, and I want to make some progress now.

Whereas the environmental case against the third runway is compelling, the economic case, as I have said, is unconvincing. It is astounding that the Oxford Economic Forecasting study on which the current economic case is based fails to make any attempt to deduct the costs of increased air pollution, aircraft noise and a massive increase in congestion on some of the United Kingdom’s most important roads. Nor is any attempt made to assess the carbon cost of inbound international flights. The CE Delft study for HACAN ClearSkies disputes the £120 value that OEF claims every passenger arriving in the United Kingdom contributes to the economy. It also concludes that OEF overestimates the extent of suppressed business demand for air travel at Heathrow. Indeed, the Government’s whole analysis completely ignores the huge efforts being made to reduce the need for business travel. According to a recent survey conducted for the World Wildlife Fund, 89 per cent. of the FTSE 350 companies interviewed expected to cut flights over the next 10 years.

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Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: Not at the moment.

Also worth noting is the success of initiatives such as Project Icarus, which asked companies to pledge to reduce their travel carbon footprint by 60 per cent., and which has attracted significant support from major blue chip companies.

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

Mrs. Villiers: No. I have been very generous in giving way.

In a recent poll of small businesses conducted by Continental Research, 95 per cent. said that expanding Heathrow would not provide any benefits for their business. Despite Frankfurt’s extra runways, London has captured a dominant share of financial services business over recent years, and a simplistic comparison between Heathrow and airports such as Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol completely ignores the fact that London is served by a total of five busy airports. The south-east system of airports collectively offers a wider choice of flights to more destinations than either CDG or Schiphol.

Mrs. Ellman: I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she recognise the importance of Heathrow as our only international hub airport, and does she also recognise that it is used by businesses and that they are urging that it should run better, which means it should have more capacity so that our economy can grow in our very difficult economic circumstances?

Mrs. Villiers: Of course I recognise the importance of Heathrow and that business wants Heathrow to be better, but businesses are divided over the third runway issue. I hope I can assure all businesses that, as I will explain, we have concrete and credible plans to make Heathrow better by delivering a top-class high-speed rail link connecting the terminals directly with the European high-speed rail network and thereby providing a high-speed rail alternative to short-haul flights. As the hon. Lady will know, it has been demonstrated in the rest of Europe that there is a clear opportunity for high-speed rail to provide a viable alternative to short-haul flights. By providing that alternative, we would relieve overcrowding at Heathrow and make it a much better airport for both businesses and passengers.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend share my belief that the fact that this Government have failed to do anything on high-speed rail after 11 years in charge, while at the same time we have seen expanding networks in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, is a shocking indictment of their record on this issue?

Mrs. Villiers: Yes, and I was very concerned that when just a year or so ago the Government published their 30-year strategy for the railways, it had no place at all for high-speed rail.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Mrs. Villiers: Possibly later.

Both the OEF study and the Government’s entire approach are fundamentally flawed by a refusal to give serious consideration to alternative ways of dealing with the problems that passengers all too often experience at Heathrow. That is the essential thrust of early-day motion 2344 and the motion before the House this afternoon.

Ruth Kelly: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Villiers: Not at the moment.

Much of the travel misery that so many people experience at Heathrow has more to do with poor customer service than with a shortage of runway space. The most notorious example of such poor service is the fiasco that accompanied the opening of terminal 5. Breaking up BAA’s monopoly over so much airport capacity in the south-east and allowing passengers to vote with their feet and choose an airport run by a different operator should help drive improvements in service quality across all of London’s airports.

The Government’s approach to Heathrow underestimates the potential that regional airports have to relieve pressure on capacity at airports in the south-east. Giving people a wider choice of destinations from their home airport has advantages in terms of passenger convenience and the regional balance of our economy. A switch to more direct flights from regional airports reduces emissions by cutting out the interim leg and relieves the road congestion caused by people having to drive to the south-east’s airports. Sensible and proportionate expansion of regional airports on a case-by-case basis, with full regard to local and environmental planning concerns, should be an important part of any strategy to relieve overcrowding problems at Heathrow.

In proposing a new high-speed rail line connecting Heathrow terminals directly with Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and the channel tunnel link to Paris and Brussels, we have found a further means of relieving Heathrow’s overcrowding problems and one that does not inflict— [Interruption.] I hear comments about Scotland. I believe what we are proposing would be an excellent foundation for a high-speed network that one day would stretch across the country and up to Scotland. We have made a firm commitment to going as far as Manchester and Leeds, whereas the Government are talking only in vague terms about possibly going as far as Manchester.

Hugh Bayley: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Like her, I have a strong interest in railways. She seems to have forgotten that we do have one high-speed line—the line from London to the channel tunnel. It was designed as a private line by a former Conservative Government, but that collapsed and Government had to intervene. How would the high-speed rail link that she is proposing be financed?

Mrs. Villiers: We have set out detailed plans for the costings of our high-speed rail line.

In our proposal for a high-speed rail link, we believe we have found a means of relieving Heathrow’s overcrowding problems in a way that does not inflict the damage that would clearly come with runway 3. Evidence from Europe clearly shows that high-speed rail provides a viable and attractive alternative to competing flights.

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