Previous Section Index Home Page

I am grateful for the lobbying done by some Secretaries of State in Cabinet, but to be frank, some of the commitments and conditions imposed do not stack up. The argument that there will be green slots on the runway, for aeroplanes that do not yet even exist, is farcical. People should look at some of the statistics in the paperwork published last week. There is even one analysis that says that in 2002 more than 7,500 homes were located in areas suffering from air pollution above
28 Jan 2009 : Column 364
the European Union limits, and that in 2015 there will be none. How will that miracle be brought about—on the basis of the assessment provided by BAA about non-polluting, non-noise making aeroplanes that will run off the new runway that will be developed by the company itself for profits? Nobody is given credible reassurances.

I turn to the process itself. I am still unclear about how the decision will be made. We were assured that if there was to be a national policy statement in advance of the decision, it would be consulted on and there would be parliamentary approval in some form. I want that commitment today. I want there to be a vote in the House. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) quoted back to the Prime Minister something that he said when people were on the roof of the Chamber; I almost got the blame for that one as well. The Prime Minister said that the decision would be made not on the roof, but in this Chamber. I expect him to adhere to that commitment.

I expect any national policy statement that will inform the Infrastructure Planning Commission to be debated and decided on the Floor of the House. What is wrong with debating infrastructure projects here? We have just spent the past two years debating Crossrail, which will have a major impact. Actually, I opposed that project in the early ’90s, but as a result of the debate on the legislation we have improved it, and as a result of democratic discussion and a vote in the House, there was consensus across all political parties. Why can that not happen on the most significant aviation infrastructure project in a generation, which at this rate will be decided by the Government?

Finally, I find it unseemly how lobbyists have been able to permeate Government decision making on this issue. There has been exposure of a revolving door of lobbyists, and a Member of the House of Lords is paid full time to lobby on the issue on behalf of the aviation industry. The measure will not be credible without a vote of this House.

4.19 pm

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): It is a privilege to follow two speeches by my senior and southern Hillingdon neighbours. They made great speeches on behalf of their communities.

I should like to salute two brave speeches in this debate. The first was that of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, who had the courage to go to the Dispatch Box and say that she had thought things through a little harder and come to a different view. She was met with derision from the opposing Benches, where a lot more people should have done exactly the same thing. I salute my hon. Friend. The other brave speech was from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who is not in his place, so I will not shower him with praise. He appears, for today at least, to have overcome a lifelong loathing of the Conservative party so as to do the right thing. Those were brave speeches.

The least courageous speech this afternoon came from the Secretary of State. He came here with a stinker of a speech on 11 November, and he has followed it with an even worse one today. He did not even have the courage to make a case to the House for his decision. I wish that he had been in the Beck theatre in the constituency
28 Jan 2009 : Column 365
of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) at a public debate facilitated by Boris Johnson. An empty chair was left up on the stage for a member of the Government to participate, but no one appeared. We had a fantastic debate. If he had turned up, he would have heard, as one would expect, genuine anger from local people whose houses are going to be demolished and who are going to have to dig up their relatives in the cemetery. He might then have come to the House in more sensitive mode. He should have been particularly concerned about the expression of a complete breakdown of public trust in how this process has been conducted and in the democratic process of decision making in this country.

The public have lost faith. They know what has happened in this process. They know that there has been a steady stream of broken promises or lies by BAA, and they can see a Government who have got far too close to that organisation. The Secretary of State’s speech included lots of new announcements on additions to rail capacity in the Heathrow area that were not part of the original consultation process, which is now invalidated. People see a really bad decision-making process and ask why we are doing this, because they can see the facts. They can see that this decision will materially affect the quality of life of millions of people in west London living under the flight path. They can see that it will destroy communities, and they care about that. They can see that it will increase emissions. A lot of people care passionately about that and do not understand why a Government who take pride in leadership in this area are driving a coach and horses through their own climate change strategy with this one decision. They can see the impact on air quality in the Thames valley. They can see all these things, and they ask why we are doing it. The answer from the Government is no more than a series of assertions—that Heathrow is full, that the concept of the hub is a sacred cow that cannot be questioned, that it is inevitable that Heathrow will decline and that that carries mortal consequences for the state of the British economy, and that we therefore have to take this enormous decision in the national interest.

What is shocking is the lack of rigour in testing those assertions. As the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) powerfully observed, how can Heathrow be full when the Government and the Department accept the data in BAA’s own consultation document about an enormous increase in passenger flows through Heathrow over the next 20 years because the market will respond to capacity constraint by flying bigger planes? Those are not the statistics of an airport in decline, so why is decline considered inevitable? Heathrow has not declined over the past 10 years. While other airports have expanded, has London suffered any loss of prosperity? No, because decisions on where people invest and do business are not restricted to the quality of the airport. Everyone knows that Heathrow is shockingly bad as a passenger experience, but people still come and do business here. A host of other factors determine business decisions. What I hear from business people is not, “I can’t get to place A from Heathrow”, but “This is a shockingly bad experience, and what are you going to do about it?” They want a better Heathrow, not a bigger Heathrow.

28 Jan 2009 : Column 366

As other speakers have said, we have enormous airport capacity around London. London has five airports. We move many more people than our so-called European competitors. We have the best connections in Europe, and that will be the case for the foreseeable future. The Government talk sombrely about the decline of the hub model, but where is the modelling to support that assertion? Where are the data? Where is the research? Where is anything on which we can pin evidence to test this assertion? There is nothing—just really lazy decision making by a Government who were content merely to jointly commission with the industry research that underpins a business case that has been exposed over time to be entirely inadequate.

Where is the debate about the future of the hub as the sacred cow of the industry? Is it conceivable that consumers might want a different experience in future, and that they might want to fly direct to places? They might not want to spend hours wandering around huge, impersonal airports. The consumer and the industry might change, but we are nailing our colours to the mast and signing up to BAA’s game of “My airport is bigger than your airport.”

That seems to be the limit of the Government’s vision, but will not our European competitors be subject to exactly the same constraints as we are in a carbon-constrained world? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said, now is exactly the time to show genuine leadership in Europe and to say that this game is unsustainable. We should take a lead in saying, “Pause and rethink.” Have the Government engaged with those matters at all? No. There has been absolute silence, and they have bought the BAA argument hook, line and sinker.

The truth is that for the foreseeable future, London will have the best air connections in the world. Surely the trick is now to think much more cleverly about what will change in the future and, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, to consider how we can connect the five London airports more effectively. We must consider the 25 or 30 per cent. of Heathrow’s capacity that could be served by rail and give passengers a genuinely compelling alternative. We must consider how to harness the new technology that is coming on stream to give people a better alternative to flying, or to accelerate the industry’s progress in finding more environmentally friendly methods. Those are the big policy questions, and we should not adopt a passive, predict-and-provide approach in tame submission to an extremely effective corporate lobby.

Now is the time for real leadership. I will be interested to hear what the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has to say. I simply cannot see how a third runway at Heathrow is compatible with achieving an 80 per cent. emissions cut by 2050. He has placed only one policy chip on the table, which is emissions trading, despite the fact that it has been proven only as a concept and a theory. It has not been proven in practice to reduce emissions, because cap and trade schemes are only as good as the cap that is set, and caps are set by politicians who, as we well know, are subject to intense corporate lobbying to make them as soft as possible. The caps that he has set up are no more than aspirations, and the debate has only just started. We have no guarantee at all that they will be effective in reducing emissions on a scale compatible with our target of an 80 per cent. drop by 2050.

28 Jan 2009 : Column 367

A really big Government, a Government who genuinely took the tough decisions, would say, “We may have got this wrong. We have listened to the people who share our concerns about climate change—the Environment Agency, the millions of residents, the businesses that are thoughtful about the matter—and we recognise that we may have got this wrong.” This Government will not do that, because they are not that sort of Government. The matter will therefore be decided at the next general election.

It is perhaps worth my ending by echoing the voices of two of my constituents. One of them wrote to the Prime Minister, and is a Labour supporter—some still exist in Northwood, the Secretary of State will be encouraged to hear. He wrote:

Another constituent wrote to me:

4.28 pm

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): I believe that I am right in saying that so far this afternoon, no Member of any party, apart from the Secretary of State, has spoken in favour of the expansion. [Interruption.] I beg your pardon; there was also a former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly). She has the privilege of being the only Member who has spoken from the Back Benches in favour of a bigger Heathrow.

My view is the same as that of most Members who have spoken—that, as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) said, the expansion drives a coach and horses through the Government’s emissions policy, and that it is a mistake. I welcome the decision by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change to resist the demand for mixed mode, but giving the go-ahead for a new runway is a surrender to one of the mightiest lobbies in the UK, which has plans, if it is unconstrained, for unlimited expansion, regardless of environmental or any other factors.

John McDonnell: We should try to get clarity about mixed mode on the record. Mixed mode is not going ahead because of the CAA’s advice about the air traffic problems that it would cause. However, whenever BAA has been questioned about the future expansion of Heathrow beyond a third runway and a sixth terminal, it has refused to deny that it has further plans. If it got that expansion, it would be to accommodate its mixed mode.

Mr. Mullin: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right and that the relevant vested interests will be back for more. As I said to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer), lawyers and lobbyists are probably working to undermine the decision on mixed mode even as we speak.

For 18 undistinguished months, I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and I had some responsibility for aviation. I
28 Jan 2009 : Column 368
learned that the aviation lobby wants more of everything—terminals, runways, you name it. When we were elected in 1997, the only change that it made to its demands was to insert the word “sustainable” in the opening paragraph. All the same demands appeared underneath.

The decision to go ahead with a third runway marks the triumph of predict and provide, which we have forsworn—at least we say we have—for new motorways, over rational planning. From listening to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, predict and provide is exactly what we are doing in this case.

As others have said, the decision will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the UK to meet its emissions targets. On past form, the aviation industry will not accept any constraints placed on it, whether legally binding or not. I have no doubt that, for the time being, the industry will sign up to whatever limits the Government see fit to impose and, when they are reached, a way around them will be found.

As others have said, a third runway will result in a huge increase in overflights across central London. They start at 4.30, disrupting the sleep of millions and blighting, as we have heard, much of west London. When I went to the DETR as a Minister, I thought that, although I would not achieve much in my tenure, perhaps we could sort out the 16—I do not know how many there are now—night flights that came in between 4.30 and 6 am. I tried to convene a meeting between Members of Parliament for the constituencies that were most blighted by the night flights and representatives of BAA and the aviation industry. Officials advised me that the latter would not even bother to turn up. That initially proved to be the case, but then I got my immediate superior, Lord Macdonald, to put his thumb print on an invitation, and they duly turned up in a rather surly fashion. We were considering only rescheduling 16 flights after 6 o’clock, yet we were given a long list of reasons for doing nothing about anything. The most ludicrous was wind speeds over China.

I do not accept the arguments for unlimited expansion. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) said, comparisons with Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt and Schiphol are not right because they are made on the basis of Heathrow being the only London airport, when there are at least another four.

I also do not accept that cheap air travel is a basic human right, which takes precedence over all other considerations. The quality of life of the millions who live under the flight paths, not to mention environmental considerations, is more important.

I do not buy the economic argument either. Some, including my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), have made the point that the economy in the south-east is grossly overheated, and that many of the new jobs generated by the expansion of the airport are, in any case, being done by foreigners because there are not enough local people available to do them. Pollution, congestion, noise and unaffordable housing are all bigger issues in the Thames valley than the effect on the economy. Also, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton said, it is at least arguable that the economic argument is invalid anyway, and that the losses are greater than the gains.

We do, however, need economic expansion in the regions, and aviation has a part to play in that. The
28 Jan 2009 : Column 369
Government are right to encourage the expansion of regional airports such as Newcastle, Manchester and Edinburgh, provided that such expansion is conditional on access to public transport. That makes perfect sense, and it is an aspect of the Government’s policy that I support.

I allege no impropriety, but I have felt for a long time that the relationship between the Government and the aviation lobby is far too cosy. I was surprised to find, during my tenure at the former DETR, that some representatives of the airlines and of BAA had passes to this building. It has to be said that I had to ask how many such passes had been granted to the industry about half a dozen times before I got an answer. “What are you implying, Minister?” “I’m not implying anything. I just wish to know the answer to this interesting question.” In due course, I got it. I think that the figure was about 10 at that time; I do not know whether that still obtains, or whether any other parts of the private sector enjoy such privileged access to Government Departments.

The aviation section of the former Department used to engage endlessly in research, the outcome of which was always known in advance. It seemed to me to be a complete waste of time. On one occasion, some very expensive research was conducted, and most people replied to the wrong question, saying that they did not like night flights. The research was invalidated and put aside, because that had not been the question that they had been asked.

In my last week in the Department, I was asked to authorise a plan for about £1.5 million worth of research and I refused because it was a complete waste of public money, and no one would take the slightest notice of the outcome anyway. The following week, I was reshuffled—sideways, incidentally, not downwards—and I left a note for my successor, saying that that matter would be back in his in-tray the moment I was out of the door. And it was. I believe that he shaved a little off the amount, however.

Finally, I should like to say to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change that I know that he has done his best, and that he is absolutely sincere. He has actually made progress on issues such as mixed mode; I acknowledge that. However, I do not believe for a moment that the mighty vested interests concerned will abide by any of the restrictions that the Government impose on them. As I have said, their lawyers and lobbyists will make short work of them, whether they are legally binding or not. Nor, eventually, will they be satisfied with a third runway and a sixth terminal. They will want a seventh terminal, and an eighth, to say nothing of their plans for the expansion of Stansted, Gatwick and elsewhere. This will go on until politicians pluck up the courage to say no. I think that this is the moment to do so.

4.38 pm

Next Section Index Home Page