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Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): As I said in our last debate on Heathrow in November, I have always considered myself a pragmatist on this issue. I try to look at the net environmental benefits or disbenefits of any proposed changes, and, alongside that, to weigh the economic case, which will typically be
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made in favour of expansion. For the past 11 years or so—for as long as I have been an elected politician in west London—that has been my position. I am not necessarily against the expansion of Heathrow, but I am absolutely set against this particular proposal for expansion.

We need to look at the balance involved, and my constituency represents some of that balance. Many of the staff who work at Heathrow and for the airlines live in my constituency. In fact, a senior person from British Airways, whose job is neither in lobbying nor public affairs, came to see me yesterday to give his own personal case as to why Heathrow expansion should go ahead. I used to be an admirer of BAA as a company, not least because when I lived in the United States, I saw the appalling condition of US airports in the early 1990s. At that point, Heathrow was comparatively a very good airport in very good condition, but I am afraid to say that those glory days for BAA have long gone. The fading grandeur of Heathrow is apparent, as the same graphics and infrastructure of the early ’90s are still there today.

I am still an admirer of British Airways as a business and I think it is part of our role in the House to stick up for important British businesses. However, on the proposal to build a third runway at Heathrow, I believe that the case against it is overwhelming. I say that partly due to my own local considerations, but I genuinely believe that the third runway will be detrimental to the UK.

Let me first examine the hub argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) developed some interesting arguments and a couple of other hon. Members started to consider the hub case. For me, the hub argument does not stack up. I am not convinced that London needs an aviation hub of the same size as that required by Amsterdam or Frankfurt. The hub argument is important, but I believe that it has been overdone in this case.

London is itself a destination large enough to provide airport capacity sufficient for almost all the destinations we need. Last week, I flew to Skopje in Macedonia to give a presentation for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Incredibly rarely, Skopje cannot be accessed directly from any of London’s five airports. It was most surprising to find how rarely that is the case for a European capital city destination.

If we look at the population figures of the various competing hubs that we have heard about, London has a population of 8 million, Frankfurt of only 670,000 and Amsterdam of only 750,000. It is quite clear to me that Frankfurt and Amsterdam need to become hubs in order to become viable as international aviation destinations at which people will change planes because there is simply not enough local demand to be able to do that. London is very different.

Let us look at the example of the United States. New York City is not a hub airport; neither is Los Angeles; virtually all the US hubs are located in the middle of the continent—in places such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Houston. The geography of London does not seem to suggest that we should be Europe’s largest hub: we are at the edge of the continent.

The loss of hub status can, however, be quite traumatic. St. Louis in the 1990s is an interesting example. After TWA was bought by American Airlines, St. Louis lost its hub airport—the famous Lambert Field airport.
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St. Louis was the home town of Charles Lindberg and has an incredible aviation history. When it lost its airport, it had a significant negative impact on the city’s economy in the early to mid-90s, but it is worth remembering that St. Louis has a population of only about 600,000. The disproportionate impact of the loss of the airport on the economy of St. Louis was far greater than the impact that any individual hub airport would have on London.

I am not necessarily against London Heathrow being a hub, but we need to get it in perspective, because I think that the hub argument has been overdone. British Airways, however, desperately needs London Heathrow to be a hub. I am not someone speaking in a “bash British Airways” mood: as I said earlier, it is important for us to support some of our companies. British Airways employs 43,000 people. I am not sure whether it still is a FTSE 100 company, but it certainly was and may still be so. However, this is not the same argument as saying that it is essential for London to have a hub airport to compete with Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

Does a hub provide business? I guess it does, but we have to keep it in perspective. When people change planes, it provides some business; there is a boost to the economy if people stop to eat, shop or just to have a coffee. Again, however, we have to get the balance right between this obsession with the hub airport on the one hand, and the deep economic impact and degradation that it is causing across west London and in areas beyond, including in my constituency.

The other argument, which is being put out by the Future Heathrow group, is the supposed loss of Heathrow’s status in terms of the number of destinations that it serves. If I am not mistaken, there is a table showing that Heathrow has fallen in that regard from No. 2 in Europe in the 1990s to No. 5 now. That might be a compelling argument, were it not for the fact that, with its five airports, London serves massively more destinations today than it did 15 years ago, when that table was first drawn up. Who would have thought 15 years ago that people could fly to Rzesz√≥w, to Bydgoszcz, and to Bialystok, in Poland? Fifteen years ago, the only Polish destination people could fly to from Heathrow was Warsaw. Now, greater diversity is available, thanks to a much better use of our five airports around London.

Some people might say that that change has happened only because of the end of the cold war, but let us look at France. I might be wrong, but I think that some 20 years ago, people could fly only to Paris, Lille and Marseilles from Heathrow. Today, they can fly to an incredible wealth of destinations from London airports. Much of the reason why Heathrow has declined in importance is not a lack of investment or of expansion; rather, it is the relative success of airlines such as easyJet and Ryanair. Let us face it—that is a very important factor that has not been brought out in this debate. So I do not think that a hub should be seen as essential in itself. It is helpful for London to have an important hub airport, but it is not vital. Again, I refer Members to the example of New York city, which seems to cope perfectly well without having a US hub airport.

In the brief time available, I want to cover a little of the thinking on the geography of the flight path for the third runway, because this is very important. The Government have said that the eventual package will include an initial cap on additional flights from the new
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runway at 125,000 in a year, and a Government pledge that any new slots after that point would be “green slots” allocated only to airlines that use the newest, least polluting aircraft. I am not sure that that will satisfy anybody in my constituency. The flight path for the third runway takes in north Westminster, north Kensington, Hammersmith, south Acton, north Chiswick and so on. These are all new communities that, although not totally untouched, were largely untouched directly by aircraft noise. They will now be directly impacted on. That is a lot of people living under that flight path.

Let us think about the people living under the existing flight paths, as well. The implication is that none of the environmentally friendly aircraft will fly over their heads; instead, people in places such as Fulham, in my constituency, will have the noisiest, most polluting aircraft flying over them. Nobody in my constituency, either in Hammersmith or in Fulham, is going to be satisfied with this solution. Obviously, we welcome the abandonment of proposals on runway alternation, but nobody is going to be satisfied with this. Who is to say that things might not change over time? I think that the Secretary of State gave a commitment earlier that there would be runway alternation on the third runway, but who is to say that that will not alter over time, and that the people of Hammersmith, on whom aircraft noise does not currently impact directly, will not have it right through the day, along with night flights?

I am not convinced by the hub argument or by many of the economic arguments. The overwhelming environmental impact on west London, and on my constituents in particular, will be horrendous, and we should vote tonight to throw out the third runway.

4.49 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I want to start by declaring an interest. My older sister lives in a mediaeval house in Harmondsworth, a village that, as the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) said, will be encircled by Heathrow airport if the third runway goes ahead. The house would be just a few hundred yards from the end of the runway. Because I have that interest, I will not speak about the local environmental impact of the proposal. Many other Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), have spoken eloquently about that. Over many years, he has won the respect of constituents across the political spectrum for the way in which he has dealt with this issue.

I do, however, want to speak about the economic consequences of the decision on the third runway for Yorkshire and, indeed, the north of England more generally, and about the environmental impact on the country as a whole. I am not persuaded that the Government have made the case for a third runway; nor, I should add, am I persuaded that the Conservatives have articulated a viable alternative to the Government’s proposal. It is the devil of a job to square the circle and reconcile the demand from the public for more flights with the commitments made by the House and the country to limit carbon emissions. The Government seek to do that by imposing strict environmental controls, but—as has been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) and others—whether those commitments are met by the airline industry remains to be seen.

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Let me explain my own reservations. First, I do not believe that a business case has been made. In the autumn, The Economist devoted almost an entire issue to considering the business case for Heathrow, and decided that the case had not been made. One would think that such a liberal, free-market newspaper would find a business case if there was one to be made. Secondly, I do not believe that expanding Heathrow’s capacity is the best environmental option, or that the best economic option for our country as a whole is to concentrate more flights and more economic development in the south-east of England rather than, by means of airport policy, spreading it across the country as a whole.

Every plane that flies from London to north America flies over the north of England. If, instead of taking off from London, those planes took off from Manchester, they would save some 400 miles’ worth of fuel and pollution on a round trip, and about half an hour of travel time. Passengers landing at Manchester, or at one of the other northern or midlands airports, could be in London in the same time if we built a 200-mph fast rail link. I have advanced that argument for a number of years, and many more people are advancing it now.

For the rail link to be viable, it would have to be affordable. The fare could not be £100; it would have to be, say, £30. I believe that that is possible, however, because many airlines would bulk-buy seats on the trains. They would sell Newark to Manchester and Manchester to London as a package, and an airline buying 500 seats a day from a train operator would obviously be able to buy at a keen and affordable price.

I am not arguing that the country should have a second hub in the north of England, because I believe that we can have only one hub in the United Kingdom. Nor am I arguing that the single hub should be in the north rather than the south. However, I do believe that we need a policy that spreads the increase in flights—which is happening because of consumer demand—around the country. We should spread the economic development that results from that, and we should also spread the pollution: if all the pollution is concentrated in one area, it will clearly have a greater impact than if it is distributed more widely.

The key argument in favour of expanding the central hub is that when people transfer from one flight to another, more flights to more destinations can be provided. Some 35 per cent. of Heathrow passengers fly in on one plane and out on another: a third of the volume of flights consists of transfer flights. Concentrating more flights as a whole in London for people whose journeys originate in the south-east of England, as well as those whose journeys originate from other parts of England or from Scotland or Wales, naturally draws business from other airports and makes their business less competitive.

Manchester, for example, used to operate direct BA and British Midland flights to north America. Therefore, those airlines thought that was a viable option, but the flights have been withdrawn because at the margin they are not seen to be viable. Manchester will never compete with London in any way or form, but I think that if there were the fast rail link, that would attract enough business for there to be a few direct flights from Manchester
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to north America. Those living in the north of England would then get the benefits not only of those flights, but of transfer flights to destinations that are not currently served; there might be one flight a day from Manchester to Turin, for instance.

Business people in the north of England need to travel to meet their customers, business associates and suppliers in other countries just as much as do those in London and the south-east, but when travelling from Yorkshire to almost any destination it is quicker to take the train to King’s Cross, the tube or Heathrow Express to Heathrow, and then to fly from Heathrow than it is to go to a regional airport in the north of England.

I get complaints from Nestlé, whose biggest factory in the world is in York. It is extremely difficult to travel between its global headquarters near Geneva, in Vevey in Switzerland, and its York factory. There are similar complaints from Aviva Life, whose headquarters are in York, and I am sure other MPs with constituencies in the north of England get similar complaints. We must develop our transport and aircraft policies for the benefit of the country as a whole, not just for London and the south-east of England.

I have supported the case for a north-south high-speed rail link for many years. I think it would help businesses in the north of England. It would bring some additional passengers to north of England airports, but it would also make Heathrow more accessible to passengers from the north of England who need to fly. I have lobbied for that, and I am pleased to see the proposals the Government have set out in their High Speed II document.

The Government have done just enough to secure my vote tonight; that will disappoint Opposition Members. I am sure this will not be the only vote we have on Heathrow expansion, however, and whether the Government continue to secure my support depends upon how vigorously they pursue the high-speed rail argument. If there is as much determination and drive behind it as behind the Heathrow policy, they might just keep me on board.

I must confess, however, that I found it extremely difficult to decide how to vote. When I signed the early-day motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), I did, of course, register my close family interest in the third runway issue. I realise that if I were to vote for the motion tonight, I would be open to the charge that I had put a personal interest before other considerations. I do not believe that is the case, but I would not be able to disprove it, and that is one of the factors that has influenced my decision.

I congratulate both main Opposition parties on calling this debate. I regret that I cannot support them in the Lobby tonight, but I think they have done a service to the House and the country, and certainly to the communities around Heathrow airport, by calling it and focusing our attention on this issue.

4.58 pm

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I think that, overall, the decision to build the third runway is a bad decision; it is the wrong decision for the country. Before I begin my speech, however, I must say that I thought the Secretary of State’s attitude was insensitive; he did not deal with the issue seriously, and he was brash and full of bravado. He had adopted the approach that attack
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was the best form of defence. He attacked my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers), and I was thinking of raising a point of order as I was so concerned by the bullying tone in which he addressed her, when she had made a clear, concise and measured statement. The Secretary of State was loud and bombastic; to paraphrase Shakespeare, his speech was full of sound and fury but it signified very little. There was not much content in what he said, other than, “We’ve made the decision and we’re going to march ahead,” and when Members asked him about the alternative, he just said, “No, we’ve ruled that out,” but there was no explanation as to why.

The thrust of what I want to say is that when the facts change, sensible, reasonable people change their minds. Several Conservative Members have done so on this issue, and, with the additional and changing evidence, I think that even one or two Liberal Democrats have taken a slightly different view—and certainly many Labour Members have changed their views. Nobody is arguing for Heathrow to close or for it to be threatened.

Mr. John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): On a point of clarification, I do not think any Liberal Democrat Member has ever been in favour of a third runway at Heathrow.

Adam Afriyie: I appreciate that, but on issues such as Cranford and mixed mode, different views have been held in different constituencies; I know that because Old Windsor, in my constituency, will be affected seriously and views have changed there over time. To be fair, what I said was not criticism—it was praise. I praise anyone who would change their mind if the facts are changing, because that is the right thing to do. What would we be doing here otherwise? Surely people must be reasonable and accept the evidence as it is and as it appears.

There is capacity at Heathrow for expansion; the Government’s own figures show that up to 85 million passengers could be accommodated just with larger aircraft and by using the airport in a slightly different way. The argument I make is not even an argument against expansion in air travel. The world has changed, as have the circumstances. In 2003, when the White Paper was developed, it contained information from two or three years earlier, so much of the information in that predict-and-provide document is now about 10 years out of date. I welcome the fact that the White Paper will be updated, because that is the right approach to take. Several of the predictions and several of the observations made in it have already not proved to be correct—that is certainly the case given the downturn in the past 12 months.

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