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What changes are taking place at the moment? One is that we are now in a recession. A major downturn is occurring, and as NATS has said, there was an 8 per cent. reduction in flights in December compared with the previous December. That change must surely be taken into account when making this decision. We have discovered today that Schiphol has been laying off workers and reducing its operations. As 2 million or 3 million people could be unemployed over the next 12 to 24 months, surely it logically follows that the number of flights will reduce to a certain degree, especially given the reducing economic activity. I am not arguing that, in the long term, demand for air travel will not increase again, but this gives us three to five years in
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which we can look at the alternatives and make a decision based on that delayed time scale. The urgency came from the fact that we would be running out of capacity. If there is an international downturn and air travel does not grow as fast as predicted in the White Paper, that changes the date by which this decision must be made.

Rob Marris: Unless I am misunderstanding the hon. Gentleman, as is possible, he seems to be under the delusion that the UK Government are proposing themselves to build the third runway at Heathrow—they are not. If there is to be a third runway at Heathrow, it will presumably be built by Ferrovial or whatever private sector company owns that. Therefore, the fact that, as he rightly points out, the number of passengers has decreased in recent months will make this a commercial decision—it is not for this House to second-guess that commercial decision.

Adam Afriyie: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I am not suggesting that the Government second-guess that decision. I am simply suggesting that the national, political decision that needs to be made by this Parliament—sadly, it does not look as though it will be made by Parliament, because the Government are not going to allow an official vote—does not have to be made today, and it did not have to be made two or three months ago. It could be made two, three or possibly four years down the road—that is the observation that I am making.

Our understanding of the environment has also changed since the original White Paper was published in 2003—it was not right at the top of the agenda then, but we now understand more clearly the connection between CO2 and climate change. Surely we must address that issue and make a different decision in the light of those changes. When even the Environment Agency points out that it does not support this idea because it is not the right one, we must step back and consider it seriously.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) made it clear that he questions the hub concept, which is an argument that I have heard for a long time. I have asked on five occasions—BAA, British Airways and two or three times in the House—for someone to show me the model of how hubs work, and the mathematical reasoning behind them. What makes a hub viable? Is it 100 destinations or 200? Nobody knows and no modelling is readily available, but that is the fundamental basis of the Government’s argument. Where is the economic evidence that a third runway at Heathrow would lead to greater prosperity? An increase in air travel and transportation will lead to greater prosperity, but why must that be at Heathrow specifically?

I should declare an interest in that I live under the flight path in Old Windsor and I met representatives of the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead this morning. They raised many concerns, although I do not have time to go into all of them. Many things have changed locally, including those that affect people’s quality of life. The “Attitudes to Noise from Aviation Sources in England” study showed that people are now more annoyed by noise than 10 years ago. Traffic congestion on the M4 and M25, even after the widening, is greater. Pollution levels from road traffic and the airport have been rising and it is unlikely that we will meet the
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targets for reduction. All those changes are further reasons for the Government to reconsider their decision.

There are alternatives, some of which were not around at the time of the 2003 White Paper. We have talked about high-speed rail and I am glad the Government have now started to look at that—albeit a little late. That high-speed link was not necessarily possible 10 or 15 years ago, but it is now, and it is another reason to reconsider the decision.

Other proposals include the estuary airport and the extension of Manston airport, and some people have even suggested that Gatwick might be able to take up some of the slack. If air travel is to grow enormously over the next 20 or 30 years, we will need much more capacity than we have now, so surely now is the time to consider some of these alternatives. With modern engineering techniques and technology, they have come closer to reality.

I am acutely aware that we were elected to this House to represent our constituents and the national interest. The motion that we have tabled comes from an early-day motion signed by Members on both sides of the House, including 57 Labour Members. We chose it in an effort to be non-controversial on this issue and to give people an opportunity to have an initial vote on this issue, because the Government have ruled one out. I am fairly certain that everyone affected by the Heathrow proposals will check carefully how we all vote today, and that is right, because we are accountable to the people. I also suspect that the millions of people concerned about the environment and pollution—this issue will affect the regions and Northern Ireland—will also look closely at how we vote tonight.

I urge the Secretary of State to take this opportunity to reconsider. Even if the Government just delayed the decision, that would be welcomed by everyone. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change could apply a little more pressure and delay the decision until some of the alternatives have been considered. I ask the Prime Minister to see reason and change his mind on this issue. If the Government do not change their mind, the people will decide to change the Government. I am not bothered about that—I say bring it on—but politically, the Government would be wise to listen to the people of Britain, who are saying very clearly that they do not want this. The decision does not need to be made today. Because of the economic downturn it could be made in three or four years’ time, as I am sure the Secretary of State is aware.

5.10 pm

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): May I begin on what might be interpreted as something of a sour note? I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is back in his seat, because he finished his speech on a note that I think was unworthy of him, by suggesting that anybody who disagreed with his view on Heathrow and the third runway must be in the pocket of BAA. That was the clear inference of his remarks. He was referring to the Government, but I consider myself a Labour MP and I have come to the independent conclusion that a third runway is essential. I have come to that conclusion not because I am in the pocket of anyone with a vested interest, but because I
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have looked at the facts and reached that conclusion. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there are occasions when individuals in the House disagree with him for entirely genuine reasons.

Norman Baker: I am happy to agree with that. I was casting no aspersions at all on the hon. Gentleman or on many of his colleagues who genuinely believe that the third runway is right. I was referring to evidence of collusion between BAA and the Department, but I fully accept that he and others have made up their minds independently on that issue.

Mr. Harris: I am grateful for that intervention.

A number of colleagues on both sides of the House have raised some criticisms of the Government for not holding a formal vote on Heathrow’s third runway in the Commons, in Government time. That issue was initially raised by the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening). I intended to intervene, but I generally try not to intervene on Back Benchers when there is a time limit on speeches.

I wanted to ask the hon. Lady whether, if the Government had brought forward a Government motion to support the proposal for a third runway and if that motion had been carried, she would have accepted that decision and walked away from the campaign. Would anyone in the Chamber who opposes a third runway respect that democratic decision? The corollary of that is to ask whether, if such a motion had been defeated, they would expect the Government to adhere to that decision. The answer, of course, would be yes. The absence of a formal Government motion on the issue makes not a jot of difference.

The hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) suggested that by taking the EDM signed by 57 Labour MPs and using it as the text for an Opposition day motion, the Conservatives were somehow extending the hand of friendship across the Chamber in an effort to build some kind of cross-party consensus. Perhaps he has not been here as long as I thought that he had, but that is a typical silly little tactic that is used only to try to embarrass colleagues who have signed an EDM by asking them afterwards, “Why didn’t you vote for it in the Lobby?” I will give to colleagues who are considering voting for the Conservative motion a good reason not to do so: it is a Conservative motion. There is all the difference in the world between words in an EDM and the same words in a Conservative Opposition motion.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am most grateful to the typically courteous hon. Gentleman for giving way. May I remind him what the letters EDM stand for? It is “early-day motion”—a motion calling for itself to be debated. It seeks an early day for a debate in the House, and we have provided that opportunity.

Mr. Harris: If I had time I would go into another definition—that of a Conservative Opposition day motion, which is entirely different from an early-day motion.

I have no doubt that those who are speaking against the third runway, particularly those with a constituency interest, are doing so from entirely genuine motives. I thought that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), in particular, spoke very eloquently and powerfully. He said at the start of his speech that he wished that he was more of an orator, but I thought that his speech was extremely powerful. I did not agree with him, but I understood where he was coming from.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) is not in his place at the moment, but he spoke very powerfully for his constituents’ interests. That is what we are all here to do, but in this debate I have not heard anyone stand up for the hundreds of thousands of people whose jobs depend on Heathrow. No one spoke for them, either, in the debate in October—the last time we debated this issue before the Government announced their decision.

I am talking about people whose families’ livelihoods depend on Heathrow. They do not protest, demonstrate or lobby their MPs. They do not buy up small tracts of land to obtain some public relations benefit, but they deserve to be heard in this debate. I am very proud that my trade union, Unite, stands four-square behind the campaign to save and protect those people’s jobs, and to promote a third runway.

As I have said in the past, Heathrow and its third runway are not issues just for London; they are United Kingdom issues. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr. MacNeil) intervened earlier in the debate, and I am disappointed that neither he nor any of his colleagues has seen fit to listen to the rest of it.

Rob Marris: They have probably flown back to Scotland.

Mr. Harris: My hon. Friend says that they may have flown back to Scotland, but I believe that the Scottish National party is completely at odds with the Scottish business sector, and does not represent Scotland’s best interest in this issue. When the Government announced the go-ahead for the third runway, Iain Ferguson, CBI Scotland’s policy executive, said:

In addition, Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said:

The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar rightly spoke about his concern about securing flight slots between regional airports, such as the one at Aberdeen, and Heathrow. In his absence, I wish to point out that no one is seriously considering a high-speed rail link any further north than Glasgow and Edinburgh, and there certainly is not one planned to go to Aberdeen. If Heathrow does not expand and is instead left to wither on the vine, the idea that slots for regional destinations other than Glasgow and Edinburgh will be secure is pie in the sky, as it were.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State very eloquently said, high-speed rail will have an important part to play in the UK’s transport infrastructure. He was also right to point out that it simply cannot entirely replace the demand for short-haul flights in and out of Heathrow. No one—not even the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers)—believes that it can.

In her opening remarks, the hon. Lady conceded that regional airports are vital economic engines. She also claimed that the high-speed rail network proposed by
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her party—which apparently goes to Leeds but does not go anywhere near Scotland—would remove all need for regional flights from Heathrow. That seems to me to be something of a contradiction: so much for the economic engine that regional airports comprise, if the Conservatives’ high-speed rail network will replace the need for them!

Of course, views both for and against the third runway have been expressed in the debate. I acknowledge that the 57 of my Labour colleagues who signed the early-day motion were entirely sincere in their motivations, although I say again that I hope that they do not follow that through by voting for the Conservative motion. However, there has been less discussion of the fact that a significant number of Conservative MPs—including people on the Opposition Front Bench—oppose their party’s official position. There is astonishment among grass-roots Conservatives, and especially in this country’s traditionally Conservative-supporting business community, that the shadow Secretary of State for Transport is beginning to sound more like a Green party spokesman—or, heaven help us, a Liberal Democrat.

I want to go back briefly to the comments made by the hon. Member for Lewes. I intervened on him because he suggested that the Government should renege on their decision to approve the third runway because it was unpopular. That was a remarkable feat of wisdom and principle from the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman—but in fact that thought process has been followed by the Conservative party. I genuinely believe that the reason why Conservative Members have arrived at their policy position, which they are trying to support with the motion tonight, is that they have licked their fingers, stuck them in the air and decided which way the political wind is blowing, and seen that they can make short-term political capital from opposing something that is widely approved of among their traditional core support. I find that the most cynical thing in a raft of cynical things that the Conservative party has done over the past three years.

I now want to make three quick points. The night flights issue has been raised. Of course, I am lucky enough not to live beneath the flight path of any major airport, and I understand why colleagues are concerned on their constituents’ behalf. However, it seems fairly obvious that the pressure to have more night flights is at least partly caused by the lack of capacity at an airport. Surely, perhaps a smidgeon of light that the Opposition can take from the proposal is that, with increased capacity at Heathrow, there will be less pressure to lift the cap on night flights.

A word of criticism for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change—I am glad to see that he has taken his seat again—is that the proposal for a high-speed rail hub at Old Oak Common is peculiar. I hope that, at this early stage in the planning process, he will look again at that proposal and decide whether that is the best location for such a hub.

The underlying presumptions in the debate are that flying per se is a bad thing, and that increased access to flying by those on lower incomes is something that can be lightly reversed. I find that completely out of touch and entirely patronising. Heathrow is a touchstone issue by which any party’s commitment to jobs, economic
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growth and prosperity should be judged, and by that yardstick, all the Opposition parties have been found wanting.

5.22 pm

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I wanted to speak in today’s debate because I want the Government to understand that, even 50 miles down the road to the west of London, my constituency is still one of those affected by noise from aircraft coming to and departing from Heathrow. Many of the points that have been made by Members whose constituencies adjoin mine apply to my constituency. My postbag on this subject is large, because Henley and the surrounding area is one of those places above which aircraft bank to approach Heathrow. That causes noticeable intrusion.

My constituency also contains the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty, where one of the features is tranquillity—an escape for Londoners as much as a feature for locals. We spend an enormous amount of time going to great lengths locally to preserve that on the ground with tight planning, but it would seem that we are not prepared to do that in the air.

The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) has mentioned some of the local difficulties on the ground, rather than in the air, particularly in relation to air quality. Of course, many of those difficulties relate to and come from congestion on the roads. None of my constituents has any belief or trust at all that the measures proposed by the Government to try to relieve congestion on the M4 and the M25 will have the slightest effect. Unfortunately, they are coming to the conclusion that there will inevitably be a wall of congestion between my constituency and London, as a result of the third runway going ahead.

We need to reiterate, and understand, that being anti-third runway is not the same as being anti-Heathrow or anti-aviation industry. I am not anti-Heathrow; I am not anti-aviation industry. No hon. Member who has spoken today has seriously doubted whether Heathrow will be a major part of the south-east’s air transport network, at least for our lifetime. That is why there is such a huge need to make it better, rather than bigger. To do that, we need to understand that high-speed rail is an alternative that would take passengers out of the air, and not just make it easier for them to travel when they land. If Members do not think that attitudes and behaviours are already changing as a result of experience of high-speed rail travel, they are wrong. I give my own example: having used high-speed trains in mainland Europe, I now find it inconceivable that I would fly, except in the most dire circumstances, even between destinations as far apart as Geneva and Rome, as my experience of using high-speed rail networks to get to those places has been so positive.

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