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Birmingham Airport

Volume 986: debated on Wednesday 18 June 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Berry.]

11.30 pm

I welcome the fact that there are so many hon. Members present to hear this debate concerning the expansion of Birmingham airport. I would not want the House to think that I am raising this question lightly. I also ask the House to accept that I have not decided to take this serious step of raising the matter in the House in a selfish, narrow or overly protective way. However, as the Member for the constituency which contains the airport and, therefore, the constituency which is much affected by any changes to it, it is my duty and responsibility to represent the views of my constituents.

I would therefore tonight raise the vitally important question of the expansion of Birmingham airport planning application which was recently determined.

I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to the fact that so burningly strong is the feeling among local residents that a number of parties have come by car and coach and are at present in the Strangers Gallery. Thousands of residents living near Elmdon airport are burning with resentment and are bitterly unhappy about the decision to allow the expansion of the airport to go ahead. Both before and during the public inquiry concerning the planning application I had thousands of letters and complaints, and since the decision a few weeks ago that has been repeated many times over.

I will read to my hon. Friend a few extracts from the letters I have received. This letter comes from a family living off Elmdon Road in Hidcote Grove and was written to the Secretary of State :
" I felt that I must write to you to show my disgust of your decision to pass the new Birmingham Airport Expansion Proposal.
As a mother of four young children, three of whom have to suffer the aircraft noise daily in school …"
Copies were sent to the Prime Minister and myself.

I quote from a letter from, again, somebody living in Elmdon Road :
" However, in view of the serious impact the Minister's decision will have on the fives of thousands of local residents, the anger and bitterness it will arouse, we should like to know what steps you as our local Member of Parliament propose to take."
These are the steps I am tonight taking, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will pay careful heed to what I have to say and in some way will try to find a solution to these problems.

The problems basically are clear and were recognised both by the inspector and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment in his determination. In his report, the inspector acknowledged the unhappy effect of the juxtaposition of the airport with densely populated residential areas—"an accident of history."

The inspector concluded that this unsatisfactory situation was not insignificant or of a temporary or transitory nature and that, because of its local and regional importance, the provision of adequate accommodation and facilities was necessary.

So there in the two parts are the problem and the suggestion that the need for a regional airport should be of no importance in the consideration of the needs of my constituents.

The decision to go ahead must be condemned as cavalier and unjust to the local residents. The regional jackboot has trampled the lives and happiness of local residents with tragic ruthlessness. As a result, some of my constituents feel so strongly that they want to lie on the runways and prevent such expansion. However ill advised that attitude might be, it illustrates the power and bitterness of local feeling. That resentment is also due to the feeling that the planning inquiry was cosmetic. In addition, my constituents resent the fact that the Secretary of State did not accept the inspector's recommendation for a ban on night flights.

I quote from a letter that I received today. It states :
" It is with regret that I notice that it is as if no inquiry had been held."
Such is the feeling of loss and bitterness among my constituents.

I have always advocated limited expansion of Birmingham airport. I assure hon. Members that we did not feel it would be right to restrict Birmingham airport completely. We feel that it is right to allow natural growth, particularly of the business traffic which is needed to help the industrial regeneration of the area. Limited growth might be tolerable. However, major expansion is proposed. Apparently it can be financially viable to the airport authorities and the airlines only if there is a massive amount of holiday flight traffic.

Holiday traffic will mean a considerable amount of night flying so that travel companies can generate business at the right economic level to allow cheap holiday flights. This sad business cycle means that my constituents will ultimately be forced to suffer in order that others can have cheap holidays. They scarcely involve national or regional needs, let alone the burning business needs that are important to the West Midlands.

The noise generated by night flights in the area is intolerable. The inspector said :
" I also have to accept that reaction to noise nuisance is subjective and emotional and in the context of a situation which is already intolerable to some this sort of criterion may well be beyond understanding and acceptance. I believe that I have to take the wider view."
Yet again, the inspector and the Secretary of State admit that there will be considerable consequences for my constituents but that they believe that the nation or region has a more important need. On behalf of my constituents, I heartily condemn the "wider view". The valid and legitimate desires of local residents for peace and quiet have been jack-booted under the heel of regional need.

During the inquiry, much scientific analysis was used to assess noise. My constituents feel that, however the arguments are presented, the present noise level is intolerable. Any increase—however scientifically argued or presented—will be devastating. Evening and night flights in particular will make life almost impossible.

Again, I should like to quote from a constituent's letter. It comes from Elmdon Lane, near the airport. It is addressed to the Secretary of State and states :
" In fact through your decision to override nearly all the inspector's recommendations, we now face a situation that will mean a living hell for thousands of people in years to come. What is going to happen is that 150 yards from my bedroom window, 24 hours a day, day in day out, we are to have modern jet aircraft revving up and taking off. The jet engine is not a quiet thing and nothing can prevent the disturbance they cause."
What a sad letter for someone to have to write. It is particularly sad because the inspector recommended a ban on night flying. So why did the Secretary of State change that recommendation? The inspector said :
" It seems to me that to restrict night flying in the manner suggested would provide a considerable benefit to those who live near to the airport and are subjected to nuisance by noise. On this basis alone I believe that to restrict night flying in the manner proposed is wholly justified."
I stress that last phrase. However, the Secretary of State did not accept the recommendation and my constituents will have night flights. Hell will be created in Marston Green.

The Government are concerned. They are investigating a code of practice. However, we need a ban on night flying, not a code. The excuse of noise-certified planes with restrictions on take-offs—which are noisier than landings—may be put forward. Night flights are not tolerable for my constituents. It is not just, fair, democratic or right to promote cheap holiday flights paid for in sleepless nights and misery for thousands of local residents. The noise screens and earth bunds will offer only a marginal improvement.

I have a further letter from a constituent in Clifton Road, Castle Bromwich, which is even further from the airport. He states that there are
" three early morning flights out of Elmdon, at 3.40 am, 4 am and 4.20 am, which must have disturbed the sleep of many thousands of people, including those in Castle Bromwich. I hope that there will be no repetition of this experience but with more facilities available to airlines when the extensions come into use it seems obvious that more, rather than fewer, night flights will be operated."
What can I say to my constituents about the decision?

The inspector's report goes on :
" I must however note that at one end there will be no protection for taxiing or airborne noise afforded for properties in Digby Drive and that I am not wholly convinced of the situation in respect of Moseley Drive."
The inspector expresses severe doubts and feels that parts will not be protected by acoustic screens. How can I advise my constituents to deal with that?

There are other problems in addition to noise. The area is in great danger of follow-on development, despite the views of the inspector and the Secretary of State. The National Exhibition Centre was said not be to be a precedent for further development, yet it was used as an argument for an expanded airport. I predict that massive industrial development will follow, with the excuse given yet again of regional need.

The inspector commented splendidly that the proposal was not contrary to the development plan policy for the area
" including the green belt element and clearly it is in line with the policies contained within the draft proposals for the alterations to the West Midlands County Structure Plan … I do not consider that development of a new airport terminal and ancillary features need in any way be regarded as a precedent".
Within days of that announcement, the West Midlands county council was considering a prestige site of 100 acres near the exhibition centre, such was the callousness of its approach. The authority may deny that an expanded airport has anything to do with the massive prestige industrial site, with salesmen and suppliers flying in and out. The authority's disregard of the fact that airport expansion should not be a precedent is cynical. This is only the start of the environmental disaster that will eventually join Birmingham to Coventry in a mass of development, similar to that around London. All this comes to light in dis- cussions concerned with the structure plan that the inspector implied would afford some protection for my constituents.

There is also the problem of public expenditure. Is it not intolerable that £50 million or more of public money is to be spent at a time when the Government, whom I fully and loyally support, are calling for austerity, self-restraint and public spending reductions? Some of the money will be a direct Government grant. I ask the Government to reconsider.

In addition, I believe that the airport authorities are applying for EEC funds or loans. Lord Trenchard wrote to me on 6 June :
" Much European Community aid is, as you are obviously well aware, restricted to the Assisted Areas."
Birmingham is not an assisted area.
" The European Investment Bank provides medium and long-term loans primarily to finance investment which promotes the development of less-developed regions."
There are exceptions. The Community has assisted other areas on the ground that it furthers the interests of the Community as a whole. According to that letter, EEC aid is not applicable. Can my hon. Friend confirm that? I have written to Mr. Roy Jenkins, President of the Commission of the European Communities, to ask for his help. With his history in the area, we may obtain it.

The Department of Trade's reply to my parliamentary question of 12 June shows that it is committed by the 1960 agreement to Government funds. I ask the Government to reconsider and, if necessary, bring forward legislation to prevent the grant.

In summary, will my hon. Friend consider the following points? Will the Secretary of State for the Environment reconsider his decision? Can there be a Government or county council scheme to allow residents to sell their houses or move to similar houses, so that they obtain their full market value and do not lose because of the depression caused by the noise levels of the airport?

Can we look at a really effective system—a massive system—of free double glazing instead of the really poor scheme offered at the moment? Can we, please, look at special sound-proofing in schools, libraries and places where people have to work during the day, during the noise of the airport? Most important, can we, please, as the inspector suggested, have major restrictions, ideally a total ban on night flights and on evening flights? I cannot emphasise this enough. I know that we make a lot of noise in this House late at night, but I invite hon. Members to imagine the aircraft noise when lying in bed, with children trying to sleep—not once, not once a week, not a week in a year, but every night, every week, every month of the year.

Can we, please, replace the lost recreational facilities? Can we restrict planes using Elmdon airport to only the larger, more silent planes? Can we have a full and real guarantee of no further expansion? This last point, in the long term, is perhaps the most important.

It seems that this exercise may well not be the end of the saga. Perhaps in a few years' time, when Heathrow and other London airports such as Luton have succeeded—as they seem to be doing very well—in restricting more and more night flights, the commercial interests and the arrogant over-ambition of the county council will result in more expansion at Birmingham and more night flights.

A new terminal may allow further development, but it is in my view essential to ask for an absolute guarantee that there will be no such further extension. The ruthless ambition of the West Midlands county council must be controlled. It is for this reason that I raise these matters in the House.

I hope that my hon. Friend will realise that in the occasional passionate words that I used there lies the really burning resentment felt in the heart of England, and that there is great dissatisfaction and much bitterness. We most sincerely ask for these issues to be re-examined.

11.47 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Mills) has raised for debate this evening a matter of great importance both to his constituents and to the West Midlands generally.

Birmingham airport is one of the most important regional airports in this country. During the last 20 years the number of passengers using it each year has in- creased sixfold, from around ¼ million to over 1½ million.

In the last two years alone, traffic has increased at an annual rate of 21 per cent., compared with about 13 per cent, for regional airports as a whole and 10 per cent, for the London area airports. Such growth reflects the fact that there is a demand in the West Midlands for decent local air travel facilities. This demand is by no means only for "bucket and spade" services or, as my hon. Friend referred to them, cheap holiday flights to holiday destinations.

In 1979, 54 per cent, of the passengers travelled on scheduled flights, a high proportion of whom were business travellers, and only 46 per cent, were accounted for by inclusive tours and charters. In other words, the airport plays an important role in the economic prosperity of the West Midlands as a whole. It serves the needs of local industry and thus contributes to the development of trade and employment.

One of the reasons for this is that the airport is so well located : it lies within easy reach of Birmingham and is linked to other industrial centres in the Midlands through the motorway network. As my hon. Friend said—although with a certain amount of derogatoriness—it is close to Birmingham international railway station, on one of the most important railway lines in the country, and is adjacent to the National Exhibition Centre.

The problem is the inadequacy of the existing terminal building. It was built in the late 1930s to cater for the type of air traffic prevalent at that time and, although it has been patched up several times, these modifications have failed to keep pace with the growth of traffic, with the result that the present terminal facilities are congested and inadequate for coping with the level of traffic expected in the 1980s.

Indeed, as anyone who has used Birmingham airport will know, at times the present conditions for passengers at the airport cannot be regarded as satisfactory. The present terminal was simply not designed to handle the present level of traffic. It is not, therefore, surprising that there has been growing pressure over the years from the consumer, business and local authority interests for something to be done to rectify this situation.

In 1978, the West Midlands county council brought forward proposals for the construction of a new terminal building at Birmingham which, with its associated facilities, was designed to provide an airport more in keeping with the requirement of meeting the natural growth in air traffic in the West Midlands up to the end of the present decade. I am glad that my hon. Friend announced tonight that he is in favour of a certain growth at this airport.

Those proposals were also in accord with the role for Birmingham set out in our predecessors' White Paper on airports policy in February 1978. However, that same White Paper recognised that expansion of Birmingham could not take place without difficulty. The airport occupies a restricted site close to built-up areas and has serious aircraft noise and environmental problems.

I take note of the interest in this matter, which has led to a number of people being present in the Strangers Gallery for this debate. We have not underestimated the hardship or the noise and the nuisance that the airport has caused to many people. But no airport in the United Kingdom can operate without some environmental disturbance. In a crowded island such as ours, there is never a right place either to build a new airport or to extend an existing one.

As regards Birmingham airport, I should like to pay a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden. No Member of Parliament could have done more to draw attention to these matters. Indeed, sometimes at the Department of the Environment I have begun to think that he was the only Member with whom I had to deal. Supported, as he has been, by a number of other hon. Members, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan), he has been tireless in pointing to the environmental consequences which must flow both from the operation of the airport and from any expansion of its facilities. Nobody could have fought harder to defend the interests of his constituents. I take this opportunity to place on record my admiration of his unstinting efforts to ensure that in the formulation of their airports policy the Government never lose sight of the costs which may be incurred, and I do not mean simply the costs in financial terms.

It was precisely in order that the views of all those affected by the proposal to build a new terminal should be properly heard that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment decided that there should be a full public inquiry before a decision was taken on the application for planning permission for the proposed development. That inquiry was duly held last autumn and, indeed, my hon. Friend gave evidence and I sent him a copy of the inspector's report.

In the event, my right hon. Friend accepted the inspector's main recommendation that permission should be given. It has to be recognised that such decisions can involve striking a balance between what are often conflicting interests—perhaps, as my hon. Friend has suggested in this case, between the wider regional economic interests and those of local residents. This is never easy, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the Birmingham decision was taken only after the most careful consideration of the inspector's report.

However, I must go on to emphasise that once the Secretary of State for the Environment has made his decision he has discharged his statutory function in the matter. Therefore, there can be no question of this decision being reconsidered.

I feel that I should draw attention to some of the conditions which were attached to the planning permission and to our general policy concerned with aircraft noise disturbance. First, my hon. Friend has complained that my right hon. Friend did not, as part of the planning permission, impose a general ban on night flying at the airport. This was suggested by the inspector, though he expressed doubts about the validity of such action in the context of the particular proposals that were before him. As the decision letter made clear, it would have meant seeking to restrict the continuing use of existing runways.

But I must point out that conditions restricting night use were imposed on the new developments which were specifically the subject of the planning permission. Thus, there is a condition banning night movements of aircraft or the running of aircraft engines on the new parallel taxiway or on the link from that taxiway to the new apron. These conditions will, in practice, restrict the number of movements which can take place on the main runway during the night.

Secondly, the county council's proposal to build a taxiway linking the apron with the northern end of the cross-runway was disallowed so as to permit an unbroken length of acoustic screen to be built along the northern edge of the apron. Thirdly, my right hon. Friend has also insisted that details of the earth noise barriers be approved before the building of the parallel taxiway and that the barriers themselves be built before the taxiway is opened.

My right hon. Friend has asked the airport authority to introduce its new restrictions on night flying before the new terminal comes into use and has supported the county council's decision to extend its noise insulation scheme. He has also supported its plan to provide a ground power supply at the apron to restrict use of noisy auxiliary power units in the airport.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of questions this evening about what more can be done to alleviate the effects of this development on his constituency. Many of his points were matters for the West Midlands county council, which owns and operates the airport and is responsible for alleviating its environmental impact.

The Land Compensation Act 1973 allows certain limited discretionary purchases to be made by agreement by the responsible authority where an owner's enjoyment of a property in the immediate area is seriously affected by the carrying out or use of any public works.

For those in a wider area, the West Midlands county council has power to implement schemes for noise insulation. I note my hon. Friend's request that there should be another look at this help. I give the assurance that this will be done. I understand that two such schemes have so far been made, and, while details are for the local authority, I am sure that it will consider my hon. Friend's representations most carefully and keep the position under review.

Where, despite such efforts to mitigate aircraft noise nuisance, property values are depreciated by the use of the new aprons or taxiways, compensation may, in due course, become payable under the Land Compensation Act. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, who has responsibilities concerning aircraft noise, is acutely conscious of the problems, not only at Birmingham but elsewhere in the country.

We believe that this problem can be alleviated by action taken at airports, but it can be effectively tackled only at source. We have, therefore, taken an active role in international discussions designed to encourage the development and introduction of quieter aircraft.

The use of non-noise certificated subsonic jet aircraft acquired by United Kingdom operators after 30 September 1978 has already been prohibited. The use of all non-noise certificated subsonic iet aircraft on the United Kingdom register will be prohibited from 1 January 1986. Similar measures announced or in prospect in other countries with major civil aviation interests are expected to result in a marked improvement in the noise climate around United Kingdom airports during the 1980s.

The previous Government designated Birmingham as a category B airport in their 1978 White Paper on airports policy. We concur in this description, which means that Birmingham's role is to remain a regional airport designed to meet the demand for short and medium-haul traffic.

The presently planned developments do not affect the main runway and will not facilitate a widening of the range of aircraft able to operate there. In fact, the restricted nature of the site virtually precludes any significant development of the main runway and thus severely limits the possibility of mounting long-haul intercontinental services which are currently provided from London and Manchester.

The county council has made clear that it has no ambition to provide facilities other than to meet the demand for European and domestic services which are so important to local industry and tourism. I assure my hon. Friend that there is no question of directing South-East traffic to Birmingham, and we certainly do not regard Birmingham as a potential Heathrow in the Midlands with long-haul connections all over the world.

Civil aviation is one of our few growth industries and it would not be in our national interest or, I suggest, the regional interest to restrict it artificially.

I regret the fact that my hon. Friend used such terms as "jackboot" and "ruthlessness". It is unfortunate in all matters of this kind, where decisions have to be taken, that such misinterpretations can be made. I again assure my hon. Friend that the decision was not taken lightly. Although we cannot reconsider it, I believe that the conditions imposed are sensible and will make life easier for many of the people who live in the vicinity.

The Government believe that we must make use of civil aviation's potential to assist economic growth and develop our trade with European countries while recognising and seeking to minimise the environmental costs incurred.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for introducing the debate. I hope that I have gone some way to reassure him that we have in mind the concern that he has expressed and the concern of his constituents about this decision.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.