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Stansted Airport

Volume 229: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1993

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11.45 am

It sometimes seems that the debate on Stansted airport has been going on continually with few interruptions. The possibility of Stansted being London's third airport arose in the 1950s, if not in the late 1940s. The whole saga has been punctuated by studies, reports and inquiries, yet still we are here today once again considering whether what was done was right and what should be done in the future. It is a never-ending story.

I think that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will agree that political difficulties, rather than the needs of the civil aviation industry, have led to London having a three-airport configuration. The matter has not been as open to us in Britain as it was to the French when they decided to find a new site near Paris for the development of what they later called Charles de Gaulle airport, which, as far as one can see, can expand almost infinitely to cover all the needs that are anticipated for many decades ahead.

Britain has not had that luxury and the fact that we have not is partly explained by the fact that we do not have as much land available as the French and because successive Governments have been buffeted by the strength of public opinion, which has caused them to duck and weave and to find opportunities when they can for the development of precious airport capacity to serve London.

The case for Stansted, in the final chapter leading up to the development that we see today, was put on the basis that the 15 million passengers per annum capacity was essential to preserve London's competitive position. From the perspective of 1993, I am not sure that everyone would quite see it in the same light. Many more people now realise that if we are to maintain London's competitive position against the growing airports on the continent of Europe, the key is Heathrow. If we are to persuade passengers to travel on British airlines to an ultimate destination in Europe via London, we have to offer them the ability to interline from one aeroplane to another within the same airport complex. It is not the same thing to invite them to be bussed around the M25 from one of London's airports to another. In such circumstances, the competition—Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt—would be bound to win.

The argument has changed over the years. Since the decision was made to develop Stansted, the case for it is not quite so compelling, even, I suspect, to those within the BAA, as it might have been back in 1979. Certainly, from the point of view of the current management of Stansted airport, I suspect that things look rather different today from the way they might have seemed at that time.

The new terminal was opened in 1991 in the wake of the Gulf war; it coincided with the onset of recession; and it was accompanied by the scrapping of the traffic distribution rules which previously governed which airport in London could be used by particular airlines. Those three things, taken together, have considerably knocked the estimates that previously existed about the rate at which Stansted would develop. BAA could argue, fairly, that the Government invited it to make a planning application for Stansted and, although none of the factors to which I have referred which have dogged the expansion of Stansted could be said to be the direct fault of the Government, except possibly the decision on the traffic distribution rules—there were good arguments for that —BAA would argue that the Government have an obligation to it, as a private sector company, to assist it in making a success of its huge investment.

Even the opponents of the development of Stansted —those who live in the immediate vicinity—would concede that, if there is demand, it is reasonable that it should be satisfied. Their principal argument has been that one should not create demand by investment. If there are airlines knocking at the door wishing to use Stansted, that is a different argument. It so happens that it is American airlines that are currently trying hardest to use Stansted. Stansted would like to have a transatlantic service or services and there is some irritation and frustration at the fact that what people want cannot be achieved at present.

When American Airlines decided to pull out of Stansted, having attempted to operate a daily service to Chicago, there appeared on the horizon the renascent Trans World Airlines—not yet out of chapter 11 bankruptcy but expecting to be so at any time. It had previously shed its services to London, but now sees an opportunity to come to Stansted. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been attentive to the arguments put by myself and others about the need to look at the possibility of obtaining another transatlantic service using Stansted. At the head of the queue seems to be TWA.

In recent weeks, my right hon. Friend has conceded, for the first itme, that Stansted has a special argument in its favour. I have the impression that he is prepared to seek to ensure that Stansted will gain some benefit from the negotiations that are currently taking place between the United States Government and the British Government to liberalise the air services agreement between our two countries.

Stansted's case is more urgent than that because credibility is involved. I should like to stress that TWA's case should be re-examined. I know that the argument is complicated. If my right hon. Friend made a gesture to the American Administration suggesting that he would be prepared to give a temporary derogation to TWA to provide a New York-Chicago service into Stansted, there is doubt about whether the American Administration would reciprocate. However, there is other evidence that suggests that the Administration might be willing to respond.

I realise that the negotiation of air services is a complex business and that my right hon. Friend has to be careful not to damage the wider British interest. Nevertheless, if he has doubts about the firmness of intention of TWA or the American Administration, he should test those doubts. He should say to the Americans, "We are interested in a service into Stansted. If you say that you are interested in doing it, we will give you the opportunity." Although I wish to protect the overall civil aviation interests of this country, I do not believe that making that concession would be disastrous to Britain. In fact, the concession would be valuable at this stage in Stansted's development.

I have been waiting to intervene on my hon. Friend, but I have been keen not to anticipate his remarks. He has just eloquently made the point that I wished to make. I am sure that he will agree that a temporary derogation to an American airline such as TWA would not prejudge the Government's bargaining position in any way. My hon. Friend stressed the importance of the hub and spoke principle and mentioned the point about long haul feeding into short haul and regional distribution airlines and vice versa. If more long haul traffic came to Stansted from the United States, that would greatly increase the viability of Stansted and begin to build up the hub that we all want to see.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining my point. My hon. Friend the Minister will recognise that interest in this matter goes wider than purely local concern and includes those of us who follow civil aviation matters. We want to see whether it is possible to give Stansted the advantage of a transatlantic service, after which it would be seen how far it can develop further as a hub and spoke airport.

This is a tale of two airports. The picture that I have just painted shows what has happened and the present position in which Stansted finds itself. It is quite a contrast between the picture that was projected when forecasts were made in 1979. All the forecasts, which were tested by inquiry between 1979 and 1985, led us to suppose that there would be a large-scale demand that could be met only by provision at Stansted. On the basis of those forecasts and the arguments relating to them, the inspector who took the Stansted and London Heathrow fifth terminal inquiry, Mr. Graham Eyre, as he then was, agreed to the recommendation that planning permission should be granted at Stansted for a terminal capacity of 15 million passengers per annum.

In light of the arguments that I and others were responsible for putting forward, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Nicholas Ridley, agreed that there should be some limiting mechanism. He accepted the arguments about the potential environmental impact of development at Stansted. He conceded that there might be some doubts about the rate at which the airport would develop. Therefore, it was decided that a tripwire should be introduced. To start with, the airport would be allowed, within its legal planning permission, to develop to a capacity of 8 million passengers per annum. That was determined by a limit on the number of air transport movements—ATMs—which was fixed at 78,000 per annum. That was designed to be equivalent to a passenger throughput of 8 million per annum. It requires an affirmative decision by both Houses of Parliament for that level to be exceeded so that the airport can proceed up to a capacity of 15 million passengers per annum.

When Graham Eyre considered whether more land at Stansted should be safeguarded for the possibility of expansion beyond 15 million passengers per annum and for the possibility of a second runway, he came to conclusions which are worth repeating in the present climate. In his summary of the overall conclusions, at point 11, he said:
"There are compelling reasons which are now manifest as to why a second runway at Stansted should not be developed under any circumstances and Government should make an unequivocal declaration of intention that a second main runway will not be built. No planning permission should be granted in the absence of or prior to the making of such a declaration".
In chapter 25, at paragraph 12.5, Sir Graham said:
"I stood at numerous vantage points around and within the area and visualised the utter devastation which the development would wreak on this virtually unspoiled and particularly attractive tract of typical Essex countryside".
At paragraph 12.7 he continued:
"no landscaping scheme could ever be devised which would effectively offset the impact of such a vast development project affecting such an enormous area. I am wholly satisfied that the surrounding countryside is incapable of absorbing the extra development involved".
At paragraph 12.12 he says:
"I can conceive of no circumstances in which the development of such an airport"—
one requiring the construction and operation of a second runway—
"at Stansted could be justified."
There is plenty more where that came from. The volume that I am holding represents only one volume of the eight or nine that comprise Sir Graham Eyre's report. Meticulous detailed analysis led to his conclusions, and it would be extraordinary if the Government were ever tempted to overturn conclusions reached after an exhaustive inquiry and expressed so forcefully. The White Paper published in 1985 gave the unequivocal assurance for which Sir Graham had called, thereby securing his backing for the recommendation that the airport should be developed to accommodate 15 million passengers per annum.

It is almost as if time has stood still, in some respects. Here we are again, with demand forecast to rise appreciably over the next 30 or more years. The Civil Aviation Authority began the debate some years ago by saying that another runway would be required in the south-east. That led some time later to the report published in the past few days by the committee set up to advise on "Runway Capacity to Serve the South East" —the so-called RUCATSE report, which makes some interesting comments.

I shall talk about only two of the points that emerge from the report of the working group. The first, and perhaps the most startling, is that the group recognises that for a number of reasons there is now an increased capacity of passengers per available runway. In the past, our debates have been based on the assumption that a figure of roughly 25 million passengers per annum could be ascribed to a runway. RUCATSE now suggests that that figure could be increased, perhaps even to 40 million per runway at Heathrow, and to 35 million at Gatwick and Stansted. With the 20 million runway capacity at Luton, that would mean that 170 million passengers could be accommodated until the year 2015 without an additional runway being built.

That is both good and bad news. The problem, and the decision whether more concrete has to be laid on our precious land in the south-east, is being pushed into the future, yet the perpetuation of uncertainty can be a terrible cancer for all the people who live near the existing airports. The worry, the grief, the debates and the arguments will continue for many years. On the other hand, the increased runway capacity buys precious time for the Government to take another hard and thorough look at how they will cope with the rising demand foreseen over the next 20 or 30 years.

I hope that, during that time, the Government will consider the estuarial solution—the Marinair proposal—which is covered in the RUCATSE report. That solution, despite all its difficulties, has great environmental advantages and would be greeted with relief not only by many of the people who live near Stansted, in Hertfordshire, Essex and Cambridgeshire, but by those who live near Gatwick and Heathrow. Among such people there is a curious mixture of feelings. Some people are keen to have the employment opportunities, and they want the most convenient airport from which to start their business or holiday flights; others, who live day by day beside those airports, suffer inevitable disturbance, both from the air and on the land around them.

I do not believe that environmental considerations will become less important over the next 10 or 20 years. They have been increasingly accepted in the consideration of everything from road schemes upwards. The next major step to deal with airport capacity will have to pass the most stringent environmental tests, so there is a strong case for arguing that the Government should increasingly favour the estuarial solution; at first sight, it is the most attractive way of solving the difficult problem.

The second aspect of the RUCATSE report to which I wish to draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister is its forecast that by the year 2000 the actual throughput at Stansted will have reached only 6·5 million, as opposed to the present throughput of approximately 2·5 million. That figure is still below the airport's capacity, and that fact has interesting implications for the timetable for increasing the ATMs limit of 78,000. If the forecast is to have any credibility, there seems to be no need for any unseemly rush to approve the increase from 8 million to 15 million passengers per annum. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister says about that.

However, there is a sub-plot. Consistent with the movement of 2·5 million passengers per annum, the number of ATMs has risen to 37,000. That would suggest that, if the numbers were doubled, the present ceiling for ATMs would be reached when the actual throughput of the airport was no more than about 5 million passengers per annum—well below the 8 million passengers whom it was thought that the 78,000 limit would accommodate. There will, therefore, have to be some movement on the ATMs limit, and that could be considered separately from the question whether extra passenger capacity was also being provided.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that the present situation is somewhat nonsensical. Inevitably, there will continue to be argument in the Stansted area about whether the 1985 decision was right. But an airport with a capacity of up to 15 million passengers per annum is a legal fact. That airport provides regional benefits; there is a catchment area in East Anglia that contains many people —including, sometimes, opponents of the airport—who admit to me that the airport is most convenient for them.

The airport provides also enormous employment opportunities which are not to be dismissed at a time when unemployment has been running high. Even within its present constriction of 8 million passengers a year, there is an opportunity for several thousand more jobs to be created than are currently available. If the figure reaches 15 million passengers a year, we shall be talking about a growth of more than 20,000 jobs. There is no shortage of employment opportunities, even within the present limits on the envisaged expansion of the airport.

Artificial stimulus of the airport is one thing, but blocking demand that is coming from certain airlines is quite another. People would understand that difference and would not condemn the Government if they were prepared to give a chance even to a foreign carrier to use the airport. The Government must try not to allow the flame of suspicion to burn that today's new service will inevitably lead to tomorrow's second runway. That is the real conundrum that we face. The RUCATSE report has given the Government time to consider whether a long-term, more environmentally friendly answer can be found. If the Government ultimately decide that that is so, there will be relief not only for the people living around Stansted but for those living around Gatwick and Heathrow who, I suspect, would sympathise with the arguments that I have put forward today.

There is a healthy future for Stansted and it can be secured in the context of an environmentally friendly answer. I hope that the Government will use the time well and ensure that the breathing space we may now have enables them to produce plans for the future that will get the widest possible welcome.

12.11 pm

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) for securing this debate today on the important and topical issue of Stansted and the general issues of competition in air services and, not least, the RUCATSE report which was published last week. It is a timely debate in that respect and I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to put a few remarks on the record, this being the first possible occasion following the publication of that report.

I was amused by my hon. Friend's remark about a tale of two airports. As another of the local Members of Parliament for Stansted, although not so heavily involved as my hon. Friend, I, too, am guilty of mild schizophrenia when we talk about airport issues. On the one hand, we have a proper respect for the concerns of our constituents who want a quiet night's sleep and who, understandably, want to continue their rural existence untrammelled. On the other hand—my hon. Friend alluded to this—airports create jobs, and not many parts do not welcome job creation. The challenge to any Government is to get the balance right between environmental concerns and economic considerations. My hon. Friend did the House a service by setting out those issues from his position as the lead Member on Stansted, if I may put it that way.

Stansted is a first-class, indeed a world-class, facility. I am proud of it as a local and regional asset. Many of my constituents have told me what an excellent environment it provides for arrivals and departures. I have visited the airport, although I have never flown from it. It undoubtedly has a stunning building and it is easily the most attractive environment for air travel in the United Kingdom of which I am aware.

Although the airport's use was limited between its initial civil operations in 1946 and its development during the close of the 1980s, the past two or three years have seen the airport increase its throughput substantially. It handled about 2·3 million passengers last year; that is 38 per cent. more than in 1991 and 56 per cent. more cargo. It now offers direct flights to more than 30 destinations and interlining flights to more than 130. It continues to attract a range of new services. I was pleased to read only last week that, for example, Air Littoral is returning to the airport this summer.

As my hon. Friend said, it is true that the airport has had its difficulties, not least the loss of the American Airlines service to Chicago earlier this year. I accept that the traffic distribution rules change has also been relevant and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowleding that there were overriding good reasons for that change. He agrees that the one-off consequences of that were inevitable and the industry should have been prepared to accept them. The difficulties that Stansted has gone through are evidence that it can be difficult for a new airport ultimately to overcome the existing market preferences and develop its own range of services.

I know that my hon. Friend and others believe that we should do more to encourage new traffic to use the airport. We should not artificially distort the market by directing particular kinds of traffic to use particular airports; rather, our aim should be to facilitate as liberalised a market as possible. The United Kingdom has pursued that goal trenchantly and successfully in the European Community. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State led the way on achieving an agreement in the EC, now expressed as the third liberalisation package, which will enable any operator that can demonstrate its competence to do so to fly between any two points in Europe. That can only be good news for the travelling public and the aviation industry generally.

My hon. Friend spoke about irritation and frustration in his local area about allowing more American flights to use Stansted. The Government are keen to encourage more transatlantic air services to Stansted. We recognise that local businesses and communities want a wider choice of services in the south-east and we are aware of the benefit that that would have on the expansion of Stansted. Under existing bilateral arrangements, there is nothing to prevent any of the seven United States airlines currently serving London from operating some or all of their existing services from Stansted if they wish. Clearly, this is a matter for them to decide.

My hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden and for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) referred to the desirabilty of a unilateral offer on the TWA route options. TWA has been offered the run from Stansted to New York to Chicago and, as I understand it, one other United States point to another United Kingdom point as a package in exchange for the switch of Virgin Boston flights from Gatwick to Heathrow. Most people would regard that arrangement as being in TWA's favour. TWA chose not to agree to that proposition which remains on the table. There is no sense in which my right hon. Friend will not attempt to negotiate, if it is at all possible, in the interests of any of London's airports, but his overriding concern must be the national interest. I am sure that my colleagues will agree that that is right. In the national interest we seek, ultimately, a properly deregulated and liberalised regime between the United Kingdom and the United States, which would have much wider implications than an individual negotiation over one airline's wish to fly to some airport.

How many cards it is right for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to keep to his chest in those negotiations will always be an issue. I need not expand on the matter further because commercial negotiations are best kept in confidence. I sense that my hon. Friends will accept the fact that my right hon. Friend has conducted the negotiations so far with immense tact and considerable assiduity and that is the basis on which he should continue to negotiate.

I acknowledge exactly what my hon. Friend said. As time goes by, Stansted will become like Gatwick. Long-haul operators have been reluctant to use Stansted, but once people see the facilities available there—it is the most attractive aiport—it will have consumer appeal. Airlines are trying to give customers precisely what they want. I should prefer to travel through Stansted than through any other terminal.

Does my hon. Friend accept that we must get as good value as possible from existing resources? My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) was right to say that we must not pour concrete over the countryside. However, it seems dotty that helicopters still land at Heathrow using up valuable fixed-wing aircraft slots when separate helicopter landing facilities should be available at Heathrow. It is also crazy that a debate is going on about whether a large part of the Heathrow real estate should be used as a sludge farm or a fifth terminal. Before my hon. Friend winds up, will he say something about the fifth terminal at Heathrow in the light of the RUCATSE report?

My hon. Friend tempts me into dangerous areas. On the relationship between a possible terminal 5 and the RUCATSE report, BAA's fifth terminal application, which the Secretary of State has called in, now falls to be considered by public inquiry and will ultimately come before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for determination. On that basis, I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not expatiate at length on terminal 5. Suffice it to say that RUCATSE is considering the need for, and a possible option of, the provision of further runway capacity in the south-east. I agree with my hon. Friend that it seems sensible to use existing capacity before further capacity is provided.

There is an inevitable logic about the fact that people want to go where people already go. Airlines and passengers now favour Heathrow if they have an option. When Heathrow has been full, they have tended to go to Gatwick and, when they could not go to Gatwick, they have gone to Stansted. I shall be accused of appalling over-simplification. Ironically, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside said, Stansted is the most agreeable environment of the three London airports. However, its attractions will become more evident as traffic grows in the next few years and as more and more people realise how good the rail service is from London to Stansted and how trouble-free travel there can be compared with travel to larger, more crowded airports.

We shall keep under review the issue of air traffic movements and shall keep in close touch with BAA on that issue. Aircraft using the airport have tended to be smaller than forecast, which has had the effect described by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden. Therefore, more movements may be needed to reach forecast traffic levels. We shall need to review that with BAA at the appropriate time and we shall then be obliged to present our proposals to the House.

One important issue which my hon. Friend would have raised had he had the time is that of noise. We are concerned to ensure that, as Stansted develops, local residents should continue to be protected against excessive aircraft noise, particularly at night. That is why the new system of night restrictions for the three London airports announced on 6 July includes specific quotas for night movements at Stansted for the first time. New noise and track-keeping monitoring equipment has been installed at Stansted to ensure adherence to noise mitigation rules; operators who exceed the maximum permissible nighttime noise level are subject to financial penalty.

The proposal in our consultation paper for an extensive category of aircraft called QC zero that would not count against the quota concerned many local people, local authorities and environmental groups around Stansted, as elsewhere. That is why we have introduced the QC½ category to provide an additional measure of protection and meet local concerns about the perceived threat of uncontrolled growth. The quotas for Stansted and Gatwick have been increased appropriately.

The size of the increase at Stansted may have surprised many, but there are already a considerable number of night movements at Stansted by aircraft exempt from the present restrictions—many more than my hon. Friend's constituents probably realise. The noise of many of these aircraft does not extend much beyond the airport boundary and wakes few people, but we felt that that factor should be taken into account. I hope that others will not now lie awake worrying about this matter.

So far I have looked at Stansted's immediate future, but what of the longer term? My hon. Friend has mentioned the recent report by RUCATSE. I should like to pay tribute to all the members of the working group for their hard work in producing such a thorough and detailed report. The membership of the group has been very diverse: it has included representatives from air transport and tourist industries, from central and local government and from bodies representing national and local environmental interests, including local residents groups, consumer groups, airlines and airports.

The group was set up in response to advice from the Civil Aviation Authority in 1990 that there would shortly be a need for additional runway capacity. The CAA identified 10 sites at which development looked to be feasible in air traffic control terms. RUCATSE's remit was to examine in more detail the consequences of development at those sites, and also the potential contribution of the regional airports. I must emphasise, however, that RUCATSE is not a decision-making body, nor is it a substitute for any part of the planning process —its role is purely advisory. In brief detail, the principal findings are that the new runway's worth of capacity, if I may put it that way, is now likely not to be needed until 2005 at the earliest—mainly because of the more intensive use of runways at regional and London airports—and more probably by a date some five years on from that. There has been some deferral of the necessity for additional runways.

Of the sites examined in detail, the House knows that Heathrow would afford the greatest benefit to the air transport industry and passengers, but it also gives rise to a greater scale of disbenefits, such as noise impact on people, land use and property development. I do not think that anybody would underestimate the environmental impact on that area, the scale of loss of residential property, and so on.

At Gatwick, there is the prospect of generating high benefits, but again there are substantial environmental problems and, of course, there is the planning agreement between West Sussex county council and BAA, which limits development before 2019. Stansted has lower benefits and has environmental problems that are, in many ways, similar to those at Gatwick, and the 1985 White Paper concurred with the inspector's view that there should not be a second runway there. Luton is a smaller option and would delay the case for expansion by three years. Although it has relatively low benefits, they are high in relation to the size of the project.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden mentioned the prospects for Marinair, a concept to which Gerry Matthews has devoted much of his life. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that, to many, the advantage of the Marinair site is that it does not have a constituency of its own and all the other local authorities can happily recommend it in the knowledge that it avoids their areas. In fact, there are many difficulties with the estuarial concept, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware.

The RUCATSE report should inform our debates on airport issues over the coming months. It is only right, given the complexity of the report, that we should have time to reflect and that we should be open to all views. We have announced a full period of consultation—