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Heathrow Airport

Volume 468: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2007

Since the beginning of the millennium, the Government have been dithering over the pressing need to expand airport capacity throughout Great Britain. We have seen White Papers, judicial reviews, announcements, retractions and consultations. With tired predictability, the Secretary of State for Transport last week signalled that the Government might tack another runway and terminal on to Heathrow airport. That may or may not happen by 2020. The 2003 White Paper said that we should expect a new runway at Stansted as soon as 2011.

We grapple with aviation, which I believe is a must for business. I am a little more sceptical than many of my colleagues about the lobbying that comes from BAA, British Airways and others. I also listen very attentively to representatives from my own constituency in the City of London and Westminster—an increasingly important commercial hub—who recognise the importance of increasing aircraft capacity. The notion that we can take many people off aircraft, particularly for internal flights, and put them on to trains is something of a fallacy. That is possible to a certain extent, but given the reliability and the speed of our rail network, it is not a realistic argument for reducing substantially our air capacity.

In a moment or two, I will raise my concerns about the nature of the globalised economy. Increasingly, with the growing power of China, India and south-east Asia, we require a tremendous investment in our airports. However, this is not just an issue for business. Undoubtedly, we live in a much more affluent and outward-looking society, which is a very positive thing, but the flip side of that is that demand for leisure and personal flying will increase in the years ahead. I do not see that that is undesirable in the world in which we live.

If we look at some of the problems of our global society, we find that it is inward-looking, backward-looking and that opportunities exist for terrorists to develop networks. One of the most important things that any modern, forward-looking society can do is to ensure that its people have the opportunity to travel abroad and to see other cultures. However, to achieve that, we need to maintain our airport capacity.

The Government’s solution, which was announced last week, was another conventional yet inadequate solution to the long-term problem. By papering over Heathrow’s cracks, we get a cut-price remedy for our overburdened airports, but for how long and at what cost to the long-term health of our economy and transport system, the character of west London and the quality of life for local residents?

I believe that we desperately need a visionary outlook to improve transport and to have political leaders who have a firm eye on the future and the courage to take brave and innovative decisions. Too often, the UK’s transport decision making has lain in the hands of corporate interests and environmental pressure groups. Unfortunately, that has happened with the Labour Government. After a decade in office, we have seen no such strategic thinking from successive Transport Ministers, and our transport system has ground to a halt as a result.

Not even Crossrail can be credited to this Government until we can be sure that the financial arrangements are robust. Although I have always supported Crossrail, I recognise that there are relatively few votes in it for me because a lot of my constituents, particularly in Mayfair, the City of London and Bayswater, will be adversely affected. However, now that we have put that programme in place, I believe that it is essential that we ensure that the funding is there; otherwise there will be ongoing blight for a lot of local residents. I particularly want to touch on the blight for local residents in relation to the proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow.

We need more airport capacity, and I am all in favour of people’s horizons being extended by international travel. I would be in favour of the third runway and the Government’s additions to Heathrow’s infrastructure if I believed that it was a long- term solution, but I fear that it is not. London and the UK now need a new state-of-the-art hub airport.

Given the emergence of Canary Wharf over the past decade and half as an important commercial centre and the plans to develop in the Thames estuary, the airport would need to be located in the east of the capital. The centre of gravity in our capital city, both commercially and in population terms, is certainly moving eastwards, and that is a process that will continue in the decades ahead. By building from scratch, such an airport could be planned according to the needs of a modern, global economy and utilise advances in environmentally sound construction and high-speed rail links into central London, the docklands and beyond.

Flying in over the North sea, planes would not disturb a large residential population, and that could allow a truly modern airport to operate 24 hours a day. Business folk could depart to and arrive from India, China and the rapidly developing economies of south-east Asia at convenient times. Construction could take place with minimal disruption, and the airport would be located in a place that would allow future expansion.

I have taken the opportunity to raise this important issue because if the consequences of our current aviation difficulties are to be seen anywhere, it is in my constituency. In the City of London, we have a large international business community that needs proper transport facilities to function. In Westminster, we have cultural and historical wonders that draw visitors from across the globe.

I have no particular affiliation to airline companies, environmental groups or those living near Heathrow. However, on several occasions in recent years, I have walked—I mean walked, rather than driven—through Harmondsworth and Sipson, the two villages that would be wrecked by a third runway. Even though they are located just by the existing airport, they retain some charm from their centuries-old roots. The same can be said, just about, for places such as Stanwell Moor, which is located right under the flight path of the existing runways and where some historic 18th century buildings still stand amid the noise and pollution. The residents of those villages have been misled by promises from all Governments—Conservative as well as Labour—on Heathrow’s long-term expansion. This latest Government announcement is just a further stab in the back for all those who have held on in that quiet and pleasant little quarter of Middlesex.

It is clear to me as an MP who represents Britain’s financial heart that there is a strong economic case for a comprehensive overhaul of our thinking on aviation. I speak as someone who rejoices in the availability of air travel for all and sundry. The people who wish to encourage British people to stay in the UK for their holidays presumably have no interest in the earnings that we gain from overseas tourists, who will continue to come to these shores. We live in a global marketplace. Agricultural produce, which was mentioned in an earlier debate, comes to us from all parts of the world, and we should wholeheartedly support free trade with the developing world as the best way for our nation to rise out of poverty.

Flying is part of our commercial life, and Heathrow has been the mainstay of our international connectivity for more than 50 years. Now, however, is the time to move on. Heathrow is currently operating at full capacity. Every year, 68 million passengers cram into facilities that were designed to take 45 million. With its two runways, Heathrow is the world’s busiest airport and the resultant chaos is clear for all to see.

Flying into Britain, often for the first time, travellers from abroad can expect to be greeted by a shabby, overcrowded, understaffed and poorly planned mess of an airport, and Britons flying abroad face the frustrating prospect of long security queues and mind-numbing delays as the prologue to their hard-earned breaks.

None of that takes into account the problems that they might experience on arriving at their destination. Some 22,000 items of luggage are lost in transit from Heathrow each month. Heathrow has low landing charges through an outdated regulatory system. That leaves the busiest international airport in the world with landing charges that stand 17th in the world league. It makes very little economic sense, and it is not so surprising that important profitable revenue is often sought from retail outlets. BAA bosses have done their sums and found that necessary profits come not from passenger satisfaction, but from selling alcohol, perfume and Toblerone to a captive and often delayed audience. On top of that, operating at full capacity means that the airport is inflexible and staff are unable to respond quickly to changes in security procedures or to minor changes to the landing schedule.

We all use Heathrow airport because there is no alternative. The airport remains our single most important gateway to the global economy, but City bosses are beginning to claim that the Heathrow hassle factor is dissuading many business executives from travelling to our capital city. No one can blame them, especially in view of the delays that senior business folk often experience at immigration. It is expensive for companies to have staff unable to work simply because of costly delays in the travel system.

Research undertaken by the City of London corporation in 2002 revealed that some 70 per cent. of firms consider air services to be critical for business travel by their staff and that more than half of the respondents considered air travel critical for meeting clients. The square mile is the world’s foremost financial and business centre and has a high concentration of international firms that can choose any of the world’s major capital cities in which to locate. The City has made it clear that good aviation services and efficient, welcoming airports are a critical contributory factor to the continued competitiveness and ongoing success of the UK economy.

I do not believe that a new runway at Heathrow will solve the UK’s aviation capacity difficulties and help maintain economic competitiveness into the future. The supporting infrastructure is likely to remain inadequate, even with Crossrail, and the limited supply of land around Heathrow suggests that the area will not be able to cope with a significant increase in airport activity.

Talk of airport expansion will inevitably be dogged by environmental concerns about aircraft emissions, but we need to accept that unilateral action by Britain to cut carbon emissions will solve very little globally but will seriously disadvantage our economy. To put our interminable navel-gazing over Heathrow into perspective, China hopes to have completed no fewer than 49 new airports within the next five years.

I reckon we need to rethink completely the entire question of aviation and airports in Britain and resurrect the idea of a brand new hub airport to the east of London. To provide real competition, it should be operated by someone other than BAA. It is only right that the Conservatives take the blame for the monopolistic regulatory framework that we put in place when we were in government. It is not the right way forward. The idea of an airport out on Maplin sands was considered and rejected in the past, mainly on the grounds of finance, but as long as Heathrow remains open, most major airlines will not consider relocating and the private sector will not consider stumping up the finance.

In essence, government in the broader sense needs to take a brave step and accept that Heathrow will never be what Britain needs. Many other cities came to that realisation about their own outdated airports and had the vision to relocate: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and even places such as Beijing and Oslo, which I have visited in the past three or four years. Those airports are an absolute pleasure to pass through. We must reduce Heathrow’s capacity, rather than expand it in a piecemeal form.

At present, aircraft operating at Heathrow are rightly subject to strict flight controls to reduce noise for the nearby large residential population. In essence, the controls mean that few planes can fly between 11.30 pm and 6 am. I well understand and very much support the idea that people have to be allowed to sleep in peace. Furthermore, the airport is hemmed in by houses and roads, which severely restricts future capacity, including freight capacity. Aircraft going to a new airport in the Thames estuary, for example, could fly in over the North sea.

With no residential noise and little disruption during construction, such an airport could become a 24-hour hub, and there would be potential to enlarge it if necessary in the decades ahead. The stacking of planes, which currently is such a problem at Heathrow because of noise and environmental impact, would be a thing of the past. High-speed bullet trains could take passengers directly to the City. I travelled on a Maglev train to Shanghai. It took just eight minutes to traverse the 21 miles between Shanghai’s financial district and its international airport.

We could have such an airport as part of the regeneration of the Thames gateway, but it would require vision. Reducing Heathrow’s use would leave the potential for 2,500 acres of prime land for community development in a location near London with excellent City transport links. The sale of that land could help to fund the cost of a new state-of-the-art airport.

It must be recognised that our economy and quality of life will continue to suffer in an increasingly competitive world if we fail to invest in our infrastructure and think strategically for the future. Do we really believe that a sixth terminal and third runway at Heathrow will put to rest the issue of airport expansion for decades to come? We need an adaptable solution that allows us room to manoeuvre according to demand and future economic requirements. Above all, the Government should regard this as an opportunity to equip our nation as an internationally formidable partner and competitor for decades to come.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing a debate on this clearly important and topical subject, which he feels strongly about in terms of both the wider issues and his constituents. He touched in the later part of his speech on some of those wider issues but focused initially on some of the challenges of Heathrow.

We all recognise that Heathrow faces some real challenges—it is the busiest international airport in the world—but we also recognise that London and the wider UK rely heavily on good international links to support our economy. The hon. Gentleman set out many reasons why good air travel facilities at Heathrow are important for the economy and for the many people who use the airport for leisure and holidays. That is an important point.

The hon. Gentleman touched on some of the major challenges, particularly in respect of tackling capacity constraints in the face of increasing demand for air travel. In a sense, those challenges apply to all airports in the country, but particularly to Heathrow. We need to look at improving the service to passengers and, of course, to airlines as well. We also need to ensure that we are tackling the challenges, while meeting our climate change commitments and respecting the local environment around airports, particularly in respect of air quality and noise.

The hon. Gentleman was right to speak about the problems that face passengers at Heathrow. It was because of those problems that last week we published a set of proposals on how to improve the end-to-end journey experience, and we are now looking in more detail at how to tackle some of the issues that he raised. I shall touch on some of them a little later in my speech.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Before the sitting was suspended, the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster made a suggestion about airport capacity: that we should provide a new airport in the Thames estuary. I appreciate that developing Heathrow is not the only answer to our capacity problems, but the hon. Gentleman might recall that the construction of a new four-runway airport at Cliffe in north Kent was thoroughly considered and consulted on in the lead up to the 2003 White Paper, “The Future of Air Transport”.

We recognised that an estuary airport would provide benefits in not overflying large populated areas. However, in view of the relative costs both for the airport and for surface access links, the time for construction and the financial viability of that option, the Government decided in favour of pursuing further development at existing airports, rather than building an entirely new one in the Thames Gateway.

Building capacity does not focus only on Heathrow. For example, the White Paper supported a new runway at Stansted, which would be the first new runway in the south-east for many decades. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our commitment to the new runway at Stansted has not changed. It is important to remember that the White Paper also supported making better use of regional airports, such as Birmingham and Edinburgh. Growth in regional airports has a real part to play in satisfying overall demand for air services, as I know from the new regional airport in Doncaster, which is hugely popular with local people. Despite that, however, Heathrow is the UK’s No. 1 and only hub airport, and we should not walk away from that even if there are problems.

Work is in hand to tackle many of those problems. Terminal 5 will open next March, and I am pleased that BAA plans to invest some £6.2 billion modernising Heathrow in the next 10 years. By 2012, Heathrow will have a total terminal capacity of around 90 million passengers—two out of three people will travel through terminals that are not yet open. Problems at immigration are being tackled. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the queues, and the Border and Immigration Agency is working with the Department and BAA to improve passenger flows.

On security, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Secretary of State for Transport earlier this month set out a new industry framework to change the one-bag rule on hand luggage, without compromising security safeguards. Passengers should begin to benefit from that in early January.

The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to the frustration of long queues. Last week, the Civil Aviation Authority published its proposed package of price caps and incentives for Heathrow and Gatwick. Final price controls are not expected until March next year following a period of consultation, but the package will aim to incentivise BAA to deliver, in the CAA’s words,

“genuine service quality improvements and to invest to raise the standard of service”

for both passengers and airlines.

The proposals contain an increased range of financial incentives for the airport operator, including targets for the percentage of passengers to be security processed within five and 10 minutes. As a further measure, the Secretary of State asked the CAA for its views on how to improve the transparency of check-in times and other aspects of performance related to getting people through an airport.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned surface access. The Government’s £16 billion funding deal for Crossrail is now in place and will provide a 30-minute link to the centre of London. From 2014, we will have an enhanced Piccadilly Line. The AirTrack scheme, if approved, would be a significant addition to Heathrow’s rail links and provide direct services from terminal 5 to the south-west rail network via Staines.

Those measures should improve the passenger experience, both in getting passengers to the airport and inside the terminals, but the fact that demand for both departures and arrivals exceeds capacity on the current two runways remains an issue—the hon. Gentleman talked a great deal about it—which is why the Government are consulting on a third runway.

We need to be realistic about runway capacity if we are to protect Heathrow’s international position. Our competitors have acted already: in contrast to Heathrow’s two runways, Frankfurt has three, Paris four and Amsterdam five. Although Heathrow is full and turning away new services, all three of those competitors have at least 20 per cent. spare capacity, which provides them with resilience and allows them to grow.

In principle, the Government are in favour of a third runway, but our support—I hope the hon. Gentleman is reassured—depends on achieving a noise limit such that there would be no increase in the size of the area significantly affected by aircraft noise as measured by the 2002 57 dBA Leq noise contour. It also depends on establishing air quality limits, so that we can be confident of meeting European air quality limits around the airport, and on improving public transport to the airport. The hon. Gentleman has shown concern about those issues.

I mentioned that Paris has twice relocated its main airport in the past 30 years—obviously, relocation is an element of this issue—but one of the chief concerns of many residents of the Heathrow area is night flights. I totally appreciate, for the reasons I set out, that given the increasing power of India and China and countries in south-east Asia, there will be ever more demand for flights to come in at three, four or five o’clock in the morning. We need to encourage that, but I cannot understand how we could do so with Heathrow as it is today or how it will be in future. That is one of the reasons why I am in favour of building an airport on the coast, so that we can cater for the flights that I mentioned, without disrupting the sleep of many millions of our fellow citizens.

I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of ensuring that those who live around the airport can get a decent night’s sleep. Again, that is one reason why a third runway would be important in ensuring that the increased demand can be met, while not having to encroach on any of the night time activities.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his constituents in Sipson, Harmondsworth and Stanwell Moor—

I should mention that Sipson and Harmondsworth are in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and Stanwell Moor is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I just wanted to make the point that I have visited those areas around the airport on foot and have seen with my own eyes some of the concerns and some of the beauty and charm that those areas retain, particularly for people who have lived there for many generations.

I hope that it will give the hon. Gentleman some comfort to know that there will be the opportunity for the nice communities that he visited to respond the consultation and for the comments that I am sure that he will wish to make during the consultation to be taken into account as well.

The consultation also invites views on the introduction of mixed-mode operations as an interim measure ahead of a new runway, subject to the same local conditions as a third runway. Depending on the consultation’s outcome, it will be for the airport operator to obtain the necessary consents in accordance with applicable planning rules and relevant statutory and other criteria. Final policy decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow will be taken at the earliest in summer 2008, in light of the results of the consultation.

This is not papering over the cracks. Our airports strategy is long term, looking ahead to the next 20 years or more, and I am confident that, with the significant investment going into Heathrow over the next few years and the proposals set out in the consultation on adding capacity at Heathrow, we can deliver a sustainable, customer-focused programme for Heathrow that supports a growing UK economy.