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Gatwick Airport

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2008

I am absolutely delighted that I secured this debate. I believe that it is hugely important not only to Crawley residents, but also to people throughout the UK.

Aviation is one of the most successful industries in the UK. It has provided employment for a great many people and the UK is seen around the world as an industry leader. The Minister will know that Gatwick airport is wholly within my constituency. It is the busiest single-runway airport, and the seventh largest, in the world. It is a successful, award-winning airport. Some 90 airlines fly from Gatwick, taking passengers to some 230 destinations worldwide. More than 35 million people pass through the airport each year, which must make my constituency one of the most visited in the UK. My husband, Colin, has been employed at Gatwick all his working life, which is common for people in Crawley—generations of Crawley people have been committed to the airline industry. The airport provides direct employment for 25,000, and a further 12,000 to 13,000 people whose jobs are directly related to Gatwick work off-site.

The staff are fantastic. I visit the airport frequently, as a passenger to use the excellent transport interchange, and as a Member of Parliament to look at all aspects of its work. I have seen first hand how hard Gatwick staff work to ensure that the passenger experience is good. That goes for the whole organisation, from senior management through to cleaners. I would probably put the cleaners at the top at the moment—they are really good.

I believe that the staff have succeeded. They rose to the challenge posed by the need for additional security measures. The airport has employed more than 450 new airport security officers to ensure that the passenger experience remains one of the best in the country. Carriers worked with the Civil Aviation Authority to reduce the resulting congestion by bringing innovative ideas to improve check-in times. Virgin Atlantic introduced a great idea whereby passengers were allowed to check in from midday to nine o’clock on the day prior to their flight. That reduced a lot of stress and congestion at the airport. There are many initiatives—too many to mention—but people are really thinking about how to make Gatwick a better place. The immigration service continues to pose difficult challenges to those who seek to ensure that people get through Gatwick as quickly as possible, but there are good working relationships and people come up with great ideas to reduce queues.

The airport is frequently recognised for the contribution it makes. Last year, it won the Travel Bulletin award for best UK airport for the fourth consecutive year; it was voted the UK’s favourite leisure airport by British Travel Awards; and favourite British airport by readers of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph—I do not know what to say about the latter, frankly. More than 35 million people travel through Gatwick each year, so those awards are something to be proud of.

People make airports, and I wish to take this opportunity to congratulate and thank the people who work to make Gatwick such a decent place. There is an ongoing issue regarding the BAA pension. Staff and the trade union movement were concerned that those joining the company may not enjoy the same advantages as those who already work there, and they were prepared to take action. I see the fact that people are prepared to keep the issue at the forefront as positive. Also, the airport works with the trade unions on the 23 kg limit for single bags. That excellent initiative is supported not only by the trade unions, which know about the injuries sustained by people who move baggage, but by employers, who want far fewer people on sick leave because of injury and all that that involves.

There are lots of new issues at Gatwick. British Airways remains hugely important, and I hope that that remains the case. Virgin Atlantic has expanded its Gatwick operation by 20 per cent. in the past five years, and many other excellent carriers are expanding their operations. I hope that I have demonstrated that Gatwick airport is extremely important. It provides major employment opportunities and contributes hugely to the economic prosperity of my area. Gatwick not only attracts companies with interests in airport industries, but companies that need to locate near to a transport hub. That is what Gatwick brings to the business community, and the community puts Gatwick at its heart.

It is no wonder that so many of my constituents support Gatwick airport or that people in Crawley are rightly proud of it. It is acknowledged nationally that it provides one of the best travel experiences. Local people know only too well the difference that having the UK’s second largest airport locally makes to our lives. They also know that any decline of the airport would have a huge impact on them, which is why I introduced this debate.

In 2003, the Government White Paper recognised the importance of the aviation industry in the UK and, as such, was widely welcomed by the industry and beyond. Naturally, views about the environmental implications of the White Paper were strongly expressed, but they were examined closely and the paper included measures that could improve the environmental impact of aviation. A wide range of measures could be taken. In particular, the European emissions trading scheme will, I believe, create a much better platform for reducing carbon emissions from airports and the impact of aviation on our planet. New technology has a huge amount to offer. Some of the airlines at Gatwick have ordered new airliners such as the Dreamliner, which is much more efficient and easier on the planet.

With BAA, Crawley borough council has created groundbreaking environmental agreements to improve the environmental performance of the airport. That has never happened before, but it has been a huge success and it is about to be renewed. The airlines have done more. They now work to fly their aircraft differently to reduce noise and engine emissions pollution, so they have been actively engaged.

I mentioned that Gatwick is a fantastic interchange for transport of all sorts. The upgrading of the train station will benefit people who work in London and those who will arrive for the much-awaited Olympics. The Olympics will make Gatwick a very important part of the world, which is why I am keen to see it prosper.

The consultation document, “Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport”, suggested that a second runway at Gatwick is unlikely, and we must focus carefully on what will happen now. Mark Froud, the chief executive of Sussex Enterprise, said that Gatwick was “on the subs bench”, which graphically describes its position. However, it now looks like Gatwick has been shoved off the “subs bench”, and it must now define its future in a different way, which is why I am raising the matter with the Minister. It seems likely that Heathrow will meet its environmental obligations, and I therefore want to ensure that Gatwick is not forgotten in those debates.

Opinion was very much divided on whether expansion was a good idea; my constituency was split 50:50. However, opinion is certainly not divided on how well Gatwick would do with a single runway.

Does the hon. Lady agree that, taking all the constituencies and residents in the areas surrounding the airport, opinion was hardly 50:50 on resistance to a second runway? In fact, it was a great relief that the second runway was apparently rejected.

I do not presume to speak for other constituencies; I speak only for mine. I undertook a huge survey there, and the result was 50:50.

We are committed to the ongoing success of Gatwick airport; we want to ensure that it continues to be successful. As it is no longer earmarked for expansion, many issues need to be raised with the Minister in order to ensure a place at the table on future discussions; we want to be part of the family of UK airports and to play our role, stepping up to the mark so that we can meet future challenges.

Maximising use of the single runway and increasing passenger numbers to 40 million is the goal. I want to ensure that we are lucky enough—perhaps not lucky; Gatwick has earned the investment of others—to ensure that Gatwick airport does not pay for expansion elsewhere. I ask the Minister to say a few words about that; it is very important that we do not find ourselves being used as a cash cow to pay for investment at other airports, and I know that many people from around Gatwick would feel most uncomfortable were that to happen.

The 2003 White Paper considered all UK airports. I ask merely that that debate continues on all airports, and that Gatwick has a seat at the table. I also want to ensure that Gatwick is not compromised by developments elsewhere. The much awaited T5 will open shortly at Heathrow, and redevelopment will continue there. Everyone accepts that it is desperately needed, as it is the UK’s first and largest airport. However, I want to ensure that Gatwick remains viable while that work progresses. We can see that it will be a challenge for Gatwick, but we need to tackle the challenges head on, and deal with them. We can do that only if we are provided with a seat at the table.

Other pressures are pertinent to the debate. Large areas of land around the airport were sensibly safeguarded while the debate was going on. It was the only fair and honest way to tackle a debate in which all airports were being considered for redevelopment and for further runways. That scheme was administered by BAA. Now that the debate is settled, we need clarity on what is going to happen to that land.

A much expected and much welcomed housing scheme was sadly put on hold and then lost to us because of the airport debate. I fully supported that action—it would have been utterly unfair to have left Gatwick out of the debate—but we need clarity about when we can move on. Much of that land still needs to be safeguarded in order to protect the environment for those who live in the area, but some of the land will provide much needed affordable housing for those many constituents who have no other opportunity for housing. It is now clearly off the agenda, and we want to get many of those issues settled as soon as possible.

I believe that Gatwick airport is the life-blood of the Gatwick diamond area. It gives us a quality of life that many people would never have achieved because of the quality of the jobs and opportunities that it offers. Of course it also brings challenges, but I believe that those challenges are worth facing. We should tackle them in a way that allows our airport to thrive and prosper but that also allows us to deal with environmental concerns. Gatwick is an important player in the UK’s aviation industry—and it wants to remain one.

I begin by apologising on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), who is absent today. As Minister with responsibility for aviation he should be responding to this debate. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) does not mind that while he is away on official duty I have been taken off the subs’ bench.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on the future of Gatwick. I pay tribute to the work that she continues to do on behalf of her constituents, particularly with regard to the airport. Earlier in my period of office, I had responsibility for the railways, and she was one of the first to knock on my door to canvass support for the retention of the Gatwick Express when that franchise was redrawn—and she was very successful. If someone were to ask me the name of her constituency, I would have to think twice before rejecting the name Gatwick.

The Government fully recognise Gatwick’s position and importance as a significant international airport and as a major contributor to the UK aviation industry and to the economy of the south-east. Gatwick airport remains the UK’s second busiest airport, the seventh busiest international airport and the busiest single-runway airport in the world. It is open all year round, 24 hours a day. It handles more than 35 million passengers and sees almost 250,000 air transport movements. About 90 airlines operate from Gatwick’s two terminals, which serve well over 200 destinations worldwide.

My hon. Friend spoke of the many people that Gatwick employs directly—about 25,000—and the 13,000 people employed indirectly, and of the airport’s impact on the local and regional economies. Her record in the House testifies to the importance that she places on Gatwick as the centre of employment in her constituency.

Gatwick is well known for serving holiday destinations around the world, particularly in the charter market, but it also supports a significant number of business passengers. It is well connected to the south-east’s motorway and strategic road networks and it has good public transport services, including a regular non-stop express rail service to London Victoria station.

Gatwick airport is a major employer in the south-east, directly providing about 25,000 jobs on site, with more being provided by associated companies and organisations away from the airport itself. As the second largest UK airport, it makes a significant contribution to the regional and national economies. The Government are keen to see that contribution continue. Indeed, our most recent passenger forecasts, published in November last year, continue to show strong demand for Gatwick. However, the Government also recognise that Gatwick has faced challenges to its future development, including the capacity limitations of its single runway during high demand periods.

Given Gatwick’s important contribution to airport capacity in the south-east, it was clear when we were preparing the 2003 air transport White Paper setting out our strategy for airport development for the next 30 years that we would need to consider options for its development as part of the process. In the lead-up to the White Paper, we therefore considered a number of new runway options at Gatwick, and we concluded that there was a strong case for a new wide-spaced runway.

However, the White Paper also concluded that a 1979 planning agreement preventing the construction of a second runway at Gatwick before 2019 should continue to be honoured. The White Paper therefore indicated that land should be safeguarded for the option for a wide-spaced second runway after 2019, in case the environmental conditions specified for a new third runway at Heathrow airport could not be met. Our policy has not changed.

As hon. Members know, the Secretary of State launched the consultation on adding capacity at Heathrow airport last November. That meets the commitment made in the White Paper to consult on proposals for adding a third runway and to explore the scope for making better use of existing runways. The consultation closes on 27 February, so there is still time for all interested parties, even those who have more specific interests in Gatwick, to respond.

In the light of the results of the consultation, we expect to be able to take final policy decisions on adding capacity at Heathrow by this summer at the very earliest. Depending on the outcome of the consultation, it will be for the airport operator to obtain the necessary consents in accordance with applicable planning rules and within relevant statutory and other criteria. However, even with the new proposals contained in the Planning Bill that is currently going through Parliament, preparing suitable planning applications and achieving planning approvals for a third runway will take several years. I know that, on this particular occasion, that will not be a surprise to my hon. Friend.

I understand the concerns of my hon. Friend about releasing land for housing; I know that this is a subject that she feels very strongly about. However, the option of a second runway at Gatwick remains a possible alternative depending on the outcome of policy and planning decisions relating to the expansion of Heathrow. We do not intend to lift the safeguarding of the land that might be used for a second runway at Gatwick before firm and final decisions on a third runway at Heathrow are taken. I do not believe that it would be prudent to do so.

For Gatwick, our forecasts for the White Paper showed that additional runway capacity would be very attractive to travellers. The option for a wide-spaced second runway at the airport would generate around double the economic benefits of an alternative close parallel runway option and it would provide additional capacity of about 40 million passengers a year, taking the airport to a total of about 83 million passengers every year. However, in examining the full picture and the wider economic benefits, the Government still concluded that they wanted to prioritise developments of new runways at Stansted and Heathrow.

In line with the White Paper, Gatwick’s operator, BAA, published a master plan for the airport in October 2006. That outlined plans for maximising use of the existing runway and identified land for a possible new runway after 2019, and it also outlined plans for enhancements to the existing terminal facilities. Developments since the master plan have included the opening in 2005 of the impressive north terminal pier 6 air passenger bridge, which is a major engineering achievement and the world’s largest passenger bridge at an airport. It spans an existing taxiway and cuts out the need for about 50,000 short-distance coach journeys across the terminal aprons, helping to reduce the airport’s environmental impacts as well as providing greater convenience and time savings for passengers. Investment also continues to improve the airport’s facilities with a comprehensive programme of refurbishment and maintenance works, including flooring, lighting and redecoration in the two terminals, which is designed to enhance the passenger experience.

Gatwick is committed to being a good neighbour to communities around the airport and is keen to address issues such as reducing the impact of aircraft noise, managing air quality and helping to reduce traffic congestion on roads around the airport. It is working with local authorities to review its environmental management and community and economic strategies, to ensure that the local authorities support the implementation of the airport’s master plan. This will lead, later this year, to a new legal agreement with local authorities that will set out how the commitments will be implemented and monitored. The airport operator also continues to work in partnership with local authorities and other groups and organisations on activities and projects ranging across many facets of local community life.

I have already mentioned Gatwick’s excellent links to the surface transport network, but we acknowledge that there is room to improve those links even further. We are pleased, therefore, that Network Rail plans to redevelop and improve Gatwick’s railway station facilities in time for the London Olympics in 2012. Of course, we also welcome the prospect of improvements to the Gatwick Express rail service planned for later this year, when the operating franchise is integrated with the Southern franchise. The improvements will include provision of 85 refurbished rail vehicles to provide extended express services between London and Brighton.

The non-stop Gatwick Express service will not only remain fast and frequent but will continue to be geared to the needs of air passengers by providing luggage storage and multilingual onboard announcements. The Gatwick Express franchise has been very well run by National Express and its early termination, in June this year, is no reflection at all on that company. An agreement allowing early, no-fault termination was agreed between the Department for Transport and the company some time ago, and this is now being invoked to allow the implementation of improvements to the London to Brighton rail service, including for the Gatwick Express service, under the Brighton main line route utilisation strategy.

The Government have always considered that Gatwick would remain a lynchpin in the development of future airport capacity in the south-east, in recognition of its significance to the region and to the country. We reflected that in our air transport White Paper and we remain confident that Gatwick will retain its position.

In conclusion, I would like once again to thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. I would also like to agree with the comments that she has made about the trade unions’ effective working at Gatwick and I would like to join her in paying tribute to the cleaning staff at Gatwick too, because I know that they perform what is often a very undervalued and overlooked service, which is, of course, extremely important. They form part of a work force at Gatwick who have helped to bring Gatwick into the 21st century and to create first-class, world-class services at Gatwick.

I know that my hon. Friend, as the Member representing the constituency in which Gatwick resides, will not allow the importance of Gatwick to slip from the Government’s agenda. I am more than happy to pass on the comments that she has made today to my hon. Friend, the Aviation Minister.

I am sorry that your successor in that chair, Mr. Harris, has not taken the Gatwick Express to get here a little quicker. Unfortunately, the sitting is now adjourned until 1.30 pm; no, he has not come in the door. We could have started earlier, but thank you all very much.

Sitting suspended.