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Heathrow Airport

Volume 477: debated on Friday 13 June 2008

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

I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to raise a subject that is dear to many of my constituents’ hearts and, indeed, to those of many others, not just in the vicinity of Heathrow, who are concerned about the inexorable rise in aviation.

In stark contrast to the Chamber this Friday afternoon, on Saturday 31 May, just under two weeks ago, thousands of people assembled in Sipson, just outside my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). The event was attended by many different people, including Members of Parliament such as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), and the hon. Members for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) and for Twickenham (Dr. Cable). The mix of people was very interesting, as it included environmental campaigners from all over the country and from elsewhere in Europe such as France and Spain, and great numbers of people from the local area—local residents who, rather like myself, would not normally go out on demonstrations. That does not come naturally to me, but I have to say that over the last 11 or so years, I have unfortunately found myself having to participate in such demonstrations.

The principal purposes of all those people in Sipson were to say no to further expansion at Heathrow and to save their communities. People who were not familiar with the local area and had come from elsewhere were actually surprised to see what the area was like. I think that a lot of people did not realise that those villages—we refer to them locally as the Heathrow villages—are just that. They are communities with homes, and a few shops and pubs. We are talking about the complete destruction of one such village and the near ruination of several others. The point has suddenly been raised, although some of us knew about it quite early on, that expansion will involve the potential destruction of cemeteries, particularly the Cherry Lane cemetery. Naturally enough, there is a great deal of opposition to that. It is not the third runway or the sixth terminal itself that would cause the destruction, but the road infrastructure that would be put in place.

We have discussed and debated the subject many times, and we will continue to do so. I am delighted to see that the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) are present on the Labour Benches. We are still supporters of Heathrow. We are not opposed to it; we very much support what goes on there, but during this latest part of the saga of expansion at Heathrow, many people, including us, have increasingly come to believe that enough is enough. The planned expansion is just too much for various reasons. I will not necessarily go over the whole lot of them; we have only a brief time for this debate. That is one thing that has changed.

It may not be incumbent on me to speak for the unions involved with the airport, but having spoken to them, I know that although in the past they have been thoroughly supportive of expansion for obvious reasons—they think that it will bring jobs—they are now divided on it. Many members of the unions and people who work at the airport live locally, so they understand that we are not talking about expansion by only a third runway or a sixth terminal. In fact, as I have mentioned several times in the House, we are talking about a development the size of Gatwick, so it is like having a second airport slapped on the side of Heathrow. A lot of people who do not live nearby might think that what we are complaining about is an extra bit of tarmac, and will say, “What is the problem with that?”, but it is not an extra bit of tarmac. It is an incredible development that will affect and ruin many people’s lives.

As I have said, the proposals have generated unprecedented opposition. There has been a consultation, and I believe that 70,000 people responded. I still have some arguments to make about who was told about the consultation and how to take part in it, but that has finished and I will not revisit the issue, mainly because, as I will say, some factors are still changing, and we should consider revisiting some of the issues.

I would like to hear the views of the Minister on one point that I find slightly surprising. I have repeatedly heard, both in the Chamber and outside it, that, as he put it in a letter that he wrote to me on 12 May, the Government would not allow any development at Heathrow if it was not the case that

“the strict local conditions could be met, including limits on noise and local air quality.”

It has always been in the back of our mind that those who live very close to Heathrow, and many others, will say that it will be almost impossible to meet those conditions. We thought that as long as that was the case, it was unlikely that expansion would take place.

I and many others were therefore surprised to hear that the Government have apparently applied for a derogation on air quality limits in London. That, to me and to many others, seems a strange decision. In other words, the Government are saying, “We want to move the goalposts.” I look forward to the Minister perhaps telling me that that is not the case and that I am giving too much credence to conspiracy theories, but there is a great worry that although limits have been set and they are supposed to be introduced, the Government could just come along and say, “Can we please exclude London from this?” Many of us would say that that would be designed not really to exclude the whole of London, but just to enable the Heathrow development to go ahead.

Another recent development—which has come at a useful time, if we can say such a thing—is the downturn in the economy. Whereas demand for aviation has for a long time been increasing, we have now hit a period when businesses and the general consumer are seriously worried about economic conditions and demand may be decreasing. Although economic downturns are, of course, unfortunate, it is a fact of life that they come along from time to time. We should look into this development. Because of modern technology, I think that businesses in particular will be less inclined to send their executives on long flights. One message that comes through increasingly loudly is the desire for better rail links both within the UK and to near-continental Europe. That would mean that the frequency of many flights, certainly within our country and also to places such as Paris and Brussels, could be reduced.

I do not hear people saying that they cannot get a flight because there is not enough capacity, but what I do hear people saying is that flying in and out of Heathrow is no longer a pleasant experience. That may be partly—if not greatly—to do with how the airport is currently being run. If BAA plc could get its act together, people might be less likely to criticise Heathrow because their experiences would be better. This is a Friday afternoon in the Chamber, and we do not have the 3,000 or more people who were present in Sipson and the atmosphere is not fevered, so I will try to be as calm as possible about this, but the fiasco over the opening of terminal 5 showed why a lot of people worry about the current management. Also, increasingly, economic commentators and people who are respected in the field are querying the need for expansion. Bob Ayling certainly knows about aviation, and he has said there is no need for it.

I would like these matters to be addressed while the Government are looking at the consultation and deciding their policy. I would also like briefly to mention my concerns—which I know are shared in all parts of the House—about the current measures proposed in the Planning Bill. There is a worry that some of them, which seem a little draconian to say the least, are being put in place with Heathrow in mind.

We are all waiting for the Government’s decision, and I wonder whether the Minister can say when he expects they might come to some idea about how they will proceed. I am sure he will give the usual sort of answer—such as later in the year, or towards the end of the year, or early in the new year—but it does seem to be moving further away. Such a delay would, of course, be a concern for people who live nearby whose houses are blighted and who do not know what they will do if expansion goes ahead, but I think the longer this goes on the more the Government realise that they will have to rethink the whole idea, so although in some respects I want an answer sooner rather than later, I also think the argument is going the way of those who object to these plans.

Finally, the other day we debated on Second Reading the Climate Change Bill, which the Government can be congratulated on introducing. However, I and many other people around the country wonder why on earth, if the Government are really committed to doing something about climate change, they are also going to encourage an increase in harmful emissions. Regardless of trade-offs and so forth, it is undeniable that there would be an increase in harmful emissions.

On behalf of many of us in all parts of the House, and my neighbours in Hillingdon borough, Hounslow, Ealing and elsewhere, I want to remind the Minister that we are not going to go away on this. He will be brought to the Dispatch Box again, if we are lucky enough to do well in various ballots and so forth, because this is probably the most important issue for many of our constituents.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this debate. I do not for one second believe that he or the campaign on this issue are going to go away. I am pleased that he acknowledged the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen). They, like him and many others, have lobbied hard on their constituents’ behalf on this matter, and I am sure that that lobbying will continue.

Certain issues will continue to be resolved and pressed, and until we make an announcement on the outcome of the consultation, and, if that is for approval, the planning applications come through, there is a long way to go. So I do not for one second have anything other than respect for the campaigning and lobbying that all hon. Members are doing on their constituents’ behalf, because that is the fundamental bread and butter of politics. I am happy to be here today to respond to the debate, and I anticipate that there will be many other occasions when we will do the same for the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friends and others who will try to bid for the very valuable time of this Chamber, Westminster Hall and elsewhere.

The future of Heathrow obviously has very real consequences for those living around the airport, as we have heard, but we must also see this in the context of the wider UK, its citizens and our economy. Although on previous occasions, both in this place and elsewhere, there has been a good deal of exchange on the substance of the issues, I am grateful to have the opportunity to report on progress since we published our consultation document last November.

By any standards, the consultation was a major democratic exercise. Summary documents were mailed to more than 217,000 households, we ran a website and a call centre, we advertised extensively in local and national media, and we ran public exhibitions around the airport and in central London. I am pleased to confirm that this has led to more than 65,000 responses to the consultation from every corner of the country and overseas, and from local residents and residents associations, churches and charities, public sector organisations, representative bodies, political representatives and businesses.

The 14-week consultation concluded at the end of February. As I said, more than 65,000 responses were received and our officials are now managing their analysis, which is being undertaken by independent experts outside the Department. They are preparing an in-depth report, which has involved coding each and every response received, so that the key messages can be drawn out and presented to the Department. The report will of course be published alongside our final decisions on Heathrow.

The report will focus on the key questions listed in the consultation materials. However, people were of course free to comment more widely, and many have chosen to do so. Those wider views will also be fully taken into account. To provide added assurance to the analysis process, we have also instigated an independent peer review to ensure robustness at every stage. The peer review’s report will also be published alongside final decisions.

Members will appreciate that analysis of the responses is not a quick process. Officials will use the report of the consultation to prepare advice for ministerial decisions on the consultation issues. I remind colleagues that the final decisions will draw on all the available evidence, so that the right decisions are reached. Hon. Members will appreciate that until that analysis has been completed it would be premature for me to comment on the outcome and the nature of any decisions. What I can say is that we are keen to reach decisions as soon as possible—we hope that that will be later this year—so as to end the period of uncertainty. Following that, if policy support is confirmed for some or all of the proposals, it would be for the airport operator to undertake the further detailed work necessary to prepare for the planning process.

I turn to the local impacts of Heathrow. I have made it clear that we recognise that Heathrow expansion will have very real impacts on those living around the airport and further afield. The hon. Gentleman specifically asked me to comment on Cherry lane cemetery, and I can tell him that BAA plc has confirmed that roads for a third runway would not go through the cemetery and residents will continue to have access. It is completely wrong to say that graves would be destroyed. Planning work carried out by BAA has been deliberately designed to avoid the cemetery. If a new runway goes ahead, BAA does not envisage any disruption to Cherry lane cemetery beyond the possibility of temporary road works on existing roads.

As I was saying in respect of the local issues, none of our ambitions at Heathrow can be realised unless we meet the strict local environmental conditions on noise, air quality and transport access set out in the 2003 White Paper. The “Adding capacity at Heathrow airport” consultation, which was launched last November and closed in February, met the commitment to consult on options for meeting those tests. We presented our evidence, and invited scrutiny and comment from all interested parties. It is our continued belief that the three core tests strike the right balance between the competing interests relating to expansion. This is absolutely not “expansion at all costs”.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of the air quality directive and the Government’s seeking a derogation. The Government remain committed to meeting their obligations on air quality under the European Union directives. The national air quality strategy, which was published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2007, made it clear that the relevant limits for pollutants may not be achieved within the original 2010 time frame in some major urban areas in the UK and alongside busy roads. That would be the case with or without expansion at Heathrow. Subject to a full public consultation, the Government will therefore likely need to apply to the European Commission to take advantage of the flexibility provided under the new directive for extended compliance deadlines on nitrogen dioxide. This is not just an issue for the UK; other member states are also expected to apply for extended compliance deadlines, so we are talking about moving the deadlines somewhat and not about a complete derogation.

The hon. Gentleman also raised again the issue of alternative housing in the event of a third runway. In our Adjournment debate in December, I explained the statutory position, as well as BAA’s voluntary schemes to help guarantee the market value of freehold properties until such time as any planning permission has been announced and compulsory purchase procedures triggered. I understand that following recent exchanges on the Planning Bill—the hon. Gentleman mentioned those—my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has written to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) confirming that there are a number of organisations that provide assistance to communities affected by planning matters. Planning Aid, for example, has recently had its grant funding nearly doubled, from £1.7 million to £3.2 million in the current year, to help individuals and community groups engage in the planning process. Its activities would be expected to include providing advice to people whose property is subject to a compulsory purchase order.

I also spoke last time about the position as regards leaseholders and tenants, and those in social housing. I have to say there is no grand plan to relocate entire communities. Clearly, some people will wish to remain in the area, and I appreciate the pressures that already exist on the available housing supply. That is something that will need careful handling and management. We would expect BAA to play its part in helping to find an acceptable way forward, in particular, by working with the local authorities to address the issue of displaced social housing tenants.

Moving on for a moment from the local issues to the Government’s global environmental responsibilities, I wish to refute the suggestion made by some that our policy is incompatible with the Government’s commitments on climate change. We have a comprehensive approach for addressing the climate change impacts of aviation. This includes the use of economic instruments and measures to develop more efficient aircraft technologies, to make operations more effective and, crucially, to bring aviation within the European Union emissions trading scheme. By bringing aviation into the EU scheme, its emissions will be capped at 2004-06 levels. The aviation industry would then have to either mitigate within the sector or pay other sectors for any additional emissions it required.

These are all incredibly important issues, but in conclusion I remind the House that the consultation did not ask whether people supported a third runway because we had already announced in 2003 our support in principle for expansion, subject to local environmental conditions being met. This consultation has not re-opened the issue of a third runway from first principles. Rather it has presented the evidence on which the Government now believe, on the basis of extensive further work, that those conditions can be met, and asked for views from people and organisations.

Will the Minister also acknowledge that the consultation mentioned the third runway but did not mention a sixth terminal?

I acknowledge that that was the case. The documentation is public, and comments have been received from many thousands of people on all aspects of it. As I have said, some people have also made comments on issues that were not in the consultation document because they took the opportunity to express their views on Heathrow and Government policy on aviation. We will publish the responses in due course, as we do with every consultation.

Heathrow’s future is not an issue that we can put off any more. Delay—in every sense—has affected Heathrow for too long. We are committed to making the right decisions, based on clear evidence, sound scientific research and a full understanding of the costs and benefits, which reflect full consideration of the very large number of consultation responses that we have received, including of course from those most directly affected.

I know that my response will not satisfy the hon. Gentleman or many of his constituents, or my hon. Friends and their constituents, but I can assure them that we will announce any decisions as soon as possible and we fully expect the dialogue to continue until, and even after, those decisions are made.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Three o’clock.