The Government consulted on an option for a new airport in north Kent in preparing the 2003 “Future of Air Transport” White Paper. As the White Paper makes clear, that option and other proposals for a new airport in the Thames estuary were rejected in favour of supporting development at existing airports in the south-east of England. That remains the Government’s position.
Has the Secretary of State considered the effects of airport expansion, or of the building of new airports, on wildlife, birds and the wider environment? What guarantees can he give that the country’s rich biodiversity will be protected? Will he undertake to consult the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds before conducting further airport expansion in our country?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, because one of the main reasons why the Mayor of London’s proposals are not practical is that building an estuarial airport in places of ecological sensitivity, which have large seabird populations, is not practical, because of both the impact on the environment and the risk of bird strike—a phenomenon not unknown to those who operate aircraft. Perhaps surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with the hon. Gentleman, and I trust that he will communicate his views firmly to the Mayor of London.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his recent appointment as Transport Secretary, and I look forward to him dealing effectively but resolutely with all issues, particularly the need to secure more aviation capacity in the south-east. Does he agree that the problem is not just the local environmental impact of a potential new airport in the Thames estuary, but the lack of a substantial work force locally? Is it not fantasy politics to suggest that a Thames estuary airport could ever obviate the need for a third runway at Heathrow?
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work completed by my right hon. Friend during her service in the Department for Transport. She was well respected within the Department and across the transport industry. I am grateful for her comments, not least because she displays a knowledge and understanding of the issues, which I hope in time to acquire, and which certainly far outstrips the rather feeble views set out so far by Opposition Front Benchers on such questions. Clearly they lack any consistent support from their Back Benchers, as we have seen recently. It is disappointing that they have not paid attention to the voice of British business on a question as vital as the future of the United Kingdom’s major airport. I hope that there is some principled reason for their position, but I suspect that there may not be.
The Secretary of State may be a little complacent in his duties if he says that it would be perfectly proper to consult the RSPB about an estuarial airport. The United Kingdom is likely to need a 24-hour airport in the future, and historically, demand for air travel has grown constantly. If the Government did not keep the options under review they would not be doing their duty, and they should not dismiss the suggestions of the Mayor of London so lightly.
In preparation for the 2003 White Paper, some 400 different possible sites were examined. Other than the existing airports, one was examined in greater detail, and even that was rejected on grounds of feasibility, cost and practicality. It cannot therefore be said that the Government have not looked in detail at the options. The hon. Gentleman is right, however, to say that it is always necessary to keep such issues under review. Given that a major undertaking involving the consideration of 400 possible sites was carried out very recently, I hope that he accepts—fair man that he is—that there is not much point in reviewing the whole issue again so soon.
If they have not considered it, they have not considered the matter carefully. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important to consider the 100,000 jobs provided by Heathrow in the surrounding area, the impact on British business, and the impact on overseas investment: 70 per cent. of companies that invest for the first time in the United Kingdom do so in places less than an hour from Heathrow. All those are major considerations. If the Opposition’s position rests somehow on an environmental case, they need to face up to the fact that the great majority of people travelling into Heathrow, who catch long-distance flights, would transfer their journeys to continental airports such as Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt. There would be no saving of carbon, but instead—[Interruption.] Opposition Front Benchers are laughing, but this is not a laughing matter as far as British jobs are concerned. British jobs would be exported to the continent, which is a remarkable result for a party that is supposed to be anti-European.