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Airport Expansion (Parliamentary Approval)

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Planning Act 2008 to require parliamentary approval for proposals for the building of new major airports and additional runways at existing major airports; and for connected purposes.

The purpose of the Bill is to allow this House, through an amendment to the Planning Act 2008, a vote—the final say—on any new major airport in England or any new runway at a major airport in England. There are three characteristics to this Bill: it is motivated by concern about climate change; it is motivated by concern about the democratic deficit and for the rights of this House, as balanced against the authority of the Executive; and it is genuinely cross-party.

I just wish to mention the timing. My introducing this ten-minute Bill has partly been triggered by proposals for a third runway at Heathrow and the Government’s decision not to allow a full debate in Government time with a vote that will matter so that this House can exercise its genuine opinion.

However, the Bill is about far more than that. Hon. Members will know that an additional runway is proposed for Stansted airport—that issue is being addressed in the High Court today. The constraints on an additional runway at Gatwick expire in 2019, and Hochtief, one of a number of bidders for Gatwick airport, which is up for sale, has expressed its interest—other bidders probably have, too—in an additional runway at Gatwick. The Mayor of London has proposed a new estuary airport which, from the current discussion, would involve four additional runways, in addition to Heathrow, and the potential for expansion to six runways—those would be operated 24 hours a day. In addition, a number of regional airports up and down the country have proposed an expansion of their capacity—the airports at Manchester, Bristol, Bournemouth and Birmingham all have various plans to add various amounts of capacity.

When Heathrow was debated on 28 January, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change told us that it was an issue about “half” a runway. I suggest that he was being disingenuous, because this is a far broader issue. We are facing one of the biggest expansion plans for aviation capacity ever considered in this country, and we are doing so exactly when climate change is supposed to be somewhere near to the top, or at the top, of our agenda.

May I say a word or two about climate change? This House is overwhelmingly convinced of the importance of climate change as an issue—there may be one or two hold-outs, but in every region, and across every party, this is a major issue of concern. The House has also accepted that we have only an extremely limited time in which to act. Virtually every report that we receive—whether it is on the disappearance of Arctic sea ice, the rate of melting of inland ice in Greenland or the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted—suggests that the past scenarios have woefully understated the problem and that the urgency is far greater than we thought.

As for the consequences of climate change, we have seen a little of the impact of extreme weather conditions in the UK and the rest of the developed world, but we know that the impact on Africa and the developing world will be far more extreme. The potential for conflict across the globe grows, as climate change leads to issues of disappearance and allocation of resources.

The House has accepted that aviation is a significant contributor to climate change. At the moment, some 13 per cent. of the UK’s contribution to climate change emissions comes from aviation, including some 6 per cent. of the UK’s CO2 emissions. We know that that figure will rise to 25 per cent. by 2038 unless we drastically change the direction of policy. Given the role that aviation plays in climate change, are we really saying that we will never again allow Members of Parliament to have a vote on such a significant issue? In effect, that is where Government legislation has left us.

We talk about the democratic deficit, but the Government say, “Don’t worry. We will require that aviation brings CO2 emissions back to 2005 levels by 2050.” But the question is how that will be achieved. The technologies do not exist and the science is not in place, never mind the investment. The Government have also said that aviation is a special case. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has said:

“We must all accept the principle that aviation will not bear as big a burden as other sectors in the economy.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 404.]

Must we really accept that without knowing the impact on other industries, on our regions, and on jobs in our constituencies? Indeed, must we accept that without a vote? On an issue that is crucial to the future of our country and our planet, and when every strategy is untried and uncertain, what are we doing giving up our right, and the right of this House, to decide?

This is a genuinely cross-party Bill. In fact, it is a Back Benchers’ Bill. It has three Labour sponsors, three Conservative sponsors, a Plaid Cymru sponsor and four Liberal Democrat sponsors. If I were able to add more sponsors, the list would continue to reflect the make-up of this House very directly.

I carefully read the speeches made on 28 January in the debate on Heathrow introduced by the Conservatives. Fairly or unfairly, some Labour Members could not bring themselves to vote for an Opposition motion. This Bill is not an Opposition motion, so that inhibition disappears. Some Labour Members thought that the 28 January motion was not clear enough, even though it was based on the early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan). The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) said:

“I will go home because there is no motion for Members of Parliament like me who want to halt the expansion of aviation”.—[Official Report, 28 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 388.]

That does not apply to this Bill. Indeed, I suspect that Members who favour airport expansion but care about the rights of this House can see a way to support this Bill, because it is about the democratic deficit as much as it is about climate change and aviation.

There are times when we have to delegate our responsibilities, but when we are facing the biggest challenge of our lifetime, when our knowledge is so uncertain, and when the cost of a wrong decision is so high, we cannot say, “Oh, the Climate Change Committee will decide.” We cannot say, “The Infrastructure Planning Commission will decide.” We cannot even say that the Government should decide, unchallenged and unchallengeable by any vote. Our constituents expect us to shoulder crucial responsibilities, and on that basis, I ask hon. Members to support this Bill.

Like the majority of my constituents who live along the boundary fence at Heathrow, and like my local borough council, I support the building of another runway at Heathrow. However, as you will rightly remind me if I carry on in this vein, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is not yet another debate about Heathrow, so I shall avoid that subject for the moment; there will be plenty more opportunities.

I oppose the Bill for four reasons. First, I want to ask people to consider whether it is really necessary. For heaven’s sake, we have already had two debates and two votes recently on the questions of aviation and building new runways. How many more do we want?

The second reason why I ask the House not to support the Bill is that it refers only to airports. I would go along with the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) in that I, too, think that successive Governments have undermined the power of Parliament and I believe that it is right and proper for us to debate whether Parliament should take back some of its power. The time has come for that debate. However, that is a general matter, which we should discuss in the overall pattern of things rather than simply picking on airports. Do I really need to remind the House that going after special issues and using them to make general law results in a dog’s breakfast? The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 proves the point only too well—to go after one subject and end up with a general law does damage. I would use that argument about why it is wrong simply to pick on airports, even though I support the principle of more power for Parliament.

The third reason why I invite people not to support the Bill is that, as the motion is worded, it is about major airports and the extension of runways at major airports. It states that we have to have a vote if the Government want to build or to expand a major airport. Why pick on major airports? If more flying and more runways are wrong, surely we should include all airports? If we leave out minor airports, the principle of the Bill is undermined. Let us just suppose that instead of having a debate about a third runway at Heathrow, which is undeniably a major airport, we suddenly had a debate about a second runway at Northolt, which is a minor airport and would not be covered by the Bill? Another runway at Northolt would in fact be a third runway at Heathrow, so the Bill as it stands is not sensible.

The fourth reason why I think that the House should not contemplate such a Bill is that we should reflect, just for a moment, on the consequences should the Bill become an Act. If we introduced yet another debate, yet another vote and yet another procedure into the system, we would simply have even more delay in our planning process. It would make it even harder for British airports to respond to foreign competition, and there is enough of that at the moment. We are already suffering from foreign airports’ taking business away from us. That is dangerous.

The second consequence would be that that delay would fatally undermine the fact that the United Kingdom has Europe’s No. 1 hub airport at Heathrow. We would damage Heathrow beyond repair if we allowed that to happen. If that were to happen, the next consequence would be serious damage to the national economy. I doubt that anybody in the House wants to vote for a Bill that would make matters worse for the national economy. Over and above those consequences—I refer to the people who sent me to this House—would be massive unemployment in my constituency. I was not sent here to support that or to vote for it.

The hon. Lady spoke about global warming and climate change. If the Bill became an Act, it would do nothing to help the local environment. All it would do is divert flying to some other airport somewhere else. We would achieve nothing except shooting ourselves in the foot as far as the economy is concerned.

As I have said, I support the principle of more power for Parliament, but the Bill is not the way to do it. All the Bill would do, if it became an Act, is deepen and lengthen the economic crisis that is facing this country and cause even more financial suffering for my constituents and everyone who lives around Heathrow airport.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).


That Susan Kramer, John McDonnell, Mr. John Randall, Adam Price, Norman Baker, Mr. John Grogan, Justine Greening, Mr. Edward Davey, Martin Salter, Adam Afriyie, Dr. Vincent Cable and Sarah Teather present the Bill.

Susan Kramer accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 March, and to be printed (Bill 63).