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Stansted Airport

Volume 575: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2014

I am pleased to have secured this debate on an important issue that cuts to the heart of growth and success in our country. Stansted airport began life as a United States air force base during world war two. More than 600 planes took off from that air strip on their historic journey to the French coast in the first hours of D-day in 1944. In the 70 years since then, the small air base has grown rapidly into a thriving modern airport, the fourth busiest in the United Kingdom. Last year, it served nearly 18 million passengers and flights to more than 150 destinations. Its passenger numbers are constantly increasing and are set to rise further in the coming years. Stansted is one of the infrastructure successes of our time, and that is the context in which the future of the airport must be considered. I am pleased to see the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) here. He represents the area and has taken up the issues over many years. I am also pleased to see other colleagues who have taken an interest.

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, my constituency is next door to Stansted. Does he agree that the new owners of Stansted airport have already made a huge difference to the running and management of the airport? I have huge praise for their work. Does he agree that for any expansion or development of the airport to take place, the employer should do everything possible to include local people and ensure that they get the jobs that are there?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the next few years should see Stansted continuing to grow from strength to strength. Since being sold by BAA, its prospects have been strong. The new owner, Manchester Airports Group, has committed to building and improving Stansted. He is also right about the importance of local people. He will understand that unemployment in the region around the airport is fairly low, certainly when compared with my constituency. One reason why I am pleased to co-chair the group of MPs that supports the Stansted corridor is our shared interest in growth and employment in the region, as well as in the concerns of local people.

I am pleased to back the right hon. Gentleman in his ongoing campaign on Stansted. Does he share my view that the liberation of Stansted and Gatwick from the monopoly has worked wonders for both those airports? I know more about Gatwick than Stansted. Gatwick has done things that we were told were not possible, such as opening up flights to Vietnam and Indonesia. The beneficial consequences of competition between airports should be borne in mind as we talk about the bigger issues of airport capacity. Some of my colleagues seem keen to recreate what would effectively be a large taxpayer-subsidised, foreign-owned monopoly at Heathrow.

The hon. Gentleman’s persuasive tones are seductive. He is certainly right that the nature of competition in this market has been hugely important, although I suspect that we might disagree on other points. It was important that the monopoly in the system with BAA was broken. We are seeing a flourishing as a consequence of that monopoly being ended.

It is wonderful to see so many interventions in a short debate. Because the subject is so important, I give way.

I support what the right hon. Gentleman is doing, and I congratulate him on securing the debate. To follow on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), is part of the ability to prosper as an economy that we allow regional airports—I obviously speak for Newcastle airport—to thrive, just as Stansted and Gatwick have been allowed to thrive? Does he agree that that should be the direction of travel from the Treasury and the Department for Transport?

I agree that that is one direction of travel. It has been interesting to see Newcastle airport recently open up huge new routes with huge new carriers, including flights to Dubai. That supports the hon. Gentleman’s point on regional airports.

The new owners have already signed up new airlines at Stansted, announced an £80 million redevelopment of the airport, launched a campaign to attract long-haul carriers to Stansted and signed deals that will add more than 11 million passengers in the next 10 years. That underlines all that has already been said. With ever increasing use and committed and forward-looking new owners, the future of Stansted looks bright.

There is no doubt that Stansted is doing well, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the Davies report has not given Stansted a fair analysis, because the analysis stops at 2030? If the Davies report had looked at runway capacity and airport capacity in the south-east until 2050, as we wanted, it might have given a different view on Stansted’s future, which is thriving.

My hon. Friend cuts to the chase. Long-term aviation strategy has been handed to the Davies commission, but it will not report until after 2015, so I do not want to stray too far into second-guessing what it might say. I am sympathetic to what my hon. Friend said, because I was somewhat surprised that the new runway at Stansted was not even included in the Davies report’s preliminary shortlist. Given the scope for development there, the predicted increases in passenger numbers and the airport’s ever-evolving success, it is surprising that that runway did not warrant further consideration as an option. I understand that that was in part due to Davies not taking into account the full passenger forecasts or the recent deals that have been signed under the new ownership at Stansted.

I am pleased that the commission, in highlighting the possible need for a new runway at Stansted by 2050, indicates that it at least accepts that the airport has long-term value. Either way, Davies has concluded that the choice over a new runway by 2030 is effectively between Heathrow and Gatwick. My priority for this debate is not what happens in 2030 or 2050, but what happens now. Regardless of what Davies eventually recommends, we have an immediate problem, which is that London urgently needs more air capacity. The prospect of any new runway is at best 15 years away, and those are 15 years that we do not have. London cannot afford to wait and should not sit by as the likes of Frankfurt, Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle surpass us and steal the benefits that accompany better connectivity.

Talking about now and the need to have increased capacity and better facilities at Stansted airport, I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to take note of the impact that an increased number of flights can have on other parts of the United Kingdom. For example, that can increase the number of flights to Belfast City airport and Belfast International airport. That increases competition and drives down prices, and that can encourage more people to take up air travel. We can feel the dividends of what happens to Stansted in Belfast if it is done correctly.

I am grateful to hear that, as will be my many Irish constituents.

Last year, Germany overtook the UK on new investments, which is hardly surprising when it has many more connections to developing markets in China, India and Latin America. Heathrow has nearly half as many flights to China as Frankfurt. In fact, London has fewer weekly flights than its European rivals to most of the emerging market economies. All that comes despite the fact that British trade increases by up to 20 times when there are direct flights to a country. That is why short-term measures are crucial if we are to prevent yet more business from being lost to our competitors.

Much more can be done in the short term to boost Stansted’s success and to alleviate pressure on London’s other airports, the core of which is urgently improving rail links to Stansted airport. Given the current state of the links, 34 million people in Stansted’s catchment area avoid the airport and catch flights elsewhere.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. He is being generous in taking interventions. I underline the importance of what he says about rail links and want to emphasise importance of high-speed coach links from places such as Oxford and elsewhere to the west and north-west of London, because the length of journeys to Stansted diminishes its ability to fulfil its undoubted regional potential.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making that important point. All these factors put unnecessary pressure on Gatwick and Heathrow, which are already operating at full capacity. In fact, Stansted is the only London airport with spare capacity. As a medium-term solution to our aviation problem, why are we not utilising the Stansted’s 50% unused capacity?

The problem is that the West Anglia main line—the main access route to Stansted—is in a dire state. It has suffered from year after year of underinvestment, and, as a result, it is slow, unreliable and inefficient. It takes 53 minutes to get to Stansted from a London rail terminal, compared with 37 minutes to Luton, 30 minutes to Gatwick and 21 minutes to Heathrow. Reliability, meanwhile, is well below the national average. The rail link is a real impediment to Stansted’s growth and future success. The Davies commission noted that in its interim report, which stated that there are substantial arguments in favour of enhancing the link, which merits urgent consideration. I want to press the Minister on that urgent consideration. Like Davies, Transport for London, Network Rail, the Government and London business groups have all voiced their support for the improvements. There is a consensus that four-tracking the line between Coppermill junction and Broxbourne is vital. I welcome that consensus, although it has been long enough in coming. We need urgent action.

Timing remains a real issue, however. It is a growing concern that the work may be delayed further and further. Network Rail has suggested that the improvements, despite being described by Davies as urgent and vital, may be pushed back into control period 6, which does not even begin for another five years. Similar delays have occurred several times already. I hope that the Minister’s response will outline concrete steps that the Government will take to improve the West Anglia main line. Following Davies stressing the need for urgency, I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government will complete the work in the shortest time possible. If he is unable to give such a response now, will he assure me that it will be included in the Government’s response to Davies’ initial report, which is due to be published this spring? I see no reason why a commitment to proceeding with the upgrades could not be included in this year’s autumn statement, with the start of enabling work being included in next month’s Budget.

London First has reported that four-tracking could be completed by 2021. That should be our aim. There is a minority view that four-tracking is unnecessary, but there are no alternatives. We need to act now. Even if we do not take anything else into account, we cannot ignore that four-tracking is a crucial prerequisite to the development of Crossrail 2. The Minister will be familiar with the undertakings given not only by the Chancellor, but by the Mayor of London to move towards Crossrail 2 over this next period.

I acknowledge the time and know that the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) wants to speak, but I want to emphasise the importance of the region to our country as a whole. The London-Cambridge corridor is an essential component of growth in a recovering economy. Cambridge is essential to the region and we need growth in this region akin to that of Boston and the eastern corridor of the United States. That cannot be achieved without a thriving airport with high-speed links to London. A York Aviation study published on Monday found £53 million-worth of journey time savings could be made by improving the quality of the line. A recent report by Oxford Economics concluded that investing in four-tracking could unlock economic benefits to the tune of £4.5 billion by 2021 and £10.7 billion by 2031. Development is also important for jobs in the region. My constituents in Tottenham rely heavily on the success of the Upper Lee valley corridor and on jobs at Stansted. West London accounts for 17% of all jobs in London, for example, and Heathrow supports 230,000 jobs.

The future of Stansted is hugely important to the UK’s whole economy. It pains me that we are still discussing upgrading the West Anglia main line. It is important that this region of London is put on the map. I have been opposed to the Mayor’s idea of Boris island, largely because of where it would leave west London’s economy and the huge loss of jobs that would be a consequence of Heathrow’s closure. Stansted is a key component of the rebalancing of London’s economy to the east and north-east, so I look forward to what the Minister has to say.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and the Minister for agreeing that I can make a small contribution to this debate. It is always interesting to hear from other colleagues about the airport that lies wholly in my constituency. It is a subject about which I have spoken in the House on many occasions over the past 36 years.

The title that the right hon. Gentleman gave this debate raised some eyebrows in my constituency and elsewhere in Essex, almost to the point where briefing was coming in on the basis that we would this afternoon be deciding the future of Stansted airport, but that is perhaps a little optimistic. The reality is accepted by my constituents, who were opposed to the development of Stansted into a major London airport. It currently has an agreed capacity of up to 35 million passengers per annum and it could go further than that on a single runway. It currently handles 7.8 million passengers per annum, so there is a long way to go.

I do not decry the importance of the subject to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but he must recognise that when he talks about job creation in my constituency, he is talking about a constituency with 1.3% unemployment. For all the jobs that will be created at the airport, even with its existing planning permission, a great many of those will be taken by people who will then want to migrate to my constituency, which is essentially a rural area that is already bearing a great burden of demand for more housing. He must understand why there are concerns about the extent to which Stansted can grow.

I want to reassure the right hon. Gentleman about the nature of my constituents, many of whom have migrated to Harlow. I am sure that, if some of them left, he would welcome them.

We have a common position on the improvement of the railway line, so that people from north London can come to find jobs in the area and commute back again conveniently.

There is resistance in my constituency to the development of Stansted beyond one runway and certainly to its becoming a hub airport, because people see the down side of what could happen. As they see it, there is little up side if development on that scale can take place. Had it been possible to say that there would be a first-class rail line as a result of the original decision to expand Stansted, that might have been seen as a benefit, but the service has got worse. I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is important for us soon to have a four-track railway on the West Anglia line.

The blame has to be shared. It starts with the Government of Mrs Thatcher, who agreed the development, but not the infrastructure. It went on through the years of the Labour Government, who wanted not only to expand Stansted, but to put more houses in the M11 corridor, yet they still did nothing about the infrastructure. Under the present Government, we are now waiting for a sign that action will be taken. In that sense, the right hon. Gentleman and I may make common cause, but please do not go away with the thought that my constituents welcome the idea that Stansted should be the hub airport with two, three or four runways. London needs a hub airport, but it does not need it in the Essex countryside.

I am pleased that we found time to squeeze in my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). Sadly, however, I suspect that I will not be able to take any interventions, so that I may answer the points made by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who I congratulate on securing the debate.

I am well aware of the right hon. Gentleman’s ambitions for improving the economic prosperity of the London-Stansted-Cambridge corridor, which includes his own constituency. I applaud his efforts. Stansted airport is clearly of central importance to those aspirations, and the Government also recognise the important role that the airport has to play in maintaining the UK’s international connectivity.

In that light, it is worth while to take a few minutes to consider the future of Stansted airport in the context of the Government’s wider aviation policy. The Government are well aware of the important contribution of aviation to the economy, but we also recognise the need to take a balanced approach. Last year, therefore, we published our aviation policy framework—a long-term strategy to enable the UK aviation sector to flourish and support economic growth, while addressing issues such as aircraft noise and carbon emissions.

The Government believe that maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to the country’s long-term international competitiveness. We appointed Sir Howard Davies to chair an independent commission to identify and recommend to Government how best to achieve that. The commission published its interim report on 17 December 2013, concluding that, while the UK remains well connected, additional capacity will be needed to support competitiveness and prosperity in the medium and longer term. The commission will undertake further detailed analysis of proposals for new runways at Gatwick and Heathrow airports. It will also examine further the Isle of Grain, or Boris island, option to reach a view before the year’s end on whether it should be considered alongside the shortlisted options.

We welcome the interim report as a major milestone for the commission. It represents a significant step forward in its work of assessing the options for meeting the UK’s future aviation needs. As I am sure Members appreciate, the Government have no intention of commenting on any of the long-term options that were, or were not, shortlisted while the Airports Commission continues its work. The Government, however, intend to respond to the commission’s short-term recommendations and will do so as soon as possible. The commission will provide its final report by the summer of 2015 for consideration by the Government and Opposition parties—whoever they may be.

I will experience first hand Stansted airport, and surface access to and from it in particular, when I visit the airport next month.

We have discussed the railways, but does my hon. Friend agree that if the airport is to be expanded, expansion of the M11 is also needed? Does he support the necessity of an extra M11 junction, in particular into Harlow, to speed up the traffic to and from the airport?

I have something to say on road connectivity, but I rather suspect that I will not get to that bit of my speech, so I will show it to my hon. Friend later if I do not reach it. In addition to rail connectivity, however, the roads in the area are important.

Stansted airport is London’s third busiest airport and the UK’s fourth busiest, but it is still only half full. The airport therefore has an important role to play in growing connections between the UK and the rest of the world, now and in the future, as noted by the Airports Commission in its interim report. Recently, we have seen a number of developments at Stansted that help the airport to fulfil its potential and to fill its spare capacity, including its acquisition by Manchester Airports Group.

At the end of the month, it will be one year since Manchester Airports Group purchased Stansted airport. I welcome the significant investment in Stansted by its new owner, which I am familiar with through Industry and Parliament Trust activity when I was in opposition. In less than 12 months, we have seen huge improvements to the terminal, as part of an £80 million investment programme. I am pleased that the airport has already committed to further investment in the infrastructure to improve all aspects of the customer journey.

In the past year, the airport has announced long-term deals with its major airlines that will see passenger numbers increase substantially over the next 10 years. This summer alone, the airport will introduce 12 new routes and a substantial increase in services to key destinations. It is excellent to see passengers benefitting from the increased competition between airports around London.

The Government are also playing their part in making the airport more accessible and attractive to passengers. For example, since 2010, the Stansted Express has benefitted from a brand new fleet of trains, the Bombardier class 379 electric multiple units, which were assembled right here in Britain. Those modern, spacious and comfortable trains now operate for all Stansted Express services—a change that has been warmly received by users.

It may be helpful if I explain that the West Anglia main line, which serves the airport, is a busy, two-track railway. It provides metro-style services for passengers within Greater London; longer distance and commuter services to towns in Essex and Cambridgeshire; and the Stansted Express airport services. Network Rail and train operators must ensure that all users are properly served. Government investment will support future growth on the route and improve reliability. The Government’s 2012 rail investment strategy confirmed an £80 million scheme to deliver three and four-tracking of the southern section of the route, including a contribution from the Mayor and Transport for London. In the longer term, I am aware of stakeholder aspirations for further capacity enhancements—an issue to which I will come shortly.

The Stansted Express service provides a frequent connection between the airport and London. During the day, services run every 15 minutes to London Liverpool Street station, thereby providing direct connections to the City of London and making Stansted an attractive airport for business travellers from around the world. Liverpool Street of course benefits from good onward connections, including links to four London underground lines and, from 2019, connections to Crossrail.

In addition, all Stansted Express services stop at Tottenham Hale station, which is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for Tottenham and is well served by the Victoria line. That is a convenient route for many airport travellers who wish to gain access to parts of north and west London. Looking to the future, east London is experiencing significant growth and, in addition to having the Olympic park and the Westfield shopping complex, Stratford is becoming a major transport interchange with connections to two underground lines.

Stansted passengers of course do not only want to travel between the airport and London. West Anglia in particular is a thriving region, and its economy is supported and enhanced by its proximity to Stansted. At present, an hourly service runs to Birmingham, providing connections to Leicester, Peterborough and Cambridge—a market that we see as extremely important and one that we wish to support. The Government are already working with Abellio Greater Anglia, Network Rail and the airport to introduce new early morning trains from Cambridge to cater for the first wave of outbound flights.

We recognise that there is a desire for more early morning and late night trains to and from Stansted. The Government are working with train operating companies and Network Rail to see whether some rail services can be made available at night or in the early morning, which is when a great many flights arrive or depart from Stansted. That of course is also the time when essential maintenance needs to be undertaken on the line, but if a solution can be found, that will benefit both the airport’s passengers and the work force.

In the interim report, the Airports Commission proposed improvements to surface access to airports. The Government set out their initial response to the recommendations in the national infrastructure plan, published in December. It included accepting the need to study possible rail improvements at Stansted airport and their interactions with other growing areas, as identified by the commission. We have instructed Network Rail fully to consider the needs of the airport as part of its Anglia route studies, currently due to report in the summer of 2015. In conclusion, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman agrees, taking all that into account, the future of Stansted airport looks very promising indeed.