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Future of RAF Northolt

Volume 628: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of RAF Northolt.

I want to ask the Minister a number of substantive questions about an issue of concern to many of my constituents. What are the Ministry of Defence’s ambitions for the future of RAF Northolt? Do Ministers envisage, as their consultants scoped out, that RAF Northolt could become an alternative to London City airport, in north-west London? When will local residents have the chance to be consulted about this airport’s future? Can the Minister confirm that RAF Northolt will be brought into line with civilian safety requirements as a result of the up to £45 million-worth of runway works planned for next year? Those substantive questions are exercising the minds of many of my constituents in Harrow on the Hill and in south Harrow who are directly under the flight path into RAF Northolt.

I should say at the outset that RAF Northolt has a very proud history in the defence of our nation, and local residents feel a unique affection for it. RAF Northolt is still the Queen’s airport, and the military squadron based there has played a crucial role in many of the conflicts in which British servicemen and women continue to play an important role.

However, it is clear that the important military function is dwindling at RAF Northolt. To those who live under its flight path, it is increasingly apparent that RAF Northolt is a commercial airport in all but name, and as a result it is having a major impact on local quality of life, with an increase in noise, concerns about safety and increasing concerns about the impact on air quality of all the extra flights.

I sought this debate specifically because the Ministry of Defence is about to undertake a £45 million renovation of RAF Northolt without any consultation with my constituents under the flight path or with other local residents. They are concerned that we might be about to see yet another escalation of commercial activity at RAF Northolt by the back door.

Official documents have revealed that RAF Northolt’s capacity could be up to 50,000 commercial flights a year, and regional airlines such as Flybe have been lobbying for access to use Northolt, so local residents’ concerns are legitimate and should be properly addressed by the Ministry of Defence. This is not “scaremongering”, as the Tory leader of Hillingdon Council recently put it.

The process of commercialisation at RAF Northolt started back in 2012, when Ministers decided to raise the annual limit for the number of commercial flights to 12,000 a year. Again, there was no direct consultation with local residents and certainly not with any of my constituents in Harrow who live under the flight path just 4 miles away. The Ministry of Defence did not even consult the then Conservative Mayor of London—now the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)—who publicly opposed the plans on the grounds of air quality and traffic.

At about the same time, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a report by Ernst and Young to explore the commercial possibilities at Northolt. “Project Ark” laid out strategies to increase the number of commercial flights initially to 20,000 and ultimately to 50,000 a year, under a series of scenarios. It laid out a vision of Northolt as

“an alternative to London City Airport”

whose existing runway configuration could accommodate “small” types

“of regional jets (up to approximately 100 seats)”.

It also stated that Northolt could become

“the UK regions’ key access airport for…Heathrow.”

Perhaps the most concerning element of a linked report by Mott MacDonald involved the safety implications of expanding the number of commercial flights. Its work assessed whether Northolt would be eligible for a licence under Civil Aviation Authority regulations. Owing to a “substantial number of obstacles” on all runway approaches, it concluded that RAF Northolt “could not be licensed” by the CAA “in its current form.” Those obstacles, numbering in the hundreds, include the petrol station at the bottom of the runway, a three-storey block of flats nearby and the spire of St Mary’s church in Harrow on the Hill in my constituency.

The most serious safety flaws relate to the close proximity of Northolt’s runway to the A40 and surrounding homes and residents. Indeed, in 1996, a business jet overshot the runway and crashed through the barrier into oncoming traffic. The brutal truth, I am told, is that most aircraft accidents occur on either take-off or landing. That is why we have regulations insisting on minimum clearances between an aircraft and obstacles on the ground—so that if an aircraft does get into difficulty, it has every chance of clearing them and landing safely.

The report by Mott MacDonald stated that although some changes could be made, the permanent nature of the obstacles meant that Northolt would never be up to the safety standards required for civilian flights. It could not have been clearer in its recommendation: future expansion of commercial flights would not be allowable under CAA guidelines.

Despite the warning, commercial flights continue to operate from RAF Northolt every single day. I do not need to remind anyone of the consequences of an accident at Northolt, given the proximity of a petrol station, hundreds of homes and that major travel route, the A40. And surely I do not need to remind anyone of what happens when a public authority ignores repeated safety warnings. I want to put those safety concerns on the record and ask directly why Ministers, knowing what they have known since 2012, allow any commercial flights from RAF Northolt at all. The current Civil Aviation Authority line is basically to say that it is up to pilots to decide whether Northolt is safe. It is no wonder that the Ministry of Defence did not release either the “Project Ark” report or the Mott MacDonald report until 2015. Even now, parts remain redacted.

Now we are told that RAF Northolt will close for eight months next year for the runway to be resurfaced and safety changes to be made. Last year alone, there were more than 10,000 commercial flights, compared with just 3,800 military ones.

I apologise profusely to you, Mr Howarth, and to the Minister for not being able to stay to the end of the debate, as I have to be on the Front Bench in the main Chamber for Northern Ireland questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) talked about the history of RAF Northolt, which after all precedes and predates the existence of the RAF, but he did not mention the glorious history of the Polish squadrons there. In addition, you will know, Mr Howarth, as a former Northern Ireland Minister, about the secure transportation from RAF Northolt, not just for the Queen’s Flight but for ministerial flights. My constituents living in the Northolt area are horrified by the prospect of the skies darkening over UB5 and RAF Northolt becoming either a Heathrow hub or a “City Airport West”. Will my hon. Friend accept my assurance that my part of the world, which borders his, views the whole scheme with horror? We want to keep RAF Northolt and its history as it is.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. I know that his constituency also has concerns about the future of RAF Northolt, and why shouldn’t it? There was a substantial increase in the number of commercial flights just five years ago. Now, Government-commissioned reports suggest a big increase to 50,000 commercial flights into RAF Northolt, and up to £45 million-worth of renovation works being done to the runway. It is not hard to understand why my hon. Friend’s constituents and mine are worried about where this is all leading.

When I first asked Minsters to reveal the cost of the renovation works at RAF Northolt, they refused to do so. That was despite the MOD revealing, in EU tender documents, a contract for the runway renovation works worth up to £45 million. I am no engineering expert, but that figure looks awfully high compared with the cost of resurfacing runways at similar sized airports. One thinks of the £21 million it cost to renew the runway at Manchester airport. Even RAF Waddington is managing it for some £35 million, albeit with a runway almost twice as long and a much longer projected shelf life.

I would like to ask the Minister for clarity on what the money—up to £45 million—is actually being spent on. Thus far, the official MOD line has been that it is installing modern safety equipment at the runway ends. To be fair, that was one of the recommendations of the “Project Ark” report. Can the Minister confirm whether that relates specifically to arrestor beds, and if so, whether EMAS—engineered materials arrestor system—beds will be installed. This is an important point, because EMAS beds are a necessary precondition for accepting larger jets. If arrestor beds of any type are to be installed, can the Minister confirm that that means that the Government have accepted that RAF Northolt falls short of civilian safety standards? If that is the case, what does the Minister intend to do about the petrol station nearby, identified by “Project Ark” as a significant safety risk?

The Ministry of Defence argues that it is financially prudent to use what it terms “irreducible spare capacity” at Northolt for commercial flights. In layman’s terms that means keeping RAF personnel busy with servicing commercial flights, given the relatively small number of military flights. If the Government are to spend £45 million on renovations, how do they intend to make that money back for the taxpayer? It is one thing generating revenue from the time paid for anyway; it is quite another making a new multimillion-pound investment, in these times of austerity, in order to generate further revenue. Can the Minister confirm how much revenue 12,000 commercial flights a year generate, and whether that will be enough to recoup the £45 million investment over a period of time? If that revenue is not enough to recoup the investment, will the number of commercial flights need to increase? Or does the MOD intend to increase the number of military flights—on which grounds public investment on this scale could, in my view, be justified?

Either way, my constituents and all those living near Northolt face a detrimental impact to their living standards. Surely the Government need to come clean on their long-term intentions for the airport’s future. As I understand it, the Ministry of Defence has also argued that the runway is too short for larger commercial jets. However, the “Project Ark” report directly contradicts that view, stating that the current runway can receive 100-seater jets of the type used by commercial airlines such as Flybe. Can the Minister confirm whether the runway, post-renovation, will still be a code 3 runway with a landing distance of 1,354 metres? Or will that configuration be changed? If so, in what way? Will the Minister also acknowledge that there is a difference between transcontinental airliners, which Northolt cannot accommodate, and regional jets, which it currently can? Fifty thousand flights of 100-seater aircraft are just as noisy and detrimental to air quality as a jumbo jet.

It is clear that at every turn the Government have sought to hide what is happening at Northolt from my constituents and those of other hon. Members, by using its military status as a smokescreen. That has meant a gradual worsening of quality of life and that an important discussion about safety has been swept under the carpet. The simple fact of the matter is that Northolt is no longer, in practical terms, a military airport. The vast majority of flights there are now commercial.

If this were any other airport, it would have to go through the planning system to make the kinds of changes we have seen over the past few years and that Ministers envisage over the next 12 months. It would also have had to carry out environmental impact assessments and consideration of noise controls. Again, the “Project Ark” report, commissioned by the MOD, confirms that, but RAF Northolt is not seeing any of those assessments, because it is designated under military airport regulations, as opposed to civilian airport regulations. In these circumstances, my constituents and other nearby residents have a right to be consulted on RAF Northolt’s future, before £45 million is spent on renovations, which would seem to continue the relentless march towards a full commercial operation at the Northolt aerodrome.

If all that is not enough, it appears that major regeneration projects are at risk because of questions about the future of RAF Northolt. The Ministry of Defence objected to the proposed redevelopment of the Grange Farm estate in my constituency—a project vital for creating more good quality social housing. To be fair, the MOD commissioned specialist aeronautical assessments, to verify the proposed effect of the redevelopment on RAF Northolt’s air traffic movements. Those assessments concluded that there would be no impact, yet the MOD has not withdrawn its objection to the Grange Farm redevelopment going ahead. Why not? That is the obvious question, and my constituents and council would like to know the answer. Will the Minister agree to meet me and a deputation from my local council, to discuss that specific concern about RAF Northolt?

In conclusion, it is time for some transparency about the future of RAF Northolt. If Ministers intend to extract greater commercial revenue from commercial flights at Northolt, that is clearly within their rights under current military aircraft regulations, but they should be open about that intention, and the people most affected in the area should have a say about the airport’s future. There should be a debate, not just in this House but in the communities affected. It is not right to continue to hide behind the military status of the airport, making small changes each time that in the long term add up to a significant change to the way in which RAF Northolt operates. I ask the Minister today to recognise those genuine concerns and grant my constituents and other nearby residents a full and open consultation on the future of RAF Northolt, before the runway redevelopment works commence.

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to this important debate, Mr Howarth; I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) on securing it. I have prepared some remarks in response to where I think he would like me to go, but I will write to him in due course about a number of specific issues that he raised, if I do not cover them in my remarks today.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that transparency is very helpful. If consultations and studies are taking place, they have to go through the course of those actions before any results can come forward. Once those are there, they should absolutely be shared. I will be delighted to meet him and representatives of his council in due course, once he has taken stock of what I have to say today.

I begin, as the hon. Gentleman did, by paying tribute to those who are connected with RAF Northolt—the community around RAF Northolt, who for many years have been so supportive of the aerodrome, and the personnel of RAF Northolt. It is not just an aerodrome, but a vibrant, core military station, with over 1,800 personnel based across 33 diverse units, from all three of the armed services and wider Government. Alongside 32 (The Royal) Squadron undertaking VIP and operational command support flying, there are many other major units at the station in ground roles. An Army bomb disposal squadron, the British forces post office, the Service Prosecution Authority, an aeronautical publication and mapping centre, two RAF bands and an operational RAF regiment unit, which also encompasses the ceremonial Queen’s Colour Squadron, are all based at the aerodrome.

I turn to the aerodrome itself. As the hon. Member for Harrow West has highlighted, it is used and needed by the military every single day. It is true that for a number of decades it has been underutilised in that role. Since the 1980s, RAF Northolt has accepted up to 7,000 business aviation movements per year, but that was done under stringent terms and conditions to utilise the spare capacity. For that very reason, from 2011 to 2013 we conducted an extensive value-for-money evaluation of RAF Northolt’s future utilisation. Wide-ranging options were considered, including selling the aerodrome off as a civilian licensed airport, devising shared civilian and military usage to better maximise revenue, and retaining the aerodrome in military hands—although that would leave an irreducible spare capacity. I impress on the Chamber that those were simply options that were considered.

While the review was going on in 2012, the Ministry of Defence commissioned a series of reports under Project Ark and Project Noah. Those reports were not designed simply to open the floodgates—no pun intended—to civil movements at the station, but rather to analyse the various available options. Other evidence was also analysed. The benefit of spare military capacity at RAF Northolt’s aerodrome was ably demonstrated in 2012, when it played a vital role in the security of the London Olympics. RAF Typhoon and military helicopters were able to seamlessly deploy to the station as part of the multilayered deterrence and defence of Olympic sites. That could not have been achieved at a civilian-operated site.

The Minister describes the work that the Ministry of Defence undertook between 2011 and 2013. Does he acknowledge that it was an error not to share that assessment with local residents, and not to involve them in a full consultation process about the decisions that the Ministry was weighing up?

I am willing to meet councillors and other residents. I very much want to share the information we have, but we have to allow the Ministry of Defence to conduct its own studies in due course and share them as is deemed pertinent, as decisions and options are considered.

As I said, other evidence was analysed and the benefit of the aerodrome was demonstrated in its use during the Olympics, but military movements will always have priority at RAF Northolt. If necessary, civil business aviation movements can be fully stopped from using the station at any point. Ministers took those final decisions in the value-for-money review in 2013 and decided that the firm benefit was in retaining the aerodrome as a military aerodrome. It is still used by the military every day on vital operational tasks. We also retained the same stringent civilian operating terms and conditions, which exclude schedule airlines.

I make it clear that the whole review had nothing to do with Government options on the future of Heathrow; it was purely about the future of RAF Northolt. Our decision means that the aerodrome, although vital, will remain underutilised by the military for a large proportion of the time, but also that it has capacity to accept military contingency requirements that displace civil movements whenever required for the national benefit.

The review seeks to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used properly, so we still need value for money from that spare capacity when the military are not using the aerodrome. Further consideration was given to one “Project Ark” option that had the potential to increase civil use of the military aerodrome to up to 20,000 movements, to generate additional revenue from the underutilised spare capacity. That, in turn, would benefit taxpayers by offsetting the costs to the taxpaying public of the station’s military operation. However, Ministers took the final decision to increase the self-imposed cap on civil movements to only 12,000 movements per year. That was implemented in April 2013, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I firmly assure hon. Members that there are no plans to revisit that decision.

Following the review decision, the “Project Ark” report and other review documents were archived and the project’s other options remained hypothetical. I assure the hon. Gentleman and residents of the area that no current active planning is looking at any further changes to that 2013 decision about the cap or the operating terms and conditions. The unchanged, stringent terms and conditions that have been in place for civil movements for many years mean that in future we will not attract any aircraft larger than those that we have accepted for decades.

It was against these terms and conditions, which were reaffirmed in 2013, that Flybe made an unsolicited bid in 2015. No meetings about RAF Northolt have been held with any commercial airlines, but in late 2015 and early 2016, Ministers corresponded twice with the chief executive of Flybe to inform him that his bid was not being considered further.

The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no public consultation. In 2013, the decision was for a relatively modest increase; the terms and conditions of use remained unchanged, as I have stressed, and the existing infrastructure had the spare capacity to absorb the increase. No formal regulatory action was therefore required in any form, but the station did undertake extensive community engagement to keep residents informed once the decision had been taken. I will be delighted to continue that process, as the hon. Gentleman requests.

On the aviation regulatory and safety structure, the Military Aviation Authority is the single independent regulatory body for all defence aviation activity, and regulates Government aerodromes. The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for the safety regulation oversight of civil aviation activity at Government aerodromes and sets out the requirements for civil operators that wish to use them. The robust oversight relationship between both regulators is formalised in a memorandum of understanding that demonstrates constant dialogue and joint audit and assurance activity where appropriate.

There is close stakeholder engagement with the CAA on changes related to air safety that may have an impact on civil aviation operations at RAF Northolt and on the oversight of published aeronautical information pertaining to it. The memorandum of understanding is reviewed annually to ensure that the MAA and the CAA continue to employ robust oversight and assurance of civil aviation activity at all Government aerodromes.

The runway resurfacing project at RAF Northolt aims to make improvements as required to upgrade existing military runway end safety features and extend the life of the main runway pavement to between 10 and 15 years. This planned life cycle replacement works in line with the safety cases for the military aircraft that operate from the station. I repeat firmly that the aim is not to accept bigger commercial aircraft, but to ensure that the runway has the strength to accept the larger military aircraft that may be required to visit the station in future. Alongside the BAe 146 military airframes based there, a number of European allies operate medium-airliner-sized military aircraft into RAF Northolt on military business. The RAF C-17 and A400M Atlas are the largest types of aircraft that visit the station.

In conclusion, RAF Northolt remains a core station with many diverse units. The aerodrome is needed by the military every day and is valuable for contingency, as we saw during the Olympics and the Ebola outbreak. A decision on its future use was taken in 2013, and we will not revisit that decision. After the military runway works are complete and the runway reopens, nothing will have changed: the same stringent terms and conditions on civil movements that have been in place for many years and that were reaffirmed in 2013 will remain in place. The MAA and the CAA continue to employ robust oversight and assurance of civil aviation activity.

Does the Minister recognise that despite his words, there will still be widespread concern about the scale and cost of the runway works, and about what they might mean for the future? Will he commit to consulting residents to explain what that money will achieve?

I have only a short time left, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are comparing apples and pears. A runway’s length, thickness and usage and an aircraft’s heaviness all determine the total cost. I will write to him with more details.

Civil operating hours and numbers of passengers will remain limited, the movement cap of 12,000 that was set in 2013 will remain unchanged, and scheduled commercial operations will remain excluded. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and the communities he represents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.