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Luton Airport Expansion

Volume 634: debated on Tuesday 9 January 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Luton airport expansion.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to speak in my first Westminster Hall debate on a subject of great interest to my constituents and of importance to the whole region. I thank the Minister for being here to respond to the debate. I wish him all the luck in the world in whatever may transpire in No. 10 later on.

First, let me establish some facts. Luton airport is a rapidly growing airport that currently handles more than 15 million passengers a year. Its passenger numbers have increased by 70% in the past seven years alone. It is owned by London Luton Airport Ltd on behalf of Luton Borough Council, which is also the planning authority responsible for approving any increases in allowed passenger numbers. Luton Borough Council set the limit at 18 million passengers in 2014. In mid-December last year, Luton Borough Council, as owners of the airport, set out a highly ambitious plan to more than double Luton airport’s passenger traffic by 2050, bringing it to roughly 38 million passengers. To give some context, that represents an ambition for Luton airport to manage as many passengers as Gatwick airport did as recently as a couple of years ago, when it was, as it is now, the second busiest airport in the UK.

My constituency, Hitchin and Harpenden, lies in rural Hertfordshire but abuts Luton to the west. The flight path of Luton airport for inbound and outbound planes runs directly over thousands of my constituents—particularly in Harpenden, Wheathampstead, Sandridge and Jersey Farm—causing a great deal of noise and air pollution over the area. In addition, although Luton sits on the M1 motorway, a great deal of the traffic that naturally accompanies an airport handling more than 40,000 passengers a day currently runs through the very rural roads of my constituency to the north and east of the airport. That is near such villages as Breachwood Green, Mangrove Green, Lilley, Hexton and Pirton. Much of that area is in the Chiltern hills and is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I am sure he is aware that the flights blight not only the lives of his constituents, particularly in rural areas, but the rural parts of my constituency, particularly the Markyate and Flamstead area. The people who live there are the experts on the issue because they have planes flying over them all the time. They were given categorical promises that as the growth took place, noise mitigation would also take place, and that has not happened. Would that not be a good reason to curb the speed of the increase in flights until the airport has done what it promised to do in the first place?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. To add to his point, which I agree with entirely, it is my case that the proposed expansion of Luton airport to the level of 38 million passengers is first unsustainable and unsuitable for the local area that includes not just my constituency but his and that of my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main), and secondly—this is a particularly serious point—could undermine trust in government for tens of thousands of Hertfordshire residents because Luton Borough Council owns the airport, receives income from it and yet also acts as the planning authority.

If it is not entirely clear from my comments so far, I am not against airports or Luton airport. I understand the need for and the necessity of a thriving aviation sector, and I recognise—I am sure the Minister will talk about this—the jobs and economic growth that Luton airport brings to the United Kingdom and to Luton. My case, which is supported by the vast majority of my constituents in Hertfordshire, is that the proposed expansion to more than double Luton’s passenger numbers is unsuitable for the local area and unsustainable in the context of the constraints that exist in rural Hertfordshire in particular.

Luton is just not the right place for an airport with a proposed size of 38 million passengers. Topographically, its location on a plateau means that it is closed by fog and bad weather much more frequently than the other airports in the south-east. It has a very constrained footprint compared with Gatwick and Stansted, and the dense polycentric pattern of the surrounding settlements, such as Hemel Hempstead, Harpenden and others, means that many towns and villages are affected by noise and pollution. It is right next door to extremely rural Hertfordshire countryside which has, as we would expect, many small narrow lanes. They are often used as rat runs through to Luton airport. Many of them can take only one car at a time and are already seeing vast increases in traffic as passenger numbers rise year on year. In addition, unlike Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Luton does not have a direct rail link to the terminal, although I recognise there are plans for that.

Furthermore, Luton already has the greatest concentration of air traffic movement in its airspace in the UK, and it is one of the most congested airspaces in Europe. Noise complaints from Hertfordshire residents are already extremely high with the existing traffic of more than 15 million passengers. To give some context, those complaints have increased twenty-two-fold in two years. Night flights also hugely blight the lives of many of my constituents. Over the past two years, the number of flights between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am has gone up 25%, from 12,867 to 16,031.

I believe in giving credit where it is due, so I must thank the Government and the Department for Transport for their recent efforts on noise mitigation, as shown by their commitment to an independent noise regulator to be called the independent commission on civil aviation noise. Once established, I hope that body will help provide much more objective independent guidance on how aircraft noise should be assessed and managed and how that should be used to inform airspace decisions.

The Government’s consultation document states that

“it is clear that tensions are likely to arise when airport operations change in a way which affects how local communities experience noise impacts. We want to ensure that there is not a breakdown of trust between airports and their communities.”

I submit that the extremely rapid rise in complaints about aircraft noise in Hertfordshire shows that as things stand, trust between Luton airport and residents of rural areas in Hertfordshire is in danger of breaking down. I believe it will break down completely if colossal expansion plans are rammed through without appropriate consultation with Hertfordshire residents.

I would go further than my hon. Friend. He, his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) and I have been campaigning on the issue for many years. I can only speak for my constituents, but I am afraid the trust has gone already. Promises have been made so many times in the past, and they have never been fulfilled. Instead of trying to work with the communities, the airport makes noise about doing tests and this and that, but when it comes to the crunch, it never fulfils its promises. This is another classic example where there is growth before the mitigation is put in.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Perhaps it is because I am new—perhaps I am optimistic and generous—but I do agree with him that trust is crucial. Trust between the citizen and Government, both local and national, is one of the most fundamental underpinnings of our or any democracy. Many of my constituents have lost trust in recent borough council management of the expansion of Luton airport over recent years, as my right hon. Friend describes, and one reason for that is the highly unusual situation whereby Luton Borough Council owns Luton airport and at the same time is the planning authority currently responsible for approving its expansion. I must make it clear for the record that I am not accusing Luton Borough Council of any legal or procedural impropriety. However, there is a significant conflict of interest.

In 2015 the highly esteemed National Audit Office—esteemed not only by the Government and the House; as a member of the Public Accounts Committee I work with its civil servants frequently and they are incredibly capable people—published a report on managing conflicts of interest in the public sector. The report states:

“A failure to recognise a conflict of interest can give the impression that the not acting in the public interest and can damage...confidence in government.”

Luton Borough Council’s ownership of Luton airport, which generated a net profit of roughly £47 million in the last financial year, coupled with the huge increase in flight noise for many thousands of my constituents and across Hertfordshire, as I have already demonstrated, as well as with the huge increase in passenger numbers, leaves many of my constituents feeling that Luton Borough Council has one real interest: growing passenger numbers and therefore revenue for its airport. That interest has been pursued without any real consideration for the significant negative impacts on the people of Hertfordshire that I have outlined here today. As one of my constituents put it to me, Bedfordshire gets the gain, and Hertfordshire gets the pain.

So, what shall be done? I propose that the Minister responds to the following points in his response. First, bearing in mind the huge growth proposed at the airport, will the Government confirm that the plans for any future expansion must be approved as a nationally significant infrastructure project submission to the Planning Inspectorate, with the decision therefore no longer being made by Luton Borough Council? Secondly, will the Government act not to allow any further expansion of passenger numbers beyond 18 million without the imposition of much greater conditions around noise concerns, flight route changes, and a much tougher limit on night flights, so that Luton is finally treated like other London airports? Thirdly, will the Government call on Luton Borough Council to provide detailed plans for the necessary infrastructural improvements, particularly on local roads, that will be necessary in Hertfordshire even based on existing passenger numbers, as well as in Bedfordshire, and explain how they propose to fund it?

Finally, will the Government call on Luton Borough Council and Luton airport to work much harder to gain the trust and partnership of Hertfordshire residents, as mentioned earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), not only for any expansion of passenger numbers in future, and actively keep future growth in step with mitigation measures and constrain that future growth if necessary?

I thank the House for being so patient with me in my first Westminster Hall debate. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main).

I was about to say that by agreement with the hon. Gentleman and the Minister, both of whom have been informed, I call—the hon. Gentleman does not—Mrs Anne Main.

It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I pay a huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) for securing this debate so early in his career. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) has said, the issue has been rumbling on for a very long time. I will be brief because we need answers from the Minister.

First, I want to pay tribute to STAQS—St Albans Quieter Skies—which does terrific work on noise pollution, and to LADACAN, the Luton and District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise. When I was first elected in 2005 my postbag was largely untroubled by complaints about aircraft noise, but that is not the case now. I accept, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden, the ongoing benefits to business and leisure users of having a good local airport with routes that are efficient and least disruptive to residents. My constituents understand the need for air traffic, but feel that the noise burden is not shared fairly or equally.

There has been a 150% increase in complaints since the RNAV—area navigation—route was introduced in August 2015. The RNAV route dictates that easterly departures are directed in a narrow corridor over north St Albans and Sandridge. That change alone, although well-intentioned, has concentrated the pain of noise felt by residents across the affected district. As my hon. Friend has said, Luton airport is owned by London Luton Airport Ltd on behalf of Luton Borough Council. As my residents would point out, that makes it its own judge and jury.

In 2013, Luton council’s development committee voted to permit capacity expansion to double to 18 million passengers, along with a package of planning conditions designed to mitigate environmental impact. The decision was based on promises that quieter aircraft would be gradually introduced. Everything has happened far faster than projected, and the noise mitigation has not made any difference.

I shall cut my remarks short and simply say that I have visited my constituents’ homes and gardens at different times of the day. There is a calculated noise decibel level by Luton airport’s own noise monitoring, which was taken over a 16-hour day and apparently equates to something between a quiet office and a bedroom. Standing in my constituents’ gardens, that is not the experience of the residents. An average over a 16-hour day was given when noise can be felt in different ways. At 6 o’clock in the morning I am aware of the noise far more than at 10 o’clock in the morning when my washing machine and dishwasher are going. So the average masks the true life experience of residents and it is bogus.

My constituents need to know that something will be done as soon as possible. Expansion cannot go ahead if strong protections against further noise pollution are not deliverable and guaranteed. Luton airport cannot keep on being its own judge and jury.

I am sorry; my right hon. Friend has made two interventions and I am already cutting my remarks short.

I want the Government to step in and take a keen and active interest in the future development of this airport. Residents who have had the noise monitoring kit cannot accept that 47 decibels is a true reflection of the interruption in their lives, their sleep patterns, and enjoyment of their own gardens. I therefore ask the Minister to take a real interest in this issue and listen to what residents say.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) on securing his first Westminster Hall debate. We can safely assume that he could afford a 90-minute debate, given the local interest. I welcome the chance to respond to the points he has made. I sympathise with his concerns and will do my best to answer his points in the time available.

My crash course in Luton airport this morning and learning all about it has revealed that it has seen its 44th consecutive month of growth, with passenger numbers in 2016 16% higher than in 2015. Such growth is clearly continuing. The airport has 13 airlines operating regular scheduled and charter flights and six operating cargo routes. It is a busy major airport that flies to more than 30 countries with 70 destinations and 128 routes. It is the only London airport offering a scheduled service on 24 of those routes. It is a key employer in the local area, supporting around 30,000 jobs, putting £1.5 billion into the economy and around £500 million into the local economy surrounding the airport. All of that indicates that, as all Members have said this morning, it is an important and worthwhile contributor to the local economy. However, that does not obviate the points that Members make about the impact on local people’s lives.

We have started the process of developing a new aviation strategy, setting out the long-term direction for aviation policy to 2050 and beyond. The strategy will focus on consumers and cover the whole country. It will look at where Government could and should make a difference. Last year, we published a call for evidence that asked for views on a number of issues based around six objectives, which will be further consulted on in the coming year. The objectives will include ensuring that any new strategy addresses the impacts of aviation on local communities and the environment.

As part of the call for evidence consultation, the Government proposed that airports throughout the UK, including Luton airport, make the best use of their existing runways subject to environmental issues being addressed. We received a vast number of responses, as I am sure hon. Members can imagine, which we are currently analysing and to which we will respond shortly.

We warmly welcome the ambition of airports to respond to local and regional demand, and to invest in infrastructure to enable services to more destinations, with better facilities and more choice for passengers. That is particularly the case at Luton airport, where passengers are beginning to see the benefits of a £150 million investment programme, transforming the airport and passenger experience by expanding the terminal and passenger lounge, and building a new multi-storey car park.

My constituents describe this as the stiletto effect: the area navigation route concentrates the pain in a very sharp area. I know that that is the Government’s policy. Can it be looked at? A large amount of pain in a small group is not fair.

I welcome that intervention. I was about to stop describing the positives of Luton airport and move on to the more controversial aspects, one of which is how the Government’s new approach to airspaces will hopefully address some of the concerns that my hon. Friend has expressed. I will come on to that shortly, if I may.

First, I would like to deal with the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden about who will take decisions on the expansion. I understand the concern that Luton Borough Council may take those decisions at the same time as being the airport’s owner. I am more than happy to confirm that, as a nationally significant infrastructure project, it will be a decision taken by the Planning Inspectorate, with reference back to the Secretary of State. Under section 23 of the Planning Act 2008, all airport expansion decisions that seek to increase their planning cap by more than 10 million passengers per year are required to follow the development consent order process and are considered nationally significant infrastructure projects. Such projects are subject to Government approvals as part of that process.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin and Harpenden and for St Albans (Mrs Main) both asked what the Government’s position will be regarding any further expansion of passenger numbers beyond 18 million without the imposition of much greater conditions regarding noise concerns, flight route changes, and the use of airspace overall. We strongly recognise that noise disturbance from aircraft is of concern to local communities, and can be more pronounced at a time when an airport is experiencing growth. I know that the airport is already looking at trying to implement a higher performance-based standard on its westerly departure route heading to the English south coast. The main purpose of that measure is to reduce the overall noise impact of the route, including near the village of Sandridge—a particular hotspot for noise complaints. I understand that it may be consulted on later in the year. I urge hon. Members to engage with the airport to ensure that that occurs.

The Government’s role is to ensure that the right balance is struck between the environmental impacts and the economic and consumer benefits that aviation growth can deliver. All three Members who have spoken recognised that there are both benefits and negatives to having an airport in close proximity. We believe that noise is best managed at a local level and that Government involvement should be limited to strategic decisions. It is worth bearing in mind that Luton airport’s existing noise restrictions, set at a local level, are on the whole stricter than those set by the Government for the three designated London airports.

In line with the Government’s airspace policy published in October last year, any proposed flight path changes as a result of expansion will have to go through an options analysis. That will enable communities to engage with a transparent airspace change process and ensure that options such as multiple routes are considered for noise mitigation. That is a fundamental change in how we approach the concerns Members have expressed today. For example, there will be new metrics for assessing those impacts, including impacts on health and quality of life. There will be a new call-in power for the Secretary of State, applicable in airspace changes of strategic national importance, which provides, in my view, a democratic backstop for which communities have been calling. There will also be changes to compensation to ensure that impacts are properly reflected in what local people receive.

In addition, the Government have committed to establishing an independent commission on civil aviation noise to ensure that the noise impacts of airspace changes are properly considered, and to give communities a greater stake in noise management. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) pointed out, the people who live under the flight path are the experts. I always believe that we should listen to the experts when formulating policy. As somebody who grew up under the flight path from Manchester, I am more than aware of what it can be like to have planes overhead continually. The policies that we have introduced address the impacts of noise for those living underneath flight paths; will enable airspace modernisation; will give the opportunity to make the most of quiet and modern aircraft; will provide more predictable periods of relief from noise; and—critically in the south-east—will reduce the need for stacking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden made a point about asking for further information from Luton Borough Council on its plans to help to fund and support local infrastructure. The Government have set out the framework through which airports can plan for and lead improvement, growth and expansion, critically including surface access. Central to that is the fact that the airport is best placed to lead on surface access issues, including proposed infrastructure developments for the airport, in partnership with local enterprise partnerships, local authorities, business groups, passenger groups, and critically local communities. The current aviation policy framework recommends that each airport develops its own surface access strategy in collaboration with those stakeholders, and sets them out in an airport master plan and associated surface access strategy. The new aviation strategy on which the Department is consulting will ask how the Government can support the planning and delivery of improved surface access to meet passengers’ needs.

Passengers travelling to Luton airport by rail will benefit from the brand new light rail system, due for completion in 2020. That new £225 million rail link will replace the existing shuttle bus service and provide a direct link from Luton Airport Parkway station to the airport terminal. At Luton airport, the Government have also funded improvements connecting the M1 spur to the wider motorway network at the £30 million new junction 10a, helping to reduce congestion. Furthermore, and perhaps most pertinent to the points that my hon. Friend made, the south-east midlands local enterprise partnership has also secured more than £21 million of funding to improve local road access for passengers and for planned development around Luton airport.

My hon. Friend’s final point was one raised by all hon. Members: the importance of rebuilding trust between airports and local communities, not just regarding the expansion of passenger numbers, but more generally, addressing historical issues. I understand that the publication of the vision document by the airport owner—that is, Luton Borough Council—is the first step in quite a lengthy process. The council will have to undertake further consultations with local communities in both Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, and with other stakeholders this year. That will include the airport operators as well. The plan is not theirs, but the council’s—the airport owner, as opposed to the operators.

We recognise that those who live closest to airports bear a burden of the costs. The Government’s current policy objective is to encourage the aviation industry and local stakeholders to strengthen and streamline the way in which they work together, particularly at local level. The airport is already actively engaging with its local community, both directly and through the statutory London Luton Airport Consultative Committee. Furthermore, I assure my hon. Friend that projects subject to the development consent order process as well as local planning processes have to go through multiple consultation stages, during which his constituents and other stakeholders will be welcome to interact and have their say. That will be a new process for Luton airport, which has not had to go through that before.

In conclusion, we are committed to building a successful aviation industry, which is why our strategy is designed to look forward as far as 2050. We have to put the passenger at the heart of that, but also to ensure that we address the needs of the wider industry as well as the communities around the airports. I hope my comments today reassure my hon. Friend on some of the key points, and will perhaps give him some further avenues to pursue in working with the airport to improve the lives of people in his community, and those of other hon. Members. I thank everyone for their attendance and attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.