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Luton Airport Expansion

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 24 March 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been a few changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. I remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to anyone else on the call and us in the Boothroyd Room. Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and as they leave the room. I remind Members that Mr Speaker has stated that masks should be worn in Westminster Hall, except when speaking.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the planned expansion of Luton Airport.

It is a real privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I am pleased to have secured this debate and to welcome the hon. Members for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), who are keen to speak. I will keep my remarks to around 10 minutes, so that others can contribute.

Let me start with the history and background. Luton airport is poorly sited on top of a hill, with no direct access by mainline trains. Although the M1 is close by, there are very poor east-west transport links. The passenger transport modality still favours cars and taxis.

My constituency of St Albans lies some distance to the south of Luton airport. Until the latter part of the last decade, the existence of the airport was of little consequence to the residents of St Albans. However, two main changes have taken place in that time, causing significant disruption to residents of the city and the surrounding towns and villages. First, in the 10 years to 2019, passenger numbers have doubled from little more than 9 million to a record 19 million in 2019. That has resulted in a 50% increase in aircraft movements over the same period. Secondly, the ever-increasing number of flights arriving and departing the airport are being concentrated in a very narrow corridor between St Albans and Harpenden. The area navigation, or RNAV, system, introduced in 2015, has exacerbated the misery of my constituents by directing planes to fly over the same homes and communities over and over again.

Let me start with aircraft noise. It will come as no surprise that the most pressing concern of my constituents is the noise from those flights. For many, the noise disrupts their peace and quiet and their sleep and rest, and is a major distraction from work and recreation. There is also increasing evidence that this noise can have a profound effect on physical and mental health. A study carried out by Queen Mary University of London for the Airports Commission in 2015 identified increased incidences of heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes in the areas studied, as well as negative effects on psychological health and overall wellbeing. More research is needed, but I raise that study to shine a spotlight on how seriously we must take all the legitimate complaints of local residents.

The next issue is expansion and consultation. Luton set out a very aggressive growth plan a decade ago. It was egged on by the Department for Transport’s aviation policy framework of 2013, which encouraged airports such as Luton to make best use of their existing capacity. That led to a free-for-all for regional airports, squeezing in as much traffic as possible into often inappropriate locations. Luton airport and its owners, Luton Borough Council, appear during that period to have ignored the expectation in the framework that

“growth in aviation should ensure that benefits are shared between the aviation industry and local communities.”

When the last major expansion application was approved in 2012, it was to double passenger capacity from 9 million to 18 million. At that time, the growth was envisaged to be over a period of 15 years to 2028 but, pre-pandemic, that capacity had already been maxed out. The approval went hand in hand with noise control limits, to be achieved by the modernisation of the operating fleet over that period. Community campaigning groups such as St Albans Quieter Skies and the Luton and District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise were both given assurances by the operators that expansion plans were to be mitigated by that revolutionary technology. They understood that as the skies got busier they would also become quieter.

In fact, those groups tell me that the opposite has happened. The uncontrolled growth of operations means that the 2028 limits were not only reached but exceeded in 2019. The huge spike in passenger numbers has meant greater numbers of aircraft, and even larger, noisier ones. That has resulted in the noise control limit being breached with increasing severity in 2017, 2018 and a record-busting 2019, the same year in which the number of permitted passengers was also breached. Trust from community groups and residents has therefore completely broken down. They describe how they have been fobbed off with talk of the introduction of quieter planes, and asked to ignore real-world data showing that they are at best only marginally quieter than the ones they replaced. What measures will the Minister take to compel Luton to keep its promises on real, meaningful noise mitigation? What can he do to speed up the much needed improvements to already congested airspace, to reduce the noise impact on Hertfordshire residents?

I will turn now to the question of the climate emergency, and emissions. The newer aircraft were supposed to be quieter, but there was also a requirement that they would be less polluting. Any further expansion to the airport must take into account the devastating impact of increased air traffic on climate change and the grave health consequences of further air pollution for neighbouring districts. Once again, community groups such as LADACAN and STAQS have pressed Luton airport on what progress is being made on reducing emissions from its operations; once again they are being given the runaround. The operators are keen to espouse the improvements that they are making to airport operations, but the airport buildings account for only 3% of emissions. The overwhelming majority of carbon emissions are from the aircraft themselves, and the surface transport to get to the planes—cars dropping off and picking up passengers. The airport tells me that those 97% of emissions are out of its control. What can the Minister do to reconcile the further expansion of operations at Luton with the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee that

“demand cannot continue to grow unfettered”?

Will he commit to making sure that there is no further growth in capacity at all until the promised noise reductions are delivered and aircraft have switched to sustainable aviation fuel?

Finally, I want to touch on a real or perceived conflict of interest. We have been told that the rapid growth to 2019 was unprecedented and unexpected. We are apparently expected to ignore the incentivisation deal by Luton Borough Council, the owner of the airport, which encouraged airport operators and their airlines to deliver consistent year-on-year growth. All the while, I and my constituents look on as Luton Borough Council spends tens of millions of pounds preparing an application for a development control order to more than double capacity—again—to 32 million passengers per annum. At the heart of those plans is a complicated arrangement whereby Luton Borough Council owns the airport but the airport supposedly has an arm’s length company running it, and contracts an apparently independent operator. Somehow we are expected to believe that the owner of the airport, Luton Borough Council, has no input into the strategy of continued expansion.

The reality, as I have demonstrated, is that the authority is more than happy to incentivise growth at its airport. That is where the whole arrangement becomes most troubling. The authority charged with making impartial judgments on planning and enforcement matters at the airport stands to lose the most from rejecting applications for expansion, and from enforcement. There is understandable concern that although noise control limits were breached over the three years to 2019 no apparent enforcement action has been taken by the planning authority to remedy the situation in the same period. Instead, we see the submission of a further planning application to regularise the breaches to make the problem go away.

I do not accuse the local authority of any legal or procedural impropriety, but it is very difficult for a casual observer to be persuaded that there is no predisposition for Luton Borough Council to be in favour of expansion. It is well documented that the airport is an enterprise that keeps the council solvent; in fact, there have been accusations that it is too reliant on it as an income stream.

When the expansion of the airport was last debated in this place just over three years ago, it was in the context of the medium to long-term proposal to increase the passenger limit at Luton to 32 million. I was encouraged by the Minister who responded to that debate, the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), who said that the Government would take the decision about expansion out of the hands of the local authority as a nationally significant infrastructure application.

Today, I take the opportunity to ask the Minister if he will ensure that the decision on the current planning application, which would increase the passenger limit to 90 million, is called in by the Secretary of State. That is absolutely critical to restore the trust of our local communities; a first step on that journey would be to make sure that the decision is not only impartial but seen to be impartial.

In conclusion, I accept that this debate takes place in the shadow of the pandemic. Luton, like other airports, has seen an extraordinary reduction in the demand for flights as we have faced rolling lockdowns and indeterminate travel restrictions. However, the airport tells me that it wants to ramp back up as soon as it can. That is all the more reason to put the brakes on these irresponsible expansion plans.

The airport operators have voiced concern that there will be an oversupply of capacity at many airports for some time as we recover from covid. I would like to ask the Minister whether the situation presents a unique opportunity to re-evaluate Luton’s suitability as a high-capacity air hub in light of the airspace constraints, its poor location and its highly irregular ownership structure.

Thank you very much indeed for calling me, Mr Hosie, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.

I also thank the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper), first for permitting me to speak in this debate, but more importantly for her consistent campaigning against the further expansion of Luton airport. She is right to call out Luton airport for its excessive and rapid growth and consistent breaches of noise limitations, and because expansion is inconsistent with our environmental goals and our pathway to net zero. Minister, the current application for further expansion of Luton airport is an egregious example of a disregard of the principles of net zero, and that alone is sufficient reason for the Government to oppose it.

The other issue that she rightly mentioned is the conflict of interest between Luton Borough Council—Luton’s unitary council—and the airport expansion. As the Minister knows, it is a great concern for local residents in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire that somehow Luton’s local authority has a major conflict of interest and it is right and responsible for the Minister to act. In fact, the Minister has an opportunity to act. He has an opportunity to stop the consultation on air flight pathways between Luton and Stansted. That would give him further time to consider what should happen. As the hon. Member for St Albans said, he can call in this expansion plan and provide confidence to residents in Bedfordshire that due diligence and a proper appraisal of it will be undertaken.

Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hosie; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I thank the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) for giving me that opportunity.

Quite simply, there should not be any further expansion of Luton airport—no ifs, no buts. It is in the wrong place to have a larger airport. As has been outlined by both the hon. Member for St Albans and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), the airport has consistently shown disregard for local residents and their views. In particular, there is a conflict between Luton Borough Council’s largely financial interests and its need for Luton airport to grow and grow for financial reasons, and the interests of local residents in my constituency, and indeed those in many other surrounding constituencies in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.

This process should not go on any longer. I urge the Minister to outline how we can stop any further expansion. In addition, I would welcome an update on the flight path reorganisation work being done over the coming years, not just from Stansted but from all the different airports in the south-east, because that will significantly impact the lives of my residents.

It is a great honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) on securing this important debate on Luton airport expansion. I recognise the importance of this matter to her constituents, and to those of my hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). I know it matters a great deal to them and I welcome the chance to respond on behalf of the Government.

For context, the UK enjoys one of the best connected, best value and safest aviation industry of anywhere in the world, and that strong industry is vital as we build a truly global Britain and level up the country. It is important to recognise at the outset the great social and economic benefits that the growth of the aviation sector has brought. Airports serve local communities, support thousands of jobs, and connect places and people across our Union and the world. Before the pandemic, the sector contributed at least £22 billion to GDP each year and supported approximately half a million jobs in the UK.

Turning specifically to Luton airport itself, the Government welcomes the ambition of airports to provide better facilities and choice for passengers, and there has been significant investment in the terminal, airside and surface. I look forward to the opening of the Luton DART, or direct air-rail transit, in 2022. That £225 million infrastructure will support more sustainable travel to the airport. Pre-covid, Luton airport provided impressive connectivity with 128 routes serving destinations across Europe, the middle east and north Africa, illustrating the importance of global travel and spreading global understanding. Luton airport is a key employer in the local area, supporting around 30,000 jobs in 2019, and contributing £1.5 billion to the UK economy and £500 million to the local economy surrounding the airport.

The Government are supportive of airports making the best use of their existing facilities. However, we recognise that the operation and development of airports can have negative, as well as positive, impacts for local communities. In particular, I have listened to the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Hitchin and Harpenden and for North East Bedfordshire. They made excellent points in their speeches and I will continue to consider them in the weeks and months ahead. I look forward to working with them.

The Government’s position is that proposals for development should be judged by the relevant planning authority, taking careful account of all relevant considerations, particularly economic and environmental impacts, and proposed mitigations. Specifically on noise, the Government’s aim is that any management strategies and necessary mitigation are developed and decided on locally, wherever possible. The Government’s involvement should be where there are strategic decisions to be made, such as the national night flight policy currently being consulted on.

I am aware that Luton’s proposed application for a development consent order would involve construction of a new second terminal to the north of the runway. Local people have had the opportunity to consider and comment on that proposal, as part of the statutory consultation undertaken by Luton. That consultation ran between October and December 2019 and asked for feedback on all aspects of the proposal, including the layout, surface access, environmental mitigation, land assembly and compensation. I welcome the ambition and the proposed further investment from Luton, but, as the final decision on Luton’s proposed development consent order rests with the Secretary of State for Transport, I hope hon. Members will understand that it is not appropriate for me to comment any further at this stage.

Turning to airspace, I am aware of the proposed new Luton airborne holding stack and the arrival arrangements. I am also aware of the concerns about increased overflight and noise in those communities that may be affected. That has been mentioned by all hon. Members today. I am conscious that some of that arises out of the earlier performance-based navigation changes, which is the corridor to which the hon. Member for St Albans refers.

The Civil Aviation Authority is the consenting authority for airspace changes. It is important to distinguish between the planning process with regards to land, and the airspace changes that are linked, of course, but are separate from the planning process. None the less, local authorities have the opportunity to consider and comment on proposed changes that could affect them. The Air Navigation Guidance 2017, which was itself subject to a major public consultation in early 2017, is embedded in the Civil Aviation Authority’s CAP1616 process. It is relatively new and is just beginning to take effect, but it requires airspace change sponsors to undertake air pollution and noise impact assessments of their proposals. It requires airspace sponsors to actively engage and consult with key stakeholders, including communities, on their proposals.

When determining those proposals, the CAA will consider the environmental benefits, the operational requirements and the impact on communities. The CAA will also consider how the sponsors have reacted to the consultation feedback that they have received. We will expect a proposal to be submitted to the CAA over the summer. I hope hon. Members will understand that, given the potential for Ministers to call in the airspace change proposal, I am unable to make any further comments on Luton’s specific proposal.

I turn to climate change, which has quite rightly been raised by all hon. Members who spoke today. The Government of course recognise that the fight against climate change is the greatest and most pressing of the challenges facing our modern world. All hon. Members will know that the UK was the first major economy to pass laws to end our contribution to climate change by 2050. We will be setting out ambitious plans in the run-up to COP26 this year. The jets that we see today are approximately twice as efficient and half as polluting, not to mention much quieter, than the ones that looked similar but were flying 20 years ago. However, we know that more can be done. The Government’s starting point is that emissions, not aviation—emissions, not flights—are the problem.

We are taking decisive action in establishing, for example, the Jet Zero Council. The council, whose plenary met again last week, is a partnership between industry and the Government, with the aim of delivering zero emission transatlantic flights within a generation. It is focused on developing UK capabilities to deliver both net zero and zero emission commercial flight. That includes considering how to develop and industrialise clean aviation and aerospace technologies, establishing UK production facilities for sustainable aviation fuels and developing a co-ordinated approach to the policy and regulatory framework that is needed to deliver net zero by 2050.

We are the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end our contribution to global warming by 2050. We have recently launched the green fuels, green skies competition, which is a £15 million funding programme to support the development of first-of-its-kind production plants, with the aim of producing sustainable aviation fuel plants at scale in the UK. That builds on the success of the earlier future fuels for flight and freight competition. In addition, £3 million will be used to establish a sustainable aviation fuel clearing house, alongside the commitment to consult on a SAF blending mandate later this year.

I am keen to stress that the Government recognise that we cannot act in isolation. Aviation emissions are an inherently global issue. For a country where more than 90% of those emissions originate from international flights, co-ordinated global action is especially important if we are effectively to tackle the sector’s climate impact. The UK continues to take a leading role in the work of ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to reduce emissions from international aviation. We are determined to see ICAO’s carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation succeed. The UK volunteered to take part in that scheme from the start. We continue to advocate for increased environmental integrity within CORSIA.

Although airports are a key part of our commitment to global connectivity, we are also a Government who are committed to a greener future. We take our commitments on the environment, clean air and reducing carbon emissions very seriously, and the expansion of any airport must always meet our climate change obligations. In the coming months, the Department will be consulting on a net zero aviation strategy that will set out the steps we will take to achieve net zero ambitions by 2050, and I warmly welcome contributions from all hon. Members present and their constituents as part of that consultation.

In conclusion, the Government are committed to a world-leading aviation sector. We are also committed to ensuring the sector can grow in a sustainable way, and I look forward to discussing that further in the weeks and months ahead.

Sitting suspended.