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Heathrow-Gatwick Helicopter Link

Volume 476: debated on Thursday 12 June 1986

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3.4 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their estimate of the annual loss of revenue to British civil aviation arising directly and indirectly from the decision of the Secretary of State for Transport to revoke the licence granted by the Civil Aviation Authority for the operation of a helicopter service between Heathrow and Gatwick Airports.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport
(The Earl of Caithness)

My Lords, the Civil Aviation Authority estimated that the annual loss to British Caledonian would be about £2 million to £3 million and to British civil aviation as a whole about £8 million. Actual losses depend upon the extent to which interlining passengers avoid London. The alternatives to the helicopter should prove acceptable to most people.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that very interesting reply. Is he aware that the former Secretary of State justified his decision to overrule the Civil Aviation Authority on the grounds that, with the opening of the M.25, there would now be a speedy means of communication between the two airports? Is my noble friend aware, as I sure the Secretary of State for Transport is aware, that that has not turned out to be the case and the M.25 is crowded, congested and full of traffic? In the light of that and of the very large figure of loss which this decision involves to an industry of great importance to this country, will not my noble friend and the new Secretary of State reconsider this matter?

My Lords, I am aware of the traffic on the M.25. Traffic forecasts are being undertaken and a survey is being done which my right honourable friend will consider as soon as it is published.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have been given a figure of 80,000 passengers per annum using the helicopter link? Does he not agree that those 80,000 passengers will now be disgorged onto the already crowded motorway leading to the airport? Can he say why at the very least the Government did not allow the helicopter link to continue until the necessary road widening and the road motorway link were completed?

My Lords, the link was terminated under the terms set by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, which were considered right at the time. When the vital section of the M.25 opened four months later it was part of the condition of the licence that the link would be terminated; and so it was.

My Lords, is my noble friend not aware that if this useful service is not re-examined and re-established there will be increasing pressure for more and more operators to operate in and out of Heathrow instead of sharing the bases between Gatwick, Heathrow and a future third airport? Communication between London's airports is of paramount importance if the airlines are to be spread equally among the three.

My Lords, I am very concerned that the links between Gatwick and Heathrow remain open. There is a very good bus service and alternative means of getting from one to the other. I hope that my noble friend will not forget the fact that a great many cancellations of the helicopter service were due to adverse weather conditions. That meant that people had to go by road in any case, and for part of the day, both from Gatwick to Heathrow and vice versa, some 100 commercial flights were arriving when no helicopter service was being provided.

My Lords, does the noble Earl appreciate that, in view what I have been saying on the Airports Bill, I am the last person to dispose easily of environmental considerations? Nevertheless, I appreciate the value of a speedy link between Gatwick and Heathrow. Was it not the case that new routes and higher altitudes were proposed which would have reduced the environmental impact? In addition, did not the Secretary of State say when he made the decision that it might not be possible to maintain a surface route and that he would reconsider the matter if the need arose? How then will be the matter be carefully monitored so that the link could be re-established if necessary?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, is absolutely right, in that new alternative routes were proposed. It was a very finely balanced judgment. There are very good arguments on both sides, but at the end of the day, as the noble Lord will know from our discussions on the Airports Bill, we take environmental factors very seriously. It was that aspect that tipped the scales in favour of the decision that was taken.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that withdrawal of the licence does not entail closure of the helicopter lane that is being used? It only involves reducing the amount of traffic by about one-fifth. That cannot make much difference to the amount of noise disturbance, which I understand was the main reason for the decision.

My Lords, there were reasons other than the noise mentioned by my noble friend that had to be taken into account. The scheduled service has terminated. If the M.25 road link does not prove satisfactory in the future—and we will watch the situation—my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has said that he will examine the matter again.

My Lords, would it not be possible for the Government to make a very refreshing change by admitting that they were wrong and reversing their decision? Everybody would be so excited.

My Lords, as I said before, there were very good arguments on both sides. Having examined the matter very carefully, and having considered all the representations, my right honourable friend came down in favour of the M.25 road link being the one that should be used for the time being.

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question of my noble friend after declaring an interest as a former helicopter manufacturer and as holding an honorary position in that now well-known company. I support the points that have been made about noise, but is it not a fact that if air traffic control allowed the helicopters to fly higher, the noise problem would not exist? Secondly, I draw my noble friend's attention to this point. Is it not rather curious that a government who invest many millions of pounds in developing two helicopters of suitable commuter size should make it impossible for helicopters to provide commuter services in this country?

My Lords, this Government do not stop helicopters from being used for commuter services, because each application for a commuter service is considered on its merits. I believe that my noble friend is right when he says that there would be less noise if the helicopters were permitted to fly higher, but that would have to take into account the other air traffic movements in the vicinity. As I have said before, there is more than noise to this question.

My Lords, when answering an earlier question my noble friend said that there would be a further review of the forecast of traffic flow on the M.25. In view of the total inaccuracy of forecasts of traffic flow on the M.25, where will that get us? Furthermore, I assume that my noble friend is saying that it is possible that traffic volume on the M.25 will decrease and that therefore there will be no need for a helicopter service. Is my noble friend aware that I live halfway between Gatwick and Heathrow, three miles south of the M.25, and that at certain times it is actually impossible to get onto the M.25? It is intolerable, and therefore we should seriously think again about a helicopter route.

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend misconstrued some of my words. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced last month that he was commissioning a study to determine whether the problems could best be tackled by improving traffic management arrangements at junctions, remodelling junctions, widening parts of the motorway, or a combination of those options. We expect to receive the consultants' report later this month, and it will be considered urgently.

My Lords, in view of the complete unanimity of opinion from knowledgeable quarters throughout the House, among noble Lords of all parties, does the noble Earl not consider it essential that he should discuss this matter in detail with his right honourable friend and seek to explain to him the strength of feeling that exists in this House, and then return here with a statement affirming that the facility in question will be preserved?

My Lords, I have discussed this matter at length with my right honourable friend, particularly in view of Questions that have been asked before, and I know full well the feelings that exist. I can only say that I will again talk to my right honourable friend. The decision was taken on finely balanced arguments both ways. The department received about 16,000 representations. They have all been looked into, and there were more representations opposed to the air link than there were for the air link. My right honourable friend the present Secretary of State is fully aware, as was his predecessor, of the views of this House on the matter.

My Lords, is it not the case that although the decision was taken on the basis of finely balance arguments, it now appears that one of the arguments against continuing the licence—that the M.25 would have an easy traffic flow—has turned out to be unsound? Is not that ground alone, apart from the general opinion of this House, sufficient cause for reconsidering the matter further?

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the present situation concerning traffic on the M.25 was fully taken into account when the matter was examined by my right honourable friend.

My Lords, will the noble Earl say a little more about the other reasons that led to the decision that has been taken?

My Lords, one of the other reasons was the visual intrusion of the helicopter. It was rather a large helicopter holding some 25 people, which is rather bigger than the normal helicopter one sees flying around.

My Lords, is it not time that the Department of Transport woke up to the fact that every new motorway creates new traffic and that the forecasts are always wrong?

My Lords, we realise that new motorways cause traffic. However, the planning system in this country leads one to the conclusion that it takes so long from the time that it is decided to construct a motorway or by-pass until it is completed—it takes well over 13 years—that there might be more in the argument my noble friend has produced than just the extra traffic generated by the motorway.

My Lords, is it not a fact, as we have said many times from these Benches, that in the long term the problems will be solved only by the introduction of proper rail links between central London and Heathrow and between Heathrow and Gatwick? The roads solution has been shown to have failed, and the helicopter solution can be only a partial and temporary one. A proper rail link is absolutely essential to the major international airports in question.

My Lords, if British Rail bring forward a proposition for a rail link between the two airports that can be justified on the normal basis, we will consider it with very great care.