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Airports: Heathrow

Volume 699: debated on Tuesday 4 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Following the end of the consultation period, what are their latest plans for the third runway at Heathrow.

My Lords, the Government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow, as set out in the 2003 aviation White Paper, remains dependent on our being confident that the strict local environmental conditions around the airport can be met. The Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport consultation, which ended on 27 February, presented our analysis on meeting those tests. We are now analysing the responses. Decisions on the consultation are expected later this year.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware of the joint submission made to the Competition Commission by the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS? It states:

“Were all [BAA’s] southeastern airport development plans to come to fruition, CAA and NATS are of the view that there would not be sufficient airspace to accommodate the scale of predicted growth on the basis of current and predicted technology”.

Does he agree that there is not much point in building more facilities such as runways if the planes do not have any space in the air to fly to them?

My Lords, if we were to accept that analysis, we would not have undertaken a consultation. The consultation is relevant and we will come to a decision in due course.

My Lords, I hope that the Government will not flinch over plans for a third runway. We are in the 21st century and the rest of the world is getting on with a massive airport-building programme. Heathrow is the hub of our southern economy and, indeed, a major part of our overall economy. If we were massively to get on with base-load CO2-free electricity, which we could do by going nuclear quickly, we would offset so much carbon that we could keep flying with great joy.

My Lords, that was a wide-ranging observation. I agree entirely that Heathrow is vital to its local and our national economy, which is why we have to carefully develop our strategy with regard to the third runway.

My Lords, I declare an interest as the campaign director of Future Heathrow. Is my noble friend aware of the seriousness of the situation now? Jet Airways, a rapidly growing Indian airline set up in this country, has announced—it is the first announcement of this type that I have ever heard—that it is now pulling out of Britain because there is no runway space available at Heathrow. If this continues, the circumstances, particularly for the Thames valley and west London, will be catastrophic. Organisations such as the Sunday Times and the Independent that are campaigning for the closure of Heathrow need to explain where the jobs are coming from. They might also stop doing irresponsible things such as giving details of how to get on to the roof of the Houses of Parliament and how to join organisations that want to do so. This is too important for Britain and too important for the Thames valley and west London.

My Lords, I agree completely with my noble friend so far as employment is concerned. Some 200,000 jobs are dependent on the aviation sector in the United Kingdom. It is true that Heathrow is already operating at 98.5 per cent capacity, which is higher than the levels of our European rivals in Paris, Schiphol and Frankfurt. This is a critical issue and one that is vital to the south-eastern economy. We have to take those points carefully into consideration.

My Lords, I have been campaigning against the expansion of Heathrow Airport since 1974—not terribly successfully so far, I must say. Does the Minister realise that the opposition to a third runway at Heathrow is of a totally different order from that to previous expansions? Will he give this House an undertaking that we have the full results of the consultation that the Government have carried out so that we know exactly what the view of the people of London is on this monstrous development?

My Lords, we have made it clear that of course we will ensure that the full results of the consultation are made public when Ministers make their decision. We take these matters seriously, but we also believe that the future of Heathrow Airport is critical to the economy of the south-east.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that any alternative site to Heathrow would inevitably involve a massive delay and the removal of most airlines from the airport to the advantage of airports on the Continent? What possible advantage is there in coming to the conclusion that Heathrow ought to be closed?

My Lords, I cannot see any advantage in arguing that Heathrow ought to be closed. Since 1990, when Heathrow was second in the pecking order of international airports in Europe, we have slipped down to fifth position. Paris now has four runways, while Schiphol has five, and we have lost some 47 routes since that year. Obviously this decision is vital to our economy.

My Lords, how much is the future of London airport dependent on the Olympic Games being held here in the near future?

My Lords, the Olympic Games decision has already been made. It is vital that the upgrade of Heathrow is seen through to a successful conclusion so that people coming to the United Kingdom for the 2012 Olympics arrive here at an airport that is comfortable and easy to understand.

My Lords, notwithstanding the rather disobliging remarks of my noble friend Lord Soley about the Independent, perhaps I may draw the Minister’s attention to an editorial in that newspaper last weekend, which stated:

“In the opinion of many scientists, we can either have international aviation growth on the present rate or we can have a stable global climate. We cannot have both … The Government should be blocking Heathrow from building a new runway on international environmental grounds”.

Is not the Government’s persistence in sticking to their current view on airport expansion making them look increasingly like the proverbial flightless bird?

My Lords, I do not agree. We can achieve growth in aviation and have stability in the quality of our environment. It is on that premise that we advanced our consultation exercise. We believe that we can match the environmental expectations to which we all hold.

My Lords, can the Minister give an undertaking that serious consideration will be given to the building of a big new airport in the Thames estuary? This would enable stacking over the North Sea and would stop flights coming in and going out over London. Furthermore, the estuary would be a much safer place to have an airport than Heathrow, which is slap in the middle of where people live and not a safe place to have an airport.

My Lords, I note with interest the noble Earl’s support for an airport off the coast of Kent or Essex, whichever choice you take on this. That would be a massive undertaking; the infrastructure costs alone would be somewhere in the region of £33 billion. I hesitate to think how long it would take to construct and the damage that would be done to our economy in waiting. It is interesting that, according to the Times today, Boris Johnson was uncontactable when challenged by Conservative MPs around Essex and Kent who were somewhat dismayed by his support for such a proposition.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the case for increased employment opportunities is not open and shut but has to be balanced against the effects on pollution and the destruction of homes and the environment? I declare an interest in that I chair my local residents’ association, which is in the vicinity. We should not assume that the case has been proven that London could not expand its economy without expanding Heathrow.

My Lords, I understand the dilemma that the issues surrounding Heathrow Airport present to many people. However, I think that we can satisfy the high environmental standards that we have set out for ourselves and reap the benefits in investment and in strengthening our economy by ensuring that we have a sensible approach to further and continued investment in the aviation industry.

My Lords, is not one of the major reasons why people want to expand airport provision in the south-east the amount of internal air traffic in this country? Would it not be better for the huge investment that is proposed for new runways and terminals in the south-east to be put into new high-speed railway lines to other parts of this country? That would be far more beneficial both economically and environmentally.

My Lords, that is an interesting question. Of course the Government want to stimulate and develop the rail industry. We have had a 40 per cent increase in the number of passengers using the network over the past decade. The number of internal short-haul flights to Heathrow has fallen quite dramatically over the past few years because people are moving to the rail network as an alternative.

My Lords, in terms of passenger satisfaction, how does London Heathrow compare to other airports, such as Amsterdam Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle?

My Lords, I know that strong views have been expressed in your Lordships’ House about the quality of the experience at Heathrow, but it is fair to say that major improvements are now coming on stream. Terminal 3 has been properly completed, Terminal 5 is to be opened in March this year, the refurbishment of Terminal 4 will be completed in 2009 and Heathrow East will open in time for the Olympics in 2012. There is an improving story so far as the quality of experience at Heathrow is concerned.

My Lords, is it not true that the 47 routes that hitherto flew from Heathrow to other parts of the planet have now gone to continental airports, that the flights continue and that there has been no effect whatsoever on climate change? If we continue to have an unbalanced examination of the problems that we face here, we will end up with a decline in Heathrow. All we will see is a growth in Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt with no effect on climate change.

My Lords, that is a real and present danger. It has to be understood that Paris is working at 75 per cent capacity; I think that Schiphol and Frankfurt work at a similar level. We do not have capacity at Heathrow, which is why the third runway is extremely important. We have to look at the whole issue of emissions, not just within the aviation sector but across the whole of industry. That is why the Emissions Trading Scheme is so important and why we lay great stress on ensuring that we have an effective Europe-wide scheme.