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Aviation: Sustainable Development Commission Report

Volume 702: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What further consideration they will give to the report of the Sustainable Development Commission, Breaking the holding pattern: A new approach to aviation policy making in the UK.

My Lords, we participated in and supported an open dialogue process managed by the Sustainable Development Commission, during which a huge range of stakeholder views were expressed. As such, the Government do not believe that the dialogue delivered any consensus to support the recommendations in the SDC’s report. The Government’s aviation policy is evidence-based, and we do not therefore intend to carry out a fundamental review as the report recommends.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer, although I do not find it very encouraging. Is he aware that, in its critique of the 2003 air transport White Paper, which it published in 2004, the Sustainable Development Commission said:

“It is now becoming urgent that [Governments] begin the challenging task of building public awareness of the fact that air traffic cannot be allowed to grow at its present pace, and that policy must be reoriented towards restraining rather than encouraging growth in air traffic”?

Does my noble friend not agree that the current situation shows that it was right then and that it is right now? There has been a dramatic increase in oil prices, which is one of the assumptions on which the 2003 policy was based, and climate change science has moved on. Is he further aware that there is evidence that passenger numbers are beginning to fall off? Stansted airport recently reported a 4.4 per cent decline in passenger numbers between January and May this year.

My Lords, is it not now time for a confident Government to review the circumstances and look at their air transport policy again?

My Lords, we keep our air transport policy under review at all times. I am aware of the points that the noble Baroness has made, but we also have to take carefully into consideration the profoundly beneficial impact that the aviation sector has on our national economy. We should look at these things over the longer term rather than the shorter term.

My Lords, I support the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, in her Question. The Government really must look at this again. There is now no real economic case, and certainly no environmental case, for additional runways in the south-east at Stansted or Heathrow. Surely, the Government should assess the need for new airport runways in the UK and perhaps put them in areas that need more regeneration. I urge the Government to review the whole situation.

My Lords, frankly, I find the position of the noble Lord’s party on the aviation industry quite astonishing. The aviation industry brings net benefits to the United Kingdom. All of the projections over the longer term show that there will be continued growth. I wonder where the party opposite’s incoherent policy on aviation in the south-east is going to lead. Will it lead eventually to the meltdown of the aviation sector if at some point in the future his party comes into government?

My Lords, the report to which the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, referred is a very poorly aimed kick for the long grass. It is a recipe for doing nothing. Does the noble Lord agree that there is much more to be done in improving access by rail to London from the north of England, and from the Channel Tunnel through to everywhere, so that there is much less need to travel?

My Lords, again, I find the position of the noble Lord and his party on travel somewhat astounding. Yes, of course we believe that much more should be done, and we have been doing a great deal to encourage rail transportation. There has been a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers over the past 10 years, which I think is a hallmark of a successful strategy for the rail network, and we anticipate further growth. The noble Lord has argued for the further growth of rail travel.

However, there is a limit to the amount of rail-for-air substitution that can be achieved. We have achieved great things on the Manchester to London corridor, with a reversal of the balance between rail and air modes of travel over the past four years. We can make more progress with train journeys out of London to Birmingham; but that does not negate the fact that there will continue to be a growth in aviation and the aviation sector and people desiring to travel by air.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, notwithstanding what has been said by other contributors, the UK is desperately short of airport capacity in London and the south-east? After 11 years in government, we have still not reached the hard decisions which must be taken on a strategic approach to London and the south-east. Would the Minister confirm that there is no country in the world which is unilaterally restricting the growth of its aviation industry, and that that is the policy of this Government?

My Lords, we do not seek unilaterally to restrain the growth of the aviation sector, but we balance our concerns and considerations about growing the aviation sector with environmental concerns. That is why we have put tough policy measures in place to ensure that any future growth in the aviation sector is balanced by environmental concerns. We recognise the importance of climate change, as my noble friend Lord Rooker has carefully explained this morning.

My Lords, this is a question from an ignoramus. Why do we heavily tax fuel on trains and motor vehicles, but not on aeroplanes?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that advancing the environmental cause is not incompatible with sensible and existing airport strategy? Is it not clear that our airports—particularly Heathrow—play a vital role in linking the UK to other parts of the world? They thereby significantly help to boost the competitiveness that we demand.

My Lords, my noble friend is right. If we were to freeze all development at Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick, aviation sector activity—indeed, the aviation industry—would simply displace to other major European airports. That would be very damaging to the United Kingdom economy.