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Airports: Heathrow

Volume 717: debated on Monday 8 February 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy with regard to a third runway at Heathrow.

My Lords, the Government’s policy with regard to a third runway at Heathrow remains as announced to the House in January last year. We support a third runway at Heathrow, subject to conditions, including an initial limit on the overall number of flights. It is for the airport operator, the BAA, to bring forward a planning application in the light of this announcement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that reply. Is he satisfied that the consultations conducted by the BAA are being properly conducted? They have been widely criticised. In the light of things that have happened since the Government made their announcement in this matter, is he satisfied that their original decision is still correct?

My Lords, I am satisfied with the consultations that have been conducted. If the noble Lord wishes to draw any particular matters to my attention, I would be glad to look at them, but I am not aware of any which give me cause for concern. The decision to allow a planning application to come forward for a third runway, subject to conditions being met, has stood the test of time, despite two years of recession. Heathrow is still running at near 100 per cent capacity, despite the downturn in business at other airports. It is our main international hub airport. The lifeblood of our national economy depends on it. This Government will not betray the national interest by refusing to take a decision which is manifestly in the best interests of the country.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Mayor of London has taken up a position opposing a third runway at Heathrow on the grounds of noise and pollution, but in favour of building a new airport floating in the middle of the Thames to the east of London? Will my noble friend comment on whether that policy position is consistent and in the national interest?

My Lords, the proposal for an estuary airport has been widely dismissed by sensible commentators, including most of the official spokespeople of the Conservative Party. The official Tory spokesperson says that Boris takes an independent line as Mayor of London. I thought he was a Conservative, but clearly this is not the case for the purposes of this and so many other decisions. Paul Carter, the leader of Kent County Council, the second largest Conservative-controlled authority in the country, says:

“There is a growing consensus that the estuary airport is undeliverable, unaffordable and unnecessary”.

I could not put it better myself.

My Lords, can I ask the Secretary of State about the status of the UK’s application to the European Commission for derogation of the nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter 10 limits around Heathrow? Will giving the go-ahead to a third runway at Heathrow not make it impossible to improve the air quality sufficiently to avoid this country being penalised?

My Lords, we are in discussions with the European Commission on this very point and I am confident that we will reach a satisfactory position. In respect of nitrogen dioxide, combined aircraft and road-vehicle nitrogen dioxide emissions around Heathrow are expected to halve by 2030 compared with 2002, even with a fully utilised third runway.

The Minister must have contact with a number of companies and organisations concerned with Heathrow. Are those organisations planning for everything to stop if his party loses the election, or do they think to themselves that the present expedient decision of the Conservative Party to vote against the third runway will be reversed once the election comes?

My Lords, I have had no discussions with organisations about the possibility of us losing the general election, so remote a possibility that is.

Given my noble friend’s commendable enthusiasm for a high-speed rail network, has he made any estimate of what effect a fully developed high-speed rail network would have on demand at Heathrow? Although I admit in advance that this is slightly on the margin of the original Question, can he give any indication as to when he is going to make his announcement on the high-speed rail network?

My Lords, I anticipate that we will publish a White Paper on high-speed rail in March. In respect of the potential for high-speed rail to substitute for a third runway, only a very small proportion of Heathrow traffic goes to domestic destinations that would be served by high-speed rail. The great growth of demand at Heathrow is for long-haul flights and therefore the best interests of this country are served by having both high-speed rail and a third runway. In life one does not always have to choose between desirable objectives.

I declare my interest as president of BALPA. Would not British aviation be dealt a mortal blow if we were unable to proceed with a third runway at Heathrow? Is there any possibility that Birmingham Airport can provide a viable alternative? My own view is that it cannot. Is it not apparent, also, that the next generation of aircraft will have to take climate change very seriously into account, whatever decision is reached with regard to airports?

My Lords, I agree with all the points which my noble friend has made. When the Government took their decision in respect of the third runway, they asked the Committee on Climate Change, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Turner, to look at the capacity of aviation to reduce its emissions in 2050 below those pertaining in 2005 and the policies that would be needed to meet that objective. The committee reported recently as follows:

“The Report finds that there is potential for aviation demand to increase while still meeting the Government’s target—in the most likely scenario, a 60% increase in demand is allowed. Higher increases might be possible if technological progress and the development of sustainable biofuels were more rapid than currently envisaged”.

It is perfectly possible for us to increase aviation in this country while, over the medium to long term, reducing carbon emissions.