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Airports: Heathrow

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 15 February 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan for London Heathrow Airport to continue to be the world’s busiest airport in respect of international passenger traffic.

My Lords, we are committed to producing a new policy framework for UK aviation that supports economic growth and protects Heathrow’s status as a global hub, as well as addressing aviation’s environmental impacts. We intend to issue a scoping document in March 2011 setting out the key strategic questions that we are seeking to answer, followed by publication of a draft policy framework for consultation by March 2012.

I thank my noble friend for that response, but does he accept that the growth of the British economy will be seriously affected if there is capacity constraint at Heathrow Airport?

My Lords, we have made it absolutely clear that we do not support the construction of additional runways at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. We believe that such runways would cause an unacceptable level of environmental damage, undermining our efforts to combat climate change and significantly damaging the quality of life of local communities. Instead, we have established the South East Airports Taskforce with key players from across the industry to explore the scope for measures to make the most of the existing airport infrastructure and to improve conditions for users of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that one of the great difficulties that Heathrow Airport has in expanding and trying to keep at least level with our competitor airports on the continent of Europe is the higher air passenger duty that people have to pay when they leave Heathrow for destinations abroad?

My Lords, decisions on matters concerning taxation, including aviation, are for my right honourable friend the Chancellor. On 22 June 2010, the Chancellor announced that the Government would explore changes to the aviation tax system, including switching from a per-passenger to a per-plane duty and that they would consult on major changes. My right honourable friend will of course take into consideration all shades of opinion.

If the Government wish the UK to have an international hub airport, as we do, why do we not build one in the Thames estuary, which would be a greenfield site, would produce a lot of employment and would have lines that go straight into the European network?

My Lords, the department has no plans for a new airport in the Thames estuary or in any other part of Medway or Kent. We want to get the most out of existing airport infrastructure in the south-east, which is why we have established the South East Airports Taskforce.

Will consideration of more effective use of the airports include a look at the provision of take-off and landing slots, which currently owes a lot to history and very little to common economic imperatives?

My Lords, a future airspace strategy is being undertaken, which includes proposals to enable aircraft to fly in more environmentally efficient ways. For example, the introduction of new onboard and ground-based systems will allow pilots to fly more direct routes and therefore reduce fuel burn and enable aircraft to arrive punctually at the approach to Heathrow, which will provide controllers with much better opportunities to guide aircraft into Heathrow without first placing them in a stack.

Is the noble Lord aware that the simple problem is that we do not have enough tarmac or concrete at either Gatwick or Heathrow to get more planes in and out? Therefore, we either expand facilities in terms of more tarmac and concrete or we accept that the answer to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, is that, no, Heathrow will no longer be the busiest airport in the world.

My Lords, what about the second runway at Gatwick? Surely that must be up for a rethink and consultation.

My Lords, I made it clear in my initial responses that there would not be a second runway at Gatwick.

My Lords, the noble Lord knows, as do his colleagues, that Heathrow is operating at 97 per cent capacity. He also knows that, at the general election, his party was committed to blocking a third runway, which of course has effects on Heathrow’s future capacity. Today he has said that we have a South East Airports Taskforce. Is that the best response that the Government can make after years of policy formulation in this area?

My Lords, I think that I have made our policy clear. We cannot carry on increasing the number of airport runways in London and the south-east without adverse environmental effects.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that the night-flight regime, which limits night flights at Heathrow, comes to an end in 2012. Given the appalling history of consultations at Heathrow—narrow, biased and incomprehensible—will he meet with MPs and local community groups, or will he ask the Secretary of State to do so, so that a consultation is properly formulated, properly specified and meets the needs and purpose?

My Lords, I am confident that my ministerial colleagues have meetings as appropriate. On 7 September, the Minister of State laid a Written Ministerial Statement before Parliament on Heathrow operating procedures. That Statement confirmed that the Government would not approve the introduction of mixed mode, disturb the current arrangements for early-morning runway alternation, westerly preference and night-time rotation of easterly and westerly preference, or reopen the previous Government’s decision to end the Cranford agreement.

My Lords, I declare my interest as president of BALPA. In view of the Minister’s woeful comments, does he agree that there is really no alternative to Heathrow? Uncertainty is inimical to British aviation, particularly as far as passenger transport is concerned. Would it not make more sense to ensure now that the present situation at Heathrow is not imperilled and that the airport is expanded? What viable alternative is there?

My Lords, I have to say again that we believe that an additional runway would significantly damage the quality of local communities. It would also cause an unacceptable level of environmental damage, undermining our efforts to combat climate change.