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RAF Northolt: Commercial Flights

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to increase the capacity for short-haul commercial flights at RAF Northolt.

My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the families and friends of Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron from the 1st Battalion Scots Guards and Captain Lisa Head from 321 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron, 11 EOD Regiment Royal Logistics Corps, who both died as a result of injuries sustained on operations in Afghanistan. My thoughts are also with the wounded and I pay tribute to the courage and fortitude with which they face their rehabilitation.

We are able to generate income from the existing surplus capacity at RAF Northolt providing that this is consistent with Ministry of Defence business and operational requirements. There are no plans currently to increase the capacity for short-haul commercial flights but, as with all MoD assets, alternative uses and other sources of income generation are kept under review.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to be associated with my noble friend’s remarks about the two heroes and their families. As for his Answer, it was much more favourable and positive than I expected. Pushing my luck a little, perhaps I may ask whether he envisages that there will be, or could be, a lengthening of the runway at Northolt?

My Lords, I am sorry to disappoint my noble friend, but we have no plans to extend the runway. Any proposals for development of RAF Northolt would need to be considered on their individual merits, taking into account defence requirements as well as economic and environmental considerations and the impact on the local community.

My Lords, I should like to associate these Benches with the Minister’s condolences to the families and friends of Colour Sergeant Alan Cameron and Captain Lisa Head, both of whom died as a result of injuries sustained in Afghanistan. I should also like to associate these Benches with the Minister’s thoughts and tributes regarding the wounded.

The exchange that we have just heard might lead one to the view that Northolt is being seen as, shall we say, a stealth third runway for Heathrow. That would not be an uncontroversial idea. Can the Minister assure me that before any decision is taken to significantly increase commercial traffic there will be a full impact analysis of the effect on surface transport and aircraft noise as well as of any other environmental effects?

My Lords, the impact on the local population needs to be considered before any changes are made, and I do not underestimate their concern about the adverse impact of any potential increase in the number of civil movements above the 7,000 per year limit. Commitments have been made previously to consult prior to any increase above the current ceiling, and I am happy to repeat the commitment to consult appropriately now.

My Lords, first, on behalf of these Benches I join in the tributes to those who have fallen and to the wounded. On the Question, does the Minister agree that where high-speed rail networks have been developed domestically in countries across the globe, domestic air travel has shrunk or even collapsed? Therefore, there has to be another and better route to a future for Northolt. The focus should be on high-speed rail, not expanding domestic aviation.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. A national high-speed rail network would provide an attractive alternative to domestic aviation in both its initial and subsequent phases and would therefore reduce the pressure on Heathrow. Around 7 per cent of Heathrow passengers travel on domestic routes which could be served by high-speed rail, and 8 per cent are short-haul passengers.

I speak as the president of the British Airline Pilots Association. Although the restricted use of Northolt is worthy of consideration, the extended use of Heathrow is vital. Is it not clear that the longer the Government prevaricate over this issue, the more the benefits will accrue to French and German aviation at the expense of their British counterparts?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord as a very distinguished president of BALPA. Heathrow currently operates at around 99 per cent capacity, and we cannot let it grow out of control, but the Government are committed to developing a new policy framework for the whole of UK aviation which supports economic growth and addresses aviation’s environmental impact. We want to see a successful and competitive aviation industry that supports economic growth and addresses the environmental impacts. Aviation should be able to grow, but to do so it must play its part in delivering our environmental goals and protecting the quality of life of local communities.

My Lords, what is the total number of military and civilian air traffic movements at Northolt in any one year, and are there any air traffic control constraints due to the closeness of Heathrow and the overall impact of its terminal marshalling area—TMA?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first question, I do not have those figures with me but will write to him. As for proximity to Heathrow, both military and civil flights are subject to very strict air traffic control procedures.

My Lords, the noble Lord has talked about an aviation strategy but in an earlier answer he made it clear that high-speed rail also has an important role to play. As there are also objections to high-speed rail on environmental grounds, do the Government have a co-ordinated transport policy which puts aviation together with rail and road transport?

My Lords, that would all be covered in the Department for Transport’s new aviation policy framework, which would look right the way across the board.

My Lords, since it appears to have fallen to the noble Lord to answer questions on aviation, which I do not think is his normal brief, would he be kind enough to convey to his colleagues in the Department for Transport that, as welcome as the Government’s current position on airport expansion is, for communities where there are airports it is none the less extremely difficult to live with continuing uncertainty? Every time a decision is taken and the question is then raised of whether it might be overturned, it creates a new kind of blight in each of those communities. Perhaps he would convey that to his colleagues.

My Lords, I am answering this Question because RAF Northolt is primarily a defence institution. However, I will of course pass on the noble Baroness’s point to the Department for Transport.