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Airports: London

Volume 745: debated on Monday 10 June 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to expedite the announcement of their policy on the future of London airports.

My Lords, the long-term question of aviation capacity is a matter of national importance. It is vital that the Airports Commission has sufficient time to carry out a thorough investigation of the options, and to build consensus around its long-term recommendations. The timetable set for its final report, by the summer of 2015, will allow this to take place, and will enable a stable, long-term solution to be found.

My Lords, does not the recommendation in the report of the Transport Select Committee that a rapid decision be made in the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow count for anything?

My Lords, we welcome the report of the Transport Select Committee but do not necessarily agree with all its conclusions. It is important that we have a solution that will withstand a change of government. The Crossrail and HS2 projects can withstand a change of government. We need a policy for Heathrow and the London hub that can also withstand a change of government.

The noble Earl wants a thorough inquiry, but we have been having thorough inquiries since the Maplin inquiry, which was about 50 years ago, so it would be quite nice if we could finish this. Had the Government taken on board the last Government’s position, we would be there now, which would be helpful. I put it to the Minister that there is a danger of an unconsidered policy developing on this, since we now have six London airports with seven runways—or seven airports, if you include the newly renamed London Oxford Airport. I do not know how far this is going to go on until we actually get a proper policy.

The noble Lord knows very well that the issue is not about point-to-point capacity with the various London airports; it is about hub capacity.

On the subject of hub capacity, is it not relevant to think in terms of which airlines bring people into Heathrow who require the access to a hub? Many airports cater for people who are coming to the United Kingdom for short or long stays, and they do not need to interline. The announcement this morning of Birmingham Airport’s massive expansion, and the fact that it is going to be 35 minutes from the centre of London, should also be taken into account.

My noble friend makes many very good points, and I am sure that the Airport Commission will take them into consideration.

I speak as the life president of BALPA. The inordinate delay in making a decision about the siting of a major airport in London can only result in benefiting Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt. Any alternative to Heathrow is bound to take a huge amount of time to come into operation, whereas Heathrow, properly adapted, is ready now. Is it not the most obvious choice for any Government to enable them to make a speedy decision, which will not result in giving an advantage to other airports in Europe?

My Lords, Heathrow has one fundamental disadvantage: there are 220,000 who live within the 57 decibel noise contour, making it a very difficult problem to overcome.

My Lords, in his initial Answer, my noble friend talked about the importance of taking three years over this and the fact that a decision would not come until just after the next general election. Is he aware that the Government, who keep pressing for more economic growth, are in danger of being charged with dithering, given that a speedy resolution to this will do more to promote economic growth than many of the other things that we all read about in the newspapers?

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that one of the difficulties of this open-ended discussion, which has, as my noble friend Lord Soley has said many times, been going on for a very long time, is that a lot of areas are under constant threat and the blight that occurs in them is very damaging to the communities that live there? Is it possible for the Government at least to start ruling some things out, rather than leaving every option on the table?

As usual, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. The Airports Commission has been charged with reporting by December this year to rule out certain options.

Given that the legislation for a hub at Maplin Sands went through with comparatively few problems back in the mid-1970s, is there not a case for looking at that site again?

My Lords, the Airports Commission will look at all sites including Maplin Sands or the Thames Estuary airport, and will then come up with a shortlist of which options need to be looked at in greater detail.

The Minister has shown great sagacity in indicating that there may be a change in government. His answers thus far have indicated that one of the two parties that form the coalition votes on one great negative—namely, no to the third runway at Heathrow—and intends to present itself before the next election with absolutely no advance in policy whatever.

It was the party opposite that came up with a policy for a third runway at Heathrow with no consensus and therefore it did not survive a change in government.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that any decision on the future of London’s airports will be taken in the light of a coherent and integrated transport policy for this country, involving both rail and road?

Absolutely, my Lords. The Airports Commission is charged with taking that into consideration, particularly as regards rail connectivity.

The Minister does not exactly give the impression of a Government who are anxious to find a speedy solution to this problem. He keeps saying that the policy has to survive the next election. What consultative processes does he have in place for trying to ensure that it will survive the next election? Is he, for example, discussing it with other parties?

My Lords, currently it is planned that the final report of the Airports Commission will come out after the next election. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, and I could have a chat before the next election but, even though he and I have solved a lot of problems together and we have rarely needed to seek the opinion of the House, I suspect that this matter will be far beyond our pay grade to determine.