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Northern Powerhouse: Airports

Volume 767: debated on Monday 23 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the potential impact of additional capacity at either Heathrow or Gatwick airports on the Northern Powerhouse project.

My Lords, the Government are currently considering all the work of the independent Airports Commission before making any decisions about additional airport capacity. The northern powerhouse initiative aims to harness investment and drive economic growth in the north. Any activity under the Government’s plan for the economy will be complementary in order to provide the best conditions for a successful economy across the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the south-east of England has one-third of the population of the UK and two-thirds of the flights, yet airports such as Birmingham and Manchester have significant spare capacity. Does the Minister accept concerns about the distorting effect of further airport expansion in the south-east? Is he worried that, when the chief executive of Heathrow appeared before a committee in the other place, he failed to provide any detailed strategy for reducing air pollution at Heathrow, which already breaches legal limits?

My Lords, on the noble Baroness’s second point, as I am sure she is aware, the Airports Commission has detailed quite extensively—whatever proposal is taken forward—the issue of environmental considerations, including noise pollution. On airports in the north of England, as I am sure she is aware, while there have been capacity issues in the south-east, which are being looked at, we have also seen the expansion of services in the north. Manchester International Airport is now the UK’s third busiest airport and will benefit over the next 10 years from another £1 billion of investment.

Does the Minister agree that the key to this is to understand that we need a hub airport, wherever it is, and all regional airports need connectivity to that because, if they do not have that, they are at a severe disadvantage particularly to continental airports? We must have regional connectivity with an effective hub airport, wherever that is.

The noble Lord raises an important point. I agree with him: hub airports provide that connectivity and we are seeing that. I alluded to the growth of Manchester. We have seen Manchester become a hub airport for the region. Connectivity is about not just air connectivity but surface connectivity. As I am sure the noble Lord knows, I am glad to report that in terms of both road and rail we are providing just that connectivity across airports.

My Lords, are the Government still fully committed to producing their decision about London’s airports before Christmas?

My noble friend raises a question that he has asked before, and I will give him the answer that I have given before. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has given an assurance that we will make a decision before Christmas. The other thing that my right honourable friend has underlined is that we need to consider the findings of the Airports Commission’s report extensively. It is an extensive report. We need to look at it in a detailed manner to ensure that there is no subsequent judicial review on any proposal taken forward.

Does the Minister recognise that the north has already lost out because of slow decision-making over an airport in the south-east? Teesside’s Durham Tees Valley Airport no longer has any connectivity with London and the connectivity at Newcastle has been severely reduced. This affects our economy. The north-east is still the largest manufacturing region in the country, but much of our work is with Japanese companies. They wonder how on earth they are to get there, when they cannot do so directly when flying into a London airport.

I do not agree with the noble Baroness’s conclusion, although I do agree that there was a lack of investment in the north. The previous Government and now this one have given the commitment to ensure that there is investment, with £13 billion of transport investment going forward in this Parliament. As regards connectivity from north-east to north-west, the noble Baroness is aware that Transport for the North has extensive connectivity plans and I am sure that she welcomes the fact, as I do, that we now have regional airports such as Manchester serving not just the domestic European community—she throws her arms up, but I do not agree with her. The Chinese President himself made a positive announcement, which I think that she should appreciate.

My Lords, the Minister is well aware that any owner of a new runway in the south-east will need to fill it rapidly to repay the cost of having built it and that the fastest route is to persuade the international airlines not to fly directly to Birmingham, Manchester and other regional airports, but to come through Heathrow, with a hub relationship only with those airports. Has he examined what this will do to undermine the northern powerhouse, which is seeking international investment and needs direct international connectivity?

The northern powerhouse is not being undermined but supported by the Government, as the recent announcement about the link to direct flights to China indicates. As regards the decisions that airlines take, the noble Baroness is aware from her time as a Minister for transport that that is very much up to the airlines themselves.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the importance of rail connectivity for Manchester Airport. Can he confirm that it is still the Government’s intention to ensure that there is a direct rail connection from north Wales and Chester through to Manchester without having to change train? This has long been on the agenda, but it has not yet been delivered.

The Government have repeatedly given their assurance not just about connectivity, as I said, on rail in the south-east, but also that the investment that we are making across railways throughout the country, including the new investment in HS2, will ensure greater connectivity between all parts of the country. I will look into the specific route that he has mentioned and write to him.

My Lords, the Minister has referred to the decision on the recommendation of the Davies commission report in respect of a third runway at Heathrow being made by Christmas. Can he confirm that that will be a final decision and not simply an interim one?

I think the noble Lord is clutching at straws. I have made clear the Government’s position. A decision will be made on the Airports Commission’s findings, and I ask him to wait until that is made.

My Lords, I take it we are talking about this Christmas. Could we have an assurance from my noble friend that the announcement will be made to Parliament and not when Parliament has risen?

As I said, I am not going to give an absolute assurance at this point about the timing of the decision. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that a decision will be made. I also speak for the Secretary of State for Transport, who has also indicated that we will come back with that decision to Parliament, and I am sure that an appropriate Question or debate will be tabled right here in this Chamber as well.