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Airport Capacity

Volume 767: debated on Monday 14 December 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement about airport policy. Aviation is a British success story. Today we have the third-largest aviation network in the world, second only to the US and China, but with that success comes challenges. Heathrow is full; Gatwick is filling up. If no action is taken, the entire London system will be full by 2040. Yet we need new connections to new cities in new economies. There are other challenges, too. Airports create jobs and opportunities. Technology is changing. Planes are becoming quieter and more efficient. But there is still, inevitably, an environmental impact.

To some, the arguments seem simple—oppose all expansion anywhere, or back it, but always somewhere else. And yes, there are opportunities in our network of national airports, with global connections from cities such as Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle. But growth here will come alongside growth in the south-east, not instead of it. That is why in September 2012 Sir Howard Davies was asked to lead a commission on the issue. Its final report was published less than six months ago. It made a strong case for expansion in the south-east. We have considered the evidence. The Government accept the case for expansion, and accept the Airports Commission’s shortlist of options for expansion. We will begin work straightaway on preparing the building blocks for an airports national policy statement, in line with the Planning Act 2008. Putting this new framework into place will be essential groundwork for implementing the decisions we take on capacity, wherever new capacity is to be built. That is the issue I want to turn to now.

Sir Howard Davies and his team produced a powerful report. Heathrow Airport Ltd’s scheme was recommended by the Airports Commission, but all three schemes were deemed viable. We are continuing to consider all three schemes, and we want to see action, but we must get the next steps right, both for those keen to push ahead with expansion and for those who will be affected by it. So we will undertake a package of further work.

First, we must deal with air quality. I want to build confidence that expansion can take place within legal limits, so we will accept the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation to test the commission’s work against the Government’s new air quality plan. Secondly, we must deal with concerns about noise. I want to get the best possible outcome on this for local residents, so we will engage further with the promoters to make sure the best package of noise mitigation measures are in place. Thirdly, we must deal with carbon emissions, so we will look at measures to mitigate carbon impacts and address the sustainability concerns, particularly during construction. Fourthly, we must manage the other impacts on local communities. I want people who stand to lose their homes to be properly compensated for the impacts of expansion, and I want local people to have the best access to the opportunities that expansion will bring, including new jobs and apprenticeships. So we will develop detailed community mitigation measures for each of the shortlisted options.

We expect to conclude this package of work by the summer. Crucially, this means the timetable for delivering additional capacity set out by Sir Howard does not alter. The commission reported that an additional runway would be required by 2030, and we intend to meet that. In saying this, I am fully aware that some will wish we could go further and others will wish we were not making such progress. We are prepared for that because I want to get this decision right. That means getting the environmental response right and in the mean time getting on with the hard work to build new capacity to the timetable set out by Sir Howard in the commission’s report. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place this afternoon by the Secretary of State. It is typical of this Government that they should make the announcement that the commitment the Prime Minister gave to make a decision this month no longer stood, at a time when Parliament could not be told and was not in a position to hold the Government to account for nearly four days. I do not intend to spend any time on the entirely credible point that this Government’s decision to delay on a matter of national interest—not simply that of London and the south-east—is rooted in their own party political considerations, even though the Minister must know that has been an important factor.

I have one or two points to make, and then I have a number of questions. As recently as 23 November, in response to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, the Government repeated the Prime Minister’s assurance that a decision on London’s airports would be made before Christmas. When another noble Lord asked for confirmation that that decision would be final, not simply interim, he was told by the Minister that the Government’s position had been made clear and that he was clutching at straws. As we now find out, just three weeks later, he was in reality clutching at incredibly strong straws.

One area where this Government and their Prime Minister are extremely decisive is when it comes to avoiding decisions. Airport capacity in the south-east is simply yet another such case. Bearing in mind that the Government recently repeated the Prime Minister’s assurance that a decision would be made before Christmas, what issue has arisen or what information has come to light between 23 November and last Thursday evening, 10 December, that is of such significance as to require a further delay in making a decision, and yet was not known about before 23 November and could not, and did not, come to light during the lengthy consideration by the Davies commission or in the six months since the commission published its findings and recommendations? That is six months during which the Government have been considering the findings and recommendations of the Davies commission report, including on environmental considerations and air quality, for which the commission said there should be statutory guarantees. The items to be looked at, as set out in the Statement, are not new. They should have been being looked at during the past six months, and should have been known about when the Government gave a commitment to make a decision this month.

What specific further investigations or studies do the Government now intend to undertake to enable them to come to a decision, who will undertake those and within what timescale? Will the Government give an assurance that the results of those further studies and investigations will be made public well before a final decision is made? Will the Davies commission be asked to consider them, and say whether they would have led it to reach different findings or recommendations, with the views of the commission again being made public well before a decision is made by the Government?

We agree that there is a clear and immediate need for additional runway capacity in the south-east of England and a need to ensure that environmental and community concerns are balanced against the economic and operational case for expansion. The Government recently announced the setting up of the National Infrastructure Commission, headed by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to provide independent, authoritative advice on the merits and compatibility of major infrastructure projects, including when they need to be undertaken. Will the Minister say why the Government believe that the lengthy indecision over future airport capacity and additional runways we have faced and continue to face would have been avoided under the new National Infrastructure Commission? What would have been different had the National Infrastructure Commission been in existence earlier? In view of the further government delay of many months in reaching a decision, will the Minister indicate whether the Government will now take the opportunity to seek the views and advice of the National Infrastructure Commission on the most appropriate long-term decision on airport expansion in the south-east?

Will the Minister confirm what, if anything, the Government are committed to in relation to increased airport capacity in the south-east? Are they committed to at least one additional runway somewhere in the south-east? Significantly, the Statement does not directly answer that question. Will the Government also say when they expect to announce a decision? The Statement does not specifically say when there will be such a decision, only when the Government expect a package of work to be concluded, which is a totally different issue.

We appear to have moved backwards in time, because the Government have indicated that the option of an additional runway at Gatwick is still in the frame, as well as that of a third runway at Heathrow, as recommended by the Davies commission. The uncertainty and blight for those living near Heathrow and Gatwick continue for an apparently potentially lengthy period, as it does for the less than impressed business community, which is worried about the impact on the economy.

Finally, we are still left to deal with the immediate problems of airport capacity in the south-east. Heathrow is effectively full, and Gatwick is operating at 85% capacity. What, if any, plans do the Government now have to ease this problem, which is already having adverse impacts? In the light of the apparent further lengthy delay in making a decision—which simply adds to the delay caused by the time it took to set up the Davies commission, and the decision that its report and recommendations should not appear until after the general election—do the Government intend to address the lack of capacity in the south-east as it stands, bearing in mind that additional capacity is clearly some considerable time away?

The Minister has my sympathy this evening because this delay is clearly all about Zac and Boris and has nothing to do with the need to look at air quality in greater detail. However, it gives us an opportunity to push the Government on the issues mentioned in the Statement and to test them. Surface transport access to Heathrow and Gatwick airports is an essential part of solving this problem, yet there is no reference to issues relating to it in the Statement. Will the Minister say whether there will be public investment in the surface transport infrastructure that is badly needed, or only private investment by Heathrow and Gatwick airports? Heathrow seems to believe that public investment will be needed; Gatwick seems to believe that it will not. I will be grateful for the Government’s take on this issue.

Given the further delay to which the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, just referred and the pressure it will cause, will the Government agree to look again at the increased use of regional airports alongside the work they are doing on the Davies solutions to airport capacity? Hub airports have moved on. We are in danger of answering yesterday’s question today; indeed, in the case of Heathrow, we are in danger of answering the day before yesterday’s question today, because this saga has gone on for so long. Dubai and Schiphol are now well established as the world’s hub airports, and a new generation of planes makes certain aspects of this issue redundant, so this question could be overtaken by events.

The Liberal Democrats have always believed that there needs to be much better use of existing spare capacity, which will need better surface connection before we expand Heathrow or Gatwick in the near future. However, if there is to be another air quality report, who will do it, to whom will it report and will that report be published in full? Any additional work on air quality must have greater public confidence than the work the Davies commission was able to produce.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their contributions. The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked a series of questions about the responses given in November and subsequently, and what factors have been considered. As I have said, we are emphasising the importance of environmental considerations regarding both air quality and other pollution, such as noise pollution.

One significant development, which I am sure the noble Lord is aware of, is that on 26 November a decision was taken by the Environmental Audit Committee specifically on outlining the need to ensure that, whatever decision is taken:

“On air quality, the Government will need to re-examine the Commission’s findings in the light of its finalised air quality strategy”.

I pick up the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, on the specific issue of air quality. The commission published a large amount of analysis on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. We will therefore accept the committee’s recommendation to test the commission’s work against the Government’s new air quality plan, which I am sure she is aware will be published very shortly. We will develop measures to mitigate impacts on local people and the environment.

The noble Baroness rightly raised the important issue of surface access to airports. The Government have a plan for investment in road and rail transport networks to promote growth. The Government’s road strategy for 2015-20, which I am sure she is aware of, includes investments that will improve strategic road access to Gatwick, Manchester, East Midlands, Birmingham, Heathrow and Stansted airports. I know that she has mentioned, and is a strong advocate for, regional airports, which I also support. I have always said that they are part of the overall offering of UK plc when it comes to airport capacity.

The noble Baroness may well also be aware that, as part of the Thameslink programme, we will deliver new state-of-the-art trains on the line between Brighton, Gatwick Airport and London by 2016. By 2018 these trains will start operating on two direct services connecting Gatwick to Peterborough and Cambridge, following the completion of the Thameslink programme. Turning briefly to Heathrow, I am sure noble Lords will be aware that in 2019 Crossrail will start running to Heathrow Airport and improve access to London City Airport from the west. Most recently, there have been improvements to the station at Gatwick as well. I am sure that noble Lords acknowledge that surface transport is an important part of whatever final decision is taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, asked various questions, such as what additional steps may be taken with regard to the final decision that we will be moving to. I mentioned in my Statement that we are looking to move forward on this and come to our conclusions by summer 2016. In terms of reviewing the position on all three options, we will be giving further policy consideration and prioritisation to the commission’s package in respect of both Heathrow and Gatwick. We want the best deal for all affected communities, as I said, particularly on the areas of noise mitigation, including respite; air-quality mitigation strategies related to that; offers to local communities, which I mentioned in the Statement, specifically relating to compensation and job opportunities in terms of apprenticeships and employment; wider housing issues and infrastructure considerations; and of course the importance of carbon impact mitigation and sustainability, particularly during the construction phase. We will also be considering how to engage with and take account of community and wider aviation views. There will of course be further engagement with scheme promoters on expansion, specific mitigations, public commitments and the potential to maintain some competitiveness between the different options.

As I have said, the Government have moved forward on this. We have agreed with the Davies commission conclusions, which did not rule out any of the three options. We sustain these and continue to work on ensuring that the important issues of noise mitigation and wider environmental impacts are duly considered as part of the Government’s decision.

My Lords, “Zac 1, United Kingdom 0” just about sums up my own view about the present situation, although I have to say that the Opposition are not throwing any particular light on the issue or coming up with any solutions of their own. Would the Minister at least concede that if this goes on for much longer, Heathrow Airport will drop out of the premier league of international airports; that Britain will be an island without an airport entry point commensurate with its economic size; and that the loss of jobs and investment will be massive, just at the time when some people think there is going to be an economic recession? Is this not a rather serious situation?

I thank my noble friend for his questions. He has been a consistent and vociferous questioner on this issue; indeed, he has another Question on the subject on Wednesday. He mentioned a particular scoreline. To get political for a moment, I certainly hope that there is a 1-0 scoreline when it comes to the May election in favour of my honourable friend in the other place.

My noble friend talked about the impact on the economy. I agree with him, and the Government feel very strongly that there is a need to make a decision that is based on the right decisions for the economy, the country and, as I have said specifically in my Statement, the environment.

We are now well connected. As my noble friend points out, there are constraints and they are beginning to bite. By 2040, all major south-eastern airports will be full. Failing to address this would cost passengers between £21 billion and £23 billion, and of course there would be wider indications for the economy, estimated to be in the region of £30 billion to £45 billion. However, with regard to the timetable of summer 2016 that I have talked about, the Davies commission reported that, whatever decision or option was chosen, we would need to complete by 2030. I assure the noble Lord that this would still allow for that decision to be taken and the appropriate expansion to take place in good time to meet the 2030 deadline.

My Lords, this is an absolute abdication of responsibility. British aviation has been put in a secondary position compared with other vital industries. What has been advanced is the interests of the Conservative Party, and as a result our competitors are going to be richly rewarded. Putting aside the Minister’s discomfort, should we not consider how best British aviation can recover from this grievous blow? Meanwhile, words hurriedly uttered by the Minister are no alternative to government policy.

I assure the noble Lord that we are moving forward. I have talked of the timetable that we are moving to. As I said earlier, it will ensure that we meet the required deadline. Whatever decision is taken, the Government have accepted in principle the findings of the Davies commission. Three options were put forward and none was discarded by the commission. We are ensuring that all three stay on the table, and we are firmly committed to south-eastern airport expansion. The important thing is to ensure that all considerations are taken into account. With the timetable that we have outlined, we will be able to proceed forward. It will be a great asset for UK plc to ensure that we reach a decision quickly on south-eastern airport expansion capacity in summer next year.

Does the Minister understand how deeply frustrated the business community feels about this further delay? We had a three-year independent commission, which was supposed to take the politics out of it, but it has come back into political soup. It appears that the Government have answered the interim report of two years ago, which suggested that we focus on three options and that we accept that there was a need for expansion in the south-east. I do not understand what progress has been made in the last two years. In the interim report there was a recommendation for an independent noise ombudsman to sort out the noise issues. We have known for 15 years that we are in breach of European air-quality limits in London. It is simply unclear to me what the Government have been doing for the last three years.

We are moving forward. We will begin work straightaway on preparing the building blocks for an airports national policy statement, as I said in my earlier Statement; that is the most appropriate vehicle to set the framework for the planning consent for new capacity. Noble Lords should be assured that, with the proposals we are moving forward on and the important consideration being given to environmental impacts, we will still be able to move forward on whatever decision is taken in line with the Davies commission proposals.

My Lords, can the Minister comment on the remarks made by the chief executive officer of International Airlines Group, who said that as far as the airlines are concerned there is basically no business case at all for the extension of Gatwick? When he focused his comments on the Heathrow proposal, he said that the runway would cost £182 million but the total cost would be somewhere around £18.6 billion. He went on to say that this is a,

“gold-plated airport to fleece its customers”,

and that he would consider moving his business either to Madrid or Dublin. If we are to spend all that money on one of these options and if the response of the airlines is to move business away, with the attendant jobs, will the Minister say something about that to your Lordships’ House?

The right reverend Prelate raises the media report of comments made over the weekend by the chairman of IAG, which I have read. I assure the right reverend Prelate that we continue not just on this issue of airport expansion in the south-east but meet regularly with all airlines to ensure that, as we plan our infrastructure and how we plan to move forward on this agenda, airlines are part and parcel of our consultation. Obviously, the chairman has made some comments on issues he feels strongly about, but perhaps it would be inappropriate to speculate on the true intent behind his comments.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a regular flyer from Scotland to London who avoids Heathrow at every possible opportunity because of congestion, and as a member of the Economic Affairs Committee, which interviewed Sir Howard Davies when he published his report. Can my noble friend say how much the Davies report cost? Given that it was a very expensive, thorough and authoritative report, what is the point of commissioning a report which makes a clear recommendation, at very considerable cost to the taxpayer, and then ignoring it?

If I may, I will write specifically on the issue of cost, but it is not being ignored; estimates have been made of that. The important point my noble friend raises is about the commission. Yes, the previous Government initiated the commission in 2012. As I have said previously from this Dispatch Box, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that the report of the commission is duly considered, which we are doing and have done since its publication, and that will form the basis of however the Government choose to proceed. We are not discarding the findings of the Davies commission—on the contrary, we are supportive of them and are ensuring that all elements raised within the Davies commission and through the Audit Committee’s recent report are built into our response. We will move forward in a positive frame in that regard in the summer of next year.

My Lords, this is government with a vengeance: everything to do with the date of the mayoral elections in London and nothing to do with the environment. This has been trawled over for years. I will ask the Minister two specific questions. First, if the Government are going to resurrect the Gatwick proposal, has Gatwick local authority been consulted on the amount of storage space that will be required for all the cargo that arrives? Secondly, and very specifically—this is particularly important for the rest of the UK economy—have the Government taken into account the impact on the regional airports in the regions of Britain if Heathrow does not get that extra runway, thus enabling those regional airports to link into the global economy? Without that, there will be immense damage to business.

The noble Lord raises an important point about air freight, which of course contributes over 40% of the UK’s non-EU trade and over £140 billion in total, which is a very important part of the offering. As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, this is an important issue and one of the many factors we are considering. We will be working on the proposals in front of us from the Davies commission to ensure that the best decision is taken for expansion of airport capacity in the south-east. It is an important consideration and it will be part of our discussions going forward.

My Lords, might the Government consider spreading the pain and pollution by treating both Gatwick and Heathrow as just different terminals of the same London airport? A new runway at Gatwick, linked by dedicated high-speed rail link, might solve many of the problems that have been outlined this evening, as well as joining up the rail system with the other improvements that the Minister alluded to earlier.

The Davies commission put forward distinct proposals on south-east airport expansion. The important thing he raises, which the Government are fully committed to, as I have said earlier, is that when it comes not only to our airports in the south-east but our airports across the UK, we need to look at increased connectivity through surface transport. Indeed, a greater level of investment is going on through Crossrail, and the development of HS2 will ensure that our connectivity across our airports across the United Kingdom will be much stronger to allow for greater contributions to be made to economic development and to allow one airport to complement the other.

My Lords, the Minister has made much of the need for more capacity in the south-east and in the London system. Will he at last take the opportunity to acknowledge the role that London Luton Airport can play in delivering that extra capacity? In 2011, Luton accounted for 7% of passengers at London airports and on DfT forecasts it will contribute 17% of London passenger growth by 2030. While the Government have been dithering, a local public/private partnership has been getting on with investing £13 million, and will have invested up to £18 million by 2020. Will the Minister at last just acknowledge that that is a real contribution?

The noble Lord has asked me “at last” to acknowledge that, but I have previously done so and acknowledge again that London Luton Airport continues to be an important part of the UK plc airport offering. As he has just outlined, it has been a successful part of that contribution and I am confident that that contribution will grow in the months and years ahead.

My Lords, will the Minister not accept from me that even if a third runway at Heathrow or wherever were to be paved with gold, it matters little to some of us who cannot get access to it? The right reverend Prelate made the point about the comment made by the chief executive of IAG, which is only one comment. But the Minister will know of my interest in this matter; the regions do not have guaranteed access to a major piece of national infrastructure, and through European law the Secretary of State has no power to do anything about it and ensure access. Can the Minister revisit this issue, because it is fundamental? If it is a national piece of infrastructure, all parts of the nation should have access to it, but currently his department has no control over that.

I know that the noble Lord has raised this issue before and, again, I assure him that the Government have an answer to this. If a particular route is affected—for example, Gatwick to Newquay—the Government have stepped in when public concern has been expressed and have guaranteed support and financing for the route. We continue to ensure that all routes that need to be supported are supported. The Government take very seriously connectivity across the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

My Lords, the Statement says:

“We expect to conclude this package of work by the summer”.

I take it that that is not a firm promise, as the Prime Minister said from the Dispatch Box that the decision would be made by Christmas. For the avoidance of doubt, for clarity and to stop this whole thing becoming a total Whitehall farce, will the Minister say when exactly we can expect to get this report?

I think I have been clear in saying that it will be by the summer. If the noble Lord is asking me to specify the year, I do mean the summer of 2016.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as leader of a London borough council. Like hundreds of thousands of other Londoners, I welcome this stay of execution on Heathrow, although I see two nooses still hanging in the yard. The Minister referred to air quality and noise. A bigger Heathrow would fail on those. I put to him also the issue of security—it would be foolishness to fly another quarter of a million flights over our capital—and that good old Conservative principle of competition. How on earth can it be in our national interest to load more, as the right reverend Prelate reminded us, on to a single monopoly airport owned by foreign interests and hedge funds—our fair-weather friends in China and Qatar? Is not the truth that the Prime Minister took the right decision in 2010 with “no ifs, no buts”? Perhaps we should have got on with building the alternative then, and we should certainly do so now.

The analogy with nooses that my noble friend draws is certainly not how I or the Government view it. This is an opportunity to expand airport capacity in the south-east, which is a central part of ensuring the growth of our country and our future development. As I said, it is important that we listen to all views—the Airports Commission produced a very detailed and thorough piece of work—and that we consider all environmental impacts, including air quality, noise and carbon emissions. I know that my noble friend has made representations in this regard and we are listening to those representations. It is important that we make the right decision for the south-east, for our country and for moving our economy forward.

My Lords, someone coming anew to this debate and hearing the Minister’s opening remarks might think that Sir Howard and his colleagues set out three options, weighed them immaculately and left the choice open. It is hard to imagine a more thorough report than he and his colleagues wrote or a clearer conclusion and recommendation. What were the shortcomings in the report that have occasioned this delay? What did the commission not make clear?

One issue, which I mentioned earlier and which was referred to by the Environmental Audit Committee, was the need to ensure that air quality standards are applied to each proposal within each of the options that we are considering. We feel quite strongly that those need to be considered, reviewed and analysed so that we make the right decision on the basis of not just the economy but important environmental considerations.

My Lords, the failure to take this decision is seemingly either mind-blowingly incompetent or amazingly cynical. We have now had longer than the duration of the Second World War to think about this. As the noble Baroness said, in the last two years we seem to have gone round in circles. As I cannot believe that any Government would be so cynical over something so important for the wealth of our nation, I have to assume that it is mind-blowing incompetence. Will any heads roll in the Department for Transport because of this incompetence and failure to make a decision?

I totally disagree with the noble Lord. I do not think that it is either of the issues he proposed. I am sure he will recognise that it is important that these decisions are considered: they have to be the right decisions based on all the issues in front of us. The environment and environmental issues have been raised, and these are important considerations to ensure that we get the required expansion. I will be absolutely clear. I mentioned the summer of 2016. That timetable will in no sense delay the proposals in the Davies commission for achieving extra capacity by 2030.

My Lords, can the Minister now answer the question from the noble Lord, Lord Rosser? What has changed since the Government told the House that we would have a decision before Christmas? Or is it merely that the Cabinet as a whole lacks the moral courage to make the decision?

My noble friend has said something that I cannot agree with—and nor do I agree with it on principle. The Government have moved forward. We have agreed that airport expansion will take place in the south-east, and I am sure that he will acknowledge the importance of the environmental considerations. I said specifically that in the interim, on 26 November, we received a reasonable and full assessment from the Environmental Audit Committee and I quoted from its report. I commend the report to my noble friend, as he will see that we need to ensure that all the key environmental considerations are taken into account in making the final decision.

My Lords, perhaps I may correct an earlier omission in not drawing attention to my aviation interest in the register.