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Airports: Expansion

Volume 768: debated on Thursday 4 February 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they are fully committed to choosing either Heathrow or Gatwick for airport expansion, or are still considering other options.

My Lords, on 14 December 2015, the Government formally announced that they accepted the Airports Commission’s case for new runway capacity in the south-east, as well as the commission’s three shortlisted schemes; namely, additional runways at Gatwick or Heathrow, or an extension to the existing northern runway at Heathrow. The Government will not be considering any other options.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Unfortunately I am disappointed by it. There is some confusion in my mind, and perhaps in that of the Government as well, as to whether this airport expansion is primarily to provide extra capacity for the crowded south-east or whether it is to establish an up-to-date hub airport to rival those in Europe. If it is to establish a first-class, international hub airport, surely it is better located outside the south-east. Will the Government not consider Birmingham, linked of course to HS2? That option presents far fewer problems than those facing Heathrow and Gatwick; it is much closer to Britain’s centre of gravity and is half way to the aspirational northern powerhouse.

As far as the expansion of south-east capacity is concerned, the Government are committed to the findings of the Airports Commission. That is in no sense to take away from the importance of our regional airports. Indeed, all regional airports, including Birmingham, mentioned by the noble Earl, are already benefiting from increased investment and are an important part of UK plc’s competitive global offering across the world.

My Lords, given that this state of affairs has been arrived at after something like 20 years, is it now considered fairly urgent that we should think about a completely new airport?

I think that I have made the Government’s position quite clear. The commission was set up by the previous Government under the guidance of the current Prime Minister in 2012. It reported its findings. It was a comprehensive review. As I said in my earlier Answer, the Government are committed to its conclusions and the three options it presented, all being viable options. We will proceed on those. The commission also said that the decision needed to be made and the airport needed to be operating by 2030. That is certainly the timetable that the Government are committed to.

My Lords, is it not the case that the Airports Commission was set up by the previous Government as a means of keeping this particular ball in the air because the Government were not prepared to make a decision? That was at a direct cost of at least £20 million. The ball has now been kicked firmly into the long grass and every so often the Transport Secretary kicks it further away from a decision. If the Government really believe that the decision to increase airport capacity is urgent and important, how much longer will they dither over this issue because they do not want to make a political decision?

The Government have been quite clear: the reasons for further consideration included environmental issues such as air pollution—a subject close to the noble Lord’s heart. This is not about keeping things up in the air. On the contrary, it is about getting those things in the air down on the ground.

My Lords, should we not recollect that major international airlines cannot be compelled to fly into airports they do not wish to go to? Should we not all agree now that the alternatives to Heathrow are not Birmingham or Stansted, but Schiphol, Paris and Frankfurt? Either we can have the business in this country, in London, or it will go to the continent.

My noble friend raises an important point. On the first element, the commercial decisions on air slots are very much for the airlines to make. As for the competitiveness of London vis-à-vis competitors in Europe, that is one reason why the Government are committed to further expansion of air capacity in the south-east.

My Lords, has anyone actually asked passengers what they want? Has there been a recent independent survey of the views of passengers in the north and the Midlands? There is considerable resentment among both business and leisure passengers about the problems they face in travelling so far to reach a hub airport in the south of England.

On the subject of specific surveys, I will write to the noble Baroness about those two areas. However, as she is no doubt aware, Manchester, for example, will also benefit from £1 billion of investment over the next 10 years—and there are other regional airports. Indeed, I was looking forward to a question from the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie of Luton—but I may pre-empt that if I add that Luton, too, has benefited. Further to the noble Lord’s previous question, I am glad to say that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State recently visited Luton and saw the excellent facilities there.

My Lords, will the Government clarify the questions that they are now asking about extra runway capacity, and the options that they do not believe were fully addressed or answered in the Airports Commission report? Which bodies and organisations are they now asking to provide views and information on the questions that they are still asking?

As I have already said, some of the criticisms of the commission’s report were about environmental issues, particularly noise and air pollution—and those are part and parcel of the Government’s further considerations. All relevant bodies making representations will be part of that consultation process.

My Lords, can the Minister promise us faithfully that we will have a decision on expansion at Heathrow Airport after the elections for London Mayor?

I can assure the noble Baroness—I speak for all my noble friends on the Front Bench and beyond—that we always seek to give answers faithfully from this Dispatch Box.