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Airports: Expansion

Volume 769: debated on Thursday 10 March 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether a final decision will be taken on airports expansion before the summer recess.

My Lords, a number of important decisions on airport capacity were taken by the Government in December, including the decision to expand airport capacity in the south-east. However, we must take the time to get the location decision right.

It is important. The Government are further considering the environmental impacts, which I am sure all noble Lords recognise, and the best possible measures to mitigate the impacts of expansion. This work will be concluded by the summer.

As the Minister will be aware, various Governments have avoided taking a decision on where to put a runway in the south-east since the Second World War, so he is in good company in failing to be too precise about exactly when that decision might be taken. We are all aware of the gathering political storms which may yet blow the Government off course. If we eventually get a decision, given all the work that the Airports Commission has done over the past few years and the further work that the Government have been undertaking on specific issues, might the Minister be in a position to publish a draft national policy statement at the same time as the announcement?

The noble Baroness is quite right to mention the incredible amount of work that the Davies commission has done, which the Government have acknowledged; I have done so several times from the Dispatch Box. Of course—I say this just for clarification on the issue—we will be moving forward in summer 2016. The noble Baroness raised a point about the policy statement. Once the decision is made, there will be a consultation around the policy statement, as I am sure she is aware, and once a development order is laid there are quite specific timelines that will be followed in line with the Planning Act 2008.

Is the Minister aware that the runway would be built by now if the Government had accepted the recommendation of the last Labour Government? Is he also aware that if you go to any aviation conference in this country or overseas there is utter amazement that we cannot make a decision on such a key infrastructure project?

It was really for the Labour Government to act on the Labour Government’s own policy. The Conservative Government are very clear. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, David Cameron, launched the Davies commission. It has reported. We have accepted the principles behind the report. We have accepted the work done behind the report. The noble Lord mentioned conferences around the world. In my capacity as Minister for Aviation Security, I attend such conferences, and I find utmost respect for British aviation and the Government’s considered position on this issue.

My Lords, as far as the position of the Labour and Conservative Governments are concerned, will my noble friend note that in 1974 the Conservative Government had all the legislation, planning permission and so on for an airport at Maplin, and Labour came in and dropped it on the grounds that the forecast had been exaggerated? If it had not done so, we would have had an airport at Maplin for many years.

My noble friend makes a very valid point. This Government have been very clear that we have accepted the principle of expansion in the south-east, and we are committed to that. In summer this year we will report back on the important environmental considerations, which must be considered as part of this important decision.

Is the Minister aware that 69% of pre-orders for new planes are for so-called hub-busting models? In the light of this, does he still think that Britain needs a new hub airport, or is the hub model rapidly becoming yesterday’s plan?

Not only does Britain need a hub airport, Britain has hub airports and they play an important part in aviation capacity around the world. In terms of orders for planes, it is really for airlines themselves to decide on a commercial basis what type of aircraft they require.

My question is on the same theme as that of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. Will the Minister assure the House that, if perchance the referendum says no, the Government will still make the decision to press ahead with expansion in the south-east and Heathrow?

We should not convolute the issues here. In terms of the referendum specifically, it was the previous Government under our current Prime Minister who gave the commitment that the people of this country would decide, and they will decide on 23 June.

My Lords, the Minister has not said clearly whether the Government will make a decision by the Summer Recess. He may know that the CBI has estimated that Britain will lose £31 billion in trade by 2030 with the BRIC countries if our airport capacity is not expanded. I ask him to be clearer and confirm that the Government will make a decision, on whichever option—we will never find an option that keeps everyone happy. The Government must now confirm that they are going to decide by the Summer Recess.

The Government have been very clear that the reasons why we are taking further consideration are the issues of environmental mitigation, which the Davies commission mentioned, and community engagement and noise and air pollution, which we are considering very carefully. It is right that we are taking the time to consider the decision. We will conclude those further considerations by the summer. The Government are acutely aware of the point my noble friend makes about the £31 billion loss and of the need to progress on this decision.

My Lords, we all enjoy the Minister scurrying around in the long grass on this issue, but could he give a clear definition on behalf of the Government of what period “summer” covers?

Some would define it by when the sun shines, but I am certainly not going to say that. I think we are quite clear when we talk about the summer period: often it is when noble Lords enjoy their Recess.

My Lords, on a slightly different angle, I understand that Heathrow has increased its capacity by spacing aircraft by time, not by distance. Is this practice being extended to Gatwick and Stansted?

I will write to the noble Lord on the issue of Gatwick and Stansted, but he is right to point out that existing capacity has been increased. Again, that is down to the world-beating talent and expertise that we have at NATS. Other Governments—indeed, recently I had discussions with the Government of Singapore in this respect—are also looking at deploying the expertise of NATS.