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Airport Expansion

Volume 802: debated on Monday 2 March 2020


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in another place on airport expansion. The Statement is as follows:

“Madam Deputy Speaker, the Secretary of State is very sorry that he is unable to be here today. He is visiting the north as a long-standing commitment for discussions with northern leaders following the Government’s takeover of the Northern franchise. It is a pleasure to respond on his behalf as Minister for Aviation.

Airport expansion is a core part of boosting our global connectivity and levelling up the UK. It is crucial that vital infrastructure projects, including airport expansion, drive the whole UK economy. This Government support airport expansion, but we will permit it only within our environmental obligations. This Government have been clear that the Heathrow expansion is a private sector project which must meet strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change, as well as being privately financed, affordable and delivered in the best interests of consumers.

Last week, the Court of Appeal ruled that the designation of the Airports National Policy Statement did not take account of the Paris Agreement, of non-carbon-dioxide emissions or of emissions post 2050, and therefore, has no legal effect unless and until this Government carry out a review. This Government have taken the decision not to appeal the court’s judgment. We take seriously our commitment on the environment and reducing carbon emissions.

It is a complex and important judgment, which the Government need time to consider carefully. At this stage, the Government will not be able to make any further comment beyond what was set out in the Written Statement of 27 February from the Secretary of State for Transport. Following the judgment, scheme promoters have applied for permission to the Supreme Court to appeal this decision. The Government will not comment on an ongoing legal case.

Aviation will play a key role in leading our economic growth and driving forward the UK’s status as an outward-facing trading nation, attracting investment and growing our trade links with new overseas markets. Today, our airports support connections to more than 370 destinations in more than 100 countries. Aviation drives trade, investment and tourism, contributing £14 billion to our economy and 500,000 jobs. The next decade will mark an unprecedented moment of opportunity for the UK. That is why we are investing in transport and infrastructure across the country—investing in our strategic roads network, proceeding with HS2 and committing £5 billion of funding to improve bus and cycle services outside London.

Airport expansion is a core part of our commitment to global connectivity, but we are also a Government who are committed to a greener future, as the first major economy in the world to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050. This Government are therefore committed to working with the aviation sector to make sure we deliver on the opportunities available to us, while meeting our environmental commitments, whether that is on modernisation of our airspace, innovation in sustainable fuels or research and technology. This will ensure a prosperous and sustainable future for the whole country, and the House will be updated on next steps as soon as possible.”

My Lords, I am becoming sympathetic to the Minister. She seems destined to repeat Statements from the House of Commons that have little or no substance. It is no surprise that the Heathrow expansion plan failed to reflect the UK’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis, given that the former Transport Secretary said that the Paris agreement was “not relevant” to expansion. Who provided legal advice to the Government saying that they did not have to take the Paris agreement into account when approving Heathrow expansion? Will the Government rule out amending the Airports National Policy Statement to allow expansion to go ahead, and do the Government now accept that the Paris agreement must be taken into account in all their domestic decisions?

My Lords, I will not go into the detail of who received what legal advice and when, but the court ruled in the way it did. It is worth looking at one thing: the court did not conclude that airport expansion was incompatible with climate change targets. It remains the Government’s position that we have our climate change targets, it is possible to expand airports within them and where possible we will do so.

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats have always opposed Heathrow’s expansion, believing that it could not be done without serious environmental damage. I have always argued here that there has been far too much concentration on air services in the south-east, when there are airports in the north with spare capacity. Any expansion at Heathrow would be bound to skew investment towards the south-east, at the expense of the Midlands and north. So the Government now need to develop alternative policies. I understand there is an appeal process, but does the Minister agree that the Government need to use existing airports more efficiently and ensure, with speed, that all airports adopt zero emissions as an approach to their ground services, which can be provided at this time? Does the Minister also accept that all airports, and the Government, have to work on improving public transport links? Can the Minister guarantee that the Government will up their game environmentally?

I feel that the last comment in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, was a little harsh. We are the first major economy to have legislated for net zero by 2050. We have already reduced the amount of emissions by a quarter since the Conservatives came into office. I am sure that the noble Baroness will have heard on the grapevine that a transport decarbonisation plan will be published soon. That will cover how we are going to decarbonise our transport system. But the noble Baroness is right that transport between the different regions is incredibly important. That is why this Government are committed to investing in infrastructure, with the biggest rail modernisation since Victorian times, green-lighting HS2, £500 million for Beeching reversals and £29 billion on upgrading or maintaining our strategic roads network. A making best use policy is already in place for airports, which says that all airports can invest in their infrastructure, provided they meet environmental constraints.

My Lords, not even Heathrow Airport Ltd believes that a third runway at Heathrow could be available before 2029. Would it not be a safe insurance policy for the Government to upgrade the railway to Stansted Airport, which has legal spare capacity?

I thank my noble friend for raising one of the other London airports. It is true that we are incredibly lucky in this country, in that we have a number of options when we fly from the south-east or from London. The Government are focused on connections to airports, because we want to make sure that there are as many different options as possible to get to airports, so that people do not necessarily have to use their car. Train is often the best bet.

My Lords, I do not know how the Minister’s department manages the mental gymnastics to think it possible to have airport expansion and fulfil our climate change targets. Could the Minister explain that? When Heathrow Airport said it would go net zero, it did not include any of its flights—so it will be rather difficult to square that circle.

This Government are anti-aviation emissions, not anti-flying. That is the entire point. The Government are working incredibly hard to make sure that we get emissions down by 2050. I have already mentioned the transport decarbonisation plan, but we are also spending £2 billion on aviation research and technology. I ask the noble Baroness whether, if all planes were netzero, she would still be against flying.

My Lords, the decision of the courts is very interesting and the Paris agreement is extremely important. We have to go much further than the Paris agreement if we are to make a proper impact on global emissions, through assistance to countries that are increasing their emissions very fast. Surely the decision of this country on how our infrastructure, planning and development should accord with our climate aims and zero emissions is a matter for Government policy and not for the courts. If the courts are to decide this, we will have very little chance of having any success at all.

My noble friend raises an important point. I go back to what I said earlier: the courts did not conclude that airport expansion was incompatible with climate change, simply that the ANPS did not take into account the items that I mentioned earlier. The noble Lord is right that it is government policy to decarbonise our transport system, which is what we are doing.

My Lords, the effect of the Court of Appeal’s ruling is that the Airports National Policy Statement is defective and has no legal effect, unless and until the Government carry out a review. Are the Government planning to carry out a review? If they are not, do we have an Airports National Policy Statement? If we do not, how can the Minister say that expansion of other airports will go ahead without an overall policy?

This is an important point, but it is a complex and important judgment running to several hundreds of pages. The Government are taking their time to consider the judgment, and we will set out the next steps for the Airports National Policy Statement and other matters in due course.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on not appealing this judgment. That is a very wise decision. Is my noble friend confident that other plans the Government have, such as HS2, will also be in line with the Paris commitment?

This is of course incredibly important, because there are potential read-acrosses to various other infrastructure builds. However, we are confident that they fall within our climate obligations.

My Lords, is it not a fact that this decision has had the effect of letting the Prime Minister off the hook? He does not have to lie down in front of the bulldozers—so there is a clear advantage in judicial review. Why are the Government seeking to restrict it?

My Lords, this is a bizarre judgment, given that the previous court ruled that the Paris judgment was not legally binding, but is not the real root of the problem the fact that we have made these targets legally binding? When the climate Bill went through Parliament, I voted against it and pointed out that the sole effect of enshrining targets in statute would be that the Government’s policies would be open to judicial review. It is bizarre that judges should decide on policies costing billions of pounds without being accountable to the electorate for the costs that will be incurred. That fills with me foreboding, and that foreboding has proved to be justified by this strange ruling. Should we not cease to have legally binding commitments and make these decisions politically by the Government and Parliament of the day?

I thank my noble friend. The Government stand by their decision to legislate that this country will be net zero by 2050, and what we have been able to achieve in terms of the decarbonisation of our energy system has been very significant. It is now time to turn to transport, and I believe that we can do it.