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Heathrow Airport Expansion

Volume 808: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the judgment by the Supreme Court in R (on the application of Friends of the Earth Ltd and others) v Heathrow Airport Ltd on the expansion of Heathrow Airport.

I wish to ask the urgent Question standing in my name, of which I have given prior notice. I draw attention to my declaration of interests on the register.

My Lords, on 16 December 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the earlier Court of Appeal decision and declared that the airport’s national policy statement is lawful. We will carefully consider the court’s judgment. The Government have always been clear that Heathrow expansion is a private sector project that 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.

My Lords, we all have sympathy for those affected by blight in their homes and communities. However, I should like to ask the Minister a simple question: is it not time that the Government came out fighting on behalf of aviation and, as a consequence, airports? As a global trading nation, we are absolutely dependent on our connectivity, not just in terms of passengers but of freight transport. Is it not time that those who are rightly campaigning on climate change but attacking aviation daily should instead campaign for decarbonisation and safe, comfortable and sustainable travel, which can now be undertaken by technical innovation and sustainable aviation fuel?

I agree with much of what the noble Lord has just outlined. Indeed, the Government are doing many of those things he mentioned, including our recent investments in sustainable aviation fuels. The Government are optimistic about aviation. We recognise how important it is, as a connected nation, to have a strong aviation sector, which is why we are working so hard with the sector to put together recovery plans, which will be available next year.

My Lords, Heathrow is highly dependent on business passengers. Now that we have all discovered Zoom, industry analysts recognise that the pattern of demand will be different in future, and business demand will be unlikely to return as strongly. Is it not time to accept that the third runway is an outdated, 20th-century concept? Will the Government agree that plans for UK aviation need a total review, with climate change at the centre and emphasis not on growth in the south-east but on regeneration in the north?

My Lords, I am old enough to remember when Skype was launched and everyone thought that that would have a fundamental impact on the way in which we do business. It is the case that aviation as a whole needs to consider what demand will look like in the future. As all noble Lords know, it is a private sector supported by airports that are also largely in the private sector. We will work closely with it to make sure that we can take advantage of the demand that exists in the places that it wants it.

Any airport expansion must meet stringent tests on air quality, noise pollution and delivering countrywide economic benefits, and must not hamper the UK’s ability to meet our climate change obligations. However, even at present, the way in which passengers reach Heathrow and other airports is often not the most sustainable. According to the Department for Transport’s most recent statistics, just published, 57% of passengers at Heathrow arrived by car or taxi. What steps are the Government taking to support better public transport provision for those travelling to and from Heathrow, to bring down that figure? What is the Government’s current target for a reduction in that figure for those arriving by car or taxi at the airport? What is their target for reducing that figure if capacity at Heathrow is increased through the construction of a third runway?

I recall that, back when I was Aviation Minister for about five minutes, traffic management around Heathrow, both now and in the future, was a very important consideration. As the noble Lord knows, investment is being made in public transport in London that will benefit Heathrow, including Crossrail. I believe that Heathrow is considering an access charge for certain vehicles. When I last looked at this, the plans in place seemed feasible and would lead to a reduction in the number of people using cars.

My Lords, perhaps I may congratulate our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, on his skill in winning this appeal. I want to ask my noble friend the Minister: is it possible to make reliable estimates of the detailed consequences of the construction of the new runway, given the changes in the technology that will affect the noise and pollution from and the size of aircraft that will be in place when it comes into use?

My noble and learned friend is right to say that when making forecasts, one is always reliant on assumptions. There will be assumptions about air quality, noise levels and climate change. But it is also the case that aircraft are now significantly quieter than they used to be, particularly since the retirement of the 747s, and they are likely to be quieter in the future. When we talk about strict criteria on air quality, noise and climate change, these are limits and not targets. We always look to the aviation sector to do better.

My Lords, international flights are responsible for around 1% of total global carbon emissions, a figure likely to reduce over time with the introduction of aircraft powered by electricity, biofuels or hydrogen. Does the Minister agree therefore that Heathrow is a critical national strategic asset, not least post Brexit, and that it must be allowed to expand its capacity in line with demand?

The Government are considering the court’s judgment carefully, but I remind the noble Lord that Heathrow expansion is a project owned by Heathrow Airport Ltd and it is for the company to decide on its next steps. However, I take the more general point that aviation has a very significant role to play in our future and I welcome the steps that it is taking to reduce its carbon emissions.

[Inaudible.]—air pollution was a cause of Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death. I congratulate her mother on her great persistence. The levels of air pollution in her area continuously exceeded the legal limits in the three years preceding her death. The inquest found that the state had failed to act against this air pollution to bring it into line with the legal limits imposed in both EU and domestic law. Are the Government seriously going to risk the lives of other children by breaching the law even more and allowing Heathrow Airport to expand?

My Lords, if the case for the expansion of Heathrow is to enable it to compete effectively with the continental hub airports such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle, is it not clear that, looking forward on present projections, three runways will simply not be enough? An alternative would be this. When the pandemic is over, is it not distinctly likely that airlines will be looking for smaller and more fuel-efficient aircraft with low emissions that can make many more point-to-point flights from other UK airports that will be both economic and convenient?

My noble Lord has made a number of important points and I am sure that Heathrow Airport Ltd, like all airports across the country, is thinking about potential changes to aircraft size and point-to-point rather than hub airports in the future. I am fairly sure that they will take those considerations into account.

I think the Minister will be aware that any softening of the Government’s attitude towards the expansion of Heathrow will be met with a cry of dismay from the north and the regions as a signal of the Government’s abandonment of the levelling-up agenda. This is a London project driven by London and foreign interests. I urge the Government not to let it happen.

As the noble Lord knows, the airports national policy statement was approved by the House of Commons in 2018. I say again that this project is privately financed and within the private sector. Airports across the country can also use the Government’s current policy to make best use of existing runways. When we are the other side of the pandemic and have a better idea of what aviation demand looks like, it may be that some airports will want to expand in certain ways, and many of those will be in the north. Each proposal will need to be carefully considered by the relevant planning authority.

My Lords, I welcome the Supreme Court judgment. Following the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Blunkett and Lord Birt, will my noble friend confirm that increasing capacity at Heathrow will be a key driver of UK growth and competitiveness, as we embark on global Britain? Will the Government ensure that this happens? Furthermore, does the Minister agree that this expansion ought to complement the development of regional airports, such as Leeds Bradford, where current plans estimate benefits of between £2 billion and £3 billion to the local economy?

My noble friend is right that aviation will play a key part in the recovery and subsequent growth, as part of global Britain. There are a number of airports that have capacity at the moment and would welcome more flights. They may be able to in the future.

When boasting about their reduction in carbon emissions, the Government have never included aviation or shipping emissions. But the recent report of the Committee on Climate Change said that aviation should be included in the planned reduction of our 2030 carbon budget and that steps must be taken to limit aviation growth, so that expansion is dependent on a reduction of emissions. Will the Government accept that advice?

As the noble Baroness knows, recording carbon emissions is challenging, because they cannot all be attributed to a single country. There is a global agreement on the way in which they are usually reported. The noble Baroness also knows that there is headroom in our carbon budgets that is informally allocated to aviation.

My Lords, the Supreme Court did not give the go-ahead for a third runway, as was reported in some parts of the press. All it decided was that the Minister under a previous Government, Chris Grayling, did not act unlawfully in failing to take into account expressly the international obligations of the Paris Agreement, which were not declared as domestic policy at that time. Will this Government simply rescind the Grayling decision and uphold the Paris Agreement by incorporating those obligations into domestic policy?

The noble Lord is quite right that the Supreme Court did not give the go-ahead to anything; it simply ruled that the ANPS is lawful. What is the case is that expansion, if Heathrow Airport Ltd decides to do it, would move to the next step, which is the development consent order—that is, the planning approval that would need to happen, which itself is a fairly lengthy process.

My Lords, even with two fully operating runways, Heathrow imposes an intolerable noise burden on local communities, well in excess of safe WHO standards. With a third runway, this will only get worse. In the light of that, may I tease my noble friend into saying what thought the Government might have given recently to the prospect of a new hub airport, located well away from human habitation to the east of the capital?

My Lords, it is Christmas, but I will not be teased. The noble Lord raises the question of noise and it is a good point. I have already noted that aircraft are quieter than they used to be, but this is an appropriate time to mention airspace modernisation. This programme, which will happen over the next few years, will make sure that aircraft can land and take off on a steeper trajectory, which should have noise benefits around airports.

Sitting suspended.