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Heathrow Expansion: Surface Access

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2017

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Heathrow expansion and surface access.

It is a great pleasure to conduct my first Westminster Hall debate. I thank the Minister for his engagement on this issue, which will greatly impact upon my constituents in Richmond Park and north Kingston. I welcome every opportunity to discuss the matter of Heathrow expansion with the Department for Transport.

On 2 February, the Government launched consultations relating to the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport. While many issues relating to the decision to build a third runway concern me, this afternoon I shall remain focused on the surface access strategy, which is not yet something we are able to consider.

Heathrow airport has pledged that its landside road traffic will be no greater than it is today if planning permission is granted for a third runway. It is not entirely clear which day “today” is supposed to refer to, but logic demands that 2 February should be treated as “today” for the purpose of benchmarking, being the date that the national policy statement was published. If the pledge has any prospect of being honoured, the public have a right to know what benchmarks are being used to measure landside road traffic.

Assuming that “today” is in fact 2 February, will the Minister confirm that detailed measurement and analysis of the landside road traffic was conducted on that day, for the purposes of comparison? Will he further confirm the extent of the area that was included within the measurement boundaries; whether that included my constituency; and that that analysis will be published without delay, so that the information is available to the public during the consultation period?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and agree with the important points she is making. Does she agree that on 2 February, pollutant levels should have been documented for the NPS? In London, we have already breached our annual air pollution limits.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Air quality is another very important issue, alongside surface access, when considering whether the decision to expand Heathrow is the right one or not. The focus of my attention today is the surface access strategy, but she is correct, and I shall address that point later.

If, by some chance, the analysis of current landside road traffic was not carried out on 2 February or on any other day prior to today, will the Minister give details of exactly how Heathrow airport will be held to its pledge that there will be no increase in landside road traffic? I am sure he will agree that the possible increase in road traffic across a wide area of west London is a source of considerable anxiety for local residents, and that evidence of the Government’s commitment to hold Heathrow airport to its pledge that there will be no increase in traffic would set a great many minds at ease.

May I also congratulate the hon. Lady, my neighbouring MP, on securing this debate, so soon after being elected. Does she agree that many minds would be put at ease by knowing not only that Heathrow will not need to increase road access but that the crazy proposal to expand the M4 from four lanes to eight between junctions 3 and 2 will be pushed into the long grass as a result?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. We really need to see detailed plans of the surface access strategy before we can properly consider the consultation.

On 23 February, the Environmental Audit Committee published its follow-up report to the Airports Commission report, looking at carbon emissions, air quality and noise. The report directly quotes the Secretary of State for Transport’s evidence to the Committee. He said:

“the air quality issue, even around Heathrow itself, is about the traffic on our roads.”

In his statement to the House of Commons on 2 February, the Secretary of State said:

“Heathrow airport will be required to demonstrate that the scheme can be delivered within legal air quality obligations.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 1182.]

It seems crucial therefore that the questions surrounding surface access links to Heathrow airport are resolved before any undertakings are made in relation to air quality targets. The Environmental Audit Committee agrees, stating in one of its conclusions:

“The Government has not yet published a comprehensive assessment of the infrastructure requirements of an expanded Heathrow, including an outline of costs, responsibilities and accountability. The Government must publish such an assessment and consult on it before publishing a final National Policy Statement.”

Will the Minister today confirm that his Department is working on detailed plans for surface access upgrade, in response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, and that those will be made public before the consultation period ends? I am sure he will agree that no meaningful consultation can take place on the ability of Heathrow airport to meet its landside traffic pledge or its air quality targets without publication of those plans.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the need for the Government to be clear. Yesterday I went to Hounslow civic centre to see the Department for Transport’s exhibition on the proposals there and talk to very senior and expert officials of the DFT about the surface access plans. I was surprised that they could not answer questions about the expectation of traffic increases, given the different types of traffic that will be going to Heathrow should expansion go ahead, with a 47% increase in air traffic. Does she agree that that makes the consultation somewhat of a sham?

I thank the hon. Lady for once again underlining the importance of making available these plans to the public in order that a meaningful consultation can take place.

Details of these plans may well affect how people respond to the consultation. One project being discussed as part of the surface access plans is the southern rail access project to improve rail links to Heathrow airport. My constituents living in Mortlake and Barnes will be particularly interested to know whether rail upgrade plans will increase the length of time that level crossing gates block the roads in their area. One current estimate is that Mortlake is currently blocked for three quarters of an hour, every hour, to allow trains to cross. Residents are entitled to know whether the plans for Heathrow expansion mean that level crossing gates will be down for even longer. That will surely affect how they respond to the consultation.

Of particular interest to those who live not only in my constituency and the surrounding areas but much further afield is the cost of surface access upgrade and how that is to be funded. In the absence thus far of any detailed figures from the Department for Transport, our best guess of the cost of surface access upgrades is that provided by Transport for London, which estimates the cost at between £15 billion and £20 billion. Heathrow has committed to meeting just £1 billion of that cost, leaving a black hole of between £14 billion and £19 billion. I have twice challenged the Secretary of State to tell me how that shortfall will be funded, but both times he has responded only to say that he does not accept TfL’s figures. That is all very well, and I eagerly await the publication of his Department’s own estimates, as requested earlier, but he has failed to answer the key part of the question about who will pay for that cost.

The business case for Heathrow expansion rests on delivering £61 billion of benefit to the UK over 60 years. That number has already been substantially revised downwards from Heathrow’s previous estimate of £147 billion over 60 years. If it should be proved that up to £19 billion of costs have not been brought into consideration, the business case for expanding Heathrow weakens even further. Should Heathrow airport be required to fund the bulk of the surface access upgrade itself, it may find it difficult to interest investors and shareholders in its revised business case. If the costs of funding upgraded surface access should fall to the taxpayer, that may affect the level of support that Heathrow expansion is currently enjoying around the country. The public are entitled to ask whether or not that additional £19 billion could be better spent elsewhere, which is why it is vital that these detailed plans are available before the end of the consultation period.

One other point I would like to make is about freight. There are warm words in the national policy statement about increasing the number of cycling and walking journeys made to the airport and of moving passenger journeys on to public transport.

Does the hon. Lady agree that they are indeed warm words because, as anyone who has children knows—I do not, actually—a family of four will undoubtedly drive or get a taxi to the airport and not use a cycle or a train?

Order. Just as a matter of courtesy, hon. Members wishing to intervene should arrive on time for the beginning of the debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) for his intervention. I accept that there will always be people who choose to make their passenger journeys to the airport by car, and I agree that walking journeys are not likely, given the vast expanse of Heathrow airport and the limited amount of housing around it, so they surely are no more than warm words. However, I would like to think that a great deal more could be done to move passenger journeys to the airport on to public transport, and I support any plans that enable that to happen.

The economic case for expanding Heathrow airport also rests on being able to increase the amount of freight that will pass through the airport. It is difficult to imagine that that increased freight will be transported to the airport on the backs of bicycles or carried on the tube. Can the Minister confirm that the plans for no net increase in road journeys will therefore include a sufficient reduction in passenger journeys to compensate for the increased number of freight movements, and that steps will be taken to ensure, where possible, that those freight movements are made by low-emission vehicles to limit the impact on air pollution?

In conclusion, I believe that the Government need to produce without delay their own detailed estimates for the upgrade of surface access to an expanded Heathrow airport in order for the public to be properly informed during the consultation process. I would go as far as to say that the consultation process will be completely invalid if the Department’s own figures for the surface access upgrade are not made available for the public to consider. All the most critical elements of the decision to award planning permission—traffic, air quality and cost—will be affected by those plans. I call on the Minister to respond urgently to that request.

What a delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to respond to this short but significant debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing it. I know that she cares about this issue a great deal. She follows in the footsteps of a Member who, one might say, was a champion of this cause.

Other Members who have contributed—notably my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr Mathias), but also my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (James Berry) and the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury)—have raised these matters regularly and vehemently. It is right that hon. Members should do that. All those I have mentioned are tireless workers for the interests of their constituents, and they are right to press the Government in the way they have done and continue to do.

I greatly appreciate my right hon. Friend the Minister’s words. Does he agree that there is now cross-party unity on the need for better information in these consultations, as was so ably expressed by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney)?

Yes. It is important, as I said, that the Government are held to account. That is the purpose of debates such as this. I take a plain view about these debates—I do not know whether all Ministers follow my lead, but would that they did, frankly—which is that they must have a purpose beyond the Minister coming with some prepared speech that he reads out, rather like reading the lesson at church, and being unaffected by the contributions made before he speaks. It is important that these debates are a proper opportunity to challenge the Government, to scrutinise what we are doing and to elicit from the Minister a meaningful response, which is what I hope to give today.

To that end, let me start by saying that there is a proper debate to be had about the character of the consultation. We have begun to speak today about whether, in the national policy statement, we should have come to a conclusion about the detailed plans for surface access, and should then have consulted on those plans, or whether one should have a consultation based on the NPS and, from that consultation, discern what is right and go into rather more detail later. That is about how one sees a consultation. One criticism often made of consultations is that they are foregone conclusions. This one clearly is not a foregone conclusion; it is a legitimate consultation exercise, designed, as I have said, to give people the opportunity to make their case, to take their argument to the Government, and the Government will then cogitate, consider and draw conclusions. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would have had every right to complain had we come to a definitive conclusion about these things prior to the consultation and then gone through the motions of a consultation without meaning to take any notice of what local people said. That is not our approach, and it is certainly not my approach.

That said, it is important that we recognise some of the arguments that have been made in this debate, so let us be clear: it is fundamentally important in relation to expansion that Heathrow provides a detailed application, built on a detailed transport assessment, including a surface access strategy. That should be part of the process as we go forward, and it will be. That detailed analysis should be based on the latest available evidence on how the requirements in the airports national policy statement will be met. It is important to appreciate that, as we move to the point at which Heathrow Airport Ltd lodges its planning application, it will be expected to provide that kind of detailed analysis as part of the planning process.

Moreover, the Government have been clear that it would be for Heathrow to meet the full costs of any surface access that was required only for airport expansion. That is set out in the draft airports national policy statement. As has been said, we are carrying out a full consultation, because we want to hear everyone’s views about the detail of that, but I repeat that we are committed to the principle that Heathrow must meet the costs of any surface access changes necessitated by its plans for expansion.

Let me go further and say that the hon. Member for Richmond Park and others are right to point out, in relation to the way people get to the airport, that although no final plans or designs have been approved for the runway and there is a series of options, those changes will require us to think about the public transport needs of those who want to get to the airport. It is certainly our view that a greater proportion of people could be encouraged to use public transport to get to the airport.

The huge investment that is already planned or under way for the provision of better public transport services will play its part. The Elizabeth line—Crossrail—will significantly improve links between Heathrow and central London destinations. From May 2018, four trains an hour will run between Paddington and Heathrow airport, replacing the existing two-train-per-hour Heathrow Connect service. From December 2019, Elizabeth line trains will run from the airport directly to central London destinations, including Bond Street, Liverpool Street and Canary Wharf.

High Speed 2, of course, will connect directly to the airport via the interchange with the Elizabeth line at Old Oak Common, providing a new express route to the midlands and the north from 2026. Transport for London plans to increase capacity and upgrade trains on the Piccadilly line. Network Rail is developing plans for a new rail link from the Great Western main line to Heathrow, which will allow passengers to travel directly to the airport from Reading and Slough, and a new southern rail link from Heathrow to south-west London and the south-west trains network is being developed. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has expressed his ambition to accelerate that scheme, and we are taking that into account as part of the planning process for the next funding period. There is no doubt that with the improved services to which I have referred, we will make available new means by which people can get to and from Heathrow from a range of destinations around London and well beyond it.

I emphasise that it is also true that the draft airports national policy statement recognises that expansion of the airport would have a range of potential impacts on the transport networks around it. Improvements would be needed to make Heathrow’s transport links adequate to support the increased numbers of people needing to access the expanded facility there. The proposition in the draft airports NPS for service access is to require the applicant to develop and implement a surface access strategy, which would mitigate the impact of expansion on the transport network.

That is a clear statement that we recognise the arguments of the hon. Member for Richmond Park about understanding that surface access is a critical part of the development and that its success will depend on getting surface access right. I entirely accept that. That does not seem to be an argument against expanding the airport, but it is an argument in favour of doing so in a way that is sustainable and that links the airport and growth there with the developments that will take place in and around its vicinity, and beyond.

Could you answer the point I made about freight, because so far your answer has focused specifically on passenger transport—

I will come to the issue of freight, but before I do I want to make a couple more points on passengers and then say something about air quality, which the hon. Lady also mentioned.

As part of the regulatory process, the Civil Aviation Authority is expected to decide how the costs of any capacity-related surface access schemes would be treated as part of the regulatory settlement, including which of the costs would be recoverable from airport users. That is an important additional point that was not specifically dealt with in the hon. Lady’s initial remarks, but she will be reassured that it is a further element in the package of proposals that the Government are bringing forward.

I know that many others have views and estimates of what they believe the surface access costs might be. We do not accept some of the estimates. Some people have said—others might say surprisingly, but I will go so far as to say amazingly—that they might cost £18 billion. We do not accept some of the more extravagant estimates, because no final plans or designs have been approved for the runway. While there is a range of potential options for surface access improvements, it is for the developers to produce the detailed plan, as I said earlier, as part of the development consent order, which will be properly considered through the normal statutory planning processes. In a sense, we cannot prejudge exactly what the needs will be, nor what will be necessary to meet them, but we are clear that, in principle, surface access has to be part of the process that will now take place.

Does the Minister agree that with the known 47% increase in flights that a third runway will bring, it is actually not that difficult to predict the expected increase in passengers, staff movements, freight and air surfacing? Will he consider in a little more depth whether those calculations could be done now within reasonable tolerances?

Yes, it is true that we could model some of the anticipated increase. I accept that, with the caveat that it is dependent on some of the other things I have already mentioned: the exact design, the balance between access by car and access by public transport, the additional investment we are making in rail, and the whole range of other variables that will affect the character of demand. It is important as we come to the end of the consultation process and listen to what people have to say, and as the application moves forward, that we get greater clarity about some of that modelling. However, at this juncture I would not want to be prescriptive about the character, the shape or, less still, the substance of that. I take the hon. Lady’s point, which was well made, but there are still a lot of variables that prohibit us from being too definitive about some of the modelling at this stage.

I am conscious of time, but I want to say a word about the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on air quality, to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park referred. I recognise the points made about both air quality and surface access following the publication of the Committee’s most recent report last week. To contextualise that, the hon. Lady will know that the Government are considering their air quality plan. We intend to bring a draft plan forward in the spring, with a final plan by the end of July in the summer. It will clearly take into account the recommendations of the Select Committee. All kinds of possibilities are being considered and there has been some speculation on what the shape and character of that air quality plan might be.

Let me be crystal clear, Sir Edward, as I know you would expect me to be: it is very important that we grasp the challenge associated with the relationship between air quality and wellbeing. I discussed exactly that with the British Lung Foundation this morning. The relationship between poor air quality and poor health is well established, and it persuasively argued the case that a range of pulmonary conditions are exacerbated and worsened by poor air quality. We take that very seriously indeed. This is not some high-flown theory about what might happen in centuries’ time; this is about the health and wellbeing of our children, in particular, and of older people and ill people who are especially affected by poor air quality.

We have been clear that as the application for the expansion of Heathrow proceeds, air quality will be salient in all we do. We have been clear that it is important that Heathrow will not proceed unless it meets legal air quality requirements. The Secretary of State made that clear on 25 October in his statement to the House, and I affirmed it in this place in an earlier debate on precisely such matters.

We were not specifically talking about air quality, but since the Minister has raised it, will the air quality plan include details of any penalties for Heathrow should the third runway go ahead and it is then found to breach the air quality targets that have been set?

The hon. Lady is eager—eagerness is often a feature of new Members and I congratulate her on it—but she must wait to see what the plan looks like. Then we will be able to debate it at great, but not inordinate, length. She will not expect me to say more about it and what it will include now.

The hon. Lady asked about freight, and it is important to be clear that freight traffic will play a key part in the development of Heathrow—I have no doubt of that. It is absolutely right that a plan anticipating changes in freight movements is made and is subject to scrutiny and debate. We will inspect that plan, and the Government will expect the developers at Heathrow to deliver a cogent, well argued, proper assessment of the impact of any changes in the volume or character of freight traffic and how they might affect congestion, road safety, air quality and all those other matters that are dear to my heart and of concern to this Chamber and the whole House.

I see that I have only a moment or two before we conclude. In summary, I will write to hon. Members about any other matters raised that I have not dealt with. Let me be crystal clear: we will proceed with the expansion of Heathrow only on the basis that it is conducted in a diligent, thorough and sustainable way; for that is the responsible position taken by this Government on all such matters.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).