FOURTH runway for Heathrow???

by

MPs debate Heathrow expansion.


charlesdegaulleairportaerial

Charles de Gaulle Airport, near Paris.
Photo Wikpedia Commons

(Click to see the photograph in its original context and details of licensing.)

Faced with overwhelming opposition from local residents, the London boroughs, other affected local authorities and the majority of MPs to the idea of building a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, what does Gordon Brown intend to do? Why build a third runway, that’s what!

During a Parliamentary debate that took place on Tuesday 11 November, the overwhelming majority of backbench MPs as well as the frontbench Conservative and Liberal speakers expressed themselves unreservedly against the idea of a building a third runway at Heathrow Airport. For those without the time to read the full transcript of the debate the following selection from the speeches of Geoff Hoon, (Secretary of State, Department for Transport; Labour), John Gummer (backbench Conservative), Norman Baker (Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Liberal Democrat), John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington, Labour) and George Young (North West Hampshire, Conservative).

Teresa Villiers MP, for Chipping Barnet and the Conservative Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, argued eloquently in favour of ditching plans for a third runway at Heathrow and linking Heathrow to a new UK high speed rail network. She maintained her composure in the face of many government sponsored interruptions. Serious students of the Heathrow expansion project are encouraged to read her arguments against the third runway and those of many other MPs in the full Hansard transcript of the debate.

John Gummer Suffolk Coastal, Conservative

What is wrong with Britain when we can never take any big decisions in a sensible manner? I happen to think that airport expansion is not—for reasons associated with climate change—the way forward. If it really is necessary to have more airport facilities, it would be sensible to do what every sensible nation has done, which is to put them somewhere where aircraft do not have to fly up and down over large numbers of people…

It is depressing in the extreme to see a former Minister laugh at the idea of doing something about high-speed rail, when he used to be in charge of the railways at a time when nobody was working for the railways, and then suggest that it is somehow inappropriate to demand what every other nation in Europe has done about similar problems…

I read carefully what the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said:

“Only if Britain plays its part will a global deal in Copenhagen to cut emissions be possible, so far from retreating from our objectives, we should reaffirm our resolve.”

What does he then do? He goes to Copenhagen and says, “What I want you to do is to follow the British route. We are going to build a new coal-fired power station in Kingsnorth without any kind of carbon capture or sequestration. We are going to expand the airport at Stansted. We have already increased the number of airplanes there. What is more, to show our commitment to the battle against climate change, we are going to have a third runway at Heathrow.” What kind of leadership is Britain going to be able to provide in Copenhagen if the Government fail to understand that joined-up thinking is a necessary part of fighting climate change?

The truth of the matter is that we have a real opportunity at this moment to set the world on the right course. It is no good wittering on about the fact that this or that country has not done it, so until they do, we are not going to do it. We did not win the battle of the industrial revolution by saying, “We are not going forward with industrialisation until they have.”

In the new green revolution, we have to take these decisions for the economic future of our country. I remind the Secretary of State that the quality of life report was written by someone who did not have a constituency reason for writing it and he did so at the point at which the Conservative party took the ideas on board—not for short-term local constituency reasons, but for the longer-term reason that we cannot cut our emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 and build a third runway at Heathrow at the same time. We simply cannot do that…

What is more, as Mr. Raynsford pointed out, the same arguments will emerge next time. I have been in the House for a long time, and I have heard them all before. I have heard it said that we must have a fourth terminal, we must have a fifth terminal and we must have more capacity, because otherwise Heathrow will collapse, the British economy will collapse, and the world will collapse. That is not true, and the figures have to be fiddled to make that argument appear true…

Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Lewes, Liberal Democrat

Heathrow will carry on as a major airport. Despite all the doom and gloom from the Government, it will not suddenly shut down if it does not get a third runway. It will carry on at, or near, capacity. We need to deal with the situation of passengers arriving at Heathrow who currently find it most convenient to transfer to another aircraft, so that in future they transfer to rail. That requires plugging in the high-speed network with Heathrow in a way that facilitates such journeys, so there is one more leg to go. That would be a sensible way forward.

The Secretary of State was keen to talk about the 2003 White Paper, but, as Mr. Gummer pointed out, so much has changed over the last five years. After all, the Government’s 2003 energy policy was against nuclear power, and we are now told that it is the best thing since sliced bread. They have managed to change on that in the past five years, but they have not changed on aviation. Why not?

Exactly so. A lot of things have changed since 2003, including that a much stronger case is now being put for high-speed rail by Network Rail and others, which means there is a capacity for modal shift that was not anticipated. I do not mind the Government being committed to a 30-year long-term air strategy—the Secretary of State said it would be long term—but why does the rail strategy run out in 2014? Why are there no plans beyond 2014 to improve our railways? We have some longer platforms and trains now, but there are no plans beyond 2014—no lines opening, no commitment yet to high-speed rail, no electrification. A lot of things have been talked about, but nothing has been delivered on beyond 2014. Why is it right for air to have a long-term strategy, but not railways? That shows the unbalanced way in which the Department for Transport has addressed transport policy over the years: it has been roads, good; air, good; rail, bad; bus, bad. That simplistic way of looking at matters accurately reflects how the Department has dealt with transport policy.

John McDonnell Hayes & Harlington, Labour

I am arguing for reaching some form of consensus across the House about the way we approach the issue. This is such a big decision that it needs to be taken out of the party political knockabout arena. We need to have a discussion. I dislike the tenor of the debate on both sides of the House, not only because of my constituency interests but because of the significance of the decision, which I mentioned. The onus is on us to treat the matter seriously and see whether we can find cross-party agreement.

The alternatives that have been put forward deserve better analysis. I actually think that the Marinair proposal that the Mayor [Boris Johnson ed.] has now taken up was dismissed too lightly in the assessment in the White Paper. I also believe that the Government dismissed too lightly the idea of developing a proper regional airport strategy linked to a high-speed rail system.

Let me briefly go through the arguments and look for a way forward, and let us see whether we can get some agreement. This is a major decision that will, as the Secretary of State said, affect the long-term interests of our economy. It will also make or break our climate change policy. It has immense economic consequences not only for London and the south-east, but for the country as a whole. If we are good Europeans, we should look to the overall implications for European economic and transport policy. The policy will cause immense social division within the country. Many people are disillusioned with the whole process of consultation, assessment and policy making that the Government have undertaken. They are angry, and the anger is building. I believe that it is building into a form of direct action the like of which neither the Government nor the country have ever seen. We saw what happened at the climate camp, but Heathrow is becoming the iconic battleground for the climate change campaign, not only in Britain but throughout Europe. Forging ahead with a decision to expand Heathrow will sow social division; it will divide our country and bring us into conflict in a way that we have not seen before.

We need to take the decision out of the political knockabout arena. We should accept that events have moved on since the 2003 White Paper. The Government have introduced a new Planning Bill. We were given assurances on the Floor of the House that if the Heathrow decision was taken under the procedures in that legislation, there would have to be a new national policy statement. If the decision is not taken under the new legislation, we will go back to the old planning inquiry system. The process for terminal 5 lasted five years, and on that basis the process for terminal 6 and a third runway will probably take seven years.

We should commence cross-party discussions about the development of a new national policy statement on aviation, and see how times have moved on and how Government climate change policy has changed. We should set up an independent—properly independent—review of aviation strategy and decide where the Heathrow decision fits into it. On that basis, we can at least attempt to seek consensus on this critical decision.

However, if the Secretary of State thinks that he can railroad the decision through the House without a Division, he is sorely mistaken. The least the Government can promise us is that any final decision will be taken democratically, by this House, in a Division, on the basis of the decisions that our electorates made to have us represent their interests in this matter.

Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Department for Transport; Ashfield, Labour

Today, international travel is no longer the preserve of the wealthy, although it is fair to say that the better-off are taking advantage of far more flights than even they might have made in the past. However, the real point is that everyone is benefiting. The number of international flights taken by UK residents more than trebled between 1986 and 2006. That meant that in 2006, UK residents made on average one international flight a year, whereas in 1986 that figure was one flight between three people. In the past 12 months, more than half the population took at least two flights.

To illustrate what that means in practice for our constituents, let me take an example chosen not entirely at random. The latest census data show that the leafy north London seat of Chipping Barnet has a population of 103,000 people. Using those UK averages, we can calculate that more than 50,000 constituents of Mrs. Villiers took at least two flights in the past 12 months. Of course it is also important to bear in mind the fact that some 50 per cent. of the hon. Lady’s constituents are in managerial occupations and so tend to use air travel even more.

I hope that the hon. Lady will be explicit to her constituents about the implications of her party’s position: less frequent, less reliable and more expensive flights. Moreover, she will have to explain to her constituents that if she gets her way, instead of making the 25-mile journey to Heathrow, they will have to get used to flying to Paris or Schiphol for a connecting flight. The number of passengers passing through UK airports has also grown rapidly, from 32 million in 1970 to 241 million in 2007, a rise of around 650 per cent.

George Young North West Hampshire, Conservative

Is it not the case that the growth of low-cost flights has been in flights from airports other than Heathrow?

Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Department for Transport; Ashfield, Labour

That is of course the case, but the reality is that there is enormous demand for flights from Heathrow that has not been satisfied in recent years. That is precisely why the right hon. Gentleman’s former colleague, the noble Lord Mawhinney, made the statement to which I referred earlier. The right hon. Gentleman’s Government—the Government whom he consistently supported—were looking at capacity in the south-east in the early 1990s. He knows that full well. Therefore, as a distinguished Member of the House, he ought to be able to explain rather more effectively than those now on his Front Bench why his party’s policy has changed so dramatically on the basis of a massive increase in the number of flights, albeit without any explanation of how that capacity will arise.

Norman Baker Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, Transport; Lewes, Liberal Democrat

Our policy has not changed as a matter of fact, but may I draw the Secretary of State back to the 2003 White Paper, on which he has predicated so much of his speech today? Does he not accept that the world has moved on significantly since 2003, both for the reasons that Mr. Gummer gave and because of the potential for high-speed rail and the developments in transport elsewhere? It is simply unwise to rely on a 2003 White Paper to work out what should happen to aviation in 2008. Will he therefore revisit the major concerns, rather than concentrating this debate solely on the environmental consequences, important though they are, for the communities around Heathrow?

Geoff Hoon Secretary of State, Department for Transport; Ashfield, Labour

If the hon. Gentleman has studied the White Paper as carefully as I hope he has, he will have noticed that we are talking about the requirements for this country’s aviation to 2030. As I have referred to the previous Conservative Government looking into capacity in the early 1990s and concluding by 1995 that Heathrow was already full in a practical sense, let me make it clear that even if we decided to go ahead today, which clearly we will not, it would be at least 2020 until a further runway was available and a further terminal constructed. That means that some 30 years would have elapsed on a decision that was being considered by the previous Conservative Government in the early 1990s.

It is therefore wrong to suggest that the issue can be determined on the basis of this year’s or next year’s forecast. We are talking about a strategic decision. It is disappointing that the Conservative Opposition have, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so, simply adopted the rather short-term approach that is characteristic of the Liberal Democrats.

In the strange way that Parliamentary democracy is practised at Westminster, the house did not divide on whether or not the third runway should actually be built, but on the procedural motion, That this House has considered the matter of adding capacity to Heathrow. Any BTWT readers who believe the Government’s argument that Heathrow needs a third runway to remain competitive with other European ‘hub’ airports should reflect on the fact that Charles de Gaulle Airport near Paris is about to start construction of its fourth runway, and is already on the TGV high speed rail network.

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