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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 June 2009

[David Taylor in the Chair]

Heathrow Airport Expansion

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Tami.)

9.30 am

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): It is a pleasure to open this debate. First, I would like to issue some thanks. I thank the campaign against the third runway for maintaining unity in the face of a Government who seem hell bent on bulldozing the proposal through. I thank the Labour party members and MPs who, for the sake of their constituents and their beliefs, have united behind the campaign against the third runway. I thank the Liberal Democrats for being behind the discontinuation of the project to develop the third runway wholeheartedly. If you will indulge me for a moment, Mr. Taylor, I also thank our party leader and party for taking the bold decision to make it a policy not to continue with the third runway should we come into office.

I thank HACAN and the 2M group. I also thank the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, which was one of the founding members of the 2M group, for understanding that although there are sometimes small differences between constituencies and borough councils, overall we are united in trying to prevent the third runway. I thank the bold business men who put it on the record that they were not in favour of the third runway in the south-east to hold at bay the impression the Government intended to give that business was unanimously in favour of it.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to say that the business community is not totally supportive. I remind him that not every MP near the airport is on the same side.

Adam Afriyie: I recognise that. I respect the views of other MPs and hope that they are working in the interests of their constituents wholeheartedly. It is a matter of record that my hon. Friend is in favour of the third runway.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): As always, the hon. Gentleman has started his speech graciously. He said that the Conservative party is against the runway and I welcome that. What is Conservative party policy on an alternative to the third runway? Will he fight with me and others against the estuary airport, which a number of Tory MPs from Essex, the Mayor of London and others are promoting actively? I understand that the Mayor of London has spent more than £100,000 on consultants to consider the estuary airport.

Adam Afriyie: We are in favour of considering all the alternatives with an open mind, especially given that the facts have changed since the White Paper of 2003.

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Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): From the point of view of the Conservative party, there is no well-established case for an additional runway at Heathrow or elsewhere in the London area. A great part of the economic case has disappeared because of high-speed rail. Other steps could be taken to ensure that the amount of traffic that flows through airports in the London area does not grow as originally anticipated.

Adam Afriyie: I thank my right hon. Friend for making that point clear. That illustrates why I wanted to indulge in thanking our party leader and party for taking their current position. As I will explain, the Government have failed to secure virtually every leg of their case, whether on economics or the environment.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned in passing the letter from business leaders to The Times. I do not think that he should underplay the significance of that. It is new information that has emerged since the House last debated this issue. The bosses of Carphone Warehouse, BSkyB, Sainsbury’s and many other businesses concluded that the business case for the third runway did not stack up.

Adam Afriyie: I was hoping not to underplay that and will discuss it further. The letter included many well-known business men and businesses, such as BSkyB and KKR. I said that they were courageous because it is bold to put one’s head above the parapet when faced with an onslaught of all the energies and powers of the civil service and Government working in favour of the opposite argument. Those businesses have my congratulations and thanks for doing so.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the six trade unions that signed up to an advert opposing the third runway were also courageous? Those were Unison, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the Public and Commercial Services Union and Connect. Bearing in mind the current economic conditions, those unions recognised the importance of stopping this project.

Adam Afriyie: Absolutely. Such unity is the beauty of the campaign for reason over the third runway. There is unity across parties among those who are not members of the Government, and I suspect among some who are. There is unity among businesses and trade unions. There is a coalition of people who have the country’s interests at heart, including economic and environmental interests and the interests of workers. Those of us who are against the third runway are often painted as being against economic development. That is a lazy argument for the Government to deploy. The third runway will not necessarily work in favour of the economic interests of this nation. It is neither in our environmental interests, nor in the interests of our quality of life.

I am pleased to open this debate because I want to keep this issue live. I have made the case before on a logical and rational economic basis. I have made the argument about noise on behalf of my constituents in Horton, Wraysbury, Old Windsor and Datchet. I have set out a case based on changing circumstances and made the observation that some of the information in the 2003 White Paper is 10 years old. A lot has changed
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over those 10 years. Any reasonable Government—indeed, any reasonable person—would look at the new evidence and at least question the decisions they made in the previous circumstances.

I also want to give the new Minister an opportunity to reconsider. Once he hears the various comments and observations from hon. Members, I hope that he will give just a spark of light to show that the Government are not rock solid in their decisions. He has the opportunity to indicate that there is some chance that they might begin to see reason, especially as he is fairly new to the role.

I want this debate to be an opportunity for other hon. Members to speak. There is much strong feeling and logic behind the opposition to the third runway, so I will not hog the entire hour that I am allowed. I will keep my comments as close to 20 minutes as I can. If it is okay with you, Mr. Taylor, I invite hon. Members to intervene whenever they wish.

As I said, those of us who are opposed to the third runway are often caricatured as being against any form of economic development and in favour of closing Heathrow airport and undermining it. That is not the case. As an Old Windsor resident, I know that it is infuriating to have noisy aircraft going overhead at 4.30 in the morning. Many hon. Members will appreciate that. The airport may be a noisy neighbour, but it is a neighbour nevertheless. Heathrow serves more than 180 destinations around the world and 70,000 jobs are dependent on it, directly or indirectly. There is no truth in the argument that those of us who oppose the third runway wish to see the airport closed.

Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that Heathrow’s position as a competitive international hub is already being damaged? The number of destinations that it can serve is decreasing, while competitor hubs such as Schiphol, Copenhagen, Frankfurt and Madrid, which have built extra runways, are increasing the number of destinations that they serve. That is bad for the whole UK economy.

Adam Afriyie: The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable observation: the number of routes from Heathrow has declined, marginally, over the past 10 or 15 years. However, I have had meetings with BAA and British Airways, and for the past four or five years I have been asking them for a look at a model that mathematically or even logically demonstrates the minimum number of destinations that would constitute a viable hub. So far, that number has not been forthcoming. I understand the reasoning that a hub is needed for international transfer in order to keep routes open, but I cannot see any direct evidence that Heathrow has suffered from that marginal reduction in routes over the past several years. I am a reasonable person; I am the shadow Minister for Science and Innovation. If the evidence existed that the hub would fall apart if the number of destinations were to fall below 130, for example, I would certainly accept it, but it simply does not exist at the moment.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman will be aware that BAA itself has briefed us for debates on the Floor of the House that
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even without a third runway, the number of passengers will expand to as many as 94 million. There will be dramatic growth even without a third runway.

Adam Afriyie: I have seen those numbers. The hon. Gentleman makes the point eloquently and accurately.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way repeatedly during his eloquent speech. It is extraordinary that the aviation industry should argue, and even find supporters for the argument, that the loss of a few of the thinnest routes and their replacement by more planes on more popular routes should somehow constitute a threat to the British economy. Where is the evidence? If the industry cannot do better than the Oxford study, it should not be trying to put the case at all.

Adam Afriyie: In addition, the pro lobby often makes the observation that the hub is Heathrow. A strong case could be made that the five airports in the south-east together form a hub.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the period during which Heathrow has concentrated on a slightly narrower range of destinations has been matched by a period of rapid economic growth in the London area, the turnaround of the London population and the establishment of such a solid financial base that it seems to be coming out of the financial crisis rapidly?

Adam Afriyie: That is an astute observation. If one is looking for correlation, the correlation appears to be between insufficient capacity at Heathrow and in the south-east and a boost in economic growth. We must be careful about how we use figures, and we must be particularly cautious about the Government’s use of them.

Mr. Letwin: Will my hon. Friend confirm that in all the projections on which the Government have relied so far, there is a thundering silence about the effect of high-speed rail on passenger growth? Without that, there is clearly no serious study.

Adam Afriyie: That is right. My right hon. Friend brings me to a key point that I will be making in a few moments. Without serious consideration of the alternatives of the past couple of years—not 10 years ago—the Government’s bulldozing through of the proposal can be taken more as an act of political positioning, which might be backfiring on them, rather than a genuine search for the best solution for our country.

There is no doubt that Heathrow is in the wrong place. Were we to start today, I am sure that we would not put a major airport with 480,000 flights a year right in the heart of a populated area. If we were starting now with a new project for an international airport that might arguably be a hub, we would look to position it where noise levels would not disturb people, in a location more easily accessible by high-speed rail or existing road infrastructure.

I note that France’s main airport was moved twice in a period of 20 years. I am not suggesting at all that we should move London Heathrow, because so many jobs
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depend on it, but it shows a lack of ambition that the Government cannot envisage or even entertain the concept that a new airport could be forthcoming elsewhere, in a better location linked by high-speed rail to existing airports and city centres.

I must celebrate on behalf of my constituents in Windsor. I am delighted that the Cranford agreement is no longer in existence. I will not dwell on that point, as I recognise that if BAA decides that it wishes to rebalance flights across the area, that simply means that other areas may well be adversely affected by larger numbers of flights. I suspect that the Transport Secretary’s announcement is a trap by the Government. I think that he is hoping that the unity of 2M and of MPs around the south-east will be broken if Windsor begins to argue that the abolition of Cranford should be implemented immediately.

I do not think that we will fall into that trap. I shall certainly be pressing BAA as to what its plans are to implement it—I have been doing so on behalf of my constituents and will continue to do so—but there is no way that I will break the unity of the campaign against the third runway, for two reasons. A prisoner may be tempted from his cell with the question, “Would you like to stretch your legs, sir? That’s a nice benefit,” only to realise a little later that he has been let out in order to be hanged at the gallows. In a way, the announcement could be seen as part of a plan of creeping encroachment to put the criteria for the third runway in place. The other thing to bear in mind is that even if the abolition of Cranford were implemented fully, any benefits would be negated immediately by the extra 220,000 flights a year. We must be careful what we hope for while working in our constituents’ interests.

I shall run briefly through the criticisms of the Government’s case, because on every count the case falls over or is at least deeply questionable. The Government have argued that there is support from the entire business community. As we have seen, businesses are not united in the desire for a third runway at Heathrow. Indeed, business men have been bold in putting their heads above the parapet to say that they are not in favour of it at all. At best, the Government can argue that some businesses—I suspect that BAA might be on the list—are interested in a third runway at Heathrow.

The second count is an environmental one. The Government say that they have put conditions in place so that the third runway cannot be used to full capacity unless the environmental concerns—they involve nitrogen dioxide more than CO2—are met. However, that seems absolutely bizarre. If they are saying that the third runway cannot be used to full capacity initially, that completely undermines the economic case, or would if there were one. A partially used third runway will not deliver the benefits that the Government argue, on the basis of the Oxford Economic Forecasting report, will be delivered. There is no doubt that hitting nitrogen dioxide targets will be a stretch even in existing circumstances, and any reasonable person who looks through the numbers and projections will recognise that a third runway would merely add to the problem.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): My hon. Friend is focusing on NOx, but he will know that the elephant in the room is carbon and climate change policy. Does he understand the confusion in my
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constituency? People are coming up to me to say, “Hang on a minute. On one hand, the Government are telling us that climate change is the most important risk of our time, and on the other, they’re giving a green light to the fastest-growing source of emissions. How do we make sense of this?”

Adam Afriyie: There can be no greater contrast, especially as the Government do not even attempt to say that the building of a third runway will help towards their goal of reducing carbon emissions in the short term. It seems rather bold and impressive of the Government to tie us into targets 40 years from now, when—I had better be careful what I say—many hon. Members may no longer be in this place. On the other hand, the Government’s actions in the short and medium term will lead to an increase in CO2 and nitrogen dioxide emissions. We recognise that technology moves on and that some of the new aircraft in development, although not the fantasy aircraft that have been mentioned, will improve emissions. However, there is no way, looking at the charts and calculations, that they can deliver those improvements in time to meet the goals that the Government have set.

On quality of life, I refer to an observation that I made about four years ago in a civil aviation debate and in one or two other debates. Often, it is not the average noise made across a noise-quota period that causes disturbance, but the noise of an individual aircraft that wakes someone during the night and ruins their quality of life for the following day. Something else needs to be looked at here: it is not only aircraft movements that one needs to take into account, but the reality on the ground. The simple testing of noise in aircraft hangars and the theoretical testing of aircraft engine noise is not enough. I urge the Minister to attempt to address that point.

Anyone who travels up and down the M4 will know that it is constantly congested, even in the current economic downturn. Similarly, anyone who drives around the M25 will know that, even with six lanes in places, it is still constantly congested. Clearly, there is a problem with road access to Heathrow, and that has not been addressed in the Government’s case so far.

Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Surely there is a further point about not just aviation carbon emissions, which my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) has mentioned, but ground emissions. Even if a high proportion were, as some argue, to be displaced elsewhere, there will be more ground emissions as more people get stuck in congestion in the south-east instead of using regional airports, which have been growing healthily.

Adam Afriyie: The point is well made, and I shall not labour it other than to say that in the absence of high-speed rail linking domestic locations, it is very difficult to see how any of the targets, even for future generations, can possibly be met with the existing road network, even with the modifications that the Government have suggested.

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