HC Deb 02 December 1952 vol 508 cc1520-30

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Drewe.]

4.28 a.m.

Mr. F. Beswick (Uxbridge)

I presume that there is no Standing Order which permits the Chief Whip to closure this part of our business, otherwise he would have done so by now. I should like to congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary on appointment to his new office. I hope his term will be interesting and useful, and I commiserate with him that his first appearance at the Treasury Box is at such an early hour.

This debate, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is concerned with the important question of a possible extension of London Airport, but I also want to obtain a clear picture of the background to airport policy for the London area. There is an immense amount of hard work being done on, and fruitful thought being given to, the problem of airports and air traffic control to which tribute ought to be paid.

But there is also involved a very important social problem. The policy for airports in the London area is extremely important not only to the nearly 2 million people who will expect to come in and out of the area by air next year but also to even more millions who wish only to live quietly in their suburban villas. The threat of displacement and the nuisance of noise concern them very much indeed.

If we are wise and genuinely civilised we shall do everything we possibly can to recognise and appreciate the rights of the citizen as a non-travelling resident as well as the citizen as an air-travelling passenger. In the debate on 29th October the Minister seemed very anxious to present himself as a big man, making quick decisions. He said that when he assumed office he found seven airports serving London and that he proposed to reduce that number to two or three. In fact, there was nothing very new about the announcement, for a similar statement was made by a predecessor of mine in March, 1949.

If the Minister has now really got this problem sorted out we should be told the approximate time-table. When are Bovingdon and Croydon Airports to be given up? What is now the policy for Stansted? Is that to be given up, and, if so, when? What is now the date for quitting Northolt? When the civil airlines move out, has it been finally decided that the military authorities will not move in?

I know something of the difficulties, but I hope that the present Minister will say firmly that the regular use by military aircraft of Northolt, which is only five miles from the main civil airport of the country, will be quite intolerable in the jet age.

Another decision which was restated by the present Minister, with a flourish, was that Gatwick is to be the principal alternative to the main London Airport. On 29th October he said: In the case of Gatwick …. the only difference between this Government and their predecessors is that we have come to a definite decision. … But, two columns later, he said: We have had discussions with the local authorities in Sussex … before I make a definite statement on behalf of Her Majesty's Government we must await the recommendations that will be made to us by the local authorities. What does that mean?

The hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough), in an extremely interesting speech on the same day, also seemed to be dubious about the precise meaning of the Minister's bold decision. He understood that there was to be a public inqury, and said: I should like to know whether the inquiry will be limited to the question of whether the airport shall be at Gatwick or not or whether the inquiry can advise the Government, if Gatwick is not the most suitable place, that somewhere else is the most suitable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1952; Vol. 505, c. 1962–2305.] As far as I can see the Parliamentary Secretary, in winding up the debate, gave him no answer at all.

If there is any chance that this big decision of the Minister will be reversed after all, if the inquiry so recommends, then, obviously some very serious difficulties for air transport will pile up in the future. The development of ground facilities will get completely out of phase with the growth of air traffic.

I come to the particular problem of Britain's No. 1 airport. There is a plan to extend London Airport over the Bath Road, and to construct a third parallel runway. This extension involves the destruction of good property on a scale which, as far as I am aware, is hitherto unknown in this country. I would remind the House of what is involved. Six hundred and fifty residential dwellings and 15 other properties including churches, schools, business and industrial premises will be destroyed altogether.

Further, a church will be left without a congregation. A horticultural business will be destroyed. Other small businesses will remain physically intact, but their customers will go. Many men, although left with their homes, will find their places of employment gone. The House will readily appreciate the acute anxiety caused to so many families by this proposed upheaval.

Almost every day there are domestic problems which cannot be settled because of the uncertainty about the future. There are questions of education and employment for children, repairs and improvements to the home, and the development of the garden. How can one deal with these matters when, in two or three years' time, one's home might deliberately be destroyed?

I have no time to deal with a number of tragic incidental consequences such as, for example, that when an owner-occupier is compelled to leave the district he is quite unable to sell his house. I cannot go into the question of compensation; indeed, I hope it will not arise at all now. Suffice it to say that the provisions for compensation are so vague and complicated that they do nothing at all to allay anxiety.

In 1949 my constituency was extended from Northolt Airport to Heathrow and I then had the privilege of representing an area of important terrestrial activity between the boundaries of two main centres of celestial travel. The change over meant that the larger area affected by the proposed extension to Heathrow came into my constituency. The line I have always taken is that the authorities and aviation experts concerned should be made keenly aware of the social consequences of any technical plans they made. Nevertheless, if there was no alternative to the extension and if the plan was essential to the economic and social future of Britain as a whole, the plan must go through.

I have always made that quite clear and I am pleased to say that the residents in the district and also the urban district council accept this point of view. Incidentally, I take the opportunity of paying tribute to the co-operation I received from the Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council. They are proud that this new gateway to Britain should be within their urban district and in the provision of houses for airport workers no authority has done better than the Yiewsley and West Drayton Urban District Council.

Nevertheless, they want to be assured that it is absolutely necessary to carry out the scheme of extension and both the council and residents feel that they have the right to be kept informed of developments. When Lord Pakenham was Minister he met representatives of the area on a number of occasions and made clear to them that the extension plan would not be pushed through regardless of consequences simply because some years ago a scheme was conceived, possibly without complete appreciation of later technical progress. He pledged that before a final decision was made to extend he would review the whole matter again in the light of two factors, first, the actual growth of air traffic as against the estimated growth and, secondly, the developments of techniques in air traffic control and landing time which might increase the capacity of two runways and make a third runway unnecessary.

On 18th June last I asked the Parliamentary Secretary what the position was and he repeated that no decision could be made until there had been experience of operations on the two runways. Indeed, he went further in answer to a supplementary question, and said it would be quite wrong to make a premature decision. That was the position which the people of the area understood.

Last month, however, the local branch of the Conservative Party organised a political meeting to be addressed by the under-Secretary of State for Air. According to a report of 14th November in the "Middlesex Advertiser"—a responsible paper, usually accurate in its reports—a question was asked about the extension of the airport and the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Ward) speaking, of course, as a junior Minister, as Under-Secretary of State for Air, in the present Government, said: I hope that in a few weeks, certainly no longer than a month, we shall definitely be able to come to a decision. He also said: We are very hopeful, and I say it with authority, that we shall not, in fact, need to extend Heathrow any more. I think it would be cruel, after that remark, to dash their hopes. The impression given is that there will be no extension. If, in fact, a definite decision could not have been made at that time, I think it would have been better to have said nothing at all on the matter, or at any rate nothing more than had been said in this House. It is an extremely important matter to the residents in the area. It has never been treated as a political matter and if any development radically different from the statement made in the House by the Secretary of State on 18th June could have been announced one would have thought it would have been made earlier in Parliament or officially, and in precise language, to the Press and the local authorities concerned.

A few days after the public meeting the hon. Member for Heston and Isleworth (Mr. R. Harris) put down a Question about this matter and nothing was said to him about a decision in a month. He was told "as soon as possible." Only when I pressed the matter in a supplementary question, was this answer narrowed to a few weeks' time. Quite frankly, I would have thought the Minister would have been well advised not to have briefed the Under-Secretary of State to make any statement different from that of 18th June until a definite decision could have been made. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that my effective constituents will certainly not tolerate an adverse decision, if it is made within the month without the thorough examination and inquiry promised by Lord Pakenham and further emphasised by the hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling), when he was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

If it is possible for the Minister to make a definite statement tonight, it is reasonable to expect it will be to the effect that the extension will not take place. A further complication of this matter occurred when the "News Chronicle." on its front page, announced that no decision could be made until the end of 1953. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to say whether that statement has been corrected—if, indeed, it stands open to correction. Lord Pakenham, in his term of office, did much to create an improvement in this matter of the Ministry's relations with the public, but it would seem again that the public are regarded as people with no interest in these affairs, and that the same superior silence seemed to be maintained by the Department when the controversy over Gatwick was raging in the columns of "The Times."

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take this opportunity of giving to interested members of the public some of the information for which I have asked, and that he will be able to answer the specific questions about the London area and say definitely whether London Airport is to be extended north of the Bath Road. If not, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will explain why the Under-Secretary of State for Air was authorised to make an announcement at a political meeting which was at variance with information given to the House.

4.43 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation (Mr. John Profumo)

I am twice grateful to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), first for his generous reference to myself, and, secondly, because he has permitted me to make my maiden speech from this awe-inspiring position at a time when most sensible hon. Members have gone home, and has given me this opportunity to clarify at least some of the problems he has justifiably laid before us.

May I deal, right away, with the fundamental issue in his speech—the possible extension of London Airport north of the Bath Road? I am not in a position to make any definite announcement about this decision tonight, nor do I consider that, even if I were able to make such an announcement, this would be the appropriate moment to do it.

The hon. Gentleman has rightly told us of the immense importance of this problem to many hundreds of people, and he has had something to say about publicity and the way in which statements are put over. When an announcement can be made I think it should be given the fullest possible publicity, such as usually attends only Ministerial statements in this House at normal hours.

The hon. Member seemed to feel that there was some discrepancy in the statements which have been made on this subject. With great respect, I do not think that is so. Ever since he took office, my right hon. Friend has been most anxious to reach a decision as soon as it was humanly possible, so as to avoid any unnecessary expense to hundreds of people who do not know whether London Airport will one day sprawl northwards and swallow their homes and their businesses. It was for that very reason that, since the original announcement was made, my right hon. Friend has sponsored various practical experiments which have been designed to see whether the runways south of the road could accept so large a proportion of the maximum traffic that we should be able to do without the additional runways to the north.

I have not time to describe in detail the experiments, but they make a fascinating story. Suffice to say that they have been going on at top speed for some time. Only as recently as ten days ago a test involving a Stratocruiser was carried out, and the results of this test are being most urgently and thoroughly examined.

The hon. Member specifically referred to a speech made by the Under-Secretary of State for Air at a public meeting. He made a criticism that here was a complete change in policy announced in a casual manner. I do not think that that was so. My hon. Friend was only replying to a question at the end of the meeting with a lucidity which the seriousness of the question demanded. I have looked into the matter most carefully and have the speech in front of me. When my hon. Friend referred to "a few weeks," he was referring to the end of the experiments. If these experiments are totally satisfactory, it stands to reason that an early announcement can be made.

My hon. Friend said that Her Majesty's Government were hopeful that we should not need to extend London Airport any more. I emphasise that that is the position of the Government. We have always hoped that we should not have to do that, but I very much regret that we have still been unable to reach a complete conclusion, because the results of the experiment are not yet known. Knowing the hon. Gentleman, I would say with certainty that if he had been in a similar position to that of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, he would have given exactly the same frank answer. I am quite certain that, realising that these were the people most affected, he would not in any way have attempted to evade the question.

I will deal with another point which the hon. Member made with great seriousness. If, unfortunately, the experiments which are currently being carried out are not satisfactory, then I certainly give the assurance that my right hon. Friend's original undertaking still stands—namely, that we shall await a full opportunity of testing, in practice, the procedures which we have devised for the dual runway system, and that in such case no interference with houses or homes will take place until 1955.

Mr. Beswick

I am grateful for that assurance, but it takes away at least half the statement made by the Under-Secretary of State, because it means that if the result is negative it will not be announced in a month's time but will have to wait until the end of 1953.

Mr. Profumo

That is perfectly true. I was only trying to clear up what, on the surface, appeared to be opinion different from that stated previously. It was a genuine and honest attempt to try to put the case before the people who counted most. I think the hon. Member will agree that we should await the results of these experiments and any statement which my right hon. Friend may be able to make before any further criticism is levelled.

Now let me turn to some of the other aspects of the hon. Gentleman's speech. As my right hon. Friend announced in the debate on 29th October, he proposes that the existing seven airports in the London area should be reduced to three. In this way we hope we shall be able to release some valuable building and agricultural land, and, at the same time, make substantial savings in the cost of the upkeep of the aerodromes in that area. In addition to London Airport, with its primary alternate for bad weather, it is proposed that there should be a second alternate at Blackbushe.

Although, so far as can be foreseen at present, this should meet our main needs, we have decided that we must safeguard one further area, namely, Stansted, in case additional facilities should one day be required. No further development is at present envisaged there, and we should only take such action if the growth of civil air traffic demanded it in the end.

I was asked to give a programme of the dates when we are likely to be able to release the remainder of the airports in the London area. So far as Northolt is concerned, I understand that London Airport will be in a position to accept the extra commitments there involved by about 1955, but I should like to emphasise that as this transfer is obviously of vital importance to the operators who are operating from Northolt at the moment, before any final decision is taken on the actual date of such a move we would, naturally, wish to consult with those operators. Although it is very probable that military aircraft will continue to operate from Northolt, the scale of movements, particularly at peak periods, will not be at a sufficiently high rate to threaten the safety of civilian air traffic operating from London Airport.

It is intended that operations should eventually cease from both Croydon and Bovingdon, but I regret that I am not able tonight to forecast any actual dates owing to various reasons. To mention two. First, we have existing tenancies of aircraft concerns at present accommodated in these aerodromes; we should have to find them alternative sites, and the capital investment programme comes in here very strong indeed; to provide them with alternative sites will cost a great deal of money, and it is impossible at present to say exactly how long that may be.

This leads me to the question of Gatwick. It is true that in the debate on 29th October my right hon. Friend did state that Her Majesty's Government had come to a "definite decision." Those are the words he used. Here again the hon. Gentleman seemed to find some inconsistency in a later passage of the same speech, when my right hon. Friend spoke about a firm decision awaiting recommendations from the local authorities. I really cannot find any discrepancy there myself.

It is the responsibility of Governments to take decisions in principle, and Her Majesty's Government have been very notable indeed for taking many far-reaching decisions since coming to power. My right hon. Friend has taken a decision in principle to use Gatwick and in the same speech, if the hon. Gentleman follows it further down, he did say: the Government have come to a definite conclusion that of the 50 sites examined Gatwick fulfils all the requirements better than anywhere else."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 29th October, 1952; Vol. 505, c. 1964.] That is a decision in principle, and that is as far as we have gone.

Was the hon. Gentleman trying to suggest that if such a decision as this had been taken by the Department during the period when he held the office I now hold he would have been unwilling to recognise the local machinery laid down by the Town and Country Planning Act for local authorities to give expression to their views? That seemed to me to be the argument he was advancing. The decision has been taken in principle, but there is always machinery there for local representations.

Mr. Beswick

It may well be, then, that Gatwick Airport will not be the second alternate?

Mr. Profumo

No, that is not necessarily the case. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do what the terms of reference of such inquiries can be. The terms of reference of public inquiries of that sort do not permit local residents to dispute a decision which has been taken in principle; they are only at liberty to put forward any points relative to local conditions. If he looks at it when the House rises he will find that is very clear, and that is the explanation of what appears at first sight to be a discrepancy in what my right hon. Friend said.

I am sure that, on reflection, he will agree that the course being adopted by the Government is a wholly correct one. In all matters which are connected with airport development we are very fully aware of the inconvenience and disruption which must be caused to those who happen to live in the vicinity. Her Majesty's Government are doing everything possible to try to reduce the nuisance caused by aircraft noise. If the hon. Gentleman will read carefully the article to which he referred in the national newspaper of 18th November I think he will see it stated that my Department have already started to erect an acoustic wall at London Airport, which is designed to try to reduce sound still further.

We are very conscious of the social problems affecting people living in and around airports. In the development of such airports we are most anxious to do everything possible to take these important matters fully into consideration. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, with his own deep devotion to the cause of civil aviation, will agree with me when I say that, having gained a world lead in this sphere, it behoves us as a nation to provide the best possible facilities for the fleets of the air to ply to and from our islands just as naturally and easily as the great shipping fleets have, in the past, converged on our ports.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three Minutes to Five o'Clock a.m., 3rd December, 1952.

Back to