HC Deb 20 May 1968 vol 765 cc32-40
The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

I will, with permission, make a statement on the Government's proposals for the inquiry into the siting of the third London airport.

The form of the inquiry must meet two requirements. On the one hand, this is one of the most important investment and planning decisions which the nation must make in the next decade; this points to an expert, rigorous and systematic study of the many and complex problems involved. At the same time, the decision will profoundly affect the lives of thousands of people living near the chosen site; and this calls for an adequate method of representation of the local interests affected.

We have sought to find a form of inquiry which will meet these two, to some extent conflicting, needs. We have had discussions with the official Opposition, and I must acknowledge the constructive help which they have given. We have reached a broad agreement.

The Government propose a non-statutory Commission with the following terms of reference: To inquire into the timing of the need for a four-runway airport to cater for the growth of traffic at existing airports serving the London area, to consider the various alternative sites, and to recommend which site should be selected. In order to meet the two requirements which I mentioned earlier there will be two sides to the Commission's work. For part of the time, it will sit as a normal committee of inquiry, commissioning research and analysing its findings, sifting expert evidence, forming its own judgments, and finally preparing its report. But there will be other phases of the inquiry when interested parties can be represented by counsel and have the right to cross-examine, both at a series of local inquiries once the possible sites have been reduced to a small number and also before the main Commission itself.

I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT a more detailed note of the way in which I envisage that the Commission might set about its task, though I have no wish to impose upon it an unduly rigid procedure.

I shall direct the attention of the Commission to the following matters which are of special relevance to its inquiry: General planning issues, including population and employment growth, noise, amenity, and effect on agriculture and existing property; aviation issues, including air traffic control and safety; surface access; defence issues; and cost, including the need for cost/benefit analysis. The Hon. Mr. Justice Roskill has agreed to act as Chairman, and I shall announce the names of the other members as soon as possible.

Mr. Corfield

The Opposition have throughout taken the view that it is highly desirable that the Commission should be in a position to reach a conclusion on the most suitable site without the risk of that site subsequently being rejected by a local planning inquiry. We therefore welcome the approach being adopted by the Government and we also very much welcome the appointment of Mr. Justice Roskill as Chairman, along with the apparent intention that there should be a senior planning inspector of the Ministry of Housing as a member of the Commission.

For the purpose of clarification, would the right hon. Gentleman answer three questions at this stage? First, although we appreciate that it is not possible for him yet to name the other members of the Commission, can he give some indication of the skills or expertise which he thinks should be represented by the members of the Commission? Secondly, will the Commission be free to take evidence from the Ministry of Defence? Thirdly, can he give some idea of the time-scale that will be involved, how long he thinks all this will take and when he expects the Commission to announce its final conclusion?

Mr. Crosland

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. As to the skills we think should be represented, the kind of membership I have in mind would include perhaps a traffic engineer, an aviation expert, an economist, a businessman, and a regional planner, in addition to the planning inspector to whom the hon. Gentleman referred.

As for the Ministry of Defence, that Department will, no doubt, submit some evidence of a classified character and this will, of course, have to be considered in camera. As to the time likely to be taken by the Commission, I envisage that perhaps up to two years will be needed.

Mr. Newens

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that ample opportunity will be given to cross-examine all the expert witnesses who will be called, remembering that so often in the past such expert witnesses have given testimony which has afterwards been shown not to be fully acceptable?

Mr. Crosland

I would not necessarily accept what my hon. Friend says about the past. However, I can give him the reassurance he needs about the future. There will be opportunities both at the local inquiry and before the main Commission for interested parties to cross-examine the expert evidence put forward.

Mr. Kirk

I join with my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) in expressing complete satisfaction at the form of the inquiry. Will it be possible for some of the stages of the inquiry to take place simultaneously? Will this inquiry obviate the need for a public local inquiry at the end of it into the site chosen?

Mr. Crosland

The answer to the first part of that question is "Yes, subject to the views of the Chairman." To answer the second part, I would hope that the answer is "Yes"; in all probability the Government will decide to give planning clearance for the selected site by means of a Special Development Order. There is no obligation to hold an inquiry in respect of such an Order and, after all that is now proposed, I would hope that no further inquiry would be considered necessary.

Mr. Rankin

Would my right hon. Friend agree that in this case the Commission must proceed with the greatest possible measure of speed in view of the fact that Heathrow Airport is becoming less and less possible of development and that Gatwick is in a similar position? Would he agree that speed is necessary because of the increasing air traffic coming to this country?

Mr. Crosland

I completely agree that the greatest possible speed is necessary —that is, the greatest possible speed that is consistent with an inquiry that is not only actually thorough but is also seen by all the parties concerned to be thorough.

Mr. Bessell

In welcoming the right hon. Gentleman's statement on behalf of the Liberal Party, may I ask him when an announcement about the sites under consideration will be made? Can he also say whether the inquiry will consider the new phases of aviation—for example, the development of the Jumbo-jet and the vertical take-off type of aircraft—and ensure that the airport is sited at a place which is reasonably accessible to London?

Mr. Crosland

The answer to the third part of the hon. Gentleman's question will be for the Commission to recommend and not for me to decide in advance. The answer to the second part is "Yes, of course". The answer to the first part is that I would imagine that it would take the Commission between six and eight months to narrow the very large number of sites that it will initially consider down to the very small number of sites which I hope will then be subject to local inquiries.

Mr. Robert Howarth

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in aviation circles there will be a general welcome for his announcement? However, does he really think that this inquiry will be able to complete its work without knowing what is the policy of the Board of Trade for a national airports plan? In other words, does he really believe that the Commission can work in isolation in that respect?

Mr. Crosland

It is generally agreed by all those who have expressed views on this matter that whatever plans one might have for other airports there is almost certainly a need for a third to serve the London area. Therefore, the terms of reference which I have given will, I think, be adequate for the inquiry.

Sir J. Rodgers

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's announcement, but does he realise that the period of two years which he envisages seems to many of us to be much too long? Can he not speed it up? Would he also give a categorical assurance that the site of Stansted will still be included in the deliberations?

Mr. Crosland

On the timetable, I merely wish to guard against over-optimism. If it takes less time, no one will be more delighted than I, but I think that it could take that long, nevertheless. I find it impossible to conceive that Stansted will not be at least one of the candidates seriously considered by the Commission.

Mr. Whitaker

Will the inquiry be able to consider the desirability of eventually moving Heathrow and Gatwick to the east of London, so that the noise of landing aircraft does not disturb the maximum population, as is the case at present?

Mr. Crosland

I have drawn the terms of reference reasonably widely and we must see what the Commission makes of them.

Sir S. McAdden

Would the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that one of the most canvassed sites is adjacent to my constituency? Would he resist the present pressure to substitute noise transference for noise abatement, since the problem will not be solved merely by transferring it?

Mr. Crosland

I have noticed the reluctance of hon. Members whose constituencies might be affected to grasp this precious prize which is dangled in front of them, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's feelings will be brought to the attention of the Commission.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

May we take it, from one of my right hon. Friend's earlier answers, that the Commission will be able to consider sites which were previously rejected, for example, Black-bushe, which has great climatic and geographical advantages?

Mr. Crosland

Yes, Sir, there are no restrictions on the sites which the Commission can consider.

Sir Ian Orr-Ewing

Would the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the timing for a third London airport must to some extent defend on the way in which the traffic can be handled at Heathrow Airport and at Gat wick? Will it be within the terms of reference of the Commission to examine methods of improving the aircraft traffic handling capacity of the two existing airports, since this should be pushed as hard as possible before the country is asked to invest in a new centre of noise and nuisance?

Mr. Crosland

What the hon. Gentleman says is very relevant, but I hope that he will consider that the terms of reference cover his point. The first sentence refers to inquiring into "the timing of the need" for a third four-runway airport, so I think that his point will be covered.

Sir C. Bossom

Will the right hon. Gentleman, at the same time, make a full study of a link-up between central London, by a hovertrain or monorail, and these areas?

Mr. Crosland

This matter interests many hon. Members. We study it fairly continuously. How far it will be for the Commission to study, we had better allow the Commission to decide.

Mr. Hooley

Will the terms of reference entirely exclude the possibility of siting the airport outside the South-East, since it could gravely aggravate the congestion which it is designed to relieve?

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir, they do not entirely exclude that. It would be open to the Commission to say that there was no need for a third airport, or that it should be indefinitely postponed. This is unlikely in practice, because almost everyone who has discussed this matter is convinced that, some time in the middle 1970s, there will be a need for a third London airport.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Why, since all this will take quite a long time, has it become much less urgent than it was before to make a final selection of the site?

Mr. Crosland

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to the decision to set up an inquiry, which he was kind enough to welcome when I announced it, or to the fact that some weeks elapsed after that earlier statement before I made this statement.

The reason that some delay has occurred is partly that we wished to consult the Opposition, which has, of course, taken time, partly because, in view of the tangled history of this question, it is extraordinarily important to find the right kind of inquiry, and partly because I have consistently taken the view that some delay is to be expected and is well worth incurring if, as a result, we get the right decision and one which everyone admits to be right.

Following is the Note:

Inquiry into Siting of Third London Airport— Constitution, Terms and Reference and Procedure

Constitution of Commission

1. The Government will set up a non-statutory Commission with the following terms of reference: —

To inquire into the timing of the need for a four-runway airport to cater for the growth of traffic at existing airports serving the London area, to consider the various alternative sites, and to recommend which site should be selected.

The Commission will be provided with staff and will be authorised to commission research into matters relevant to its investigation.

The Commission will have its attention directed to the following points which appear to be among the matters particularly relevant to its inquiry:

  1. (a) General planning issues, including population and employment growth, noise, 39 amenity, and effect on agriculture and existing property;
  2. (b) Aviation issues, including air traffic control and safety;
  3. (c) Surface access;
  4. (d) Defence issues;
  5. (e) Cost including the need for cost/benefit analysis.


2. The Government envisage that the Commission will proceed broadly in the following manner, though they do not wish to impose an unduly rigid procedure: —

3. Stage I. At this first stage, the Commission will consider in a broad way the whole range of alternative sites, eliminate those which are clearly unsuitable and identify the small number which require more detailed consideration. The Commission will carry out this process of preliminary selection on the basis of general evidence that may be put to it and of information that it may itself seek. At this stage, there will be no right of representation before the Commission; though the Commission itself will be free to seek oral evidence if this is required to elucidate the matters it is considering.

4. At the end of Stage I, the Commission will announce the sites it wishes to investigate in greater detail, and will, for the purposes of that examination, define the approximate boundaries of the sites in question, and give such other general indications as may be necessary (e.g. flight paths and runway alignments) to enable those living in the localities to understand how they would be affected.

5. Stage II will consist of the hearing of evidence of a local character concerning the short-listed sites. This would probably be undertaken by a senior planning inspector, who would be a member of the Commission, visiting the locality and holding a public local inquiry. Subject to the general reservations mentioned in paragraphs 8–10 below, the interested parties will be entitled to be represented at this stage. As these proceedings will take some time, they will continue while Stages III and IV are going on.

6. Simultaneously, a start will be made with Stage III and the subsequent stages. Stage III would consist of investigation and research into matters relevant to the choice to be made between the sites (e.g. air traffic patterns, surface transport, noise, regional planning etc.). Some of this work might be undertaken by the Commission and its staff; some commissioned from consultants; and some produced in the form of written evidence by the parties concerned or by bodies having an interest in these matters.

7. Stage IV. The Commission would consider the material produced during the course of Stage III. It will, if necessary, examine the experts who have produced it. If differences of opinion emerge from the expert evidence the Commission will, in the first place, invite those concerned to consult together with a view to reaching agreement.

8. Stage V. The purpose of this stage is to enable the interested parties to test the material produced during the earlier stages. At this stage, they may, by leave of the Commission, be represented by counsel or otherwise. Since the number of interested bodies is potentially large, it is hoped that bodies with similar interests will, wherever possible, be represented by the same counsel.

9. Counsel representing the parties may, by leave of the Commission, lead evidence on relevant matters, and cross-examine witnesses appearing on behalf of other parties or experts responsible for reports which are being taken into consideration by the commission.

10. Before giving leave, the Commission will need to be satisfied that such new evidence is useful and relevant; and that the proposed examination and cross-examination of wit nesses is not repetitious.

11. Finally, the Commission will consider the whole of the evidence, including that produced at the local inquiries. The Commission will then prepare its report and recommendation.

Procedure after the Commission has reported:

12. The Government will decide in the light of the circumstances of the time whether formal planning clearance should be given by way of a Special Development Order or whether they should require the British Airports Authority to make a specific planning application for the recommended site which would be called in for decision by the responsible Ministers, if necessary after a statutory local inquiry.