HC Deb 26 April 1971 vol 816 cc34-44
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. John Davies)

With permission, I should like to make a statement. The Government have considered with great care the Roskill Commission Report—

Mr. Arthur Lewis

It is all in the papers.

Mr. Davies

—the views expressed in recent debates in both Houses of Parliament and the many representations made by a wide range of interests on the siting of the third London airport.

The Government have now taken certain basic decisions about the need, timing and location of the airport.

It is the Government's aim to encourage the development of aviation and to maintain Britain's share of civil aviation in the international field. The Government accept the unanimous recommendation of the Commission that a third London airport will be needed and that the first runway should be operational by about 1980. They consider that additional airport capacity is required in the South-East, not only to meet the inevitable increase in air traffic now foreseen, but also to bring relief at the earliest practicable date to the noise and environmental problems created by the existing airports in the region. The Government endorse the Commission's assumption that there would then be no need to provide additional runways at other airports in the London area. An airport outside the region would not meet the need. It would involve unacceptable risks to defer the provision of a third airport on the basis of speculative technological developments such as short takeoff and landing, or to plan on the assumption that future needs could be met by a site incapable of expansion over time to a full four-runway capacity.

The Government have power to regulate the use of British Airports Authority's airports in the interests of the reduction of noise; I propose to consult airport owners immediately about the inclusion of provisions in the current Civil Aviation Bill to extend these powers in due course to other airports where noise is a serious problem.

Secondly, the Government have weighed with care the economic arguments identified by the Commission which indicated an inland site, and the regional planning and environmental issues which the Commission also identified. As the Commission's report stressed, on environmental and planning grounds the Foulness site is the best, and the Government have concluded that these considerations are of paramount importance. In the Government's view, the irreversible damage that would be done to large tracts of countryside and to many settled communities by the creation of an airport at any of the three inland sites studied by the Commission is so great that it is worth paying the price involved in selecting Foulness. The Commission has clearly indicated that the Foulness site has its economic and environmental disadvantages.

The Government are confident that an airport at Foulness will meet the needs of aviation, despite the economic penalty involved. Speedy means of access and efficient operation can reduce this penalty, and the use of the new airport would be encouraged by stricter limits on movements at other airports. Such limits, which the new airport would make pos- sible, would help to reduce noise at existing airports. It will be open to the British Airports Authority so to arrange charges between its airports as to stimulate traffic at Foulness. On these assumptions, which differ from those made by the Commission, the new airport can be expected in time to make a proper return on capital invested there, though it may not become self-supporting as quickly as one at an inland site.

A start will now be made on the planning of the new airport at Foulness. We shall have particularly in mind the precise location of the runways in the light of all the relevant cost, operational, noise and environmental factors.

Proposals have been made for a joint development at Foulness with participation by private capital involving as well a seaport and associated industrial development. The Government are examining the concepts involved. Meantime plans will be made for the airport on a basis that will not rule out a seaport and associated development being fitted into the site if this proves desirable.

The construction of the airport at Foulness will entail the early relocation of the Ministry of Defence Establishment at Shoeburyness. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has announced that the proposal before him to move the establishment to Pembrey will not be proceeded with. The Government are considering alternative arrangements and will shortly consult the local authorities and other bodies concerned.

The Secretary of State for the Environment will now proceed to discuss urgently with the various authorities concerned the scale and location of the urban development which the airport will involve and the action needed to secure it. The planning of the necessary road and rail links will be put in hand. All this, with the airport, will present over the next decade a great opportunity for imaginative integrated development.

These decisions, dealing as they do with the larger part of our air traffic, will provide a basis on which studies can be pursued to establish the desirable pattern of airport development in the rest of the country.

Mr. Crosland

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for having confirmed everything that we have been reading in the Press for some weeks past. May I say in passing that the right hon. Gentleman's Department is becoming the leakiest in recent history.

I believe that the Government are, on balance, right to have rejected the three Roskill inland sites. I think they are also right to have rejected a second runway at Gatwick. But the choice of Foulness is totally wrong, on the ground of damage to environment, and particularly the coastline; on the ground of destruction of homes for motorways; on the ground of enormous additional cost; and probably also on the ground of safety.

I have three questions to ask the right hon. Gentleman. First, will he give the Government's estimate of the additional cost of going to Foulness? Will he make it clear how the Government propose to compensate the British Airports Authority for this extra cost? Secondly, since we are not to have the first runway at Foulness till 1980, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the Government have totally ruled out the alternative solution which I and others have put forward, of searching for an alternative coastal site for a two-runway airport combined with a crash programme of aid for S.T.O.L.? The right hon. Gentleman's statement is unduly sceptical about S.T.O.L.

Thirdly, since I prophesy that Foulness, if it is ever built at all, will turn out to be the white elephant of the century, because airlines will not use it, what credence are we to attach to assurances that the right hon. Gentleman has given about reducing the noise at existing airports? Is it not likely that the residents of these areas will become the victims of a gigantic confidence trick, and will not his decision turn out to be the worst of all possible decisions in terms of the noise effect?

Mr. Davies

In response to the first of those three questions, as to the Government's estimate, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Roskill Commission estimated the excess cost, in total terms, of choosing Foulness against one of the inland sites as of the order of £150 million all told, discounted to 1982. I do not think the Government are seeking to dispute the Commission's calculations, and recognise that these costs will as a result fall on the air traveller in paying for the additional transit. The Government consider, however, that the cost, heavy as it is, is justified in environmental terms. I should like to stress that in speaking of these figures of cost, I am not talking of the construction cost of the airport, nor of the roads and railways to it, which are broadly speaking of the same level whichever of the sites would have been chosen.

On the second question of an alternative coastal site, the great problem, the right hon. Gentleman will recognise, is that whilst we have been waiting for years for a decision on this subject, if we once again postponed a decision, opening up all the uncertainty which would be involved, the extent of blight, generally speaking, would be very serious and really unacceptable.

On the secondary question in that same relationship, all my advice is that we would be most unwise to rely on short take-off and landing aircraft as a way out of this difficulty within the reasonable future, and it should not be regarded as a criterion which would enable us to evade our present decision.

As to the third question, I confidently believe that we shall have Foulness airport, and I firmly mean that we shall, and it will indeed produce the relief for noise trouble from London's airports which is at the moment such a serious matter.

Sir S. McAdden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine), who is unfortunately engaged upon the business of the House abroad and therefore cannot be here, and myself are particularly affected by his decision? May I therefore ask three short questions?

First, is my right hon. Friend aware that this decision will give great concern to a large number of constituents, and will he give urgent consideration to siting the airport, if it ever goes there, well to the north-east of the site considered by the Roskill Commission?

Secondly, is he aware of the danger, and that only last week there was a general alert at Southend Airport when one aircraft was struck by one goose? Does he realise that there are thousands of geese on the Maplin Sands?

Thirdly, is my right hon. Friend aware that although the two local authorities particularly concerned, the Southend County Borough Council and the Essex County Council, have given their blessing to an airport in their area, the residents in the area have never been consulted, and, if they had been, they might have come to a very different decision? Will my right hon. Friend, therefore, give them an opportunity to express their point of view, instead of their point of view being represented by others?

Mr. Davies

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. I appreciate that my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) would certainly have amplified those remarks had be been here.

On the first question, I realise the grave concern to which my hon. Friend refers and I will take into account what he says about the siting of the runways. In any case, this will be a matter for urgent study in connection with the total project study now to be undertaken.

On the subject of bird hazard, I recognise that there is a greater bird hazard at Foulness. I simply point out, however, that there are two factors involved here. On the one side, there is the safety of the people in aircraft, which is undoubtedly more at hazard in those circumstances, but the site chosen represents in such circumstances less hazard to residents on the ground than would have been involved at one of the inland sites.

As to residents' views, I am prepared to believe that they are far from happy. The trouble is that whatever site had been chosen, this would inevitably have been the case. I am very conscious of the fact that the Government have had a difficult judgment to make and they have tried to make the best one in all the circumstances.

Mr. John Morris

Having regard to the decision not to proceed to reprovision the Ministry of Defence, Shoeburyness, facilities at Pembrey, could the Secretary of State tell the House what steps the Ministry of Defence have taken to provide reprovisioning? Will it occur at one particular place? Who will bear the extra cost? Will the Ministry of Defence be able to move out in good time? Who will bear the total cost, estimated at £25 million, for the repro-visioning of Defence facilities?

Mr. Davies

The Ministry of Defence is now taking these two problems into consideration. I do not know that it will necessarily prove to be the case that a single place will accommodate the whole of the activities which were formerly at Shoeburyness, and they may be divided.

As to the cost, it is a factor and one which has been taken very much into account in the calculations which have been made. From the Ministry of Defence point of view, the choice of Foulness was certainly the least of the evils of the alternative choices which the Commission faced.

I can give a broad assurance on time. It seems probable that the change of location for the Shoeburyness activities can be achieved within the time scale necessary to allow the airport to develop.

Mr. Morris

Who will bear the cost?

Mr. Davies

It will be through the normal Ministry of Defence Estimates.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Now that the decision has been taken, can my right hon. Friend relate the provision of the road and rail links to which he refers coming into operation with the airport, and would he accelerate them as far as possible, and in particular the advanced passenger train service, so as to diminish the possible disincentive to the use of the airport apprehended by the Commission because of the length of journey time to the airport and consequent cost, and so confound the gloomy prognostication of the right hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) as to the possibility of a white elephant?

Mr. Davies

Yes, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has already had certain conversations, and we shall pursue them urgently with the British Railways Board and with other interests concerned. As I said earlier, I thought this presented us with a great opportunity to achieve an imaginative and venturesome project, which includes the whole of the transport side of this operation, the possibilities of which are of great importance.

Mrs. Shirley Williams

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Luton Airport, which is not a British Airports Authority airport, is likely to attract a good deal of the traffic before the third London airport is built, if it goes to Foulness? Will he therefore, in the light of his colleagues' recommendations in regard to Luton Airport and its environmentally excessively bad sites, take powers in the new Civil Aviation Bill to restrict traffic at non-B.A.A. airports, such as Luton?

Mr. Davies

I mentioned that I would be in consultation with those concerned with a view to introducing additional measures within the framework of the present Civil Aviation Bill to cover the potential restraint of capacity in relation particularly to noise, over and above that of the British Airports Authority airports.

Mr. Hastings

First, is my right hon. Friend aware that hundreds of thousands of people in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire will feel immense relief at this wise, but very difficult, decision? Second, may I congratulate him and, through him, also my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for the particular part he and his Department have played in the decision? Third, will he accept that whatever side we may have been on in this controversy, there will be universal sympathy for those likely to suffer as the result of the airport going to Foulness? Fourth, does my right hon. Friend accept the Roskill timing of need, or is he prepared to go ahead with the project as fast as possible? Fifth, would it not be possible to have the first runway ready as early as 1975, and is not that the only way to bring effective relief of some kind to the existing airports at Luton, Heathrow and Gatwick?

Mr. Davies

I am very doubtful, indeed, of attaining any date as early as 1975, but we will make as quick progress as we can. We have very much in mind that our primary objective must be to reduce the very serious noise problem in and around London.

Mr. Douglas

Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that part of his statement indicates a considerable subvention from public funds to infrastructure in the South-East and that the subvention implies the creation of a MIDAS in that area which might have detrimental effects in other regions? Will he reinitiate the development of MIDAS plans in other parts of the United Kingdom, including areas on the Clyde and on the Tay?

Mr. Davies

I fully understand the hon. Member's preoccupation. I reaffirmed in my statement that the heavy cost involved in making this choice will have to fall primarily on travellers and not on the public allocation of expenditure.

Mr. Sandys

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement that it is the Government's intention to take further measures to reduce aircraft noise, may I ask him whether, when considering the long-term planning of airports for short take off and, eventually, vertical take off aircraft, the advantages of this method of take off will not be accepted as a justification for siting airports of this sort either inside or very close to towns? There will undoubtedly be a temptation to do so.

Mr. Davies

I will certainly keep the point that my right hon. Friend makes very much in mind.

Mr. Tinn

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that many of us feel that the second London airport, that at Gatwick, is still under-utilised? Since he referred to steps being taken by use of charges by the Airports Authority to ensure that the third London airport will be fully utilised, why cannot such measures be used to ensure that Gatwick is fully utilised and the noise nuisance to West London inhabitants resulting from Heathrow be thereby reduced? If it will work in one place, why not in the other?

Mr. Davies

I will certainly take those views into consideration, but I must tell the hon. Gentleman that already the pressures on me in relation to the use of Gatwick are very great and, I know, even greater still on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Crouch

Does the Secretary of State realise that I am absolutely appalled by this decision of the Government? Who do the Government listen to these days —[Interruption.] Do they listen to high-pressure public relations groups or engineering contractors, or fail to listen to the Roskill Commission which, by a vote of five to one, recommended against Foulness?

And what about the nationalised industry most directly concerned, the British Airports Authority, which has stated to the Select Committee, of which I am a member: Th most disadvantageous site was Foulness because of its inaccessibility (as reflected in traffic forecasts which in turn would adversely affect revenue and profitability)… I ask my right hon. Friend to try to give the House some assurance that in the short time the Cabinet has considered these matters it has reflected on these views, already given over a long period.

Mr. Davies

I should like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) that the amount of time which the Cabinet and other bodies in Government have spent on this is very considerable, and has now lasted over months—[HON. MEMBERS: "Years."] I therefore cannot accept that a negligible degree of attention has been given to the matter.

The Government listened to all those who, for one reason or another, have to give advice, and have had to assess the weight of that advice, and thereby reach the conclusions they have reached. It may be some alleviation of the concern I realise my hon. Friend expresses to say that the whole question of the exact location of the runways on this site will obviously have a very important bearing on the noise hazard, and this will be very clearly borne in mind in the study which is made.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that hon. Members in all parts of the House will be very glad on this occasion to have his confirmation of the Press reports which preceded his statement by several days; and that the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland) in taking some exception to Foulness was a personal one, as the matter has never been discussed collectively on this side of the House?

As the Secretary of State has said that this airport is not likely to be ready until 1980, will he take especial care to see that during this long period there is not an intolerable build-up at Heathrow? Those under the glide path at Heathrow will, I am sure, welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement, but will he watch very carefully what is done between now and 1980?

Mr. Davies

I am in close proximity to the hon. Gentleman in terms of residence and, in personal terms, I have the matter deeply at heart. I can assure him that I have very much in mind possible measures which can be taken to limit the problem of noise.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry, but it is quite clear that I shall not be able to call all those hon. Members who want to put their views to the Secretary of State. We had better proceed.


Mr. Burden

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance. Before you cut short the questioning of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the question of the third London airport, I understood my right hon. Friend to say that, because of the siting at Foulness, there would be an increased hazard to the lives of people in aircraft and of people on the ground because of the dangers from birds. As this is a very serious matter, can you enlighten me as to how it will be possible for those hon. Members whose constituencies lie under the flight of aircraft which might crash to bring this matter to the attention of the House?

Mr. Speaker

I fully accept that this is a serious matter. In my view of the statement made by the Secretary of State, nothing will happen very quickly. There will be plenty of opportunity for all these points to be raised. I have no doubt that those concerned will pay attention to what the hon. Gentleman has said.

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