HC Deb 05 February 1974 vol 868 cc1183-92

10.22 p.m.

Mrs. Shirley Williams (Hitchin)

This evening a number of my colleagues and I have asked for the Adjournment to protest about a decision taken by the Secretary of State for the Environment which is wholly inconsistent with his own previous decisions, wholly against the interests of tens of thousands of people living in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and which was taken in a wholly undemocratic manner. I am sorry that the Secretary of State is not present because I believe that this debate is of sufficient importance for him to answer it personally.

I will now set out the story. Luton airport is the third largest in the country. It is also very ill-placed and is an airport which repeated inquiries from the Roskill Commission onwards have found to be associated with acute aircraft noise for those living in the surrounding area. The airport is a municipally-owned airport, rather surprisingly for such a large airport. In 1971 Luton Corporation asked for certain improvements to be made to the airport which would enable it to increase the air traffic movements. A public inquiry was held, as was proper for a decision of considerable importance.

The inquiry took several months and was a costly business. The sum of £20,000 was raised by aircraft noise associations such as LADACAN and its fellow branches in other parts of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. In addition the Hertfordshire County Council and many district councils, in those days urban district and rural district councils, retained counsel to represent them, again at a high cost. The decision of the inquiry was clear. The inspector in his recommendations said that, while he did not consider that he was in any position either to agree or disagree with the contention that noise had already reached an "intolerable" level around Luton, it was abundantly clear that today a very large number of people in their homes spread over a very wide area were complaining bitterly of annoyance, frustration and worry from aircraft noise. The Minister agreed with him. It is not clear which Minister this was, whether it was the present Secretary of State who signed the accompanying letter or his predecessor, to whom the decision was attributed by the present Secretary of State. Whichever Minister it was, he said in the letter sent out that he generally accepted the inspector's recommendations. The letter said:

" He "—

that is the Minister— is most impressed with the evidence, given at the inquiry, about the amount of public inconvenience and distress now caused over a wide area by the existing level of noise both by day and night. Very soon after that decision was reached in January 1973, the process of erosion began. On 1st October 1973 I received a letter from the Secretary of State in which he said that he had now decided to allow two of the improvements that Luton Corporation had asked for at the time of the public inquiry to go ahead. These were the widening of the taxiways and greater turning circles. But the Secretary of State was reassuring. In his letter to me he said: As these minor works would only serve the limited purpose of making the Tri-Star possible and would not defeat the major decision of last January refusing substantial development at the airport, I raised no objection to them. Worse was to come. On 16th January I wrote to the Minister and pointed out, as I had done previously, that Luton Corporation had now asked for a further element of that earlier inquiry, which had been turned down, to be considered again and accepted. That was a large increase in the scale of the terminal buildings. In particular the corporation asked for a 43,050 sq. ft. building to be allowed, whereas the previous request had been for a 45,000 sq. ft. building— very little difference.

On 25th January the corporation was informed by the Secretary of State that he had agreed to that. He had agreed without consulting the local Members of Parliament and without consulting the objectors. There is, however, a great deal of evidence that his Department had consulted Luton Corporation in detail. The corporation, perhaps typically, was informed on 25th January. Local Members of Parliament, if I may take myself as typical, were not informed until six days later, although they had persistently raised the question of the expansion of Luton airport.

The Secretary of State, on the basis of an assurance from Luton Corporation, said that this would not necessarily mean any increase in aircraft movements. However, one is bound to doubt that, because the inspector in his earlier decision did not place much faith in any material decrease in movement through voluntary restrictions and believed that the terminal building would allow a very substantial increase in traffic.

I will wind up by asking these questions of the Secretary of State through the Under-Secretary of State. First, has this decision, which is associated with an immediate increase of 10 per cent. in air traffic movements at Luton next year, been taken because the Government will shortly announce that they will not go ahead with Maplin? Secondly, will the Secretary of State now agree, very late in the day, to see local Members of Parliament from both parties on this issue? Thirdly, will the Minister substantiate his promise that there will not be a traffic increase at Luton by insisting that conditions are made to any planning consents given by Luton Corporation and that if those conditions are not met the matter will be called in to his Department?

Finally, the Minister cannot now give an assurance that public inquiries mean anything, but he might at some time explain to the House how a decision taken after detailed study a year ago can be overturned unilaterally by the Minister without consultation with anyone.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

I agree with the hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) that the noise and nuisance from Luton airport have reached intolerable levels. I am not alone in this. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) asks me to apologise for him to the House for not being here because of an unavoidable constituency engagement and to express his anger and dismay at the Luton decision.

I am glad to see in his place my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) who, when he is not gagged by his high office, is very voluble on the subject of Luton airport.

The decision of January 1973 to which the hon. Lady referred was based on restricting air traffic by the restriction of passenger facilities. That optimism was misplaced. Luton airport has turned its passenger facilities into a complete slum in an attempt to push more and more passengers through to be flown by an ever-increasing number of aircraft. The Government now recognise this. We could accept the decision letter if the letter had introduced a substantial reduction in aircraft flights, but unfortunately it did not.

We must take as a base line the number of flights. In the year 1972–73 the figure was 33,500. This was much too high and was caused by far too many people passing through the airport in complete defiance of what was intended. For 1974–75 the letter offers a reduction of 10 per cent. in relation to the ridiculously high figure of 30,000. Therefore the figure for 1974–75 goes back again to 33,500, and so also for the following year.

Let us look at what the aircraft director was bidding at the Luton inquiry, to which the hon. Lady referred. For 1973–74 his bid was 33,300, which was considered to be ludicrously high and out of the question. For 1974–75, when the decision letter proposed a figure of 33,500, the aircraft director's bid was less, namely 32,500. For the following year, as against the 33,500 figure permitted by the Government, the aircraft director's bid was 29,750, an immense reduction on the figures which the Government are prepared to permit. The figures are totally wrong and unrealistic. The aircraft director's figures were based on a steady reduction in the number of air movements because of the use of wide-bodied jets. That is what was offered by Luton airport.

The Secretary of State has made a mockery of the January 1973 decision letter by now permitting all the flying that Luton sought—and more. We in Hertfordshire have been betrayed. We must have a substantial reduction in flying and the Government have the power to take such action under the provisions of the Civil Aviation Act.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. David Madel (Bedfordshire, South)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) for giving us a little time to say something about this decision. In regard to night flights and aircraft movements in general, it must be said that when the country is on a five-day week— which we hope will soon be the case— a large number of people in my constituency work nights. They have to work in an atmosphere of continuous noise at night, and it is only right that they should be entitled to some sleep during the day.

The letter to the Clerk of the Luton Council makes considerable play about reductions in noise. Secondly, the letter refers to Maplin. The point I wish to make is that there seems to be a growing feeling among certain people in Luton that if Luton airport is made sufficiently attractive to aircraft and passengers there will be no need to proceed with Maplin. Yet Professor Buchanan in his note of dissent from the Roskill Commission's report pointed out that existing South Eastern airports were badly sited. That point was underlined by the hon. Lady. The Roskill Commission was willing to kill off Luton airport by siting the third London airport at Wing. That is another reason for saying that Luton is not perfectly sited.

I wish to make three short points. First, the people who live in South Bedfordshire, near Luton airport, must not be brushed aside for the convenience of the holiday traffic industry. Secondly, I believe that this matter must be considered by Luton Council and by the Department of the Environment together. It must be remembered that from 1st April next Luton comes back into Bedfordshire and the authorities will be dealing with the same group of ratepayers. Thirdly, it must be said that back-door, anti-Maplinism is having a field day in Luton. People are saying "If we improve Luton airport, it will make Maplin unnecessary." The strongest reason for having Maplin was surely to take the existing strain off Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton. I hope that the Government will not forget that reason.

10.35 p.m.

Mr. F. P. Crowder (Ruislip-Northwood)

I declare an interest. I live in Hertfordshire and I do not like having aircraft virtually appearing to fly through by bedroom at three o'clock in the morning, and indeed throughout the whole day. The noise which is created is appalling. It is an absolute disgrace, and I hope that the Minister will take note.

10.36 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

The hon. Lady the Member for Hitchin (Mrs. Shirley Williams) has raised a matter which deeply concerns people in the Luton area.

I feel well equipped to reply to the debate because for some years I have been Chairman of the Noise Advisory Council. I have also had a general responsibility for the Maplin project and played some small part in the noise provisions included in the Protection of the Environment Bill now in another place. I hope that my hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Crowder) and the hon. Member for Hitchin will accept that no one in the House is more devoted than myself to the proposition that noise around airports is becoming intolerable and must be reduced.

It seems that in nearly all these airport dilemmas the point is fundamentally not a conflict of a right with a wrong, but of one right with another right. There is the undoubted right of people who fly in aeroplanes to have reasonable conditions from which to depart and in which to land. There is no doubt in my mind, having listened carefully to the motives ascribed to Luton Corporation by one of my hon Friends, that, whatever the reasons, the conditions for passengers at Luton airport in the last year or so have become very bad. Therefore, I must accept that that is at least one right. Certainly something needed to be done about the conditions for passengers, our fellow citizens, flying from and to that airport.

There is, of course, the other right —it may be the greater—of the people who live in the vicinity, in the villages and towns so ably represented by all who have spoken tonight and, indeed, by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel), who is present. The balance of one right with another is always at the heart of the dilemma when we deal with airport matters.

I have been provided with a detailed brief by my Department. I do not propose to refer to it. I want to deal with the debate as it has been put tonight.

The hon. Member for Hitchin posed a number of specific questions. First, does the decision about the 10 per cent. increase at Luton mean that there is to be no going ahead with Maplin? There is no 10 per cent. increase. On the contrary, there is a 10 per cent. decrease.

Mrs. Williams

Next year.

Mr. Griffiths

Next year.

There is no decision in the sense that the Secretary of State has taken no decision. He has merely not called in a proposal that Luton Corporation in law is free to carry out. The corporation owns the airport, it is a planning authority and its proposals do not constitute a legal departure from the agreed development plan. My right hon. and learned Friend has merely not called it in.

I think that the hon. Member for Hitchin is raising the wider question whether there is any reason to suppose that Maplin will not go ahead. I assure her that the Government are planning Maplin as the third London airport. Obviously we shall have to take account of the economic situation of the country and the increasing price of oil. This may have some influence—who can tell?—on the exact date of Maplin coming into operation. I cannot predict that at this moment. The Government are under an obligation to make a full report to the House and, indeed, to produce a White Paper before any reclamation goes ahead. The answer to the hon. Lady's question whether this implies that Maplin is to be put back is "No, it does not."

Mrs. Williams

The Clerk to the Hertfordshire County Council informs me that there will be 3,500 more aircraft movements in 1974–75 as against the 1973–74 figure. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is the position?

Mr. Griffiths

A lot of figures have been put about and I have many figures. I want to answer the hon. Member's second point when she asked whether my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State would see hon. Members from both sides of the House who have an interest in the matter. The answer is "Yes". I can give the assurance that we shall gladly meet all hon. Members who are concerned about the matter, and that will be the time to discuss the various figures in some detail. However, my information is that there is a decrease.

The hon. Member also asked whether we could so arrange things that if there were, under the understanding between Luton Corporation and my Department, a substantial increase in traffic and consequently more noise, we could apply conditions to ensure that the problem did not increase. I shall have to take advice on that. I cannot give an answer tonight. I assure the House, however, that in the discussion which I have undertaken will take place this matter will be thoroughly examined.

The hon. Member then made more general remarks about public inquiries. I have only recently been asked by my right hon. and learned Friend to take on a general responsibility for planning matters. If I have anything to do with it I can give an assurance that public inquiries will be conducted in the normal and open fashion and the decisions will be arrived at speedily in order that progress may be made.

I have put in hand the prospect of our having further discussion of this matter and I must point out that we are here dealing with a basic problem. If there are to be more aircraft movements—and more and more people want to fly for business and pleasure—it must be right to take advantage of the larger and quieter aircraft that are becoming available. On the Luton case I have seen only that my right hon. and learned Friend has refused to call in proposals whereby larger TriStar aircraft will be able to use the airport, and they, by definition, will be quieter.

Already because of the congestion at Luton some of the TriStars have been diverted elsewhere. That, of course, is a step backwards because, although some people may want to get rid of the larger aircraft, if the larger, quieter aircraft go elsewhere Luton will suffer because the smaller, noisier ones will remain.

My understanding is that there will not be, as a result of the Luton Corporation's proposals, any increase in the noise environment. That is the advice I have been given. The Secretary of State's understanding with Luton Corporation states: the number of air transport movements in the year November 1973-October 1974 shall not exceed the … number of 30,124, a 10.2 per cent. reduction on the comparable movements for the previous 12 months, and that for the years 1974–75 and 1975–76, the number of air transport movements shall not exceed the number which took place in the year 1972–73, namely 33,568. It goes on to say: in respect of night jet movements, for the summer seasons of 1975 and 1976 the number will be determined following consultations with the Department of Trade and Industry, the Consultative Committee and the airlines. Therefore, that is still in play, but in no case will it exceed the maximum of 3,850 air transport movements at night, which has already been determined for the summer season of 1974. It is against the background of that undertaking that my right hon. and learned Friend decided not to call in the proposals.

I do not believe that there is here any betrayal or any lack of democracy. We are concerned to reduce the noise environment around Luton. We believe that the larger aircraft have a part to play in that but we accept that in the long term it is only the provision of Maplin which will make that noise environment tolerable. That is why we are to go ahead with Maplin. I can give the assurance that when Maplin opens Luton airport, as my right hon. and learned Friend has said, will be run down as a public transport airport and will eventually cease to operate for that purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.