HC Deb 29 July 1974 vol 878 cc358-84

8.30 a.m.

Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

I am disappointed that my hon. Friends the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) and the Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel), who might have joined him are not here, as was planned, to precede this debate on a national airports policy with a debate on the future of Maplin and our airports policy now that the Government have made their decision about Maplin. I wanted to avoid a contribution on the subject of Maplin because it was my hope that the Under-Secretary would give valuable guidance and a statement before I gave my own contribution on a national airports policy.

Looking at Britain as a whole and at inter-continental and internal air transport, I have always visualised the possibility of two or three 24-hour international airports in Great Britain. If those people who advised Roskill, his successors and the previous Government had felt that a scheme such as Maplin was worthy of the national expenditure involved, I would have supported it wholeheartedly. Having landed at Charles de Gaulle, Roissy, in Paris recently, I regret that we have been talking for 10 years and have not the show place which the French now have at Roissy.

The pattern of civil aviation and the rôle of air transport is now uncertain, for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most telling factor in the years to come—and we see it already in the drop in the growth of air transport, both passenger and freights—is the impact of the high cost of aviation fuel, rather than the energy crisis as such. When we consider the various modes of transport, it must be remembered that the fuel cost per passenger mile in the case of aviation is very high. The cheapest form of transport is probably the passenger bus. That is followed by the diesel train, with the private car being fairly expensive in terms of cost and fuel consumption. Therefore, it is right that Governments, including this one, should look at the pattern of air transport in the years to come.

Air transport will continue for the intercontinental routes and no doubt will expand. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough has been the Boeing 747 Jumbo, closely followed by the DC 10 and the Tri-Star. There are on the drawing board concepts of 600, 700 and 800 seaters. In my view, the Government were right to endorse the supersonic jet, because the Concorde will move people silently over great distances, at supersonic speeds.

On the other side of the argument, I found most fascinating a visit with the Science and Technology Committee of the Western European Union to the Canadian Transport Commission, which sent me the papers on an experiment with the de Havilland Otter on the STOL con- cept between Montreal and Ottawa. The distance between Montreal and Ottawa is not very great. By car the journey could be done in one and a half to two hours. I managed to compare that with the airline journey. But the complexity of running a STOL service between scheduled airline routes, allowing for low visibility and a pad in Montreal where the automatic flight plan has to twine in and out of skyscrapers and high buildings is ambitious and fascinating. But the proof of this type of scheduled service will be the frequency of service and the reliability and ability of a small plane to have such navigational equipment that will allow it to enter Montreal, in particular, in poor weather conditions.

On this side of the picture, after discussions with SBAC on the STOL and VTOL future, I must say that five years ago I thought that downtown landing strips for STOL, if not VTOL, were a distinct possibility.

The economics of transport in terms of both time and money are the time and money spent from front door, the point of origin, to the doorstep, the point of definition of a journey. This problem has not been resolved completely, and the future of STOL is still to be defined.

Last summer the council of the Science and Technology Committee of the Western European Union held a seminar in Paris to which were invited members of that committee, of which I was a member, the leaders and experts of aircraft manufacturers, the suppliers of components and equipment, the airline operators, traffic control and airport managers, and the consumer interest was well represented if not by other bodies, certainly by the politicians present.

I hope that a European conference of this type will be instigated by the Western European Union in the not too distant future. There were representatives from Her Majesty's Government at the meeting. I found it stimulating to hear the papers, to read them subsequently, and to take part in the discussion. The Government should have had a report on some of the main conclusions which certainly impinged on me.

The air space over Europe and certainly over this country is over-congested and overcrowded. Therefore, there is a need for fewer flights on the main air routes. This obviously supports the idea of larger aircraft.

Perhaps the most fascinating discussion concerned the economies of airport operation. As the number of planes landing and taking off increases, the services that have to be supplied and the capital costs are spread over more passengers and journeys, and so the cost of airport facilities comes down the more flights that are handled per day. Therefore, too many medium to small size airports carried by a nation can prove too costly.

The next problem is passenger convenience. That means flexibility in the numbers of flights from one airport to the most important destinations. That is probably why Heathrow, having grown so large, being the largest airport in Europe at present, is so popular. If, because of congestion or one flight delay, the main flight is missed, there is another that can be caught. Therefor in one respect passenger convenience favours a busy airport, whether it be O'Hara in Chicago, Heathrow or Orly. But the busy airport has a problem of bottlenecks in passenger handling and the time taken to change aircraft at Heathrow is abysmal.

I should reveal my vested interest at this stage. I live in the north of England. I find it very inconvenient to leave my home with4¼ hours to take-off at Heathrow as against 2¼ hours at Manchester. That is the transport pattern that the citizens of Sheffield must consider.

There is a changing pattern in flying. The present Minister for Transport the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley) and I were at Transpo 72 in Washington two summers ago. The United States Minister of Transport and his officials tried to put over to us that 40 miles was the economic distance for flying. It could well be in certain circumstances.

There is the example of the electrification of the Manchester to London main British Rail line which has taken a large number of flights off that 180-mile link from London to Manchester. Glasgow now has the benefit of a much faster electrified rail service and already passengers are contemplating the very attractive alternative of the faster train journey. The Channel Tunnel could well go ahead and I fancy that two and a half or three hours to Paris or Brussels and five hours to other destinations will be very much more attractive than aviation, especially when the high speed diesel train and the advanced passenger train become a reality.

The energy crisis, with the high cost of aviation fuels and the development of atomic energy and other sources of power, will make the electrified railway so much more economic that I suspect that not only will the 400-mile journey be attractive if there are adequate railway routes but possibly the 800-mile route will come into its own. I make that prediction following the meetings I have attended in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. It is vital that we have some comment on the sense or otherwise of this point of view.

This poses a question. I posed this question at the Western European Union conference last summer in Paris. Accepting the need for nations to make the best use of their assets in transport, including air transport, is it better to have a large number of small airports developing feeder line services—airbus services; or "the milk round" as it is sometimes described in Australia—or is it better in the national and public interest to have a smaller number of larger airports and develop good land communication by road or rail to and from these airports—by "road" I mean public transport in the form of the bus—to link centres of population, with a few airports providing a large number of flights to main destinations each day?

This question was not answered at the seminar, because various vested interests are not prepared to provide the answer. It is only the trustee of the public interest, namely, those advising government, that can begin to answer this thorny question.

I had to give a local broadcast on Radio Sheffield and a report to a local newspaper reporter. The reporter asked me, "Mr. Osborn, what is your view?" Do you think there should be one airport for the North of England or a large number of smaller airports?" I said, "My feeling is that a few airports with good services well scattered over Britain might well be the answer. A detailed decision—it is only a hunch on my part—must be backed up by a study and survey, and the Government must do this, in the national interest." The reply from the reporter somewhat shocked me. He said: "Mr. Osborn, your constituents cannot wait for a survey or a detailed decision. They want an answer to this question tomorrow".

The Government should realise that the people of this country do not want delayed decision after delayed decision. There has been 10 years of muddle over Foulness, Maplin, and Stanstead, and to reach no decision is a terrrible example of procrastination. I am not blaming only the present Government. In the past decisions have been made and countermanded far too rapidly.

There are other criteria besides economics to be considered. One of the sessions at the seminar which I have mentioned was chaired by Mr. David Nicholson, chairman of British Airways. This seminar highlighted the cost of a small air strip, with adequate regard for safety and the servicing of small aircraft, as against a larger airport. He said that the Manchester to Milan journey could be used as an example of a typical European inter-city link in this connection. The fact that I live so near to Manchester gave rise to a most interesting discussion.

There are various ways for a Member of Parliament or a businessman, to travel from his home to London. He can travel by Rolls-Royce, second-class rail, or by minicar. It is surely incumbent on the Government not to provide a stereotyped answer to proposals for airport development. Feeder line services and STOL have a future where land communications across country are poor. Airlines must be free to find demand and exploit the market. If we are to develop a service with STOL we must ensure that it is reliable in snow, fog and other bad weather conditions.

To return to the main subject of the debate, I welcomed the publication in 1972 by the Civil Aviation Authority of the document "Airport Planning: an Approach on a National Basis." In the first paragraph of the document part of the Civil Aviation Act 1972 is referred to, in relation to the duty of the CAA: to consider what aerodromes are in its opinion likely to be required from time to time in the United Kingdom in addition to or in place of or by way of alteration of existing aerodromes; and … to make recom- mendations to the Secretary of State arising out of its consideration … The document also states: The Policy Guidance places on the Authority the responsibility to advise as to the provision and development of aerodromes to match the development of air services and general aviation. Paragraph 21 of the Guidance charges the Authority in particular to examine the economics and organisation of air services in the Scottish Highlands and Islands and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State, if possible by March 21, 1974. I have been unable to ascertain whether this has been done and whether the House and country can yet have the benefit of it.

The fourth paragraph of the documents refers to the problem of how to avoid overloading the study with so much detail that it becomes a five-year project, while at the same time avoiding too much approximation and abstraction. It also mentions the problem of the number of alternative airport systems to be forecast and evaluated. The level of precision to be adopted for the study will present difficulties to those who carry it out.

I have had the advantage of reading annual reports of the British Airports Authority and the CAA, which provide useful material. The reports show a general evasion of issues involving strategy for the future. The latest figures in the reports show that Heathrow airport handles 20 million passengers and 268,000 movements; Gatwick handles 6 million passengers and 75,000 movements; Luton handles 3 million passengers and 30,000 movements, while the passengers figure for Manchester is lower —2,500,000—but the movements figure is 48,000. The comparison of Luton and Manchester is interesting. But all this means that 81 per cent. of traffic in and out of Britain goes through the airports of London.

I am appalled that statistics for 10 years show that passengers want to come to London and the congested Southeast. One reason is that flexibility and the chance of changing aircraft force people to come here. Hotels have now been built to attract people stuck for the night. America has a national policy of diffusion. Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco are large international airports, along with Kennedy, which also has to compete with New Jersey and La Guardia. Had flexibility and frequency of flights been available at two intercontinental airports at least outside London in the last 10 years, those statistics would have been proved a nonsense.

All Governments must listen to their experts, so, as a member of Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, I was interested to have drawn to my attention in the last 18 months the work of a committee set up in 1961, when I was involved with the British Associated Chambers of Commerce, to draw up a national plan on airports. The ABCC has produced a worthwhile publication, a "National Plan for Airports", which Ministers' advisers, airlines and aircraft manufacturers could with confidence take note.

On the philosophy of the airports plan, it says: This report is intended to set out a progressive scale of priorities for developing the nation's airports. It proposes a rolling programme for development; any detailed plan imposed on a once-for-all basis regardless of shifting economic and technological circumstances would deny the dynamic nature of the air industry itself. In addition it identifies individual schemes which do not merit early priority… Similarly we do not believe that any airport development can be sensibly isolated, either from considerations of an overall national and European strategy, or from the simultaneous development of surface transport links to its catchment area. I have been most impressed with these recommendations.

The Government can take heart from one part of the Report. Since the Government originally declared itself in favour of the minority Roskill verdict to build a major airport on the Maplin Sands, there have been important changes in aircraft technology which fundamentally affect the reasoning involved. That backs the Government's view. The environmental nuisance caused by aircraft noise, while still a problem, will be cured by aircraft designers. That is the 64,000 dollar question. Will aircraft in general in 20 years' time be sufficiently quiet to permit 24-hour flying in and out of Heathrow, Gatwick and Luton? if not, there is no international airport near London which will, and the ultimate yardstick in this respect will be with more reasonable environmental considerations than we are prepared to accept in 1974.

The report says: In the meantime, there is ample justification for making use of existing provisions for soundproofing of premises in the worst hit cases… The growth in aircraft size slows down the growth in the number of aircraft movements. That is a vital change.

It goes on: v. Between them the conclusions in items ii to iv above would render obsolete the arguments in favour, both of Maplin, and of a third airport for London generally. They do not argue against improving and extending the ground handling facilities of Heathrow and Gatwick to cope with growing traffic, within the context of an overall national airports plan … vii. Maplin has at least revealed the extent of public funds available for airport development … viii. There are too many airports outside London competing with one another for higher status. Manchester is a municipal airport. There are small townships which are using ratepayers' money and expecting grants from the Government to develop airport facilities that the nation does not want.

Conclusion No. x is: If the number of top-rank airports is to be severely restricted, their geographical spacing must be decided with the utmost care. Motorway and trunk networks, both existing and planned are an essential feature in the task of siting Britain's major airports. Emphasis is placed on the value of the advanced passenger train. It is also suggested that first it is necessary to decide the strategic importance of an airport, and then construct runways to fit. There tends to be a decision to make the runways without considering the strategic importance of the airport.

Conclusion No. xviii is: Our first preference for Northern England is to enlarge Manchester Airport and equip it with comprehensive surface access facilities especially from the other major cities of the North.

Mr. Albert Roberts (Normanton)

Manchester may be all right for Sheffield, but it is not a suitable airport for the people living in North Yorkshire and the West Riding, or for the large business community.

Mr. Osborn

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to Yeadon, and possibly to Thorne Waste, of which I shall be speaking. I thank him for his interest in the debate.

At least the Association of British Chambers of Commerce has provided a working document based on the views of industrialists as to what the nation might require. There is another survey produced for the Civil Aviation Authority by Metra Consulting, the Central England Airport Study, a summary which makes a number of recommendations concentrating on two aspects. These recommendations rather overlap and conflict with each other, but they are a basis of discussion for those most interested.

There is a suggestion of a North Cheshire airport. Emphasis is laid on the importance of Manchester-Liverpool, and there is the East Midlands airport. The conclusion is: If it were to be felt that no new airport would be acceptable within the region, then the best solution would be to concentrate services on Manchester and East Midlands or, alternatively, on Liverpool and East Midlands. This would involve a cost penalty of approximately £15 million. It does not help the hon. Member for Normanton (Mr. Roberts), who put his views on the North Yorkshire problem.

I have tried to assess the latest views of the Yorkshire and Humberside Planning Council. It points out that until Manchester-Ringway is saturated that would be adequate as an inter-continental airport, but once it is saturated, which is now estimated to be no earlier than 1990, although in the strategy the council said in the early 1980s, there would be a need for a new intercontinental airport, and that this should be east of the Pennines. For that reason the Yorkshire and Humberside Planning Council welcomed the reservation of the old West Riding County Council of Thorne Waste. Newspaper comment says that this may have the same trouble with birds as Maplin.

It is the East Yorkshire-Lincolnshire area, which is pre-empted for the Ministry of Defence. If a major airport is to be developed east of the Pennines, the air marshals and others will have to give up some of the space they regard as sacrosanct. This the Government must not run away from. As for regional and European airports the council has stated that there is a case on economic planning grounds for the temporary extension of the new runway at Yeadon.

Fourthly, since then Lindsey, subsequently succeeded by Humberside County, have supported the building of an airport at Kirmington. It is felt that this should be encouraged for European and domestic flights.

This is the information I have been able to obtain from the planning council. Some 10 years ago as a citizen of Sheffield I wanted to see what is now being developed at Donnington located at Todwick near Sheffield. Ten to 15 years ago a progressive local authority could have established an airport on a motorway link east of the Pennines. If that airport were to go ahead now not only the hon. Member for Hallam but the hon. Members for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright), Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) and Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) would be plagued by constituents not wanting the airport near their homes.

It is vital that if there is to be an airport there must be good public transport by road and rail links. If flights are to come into Manchester (Ringway) or, alternatively, Donnington, there is the need for good motorway services. The road journey across the Pennines from Sheffield to Manchester is appalling and it seems that a low priority for this type of project will continue to render it appalling for some time to come. Therefore, international communications must be backed up by a fresh consideration of the importance of a Manchester-Sheffield motorway and access to this airport.

The airline cost per passenger mile in the United States is half what it is in this country. The danger in Europe and Britain is that we shall establish a multitude of routes and a multitude of airports which are under-used, and for that reason the Government must intervene and determine priorities. If the taxpayer through the Government does not pay for airports the local ratepayer through the local authorities will, and ratepayers are in no mood to subsidise air transport for others at the present time.

I have spoken for longer than I had intended, but I have had to cover the aspects concerned with Maplin. What reports have the Government received from the CAA and what conclusions have been reached? Whatever we consider to be the problem, it must not be considered in isolation from other countries, particularly our friends in Europe. I hope that the Government will give the western European Union Science and Technology Committee every encouragement to resume the dialogue it has started with all interested in air transport and transport so that the land and air problems of Britain and the rest of Europe can be looked at jointly.

The Committee is coming to Farnborough so that the Government may have a suitable opportunity to present the British case if they can reach a conclusion by then. The plan must be dynamic. The Government must state which developments they wish to subsidise and which they must discourage in order to rationalise air transport in Britain and the number of under-used airports. There is a need for more information on the change which increased aircraft size and, above all, the development of the new generation of jet engines will have on air transport. It must be determined whether it is reasonable to have 24-hour flying at Manchester, or whether Manchester is too densely populated under the flight path for that purpose. That should determine the priority.

It is necessary to know whether in 20 years' time, with the new generation of jet engines, it is possible for Heathrow to be open 24 hours a day. It is right that we should ask the Government to review their overall strategy. I very much hope that they will agree to produce a White Paper, or if not a Green Paper, to discuss these many issues.

There are a number of schemes. I could have referred to the anomaly of three major airports in Scotland. That is an absolute nonsense whatever people in Edinburgh and Glasgow may say. I have been impressed by the ABCC's review of the Severnside scheme involving Cardiff, Bristol and the South West of England. That could reach international proportions. But if one Government are to approve Maplin and another Government reject it, Government must interest themselves in the air transport pattern covering Britain as a whole. I welcome this opportunity of raising this matter today.

9.6 a.m.

Sir Raymond Gower (Barry)

Without being presumptuous I should like to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) has performed a most valuable function in raising this matter and introducing it in such a manner. I believe that he said that a number of smaller airports spread around the country may well be the answer. That is one of a number of questions which he posed but did not attempt to answer. I understand that. I suppose that he has left the answering to the Minister.

I would enter a word of gentle caution. I hope that my hon. Friend will take it in that way. I believe that future developments in aviation may prove to be as inexplicable and unforeseeable as some of those that have occurred in the past 20 years. Anyone reviewing the past 20 years must acknowledge that many of the tendencies and trends have been different from those that might have been anticipated in 1950.

I give my hon. Friend one or two examples. I well recall 20 years or more ago going to an airport to fly a car overseas. At that time had anyone asked any of us which would be the quicker growth industry—namely, flying cars overseas or taking them by sea ferry—we would probably have said that it would be flying them overseas. In the past 20 years the business of air ferries has virtually disappeared while the business of sea ferries has grown enormously.

I do not think that that trend could have been foreseen at the time. Similarly I suppose the growth of package holidays overseas has exceeded the expectations of anyone. The growth of regular scheduled flights in this country has on the whole probably been less than some might have expected.

Another recent example with which my hon. Friend will be well acquainted is the way in which laudably, and in the long term I hope beneficially, British Rail have been hitting back. Not many years ago most of our colleagues who came from Manchester and South Lancashire to the House travelled by air. Since British Rail have introduced the splendid electrified rail service to Manchester very few of them travel by air. That is true of the members of the general public. Once again we have a development which could hardly have been foreseen even comparatively recently.

My hon. Friend attempted to draw some useful parallels between this country and others, including the United States. I recognise that in many areas the American experience is valuable to us. However, I have a feeling that ill aviation that may not be so owing to the different size of the United States and owing to the enormously different spread of the population in the two countries.

Mr. Osborn

But does not my hon. Friend agree that if we look at civil airline operations on a European scale we do compare with the United States. If we look at our operations as a small island country, I accept that we cannot compare ourselves with the United States. If we look at ourselves as part of a European concept—the success of the airbus being an example—then my hon. Friend's point is not so valid.

Sir R. Gower

My hon. Friend would probably be right were it not for the fact that Europe is Europe and America is America, and Europe for the foreseeable future is not likely to be a unified political whole, which poses very serious differences between Europe and the United States. For example, it is inconceivable in present-day terms that there should not be an Air France, but as far as I know there is no such pressure to have an "Air Utah". I hope my hon. Friend takes the point.

Similarly, my hon. Friend mentioned the separate international airports at Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. But he was talking there about airports thousands of miles apart. That is hardly so in the case of Manchester and Sheffield. The geographical differences are so enormous in North America that we must be somewhat cautious in making too simple a comparison with the United States.

My hon. Friend stressed the need for long-term and careful Government thinking and for a general inquiry into these matters, and I support him wholeheartedly in that. I only utter a word of caution. It is possible with the best evidence in the world to get forecasts radically wrong. I have explained how conclusions reached 20 years ago have proved completely fallacious since. It was no fault of those who compiled those forecasts. There were simply unforeseen developments.

My hon. Friend himself referred to one of these unforeseen developments—the revival, which I hope will be long term, of the railways. The inter-city services now offer something which many people find preferable to any other form of transport. Perhaps we may follow the experience of the French. People there, for example, put their cars on the train at Boulogne or Paris and go right through to Milan, Munich or Lyons. It is now quite a popular thing to do.

I turn now to what may seem to be a more parochial matter, but my hon. Friend said that we want regional development of aviation. I want to call the Minister's attention to a perhaps understandable but nevertheless extraordinary neglect of all kinds of expenditure on and development of civil aviation throughout the whole of Wales in the last 30 years. I cannot blame any particular Government for it, but the situation has no comparison or parallel anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

There are special geographical and other reasons and I concede that it is difficult to have a viable, fairly considerable air service in the North-West of Wales owing to the scattered nature of the population, which might not be large enough or concentrated enough to support effectively and economically any major air services. There is also the proximity of much of North Wales to Manchester.

In the sense of developing any internal service from the airport at Rhoose, near Cardiff, we have been hampered over the years by the excellence of the main rail communication between most of eastern South Wales and London and, indeed, the useful communication by road and rail between east South Wales and mid-South Wales and the Midlands. Nevertheless, I repeat that the neglect has been extraordinary. There has been hardly any national public expenditure on civil aviation in the whole of the Principality. Cardiff airport owes its existence first to the initiative of the former local authority at Cardiff, then to private initiative, and then to the initiative of the former Glamorgan County Council, which took it over some while ago.

At considerable expense, which has been borne predominantly by the ratepayers of Glamorgan, this airport has now been modernised. New terminal buildings have been provided. Runways have been extended. It is now a far better equipped airport than could have been expected even a few years ago. It is now capable of taking much larger aircraft. There has been a substantial growth in its holiday business. That has been the chief growth. There has been some growth recently in freight.

The burden of expenditure, however, which formerly fell on Glamorgan County Council, is now being borne by a consortium of the three counties of South Glamorgan, Mid-Glamorgan and West Glamorgan. The Government and their predecessors have so far neglected to put anything into civil aviation in Wales which is at all commensurate with what they have expected in other parts of the United Kingdom. This sort of expenditure in Wales has been almost negligible. The consortium has approached the Government in that context and asked for some reasonable help.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we met representatives of the consortium only a couple of weeks ago. They made further representations in writing. What it comes to is whether the Government are prepared to provide retrospective aid to meet their particular problems.

Sir R. Gower

I shall naturally not press the Minister to comment on that meeting. Some deliberation will be necessary to consider the long term before a final decision can be made about that.

During recent years, however, the former Glamorgan County Council, other Members of Parliament and myself pressed the Government's predecessors, of both parties, to contribute towards the expenditure. If the consortium is now asking for retrospective help it is because the previous Conservative Government and their Labour predecessors neglected to give any such help.

I can fairly say that the expenditure from central Government on this airport, or on any airport or civil aviation amenity in Wales, has been on a deplorably low scale. I do not blame the Under-Secretary or his colleagues for that. It is a matter of history. Whether my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam would have said that this airport should have been developed as it was is another argument. However, it now provides a facility which is far better than that of any adjacent airport.

The facilities are significantly better than in such places as Bristol. It would mean great expenditure at Bristol to reproduce those facilities today. The provision of such facilities has been a great burden and I hope that the Government will look at this against the background of the years of neglect, by all Governments, of civil aviation in the Principality. Whatever any Government does for civil aviation in Wales in the next few years will have been paid for by the money which previous Governments failed to put into the industry in the past.

Vast sums of money have been expended at airports in England, Scotland and indeed in Northern Ireland. These places have attracted considerable help from central Government. That is why I make this special plea. I know that the Minister is acquainted with what has been put forward by the consortium, through correspondence and in meetings.

I very much support the arguments which have been put forward by my hon. Friend. I have uttered these cautionary words because I believe that this is a dynamic industry the dynamic growth of which can sometimes cause it to go off in different directions. That will continue to be the future of aviation development.

The situation is complicated by the fact that other forms of transport are now hitting back. They are all, rightly, seeking to make themselves hyper-efficient. Expenditure on road and rail has an effect on internal aviation services. It would be wrong, however, to say that such developments should constitute a reason for airports ceasing to increase international traffic. That would mean a concentration of all international departures on one or two airports in the South of England, which would be found to be objectionable to many parts of the country.

My hon. Friend has performed an extremely valuable service in posing these pertinent questions. I am sure that he does not expect the Minister to give a series of off-the-cuff answers. If the Minister can assure me that this is the sort of approach which the Government will undertake, we shall have achieved something valuable.

9.24 a.m.

Mr. Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I intervened briefly as one who has the Leeds-Bradford Airport within his constituency. It has been most valuable to have this subject raised today. I appreciate that in the preceding discussion much stress has been laid on the need for further study. Reference was made to the Central England Airport Study. Obviously this is planning of a long-term nature about which the Government and the aviation authority must be concerned.

We have a problem in my area. As we have seen from an earlier debate about motorway policy, acute anxiety can be expressed by a resident population. The Leeds-Bradford Airport has aroused extreme anxiety among my constituents and has resulted in a ministerial inquiry rejecting previous proposals on environmental grounds.

It is therefore necessary that, whatever steps the Minister takes, he does so in the knowledge that one of his major objectives must be to try to allay public concern over the development of airports. In my discussion with the Department I was much interested to learn from the Minister that discussions on the reduction of aero-engine noise was a high Government priority. This is a prerequisite to gaining public sympathy for a regional airport policy.

Secondly, the Central England Aircraft Study, which recommended the removal of a number of airports, one at least of which has had a vast sum spent on it recently, was conducted prior to the Government's decision on Maplin. Therefore, the consequences of the decision have not been fully assessed. I wrote to the Minister about the Leeds-Bradford airport, and in his reply he said: I should like to see as much traffic transferred to the regions as possible both to relieve the pressure on the South East and to help in the development of other regions. I have therefore asked my officials to consider the regional implications in greater depth. That is desirable and valuable, and I welcome it. But I lay stress on the fact that great anxiety will be created by the transfer of air traffic to regional airports unless we can safeguard the environmental consequences.

Thirdly, one of the problems about regional airport development is that it falls between the local authority, the Civil Aviation Authority and the Government. With the new structure of local authorities bringing new brooms in many places, it is vitally important that the Government should give a strong and determined lead. I do not mean that they should ride roughshod over local opinion—far from it—but if local authorities—and there are several such cases—do not agree about a suitable regional airport policy and if they form consortia, as they often do, to run airports, it is important that the Government should give a lead to the local authorities on the decisions which should be made, in relation not only to the regional implications but to the country as a whole. Airports represent a major capital investment which belongs to the nation and the first priority of the Government must be to ensure that they are effectively utilised.

In the main, airports in the North, such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds-Bradford, are in areas of high density population. It is therefore vital that we ensure that the people on the ground are given the greatest possible consideration in the planning discussions. If the Minister can assure us about aircraft noise on the ground and the realisation of an effective regional policy as a substitute for Maplin, and if he can say that the threats which people living near regional airports believe they are under will be abated, he will gain sympathy for an active regional airport policy.

9.28 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

I express to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) my thanks for initiating this debate because it gives me an opportunity to give the Government's attitude to the matters he has raised. I was fascinated to hear of his international peregrinations, which have given the House some useful experience, and we shall take carefully into account his observations about the conference which he attended, and the experience at Montreal and Charles de Gaulle.

I share the hon. Gentleman's misgiving that the debate is incomplete in that it would have been extremely valuable if the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) had spoken about Maplin to enable me to make some observations on it so that his speech could have been seen in a much wider and national context. But it is not my fault that Hamlet appears without the Prince. Having stayed in the House all night, together with my officials, I am hardly in the mood to confer any princedoms on the hon. Gentleman, who chose not to give notice that he did not propose to be here. I find that rather extraordinary on a matter about which he has purported to show great interest on behalf of his constituents, who should, I think, feel sorely let down by his failure to be present.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam has raised several important points, and I will do my best to answer as many of them as I can. He made rather a long speech, and I do not intend to speak for as long as he did. I must preface my remarks in reply to his speech by one or two pertinent observations about our Maplin review.

It is abundantly plain to all, except to those who are most obtuse about this and are established proponents of the Maplin proposals, that fresh circumstances have developed since the Roskill Report in 1971. The hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) developed that theme, although he took it further back in history. The developments include advances in technology, inflation, increased fuel prices, the relative scarcity of fuel and the downturn in passenger travel, in particular that of the package tour business. All those factors have made serious inroads into the thinking about Maplin. The observation of Sir Peter Masefield contained in a booklet written by several people about the lessons of Maplin has a great deal of relevance. He said: In the new circumstances it would be economically disastrous and politically inept to attempt to solve tomorrow's problems by building yesterday's airport. That is a substantial point which is reflected in the Government's review.

We have undertaken a considerable amount of work to provide the basic information against which a national airports policy can be developed. They include the review of the Maplin proposal and several comprehensive regional studies which are being carried out under the CAA—to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He asked why we had not had the reports. Not all the work has been completed and we are now embarking on a consultative process on the way in which London air traffic should be handled up to 1990, following the decision to abandon Maplin. We hope to receive the advice of the CAA on these regional studies before the end of the year. A highly significant remark was made by the hon. Gentleman, that the regional studies were undertaken before the Maplin review took place.

Mr. John H. Osborn

A target of March 1974 was set by the previous Government. Admittedly, the scene is a changing one, but information on the future timetable would be helpful to the House and the country.

Mr. Davis

It is difficult for me to give that timetable because of the impact of the sudden change in policy which has taken place. It is a matter for the CAA. I assure the hon. Gentleman that these matters are being treated expeditiously. The Government and the CAA are not anxious to see a long deferral of decision-making in this area. The hon. Gentleman himself objected to some of his constituents arguing that decisions should be taken tomorrow. I cannot promise that, but the argument for dealing with these matters with a measure of expedition is well taken. It would be folly to rush into decision making because of the uncertainties that exist bearing in mind the difficulties of prediction. Having made that reservation, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government will not delay unnecessarily in making important national decisions on these vital matters.

As the House will know, and apart from the major national airports, it has been the policy of successive Governments over several years to leave the development of airports very largely to local initiative and subject to general planning considerations. The hon. Gentleman questioned that, as he questioned other things. The result has been a rather haphazard pattern of airport development. Some areas perhaps have an over-provision of airports, while others are inadequately served.

This has presented problems in three main areas. First, in many cases there has been insufficient profitability, with a airports to be operated profitably, with a consequent and onerous burden on the rates. Secondly, the most satisfactory service has not always been provided. Where there is an over-provision of airport facilities, this could have the effect of dispersing, and therefore limiting, the range of air services available; while where the airport provisions are inadequate, passengers have had to suffer the inconvenience of travelling some distance to catch a flight. We all know the totally inadequate facilities that exist at a number of our major airports. Thirdly, I believe that the noise and other environmental considerations have not always received the attention which they deserve. On this point the hon. Gentleman and others are rightly disturbed.

For these reasons there is now a general acceptance, which has been brought out by the three participants in the debate, that we should seek a more satisfactory basis for the future development of airports. Both the Edwards Committee on the civil aviation industry, which reported in 1969, and the Roskill Commission drew attention to the lack of any airport planning policy. Those views were borne in mind when in the Civil Aviation Act 1971, the Civil Aviation Authority was given the duty of making recommendations to the Secretary of State on the aerodromes which, in its opinion, were required in the United Kingdom in addition to, or in place of, or by way of alteration to, existing aerodromes.

The CAA in its booklet "Airport Planning: an Approach on a National Basis", published in December 1972, outlined its policy on airport planning. Its views briefly was that it was not practicable to draw up a single comprehensive detailed plan for the United Kingdom, but that it would be better to proceed by a series of regional studies. That gave rise to the present studies, some of which will be available very shortly. What we have to do is to consider them together. They will provide overall advice for the Government as to the way in which our future airport planning should proceed.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about STOL. I do not want to go into any detail on that, but I ask him to refer to paragraph 9.14 of the Maplin Review, where this issue is dealt with. He will see that there has been a good deal of sponsored research into this and other projects like VTOL and RTOL and a considerable amount of co-ordination with manufacturers, airlines and others in studying the impact that new types of aircraft would have on airport planning. It is unfair to suggest that it has not been given consideration. However, the Review illustrates that it is not of direct relevance to the considerations which we had in mind for Maplin today or even by 1980. It is likely to be shown to have relevance, if it has at all, rather later than that.

The hon. Member for Barry referred to Rhoose airport. He acknowledged that it would be difficult for me, after a matter of only a couple of weeks and having received further representations only days ago, to come to any conclusion about what is a very difficult matter. We have to consider whether to give, in a quite unique situation, retrospective help where an application was not made for help. I think through a misunderstanding many years ago.

I pay tribute to those who have been responsible for the development of what is a very fine airport at Rhoose. Unhappily, it has not produced the passengers to match the facilities available, which are better than many. But I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are not anxious to delay. We shall be making a decision. It is pathetic that it took so long before the matter was considered and that even then no decision was produced. But, now that we are in office, we are anxious to give some measure of priority to making a decision on this. But it is a difficult matter, and my right hon. Friend and I, will have to give careful thought to this consideration.

The Civil Aviation Authority is carrying out a study of the airports of South Wales and South-West England, which it hopes to finish before the end of the year. The position of Rhoose will then have to form part of that pattern.

As for Scotland, the Government are currently considering the future organisation and management of Scottish airports, and we hope that a statement will be forthcoming very shortly.

In conjunction with the CAA, my Department has just completed the Maplin Airport Review. We were concerned essentially with the provision of airport facilities in South-East England. Although the review related to the South-East, it must have much wider implications. It is extremely important that we should not have over-provision in the South-East. However, we have to recognise that the largest proportion of international air traffic necessarily wants to find its way down to the London airports rather than to Manchester and other places.

As I said in a letter to the hon. Gentleman, I am anxious to see the development of a regional airports strategy. This is most important in our thinking. At the moment, there is a tremendous imbalance between air traffic in South-East England compared with the rest of the country. But there will always be a greater concentration of traffic at airports serving the capital than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It would be folly to run away from that proposition. We want to seek means of reducing this concentration wherever possible.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

Will the Minister tell us how he relates this matter to the possibility of the Channel Tunnel and what effect the one will have on the other?

Mr. Davis

This is dealt with at some length in the review. I do not want to embark upon a discussion about the Channel Tunnel because it is not one of my responsibilities. It falls to the Department of the Environment to consider that matter. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not follow that line, because it would probably take me the best part of a quarter of an hour to deploy the argument and I should be charged with trespassing upon someone else's ground, and that would be unforgiveable. I hope that from what I have said both in correspondence and in the debate, and having regard to the statement that was made by my right hon. Friend about the development of a regional airport strategy, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we are very concerned about this matter.

Mr. John H. Osborn

I am disturbed by the Minister's statement about the inevitability of people wanting to come to the South-East of England. As I tried to point out, our biggest airport and its facilities have grown somewhat like Topsy. People in the regions believe that traffic can be attracted away provided that there are comparable facilities with those at Heathrow of international air- port status in the regions. That will also help to prevent congestion which, in the view of many, is already far too great in the South-East. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has accepted the inevitability of traffic continuing to come to the capital. Other countries are getting away from that situation.

Mr. Davis

I do not accept that other countries get away from it. I think that the hon. Member for Barry presented the answer to that argument if the reference is to the United States. There are vast differences in terms of travelling areas between airports in the United States compared with our own. I am stating a fact which is inevitable—that there will be this concentration on the capital whether we like it or not—and we do not like it very much. We must try to create a balance. We must endeavour to pursue a different course. It may not be easy. We have to challenge the established views of the travelling air public. If people desire to come to London—most international travellers do—they will not be easily persuaded to go to Manchester and then travel down to London.

I do no want to appear to be in the least bit complacent about the matter. We are anxious to try to deploy more resources towards the regions and to make more active use of them. Indeed, that is the whole purpose of the CAA reviews which are taking place.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Association of British Chambers of Commerce plan. We have received the plan. We think that it is most useful. We shall certainly take the points made by the Association into account when we embrace in more detail the national airports policy that we are anxious to undertake.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about good motorway links for any new or extended airports. They are a necessary corollary to developing an airport policy. However, the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to refer to this matter, because one of the curiosities of Government is that there are extraordinary divisions and this is not one of my responsibilities. Sometimes I am extremely thankful about that.

The hon. Gentleman posed a number of questions, with some of which I have already dealt. He asked whether we looked at these problems on an international basis. That is what we do. We reflect carefully on the international experience of others. That it most important when trying to develop our own policies on a sensible and rational basis.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would give consideration to the committee of the WEU on these important topics. I welcome the fact that the members are to visit Farnborough. I shall be visiting there and I shall be happy to meet them and the hon. Gentleman and discuss the outstanding problems.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether there could be 24-hour flying at Manchester and later at Heathrow. I am very wary of 24-hour flying. If the hon. Gentleman were to receive my postbag on noise pollution by aircraft he, too, would be very wary of it. We must try to strike a balance between the commercial needs of the airlines and the natural desire of those who live close to or under flight paths to have a reasonably peaceful life. For many such people noise is a pestilence. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) often reminds me of that, although I do not always agree with his figures.

There are competing interests between hon. Members who want noise to be controlled further and those who want airports to developed. When my right hon. Friend made his statement about the Maplin project, strong divisions of opinion emerged amongst hon. Members opposite.

Mr. John H. Osborn

I accept that noise is a pestilence. That is why I have favoured Heathrow as being, perhaps, an 18-hour day airport, unless aircraft engine noise alters its pattern. International airports, if they are to be adequate, must be prepared to operate 24 hours a day. It is almost impossible to run proper flights without this. This means that two or three airports in a country should have flight paths away from congested areas. I hope that this will be considered, in spite of the decision on the Maplin project.

Mr. Davis

It certainly will be considered. The Department's mind is not closed to any of the hon. Gentleman's proposals. All will be considered in their place.

I emphasise the great importance that my right hon. Friend and I place upon the need to mitigate noise nuisance. My right hon. Friend made that abundantly plain in his statement. It will cost money—the retrofit exercise and the introduction of the new wide bodied aircraft. It is a very important development. There are all the other features of phasing out the older aircraft, which are principally responsible for the noise nuisance. It will cost money, but it is an infinitely better way of spending money than wasting it on the Maplin project.

I have already dealt with the major point raised by the hon. Member for Barry about Rhoose. The hon. Gentleman made a very important point about unexpected trends which underline the uncertainty of prediction. That was pointed out with emphasis in the Maplin review project.

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw) stressed the importance that we should attach—we do in fact attach such importance—to the needs of the population who are not an air traffic population by and large. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

The hon. Gentleman questioned the place of the local authorities in making decisions about that matter. I hope that I have given him some measure of satisfaction that these needs have to be balanced against a national planning policy.

Reference was made to Yeadon in Yorkshire. I do not think that I can usefully say anything about that this morning. This is subject to considerations we will have to give attention to later when we have received the results of all the studies by the CAA.

I have done my best to answer the points which were raised. If the hon. Member thinks that I have missed out any points, no doubt he will write to me and I will reply as rapidly as possible. I hope that those hon. Members who have spoken on this subject will agree that I have shown that the Government are thinking positively about the future of our airports policy.