HC Deb 21 March 1974 vol 870 cc1334-40
The Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Peter Shore)

The Government have announced their intention to re-examine certain major development projects in the field of the environment and public transport. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment said in a Written Answer yesterday, the Maplin project for the third London airport is one of these. He also said that he was authorising no further work in the meantime.

Accordingly, I have set in hand a reappraisal of air traffic forecasts for the 1980s and 1990 to take account of the recent increase in fuel prices and the growing use of wide-bodied aircraft. I have also asked for a reassessment of the forecasts of noise disturbance around airports and I shall be examining the possibility of greater use of airports in regions outside the South-East.

This review will be carried out in consultation with the Civil Aviation Authority, the British Airports Authority, and British Airways, and a further statement will be made to the House before the Summer Recess.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement amounts to saying that he intends to comply with the law as laid down by the Maplin Development Act 1973, which insisted that the Government had a statutory responsibility to carry out such a review before any reclamation work took place?

Secondly, will he make sure that in any review the Government carefully consider the advantages and disadvantages of Paris replacing London as a centre of European aviation, and the advantages and disadvantages of the Port of London recovering from Rotterdam its place as a port for major and sizeable ships?

Finally, will he consider not just the important environmental effects on Maplin and the surrounding areas of Essex but also the effects of any alternative site on areas such as Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted and Luton?

Mr. Shore

I am glad to have the right hon. Gentleman's support for the review of the Maplin project upon which we are about to embark. In the previous Parliament we did not get the impression that there was the enthusiasm and open-mindedness for such a review that the right hon. Gentleman has just shown. Of course, the competitiveness of Paris as against London in terms of air traffic, and of the Port of London against continental ports, will be considered, as will the whole problem of alternative sites for the expansion of air traffic.

Mr. Huckfield

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us feel that this is the most sensible and rational statement on Maplin that has been made in the House for the past four years? Will he also accept that the only genuine long-term way of reducing aircraft noise is to spend more money on the development of quieter aeroplane engines?

Mr. Shore

I hope that we shall continue to be able to make sensible and rational statements from the Front Bench in this Parliament. My personal view is that it is indeed in the development of quieter engines that the longer-term solution to these difficult problems lies.

Sir B. Braine

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this further delay in reaching a final decision will be disappointing to the people who have to bear the brunt of this development if it ever takes place—the people of South Essex and Southend? Is he aware that many important decisions regarding our constituency interests in road communications have been held up because of the uncertainty? May we have an assurance that decisions on the special problems of South-East Essex will not be delayed any longer by uncertainty about this wretched project?

Mr. Shore

The whole House will have sympathy with the views of the hon. Gentleman, who has had to bear the heat and burden of the day—at least during the last Parliament. But it is not unreasonable for us to indicate that there are other areas of the country, in the South-East and elsewhere, which need to be considered. Therefore, it is right for us to undertake a thorough but as speedy an inquiry as possible.

Mr. Alan Lee Williams

Will the right hon. Gentleman consider making a separate statement about the seaport, since that aspect should not be confused with the airport?

Mr. Shore

My hon. Friend has a good point and I will draw it to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has responsibility for that matter.

Mr. Steel

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he will have Liberal parliamentary support for the cancellation of this project as soon as he cares to announce it? Will he ask his colleagues in the Department of the Environment to look at this important matter? In the review which is about to be conducted, does he not agree that one option would be the building of a second runway at Gatwick? Since planning decisions are about to be taken in the next few weeks on Gatwick which will preempt that option, will he ask his colleagues to take a careful look at the situation?

Mr. Shore

Yes, I shall look at that matter. I was not aware until the hon. Gentleman put the matter to me that the time factor was as pressing as it appears to be.

Mr. Jessel

Will the Secretary of State examine the question of crash risks? Will he bear in mind that if the Turkish aircraft that crashed near Paris a fortnight ago had crashed 20 minutes later, it could have fallen on a built-up area in Greater London? Is he aware of the British Airports Authority's official forecast that, if there were no Maplin airport, there would be 1,000 flights each day in and out of Heathrow by 1985? Does he not regard that figure, or anything approaching it, as an unreasonable level of crash risk? Will he look once again at whether it is right to have an airport by the sea to enable aircraft to take off and land in such an area instead of over residential areas?

Mr. Shore

If there were not a case for an airport by the sea, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, it is well known that these debates would not have taken place in this House in the last Parliament. I understand that consideration, but these matters, including the matter of safety, which he mentioned, will all be taken into account in the review which I have just announced.

Mr. Atkinson

Does my right hon. Friend recollect the unequivocal statement made by his colleagues now in the Cabinet that if there were to be a Labour administration, Maplin would be killed immediately? Since a Labour administration is now in office, and bearing in mind that earlier statement, will the Secretary of State now give some assurance to the House that British Railways, which have held land pending the final outcome of the discussions on Maplin, will be instructed to make that land available to local authorities to enable housing and road projects to go ahead?

Mr. Shore

I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to look into that point; but it is surely not unreasonable for us to take three months or so to carry out the review.

Mr. Hastings

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that any decision to cancel Maplin will be bitterly resented by millions of people who live around London's existing airports and who are hoping for relief? Does he realise that we shall need precise details about the extra people, housing, development, and access routes to airports such as Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Luton and Southend? Finally, has he consulted county councils affected, such as East Sussex, West, Sussex, Surrey and Hertfordshire to obtain their views?

Mr. Shore

Not at this stage since I have announced only that a review is to be undertaken, hut I wish to add that what we discover will be against the background of a number of changes in the last year or so, involving a new pattern of air traffic movement and quantities and types of aircraft likely to be used. Until we get that picture clear, these other factors cannot be fully considered.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is an early statement on the seaport project at Maplin? Is he aware that, whatever the arguments about a third London airport, there is no case whatever for a new seaport at Maplin and that the sooner it is dead and buried the better?

Mr. Shore

I should not like to comment on that point, but the Port of London, as well as Southampton, has a great interest in the sea traffic of this country.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman's non-statement confirms that the Government will do what the law requires and what their Conservative predecessors put in hand two months ago, but will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what advice he has given to Essex County Council about the housing programme in the new town and the roads across Essex, and what advice he has given to the staff of the Maplin Development Authority, which was created in this House, so that their morale in the interim will not be lowered?

Mr. Shore

On the question of advice to the Essex County Council and the other local authorities involved, I must point out that that must fall to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has the broad responsibility for the planning of new towns and all the other matters.

Mr. Bell

Whatever additional use may be made of airports outside South-East England, will the Secretary of State ensure that any reconsideration is governed by the knowledge of the fact that existing use of Heathrow in terms of aircraft movements is intolerable and must be reduced?

Mr. Shore

That is a matter which will be fully considered in the further review of air traffic which I have just announced.

Mr. Hooley

In making his review, will my right hon. Friend take into account the general economic consequences for regional policy of the siting of major airports of this kind, and the fact that Yorkshire and Humberside is the only major industrial region of England with no major airport?

Mr. Shore

I would draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the part of my statement in which I said, I shall be examining the possibility of greater use of airports in regions outside the South-East.

Mr. Tebbit

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept my thanks for his statement that he will continue with this inquiry, but will he also accept that, if he draws the right conclusions, he may be able to rely on me to get the Labour Government out of trouble again when they come to the right conclusion to scrub the whole project?

Mr. Shore

What the hon. Gentleman says shows the importance that hon. Members attach to getting the right decision on great matters such as the siting of airports around London.

Mr. Allason

Are we to understand that the Roskill Commission will be entirely overthrown and that it is possible to have an airport elsewhere in the country to relieve London? Does he recall that the Secretary of State for the Environment said that air noise nuisance at Luton has already reached an intolerable level?

Mr. Shore

The information on which the Roskill Commission reported in terms of input would be substantially different at the present time from the information then. As for the overthrow of Roskill, I can hardly be held to be the first to overthrow it when the Conservative Government rejected its central recommendation.

Mr. Osborn

Will an accurate assessment be made of the degree of silence of modern engines for the 1980s and 1990s so that there can be a guarantee of 24-hour operating at airports close to built-up areas, such as those at Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester? I welcome the regional study mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, but will he pursue a national airports policy in the light of European requirements? Will he state whether he believes it advisable for all air travel to use S/TOL and V/TOL aircraft from a number of small airports or a few large airports with good ground communications between the point of origin and the point of destination?

Mr. Shore

Those are technical questions, and I hope that the review will take account of them. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about engine noise, and the likely development in the trend towards quieter engines is one of the keys to the whole problem.

Mr. Heath

Although the Secretary of State is right to carry out the review required by law and for which preparation has already been made, and recognising that any important project of this kind encounters certain interests whether economic already at Heathrow or local interests which will be disturbed by any new venture, will he recognise that very great national interests are involved—the future of London and aviation and the seaports which are of maximum importance not only for our generation but for those to come? When he completes his review and the facts point to the need to continue Maplin, I hope that he will not hesitate to overthrow his party's policy, just as so many of his colleagues have already done.

Mr. Shore

The right hon. Gentleman can be assured that when the necessary studies have been completed we shall consult first of all the national interest. My doubt, however, is whether our interpretation of the national interest is necessarily the same as his.