HC Deb 30 June 1998 vol 315 cc267-74

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

11.23 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the future of RAF Northolt. To many, not least to my constituents, it is incredible that the future of such an historic air force station—which fulfils its current role so well, and which is so warmly appreciated by those who work there, live nearby or benefit from its services—should be called into question.

It is little wonder that RAF Northolt is appreciated. Founded as a Royal Flying Corps station in 1915, it was in the thick of the battle of Britain, No. 303 Polish Squadron achieving more kills than any squadron in Air Chief Marshal Dowding's order of battle. Today, its proud traditions are maintained and heightened by the presence of No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron, which has assumed the duties of the Queen's Flight and provides invaluable communications flying for Ministers, service chiefs, senior civil servants and diplomats—as well as, of course, for the royal family.

Nearby national and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, like those at Northwood, High Wycombe and Bentley Priory, benefit from having such an Air Force-controlled facility on the doorstep, as do those in the royal palaces, Whitehall, Westminster, allied embassies and military staffs who need a secure specialist unit and a transport facility of their own on which they can totally rely, not only in peacetime but in time of national emergency or war—a unit that will always give priority to their requirements. It should be remembered that RAF Northolt houses other distinguished units, including No. 1 Maritime headquarters unit of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force and the air information development unit.

There has been a tendency for RAF Northolt to acquire additional units as small military establishments in London are closed, which makes good economic and military sense. It is the happy partnership between the station and the local community that makes RAF Northolt so special. People remember well the late 1940s and early 1950s when Northolt was an airport for London, and the home of British European Airways. However, the jet era is very different from the age of piston-engined DC3 Pionairs and Vikings, and local people definitely do not want RAF Northolt to become a civil airport again—ever.

The physical constraints to the aerodrome are far too great. I have seen an old photograph of a twin piston-engined aircraft that crashed on to a Ruislip rooftop. The driver of a van on the A40 last August—whose vehicle was struck by a Spanish Lear jet which overran the 5,400 ft runway—will not forget the experience. I expect that he was glad that it was not a big airliner.

The present co-existence of military flights with a strictly limited number of civil movements is tolerated by the local community. Any relaxation in the limitations for civil aircraft will be unacceptable to local people, and they and their elected representatives, at local and national level, have repeatedly said so to the Government with complete consistency and unanimity, regardless of party affiliation.

The limits on civil flights at Northolt are from 0800 to 2000 local time; by prior permission only, with a maximum of 28 movements a day, Monday to Friday; no noisy aircraft; no aircraft with more than 30 seats; and, above all, no scheduled services. Those sensible restrictions have been upheld by successive Defence and Transport Ministers. The only change was a six-month trial, from 1 October 1996 to 31 March 1997, of an 0700 hours opening for civil flights, after which trial the old regime was wisely restored.

There have been periodic scares over the years. The Transport Committee, in its report on UK airport capacity in the 1995–96 Session, said: RAF Northolt might be employed as a satellite of Heathrow which, because of its small size, would provide capacity which could only be used by small aircraft of the sort that, particularly on UK regional flights, are being crowded out of Heathrow. We realise that ATC problems make intensive use of Northolt's existing runways difficult as it is near Heathrow and its runways are not fully parallel to those at Heathrow; flight paths of aircraft therefore cross those of aircraft using Heathrow. However it was suggested that it would be possible to build a new runway at Northolt, parallel to those at Heathrow, which as far as ATC was concerned could be treated as a third Heathrow runway. We support the use of Northolt as a 'feeder reliever' airport for Heathrow. The Government should make funds available to NATS to study how the ATC difficulties of using Northolt could be overcome. Redhill aerodrome might also have a useful role as a 'feeder-reliever' for Gatwick. The Committee's wholly unrealistic recommendations were lifted uncritically from a memorandum to the Committee from SH and E Air Transport Consultants, which amazingly proposed in paragraph 5.11 of its submission: Taken together the development of Redhill for Gatwick and Northolt for Heathrow would increase the capacity of the premier London airports by 30 million passengers per annum or more. I wonder which commercial interest inspired SH and E's wild hyperbole. It proposed in paragraph 5.6: The eventual aim would be for both Northolt and Redhill to be marketed as an integral part of Heathrow and Gatwick…By way of illustration the distance between the two would be approximately five miles or eight minutes by road. In fact, the journey through the rush-hour traffic between Heathrow and Northolt can easily be half an hour or more.

No wonder the Government's official observations in House of Commons paper 644, on the Select Committee's report, were dismissive of the Committee's proposals. They said: The Government does not consider that Northolt is a suitable site for the development of a civil airport on the scale that would be necessary to provide significant relief to Heathrow. It does not therefore consider it worthwhile to invite NATS to undertake a study of ATC constraints. The Government considers that Northolt does have the potential to provide useful if limited facilities for business aviation, and in parallel with this response it will set out its plans to increase the attractiveness of the facilities for business aviation, taking account of local interests. An earlier consultation on the possibility of a civil enclave for business aviation suggested that privatisation is not likely to be a realistic proposition for such a small-scale and limited civil operation. Those were the observations of a Conservative Administration.

There matters should have rested. Luton airport, now with commercial management, will expand its already growing traffic for airline and business traffic alike, while in a few days' time, a public inquiry will begin into opening Farnborough, supported by Rushmoor council, to 21,000 air transport movements a year from Farnborough's long runway. That is three times the current annual limit of movements for RAF Northolt, with its very short runway.

I took a delegation of Labour councillors from Northolt's local authority—Hillingdon—to meet the Minister for Transport in London on 9 February this year. In a briefing note on the civil use of RAF Northolt, Hillingdon council stated: Hillingdon is opposed to any further increase in civil use at Northolt including a permanent increase in operating hours from 7 am, any civil use at weekends, an increase above the 7,000 annual civil transport movements, an increase in the size of civil aircraft using Northolt over 30 seats. One might expect a Labour Government to accede to representations from a Labour council, but it was merely told to await the outcome of the strategic defence review. We heard later, not then, that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions had sponsored consultants to do a study of business aviation in the south-east of England.

Then Stagecoach, which owns Prestwick airport, rolled on to the scene this summer with proposals put to the Transport Committee which, if the press is to be believed, resurrected the proposals for Northolt previously submitted to, and regurgitated by, the Transport Committee two years ago—proposals that were rightly rejected by the Government for sound technical and environmental reasons.

Interestingly, following my oral defence question to the Minister for the Armed Forces, whom I see on the Front Bench—a question about RAF Northolt put on 22 June—I received an unsolicited letter dated 26 June from the chairman of the European Business Aviation Association, Mr. Brian Humphries: Like you, we do not want Northolt to be developed and expanded to take larger aircraft and scheduled services. As such, we are totally opposed to the kind of plans which Stagecoach are allegedly putting forward to turn Northolt into a satellite of Heathrow. The future of RAF Northolt is a test case. The USA has a military air force base, Andrews, beside the capital, Washington DC. France has Villacoublay beside Paris. RAF Northolt should similarly be retained with no change to its status or role.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)

I have received a similar letter from Brian Humphries, whom the hon. Gentleman quotes correctly. What is your opinion—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must realise that he is now addressing the Chair.

Mr. Pound

I do beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would the hon. Gentleman care to comment on the other question posed in the letter? It asks: if military use is declining, what would be the possibility of an increase of executive jet usage of the airport?

Mr. Wilkinson

The letter did not put it in those terms; it mentioned spare capacity, and I took that to mean that the 7,000 permitted civil movements a year were not fully taken up.

The environment of west London is under constant threat, with seemingly endless traffic jams, much excessive ambient noise, and insidious urbanisation of the few open spaces that remain. RAF Northolt and the small patches of green belt alongside are about the last remaining semi-rural areas left between Marble Arch and the M25.

Unemployment in my constituency is the lowest in Greater London—jobs are not, at least for the time being, a problem. Preserving an acceptable residential environment is, however, a constant challenge. RAF Northolt has seen off the dangerous challenge of the Luftwaffe in the past. The threat is more insidious today: the ambitions of those who want to impose on the site a three-runway London airport. It would take in a significant chunk of west London, regardless of the wishes of local people, and regardless of the irreparable damage to a swathe of residential Middlesex which would ensue.

I beg to suggest to the Minister that he keep RAF Northolt as it is. That would best suit the interests of the Ministry that he represents, and the interests of my constituents and those who live around the airfield.

10.38 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

I always listen with interest to the remarks of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on matters relating to the Royal Air Force, but I listened with particular interest this evening, and at Defence questions on Monday 22 June, when he drew attention to the subject of the future of Royal Air Force Northolt. Obviously, Northolt and its future are matters of great interest to him: he is a staunch defender of and doughty fighter for his constituency interests, and he has wider concerns about the operational effectiveness of the Royal Air Force—in which he has a deep interest—and the contribution that Northolt makes to it.

The views of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood on the subject are by no means confined to one hon. Member or to one party. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, North (Mr. Gardiner), whose constituents are on the flight path, has expressed similar concerns to me, and obviously my hon. Friends the Members for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) and for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) and a number of other hon. Members have similar feelings.

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

As my hon. Friend said, this is not an isolated concern of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson); it is a concern of all the Hillingdon Members of Parliament. My hon. Friend needs to confer with his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions because, in my constituency, we are facing the environmental blight of the potential development of Northolt, sandwiched with the environmental threat of terminal 5, and even a third runway, obliterating the villages in the south of my constituency. All those factors need to be taken into account in any decision on the future of Northolt airport. We need to take into account the environmental degradation of our constituencies by the airport industry

Dr. Reid

I shall mention the wider consideration of those matters that is being undertaken by the Department that my hon. Friend mentioned.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that, as was said, the principal task of Royal Air Force Northolt is to support the requirement for operational communications flying and VIP flying. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, that requirement is met by No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron. As he also said, several other units are based at RAF Northolt, including a bomb disposal unit, the headquarters of the south-east region of the air cadets, the aeronautical information documents unit and one or two units which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That is not all that takes place. In line with my Department's policy of public access to the defence estate, RAF Northolt allows civil use of its irreducible spare capacity—the capacity which it is necessary to keep on the books and in the ambit of the defence budget, but which is not fully used at all times.

I am pleased to report that the civil use of RAF Northolt also generates significant receipts for the defence budget and, obviously, for the taxpayer. Indeed, for the financial year 1997–98, receipts amounting to about £948,000 were generated by civil use at Northolt—a more than 20 per cent. increase on the previous year.

I hope that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood will be assured that my Department is well aware of concerns about the impact of flying—especially civil aviation—on the local environment at RAF Northolt, in light of responses which I gave him when he raised the matter previously. Indeed, in view of those concerns, the Ministry of Defence, as he said, has restricted civil use of RAF Northolt to the hours between 8 am and 8 pm, mainly on weekdays. Civil use at weekends is allowed only when the station is open for operational reasons.

We have also set a limit of 7,000 civil movements in the year. That figure includes business aviation and other civil operations, but excludes movements on Ministry of Defence or other Government business. The latest figures that we have show that, during 1997, there were 6,958 such civil movements—slightly fewer than the number of military movements in and out of Northolt last year. The care that the Department has taken in those restrictions is testimony to our awareness of the impact on the local community and the feelings of local people.

In addition to restrictions on the times at which civilian aircraft may operate and the number of movements allowed, we allow only quieter civil aircraft to use Northolt. Only civil aircraft that can carry a maximum of 30 passengers are normally allowed use of the airfield.

On the main question about the future of RAF Northolt, it is true that, as part of the Government's strategic defence review, we have been considering the future of Northolt as an RAF station and the wider implications. That should not be taken as a unique study, as the strategic defence review, the results of which we shall hear in the near future, was a scrutiny of all defence assets. There is no sense in which RAF Northolt was chosen again for consideration. It was part of a wide-ranging scrutiny by Ministers and officials.

Although it would be premature to comment in detail on the outcome of the defence review, no options have been discounted as regards RAF Northolt. Much work remains to be done in considering them, and no imminent decisions on RAF Northolt are likely to be sprung on the House.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

The Minister can gauge the strength of feeling from the number of hon. Members present who represent surrounding areas. Can he give us an assurance that, if a decision was taken to change the status of RAF Northolt, there would be wide public consultation? That would show the strength of feeling against any change in the current status of RAF Northolt.

Dr. Reid

I know that the hon. Gentleman has an interest in the subject, and we have discussed these matters before. I shall come to such an assurance shortly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) pointed out in his intervention, there are many factors to be taken into account before proposals can be considered. For my Department there is the work, not only of the strategic defence review, but of the strategic development plan for the defence estate in the Greater London area, which will include RAF Northolt. There is also the work that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions has set in hand on business aviation in the south-east, and the forthcoming integrated transport White Paper that will provide a framework for subsequent work on airports policy.

Those various factors mean that early proposals on the future of RAF Northolt are highly unlikely. I can assure hon. Members that the concerns of the local community will be an important consideration in all this on-going work. It could not be otherwise.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood mentioned the trials held between 1 October 1996 and 31 March 1997, in the last year of the previous Conservative Government. A trial was conducted into extending RAF Northolt's opening hours. The Ministry of Defence and the Department of Transport had jointly identified possible changes to working arrangements at RAF Northolt that might improve services offered to users, in view of pressures on existing runway capacity.

The hon. Gentleman identified the changes that were made during that period. The opening of the airport at 7 am on weekday mornings, instead of the usual time of 8 am, attracted 153 additional civil movements over the six-month trial period. Eighty of those movements were new business, and the remaining 73 were movements that would otherwise have taken place within standard opening hours.

Consideration of much wider aspects is now taking place. I know that it will raise concerns, and I am trying to assuage the fears of local Members and their constituents that anything will be done without maximum consultation, or that anything is likely to be done imminently. The consideration may take several months, perhaps until the beginning of next year, and possible effects over a long time scale are being examined.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)


Dr. Reid

Before I give way, I stress that any emerging proposals will be subject to full consultation not only with local individuals and Members of Parliament but with those local authorities and local communities that could potentially be affected. In the meantime—I hope that this assures hon. Members—I am prepared to guarantee tonight that, while the work is going on, there will be no increase in the current ceiling of 7,000 civil movements a year. I am also prepared to guarantee that the airfield's opening hours will remain as they are now and will not be extended. Any change countenanced at any stage would involve the fullest consultation.

Mr. Gardiner

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on that point and for delaying my intervention. That guarantee is extremely welcome to my constituents from Roe Green, Kingsbury, Kenton and Sudbury who are affected by aircraft movements and who have made representations to me. The Minister will be aware of the question that I tabled about the reduction of the defence estate in London. I know that he is aware also of the response that his Department provided to me earlier today. Will he give an assurance that the existing studies—particularly those relating to RAF Northolt—will be taken into account in the strategic defence review and in the reduction of the defence estates review in London?

Dr. Reid

I assure my hon. Friend that, if those studies were not taken into account, they would be the only studies in the past 10 years that were not involved in the strategic defence review scrutiny. I assure my hon. Friend that we have spent many days, weeks and indeed months—up until, literally, the past few hours—compiling the finest details of the strategic defence review. Other matters, such as this one, will emanate from it and will require further study. I know that my hon. Friend received a response this morning from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), and I hope that that has gone some way towards allaying his fears.

We are well aware of the opposition of local authorities and local communities to extended opening, and we have taken careful note of the representations that they have made about the matter. I repeat that no decision has been taken to extend the arrangements under the trial to a more permanent footing.

As I told the House at Defence questions last Monday, my Department has received a number of unsolicited approaches about the use of spare capacity at RAF Northolt. Most of those approaches were very tentative. I have answered written questions about the specific approach that was raised, but I reassure all hon. Members that no one from the Ministry of Defence—or any other Department, to my knowledge—has been going around soliciting offers for the extension or the transformation of RAF Northolt.

I hope that my few remarks and the guarantees that I have given tonight have assuaged people's fears and assured the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, and others who are deeply interested in the issue, that the fullest consideration will be given to their views if any change were countenanced. No decision is likely in the near future—we are thinking perhaps about the end of this year or the beginning of next year—and, even after that, there will be maximum consultation.

In the interim, there will be no change to the hours in the morning as per the last trial, and no extension to the number of civil movements. I hope that the fact that I have given those guarantees and assurances and the spirit in which my Department has acted is testimony to how seriously we take the hon. Gentleman's points.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at seven minutes to Twelve midnight.