HC Deb 18 November 2003 vol 413 cc606-8
7. Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

When he plans to publish his White Paper on airports in the south-east of England. [138860]

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

We expect to publish the air transport White Paper covering the whole of the UK next month.

Mr. Lilley

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. When he publishes the White Paper, will he ignore the blustering threats of legal action by the operators of Luton airport and accept that there is massive local opposition—I have got another 1,000 signatures to add to the many that he has already received—to over-expansion of the airport to the size of Gatwick? There are no direct rail links to the airport, and the overflying stacked above it means that it will be less safe. The airport is closed more frequently than any other airport serving London because of weather conditions, and on the right hon. Gentleman's own calculations, development is the least cost-effective option of all those that he is considering.

Mr. Darling

I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman's strong feelings about development at Luton because he has made them clear on previous occasions. My answer to him, as it will be to everyone else who catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, is that people just have to wait a short while longer before finding out our conclusions.

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North)

While there is always some opposition to airport development, my right hon. Friend must know that there is strong support for the development of Luton locally. There is unanimous support among Government Members for the development and even, I think, strong support among Opposition Members. Is it not the case that Luton could be expanded quickly, simply and cheaply and contribute substantially to airport needs?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right that, in relation to just about every airport in the country, there are strong feelings both for and against. I am acutely aware of the fact that when I publish the White Paper there will be a lynching party from one direction or another.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford):

Regardless of what is in the White Paper, it is crucial that our scrutiny of the Government's plans is both informed and thorough. Will the Secretary of State therefore confirm that he will publish the evidence that he receives before the White Paper, and that he will give us a proper, full debate in this House in January?

Mr. Darling

The question of whether the matter will be debated is in the hands of the usual channels, but for my part I would welcome a debate. As I have said, whatever we decide, our conclusions are bound to be controversial, and there are bound to be strong feelings on both sides of the argument. Indeed, I know of the hon. Gentleman's feelings about the issue of airports in his constituency, because he has spoken to me about it.

When we publish the White Paper, we shall of course then publish the representations that have been received, but perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman and the House if I point out that the White Paper will set out a framework against which the industry and people can plan for the future. It is not as if its publication will be the end of the story, with no more debate. If further expansion takes place, there are planning procedures to go through and there will be all manner of debate and discussion, so there will be plenty of opportunity in this House and elsewhere to discuss the proposals. But it is important that we publish the White Paper, because it will be the first time since the mid-1980s that a Government have set out what their strategy ought to be, taking into account the fact that more and more people are flying for business and leisure reasons. Any Government have a duty to set out a framework against which people can plan.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that he will not seek to decant the excess growth that cannot be absorbed by London airports to other regional airports without there being environmental frameworks in place of a similar standard to those in the south-east, in order to protect the communities surrounding those airports?

Mr. Darling

On the first point, the demand and pressure on airports is not just a phenomenon in the south-east of England—it is happening right across the country. As I have said many times, this year about half the population will fly at least once, and of course a substantial number fly more often than that. As I have also mentioned before, in 1998 about 5 million people flew on low-cost airlines, but this year the figure will be in excess of 45 million. That is happening throughout the country. However, my hon. Friend makes the important point that environmental measures must be put in place to ensure that the environment is preserved. As we have said on many occasions, aviation, like every other industry, has to meet the consequences of the damage that it causes, so his point about environmental protection is very important.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

The High Court ruled that the Government's air transport White Paper was flawed, and I trust that the Secretary of State will agree that the consequence has been even more delay. That has meant uncertainty for those who live around Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and other airports in the south-east, and a continuing planning blight. Has he ever apologised for getting the White Paper so wrong that the High Court had to throw it out and the Government had to start again?

Mr. Darling

The White Paper has not been published yet, so if there has been a ruling against it I should be very surprised. What I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to get at is the consultation process, during which, as he rightly says, the Government took the view that Gatwick should be excluded because of the legal agreement between the then British Airports Authority and the county council. Before he starts demanding apologies, I should point out that many of his colleagues representing constituencies around Gatwick welcomed that decision when it was taken.

The hon. Gentleman will recall that on 28 November last year, I told the House that, in the light of the High Court ruling, rather than prolonging the agony, we should consult on the basis that Gatwick had to be considered, and we are now doing that. As I pointed out 12 months ago, that would inevitably mean a delay in reaching our conclusions, which I had originally hoped to publish in the summer. I made it clear then that they would not be published until the end of this year, and I am determined that they should be published by then—that is, next month—so that the problems of blight and uncertainty that he complains of can be addressed.

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