HC Deb 24 May 2004 vol 421 cc1412-20

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

10.12 pm
Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)

I am extremely grateful to have the chance to raise the important issue of the transport infrastructure surrounding the proposed expansion of Bristol International airport. I should like at the outset to express my thanks to the Parish Councils Airport Association, which represents 23 of the local parish councils and which has been extraordinarily helpful to me in my preparation for this debate.

It would be quite improper to go too much into the history of the development at Lulsgate. Suffice it to say that a very large body of opinion in my constituency has always felt that Filton is a more logical place for development, as it is situated between two motorways and has railway access to hand. That said, we are where we are. The development at Bristol has been successful from the airport's point of view; it has good facilities in the new terminal, a skilled and committed work force and ambitious management. Notwithstanding the problems that I shall refer to, those of us who have used the airport would be hypocritical if we did not welcome the increased access that it gives us to business destinations in particular.

Since the new terminal was developed at Bristol, there has been a massive expansion in low-cost airlines, an increase in demand and an increase in passenger numbers, and we now see the Government's proposed expansion of the regional airports. There is a major problem with the expansion of Bristol airport: the local road infrastructure is barely able to cope with current passenger numbers, never mind the large predicted number of passengers who would come with further expansion.

At the risk of boring the vast attendance in the House, I wish to point out one or two of the specific road details that are important.

There are no quick and easy routes to Bristol airport from the motorway network. Times vary from 20 minutes at best—it would be a very good best, I have to say—to at least an hour or two. The shortest and most direct route from the motorway network would be via a road link from the M5 at junction 20 at Clevedon, but it would be 8 miles long and have to cross open low country of high ecological landscape value. The vast majority of my constituents would be utterly opposed to that.

More reliable access is available from the M5 south from junction 22 at Burnham, which is a 15 mile journey to the airport, or from junction 21 at Weston, which is a 9 mile journey. Both pass through areas with roadside communities and small villages with speed restrictions. From the M4 north near the M32, the distance is 14 miles. That route crosses the centre of the city of Bristol, and times vary from at best half an hour to up to two hours depending on traffic. Hence traffic is signed to the airport via the M4-M5 box, which is itself very busy and congested, particularly at Almondsbury and Cribb's Causeway. Anyone who has attempted to go down the M5 on a bank holiday weekend will realise what a nightmare that stretch of the motorway can be.

The M5 north and the M4 west traffic is signed via junction 18—Avonmouth and Portway—or people can use junction 19 at Gordano. Either route is very busy and congested at peak hours. There is also congestion when passing through the A38 Winterstoke road or the A38-A370 link at Barrow Gurney, which, although a small village with a single-lane road through the middle, is one of the main thoroughfares for those seeking access to the A38 on the airport approach.

If those roads are very difficult, there are other potential access routes from the A37 via Chew Magna, Winford and Felton, again through a single-lane road in the middle of a rural village. On the other side, the increased traffic from the A370 via Brockley Coombe is resulting in increased road damage. That is an area where, as several of my constituents have pointed out, accidents are waiting to happen. Mr. Geoff Smith wrote to me to say that the levels of traffic are continually increasing along roads that are inadequate for the size of the vehicles and poorly maintained, all adding to the noise. The local lanes are being used as 'rat runs' to avoid the congestion on the main roads … Fuel tankers to the airport now use Downside Road/Brockley Coombe, this road was never built for this type of traffic. It is a miracle that there has been no serious accident. Mrs. Valerie Blake says: The road surface … is breaking up, there are no pavements and no lighting. The banks have been eroded away with the traffic and there are ditches along the side of the road. In my opinion an accident waiting to happen. That is a commonly held view in the area.

The only other access is from Bath near the A366 through the village of Bishop Sutton, where I live, and through the villages of Blagdon and Harptree. That is utterly unsuitable given the traffic that we already have.

Bristol airport estimates that passenger growth will rise from 4 million at present to between 7 million and 9 million by 2015. Assessing vehicle traffic growth for each increase of 500,000 passengers, and assuming that 20 per cent. travel by coach and 80 per cent. by car, it is estimated that that will lead to an extra 25 coaches and 1,000 other vehicles per day. That is equivalent to an extra 200 coaches and 8,000 cars per day on the basis of an increase from 4 million to 8 million passengers per year at the airport. I understand that the current indications—no doubt the Minister has better data than I do—are that two thirds of the airport traffic approaches from the north and one third from the south, although that may change with time.

An increase of that order could possibly just be accommodated on the A38 south—it would mean an extra 18,000 vehicles a day. However, it would be utterly impossible on the A38 north, because it would overload it with an extra 26,000 vehicles per day. That would be extremely distressing for the village of Barrow Gurney, which would completely seize up unless traffic were diverted elsewhere, because it could not accommodate an extra 15,000 or 17,000 vehicles per day.

What can be done? The M4 and the M5 around Bristol are already heavily congested at peak times and holiday periods. The A38 and the A370 are becoming increasingly busy and congested at peak times. Barrow Gurney village already suffers heavily from airport-related traffic and could not accommodate the predicted growth effectively. We await the result of the Greater Bristol strategic transport study, but access to Bristol airport is not good. A local village bypass of Barrow Gurney, possibly through the A38-A370 link road, is especially needed and every effort should be made to reduce pressure on access from the north.

Other villages that suffer access pressures, such as Banwell, should also be relieved. The problems of access through the Chew valley should be recognised. It would be a tragedy if a spot of outstanding natural beauty and tourist importance was utterly destroyed because of the attempts of traffic to get through an inadequate network to Bristol airport.

A short Adjournment debate is not the place to deal with the other issues that relate to the expansion of the airport. I shall simply say that the potential expansion of the runway—an extension that would diminish the size of Felton common—is unacceptable. When the new terminal was created, we were led to believe that the system would provide for greater business traffic and reduce dependency on overnight and cheap holiday charter traffic. If the promise were broken and the runway extended, it would be a betrayal of the good will that many people in the area showed when the new terminal was being created.

I can best summarise the position through the comments of Mr. Bob Hatherly, a constituent who lives in the village of Yatton. He wrote: Access to the area —I could write you a book on the problems but nothing is being done to improve the situation and because of the airport's location very little can or will be done, and at what cost, and who will pay? Not the airport I guess, Council Tax payers. Well there's a surprise!! We look to the Government to provide some solutions to a complex problem. They have clear policy objectives on regional airport expansion, but Bristol airport cannot expand, because of the limitations of its infrastructure, without severely reducing the quality of life of those who live in the surrounding towns and villages.

I look forward to the Under-Secretary's comments because the matter is important and causes increasing anxiety to many of my constituents.

10.27 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring(Dr. Fox) on securing the debate on an issue that is important not only to his constituency but the wider region. As he rightly says, the White Paper acknowledges, among other things, the importance of regional airports to their local economies and the importance of links to London and elsewhere. Given that Bristol airport is the largest airport in the south-west, I recognise that its importance to residents as well as the economy of the region is paramount, as he suggested.

With passenger throughput almost doubling to nearly 4 million per annum between 2000 and 2003, the impact of access to the airport is becoming a concern to local communities on the affected routes, many of which are in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I appreciate the strong local opposition to the impact of the significant increase in traffic. I listened carefully to his case.

In responding, I want to examine the likely role for Bristol International airport as set out in the White Paper, which was presented last December, and the Government's actions to deal with the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raised in relation to airport access.

Ensuring easy and reliable access to airports that minimises congestion and other local effects is a key factor in considering any proposal for new airport capacity. The Government expect airport operators to develop appropriate access plans and to contribute to the cost of additional infrastructure or required services. Bristol International airport is actively working to fulfil the Government's requirement to produce a master plan by the end of 2004 to take account of the conclusions on future developments that the White Paper set out.

The final agreed master plan can then be adopted by the local council as supplementary planning guidance. Indeed, we shall shortly be issuing guidance on what should be in the master plans, as the plan for each regional airport will differ according to the local context. It is right and proper that each airport should come up with a master plan that shows, among other things, the infrastructure needs that follow from its plans for expansion.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the airport is some 8 miles south-west of the city centre and, although the main Bristol to Taunton rail route passes some 3 miles to the north-west of the airport, the difference in levels is about 175 m, making any conventional connection to heavy rail out of the question. He made a general point to the effect that, if we had known we were going to get to this situation, we would not have started from where we did. There are any number of airports to which that applies but, as he rightly says, we are where we are.

Strategic surface access links to Bristol airport are not as good as they are at many other airports of a similar size in the UK. The hon. Gentleman will clearly see that as an understatement and it is that issue that he is most concerned about. Links to the motorway network, which is some distance away, are via A and B roads that pass through the villages and other built-up areas that he so eloquently described. Consequently, more than 95 per cent. of passengers arrive at the airport via the unimproved A38—the majority by private car—and either park on-site or nearby, or arrive as "drop-offs".

The second most important mode of transport to and from the airport is the taxi. Bristol International Cars, the major provider, reports an increase of 17 per cent. to March 2004 to 165,518 bookings. Assuming an average of three persons per taxi, this represents some 13 per cent. of arrivals and departures. Obviously, people arriving by taxi do not generally reduce the number of vehicle arrivals at the airport, merely the demand for on-site parking.

The only significant public transport provision is the Bristol international flyer, which caters for about 4 per cent. of passengers. That coach service operates three times an hour between about 5 am and midnight, commencing at Bristol coach station and calling at Temple Meads and one other stop in south Bristol. By the by, when travelling to Bristol by rail, it is now possible to book a through ticket to the airport on the Bristol international flyer from Temple Meads station. In the 12 months to March 2004, some 140,000 passengers used the flyer to access the airport. While I accept that that was only just over 3.5 per cent. of the air passenger throughput, it represented a 20 per cent. increase over the previous year.

In keeping with other airports, Bristol has set itself a target to increase public transport arrivals, in its case, by 5 per cent. above the growth in passenger numbers. Since the latter increased by 11 per cent. to March 2004, that target was met for the last financial year, which the airport is, in part, to be congratulated on. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that Bristol city council has integrated the flyer with its showcase bus route, which provides significant bus priority measures in south Bristol as well as real-time information. The flyer has been re-routed to take advantage of the improved infrastructure.

As a result of the on-site constraints on land available for car parking, there are certain periods during the year when the on-site car park nears capacity. The hon. Gentleman is obviously aware that certain local landowners have seized the opportunity to provide long-term parking for the airport at rates that are very competitive compared with those for on-site parking. That is viewed as unhelpful in terms of encouraging the use of public transport. North Somerset council has recently been successful in taking action to close one site and is pursuing a similar action against the others. If those actions are successful, it should result in an increase in the mode share arriving by public transport, because the cost of parking on site will increase and the on-site constraints will mean that the number of parking spaces is unlikely to increase at the same rate as passenger growth.

Although everyone accepts that the increase in air travel provides a welcome boost to the local economy, the hon. Gentleman is well aware that it brings attendant traffic problems. However, there is some evidence that the airport operator's access policy is beginning to have an impact, in that despite an 11 per cent. increase in passengers in the year to March 2004, vehicle arrivals increased by only 9 per cent. However, I fully accept what he says about the poor transport infrastructure, particularly the road links.

Dr. Fox

Earlier in his remarks, the Minister said that his Department would shortly advise local authorities on the plan and planning guidance. As a point of principle, will he accept that it makes no sense to encourage airport expansion until transport infrastructure has been addressed? The current approach will exacerbate the situation. Will his Department take that factor into account when it issues guidance to local authorities?

Mr. McNulty

I am grateful for that intervention. In many cases, the approach depends on the airport. In cases such as Bristol, I freely admit that, in seeking a master plan and asking the airport to implement the provisions in the White Paper as part of its expansion, we are playing catch up, given that many regional airports grew significantly over the two to three years before the White Paper.

The master plan's purpose is to regularise growth and to identify, first, the nature of the expansion, and, secondly, how airports will work with other bodies and contribute to surface links. We cannot say to airports, "Whatever growth there has been thus far, you can stop now until we work through this White Paper." I accept that the process contains a time lag, and equally accept that, as a result of traffic using rat runs through local villages, North Somerset council and others are under pressure to improve road access to the airport.

To that end, I recently commissioned a study into the feasibility of a link road between the A370 and the A38. The objectives of the study were threefold—to improve access to the airport, to relieve congestion in south Bristol and to encourage regeneration in south Bristol. As the hon. Member for Woodspring made clear, to improve access to the airport without having strong cognisance of how that impacts on traffic patterns in the south Bristol area is in no one's interests and is not practical.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. McNulty

With the greatest respect, if the hon. Gentleman had had the courtesy to let me know that he wanted to intervene, it would have been helpful, but on this occasion, because I feel generous, I give way.

Mr. Sayeed

I am very grateful to the Minister. I listened to the debate because I was the MP for Bristol, East before I became the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire. I know the area and recognise how pressurised local people have become because of the increase in traffic. Because the number of schemes is small, the Minister has few places to visit to see the effects of airport expansion. Will he get in the car and drive around all the villages and small towns affected, particularly around Bristol airport, to see what the increase in traffic means to the ordinary lives of ordinary people?

Mr. McNulty

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has been peeking in my diary, but I plan to visit Bristol shortly—funnily enough, after 10 June. If it is possible to visit the airport to discuss its plans and to get out and about to see quite what prevails in those villages, I will be happy to do so. For my sins, during the nine or 10 months before the White Paper I managed to visit about 15 airports that are, perhaps, senior to Bristol, but Bristol airport is certainly on my radar—no pun intended.

I am grateful that the hon. Member for Woodspring accepts that no simple solution exists to improve access to Bristol airport without impinging on other factors that we all hold dear and that the resolution of the problem must form part of a wider solution. The A370 and A38 study suggests that a link would, as he suggested, enable traffic for the airport to leave the M5 at junction 18, Avonmouth, to avoid the existing congestion in south Bristol. Three options were considered, two of which run fairly close to the Bristol boundary, with the other running more or less parallel to the B3130 through Barrow Gurney.

While the study showed a small saving in journey time for people travelling to the airport, none of the options addressed the other objectives—relief of congestion in south Bristol or the issue of regeneration. Consequently, it was considered that an isolated link between the A370 and the A38 would not represent good value for money.

It was decided that the options for improving access to the airport should be looked at again—the hon. Gentleman alluded to that—in a more holistic way as part of the greater Bristol strategic transportation study, which commenced in November 2003 and is due to report in early summer 2005.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, and is certainly aware, the airport faced some complex constraints. The aviation White Paper forecast suggests that by 2030 it could attract between 10 million and 12 million passengers per annum. While the existing terminal site should be able to cope with up to 8 million passengers per annum, provided that additional aircraft stands can be accommodated, beyond that, as he suggests, a second terminal south of the runway would be required, together with a runway extension to the east and extended parallel taxiway.

In that context, the hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about the implications that such growth might have for residents in his constituency, although I understand that the number of people living under the 57 dBA—A-weighted decibels—noise contour in 1999 was about 1,000. We would expect only a very small increase in that number by 2015, even at the higher end of the growth forecasts, but I fully accept that noise contours and noise impact are but two of a whole array of impacts that the expansion could have.

With a runway extension, and our highest levels of forecast throughput, estimates suggest that by 2030 there would be no more than about 3,500 people within the 57 dBA noise contour. Similarly, there are concerns that the runway extension needed to accommodate growth over 8 million passengers per annum would require some common land to be taken, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. If that is the case, we would expect it to be replaced elsewhere. There is also likely to be some loss of green belt as a result of a runway extension and new terminal development. However, it is believed that that not would fundamentally affect the integrity of the green belt within the area and it is considered that it may, on balance, be justified by the importance of airport growth to the region's economy.

If all that sounds like extremely qualified provision, that is because it is not for me to prejudge any application that is made or what is in the master plan. Nor is it for me to prejudice any subsequent planned application. That is broadly, in policy framework terms, how such an application would be dealt with in that context.

Dr. Fox

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. First, he underestimates the strength of feeling against any runway extension or the reduction of the common land or green belt, which would be fought tooth and nail by my constituents and those who live in the vicinity, including me.

Secondly, I know that we do not expect major announcements of Government policy in Adjournment debates, but I would be grateful if the Minister would give the House some guidance on this point. When councils are considering planning and the strategic plan, what advice would he, through his officials, give on the relative weight that ought to be placed on having necessary transport infrastructure before further expansion takes place? That, surely, is the nub of the debate.

Mr. McNulty

To return to the hon. Gentleman's first point, while it is not for me to prejudge or speculate on what will be in any planned application for the airport, neither is it my job to prejudge what reaction there might be from local communities to such an application.

The aviation White Paper makes it very clear that we would expect in all plans for expansion concomitant and commensurate plans for necessary increases in surface access to the airport. As I have made very plain, Bristol is more unusual than others in the lack of obvious substantive public transport means to improve that surface access, given its location in respect of rail and other links. I would anticipate the master plan and any subsequent application spending a good deal of time on how such service access links would be improved as part of the growth and expansion.

That is made very clear in the White Paper. It may be, although it is not for me to judge, that the Greater Bristol strategic transport study moves matters in that direction—whether to the hon. Gentleman's satisfaction or not I simply do not know, as neither of us know entirely what is in it. It is for the local council and the region, through its regional spatial strategy and regional transport strategy—which will be subsumed into the regional spatial strategy, if that does not sound like gobbledegook—to understand how all those elements fit together, not simply in relation to the airport but in terms of the broader notion of housing, employment and other strategies in the former Avon area. It is envisaged that all the scenarios developed by that study will include the predicted growth of Bristol International airport and the infrastructure required to support such a development in a sustainable and holistic manner, which also needs to be fully assessed.

I am happy that, at least for now, the airport operators and all the local councils are fully engaged in the study process, and will have due regard to the implications of the scenarios being tested, including the likely traffic implications for the road network in the vicinity of the airport. Certainly, I, and, I am sure, the hon. Gentleman will await with interest the report of such a study. I can understand not only the frustration about there being study upon study, but that, as the airport grows and develops, it requires, and his constituents require, the necessary road infrastructure and service access at least to develop alongside, if not ideally ahead of, such substantial growth and development. The airport's role is important in terms of the local economy, and I am glad that he recognises that. Let us work together to ensure that the infrastructure is what the airport and his constituents deserve.

Question put and agred to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.