HL Deb 22 February 1971 vol 315 cc812-41

2.50 p.m.

LORD MOLSON rose to move, That this House do take note of the Report of the Commission on the Third London Airport. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. I have expressed the Motion in a general way in order to facilitate a frank and full expression of opinion by your Lordships on this matter, which is of the greatest importance to many of our fellow countrymen; and in order to give guidance to the Government, who have undertaken not to come to any final conclusion on the matter until after debate in both Houses of Parliament.

My Lords, I am quite clear in the views that I hold. At an earlier stage the Council for the Protection of Rural England, of which I am Chairman, expressed their views to the Roskill Commission in no ambiguous way. They said that a third London Airport should not be at any inland site; that it should be at Foulness; or if that proved, for technical reasons, to be impossible, it should be at some other off-shore site. This third contingency no longer arises. The Roskill Commission say: There is no technical barrier to the construction of an airport at Foulness. In another passage they say: Foulness is the site which is easiest for air traffic control. So, we are confirmed in our choice of Foulness.

I now turn to another matter which is very relevant to the consideration of the site of a third London Airport, although I think the Roskill Commission regarded it as being on the fringe of their terms of reference. I refer to the interests of those living near existing airports in the London area. As Chairman of the C.P.R.E., which is an all-embracing body, I was asked, about a month ago, to preside at a meeting of representatives of almost all the defence organisations concerned with airports. If your Lordships will bear with me I will read out the list of the organisations concerned; it will, I think, indicate how many people and what various areas are seriously concerned about existing aircraft noise.

There was the Bedfordshire Airport Resistance, called BARA. There was the Gatwick Anti-Noise Executive, called GANE. As many of your Lordships will know, they are spending large sums of money on being represented at the public inquiry at present taking place regarding the lengthening of the one runway at Gatwick. There was the Kew Association for Control of Aircraft Noise—KACAN, we call it—which is representative of a large number of London residents who are already seriously troubled by the noise of aircraft using Heathrow. There were the Luton and District Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise; the Wraysbury Anti-Aircraft Noise Action Group; the Local Authorities' Council for Aircraft Noise; and, of course, there was the Wing Airport Resistance Association, which is particularly concerned with our debate to-day.

My Lords, it was not easy to obtain complete agreement at a meeting of organisations representative of such entirely different areas, but in the end we did arrive at agreement and were able to pass a resolution. I will not read the whole of it to your Lordships, but I will refer to three sentences and then seek to underline the significance of each of those sentences. First: A third London Airport is urgently needed to cope with increased traffic and to reduce nuisance at existing airports. There are many people, including, I know, a number of your Lordships, who feel that there is no need for a third London Airport; or at any rate, that it could be postponed for the time being. Some go on to say, as indeed Mr. Crosland said in a speech made outdoors this last weekend, that it may well be that the existing airports could be expanded and could take all the increase in traffic that we can foresee. My Lords, those who are living in the vicinity of the existing airports around London regard that solution as wholly unacceptable. Noise, which is at present a very great nuisance and which inflicts on them physical suffering and financial loss, is likely to go on increasing until their living conditions are almost intolerable. It is for that reason that this meeting passed a resolution that a third London Airport is urgently needed.

The resolution went on, secondly, to say: There should be no physical extension of existing airports. I have already indicated that the people in the vicinity of these airports are suffering very much indeed; and, of course, if there were more runways and more aircraft—and especially if there were more night flights taking off after midnight—what is already a nuisance will become an intolerable burden. Thirdly, the meeting was in total opposition to any internal airport and agreed that Foulness was the most suitable site.

On what grounds are we urging the Government to reject the recommendation of the Roskill Commission, having regard to the time and care which they devoted to the matter and the scientific research which the Commission undertook? My Lords, we ask for the rejection of the Roskill recommendation for three reasons: first, because the Commission gravely underestimated the importance of environmental considerations; secondly, because they greatly exaggerated the supposed importance of the convenience of air travellers and airlines; and thirdly, because they assumed that there could be no direction, no issuing of instructions, as to what routes should be followed by aircraft.

I begin with the environment. I know that it is sometimes said that we are now unduly concerned about the environment. But, my Lords, people to-day really do care about the environment. They are not prepared to tolerate Victorian squalor and dirt and noise. I will not say much about the Vale of Aylesbury. Professor Buchanan, in his Dissenting Note, has described the Vale of Aylesbury and all that it contains, and described it so well that I could not equal his language. I hope that most of your Lordships will have read that Dissenting Note. I will only summarise what he says by saying that to build an airport there would be "an environmental disaster".

But there are three points that he makes which I will repeat in order to emphasise them. For the last thirty years it has been accepted by successive Governments and by all the local authorities concerned that there should be a Green Belt immediately around London, and an outer country ring. That has been preserved. It would surely be shocking if at this time we decided to build an airport in the middle of that outer ring. Consider for a moment what it involves. It involves bulldozing flat an area 5 miles long and 2½ miles wide, or three-and-a-half times the extent of Heathrow Airport as it is at the present time. It would subject 50 square miles to severe noise nuisance—and that means something that is really intolerable for people to live with—and 350 square miles to outer noise nuisance. In the second place, an airport of this size would require approximately 65,000 workers. That would involve what in the rather inelegant modern planning jargon is called "over-heating of the area" where the airport is to be placed. That means that there would not be enough labour to satisfy the requirements of the airport, and therefore it would be necessary (here I come to my third point) to build a town of some 275,000 people, thereby bringing the London conurbation and the Birmingham conurbation into proximity and doing away with the remains of rural countryside in the Midlands.

These considerations were present to the minds of the Roskill Commission, and they confirmed this general result when they said: Our collective and subjective judgment on the planning issues is that an airport at Foulness may be preferable. If your Lordships have followed my argument, you will now wonder why the Roskill Commission then proceeded to say that they reject Foulness as the best site. They do so, they say, for two reasons: first, because the costs are higher, but secondly, and mainly, The greatest disadvantage of Foulness arises from its relative inaccessibility for passengers and freight by reason of its geographical position. It is difficult to take this argument seriously. They themselves state that the distance from King's Cross to Cublington is 48 miles, and from King's Cross to Foulness is 56 miles. In these days, what is eight miles? So far as time is concerned, they tell us that it takes 39 minutes at present to get to Cublington and 44 minutes to get to Foulness. And it is because of eight miles and five minutes that they reject the proposal to site the airport at Foulness.

The second reason why we ask the Government to reject the recommendation of the Roskill Commission is the over-importance attached to the convenience of air travellers. A remarkable sentence at page 130 of the Report illustrates their line of thought where they say: We see no reason why the pursuit of leisure should not allow a flight to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel but should permit a car journey to Audley End or Waddesdon Manor. That is an extraordinary comment to make. No one has ever proposed to prevent people travelling from this country to Rome to see the Sistine Chapel. All that is under discussion is at what place a change should be made from a motor car or a train to take an aircraft for flying to Italy. So far as a car journey to Audley End of Waddesdon Manor is concerned, anyone going to either of those places observes traffic regulations and follows a route which has been provided by the public. One is surprised that the acute mind of a High Court Judge should have allowed an illustration of that kind to be used by the draftsman of the Report when in point of fact it is so misleading, so inaccurate and, I might say, so silly.

I come to the third point. Underlying the whole of this argumentation there is the assumption that air travellers and airliners are going to be left free to choose exactly where they want to embark and what line they wish to follow. This is exactly what all those of us who are opposed to the recommendations of the Roskill Commission refuse to admit. If air traffic is going to create a nuisance injurious to neighbours and damaging to the environment, it must be under the general control of the community as a whole. Their idea is really pre-1947, when the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, whom I see sitting opposite, introduced the Town and Country Planning Act which exercised general control over the use of property.

There is another important consideration which again the Roskill Commission appear to have thought lay outside their terms of reference. It is the hope, I understand, of the Port of London Authority to build a port at Maplin Sands; and, in any case, it is the intention to reclaim those sands. I will not go into detail, because the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, the Chairman of the Port of London Authority, is here, and I am glad to see that he is going to speak later in this debate. One matter stands out a mile and is perfectly plain: if the Maplin Sands are going to be reclaimed from the sea; if there is going to be a seaport there as well as an airport, the economic cost to the country of reclaiming those sands and building the necessary rail and road communications with London will be divided between either the two ports, or possibly three undertakings if, in addition, an industrial development area is built there.

Just before coming into this debate I received a communication from the Clerk to the Essex County Council, written last Thursday. It is extremely relevant to this matter. I will not read the whole of the letter, but I will merely quote this: The mass of evidence collected by the County Council over the past six years indicates that in the national interest the third London Airport should be sited at Foulness, subject to conditions aimed at securing proper environmental standards. The next paragraph says: An airport at Foulness would be welcomed"— that is, by the County Council— from a planning point of view (a) to correct a present imbalance of employment in South Essex, and to provide for a sound employment base for the proposed major growth area here, and (b) to ameliorate the effects of aircraft noise at Southend airport resulting from its probable closure.

What is the issue before the country and the Government? On the one hand it is first to reclaim land from the sea; secondly, to avoid all destruction of the existing countryside; thirdly, to ensure that the noise nuisance is chiefly over the sea; fourthly, to provide new development and new employment for the local people of Essex and for the East Enders of London. Or there is the alternative recommended by the Roskill Commission: first, to invade London's outer country ring; secondly, to bulldoze flat an area of the Vale of Aylesbury equal to London inside the railway termini; thirdly, to make 50 square miles of rural England intolerable by severe noise; fourthly, to bring 270 square miles within the outer noise nuisance; fifthly, to suburbanise all the Midlands from London to Birmingham.

I appeal, through your Lordships' House, to the Government and to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister created a Department of the Environment. Here is an opportunity for the Department of the Environment to justify its existence. But particularly I would recall the speech made by the Prime Minister to the Countryside in 1970 Conference held last October. I should like to refer to two extracts from the speech: We shall have to try to ensure that the requirements of technological progress, and the increasing demands for leisure and refreshment, are harmonised with the desire to preserve what all of us value in the English countryside. In the same speech he later said: One has to bear in mind that in the long term it might often cost less to pursue a policy which could be more costly in the short term than to go ahead on a cheaper plan, and then to pay to correct some piece of devastation, or some new form of pollution. My Lords, those were the Prime Minister's words last October. This is a clear case in point, and I appeal to him and to the Government, with confidence, that he will in this matter take the right decision. I beg to move.

3.16 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Molson, has stated his case with characteristic clarity and fairness. I know that all of us are grateful to him for giving us an opportunity of discussing this most difficult problem and doing it in the presence of noble Lords with great experience in the fields of local government, aviation and planning. Certainly no one in the country knows more about planning than my noble friend Lord Silkin. I do not think I either anticipate or exaggerate when I say that I believe the views that are expressed by your Lordships today will be of the greatest value to the Government in reaching what everybody agrees to be a most difficult decision.

The setting up of the Roskill Commission was discussed between the then Government and the Opposition, and also with the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, as a Cross-Bencher. There is no secret about the fact that I should have preferred a planning inquiry commission on the lines which at that time were included in the Bill which was before Parliament, and which later became the Town and Country Planning Act 1969. A planning inquiry commission would have had in my view certain advantages. But the decision was in favour of a judicial Inquiry, headed by Mr. Justice Roskill. I congratulate Sir Eustace and his colleagues on the speed and thoroughness of their work, and I thank them for making the Report so immensely readable. Nevertheless, I have misgivings about their recommendations, and about some of their methodology. I very much doubt whether the same machinery will be used again—especially if, as I think probable, the Government reject the advice that they have received.

It would be wrong however not to express regret that so many people made up their minds before the full Report was available, and some even before what I thought was the misguidedly premature publication of the findings without the closely reasoned arguments which led the Commission to make them. Indeed, the character in Alice in Wonderland—I cannot remember whether it was the Red Queen or the Duchess—who called: Sentence first, verdict afterwards was a model of temperate objectivity compared with all those people—some of them in another place—who came down firmly in favour of Foulness before they had read the arguments that were submitted by Roskill.

It may be that the Commission's terms of reference were too narrow. If that is so, I accept my own share of the responsibility. But, in mitigation, I hope that your Lordships will remember that at that time the British Airports Authority regarded the need for a third London airport as much more urgent than has been shown to be the case. It may also be that Mr. Justice Roskill interpreted his terms of reference rather too rigidly. That has certainly been suggested in a number of newspapers and periodicals. It has also been suggested that the large number of counsel involved in the hearing tended to slow down the proceedings, and that the experts and the barristers were often on different wavelengths. But that is not a criticism to which I attach great importance, although the cost must be added to the more than £1 million that the Government themselves spent.

What really worries me, and worries me the more I study the mass of evidence which accompanies the Report, is the reliance the Commission place on the cost/benefit analysis. Cost/benefit analysis has proved its value in many fields—in transport, in education and in defence—but in the case of a third London airport many of the factors are not quantifiable, as the Commission, after a rather shaky start, came to appreciate. I think that the matter was put into its right perspective by Keith Richardson writing in the Sunday Times on January 24. He argued that the constructional costs were easily quantifiable but that the impact of noise and the extra cost to passengers using one site instead of another (to which the noble Lord, Lord Molson, referred) were much more difficult to assess in monetary terms. He summed it up in these words: What it amounts to … is nothing more than adding apples to pears and trying to give the answer in oranges. The Financial Times complained in the Roskill context that the technique has three major limitations: first, the assessment of particular costs and benefits can seldom be more than approximate; second, some costs cannot be assessed at all; third, particular costs cannot be added up to give totals which can be validly compared with one another to produce an indisputable answer. I believe that the Commission made a valiant attempt, and they deserve our appreciation, but in an investment as great as this, with all its consequences for the whole future of our people, I hope we shall not be unduly influenced by financial arguments whose validity has been challenged and which are in many respects of only marginal significance.

To turn to the sites themselves, I know that your Lordships will be sympathetic to those whose homes are threatened and whose way of life is in danger. It is perhaps unusual for your Lordships to hear Kipling quoted from this side of the House, but perhaps I might remind the House that: God gives all men all earth to love, But, since man's heart is small, Ordains for each one spot shall prove Beloved over all. My Lords, all these sites considered by the Roskill Commission are dear to the people who live in and around them. I am sure that we must make allowances, even for the near-hysteria which characterised some of the first reactions to the Report. Nor, in my submission, must we be prejudiced for or against a site which has, or has not, a middle-class, professional, highly coherent group of citizens who know how to use the mass media to the best advantage.

On Friday, by courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, I visited Foulness—and perhaps I should declare what I think is an infinitesimal interest in that I regard my home as being on the estuary of the Colne but, I am happy to say, unaffected by Foulness. It is not without interest that the Thames Aeroport Group referred to its Foulness site as the "Rolls-Royce situation". In the light of subsequent events, that was not a happy choice of words. The island, its saltings and the Maplin Sands are wild and beautiful; they are classified as grade 1 by the Nature Conservancy. To me they have in a unique degree the peculiar beauty of the unspoiled parts of the Essex coast, like the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater and the Pyefleet Creek.

The Island was first used by the War Department in 1805, when General Shrapnel was developing there the shell that bore his name. In the church, a little ironically, there is a monument to the right honourable George Henry Finch, who was not only Lord of the Manor of Foulness but also, for years, Member of Parliament for the County of Rutland, which your Lordships will appreciate is also under sentence of death in the White Paper on Local Government Reorganisation submitted by the Party opposite. Also a little ironically, at the nearby parish church of Little Wakering there is a tablet saying that the tower was built in 1416 by the Bishop of Norwich in gratitude to God for the safety given at Agincourt. I have no doubt that there are many people in the villages around who are praying that the same safety will be given to them on this occasion.

One's judgment of the beauty of the area, with its wide horizons and clear skies and white weatherboarded houses, is inevitably subjective, but one's appreciation of the planning problems can be, and must be, much more objective. Your Lordships may find it useful to read the views on these expressed by Dr. Burns and his colleagues in their Strategic Plan for the South-East. Although the South-East Economic Planning Board and the joint conference of local authorities (I see the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, in his place) favoured the site, I would say, in my personal judgment, that there is a real danger of overcrowding in the area; that the disturbance caused for many miles around by the provision of adequate access by rail and by road will be great, and that its remoteness from the Midlands will cause real problems. The Ministry of Defence will have great difficulty in finding alternative sites for its operations. And we cannot dismiss lightly the danger of a bird strike, remembering that 175,000 birds have been seen to cross the Maplin Sands in the short space of 45 minutes. Nor can we throw lightly aside the difficulty which the British Airports Authority clearly envisage of making the site a viable proposition. The effects of dredging and building may well have effects upon the coastline and upon the estuary of the Thames; more people, in both Kent and Essex, will be affected by noise than is generally realised; and an airport at Foulness means greater traffic at Luton and greater noise inconvenience to the people living in that area.

I have spoken at some length about Foulness because it has not so far found many friends and because so many people have chosen it as their first victim, but I will be briefer about the other sites. Nuthampstead I think we need not discuss at all, and I will deal very briefly with Cublington and Thurleigh. I do that not because I regard them as less important, but because Cublington's case has been so strongly pleaded by the noble Lord and because it has received so much attention already. Let me say that I yield to no one in my admiration for the churches at Stewkley and at Wing, and I restimulated my admiration by going to see them once again back in the autumn. But the site proposed is not in the most beautiful part of the Vale of Aylesbury and the proximity of Milton Keynes has made it much less of a rural backwater than was previously the case. And, in contrast to Professor Buchanan, for whom all of us have the most profound respect, it is not without interest that Dr. Burns in the Strategic Plan for the South-East, in writing of Cublington, should say: The airport site is within a countryside area but it is not within an area shown in the Strategy as of regional significance either for agriculture or for amenity. There are, however, in my view, three very strong arguments against the site. First, there is the real danger of overheating; that part of the country does not need economic stimulation. Second, it would mean that there was a vast are of aircraft noise stretching from South of Gatwick to North of Northampton and Huntingdon, with only small areas of comparative peace between the three London airports. Third, and perhaps of less enduring significance, it would involve some restructuring of Milton Keynes.

If I may now turn to Thurleigh, I regard that as a much more impressive candidate for the Third London Airport; and it is interesting that local public opinion polls have shown a majority in its favour, and that 31 local trade unions have supported the proposal. It is, among other things, much more physically suited than Cublington because it is much flatter. The noble Lord said he was a little confused about some of the conclusions that Mr. Justice Roskill had reached. I share his confusion because I find, for example, in Chapter 13, paragraph 52, that the Report says: … our collective and subjective judgment on the planning issues … is that Thurleigh is to be preferred perhaps only marginally—to Cublington. Later, in paragraph 57, the Report says: … the planning and environmental factors point to Thurleigh. But, of course, as in the case of Cublington there would be a real danger of over-heating. I will therefore content myself by saying that if we need a third London airport Thurleigh is surely a very strong candidate.

The real question, my Lords, is whether we do need a four-runway third London airport. I doubt it very much, after studying the Report and the various actions it has provoked. Mr. Crosland, to whose speech the noble Lord, Lord Molson, referred, made his position clear on Saturday. He believes that there is a need for some new airport capacity in the South-East in the early 1980s, but that the case has not been proved for a new four-runway airport in the immediate future. An admirable article by Ian Nairn in the Sunday Times yesterday drew attention not only to the large number of supporting airfields that are available in the South-East, but also to the need for a national airport policy.

In referring to Mr. Crosland, the noble Lord, Lord Molson, touched on the question of the capacity which was going to be required. The Roskill Commission estimated the 1980 capacity of Heathrow, Gatwick with one runway, and Luton plus Stansted as 474,000. B.E.A., admittedly taking into account a second runway at Gatwick—which must clearly be hypothetical at this stage—makes the capacity 648,000; and both these figures took no account of Southend, which last year handled over 20,000 aircraft; or of Lydd, which handled over 12,000. It seems probable, in the light of American experience, that with more sophisticated techniques of air traffic control even more flights could be accommodated. So I think one must agree broadly with the judgment of the Economist that there is little to worry about for the next 15 years. But that, of course, must not be made an excuse for lethargy, inaction, or the postponement of decisions.

A further factor which makes one question the need for a third London airport is the very real likelihood of the short take-off and landing aircraft making real progress. My noble friend Lord Beswick, with great experience in aviation, will speak of this more fully, and I also look forward very much to hearing the views of the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton. Certainly at the moment progress is being made in this field in the United States of America and in France, and there appears to be good reason for believing that it will be feasible to have 50-seater STOL aircraft in service by 1980. They will of course have only a limited use, and little value from the tourist point of view; but I think that what is so important is that they could well take the pressure off the existing airports, and the Third London airport could become redundant. Aviation experts of distinction and the magazine Flight have certainly expressed this view.

Finally, my Lords—and I apologise if I have trespassed for too long upon the patience of the House—I should like to make six practical proposals to Her Majesty's Government. First, they should look urgently at our national airport requirements and not just at the need for a third London airport. Second, they should develop the use of existing airports to the very maximum. Third, they should decide as swiftly as is practicable to remove the planning blight which is already affecting the four Roskill sites. Fourth, they should legislate to make compensation available for injurious affection; and if the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, will rummage through the files in what used to be the Ministry of Housing and Local Government he will find some excellent documents which will make his task much easier. Fifth, the Government should stiffen up the control of noise from aircraft and fix a date—perhaps 1980—beyond which aircraft generating noise above a certain level will not be allowed to use British airports. At this point I think one must reflect a little sadly that the RB.211 engine would have been probably the most silent in the world, and we hope that it will still be so. Lastly, the Government should galvanise the aircraft industry into a more energetic approach to the development of STOL aircraft than has been apparent so far.

If the Government will accept these proposals there will be jubilation in Foulness, Cublington and Thurleigh, and relief, I believe through the country among those millions of people who regard the beauty of Britain as their heritage, and a heritage they are determined to defend.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, no one is better placed than the noble Lord, Lord Molson, with his previous Ministerial experience in cognate matters and in his present position as Chairman of the C.P.R.E., to persuade the Government to think again. I thought he made a most formidable case. With both noble Lords who have spoken I remain unconvinced by the arguments of the Roskill Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, has said virtually all that can be said with regard to how serious a thing it could be if we made Cublington the site, and the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, has followed that up with a survey of all the different sites. I would rather follow the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, on what he had to say about the methodology of the Commission and about certain aspects of it.

First, while saying that I am unconvinced by the arguments of the Roskill Commission I want to add that I am saddened by the fact that having got a Commission appointed after the public outcry against Stansted, there is now this overwhelming feeling that its Report cannot be accepted. I, for one, cannot accept it myself; and this is—I will not say disastrous, but it is sad. This was a strong Commission; it took 2½ years to do its work, it spent over a million pounds and it examined every conceivable witness. The noble Lord, Lord Greenwood of Rossendale, suggested that it may have seen too many witnesses. There is some truth in that, but I think one of the things that did emerge from the Roskill Commission is the extremely able way in which Mr. Justice Roskill marshalled the evidence from all those experts. What more, on the face of it, could one have done? Stansted, we all remember, was felt to be something that was decided in the back corridors of Whitehall, and now the Roskill Commission come up with what in a manner of speaking is Stansted in another place. And this again people in general have instantly rejected, and it seems clear to me, at any rate, than any inland site is absolutely unacceptable at any price. The strength of feeling is such that the Government may well have a riot on their hands if they do not change their mind; but no doubt they know how to cope with riots.

I do not think that because we have rejected the finding of this very distinguished and expensive Commission the idea of a Commission to conduct such examinations is in any way invalidated, but I think we ought to be careful that it does not appear to be so to the general public. I think we do right to reject any answer if we consider it wrong, and I believe we do right to refer it back for further examination. Roskill has devised methods of conducting this kind of examination which will be of great value for any future examinations of this kind, and particularly the way in which he got his evidence in beforehand, so that it could be studied by the members of the Commission before they actually examined the witnesses. Furthermore, the Commission amassed a vast deal of information which is not challenged; a great deal is challenged, but it did amass a very great deal which is not challenged. It did in fact show how to do this sort of thing on a scale on which it has never been done before. I liked Lord Green-wood's illustration of the mistake in trying to quantify what you cannot quantify by the analogy of adding apples to pears and getting oranges. I also liked Professor Peter Self's description of the same thing as "nonsense on stilts". But, after all, this is the first time that an inquiry of this kind has been carried out on this scale, and having said that there are misgivings, nevertheless one has to say that it was a formidable task, and our thanks are due to the Commission, whatever we think of the answer.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, that in fact we asked the Commission the wrong questions. He very honourably accepts a certain amount of responsibility for that, and he says—and I am sure this is the right answer—that there was a feeling of urgency which was not really justified. I think we were "conned" by certain interests in the aircraft industry, or those people who manage airports, into panicking on this issue. I think he is also right in suggesting that perhaps the Commission itself was a little rigid in its interpretation of what it should examine. What it should have examined the noble Lord has already touched on: it is a national airports policy, and it seems to me inconceivable that we should have started off without having considered that first. I daresay that again these are reasons of hindsight. I think that the complexity of the whole problem is such that people were frightened of looking at more than one very narrow aspect of it. We do not really know what sort of traffic we are planning for. A great many of the American traffic estimates have proved to be hopelessly wrong. Lastly, there is the problem that change catches up with us so fast that we have no sooner put one answer into motion than it is out of date. Nevertheless, it seems to me that to start off with the premise that a third London airport was necessary and work from there was shortsighted.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Molson, says unequivocally that he believes a third London airport is necessary; but I do not follow him there, although I follow him in virtually everything else he says. I am glad the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, did not follow him there either; he had his doubts. First of all, there is the question—I think it was number two on the noble Lord's list of what the Government should look at: are we operating those airports we have at their full capacity? I take Lord Molson's point that it may well make the situation for those who already live near these airports even worse than it now is: "unacceptable to those living near", I think he said.

But it is not only those airports near London. There are a great many airports in other parts of the country which are not being used to capacity. Prestwick is one. It is suggested that our ideas on the speed with which new kinds of train can get to London from, let us say, Hull is very much behind the facts, and that we need not think in terms of only 80 miles from London for a third London airport. It is suggested that we may be missing out on a great Europort. It is not only Foulness that could be a great Europort. There is the possibility of the Wash; it would make a new Europort for air and sea, and also provide water for the South-East of England. These are points that should have been considered in a national airports policy.

We also have a great many municipal and private airports in this country. Most of these municipal airports can give themselves planning permission to make the airport into one quite different from what was intended, and that kind of bypassing of national planning cannot be in the national interest. Some of these municipal airports, I am advised, are not even safe. These municipal airports and private airports should have been rationalised before any decision was made on a third London airport.

With regard to noise, the legal position is absolutely nonsense; there is virtually no law that can be brought in at all, or at any rate it is so limited as to be virtually meaningless. The noble Lord suggested with regard to noise and other issues of amenity next door to airports that all noble Lords speaking in this debate should declare an interest as to how near they live to an airport. There are so many of these municipal, private and B.A.A. airports in the country that there are few of us who do not live extremely near to one.

Lastly in this overall consideration, what about the higher technology? It seems to me that we are getting into a state now in which people who engage in higher technology in this country and France and over the Atlantic are persuading Governments to go on with aspects of higher technology which no one wants because they are afraid of unemployment or because a private empire may disappear. But this is ridiculous. It would be cheaper to send all of them on permanent holiday rather than maintain the higher technology at the sort of expense we are now facing. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, that these are matters which we ought to have considered before we started from the premise that we must have a third London airport. One last point on the question of a third London airport. If it emerges, after a long look at a national airports policy, that we do need a third London airport, it may even then be a more imaginative thing to say, "Enough is enough". The noble Lord, Lord Molson, virtually said this when he said that there were circumstances in which people were not now prepared to tolerate the squalor and noise and everything else that went with a third London airport.

The Roskill Commission suggested that it was a proud thing for London to be the Clapham Junction of the air. But by building a third London airport at Cublington, or at any of these three inland sites, we convert England from London to the Black Country into one very large Clapham Junction—I may say a less attractive Clapham Junction than the one we have already. If we do this—and Lord Molson has expatiated upon what this means—whatever the brilliance of our technology in the future we shall have done something irreversible. It does not matter how good are our new inventions with regard to transport or anything else, how good we are in regard to coping with pollution: if we do something of this nature we shall be doing something which is irreversible. And that may then be an argument for saying that it is not worth while on any material consideration having a third London airport at all. This is where we should have started before and not after.

I suggest that the Government should hold another Inquiry which should do what I have suggested. It may cost £3 million where the last one cost £1 million; and it may, I suppose, last for five years where the last one has lasted two. But we already know that it is possible that we were "conned" into being too quick on the last one. And remember that what we do now is the biggest single capital investment that this country will be making, with the possible exception of the Channel Tunnel, in the second half of the twentieth century; and that if we make the wrong decision the money lost on things like Blue Streak, TSR 2 and even on Concorde (because I believe that that money will never be recovered) will be like the children's pocket money. In spite of it possibly putting us back again for another five years, it seems to me that there is time to consider a national policy, before we come back to the third London airport. I support the noble Lord, Lord Molson, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, in hoping very much that the Government will not be afraid to do that.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, of one thing I am fairly certain about this debate. It is that we shall hear during its course a certain variety of opinion. However, I believe that within this variety there is one point on which we can very easily agree; and that is on the size of the decision to be taken by the Government on this matter. It will have a lasting impact upon the lives of our children and of our grandchildren, and its consequences will most certainly be felt deep into the next century. The Government certainly do not underestimate the importance of this decision. That is why we have decided to seek, through the medium of debates in both Houses of Parliament, the fullest possible expression of informed opinion before any final decisions are taken. We must certainly try to get these decisions as right as possible. That is why I am glad that your Lordships' House is to devote two full days to the discussion of this matter, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Molson for making this possible.

I am also glad that we are to hear two maiden speakers in this debate. I am being followed by the noble Lord, Lord Dowding, the son of a father to whom all of us owe an almost immeasurable debt. I am glad, too, that the noble Earl, Lord Essex, will also be speaking in this debate. My spies tell me that he favours a site in Essex. I do not know whether that is because of his name or because he lives near Aylesbury; but we must wait and hear.

Having said that, I must go on to say that I fear your Lordships are going to hear a more than usually dull speech from me this afternoon. Given the Government's desire to commune with public opinion before we take our decision, your Lordships will not expect to hear from me at this stage arguments designed to advance a particular pet solution. If I may correct the noble Lord, Lord Henley, whose speech I greatly enjoyed, he kept on asking the Government to think again and to change their mind. I would only assure the noble Lord that this most thoughtful of all Governments are constantly thinking about this matter. We have not made up our mind on this, and we have made it absolutely clear that we wish to take the advice of Parliament on this matter before we do make up our mind.


My Lords, what I really meant to press upon the noble Earl is that his Government should think about setting up an inquiry, however expensive and even if it takes a long time, to consider the national airports policy before they decide on the Third London Airport.


My Lords, I am glad to have that elaboration of the noble Lord's thoughts. In any event I am, I fear, this afternoon cast in a strongly agnostic role. It is not for me to throw out the Beelzebub of Cublington, or to grapple with the foul fiend of Foulness. I shall rather merely try to set out some of the main considerations which we feel must be weighed before we come to a final decision.

If your Lordships are cynical about my professed agnosticism, or if you have any doubts about the influence which Parliament can bring to bear through informed and constructive criticism, then I would only remind you of the origin of the setting up of the Roskill Commission. I would refer your Lordships—and the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, does not need any reminding of this—to the debate in this House just over three years ago, on December 11, 1967, because I believe that that debate clearly reflected the view of the great majority of people who had studied the Stansted proposal. I have, likewise, no doubt that it caused the Government of the day—and it was a real question of rethinking in that case—to accept the view so strongly voiced in your Lordships' House that a matter of such importance as the choice of a third London Airport should not be settled without the most thorough, the most expert and the most impartial examination.

My Lords, it is obvious that a great many people are a great way from accepting a great many of the Roskill Commission's findings. Some of these, I suspect, may not have troubled to delve too deeply into the Report itself. But I think that anyone who has read the Report would in any event readily concede (I know that this has been conceded by all three speakers who have preceded me) that its work has been thoroughly expert, and indeed impartial. I believe that we have been well served, and that, whatever the final decision may be, we all owe an immense debt to Mr. Justice Roskill and the other members of the Commission, and their staffs, for their truly monumental labours. As Peter Hall, for example, an acute but severe critic of the Commission's proposals, has stated, their recommendations are based on—and I quote his words: the most rational, dispassionate procedure of analysis that good minds could devise. It is true that in their final recommendations the Roskill Commission were not unanimous. We have all read Professor Buchanan's powerful, indeed poetic, Note of Dissent. But I should like to emphasise at this point, and I should like your Lordships to remember, that on two out of the three recommendations made by the Commission there was no dissent. They were in fact unanimous—pace the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, to whose constructive and civilised speech I listened with great interest—in thinking that a third London Airport should be in operation by 1980. And they were also unanimous in recommending that the planning should be undertaken without delay, in order to advance that date should this subsequently be shown to be desirable.

The unanimous recommendations of the Commission were based on their estimates of traffic growth and a number of important assumptions. For example, they assumed that there would be no major expansion of any of the existing airports in the South East; there would not be, for example, a second runway at Gatwick. This is an assumption which your Lordships will no doubt wish to consider.

The Commission also concluded, after very careful consideration, and after taking a great deal of evidence, that the impact of STOL or VTOL on the total problem was not likely to be large for many years to come, and that it would in particular be wrong to assume that such aircraft would bring about an absolute reduction on the pressure on conventional airports until, at the earliest, the end of the 1980s. This again is an assumption which your Lordships will wish to weigh and which has already been questioned, and that is the point of this discussion in this debate.

I do not wish to pre-judge what determination your Lordships will come to on this matter. All I would ask your Lordships to weigh is what deferment could entail for those who are already suffering under the blanket of airport noise. I would ask you to remember what deferment would mean for those near Luton; what it would mean in terms of increased pressure for a second runway at Gatwick; what it would mean in lack of relief for the sufferers at Heathrow. Some of your Lordships have already called for the development of the existing airports in the South East to the maximum. This may be right, but it is necessary to consider what this would be bound to entail in really pretty desperate penalties for those living under the existing noise shadows at those airports.

In addition, the Commission assumed that it would be right that the Third London Airport should be provided as soon as traffic had grown to the point where congestion costs would exceed the costs of advancing the opening. That, I think, means, to cut the jargon, that they assume that the airlines would not move out of the existing airports in the South East unless they had to. Finally, the Commission formed the opinion that when calculating the timing of the need for a third London Airport, they should ignore the contribution which airports outside the London area might make. Again this has already been questioned by your Lordships. I have nothing to quarrel with about this. This is a matter that will need to be carefully weighed, and I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that it will be carefully weighed.

In suggesting that these are some at least of the assumptions which your Lordships will wish to weigh, I do not wish to imply in any way that the Government have concluded that the Commission's forecasts were wrong, or that their assumptions were unjustified. Indeed, I think I must make it plain that so far as total traffic forecasts are concerned, the Commission's prognostication is in line with those of the Government Departments most concerned with this matter. Before turning away from timing, I must make it clear that the Government are not concerned merely with the economic factors here. We are also deeply concerned with the possibility—and I have already suggested this—that a third London Airport might help to lift the blanket of noise which hangs over the sufferers at Heathrow and elsewhere.

As for the proposed site for the airport, the Commission conducted a searching inquiry. It seems to me that some people do not quite realise quite how searching that inquiry was. For example, it was only after no fewer than 78 possible sites had been passed by them through increasingly fine filters that the Commission came up with their eventual list of four main candidates; Cublington, Foulness, Nuthampstead, and Thurleigh. This process was far from being a mindless and mechanical one. At every step these sites discarded by the Commission were reviewed again by them in case of error; and in fact they added back six sites at the second stage.

In any event, of the four sites eventually short-listed, the Commission, with the notable exception of Professor Buchanan, recommended Cublington—although it is quite clear (and in this matter I go along with the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, to some extent) that they considered that Thurleigh ran Cublington a very close second. As your Lordships know, Professor Buchanan has come out strongly in favour of Foulness. However, all the members of the Commission, including Professor Buchanan, are agreed that there is no ideal site, and that a judgment has to be made on where the balance of advantage lies when all the factors—economic, environmental and the rest of them—have been fully taken into account.

It would of course be possible for the Government to reject all four sites and to plump for another one, or for none at all. Indeed, since the Report was published many people—surprise, surprise!—have suggested precisely this. There have also been suggestions (and I have touched on some of the implications of what they would involve)—for the expansion of the existing airports in the South East. I can only say at this stage—I am sorry for this agnosticism, but I think it is understandable in the circumstances—that, while the Government will bear all these proposals in mind, all the available evidence appears to indicate that the development of airports outside the South East, or the construction of new airports outside the South East, would not relieve the pressure on the London airports to any substantial extent.


My Lords, would the noble Earl explain quite what he means by that? I should be grateful if he would. He has already talked about what deferment would mean to the sufferers at Heathrow. Is he suggesting that the present burden would be reduced? Is he considering the growth of traffic? If he is saying that the growth would still go on at London if we had an airport in the Midlands or in the North, I should be very interested, because I did not find that confirmed in the Roskill Report.


My Lords, what I had in mind was that it was really a combination of the growth of traffic plus the origin of the traffic. I think the noble and learned Viscount will find it stated in the Report that something like 73 per cent. (I believe that is the figure) of the passenger traffic using the London area airports originates in, or is destined for, the South East. Even if all the remaining 27 per cent. could be prevented from using airports in the London area this would delay the need for a third London Airport only for something like two or three years. However, that is an amalgam of estimates of origin and destination, together with the estimated growth.


My Lords, is the noble Earl now dealing with the present pattern of the traffic, or is that an estimate of the future pattern? I know the Report says that something like 75 per cent. of the growth will be of British passengers. I should very much like to know what proportion of those passengers are thought to emanate from London and the South East?


My Lords, I was dealing with future growth and the present pattern. I am afraid that I do not carry in my mind what the Commission assessment is for the future pattern. This is a point which I shall certainly be very glad to follow up in correspondence with the noble Viscount; or I will ask one or other of my noble friends who will be replying to the debate to-morrow to deal with it. In any event, in deciding between the four sites on the short list, it is clear that the Commission went to immense efforts to devise a framework which would make an effective comparison possible.

Be that as it may, all this part of the Commission's work will need to be most carefully examined. It may well be that the Government will decide to give more weight to some considerations, and less to others, than the Commission have done. For example, some may suggest—and I know there was a difficulty over the terms of reference—as indeed Mr. Anthony Crosland suggested at the weekend, that one should concentrate more on the analysis of what is involved in a two-runway airport than in a four-runway airport. All I can say there is that we are quite prepared to examine this as well, and we are certainly anxious to hear the views of your Lordships on this particular aspect of the matter.

May I deal for a moment with the question of methodology? The Roskill Commission carried out a cost/benefit analysis that was unprecedented in scale and in depth. In coming to their own view, the Government will look at that analysis with very great care. That does not mean of course that we shall wish to rehash the whole thing; but we shall wish to examine carefully the validity and significance of the Roskill cost/benefit analysis, because cost/benefit is a developing tool and we cannot afford to be uncritical in our approach to it, especially when the stakes are as high as they are on this issue. Moreover—and this is equally important—there are other vital issues and major aspects not covered by the analysis, and these also must receive their due weight.

This means that we need to look at the uncertainties within the cost/benefit analysis, particularly the forecasts of total air travel and the forecasts of airport preferences. The latest figures indeed show that traffic has been building up rather more rapidly than the Commission anticipated. But, of course, the Commission were looking far ahead in time scale. They estimated, for example, that total air travel will grow 15-fold between 1969 and the year 2006; and for leisure travel they put a factor of 26 on the growth in that period. Clearly, a vast amount must be speculative here, particularly as one tries to peer, as the Commission did, over the horizon of this century. Alternatively, the construction of new airports elsewhere in the country could affect the choice of travellers. Apart from that, there are all the imponderables of accelerating technological change. These uncertainties could certainly affect the comparison either way, and this is obviously one area which we are closely examining.

The second area is the hotly disputed one of the passenger user costs within the analysis—the field which was ploughed over again and again in the public hearings at Stage V of the inquiry. We shall doubtless hear rather more of this during this two-day discussion—and rightly so, because this is a matter which profoundly affects the comparison between the three inland sites and Foulness. I can assure your Lordships that this again is one of the issues to which the Government will be giving close attention.

The third matter in the context of cost/benefit analysis at which we shall need to look is the way the question of noise is dealt with within the analysis. I shall have a word to say in a moment about noise generally, when I come to conclude. However, within the terms of the cost/benefit analysis the Government will have to satisfy themselves that the treatment of noise was right. For example, is it simply a question of relative movements in house prices in the vicinity of airports; or are the overall social consequences of aircraft noise such that a higher valuation should be put upon them in the analysis?

Finally, we shall need to look at what the analysis does and does not cover. The Commission themselves conceded that there were unquantifiable factors here—for example, those which touch on planning or the environment—on which, not surprisingly, they felt quite unable to put any monetary value. At the end of the day we all have to exercise our subjective judgment on the weight to be given to such imponderables. The Commission exercised their judgment, and the majority decided to recommend one way. Professor Buchanan exercised his judgment and came to a contrary conclusion. What the Government will need to consider here is not only how far the results of the economic analysis provide a reliable measurement of the factor which it covers, but how things that are measurable should be weighed against those which are not.

My Lords, I now turn to the noise factor in its more general setting. If one looks at the tables in the Roskill Report, and sees the comparison of numbers of people living close to the various sites, it is quite easy to come to a snap judgment and decide that Foulness must be preferable because the numbers there are the smallest, and therefore fewer people are likely to be affected by noise. If one looks further afield and sees the potential noise shadow from Foulness reaching over Kent, one can also see how it might be possible to realign the Foulness runways so as to reduce the noise shadow over Kent—admittedly, at a cost.

On such evidence—and it is of course relevant—Foulness would seem to be the better choice. But, my Lords, in making our judgment we must not, at least in the Government's submission, be thinking only of the four alternative sites in isolation. We must remember—and I have already dealt with this—the appalling inconvenience which everyone near Heathrow, for example, already suffers from noise. At the moment more than 700,000 households—something like two and a quarter million people—lie under the noise blanket of Heathrow. For every one household which would ultimately be affected by noise at the Third London Airport, 24 people would be affected as early as 1978 around Heathrow; and one must also remember that there are real noise problems at the other airports.


My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene? One of the peculiar things about the Roskill Commission's recommendations is that the site which they considered at Maplin Sands is not the site which was originally recommended by TEDCO. In point of fact, if the site chosen by those who had made a very careful survey were chosen, there would be less noise over Kent than if the site recommended by Roskill were decided upon. Why the Roskill Commission should have selected a different site from that which was put forward, I confess I do not know.


My Lords, I must confess to my noble friend that I do not know either. But I have also suggested that a re-alignment of the proposed Foulness runways could reduce the noise incidence in the neighbourhood. In any event, in reaching their decision on noise, the Government must bear in mind not only the immediate impact of noise in the vicinity of the various sites, but the total noise "package"—if I may use that term—which will emerge, and the effect of any particular solution in reducing the overall impact of noise nuisance around our major international airports. These are not easy matters and we have certainly not reached final decisions. We shall be very interested to hear the views of noble Lords on this aspect of the matter. But I wish again to emphasise the importance of looking at the noise problem as a whole. If the Government were to do otherwise, it would certainly be an abnegation of our responsibilities.

It is clear that the effect on the planning considerations and the effect on the environment are, again, two of the vital but unquantifiable factors here. My noble friend Lord Sandford, who is directly concerned with these matters, will be saying more about them to-morrow. Meanwhile, I should like to remind your Lordships that the Commission took the view that none of the sites should be ruled out on grounds of regional planning alone. They thought, it is true, that on planning grounds the overall balance of advantage lay with Foulness, and this is a view which we shall be examining now.

We of course noted the points so strongly made in Professor Buchanan's Note of Dissent about the social benefits that could flow from locating this economic magnet, which is what a major new airport is, to the East of London, at Foulness. Perhaps this could help to raise the quality of the eastern-most side of London in the same sort of way, but of course on a far greater scale, as planning decisions have raised and are raising the quality of London's South Bank. Certainly if this could be achieved it is a factor which we shall need very carefully to consider. On the other hand, we must think carefully about the possible overcrowding in the South Essex area, to which the noble Lord, Lord Greenwood, referred, and about the difficulties of reconciling, in Essex, the essential road infrastructure which will be called for with the necessary urban development. My Lords, there are of course other factors to be considered here; for example, the imaginative suggestions for the development side by side of an airport, a seaport and an industrial complex. But I think it would be better if I left those for my noble friend Lord Sandford to develop.

My Lords, I turn in conclusion to the environmental questions. These are, of course, of crucial importance, and I know that what your Lordships will say on these matters will be of importance since we usually bring to these matters of amenity both passion and experience, be they water or be they whales. But there is, I fear, little that I can add at this stage. At the end of the day the Government will have to take a view on where the balance of advantage in environmental terms lies between an inland and a coastal site, and also how this balance should weigh in the ultimate decision. We all know that this airport, whose size has been so dramatically described by Professor Buchanan, is bound to have a dramatic effect on the bit of England—quite a bit of England—which will house it. But the choice is not so easy as some would seem to make it. On the one hand, we would have the harsh sacrifice of part of the Vale of Aylesbury; we would have a sacrifice of the Norman Church at Stewkley and of other not insignificant buildings. On the other hand—and here I am just making a direct comparison between Cublington and Foulness without prejudging the possibility of other comparisons—there will be the destruction of a quite different landscape; of a remote, but in its way beautiful, Essex coast, and its not at all insignificant wild life.

Now I suppose that most of us would feel that the quality of the countryside at Foulness is perhaps of a lower order than that at Cublington. But, my Lords, these are not matters on which one could conceivably put any precise valuation. They are matters essentially of subjective judgment; but they are none the less vital to all of us, and that means, I think, everyone in this House who loves our countryside. They are therefore a crucial part of the final judgment which the Government have to take. All I can say is that I and my colleagues will listen with very close attention to the views which your Lordships will express on this and other matters to-day and to-morrow.

That is all (and I am sorry that I have spoken for rather too long) that I feel I can suitably say at this stage, confined as I necessarily am by the constraints of my present, and unavoidable, agnostic discipline. I have said "present" advisedly. Clearly, the Government must give themselves sufficient time to weigh the many profound considerations raised in this Report and in the continuing debate inside and outside Parliament on it. By the same token, this is not, I believe—and here I think I dissent from the noble Lord, Lord Henley—a matter which should be allowed to drag. I therefore, in conclusion, express the hope to your Lordships that it will be possible for us to announce our conclusions without any unnecessary or undue delay.