HL Deb 17 December 1979 vol 403 cc1458-70

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of your Lordships, and particularly with that of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, may I repeat a Statement being made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade, Mr. Nott, in another place, on Airports Policy. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a Statement about airports policy. I am publishing today the reports of the Study Group on South-East Airports and the Advisory Committee on Airports Policy. I recommend these reports to the House, and I should like to thank the members of these two bodies, which include representatives of local authorities, for their conscientious and painstaking work in preparing them.

"The Government have decided not to build a major new international airport of the kind considered by the Roskill Commission Report in 1971; nor do they intend to resurrect the Maplin project, even in a revised form. Instead the Government's policy is: first, to encourage the fullest use of regional airports; and, secondly, to provide additional airport capacity, as the traffic develops, based on the existing airports in the South-East, particularly Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. The Government's more detailed proposals are as follows.

"In the future we will adopt policies designed to maximise the potential of the English regional airports and those in Scotland and Wales and thus to shift the burden away from the London area airports.

"My Department will look with particular favour upon proposals for the expansion of capacity to meet demand at airports such as the East Midlands, Birmingham and Manchester.

"We propose, as opportunity arises, to negotiate new rights permitting services between overseas cities and British provincial towns. This is in accordance with the new policies contained in the Civil Aviation Bill which is now before Parliament. On the initiative of my Department the EEC Council of Ministers has recently invited the Commission, after consultation with Member States, to present specific proposals early next year for developing routes within the Community to serve the regions.

" However, even with a more effective use of regional airports the Advisory Committee makes clear that there is an urgent need for additional airport capacity in South-East England. On current forecasts, taking account of the uncertainty about future oil prices and world economic growth, it is estimated that there will be a demand of between 69 and 81 million passengers a year in London and the South-East by the late 1980s, against existing airport capacity of 50 million passengers. This leaves a large gap.

"We have considered whether it would be right to ignore the likely demand so that traffic became increasingly stifled or diverted to the Continent. Such a decision, or lack of a decision, would lead to developing chaos at our existing airports. A modern Western society heavily engaged in international trade and with a major stake in the airline business can hardly fail to provide for consumer demand, both for leisure and business. But given the inherent uncertainty of any forecast, the solution we need is one which meets the demand in London and the South-East only as it develops and which avoids the massive expenditure implications of developing a green field or coastal site.

"At Heathrow capacity is virtually exhausted, and that is why we must continue to divert traffic to Gatwick, as already announced in my Statement on 9th October. In order to provide additional capacity, the Government have decided to accept the Inspector's recommendation for a fourth terminal at Heathrow; the details of this decision are being announced separately today, and will include certain restrictions designed to mitigate the noise nuisance to local residents. We have also given careful consideration to the possibility of constructing a fifth terminal at Heath-row on the Perry Oaks site in order to increase yet further the capacity of that airport. However, we estimate that it would take at least 12 years to complete such a project, and it would impose added burdens on the surrounding area; these considerations have led us to the view that a fifth terminal should not be provided.

"At Gatwick a public inquiry is to be held next year into a proposal for a second terminal at the airport. The Government will reach their conclusions on this matter in the light of the Inspector's report. We have also considered whether further capacity should be created by constructing a second runway at Gatwick but have decided not to pursue this possibility.

"At Stansted the previous Government anticipated development of the existing airport to 4 million passengers a year by the late 1980s. Stansted airport already has a suitable runway which could carry, if necessary, many more passengers than this. There is good road access, and we believe that the addition of a new terminal building at Stansted, which could eventually handle up to 15 million passengers a year, together with appropriate access improvements, can be carried out by the purchase of under 1,500 acres of additional land and with the minimum commitment to public expenditure. The Government therefore believe that this expansion is the best way of providing extra capacity before the end of the next decade.

"However, we believe that the time is long overdue for a settlement of the airports question for a much longer period ahead so that the demand can be met if it develops into the next century. Years of indecision, decision and counter-decision reflect no credit on this country's capacity to make difficult but necessary choices. If air traffic continues to grow at anything like the rate forecast by the Advisory Committee additional capacity could be needed in the 1990s. For this reason, we have given careful consideration to each of the sites examined by the Study Group. Airports, road and rail access, the re-location of defence establishments all use up agricultural land, affect property and cause changes to the environment. The best solution must be one that avoids any premature expenditure and leaves future Governments with the maximum degree of flexibility—dependent on the growth of demand.

"Our view, on the evidence so far available, is that none of the green field sites meets these requirements. We recognise that Maplin has certain advantages, but the provision of additional road and rail links, the preparation of the site and the re-location of defence establishments, all of which would require a commitment of over £1 billion, involve very serious risks which are unjustified when we cannot be certain that an airport of such a size might be needed. Moreover, an airport at Maplin could not be ready to meet the expected shortfall in capacity in the late 1980s.

"The British Airports Authority will therefore be invited to bring forward proposals for the construction of a single terminal building at Stanstead based on the existing runway facilities, capable of handling about 15 million passengers a year. But it will also be invited to define and apply for the safeguarding of an additional area of up to 2,500 acres, sufficient to provide for a possible second runway and further terminal capacity should this be needed in the 1990s or beyond. Our aim would be that the owners of residential and agricultural property in this wider area should have the opportunity of either continuing to live or farm there, pending any possible requirement for this additional land; or of selling their property at an unblighted value to the BAA.

"These proposals will be examined under appropriate planning procedures which will include a wide-ranging public inquiry, and a final decision on them will then be taken. This will provide a full opportunity for all those concerned to express their views on these proposals, and for the wider social and environmental implications to be explored or assessed.

"I am making arrangements for the Vote Office to make available now to hon. Members full background information."

In parenthesis, I point out that the same information is being made available in our Printed Paper Office. The Statement continues:

"I am sure that the House will wish to debate these issues as soon as hon. Members have had a reasonable time to consider the reports and the Government's conclusions. I have therefore asked my right honourable friend the Leader of the House to make provision for a debate after the Christmas Recess".

My Lords, I say, again in parenthesis, that I imagine the usual channels will want to consider that in this House also.

That concludes the Statement.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place this afternoon. For almost 20 years we have had indecision on the question of future airports policy by various Governments. I cannot but agree with the Statement, that the time is long overdue for a settlement of the airports question. I only hope that the Government will be able to stick to their decision, and that their decision is the right one. The Statement says:

"In the future we will adopt policies designed to maximise the potential of the English regional airports and those in Scotland and Wales and thus to shift the burden away from the London area airports".

The Statement goes on to talk about the development of the East Midlands, Birmingham and Manchester airports.

Later in the Statement reference is made to whether it would be right to ignore the likely demand so that traffic becomes increasingly stifled or diverted to the continent. The danger of the proposed policy is that insufficient capacity at London's airports can mean a diversion to continental airports, and already Amsterdam is being spoken of as London's third airport. However, it must be said that the proposed capacity envisaged and catered for in the Statement seems to about balance out. Whether it works or not would seem to depend heavily on an agreement to the proposed second terminal at Gatwick.

The Government, as they must in view of the inquiry, adopt a neutral position on this, but if it just was not possible, for one reason or another, for the second terminal at Gatwick to be built, then in fact one would face a real crisis situation. It would be necessary to expedite the plans proposed for Stansted referred to in the Statement and to proceed more quickly with the proposals for the second runway and the second terminal at Stansted. My view is that it is crucial for London, and therefore for Britain, that London should retain its premier position as a staging post for international airlines into Europe. Therefore, the Statement should be measured against that criterion.

Of course, none of us has had the opportunity of reading the two reports which are being published today, and we shall no doubt read them with great interest. Indeed, as one hears that they in fact show that any decision to base a third airport on a greenfield site would be prohibitively expensive, I am sure that in the present financial situation the decision proposed by the Government is the right one. But whether it would be the right one if our financial situation was different at the present time is another question, and a question to which only time will produce the answer. I welcome the fact that the Government have come to a decision on this matter.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, from these Benches we also thank the noble Lord for repeating this interesting Statement. I would also echo the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, about a decision being taken at last after many years of decision, indecision, and what-have-you; and we now have a policy. We rather assumed here that the policy to restrict it to the three airports is based on the fact that there has been a reported diminution of traffic, and that the figures of traffic envisaged in the future may not be the astronomical figures we spoke about some months ago.

Presumably the addition of a fourth terminal at Heathrow, the additional facilities at Gatwick and the developments at Gatwick, will be sufficient to take care of the traffic so far as can be foreseen, and we welcome that. But there is the position that if we are going to get this relief of Heathrow we have to transfer—as the Government decided back in October—some services to Gatwick from Heathrow, but there will be further transfers to Stansted. Now Stansted is quite a long way from Heathrow, and this does not make it possible to carry out what is known as "interlining". Even when the M.4 and the M.25 are completed, there may be a better transfer service than at present but it would not permit of satisfactory interlining. Therefore, presumably it will be a particular sort of service that will be transferred to Stansted. Can the Government give any indication of what those services will be and which airlines will be involved, or is it going to be left to the Civil Aviation Authority to take the decisions, and possibly get into the same trouble as we got into with Iberia earlier in the year?

I would also ask one other thing of the Government. Can the noble Lord tell us what are the developments of British Rail in this connection? Are they going to back up that service? Will it come into Liverpool Street, or King's Cross, or where?

At the present moment it is not very satisfactory. I gather from the paper that there is going to be a public inquiry for the development of Stansted, and very full details of that will presumably be published in due course. We shall have opportunities to discuss this on the Civil Aviation Bill, which I gather will be in this House after Christmas. Therefore, I will reserve any further remarks for when that Bill comes up.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged to both noble Lords for their reception of this Statement. May I take up the points made by the noble Earl, Lord Amherst, to start with. He asked me two specific questions to which I can respond now. First, the question of transfers to Stansted. We have reached no decision on any "encouraged" transfers—can I call them that?—to Stansted, although we would certainly like to see the development of charter services from that airport. With regard to the British Rail link between Stansted and London, there is presently a service between Bishop's Stortford and Liverpool Street, which as a matter of fact is pretty good. I have used it myself on several occasions. Certainly if we came to develop Stansted beyond what is immediately foreshadowed by the Statement—namely, the single terminal and single runway—we would have to think of improving that link and perhaps extending it into the airport itself. But that is certainly not part of the immediate plan.

The noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, asked me about the second terminal at Gatwick, and what would happen if planning permission was refused for that terminal. Of course, the decision to grant, or refuse, planning permission will rest with the Secretary of State, but he will be guided by the report of the inspector, which will be forthcoming after the public inquiry. I think it is a bit early to say what would happen in a hypothetical situation such as that, but I suppose it is true to say that the Secretary of State will have to have regard to the public interest in this matter as well as the interests put forward at the inquiry.


My Lords, the noble Lord spoke of the many years it had taken to reach a decision on this matter. I take the view that if we had reached a decision a few years ago we should not have spent more money on having an airport at Maplin than we have on all the little bits and pieces that we have added since. Might I ask the noble Lord two questions? I am sure he will realise why I ask him the first one. How many passengers does he envisage would have to go through Stansted to make a second runway necessary? I do not know whether he can help the House on my second question. I do not know Sir John Howard and I know nothing about the Thames Estuary Development, but I have read in the paper that Sir John had put forward the proposition that Government and private enterprise should join together to develop Maplin. He said this could be done for a cost of £560 million and could be completed in seven years. I hold no brief for Sir John or his Development Corporation, but I should be glad to know, if the noble Lord could tell us, whether that has been considered by the Secretary of State or whether he has any information upon it.


Yes, my Lords, I can answer both those questions. The maximum number of passengers that Stansted could carry with one runway would be of the order of 25 million passengers a year. That would probably need more terminals than we are presently anticipating, but that is certainly the maximum capacity of the single runway. As for the proposal to develop Maplin along the lines that have been canvassed in various quarters, we think that the sums of money which the promoters of these schemes have in mind are wildly optimistic. The sort of figure that we think would be the cost of developing Maplin now would be about £1,000 million— roughly double the sort of figure that we have seen canvassed in the Press. That was one of the main reasons that caused us to go for another solution.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware—speaking as a member of the Airports Advisory Committee—that his right honourable friend's words of thanks are very much appreciated? Is he also aware that his acceptance so quickly of the main burden of the report will be a source of satisfaction to all members of those two very hard-working committees? His choice of one, Stansted, relieves the planning blight on the other five sites which we put up for his consideration, but may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that, in effect, his Statement indicates that he has accepted our recommendation of the first phase of the major development—that is, the 15 million passengers per annum which he proposes for Stansted, later to go up to 50 million at the turn of the century—and that the first phase at Stansted will cost of the order of £300 million; that he will need an additional urban population for the workforce in that area, which is entirely rural—it is very good farm land—of the order of 45,000 and that that will mean a considerable urbanisation of this very high-grade farming area? Is my noble friend further aware that he will encounter massive opposition from the local people in that area, and that it will be supported by every local authority in the South-East, who have already sent advice to his right honourable friend that he should choose Maplin, and that the considerations on environmental grounds, which decided an earlier Government in 1971 to choose Maplin, still hold for the major development of any inland site?


That is a very interesting point, my Lords; the environmental considerations were certainly well forward in my right honourable friend's consideration of this matter. They are not quite so simple as people make out. Although it is true that Maplin would be developed, if it were to be built, on reclaimed land, one must remember that we should also have to build a motorway and a railway, together with a great deal of other local infrastructure to support that new airport, if we were to go ahead, while the railway and road already exist to Stansted; indeed so does the nucleus of the airport itself. We do not necessarily accept that the enormous environmental advantages claimed for the Maplin idea are really as convincing as people would have us believe.

My noble friend also referred to the cost of the Stansted development; it is true, as he said, that the figure will be of the order of £300 million, but I can say that it is expected that the great bulk of this money will he found by the British Airports Authority without recourse to the public purse, and that of course was a major consideration. My noble friend also referred to the question of urban population. Certainly the new airport, when it comes to full fruition, or the enlarged airport when it comes to full development, at Stansted will employ a good number of people and certainly many more than at present, but I would remind your Lordships that there already is a modest working population there at Stansted, and we think the problems that have been foreshadowed—of a great urban sprawl developing in that area—are, again, much over-estimated.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to say what degree of consideration has been given to the possibility of constructing a complete airport on the Severn-side site, linked as it is to London by the motorway and the high-speed railway?


Yes, my Lords. That project was considered but did not really seem to be an effective solution to the problems of South-East England.

The Earl of SELKIRK

My Lords, may I tell the Minister that I think history will tell us that we have made a very big mistake in not developing Maplin? I appreciate the arguments that have been used and I will not press them. Heathrow today is overcrowded to an extent which positively repels passengers; experienced passengers coming to this country try their utmost to avoid going to Heathrow. I do not know whether this will be resolved by a fourth terminal—I rather doubt it.

I wish to take up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede: I hope London will not be just a staging post for the rest of the country. Is the Minister aware that at present the congestion is caused to a great extent by the fact that everybody must to go London if they want to go anywhere else? I very much hope that will stop. The way to stop that is to have longer-range aviation provision—in other words, routes to the centres in the north (Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow or wherever)—and it is only when one can have direct flights from those places to places abroad, be it America, Europe or Africa, that we will reduce the congestion in London.

Let us face it, Stansted is an unsatisfactory place to arrive at. If one wants to do business in this country where does one want to go? One wants to go to centres of industry, and this comes right into our regional policy—the development of the north part of this country to make access easier, so that people can get to business centres. That can come only by changing the traffic pattern, in other words by getting long-range aircraft from overseas to go to the north, and unless that is done the extreme numbers of people at London's airports will not be resolved.


My Lords, my noble friend is quite right when he says we should be developing our services from aerodromes in the Midlands and the North of England. That was referred to directly in the Statement and is very much part of Government policy.


My Lords, would the Minister agree that this plan will alter the whole face of a very wide, picturesque and peaceful countryside? Would he also agree that accommodation, either in some kind of new town or otherwise, will be needed for at least 40,000 people? In view of the widespread objection there is in many parts of Essex to this proposal, may I ask the noble Lord whether he will arrange for a public inquiry to be held?


My Lords, we would not agree that the disastrous results foreshadowed by many people as a result of this decision will take place; we think the difficulties have been greatly overestimated. As for a public inquiry, as the Statement says, there will be a public inquiry into the second phase of the development of Stanstead, and that will certainly give an opportunity for all local interests to say their piece.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister to say whether Manston airfield in Kent has been used by civil aircraft, and whether it would not be possible to contemplate a complete change of policy between Government and the Service authorities so that wider use might be developed there, because it is very underdeveloped at the present time?


My Lords, Manston aerodrome in Kent is used already to some extent by civil aircraft, but on a comparatively small scale. I cannot say that Manston formed part of our consideration as a solution to the problems of airport capacity in the South-East generally, but it certainly is used at present.


My Lords, may I ask the Minister to clarify one point he made? He said there would be a public inquiry when the second phase was under consideration. When will that be, what will it involve, and will there not be a public inquiry on the proposals that have been outlined to us today?


My Lords, the Statement says: The British Airports Authority will therefore be invited to bring forward proposals for the construction of a single terminal building at Stansted based on the existing runway facilities, capable of handling about 15 million passengers a year. But"— and this is the important part in this connection— it will also be invited to define and apply for the safeguarding of an additional area of up to 2,500 acres, sufficient to provide for a possible second runway and further terminal capacity should this be needed in the 1990s or beyond". Later, the Statement says: These proposals will be examined under appropriate planning procedures which will include a wide-ranging public inquiry and a final decision on them will then be taken". The public inquiry will specifically relate to the second phase of the development.


My Lords, does that mean there will not be a public inquiry prior to Stansted becoming a very much busier airport than it is today?


The noble Lord is correct, my Lords.


My Lords, am I right in understanding my noble friend to say that it will be necessary to acquire an additional 1,500 acres to enlarge the existing runway to carry this extra traffic? Does he really mean for this very major development of Stansted as of now, from a capacity of 4 million to 15 million per annum, he is not proposing to have any public inquiry at all?


May I press the noble Lord on this point, my Lords? My recollection was that there would have to be a public inquiry into the planning application by the British Airports Authority for their proposed development at Stansted.


My Lords, I am sorry to say that I was wrong. The noble Lord is quite right, and I apologise to my noble friend Lord Nugent of Guildford and to the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland.

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