HL Deb 01 April 1981 vol 419 cc277-95

8 46 p.m.

The Earl of Kimberley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will give details of their plans to make Stansted London's third airport.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I raise the question of Stansted assuming that London needs a third airport. So I ask: Is Stansted the right place?—because, first, all possible sites should be considered. It would appear, however, that in the eyes of the British Airports Authority the matter is already a fait accompli, so far as they are concerned. The Department of Transport last month published proposals for linking Stansted airport with the existing trunk road network. In fact, there are strong rumours of the Department of Transport's holding a further inquiry into road links. I believe that any objections to the draft proposals of the Department of Transport have to be in by tomorrow 2nd April. But the inquiry into the BAA's application for expansion permission does not open until 15th September.

So why should people have to object to something which is hypothetical, and which is entirely dependent on a verdict which is still many months away? Further, why should local inhabitants have to fork out, yet again, more money for another inquiry? Stansted has already had two inquiries, both verdicts going against its development, but still costing the opposers a not inconsiderable amount of money. It would therefore appear that the BAA's planning consent hinges entirely on the feasibility of whether a new road scheme can be provided for a through-put of, perhaps, 15 million passengers.

We live in a democracy, and we have today a Government which consistently tell us that one of the main foundations of their policy is fairness. I must ask my noble friend, how could this Government, or any other for that matter, in all honesty ride roughshod over the combined opposition of Essex, Hertfordshire and Cambridge county councils, numerous town councils, numerous district councils and the GLC, as well as vast numbers of other respected organisations and individuals?

I should like to give a few examples of the British Airports Authority's reasons for choosing Stansted. First, they say that the local impact of the airport will be negligible. But from where is the local skilled labour to come without debilitating local industry? The BAA claim that 2,000 local people will be switched to airport jobs, but this implies that local industry is run-down, which it is not—certainly not in that area. They claim that only 6,000 new houses will be needed, but the figure appears much more likely to be 20,000 to 25,000 houses for the necessary labour. Surely, this can only be called urban development, which can only lead to the complete change of the physical, social and environmental character of the area. In fact, last year the Secretary of State for the Environment said: We have been losing 30,000 acres of countryside to urban development every year. There is always a temptation to accept the easy option and allow yet more urban sprawl. I, like my predecessor, Peter Walker, intend to ensure that our green belts are protected and preserved".

So far I have mentioned only Phase 1, which will apply to 15 million passengers, and not to Phase 2, which could amount to as many as 50 million passengers. The British Airports Authority wish to acquire compulsorily 1,500 acres of agricultural land to add to the present 900 acres which they already own. But there is little doubt that a further 2,500 acres will eventually he swallowed up to cope with the urban development. The BAA forecast is only 20,000 in employment to deal with 15 million passengers, but Gatwick already employs 15,000 people to cope with just over half that amount of passengers.

We come next to aircraft noise. it is claimed that very few will be adversely affected, but hundreds of thousands of people are forced to suffer persistent noise from take-offs, landings, stacking and over-flying much of Hertfordshire and Essex. You can double glaze a house but your cannot double glaze a garden. The BAA claim that Stansted is the cheap solution and will cost only £400 million, but I believe that this is a "guesstimate". Although I am not a bookmaker, I would lay long odds that £400 million is nowhere near what the figure will eventually come to.

On 12th February of this year it was reported that in December 1980 traffic at Stansted had slumped by 50 per cent. from the previous December. The BAA said that this was due to bad weather, but all last year the traffic was down approximately 37 per cent. Further, what is not at all clear is how the BAA are going to persuade the airlines to use Stansted. They did not succeed very well in trying to make Iberia go to Gatwick. The high handling charges at Heathrow do not seem to have deterred the airlines from using Heathrow.

So can we consider some alternatives? Perhaps there could be an extra runway at Gatwick. Or there is Maplin or Severnside, upon which I believe that my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery is going to speak. My last suggestion is to make fuller use of Heathrow, which is probably the best for the following reasons. First, Heathrow could nearly double its present capacity by increased terminal efficiency. Secondly, a fifth terminal could be built. This would not increase flight operations above the Government's present limit. The objection to the fifth terminal has always been the Perry Oaks sludge works, but I am given to understand that the Thames Water Authority have now indicated that they would be happy to co-operate over moving these works. Lastly, British Airways and other airlines would favour this solution because it makes sound commercial sense to them.

May I now mention one or two points which may well prejudice the September inquiry and which I maintain need assurance—if not immediately, fairly soon—and some action by the Government. The first is the lack of contingency planning. The BAA have publicly stated that no other plans are being considered if their Stansted proposals fail. On the face of it, it would appear that the Government reflect this attitude. Secondly, the inquiry should be considered entirely on merit; but it appears to be likely that the Government, through the BAA, may well pressurise the inspector by declaring that there are no—I repeat, no—other options available within the time scale. Should this be the case, the whole inquiry becomes a farce, a mockery, or a charade. Third, there are, as I have mentioned, two phases. The first phase is for one runway for 15 million passengers. The second phase is for a second runway, with a potential for 50 million passengers. This was contained in a ministerial statement in December 1979 and in the British Airports Authority's statement of case in February 1980.

I maintain that the way in which these proposals have been and are being presented are two-faced. First, if the Government genuinely believe that there are real doubts over the demand in the 1990s, then there is a strong case for meeting the shortfall from expanding Heathrow and the regions. Within this context, Stansted may have a role to play, but it should be treated no differently from other airports. In other words, a ceiling on capacity should be legislated, while the next few years should be utilised to produce a comprehensive national airports policy.

Secondly, if it is only the rate of growth which is in question, then the issue before the public inquiry must be an analysis of the total project—that is, 50 million passengers and two runways. The BAA should be instructed to produce detailed forecasts as to the impact this will have on Stansted. Few people realise that, even with 15 million passengers, Stansted will be equal second in airport size in Europe—the same as Frankfurt which today has 14.9 million passengers. Should it grow to 50 million, it will equal the present size of O'Hare Airport in Chicago which is the largest and busiest airport in the world.

So there appears to be a deliberate playing down of the proposed expansion, which is aimed at confusing the issue, as if Phase I should go through, Phase 2 will automatically go through, since there would be no time or desire to provide an alternative site. Therefore all the participants at the inquiry must direct their arguments and reasons as to why Stansted is the best site on which to establish the world's largest airport.

It also seems to me to be extraordinary that before the inquiry even starts the compulsory purchase orders for land have been issued, although these will not be confirmed until the result is known. I believe that these orders have the support of the Government who can argue that this policy enables property owners to escape actual or possible planning blight. But it also enables the BAA to use the land acquisition case as supporting evidence at the inquiry in favour of its planning application. It would indeed be very encouraging and show a sense of fair play if Her Majesty's Government would give an assurance that if Stansted's expansion is not allowed as a result of the inquiry, the BAA will be instructed forthwith to sell all the land back to the public. This small gesture might give a little confidence that at some time in the future new proposals will not be put forward which would not have the added advantage that the BAA owned the necessary additional land upon which to expand Stansted.

The cost of opposing Stansted is grossly unfair to the opposers. The first inquiry cost £25,000; the second one £15,000; and the coming inquiry is going to cost £125,000. No contribution is being made by the Government to what is surely now a national matter and no longer a local planning inquiry, no matter what the Secretary of State says. How can the development of Stansted as Europe's No. 2 airport in size, and eventually perhaps the world's largest, be considered a local matter?

I hope that tonight I have raised enough questions. I have no doubt that other noble Lords will raise a few more to make the Government and the BAA think again. Governments have for years refused to grasp the nettle, but I believe that this Government have the courage to show that it can be grasped and that a proper and viable airport policy can be produced. The BAA does not need Stansted as London's No. 3 airport; neither do the inhabitants of Hertfordshire and Essex. I believe that your Lordships' House has played a not inconsiderable part in the last two inquiries in saving Stansted, and I am sure that it will rise to the occasion again.

9 p.m.

Earl Amherst

My Lords, as your Lordships know, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has on more than one occasion given us a very comprehensive account of the Government's airports policy which contained a very significant point: that the basis of this policy is the Government's intention to continue development to meet foreseeable demands. In 1979, I think, the airports advisory committee of the Board of Trade announced as follows: The consequence of trying to limit demand would be to penalise the travelling public and damage future prospects as an island nation dependent on aviation communication to a greater extent than our continental competitors. We consider this to be unacceptable.". This gives strong point to the Government's airports policy and I think was so accepted at the time.

In furtherance of this policy it has been decided, so far as I know, to develop Stansted as the third London airport to a point where it will be able to handle up to 15 million passengers a year and as such take the pressure off both Heathrow and Gatwick. Recently the British Airports Authority published a very detailed and comprehensive description of its plans, supported by plans and diagrams, including exits by road and rail, and a few other things too, which I imagine has Government approval. I have a copy of it here and as your Lordships can see, it is no mean little pamphlet.

It is estimated that the development of Stansted could be completed by 1988, which I think is the same time as the second terminal at Gatwick is to be finished—assuming of course that the respective public inquiries do not turn down either of the projects. Probably the peak of 15 million passengers is based on what is estimated will be the surplus after both Heathrow and Gatwick have reached saturation point. It is hardly conceivable that Stansted by itself could generate such a figure from its own catchment area.

Also the surplus will presumably have been generated by the airlines then using both Gatwick and Heathrow, which in turn must suppose that some services and some airlines will have to be induced to go to Stansted, a point which was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley. This is likely to become a troubled question, as no airline welcomes the prospect of having a split operation or indeed a split operating base. I recently mentioned this in your Lordships' House and the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, was good enough to write to tell me that it is still too early to raise this question. I merely mention it tonight to remind us of a vexed problem that I do not think will go away.

In his Unstarred Question, the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, asked for details of the Government's plans for Stansted. I would ask whether there are, or have been, any changes in the policy which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has explained to us on several occasions, and whether there is any modification or change on this occasion in the detailed plans published by the airports authority. The noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, also mentioned that the airports authority was issuing compulsory powers for the purchase of land which it may require for the development of Stansted. If this is true it may well be that the authority has good reasons for doing so, such as the judgment that commercially this is the right time to acquire the land.

But, my Lords, there is to be a public inquiry which I am told is to start next September. I think an obvious question is, what will happen if the inquiry brings in a finding against proceeding with this scheme? Will the authority then have to sell this land and will it and the Government look elsewhere than Stansted for a third London airport? Or would it disregard the finding and go ahead, which I should hardly have thought it was able to do?

9.4 p.m.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, I must declare an interest in that the joint leader of the last two battles against the Government at Stansted was Sir Roger Hawkey; he was my wife's stepfather, but sadly he is now no longer with us.

I have known this problem from the beginning, from the time when Stansted runway was increased in length by kind permission of the Americans, who required it as a standby airfield, and from the beginning there has apparently been in Government circles a determination for this to be the third London airport. As we were told by my noble friend Lord Kimberley, and as the Government will know well, there have been two major inquiries, both of which turned it down and I remember very well my stepfather-in-law, after the first one was turned down and the second one came up, saying, "When will they ever give in? Is there no sense of fairness? How does this work? How can the ordinary citizen conduct a defence of his land and produce great evidence which convinces Government-appointed inquiries that it is the wrong place and it should go somewhere else, and then they do it again? How can we ever win? How can we, the citizen, ever win against this great machine? "

The civil aviation department of various Ministries—because it has dotted its way around the country ever since 1949 when this all began—has apparently taken its files with it and started afresh just as soon as the matter has died down. It has conned Labour Governments into supporting it; it has conned Conservative Governments into supporting it. I say "conned" because how do you win as a citizen against this sort of power? Now it is even more mean because there is to be an inquiry and yet the actions are already taking place as though the inquiry was not going to be held. It is disgraceful. It is disgraceful behaviour. It is on a par with the Crichel Down affair, which led to trouble with an earlier Conservative Government. It is malpractice by central authority.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I wonder who my noble friend is accusing of malpractice? Can my noble friend be specific on that?

Lord Mottistone

Yes, my Lords. I am accusing of malpractice central Government and their advisers and their files. How can the common citizen win? And as for the practice of allowing the British Airports Authority to go ahead and take actions as though there was not to be an inquiry, which my noble friend spelled out, that seems to me to be absolutely unprincipled.

My noble friend on the Front Bench was asked whether he would confirm—and I hope he will—that in the event of the inquiry going against the Government (though no doubt they think the cards are so stacked this time that it will not, but they thought that twice before) the status quo would be restored? We are talking about valuable farmland. We are talking about an airfield which the Government themselves have said may not be needed. We are talking about an airfield which is incredibly difficult to get to either by rail or by road from Central London. We are talking about an airfield that, if it is to be approached, will entail great numbers of houses being pulled down on the approach roads up to the base of the M.11 in order to enable people to get in and out. We are talking about one that is totally unsuitable, which has been turned down by two public inquiries. When does it come to an end? Is there no respect for the public inquiries that have taken place, just because the officials go on coming up with their files?

The only fair way would be to say that whenever a public inquiry wins against the Government the files should be destroyed so that they cannot refer back and use them all over again. That would be the only fair way of doing it, but I cannot expect that to happen. I hope my noble friend will be able to give us, first, an assurance that if the inquiry goes against them any action taken between now and then will be reversed so that the original state is restored, and, secondly, if, in the event, the inquiry goes against them for the third time, that will be the end of it.

9.10 p.m.

The Earl of Lindsey and Abingdon

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Kimberley for putting down this Unstarted Question on London's third airport. What prompted me to speak tonight was a recollection of a debate we had in your Lordships' House in December 1967. Of the 30-odd speakers in that debate, I think I am right in saying that the only speaker tonight, other than myself, who also took part in that debate was my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, who will be answering this debate for the Government. This, if I may say so, may turn out to be appropriate, as, reading through some of the speeches made on that occasion, the noble Lord's voice was, anyhow from these Benches, a lone cry in the wilderness to have the third London airport situated at Stansted.

Probably the most effective speech made on that day was the shortest, and it came from the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, towards the end of the debate. In answer to the noble Earl, Lord Buckinghamshire—who, though supporting the Government, asked for safeguards for Southend airport should Stansted be expanded—the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, said the following: My Lords, I would just add one sentence to what the noble Earl has said. This has been a devastating debate. I think the Government must revise their views and stop this Stansted business altogether. In the whole of my Parliamentary life I have never heard a more devastating debate than this has been. It has been 'murder'".—[Official Report; 11/12/67; col. 970.] My Lords, I trust that we can spare my noble friend on the Front Bench that embarrassment tonight.

Is time really running out, as was estimated by the Government back in 1967, that there was not really time for a public inquiry, because by 1973 there would be an increase of 14,000 aircraft movements a year, which one runway at Stansted could cope with but only if the 14,000 movements actually went to Stansted? I quote from the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, who was answering for the Government on that occasion.

What, in fact, did happen? If they did not go to Stansted where did they go—and for that matter all the other increases since that time? The authority seem hellbent on continuing to pursue their determination to have the third London airport at Stansted. As my noble friend Lord Kimberley has already said, the British Airports Authority are buying up land in the area with this in mind. I would like to echo his request that, should the new public inquiry that the Secretary of State for the Environment has initiated for later this year go against the decision to have the airport at Stansted, the public will have the right to buy this land back, as it is extremely valuable agricultural land. Or are the British Airports Authority going in for farming as a secondary occupation?

The terms of reference given by the Secretary of State for this third public inquiry are pretty broad, and with all the local preservation societies, the Essex County Council, the Hertfordshire County Council, the Cambridge County Council, practically the whole of East Anglia will voice their objection to this plan yet again. Will the Government honestly not consider expanding airports elsewhere which are now in just as easy reach of London, such as Birmingham, and which have much better direct rail and road communications with London and, for that matter, the rest of the United Kingdom? It seems to me that the British Airports Authority is determined to have a monopoly in the South-East of England. In the brochure which it hands out to passengers—Airport Information—the opening remarks are as follows: The British Airports Authority is a national enterprise set up by the Government in 1965. It owns and manages seven airports in the United Kingdom: Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted in the London area; Glasgow, Edinburgh, Prestwick and Aberdeen in Scotland. These airports handle 76 per cent. of all passengers and 89 per cent. of all cargo in the United Kingdom". To sum up, I feel—and I am sure that the great majority of the people of this country feel—that there is a vested interest here and a very powerful lobby somewhere behind the scenes which seems to have a devastating effect and to go against all public opinion and public inquiries, whichever Government happen to be in power at the time. I ask the noble Lord when he replies to give an honest and straightforward answer to what is behind all this.

9.16 p.m.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, my noble noble friend Lord Kimberley has done well to ask this question of Her Majesty's Government, and I doubt whether he is so sanguine as to expect, when my noble friend comes to reply, anything quite so definite as what might be described as plans for Stansted. If the Government have plans, even if they are only contingency plans—which I hope they are—that would be a startling new departure in the aviation business, for I do not personally believe that any Government have ever had plans for any airport before and much less a co-ordinated plan for a whole group of airports.

If that judgment seems to err on the side of scepticism I would refer your Lordships to the British Airports Authority's statement of case—the little volume to which my noble friend Lord Amherst referred—for the forthcoming inquiry into the Stansted expansion. One of the source documents is the Report of an Inquiry into the proposed development of Gatwick Airport conducted by Sir Colin Campbell in 1954, Cmnd. 9215. If noble Lords wonder why I go back as far as that in a debate on the possible development of Stansted, I think that my reasons will emerge in a moment. For some reason this particular document is by no means easy to come by, but I have managed to acquire with some difficulty one-and-a-half photocopies.

I am interested in two particular parts of it, apart from the fact that it found Gatwick a suitable site to serve as the main alternative airport for diversions from Heathrow. The first of those two matters has to do with the history of Government attitudes to Gatwick between 1946 and 1954. Here I shall be coming pretty close to the remarks made by noble friend Lord Mottistone. What he had to say was strong stuff, but none too strong in my opinion.

Referring to this report, it states that various things have emerged from the evidence that was presented to the inquiry and I shall enumerate some of them. In 1946 the Government decided to limit the use of Gatwick to charter and private flying. In 1947 they ordered the development of a new town at Crawley, close to Gatwick Airport, and later in the same year the extension of use of Gatwick again came up for examination by the Ministry of Civil Aviation, when it was opposed very strongly by the Crawley Development Corporation, and the Ministry decided: 'to drop all idea of developing Gatwick for scheduled services', but expressed the hope that it would be kept open for private and charter flying". I know that this is not unfamiliar stuff.

In March, and again in June 1949, the Government announced that it was not their intention to develop Gatwick. In 1950 there were more proposals and nothing was done. In 1951 the Minister of Civil Aviation told the House of Commons that consideration was being given to help the development of Gatwick as a bad-weather alternative for London Airport and as a base for some transport activities. In 1952 the Minister announced that the Government had decided to develop Gatwick as an alternative to London Airport. In 1953 the Minister reaffirmed the Government's decision to develop Gatwick as the main alternative for London Airport, and so on. One undertaking after another was discarded, forgotten and brushed aside.

Now we pass to remarks made by Sir Colin Campbell himself in the report. He said: I heard strong complaints from the Surrey County Council, who are the Planning Authority for the Gatwick Area … that they had been treated by the Ministry of Civil Aviation with scant courtesy whilst the future user of Gatwick had been under consideration, and that the Ministry had completely ignored the procedure for consultation between Government Departments and local Planning Authorities which had been laid down by your Department",— that is, the Department of Housing and Local Government. I jump to paragraph 10 on page 4 of the report: The County Council also protested to me in strong terms that the intention now to proceed with these proposals involved a breach of ' solemn Government assurances', given in 1946, 1947 and 1949 that Gatwick was to be used in future only in a minor degree". That is the history of what happened at Gatwick. It is far enough back for it not to be all that topical at the moment. But it reinforces what my noble friend said when it comes to consideration of the way in which Governments have behaved—and I speak of Governments in the plural, or, if you like, Government in the singular but with a capital G. But no particular Government are involved in this; the odium falls upon the lot.

The second respect in which I am particularly interested in this report has to do with labour forecasts. As this kind of forecasting is quite likely to turn up again in the brief of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, it may be as well to have a look at the history of some former forecasts to see how accurate Government forecasting in this kind of area can be. I know that the noble Lord will not maintain, for he has declined to do so in the past, that forecasting is an accurate science in this kind of case, but we will find that it is not altogether accurate.

In those far-off days in 1954 two stages of development were envisaged for Gatwick. Stage I was for a single runway, which is what we now have, which was to be put into effect straight away. Stage 2—which was not planned at the time and which, as far as I know, is not being planned now, either—provided for a second runway and a third, shorter, subsidiary runway between the other two. When this report was published—and the figures that I am about to give your Lordships are taken from the report itself—the working population at the aerodrome (which is the word that was used in those days and which has a nice old-fashioned ring about it) was about 570. With Stage 1, which, remember, is the one-runway stage, it was expected to grow to approximately 1,150, or about double. According to the British Airports Authority's annual reports, it had in fact grown by 1977–78 to 13,223, or 11½ times the forecast. Thus we have an error of more than 1,000 per cent. If we bring the figures up to date, we find that the Gatwick employment figure for 1979–80 is 15,187 or 13 times the forecast, and still with only one runway. We must remember that the report envisaged three runways and a workforce of only 2,000, which is between one-seventh and one-eighth of what we actually have with only one runway. That is Government forecasting in the airport planning field. I do not know of any reason to suppose that Government forecasting has got any better, or is likely to, than it was then.

Will it be said that nothing like this is to be expected at Stansted? That we know now what the limits of expansion are? We could not have foreseen in those far off days what was going to happen at Gatwick, but now we can. We know that aeroplanes cannot get any bigger. We know that they are limited by the size of the runways. There are all kinds of factors that may be adduced to say that the number of passengers, which is the crucial figure, cannot greatly increase. That is not actually being said, but it might be postulated that there are limits to the growth of an airport, to the growth of the employment force and the number of passengers.

This would disregard the fact that nobody knows anything about what aviation is going to be like in 20 years' time. Government planning does not look beyond 1990 anyway. When we look further ahead to, say, 2000, there may be whole new forms of power to drive aeroplanes, and the aeroplane engines might be smaller and lighter, and we may have short and vertical take-off. There is no known foreseeable limit to the expansion that can take place with the advance in technology of one kind and another. The truth is that any numerical forecast that may or may not be given is bound to be unreliable. Government after Government have failed to grasp the London Airport nettle until it is too late: too late to avoid yet another unplanned, half-baked, unco-ordinated environmental calamity.

Moreover, when by their own failures and those of their predecessors they are at last forced to act, they are inescapably committed to a betrayal of any or all former undertakings that they may have made, or that may have been made by their predecessors. It is time that the nation said, "We have had enough of this. It is time to stop it; "and to say so firmly and clearly. In saying that it is saying in fact: "Put this airport, if you must build one, as nearly as possible in the sea." This in its turn means putting it either at Maplin or at Severnside. I see from this morning's paper that the Maplin project is not quite dead, although I do not think it is really going to come to life again. I think in any case that Severnside is a better bet, and probably the best and only bet that it is open to us.

I am not concerned at this moment, my noble friend may be relieved to hear, with plugging the Severnside idea. But on 18th February last, in the debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Glenkinglas on civil aviation, I asked my noble friend Lord Trefgarne certain questions concerning road and railway crossings of the Severn Estuary, and the probable cost thereof. He has been good enough to write to me in reply. I hope he will not mind my saying that a written letter which comes only to the eye of the recipient is by no means the same thing as, and is no substitute for, an oral reply given in debate, and published in Hansard for the world to read. One of the things my noble friend told me is that he understands that the Severn railway tunnel is not adequate, or is not capable of taking the amount of extra traffic that a major airport would generate. I refer, of course, to high speed trains.

I have reason to suspect that he may be mistaken over that. I now ask him to provide me at the end of this debate with a factual answer to this question: I should like to know the capacity through the tunnel; and its possible shortfall, or the likelihood of its taking as many trains as would be required. I should like a factual answer, and not a statement of what the noble Lord is given to understand. It is a reasonable question. Either his officials or he must know the answer by now, or he could not have given his answer in this letter. His understanding must have been based on something. If he does not know—which is not what I expect to learn—this will be tantamount to saying that nobody in the Government has yet bothered to find out. Nobody has bothered to find out whether or not there is at Severnside the true solution to the problem of a third London airport, which I contend there is, and the true solution of the problem facing and brooding over the unfortunate people of Stansted.

It is time the Government faced that and it is time we insisted that they do so, and stopped the present sort of thing—I pause because I fear I might make a remark which I should regret—which can be summed up by an adjective which would accord only too well with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Mottistone. People do not want airports anywhere near them. There is one exception, the people of Gwent, and they and the county and district councils are clammering to have it there.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Denington

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Kimberley, for bringing the matter of the third London airport before your Lordships again, and at least the Government will now be aware of how strongly some of your Lordships feel on this issue of putting the airport at Stansted. Those feelings are obviously very strong and in my view the suspicions that have been voiced are fully justified. It is not good for Government that such suspicions should exist in people's minds—I say that because I feel that such suspicions do not exist in the minds of noble Lords alone—because such a state of affairs is not good for relationships between the Government and the governed.

I could not go all the way with a great deal of what has been said. I wish I could. It is out of the question that we should try to push any more traffic on to London Airport. A fifth terminal, the movement of the sewage works and so on is not on there. In any event, it would be a very long-term project and it is not feasible. The people of London suffer too much already from the traffic at London Airport. If you live in West London it is almost intolerable. You must go outside sometimes, and you cannot double glaze a garden. In the summer, when the traffic is at its height, you can hardly finish a sentence if you are in the garden talking to friends. As one aeroplane flying quite low goes by, another is already in sight making its way across. We cannot tolerate any more.

I agree entirely with those who say that Stansted is the wrong place, but—and I fear there are many "buts" that must be faced—one must consider all the other matters. My experience before coming to your Lordships' House was 30 years in local government. That trained me to set my altruism against what was possible. What I promised in the council chamber at County Hall I had to undertake, and I had to face the consequences of what I said. It is an unkind and difficult discipline to have to accept, but it is a very necessary one and I accepted it. Politics, as we know, is the art of the possible, and what is possible at one point in time is not possible at another, and that is part of the story that brings us to Stansted. As a nation we have got ourselves into a difficult, really unacceptable, position, but I fear we shall be forced to accept it.

Timing is very important in this matter. The saga of the location of London's third airport has gone on for over 20 years. At the end of the first 10 years (from 1961 to 1971) we had come to accept Maplin. Very well, fine! Another 10 years on we find that there has been no action, nothing has been done, and I believe that what was possible 10 years ago is now not possible unless there is an enormous change of heart. Even then we should have to do something in the interim, because we cannot further expand London's existing airports. I shall come to the question of Severnside a little later. So in my view we are now in a very difficult position. It is all a very sorry story.

I do not know what has happened to this country since 1945. We seem to find it very difficult to think on a big scale, and even if we do, the nation, no matter which Government are in power, seems to suffer from paralysis when it comes to the will to carry out a project once we have made up our minds. That applies whether the project is a major airport, such as we are discussing this evening, or perhaps the Channel Tunnel. That is another example of waffling, never getting on with the job, never making up our minds.

Yet another example, on a smaller scale, is the M.25 motorway around London. It is far from being completed. I was a member of the South-East Economic Planning Council. It was a great pity that the Government, in their enthusiasm, abolished that particular Quango. In the planning council we went into all the questions of airports, the motorway, and all the rest. The M.25 was pressed upon the Government as requiring absolute priority. We were assured that it had absolute priority. We were assured that it would be in hand by 1978, and that it would be finished by 1980. The matter went on and on, and now in 1981 many sections of the motorway are still missing, making a nonsense of much of the expenditure already incurred. Yet the M.25 remains as urgent as ever.

I do not know what is the matter with us. Sometimes I wonder whether we let our love of democracy strangle us. It seems that if at a public inquiry enough people shout loud enough, and an adequate number of professional objectors are brought in, the inquiry can be closed down. We lose all sight of the needs of the nation, we go like snails and hide away. It is always very difficult to make judgments between local interests, about which people rightly feel passionate, and the needs of the nation as a whole. It is very difficult to strike a balance, and it seems that we have not got it right. We seem to shrink from trying to achieve that.

When we discuss projects such as airports we look at the costs involved and we shake our heads. The costs are bound to be terribly high, but surely in such matters we must behave like a housewife, like a family. If one is faced with heavy expenditure on something that is necessary and desirable, one makes savings on other things. So we should not always terrify ourselves by thinking about the cost of things. We really give up and we do not try enough until, at last, we are driven by circumstances to act. Then, having delayed too long to achieve the best, we find ourselves driven to accepting the very thing that we detest. I think that is the position this nation has got itself into now—and both Governments have been involved in this story.

As far as I am concerned, there are only two possibilities now. One is Stansted and the other, if we wished it as a nation, is still Maplin. It was interesting that only one noble Lord mentioned Maplin. It is not dead; it will not lie down; it will come up for sure at the Stansted inquiry. When I was on the South-East Economic Planning Council, to which I have already referred, we went into it all in great detail. We visited airports; we considered at great lengths all the regional airports—Severnside—and what might be done, the costs, the time lag on them, what was possible and what was not. It really did not get us very far. I remember that I think we said that the co-ordination of operations at Birmingham and the East Midlands Airport could perhaps take another million passengers; but, really, it did not solve the problem at all.

I remember going into Severnside. Of course, Severnside is hardly the London region. I think it is about 120 miles away, if I remember. I remember also going into the question of the crossing of the Severn, the capacity of the tunnel and of the bridge, and that they would not be adequate; and, indeed, we went into the question of the railway and so on. So I know the feeling about Severnside, and it was pressed on us very strongly, but I do not think Severnside is the answer.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Baroness would allow me to intervene and add a footnote to what she has just said about distance. I think the argument in favour of Severnside includes the fact that its distance from London is not 120 miles but about an hour and 20 minutes by high-speed train. We have 120-miles-an-hour trains, and it is a journey of about an hour and 20 minutes. If immigration and customs procedures are carried out on the train, the actual time involved (which is what matters, not miles) is about the same as from Gatwick.

Baroness Denington

My Lords, I am delighted to have the correction. My notes, which I looked up, said "120m", and I interpreted it as miles and not minutes. But that does not get over the problem of the capacity of the river crossing.

The Earl of Cork and Orrery

My Lords, it is miles, and it is an hour and 20 minutes.

Baroness Denington

It is both! My "m" stands for both; I will remember. But I think it does not get over the problems of Severnside. One might hope that it did, although I do not know what the people living in that region might say. I dare say they might take another view of it. When one went into all the alternative sites in the South-East, there really was none that came up as good as Stansted. I say "as good as Stansted" because, after all, it is already an airport. It has a two-mile runway, and there is the M.11. Whoever built that, whatever "boffin" persuaded whatever Government to build it, it is built and it is now money spent. It is not now a new expense on a new airport. So all these things count in favour of Stansted Airport. I must say that the first time my husband and I drove up the M.11 we both laughed and said, "They were always determined to have Stansted, weren't they?" Because it is so unused, you do not see another car on it when you drive on it.

I could wish—indeed, I really do passionately wish—that we had the ability as a nation to go back to Maplin. It really is the right answer. The number of people who would be disturbed by noise is minimal. I think the figure given in the books officially is 100 people. You cannot oppose Maplin except on expense grounds and except on the construction time-scale. I do not know whether that is now estimated to be 17 years or 18 years. I do not know whether the expenditure for Maplin is put down at one billion pounds or what. Figures are given sometimes of £900,000, sometimes of £1 billion. Sometimes Stansted is said to be going to cost £385 million, sometimes £400 million or £450 million. The whole of this area is so imprecise and so absurd that one can only look at it broadly.

Now we have to come down to make a decision. The advisory committee report and the study group report of December 1979 have both said that we must now make a clear and rapid decision. That was 15 months ago; and the inquiry into Stansted does not take place until next October. There is the question of forecasts, improbabilities, mistakes, how reliable they are; all this has been raised.

We can say that we do not accept the forecasts; that they are probably a long way out in either direction Nevertheless, I do not think we can take the line that we shall not attempt to meet the seen need somewhere; because there is going to be a need I am sure, particularly if the economy makes the upturn that we all hope for. There is the tourist industry and I think we must now hope that the tourist industry will flourish. I can remember the time when one used to take a poor view of certain countries in Europe that were dependent upon the tourist industry. But we are very dependent now in a lot of ways on the tourist industry. Let us not forget it; let us recognise it and foster it.

I do not think we can possibly act responsibily and at the same time gamble on there being less air traffic because of the shortage of oil and so on. We cannot take the gamble that there will be fewer people or less freight. We have prevaricated for too long. I say again we must make a decision.

The question is to make the decision between Maplin and Stansted. Having to invest our money in Stansted—as it is perfectly plain we have got to do, at least for the first stage of Stansted—having gone along that road, I cannot see the possibility of going anywhere else—even of going to Maplin; because that is the only alternative and I passionately hope that we could.

As a realist, I cannot say that there is any other answer. If we go to Stansted, I think it will be a very sad thing. To me, it will represent political failure to do the right thing after 20 years of vacillation. But there it is! If we do that—and I have to say that I see no escaping the fact of Stansted becoming the third London Airport—it will be a major development; and it will be at variance with the regional planning of the London region. It will urbanise a vast area of small rural settlements in a delightful soft green countryside; and it will blight thousands of people with noise not only from the air—we tend to think it is only from the air—but from surface traffic and heavy lorries for the freight that will be involved. We shall obliterate a part of England that has been as we know it now for at least the past 1,000 years—a lovely area which I know exceedingly well. On the other hand, an airport at Maplin would have made little change to that particular part of south Essex.

My Lords, we had as a nation the opportunity to make the right decision. We failed to take it. I fear that we are going to stand condemned now and in the future by all those who care about the quality of life.

9.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, may I first congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Denington, on what I believe is her first intervention from the Dispatch Box opposite. She will, I am certain, intervene again soon and often on matters like this. I cannot think that this will be the last occasion on which we shall debate these matters.

The Question posed by my noble friend causes me some difficulty because, as your Lordships will know, the British Airports Authority's application for planning permission to expand the facilities at Stansted airport is to be the subject of a public inquiry. The decision on whether the authority should be allowed to proceed will be taken jointly by my right honourable friends the Secretaries of State for Trade and for the Environment. They will be acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. In view of this and of my position as the Minister responsible for civil aviation, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the merits of the BAA's plans for Stansted or on any of the issues raised tonight which are likely to be examined at the inquiry. To do so may prejudice the very purpose for which the inquiry has been set up. I trust therefore that your Lordships will forgive me if I appear to be less forthcoming than I would wish in answering the points they have raised, but I shall nevertheless try and be as helpful as I possibly can in the circumstances, and bring your Lordships up-to-date with developments.

First, I should like to remind your Lordships of the Government's policy with regard to the provision of airports capacity. On 17th December 1979 my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Trade explained in a Statement in another place, which I repeated to your Lordships on the same day, that on the basis of the most recent forecasts available to the Government, the existing and planned capacity of the four London airports, Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton and Stansted, would be insufficient to meet the demand by the late 1980s; that the Government believed the demand should be met as it developed; and that, in view of the uncertainty inherent in forecasting and the massive expenditure involved in developing a new airport on a greenfield or coastal site, the Government have concluded on the evidence before them that the most sensible solution was to expand the facilities at Stansted airport. This could be achieved without undue delay; it would involve the minimum initial expenditure, and leave future Governments with the maximum degree of flexibility to respond to the growth in demand.

I want to stress the need for flexibility because the developments envisaged by the Government contrast sharply—I emphasise that—with the earlier Stansted proposals of the mid-1960s and the Roskill Commission's proposals some 10 years ago for a massive four-runway airport capable of handling more than 100 million passengers a year. The days of the white elephant are now behind us. The optimistic traffic expectations of the 'sixties and early ' seventies have not materialised, and technological developments such as the introduction of larger, quieter, aircraft have enabled us to make better use of our existing airport resources and, at the same time, to limit their environmental impact on the surroundings.

We have drawn the lesson from the experience of the past decade and rejected the idea of a massive third London Airport in favour of incremental growth and flexibility, because we cannot know, with any degree of certainty, at what rate traffic will develop in the future. It would be foolish to do nothing, since Heathrow and Gatwick are not capable of unlimited expansion, but it seems sensible to select a site which is already endowed with the basic facilities and which has the potential to be developed incrementally, with investment decisions timed to produce the necessary additional capacity when it is required.

This is the background to the Government's thinking on the London airports which led my right honourable friend to announce in 1979 that the BAA would be invited to bring forward proposals for the provision of a new terminal at Stansted airport, capable of handling 15 million passengers a year, based on the existing single runway facilities. No further development is planned at the present time but the BAA were nevertheless invited to outline the possibilities for additional capacity to be provided at Stansted, should the need arise in the future. I have outlined the Government's approach to the problem, which was very fully debated in your Lordships' House on 14th February last year.

Following the Government's invitation, the BAA submitted an application for planning permission to the local planning authority in July last year. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment called in the application on 2nd December and announced that it would be the subject of a local public inquiry to open on 15th September 1981. The inquiry is expected to examine such issues as the need for development, the suitability of any appropriate alternative solutions which objectors may wish to put forward, the implications of the proposal for employment, urban development, road traffic, public transport, safety, the local environment, existing land uses and agriculture and the possibility of further development beyond 15 million passengers per annum in the longer term.

The BAA have now published their statement of case in preparation for the inquiry. This sets out in detail their expansion proposals, their assessment of the implications and the justification. I know that many noble Lords have already received a copy of this document. The next step will be a pre-inquiry meeting on Monday, 13th April, at Saffron Walden Town Hall, at which the inspector will decide upon a number of important procedural issues concerned with the running of the inquiry and will take suggestions about alternative solutions and sites. The inspector appointed to preside at the inquiry is Mr. Graham Eyre, a QC since 1970 and a recorder of the Crown Court since 1975. He will be assisted by two assessors.

The inquiry will provide all the parties with an interest in the Stansted development with an opportunity to present their views to the inspector and, if they so wish, to suggest alternative sites. When the inquiry is completed, the inspector will draw up his report and recommendations based on the evidence presented to him, and will submit them jointly to my right honourable friends, the Secretaries of State for the Environment and for Trade, for a final decision.

I know that your Lordships will wish to know when such a decision is likely to be reached. This will depend very much on the timing of the inspector's report, which is not a matter over which the Government have any control, but I will hazard a guess that on the basis of experience of other major inquiries the due processes are unlikely to be completed until late 1982 or early 1983. In the BAA's view, if the decision were favourable this would enable the new terminal to open, if necessary, in about 1988.

May I just turn to two points that have been raised this evening, which I will try to deal with as best I can, given the constraints upon me to which I have already referred. Several noble Lords behind me—my noble friends Lord Mottistone, Lord Lindsey, and also I think my noble friend Lord Kimberley—raised the question of the land that is being acquired under the current arrangements, and what would happen to it if the planning procedures resulted in a planning application being turned down.

I would remind your Lordships that the powers to enable the BAA to purchase land outside the area for which they have applied for planning permission were granted by Parliament last year in the Civil Aviation Act. Those powers were taken at the request of the elected Member of Parliament for the area, who was concerned that, otherwise, his constituents' property would be blighted during the lengthy planning inquiry to come. The compulsory purchase orders for the acquisition of land within the area of the planning application itself will not be confirmed until after Ministers have considered the inspector's report.

My noble friend Lord Cork referred once more to the prospect of an airport on Severnside and mentioned, in particular, the question of the capacity of the tunnel under the Severn. As he said, I did, indeed, write to my noble friend on 27th February and I have a copy of the letter in front of me. I am sorry that that letter is not as clear as my noble friend had wished. I will, if my noble friend will allow me, inquire of the relevant persons—namely, the Department of Transport and British Railways Board—as to whether there is any further detailed information which I can give to my noble friend. If I may do that, I will write to him again.

I am sorry that I have been unable to answer all the points which have been raised this evening for the reasons which I explained. But I believe I have gone as far as I can without prejudicing planning procedures. I should like to assure your Lordships, however, that no final decision will be made on this very important issue until the Government have fully considered the inspector's report into the implications of the BAA's planning proposals.

The Earl of Kimberley

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, may I ask him one question? I realise his difficulties tonight about answering my question, and that of my noble friend Lord Mottistone, about whether, if the planning application fails, the British Airports Authority will sell the land back to the public; but can he say when he is likely to be able to give your Lordships' House that assurance?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, this, I think, will be a matter for the British Airports Authority, not for me. But I cannot think that they would want to retain the land if the planning procedures had turned down their application. What earthly good use would they have for a number of farms, which they are currently acquiring in accordance with the established procedures, if they no longer had the use for which they had purchased them? Incidentally, one noble Lord referred to the possibility of the BAA going into the farming business. In fact, under the present arrangements, the farms that they are acquiring are, in every case I think, offered back to the former owners on a lease basis, for them to continue to farm if they so wish until they are required by the BAA for the purpose for which they were originally acquired.