HL Deb 27 February 2001 vol 622 cc1158-74

7.54 p.m.

Lord Rotherwick rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what are their policies on promoting general aviation, including revised planning guidance.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am delighted to be able to speak on general aviation tonight. It is very timely in the light of the two government consultation papers, Noise from Civil Aircraft and The Future of Aviation. I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, and all the other noble Lords who are taking part tonight. I must also declare that I am a fixed-wing pilot, President of the General Aviation Awareness Council and Vice-President of the Popular Flying Association. Finally, I am presently involved with an industry and parliamentary fellowship with BAE Systems.

In broad terms, aviation can be split between commercial and non-commercial flying. General aviation (GA) is generally thought to encompass civil aviation other than the commercial air transport sector. The question is whether general aviation is important. Sir Malcolm Field, Chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority, said in September of last year that, of all the areas of aviation, it is General Aviation which is the most active and varied, with by far the majority of civil aircraft in the UK falling into that category … GA is the springboard for many of the world's commercial pilots and a vital industry in its own right. It is imperative that General Aviation is both successful and safe". The UK commercial airlines operate about 850 aircraft from 23 UK airports. The UK general aviation fleet comprises more than 10,000 aircraft that operate from around 490 airports, aerodromes and private airstrips. Whereas more than 70 per cent of all GA activity has some business or safety purpose, 85 per cent of all seats sold by airlines are for purposes of holiday travel or personal pleasure.

It should be recognised that a lot of effort goes into ensuring that the needs of the airlines and, therefore, the needs of the travelling public are met. As a result, general aviation has paid a heavy price. GA survival depends on access to airports and airspace; unreasonable restrictions on either can be seriously detrimental to the economic and social welfare of the community, both nationally and locally. Yves Lambert, Director General of Eurocontrol, also said in September of last year that, we all know that General Aviation plays a large role in flying circles. The rather loose term covers many important activities. In Europe alone, I believe there are 300,000 pilots flying over 50,000 GA aircraft with an economic impact of some 5.5 billin Euros … GA must be taken seriously. Its needs should be met as far as possible; and its hard-won liberties must not be curtailed".

Private aviation plays an important part in the development and the economy of the UK. If we wish to retain and support it, we must be careful not to confuse different principles like the "user pays" with the "beneficiary pays", as different charging regimes will ultimately impact on the overall flexibility of GA. We are deeply concerned that the escalating costs of operating light aircraft in the UK are pushing flying beyond the reach of our younger generation. The country is in danger of losing its strong pool of qualified pilots and its unique place in the world for pilot training and development. Today, 60 per cent of all pilots joining the airlines come from the club and private flying routes.

The air-mindedness of our youth today has been seriously eroded over the past 10 to 15 years compared to previous generations. It is suggested that this decline is likely to continue. Aviation is ingrained into people from an early age. They often start off as model aircraft builders, going on to enjoy educational flying in the air cadet corps and university air squadrons. They eventually work in aviation, or, like myself, become a home plane builder in the recreational sector.

It is worth noting that, although the UK has less than a handful of commercial plane manufacturers—of which BAE Systems is by far the most important—it also has a successful home-build industry, with many plane kit manufacturers. A good example is the much exported Europa aircraft, which could have been seen hanging in the Dome.

Business aviation includes air taxi operations, in which clients charter whole aircraft, and corporate operations in which a company owns and operates its own aircraft using professional pilots. Business aviation provides industry and commerce with speed and flexibility of operation, which the rigid schedules and time-wasting routines of airline travel deny to those who need to travel quickly, cost-effectively and by the most direct routeing. Many of the world's most profitable companies operate their own aircraft for those reasons. There are well over 200 corporately owned aircraft in the UK. The ability to operate out of a nearby airport may be one of the prerequisites to an international company locating its offices and businesses in a certain area.

There are more than 100 air taxi operators in the UK, not only providing regular charter and ad hoc services for business travellers, but a vital part of the overnight mail, business data transportation services and freight services. A number of Ministers use GA to facilitate their busy and demanding schedules, and so they should. Ministers must surely serve their country more efficiently by making best use of their time. Yet if the infrastructure continues to decline, the flexibility of business aviation will diminish and successful businesses will suffer. Countries such as France and the USA are well aware of this.

GA aircraft are also used for police and ambulance services, aerial photography and survey, pipeline and electricity cable patrols, commercial support to military operations, shipping and fishing patrols, coastguard duty, dispersal of coastal oil slicks and for agricultural purposes, not forgetting the eye in the sky helping to keep our roads on the move in our busy cities. Each day GA touches every one of us in some way.

However, the problems for GA are getting worse. More and more regional airports are using pricing policies that deter the small operator. For example, the use of mandatory handling adds substantially to the overall cost. Yet this was never meant to apply to GA operations. In some cases there is no alternative, because smaller aerodromes are closing or have operating restrictions making them difficult to operate to or from.

The future of Gloucester Airport, Rochester, Kemble and Bicester, to name but a few, is in doubt as they are becoming prime locations for housing. Some will become involved in expensive inquiries such as the South Cambridge inquiry, which will cost the local authority £½ million. Once an aerodrome facility has been lost, it is extremely unlikely that another great open space for an aerodrome will be utilised to replace it. Yet these landing sites are not looked upon as being of importance to the national economy, let alone local economies. Coupled to this, with airspace problems such as the gradual loss of lower airspace radar service (LARS), what we are witnessing is an over-commercialisation of the nation's infrastructure which is becoming beyond the economic means of GA. This is where the need arises for a national policy with regard to the future of general aviation.

As for planning policy guidance, PPG13 is a step in the right direction but, as it is only guidance, local authorities can and do choose to ignore it. The strengthening of PPG13 would give better guidance to local authorities. One hopes it might require them to make statements in their regional and local plans. If one agrees with the argument that airports and airfields are part of our national integrated transport system, perhaps local authorities should be required to follow directions rather than follow the guidance of a strengthened PPG13.

8.4 p.m.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Rotherwick for introducing the debate this evening. As my noble friend mentioned, we know that it is timely because the Government have produced an important consultation paper, The Future of Aviation. I recognise that general aviation is only a small but important part of that exercise but none the less it is relevant. I hope that the noble Lord will regard this evening's debate as part of that consultation process and will take into account the opinions which noble Lords will express in it.

I too am an occasional private pilot although not as distinguished as my noble friends who have spoken and who will speak this evening. It is important to start from the premise that the United Kingdom is a world leader in aviation. It is a world leader in terms of airlines, airports and air traffic control. It has an extremely important aerospace business. Many of the people who are the backbone of those industries have a background of general aviation. My noble friend mentioned the figure of 65 per cent of airline pilots who have come up through what can only be described as a self-improvement route. They may have started flying as a hobby. They have then taken it further and have spent their own money to improve their qualifications. They have spent much of their resources on training themselves to enter a highly skilled job which is productive to the UK economy.

I hope that the Minister will support my argument that there is great benefit to the United Kingdom in having a major pool of highly qualified people who can enter the airlines, the military and air traffic control. I understand that many air traffic controllers are also private pilots. That argument has previously been deployed in the context of shipping. I know that previously the noble Lord has recognised the value of having a highly qualified maritime base. The same points apply to aviation. The UK has been a pioneer of the privatisation and the commercialisation of these industries. These models have been followed across the world, first with airlines and then with airports. I am sure—the noble Lord will be more aware of this than I—that all eyes will be on him, his department, the Civil Aviation Authority and NATS itself, when that privatisation occurs.

We contend that GA is important. It is important as a freedom for people to exercise their right to fly if they are suitably qualified. It is economically important to have people who can join the important industries I mentioned. Business aviation is, of course, vital to companies who need to move their executives around quickly and who have calculated that the use of executive aircraft is vital to their businesses. Certainly when I was in government I received many representations from firms that wished to locate near to London, within or near to the M25 zone, but were having great difficulty in finding premises that were within sufficient striking range of GA facilities which would allow their senior executives to come and go using business aviation. It is easy to misinterpret that point and to talk about "fat cats". However, if we wish to attract investment into this country, we must consider seriously what these executives demand and what they need. Business aviation is an important part of that.

We are seeing some new developments. Financial wags used to say that when the chairman bought an executive jet it was time to fire the chairman. Now I believe that we have passed that point. We now recognise the economic value to corporations of using such aircraft where appropriate. Certainly there are new initiatives such as corporate sharing of aircraft—this is effectively time share—which have made them very much more affordable for corporations. We have also seen the new initiative of Richard Noble's F1 company to develop a whole new range of aircraft to be used in the air taxi field. That is also an exciting initiative.

We are lucky in this country that we have an admirable safety record on GA. However, that is only maintained by having good quality training organisations and extremely efficient safety regulation. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the safety regulation group of the Civil Aviation Authority. That regulator enjoys the confidence of its industry. That is extremely important to any safety regulator. A pragmatic approach has also been taken to the delegation of authority to other bodies such as the Popular Flying Association, the British Microlight Aircraft Association, the British Gliding Association and others. That is a pragmatic approach which I contend has worked.

When pilots exercise the privileges of their licence they must realise that it is their responsibility to strike a balance between their desire to fly and the desire of people living close by to airports to be able to enjoy a quiet existence. Again, the evidence is that pilots take that extremely seriously. They realise that flying is a privilege and that they must do so in a considerate manner. I invite scrutiny, for example, of the aviation press a great deal of which is devoted towards considerate flying. I also draw attention to the technical diagrams or plates which describe the procedures at any particular airfield, most of which will have special noise considerations built into them to make sure that pilots minimise the disturbance that they cause to other people.

As my noble friend Lord Rotherwick mentioned, in a way aviation has been a victim of its own success. We have seen extraordinary growth in the commercial aviation arena and that has in effect displaced GA from some of the larger airfields. It is an ongoing problem that business operators who wish to operate out of Heathrow, for example, find it extremely difficult to get more than very occasional slots.

The planning regime to which my noble friend refers is extremely important. Planning Policy Guidance Note 13—a draft which was put forward in October—recognises that small airports and aerodromes are important; that they serve business, recreational, training and emergency service needs and that as the demand for commercial air transport grows, GA finds access to larger airports increasingly restricted. In formulating their planned policies and proposals the document states, Local authorities should take account of the contribution of GA to local and regional economies; the national need for pilot training; and the benefits of having suitable facilities". I welcome all those sentiments.

I raise the question of whether the sentiments and policies put forward in PPG 13 are being communicated effectively to local planning authorities. I draw the attention of the House to the paper presented by the General Aviation Awareness Council to the Secretary of State for Transport in February 1999. It pointed out that planning applications for aerodromes had a relatively low success rate yet on appeal the success rate was more than twice the national average. I would be interested to know whether the Government recognise and agree with the council's figures and therefore whether they would conclude, as I have done, that perhaps local planning authorities have shown a tendency to make more unsound decisions as regards flying sites than other applications. If there are other explanations of that, this evening would be a good opportunity to discuss them. If that is the case, the next question for the Minister is what action he proposes to take to communicate the guidance more effectively to local planning authorities. I certainly agree that the action already taken to revise the guidance is a step in the right direction.

My noble friend referred to the lower airspace radar service issue in the course of his speech. We had a very quick run around that course when we had a Starred Question on the issue. But it is extraordinarily difficult, as the Minister and his questioners found, to explain a complex issue within the space of a 20 or 30 second Question.

Let it simply be said that a great deal of aviation activity, both commercial and GA, takes place outside controlled air space and that the LARS service is an important aid to safety, particularly when talking about flying on instruments in adverse meteorological conditions. So I caution the Government, the Civil Aviation Authority and the new operators of NATS, when they take over, to look very carefully at the LARS service and not to forget about the major safety benefit that it brings.

I conclude by stressing the argument that general aviation is important. I urge the Minister not to lose sight of that fact when the Government are considering policy initiatives. One frequently reads in the press of very vocal groups who point the finger at GA, but who do not balance the argument by discussing the important benefits which this activity brings. We cannot afford to regulate or price general aviation out of existence.

8.15 p.m.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, in rising to support my noble friend Lord Rotherwick, I have an interest to declare which, I believe, the two preceding speakers have already done, in that I am a private pilot. That is my only interest. I serve no body within private aviation. But I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Rotherwick has been successful in having this matter debated tonight. It is indeed timely in view of the papers which have already been referred to by previous speakers. It is a subject about which my noble friend knows a great deal, as evidenced by the statistics and the information which he so ably gave the House.

Above that, the House perhaps may be interested to know that when he referred to himself as a "home plane builder", I hope that I will not embarrass him when I say that he built an absolutely wonderful light aircraft which he has flown to many parts of the world. In 1997 I was privileged to be part of a wing organised by the air squadron which flew 11 light aircraft to the north-eastern reaches of Pakistan, at the invitation of the Pakistan Air Force, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their independence.

Flying in the Himalayas with a multitude of different aircraft types made for some very interesting and unforgettable moments. Before I detain the House with too many stories, perhaps I may say that I am very relieved that both he and I are back here to tell the tale.

General aviation plays an important part in the economy of our nation. Businessmen need to be able to use this means of transport effectively and this in turn creates investment and prosperity in the regions. This is all the more true today when we have such dreadful traffic congestion on our roads. Any substantial conurbation, I believe, will benefit enormously from having its own regional airport.

With that in mind, I should like to talk briefly about one such airport proposal, which is not very far from where I live. For that reason I declare an interest. I am referring to the proposal to turn RAF Finingley into a regional airport. As noble Lords may know, if it happens it is to become known as Doncaster Airport. Doncaster used to have its own light aviation airport with a grass runway not far from the racecourse. I used it in the past. But about seven years' ago it was closed and the land was developed, which, unfortunately, is something that is happening to too many light aircraft airfields, as has already been mentioned by my noble friend.

In view of the fact that Doncaster lost its airport, I am naturally in favour of the Finingley proposal. I believe that it will bring many benefits to the area, not least in jobs. However, support is not universal, as I understand it. I wonder whether the Minister can tell the House tonight whether there will be a planning enquiry before proceeding or whether it will be allowed to go ahead under local planning rules. I believe that currently there is some uncertainty, which is a bad thing, so perhaps the noble Lord can take this opportunity to clarify the situation.

One of the very important aspects of this particular proposal is traffic planning, the provision of new roads and the upgrading of the existing ones. The A1 trunk road south of the Doncaster A1 (M) section has a notoriously bad stretch between Ranby and Tuxford, some of which is considered so dangerous that a permanent 50 miles per hour speed limit has been imposed on it. It is also an area which is particularly vulnerable to traffic congestion at certain times of the day. I accept that this is slightly wide of the Unstarred Question, but I hope that the Minister will be able to say what plans there are for upgrading this stretch of the A1, which I should have thought was almost sine qua non in the provision of this airport.

My noble friend Lord Rotherwick made some interesting observations, one of which was that costs are pushing flying beyond the reach of our younger generation. As my noble friend Lord Goschen said, 65 per cent of our commercial pilots came up through the private pilot and hobby aviation route. I do not know what the Minister can say to allay that serious problem, but we ought to try to address it if we can.

I fear that regional airports are using pricing policies to deter general aviation. I hope that we can redress that in some way, because light aviation is a vital part of the fabric of our commercial infrastructure. I hope that general aviation will prosper.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's speech. I hope that he will confirm that the Government wish to promote general aviation in this country.

8.21 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, has done us a service by introducing the debate. I have learned a lot from his detailed analysis of general aviation. Some time ago I lived in the United States for several years, where general aviation was a large industry. From what I have learned in the past few days in preparation for today's debate, it seems to be going the same way here as it did there.

Unlike the previous speakers, I am not a pilot—perhaps it is not necessary to make that point. Thinking of what the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool, has just said, I am not sure whether, as a pilot, I would have had a greater or lesser feeling of security when I was skimming the mountainsides in the Andes in a commercial plane. That kind of flying is always frightening, however and whenever you do it.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, gave us good evidence of the importance of general aviation to the air transport industry. It is not just private flying for rich men, but everything from pilot training through freight transfer to crop spraying and air-sea rescue.

The industry has a problem of reduced availability for general aviation. The Government concede in their consultation paper on the future of aviation that the problem can only get worse due to the pressure on airport space. At the same time, local authorities appear to the industry to be unsympathetic to general aviation. Some would say that they are ignorant of its contribution to the economy and over-sensitive to local people's complaints about aircraft noise and fears about increased activity at their local small aerodrome.

The noise from large commercial aircraft has been dealt with pretty successfully over the past 30 years or so via the system of air noise certification, which was forced on the civil servants, politicians and aircraft builders and operators by the strength of public opinion across many countries. I understand that quite a lot could be achieved by the introduction of mufflers or silencers to deal with the noise from smaller aircraft, which can be intensely annoying at a local level. What action could the CAA or the Government take to encourage the use of silencers now and to introduce a system of progressive noise reduction for smaller aircraft similar to that which operates for larger commercial aircraft? That is a different way of controlling aircraft noise from the designation of approach paths or the alignments of flight paths. Those matters seem to be the subject of the consultation paper on the control of noise around aerodromes, which takes no apparent interest in controlling the noise as it comes out of the aeroplane. Those are two different issues.

I do not accept the argument that local authorities ignore planning guidance. There may be an argument that the guidance could re-emphasise the economic value of general aviation, although I do not know enough about that guidance to say. In my experience, local authorities follow planning guidance, particularly when forming their local or strategic plan. They have to do so, or the Secretary of State will not approve the plan.

Furthermore, to pick up a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, if any officer feels that a local elected authority is about to do something that will result in the proposal or plan being rejected at public inquiry, he will certainly tell the elected members so. Because of the extreme expense of going through an unsuccessful planning application procedure, most members will heed a suggestion that they should not do anything that would be likely to result in losing an inquiry.

Nor do I accept the point made in some of the briefing material that small aerodromes are worse placed to contest a planning proposal or put their case to a local planning inquiry than any other small business or individual. Many individuals appear successfully at local planning inquiries or similar occasions and put their views very well. Local planning inquiry judges are very good at ensuring that small organisations and individuals are heard and their points correctly recorded and given their due weight.

I agree that there is a need for a national aviation policy and an airports policy. The noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, encouraged the Minister to take note of today's debate in the context of the current consultation process on the future of aviation, is the Minister minded to construct an airports policy that could guide all those involved in providing airport capacity at any level? Such a policy is badly needed, if only to enable us to cut the time taken by airport development public inquiries. That huge use of time and other resources—I need only mention Terminal 5—is largely the result of having to argue the whole case for or against proposals for change of use or expansion or the creation of a new airport without the benefit of any common ground determined by the Government from which both parties can proceed.

The last area in which there can be conflict is on safety, particularly near major airports. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, about LARS. It is important that whoever is in charge of air traffic control at the end of March—or whenever the new system comes into being—takes into account the importance of making sure that there is an effective method of air traffic control that governs the safety of general aviation, whether in or out of the controlled areas.

8.29 p.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Rotherwick on having introduced this short debate on general aviation. It is not an issue that is debated very often in this House, but in recent months, funnily enough, it has featured occasionally, especially during the passage of the Transport Bill, which the Minister will no doubt remember well.

The term "general aviation" covers both fixed wing aircraft and helicopters operating for a wide variety of purposes including leisure pursuits, gliding, flying training and of course the business aviation sector, which includes air taxis and other means of transport. I was impressed to learn from my noble friend how many aircraft and activities were included in this category in this country.

The users and owners of these types of aircraft share concerns about reduced access to airport facilities and air space, LARS in particular, and the privatisation of National Air Traffic Services (NATS). Heathrow and other major airports for general aviation users are increasingly subject to restrictions. As capacity at peak times is put under more pressure, general aviation is likely to find it more difficult to access larger airports.

The industry is also concerned about the loss of smaller airports to redevelopment and the imposition of conditions of use at other airports that limit their ability to cater for the users' needs.

Planning Policy Guidance Note 13, which has been referred to by a number of speakers this evening, states: Airport development is promoted by developers through the usual planning process, though major schemes will usually be decided by the Secretary of State for the Environment (sometimes jointly with the Secretary of State for Transport) following a public inquiry. I presume that that note was written before the merger of the two departments, because the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Transport are now the same person. We are happy to see the Minister of Transport in the Chamber this evening.

The members of the industry to whom I have spoken are keen that public inquiries should also take place where there is a proposal for the closure of these airports. General aviation, and business transport in particular, rely on access to these airports so that they can provide reliable services.

Much reference has already been made to the subject of planning, and there is no doubt that some local authorities have taken a very anti-general aviation stance during the preparation of local plans, primarily because of the noise that general aviation can cause.

General aviation airports tend to attract pilot training schools, hence there are a large number of small piston-engined aircraft flying repetitive circuit patterns, which can cause disturbance to the public. However, general aviation provides a very important supply of trained pilots for the airlines, as well as the smaller GA (air taxi and charter) operators.

The number of service pilots retiring and available on the civil market has reduced significantly over the last few years, emphasising the importance of civil pilot training. Similarly, new European licensing regulations are tending to increase the cost of training and have resulted in a reduction in GA training activity over the last year. It is very important to the wider industry that training should be allowed to continue.

The DETR circulated a consultation paper on the Control of Noise from Civil Aircraft last year, and the Airport Operators' Association highlighted the concern of smaller airports over proposals to provide local authorities with greater powers over airports and the need to consider the wide variety of size and type of airport throughout the UK. The Government's position is to prefer local noise issues at aerodromes to be addressed at the local level, but this must not be applied in a discriminatory manner that puts GA airports out of business.

I should like to refer briefly to the EU Draft Directive on the Assessment and Management of Environmental COM (2000) 468 final, which the Minister will no doubt have at his fingertips. The Government will need to ensure that this legislation does not conflict with DETR policy and that, once again, the resultant burden does not prove too great for the fragile financial state of many small airport businesses.

The point to be made here is that in order to encourage aircraft operators to fit quiet propellers and exhaust silencing systems, the industry needs as much assistance as possible from the regulatory authorities. There have been cases, for example, where the CAA has refused to accept the certification process carried out in another EU state, and has required full certification in the UK. The considerable extra cost of this process is in addition to the equipment cost and the cost of fitting it to the aircraft, and this acts as a significant deterrent to the aircraft owner or operator.

Regulation No. 3922/91 states in one of its articles that where a product has been approved in one or more JAA member states, it should be automatically accepted in another JAA member state, without the need for further additional certification or administration. That is the kind of small point that would make life for general aviation operators rather easier.

Recently, we have seen, as a result of the chaos on the railways, an increasingly large number of movements of air taxis and helicopters. As I understand it, the London Heliport at Battersea now caters for over 11,000 movements a year. Can the Minister therefore tell noble Lords what the Government are doing to improve and preserve the access of air taxis and helicopters to well-placed airports?

Another concern is the public/private partnership of NATS. We have been over this ground on several occasions, including earlier this afternoon. As we are all well aware, the Ministry is due to report back to the House within a short space of time on what has happened during the last three months. I think the Minister stated earlier that the subject of general aviation would be included within the overall context of the PPP. Can the Minister therefore say what meetings he or his colleagues have had with representatives from the general aviation community during this period, and give an insight into the reassurances he has been able to give general aviation about the concerns that have been so well expressed by my noble friends on this issue this evening?

We are all well aware that in Europe there is a great move towards the creation of a single European sky, and according to reports that I have received, this is going full steam ahead. My final question, therefore, is this: can the Minster reassure noble Lords that during discussions about the single European sky the Government have taken on board the concerns of general aviation in that area?

I look forward to the Minister's reply.

8.39 p.m.

Lord Macdonald of Tradeston

My Lords, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, for initiating the debate. I welcome the opportunity to share what the Government are doing to promote general aviation, and to address the hopes and concerns that have been expressed during the debate.

The Government will do all that they can to promote every area of the UK aviation industry, from our major international carriers to our smaller enterprises. The UK aviation industry leads the way, thanks to the innovation and competitiveness of its aviation companies.

Our aim, as Government, must be to create an environment that allows our aviation innovators to continue their excellent work and to foster growth in this area as far as possible. The contribution to this success made by the general aviation industry in all its guises is not to be underestimated. We will seek to continue to support general aviation and we will also ensure that the very specific needs of this industry are not overlooked. We will do that when we come to implement our general policy aims in the aviation and transport sectors.

However, in order to do so, we need to have in mind that the term "general aviation" covers a number of activities, including flying, training, leisure flying by private individuals and the use of air taxis. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, for his detailed description of the various aspects of the general aviation sector and for highlighting so clearly that each aspect has differing needs and priorities.

Although the activities covered under the heading of "general aviation" are extremely diverse, the combined contribution that general aviation makes is significant in economic terms and also in other ways, such as providing, as has been emphasised tonight, a source of pilots for the aviation sector as a whole. General aviation is also a source of pleasure for the pilots who use more than 8,000 general aviation aircraft in the UK and who are entitled to enjoy their right to fly. Of course, they must do so in a balanced way which takes into account the rights of those who live near aerodromes.

Although I said that general aviation covers a wide range of activities, the Government will consider the needs of the general aviation industry as a whole and will take those needs into account when shaping aviation policy. We shall not act without first seeking the views of those who are most likely to be affected by our actions.

We have undertaken to introduce an air transport White Paper in order to prepare UK aviation policy 30 years ahead. It is essential that we get that right. We have issued a consultation document so that all the main parties can consider the issues and put forward their views. I look forward to receiving comments from the general aviation industry which should express the detail of the industry's needs and aspirations for the future.

I am aware that a good start has been made and that the general aviation voice was heard loud and clear at the recent seminar which we organised to discuss responses to the consultation document. I hope that the comments received from those working in general aviation will cover many of the issues raised today. Although this debate is perhaps not timely in that we currently await comments on the air transport consultation document, I shall try to specify why current policies are as they are and what they do to promote general aviation.

I note from the title of today's debate, and from some of the interventions made, that planning is at the forefront of the minds of noble Lords and of our general aviation industry. Therefore, it may be helpful if I explain briefly the general rules and procedures which govern the planning system.

We have a "plan-led" planning system. The general principles are contained in Planning Policy Guidance Note 1—General Policy and Principles. That document explains that, where the adopted or approved development plan for the area contains relevant policies, planning applications must be determined in accordance with the local plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise. On the other hand, applications which are not in accordance with relevant policies in the plan should not be allowed unless material considerations justify granting a planning permission.

Material considerations must be genuine planning considerations—that is, they must be related to the purpose of planning legislation, which is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest. Obviously much will depend on the nature of the application under consideration, the relevant policies in the development plan and the surrounding circumstances.

The courts are the arbiters of what constitutes a material consideration. All the fundamental factors involved in land-use planning are included, such as the number, size, layout, design and external appearance of buildings and the proposed means of access, together with landscaping, the impact on the neighbourhood and the availability of infrastructure, and so on. Government statements of planning policy are material considerations which must be taken into account, where relevant, in decisions on planning applications.

Although development in general requires planning permission, some forms of development are granted a general permission by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 without the need to make a planning application to the local planning authority. That includes certain works related to aviation development. In the first instance, it is for the local planning authority to determine whether planning permission is required in any particular case.

Planning policy is of most interest to the general aviation sector in so far as it impacts on planning decisions in relation to aerodromes. In general, we have not intervened in the development of general aviation aerodromes. Essentially they are local planning matters which should be decided locally. However, through their local representatives, the Government scrutinise development plans and are able to keep a close watch on emerging policies which affect general aviation aerodromes.

Generally, the Government will intervene only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved; for example, if a plan or application conflicts with national policies or important matters which may have significant effects beyond the immediate vicinity, or in cases which involve issues of national security. I note the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, about the outcome of planning decisions. Although I have no detailed comment to make on that this evening, the figures in the GAAC paper have been noted. We do not collect those figures centrally. Therefore, I am unable to verify the analysis of reasons for appeal and whether that warrants further consideration. However, planning authorities must make decisions on the basis of local facts.

In order to ensure a coherent approach to planning across different sectors and regions—I hope that this will help to provide some reassurance to the noble Viscount—25 planning policy guidance notes have been issued by the Government. All local authorities must take those into account in preparing the regional planning guidance and determining planning applications. They focus on the integration of land-use planning and transport, including the promotion of more sustainable transport choices both for people and for moving freight.

Transport guidance note PPG13 emphasises the important role that small airports and aerodromes can play for local business, recreational, training and emergency needs. For that reason, the guidance note advises that local authorities should take account of the important contribution that general aviation can make to local and regional economies, including the national need for pilot training. That guidance note is in the process of being updated. If the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, does not have a copy of the current issue, I shall certainly ensure that it is updated to take account of the changes that have been made in departmental structures. However, the document is being updated and it will continue to recognise the important contribution made by the general aviation sector to local economies and beyond.

A question was raised in relation to airport slots. I have already said that we shall do our utmost to promote and encourage the good work done by the general aviation industry. However, it must be done with a sense of perspective and with an eye for the realities of modern aviation.

With regard to the issue of slots, since 1986 there have been legal constraints on the use of Heathrow and Gatwick Airports by business and general aviation during the hours of peak congestion. That is simply and obviously a consequence of the demands on capacity at those airports. I appreciate that over recent years the constraints have bitten increasingly hard as the airports have become more congested. However, it is important to make the most efficient use possible of the available infrastructure. A slot which is used for business aviation cannot be used for a scheduled service which reduces the passenger throughput. A mix of large and small aircraft also requires longer gaps between aircraft movements than where the fleet is more homogenous. That may have the added effect of reducing hourly capacity at airports where capacity is such a precious commodity.

Business and general aviation is not excluded from Heathrow or Gatwick and there are no plans that it should be. I accept the arguments made about the importance of business aviation, and I take on board the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Liverpool. I am afraid that I am unable to give much detail as to the current position with regard to the proposed Doncaster airport. Noble Lords will understand that I am constrained by the inhibition of the planning process because the possibility always exists that there may be a quasi judicial role for Ministers in the event of a call in that respect.

Thirty years ago in my business life I travelled many times on corporate aircraft between Heathrow, Manchester and Liverpool and I have done so many times since in England, across Scotland and abroad. I understand the importance of encouraging business travel to be flexible and efficient. That drives us towards economic competition and growth. Noble Lords need have no concerns on that score.

Business and general aviation still have a role to play in Heathrow and Gatwick. It is essential for the industry to recognise that there are no easy solutions and that the pressure on capacity will not go away, at least in the short and medium term. One response is to consider making greater use of alternative airports to serve the London area. Longer term, I refer back to our consultation document in pursuit of a White Paper. That process is supported by regional studies examining the best shape for the aviation industry in the next 30 years. That is an important process.

On the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, I confirm that while the CAA is currently reviewing the so-called large provision in the South East of England, it will certainly take into account some of the issues that the noble Baroness raised. That review is still in progress, but I am confident that any specific proposals concerning provision around Gatwick and Heathrow will be considered very carefully and acted on where necessary.

I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, that I shall certainly take into account the views that noble Lords expressed tonight. Our debate has been an important contribution to the current consultations on air transport policy. The noble Viscount, like other noble Lords, made his point with great eloquence and force.

On the question of noise from civil aircraft, there has recently been a consultation on legislation for the control of noise from civil aircraft and the effect that that might have on general aviation. In launching the consultation process, we have not prejudged whether there should be any limit on the types or size of aerodromes that are liable to be designated. We are looking with interest at the views that we have received. It remains our preference where possible for aviation noise mitigation measures to be resolved between interested parties. The proposal to provide aerodromes with greater means of regulating flying behaviour will be an enabling power and it will be used only if there is a need to do more to ameliorate aircraft noise at a particular aerodrome.

The noble Lord, Lord Brabazon of Tara, asked about improving access for helicopters and air taxis. Looking at the clock, I see that time does not permit me to attempt an answer; even if I had made such an attempt, I should not have done so with any precision. I assure the noble Lord that in our consultations on the operational aspects of NATS with interested parties, we shall ensure that general aviation is consulted. The Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in another place have been conducting consultative meetings. I shall report back to the noble Lord in the very near future.

I hope that I have explained some of the ways in which the Government have acted to promote the general aviation industry. The best way in which we can do so is by providing a business environment that allows our companies to thrive. Our debate has shown that while that is the case, we need to examine several specific issues in relation to which the voice of the general aviation industry still needs to be heard. I urge the industry to use its voice.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, for giving us the advantage of his extensive aviation experience and for securing this debate. If I have left any questions unanswered, I shall write to noble Lords with greater detail.

House adjourned at six minutes to nine o'clock.

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