HC Deb 24 July 2002 vol 389 cc297-305WH

1 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Thank you, Mr Amess. It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship.

This is "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" for me, although not with the august Minister of State. I usually deal with his colleague the Aviation Minister, and it is good to know that as Transport Secretaries and their shadows come and go, debates on Manchester airport remain a regular fixture of the parliamentary year—for me at least.

On our last day before the summer recess, I am grateful for this timely opportunity to debate plans by Manchester airport to change the use of its departure routes over Cheshire. It is timely because the threat to the peace, lifestyle and health of many thousands of my constituents is imminent and because yesterday the Government announced a major consultation on their proposals to manage growth in air traffic while minimising the effects on local people and the environment.

I acknowledge the huge debt that I owe to the many local people in my constituency who have helped me on this issue. My comments would be reiterated by other hon. Members who represent airport constituencies, because we are always struck by the enormous support that we receive from volunteers. I want particularly to mention Jeff Gazzard, Alan Wilson, Tony Greaves, Chris Corner, Barry Wienholdt, Anthony Dobell, Bert Grange and all those involved in action groups like the Knutsford and Mobberley joint action group, the Manchester airport environment network, and the parish and town councils of Knutsford, Mobberley, Marthall, 011erton and Peover. They are the unsung heroes of this campaign.

Those people are all volunteers with limited time and even more limited resources, but each has put a huge effort into mastering the detail of aviation policy, section 106 agreements and flight routes so that Manchester airport is challenged and properly held to account. We are up against the might of the airport, with its full-time professional lawyers and public relations people, but we are more than holding their own. At times it feels like a David and Goliath fight, but we should remember how that story ended.

Without the vigilance of that local army of volunteers, we may never have known that Manchester airport was proposing to change the use of its departure routes in the first place. The airport was adamant that the opening the second runway last year marked the end of a period of change, not the beginning of a new one. However, alert residents in Lower Peover and Ollerton first noticed last autumn that each day, around lunchtime when most people were not home, one or two passenger jets were flying over their villages. That seemed strange, as the map printed by Manchester airport and circulated to thousands of local residents made it clear that the only propeller planes and light jets were allowed to fly over their villages. Indeed, according to the Civil Aviation Authority, even such light jets are only allowed in exceptional circumstances, although exceptional seems to have become routine.

To distinguish that restricted departure route—the so-called LISTO route—from the main routes used by larger commercial jets, it was shaded green instead of blue on the map sent by the airport to residents. The distinctive colouring is so clear that even the Aviation Minister, in his letter to me on 1 July, said that the LISTO route is also referred to as the 'Green Corridor—. It is so described because it coloured green on the map to distinguish it from other departure routes. The restriction of the LISTO route, or green corridor, to only the smallest of aircraft was a crucial part of the airport's argument during the planning process and public inquiry into the second runway. It enabled the airport to admit that some areas would lose out as a result of the new runway and departure route, but point to other areas, such as those covered by the LISTO route, that had previously experienced heavy traffic but would be much better off.

The new routes, including the heavy restrictions on the LISTO route, were spelled out in black and white in the section 106 planning agreement signed by the airport, Manchester city council and Cheshire county council in 1994. On the basis of that agreement, people bought homes and settled down in places covered by the green corridor, including east Knutsford, Peover and Ollerton. They thought, and their house purchase searches told them, that they would not suffer from the misery of aircraft noise.

The first sign that Manchester airport was about to betray these people came last autumn, when a few alert residents noticed that the occasional large passenger jet was using the green corridor. Ken Sayle, chairman of 0llerton and Marthall parish council, wrote to the airport to ask why. He received an answer of which George Orwell would have been proud. The airport's community relations manager revealed that clandestine trials had been conducted using a range of aircraft on the LISTO route. She explained that there were some air traffic control advantages (and capacity ones) that would flow from some re-balancing of traffic on the southbound routes". She ended by stating: our general advice to those residing close to the airport is that they are likely to see and hear aircraft at some time". That is a truly extraordinary statement, given that the point of aviation policy is to assign preferred noise routes to limit the impact. Saying that people living close to an airport are likely to see aircraft from time to time is not the same as changing departure routes.

I went to see John Spooner, the managing director of the airport, to find out exactly what the airport was up to. I established at that meeting last December that the airport had indeed conducted a major trial on the LISTO route—without telling anyone, including the Department for Transport, and in breach of both the section 106 agreement and Civil Aviation Authority guidelines on the use of that route. I also discovered that it was now considering completely changing the use of LISTO routes to include large commercial jets. Although the airport was concerned about noise on other routes— one of its excuses—the real reason for the change was, according to the managing director, "a capacity one". In other words, it wanted to dispatch more aircraft, more quickly, early in the morning. That was seven months ago. At no point since then has the airport made any attempt to inform local people about what it was planning, ask for their opinions, or engage in any meaningful consultation whatever.

Only thanks to the local newspaper, the Knutsford Guardian, the work of the Knutsford and Mobberley joint action group, and a newsletter that I printed and distributed from my own office allowances, have the residents of Knutsford and affected villages woken up to the airport's betrayal of its agreement with local people and to the huge threat that now looms over them. They have now begun to fight back. Action groups have been set up and thousands of protest letters sent. I received more than 200 and forwarded them to the airport.

These are not the pro forma letters or postcards that MPs are used to receiving, but individual letters, which people have taken the time and trouble to write. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Lenderyou wrote: The impact on this densely populated area will be very negative, inflicting disturbance and noise pollution". Mr. and Mrs. Simmons wrote: There is an alternative route over more open countryside (which is used at present) and it seems completely irresponsible of the Airport to contemplate a route which will detrimentally affect so many households and fly over two junior schools". Mrs. Needham wrote: I help out at a school in Knutsford with children having learning difficulties and concentration problems. The noise of planes constantly overhead will not help. Mr. Cotton wrote: This proposed change to the use of these assured routes will have a detrimental effect on my family's quality of life. It also goes without saying that the value of my property is also likely to be negatively affected by changes". Mr. Corner wrote: Many people moved to this side of town because they found life intolerable under the landing path. They now find themselves with the prospect of being out of the frying pan into the fire". That snapshot of letters gives an idea of how angry and betrayed local people feel, and how determined we are to stop the airport changing the use of this route. We have had some success. The Aviation Minister told me in a recent letter that he was aware of the concern of local residents regarding the LISTO routes". That is a huge victory: we have penetrated the ivory towers of Whitehall. We have also affected the airport's thinking. The managing director told me back in April that he hoped to make a decision to proceed by the end of that month. That was three months ago, and there is still no formal application to the Government. I was told by someone who recently had a meeting with the managing director that the reason for the delay was that I, the local Member of Parliament, had "put my oar in." The airport will be disappointed to know that I intend to keep on rowing on the issue.

Ultimately, however, the fate of my constituents will be determined by the Department for Transport. That is why I asked for this debate today. I know from our ongoing correspondence with the Minister's colleague that no formal application has been made by the airport to change its routes, and I am sure the Minister will say that again today. However, I also know that the Department has held a number of informal discussions about the proposal. Therefore, this is the perfect time to ask the Minister five questions. If he is unable, for obvious reasons, to respond in detail to the questions today, perhaps he will undertake to write to me about the matters that I raise.

First, will the Minister give me an assurance that any change to the departure routes at Manchester airport will be subject to the specific approval of the Secretary of State? I ask that because in the Aviation Minister's first letter to me on the issue on 16 May this year, he said that if the airport wishes to change the use of its departure routes, it must first make a formal application to the Directorate of Airspace Policy. If that directorate believes that such changes have a significant detrimental effect on the environment then, according to the directions under the Transport Act 2000, they must refrain from promulgating such changes without first securing the approval of the Secretary of State". The Aviation Minister has already acknowledged that his Department knows about the huge concern of local people about the proposed route change. The Department must also acknowledge that sending large passenger jets down a flight route that does not carry them at the moment must, by definition, have a significant detrimental effect on the environment". Will the Minr today confirm that any change will require the approval of the Secretary of State?

My second question again refers to what the Aviation Minister said to me in his letter of 16 May. He said: it has been the view of successive Governments since the 1960s that the balance of social and environmental advantage lies in concentrating departing aircraft along the least possible number of departure routes". Therefore, like previous Governments, will this Government—it is their practice to date—reject the argument from the airport that one way of reducing the impact of aircraft noise is by fanning out departing aircraft along several routes? The airport is using that spurious argument to try to divide local opinion. It has told residents of Mere, a village which is badly affected by the current departure route, that opening up the LISTO route would make life more bearable for them.

I know what a misery aircraft noise causes in Mere, but as the airport's main consideration is to put more planes into the sky more quickly, I honestly believe that a change of route will not significantly reduce the number of aircraft flying over them and will certainly not stop the noisiest planes of all, such as the PIA jumbos, from flying over Mere.

Will the Minister stick to existing Government practice and reject the argument that it is best to spread the misery when it comes to departure routes?

Thirdly, the Aviation Minister said in his letter of 16 May that as it is Government policy to concentrate departing traffic along a relatively small number of tracks…it makes sense to arrange these tracks to over-fly sparsely populated areas where possible and thus reduce the sum of total disturbance". Therefore, before any decision is taken on Manchester airport's proposal, will the Minister undertake to conduct a survey of how many people live in the area under the LISTO route to establish how sparsely populated it is? Current departure routes quite rightly go to great lengths to go around Knutsford, because that is densely populated. If departing aircraft went to the same lengths to stick to those routes it would be even better. However, the parameters of the LISTO route cut straight across the eastern half of Knutsford, where thousands of people live, and then proceed over several large villages. How can letting large jets fly down that route be consistent with a policy of arranging routes so that they over-fly sparsely populated areas where possible? Fourthly, the Aviation Minister acknowledges that details of departure routes were included in agreement on the second runway as part of the assessment of the likely effects of the proposed new runway". However, he says that it would not be appropriate to comment on that agreement, as it was between the airport, Manchester city council and Cheshire county council. I accept that the Government were not party to that agreement. Is the Minister therefore saying that the Department takes no notice whatever of the section 106 agreement, and the promises made by the airport? It seems unfair and a little strange that the Government do not take into account the basis upon which Manchester airport was given permission to construct a second runway, and the solemn promises that they made to local people at the time, when deciding whether to allow the airport to break those promises. Indeed, the course of the LISTO route described in the section 106 agreement is very different from current LISTO route, which is much further west and now overflies Knutsford—something that did not feature in the original maps. The Government may not be party to the agreement, but surely they must take it into consideration.

Fifthly, and finally, the Government yesterday announced a major consultation on the future of air capacity in the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State said that the key issues included not only how we should respond to the continued growth in demand for air travel, but how we should deal with the environmental impact of expansion and its effects on people living close to airports.

The consultation document covering the north of England raises some very big questions for Manchester airport and the people living around it. It forecasts that the number of passengers using Manchester each year may rise from 18 million in 2000 to 60 million by the year 2030, or even higher in some scenarios, and raises the issue of a fourth terminal in Manchester by 2015.

I welcome the spirit in which the consultation has been launched. I want Manchester airport to be a success and a magnet for jobs in the region, but for that to happen it must respect the rights of people who live around it and treat them like adults. As I understand it, the consultation will run for four months and the Government will then publish a White Paper upon which decisions may be taken and legislation based.

Does the Minister agree that it would wholly wrong to take a decision on the changed use of departure routes at Manchester airport before consultation has taken place and before a White Paper has been produced? As I hope that I have demonstrated today, Manchester airport's proposal to change the use of its departure routes has huge implications for local people, the local environment and airport capacity. It will bring the misery of aircraft noise to thousands of homes that to date have mercifully been spared. It will be a betrayal of the promises made by the airport to local people when the second runway was agreed, and it will run counter to current Government policy of concentrating the impact of departing aircraft along a small number of routes flying over sparsely populated areas.

The decision cannot be taken out of the big picture and looked at in isolation; it requires joined-up thinking. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will give careful consideration to the issues that I have raised to today, that he will wait until the Government produces the White Paper before taking any decision on the change of use of routes at Manchester, and that he or the Secretary of State will decide the future of those routes? The quality of life of the people whom I represent will depend upon it.

1.17 pm
The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) for raising the important subject of the use of departure routes at Manchester airport. He posed a considerable number of questions, and I hope that I will be able to answer some of them. If there are matters that I cannot cover in the time available, I shall write to him. As he said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport debated the subject of noise from aircraft using Manchester with the hon. Gentleman last July—it is obviously an annual event—and described the prosperity that the airport brings to Manchester and to the whole of the north-west region.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the might of Manchester airport, and certainly it is a significant factor in the north-west. Manchester is the biggest regional airport in the United Kingdom, with an extensive programme of scheduled and charter flights to a number of short-haul, medium-haul and long-haul destinations. It also has the largest belly-hold freight operation—the hold of passenger aircraft—outside the south-east of England. In 2000, Manchester airport handled 18.4 million passengers, some of whom may have been the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and 117 thousand tonnes of freight. The airport infrastructure comprises two main runways and three terminals with a capacity of around 30 million passengers per annum.

The airport is a major employer in the region, a factor that should not be under-estimated. In 2000, it directly supported an estimated 17,800 jobs and a similar number of indirect and induced jobs in the area. It operates training and apprenticeship schemes with local communities. The hon. Gentleman's constituency benefits from a significant share of those jobs, for example at the Emirates European call centre, Barclays IT centre and BNFL.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary recognised, as do I, that noise in local communities is an undesirable but inevitable consequence of the airport. He described a number of measures that the airport has taken to limit the adverse impact of noise on local communities. They include night restrictions, ground noise restrictions, noise insulation, departure noise limits and departure routes. The last of those measures, which arouses much interest in Manchester, is our subject today.

I want to stress that the policy of successive Governments has been that aircraft noise is a local issue, best resolved locally. Only Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports are designated for the purposes of section 78 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982. The Government are responsible for setting noise mitigation measures for those airports. Elsewhere, including at Manchester, that is a matter for local resolution. Manchester airport has been designated under section 35 of the 1982 Act, so is required to provide adequate consultation facilities for users of the aerodrome, local authorities and local representative organisations on issues of concern arising from airport operations. I have encouraged members of the local community, through their representatives on the consultative committee, to take the opportunity to express their views. From what the hon. Gentleman has said today, they are availing themselves of that.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the second runway at Manchester was the subject of a public inquiry in1994–95 that carefully considered air noise. The inspector recognised adverse impacts on Knutsford. A package of mitigation measures was crucial to the granting of planning permission to build the second runway. Those measures are the subject of an enforceable agreement with Cheshire county council and Manchester city council under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The hon. Gentleman referred to a letter received from my hon. Friend the Aviation Minister in May. It is appropriate to clarify what I understand that letter said. When my hon. Friend said that he could not comment on the agreement, that was not meant to imply that he was not taking it into account, but that he could not comment on a legal interpretation of the agreement, which was a matter for the relevant local parties.

A map illustrating the existing and proposed departure routes was included for information in the evidence on the airport company given to the planning inquiry. The planning permission given for the second runway was not contingent on the precise location of the routes or their usage. The airport included in its section 106 agreement with Cheshire county council a provision committing it to further consultation over any proposed changes to the PNR—preferred noise route—segment of its departure routes, and to undertaking that through the airport consultative committee and the environmental health officers' consultative committee.

The new runway at Manchester airport was opened in February 2001. It is staggered relative to the old runway, and lies approximately 1.8 km—1.2 miles—closer to Knutsford than the old one. International Civil Aviation Organisation rules for the use of staggered parallel runways state that landing aircraft should utilise the first available runway. When both runways are in use, aircraft taking off should use the other runway. That means that during the day, when the wind is from the south or west, aircraft will take off toward Knutsford from the new runway, with a consequent increase in noise in that area. I fully accept that.

The introduction of the second runway necessitated the design of new departure routes. All routes must be properly designed in accordance with internationally agreed design requirements. Aircraft are not permitted to commence turns until they have reached a minimum height. Due to the displacement of the second runway, it is impossible exactly to reproduce for the new runway routes from the old one. There has been no change to departure routes over Greater Manchester as a consequence of the second runway. There are now four routes for departures to the south-west. Those to the north and west are largely as before, with a slight adjustment due to the spacing and stagger of the runways.

I fully accept that there has been a noticeable shift for southbound traffic. At the time that the second runway scheme was conceived, it was thought that the old CONGA southbound route passing to the east of Knutsford was incapable of taking all types of traffic without significant overflying of Knutsford. Therefore, it was proposed for propeller aircraft only. The result is that the majority of southbound traffic passes to the north of Knutsford before turning south between Knutsford and Northwich. The CONGA routes were renamed LISTO in August 2001 and have also been referred to as the green routes.

The directorate of airspace policy at the Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for airspace design and for promulgating changes to existing airspace arrangements. The DAP is required to act in accordance with directions given to the CAA by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions under section 66(1) of the Transport Act 2000. The directions require the DAP, where such changes might have a significantly detrimental effect on the environment, to advise the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions"— the directions were issued in 2000— of the likely impact and of plans to keep the impact to a minimum", and to refrain from promulgating such changes without first securing the approval of the Secretary of State. The guidance goes on to stress the importance of consultation, through which the views of those who may be affected by any change can be considered and a solution can be developed.

The original proposals for the use of the CONGA, or LISTO, routes were drawn up in about 1993 on the assumption that there would continue to be a fairly large contingent of propeller-driven aircraft used on many of the short-haul services from the airport. More recently, since planning permission was granted, small regional jet aircraft have largely replaced the propeller fleet operating from Manchester to UK and European destinations. That is part of a wider phenomenon in the aviation industry.

Airport officials evaluated the performance and noise characteristics of those small jet aircraft compared with their predecessors, the propeller driven aircraft, as the growing popularity of regional jets was causing problems with air traffic control. Their work was reported to the technical advisory group of the Manchester Airport Consultative Committee, which agreed that the CONGA 1R and 1Y routes could be used for light jets in addition to the propeller driven aircraft previously proposed. That view was subsequently endorsed by the main committee, which acknowledged that, in noise terms, it had advantages over the original proposals. It was also endorsed by the Environmental Health Officers Group. As it represented a change to the original proposal in respect of the preferred noise route segment of the route, the proposed modification was referred by the DAP to the then Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in June 2000. The Department was satisfied that appropriate consultation had taken place.

I understand that airport officials have carefully monitored the pattern of community noise disturbance since the opening of the airport's second runway in February 2001. There has been a significant increase in community complaints from the area north of Knutsford as a result of increased air traffic, as the hon. Gentleman indicated.

Mr. Osborne

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Time is our enemy, and he may wish to write to me on some of the specific issues that I raised. However, would he deal with one point before our time is up? Does he agree that it would be wrong to make a decision on the use of routes while a major consultation is taking place on air traffic in the north of England?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman described a pressing issue in his area. I am not sure whether he wants to delay consideration of that situation while there is, as he rightly says, a public consultation on the much broader issue of air traffic in the north of England and the longterm future of Manchester airport. However, following his comments, I shall give those views consideration.

As I said, it is also the case that areas to the east of Knutsford have benefited from significantly reduced air traffic. In recognition of the concern expressed by the communities to the north of Knutsford, consideration has been given as to how that could be mitigated. One potential solution suggested is to widen the range of aircraft able to operate on LISTO as a way of sharing the noise burden.

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair)

Order. We now come to the final subject for debate.