Airport Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th May 1977.

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Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central 12:00 am, 26th May 1977

This is an eventful day. The House has had a long debate on why no one wants to go on holiday. We are now proceeding to debate airports policy, and I hesitate to get too involved after that because the following subject is a very esoteric and beguiling one relating to statute law repeals. I see that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Law Officers' Department is here to tell us why we are to repeal An Act to attaint Sir John Fenwick Baronett of High Treason. or An Act to inflict Pains and Penalties on John Plunket. and all such fascinating matters.

It is welcome that we should be discussing this matter of airport policy at this time so that hon. Members can participate in a consultative process that began some time ago. Naturally, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade would have wished to participate in this debate, but, as hon. Members will appreciate, he is in Moscow for discussions about Anglo-Soviet trade.

For the first time in the relatively short history of aviation in this country, a Government—the present Labour Government—are trying to establish a national airport strategy. It is long overdue. The evidence of the lack of any measure of co-ordination in the past, is regretably, plain for all to see. Airports—and at this stage I would be hesitant to identify particular airports—have, in all too many instances, been erected as local authority virility symbols. National requirements have entered into those considerations barely at all.

Soon after we took office in 1974, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, now Secretary of State for the Environment, and I resolved that we would try to design such a strategy. But how were we to go about achieving this goal? How could we hope to overcome understandably parochial considerations in favour of a clear national need?

The starting point for the policy review was the decision in March 1974 to reappraise the Maplin Airport project. In consequence, that project was abandoned in July 1974. No doubt there are some who still regret the cancellation of Maplin—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—the antediluvian Members, and I recognise that, for many living in areas near to the existing London airports, Maplin presented a distant prospect of relief from the disturbance caused by aircraft noise. But the decision to abandon Maplin was widely accepted—it was widely accepted in the House—and I have no doubt that developments since then, both in the air transport industry and more widely, have confirmed its justification. The forecast growth of air traffic is now less than was predicted at the time of the Maplin review, and the economic situation would suggest the need for extreme caution in undertaking a project, which not only would have been a severe burden on public expenditure but the commercial viability of which would have been a matter of considerable reservation. Indeed, I venture to suggest that Maplin might have qualified in no time at all as one of the biggest bulls ever of the white elephant herd.

Two considerations have been paramount in the Government's approach to the review of airports policy—first, as I have already said, the need to place future airport developments within a national context; secondly, the emphasis on consultation.

I think it would be fair to say that both these aspects have been widely welcomed. Past decisions on airports policy have all too often been taken without reference to the views of those affected, with the result that subsequent opposition and practical difficulties have led to delays and, sometimes, the need to withdraw the proposed developments altogether. It is just not right that people should not be consulted on matters which can be of very great concern to them. We, therefore, opted for consultation, full and detailed consultation, designed to seek out and take account of the views of all those affected. There was, however, a price to be paid for adopting this course. Consultation, if it is to be worth while, takes time. Delay in making final decisions was inevitable, and delay means some anxiety and uncertainty for all those concerned—airport authorities, airlines, those working at airports and those whose major concern is protection of the environment.

I appreciate that full well, but I believe that although the Opposition environment spokesman has complained about the delay, it was right that we did what we did, and the price has been worth paying. So we produced a two-part consultation document on airports strategy, and this debate will complete the very wide consultations which followed from the publication of these documents.

Throughout the consultative process the close involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich (Mr. Barnett), as Under-Secretary at the Department of the Environment, and myself has emphasised the joint concern of the Departments of Trade and Environment with the development of airports policy.

As a result, there is now a much greater awareness of the environmental impact of airport developments—something to which my hon. Friend and I can fully testify. We have been involved in most worthwhile discussions, and in many respects the views of hon. Members who have come to see us, of local authorities and other bodies, have made a major contribution to influencing the way in which we think on these matters. This is important, and it is right that the expected effects of possible airport developments should be displayed in advance of any decision.

I hope that through this consultation process, which in many respects, has been a unique exercise in participation, both the Government and those consulted will have learned a great deal more about the likely impact of any developments and that this will be reflected in the decisions that will need to be taken, not only in central Government but more widely.

Further, in relation to the consultations, there is a special need, in the case of airports outside the South-East of England, to provide a framework against which the possible development of regional airports, a number of which are in direct competition with each other, can be assessed. The consultation documents sought to provide such a framework as a basis for discussion.

The two consultation documents attempted to provide the basic information for an assessment of how a national strategy might evolve. Following the consultations, we are hopeful that we can present, in due course, a realistic and forward-looking policy. I must emphasise that it is not our intention to produce a blueprint or a precise plan for each airport throughout the country. With the inevitable uncertainties about air traffic forecasts, about economic growth, not only here but elsewhere, about technological developments in aircraft and engine design, and about continuing progress in the abatement of noise around airports, it is essential that any airports policy must be flexible and must be capable of adapting to changing circumstances. What we are looking for is a broad framework against which individual decisions about airport developments can be assessed. This is not easy, and there are many issues to consider.

We cast the net of the consultation process very widely throughout Great Britain. Over 1,000 organisations were invited to submit their views, including all the major local authorities, economic planning councils, airport committees, airport managements, trade unions, aviation interests, including airlines, and amenity groups. There has been a massive response from these and many other organisations, and, most important of all, a large number of individual members of the public have also submitted comments. This is something that we wanted to see, and we have not been disappointed.

In company with my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich, I have met many of the principal organisations involved, and I and my colleagues have also visited all the major airports throughout England, Scotland and Wales. I have been to Belfast, too, but it does not fall into the same area of discussion. I believe it was right that we should have learned these facts of life first hand rather than, as was once stated in a letter in a legal case with which I was concerned, through "here say". There could, in my view, be no substitute for listening to the views of the people on the spot and not relying on here say evidence however eloquently described in ministerial briefs. The latter is not the right way of going about this important topic.

Decisions about airport developments will inevitably be controversial and disruptive to some people. I accept that, and I cannot pretend that a process of consultation will make the decisions, which must ultimately be taken by the Government, any more palatable. They will be welcomed by some and deplored by others. Indeed, if they were to be wholly popular I think we should have introduced the greatest miracle since Moses struck the rock. I am sure that the debate this evening will demonstrate the fact that there are no easy solutions. But I hope, at least, that the consultation process will have led to a greater awareness by all concerned of the issues involved.

Before I comment on some of the issues which have been raised in the consultations, there are a number of general points concerning the airport strategy documents which are of importance and to which I should draw the attention of the House.

First, our approach to the review of airports policy has assumed that an efficient air transport system is of considerable benefit to the United Kingdom. Business travel by air is today an essential requirement of international trade and of Government, but it is by no means the exclusive privilege of the business man or of the rich. It is sometimes overlooked that about three-quarters of air travel, to and from the United Kingdom, is leisure traffic. The substantial reduction in the real cost of air travel in recent years has brought overseas travel and holidays within the reach of an increasing proportion of our people.

Equally, the aviation industry provides employment for many thousands. And, despite the slowing down of growth, particularly in the two years following the oil crisis, air transport remains a growth industry and one in which the United Kingdom is still a major force.

Secondly, it is the Government's objective to ensure that there are adequate airport facilities available in this country to meet the demand for air travel. Some of those who have commented on the consultation documents have suggested that this is an assumption which they do not accept. I do not think that it is a tenable position for any Government deliberately to seek to depress the demand for air travel by prohibiting the provision of the necessary facilities on the ground.

This does not mean that there should be no constraints on the air transport industry, or on the way in which airports are permitted to develop, or on the way aviation activity impinges on local communities. Far from it. But it does mean that the Government are not prepared to consider a policy which depends on the suppresion of demand. What we have to do is to keep a balance between capacity arguments and demands. This is a fundamentally and monumentally difficult task. As Dave Allen once said, "To keep a balance you need a chip on both shoulders". He is probably right.