Airports Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st February 1980.

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Photo of Mr John Nott Mr John Nott , St Ives 12:00 am, 21st February 1980

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Government's airports policy. When the present Government came into office last May, they faced the unenviable consequences of what I described in my statement on 17 December as Years of indecision, decision and counter-decision"—[Official Report, 17 December 1979; Vol. 976, c. 37.] on airports policy. In their White Paper on this subject, our predecessors set out a number of proposals designed to meet the short-term demand for air traffic in South-East England. But, reasonable as the White Paper might have appeared at the time—and I want to make it quite clear that I think it was reasonable—it explicitly did not attempt to deal with the central problem of whether there needed to be new airport capacity in South-East England to meet the longer-term demand—and, if so, where is should be situated.

The previous Government established two groups of experts to examine the problem, leaving the decision to their successors. In November last year the Advisory Committee on Airports Policy and the Study Group on South-East Airports reported to me setting out, without a specific recommendation, the advantages and disadvantages of a number of sites and also their forecasts of the expected growth in air traffic up until the end of this century.

I assure my right hon. and hon. Friends and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen, particularly those representing the counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Suffolk and surrounding counties, including Cambridge, that I would willingly have passed the responsibility of choice to another Department or arrived at a decision which was environmentally impeccable. That would effectively have meant, I fear, doing nothing at all. That is one of the options which I shall explore in my speech. There was the option that we should have done nothing at all.

I am reminded, in this context, of the minister of the Church, not of the Crown, of whom it was said that he had heavenly attitudes but he was no earthly good. I can think of a whole wadge of heavenly decisions in this area which are, in fact and in practice, I fear, no earthly good. But, given that a realistic decision was essential, there are two sentiments of a personal nature which I should like to emphasise at the start. First, I was not particularly influenced by my Department's officials—because I realised that this was ultimately a matter of political judgment.

Secondly, I am perfectly prepared to admit that I began my consideration of the issues with a strong bias, which I still retain, against the disruption of a part of rural England, and when the NFU and other bodies write to me about the utilisation of grade two agricultural land I can understand the passionate emotions which this issue causes, not least because I have a little grade two agricultural land of my own.

But ultimately even a passionate belief in rural England does not avoid the exercise by the Government of choice, and realistic choice at that. I envy the certainty of those who, for instance, direct the affairs of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England—I single it out for special recognition—but it does not have to make harsh political and economic choices. So the first and most obvious question which I asked myself when faced with this dilemma was "Do we need a new airport in South-East England at all? Are the traffic forecasts wrong? And, even if they are right, should we ignore them altogether and allow traffic to be diverted to the Continent, and, equally importantly for this particular debate, is there any realistic way whereby the demand could be diverted or forced into the regions?"

It is worth recalling that in 1960 fewer than 7 million passengers used the London area airports in a single year: that was only 20 years ago. By 1970 the number had grown to over 20 million, and in 1980 the figure will be 40 million or thereabouts.

To give some idea of the uncertainties for the future, the Roskill Commission in 1970 estimated demand in the London area for 1990 at about 120 million passengers a year. En 1975 the airport strategy for Great Britain, in the immediate aftermath of the oil crisis, took a bracket between 67 million and 107 million passengers a year. The Labour Gov- ernment's White Paper of 1978 took a figure of 66 million to 89 million passengers, and the current forecast talks in terms of a low point of 69 million passengers by 1990 with a top figure of 81 million.

When I saw those forecasts, and given that present capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton now amounts to approximately 50 million passengers a year, I can assure the House that I did my very best to discount the figures to the maximum—I am talking of the forecasts—but, even with the pessimistic assumptions that we took about the changes in the price and supply of oil, the likely growth of income here and abroad and the competitiveness of the United Kingdom in world tourist markets, it was clear that the demand—I emphasise, the demand—in the London area by 1990, in spite of all the uncertainties, looks set to be well in excess of capacity on present plans.

Just as we would be rightly criticised if we failed to make provision for the expected growth in demand in the late 1980s, equally, on the other hand, we should be guilty if we entered into a commitment now which might in the end provide massive extra capacity which would not in the end be required.

Before I come to the question of whether it would be possible to respond to this demand solely by the development of regional airports, I must tell the House that I seriously contemplated the option of simply failing to provide capacity in the South-East region at all. I shall conic to the question of regional airports in a moment. If, of course, the demand increased beyond capacity, as we expect, such a choice would have involved increasing chaos in the London area airports which would make the present peak-time squalor at Heathrow airport the norm for all the London area airports throughout the year. Within a period of time, however, traffic would undoubtedly be diverted to Schipol and Charles de Gaulle and other Continental airports, with a consequent loss of business to the United Kingdom.

At this juncture I asked myself whether this was a choice the Government could contemplate. It certainly was an option that we should just refuse to meet the demand. I was confronted with the following facts. Our aviation industry happens to be one of our true growth sectors. Over 180,000 people, directly or indirectly, are employed in the aviation industry. It contributes £300 million to the balance of payments and, since the oil embargo in 1973, British-owned airlines have increased their output in real terms by 9 per cent. per annum. In spite of every prediction to the contrary, traffic has increased by 7 per cent. per annum. The whole pattern of increase has gone quite differently from that predicted in the immediate aftermath of the oil crisis of 1973–74.

Our airlines have been world innovators. Here we are, a nation with a greater proportion of our total income earned overseas than any other major trading nation in the world, with more than 15 per cent. of our total trade in goods now going through the London area airports. We are talking not just of passengers but of 15 per cent. of our total trade. Could we really neglect the needs of one of our growth industries at a time like this?

It is a question not simply of the demands of our tourist industry, although many would say that this is already imposing intolerable peak demands on the South-East, but rather that, if we were to limit the demand, quite apart from the congestion, chaos and delay that would build up at our existing airports, we would be placing yet another major impediment in the path of this country's economic recovery. We would also, in my view, be denying what I see as the fundamental democratic right of the people of this country to travel abroad for business or for pleasure, and to do so with the minimum of delay and inconvenience.

Having eliminated in my own mind—but not perhaps in the minds of all my hon. Friends; I accept that—the choice of failing to act altogether, the next decision concerned the use of regional airports. It is the Government's policy—