Airports Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 21st February 1980.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Newens Mr Arthur Newens , Harlow 6:10 pm, 21st February 1980

Like the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), I represent a constituency in the neighbourhood of Stansted. However, my arguments tonight are not based solely on local considerations. I do not wish to take a narrow constituency point of view, because I believe that the issues must be considered in a regional, national and even wider context. It is fundamentally because of these wider reasons that I am opposed to the Government's policy.

The Government base their case for making Stansted the site for major expansion in the period ahead on the contention that air traffic is destined to increase at a rate of 6½ per cent. to 7 per cent. a year and that existing airport capacity will be exhausted by the late 1980s.

First, I should like to comment on the unreliability of past forecasts. In the 1960s it was stated, on what was regarded as the best authority, that the runways at existing airports in the South-East would he unable to handle the traffic by 1973 and, therefore, the need for the third London airport was imperative. Then, in 1971, the Roskill report said that the four South-East airports would be able to handle the growth up to 1980 but that there would be an additional need from 1981 onwards.

However, in 1974 we were faced with the oil crisis and a world recession, which caused yet another contraction in the figures. Then it was argued that the traffic could be accommodated until 1985. In any case, it was admitted that the runways were no longer a major need because, owing to the larger wide-bodied aircraft, the traffic could be accommodated provided that the terminal capacity was expanded.

The 1978 White Paper on airports policy once again reduced the estimates of anticipated growth to somewhere between 66 million and 89 million journeys a year by 1990. The lower figure would mean that the capacity would be sufficient to deal with the limited expansion envisaged for a longer period.

Today, the Government have made certain assumptions on the growth that will take place thereafter. I believe that we should question very seriously these assumptions. The first assumption, which is stated in the Government's background brief, issued on 17 December 1979, is that economic growth will be at a rate of 1·7 per cent. to 2·6 per cent. a year in this country to the end of the century and 3 per cent. to 4 per cent. in the rest of the world. The second assumption is that the necessary aviation fuel will be available at an acceptable price to sustain a huge expansion of air traffic.

The first assumption about economic growth is decidedly optimistic and, at the very least, highly tendentious. The assumption about the availability of aviation fuel is wildly optimistic. The Advisory Council on Energy Conservation in paper 9, published last year, states that by the end of the century the oil consumed by the United Kingdom civil aviation industry will have increased to about 2½ times the present level. In view of the prospect that North Sea oil will be running out at that stage, if not exhausted altogether, and in view of the situation in the Middle East, even if methods of converting coal into aviation fuel are feasible the assumption that fuel will be available at reasonable prices and in the quantities required is wildly optimistic.

Some people have mentioned hydrogen fuel, but, on the basis of the report of the advisory committee, hydrogen has the disadvantage of requiring more energy to manufacture than its own calorific value. Feasibility does not rest on long-term considerations, but fundamentally I question the right of this generation to burn off all the fossil fuels accumulated in the earth over millions of years. I believe that our decision to go ahead with that might be fraught with all sorts of environmental problems with which we have not even thought of coming to terms. For that reason alone, I seriously ask whether we are wise to allow aviation to consume huge quantities of fossil fuel at the rates envisaged.

In the circumstances that I have described, I think that that may not even be possible. At the very least, the growth figures, on the basis of the way they have changed over the last 15 to 20 years, must be regarded as unreliable.

Even if, despite all that I have said, air traffic grows at the rate suggested, we should not allow all this traffic to come to the South-East alone. Paper 9, which I have already quoted, states that by the end of the century 90 per cent. of all air traffic will be for leisure purposes. The White Paper said that two-thirds of the increase in traffic would be in leisure traffic. When we get down to the figures we find that we are talking about an increase in the number of foreign leisure passengers from 5 million in 1978 to 16 million in 1990.

It seems quite idiotic that we should accept such a growth, centred on South-East England, for many other reasons than just airport capacity. Tourist facilities in the South-East cannot possibly cope with this growth of traffic. The hotels and tourist facilities do not exist, and our streets, roads and public places would be grossly overcrowded if we allowed this sort of increase to take place.

On the other hand, it is suggested that in Northern England the demand is insufficient to maintain a gateway international airport. If leisure traffic is to grow at anything like the rate envisaged, the Government should insist that regional airports take a very large share of that traffic. I am not suggesting that it should go to Birmingham, with its particular problems, but I believe that at Liverpool, Manchester and Prestwick, for example, there are ample opportunities for the development of traffic.

The whole question of regional airports should be investigated. The idea that traffic will be lost to the Continent if aircraft cannot land in the London area seems nonsensical. If aircraft land in Manchester, passengers can be in London within two or three hours. With the sort of congestion that occurs frequently on the roads, it sometimes takes as long as that to get from Heathrow. We should be realistic when we consider these arguments.

The development of a major airport at Stansted, according to the Secretary of State, would require 1,500 acres for a terminal, with a further option on 2,500 acres for the future. But the right hon. Gentleman grossly neglects the vast urbanisation that would result. It is true that this may have been exaggerated in some quarters. But appendix 5 of the report of the study group on South-East airports indicates little prospect of much local recruitment of labour. It states that in the end total population over and above that expected without an airport would be greater by 208,000 and that an estimated 71,600 dwellings would be required. The report speaks of two additional new towns in the area.

Since the end of the war, a tremendous amount of development has taken place in Essex and the whole Lea valley. To create further urbanisation on the scale envisaged, if the area were to take in that amount of labour from outside, would be a complete negation of planning. It would amount to sheer vandalism. The Abercrombie view of London, with its open background, would be completely destroyed on the north-east side, as, I believe, it has been destroyed on the western side. It would be more sensible, in my view, to use labour in other parts of the country by developing the regions rather than drawing workers into the South-East, where there would be the problem of providing housing and services for them and their families. Whatever the value of the air traffic industry, it would be greatly outweighed, in the long run, by the real cost of urbanisation—and for no good purpose.

The question of agriculture has been raised. While the land is grade 2 agricultural land, only 2·8 per cent. of land in the country, I understand from the National Farmers Union, is of better quality. We should not dismiss the value of the agricultural land too lightly.

I believe, therefore, that there should be a limit on growth in the South-East as a whole. I am not arguing that Stansted should be closed or that there should be no development at all at Stansted. I believe that moderate development at Stansted to enable it to take 4 million passengers a year—provided that that figure was a final ceiling—would be reasonable. I hasten to add that I am not one of those who argue that development should take place in another part of the Greater London area. I would be as much opposed as certain hon. Members on the Government side to the idea of a fifth terminal at Heathrow.

Heathrow is an example of what ought not to be done in the Essex-Hertfordshire area. The answer must be to move the traffic, if it is to grow, to the regions.

I am utterly opposed to a new London airport, a third London airport, or anything tantamount to that. The Government proposals are for a third London airport at Stansted. I am not an advocate of Maplin. I am opposed to the development of Maplin, but, at the same time, I wish to make clear that if it came to a choice between an inland site or an offshore site it would in my opinion be an even greater disaster to have an inland site. I must again emphasise that I am not saying that the problem should be shifted somewhere else where the development is not wanted.

I believe that there are places in the regions where people would welcome the opportunities that airport development would provide. It should be the purpose of the House to see that they get those opportunities.

I have set out in early-day motion 416 the policy that I believe the Government should pursue. That early-day motion has now been signed by almost 100 hon. Members. Despite the fact that the Government have asked only that the House should take note of the motion that we are discussing, they must recognise and, I hope, take note of the fact that many hon. Members are strongly opposed to the acceptance of their policy. The inquiry that is due to take place must deal not only with the local issues but with the question whether there is the need for an airport in the South-East at all. It must also deal with the role of regional airports and the implications of the vast urbanisation that would result if Government policy for Stansted were followed through.

I am unhappy about the Secretary of State's remark on the queston of objectors' costs. The Stansted solution has been turned down twice already. It is unfair that people who have twice proved their case should be asked, virtually at their own expense, to do so once again.

I wish to come to a conclusion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]. I appreciate the concern of hon. Members in this matter. I believe that I am entitled, as someone who has pursued this matter, to comment on the issue. Some hon. Members may not have paid the amount of attention that I have paid to the matter over many years since the 1960s. I am trying to advance not simply a narrow constituency view.

I believe that the House should not rush into accepting the decision that the Government are putting before us. That is, fundamentally, the decision that the air traffic lobby has always wanted. I believe that the Government are totally mistaken in choosing Stansted for major expansion. Previous generations, by action that appeared logical at the time, have desecrated huge areas of this green and pleasant land in which we have the good fortune to live. We should look carefully before agreeing to further desecration on the scale that would be involved in Essex and East Hertfordshire.

I believe that the Government should not go ahead with the policy that they propose for Stansted. They should pursue a policy that would allow air traffic, if it were to be expanded at the rate suggested —although I do not necessarily believe that all anticipated growth will happen—to be absorbed in the regions. That would be good not only for Stansted but for the whole country. That is the case that I put before the House.