Airports Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:54 pm on 21st February 1980.

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Photo of Mr Clinton Davis Mr Clinton Davis , Hackney Central 8:54 pm, 21st February 1980

I seem to have lived through this debate on several previous occasions. It has been an interesting debate. At times hon. Members made passionate speeches in defence of their constituency interests. The debate illustrated how difficult is the task of any Minister seeking to deal sensibly with the creation of an airports policy. The different, often competing interests that are involved were vividly depicted by many speakers.

On many previous occasions have I heard a number of the representations made today. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) has defended his constituents nobly on many occasions in this House, complaining about the pestilence of noise at Heathrow. He even battled for legal remedies to be provided for his constituents. A considerable time ago I read a letter in The Times which I thought was very apposite, although I did not necessarily agree with its conclusion. It was headed "Winged nuisance". It reads: Sir, If 30 hens + 20 ducks + nine geese + two cockerels + a peahen = intolerable nuisance to five people, —hon. Members may remember that case— what do 50 Jumbos + 40 BAC 1–11s' + 35 707s + four Airbuses + a Concorde = to many thousands of people on Heathrow flight paths?An exact analogy cannot, of course, be made, because although you can take a peahen to court, no such action is possible against the unfeathered variety. That summarised the representations that were made about the provision of legal remedies for people who were afflicted by that nuisance. However, as I say, I do not necessarily agree with the conclusion.

The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) made an interesting point, though an incorrect one, which was echoed by one or two other hon. Members. He prayed in aid the doctrine of double jeopardyautrefois acquit—that Stansted had been acquitted before and should not be placed in jeopardy again. However, it is fair to say that there were different considerations prevailing at the time. It was a different case altogether from the one that we are currently having to consider.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) had to leave. He apologised to Members of both Front Benches for that fact. He felt that the Secretary of State had led Bristolians down the garden path or per- haps into the Severn tunnel—I am not sure which. No doubt the Under-Secretary of State will deal with his point as, in fairness to Bristolians, it should be dealt with.

The speech by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) was passionate and well delivered. He has always been deeply opposed to the development of Stansted. However, the conclusion that I should have drawn from some of his remarks—I regret that he is not present—is that the loss of agricultural land, as he seemed to argue, would not justify any green field site. What would it justify? The conclusion that I should have drawn from his speech was basically that he did not want to see—perhaps he did not feel it necessary—any additional airport development.

I take this opportunity, as Mr. Edmund Dell and I set up the Advisory Committee on Airports Policy and the Study Group on South-East Airports, to congratulate the members of both groups for the meticulous care which they devoted to their studies. Their careful analysis must have facilitated the work of Ministers in arriving at the conclusions they reached, whether one agrees with them or not.

The Ministers must appreciate the help that they were given to enable them to wrestle with the formidable problems with which they are now presented, and which still remain, whatever the House may say. The task that still lies in front of Ministers is to implement the proposals which they set before the House. The proposals may have had a relatively quiet passage here today, but what Ministers heard from Government supporters was simply an augury of what they might expect in the affected constituencies. I know that they understand and appreciate that only too well, and I compliment them, therefore, on the fact that they have made this decision notwithstanding those political considerations. The work of the two groups has materially assisted in putting this debate on a sensible course. It has provided us with important data, although, in a moment, I shall have a little more to say about the fallibility of forecasting.

The common theme throughout the debate is that, wherever one seeks to site a major airport, there will be objections on environmental and planning grounds and on grounds of local considerations. What the Government—any Government—must do is to seek a solution based on a balance of advantage. Whilst environmental considerations are obviously very important, they cannot be paramount. May I say, incidentally and in parenthesis, that it is a pity that there is no Minister from the Department of the Environment present today, because many of the points that have been made bear upon the duties of Ministers of that Department.

Various strands of thought emerged during the course of the debate. It was argued that there is no need for further airport development in the South-East beyond, perhaps a little grudgingly, a fourth terminal at Heathrow, a second terminal at Gatwick, subject to the current planning inquiry—and a number of Members with constituencies in the Gatwick area are not very happy even about that—and a very limited development at Stansted, which my hon. Friend, the Member for Harlow (Mr. Newens) was prepared to accept when I was in office, although he does not want it to go beyond that. This assertion, of course, is made in the face of the analysis and the conclusions reached by the advisory committee.

The second strand of thought appears to be that one can adopt the argument to which I have just alluded, with some qualifications, but it is coupled with the assertion that the massive development of regional airports represents an alternative to further airport development in the South-East.

The third strand comes from those who argue that Maplin, whether on the lines orginally envisaged or as a sort of mini-Maplin, as suggested by the Greater London Council, should be the preferred solution. The fourth is the line taken by the Government and, in essence, by the Opposition, embracing a flexible approach, which calls for the gradual development of Stansted and maximises, as far as is practicable, the use of regional airports.

A number of arguments have been prayed in aid by those against the proposals. The suggestion is made, quite rightly, that we are living in a period of economic recession, which is likely to deepen, that this has been stimulated by accelerating fuel costs, and that these factors will negate the forecasts made to support the view that the aviation industry will continue to develop. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow questioned the assumptions, with, I believe, some justification, that are set out in the Government's background briefing to airports policy on the likelihood of the annual growth in the gross national product to the end of the century. He may be right or he may be wrong: it is a forecast.

We do not seem to be going through a very optimistic patch at present. The Secretary of State conceded the fallibility of all forecasting. When I went to get a cup of tea this evening I was interested to read an article about him in the Evening Standard. He was asked about all the wildly optimistic Treasury forecasts, and he said: Forecasts are the bane of our existence. If it was in my power, I would abolish all forecasting". No doubt that included weather forecasting. He went on to say: They are no guide to policy-making. Policy-making must be a question of instinct. One must take risks". That is a bit of a hostage to fortune in this debate.

The forecasting done by Roskill was 50 per cent. wrong. We acknowledge that there was great difficulty in forecasting what would be the future needs for airport capacity. Who could have foreseen back in 1972 the costs we would have to bear for aviation fuel in 1980? Mark Twain had the right judgment on this when he said that he was always prepared to prophesy—except about future events.

If I may say so with respect, many hon. Members have taken convenient refuge in the argument that all forecasts are likely to be wrong. That is a bland and dangerous assertion to make. The conclusion to be drawn from that is that we have to take a chance that the forecasts are wrong, but what happens if that is wrong? What happens if those conclusions prove to be absolutely wrong and out of court? What happens if the assertion that the regions will be able to absorb all the surplus capacity from the South-East is proved wrong during the next 10 or 15 years? That would be a terrible blow to the country.

I take some comfort from the experience that we have lived through fairly recently. Fuel prices went up following the oil crisis of 1973, and for a time there was a slowing down in the pace of development of international aviation. Notwithstanding those fuel price increases, the pace of development in recent times has quickened substantially. Experience tends to support the findings of the committee which have been accepted by the Government. Of course, while we could be wrong about that, I believe we should assume that they are likely to prove broadly accurate.

Many imponderables remain. There is likely to be a continuing increase in the use of aviation for leisure and business traffic in the 1980s; and that seems to be the view of the British Airports Authority and the advisory committee. One thing that is likely to emerge is that, although an average increase of between 6 per cent. and 9 per cent. per year is forecast—that may be a little optimistic—that advance will not be a steady, even average per year but will be erratic.

My judgment is that the Government are right in saying that all these arguments call for a flexible approach, as was recommended by the advisory committee. The advisory committee urged strongly that we should not suppress demand for air travel, which was implicit in many of the arguments heard today. I agree with that.

It has been rightly stated by all hon. Members that Britain is a great trading nation and that air transport plays a vital role in assisting with our balance of payments and in generating employment. The statistics in support of that have been revealed today. Therefore, to turn away opportunities for expanding further a still-growing, developing industry in order to strengthen our economic activity would be folly.

Moreover, tourism, which is integrally connected with the development of the aviation industry, is one of our biggest money spinners. We know that the ratio of tourists to business passengers in the 1980s is likely to move in the direction of about 80:20 in favour of leisure travel. Some hon. Members have denigrated tourism. The hon. Member for Saffron Walden was dismissive of it. In a sense, he reminded me of the elderly lady who was interviewed on local radio. She complained that tourists were an abomination in London. She was reminded by the interviewer that tourists were bringing in hundreds and hundreds of millions of pounds. Her response was simple. She asked why they do not stay away and simply send their money to Britain. That would be a convenient solution, but things do not work that way.

We must maintain a balance. That is not in any sense denigrating those who advance the environmentalist argument.