Filton Airfield

– in the House of Commons at 2:29 pm on 12 March 1993.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

Photo of Mr Michael Stern Mr Michael Stern , Bristol North West 2:31, 12 March 1993

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise in the House the many and serious concerns felt by thousands of my constituents at the decision by British Aerospace plc to impose a commercial airport on the engineering complex occupied by British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and a number of smaller firms at Filton and Patchway. Before I deal with the various areas in which the Government can be or should be involved, I feel that I should set the background to the unprecedented situation in which my constituents now find themselves.

Since the war, and the decision by the city of Bristol to develop its regional airport at Lulsgate to the south of Bristol, it has generally been accepted that airport development at Filton is neither necessary nor desirable, and there has been steady residential development around the airstrip since that date. On a number of occasions, residential development has been opposed by British Aerospace on the ground of safety. Indeed, I recollect an occasion in the 1980s when I was called in by British Aerospace to oppose residential development in the area known as Catbrain in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), the Paymaster General—whom I am delighted to see in his place-purely on the grounds of safety and noise. On that occasion, British Aerospace was successful in using its local Members of Parliament and its industrial muscle to prevent housing development. On other occasions, it was less successful, and housing development continued to its present level, with further major development planned.

Nevertheless, fears that all of the trend of post-war decisions in relation to the airstrip might be reversed by British Aerospace persisted. That is why, on 3 August 1989, with no other hint that any such development might be contemplated, British Aerospace replied to the chief environmental health officer of Northavon district council in a letter—which I shall, of course, be prepared to table —that is, with hindsight, marked by the opacity of its language and ending with the statement that the airfield will continue to be used only for purposes in connection with the Filton Aerospace Company's businesses. Needless to say, on that date, those businesses did not include the operation of a commercial airport.

With the establishment of RUCATSE—the working group on runway capacity to serve south-east England —to consider the future of airport capacity for the south-east, considerable fears of airport development at Filton were created and a local organisation was formed to campaign against such an airport—CAFCA, the campaign against Filton commercial airport.

On 8 November 1991, the campaign wrote to Sir Graham Day, the then chairman of British Aerospace, pointing out a few of the objections that would be felt locally to such a development, and specifically asking him to give an assurance that Filton would not become a commercial airport. That assurance was given.

On 12 December 1991, a briefing meeting for right hon. and hon. Members who have connections with British Aerospace through their constituencies was held at British Aerospace headquarters in the Strand. I was preseent with about 20 other right hon. and hon. Members. Sir Graham Day, as chairman, and Mr. Dick Evans, the chief executive, addressed us on the conditions and prospects of the company, and the ways in which they saw the business developing. Mindful of my constituents' concerns, I asked the chairman and the chief executive, as they stood in front of the assembled hon. Members, whether they had any plans to develop any of the company's sites as airports. I received a categorical assurance from Mr. Dick Evans, with the concurrence of Sir Graham Day, that on that date —12 December 1991-the company had, and I quote Mr. Evans' words from memory, "no interest whatsoever in airport development". So categorical was this assurance that, within days, I was able to reassure the officers of CAFCA that although it might be necessary, as reinforcement, to maintain the campaign against potential airport development a little while longer, I had been assured that they need have no fears in this respect.

A few days later, I received a rather strange phone call from Mr. Charles Drace-Francis, chief public relations adviser to the company. He asked me, and I still have a note of the telephone conversation in my files, please to keep Mr. Evans's remarks regarding the potential development of Filton confidential. He claimed that he was phoning from British Aerospace headquarters.

Since I had no reason to doubt the company's bona fides—it is, after all, one of the largest employers in my constituency—I decided, on behalf of my constituents, to pursue the matter in another way. Since I was prepared, as a friend of the company, to abide by Mr. Drace-Francis's words, I wrote to the managing director of the Filton site, Mr. Chris Geoghegan, on 10 January 1992, pointing out that British Aerospace's apparently eager acceptance of the opportunity to look at the possibility of a commercial airport had raised considerable suspicions among my constituents and others living around the airport which it would take some time to dissipate. I offered myself and my position in the House to help the company allay those fears and suggested that we meet within the next month or so I o see to what extent our approaches could be co-ordinated.

Had I been more suspicious of what, until the end of 1991, had appeared to be a wholly honourable company, I should perhaps have been more concerned when I received no reply to the letter and had to press several more times eventually to get a meeting, at which I received no information. Had I been more suspicious on behalf of my constituents, I should perhaps have been surprised that when the BBC wished to make a short film about commercial flights from Bristol and, therefore, wished to film at Bristol Lulsgate airport and at Filton, I was refused facilities to film at Filton. I am sure that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, will appreciate that it is difficult for a Member for Parliament to conceive of such duplicity by the principal employer in his constituency, as has since been revealed.

On Friday 5 February this year, British Aerospace announced that it intended to impose an airport on Filton with virtually immediate effect and that it had no intention of applying for any form of planning permission as, in its view, it did not need it. I found out about that decision half an hour before it was announced to the press.

I subsequently found out that the licence granted to the company by the Civil Aviation Authority to operate an airport had first been granted on 11 October 1988, long before every single event and every single statement that I have so far listed. I also subsequently found out that, despite all the statements made by officers of the company and all the honeyed words that it had used in every communication on the subject, the company had arranged for inspections of the proposed airport facilities by the Civil Aviation Authority on 19 July 1988, 14 September 1988, 7 March 1990, 7 February 1991 and 1 April 1992. Four of those inspections took place before the statement by the chief executive of British Aerospace plc to assembled Members of Parliament to the effect that no airport development was even contemplated. It is now up to British Aerospace and, in particular, the present chief executive, Mr. Dick Evans—as the chairman of that company at that meeting has moved on-to justify their conduct.

It is, of course, possible that when the company made its series of statements, which I have listed, between 1989 and 1991, the chief executive had no knowledge of the fact that his underlings had already applied for and obtained a licence to run an airport. It is, of course, possible that the airport licence applied for in 1988, and renewed after each of the inspections by the Civil Aviation Authority, was a joke and never intended to be proceeded with. I am sure that many people would prefer either of those explanations to the perhaps more obvious one—that a statement by the chief executive, with the concurrence of the chairman, of one of Britain's major companies to an assembly of Members of Parliament, should now be proved to be wholly false and directly contrary to the facts as they should have been known to those two senior executives at the time. I shall leave the conduct of Sir Graham Day and Mr. Dick Evans to the judgment of history.

I now deal with the issue that is the purpose of the debate—the consequences for my constituents. Since the announcement by British Aerospace that it had held a licence to operate at Filton since 11 October 1988, I have been to see the Civil Aviation Authority and my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping. I have been assured—and I naturally accept the assurance—that any secrecy that surrounded the proposal for Filton airport and any stealth on the part of British Aerospace was not shared by the CAA. That was confirmed in a letter from the chairman of that body to my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon.

The Civil Aviation Authority is obliged to publish any successful application for an airport licence. Unfortunately, it is obliged only to publish it in the widely read periodical known as Air Pilot, which lists all licensed aerodromes. In addition, it was obliged to publish British Aerospace's application on 1 July 1992 for permission to levy airport charges in the equally widely read periodical entitled "The Official Record of the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority", series 6 part II. Should we be surprised that Northavon district council, within whose boundaries the Filton airstrip lies, did not feel it necessary to take out a regular subscription to those publications? Although it now does so, it is far too late to correct the damage done.

My first question to the Minister, therefore, is whether he intends to arrange for wider publication in future of CAA applications that are so damaging to the interests of a substantial community. My hon. Friend's answer will be of considerably wider interest than he may think. In its application to the Civil Aviation Authority, British Aerospace listed nine other airstrips that it regarded as airports and over which it could, therefore, claim the same rights to impose commercial airports without any form of planning permission, environmental assessment or meaningful public consultation.

The airstrips are as follows: Hatfield, in the constituencies of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security; Chester, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Alyn and Deesside (Mr. Jones); Liverpool, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Mr. Loyden); Woodford, in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Cheadle (Mr. Day) and for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton); Dunsfold, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health; Brough, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley (Mr. Cran); Warton, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack); Samlesbury, in the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), whom I welcome to the debate; and Prestwick, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie). They have been warned.

At least licence applications are published. Other matters that are equally germane to the development of an airport are not. When the CAA receives an airport licence application, it has to consider that application against a thick book of guidelines for United Kingdom airports and to decide whether to grant the application, and what variations from its guidelines to accept if it decides to grant a licence. Although the guidelines can be made available to the public, the public are not entitled under present regulations to know what variations from the guidelines have been permitted by the CAA in granting a licence and, therefore, to what extent the safety or the environment of the public have been compromised in the licence as granted. It should be remembered that the CAA is not concerned—it is not obliged to be—with public safety. It is charged by legislation only with considering the safety of aircraft and the people inside them.

My second question is whether, for the sake of public reassurance, my hon. Friend the Minister will now, or in the future, require the CAA to publish the exceptions it makes to its own guidelines. Regrettably, the Department of Transport, like members of the public and myself, has been duped by British Aerospace into aiding the campaign of public reassurance that has been mounted over the past four years while British Aerospace prepared its ground. Correspondence from the Department in the latter months of 1991, copies of which I have sent to the Department and which I am prepared to table, contains such statements as: there is moreover no question of any major runway development taking place …without public consultation and a full enquiry into any objections", and there is no question of local authorities not also being able to feed in Members' views on the implications of development", and RUCATSE is carrying out only a generalised survey of the possible implications of the airport's development in the longer term …It is not a substitute for the planning processes, and before any major runway development took place at whatever site, there would need to be a planning application, and opportunity for all concerned to put forward views", and there is no question of any major new runway development taking place, at any of the locations being looked at, without full public consultation. If British Aerospace were at some future date to submit a planning application for Filton's development as a civil airport, those with views would naturally be able to bring them forward. It is clear that if those statements by the Department of Transport are to have any meaning, my hon. Friend will have to look, within the context of the law that he has to operate—I accept that that acts as a straitjacket—for ways in which to convince British Aerospace that the only honest way in which the development can proceed is after a normal planning application and, if necessary, a full inquiry.

I make two general observations. A recent study of population density in the immediate area of the runway at a number of existing airports gives Filton a residential density of 37 per cent. compared with 12 per cent. for Bristol Lulsgate, 13 per cent. for Stansted, 27 per cent. for Manchester, 29 per cent. for Heathrow and 23 per cent. for Gatwick. The population density at Filton is 28 per cent. greater than that at Heathrow, 60 per cent. greater than at Gatwick and 185 per cent. greater than at Stansted.

Is such an airport really to be imposed without the populations concerned even having the chance, as part of the planning process, to have their say? I hope that the Minister will make it clear in his reply that this Government do not represent the ability of big business to ride roughshod over the hopes, environment and property of many thousands of ordinary people who believed that they had some protection against being shoved around in this way. That is what my constituents will be looking for from the Minister this afternoon.

Photo of Mr Steven Norris Mr Steven Norris , Epping Forest 2:50, 12 March 1993

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) for raising the important matter of British Aerospace's plans for Filton, and I am delighted to see in his place my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), the Paymaster General. The airfield is located in both my right hon. Friend's and my hon. Friend's constituency.

Developments at airports usually require a balance to be struck between economic benefit and environmental impact. I hope to be able to reassure my hon. Friend that in this case his constituents' concerns have not been forgotten or ignored. I can also reassure him that the Civil Aviation Authority has handled its role in the matter in a way that is totally in line with the obligations placed upon it by Parliament.

First, I will say something about the CAA's role. One of the main duties of the authority is to ensure the safety of civil aviation in the United Kingdom. In exercising that duty, the authority is responsible for the licensing of aerodromes under the Air Navigation Order 1989. An aerodrome needs a licence if it is to be used for the purpose of public transport flights or certain other types of operation. The authority is required—I stress "required" —to grant a licence if it is satisfied that the applicant is competent to run the aerodrome and that the aerodrome is safe.

When considering an application for a licence, the authority is concerned solely with safety matters. It cannot take environmental or other, non-safety, matters into account. The system quite properly makes a clear distinction between planning matters and safety issues. The question whether the applicant has or has not obtained planning permission for his activities plays no part in the authority's decisions on licensing. I am sure that that is as it should be. This is why the Air Navigation Order makes no provision for public consultation on licensing decisions.

My hon. Friend has pointed out that the authority is charged with considering the safety of aircraft and people inside them rather than public safety. I hope that he will accept that the best way of ensuring the safety of people and property on the ground is to ensure that aircraft take off, fly and land as safely as possible. There are, of course, additional safeguards, in which the CAA is closely involved. The CAA advises local planning authorities on the safety of proposed developments in public safety zones, which may be established at larger airports. It is also closely involved in the process of safeguarding operational surfaces on the approach to airport runways.

The authority's decisions have been duly notified in the required manner and I can assure my hon. Friend that the authority has carried out its licensing duties in accordance with its statutory responsibilities.

The Civil Aviation Authority has also granted British Aerospace permission to levy airport charges. Under the Airports Act 1986, an airport exceeding a specified annual turnover threshold becomes subject to economic regulation by the authority and is required to seek permission to levy airport charges. The authority may refuse to grant permission only on grounds specified in the Act. Last year, British Aerospace applied for and received permission to levy airport charges at Filton, and the application was publicised as required. Again, the authority has acted according to its statutory duties.

My hon. Friend has asked whether the Government will arrange for wider publication of successful licence applications and of applications for permission to levy charges. I take his point that the periodicals in which these currently appear are not found in the average home or doctor's waiting room, and I believe that there is a good case for making the information more widely available. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) is in his place. He will convey to my noble Friend the Minister for Aviation and Shipping my concern that he should consider with the Civil Aviation Authority whether wider publication can be achieved. Variation of licences is a separate issue, but I am sure that my noble Friend would be happy to look at the matter further in consultation with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West.

The planning issues in this case are a matter for Northavon district council in the first instance and, in the event of an appeal, for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I understand that my right hon. and learned Friend has not so far been involved in the matter, as Northavon has not yet formally challenged the view of British Aerospace that no planning permission is required.

Parliament has rightly decided that it is for local authorities to determine planning applications, having regard to conditions prevailing in the locality, and indeed to decide whether permission is required, but it may be helpful if I restate the types of issues that local planning authorities have to consider in such cases. The purpose of the planning system is to control the development and use of land in the public interest. It is a fundamental principle of development control that planning powers can relate only to the use of the land in question.

The granting of permission by the CAA to an airport operator to levy charges automatically confers certain permitted development rights under the Town and Country Planning General Development Order 1988. The general development order grants a general planning permission for specified classes of development. This means that a specific consent from a local planning authority is not required. Those "permitted development rights" largely apply to minor developments, to developments that are controlled through other approval procedures and to developments by statutory undertakers and local authorities in the performance of their statutory duties.

In the case of an airport operator that is a statutory undertaker, "permitted developments" that do not require specific planning permission include the use of buildings within the airport perimeter in connection with the provision of air transport services. However, major development proposals, such as the construction or extension of runways or the construction of passenger terminals, would require planning permission. Moreover, a range of less substantial development—such as an alteration to an operational building—may be carried out only after consultation with the local planning authority.

In order for a planning application to be required for the intensification of the use of an existing airport, it has to be established whether what is being proposed constitutes a material change of use. As they say in the planning world, that is a matter "of fact and degree". In some cases, it will not be unreasonable for there to have been a general increase in flights, consistent with general trends in aircraft activity. It is no easy task to judge those matters, and I repeat that it would be wrong for Ministers to attempt to fetter the judgment of local planning authorities.

There are new provisions in section 192 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 which enable someone proposing to carry out development to ask the local planning authority to decide whether it would be "lawful" for planning purposes. It is open to British Aerospace to use this procedure if it wishes. If the council gave an adverse decision, the company would have a right of appeal to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. You, Madam Deputy Speaker, will understand that, for that reason, I cannot comment further on the planning merits of the proposal.

I sense that there is some misunderstanding among British Aerospace's critics about the relationship between what is proposed now and previous investigations into whether Filton might be used more intensively. The working group being chaired by my Department, the so-called RUCATSE working group, considered Filton airport, along with Bristol airport at Lulsgate, at an early stage of its work. However, RUCATSE concluded that, because of their location, the two airports were unlikely to be able to cater for much of the expected increase in demand for air transport in the south-east.

I emphasise that there is no connection between British Aerospace's current proposals and RUCATSE. They are on quite different scales of magnitude. RUCATSE was looking at Filton in the context of a wide-ranging study of options for handling an additional runway's worth of capacity. The document from the Civil Aviation Authority —CAP 570—which forms the basis of the RUCATSE study, spoke of the possibility of half the theoretical capacity of a runway being centred at Filton. By contrast, what British Aerospace is proposing now does not constitute anywhere near such a significant increase in capacity or activity.

When RUCATSE was considering Filton, the Government gave assurances that major runway development could not take place there without full public consultation within the planning procedures. Some of my hon. Friend's constituents have suggested that we are going back on that assurance. I assure him that that is not so. As I have explained, British Aerospace is not now contemplating an increase in activity on anywhere near that scale.

By any standards, the option explored in RUCATSE would have constituted major runway development. It would have necessitated substantial additional investment in new terminal capacity and other facilities. By contrast, the present plans utilise the runway which has existed for some 40 years, and the resulting increase in passengers could be accommodated without new building.

Of course, local residents are concerned about the possible level of disturbance that scheduled services might cause. It is perhaps regrettable that so much housing has been built under the runway approach at such a long-established and substantial airfield, but, as I have said, I fully recognise the concerns of local residents. As we believe that local matters are best discussed and resolved locally, noise abatement measures at airports other than Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are the responsibility of the owners or operators of aerodromes. We expect aerodrome and aircraft operators to reduce, so far as is practicable and reasonable, the disturbance caused by their operations. British Aerospace is aware of the concerns of the local residents. I understand that the company wishes to enter into a legally binding agreement with the local planning authority. The details of such an agreement would, of course, be a matter for the parties involved, but I am told that it would restrict the number of aircraft movements at Filton. I understand that British Aerospace intends to offer a ceiling on annual movements of the same order of magnitude as the level of movements a few years ago, though I appreciate that the mix of types of movement within the total might be different.

I believe that it is also British Aerospace's intention to restrict the type of aircraft using Filton to small, quiet, modern aircraft that meet the latest standards on noise. The largest aircraft allowed for commercial flights would be the BAe146. Those aircraft are much less noise-intrusive than the F111s and other military aircraft that have previously operated at Filton; they are widely known as "whisper jets".

We know from experience at London City airport that such operations over a built-up area need not cause undue disturbance to local residents. I accept that there is no night flying at London City, but it has similar restrictions on the types of aircraft and a more generous ceiling on movements. The airport operators have worked hard to cultivate good relationships with the neighbouring community. The local authority has moved from an initial stance of opposition to the airport to one of support. I am encouraged that British Aerospace appears to be taking a similarly responsible approach to environmental issues.

Concern has also been expressed about the effect of these proposals on Lulsgate. I understand that concern, but I trust that my hon. Friend will understand that we do not consider that it would be helpful to direct from the centre on whether services should be provided at one location or another.

The Government certainly do not wish to see British Aerospace ride roughshod over the interests of my hon. Friend's constituents, but the company has a valuable resource at Filton. Circumstances outside its control mean that it cannot rely solely on using the site in the same way that it has in the past. The company has a responsibility to the people who work at the site, as well as to those who live in the vicinity. Decisions concerning the future of the airport must take account of those conflicting pressures. I believe that the company and the local community should now make every effort to come to mutually acceptable working arrangements. I wish them every success in doing so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock.