Regions, Transport and DEFRA

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:30 pm on 19th November 2002.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour/Co-operative, North West Leicestershire 8:30 pm, 19th November 2002

I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution on two of the topics scheduled for debate—transport, focusing on aviation, and the environment.

It is a great disappointment to me, as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, that the Gracious Speech made no reference to any Government plans to give greater protection to the hundreds of communities throughout the country whose quality of life is so seriously affected by the impact of nearby airports. That is particularly important to my constituency, as it contains East Midlands airport, which although an economic asset to the region, already causes significant local problems especially because of the scale and nature of its night freight flights. Any major increase in flying activities could produce totally unacceptable consequences for many people who live in the vicinity, which includes tens of thousands of people in the constituencies of North-West Leicestershire, South Derbyshire, Loughborough and Rushcliffe.

I am pleased to see the Secretary of State for Transport in his place. On 23 July 2002, when he made his statement on the future development of air transport in the United Kingdom, he said

Xdoing nothing is not an option."—[Hansard, 23 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 847.]

As I said in the House that same day, if he meant that it was not an option to do nothing to give airport communities a decent environmental framework to protect them

Xin particular from the corrosive and damaging effects of night noise"—[Hansard, 23 July 2002; Vol. 389, c. 860], he was right.

The national options for airport expansion have been hugely controversial and have been triggered by the enormous growth in air travel in recent decades. In 1970, UK air passengers totalled 32 million. By 1980, that figure had grown to 58 million. By 1990, it was 102 million and by 2000, it was 180 million. Discounting all environmental constraints on growth and extrapolating in a way that would make any half-decent statistician blush, the Government are forecasting passenger numbers soaring through the stratosphere to 275 million by 2010, 400 million by 2020 and more than 500 million by 2030.

For the aviation industry to urge our nation to predict and provide for growth on that scale is absolutely unsustainable. For the industry to promote it without a proper evaluation of the impact and the alternatives is simply irresponsible. If the Government are to ensure that the future of the aviation industry is to be a sustainable one, some management of demand has to be undertaken.

Three types of action commend themselves: fiscal measures to end the unfair tax breaks; higher rail investment; and tighter environmental limits. First, the huge anomaly of tax-free aviation fuel must end, although that will require international agreement. In the meantime, the Government can consider a noise or a fuel tax for internal flights, or ending aviation's zero VAT rating status. By 2030, this Al Capone of the travel industry will be avoiding tax to the tune of #30 billion per year.

A second option is to extend transport choice by greater investment in rail, which would allow a better use of existing airport space for long-haul flights. The report XFrom Planes to Trains" shows that almost half of all flights in Europe are less than 300 miles and have great potential for transfer to rail.

Finally, management of demand can be achieved by giving the aviation industry clear operating standards aimed at developing new technology to reduce its impact. Tight national limits need to be spelt out and central control of the London airports, achieved by a designation under the Civil Aviation Act 1982, must be extended to the larger regional airports.

Doing nothing is not an option, especially for people near regional airports who would pay the real costs of unrestrained growth—the huge tracts of unspoilt countryside bulldozed to make way for concrete and tarmac; the thousands of acres of ugly commercial sprawl; the loss of wildlife habitats; and the massive traffic congestion. Local villages, such as Diseworth in my constituency, would be changed out of recognition, while the ancient and beautiful churches in villages such as Breedon would be at risk because their Saxon builders forgot to ensure that they were nowhere near a flight path.

Worst of all are the air pollution and intolerable noise and disturbance from night flights. A few days ago, I received the following email:

XGood morning Mr Taylor,

Well it's 04.31 on the 15th November and again I have been disturbed by night flights from EMA. Several have powered over the house in Thringstone..and again I can't sleep because just as I doze off another one goes over..as I have a health problem that makes sleep somewhat of a precious commodity..it looks like it might be a case of having to medicate in order to get some at all. A wonderful state of affairs, having to use drugs to be able to sleep because someone is disturbing the Peace, though if I disturbed the slumber of the EMA chairman I'd get arrested."

Nocturnal noise is a growing problem at British airports. It can affect quality of sleep and thus performance at school and work and, ultimately, it can affect health. The Queen's Speech would have been more welcome if it had taken steps to combat the sources and levels of unnecessary noise in our country. A consistent approach to environmental regulation at all our airports is fundamental. We can achieve that only if the national aviation policy, which will emerge next spring in the Government's aviation White Paper, has a common comprehensive framework for noise control. There must be equity and fairness between individual airports as to the environmental regulation required—a level runway, as it were.

Airport communities throughout the land are closely following the appeal by the Government against the decision of the European Court of Human Rights that Heathrow is violating human rights by depriving people of a night's sleep without sufficient justification. Villages near East Midlands airport certainly hope that the ECHR verdict will be upheld, as that large regional airport is unique in having no limit on night flights.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a wave of local protest from a wide range of organisations about the Department of Transport's midlands aviation consultation paper. On Saturday, it will culminate in a large peaceful protest against a second runway. I wholly support the action group Wings in its campaign objectives of no new runway, no expansion outside the existing airport boundaries and no further increase in airport capacity without the most stringent environmental constraints.

I commend and support the work of other local community organisations, such as PAIN—People Against Intrusive Noise—and parish council groups such as AARPC—the Association of Airport-Related Parish Councils—in their fight for a better quality of life for their members in the face of a powerful aviation lobby. Throughout the land, similar groups are engaged in that uneven struggle.

We must all challenge the flawed basis of the consultation process—the forecasts for air travel and freight flights until 2030 and the questionnaires specially written by highly paid civil servants to set communities from each airport area against one another. We must show that it would be highly irresponsible not to consider demand management; otherwise, irreversible environmental damage will result. The Queen's Speech should have flagged up an intention to act on aviation.

The growth in aviation is out of control only because it is exempt from many of the controls that have applied to other industries for many years. Why should the polluter not pay? Why should there not be an end to public subsidy to aviation? Why should not land use planning law require all proposed airport developments to detail their full environmental impacts?

Aviation has economic and social benefits, although they are not as substantial as the ubiquitous lobbyists would have us believe. Its down sides, although widely documented, are not fully understood by politicians and decision makers. Is it not time to listen to the airport communities and to hear their counter-arguments to the excessively grandiose self-promotion of the aviation industry?

Many of the options in the aviation consultation papers are environmentally disastrous and socially unacceptable. The Government really are flying into trouble.