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George Best Belfast City Airport

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 24th February 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes in which to propose and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Green

I beg to move

That this Assembly calls on the Minister of the Environment to set up a public inquiry under Article 31 of the Planning (NI) Order 1991 in relation to the application to extend the runway at George Best Belfast City Airport, in order to properly test all of the relevant economic and environmental arguments.

From what the First Minister has said, the wording that he has suggested may be appropriate, but I will return to that presently.

I will clarify my views on the motion: I am totally opposed to the runway extension at George Best Belfast City Airport. However, that is not the intention of the motion, which calls for the extension application to be referred to a public inquiry. The support for a public inquiry is widespread, ranging from local councils, including those most affected — Belfast and North Down — to many thousands of local residents, and from the largest user of the airport, Flybe, to Belfast International Airport. Those concerns must be addressed in a transparent manner, and that can be done only through a public inquiry.

This is not a straightforward planning application. It will affect the lives of thousands of residents and will be of strategic significance to the development of the Northern Ireland economy. It raises important and serious structural, social and environmental issues, which cannot be examined under the normal planning process. The case for there being a public inquiry under article 31 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 is overwhelming. It is essential that stakeholders have an opportunity to make their case.

A public inquiry would give those people most affected — particularly those in Holywood and east Belfast — the right to have their concerns and views heard. It would allow for the independent scrutiny of the noise, health and environmental impacts of the proposed extension. In particular, it would enable the examination of the impact of the changes made under the 2008 planning agreement, and the introduction of the larger Boeing 737 aircraft last year.

The inquiry would also examine the economic benefits and disbenefits to the Northern Ireland economy overall and evaluate the impact of the possible displacement of passengers from Belfast International Airport, potentially threatening its long-term viability and its ability to compete with Dublin Airport.

The company involved promotes the issue of an extended runway as being the environmental impact on residents against the economic benefits to the Northern Ireland economy. That grossly underestimates the environmental impact and exaggerates the economic benefits, if any.

Nowhere does the company attempt to justify its claims of economic benefits, which must be considered by a public inquiry, because, although there would be financial benefits for the company, there is no evidence of benefits to the economy as a whole. Indeed, the 2003 White Paper, ‘The Future of Air Transport’, suggested that any increase in airport capacity in Northern Ireland should take place at Belfast International Airport.

Several economic benefits have been suggested. First, there would be increased employment. New jobs would be created in constructing the runway; however, in the long term, few new jobs would be created. The proposed increase in the number of flights is less than 10%, which is unlikely to create extra jobs in servicing the airport. Any new jobs are likely to result from the displacement of jobs from Belfast International Airport.

Secondly, it has been suggested that tourism would increase. Most tourists expect to travel 10 or 20 miles after arriving at a foreign destination — Ryanair passengers normally expect to travel at least 50. Being able to travel the slightly shorter distance from Belfast City Airport would not be likely to influence a tourist wishing to visit Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, increased business traffic is envisaged. Belfast City Airport already provides an excellent service to most UK cities. Unfortunately, no European city can justify a regular flight to Belfast based on business travel alone, and in the past year, it has been necessary to withdraw routes to several European cities. Indeed, the present business user is more likely to be discouraged by having to queue behind 300 holiday makers bound for Tenerife or Malaga.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Green

No, sorry. I suspect that Flybe opposes the extension because it would disrupt its regular business custom to British cities and change the nature of the airport.

Belfast City Airport has waged a propaganda campaign against a public inquiry, stressing economic advantages for the local economy; it even commissioned a poll to demonstrate how much the public supports its plans. However, the poll asked the wrong, and leading, questions, it ignored the main issues, such as the environment, and it polled the wrong people — for example, businesses in Belfast city centre were polled, but those in affected areas, such as Holywood, Sydenham and east Belfast, were not. In addition, most of the research was carried out before the proposed runway extension became public knowledge. As a reflection of public opinion, the poll has no credibility.

As an economist, I envisage no significant economic benefits from the proposed runway extension; on the other hand, I do envisage serious social and environmental problems. The new planning agreement allows a significant increase in passenger numbers and an additional 3,000 flights; the arrival last year of Ryanair’s Boeing 737s caused a 122% increase in the number of people who are significantly affected by noise. Before considering further increases, the impact of those changes on local residents should be assessed. Despite assurances that flights would be directed over Belfast Lough, almost 90% of planes still fly over residential areas.

The runway extension will lead to increased noise pollution. The extension has been proposed in order to allow fully loaded, fully fuelled large jets to take-off, using the full length of the extended runway. Given that larger planes are much heavier, take-offs would inevitably be lower and louder.

The Eastern Health and Social Services Board — a key strategic consultee — has voiced major reservations concerning the increased risk to health that the extension would pose. However, the board was not consulted by the Planning Service, so a health-impact assessment has not been carried out.

Thousands of people are forced to endure the airport’s unrelenting expansion, which affects them greatly, while fewer than 20 miles away, a two-runway airport exists, with plenty of spare capacity, no noise issues, no need for an operating curfew, no cross-wind problems, no bird reserve considerations, and no densely populated areas in the vicinity.

One must ask why the company is so opposed to a public inquiry. Why is it against open public debate? In the absence of an overall strategic examination of the airport’s capacity, a public inquiry is required to answer several questions. Although developing a regional plan for airports is a reserved matter, this region’s airport capacity should be assessed.

One must ask oneself how the economy will benefit from the runway extension. I query whether it will benefit.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP 12:30 pm, 24th February 2009

Does the Member agree that it would be foolish to make a decision in a piecemeal fashion without obtaining a proper strategic aviation strategy for Northern Ireland? Surely it is vital that such a strategy is produced for Northern Ireland. That will ensure that we are doing what is right for the economic advancement of Northern Ireland plc and not for one area of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Brian Wilson Brian Wilson Green

I thank the Member for his intervention. I agree with his comments; perhaps I did not make the point as clearly as he did, but that is what I intended to say. The decision should not be based on a one-off event; we should look at the overall strategy.

How will the extension meet the European criteria for a city airport? There are restrictions on city airports, and we must establish whether the new extension would comply with those restrictions. One should also ask oneself whether major infrastructure improvements will be required. At many times of the day, the Sydenham bypass is like a giant car park. Do we want to increase the number of cars using that bypass? How would that increased usage affect passengers?

There are many other questions to ask. Would the increase in noise and air pollution that would be suffered by the residents of north Down and east Belfast be acceptable? How would the displacement of tourist traffic impact on Belfast International Airport? Will Belfast International Airport be denied the critical mass of passengers to compete effectively with Dublin Airport for international flights? What are the long-term implications for the development of air travel in Northern Ireland? Will we see further applications to expand the number of flights at George Best Belfast City Airport?

Recently, I asked Brian Ambrose for an assurance that he would not seek a further increase in the number of flights for the airport. He was unwilling to provide that assurance. However, the runway extension will not make economic sense unless there is a significant increase in flights. I assure Members that there will be further applications if the extension is approved.

Those questions and many other issues need to be resolved, and that can be done only through a public inquiry. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I propose, therefore, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm when Mr Jimmy Spratt will be the first Member to speak.

The sitting was suspended at 12.32 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:00 pm, 24th February 2009

I advise the Assembly that the Speaker is satisfied that it is in order for the debate to proceed. As the Speaker will consider and take counsel on the wider issues that were raised by the First Minister, I do not intend to take any further points of order on this matter.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I beg to move the following amendment: Leave out “to set up” and insert

“to take note of the view of this Assembly that there should be”.

I ask the Minister to note the view of the Assembly with regard to a public inquiry into the proposed runway extension at Belfast City Airport.

I am elected to the House as a representative of the people of South Belfast, an area in which a significant number of households are affected by runway noise and the environmental impact of the nearby airport. I also represent the businessmen of the South Belfast area, and other sectors that benefit from having an easy, accessible airport on the doorstep of the city centre. I also represent the unemployed of that area, who desperately seek employment opportunities at this time and young people who are seeking apprenticeship opportunities.

In the light of the variety of such interest groups, the proposal to extend the runway at Belfast City Airport left me, and my colleagues in East Belfast, questioning how best to represent the diverse opinions in that constituency. As the Minister comes to a decision regarding the need for a public inquiry, it is vital that all issues pertaining to the runway extension planning application are rigorously examined in detail, to ensure that all environmental planning and technical issues are addressed fully by the Planning Service.

It is vital that the Minister considers the concerns of the people who, everyday, live under the flight path and whose lives are impacted upon because of where they live. Furthermore, it is important that the economic development of Belfast and Northern Ireland plc is also considered fully. There is much debate over the environmental impact that any extension of the runway would bring. We note the concerns of residents who express alarm at a rapid increase in the number of flights a year, an increase in the number of large, noisy jets, and the subsequent noise pollution and fear of increased health risks.

In contrast, the application argues that the extension will not involve any change to the number of flights or the size of aircraft using the runway. Furthermore, representatives of Belfast City Airport state that any change in noise level will be indistinguishable. The Minister must consider those differences in opinion as he reaches a decision regarding a public inquiry.

We must also consider the economic impact of a runway extension at Belfast City Airport. Again there is a difference of opinion, this time between representatives of that airport and representatives of Belfast International Airport. Representatives of Belfast City Airport state that an extra 100 jobs would be created if a runway extension takes place and that, with the runway extension, George Best Belfast City Airport anticipates over 500,000 European visitors, which will generate £120 million of tourist revenue. That will have obvious benefits to tourism, local business and the wider economy.

However, set against that are the arguments put forward by representatives of Belfast International Airport. They argue that, in order to establish and sustain a firm competitive platform, the Northern Ireland Executive must be mindful of the example south of the border. In the Irish Republic, a strategic focus has been put on Dublin Airport as its single most valuable asset. The representatives of Belfast International Airport argued that the runway extension will result in jobs being displaced rather than created, and that fragmentation of the market in favour of our key competitor at Dublin will only ensure that our capacity as a region to invest in key target routes for tourism and inward investment will be seriously depleted.

Those are just some of the arguments and differing opinions that have arisen from the planned extension of the runway at George Best Belfast City Airport, and those arguments have resulted in calls for a public inquiry. That has brought out a difference in opinion. A public inquiry is considered only where that process will provide additional information to inform a final decision that is not available through final consultation.

I urge the Minister to consider whether that is the case, in light of the continuing differences of opinion that I have just outlined. If he believes that to be the case, then he should call for a public inquiry; if not, then he should act accordingly.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion in its call for a public inquiry. The Member for South Belfast has, in his own way, argued for a public inquiry, even though the DUP amendment does not call for that. However, I accept that Mr Spratt has a number of clear differences of opinion. He urged the Minister to consider all of those, and, at that point, decide whether to call for a public inquiry. In some ways, the Member lent some support to the notion of a public inquiry.

My party supports the call for a public inquiry, precisely because it feels that there are a great many competing and fundamental differences of opinion, which I do not want to go into this afternoon — a number of other Members wish to contribute to the debate. However, many of those issues are around wider regional strategic matters, including finance, the environmental impact, and so on. I do not want to rehearse any of those arguments.

However, I want to make a number of brief points. I want to place on record the fact that, in my view, the management of Belfast City Airport has, over several years, done a tremendous job in trying to ensure that it runs an excellent facility. It would be fair to say that the travelling public who use the airport have, increasingly, found a much better and more professional service. However, in saying that, I know that some people in my constituency, and in the neighbouring constituency, will not be too pleased to hear it. Nevertheless, I want to place on record the fact that the management has done a good job within its remit to expand the airport and make it a much better facility for those who use it and those who work there.

I remind the House that the original permission for the airport, which was supported by all the parties in Belfast, was on the basis that it would be a city airport. Arguments were put forward clearly and cogently at the time that such an airport would be of great benefit to the economy of the city and further afield. It was always designed, planned and intended to be a city airport, not an international airport.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Does the Member agree that this is a small regional economy with a population of 1·7 million, and that we have airport facilities in a number of locations? Belfast International Airport has significant unused capacity, and it is critical that any development proposal for the airports should take account of the strategic overview and be deployed in the interests of continuing to develop the economy here.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

In my opening remarks, I said that we must consider any development or expansion plans for the George Best Belfast City Airport in the wider regional strategic context. Therefore, I agree with the Member.

I remind Members that this was always intended to be a city airport, and permission was granted on that basis. It is also important to remind ourselves that a number of conditions were placed on the operation of the airport, and that all of the important environmental standards had to be adhered to.

The operating licence imposed restrictions on the times and number of flights. There was also the important issue of the flight path over Belfast Lough. My concern is that those stipulations have not been well adhered to, particularly the stipulation about the use of the flight path over Belfast Lough. I expressed those concerns directly to airport management on a visit to the site only a few months ago.

Although I imagine that the travelling public would very much welcome any extension or expansion of Belfast City Airport because it is within easy access of the city centre, for a growing number of residents of south and east Belfast, there is the ongoing — and, in my view, greatly increasing — problem of the noise of the aircraft flying over very densely populated areas, and the regularity of those flights. Residents of those areas are right to be very concerned and worried about expansion plans.

It is important to note that none of the airlines, bar one, supports such an extension of the runway for the reasons outlined by the owners of the airport, who are making the application to extend it. I believe that the arguments for an extension are essentially being made for the purposes of competition, and, indeed, in some ways, monopoly. Therefore, I believe that we must think about the motivation of those who are making the proposals. Essentially, we are talking about one airline. Certainly, from my point of view, it seems that that particular airline is really looking at the rich pickings of other airlines in the region.

I wonder whether, in the longer term, Belfast City Airport is really only being used as a stepping stone to bigger business and commercial interests. Those may well be opinions, but I remain to be convinced of the wisdom or benefit of those decisions in the longer term. I support the call — primarily from the residents — for a public inquiry, because this matter is of fundamental concern to those who live in the general area, and it will remain a fundamental concern long into the future.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I support the motion, which calls for a public inquiry into a possible expansion — yet again — of Belfast City Airport. A decision to grant or refuse planning permission for an airport runway will have a significant effect on the economy and the local environment. The pros and cons must be carefully weighed up before a balanced decision is made.

A public inquiry is the best method of ensuring that the wider public is fully consulted and the public interest fully considered in reaching a decision. It would enable further evidence to be presented and allow for greater scrutiny than occurred previously in the limited pre-Christmas planning consultation.

As other Members have said, Belfast City Airport is one of only four airports in the EU that have been designated as city airports, and there is a particular directive that enables tighter restrictions to be placed on them in order to protect the local residents and communities. However, we must recognise that economic advantages would flow from an extension. It would enable the Boeing 737-800s to carry a full load, which would give access to many European destinations. Those are the planes that are specifically operated by Ryanair, and it is demanding the runway extension to optimise their use. They are best suited to the longer European routes, but, of course, they can also be used for shorter regional routes. Ryanair is a ruthless, highly successful low-cost airline and could expand the range of its destinations from Northern Ireland. That would benefit our local travellers and bring additional tourists to Belfast and Northern Ireland, but at what cost?

Air links will be particularly important to the tourist sector, which is increasing in size as we pick up on the opportunities that were lost during the many years of terrorism. There has been no detailed assessment of whether we are talking about displacement of flights from one airport to another. That issue could be examined in a public inquiry. Ryanair is clearly the driver of the proposal. Low-budget airlines are well known for their use of secondary airports, often calling at airports further away from the ultimate destination. Is that simply a mechanism that they are using to drive down a better deal with Belfast International Airport? What exactly is going on? Why are they not using an airport further out from the city, which would allow for greater flexibility as regards landings and take-offs?

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP 2:15 pm, 24th February 2009

I thank the Member for giving way. I speak as an MLA for South Belfast. My office deals routinely with complaints about the noise emanating from low-flying aircraft flying out of Belfast City Airport. Bearing in mind the very strong, clear public-health arguments and the very strong public-safety arguments — not least because low-flying aircraft are flying over the city, over housing, and over the harbour estate, with all the combustibles that are located there — is it not disgraceful that the chief executive of Ryanair, Michael O’Leary, is reported in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ as saying:

“We would like to do more and base more aircraft here and are working with Brian Ambrose of City Airport to get the runway extended. Let’s get the planning permission through, and let’s ignore the mewling and puking from local residents, which is a load of nonsense.”?

That sort of comment is a clear demonstration of the contempt that the applicant holds for the entire process. For that reason alone, we need to have a public inquiry.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I concur. Those are very unfortunate remarks, which should not have been made, and I am sure that if Michael O’Leary lived under the flight path, or close to the airport, he would not have made them.

The issue of using a particular plane is interesting. Ryanair’s heavy jets are particularly noisy, and, essentially, they could displace the quiet Bombardier Q400 turboprops, which are more environmentally friendly and quieter. There is greater flexibility with regard to their size, and the plane can be matched to the demand. That is a significant issue.

The number of flights has been increasing steadily at the airport, and it is just under the critical threshold of 50,000 at which health impact statements would be required. There can be no doubt that the proposal to extend the runway for the jets would affect the whole neighbourhood, and it would be significant for Northern Ireland.

There are almost 8,000 people living within the 57-plus decibel noise level 2008 envelope. Therefore, there is clearly a need for a public inquiry, and that has been supported by Belfast City Council. I also understand that there have been almost 2,000 letters of objection.

What is the strategy for airports in Northern Ireland? Other Members have also mentioned that. Do we need to have two airports competing on exactly the same basis, or would it be wiser to have two regional airports competing for internal flights? Larger, heavier, noisier jets and long-haul and European flights should be limited to one international airport, so that it can compete head-on with Dublin Airport, where there is real competition at that level. That is something that needs to be taken into consideration. We also need to consider whether we need to impose higher environ­mental standards to protect the local communities that are being exposed. I support the call for a public inquiry.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Minister (Europe), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I, too, support the motion. It is not saying that we should extend the runway or that we should not extend it; it is saying that we should get all the facts before we make a decision. That is what a call for a public inquiry is — it gets all the facts on the table.

There are many claims and counterclaims. Airport management will make claims, and, like other Members who have spoken, I commend them on the efficiency and effectiveness of the operation that they run there, but that is not the issue today. The issue today is the impact that an extension of the runway would have on the lives of a number of people. There are a large number of people — not just a couple of busybodies — across south and east Belfast who feel concerned and threatened.

I welcome the many residents from south and east Belfast who are with us today in the Public Gallery, and I thank them for taking the time to be here, because it is always useful to know that the issue that we are debating here is of genuine public interest.

The proposed 1,900 foot extension to the runway at Belfast City Airport amounts to 0·4 miles, or almost a kilometre. It is quite a distance. One need only look at London: the third runway for Heathrow Airport is very controversial and the planning application very difficult.

The George Best Belfast City Airport is a great asset to Belfast; it brings significant economic and social benefits to Northern Ireland, and it is well run. However, the noise of planes taking off and landing creates a problem: it significantly disturbs the lives, and quality of life, of thousands of people who live under the flight pathway. The negative effects are made clear to me from my contact with hundreds of constituents from day to day and week to week.

Things could be done to ameliorate the situation. I have a sense that, over the past month or six weeks, things have been done to alleviate the situation. More planes take off over the lough. Perhaps I am a bit dopey, but in my estimation fewer planes take off and land over Belfast; those taking off and landing come in and leave higher so that the threat of a plane flying low just over the rooftops seems to have been eliminated recently. I cannot help wondering why.

Another issue of growing concern, particularly among residents, is the timing of the application. The contract with Ryanair was signed despite its aircraft being too big for the present runway. This application was made, despite the fact that the contracts were signed with the two limitations. Ryanair 737 jets are much noisier, tend to fly in lower and tend not to observe the strict conditions that other airlines observe. As someone said to me the other day, they sound more like tractors than motorcars. They come in with louder, deeper noise, which is much more penetrating and disruptive than, for instance, British Midland flights.

Let me make it crystal clear: I support the call for a public inquiry into this application. A public inquiry is not a decision; however, it will give everyone affected the space to have a frank, open and honest discussion and examination of all the factors: business interests, the demand and need for the airport, and the health and environmental implications as well. It would benefit all concerned, and I urge the Minister to recognise that. The issue, like that of the third runway at Heathrow, is about striking a balance between commercial use and the needs of communities and the environment. It is not an easy task, but it is a vital one.

Although not of immediate concern, there is a need for a regional aviation strategy and to integrate whatever is decided in this regard into our overall regional development strategy.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

I support the motion and the amendment. There should be a public inquiry into the proposal to extend the runway at the George Best Belfast City Airport. It is one of only two EU-designated city airports in the United Kingdom; the other is London City Airport. Belfast City Airport is right in the heart of the city. Aircraft arriving or taking off from the city airport have a significant effect on the quality of life of many thousands of people living in east Belfast. Belfast International Airport, however, is located in a sparsely occupied area and can, in contrast, operate 24 hours a day. A proposal has been made to alter the city airport and to increase the runway by 30% or 590 metres — almost 2,000 feet. A proposal of such magnitude needs very careful consideration.

When such a change is made, there can be no going back; there will not be a reduction in years to come. That is why some of the arguments that have been put forward in favour of the expansion of the runway do not stack up. In some of the material, I have seen references to the credit crunch, the economic climate and the need for jobs, and that, therefore, the runway should be expanded. However, in five or 10 years, when the economic situation is very different from that of today, the expanded runway will still be there.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I agree with the Member, and I think that one of the problems is that this issue has been looked at with a very short-termist attitude. A genuine concern has been raised about the intention of a particular airline. Does the Member accept that we need to look at the matter in the long term? The runway is going to be here in 30 or 50 years, and what one particular airline does in the next year or two will pale into insignificance in the long term. There is a flipside to the coin; the long-term situation has to be looked at, rather than indulging in too much short-termism.

Photo of Nelson McCausland Nelson McCausland DUP

There are two ways of looking at many things. I intend to come to the long-term view in due course, and I think that it presents an argument in favour of, rather than against, a public inquiry.

Many of the arguments that Belfast City Airport has put forward do not concern planning issues; it lists economic benefits, job creation, tourism — all commercial issues. Those are not planning issues; rather, they are the economic arguments that are being put forward for permitting the expansion without a public inquiry.

I note the figures that Belfast City Airport has put forward for an increase in the number of people arriving and an increase in the number of jobs. However, I am not convinced that that overrides the case for a public inquiry. The implication is that, without an extension of the runway at Belfast City Airport, we will not see a growth in the number of tourists coming to Northern Ireland or in the number of jobs associated with those tourists arriving. That is certainly not the case. I am in favour of increasing the number of tourists that come to Belfast. I am passionate in my view that tourism is one of the major growth areas for the economy and for employment in the city. Tourism has increased considerably, and it will continue to be one of the growth areas; however, that is not an argument for extending the runway.

It is not as though there is no alternative. We have Belfast International Airport, and there is the potential for growth in the number of flights in and out of it. As regards access to Northern Ireland for tourists, the two airports should not be competing — and this is where I come to the long-term view — they should complement each other.

I note that Belfast International Airport has called for a regional aviation policy, and I favour such a policy. Belfast City Airport refers to a 2003 White Paper which was produced by the Department for Transport for the whole of the United Kingdom. Although that White Paper set out the views for a 30-year period, over the last five years or so there has been a significant change in the needs of Northern Ireland and in what is considered to be appropriate provision for Northern Ireland. Given that we have a devolved Assembly, we should be looking at some way of bringing forward a regional aviation policy for Northern Ireland.

When one compares and contrasts the cases put forward by Belfast City Airport, local residents, Belfast International Airport, and the various airlines that use Belfast City Airport, it is clear that this is a complex issue. The airlines themselves are divided on the issue of extending the runway — Ryanair demands it, but BMI does not need it, and Flybe opposes it. If there is not a uniform view among the airlines, and if some of those airlines are not convinced about the extension, is the case really that strong?

Due to the complexity of the arguments — and the arguments presented to us in the various papers are complex — I think that there is a clear case for a public inquiry. I hope that there is one, and I would certainly support it. I know that the people living in east Belfast who are concerned about the runway believe that that is the best way forward. We have to give due cognisance to the concerns of those people who are directly affected. We have a responsibility to look after the interests of folk, particularly if they are affected in that way. To the many people who say that they want the runway extended, I ask: would you want to live beside it?

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

It has been said on a number of occasions this afternoon, that Belfast City Airport is one of four designated city airports in Europe.

City airports are, of course, unique in that they are situated in urban settings, which are surrounded by a high density of people. It follows, therefore, that city airports should have stricter guidelines with regard to the number of flights and the levels of noise and pollution. It also means that any proposals for city airports should be given as much consideration as possible. That is why my colleagues and I support the motion.

Of course, there are potential economic benefits — a blind man on a galloping horse could see that. However, those must be fully weighed against the potential costs to local residents, possible increases in noise and pollution levels, and what the extension will mean in the medium and long term. The environmental impact of the proposed extension must also be given due consideration, especially with regard to our wider environmental commitments.

Indeed, one could argue that the improvement of rail links to our airports should be given at least equal consideration as any extensions. A more strategic framework is needed in which to develop the travel and tourism infrastructure in Northern Ireland. Currently, there is a lack of vision in that area, which means that that and other tourism, economic and environmental decisions can take place in a vacuum. As we heard in this morning’s debate, we need to become more strategic when it comes to our visions for the future.

A public inquiry should also consider the ramifications that the development of the runway may have on the planning agreement between the airport and the Department of the Environment. No changes to the planning agreement will occur under the present proposals, but what potential changes could the extension facilitate in the future, and what ramifications might that have on local residents and on Belfast City Airport’s status as a city airport? A public inquiry is the best way to ensure that an objective decision is made in the best interests of everyone who has a stake in the decision. I support the motion.

Photo of Lord Wallace Browne Lord Wallace Browne DUP 2:30 pm, 24th February 2009

When dealing with any planning application, it is essential that all the accurate information that is available at the time is considered very carefully before an informed decision is made. I am confident that the planners and the Minister will weigh up all the facts before reaching a conclusion.

The main reason that the management at George Best Belfast City Airport has given for extending the runway is that it will facilitate flights to a wider range of European destinations and ensure fuel and passenger efficiencies for the aircraft. The chief executive of the airport has stated that the extension to the runway will not entail extra flights, because the air traffic movements through the airport are governed by a separate planning agreement.

The airport’s management have also stated that due to the physical limitations of the existing runway and the proposed extension, no wide-bodied aircraft will be permitted to use the airport and that only narrow-bodied aircraft with one aisle will, as at present, be able to use the airport. It is worth noting that, although it is proposed to extend the runway by approximately 600 metres, there is a proposal to reduce the south-east end of the runway by some 150 metres to the north-east.

I understand that the airport’s operating hours are also governed by the planning agreement, and that that will not change as a result of the runway extension. The George Best Belfast City Airport is the second largest employer in east Belfast, employing more than 1,400 people, and it has a significant impact on economic growth. However, although we should do everything possible to ensure economic growth, many other factors have to be considered. Those include the air quality, the odour impact, the archaeological impact, contamination, ground conditions and the drainage and water quality. The noise of the aircraft and of the additional road traffic are also factors.

It is also important to take into consideration the effect of a runway extension on communities in east and south Belfast and north Down. Their main concern is health and safety. Full consideration must be given to their fears and apprehensions: noise pollution, implications for schools in the area, and possible increased health risks. Local communities may have other fears as well.

As with the argument for the runway extension, the Assembly must ask the Minister to take note of the concerns of both the business community and local residents on any proposed runway extension at George Best Belfast City Airport.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. I must declare an interest as a member of Antrim Borough Council, which has objected formally to the planning application because Belfast International Airport is located within the council’s boundaries. I support the call for a public inquiry into the extension of the runway at Belfast City Airport. It is not just another planning application; it is a complex issue that is not as simple as it might seem. All information must be examined fully in an open, article 31 public inquiry.

Who wants the extension? As far as I know, only Ryanair wants it. BMI says that it does not need it, and Flybe does not want it. Local councils, including Belfast City Council, also oppose those plans.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

The Member refers to ‘Belfast City Airport Watch’, which states that four councils oppose the extension. That is inaccurate; North Down Borough Council is not against the extension. I know that because I am the mayor.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

No. The councils that I mentioned are Belfast City Council and Antrim Borough Council. [Interruption.]

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. Members must direct all their remarks through the Chair.

Photo of Thomas Burns Thomas Burns Social Democratic and Labour Party

George Best Belfast City Airport was never intended to be anything other than a city airport — a city hub; it should not grow into an international airport. It can never grow into a true international airport because of its location and because there is already an international airport only 20 miles away.

Dublin is a much bigger city than Belfast, yet it has only one airport and air-traffic infrastructure. Belfast airports pay twice for air-traffic control, security, and for fire-and-rescue services, which costs them a great deal of money. The fact that Dublin Airport has no near rival helps it to grow — it is one of the fastest growing in Europe — it has received high levels of investment and is a great success. However, it must also be said that it has taken business away from both Belfast City Airport and Belfast International Airport.

People usually say that competition — two rival airports fighting for customers — is a good thing. I agree that it is a good thing in theory. However, at present, and for some time to come, there will be an oversupply of flights. Flying capacity is not being used. Competition between Belfast International Airport and George Best Belfast City Airport for London air traffic is a good example of that waste. We do not make the most of what we have. At present, more capacity is not needed. In the long term, it would be better for different carriers to compete at the same airport.

Much of the growth at Belfast City Airport is not environmentally friendly either in the short or long term. A bigger runway means bigger planes and more flights. If the extension goes ahead, the quality of life of the people of east and south Belfast will be badly affected by increased noise. It is a built-up area, and, therefore, a lot of people will be affected.

Belfast International Airport has the potential for growth, and fewer people would be badly affected by expansion at that airport. There would be no noise issues, no crosswinds, no bird issues, and night flights would be allowed. Indeed, Belfast International Airport already has two runways. We could encourage investment in Belfast International Airport and leave George Best Belfast City Airport as it is. It would be much better to build a railway link to Belfast International Airport, a Templepatrick bypass, and make the road between Templepatrick and the airport a dual carriageway.

The expansion of Belfast City Airport would not be good for the economy, the environment or the people of east and south Belfast. I repeat my call for a public inquiry into the extension of the runway so that the issues that I have outlined can be assessed in detail.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion. The motion is clear in calling for an inquiry into article 31 of the Planning Order 1991 in relation to the application to extend the runway at Belfast City Airport. That will enable the economic and environmental arguments to be studied, which is the correct course of action.

I speak as someone who believes that tourism is very important to the economy in the North. It has been estimated that the extension could create 100 jobs at the airport and attract about £120 million to the economy. Belfast alone accounts for 1,700 jobs in the tourism infrastructure.

Therefore, it is a very important issue about which we receive letters and will receive lobbying. The photographs in the ‘Belfast City Airport Watch’ document show just how close aeroplanes fly to the roofs of people’s homes. We must all ask ourselves whether a runway extension is the right thing to do, because the airport is in a built-up area.

I have addressed the motion’s reference to economic issues, but there are also environmental issues. Extension of the runway would have an immense adverse effect on the population of east Belfast and the surrounding area. Detrimental impacts such as noise pollution, aircraft emissions, traffic congestion and the disturbance of natural habitats will all be increased if the runway extension goes ahead. Noise pollution alone, for example, would undoubtedly increase, because flight paths to Belfast City Airport pass over a wide swathe of residential housing in south and east Belfast.

I must point out that we are all taking this issue very seriously. I hope that the Minister is listening somewhere else, because I note that he is not in the Chamber. I hope, therefore, that he is listening to the debate and taking the issue as seriously as the rest of us, because it is very important. However, the fact that many flights pass over —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

I will, certainly.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I thank the Member for giving way. It should be placed on record — for the benefit of the Member and others — that the Minister is not here because he has to make the equivalent of a judicial decision on whether to grant a public inquiry. That is the reason for his absence from the Chamber. This is an issue in which, clearly, the Minister would be very interested, but his hands are, effectively, tied. That is why he is not even in a position to respond to the debate and why it is probably not appropriate for him to be in the Chamber. However, the Minister’s absence is not due to any lack of interest on his part.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

I was simply saying that I hope that the Minister is listening to the debate very carefully, because it is of great importance to not only Belfast but to the entire economy. Therefore, I appreciate the Member’s remarks and thank him for the intervention.

The aircraft noise that take-offs, landings, taxiing and engine-testing cause is an important issue for communities that live near airports and under flight paths. The European Commission’s findings on noise pollution at airports show that living near an airport can increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, because increased blood pressure from noise pollution can exacerbate the risk of developing those illnesses. The European Commission estimates that 20% of Europe’s population — roughly 80 million people — are exposed to airport noise levels that it considers unhealthy and unacceptable. If the runway at Belfast City Airport is extended, that figure will increase.

Aircraft and airport vehicles emit a number of pollutants, particularly nitrogen dioxide and fine particles — PM10. Those have a proven detrimental effect on health and the environment. Belfast City Airport lies at the mouth of a natural valley, and in my constituency of West Belfast, a brown smog-like haze gathers on the Upper Springfield Road on mornings when there are high-pressure weather systems. As such, increased emissions would add to that local problem, and it would be greater in other areas.

Members often drive to the Assembly in the mornings and drive home again in the evenings, and we see traffic congestion on the roads. A runway extension would add to that congestion, which would affect the local community in the Belfast area, especially in east Belfast. The airport construction could also deprive local plant and animal species of their habitat. Victoria Park, which is located beside the airport, is not only for leisure use but is a site where migrating birds and other species thrive. The mudflats and artificial lagoons provide valuable feeding grounds for wading birds and wildfowl.

We must appreciate the human issues and as I pointed out earlier, acknowledge how close the airport is to people’s houses, as the photographs from the watchtower at Belfast City Airport highlight. We all use airports from time to time, and we hear the noise. I would not fancy living underneath a flight path or beside an airport, so it is important that we take the issue of the proposed runway extension seriously. I support the motion. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 2:45 pm, 24th February 2009

Like many of my constituents in North Down, I have mixed views on the airport. It is important to acknowledge that fact. I concur with the remarks that the Health Minister, Michael McGimpsey made: Michael O’Leary’s remarks are offensive, and I do not believe that Ryanair is doing Belfast City Airport any favours.

As the proposer of the motion said, thousands of people are forced to endure Belfast City Airport. However, the flip side of the coin has not been highlighted much during the debate. Thousands of people, particularly in north Down and east Belfast, are forced to enjoy the benefits of the airport, and it is important to place that on record. The airport provides employment for around 1,500 people, including my constituents and those from nearby constituencies. It adds economic benefit to the locality and increases consumer choice. Moreover, it offers commuter convenience to many people in my constituency and the surrounding areas, because they have an airport close to their location.

Although there has been a tendency to sneer at budget airlines during the debate, in many cases they provide opportunities for flights at a cost that is within people’s reach. Not everyone receives an MLA’s salary, and people should have the opportunity to fly.

I welcome the amendment and am happy to support an amended motion on the basis that it reflects the clear majority opinion in the House that a public inquiry should be held. We face two issues — one of process and one of end result. I am somewhat dubious about the merits of a public inquiry, because its idea is to uncover additional information. The competing sides have been almost smothered in a welter of information. It seems that there is little information that is not in the public domain. I question the extent to which new information will become available.

However, if a public inquiry were to bring forward new and additional information, it would be worthwhile. If, on the other hand, the motivation is simply to provide some sort of delaying tactic, then that is not a proper use of a public inquiry.

There are some people — particularly in the Green Party — who would probably like there to be no airports at all and who tend to view an aircraft as some sort of evil silver beast in the sky. The proposer of the motion demonstrated his level of knowledge of airports when he said that one of the problems might be that businessmen queuing for one flight would get caught up in a long queue of holidaymakers going to Malaga. I know that Mr Wilson does not fly — and as far as I know he has never flown in his life — but perhaps he should know that there are different check-in desks for different destinations. That shows a general level of ignorance regarding air transport.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I am conscious that my colleague Mr Wilson is not here, and I am not seeking to defend the general point that has been made, but does the Member recognise that Flybe, which does know something about running airlines, has made the point that it fears that the runway extension will change the character of Belfast City Airport? Flybe also fears that the extension will undermine its business model by interfering with the way it does business and interfering with the type of airport that it wishes to use for the service it provides for commuter traffic within the UK.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

There are differing views — and I am glad that the Member did not try to defend the ignorance of his colleague. Much of the rights and wrongs of the issue have been bandied around; the economic arguments, and the potential inflow of jobs and money via the runway extension. Indeed, taking the contrary view; much has been said about the impact on Belfast International Airport. As for the question of whether the runway extension will lead to some level of displacement, either from Belfast International Airport or Dublin Airport, the answer is yes, it probably will — but that is what is called economic competition. We want to see a level playing field — a level landing field, perhaps — for the airport.

There will be some level of displacement if one considers the short-term impact; however, over the past 10 years the number of people using Belfast International Airport has doubled, as has the number of people using Belfast City Airport. That suggests, at least in the long term, that competition is actually good for both airports.

Whether one is for or against the runway extension from the economic point of view — and I agree that we should be considering a Northern Ireland strategy for air transport separately — for people to hang their hats on the economic impact may be a red herring. As far as I am aware, a public inquiry would largely, if not exclusively, concentrate on planning issues, which was pointed out by Nelson McCausland, who pooh-poohed the potential economic advantages but felt that the potential economic problems that might arise should become material considerations. There must be a level playing field, and the case must be made on that basis.

A decision should be made on the issue, whether through a planning inquiry or ministerial decision. Such a decision must be made on the basis of promoting economic competition rather than economic protectionism, and it should not be based on the Luddite view of restraining one airport. From the environmental point of view, a public inquiry would not investigate the number of flights involved, the time, or the route. I urge Members to support the amendment.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

I support the motion. Although it is more watered down than the one that was tabled a few weeks ago, today’s motion also calls for a public inquiry, which is the critical next step that must be taken to properly address Belfast City Airport’s planning application to extend its runway.

A number of Members have outlined the legal, environmental and economic aspects of the debate. The DUP is not usually known for sitting on the fence, but today its Members seemed to be setting out the case in defence of the airport and then setting out the case of the residents. I will focus on the human costs of the runway extension. In the past few years, as the noise generated by Belfast City Airport has increased, so have the complaints received from local residents by the Progressive Union Party’s office. Many residents of east and south Belfast and north Down are impacted by the noise.

The residents of Connswater Grove and Connswater Mews are particularly affected, because those streets are located at the lowest point of the flight path.

Residents of social housing in those areas have only single glazing in their homes. That was not due for review until 2013; fortunately, the Minister for Social Development and Connswater Homes brought that review forward by two years. Nevertheless, those residents are tortured by aircraft noise now. The City Airport’s own monitoring systems documented a dramatic rise in the number of residents that were affected by increased noise at the airport. A report that was released last autumn revealed that the number of people who lived within a noise contour of 63 Leq had risen by 29%. Overall, there was a 122% increase in the number of people that were affected by aircraft noise. The DOE prohibits airports from exceeding that threshold, even though UK legislation recognises that the onset of significant nuisance from noise is set at 57 Leq.

To put that in context, it is worth remembering that Belfast Harbour Airport, as it was, only got permission to expand its accommodation for commercial aircraft in 1983. In the subsequent 26 years, the neighbourhoods that have long surrounded those old airfields have adapted to various changes. However, as George Best Belfast City Airport’s own noise reports demonstrate, the arrival of larger and heavier aircraft in recent years has had a profound effect on residents’ quality of life. Large Airbus and Boeing aircraft now make up more than 25% of the flights in and out of the City Airport.

I ask Members to think about the disturbances from those massive machines — not fears, as Lord Browne suggested, but very real disturbances: conversations halted, school lessons paused, backyard barbecues interrupted and children woken from their sleep. As other Members said, people’s health is affected. That is just from noise pollution; the effect on air quality requires further investigation.

The City Airport claims to adhere to European restrictions on urban airports by preventing flights after 9.30 pm. Last year, however, more than 500 flights broke that deadline with no consequence. The airport recently announced that it would fine airlines for breaking the curfew — starting at a massive £50. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington DC imposes a fine of $5,000, and Mineta San José Airport in California imposes a fine of $2,500.

George Best Belfast City Airport and its officials have not lived up to their responsibilities as an enterprise that is doing business in a local community. Its neighbours are not happy, because people are suffering under the noise. I understand that there is not much public sympathy for those who live under the flight path. However, those who are unsympathetic do not live there nor do they have to suffer the noise that residents suffer. The residents have asked for remedies, but have been met with very little empathy or understanding by airport officials. Their attitude towards local residents and others who have expressed concerns about noise levels is insensitive at best. George Best Belfast City Airport should deal with the current noise issue before adding any more.

Airports and air travel play an important role in our economy and in our lives. However, the issue is one of balancing the commercial needs of travellers with the quality of life of local residents, with the full awareness that local residents have to live with the consequences of the decisions every day.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I support the motion and the amendment. The decision to expand the runway at George Best Belfast City Airport is a significant one, and I support all the calls for a public inquiry. Such an inquiry would allow us fully to investigate the economic case that has been made by the airport and Ryanair and to determine whether it is necessary for Belfast and Northern Ireland to have the extended runway.

I welcome a public inquiry because the economic argument does not stack up, and an extension to the runway at the City Airport would not necessarily increase our economic well-being. In fact, it would be detrimental. We must have a single international airport with a high footfall that is necessary to achieve the critical mass of travellers that will attract more airlines and routes to the Province.

George Best Belfast City Airport, through its proposed expansion, is trying to compete with Aldergrove for the title of international airport. Having two international airports that divide footfall will mean that both airports and Northern Ireland, as a whole, will lose out.

Recently, the House of Commons voted on the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport. The House supported the motion as it recognised the importance of having a main hub airport. Alternatives proposed to alleviate pressure on Heathrow Airport, such as expanding Gatwick Airport, Stansted Airport or other airports, were rejected because they undermined the importance of Heathrow as a hub airport. We must follow the lead of the House Commons and not make the mistake of allowing Belfast City Airport to expand at the expense of Belfast International Airport.

Unfortunately, the Minister for Regional Development has done little to improve transport links to Belfast International Airport. Indeed, there needs to be a rail link to that airport so that we can improve it attractiveness and so that it can attract more routes, which, subsequently, will bring more business and investment to Northern Ireland.

Belfast City Airport has an important purpose in Northern Ireland’s aviation, because it serves business travellers and offers short-haul flights. However, it is not an international airport and we should not try to make it one. It is important that we in Northern Ireland are properly connected to the rest of the world, and it is important for the economy that we have good transport and aviation links. A situation in which two airports are competing for the status of Northern Ireland’s top airport, however, does us no good.

Both Belfast airports serve distinctive purposes — Belfast International Airport is an international airport and George Best Belfast City Airport is a city airport. We should not seek to change that, but we should seek to enhance those identities. I support the call for a public inquiry.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP 3:00 pm, 24th February 2009

I support the motion and the amendment. It is interesting to note that the airlines that currently use the George Best Belfast City Airport are divided over whether the runway extension is a necessity. If airlines are not in agreement about the requirements of the travelling public, caution should be exercised in decisions of this nature. A public inquiry is the sensible way in which to ensure that all aspects of the application are scrutinised and that the final decision is based on hard evidence.

This case has many aspects. The most obvious one being the increased disturbance that residents who live under the flight path have experienced since the introduction of larger jet aircraft on routes to and from Belfast City Airport. In my constituency, the increased usage of jet aircraft at Eglinton is noticeable.

I applaud Flybe for its great efforts to use aircraft that are fuel efficient and quieter. Figures show that Flybe is one of few carriers that has increased its passenger numbers in what is a difficult economic climate. Passengers obviously seem to think that Flybe has got it right commercially. Therefore, has it also got it right with regard to the runway extension? The best way to test that is via a public inquiry. I hope that Members agree with that point and that they support the amendment.

I remind Members that Northern Ireland has three airports. As I mentioned earlier, there is also one at Eglinton. It has already extended its runway, and we are all aware of the controversy that surrounded that decision. I encourage airlines not to forget that third airport, and I assure them that they would receive a warm welcome if they start to operate services from there. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

The First Minister outlined the necessity for the DUP’s amendment before this debate began today. Given that the original motion would have put the Minister of the Environment in a difficult position, our amendment allows the Minister to recognise the mood of the House on this issue, without forcing him to take one decision or another. The amendment will also unite the House.

Given the geographical location of the Province, the future of both air and sea transport is clearly an important issue and one which is of major significance to Northern Ireland. Members bore out the economic and tourism reasons for that in their contributions. I do not think that too many Members will argue against the fact that we need better routes to mainland Europe and beyond, perhaps with the exception of the Green Party, which takes a stance against aviation in most things that it says.

Members’ contributions make it clear that this is a divisive issue, with strong arguments both for and against the extension of the runway. We have heard many times that George Best Belfast City Airport operates under fairly significant restraints that are recognised in the Government’s White PaperThe Future of Air Transport’— most notably, about the length of the runway. A longer runway, as Members have heard, would allow aircraft to carry more fuel and to fly further. Lord Browne articulated that view.

Tommy Burns talked about more flights. However, I do not think that that is really the case, because the number of flights is capped; therefore, extending the runway would have a minimal impact in that regard. Paul Maskey’s concern about additional traffic is genuine, but we are talking about a minimal increase in the amount of traffic.

The Member of Parliament for South Belfast, Alasdair McDonnell, talked about the fact that the issue is finely balanced and that — similar to a recent debate in the House of Commons about the third runway at Heathrow — representatives from each constituency will hold different views. We have seen that during the debate. There are clearly those in the House who place weight on the need for further economic and social development, while others are concerned about the environmental aspect and the impact on the local community.

Other Members stated that Belfast International Airport, rather than the City Airport, should be the focus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that view was held by Members for South Antrim, such as Tommy Burns, my colleague Trevor Clarke and Rev McCrea.

Brian Wilson said that he personally opposed any expansion, but that the motion’s main purpose was to ensure that all sides of the argument were heard, and considered, in a public inquiry. He specifically mentioned the possible economic benefits, and the potential impact on Belfast International Airport through job displacement, as well as the environmental impact and the effect on local residents.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

The Member made a point about the difference between the two airports; does he accept that the International Airport is much safer for planes, because it is not in such a built-up area?

Photo of Alastair Ross Alastair Ross DUP

I believe that that comment has been made by other Members. I am not sure that the current City Airport is unsafe, and I certainly do not think that that is what the Member implied.

To go back to comments made by other Members in the debate, I, like Peter Weir, am unconvinced by Brian Wilson’s argument that an extension will lead to business users and holidaymakers queuing up together. I do not believe that that will be the case at all.

Proposing the amendment, Jimmy Spratt talked of the importance of the business community to the City Airport. He also spoke of the importance of addressing all the issues, and of the Minister hearing those issues. Mr Spratt mentioned some of the potential environmental impacts.

Alex Maskey’s contribution included support for a public inquiry. Our amendment does not say that there should not be one. Rather, we put the onus on the Minister to ultimately make that decision. Alex Maskey talked about the city status of the airport, as did Roy Beggs, who also talked about the tourist potential and the possible benefits of extending the runway.

Michael McGimpsey intervened in the debate to say that the remarks by the chief executive of Ryanair were very unhelpful. I agree with that. It was very unhelpful and regrettable that he treated people with such disdain.

On balance, I believe that the mood of the House will be considered by the Minister, and I think that the majority of people do, perhaps, want a public inquiry. Our amendment allows the Minister to recognise those views, and to make that decision. I hope that the Alliance Party and the Green Party will accept the amendment, and that the rest of the House will unite around that.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I want to be clear at the outset that our motion is about the process involved in taking a decision. A public inquiry must be held to take that process forward, and to properly test all of the economic and environmental arguments. As Alasdair McDonnell said, it is about ensuring that all the facts are on the table.

I am open-minded about the outcome of an inquiry. I am not going into the process with any closed mind, because that would almost contradict the call for a public inquiry. At this stage, the process is the important aspect.

I am no expert on all the environmental issues, although I have strong opinions on some of the economic aspects. The important thing is that we test those issues in a rigorous, open and transparent framework. The outcome of that process is something in which the whole community in Northern Ireland should have confidence.

The call for a public inquiry is not meant to cause an arbitrary delay to the runway extension. Instead, it is about ensuring that there is an open and transparent process — I want to give that reassurance, particularly to the airport, lest there are any accusations of ulterior motives behind the motion. I believe that we are reflecting the views of a large number of our constituents, particularly those in the greater Belfast area.

When we tabled the motion, we understood that the Minister would not be present at the debate. We proceeded in that knowledge, because we felt that it was important that the issues are addressed. We are drawing no negative conclusions from the absence of the Minister, and, if anything, we understand his position and that he cannot make direct comment on the issue to the Assembly today in advance of him making a decision.

Like any private Members’ motion, our motion is non-binding. Therefore, in the sense that we are calling on the Minister, that call is the view of the Assembly. It is not necessarily a direct instruction to the Minister, because, perhaps sadly, Back-Bench motions do not carry huge weight with Ministers — they can regard or disregard them at their will. Nonetheless, we will proceed regardless to give our views.

I am agnostic about the amendment, and I appreciate that there are a range of views in the DUP on what should happen with regard to a public inquiry. We are prepared to accept the amendment in the interests of pragmatism and trying to find a common front in the Chamber and in sending a common message to the Minister and the wider community. The amendment does not say that the Minister should take note of the various views expressed by individual Members. Instead, it calls for the Minister to take note of the view — a single view — of the Assembly, that there should be an inquiry — and “should” is the operative word. There is a clear sense of direction in the amendment on what should happen in the interests of transparency. As Danny Kennedy said, perhaps my agnosticism has been resolved, and I am now a true believer. [Laughter.]

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

At times, we do move fast in the Alliance Party. If the amendment allows the DUP to come on board, that is of some value.

The development of airports is not a simple and straightforward matter — it is not simply about putting down a few hundred more metres of concrete on a piece of ground, and it is not a supermarket opening. This is something of major strategic importance to our society and, in particular, to the economy. Elsewhere, there has been controversy about the third runway at Heathrow and the potential expansion of Stansted Airport. Although we cannot, perhaps, draw direct comparisons with those examples, because we are doing something different, they show that such issues are not to be taken lightly and proper consideration of everything is needed. As MLAs, we have a duty to take into account the views of the public in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance

Does the Member agree that the extension of the runway is such a permanent feature and that is why residents are so fearful? Current limitations on flight numbers, and the size and noise of aircrafts can be changed once the extension is made permanent.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance

I agree entirely with my colleague’s remarks, which was a point that was, I believe, made by Nelson McCausland earlier as well.

I take note of Michael McGimpsey’s comments on very scurrilous remarks made by Michael O’Leary about our constituents — it is important that we respect the views of people, because, after all, they put us here.

There is support for a public inquiry from councils across Northern Ireland, and I want to correct the record about North Down Borough Council, about which I, too, know something. The council agreed in July 2008 to support a public inquiry, but we may have slipped that under our mayor’s radar at the time. Hopefully, the Assembly will follow suit.

Roy Beggs emphasised the importance of the matter with regard to the wider public interest. The public interest refers to ensuring that our actions are not sectional, economic or otherwise, but are for the good of society overall.

As an individual, I certainly support and use the airport. I also recognise the particular role and function that it plays in Northern Ireland. A large number of people are quite satisfied with the airport’s role and function. Equally, the point could be made that there is scope for the airport to expand and to grow its business without extending its runway. It is important to put that in context.

There must be a trade-off between competing economic and environmental aspects. Jimmy Spratt very clearly highlighted that issue at the start of the debate. The essential question with which we must wrestle is whether we wish to compromise on noise and the environmental impact of the extension in order for the economy to benefit.

A number of speakers — notably Alex Maskey, Paul Maskey, Wallace Browne and Dawn Purvis — drew attention to the very direct impacts that planes have on neighbourhoods. Given that I lived in the Kinnegar area of Holywood for a year, I have had personal experience of that issue. Some people are sceptical of the airport’s community fund. It is almost like a fine box — airlines can go ahead and bring flights in late and will only have to pay a few pounds into a box as a consequence. It is not a real disincentive.

In a very simplistic sense, one could argue that we should go ahead and expand the airport as it brings in more business and tourists and that we should let things grow in an unregulated manner. However, we need to be a little bit more sophisticated than that. People have pointed to the need for an aviation strategy for Northern Ireland. It is a real shame that we do not have one in place. Brian Wilson, Nelson McCausland and Alasdair McDonnell — and George Robinson, at the end of the debate — referred to taking a third airport into account.

We must also consider the issue of competition and what we mean by that. Are we talking about two international airports for a city the size of Belfast? Is that what we mean by competition, or is it better to talk about having two specialist airports, one to deal with international traffic and the other to deal with UK traffic? The airport that deals with the UK traffic could have more direct and efficient access to the city centre. If one takes Dublin Airport into account, perhaps true competition is achieved on an all-island basis. It is interesting to note that the Irish Government have heavily invested in Dublin Airport. Rather than spreading things out among a number of different airports across the country, they have bulked up Dublin Airport, so they have taken a very clear and strategic direction.

Some Members made the point that the existing runway capacity is more than sufficient for Northern Ireland to deal with any estimate of the growth of the number of flights. Perhaps the balance of that is that we should invest in more efficient transport links to Belfast International Airport. That airport is an existing resource, and it could be expanded without compromising on environmental and noise considerations and the impact on local residents.

In addition, we must also note the views of the airlines. A lot of points were made about the proposals being driven forward by Ryanair, and, perhaps, by Belfast City Airport shareholders for their own narrow financial interests. However, we must note that BMI is, at best, neutral on the proposals; whereas Flybe — which is the main user of the airport and built up the airport over the past number of years — is opposed to the plans and is lobbying against the runway extension. Flybe would make the point that it wants the airport’s character to stay as it is because that is the most appropriate character and it fits the Flybe business model. David McClarty made the point that the George Best Belfast City Airport is one of the few airports to have the EU designation of being a city airport. Clearly, that is a very strong hint about how the matter is being played.

We have had a reasonably good debate today. A lot of constructive points were made by Members. We have aired a number of the issues, and most people have approached the topic in a very mature manner. We have open minds, but the most important issue is to put in place a proper process to ensure that decisions are taken in an open and transparent manner and that we have a robust debate with all the facts being placed on the table.

I support the motion and the amendment.

Question put.

The Assembly divided: Ayes 55; Noes 26.


Ms Anderson, Mr Boylan, Mr Brady, Mr Bresland,  Mr Brolly, Lord Browne, Mr Buchanan, Mr Butler,  Mr T Clarke, Mr W Clarke, Mr Craig, Mr Dodds,  Mr Doherty, Mr Donaldson, Dr Farry, Mr Ford,  Mrs Foster, Ms Gildernew, Mr Hamilton, Mr Irwin,  Mr G Kelly, Ms Lo, Mr A Maskey, Mr P Maskey,  Mr McCarthy, Mr McCartney, Mr McCausland,  Mr I McCrea, Dr W McCrea, Mr McElduff, Mrs McGill, Mr M McGuinness, Miss McIlveen, Mr McLaughlin, Mr Molloy, Lord Morrow, Mr Moutray, Mr Murphy,  Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Mr Paisley Jnr,  Rev Dr Ian Paisley, Mr Poots, Mr G Robinson,  Mrs I Robinson, Mr P Robinson, Mr Ross, Ms Ruane, Mr Shannon, Mr Simpson, Mr Spratt, Mr Storey,  Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Mr B Wilson.

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Ross and Mr Spratt.


Mr Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Mr Beggs, Mr D Bradley, Mrs M Bradley, Mr P J Bradley, Mr Burns, Mr Cobain, Mr Cree, Mr Elliott, Sir Reg Empey, Mr Gallagher,  Mr Gardiner, Mrs Hanna, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Kennedy, Mr A Maginness, Mr McCallister, Mr B McCrea,  Dr McDonnell, Mr McFarland, Mr McGimpsey,  Mr McNarry, Mr O’Loan, Ms Purvis, Mr Savage.

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Burns and Mr Kennedy.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Minister of the Environment to take note of the view of this Assembly that there should be a public inquiry under Article 31 of the Planning (NI) Order 1991 in relation to the application to extend the runway at George Best Belfast City Airport, in order to properly test all of the relevant economic and environmental arguments.