Coventry Airport

– in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 27th January 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington 3:30 pm, 27th January 2004

In a way, it is appropriate to finish a debate on climate change and global warming and begin another on airports, which contribute to climate change and global warming. I was anxious to secure a debate on airports to raise my constituents' concerns, and I am very grateful to the Speaker for granting one so quickly.

Coventry airport has been owned and operated by Air Atlantique since 1998. Before that, it belonged to Coventry city council, but it comes under Warwick district council for planning purposes. The Department for Transport's recently published White Paper describes it well:

"Coventry Airport currently serves a specialist role within the region, catering for business aviation, air mail and some freight".

The airport does not have a large-scale passenger operation and has no history of providing one. On the day that the White Paper was published, the airport announced that it had concluded a deal with Thomsonfly, which is part of the TUI group, to launch a budget airline operating from Coventry airport. The airline will use Boeing 737-500s and will fly to 11 European destinations, which will add 8,000 aircraft movements a year to the airport. It will also introduce night flights. The published schedule on Thomsonfly's website shows flights at 2 am, 4 am and 5 am, and no fewer than four flights between 6 am and 7 am.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to press reports, there are serious concerns at Birmingham airport about the flight path at Coventry and Birmingham?

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I will come to that.

Coventry can offer night flights because it has a 24-hour operating licence, which some other regional airports do not have. Introducing the service will fundamentally change the nature of the airport, which is why I raise the matter, and it is creating understandable alarm and concern among many of my constituents who live extremely close to the airport. The service is due to start in about eight weeks' time and will be at full throttle by May this year.

The airport began its life as a second world war aerodrome. Today, it is a single-runway airport, which is home to several small flight training and freight operations. I should not forget to mention the airport's quaint collection of disused railway carriages and rusting locomotives, which are partly surrounded by a dilapidated chain-link fence that, even today, would hardly deter a handful of passing curious sheep. Yet we are being asked to believe that in a very short space of time, this airport will begin handling 2 million passengers a year and will deal with all that that involves. It is therefore unsurprising that the airport has lodged a planning application for a brand new terminal and associated car parking, but it is very surprising that the service is about to start without them. Indeed, Warwick district council's planning department will not even consider the application until about four weeks before the first jet is due to scream over my constituents in Bubbenhall, a village just the other side of the aforementioned fence. All that activity is due to start out of temporary buildings.

I understand the allure of cheap flights to the Mediterranean, and I am sure that many of my constituents make good use of them. I have nothing against Thomsonfly trying to get into the business; I totally understand why it would want to do so. However, it should not do that out of Coventry airport. What was the point of the Government's consultation exercise? What is the point of the White Paper, "The Future of Air Transport", which was supposed to set out a strategy? It clearly says that expansion to meet anticipated increases in demand for that sort of travel in the west midlands should be met at Birmingham and East Midlands airports. The budget airlines already operate from those places, so I am far from persuaded that Thomsonfly needs to start the service out of Coventry airport. I understand that it is also talking to about 20 other regional airports in the UK, none of which is a former second world war aerodrome and all of which are established and have the necessary infrastructure to start a budget airline operation. The only possible reason for starting at Coventry is because it is cheap: it has nothing to do with the Government's air transport strategy and everything to do with quick profit for one company.

I want the Minister to address some specific issues, the first of which is the capacity of Coventry airport. Planning documents show that it currently has a runway of 1,610 m, which is close to the operational minimum required for Boeing 737-500 aeroplanes. Birmingham's proposed short runway is to be 2,000 m. Work is already under way to extend the runway, but there is a serious issue as to whether that is within the airport's permitted development rights. It is trying to add runway-end safety areas. I am told that the airport will submit a report to the aerodrome standards department, which will indicate runway extensions of 90 m, but the recommended length for runway-end safety areas is 240 m. For it to reach that length, major alterations to the runway would be required, for which the airport would need planning permission. That planning permission is not being sought.

The next main issue that I wish to raise with the Minister is that of airspace conflict, which my hon. Friend Mr. Cunningham mentioned. Birmingham's runway is aligned at magnetic bearing 150° 33, whereas Coventry's runway is aligned at 51° 231, which means that they are at right angles to each other. There is crossing air traffic from the two airports and the runways are just 13 miles apart.

In the run-up to publishing the White Paper, the Government consulted on the Rugby option. If that option had been allowed, Birmingham airport would have had to close because of the conflict of air space, yet the Rugby site is 17 miles away, while Coventry airport is just 13 miles away. I accept that the Coventry development is not of the scale that we would have seen had the Rugby option gone ahead, but the fact that airport closures were envisaged in that area during the consultation serves to underline how tight the airspace is and, therefore, how serious the potential for airspace conflict.

Coventry airport is beneath the lateral limits of Birmingham's control area, and Birmingham National Air Traffic Services controls the traffic movements in and out of Coventry. There are certain operational freedoms for flights in and out of Coventry up to about 2,000 ft and for a radius of 2 nautical miles. That area goes over about 1,000 homes in my constituency. The fact that the two airports are so close together already leads to delays arising from the airspace conflict. We should remember, in the context of what might be about to happen in Coventry, that Birmingham airport has been cleared to get a second runway. Its passenger volumes are growing at a rate of 10 per cent. a year. If there is air conflict between the airports now, what will it be like if the projected rate of expansion takes place at Birmingham and this budget operation starts to operate out of Coventry?

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

In relation to those flight paths, I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that some years ago an aircraft came down on a housing estate in Willenhall in my constituency. Several of the crew were killed. As a result, people are apprehensive about any developments there. In particular, they are concerned about that flight path and whether traffic flow will increase. The flight path is very low.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend is right. Many of my constituents recall that accident and it underlines their concerns.

I want to draw other issues to the Minister's attention. Are the instrumentation standards at Coventry airport and the instrument landing system up to par for the introduction of such a service? There are also security issues to do with the airport. What work is the Civil Aviation Authority doing in respect of the proposals, and what is it aware of? Does it have any concerns about the commencement of such an operation from Coventry? Our fears are that once the Thomsonfly operation starts it could expand even further. This is, after all, an airport in search of revenue and it has a 24-hour operational licence.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I will give way to my hon. Friend, in whose constituency the airport is located.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate, which is important for all constituencies that surround the airport. At least four, and perhaps as many as seven, hon. Members represent constituencies within a mile and a half of the airport site. All our colleagues are extremely alarmed about the way in which Coventry airport has acted. It seems to be behaving without responding to calls for consultation and without involving the communities or Members of Parliament affected. I am concerned about the night flights and the fact that Coventry airport believes that it is under no constraints, so undermining the proper development of Birmingham and East Midlands airports as set out in the White Paper. We need the Minister to take appropriate action.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

My hon. Friend is right. He, I and all other hon. Members whose constituencies border on the airport are besieged by our constituents on the matter. That is why we are so anxious to raise the issue in the presence of the Minister and to seek reassurances.

I think that I speak for all of us when I say that we heaved a collective sigh of relief when the Rugby option was turned down after consultation. However, for my constituents in Bubbenhall, Weston under Wetherley, Cubbington, Radford, Whitnash, Leek Wootton, Hill Wootton, Hunningham, Offchurch, Leamington and Warwick, there is a nearer and far more imminent threat than we ever considered possible when we objected to an international airport at Rugby. What makes it even more galling is that it was not part of the consultation; it was never part of the White Paper strategy. Indeed, it is important to put it on the record that the White Paper says that we should

"not envisage any significant further development" at Coventry. However, the development, which is imminent, could not be more significant for my constituents and those hon. Members present. As far as I can tell, the TUI group is forging ahead, seemingly regardless of the strategy in the Government White Paper, of local planning decisions and of the quality of life of our constituents.

We cannot leave the matter purely for the planning department of Warwick district council to determine. The issues are far bigger, far wider and extremely important in the context of the Government's overall strategy. It is for that reason that I urge the Minister to intervene fully in the matter and not ask us to leave it merely to the decision of the local planning authority. I ask him to do so on behalf of my constituents, but also because I think that it is important that he defends the strategy outlined in "The Future of Air Transport" and defends my constituents' sanity.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 3:45 pm, 27th January 2004

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt on having raised some important issues and on having expressed so eloquently the concerns of many of his constituents about the proposed expansion of operations at Coventry airport. I recognise also the contributions and concerns of my hon. Friend Mr. Cunningham, as I do those of my hon. Friend Andy King, in whose constituency the airport lies.

In December, my Department published "The Future of Air Transport", the first aviation White Paper since 1985. It is probably the first ever comprehensive, detailed and substantive White Paper—the rest were all just catch-up documents—so it is long overdue. Its purpose is to establish a strategic national policy framework for the development of airports in the United Kingdom over the next 30 years. It will provide the context for future planning decisions and allow the air transport industry to plan and invest with confidence.

I know, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington has said, that all hon. Members in the area, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth, were mightily relieved that we did not pursue the idea of a new airport between Rugby and Coventry—that was made rather well known to us on the day of publication of the White Paper and subsequently—but it is important to emphasise that the White Paper neither authorises nor precludes any particular development. Planning applications for airport development need to be taken through the town and country planning system in the normal way. The policies set out in the White Paper constitute an important material consideration that will inform the determination of specific planning applications. Paragraph 9.31, to which my hon. Friend alluded, does precisely that in relation to Coventry.

The White Paper concluded that there is a clear need for additional runway capacity to serve the midlands region, and that that need would best be met by an additional runway at Birmingham airport—the airport operator's proposal. That is a refinement of the wide-spaced runway option on which we consulted, and reduces the severity of a number of important impacts for very little cost in capacity. The White Paper also supported the full utilisation of runway capacity at East Midlands airport, but said that any commercial development at other smaller airports in the region should be subject to local consideration and determination.

The White Paper recognises the specialist roles that Coventry airport performs in the west midlands—serving the business aviation, mail and freight sectors in particular. I know that its capability to handle small, just-in-time freight consignments is particularly valuable to the motor industry in the region, and that it has an important role as the international hub for Parcelforce operations. Coventry can continue to perform that role, subject to its existing constraints.

As a long-established commercial airport, Coventry does not require specific planning approval for the operation of a programme of scheduled flights such as that proposed by Thomsonfly. However, the planning position is less clear in respect of the terminal facilities that are required to serve those flights. I understand that services will initially use temporary facilities for the processing of passengers and their baggage, and that the airport operator considers that planning consent is not required for those arrangements, as it has permitted development rights under paragraph 18 of the general permitted development order. It is, in the first instance, for the local planning authority, Warwick district council, to consider whether it agrees with that view.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

I notice that nothing has been said about the potential for major traffic problems, particularly round about Tollbar island. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth and I lobbied the Minister's predecessor because of the traffic problems on the island—safety and so forth. As a result, traffic lights were installed. There could be a major traffic problem for the island and the surrounding villages.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

If my hon. Friend will indulge me, I shall return to the broad issue of capacity. Importantly, however, security officials from the Department for Transport will wish to be satisfied that the temporary facilities are fit for their intended purpose before operations can commence. They are currently discussing with the airport matters such as the effective segregation of passengers, the screening of passengers and baggage, and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington has suggested, perimeter security. Department officials will wish to meet again with both the airport and Thomsonfly, and to carry out further inspections to ensure effective compliance with legal requirements before services can commence—legal requirements above and beyond any unfolding planning processes.

Clearly, if the Thomsonfly operation is to grow to the proposed 2 million passengers per year, more substantial permanent terminal facilities will be required. The midlands consultation document, which the Department published in July 2002, looked at the potential of Coventry as an overspill airport to help accommodate demand should Birmingham remain a single-runway airport. The analysis indicated that if there were no constraints to capacity, Coventry could be capable of attracting between 6 million and 10 million passengers per year. However, that would generate large-scale impacts of land take, noise exposure and surface access difficulties, especially congestion on the A45 and the A46—matters of concern, as my hon. Friend suggested.

The consultation process highlighted the potential issue of airspace interaction between Coventry and Birmingham airports, and responses received showed little support for significant expansion of Coventry and significant opposition from both key stakeholders and local respondees. The White Paper therefore made it clear that, having regard to the potential constraints to the growth of Coventry—surface access, noise and airspace capacity—and the decision to support the expansion of Birmingham airport, the Government do not consider that the significant development of Coventry airport beyond the 2 million passengers per year capacity of the current application would be appropriate.

As my hon. Friend said, however, the current planning application was with Warwick district council while the Government were coming to their decisions on airport capacity. The White Paper is rightly silent on the current scheme, just as I can say nothing today on the merits of the application. That does not imply that the Government have a view either way on the application. It means that we believe it to be a matter for determination by Warwick district council as the local planning authority in the first instance.

Photo of Mr Andy King Mr Andy King Labour, Rugby and Kenilworth

My hon. Friend may be coming to this, but what concerns residents and Members is the way in which night flights have been introduced. I understand that other airports, such as Birmingham, do not have international night flights for passengers because of their consideration for the local population. Will my hon. Friend say what can be done to constrain night flights?

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

If this is not what prevails, I shall let my hon. Friends know, but I understand that Birmingham is designated by the Department for Transport and that a range of controls therefore come into play—unlike at Coventry and East Midlands airports. I am not anti-Nottingham when I persist in calling it East Midlands airport; it is a name known by everyone and we are still coming to terms with the new name.

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington, in the first instance, and rather like East Midlands airport, such matters as noise mitigation, night flights and the other elements that are of concern are to be determined locally. If we are not satisfied with what prevails locally as such airports expand, we reserve the right to designate controls as we see fit. Coventry is not yet in that position, and given the plans for some degree of expanded capacity, East Midlands may or may not be. However, a relatively successful local agreement is in place—it is not shared by all—for limited night flights, not least for freight which is clearly important. In the first instance, it is for Warwick district council to determine the application. I cannot comment on that, but should it require advice on technical issues such as possible airspace interactions, it will be for the council to seek advice from National Air Traffic Services Ltd. and the CAA's directorate of airspace policy.

Another technical issue raised by my hon. Friend is whether Coventry's instrument landing system is adequate for the Thomsonfly services. I understand from the Civil Aviation Authority that the airport is replacing its ILS, although the new equipment will still be classified as category 1. That is perfectly acceptable for normal airport operations and is the standard equipment at most of the country's regional airports. Indeed, I am told that fewer than a dozen airports in the UK have equipment of a higher category. The CAA's air traffic services standards section has responsibility for approving and checking ILS equipment used at UK airports.

I am aware that Coventry airport is also seeking to reduce the height of trees in the vicinity of the airport in order to comply with the CAA's obstacle clearance requirements. Concerns have been expressed about the ancient woodland at Willenhall wood. Should the airport operator be unable to reach agreement with the landowners concerned, they would need to apply to the Secretary of State for the grant of powers under section 46 of the Civil Aviation Act 1982 to control the height of the trees.

In conclusion, there are a number of important issues associated with the proposed expansion of operations at Coventry airport, and they will clearly be of great concern to the constituents of my hon. Friends who have participated in the debate. The timing of the proposals and the pressing planning application meant that we were unable to address those issues in the air transport White Paper. I have dealt with some of those issues today, but the responsibility for considering the planning aspects of the airport's growth currently lies with Warwick district council.

Photo of James Plaskitt James Plaskitt Labour, Warwick and Leamington

I understand what my hon. Friend says about the issue being for Warwick district council to consider. In a narrow sense that is correct, because there are planning issues that fall within the ambit of the council's authority. However, our concerns run wider than that. I do not think that Warwick district council is the right body to consider, say, air travel and the interaction among Coventry airport, Birmingham airport and East Midlands airport, which are in close proximity to one another. The council will consider only the narrow issues that arise over Coventry. We should ask what the right aviation strategy is, as opposed to whether the application meets the planning requirements. We need a different perspective, which I hope could come from my hon. Friend's Department.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

In the first instance, due process must prevail with the planning application. That must take account not only of paragraph 9.31 of the White Paper, but of the wider strategic context of the White Paper, as my hon. Friend said.

I should like to make a rapid correction. I thought that I was on shaky ground earlier but went ahead anyway, as is my wont. Birmingham is not designated, although localised controls restrict night flights. I apologise if I inadvertently misled the Chamber.

In conclusion, and to relate as closely as possible to what my hon. Friend has just said, once Warwick district council has dispatched the planning application and I am free to talk more widely, I will happily discuss matters further with my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington, for Coventry, South and for Rugby and Kenilworth—not least those matters that lie outside the immediate concerns of the application, but which I am not at liberty to discuss in more detail now. With that assurance and, I hope, due dispatch and alacrity from Warwick district council, we can discuss all the issues in the round way beyond the planning application.