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Future of RAF Northolt

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:17 am on 13th September 2017.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence 11:17 am, 13th September 2017

I am willing to meet with councillors and other residents. I very much want to share the information we have, but we have to allow the Ministry of Defence to conduct its own studies in due course and share them as is deemed pertinent, as decisions and options are considered.

As I said, other evidence was analysed and the benefit of the aerodrome was demonstrated in its use during the Olympics, but military movements will always have priority at RAF Northolt. If necessary, civil business aviation movements can be fully stopped from using the station at any point. Ministers took those final decisions in the value-for-money review in 2013 and decided that the firm benefit was in retaining the aerodrome as a military aerodrome. It is still used by the military every day on vital operational tasks. We also retained the same stringent civilian operating terms and conditions, which exclude schedule airlines.

I make it clear that the whole review had nothing to do with Government options on the future of Heathrow; it was purely about the future of RAF Northolt. Our decision means that the aerodrome, although vital, will remain under-utilised by the military for a large proportion of the time, but also that it has capacity to accept military contingency requirements that displace civil movements whenever required for the national benefit.

The review seeks to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used properly, so we still need value for money from that spare capacity when the military are not using the aerodrome. Further consideration was given to one Project Ark option that had the potential to increase civil use of the military aerodrome to up to 20,000 movements, to generate additional revenue from the under-utilised spare capacity. That, in turn, would benefit taxpayers by offsetting the costs to the taxpaying public of the station’s military operation. However, Ministers took the final decision to increase the self-imposed cap on civil movements to only 12,000 movements per year. That was implemented in April 2013, as the hon. Gentleman knows. I firmly assure hon. Members that there are no plans to revisit that decision.

Following the review decision, the Project Ark report and other review documents were archived and the project’s other options remained hypothetical. I assure the hon. Gentleman and residents of the area that no current active planning is looking at any further changes to that 2013 decision about the cap or the operating terms and conditions. The unchanged, stringent terms and conditions that have been in place for civil movements for many years mean that in future we will not attract any aircraft larger than those that we have accepted for decades.

It was against these terms and conditions, which were reaffirmed in 2013, that Flybe made an unsolicited bid in 2015. No meetings about RAF Northolt have been held with any commercial airlines, but in late 2015 and early 2016, Ministers corresponded twice with the chief executive of Flybe to inform him that his bid was not being considered further.

The hon. Gentleman asked why there was no public consultation. In 2013, the decision was for a relatively modest increase; the terms and conditions of use remained unchanged, as I have stressed, and the existing infrastructure had the spare capacity to absorb the increase. No formal regulatory action was therefore required in any form, but the station did undertake extensive community engagement to keep residents informed once the decision had been taken. I will be delighted to continue that process, as the hon. Gentleman requests.

On the aviation regulatory and safety structure, the Military Aviation Authority is the single independent regulatory body for all defence aviation activity, and regulates Government aerodromes. The Civil Aviation Authority is responsible for the safety regulation oversight of civil aviation activity at Government aerodromes and sets out the requirements for civil operators that wish to use them. The robust oversight relationship between both regulators is formalised in a memorandum of understanding that demonstrates constant dialogue and joint audit and assurance activity where appropriate.

There is close stakeholder engagement with the CAA on changes related to air safety that may have an impact on civil aviation operations at RAF Northolt and on the oversight of published aeronautical information pertaining to it. The memorandum of understanding is reviewed annually to ensure that the MAA and the CAA continue to employ robust oversight and assurance of civil aviation activity at all Government aerodromes.

The runway resurfacing project at RAF Northolt aims to make improvements as required to upgrade existing military runway end safety features and extend the life of the main runway pavement to between 10 and 15 years. This planned life cycle replacement works in line with the safety cases for the military aircraft that operate from the station. I repeat firmly that the aim is not to accept bigger commercial aircraft, but to ensure that the runway has the strength to accept the larger military aircraft that may be required to visit the station in future. Alongside the BAe 146 military airframes based there, a number of European allies operate medium-airliner-sized military aircraft into RAF Northolt on military business. The RAF C-17 and A400M Atlas are the largest types of aircraft that visit the station.

In conclusion, RAF Northolt remains a core station with many diverse units. The aerodrome is needed by the military every day and is valuable for contingency, as we saw during the Olympics and the Ebola outbreak. A decision on its future use was taken in 2013, and we will not revisit that decision. After the military runway works are complete and the runway reopens, nothing will have changed: the same stringent terms and conditions on civil movements that have been in place for many years and that were reaffirmed in 2013 will remain in place. The MAA and the CAA continue to employ robust oversight and assurance of civil aviation activity.