HC Deb 23 July 2002 vol 389 cc847-68 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling)

I should like to make a statement about future air transport and airport capacity in the United Kingdom.

We have built the fourth largest economy in the world on our ability to trade. Air travel is crucial to our expanding economy and we need to plan for the future. There has been a sixfold increase in air travel since 1970, and now half the population flies at least once a year. Demand is expected to continue to grow.

The Government will next year publish a White Paper on air travel. As part of that, we will set out our concluded views on how much additional airport capacity is needed and where it should be sited. Before we do that, we need to canvass views on a range of options. So today, in advance of the White Paper, I am publishing six consultation papers covering the English regions, Scotland and Wales. A further consultation paper for Northern Ireland will be published shortly.

The key issues that we need to address are how we should respond to the continued growth in demand for air travel; how much additional airport provision is needed; and where it should be located. Just as importantly, we need to deal with the environmental impact of expansion and its effects on the people living close to airports. Providing a framework for sustainable development for the next 30 years and beyond is essential. So the consultation is the first stage in that process. It seeks views on a range of options and their implications.

I should first set out the background against which we need to plan. There has been a phenomenal growth in travel by air. In 1970, some 32 million passengers passed through UK airports. Today, that figure is 180 million. People increasingly want to travel by air, whether for holidays abroad or business travel, in an increasingly international economy. Business depends on its ability to get goods quickly to markets across the world. One third of all UK goods exported now go by air. Air travel has opened up possibilities that simply did not exist years ago.

This is not just about travel, however; the airline industry is of critical importance to economic prosperity. It directly employs 180,000 people, and as many jobs again depend indirectly on the aviation industry. Many firms choose to locate close to airports and many businesses choose to invest in the UK because of our good communications, particularly air travel.

Today we publish a range of projections of the number of people who might be expected to use each of the main UK airports over the next 30 years. Some airports will not be able to deal with even a modest increase in demand. At this time of year, of course, holidaymakers are familiar with congested airports, but this is not just a summer issue. Throughout the year, some airports, such as Heathrow, are already near their full capacity.

So doing nothing is not an option. As a first step, we of course need to do all we possibly can to make the most of existing capacity—but on any view that is not enough. The Government therefore aim to set a framework for sustainable development against which people can plan. It has to be sufficiently flexible to cater for changes in demand and in patterns of travel, but it must provide a degree of certainty too.

It is essential that we get this right, which is why we are consulting. We will be making decisions that shape the air industry and air travel for the next generation and beyond. The need to take full account of the environmental consequences of air travel is critical, which is why, for example, the consultation asks about rail alternatives in relation to domestic air travel. Where there is increased airport capacity, we need to strike the right balance between benefits from increased travel and trade and their environmental costs. As we said in 1998, we believe that the aviation industry should cover its environmental costs. Our forecasts for demand reflect that, and the proposals on which we are consulting include strict environmental controls, paid for by the air industry.

Let me summarise the options in each consultation paper before I turn to the options for the south-east. Those, for obvious reasons, have significance for the whole country. There has already been substantial growth at regional airports throughout the country, and the Government want to encourage development of such airports. As well as making travel more convenient, that is essential for economic development all over the country. The consultation looks at how to maximise the use of regional airports. For every part of the UK, we ask how we should respond to people's increasing desire to travel by air; whether extra capacity is needed and where it should be; and in every case we seek views on the environmental impact of any future development.

In Scotland in the past 10 years the number of people using the main Scottish airports has doubled to 16 million a year, and we expect continued growth as the Scottish economy expands. The consultation paper looks at making the most of existing capacity. It asks where new capacity should be situated—should it be concentrated at one or two key airports, or spread across all Scottish airports? It asks what scope there is to develop Edinburgh or Glasgow as a hub airport for Scotland, attracting new services to a wider range of destinations, and the Scottish Executive are also publishing a report on how to improve rail links to both those airports. The consultation looks at other issues of vital concern in Scotland, such as maintaining access to London and the lifeline air links to the highlands and islands.

In Wales, the consultation paper looks at what new capacity might be needed, especially at Cardiff. BMI recently announced that it will establish a second UK base there for its low-cost airline. Wales is already a major centre for aircraft maintenance, and to develop that, the consultation includes proposals for a major aerospace park. Because two thirds of passengers living in Wales fly from airports in England, the consultation covers improved surface links to airports in both Wales and England, and looks at the potential to start up internal flights within Wales, which would improve access where surface journeys are lengthy.

The north of England has seven major airports handling 26 million passengers a year, and that number is expected to rise over the next 30 years. Expansion could support many new jobs in the region. Manchester airport is by far the biggest outside the south-east of England and demand is likely to be higher there than at any airport outside London, so the consultation paper looks at how it could be developed further to become a hub airport complementing Heathrow. The consultation also asks how to make the most of other airports in the region; whether additional

capacity should be concentrated at one or two airports, or spread across the region; and how far rail can substitute for domestic services, particularly to London.

In the midlands, there are now 10 million air passengers a year. The consultation paper looks at what options are available once capacity at Birmingham is reached, and it considers the role of east midlands airport, which is the third largest freight airport in the country. The consultation identifies options—again over the next thirty years—including a new runway either at Birmingham or at east midlands airport. There may be more demand for services from Birmingham than from east midlands, but that needs to be balanced against the impacts of noise and traffic congestion. A new site between Coventry and Rugby might be examined: away from houses, impacts would be less, but the cost of a new airport would of course be much greater. Decisions about capacity at south-east airports will have consequences for developments in the midlands, as elsewhere.

In south-west England, demand for air travel is growing fast. Most people living in the south-west use airports in both the south-east and the midlands. The Government are keen to ensure that airports meet as much local demand as they can, so the consultation looks at the expanded capacity that might be needed at Bristol airport and elsewhere, and asks how a wider range of services could be secured. Because vital links between the south-west and London are limited, the document looks at supporting these air links and at improving rail connections to London airports.

Development of London airports will affect every part of the country and air travel to the rest of the world. One in every six of the world's international passengers start or finish their journey at a south-east airport. So those decisions affect the whole country, and they are central to the future of our United Kingdom aviation industry.

Already, 117 million passengers a year use south-east airports, and the number is likely to grow substantially. The pressures on existing London airports today are obvious enough, so on any view doing nothing is not an option. As with the rest of the country, we need a framework to cater for people's increasing wish to travel and trade. Again, of course, existing capacity must be maximised—for example, at Luton and Stansted, which have seen substantial growth of low-cost airline travel.

With Heathrow, we have a world-class hub airport. Some 15 million international passengers transfer through the airport—the biggest number at any airport in the world—and it employs 68,000 people directly, but Heathrow is already under pressure. Airlines cannot get the runway slots to operate new services. It is already at its limit. Gatwick's single runway is full for much of the day, and Stansted is rapidly filling up, too.

In the meantime, in Europe, there have been substantial developments at Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, all of which want to rival Heathrow and attract its business. If we do nothing, the United Kingdom will lose out, not just in terms of flights, but in terms of jobs. So the consultation asks about the importance of an international hub airport. We believe that it is in Britain's interests to maintain a world-class global hub airport in the south-east, not just because it is good for passengers, but because it is an essential part of United Kingdom's prosperity. The key question is where should it be.

One option is to build at Heathrow—already the fourth busiest airport in the world. That could mean an additional, shorter runway, complementing what is already there. Alongside the economic benefits, we would, of course, need to consider the environmental impact, particularly the effects on the many people who live around the airport and its flight paths.

A second option looked at is Stansted—another existing airport that could be developed to become a hub itself or to complement Heathrow. As with expanding Heathrow, costs would be less than building a new airport, but it would be necessary to improve transport links to and from the airport, and of course the impact on the local community has to be considered.

A third option is to build a completely new airport, with the option of development at Cliffe in north Kent. The advantage is the maximum flexibility to construct a new airport to meet the demands of the future. Against that, we need to consider the environmental consequences of building at Cliffe and, of course, the very substantial cost of a new airport. Those have to be balanced against the considerable benefits for jobs and economic regeneration of Kent, Essex and east London.

So the Government seek views on the merits of a new development. As well as the question of a hub airport, the consultation looks at where any other new capacity should be located.

At Gatwick, a legal agreement rules out construction of a new runway before 2019, and the Government do not propose to challenge that. So we are not putting forward any option for a new runway, but there is still some capacity that can be used in the years to come, as is already agreed locally.

The consultation also looks at the needs of other airports in the region, including Luton and an option of a freight airport at Alconbury. The consultation looks at most major airports and asks what further development is necessary and desirable and, in each case, at how to deal with the environmental effects of any development.

Air travel is crucial to our expanding economy. We need to plan for the future and to provide a framework for sustainable development for the next 30 years and beyond. The consultation is the first stage in that process. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for his characteristic courtesy in providing me with a copy of it in advance. I am very much looking forward to debating transport matters with him in the coming months, and I hope to provide him with robust but genuinely constructive opposition, since, as he will know better than any other right hon. Member, there are no easy or quick solutions to the nation's transport difficulties.

Of course the Secretary of State is entirely right to say that we must plan for the long term. As he knows, up to 500,000 jobs and something like £10 billion of gross domestic product in this country depend on the air transport industry. He will also know that there are serious concerns about the competitiveness of the UK with airports in Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. He will have heard today the chief executive of BA saying: We in the UK are falling behind mainland Europe.- Clearly that is not sustainable.

The Secretary of State is entirely right to say that doing nothing is not an option. He would have been derelict in his duty had he failed to plan for growth; I am pleased to see that he did not. However, there are still detailed questions that he would expect me to ask.

On passenger number projections, the Secretary of State will know that the media today—particularly the lunchtime television bulletins—were heavily briefed about a set of figures that suggested a figure of 180 million passengers at the moment rising to an expected 400 million by 2020. Interestingly, the Secretary of State did not refer to those figures in his statement. Does he agree that straight-line predictions of growth call often be dangerous? The world has changed in recent months and will change even further in years to come.

The figure of 180 million passengers was a figure for the year 2000. Can the Secretary of State provide the House with the figure for 2001 yet? Is he aware that, since the figure for 2000 was announced, there have been a global economic slowdown as well as the events of 11 September? Is he aware that many people who earn a living predicting the future of the airline industry are not so sanguine about rapid growth as perhaps he and his officials are?

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Farnborough air show has its lowest level of commercial aircraft orders for 30 years? Is he aware that the largest airline manufacturing company in the world, Boeing, has halved production and sacked 30,000 workers in recent months? Is he familiar with the fact that Sabena has gone bust and that Swissair, Aer Lingus and BA are in financial difficulty? [Interruption.] I am sure that he is aware of these matters. In light of that, will he tell the House whether he is committed personally—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must allow the hon. Gentleman to be heard.

Mr. Collins

I am grateful, Mr. Speaker. Is the Secretary of State saying that he personally stands by the projected figure of 400 million passenger movements by 2020, which the Department provided extensively to the broadcast media at lunchtime today?

The Secretary of State is right to say that many residents will be affected by airport expansion. Does he recognise that there is a need for certainty? He is right to consult, but does he recognise that swift decisions will be greatly welcomed by those affected? None of us wants to see the whole procedure of terminal 5 repeated—

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Oh yes we do.

Mr. Collins

We do not want the procedure to be dragged out indefinitely. Is the Minister aware that the compensation provided to residents affected in this country is arrived at on a different basis from elsewhere in Europe? Will he look at that?

One hon. Member is clearly very interested in terminal 5. Is the Secretary of State aware that the BAA website, even today, still says that one of the arguments for terminal 5 is that it would not require another runway"? Is he aware that the website says today that BAA is prepared to be legally bound that noise levels would not exceed 1994 levels", and that it is not calling for any more night flights? Can the Secretary of State say whether the proposals that he is thinking about today relating to an extra runway at Heathrow are consistent with those assurances and undertakings?

Only last November, the Government imposed a cap on the number of flights into Heathrow. The Secretary of State will recall that the cap was set at 480,000 air transport movements. However, in the documents published today, he says that an extra runway could see that increase to 655,000 ATMs. Does the cap announced last November stand or not? Can he give any other assurances to residents living near other airports?

Will the Secretary of State address, as he did in part of his statement, the question of sharing the burden of extra capacity around the United Kingdom? He will know that a substantial proportion of passengers coming into the south-east to use airports do not actually live in the south-east. Does he have a strategy substantially to expand regional airport capacity?

At lunchtime today, I spoke with the chief executive of Luton airport, Paul Kehoe, who said that Luton airport was ready rapidly to double its existing passenger numbers from 7 million a year and could quite easily triple that figure. Has the Secretary of State taken that into account in his planning?

Does the Secretary of State believe that the Government have demonstrated joined-up government on this issue? Is he aware that, in most of the areas in which he is contemplating substantial runway expansion, the local authorities have been told by the Government in the last few days that they will also have to cope with substantial increases in the number of homes to be planted in their area, above and beyond what their residents want; and that, because of changes in the local government funding formula, they will have less, rather than more, money to help them to cope with that? How, against that background, does he expect them to expand their infrastructure to cope with extra runways?

The Secretary of State referred to the north of England, saying that the consultation looks at how far rail can substitute for domestic services, particularly to London from the north and north-west of England. Those of us who represent north-western constituencies find that a somewhat ironic observation for the Secretary of State to make in the week when the west coast main line upgrade appears permanently to have been shelved. Will he say a word about upgrading public transport access to the new runways, whether in new or old airports? Does he recognise an essential need for public transport to be upgraded?

Is the right hon. Gentleman furthermore prepared to tell the House whether the proposal for a possible new airport at Cliffe marshes is an entirely serious and worked-through proposal? The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has said:

in environmental terms it is hard to think of a worse site for an airport in the south east than Cliffe Marshes". The right hon. Gentleman will also be aware that, on page 82 of his own document, he says: The success of a new airport would depend crucially on its ability to attract airlines. Has he done a feasibility study on whether airlines will be prepared to move out to Cliffe marshes? Is it not the case, as some have speculated, that this proposal has been advanced only so that the Secretary of State can look very green when he abolishes it, never having been in favour of it in the first place?

Finally—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hooray!"]—well, Labour Members may not think that these questions are important, but let me assure them that their constituents and others believe that these matters are important. The Secretary of State is quite right to be thinking about these issues, and I commend him on the spirit in which he has done so. He will have the constructive support of Her Majesty's Opposition in looking for sensible and practical solutions. Will he recognise, however, that it is essential that these decisions be taken in a swift but consultative manner? Will he say specifically that he does not expect the Government to take anything like as long to take these decisions as they took to reach a conclusion about terminal 5?

Mr. Darling

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his new post. I have to say that we shall miss the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—for reasons that she may not appreciate—but anyway, she has gone now. I must also commend the hon. Gentleman for another reason. He flashed across my consciousness once before, when, during the Tory leadership campaign in 1995, he described the campaign team of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) as a swivel-eyed barmy army from ward 8 at Broadmoor. Hon. Members will be aware that one of the members of that swivel-eyed barmy army is now the Leader of the Opposition. Either there has been a rapprochement, or the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) has not come across this description yet.

I am conscious of the fact that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will want to ask me questions, and I shall deal with the points that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) has raised. I shall not criticise him for being light on policy, since, three hours into his appointment, it is probably a bit early for him to be anything else.

I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that the Government are consulting. He went on to ask some detailed questions about matters such as Cliffe, for example, on which, by definition, we have not yet made firm proposals because we are consulting on a principle. He asked me to reach a swift decision after the consultation, and I agree with him that that is wholly desirable. It is best for everyone concerned—residents, people who are affected by airports, the industry and the travelling public—to know what the Government are proposing, and I want to bring these matters to a conclusion as quickly as I can, consistently with doing justice to the representations that are made. Moreover, the consultation period does not end until the end of November. It will therefore be next year before we publish a White Paper, but I entirely accept the point that he makes.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned several points of detail, the first of which concerned terminal 5, Heathrow and night flights. The decision on terminal 5 holds good, and was made in the light of existing pressures on Heathrow and its two runways. The inspector acknowledges in his report that the Government are embarking on long-term consultation, looking ahead to the next 30 years. So the position on terminal 5, and on the cap on the number of flights that was referred to at that time, remains good in relation to Heathrow's current situation. Everybody knew that we would look at Heathrow in the context of the other London airports over a longer period. The Government will publish a consultation paper on night flights towards the end of this year.

As I said in my statement, there is excess capacity at Luton, and as the general manager recognises, it can be expanded. However, if the hon. Gentleman was thinking of Luton as an alternative to, say, developing Stansted, I should point out that a second runway cannot be built at Luton because of the topography, which inevitably imposes some constraint.

The hon. Gentleman asked about rail links from the north-west in particular. In developing any sensible airport policy, it is important to allow for the fact that, in some cases, people should find it easier and better to travel by rail. I accept that there are problems with the west coast main line upgrade, although as he will discover, it has not been postponed. Having discovered that Railtrack had grossly underestimated the costs and scale of the project, the Strategic Rail Authority is examining the matter from the start. So his point about Railtrack is not a particularly good one, especially as the main cause of the problem relates to Railtrack's initial setting up.

The hon. Gentleman made a general point about future projections. The document looks at the likely demand for unconstrained travel—in other words, the number of people who are likely to want to travel, or to trade, in the next few years. It also examines assumptions and options, based on constrained travel in the south-east or throughout the entire United Kingdom. The point is that, if airports are extended or new ones are built, the work will be done by the private sector, which will have to take a view on the likely levels of business. The Government are consulting on the numbers who are likely to want to fly, and how we respond. That is the point of a consultation period.

The hon. Gentleman is right in saying that, if we look ahead 30 years, there are bound to be some ups and downs. Twelve months ago—after September—people thought that the air industry would take a knock and that it would not recover. However, domestic and European travel has recovered substantially—not just because of low-cost airlines—and transatlantic journeys are also approaching previous levels. In this case, we must look ahead 30 years, which is what we are doing in the consultation documents published today. Over the next few months, the object of the exercise is to gather people's views on what they think will happen.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising that doing nothing—pretending that there is no problem, or hoping that it will go away—is simply not an option. We all face this difficulty in our lives: most people want to travel by plane, and most of us have to fly from time to time, but all of us are concerned about airport expansion. Frankly, we cannot have it both ways. We must face up to the fact that there is an opportunity here. There are problems to be solved, but Britain's future and prosperity depend on putting them right, and that is something that I am determined to do.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I, too, welcome the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) to his new post, and I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today. I begin by entirely agreeing with him that doing nothing is simply not an option. However, given that the Deputy Prime Minister accepted that "predict and provide" simply had not worked for our roads, will the Secretary of State acknowledge that it will not work for our airspace either? It is important to develop sustainable approaches to the difficult issues that the statement addresses.

The Secretary of State referred to rail substitution for domestic flights, but does he have any targets for the amount of substitution that he would like to see, given that there are currently some 365,000 domestic flights?

Given that the Secretary of State also rightly referred to the importance of our regional airports, both for their economic benefits to the regions and in reducing pressure on the south-east, will he acknowledge that it is vital that all airports operate on a level playing field, especially as regards landing fees? Is he aware that landing fees at Heathrow are among the lowest in the world?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that his statement, although strong on environmental rhetoric, is rather weak on the details? For example, can he tell the House his plans for the development of an EU-wide aviation fuel duty, and what action he is taking to ensure that the increases in flights do not compromise the Kyoto agreement?

Having told us that he wants to make quick decisions, can the Secretary of State tell us why we have to wait for further consultation on night flights? Could he not simply rule out any increase in night flights to or from airports in urban areas?

Why has the right hon. Gentleman given us only one option—and a highly environmentally sensitive one at that—for a new airport for the south-east, when a range of alternatives could, and should, have been provided?

The Minister for Transport (Mr. John Spellar)


Mr. Foster

May I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman considers Manston as one possible base?

The Secretary of State said that the flight cap of 480,000, rightly imposed on Heathrow by his predecessor, is now up for grabs. Can he explain why it is up for grabs while the legal limits on a new runway at Gatwick seem to be set in stone? Why is there an inconsistency?

The Secretary of State will be as concerned as I am about the current problems with National Air Traffic Services and the various emergency measures that have had to be implemented, such as overtime working and retired air traffic controllers having to help out. Will he give us an absolute assurance that he has plans to ensure that there will be sufficient air traffic controllers to cope with the growth in flights discussed in the paper?

Mr. Darling

We are not in the business of what is known as predicting and providing; no one in their right mind would build an airport on spec. The whole point of the consultation is to obtain people's view of the likely demand and of how we respond to it in future.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that regional airports are very important. I am sure that everyone on this side of the House would like to think that when we land at a regional airport it is a level playing field—and a level landing field as well. I am aware of his point about charges. The industry is examining that, especially in the context of low-cost airlines.

On the environment, when the Government make definite and firm proposals in their White Paper, that will be the time to consider, in respect of specific proposals, what we can do to honour our international and European obligations. The hon. Gentleman asked about the fuel duty. It is not only a matter for the European Union, but for world aviation. It would be curious if there was one regime in Europe and another for the rest of the world—all sorts of difficulties would arise.

On night flights, I said that I want to consult as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman and the House will be aware that a court case is pending in relation to the decisions taken by the last Conservative Government. That is before the court, and we shall have to consider it, too.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we were not looking at options other than Cliffe. It would be interesting if the Liberal party could actually come up with an option—a real proposal that we could consider.

Mr. Foster

I mentioned one.

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Manston and I appreciate the interest of Kent county council in Manston. However, the problem is that it is about 60 miles further to the east and that would pose difficulties as regards journeys into London. In addition, the further east one goes, the more one has to deal with air traffic considerations in continental Europe.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman referred to NATS and air traffic controllers. NATS is addressing the matter; there is a problem throughout Europe in attracting enough people to deal with the increased demand. Generally, however, it is doing a good job and is coping with the amount of traffic. On his point about the consultation paper, NATS and the Civil Aviation Authority were of course consulted and will need to consider any concluded proposals following the consultation.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. May I say to the House that when I call a Back Bencher, I expect only one question to be asked?

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington)

The Secretary of State should be aware of the sense of betrayal, anger and worry felt by my constituents who live near Heathrow. They feel betrayed and angry because at the terminal 4 inquiry we were told that there would be no need for a terminal 5. At the terminal 5 inquiry, the British Airports Authority wrote to every one of my constituents at Heathrow saying that there was no need for a third runway. Six months ago, the Secretary of State told me that the environment of my constituents would be protected by a cap on Heathrow, and now they are coming back for more. My constituents do not believe that this will be a short take-off runway. It will be a full runway, at the end of the day, affecting the homes of 4,000 families, three primary schools and villages and communities that have existed for 1,000 years.

I ask the Secretary of State for an assurance that he comes to the consultation with an open mind. Will he also give a commitment that, for the first time in 30 years of Heathrow's expansion, the interests of my constituents will be protected?

Mr. Darling

This is a consultation, and I made it very clear in my statement that the Government are looking at what we do to ensure that we maintain an international hub airport in the south-east. I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes about his constituents—I would expect that from any Member of Parliament representing a constituency containing an airport. However, he knows that Heathrow employs 68,000 people. There are about 100,000 people whose employment depends on the future of Heathrow. When we look at these matters, we must realise that although an airport's expansion or extension will cause some people concern, many people live around Heathrow and work there, while others fly from there on a number of occasions every year. It is not easy to marry those factors, but we need to consider the bigger picture.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

There will be widespread agreement with the Secretary of State that, whatever its exact path, there will be significant growth. The demand must be met, and much of it must he met in the south-east. I suspect that there is also agreement that there should be a dominant international hub airport in the south-east. However, does he accept that there is a powerful case that, to secure the long-term prosperity of Britain's civil aviation industry, with all the jobs that he rightly says depend on it, it would be better to consider the option of a new coastal airport, as other countries that have that option are doing, rather than endlessly bolting on capacity to existing inland airports? Does it not make better sense to locate flight paths over water rather than over houses? I do not know whether Cliffe is the right area, but new investment and jobs are urgently needed in the east Thames corridor.

Mr. Darling

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is worth bearing it in mind that 65 per cent. of passengers who use south-east airports live in the south-east of England, so the majority are local. On his point about a coastal airport, Cliffe is just that—it is an option to build a new airport on the Thames coast. There will be counter-arguments in respect of Cliffe, just as there are for every other airport. One of the problems in the south-east of England is that there is a limited amount of open space that has no complications and wants an airport. If he finds such a site, he should drop me a line, because I would be interested to see it.

The options are fairly straightforward. The advantage of Heathrow is that it is there already, the advantage of Stansted is that an existing airport could be extended, and the advantage of Cliffe is that it is a new site. However, I readily recognise that there are pros and cons for every site and airport. It is for us. through the consultation process, to try to reach the right answer.

Mr. Robert Marshall-Andrews (Medway)

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be huge opposition to the construction of a new airport at Cliffe? It will not be based on selfish nimbyism or rejection of the economic benefits but on the massive damage that will be done to the most sensitive ecological sites in Europe, which are irreplaceable. Will the Secretary of State give my constituents at least this comfort? If, during the course of the consultation process, it appears that a new airport can be ruled out on the grounds of cost or anything else, will he give swift notice of that fact, so that the blight overhanging so much of north Kent can be lifted?

Mr. Darling

It is appropriate that my hon. and learned Friend should follow the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude); perhaps they should have a conversation with each other. That illustrates the problems that we face. I say to my hon. and learned Friend that I propose to announce the Government's conclusions after the consultation period—in one announcement rather than in bits, I hope. The whole consultation period has to run.

I say to my hon. and learned Friend, as I have said to other Members, that we must put in the balance the fact that we all know that doing nothing is not an option. There are more and more people who need or want to fly, and our future prosperity depends upon it. Indeed, many people who live near airports fly themselves.

There is no easy answer and, whatever the decision, I dare say that there will be difficulties with it. But I hope that when my hon. and learned Friend approaches the consultation, he will do so in the spirit of recognising that there could also be benefits from airport development at Cliffe and in other places, and reach a final view next year.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwoody)

In his statement, the Secretary of State repeatedly suggested that environmental considerations would be of the utmost importance. As someone who has worked in the aircraft industry, supported Heathrow and always argued its merits as a premier international hub airport, may I say that constructing a new runway to the north of the existing one at Heathrow would be a development too far? Would it not be a supreme irony for many people who owe their livelihood to the airport, or who work there, to find themselves dispossessed of their homes by the construction of a runway that would fatally prejudice the environment of west London? May I therefore urge a balanced strategy, developing the London airport system as a whole, right round the capital, and the construction of crossrail through London, past Stratford, out to Stansted, to ensure the surface transport access that has so often been denied to passengers?

Mr. Darling

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point about Heathrow and I know that, over the years, he has supported development to maintain Heathrow's premier position. The question that we must consider in this consultation period is how to ensure that a major hub airport is maintained in the London area. The question is whether we extend Heathrow—I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about that—or develop Stansted or a new site instead. The consultation also seeks views on whether Heathrow and Stansted could be developed together and complement each other, so the options are all in play.

I would say to the hon. Gentleman—he no doubt does this—that he must also talk to people who currently use Heathrow. who are now taking a long-term view in

relation to that airport. I know that the hon. Gentleman sometimes has difficulty in looking across the channel to Europe, but he is aware that while we in this country consider these matters, major hub airports are already being developed in Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. If we do not decide what to do in a way acceptable to both residents and the industry, we could be in some difficulty in years to come.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

The Secretary of State will know that for decades British Governments have run away from the difficult questions in aviation, so he is to be most warmly congratulated on his statement today. He will also be aware that this is a matter of some urgency. Will he therefore give me an undertaking that under no circumstances will the decisions in relation either to extra runways, or to possibly a new airport, take place after the next general election? Will he also give me an absolute assurance that the private partners of National Air Traffic Services will be able to fund the expansion of air traffic services without which none of this will be possible? Above all, will he remember that although regional airports will certainly expand, they must have the right to come into the south-east airports protected? Otherwise, regional transport will become a pariah in terms of the development of the economy.

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her introductory words. As I said, I am determined that the Government should come to a firm view, which will be set out in the White Paper next year. It is in no one's interests that the matter should drag out. Clearly, if specific proposals are then made, some will take time to work out for obvious reasons. The uncertainty ought to be brought to an end as quickly as possible, but especially in places where there is not to be any development. She is also right that successive Governments have considered the subject and that some of them have run away from it. In the past few weeks, there have been times when I have seen why. My judgment is that in transport matters it is better to make decisions than not to make them, even though the consequences may be difficult.

My hon. Friend is also right that, on any view, we will have to cater for an increased use of air space, which will have consequent effects on air traffic control. It is important to ensure that NATS and the air traffic control system can cope with that. The consultation document touches on that. It is also important that the necessary funding comes—it is a partnership between the public and the private sectors—to ensure that air traffic control operates effectively.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

The Secretary of State will accept that it is obvious that there will be huge demand for development around any new runway or airport. With the London proposals in mind in particular, has his Department done any research into the extent to which it anticipates that happening, and if so, will it be published? If not, is such research anticipated and will it be published before the end of the consultation period?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman knows that the Deputy Prime Minister published proposals on housing last week. My Department and his remain in touch, of course and if the hon. Gentleman has questions relating to that, he can ask them in the normal way. He is right that airport developments have consequential effects, not only for housing but for businesses.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East)

My right hon. Friend is right to propose additional runway capacity, but does he agree that an equally strong case can be made for effective ground transport links to airports? With reference to Manchester, will he consider the proposal to extend heavy rail from the airport to the west coast main line? More immediately, will he continue to liaise with the Greater Manchester passenger transport executive to ensure that the Metrolink extension to the airport goes ahead as quickly as possible?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend and other Greater Manchester Members will know that my Department is in touch with Manchester council about the metro. He will know that our concern relates not to the development of light rail, which we very much want, but to the fact that the costs have escalated dramatically recently and we need to get to the bottom of that for obvious reasons. He is also right that public transport links not only to Manchester but to all airports leave much to be desired. For example, Heathrow only acquired a heavy rail link recently, which is astonishing. That is something that we need to attend to in other parts of the country too.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

Given that the areas immediately around Heathrow and Stansted are congested and overheating, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a wonderful opportunity, in principle, irrespective of which site is chosen, to create jobs and investment in the Thames gateway, which is the poorest part of the south-east region?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman has a point. I said that one of the advantages of a development at Cliffe would be the gains that it would bring to the Thames gateway—an area that the previous Conservative Government and this Government have been anxious to help to regenerate. The difficulty, as he probably recognises—I appreciate his generosity of spirit in suggesting that the airport should be developed somewhere other than his own area—is that people who live in the area concerned sometimes take a different view. This will be an open consultation. There are powerful arguments for development in each and every case, but we also need to take other considerations into account. That is the object of the consultation period.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)

The Secretary of State reminded the House that the polluter must pay is an important principle. I disagree with him that airport communities are being compensated for the disruption to their environment caused by aviation and regional airports such as east midlands airport. Will he reassure those of us who represent constituencies near regional airports that could be expanded that he will put in place at least a minimum and decent environmental framework to protect the people who live in such communities, in particular from the corrosive and damaging effects of night noise? As he said in his statement, east midlands airport is second or third for freight carriage in this country, but it has a very weak framework indeed. I can tell him that doing nothing is not an option.

Mr. Darling

I am aware of the issue at east midlands airport. Several local authorities have asked us to designate it in terms of noise control. At the moment, we do that only in south-east England. Obviously, those are all things that we need to look at as part of the consultation in relation to any development, but just so that I do not inadvertently, not mislead, but encourage my hon. Friend to think things that he should not be thinking, I am not holding out any hope of reversing my recent decision in respect of east midlands airport.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

In examining the options for expansion at Southampton international airport, which the Secretary of State will know is in my constituency, can he tell me whether it was discovered that the M27 motorway, the main coast railway line to Portsmouth and the little matter of Southampton city ruled out the construction of a second runway, as a previous study concluded? Is that still the case?

Mr. Darling

I know Southampton international airport. In fact, a couple of weeks ago I spent some time waiting for my train looking at it and its runway. The consultation in relation to Southampton does not envisage a second runway there but considers how Southampton and other airports in the area can be developed further and what their role should be. If anything is canvassed in the consultation that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with, or if there are matters that he thinks that we should examine further, this is the perfect opportunity for him to do that.

Mrs. Irene Adams (Paisley, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that devolution to Scotland was about delivering services and power nearer to the people who are represented? Will he therefore ensure during the consultation that the highly successful Glasgow airport, which is in my constituency and employs 5,000 people, is not sacrificed if the Edinburgh Parliament suddenly develops what might be described as a natural inclination to draw services to itself, and that the spirit of devolution continues to serve all the people of Scotland equally?

Mr. Darling

I am glad that my hon. Friend chose to blame the Edinburgh Parliament rather than the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central, who is of course well aware of the competition or rivalry—call it what you will—between our two cities. The consultation with regard to central Scotland looks at what scope there is to develop both airports. There has been growth at both. It also raises the question whether we should try to develop a hub airport, which would probably only be at one airport. In order to make it work and to get the destinations that many people in Scotland want, not just to the south of England but to Europe and the United States, it would be necessary to achieve a certain density of traffic: it might be difficult to achieve that with a hub of two airports. I hope that as Edinburgh and Glasgow are 44 miles apart, although the airports are slightly further apart than that, all of us could see the common interest in doing that, and I say that an as Edinburgh Member.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The Secretary of State will be aware that, given the necessary but—in transport terms—relatively modest costs of improvements to the rail service, Manston airport in Kent is about 50 minutes by train to central London. In the light of his earlier answer, does he seriously suggest that Manston's potential is not under consideration in the document?

Mr. Darling

Manston is mentioned in the document, as are most major airports. My point was that, in terms of a large international hub airport, the option in Kent that is being looked at is Cliffe. In relation to Manston or indeed other airports in the region, the whole point of the consultation is to allow people to make representations. At this stage, the Government have not reached a conclusion. We will do so when we reach the stage of publishing a White Paper but there is nothing to stop the hon. Gentleman or other Kent Members making representations if they think that there is a better solution.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

I welcome the significance that has been afforded to London Luton airport, which is a particularly successful public-private partnership, one of our largest employers and handles the second largest number of business passengers in the United Kingdom. I welcome the proposals for expansion, although not for a second runway, which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) seemed to be advocating, since that would mean tarmacking over half of Luton, probably including my house. Is my right hon. Friend aware that expansion of London Luton is predicated on the need to deal with junction 10 of the M1 and its widening? Can he advise us when a decision is likely to be made on that point?

Mr. Darling

My hon. Friend is right that, in relation to all these airports, surface communications, whether motorway or rail, need attention. I cannot tell her when a decision is likely to be made in relation to the M1. I would also say, as she raised the matter, that the options at Luton include a new runway to replace the existing runway, because, as she will know far better than I do, the topography of Luton means that it would not be possible to put a second airport there. As she will know, however, significant capacity over the next 30 years should allow Luton to develop successfully.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

The Secretary of State spoke repeatedly about the need to attract a hub operation. Does he understand that that is not entirely within his gift, and that many airports in the world with spacious termini and multi-runways have never been able to attract a hub because they lacked critical mass and the co-operation of a major carrier? Given what is happening in France, Germany and the Netherlands, and the recent failure of British Airways to create a successful hub at Gatwick, what makes him think that there is a possibility of creating an additional hub at Stansted?

Mr. Darling

The hon. Gentleman is not quite right. What I said was that, clearly, Heathrow is a very successful international hub airport—one international passenger in six start and finish their journeys in the south-east, and many do so at Heathrow. The question is whether we can maintain Heathrow's position. Does it need an extension in terms of an additional runway, or would it be better to operate Heathrow in conjunction with a second airport such as Stansted? Alternatively, should we accept that Heathrow cannot expand enough, for whatever reason, and move the hub airport elsewhere? I accept that that does not lie entirely in the Government's hands. The people who build the airport, operate the airport and own the airlines are not the Government. Clearly, however, Government can influence these matters. We can listen to the industry and the airlines, and, because of the powers available to us, set up a framework against which all those people, as well as residents, can plan for the future.

I accept that not all these matters lie in the hands of the Government, but the logic of the hon. Gentleman's position is that the Government should stand back and see what others do to sort it out. I do not think that he is saying that. I do think, however, that the consultation period allows time for people to focus their minds. As he raised the point, I hope that it focuses the minds of everybody concerned, as it is in all our interests that we come to a firm decision sooner rather than later.

Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston)

Would the Secretary of State add another telling statistic to those that he is beginning to compile? I am the third Heathrow Member to speak this afternoon. One of the other two has always opposed major developments at Heathrow, while the other has always supported them. The latter has changed his mind, and I shall add another to the list of those who have moved across: because of the people living around Heathrow, I do not agree that it is possible to expand outside Heathrow without causing dreadful damage to people's lives. People are already suffering greatly, as I hope that the Secretary of State understands, but they carry on and make a major contribution to one of the world's greatest industries. Two people have therefore switched over this afternoon.

Mr. Darling

I do not quarrel with any Member who advances a particular view because it is in their constituents' interests to do so. My hon. Friend is, therefore, entitled to take that view. All I would say to him, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), is that the three of us are concerned about the future of Heathrow. The question is whether it can continue to be the international airport that it is without extending its capacity further. If, at the end, the consensus is yes, that is fine. But if it is no, ail of us—including Members who represent Heathrow constituencies—have to face up to the fact that, at the moment, the airport is responsible, directly and indirectly, for the employment of about 100,000 people. We must take decisions in the next year or so that will determine the future of Heathrow over the next 30 years. There is not an easy answer, as I have said time and again, and all of us have to consider both sides of the argument before reaching a view.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Just 12 months after the opening of the second runway at Manchester airport, the possibility of further development would cause real concern among the communities living around it. Will the Secretary of State take on board the fact that when an airport, such as Manchester, is so close to a conurbation, there must be an upper limit on development? Does he accept that the airport cannot continue to grow indefinitely?

Mr. Darling

There is not a proposal to build another runway at Manchester. The view is that the existing runway capacity will be sufficient throughout the 30-year period. There is, however, an option to extend terminal capacity.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point, but it reflects a common theme in our exchanges. Everyone agrees that something has to be done and that more and more people want to travel. However, when it comes to the particular, people naturally say, "Not here. Somewhere else." As he knows, I do not represent a Greater Manchester constituency, but I speak to quite a lot of Greater Manchester MPs, not least because we have rather more of them than he has. My impression is that opinion is somewhat divided.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne)

People in the south-west make fewer air journeys than anyone else in the United Kingdom. That could be because we have the lowest number of airports and slots into the south-east. The situation was not helped when, in the mid-1990s, British Airways withdrew the slot into Heathrow from Plymouth and Newquay. That was bad for the economy of Cornwall and Devon. Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider this issue in the consultation?

Mr. Darling

I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about not just air links but other links from the south-west. I have used Plymouth and Newquay airports on several occasions, and I am aware of the problems that she has encountered. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), keeps me right about the south-west of England at every possible opportunity.

The consultation documents consider options for increasing links and for extending capacity at Bristol. I appreciate that Bristol is quite a long way from Cornwall, but I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) accepts that some things can be done with the smaller regional airports whereas other things cannot. However, I assure her that I perfectly understand her points and, as I suggested, my ministerial colleague will ensure that I consider all the issues.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

How substantial and significant to the Secretary of State's plans is the contribution made by outstanding regional airports, such as Southend, which are anxious to expand and develop? As we are heading for a period of expansion, will he make it clear that the CAA will adopt a positive and constructive attitude to airport expansion and that it will not be unduly bureaucratic?

Mr. Darling

I hope that the latter will not be the case. The difficulty at Southend is just how much more scope for expansion there is without encountering real problems. However, it is a pleasure to hear an hon. Member say that he wants a bigger airport in his constituency. I assure him that Southend is one of the options considered in the consultation document, but it is not down for development as a major London airport. It is being considered in its own right.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

I want a bigger airport in my constituency. My right hon. Friend will recognise that Glasgow and the west of Scotland are served by two airports, one of which is Glasgow Prestwick in my constituency. It has a rail link and capacity for growth, so what does he say about that in his scenario of a hub for Scotland? Glasgow Prestwick excels at freight, so will he say something about the consultation on freight in relation to Scotland? Finally, does he agree that the consultation document underlines once and for all the need for the Scottish centre at Prestwick?

Mr. Darling

I agree with my hon. Friend on that point. She will know that I plan to visit Prestwick in the summer. No doubt, I will see her there.

I know that Prestwick has been through a difficult time over the years. There has been some welcome expansion brought about, for example, by the low-cost airline Ryanair and by the development of freight. My hon. Friend will see from the consultation document that the future development of Prestwick is being examined. On her point about whether it is possible to promote a passenger hub airport at Prestwick, the consultation document suggests that the development of Glasgow and Edinburgh is more likely. However, she will clearly want to make representations on behalf of Prestwick.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Given the potential threat to the Inverness-Gatwick air link, does the Secretary of State recognise its vital importance to the economy of the highlands? Notwithstanding the clear hints that a public service obligation will not be forthcoming, can he assure the House that the Government remain committed to it?

Mr. Darling

Having been in touch with Iain Gray, the Minister with responsibility for transport in the Scottish Executive, I am well aware that the links between Inverness and London are very important. British Airways has said on a number of occasions that it intends to continue with the link, and our discussions and consideration continue. The hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt that the link is critical.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement. He is aware of the mass protest—indeed, he has had a flavour of it in the Chamber—that will result from expansion in the south and south-east. In Doncaster, not only are the vast majority of the population in favour of the project at RAF Finningley, but tens of thousands of people have signed a petition asking for an airport there. Will he agree to meet a delegation of Doncaster and south Yorkshire MPs so that we can tell him in detail about the benefits of having an airport in Doncaster?

Mr. Darling

Over the past 10 years I must have met my hon. Friend on many occasions, mostly informal rather than formal, and I know of his long-standing interest in Finningley and the development there. There has been an inquiry. The inspector is due to report in October or November—I hope that he will do so—and a decision then has to be made by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. That is why the proposal does not appear in the consultation document. As I said to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), it is nice to find an hon. Member who wants an airport in his constituency. Although all hon. Members recognise the need for airport capacity to be increased, they are generally wary about where it should go.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden)

The Government's proposals for new runways at Birmingham international airport will cause great concern to my constituents because of the environmental consequences. The Department's summary document states that improvements would need to be made to the road network and the west coast main line. Does that constitute a wish list or a commitment to do something?

Mr. Darling

We are committed to upgrading the west coast main line. Unlike the party that the hon. Lady represents, we are prepared to put in the investment to make that possible, so she is in no position to criticise us on railway development.

The hon. Lady has a more substantive point about Birmingham. The consultation document recognises the fact that extending the development of Birmingham airport could have implications for people living around it. It also makes the point that jobs are associated with the airport. One of the options that was considered as an alternative to the expansion of Birmingham and east midlands airports was a new airport between Coventry and Rugby.

We all recognise the need for good air links, and Birmingham airport is a very good airport that provides links throughout and beyond Europe and is extremely popular. The hon. Lady must weigh in the balance the advantages of Birmingham and the possible need to extend it with her concerns for her constituents. None of us can have it all ways. There is no such thing as a cost-free airport with no implications one way or another.

Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

The people of Rugby will be devastated by what they have heard today and to know that two historic villages—Church Lawford and King's Newnham—will disappear under runways. If one had said to anybody in Rugby yesterday that there would be a new airport in Rugby and Birmingham airport will close, they would not have believed that it was humanly possible. My right hon. Friend said that Birmingham is a very successful airport. I believe that it should continue to be so and that the people of Birmingham would not want to lose their airport. Will he meet a delegation of the people of Rugby within the four-month period? [Interruption.] Four months is not long enough, because it will take them four months to get over the shock of hearing about it.

Mr. Darling

I always knew that being Transport Secretary would be good fun. Just before my hon. Friend causes himself a lot of difficulty, I must tell him that we are not proposing a new airport between Coventry and Rugby. We are saying that there is likely to be an expansion in the numbers of people wanting to fly from midlands airports. The options canvass is on whether we expand capacity at Birmingham or east midlands, or both. Alternatively, the option is whether it is worth building a new airport. No decisions whatever have been made.

I strongly urge my hon. Friend, not for my good but for his, that before he tells his constituents that they will be getting a new airport—[Interruption.] I got the

impression that he was to tell them. Let us exercise a little caution. I say to him as I have to others this afternoon that all of us as a country know that our future prosperity depends on our ability to trade and travel. That means that difficult decisions have to be made. Let us for goodness' sake look at the options rationally, weigh them in the balance and then come to a conclusion. No decision at all has been reached on any development. Everyone should look at the consultation documents bearing that very much at the front of their minds.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire)

Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking to look very seriously at the role of airport consultative committees, which to local people at the moment give an illusion of consultation? Will he particularly consider the issue of vectoring, whereby aircraft move from approved routes purely for time reasons?

Mr. Darling

Those are two separate matters. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular point about a consultative committee, perhaps he would let me know. I am not aware of a general concern. I am not saying that there is not one, but I am not aware of it because representations have not been made to me.

Aircraft go off route—presumably with the permission of air traffic controllers—from time to time for perfectly good operational reasons. Again, if the hon. Gentleman has specific concerns or thinks that it is happening too often above his constituency, perhaps he would let me know.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I warmly welcome the statement as it relates to Wales: the recognition that air travel will be at the cutting edge of business communication in Wales; the concentration on development at Cardiff international airport rather than building a new airport at Severnside; and the emphasis on surface access to the airport in order to develop it. Will my right hon. Friend work closely with the Welsh Assembly to progress that excellent agenda?

Finally, may I remind right hon. and hon. Members to wear flight socks when they fly on holiday this summer? Apart from saving lives, they can be very fetching.

Mr. Darling

I will bear that in mind.

As I said in my statement, I know that the announcement by BMI to establish a second base for its new low-cost airline in Cardiff is very welcome. I have also said that surface links, not just to airports but for passengers living in Wales who want to travel from airports in England, need to be improved. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said, and we are of course working closely with the Welsh Assembly.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

The Secretary of State should know that my constituents are not saying, "Not here"; they are saying, "Not any more here." We already have four terminals at Heathrow and do not want any more, although one is to be imposed on us. If he cannot guarantee that air traffic movements will be capped at 480,000 a year and that there will be no third runway at Heathrow, which were both conditions imposed by the inspector on the granting of permission for terminal 5, what is the use of public inquiries in the first place?

Mr. Darling

As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins), who speaks for the Opposition, the decision on terminal 5 was recognised as one in relation to the airport as it is now. It needs a fifth terminal to deal with the airport as it is now. The inspector noted and acknowledged in his conclusions the fact that the Government would consult on what was necessary for the next 30 years. The decision made by the Government at the time made that clear.

I appreciate the point that the hon. Lady makes on behalf of her constituents, and the subtle distinction between "Not here" and "Not any more here", but no matter what part of the country we live in, we must acknowledge that people fly. Many of her constituents fly—from Heathrow. Indeed, I would guess that the propensity to fly in the south-east of England and in Richmond is rather greater than that in some other parts of the country. It is necessary to strike a balance. As I said before, the one thing we cannot do is ignore the fact that over the next 30 years conditions will change. We need to plan for those changing conditions and we need to do it now. Pretending that there is no problem gets us nowhere.

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

May I remind my right hon. Friend of Heathrow's importance as a premier airport to jobs and the economy in west London? If it were to decline seriously, the impact on the region would be at least as devastating as was the closure of the docks on east London. People need to understand that when making this judgment on air transport. As one who has lived under a flight path for much of my life, I admit that it is not easy to live with the noise, but I think that if Heathrow went into decline, the devastation wrought on west London would be extremely serious.

Mr. Darling

I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he has put his finger on the problem. He rightly draws attention to the concerns of people living at or near Heathrow and its flight paths, but that airport employs, directly or indirectly, more than 100,000 people. It is therefore critical that we get the decision on the future of the London airports, in particular Heathrow, right, and we need to get it right fairly soon. To leave the decision to someone else—to say that I want nothing to do with it—is not the right approach, so I welcome my hon. Friend's comments.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I have important business of the House to protect. No one understands better than I the importance of the issue, but experience suggests that it is one to which the House will return.