HL Deb 26 April 1971 vol 317 cc935-44

3.45 p.m.


My Lords, I should like now with permission, to repeat a Statement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has been making in another place on the Third London Airport. This is my right honourable friend's Statement:

"With permission, I should like to make a Statement. The Government has considered with great care the Roskill Commission report, the views expressed in recent debates in both Houses of Parliament and the many representations made by a wide range of interests on the siting of the third London Airport.

"The Government has now taken certain basic decisions about the need, timing and location of the airport,

"It is the Government's aim to encourage the development of aviation and to maintain Britain's share of civil aviation in the international field. The Government accepts the unanimous recommendation of the Commission that a third London Airport will be needed and that the first runway should be operational by about 1980. It considers that additional airport capacity is required in the South-East, not only to meet the inevitable increase in air traffic now foreseen but also to bring relief at the earliest practicable date to the noise and environmental problems created by the existing airports in the region. The Government endorses the Commission's assumption that there would then be no need to provide additional runways at other airports in the London area. An airport outside the region would not meet the need. It would involve unacceptable risks to defer the provision of a third airport on the basis of speculative technological developments such as STOL, or to plan on the assumption that future needs could be met by a site incapable of expansion over time to a full four-runway capacity.

"The Government has power to regulate the use of British Airport Authority's airports in the interests of the reduction of noise; I propose to consult airport owners immediately about the inclusion of provisions in the current Civil Aviation Bill to extend these powers in due course to other airports where noise is a serious problem.

"Secondly the Government has weighed with care the economic arguments identified by the Commission which indicated an inland site, and the regional planning and environmental issues which the Commission also identified. As the Commission's Report stressed, on environmental and planning grounds the Foulness site is the best, and the Government has concluded that these considerations are of paramount importance. In the Government's view, the irreversible damage that would be done to large tracts of countryside and to many settled communities by the creation of an airport at any of the three inland sites studied by the Commission is so great that it is worth paying the price involved in selecting Foulness. The Commission has clearly indicated that the Foulness site has its economic and environmental disadvantages.

"The Government is confident that an airport at Foulness will meet the needs of aviation despite the economic penalty involved. Speedy means of access and efficient operation can reduce this penalty, and the use of the new airport would be encouraged by stricter limits on movements at other airports. Such limits, which the new airport would make possible, would help to reduce noise at existing airports. It will be open to the British Airports Authority so to arrange charges between its airports as to stimulate traffic at Foulness. On these assumptions, which differ from those made by the Commission, the new airport can be expected in time to make a proper return on capital invested there, though it may not become self-supporting as quickly as one at an inland site.

"A start will now he made on the planning of the new airport at Foulness. We shall have particularly in mind the precise location of the runways in the light of all the relevant cost, operation, noise and environmental factors.

"Proposals have been made for a joint development at Foulness with participation by private capital involving as well a seaport and associated industrial development. The Government is examining the concepts involved. Meantime plans will be made for the airport on a basis that will not rule out a seaport and associated development being fitted into the site if this proves desirable.

"The construction of the airport at Foulness will entail the early relocation of the Ministry of Defence Establishment at Shoeburyness. My right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Wales has announced that the proposal before him to move the establishment to Pembrey will not be proceeded with. The Government is considering alternative arrangements and will shortly consult the local authorities and other bodies concerned.

"The Secretary of State for the Environment will now proceed to discuss urgently with the various authorities concerned the scale and location of the urban development which the airport will involve and the action needed to secure it. The planning of the necessary road and rail links will be put in hand. All this, with the airport, will present over the next decade a great opportunity for imaginative integrated development.

"These decisions, dealing as they do with the larger part of our air traffic, will provide a basis on which studies can be pursued to establish the desirable pattern of airport development in the rest of the country."

My Lords, that concludes my right honourable friend's Statement.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Earl for repeating this Statement. I am glad, as I am sure we all are, that the planning blight has been lifted at the earliest possible opportunity from the three inland sites that are no longer in the running. But let there be no mistake about it: this is an escapist solution. It has no relevance at all to the real facts of the future possibilities and needs of air transport, if the work goes ahead on the East Coast, away from the main flows of air traffic, without further appreciation of other possibilities, including a much more sensible two-runway airport on the South Coast and STOL, or QTOL, as I called it, it may well prove to be the most extravagant mis-use of concrete since the Maginot Line was built, and for much the same reasons.

May I ask three questions of detail? On what estimate of access costs was this decision made about Foulness, and who is to pay for those costs? Secondly, who is to pay for the dredging around the Maplin Sands before construction begins? Thirdly, the Statement says that the airport can "in time" be expected to make a proper return. May I ask what is the time scale which the noble Earl has in mind, and in the meantime will the British Airports Authority be expected to pay its own way?


My Lords, I am afraid that from these Benches I do not follow the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, in his wholesale condemnation. We feel that this is a triumph of environmental standards over purely economic considerations. I think there will be need for a great deal more examination of the requirements of airports throughout the rest of the country, but there must be widespread relief that the inland areas are not going to be desecrated as they might have been.


My Lords, I must confess, with due deference to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, that I found the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Byers, rather more sympathetic. I also think that those comments accorded very much more with the view generally expressed in your Lordships' House in a long two days' discussion which we devoted to this matter. But, that said. I should like to contest the view of the noble Lord, Lord Beswick. I am a little concerned that he has sprung into almost instant opposition on this decision, which has been carefully and very deeply pondered and which, I am entirely convinced, is in the greater interests of all of us over the longer term. It is not an escapist decision: it was only after very careful consideration that we came to the conclusion that it would be folly to embark now upon a site which was not capable of expansion to four runways. I am not saying that one will be needed, but it could be needed, and the South Coast site to which the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has referred would inevitably be a two-runway one.

On the question of STOL—and I readily acknowledge the noble Lord's expertise in this matter—after very careful consideration, and with the unanimous backing of the Roskill Commission, we came to the conclusion that to postpone a decision on the possibilities of the future development of VTOL and STOL would be far too much of a gamble in the time available. As to access costs, I think that these have been evaluated (though on this point I speak subject to correction) and they are fully set out on pages 254–55 of the Roskill Report I think it means that the discounted expenditure on road access to Foulness would be £28.5 million and the cost of rail access, £38.4 million. So far as I know (but I am afraid that I have not had the chance of going into this in detail) the Government do not contest these figures. I should like again to pay tribute to the Roskill Commission as such because, although we are not accepting their main recommendation on site, we do believe that the spadework they have done has been of quite invaluable importance.

The noble Lord asked who will pay for the dredging. That will be part of the general construction costs. So far as the timing of the costs are concerned, so far as the British Airports Authority budgeting is concerned, my understanding is that their present target covers the period up to April, 1972, and should not be affected by Third London Airport expenditure. Their target for future years will, of course, have to take into account expenditure on Foulness. The Government are confident that over a period of time—and it will be a longer period of time than if we had chosen Cublington—this airport will pay its way. We believe that that extra cost will be well worth paying by the nation, in terms of what the choice of any of the three inland sites would have meant to the environment of our countryside and for the enjoyment of that countryside and environment by our children and grandchildren.


My Lords, may I thank the noble Earl for the Statement and say that, so far as I am concerned—though I may be alone in this—it pleases me very much indeed. As this public development will be at the expense of the nation, can the Government take steps to ensure that land speculators do not exploit the position'? Is the noble Earl aware that only a few months ago one local authority, when taking over a rough farm, valued at £300 an acre, was ordered by the district valuer to compensate the owner at the rate of £20,000 an acre; and will he see that this kind of thing does not happen at Foulness?


I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Leatherland, for his welcome of the Statement. I am not entirely surprised by his welcome; none the less my gratitude is sincere. I would add that I will take careful note of what he said about land speculators and see that it is brought to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that a good many noble Lords from these Back Benches would like to dissociate themselves from the criticism that has come from our Front Bench and congratulate the Government on what is a perfectly obviously right decision?


My Lords, may I associate myself with the views expressed from the Back Bench on the other side?


My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that this decision will be widely welcomed, not least because of its merit in terms of the economic geography of this island, being plumb in the middle of industrial Western Europe? But can he say whether the Government will henceforth be willing to listen to proposals from private enterprise consortia for the development of other estuaries in Britain, such as the Severn, the Lune, the Humber, the Clyde and the Forth?


My Lords, again I am grateful for my noble friend's welcome of the Statement, and I am not surprised by his supplementary. In general terms the answer is, Yes.


My Lords, may I add one other nosegay to the bouquet presented to the noble Earl and ask him whether he is aware that his Statement, so far as it affects Pembrey, will afford great satisfaction in Wales, and particularly in Carmarthenshire?


My Lords, I am aware of that.


My Lords, I wonder whether I might ask the noble Earl what the Government have in mind to replace the Maplin Sands for the Army, now that Pembrey has dropped out. This is a crucial problem. May I ask the noble Earl whether we ought, in the surge of relief that Cublington is to be preserved—a relief which we all share—to ignore the consequences? While acknowledging the noble Earl's tribute to Roskill, is it not a little odd that the Government should plead him in support when they are rejecting the Commission's main recommendation?

May I ask the noble Earl further, in regard to this South Coast proposal, which has never really, so far as I know, been put forward and considered—and knowing that people have consistently estimated the time scale wrongly—whether even now it might not be better, as there is going to be grave trouble over Foulness (I personally happen to welcome it, for a number of reasons, but many other people do not), to adopt the two-runway solution and allow it to tide us over until such time as the VTOL or the QTOL aircraft are available? I hope that the noble Earl will not be misled, especially by some noble Lords who have personal concern (I do not mean financial concern) in these matters and are relieved that the site is not to be Cublington, into assuming that what must have been a very difficult decision for the Government is not going to be without a great deal of controversy. We still do not know how much more it is going to cost the taxpayer to adopt Foulness; but certainly, if we are to follow what Roskill said, it will cost us all a great deal more.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord's three supplementaries, I would say first that I am fully aware of the importance of the Shoeburyness range. All I can say at the present t me is that, apart from the Pembrey negative decision, the Government are considering alternative locations, and we shall be consulting with the local authorities concerned. I cannot say more at this stage. Secondly, I do not think it was unfair of me to plead Roskill in aid. Where I was pleading the Roskill Commission in aid was their unanimous opinion that a Third London Airport in the South-East was required, and required soon. I think that this was a fair point to make.

On the South Coast point, I speak here as somebody who has no personal interest, financially or otherwise, in the matter, but with the interest which I think all noble Lords have, that we should try as a nation to take the best decision possible here, and then see that the resulting decision is implemented so that we have a really first-class airport in this place. All I can say is that, having carefully considered this in the light of all the factors—and we have given this most careful consideration—this is the decision we have come to: we have come to it firmly, and we now intend to go ahead with all those concerned to try and make a success of it.


My Lords, I wonder if on reflection the noble Earl will not agree that he is being a little unfair when he speaks of my "instant opposition". Would be not agree, knowing the kind of solution that I have put forward, that I have the environment as much in mind as anyone, and that all I am trying to do is to make technology serve environment and not the other way round. I should like to ask the noble Earl one other question. He says that it was essential to have a four-runway site. Does he not agree that the Commission itself said that there will be no use for the third runway until 1995 and for the fourth runway until after the year 2000? May I ask the noble Earl whether he and his advisers really think that by the year 2000 we shall need five or six miles of concrete to enable an aircraft to get off this earth?


My Lords, I do not wish to bandy the technicalities with the noble Lord, whose technical expertise in this matter I fully recognise. If I said something over-hastily about the four runway site, I gladly withdraw. What intended to say was that it was the Government's firm decision that it would be a mistake to choose a site which was not capable of expansion over a period of time, if need be, to accommodate four runways. Again, I of course withdraw straight away if in the heat of the moment on hearing the noble Lord's remarks—we have heard his views before on this—I accused him of instant opposition. I know his deep interest in this matter. I read his article inFlighton it; we heard him when we debated the subject in our two-day debate. I acquit the noble Lord of instant opposition, because he has already opposed it some little time ago.


My Lords, would it be reasonable to add as a tribute to the Roskill Commission Report the fact that it contains the Buchanan Minority Report, which makes a very fine contribution to the whole question of conservation, and also brings into the picture the possibility of the effect of the Foulness Airport on the development in East London?


My Lords, having spent part of the weekend, when I was not addressing the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust, reading the noble Baroness's autobiographical memoirs, and having derived great satisfaction from them, I say straight away that I agree very much with what she has just said.


My Lords, can I ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House whether we might have a further debate on the ancillary advantages of Foulness? First, I believe that the barrage scheme of the Thames will be unnecessary if the channel for a third port is deepened; secondly, the reclamation of land in the Thames Estuary may very well help to pay for Foulness Airport.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has touched on two factors which are of importance. This is of course a national decision of considerable importance, and I am quite certain that if it were the wish of your Lordships' House that, in the light of the Government's decision, this matter should be further debated (we have already had a two-day debate) this could be worked out through the usual channels, unless they have become clogged in any way in the next few weeks.


My Lords, in the hope of avoiding any suggestion of instant opposition, can I ask the noble Earl whether he is aware that to many of us who have taken part in these debates it is indeed a very welcome decision, and will be widely welcomed throughout the country?


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. I should like, if I may, to take this opportunity of acknowledging the considerable personal and beneficial part that he has played in this whole matter.