January 28, 2009
Speaking in support of a Conservative motion calling on the Government to rethink plans for a third runway at Heathrow, Nick Hurd questions how expansion at Heathrow can be compatible with Government targets on carbon emissions.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): It is a privilege to follow two speeches by my senior and southern Hillingdon neighbours. They made great speeches on behalf of their communities.
I should like to salute two brave speeches in this debate. The first was that of my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, who had the courage to go to the Dispatch Box and say that she had thought things through a little harder and come to a different view. She was met with derision from the opposing Benches, where a lot more people should have done exactly the same thing. I salute my hon. Friend. The other brave speech was from the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter), who is not in his place, so I will not shower him with praise. He appears, for today at least, to have overcome a lifelong loathing of the Conservative party so as to do the right thing. Those were brave speeches.
The least courageous speech this afternoon came from the Secretary of State. He came here with a stinker of a speech on 11 November, and he has followed it with an even worse one today. He did not even have the courage to make a case to the House for his decision. I wish that he had been in the Beck theatre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) at a public debate facilitated by Boris Johnson. An empty chair was left up on the stage for a member of the Government to participate, but no one appeared. We had a fantastic debate. If he had turned up, he would have heard, as one would expect, genuine anger from local people whose houses are going to be demolished and who are going to have to dig up their relatives in the cemetery. He might then have come to the House in more sensitive mode. He should have been particularly concerned about the expression of a complete breakdown of public trust in how this process has been conducted and in the democratic process of decision making in this country.
The public have lost faith. They know what has happened in this process. They know that there has been a steady stream of broken promises or lies by BAA, and they can see a Government who have got far too close to that organisation. The Secretary of State’s speech included lots of new announcements on additions to rail capacity in the Heathrow area that were not part of the original consultation process, which is now invalidated. People see a really bad decision-making process and ask why we are doing this, because they can see the facts. They can see that this decision will materially affect the quality of life of millions of people in west London living under the flight path. They can see that it will destroy communities, and they care about that. They can see that it will increase emissions. A lot of people care passionately about that and do not understand why a Government who take pride in leadership in this area are driving a coach and horses through their own climate change strategy with this one decision. They can see the impact on air quality in the Thames valley. They can see all these things, and they ask why we are doing it. The answer from the Government is no more than a series of assertions—that Heathrow is full, that the concept of the hub is a sacred cow that cannot be questioned, that it is inevitable that Heathrow will decline and that that carries mortal consequences for the state of the British economy, and that we therefore have to take this enormous decision in the national interest.
What is shocking is the lack of rigour in testing those assertions. As the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher) powerfully observed, how can Heathrow be full when the Government and the Department accept the data in BAA’s own consultation document about an enormous increase in passenger flows through Heathrow over the next 20 years because the market will respond to capacity constraint by flying bigger planes? Those are not the statistics of an airport in decline, so why is decline considered inevitable? Heathrow has not declined over the past 10 years. While other airports have expanded, has London suffered any loss of prosperity? No, because decisions on where people invest and do business are not restricted to the quality of the airport. Everyone knows that Heathrow is shockingly bad as a passenger experience, but people still come and do business here. A host of other factors determine business decisions. What I hear from business people is not, “I can’t get to place A from Heathrow”, but “This is a shockingly bad experience, and what are you going to do about it?” They want a better Heathrow, not a bigger Heathrow.
As other speakers have said, we have enormous airport capacity around London. London has five airports. We move many more people than our so-called European competitors. We have the best connections in Europe, and that will be the case for the foreseeable future. The Government talk sombrely about the decline of the hub model, but where is the modelling to support that assertion? Where are the data? Where is the research? Where is anything on which we can pin evidence to test this assertion? There is nothing—just really lazy decision making by a Government who were content merely to jointly commission with the industry research that underpins a business case that has been exposed over time to be entirely inadequate.
Where is the debate about the future of the hub as the sacred cow of the industry? Is it conceivable that consumers might want a different experience in future, and that they might want fly direct to places? They might not want to spend hours wandering around huge, impersonal airports. The consumer and the industry might change, but we are nailing our colours to the mast and signing up to BAA’s game of “My airport is bigger than your airport.”
That seems to be the limit of the Government’s vision, but will not our European competitors be subject to exactly the same constraints as we are in a carbon-constrained world? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said, now is exactly the time to show genuine leadership in Europe and to say that this game is unsustainable. We should take a lead in saying, “Pause and rethink.” Have the Government engaged with those matters at all? No. There has been absolute silence, and they have bought the BAA argument hook, line and sinker.
The truth is that for the foreseeable future, London will have the best air connections in the world. Surely the trick is now to think much more cleverly about what will change in the future and, as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said, to consider how we can connect the five London airports more effectively. We must consider the 25 or 30 per cent. of Heathrow’s capacity that could be served by rail and give passengers a genuinely compelling alternative. We must consider how to harness the new technology that is coming on stream to give people a better alternative to flying, or to accelerate the industry’s progress in finding more environmentally friendly methods. Those are the big policy questions, and we should not adopt a passive, predict-and-provide approach in tame submission to an extremely effective corporate lobby.
Now is the time for real leadership. I will be interested to hear what the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has to say. I simply cannot see how a third runway at Heathrow is compatible with achieving an 80 per cent. emissions cut by 2050. He has placed only one policy chip on the table, which is emissions trading, despite the fact that it has been proven only as a concept and a theory. It has not been proven in practice to reduce emissions, because cap and trade schemes are only as good as the cap that is set, and caps are set by politicians who, as we well know, are subject to intense corporate lobbying to make them as soft as possible. The caps that he has set up are no more than aspirations, and the debate has only just started. We have no guarantee at all that they will be effective in reducing emissions on a scale compatible with our target of an 80 per cent. drop by 2050.
A really big Government, a Government who genuinely took the tough decisions, would say, “We may have got this wrong. We have listened to the people who share our concerns about climate change—the Environment Agency, the millions of residents, the businesses that are thoughtful about the matter—and we recognise that we may have got this wrong.” This Government will not do that, because they are not that sort of Government. The matter will therefore be decided at the next general election.
It is perhaps worth my ending by echoing the voices of two of my constituents. One of them wrote to the Prime Minister, and is a Labour supporter—some still exist in Northwood, the Secretary of State will be encouraged to hear. He wrote:
Another constituent wrote to me: