Alok Sharma calls for action on airport capacity

Speaking in a debate on the future of aviation, Alok Sharma highlights the need to increase airport capacity and urges the Government to act on the Davies Report whatever its recommendations.

Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill). He is not just a decent man, but hugely competent, and I am sure that he will do brilliantly in his new role.

I will start by giving some figures on the airports that are being built in China. The Mayor of London has been to that country recently, as has the Chancellor. Between 2005 and 2010, 33 new airports were constructed, taking the total number to 175. By 2015, there will be more than 230 airports in China. If my maths is correct—I am an accountant by training, so I think it is—there will have been 55 new airports over five years, an average of 11 a year. I know that it is a developing nation, that is much larger than us and has the advantage of a different form of government, but if we compare and contrast that with what we have had in this country, it makes us think that we have not got to grips with the need for more airport capacity.

The Transport Committee made the point, as a number of Members have today, that it has been a decade since the last White Paper on the subject, and at that time it was 20 years since the previous one. We are back to the future, because now the Davies commission has said that there is a need for more airport capacity in the south-east, but we still have not concluded where it should be.

As Members have said, there are two problems with the fact that we have not reached a decision and that the pace has been slow. The first is that the lack of certainty is bad for business and investment. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) will agree with that, although we may not agree about the solution. The other problem is that others are getting ahead. A number of Members have made the point that Frankfurt, Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle are all getting ahead in the global race that we want to win. I was at a meeting this week at which somebody who knows the airport industry well made the point that people at Schiphol talk about their airport being Heathrow’s third runway, which says something.

Another sobering fact that I have found in considering the matter is that more flights leave Frankfurt for cities in China in a week than leave Heathrow for the whole world in a weekend. That must tell us something. Figures from the International Air Transport Association show that due to the lack of capacity at Heathrow, between 2005 and 2011 there was a 49% growth in the number of passengers flying from UK regional airports to transfer at overseas hubs such as Schiphol and Charles de Gaulle. That represents a loss of business and jobs to the UK that we should do everything we can to retain.

I note the Transport Committee’s recommendation of a third runway at Heathrow, and I commend it on the urgency of its deliberations. It has come to a conclusion a lot faster than the Davies commission, which will release its interim report at the end of this year. There has been discussion of the costs, which I am sure will continue, but the proposed expansion of Heathrow would have much less of an impact on public expenditure and the Exchequer than a Thames estuary airport.

The other innovative proposal that I have found interesting to learn about is the Heathrow hub, proposed by the Centre for Policy Studies. It talks about doubling capacity from two to four runways and suggests that that can be done at no cost to the public purse.

Zac Goldsmith: Is my hon. Friend not slightly alarmed that that study takes no account at all of the extra impact of congestion? Just a third runway would lead to an extra 25 million road passenger journeys a year, and a fourth would presumably have more or less the same effect. Can he explain how our roads would be able to handle 50 million extra road passenger journeys a year to and from Heathrow? Does he share my concern that the costs simply do not exist in the report that he cited?

Alok Sharma: Clearly, that is exactly what the Davies commission should come up with. I am not suggesting that the CPS’s proposal is the only one in town, I am just highlighting it as a particularly interesting one.

We have waited a long time for a conclusion, so we might as well see what the Davies commission comes up with, but the one thing I would find disturbing in any final recommendation would be a solution that ultimately led to the closure of Heathrow. That would be bad news for business and jobs. I do not agree with the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), who is no longer in his place, about everything, but I do agree with his points about the impact that it would have not just in London but in the western wedge, which covers areas such as the Thames valley and Reading, which I represent. As he said, a report commissioned by a range of local enterprise partnerships covering the Thames valley, Buckinghamshire, west London and Oxfordshire concluded that £1 in every £10 of UK economic output is generated in the western wedge area around Heathrow, and that aviation and related activity at Heathrow supports about 120,000 jobs there. If a new hub airport was to be built to the east of London and Heathrow was to be closed by 2030, because I do not think anybody is suggesting that we are going to end up with two hub airports—

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): My conclusion differs slightly from that of my hon. Friend. I am the Member of Parliament for Windsor, where we are very much affected by our noisy but welcome neighbour at Heathrow, and there is certainly a scenario in which Heathrow could continue to operate as a hub airport if the estuary airport were to take over. This scaremongering about hundreds of thousands of jobs disappearing is not necessarily entirely helpful.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I do not want to scaremonger, but the hon. Gentleman is hoping to catch my eye later and we are running out of time. If we have more interventions, I will have to drop the time limit.

Alok Sharma: I note the point my hon. Friend is making, but the idea that we would have two hub airports operating—

Adam Afriyie: Regional.

Alok Sharma: Well, let us see what the Davies commission comes up with, but I personally think that it is unlikely that we could operate a system with two hub airports.

The report goes on to say that the closure of Heathrow would put at risk another 170,000 jobs in the western wedge area. We can have a discussion about the number of jobs at risk and about the fact that, if there was going to be an estuary airport, things would not just change overnight. There is no doubt, however, that there would be a huge economic impact in a region that is the powerhouse of Britain in driving the economy forward.

The Davies commission must clearly take into account the economic benefit of any of the recommendations it makes and, of course, the environmental impact. We have to take into account what business wants and what airlines want. If we build another airport, will airlines come? Will British Airways move to a new hub airport? Ultimately, it comes down to the cost to the public purse resulting from any new expansion.

Those who have been in this place for many years will see this debate as another groundhog day in the life of Parliament’s debates on aviation policy. I suspect we will see a lot more groundhog days. Of course, the question is very difficult, but once the commission makes its final recommendation what we want is politicians who will show a bit of backbone and implement the recommendations on expanding airport capacity in the south-east, whatever those recommendations might be. To duck the question for another electoral cycle will do a huge disservice to Britain’s hopes of succeeding in the global race.

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