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Airports: Planning Procedure

5.52 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied that current planning procedures respecting proposals for new commercial airports take adequate account of environmental considerations and national policy requirements.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the White Paper of last July, A New Deal for Transport, announces the preparation of a new UK airports policy for the next 30 years. But, apart from six regional studies exclusive of the south-east, this national policy must await the outcome of the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry. The timescale of the inspector's report and the subsequent Minister's decision is such that the new policy can hardly be determined within two years, and might even be postponed until after the next general election. Meanwhile civil aviation is roaring ahead, boosted by the commendable policy of open access.

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Unsurprisingly, this forceful increase has provoked growing concern about aircraft noise. Despite the progressive introduction of quieter engines, aircraft noise escalates faster than with the mere number of movements, due to the introduction of larger aircraft and to airport congestion involving holding patterns in controlled airspace. Whatever the outcome of the Terminal 5 inquiry, it is clear that considerations about noise, pollution and traffic will have to be given greater weight in the delicate balance between economic expansion and environmental restraint.

As one who worked for many years in air transport, I applaud its recent success, though I feel that, for the future, an unquestioning attitude towards demand-led projections is inconsistent with the concept of sustainable development, as has been seen in the case of roads--a point recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, in his debate on transport in your Lordships' House last week. I also appreciate that the Government are taking action on the question of noise, for instance, by the Noise Monitoring Advisory Committee, and that the White Paper envisages enhanced responsibilities for the CAA in noise control. But my concern today is with the actual and potential licensing of new commercial airports. In practice this relates to a number of former Ministry of Defence air bases.

Those sites, rendered redundant by the end of the Cold War, are scattered around the country in locations set by military strategy. I shall briefly summarise the position of five of them, all except one being in the south-east. I pass over the future of Northolt, except to note that in a debate about it in another place last June the Minister affirmed that, although no decision is likely in the near future, no option has been discarded. It is, of course, extensively used for civil flying.

At Manston in Kent, where the RAF has allowed civilian flights for over 10 years, the MoD is about to conclude a sale of the site to Wiggins plc. Wiggins intends to set up an airport with the most advanced systems, and is in negotiation with the CAA for a licence. But there is to be no planning application for this new airport, which will involve 24-hour operations, because the MoD has persuaded the Thanet District Council that none is needed, on the grounds that there has been no material change of use. At Farnborough, where the MoD has leased the site to TAG, business executive flights have been operating since 1990. The Rushmoor District Council expects TAG to submit a planning application which will involve a threefold increase in movements and with larger aircraft, though with a night curfew.

At Finningley near Doncaster the MoD first negotiated with non-aviation interests, including the Home Office which wanted a prison. That was fiercely opposed by the metropolitan borough council and then dropped by the present Government on coming to power. Proposals were then put forward for a commercial airport, and last year the MoD agreed to sell the site to Peel Holdings, subject to contract. Peel Holdings has yet to submit a planning application, but has made it clear that its plan will be for 24-hour operations for freight and passenger aircraft.

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At Alconbury in Cambridgeshire the former USAF base is still owned by the MoD, which has formed a joint venture with a consortium called Alconbury Developments, led by BAA. This consortium originally submitted an application for a large freight distribution centre, co-ordinating road, rail and air. In March of last year the aviation element of this was dropped in the face of political pressure. Although it would accordingly necessitate a fresh application, apprehension about the aviation potential remains as strong as ever, for three reasons. First, the present application includes the phrase "retention of existing flying use". Secondly, the runway will remain unobstructed. And thirdly, the BAA is still heavily involved.

I come now to Bentwaters in Suffolk--a county in which I live, though well away from Bentwaters. This was the subject of a short debate in your Lordships House in June 1996, initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. He criticised the MoD for going for the highest possible sale price without sufficient regard for environmental issues. These are especially sensitive at Bentwaters because the whole of the airport operating area lies within an area of outstanding natural beauty. The company which at that time was negotiating for purchase had no plans for aviation; indeed, it intended to dig up the runway. But in the event it withdrew, and the site was then sold to Bentwaters Investments Ltd, which, in May of last year submitted a planning application, in the name of Anglia International Airpark, for a maintenance and testing facility for all types of aircraft, together with scheduled services, charter flights, private flying and helicopters. This application, at present on hold pending a public inquiry into the Suffolk Coastal District local plan, has served to rally public opinion in defence of the inviolability of the AONB, amid enormous publicity.

In all these instances aviation protest groups have been formed. At Alconbury they scored a victory; at Bentwaters they have already obliged the local council to lower its sights and are fighting the whole principle of an airport at the local plan inquiry. At Manston they have been completely frustrated and at Finningley they represent only a small minority.

The strict democratic planning procedures may have been duly observed, but the whole system is open to criticism. First, there has been throughout a lack of transparency by the MoD in its selection of purchasers. The public have not been informed about what alternative bids might have been involved. Secondly, the question of whether previous military use establishes a precedent for future aviation use is unclear. Thirdly, although operational limits may be imposed, they can usually be breached by subsequent demand: one has only to look at Stansted. Fourthly, noise enforcement is very uneven, ranging from the strict control of the London-designated airports to no control at others. That is why several of the MoD sites are so attractive for the operation of noisy freighters or for jet engine testing, such sites not being available in neighbouring Europe. Fifthly, the planning procedures may have been made within the framework of county and local plans--though even that is very questionable at Bentwaters--but they have been made piecemeal because there is no national

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or south-east regional policy. Hence the provision of what are potentially major new airports in an entirely haphazard way.

A sixth criticism is that these airfields were only built on these sites in the first place as a measure of extreme national emergency without any planning considerations whatsoever. It is understandable that their relatively compact domestic and maintenance areas should be developed for civilian housing and other enterprise: it would be deplorable to have ghost towns. But their operating areas--vast expanses of as much as 1,000 acres, more grass than concrete--are, on the face of it, more suitable for environmentally friendly enterprise. To use them for a new town, as was first proposed at Upper Heyford, or for a civil airport, is quite another matter.

The stated intention of the White Paper is to maximise the use of regional airports to relieve the pressure on the congested airports of the south-east. But an integrated transport system also demands that some of that relief should come from a shift from air to rail for ultra short-haul or interlining journeys. We must therefore avoid unnecessary proliferation of regional airports whose environmental damage is less justifiable than that of the major hub airports on which the prosperity of our civil aviation, and hence of our national economy, primarily depends.

My Question, as originally tabled, asked the Government to defer the authorisation of such new airports, but I recognise that that is impracticable. So I merely ask: are they satisfied with what is happening?

6.2 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I believe that we owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for enabling us to debate this important subject. I intend to confine myself to Bentwaters, to which the noble Lord has referred, and the proposal to establish there a new regional airport. In doing so I declare an interest both as a resident of East Suffolk and, more importantly, as president of the Suffolk Preservation Society.

The saga of the disposal of Bentwaters reflects little credit on either the MoD or on the previous government. The problems have arisen because no government has so far accepted that, in disposing of state-owned land, the maximisation of cash received should not be the overriding consideration. That Treasury policy leads to environmental anarchy.

It is hard to imagine a less suitable place for a new regional airport than this remote site on the Suffolk coast. It is a place of outstanding beauty and solitude where by day and by night the wide Suffolk skies are at their finest and the cry of the curlew breaks the stillness.

As the Countryside Commission put in evidence last week to the public enquiry into the Suffolk Coastal Local Plan,

    "It is our view ... that [the District Council plan] in supporting the re-use of RAF Bentwaters for civilian aviation purposes is attempting to support a major form of development within the AONB which is not compatible with the guidance contained in PPG7 nor with the purpose for which the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB was designed".

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The brownland released when a military airport becomes redundant--and I do not include the greenland around the actual runways--should indeed be re-used for development especially for housing. This can make a contribution to reducing the housing pressure on greenfield sites. Businesses, too, should be encouraged; although mainly the smaller, high-tech businesses.

The new owner of Bentwaters, Mr. Mouawad, paid his £9 million for the 1,100-acre Bentwater site to provide 5,000 houses and an industrial estate. That could all have been welcomed. But then Mr. Yann Borgstedt of Anglia International Airport, suggested that a regional airport at Bentwaters could be icing on Mr. Mouawad's cake.

It is said that another regional airport is needed in the south-east. That is in addition to Stansted, Luton, City Airport, and Marshall's at Cambridge and Norwich. Taken together, those five provide a multitude of aviation services within 100 miles of Bentwaters. I doubt whether a further airport in the south-east can be justified. If it can, a more obvious location would be Alconbury near Huntingdon, which at least adjoins a major junction of Britain's trunk road and motorway network.

It is said that Bentwaters would provide jobs for local people. As at December 1998, the three local constituencies (Suffolk Coastal, Central Suffolk and South Suffolk) all have a full employment rate on the Beveridge criteria of 3 per cent. or less. Indeed an airport, because of its environmental impact, would destroy far more local jobs in the tourist industry than it could create.

There are few parts of England less well provided with transport links. Bentwaters is linked to the London-Yarmouth A.12 trunk road by winding country lanes. The Department of Transport is actually in the process of de-trunking the A.12 north of Ipswich, much of which is still single carriageway with a particularly bad fatal accident record. The rail line to Lowestoft, north of Ipswich, has long been a single-track branch line with a fragile tram-style passenger service passing about two miles from Bentwaters. There is thus none of the public infrastructure which a new regional airport would need. I doubt that the Government have the funds to provide it.

When Bentwaters was a military airfield the noise of aircraft was tolerated for the defence of the realm. It was known that one day it would end. The noise pollution, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, from a new civil airport would intrude dramatically over at least an eight-mile radius covering Aldeburgh, Saxmundham, Woodbridge and Framlingham. This would probably bring to an end the world famous musical centre at Snape, home of the Aldeburgh festival which, along with Edinburgh, is perhaps the most important in Britain. Last week 13 leading figures in the arts world publicly condemned the airport proposal. I may say that in the days of the American airbase there were special arrangements not to fly during concerts.

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There has been widespread cross-party local condemnation of the proposal. The Suffolk Coastal District Council, which no one party controls, is deeply divided and not on party lines. It is rumoured that independent anti-airport candidates may well stand for some of its constituencies in the May elections this year.

I understand that the developers have suggested that they were in some way misled by the officers of the local council who, in private discussions before the final sale of the property, may have indicated that they favoured a commercial airport on the Bentwaters site on the grounds that it would help to "put Suffolk Coastal on the map". To clarify that, the council should agree to the disclosure of the records of all such meetings. To the developer I would merely say "Caveat emptor".

If any unqualified encouragement was given to the developers it was inappropriate for three reasons. First, in a matter of such importance it would be wrong to pre-empt the views of councillors, and officers must not become parti pris. Secondly, such an intrusive development as a civil airport in an AONB would seem, prima facie, to be quite out of place and to be contrary to public policy. Thirdly, the council officials ought to have anticipated the considerable opposition there was bound to be to such a proposal. I understand that of 2,000 letters that the council has received on Bentwaters fewer than 50 were in favour of the airport.

I am concerned that there may be a feeling among planning officers, not just in Suffolk, that the general public's views on such matters as this should count for little. It is an attitude that was certainly echoed in some remarks made to me recently by a senior Suffolk County Council officer. I was reminded of the famous statement made in 1947:

    "the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for the people than the people know themselves".
The author was Douglas Jay. While that famous name still lives in your Lordships' House, I trust I can say with confidence that that attitude has no place in the mind of New Labour!

I turn to another serious concern, which arose on a number of occasions in various counties while I was Chairman of CPRE. It is that councillors may be warned not to vote against any advice they may receive from their council officers in case in a subsequent public inquiry costs are awarded against the council.

I have consulted a number of authorities and I can say that it would only be if such a view of councillors were to be unreasonable that there would be any risk of such costs being awarded. That would not apply in this case as the proposed airport would be in an AONB, against laid down public policy.

The developers have now indicated that they would be prepared to reduce the number of flights that they would apply for. I trust councillors will see through, and reject, this toe-in-the-door tactic.

History shows that airports grow where airports are. There is a very strong presumption in favour of allocating additional capacity to existing sites rather than establishing new facilities; a principle I for one would support. If the district council does not reject a regional civil airport at Bentwaters, I believe that it

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would be an irreversible step to a long-term and permanent change, and indeed destruction, of the character and beauty of one of the jewels of rural England.

6.11 p.m.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for tabling the Question and for his helpful introduction of it. Like him and the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, I live close to the airport at Bentwaters and have raised the subject in the House on previous occasions. For the present, I propose to refer strictly to the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and to refer only to the matters relating to it.

First, perhaps I may say a few words about airport policy in general. The grant of permission for a new commercial airport is a significant decision in any country, but particularly so in our case, given the relatively small size of our densely populated island and the priority we now rightly accord environmental policy. Also, we are at a critical hinge in international air travel. We still enjoy, at present, the advantage of being the Clapham Junction of international civil aviation.

That is not unlike the role we had in the last century in international shipping when the best route for most cargoes crossing the wide oceans of the world to continental ports was via transhipment in the Port of London. We lost that role in the post-war years for reasons which, in Sir Thomas Browne's words, are "too sad to insist on." If we are to retain our current position in international civil aviation, we need to have an airports policy which meets the case. We also have to protect our market position from erosion by those, whether in the United States, Brussels or elsewhere, who wish to capture our existing markets. We shall have a chance to discuss those aspects when we come to debate a recent report of the EC Select Committee, printed as House of Lords Paper No. 56.

Meanwhile, I, too, welcome the promise in the Government White Paper, A New Deal for Transport, that a review of airports policy is in hand. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how the review is progressing and when it may be concluded. This is an extremely important area of policy. Most of the decisions taken in the past 40 years--some of them of great difficulty when one thinks of the controversy over Stansted and Maplin--have served us rather well and it is now time to think ahead. The point I seek to emphasise is the need for national policies on civil aviation, determined by government and communicated to Parliament, to be properly reflected in the decisions taken by individual planning authorities. As I shall now try to explain, that does not seem to be happening at present.

Let us take, for example, the fundamental question of airspace. Our local would-be airport at Bentwaters, north east of Ipswich, is close to a number of military bases, particularly RAF Woodbridge and Wattisham. We believe that Woodbridge is to be retained by the Ministry of Defence for use as a base for combined inter-service exercises and both bases are to be used to train pilots on military versions of the Apache helicopter. Therefore, it is important to know whether

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these activities would be compatible with plans for a resumption of flying at Bentwaters, only three miles or so from Woodbridge.

I sought information from the CAA, the DETR and the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence. All were extremely polite, but they have been unable to provide me with information. The planning authority is revising the local plan, apparently with a view to accommodating the developer's proposals, but, so far as I know, the authority lacks reliable information about the availability of airspace. I was informed by Glenda Jackson, Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, in a letter of 4th September, that:

    "airspace and licensing are matters for the CAA and are not material planning considerations".
Thus, the local authority, in considering whether to permit a commercial airport in its territory, will be able to consider road and rail access; employment; economic benefits and disbenefits; noise; and the various forms of pollution. However, it is not allowed to know whether there is available airspace for aircraft to use. That comes into the frame, apparently, only after the planning authority has made its decision.

A similar situation arises over protection of the AONB. The airport site is in an AONB and thus enjoys the protection of PPG7, which specifically prohibits major commercial development within its boundary except in the case of national need and the absence of an alternative site. No evidence has been submitted by the developer on either count. The local planning authority has correctly informed the local office of the DETR, GOER in distant Bedford, that it has received a planning application which, if approved, would be a departure from the county structure plan. I suggested to the DETR that it might inform the local planning authority of its attitude while the matter was still under discussion so that the Government's views could be taken into account. But the Minister of State, Mr. Caborn, informed me in a letter of 27th January that that cannot be done as it would be contrary to the "plan-led" system. The DETR will not act until the local planning authority informs it that it is "minded to approve" a planning application contrary to policy in the AONB.

Meanwhile, the director of planning, tourism and leisure of the district council has presented his statement of case to the local planning inquiry. On the AONB, this document states the following:

    "In accordance with statutory requirements, the GOER has been consulted at each of the stages throughout the preparation of the alteration to the local plan and has, at no stage, objected to the policies for Bentwaters, including the policy for the airport. It must therefore be assumed that GOER do not consider that, in taking all matters into account, the aviation polices are an unacceptable exception to the normal AONB policy".
I quote that passage verbatim as it shows, quite conclusively, I think, that the department's silence has been interpreted by the planning authority as implying approval. That has been adduced in a formal document in support of authorisation of a civil airport in the AONB in the local planning inquiry. Was that the department's intention? What, I wonder, did it say to the

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director of planning? No doubt the department intended to behave with its usual scrupulous impartiality. But, given the misunderstanding which has clearly occurred, I suggest that the DETR Minister should write to the chairman or chief executive of the council telling him the truth and setting the record straight. I should be glad to give the Minister a copy of the documents in question.

I find the situation deeply unsatisfactory. It surely must make better sense for the Government to form the view of the implications of a large new commercial airport in such a sensitive place, to tell the planning authority of their opinion and to give some guidance about essential matters directly relevant to the decision. Otherwise, we may well end up in the ludicrous situation of an airport having the capacity for apparently unrestricted future growth which has been approved by the planning authority contrary to the spirit of the letter in PPG7, thus permanently damaging the AONB, contravening the RAMSAR, to which we are parties--

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