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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords who have taken part. Indeed, they have shown a great deal of expertise in the field. I regret that part of my reply may appear unsatisfactory to some noble Lords, and I might as well make that confession at the beginning. That is partly because, in many of these areas, the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State means that the only line that I can possibly take is to say that, "I cannot possibly comment". However, I shall try as far as possible to pick up the points that have been made, but I am afraid that in relation to Terminal 5, and the individual planning situations, there is a role at the end of the process for the Secretary of State which I have to protect as I am his representative in this House.
The White Paper sets out some key general principles on airports policy, relating to integration with environmental policies, with regional development and with surface transport. It announced that we wished to develop an airports policy which would look 30 years ahead.
We are currently considering the precise scope and timing of that policy statement and will announce our conclusions in due course. But until the new national airports policy is in place, existing airports policies remain which we inherited largely from the previous government. They will remain valid and continue to do so until such time as they are changed or discontinued. In the meantime, development proposals involving civil airports will be considered in the first instance by local planning authorities, or, where appropriate, by planning inspectors and the Secretary of State. That will be in the light of existing airports and planning policies, including regional planning guidance to which reference has been made.
Preparing the new airports policy and following the principles set out in the transport White Paper will take time. It would not be possible to do this without taking account of the inspector's report on the Heathrow Terminal 5 inquiry. Noble Lords have quite correctly pointed out that there is an indication that the report may take two years to complete. In the meantime, we are still progressing with the existing airports policy.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but I did say that I did not wish to discuss the question of Terminal 5. However, I had always understood that, if there was justification for it, it would have nothing to do with the number of air transport movements; indeed, it would have everything to do with the increase in the size of aircraft.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is partly true. Obviously, changes in the size of aircraft would alter the situation that the inspector is considering. However, the results of that assessment must have profound implications for the siting and development of other airports within the south-east area. Indeed, the south-east area accounts for a large proportion of total air movements and, therefore, total airports development in the country as a whole.
Noble Lords will recognise that the inspector's report will therefore form an essential input to the development of a new airports policy. I believe that a number of speakers recognised that the process is unsatisfactory. We are considering modernising the planning procedures, especially for major national infrastructure. However, we are stuck with a position in relation to Terminal 5 where the airport has to follow current planning arrangements. We have to wait the outcome of that inquiry.
I move on to the actual and potential use of former MoD airfields. The Government consider that the local planning process, together with the extant planning and airports policy, provide an adequate framework for the consideration of planning applications for new commercial airports, whether or not they are on old MoD sites. From the planning point of view, a material change of use from a former military airport to that of civil airfield would normally require a planning application to the local planning authority under Section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Such planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Account can also be taken of emerging development plans which are going through the statutory process.
PPG 13 advises that airport development is promoted by developers through the normal planning process. It recognises that airport development can bring economic benefits, but may also give rise to environmental and other concerns. The PPG advises that regional airports offer the opportunity to fly without the need for long surface journeys. It also advises that existing sites, including redundant military airfields and airfields, with established uses, will often present the best opportunities for providing acceptable facilities.
That is the existing position. In addition, we have a situation where the MoD is attempting to dispose of substantial parts of its land, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn pointed out. The Defence Estate exists solely to provide operational bases for our Armed Forces. It is Ministry of Defence and Government policy that the
It is MoD's usual policy to dispose of the freehold of surplus land on the open market by competition, with the benefit of planning permission. This is in accordance with guidelines issued by the Treasury, which have been extant for some time. However, a range of other methods may be used if professional advice indicates that such alternatives would produce a better value.
At the same time, negotiations with local planning authorities are normally undertaken by the MoD before a property is offered for sale and in the course of that sale. Indeed, it is crucial to establishing the development potential of all sites before they are offered for sale that an understanding with the local authority is established. In the current plan-led development environment, wherever possible MoD land is allocated in local and structure plans so as to optimise the planning potential and hence, from the MoD's point of view, the receipts from disposals.
Perhaps I may comment as far as I can on the individual sites which have been mentioned during the course of the debate. I shall begin with RAF Bentwaters, which is an area that I used to know well. When the American Air Force was in that area, and in various places around there, it was not just the "call of the curlew", as indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, which broke the silence. It is clear that Bentwaters in particular is located in an area of outstanding natural beauty. On the other hand, it is also within a rural development area and the closure of that base did have a significant impact on the local economy. The local planning authority is keen to find a sustainable solution.
I should add that it would normally be inconsistent with the aims of designation as AONBs to permit the siting of major industrial or commercial development in such areas. Although it is appropriate for planning authorities to have regard to the economic and social well-being of those areas, only proven national interests and lack of alternative sites can normally justify an exception. Local planning authorities must take that into account in preparing their development plans.
I cannot comment in detail on the assertions of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, relating to contacts between council officers and potential developers. However, I understand that the planning application currently before Suffolk Coastal District Council for the change of use of Bentwaters essentially covers the former operational part of the airfield, and that the developers propose to convert existing buildings and to modify existing infrastructure rather than undertake any large scale new build. The application has been accompanied by an environmental statement. The council has informed the Government Office for the Eastern Region that the application could be referred to the Government Office under the terms of the Town and
As regards the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that the silence of the Government Office has been taken by the district council as indicating approval of the Bentwaters planning brief, that is not the case. As a matter of practice we do not comment on the content of statements placed before the local planning inspector. It is for the inspector to consider all the information before making his recommendations in a report to the district council. Therefore, if that has been asserted I wish to make it clear that that is not the case. That is where we stand in relation to Bentwaters.
As regards RAF Alconbury, that is a slightly different situation. The current proposals are different from those proposed for Bentwaters because the original application which included proposals for air freight has been withdrawn. If those proposals were to be reinstated--I believe the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about this--a further application would be required. It is true that previously the draft regional strategy for East Anglia identified Alconbury as a possible site for the development of a regional base. The position on Alconbury at the moment, however, is that Huntingdon District Council is considering only a freight and surface transport base and not an airfield.
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