Alan Haselhurst – 1978 Speech on Stansted Airport

Below is the text of the speech made by Alan Haselhurst, the then Conservative MP for Saffron Walden, in the House of Commons on 10 March 1978.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to discuss the future of Stansted Airport, in my constituency. Without being ungrateful to Lady Luck, who has allowed me this occasion, I think that we would be better off discussing the future of Stansted Airport in a wider debate on the White Paper on airports policy. It is regrettable that the Government have not found time before Easter for a debate, because consultations seem to be going on throughout the country on the implications of the White Paper without this House being consulted.

In any criticisms that I may make of the White Paper, I do not imply any criticism of the existence of Stansted as an airport or its existence at a given capacity of operation. Certainly one can use words about the White Paper which can be misinterpreted as criticism of the use of the airport at all, so that should ​ be made clear. Such general criticism is not my intention.

I believe that there would be fairly wide acceptance in my constituency and among the local authorities concerned if there were a known limit to the expansion of the usage of the airport. The absence of such a limit gives rise to fears and suspicions of the White Paper’s proposals.

There are weaknesses and shortcomings in the White Paper; i which should be exposed to greater scrutiny. These have unfortunate implications in my constituency and for the area around. I am authorised by my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newton) to say that he wishes to be entirely associated with my remarks.

The White Paper gives forecasts to justify the degree of expansion proposed in the airports in the South-East. I must accept that it is notoriously difficult to forecast what the likely usage of airports will be over a period of 12, 15 or more years. It is clearly difficult, but it is the responsibility of government to try to take decisions which are sensible even if the calculations behind the decisions are necessarily complex.

What is worrying is that there are precise provisions in the White Paper, namely, the statement that it will be sought to achieve a capacity in the South-East airports of 72 million passengers per annum up to 1990. The Government’s own forecasts in the White Paper at a low level show a passenger throughput of 65·9 million and at the high level a throughput of 89·4 million. Even at the midpoint of the two forecasts it seems that, given any kind of accuracy in the forecast, there will be an excess of 5·6 million passengers above the 72 million for which the Government are providing. That seems to be a fairly evidence weakness of the strategy set out in the document.

If the forecasts on the high side prove to be the more accurate, there could be, on figures in the White Paper, an excess by 1990 of 17·4 million passengers wishing to use the South-East airports, although the capacity provided at that stage will be only 72 million.

The question in the minds of many people, particularly many people in my constituency and in my local authority ​ areas, is: what is to happen to any excess over that for which provision is being made at this stage? It must also be said about the forecasts that figures are bandied about of a certain number of passengers being able to use a particular airport, but it will be accepted that it cannot necessarily be the case that a stated figure can always be put through a particular airport, simply because it is not ever possible to direct airlines so precisely that it will be possible to make up the figures to those which are stated in public documents.

For example, I understand that there is a query whether, with a single-runway airport at Gatwick, it will be possible to achieve a throughput of 25 million passengers. Therefore, if that figure cannot be met it throws even further doubt on the White Paper’s figures.

The major British airlines are more bullish in their forecasts about passengers than are the Government—witness the figures that they use in the White Paper. I must ask the Secretary of State to tell the House what he knows about the forecasts of British Airways and British Caledonian, and whether these suggest that the increase in passenger usage of our airports is starting to gather pace. There is a possibility that this will be the case. We are on the threshold of what seems to be a price war, and there were headlines in the papers about this matter only recently. I believe that it is likely that an increasing number of people will wish to travel—I suppose mainly for holiday purposes—and that will boost the number of people wishing to use our airports. There must be considerable doubts whether the forecasts given in the White Paper are adequate.

Paragraph 104 of the White Paper states that

“Even at the higher passenger forecast, these terminal developments”

—that is, those proposed up to 1990—

“should be sufficient to accommodate demand up and beyond the middle of the 1980s and quite possibly”—

I emphasise the words “quite possibly”—

“it could prove adequate up to 1990.”

So it is only on the strength of a forecast which quite possibly may be right that we are invited to accept the strategy set out in the White Paper.

The White Paper says that the capacity being provided may “quite possibly” cope with demand up to 1990, so one has to ask the hon. Gentleman whether it is not fair and reasonable to say that, on the other hand, quite possibly the capacity may be inadequate. That is certainly a question which has to be asked by any Member representing Saffron Walden and by anyone concerned at the effects of growth and expansion of airports, because more room may have to be found than that which is being provided.

The second point about the White Paper to which I want to draw attention is the question of the options laid down after 1990. These are three. There is a further major expansion at Stansted; there is the possible use by conversion of a military airfield; there is the construction of an entirely new airport. The firmness with which the Government have closed the door on Maplin suggests that a wholly new airport site is not something at the forefront of their thinking—I put it no higher than that.

From the questions that have been asked, it would appear that at this stage the Government have really no clear idea of any military airfield that might be drummed into service. Therefore, it appears to me and to many other people that if the forecasts, even the ones in the White Paper, prove right, the extra capacity that will be needed by 1990 will have to be put at Stansted, and that if there is continued growth after 1990 the only option that will be open effectively to the Government, whoever are in power, will be to continue to expand Stansted. That is what I wish particularly to draw the attention of the House towards.

It seems to me to be unreasonable that, whilst approaching the problem on a reasonable basis, with a variety of options, in practice few calculations are on target in terms of the capacity in 1990, and if there is a growth of demand after 1990 the only place that it can go is Stansted. Not to come out plainly with that is, I believe, a grievous fault of the White Paper.

If it is the Government’s intention that Stansted should accept that much bigger expansion, it should be plainly laid out so that it can be judged and assessed accordingly. There is the fear that this ​ is the way that the White Paper intends to go in future, and that much is certainly resented.

Even those who most strongly support the usage of the airport—one can quote the views of the workers there—would not wish to see the airport expanding and expanding. Their concern is, naturally, for their own security and the provision of a reasonable number of jobs and prosperity in the district, but no one wants to see a kind of incremental increase in the usage of the airport. Yet that seems to be the heavy implication of the White Paper.

There are two places in the White Paper where the Government make encouraging noises about the local authorities, and I want to press the hon. Gentleman on them. The Government indicate in paragraphs 79 and 159 that they are prepared to consider amendments to the general development order so that local planning authorities can have some say over what happens within the perimeter of an airport—a say that they do not have at present. May we have an assurance that these amendments will be determined and made before the British Airports Authority brings along its proposals for the first stage increase at Stansted, the proposal that the throughput should be increased from the present limit of capacity of 1 million to 4 million?

Then there is the question of forward planning machinery to deal with the post-1990 situation. This is referred to in paragraphs 39 and 172 of the White Paper. I should like the Under-Secretary of State to comment on how quickly this machinery can be brought into being. I suggest that it can be brought in very quickly, and needs to be. If we wanted to have the option of a new airport to deal with excess capacity in the 1990s, it is clear that, because the lead time for a new airport is about 12 years, the decision would have to be taken very quickly. The Standing Conference on London and South-East Regional Planning seems to me to be the obvious body which should be commissioned to look at the strategy for future airport development in this country. I do not see why there have to be protracted discussions to bring about that very desirable result. I should be very grateful if the Under-Secretary of State would comment on that.

My complaint, in essence, as I said at the beginning, is that there is bad methodology behind what the Government are doing, and this affects my constituents and the area that I represent. They may be forgiven for supposing, as a result of one inquiry after another, that Stansted was not to be considered for the major development of London airport capacity, yet the question has now come up again, and they must be wondering about our governmental process when this can be the case.

If there cannot be absolute certainty about the future, I hope that there can be some clarity, and I think that the Government have that obligation towards my constituents and my county.