Theresa Villiers – 2011 Speech to the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum

Theresa Villiers
Theresa Villiers

Below is the text of the speech made by the Minster of Transport, Theresa Villiers, in London on 17th March 2011.

Thank you for that introduction. Finding the best way for aviation to grow sustainably and successfully is among the most important transport challenges we face in the modern world. This morning, some of the most knowledgeable commentators from different sides of the debate have discussed their perspectives on that difficult task. I’m delighted now to have this opportunity to set out elements of the Coalition’s approach to delivering an aviation industry that can thrive and prosper while also addressing its local environmental impacts and plays its part in combating climate change.

Today, aviation generates around £11 billion a year and employs around 200,000 people directly. It drives our multi-billion pound tourism sector and it helps this island nation trade with the rest of the world by providing vital international connectivity. On the other hand, as other sectors start to decarbonise, aviation’s overall share of carbon emissions looks set to grow significantly in future years unless action is taken. But I think it’s a mistake to see this issue as a binary choice between economic and environmental concerns. The steps needed to decarbonise the economy can open up significant economic opportunities for this country.

Over the past three years this country has learned a bitter lesson that unsustainable growth fuelled by spiralling levels of government and personal debt can end up being counter-productive and fraught with risk. Well growth which is very heavily dependent on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and which leaves a hugely expensive climate legacy for future generations also has a major economic downside. As we see Middle East instability push oil prices up the energy security benefits of decarbonising our economy become ever clearer.

The Coalition’s approach

One of the Coalition’s first acts in Government was to cancel the third runway at Heathrow and make clear that we would not support new runways at Gatwick or Stansted. Building new runways at our three busiest airports would have made it more difficult to meet our commitments on climate change and left us paying too high a price in terms of the local environmental impact on surrounding communities. The DfT Business Plan promises to make the promotion of sustainable aviation one of our five overall priorities for structural reform.

In a few weeks time, we will publish an aviation policy scoping document, asking strategic questions to inform the development of a sustainable framework for the future of UK aviation. We aim to conclude that process in 2013 after a wide ranging national debate and extensive engagement with industry, environmentalists, community groups and the full range of stakeholders.

In recent years, the debate has become increasingly polarised. We want to try to build more of a consensus that recognises the crucial benefits that aviation brings to our society and our economy, but also acknowledges the need for restraint and for aviation to do more to address its environmental impacts. However, the process for producing that strategy over the next two years does not mean we stand still on our efforts to deliver important aviation policy goals.

Better not bigger

I fully recognise how vital it is that our major airports provide efficient and high quality gateways to the rest of the world. So I want to emphasise that our decision to reject three new runways does not mean that we don’t care about the quality of service provided by our airports. Our decision to reject those three runways means that it has become even more important to make the most of the airport capacity we already have, in the UK in general and south east in particular. I strongly believe that there are significant changes we can make to improve the quality of the passenger experience within current capacity constraints. In short, it is possible to make our airports better without having to make them bigger and we’ve got a range of initiatives underway to deliver that.

We will be introducing legislation in the next Parliamentary session to modernise and improve airport economic regulation to improve the quality of service that passengers receive at designated airports. Rather than focusing the bulk of regulatory action on a single price review every five years, the new licence based system we propose should enhance the effectiveness of the CAA by enabling it to intervene more quickly if an airport is failing its customers. Put simply, we’ll give the CAA the powers it needs to become a more responsive regulator throughout the control period, not just every five years.

We have established the South East Airports Taskforce to harness industry expertise to help deliver the change needed to improve the passenger experience for air travellers. The remit of the Taskforce focuses on Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted but I firmly believe that its work will also benefit other airports across the country.

We want to create the right conditions for regional airports to flourish. They have an important role to play in the regional economies we want ensure they are successful as part of our efforts to close the prosperity gap between north and south. So it is important that the work of the Taskforce benefits airports across the country.

The issues the group is considering include border queues, security and resilience. Securing our border against crime, terror and illegal immigration is vital in these difficult times. We are working with the Home Office and the UK Border Agency on improving the way border checks are conducted for air passengers. The impressive work being done by UKBA, particularly with new technology, is focused on delivering this crucial policy goal in a way which minimises inconvenience for passengers.

We are also analysing ways in which the regulatory framework for aviation security might be reformed to address security queues and improve efficiency while maintaining the same high levels of passenger security, or better. The aviation industry told us that the system we inherited from the last Government can be too prescriptive and process-driven. So we are working on a fresh approach that will set the industry demanding outcomes to achieve but give them more flexibility to find the best and most efficient and passenger friendly way to deliver those outcomes.

A Taskforce sub-group led by the CAA is looking at resilience and delays. We hope to find collaborative solutions and improvements to operating practices that both airports and airlines can sign up to. Getting buy in from both sides can enhance the effectiveness of the changes we’re discussing.

I also believe that delivering the Single European Sky programme could deliver major improvements on delays, resilience and airport efficiency. The issue it’s designed to address can perhaps best be illustrated by the following facts. Europe has around 60 major air traffic control centres. The US has less than half that number but manages more than double the number of flights. Rather than splitting responsibility along national boundaries, the Single European Sky project aims to see airspace managed using much larger units known as Functional Airspace blocks. Our British and Irish FAB is the first to be operational in Europe and is already delivering improvements in fuel consumption and emission reductions. SES has the potential to generate economic, safety and environmental benefits; crucially it could reduce the need for stacking.

International action

But we also need action at a global level if we are to deliver a sustainable and successful future for aviation. So we will press ahead with efforts to negotiate access for UK based airlines to new markets. We’re also committed to including aviation in the EU Emissions Trading System. We are also working through ICAO and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to push for international agreement on aviation emissions. Progress has been slow in recent years but the first major ICAO conference in which this Government took part saw a modest step forward. ICAO adopted an aspirational global goal for stabilising emissions from international civil aviation from 2020 onwards. We are also actively contributing to technical work to set international CO2 emissions standards for new aircraft types, and to devise metrics for reporting aviation CO2 emissions. It may not grab headlines but this detailed work is pivotal if we are to make real progress at a global level.


Technology is of course crucial to delivering our aviation policy goals and Britain can be at the forefront of that technological change. Indeed, UK technology and know-how is already playing a major role in making commercial airliners more fuel efficient. We can be proud of the fact that new aircraft like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner feature so much British engineering excellence, including British wings and British engines. Together these new aircraft will increase efficiency for passengers, reduce emissions around airports and help address noise problems. And over the horizon, I hope we can look forward to real advances on biofuels. Though I think it’s wise to admit there is no miracle technical solution round the corner on carbon or noise, technology may provide some of the answers.


Through ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection, we are making a similar contribution to technical work on international noise standards for new aircraft types. We fully recognise the concern felt about aircraft noise and the impact it has on quality of life. This was a key factor in our decision to say no to new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. So early in my tenure as Aviation Minister I confirmed we would not revive Labour’s proposals on mixed mode and that we could continue to support runway alternation at Heathrow and the much valued respite it provides for those under the airport’s densely occupied flight path.

We want to provide clear and stretching objectives for industry to reduce noise impact of flights by improving aircraft technology and operating procedures. And we’re working through ICAO to deliver that on an international basis, as well improvements air navigation and airspace management to deliver quieter approaches and climbs. That’s in addition to the progress we are pushing for through the CAA’s Future Airspace Strategy and the SES programme I’ve already referred to.

And of course I’m acutely aware that the debate on night noise will intensify in the coming months. I fully recognise that night noise is widely accepted as one of the least acceptable impacts of aviation. The current night restrictions regime for the three main London airports is due to expire in October next year. I know that the stakeholders and communities affected are keenly waiting news on this. I would like to assure this audience that I consider this to be one of the most important tasks I will face as Aviation Minister and that getting the right answer on this issue is a personal priority for me. I hope to make an announcement soon about how the process will go forward for establishing the successor arrangements to the current regime.

High Speed Rail

Ladies and gentlemen, today I’ve tried to give you a snapshot of some of the work we are doing to improve our airports and promote sustainable aviation, but I want to cover one last crucial element of our strategy for getting the best out of our airports and that is our ambitious plans to deliver a high speed rail network for this country. Experience around Europe shows how attractive high speed rail journeys are when they compete with short haul aviation. Taking just two examples of many, Air France has entirely stopped flying between Paris and Brussels and charters high speed TGV trains instead, and flights between Madrid and Barcelona plummeted when the high speed line opened. The high speed network we propose connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds will have consequences beyond those cities. For example, running trains on to the new network from Scotland could cut journey times from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London to as little as 3½ hours. Now Deutsche Bahn hope to start running direct services from London to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Cologne, in addition to Eurostar’s Brussels and Paris routes. At present, there are probably around 140,000 flights every year between these destinations and airports in the South East. 140,000 flights! Providing a viable rail substitute for even a modest proportion of those flights could release significant capacity at our crowded airports, enabling them to focus on routes where flying is the only option, such as for long haul and brick economy destinations, enabling us to get better economic value from our airports within current capacity constraints.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is no doubt that completion of the high speed rail network we propose be a long and arduous process. You only have to glance at the pages of the national newspapers every morning to realise that, but I firmly believe that it will be worth the effort. Not just because our plans will radically change the economic geography of this country and help us tackle a north south divide problem which has defied solution for decades, but also because high speed rail can transform the debate that has raged for some many years on airport capacity in the South East. Formidable challenges lie ahead, whether it’s on high speed rail or the future of aviation. I look forward to working with you all in addresses those challenges so that we deliver the sustainable growth and sustainable aviation that we need for a successful and competitive future for the UK economy.

Thank you.