Sarah Olney holds first Westminster Hall debate on Heathrow expansion

There’s a lot of firsts when you are a new MP. Your first Early Day Motion (like a House of Commons petition), your first speech, your first question, and your first Westminster Hall debate. These debates, held outside the main chamber, concentrate on one subject and allow an MP to raise an issue directly with the Minister.

It will be of no surprise that Sarah’s first Westminster Hall debate was on the subject of Heathrow expansion and the effects in terms of road congestion and pollution of a bigger airport.

You can read the full debate – including the Deputy Speaker’s rebukes to both Sarah and a colleague for breaking the rules and a fairly patronising response from the Minister – here. Below is Sarah’s speech in full.

And she shouldn’t worry about a minor rebuke from the Speaker. Others have done worse and survived. Willie Rennie forgot to turn his phone off before one debate in 2007 and got a right telling off when one of his staff (not me) rang him during a Westminster Hall debate.

This is what Sarah said yesterday:

It is a great pleasure to conduct my first Westminster Hall debate. I thank the Minister for his engagement on this issue, which will greatly impact upon my constituents in Richmond Park and north Kingston. I welcome every opportunity to discuss the matter of Heathrow expansion with the Department for Transport.

On 2 February, the Government launched consultations relating to the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport. While many issues relating to the decision to build a third runway concern me, this afternoon I shall remain focused on the surface access strategy, which is not yet something we are able to consider.

Heathrow airport has pledged that its landside road traffic will be no greater than it is today if planning permission is granted for a third runway. It is not entirely clear which day “today” is supposed to refer to, but logic demands that 2 February should be treated as “today” for the purpose of benchmarking, being the date that the national policy statement was published. If the pledge has any prospect of being honoured, the public have a right to know what benchmarks are being used to measure landside road traffic.

Assuming that “today” is in fact 2 February, will the Minister confirm that detailed measurement and analysis of the landside road traffic was conducted on that day, for the purposes of comparison? Will he further confirm the extent of the area that was included within the measurement boundaries; whether that included my constituency; and that that analysis will be published without delay, so that the information is available to the public during the consultation period?

If, by some chance, the analysis of current landside road traffic was not carried out on 2 February or on any other day prior to today, will the Minister give details of exactly how Heathrow airport will be held to its pledge that there will be no increase in landside road traffic? I am sure he will agree that the possible increase in road traffic across a wide area of west London is a source of considerable anxiety for local residents, and that evidence of the Government’s commitment to hold Heathrow airport to its pledge that there will be no increase in traffic would set a great many minds at ease.

On 23 February, the Environmental Audit Committee published its follow-up report to the Airports Commission report, looking at carbon emissions, air quality and noise. The report directly quotes the Secretary of State for Transport’s evidence to the Committee. He said:

“the air quality issue, even around Heathrow itself, is about the traffic on our roads.”

In his statement to the House of Commons on 2 February, the Secretary of State said:

“Heathrow airport will be required to demonstrate that the scheme can be delivered within legal air quality obligations.”—[Official Report, 2 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 1182.]

It seems crucial therefore that the questions surrounding surface access links to Heathrow airport are resolved before any undertakings are made in relation to air quality targets. The Environmental Audit Committee agrees, stating in one of its conclusions:

“The Government has not yet published a comprehensive assessment of the infrastructure requirements of an expanded Heathrow, including an outline of costs, responsibilities and accountability. The Government must publish such an assessment and consult on it before publishing a final National Policy Statement.”

Will the Minister today confirm that his Department is working on detailed plans for surface access upgrade, in response to the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, and that those will be made public before the consultation period ends? I am sure he will agree that no meaningful consultation can take place on the ability of Heathrow airport to meet its landside traffic pledge or its air quality targets without publication of those plans.

Details of these plans may well affect how people respond to the consultation. One project being discussed as part of the surface access plans is the southern rail access project to improve rail links to Heathrow airport. My constituents living in Mortlake and Barnes will be particularly interested to know whether rail upgrade  plans will increase the length of time that level crossing gates block the roads in their area. One current estimate is that Mortlake is currently blocked for three quarters of an hour, every hour, to allow trains to cross. Residents are entitled to know whether the plans for Heathrow expansion mean that level crossing gates will be down for even longer. That will surely affect how they respond to the consultation.

Of particular interest to those who live not only in my constituency and the surrounding areas but much further afield is the cost of surface access upgrade and how that is to be funded. In the absence thus far of any detailed figures from the Department for Transport, our best guess of the cost of surface access upgrades is that provided by Transport for London, which estimates the cost at between £15 billion and £20 billion. Heathrow has committed to meeting just £1 billion of that cost, leaving a black hole of between £14 billion and £19 billion. I have twice challenged the Secretary of State to tell me how that shortfall will be funded, but both times he has responded only to say that he does not accept TfL’s figures. That is all very well, and I eagerly await the publication of his Department’s own estimates, as requested earlier, but he has failed to answer the key part of the question about who will pay for that cost.

The business case for Heathrow expansion rests on delivering £61 billion of benefit to the UK over 60 years. That number has already been substantially revised downwards from Heathrow’s previous estimate of £147 billion over 60 years. If it should be proved that up to £19 billion of costs have not been brought into consideration, the business case for expanding Heathrow weakens even further. Should Heathrow airport be required to fund the bulk of the surface access upgrade itself, it may find it difficult to interest investors and shareholders in its revised business case. If the costs of funding upgraded surface access should fall to the taxpayer, that may affect the level of support that Heathrow expansion is currently enjoying around the country. The public are entitled to ask whether or not that additional £19 billion could be better spent elsewhere, which is why it is vital that these detailed plans are available before the end of the consultation period.

One other point I would like to make is about freight. There are warm words in the national policy statement about increasing the number of cycling and walking journeys made to the airport and of moving passenger journeys on to public transport.

 The economic case for expanding Heathrow airport also rests on being able to increase the amount of freight that will pass through the airport. It is difficult to imagine that that increased freight will be transported to the airport on the backs of bicycles or carried on the tube. Can the Minister confirm that the plans for no net increase in road journeys will therefore include a sufficient reduction in passenger journeys to compensate for the increased number of freight movements, and that steps will be taken to ensure, where possible, that those freight movements are made by low-emission vehicles to limit the impact on air pollution?

In conclusion, I believe that the Government need to produce without delay their own detailed estimates for the upgrade of surface access to an expanded Heathrow airport in order for the public to be properly informed during the consultation process. I would go as far as to say that the consultation process will be completely invalid if the Department’s own figures for the surface access upgrade are not made available for the public to consider. All the most critical elements of the decision to award planning permission—traffic, air quality and cost—will be affected by those plans. I call on the Minister to respond urgently to that request.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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One Comment

  • I must admit I didn’t spot the rebuke from the Speaker to Sarah. Only to the person who was late, so it can’t have been very dramatic. There was an attempt at a rebuke from the minister, but it seemed to be an admission of not answering the question, which he continued not to do with great condescension.

    So much waffling from him, and I can only presume the woman in the black dress sitting behind him was giving him notes of how long he had left to fill, to make it more difficult for the MPs to press him on the relevant issues. However, Sarah, and other MPs made good points, so hopefully he knows that he’ll not get away with the waffle forever.

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