One of the great things about being a Member of Parliament is the ability to conduct research and find out more about subjects which interest you.
I am the Member of Parliament for Spelthorne which, being situated 500 yards south of Heathrow Airport, is very dependent on aviation. The needs of the aviation industry consequently are something which interest me greatly.
I was privileged to host a number of people from the industry, as well as a number of colleagues, at an ‘Aviation Forum’ the other week. We talked about various things, and particularly the role aviation plays in the British economy. More than 70% of people who travel to Britain from overseas come by air. The largest proportion of our international flights go to America, about 13% of all flights, but more people are flying to our shores from Brazil, Russia, India and China, the so called BRIC countries.
The Forum discussed the need for more aviation in Britain to accompany the economic growth, which we all want to occur. Nobody at the Forum suggested that we could grow the country’s economy without some increase in aviation capacity.
This view is not universally shared. I am sure that my Green colleague in Parliament, Caroline Lucas, will have other views. I am convinced, however, that the majority of people in Britain recognise the ongoing need for aviation and its connection to our economic progress.
In this context, the construction of a third runway and Heathrow was a lively debate. I accept that this development is not going to happen during the course of this Parliament. Yet I would not be doing my job if I did not express concerns on the part of the aviation industry itself about where, if at all, any added aviation capacity is going to appear.
Everyone knows, particularly Conservative Members of Parliament, that the South East is always going to be a difficult proposition for extensive new building projects. There is undoubtedly a sense that the South East of this country is already saturated with people, buildings and general infrastructure. Anyone who looks at a South East MP’s mailbag will know the emotional force of planning issues.
Yet we are told that the economy must grow. As Conservatives we are especially committed to economic growth and the progress of business. None of the social schemes that we can devise, let alone the ‘Big Society’, can be realised unless we achieve significant economic growth in the future. So if you accept that (a) economic growth is necessary and (b) that economic growth must be accompanied by some increase in aviation capacity (I know some people do not accept this second proposition), you are still left with the question, “where is this capacity going to come from?”.
I can’t say that we came up with any radical answers to this question during the course of our Forum. I am very grateful to my colleagues for the time and interest they showed in these issues. Boris Johnson’s idea of an airport in the Thames Estuary is, at least, a bold plan. Our coalition Government remains committed to a “better not bigger” Heathrow. The Government is right to suggest that better rail connections between our national airports will go some way in improving capacity in British aviation. But whether a highly sophisticated and efficient rail network can meet the increases in demand for international travel remains an open question.
Already there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that people flying to Europe from China are choosing to go to Paris, or even Amsterdam, ahead of London. This need not be a bad thing, but we should at least have a serious debate about the future of aviation in Britain instead of presiding over an almost accidental decline in the industry through apathy or neglect.