Bim Afolami: “Mr Chairman, I beg to move that this House has considered Luton Airport expansion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your Chairmanship and to speak on a subject of great interest to my constituents, and of real importance to the whole region. Let me first establish some facts. Luton Airport is a rapidly growing airport that currently handles over 15 million passengers per year. Its passenger numbers have increased by 70% in the last 7 years alone. It is owned by London Luton Airport Limited, on behalf of Luton Borough Council, which is also the planning authority currently responsible for approving any increases in allowed passenger numbers. Luton Borough Council set this limit, in 2014, at 18 million passengers. In mid-December last year, Luton Borough Council, as owners of the airport, set out a highly ambitious plan to more than double Luton Airport’s passenger traffic by 2050 – to bring it to 38 million passengers. To give some context, Mr Chairman, that represents an ambition for Luton Airport to manage as many passengers as Gatwick Airport did as recently as three years ago, when it was (as it is now) the second busiest airport in the UK.
My constituency, Hitchin and Harpenden, lies in rural Hertfordshire but abuts Luton to the West. The flight path from Luton Airport, both of inbound and outbound planes, runs directly over thousands of my constituents particularly in Harpenden, Wheathampstead, Sandridge and Jersey Farm, causing a great deal of noise and air pollution over the area. In addition, it is worth pointing out to the House that although Luton sits on the M1 motorway, a great deal of the traffic that naturally accompanies an airport handling over 40,000 passengers per day currently runs through the very rural roads of my constituency to the north and east of the Airport, near villages such as Breachwood Green, Mangrove Green, Lilley, Hexton and Pirton, much of which is the Chilterns Hills and designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
It is my case, Mr Chairman, that the proposed expansion of Luton Airport to Gatwick-sized levels of 38 million passengers is – first – unsustainable and unsuitable for the area; and – secondly – (and this is a serious point) potentially undermines trust in government by tens of thousands of Hertfordshire residents because Luton Borough Council owns the airport, receives the income from it, and yet it also acts as the planning authority.
Unsustainable and unsuitable
Now I want to say, if it is not entirely clear from my comments so far in this debate, that I am not against airports. I understand the need, indeed the necessity of a thriving aviation sector, and I recognise (as I am sure the Minister will tell the House) the jobs and economic growth that Luton Airport brings to Luton and to the UK. My case today, and the case supported by the vast majority of my constituents, is that the proposed expansion to more than double Luton’s passenger numbers is both unsuitable for the local area and unsustainable in the context of the constraints that exist in rural Hertfordshire in particular.
Luton is not the right place for an airport of the proposed size of 38 million passengers. Topographically, its location on a plateau means that it is closed by fog and bad weather more frequently than the other airports in the South East. It has a very constrained footprint (compared with Gatwick and Stansted), and the dense polycentric pattern of its surrounding settlements means that many towns and villages are affected by noise and pollution. It is right next door to extremely rural Hertfordshire countryside which has, as you would expect, very small, narrow lanes, many of which can only take one car at a time and are already seeing vast increases in traffic as they are often used as rat runs through to Luton Airport as its passenger numbers rise. In addition, unlike Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, Luton doesn’t have a direct rail link to the terminal. Furthermore, Luton already has the greatest concentration of air traffic movement in its airspace in the UK, one of the most congested airspaces in Europe. Noise complaints from Hertfordshire residents (most of whom are my constituents), with the existing traffic of over 15 million passengers, are already extremely high, and have increased 22-fold in 2 years. Night flights also blight the lives of my constituents hugely, and over the past two years, the number of flights between the hours of 2300 and 0700 has gone up 25%, from 12,867 to 16,031.
Now, I believe in giving credit where it is due, and I must thank the Department of Transport for its recent efforts in this area, as shown by its commitment to an independent noise regulator, to be called the Independent Commission on Civil Aviation Noise. This body, once established, will help provide objective independent guidance of how aircraft noise should be assessed and managed, and how this should be used to inform airspace decisions. According to the Government’s consultation document it says – “It is clear that tensions are likely to arise when airport operations change in a way which affects how local communities experience noise impacts. We want to ensure that there is not a breakdown of trust between airports and their communities”. I would submit, Mr Chairman, that the extremely rapid rise in complaints of aircraft noise in Hertfordshire shows that, as things currently stand, trust between Luton Airport and residents of rural areas of Hertfordshire is in danger of breaking down, and will break down completely if colossal expansion plans are rammed through without appropriate consultation with Hertfordshire residents.
Conflict of interest and trust
Trust is important here. Trust between the citizen and the government, both local and national, is one of the most fundamental underpinnings of a democracy. Many of my constituents have lost trust in Luton Borough Council’s management of the expansion of Luton Airport over recent years, and one of the reasons for this is the highly unusual situation whereby Luton Borough Council owns Luton Airport, and at the same time is the planning authority currently responsible for approving its expansion. Although Mr Chairman I must make clear for the record that I am not accusing Luton Borough Council of any legal or procedural impropriety, I do believe that there is a significant conflict of interest. In 2015, the highly esteemed National Audit Office (and I work a lot with them as a member of the Public Accounts Committee) published a report on managing conflicts of interest in the public sector. The report states that “a failure to recognise a conflict of interest can give the impression that the organisation is not acting in the public interest…and can damage confidence in government”. Luton Borough Council’s ownership of Luton Airport, which generated a net profit of £47 million in the last financial year, coupled with the huge increase in flight noise for many thousands of my constituents as I have demonstrated, with the huge increase in passenger numbers, leaves many of my constituents feeling that Luton Borough Council has one real interest – growing passenger numbers and revenue for the airport, and for itself, without any real consideration for the significant negative impacts on the people of Hertfordshire that I have outlined here today. As one of my constituents put it to me, Bedfordshire gets the gain, and Hertfordshire gets the pain.
So, what shall be done? I would like to propose that the Minister responds to the following points in his response.
1. Bearing in mind the huge growth proposed at Luton Airport, will the Government confirm that the plans for any future expansion must be approved as a Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project submission to the Planning Inspectorate, with the decision therefore not being made by Luton Borough Council?
2. Will the Government act so that it will not allow any further expansion of passenger numbers beyond 18 million without the imposition of much greater conditions around noise concerns, flight route changes, and a much tougher limit on night flights – so that Luton is finally treated like other London airports?
3. Will the Government call on Luton Borough Council to provide detailed plans for the necessary infrastructural improvements (particularly on local roads) that will be necessary in Hertfordshire, as well as Bedfordshire, and explain how it proposes to fund it?
4. Finally, will the Government call on Luton Borough Council and Luton Airport to work much harder in gaining the trust and partnership of Hertfordshire residents – not just for any expansion of passenger numbers (of any size) but also at the current time, and actively keep future growth in step with mitigation measures, and constrain that future growth if necessary.
I thank the House for being so patient with me in my first Westminster Hall debate, and I give way to my honourable friend, the member for St Albans (Anne Main).