Written statement to Parliament

Independent Airports Commission - increasing international competitiveness of UK airlines and airports

Written statement by the Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP, Secretary of State for Transport.

International connectivity is vital to support economic growth. This government has made clear that its priority is returning this country to sustainable economic growth and our aviation networks and infrastructure have an important role to play.

The UK is an island nation dependent upon its transport links to the rest of the world for its prosperity. The aviation industry in the UK is extremely successful. It is a significant economic sector employing 220,000 directly and supporting many more indirectly and it contributes more than £16 billion of economic output. 35% of UK non-EU trade by value enters or leaves the country by aeroplane. Importantly the industry also provides this country with the global connections which our businesses need to sell their products abroad and which inward investors to the UK demand.

The government recognises the importance of aviation to the UK. It is taking forward the Civil Aviation Bill to reform the economic regulation of airports to further the interests of passengers and create a better environment for investment. It is implementing the recommendations of the South East Airports Taskforce, including a trial of operational freedoms at Heathrow airport to improve reliability and reduce delay. In July the government published a draft Aviation Policy Framework (APF) for consultation; a framework which will set the high-level policy parameters within which any new proposals for airport development may be considered. The final APF will be adopted by the end of March 2013. Alongside the draft APF the government announced a number of short term measures to deliver operational improvements and boost economic growth within existing airport capacity constraints including £500 million towards a western rail link to Heathrow, a review of the UK’s visa regime and the recruitment of 70 additional border staff at Heathrow.

Today the UK is amongst the best connected countries in the world. Our airports, particularly those in the South East, deliver direct flights to over 360 destinations, including those of greatest economic importance. London has more flights to more destinations than any other city in Europe. More flights to the important trading centres like New York, Hong Kong, and Singapore. The government is determined to deliver a solution which will continue to provide that connectivity in the short, medium and longer term.

This is a very difficult debate, but the reality is that since the 1960s Britain has failed to keep pace with our international competitors in addressing long term aviation capacity and connectivity needs. Germany, France and the Netherlands have all grown their capacity more extensively than the UK over the years, and so are better equipped, now and in the future, to connect with the fast growing markets of emerging economies. The consequences are clear. Our largest airport and our only hub airport - Heathrow - is already operating at capacity. Gatwick, the world’s busiest single runway airport, will be full early in the next decade, while spare capacity at Stansted airport is forecast to run out in the early 2030s.

The government believes that maintaining the UK’s status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long term international competitiveness. But the government is also mindful of the need to take full account of the social, environmental and other impacts of any expansion in airport capacity.

Successive governments have sought to develop a credible long term aviation policy to meet the international connectivity needs of the UK. In each case the policy has failed for want of trust in the process, consensus on the evidence upon which the policy was based and the difficulty of sustaining a challenging long term policy through a change of government. The country cannot afford for this failure to continue.

The government has asked Sir Howard Davies to chair an independent Commission tasked with identifying and recommending to government options for maintaining this country’s status as an international hub for aviation.

The Commission will:

  • examine the scale and timing of any requirement for additional capacity to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub
  • identify and evaluate how any need for additional capacity should be met in the short, medium and long term

In doing so, the Commission, will provide an interim report to the government no later than the end of 2013 setting out:

  • its assessment of the evidence on the nature, scale and timing of the steps needed to maintain the UK’s global hub status
  • its recommendation(s) for immediate actions to improve the use of existing runway capacity in the next 5 years - consistent with credible long term options

The Commission will then publish by the summer of 2015 a final report, for consideration by the government and opposition parties, containing:

  • its assessment of the options for meeting the UK’s international connectivity needs, including their economic, social and environmental impact
  • its recommendation(s) for the optimum approach to meeting any need
  • its recommendation(s) for ensuring that the need is met as expeditiously as practicable within the required timescale
  • materials to support the government in preparing a national policy statement to accelerate the resolution of any future planning application(s)

A decision on whether to support any of the recommendations contained in the final report will be taken by the next government.

The government intends this independent Commission to be part of a process that is fair and open and that takes account of the views of passengers and residents as well as the aviation industry, business, local and devolved government and environmental groups. We would like, if possible to involve the opposition as part of our work alongside Sir Howard to finalise the arrangements for the Commission. I will provide Parliament with further details on the full membership of the Commission and the terms of reference for its work shortly.

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