Alarm at growing use of RAF base for passenger jets
MP says Northolt’s status ‘used as a smokescreen’ Report suggests further rise to 50,000 flights a year
A military airport used frequently by the royal family has become a commercial hub by stealth, hosting 10,000 passenger flights a year, a Labour MP has said.
Gareth Thomas, the MP for Harrow West, said local people had not been consulted over further changes at RAF Northolt in west London, including a proposal that would increase the number of commercial flights to 50,000 a year.
Thomas said residents were concerned and it was “increasingly apparent that it is a commercial airport in all but name”, with military status used “as a smokescreen”.
Commercial flights at RAF Northolt, which is seven miles from Heathrow, have dramatically increased in recent years. The number of passenger journeys, mostly involving VIP jets, now dwarfs the 3,800 military flights.
In a report commissioned by the Ministry of Defence, consultants suggested increasing the number of commercial flights to 50,000 per year, with the regional airline Flybe among those campaigning for commercial passenger flights to start operating from the airport.
The report, by the accounting company EY, suggested RAF Northolt could be “an alternative to London City airport” for regional flights with up to 100 seats and a “key access airport” for Heathrow, but said it was unsuitable for larger planes.
Thomas said the number of flights was already having a major impact on local people’s quality of life, with issues including noise pollution, poor air quality and concerns about safety.
The MoD is to spend £45m resurfacing the runway, which the MP said was significantly more than the cost of the same work at other airports and had been approved without a public consultation. The runway will be closed from spring 2018 for the work.
“It is not hard to see why my constituents are worried where this is all leading,” Thomas said. “It is clear that at every turn, the government has sought to hide what is happening at Northolt from my constituents by using its military status as a smokescreen. This has meant a gradual worsening of quality of life and an important discussion about safety swept under the carpet.”
RAF Northolt’s classification as a military base means it does not have to comply with the rules of a civilian airport, including the need to get planning approval for changes to the runway and increasing the number of commercial flights.
This week, the London assembly passed a motion expressing concern about the airport’s future, calling on the mayor, Sadiq Khan, to do “everything possible to campaign against RAF Northolt becoming a commercial airport”.
Tobias Ellwood, a defence minister, said there were “stringent conditions” for using the spare capacity at RAF Northolt for commercial flights. “It is used and needed by the military every single day, but it has for a number of decades been under-utilised in this role,” he said in his reply to a Westminster Hall debate.
Ellwood said the government was committed to sharing information about the airport with local people “when it seems pertinent as decisions and options are considered”, but added that commercial flights “offset the cost of the station’s military operations to the taxpaying public”. He said ministers would meet Thomas and local councillors to discuss concerns.
Thomas said he wanted a full and open consultation on the renovation work. “The simple fact of the matter is that Northolt is no longer, in practical terms, a military airport. The vast majority of flights there are now commercial ones,” he said. “It is not right to continue hiding behind military status, making small changes each time that add up to the very thing they publicly deny.”