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

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Jes­sica El­got Po­lit­i­cal re­porter

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.”

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