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Neither men nor mice need a bigger Heathrow

Let’s not be hypocritical here; like most Londoners who go on holiday, take weekend breaks, and travel for work, I use Heathrow several times a year. But not when I can possibly avoid it, though.

I vastly prefer Eurostar for meetings in Brussels and Paris, and as I live only a bus ride from Euston, it works out quicker to catch the train to Edinburgh or Glasgow.

When I need to visit Rotterdam, London City comes in handy. If I have to pay for a flight from my own pocket, I normally end up with one of the cheaper carriers operating out of Luton or Gatwick, anyway.

But for intercontinental routes, there is often no realistic alternative to a 30-mile taxi schlepp across the capital in the early hours of the morning, in order to arrive – bleary-eyed and the mandatory two hours ahead of departure – at LHR.

Passenger facilities rarely extend to the provision of somewhere comfortable to sit. Frequently I find myself propping up the bar or buying stuff I don’t need in some of the numerous ‘tax free’ retail outlets, largely out of sheer boredom.

So, as you can probably gather, I am not a fan. The logic of the proposition that making Heathrow any bigger will in any way make it better – or, in the jargon, ‘enhance passenger experience’ – is beyond me. BAA is patently incapable of ensuring the smooth running of the five terminals that are there now.

The mounting clamour for the government to overturn a Conservative election manifesto pledge and the Coalition agreement in order to give the go-ahead for a sixth terminal and a third runway strikes me as completely misguided.

In particular, it is strange for a former environment minister to frame the proposal to David Cameron in terms of an explicit ‘man or mouse’ challenge to his Thatcherite machismo. This looks suspiciously like special pleading on behalf of the aviation industry.

If there is any evidence that existence of direct flights to provincial China will give British business travellers any advantage that they cannot gain by flying from another hub airport elsewhere in Europe, I have yet to see it. If that adds a few hours to travel time, so be it.

And whatever prejudices we lefties may harbour towards the residents of Surrey, the claim that the whole of the county could be covered in runways without increasing emissions by a single kilogram is patently ‘stay off the crack pipe’ stuff.

Then there is the question of the quality of life for those that live in the area, which suffers enormously from the constant noise, even as things stand now.

The truth is that, rather than facilitating ever growing numbers of flights – and a third runway at Heathrow will boost capacity by 222,0000 flights a year, according to the last estimates I saw – we need to be looking at ways of reducing the demand for air travel altogether.

Some of the means that this could be achieved – ranging from promotion of videoconferencing to the construction of high speed rail routes – are relatively painless.

Others, such as George Monbiot’s call for a ration on entitlement to flights, will no doubt hurt if implemented, although that does not mean they should not be seriously discussed.

But to avoid the necessity altogether is grave political cowardice.

One Comment

  1. Offa says:

    David – sorry that I’ve only just seen this – 3 weeks late!
    When you say that “the construction of high speed rail routes are relatively painless”, that might be the case for some HSR routes, but it is certainly not the case for HS2.

    Your basic article is about how to reduce flying so let’s just stick to that aspect of HS2. DfT figures say that just 6% of HS2’s passengers will have shifted from flying. So not a lot of modal shift! Additionally, BAA say that any regional (UK) air slots that are freed up at Heathrow will be replaced by long haul flights. So even worse for CO2!

    The Green Party has understood that HS2 is far from sustainable. Trains that travel at 360km/hr use three times the energy of 200kmph trains. The design speed for HS2 is 400kph.

    If you read the Stop HS2 and HS2 Action Alliance websites you will see that they are in favour of using the HS2 money (£34 Billion+) to invest massively in rail and other sustainable transport infrastructure right around the UK, including HSR at sustainable speeds. High Speed Rail, as far as the EU is concerned starts at 201kph. What they are not in favour of is investing all this money into one ‘super-speed’ scheme that provides a third service between London and Birmingham and then onwards, and which builds in plans to reduce services on the existing ‘classic’ lines.

    So not really “painless” from an environmental point of view. But is it OK in terms of re-balancing the economy? Best way to create jobs fast? Socially just? Makes sense as a business? Highest priority to address capacity problems across UK? That will be nope, nope, nope, nope and nope!

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