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Heathrow expansion is wrong on all counts

The commission headed by Sir Howard Davies, an ex-President of the CBI, has turned out a predictable waste of money. Governments usually set up Commissions of Inquiry, not to solicit seeds of wisdom, but to try to resolve a political impasse. The Davies Commission was one such, it has failed in its purpose, and said almost nothing we didn’t know already.

Its main conclusions are that the choice lies between Heathrow and Gatwick, and Boris Island in the Thames Estuary is a non-starter because of its excessive cost (£50bn+ which puts it at par with another white elephant, HS2). But the biggest complaint against the Davies inquiry is that it never asked the right question in the first place: do we need a huge expansion of airports in the south-east at all?

First, a third runway at Heathrow won’t solve the problem even in the crudest terms, despite the colossal territorial upheaval it would cause, more than temporarily. Once a third runway is built, we will unquestionably be told within a few years that a fourth runway is needed, just as we were told not long ago that terminal 4 was required, and now terminal 5, and before long the demand will be for terminal 6.

It is incremental corporate creep over an ever larger area of already congested population density. We have learnt painfully from the roads that building more roads to relieve congestion is a short-sighted expedient that simply generates more demand for the next expansion. The same applies to airports.

Second, there is the argument that it’s needed to assist the current economic recovery. That’s nonsense when the timescale for consultation, planning and building is wholly out of kilter with the present economic predicament. There are far, far, far better ways of creating jobs and growth than the Heathrow milch cow.

Third, it would mean abandonment of the UK’s current binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050. The government’s own projections are that aviation emissions are already set to rise by 50% by the same date. That alone would make Britain’s climate change target extremely difficult to reach, given the greater cuts required in the power generation, industrial and household sectors.

With a third runway increasing flight capacity from 480,000 now to an expected 740,000, the target would become unreachable. And if it is true, as Cameron himself said in 2010, that “If we don’t act now, and act quickly, we could face disaster” from the climate, failure to hit will have very serious consequences.

Fourth, it is said that in a globalised world, easy and ready access for business travel is essential for UK’s economic success. But business trips only account for a sixth of all UK flights, and that proportion is already shrinking because of free video-conferencing. The problem is rather cheap holidays in the sun for the middle classes (classes D and E hardly use air travel at all according to the aviation data). There are then two issues here – one is that holiday passengers should be required to pay the full environmental costs that their travel entails, and the other is that it should be borne in mind that tourism is a net deficit to the UK of some £14bn each year.

Fifth, the government constantly tells us that it is seeking to rebalance the economy from south to north as well as from finance to manufacturing. Further runways at Heathrow or Gatwick would throw that objective strongly into reverse. Nor are regional airports in the north inadequate. Manchester is already challenging Gatwick in terms of throughput.

Sixth, even apart from climate change, the social and environmental costs of expanding Heathrow have been lamentably played down. The cost of a third runway at Heathrow is estimated at £17bn, but that does not begin to quantify the misery caused by the extra noise (estimated at 150,000) , home demolitions (likely to be 950), or increased congestion on surrounding roads.


  1. swatantra says:

    So the solution is to build up our Regional Airports and have a totally integrated transport policy, that means going ahead with HS2 and taking freight off Air transport and put on to ship and rail transport. That would release capacity on planes for cheaper flights, which we cannot deny to the masses, reserving air travel for the wealthy. The way to control heavy use of Air Travel is by rationing and passport control. If you do it by Airport taxes you are back to only the wealthy being able to afford it. Rationing is a policy which we have not seriously thought about since the War, but we need to have another look at that method of control and regulation.

  2. John reid says:

    What swantatra says

  3. MrCElk says:

    What I wan to know is when did flying become a right not a luxury. A fine piece of work Mr Meacher.

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