Why a 3rd runway at Heathrow is undeliverable

A third runway at Heathrow will never be built.  That is my confident prediction for 2014…..and 2015!  It is not simply that I don’t want it to be built.  I firmly believe that it is just not politically deliverable.

And it is not just me saying this.  Steven Norris, the former Conservative transport minister turned successful businessman, has consistently taken this view. And Willie Walsh, the boss of the International Aviation Group which includes British Airways (BA), told a conference over a year ago that he did not believe a third runway at Heathrow would ever be built and that his company was basing its future plans on that belief by buying slots from other airlines at Heathrow and expanding its operations in Madrid – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/aviation/9717087/Willie-Walsh-rules-out-third-runway-at-Heathrow.html. Walsh said it is “my personal belief that a third runway will never be built” and that “we are planning for life without it.”  

So far we have heard nothing from the supporters of a 3rd runway on this.  We know why they want it but no discussion about how they believe will succeed this time round when they failed just a few short years ago. 

There are, though, some real signs that they have learnt lessons from that failure.  A decade ago a self-confident industry felt sure it would get its new runway.  Today it understands that is far from inevitable.  It is the reason why Heathrow Airport is putting so much effort into trying to mitigate noise.  It’s probably the reason it changed its name from BAA.  And why Back Heathrow has been set up: to test and challenge the claims that most people in the worst affected areas oppose a 3rd runway.  The promoters of Heathrow Hub also get it. The whole rationale of their proposal is an attempt to make a new runway more acceptable to the bloc of voters in West London.

This change of tactic is a recognition they are on the back-foot.  It is the opponents of expansion who are now self-confident.  We climbed the mountain to achieve victory against all the odds in 2010 – read about it http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/how.the.heathrow.campaign.was.won.pdf.  We believe we can do it again, if we need to.

I suspect that many in business and industry, and some of their supporters in the media, are still deluding themselves that our victory was down to luck, being in the right place at the right time, a one-off fluke.  Time will tell.  

I feel that our victory was more Andy Murray, who has a great chance of winning further grand-slams after his victory at Wimbledon, than Marion Bartoli, who promptly retired six weeks after taking the women’s title.  

Here’s why.

Those who took part in the decade-long campaign last time round have not gone away.  They have all invested far too much in it to let the victory be overturned.  Residents will still battle to save their homes and communities from destruction.  Thousands will fight the prospect of a new flight path over their heads.  Environmental groups won’t sit back and let an iconic victory against climate change be snatched away from them.  Plane Stupid didn’t risk life and limb on the roof of the House of Commons only for Harmondsworth to be concreted over.

And all this is backed up by considerable cross-party political support. Look around the cabinet table:  the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Business Secretary Vince Cable, Home Secretary Theresa May, the Secretaries of State for the Environment, International Development and Northern Ireland, Ed Davey, Justine Greening and Theresa Villiers and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond are all known opponents of a 3rd runway.  Political parties as different as UKIP and the Greens are firmly opposed to expansion.

And the tide is turning in Western Europe against expansion.  Over the last two years public pressure has forced a third runway at Munich to be dropped and plans for new airports in Siena and Viterbo in Italy to be abandoned.  In Frankfurt, thousands of campaigners have occupied the terminal every Monday evening for over two years in protest against the impact of the 4th runway, opened by Angela Merkel in 2011.  And last Winter saw pitched battles in the French countryside between police and activists as the authorities tried to clear the land for a new airport outside Nantes.

I don’t know what the country as a whole thinks about a 3rd runway.  I suspect it doesn’t really matter in political terms.  What matters politically is that any government which proposes a 3rd runway will know it faces considerable opposition and the real possibility of never being able to build it.  I hope the supporters of Heathrow expansion are ready with a Plan B.

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