If not Heathrow, what…….


By John Stewart

HACAN’s opposition to Heathrow expansion is well-known.  However, people often ask us, what’s out alternative?  It is a legitimate question which I’m going to try to answer in this blog.

First, though, to restate our opposition to expansion and why it is at the root of everything we do.

We believe that Heathrow expansion is so damaging that it should not even be considered as an option, whatever its economic merits.  The figures are well-known.  According to the European Commission, over 725,000 people live under the Heathrow flights paths (astonishingly, 28% of all people impacted by aircraft right across Europe).  And even that is an underestimate: it excludes vast swathes of South East and East London where many of our members live.  In 2007 HACAN commissioned a report from the well-respected acoustics consultants Bureau Veritas which found that in places 20 miles from Heathrow “aircraft noise dominated the local environment.” http://www.hacan.org.uk/resources/reports/hacan.flight.paths.study.pdf.  In separate surveys, HACAN recorded more than 40 planes an hour flying over somewhere like the Oval Cricket Ground, about 18 miles from Heathrow and outside the area measured by the European Commission.

Heathrow Airport understands that noise is the biggest barrier to expansion.  In its submission to the Airports Commission, it has come up with many welcome measures to try to reduce noise levels but I don’t believe that any of the measures can get round the stark fact that a third runway is likely to bring at least 150,000 new people under a flight path.

Noise, so often the Cinderella pollutant, is, in our view, the insurmountable barrier to expansion at Heathrow.

What of the other impacts?  Air pollution already exceeds EU legal limits in a limited number of places around Heathrow. Heathrow Airport correctly points out that the levels are also exceeded in very many areas across London, with road traffic being the main culprit.  The future is difficult to predict but it is, at the very least, a leap of faith to argue that pollution levels will fall as a result of the introduction of cleaner planes and cars despite an increase in flight numbers from round 476,000 today to 760,000 with a third runway in place.

Climate change emissions would soar if a third runway was built at Heathrow.    According to the World Development Movement, flights from Heathrow’ s 3rd runway would emit same CO2 emissions in one year as the entire economy of Kenya: http://www.wdm.org.uk/flights-heathrows-third-runway-will-emit-same-greenhouse-gas-emissions-kenya ….

Of course a new runway anywhere would produce similar levels of CO2.  Sir Howard Davies, the chairman of the Airports Commission, has said that the Commission will be guided by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the official advisers to the Government.  The CCC argues that there could be a 55% increase in flights and still enable a future Government to meet its 2050 CO2 targets.  That would allow one new runway to be built in the UK but it assumes heavy CO2 cuts will take place in all other sectors of the economy.  Many leading environmental groups argue that the CCC has underestimated the impact of climate change and that Davies should rule out any future runways anywhere:   http://www.airportwatch.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Joint-NGO-response-to-the-Airports-Commissions-emerging-thinking-on-airport-capacity-in-the-UK.pdf.

No new runways would be a viable solution if government chose to manage future demand to meet existing capacity.  An end to tax-free airline fuel and the imposition of VAT on tickets or a carbon tax would cut demand, particularly for leisure travel which is much more price-sensitive than business travel, and could end the need for new runways.  But Howard Davies is right to point out that is not Government policy and he is required to work within the current policy framework.

So what are the options?

When the current Government dropped plans for new runways in London and the South East in 2010, the Department for Transport worked on the assumption that market forces would kick in: that, over time, airlines would choose to concentrate their long-haul, intercontinental flights at Heathrow, with some of the short-haul currently using the airport being moved to take up the spare capacity at some of the other airports.  (At present, over 20% of flights at Heathrow are domestic or to near-Europe destinations).  This would allow for more direct flights from the BRIC countries to use Heathrow.  This option would clearly work in the short to medium term since the Department for Transport estimates there is enough capacity at existing airports in London and the South East for the next 20-25 years.  If, during that time, there were serious moves to tax aviation fuel or introduce a carbon tax (or if the price of oil shot up), the subsequent levelling off in demand may mean there would not be a call for future runways.

HACAN would acknowledge that Heathrow Airport Limited make a good economic argument for a third runway at Heathrow (though don’t quote that out-of-context!) : http://mediacentre.heathrowairport.com/Press-releases/One-hub-or-none-390.aspx .  But to us the more interesting debate, given our view that Heathrow should be ruled out of consideration, is whether Heathrow expansion is essential to the future health of the economy.

There are strong arguments to suggest that it is not.  In an independent survey of small and large businesses, 95 per cent of them said a third runway would make little or no difference to them (Survey by Continental Research, November 2008).  But the main reason the health of the London economy doesn’t depend on Heathrow growing as a hub is this:  more passengers (business people and tourists) terminate in London than in any other world city (Transport Statistics Great Britain 2011).  On the whole, they do not mind which London airport they use.  The Dutch economists CE Delft argued that a third runway was not required at Heathrow because, for business as a whole, other factors, such as the vibrancy of London’s financial centre, were of greater importance than the size of Heathrow (The economics of Heathrow expansion,2008).  Camilla Cavendish made the same point writing (about tax) in The Times (10/3/11):  London is attractive as a base to international companies because of “our open economy, time zone and language.”

This mass of people coming to London potentially provides the market for regular flights to be operated to the key cities of the world from any of London’s airports.  The economic vitality of Londonis not dependent on a third runway at Heathrow.  It is a point made forcefully by Gatwick Airport.  A two-hub solution is workable for a city like London because of its importance as an international destination.

HACAN has an agreement with our campaigning friends at Gatwick (and Stansted) that we don’t advocate expansion at their airports.  The only point we are making here is that, if a new runway is required, it is not essential for the health of London’s economy that it is built at Heathrow.

What of Boris Island?  HACAN members are divided over it.  In that, they reflect attitudes inWest London.  Some favour it because it would remove the noise from their areas.  Others are concerned that, if it were to be built, Heathrow, which employs 76,000 people directly, would need to close. BorisIsland, unless perhaps it was the option built far into the sea, would create noise problems for many people living in North Kent and intoSE London.  Indeed, according to evidence given by NATS (National Air Traffic Control) to the Transport Committee of the Greater London Authority, its noise footprint would stretch as far asCentral London.

There is also a debate over whether two new runways would be required.  The Mayor makes the point that a brand new airport could become the mega-hub for Europe on a par with mega-hubs, such asDubai, in other parts of the world.  He’s undoubtedly right that only a new off-shore airport (or an expanded Stansted) could fulfill that function. HeathrowAirport, by contrast, argues that theUK should not look beyond one new runway given the uncertainty in predicting demand levels 30/40 years hence.   They maintain it is too difficult to gauge what will happen to oil prices, aviation taxes, climate change targets etc.

So, in conclusion, if not Heathrow, what….

1. No new runways would be a viable solution if government chose to manage future demand (through taxation on aviation) to meet existing capacity but at present there are no signs of that happening and it might need international or at least European agreement.

2. Even without demand management, there is enough capacity at airports in London and the South East for about the next 20 years.  With capacity restricted, market forces would kick in: airlines would choose to concentrate their long-haul, intercontinental flights at Heathrow, with some of the short-haul currently using the airport being moved to take up the spare capacity at some of the other airports.

3. If a new runway is required, it is not essential for the health of London’s economy that it is built at Heathrow because of the attractiveness of London as an international destination.

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