The battle of Heathrow
“In the annals of government procrastination, a special place is reserved for the saga of London’s airport expansion,” said Philip Johnston in The Daily Telegraph. It is almost 50 years since the idea of building a third runway at Heathrow was first seriously proposed. For as long as I can remember, politicians – from Ted Heath to David Cameron – have “hummed and hawed around the London airport question before doing nothing at all”. But now, according to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, the end is in sight. The Cabinet has formally backed the plan to build a new runway at Heathrow northwest of the existing two, increasing take-offs and landings from 480,000 per year to around 740,000. There will be a Commons vote, with a government three-line whip, in the next month. Grayling declared it a “historic moment”, and – stretching credulity – claimed that the runway could be completed by 2026. About time too, said the London Evening Standard. Heathrow is already running at full capacity. And the case for expanding it was made “overwhelmingly” by the Airports Commission in 2015. Aviation is growing rapidly. Britain – particularly after Brexit – needs to have better long-haul connections to new export markets in “fast-emerging Asia”. The alternatives are much less convincing: a new Thames Estuary airport would be “unfeasibly expensive”; an expanded Gatwick would not be able to offer the same range of destinations. Many people, of course, will be adversely affected. But “hard as it is, Parliament must put the interests of the many ahead of the objections of the few”. On the contrary, the third runway is a “terrible idea”, said Chris Deerin in The Times. It will have “grave environmental consequences”. Heathrow is set to become the UK’S biggest emitter of CO2. “Noise pollution will increase” as new flight paths open up over London. The village of Longford will be razed, along with parts of Harmondsworth and Sipson. And while the proposal to expand Gatwick would have been fully privately funded, this plan is likely to cost taxpayers billions.
The runway will cause “a degree of political embarrassment” to Theresa May, said Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. The plan will be “aggressively criticised” by London’s Tory MPS; Boris Johnson, who promised to “lie down in front of the bulldozers” at Heathrow, will reportedly be abroad on Foreign Office business when the Commons votes. But ultimately, it’s a done deal. Labour is divided: its environmentalists are opposed, but the unions are in favour. The clincher is that the SNP has come out in support (in return for various sweeteners for Scotland). Even so, “rather a lot is still up in the air”, said Alistair Osborne in The Times – “such as every crucial detail”, including the price, the position of the new flight paths and how the runway will bridge the M25. There will, of course, be endless legal challenges ahead. “It’s a bit early for all that ‘historic moment’ talk.”