Clearance for third runway is a double blow
The time for action is now,” said Chris Grayling last Tuesday. After years of delays, the Cabinet finally approved plans to build a third runway at Heathrow – a decision the Transport Secretary described as a “historic moment” for the UK.
I fully accept that Britain has a pressing need for new airport capacity. But I despair at the idea of expanding Heathrow. At the most basic level, our biggest airport is in the wrong place, with flight paths over some of London’s most densely populated areas.
It is madness to further develop an already enormous airport smack in the middle of a suburban landscape that’s home to millions.
Britain’s Supreme Court previously ruled that air pollution around Heathrow breached legal limits, with aircraft emissions combining with car fumes from the jam-packed M4 and M25 motorways. To add another 250,000 flights a year to the present 470,000, with all the related extra road traffic, makes a mockery of our anti-pollution laws.
The case for Heathrow, we’re told, hinges on securing “hub” status, helping consolidate London as a global business capital. Yet, for over 80pc of in-bound passengers into Heathrow, London is the final destination. And almost 70pc of all passengers are tourists. Heathrow may want to offer more flights to far-flung business hotspots. But it could do that by giving up slots on various predominantly leisure routes, allowing more of the Mediterranean holiday business to go to Gatwick and Stansted.
Which brings us to the nub of the issue. In 2011, the Competition Commission forced the British Airports Authority, which runs Heathrow, to sell off Gatwick, Stansted and some other UK airports. The idea was to challenge BAA’S nearmonopoly, so benefiting passengers and the broader UK economy.
Since then, the private investors who bought Gatwick have financed major improvements and reversed years of losses. Having demonstrated their determination to give Heathrow a run for its money, they’re now operating the busiest single-runway airport in the world. So it is deeply perverse the Government has taken a decision that cements Heathrow’s dominance, rather than allowing Gatwick to compete by expanding.
Passenger landing charges at Heathrow have long been higher than those at its south London rival. The west London behemoth accounts for over 80pc of all long-haul flights leaving the capital and, as and when the third runway appears, that share will grow higher still.
A third Heathrow runway is estimated to cost an astonishing £18bn – not least due to the extensive demolition of nearby houses required.
More billions must be spent diverting existing roads, pushing the total bill way above £30bn. This sheer complexity explains why a new Heathrow runway wouldn’t be ready until 2029 at the earliest. And, when it comes to it, much of the bill will be footed not by investors, but by a combination of passengers paying even higher charges and taxpayers.
Expanding Gatwick, rather than Heathrow, involves far less demolition and local upheaval – delivering vital new capacity far more cheaply and sooner. A bigger Gatwick would mean London had two world-class airports rather than one. And Crossrail will any way soon bring much faster links between Heathrow and London’s other airports, weakening the argument for a single hub. Yet money talks and, when all is said and done, Heathrow has won this competition due to its serious lobbying muscle.
Last week exposed once again the shocking extent to which Downing Street is mishandling the UK’S exit from the European Union.
This Heathrow announcement similarly fails to grasp that post-brexit Britain needs global growth centres beyond the South East. That’s why the “Northern Powerhouse” must now get off the drawing board, with HS3 being prioritised over all other high-speed rail projects, linking up Liverpool and Manchester, before extending to the long-neglected North East. Imagine the possibilities if the West Midlands, already the UK’S second-biggest exporting region, had in Birmingham a truly international airport that drove local growth by offering regular, direct links to global markets. And why not Manchester and Newcastle too?
The UK economy is ridiculously imbalanced. Theresa May says she wants to change that. Now she’s brought back a 50-year-old plan to add another runway in the South East – a region with multiple transport hubs already. Her “one-nation Conservatism”, so far a series of vapid statements, has been sent packing with this myopic Heathrow move.
Britain’s regional infrastructure is deeply inadequate – particularly across the North. That reflects paltry investment, inadequate long-term strategic vision, and previous acts of vandalism. The Beeching reforms, which stripped out large parts of the UK’S rail network from the mid-sixties onwards, at the behest of the then all-powerful car lobby, were particularly destructive.
Today’s policymakers have been similarly faced down by BAA – its owners led by Spain’s Ferrovial, along with Chinese, Qatari and Singaporean sovereign wealth funds. As such, May has missed a huge opportunity to promote more air travel competition, while boosting regional growth.
A parliamentary vote is due in mid-july. But even if May wins it, this infamous third runway may never be built. The Government previously announced “clearance” in December 2016 – since when there’s been no progress. That makes this decision doubly damaging – because giving Heathrow permission for an expansion that may not happen prevents extra capacity going elsewhere. Which is just as Heathrow wants it.
‘Theresa May has missed a huge opportunity to promote more air travel competition’
An Emirates Boeing 787 Dreamliner flies over the Instrument landing system at Heathrow