It is a year since the Government’s announcement that the preferred option for an additional London runway was Heathrow. That decision was based on reports produced by the Airports Commission in 2015, but since then further analysis has significantly undermined their conclusions, particularly on the economic and environmental impacts and costs of Heathrow expansion versus those of Gatwick expansion.
To begin with growth figures, the reports assumed demand for flying upward, but we have in the past year lurched from being one of the fastest growing G7 economies to one of the slowest. Looking at the comparative figures in the Department for Transport calculations, the new estimates for net economic benefit arising from a third runway at Heathrow compared with Gatwick changed the picture further.
A year ago, the net economic benefit from a third runway at Heathrow was given as
£61 billion over a 60-year period – a negligible net benefit. The Government revised those figures upward: the figures given for a second runway at Gatwick are between £74.1 billion and £75.3 billion over 60 years; but this time the figures for the Heathrow option are lower than those, at £72.8 billion to £74.2 billion.
Job creation figures are often used to justify Heathrow expansion, but those from the Airports Commission report have recently been revised downward. The total number of jobs that it is claimed will be created is down from 78,000 to 37,000. Analysis by Transport for London demonstrates that the 37,000 jobs are not genuinely new jobs, but merely displaced from other parts of the economy. That is not insignificant in terms of ensuring continued employment for thousands of people, but it is completely different from creating new economic activity. It is not clear that Heathrow’s promises to local communities about mitigation, to the regions about connectivity, and to the country about jobs remain the same, given the reduction in the figure for total economic benefit.
The Department for Transport states that “taken over the whole 60-year period, the Gatwick scheme could lead to greater monetised net public value” when looking only at passenger benefits in terms of reduced fares, fewer delays and better services. Such conclusions do not shout that Heathrow is the better option for the country and passengers.
On the cost of surface access, increasing flights by about 47 per cent will of course increase traffic and transport pressure on an airport whose roads and public transport are congested most of the time. That in itself is an economic cost to the local economy and a commercial cost to the airport and airlines. Improvements to public transport should shift a higher proportion of the new passengers on to rail, but many of the improvements, such as southern and western rail access, which are not even funded yet, are needed now for the smooth running of a major two-runway international airport and its hinterland.
The imminent upgrade of the Piccadilly line and the creation of Crossrail were designed, to support an increased population in west London and beyond – not a third runway. I have seen no assessment of the additional pressure on the roads from freight and flight-servicing vehicles, which cannot, of course, transfer to rail.
The cost of improvements to surface access is disputed, with estimates ranging from just over £1 billion from Heathrow airport to £3.5 billion from the Department for Transport, and £18 billion from TfL. Of course, we have no commitment at all from the Government to fund anything that HeathrowAirport is not prepared to pay for itself. As Heathrow Airport has publicly agreed to commit only £1 billion, there is significant concern that the taxpayer would be left picking up the shortfall if the third runway were to go ahead. Any such contribution from the public sector would further reduce the available capital for investment in infrastructure projects outside London and the south-east.
On the restricted growth of regional airports, the Airports Commission pointed out that Heathrow expansion would negatively affect the opportunity for growth at nearly all regional airports in the UK. Heathrow claims that the third runway will service 14 domestic routes, yet the commission suggests that without a regional slot allocation preference or some sort of subsidy, new domestic routes may not be commercially viable.
Indeed, it predicted that domestic airport connections to Heathrow would be reduced from the seven routes today to only four by 2050. The Government have yet to give any commitment on whether they are prepared to financially support these regional connections.
Increases in passenger numbers are regularly cited as the rationale for airport expansion, but interestingly the number of air traffic movements grew by only 0.6 per cent between 2000 and 2014. Obviously, there are restrictions at Heathrow in that respect. The Government must go back to square one and look at the whole issue of aviation demand and where supply is provided, rather than being at the behest of one very large commercial interest that needs to expand to please its shareholders and pay its outstanding debts.
If the Government are serious about meeting climate change targets, restrictions on growth at other airports will be essential if Heathrow is expanded. The Aviation Environment Foundation estimates that to remain compatible with the target of the 2008 Climate Change Act of limiting aviation emissions to 37.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2050, 36 per cent fewer passengers would have to fly in and out of airports in the south-west, 11 per cent fewer in Scotland, 14 per cent fewerin the north-west and 55 per cent fewer in the West Midlands.
The cost of insulation to make life bearable for people living under the approach paths, now and in the future, is another factor. The low-flying, quieter aircraft that ministers often talk about are much more disturbing on the ground than higher flying, noisier aircraft. When under the approach path to Heathrow, the only quiet aircraft is a glider, and we have not yet invented the passenger glider. Up to a million people will be significantly affected by aviation noise around Heathrow – 300,000 more than are affected now. The noise mitigation package offered by Heathrow is not available for the majority of people affected and is lamentably insufficient compared with international comparators.
Aviation is absent from the clean growth plan. If a third runway is constructed, by 2050 emissions from aviation will constitute about 25 per cent of total UK emissions. That will require significant reductions and restrictions in other sectors of the economy, including the complete decarbonisation of the rest of the transport sector. The Department moving does some appear to be moving very fast to do that.
Finally, regarding the weak clean air plan, the Government confirmed what manys had been saying for some time: expanding Heathrow cannot be done without further breaching air quality limits. The Government’s clean air plan has been rightly criticised for seeking to shift responsibility for air quality on to local authorities.
The Government should be taking responsibility for this. To meet the air pollution limits would require a significant move away from diesel vehicles on roads surrounding the airport and no increase in airport-related traffic. That is not feasible. A third runway will inevitably increase delays at junctions and slow average speeds on local road networks – things that are already problems – and thus increase emissions at the expense of the health of many hundreds of thousands of other people. It will also have an impact on the local economy. The Government’s policy of supporting expansion at Heathrow totally undermines the effort to make London a more sustainable city.
Ruth Cadbury is Labour MP for Brentford and Isleworth. This article is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate