Heathrow’s third runway won’t fly

The decision to expand should be seen as a political failure

November 14, 2016
©Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images
©Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images

Announcing the government’s decision to support a third runway at Heathrow Airport, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said that the new proposals were “best for our future, and best for the whole country and its regions.” The “truly momentous” decision to expand, he claimed, will improve the UK’s international connections, while increasing foreign trade and creating jobs.

Politicians across the divide, apart from the Greens and Liberal Democrats, rallied to support the government. Ominously though, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith resigned his Richmond Park seat to fight a byelection as an independent and collective cabinet responsibility was loosened to accommodate dissenting voices, most notably Boris Johnson and Justine Greening. Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell remain against expansion, though once again they stand opposed to most of their parliamentary party.

Most business leaders and unions welcomed the long-anticipated decision, stressing its vital role in stimulating economic growth, especially in a post-Brexit world. Heathrow is running at 98 per cent of its capacity, and the demand for more flights shows little sign of waning. But once the dust has settled and the trumpeting ended, what are we to make of the decision?

Is this truly a triumph of leadership, an end to dithering and the action of a government of “builders” committed to ensuring Britain’s future? Perhaps a little less spin and a little more caution would not go amiss. In reality, the May government’s support for Heathrow expansion is the outcome of a series of political failures and policy reversals that is likely to end in tears. Here are six reasons why.

First, the belated decision to expand Heathrow is a failure of leadership. Before David Cameron became Prime Minister, he made a “no ifs, no buts” promise that there would be no new runway, and the coalition declared a moratorium on expansion in May 2010. But in 2012, after an intense campaign led by business, supporters of Heathrow and London First, the coalition agreed to set up the Airports Commission and thus reopened the case. What is more, the commission’s brief was to examine where the new capacity should be—Gatwick, Heathrow or even “Boris Island”—rather than whether there should be expansion in the southeast. Finally, the aviation industry’s demand for hub capacity (in which an airport is a stepping stone to another destination) made it difficult to argue for spreading expansion across London airports or to regional ones.

Second, the commission, directed by Sir Howard Davies, failed to deliver an evidence-based consensus, which would have hopefully taken the politics out of this controversial decision. If anything, the conflicts between different airports, between airports and their surrounding communities, between politicians (within and across parties, and among tiers of government), and between many environmental groups and business representatives, have intensified and look certain to continue.

Third, seen in a longer historical perspective, there’s the failure to recognise that the wrong decision was made in the 1940s to build Heathrow in the first place. Because the airport is in the wrong geographical location, causing noise pollution for the residents who languish under its flight paths, further expansion can only exacerbate its detrimental effects. The decision might be seen as a failure of path dependency and institutional inertia, which goes to the heart of the British state and system of government.

This brings to mind the Roskill Commission inquiry of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was set up to find a location for a third London airport. Roskill’s findings were ignored by the government in favour of a different site at Maplin, only for it to abandon that plan when the 1973 oil crisis hit the aviation industry and local MPs threatened to rebel. The upshot has been the dissemination of the “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” narrative that we can have both airport expansion and environmental protection. In this fantasy, the threat of not acting and thus falling behind our foreign competitors is bolstered by the beatific prospect of adding billions to the economy when the new runway is actually built.

A fourth failure of the new scheme relates to air pollution, which is the cause of major respiratory problems and premature deaths. The problem of meeting legally binding air quality targets in London and surrounding areas was not properly addressed by the Davies Commission. Government plans to meet its 2030 air quality targets are highly contested, as the recent court case by legal campaigners, ClientEarth, goes to show. The idea that a reduction of car emissions in and around the airport, for example, will enable expansion plans to meet the required air pollution targets looks wildly optimistic.

Fifth, and crucially, the plans constitute a failure to tackle climate change. The anti-expansion coalition that successfully challenged New Labour’s 2003 Air Transport White Paper put the problem of aircraft emissions and our international commitments to curb climate change at the centre of its campaign. Indeed, in setting out a consultation about airport capacity in 2011, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Philip Hammond, dismissed the previous thinking as “out of date because it fails to give sufficient weight to the challenge of climate change.” Yet once again environmental considerations have been shoved aside both by the commission and in the wider public debate that has ensued.

A final and equally telling problem is that in all likelihood the plans will end in another disappointing failure to deliver a mega-infrastructure project on time and within costs. Legal challenges by councils and other affected parties, the precise financing of the proposals (who, for example, will pay for the surface infrastructures needed) coupled with political challenges will invariably delay the implementation of plans—if they happen at all.

Already local councils are preparing to review the decisions and planning procedures in the courts, while local resident groups and direct action campaigners such as Plane Stupid are sharpening their preferred tools of protest. We can expect the third runway to become a symbolic battle for environmental campaigners. Heathrow could well up being the next Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the proposed international airport outside Nantes that continues to attract widespread criticism and protest across the whole of France and Europe.