Big question: Was the government right to approve Heathrow expansion?

A panel of experts offer their views

October 26, 2016
An airplane takes off from Heathrow ©Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images
An airplane takes off from Heathrow ©Frank Augstein/AP/Press Association Images

On Tuesday, the government announced its approval of a third runway at Heathrow to expand the UK’s airport capacity. The move comes six years after the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition scrapped plans for the same thing. Parliament will vote on the matter in 2017 or 2018.

Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, has said he is “truly proud that after years of discussion and delay” this “momentous” decision has been taken. But there is fierce opposition to it—including on the government’s benches. Boris Johnson has said it is “undeliverable,” while former London Mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith is to resign over the issue.

Widespread protests are expected to follow from locals: 10,000 homes may be flattened, and the nearby village of Harmondsworth is to be demolished. Climate change campaigners are likely to mount vocal opposition, too, given concerns about the runway’s impact on Britain’s emissions targets.

Who’s right? Is the business case simply too strong to ignore, or would expansion of Gatwick be the better choice? Do we really need more airport capacity at all? Experts share their thoughts.

A sign of determination 

Stephen Crabb, Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire and former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

The decision in favour of a third runway at Heathrow sends a powerful signal about our commitment to strategic national infrastructure and our determination to succeed in the global economy. Heathrow provides what no other UK airport can—namely a large hub operation with a truly global reach that underpins our success in terms of trade and inward investment. It is also the option that maximises economic opportunities for all other parts of the United Kingdom. In this case what is good for the South East is good for the North, for the Midlands, for Scotland, Wales and for Northern Ireland too. Investing in Heathrow is the right choice for our long term national interest.

The argument lies in tatters

Sarah Olney seeks the Liberal Democrat nomination for Richmond Park in the forthcoming by-election

The Conservatives were wrong to choose Heathrow: two-thirds of UK flights travel from London and the South East, despite only a third of the population being based in that region. Why not push much-needed growth to the regions, where many customers live and where economic growth is desperately needed, rather than to traffic and pollution choked London?

Incredibly, 28 per cent of those effected by aircraft noise in Europe live under the Heathrow flight path, including in Richmond Park. London Air Quality Network monitoring statistics show that pollution levels have been breached for each of the last ten years at many sites around Heathrow.

Then there is cost to a government already reeling from Brexit: Heathrow Airport will only pay £1bn of £18.4bn needed to improve public transport. The rest will be public subsidy. Yet it only paid £24m in corporation tax over the last decade, while paying £2.1bn in dividends to shareholders in the last four years; only 9.3 per cent is British owned.

The government has had to downgrade estimates of economic benefits to the economy. The economic and environmental case lies in tatters.

Never-never land

Keith Taylor is Green MEP for the southeast

This is a disastrous decision for the people of the South East, London, Britain, and the planet.

Earlier this month we had confirmation that the world has entered a dangerous new climate change reality. Average CO2 emissions will breach the critically important 400ppm threshold for the first time in 2016. Despite this stark warning, and against the backdrop of a London-wide toxic air alert, the government has green-lit Heathrow airport expansion.

Welcome to Theresa May’s never-never land, where prime ministers never have to listen to experts and never have to apologise for increasing CO2 and air pollution levels. The Maidenhead MP has flip-flopped on her previous opposition to Heathrow, betrayed her constituents, and kowtowed to the demands of multi-million-pound airport lobbies. Is this what May had in mind when she promised to build a Britain not driven by “the interests of the privileged few”?

An important lesson

Rob Lyons works at the Institute of Ideas think tank

To twist an old joke, if you wanted to build a major hub airport for the UK, you wouldn't start from here. There are lots of reasons why expanding Heathrow will be a messy and expensive business—and plenty of reasons to believe it will be difficult to deliver. Expanding Gatwick would be easier, quicker and create less opposition—though the business case is weaker, too.

But after decades of prevarication, any decision is better than no decision. It also illustrates another important lesson: whatever the abstract desire of environmentalists and some politicians to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the ability to fly around the world easily is vital in the twenty-first century. By creating more capacity, a third runway at Heathrow will enable more of us to fly, whether for leisure or business. That's a good thing—and it will be a relief if this government can finally deliver that.

Stranded assets

Alice Larkin is a Professor of Climate Science and Energy Policy at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

The highly constrained carbon budget that is consistent with the Paris Agreement requires all sectors to urgently reduce CO2 emissions and accelerate away from using fossil fuels. While some sectors will achieve this sooner than others, no sector can be excluded. Technical and even operational possibilities for decarbonising the aviation sector within a timeframe consistent with the Paris goals are few and far between. In other words, measures additional to incrementally improving energy efficiency and a marginal use of biofuels are needed. This means that demand-side measures that constrain further growth must receive much greater attention. Policy measures aimed at increasing capacity and supporting further growth in air travel, such as the third runway at Heathrow, are at odds with the Paris Agreement. Such developments risk future stranded assets, and are inconsistent ways to tackle climate change.

We need bargaining

Diego Zuluaga, Financial Services Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs

It is good news that the Government has cleared the way for airport expansion. Yet, the protracted nature of the approval process highlights the costs of making such decisions at a Parliamentary rather than local level.

Some of the costs of business activity on occasion fall on third parties. In the case of airport expansion, adjacent communities bear costs from airplane noise and land development, for which airport operators can and do offer compensation payments. It is up to operators to decide whether the future cash flows from airport expansion justify the costs, including those arising from compensation for those adversely affected. It is up to residents to decide whether compensation is sufficient. The national Government is not well-placed to make these decisions on their behalf.

Were communities and operators allowed to bargain, we would likely end up with speedier approval processes—and an airport infrastructure that works for everyone.