It now appears almost inevitable that the government will give the go ahead to plans to build a third runway at Heathrow airport.
This expansion is ill-thought through, unnecessary and environmentally disastrous – both in terms of climate change and noise pollution. The new runway, along with changes in aircraft routing, will have a direct and harmful impact upon millions of Londoners, including my own constituents.
I stated my opposition to plans for a third runway at Heathrow for the first time about ten years ago, when I was the party’s aviation spokesman. I remain opposed ten years later.
When asked to justify its scheme, the government claims that a new runway and more flights are vital for businesses in the UK. Yet the evidence suggesting this mostly comes from BAA, who own Heathrow and will stand to profit from its expansion. Therefore they overemphasize the need for more flights whilst ignoring the downsides and the alternatives. When local businesses have been consulted, there is no resounding clamour for thousands more flights. Instead there is merely a call for an adequate number of flights to the right destinations, and most feel that a vast growth in air traffic is unnecessary to achieve this.
Therefore the government is foisting upon us an environmental disaster that has neither overwhelming business nor community support. The number of flights from Heathrow could increase to 702,000 a year by 2030 under the proposals, from their present level of 480,000. This spike in flights would render the government’s long-term goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% practically impossible. This government cannot claim to be serious about tackling climate change whilst it endorses this plan for Heathrow.
Heathrow, due to its proximity to London and the Home Counties, already produces a significant amount of noise pollution. A third runway will make this problem unbearable for those living near the airport whilst the methods by which the government is expanding Heathrow’s capacity will drastically increase the number of people affected by this problem. Buried in the plans for Heathrow is a major revision of flight paths which will bring the misery of noise pollution to millions more people in London and the Home Counties, including the people of my constituency.
Whilst I do not believe there is a need for a massive expansion of flights from Heathrow, I do see how our expanding population and increasingly international businesses will eventually produce demand for more long-haul flights. The capacity for this should be created not through more runways but through a major revamp of our railway system to encourage short-haul air passengers to switch to rail.
This could include a rail hub at Heathrow and would definitely include investment in a high-speed rail network, which has demonstrably reduced air traffic in several European countries.
If short-haul flights to places like Paris, Manchester and Edinburgh can be phased out by a rejuvenated, clean and speedy rail network then Heathrow will have spare capacity, without any need for environmentally damaging expansion. We will also be spared the prohibitive costs and environmental harm that an airport in the Thames Estuary will bring, a new airport which the aviation industry, in any case, is not interested in financing.
The government, in its failure to consider any alternatives to a third runway, has shown itself to be out of touch with public opinion and with common sense. This lapse could have disastrous environmental consequences for London and the UK as a whole.
Tom Brake is the Member of Parliament for Carshalton and Wallington, and Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Home Affairs, London and the Olympics.