The Government’s recent decision on Heathrow Airport is a matter of great concern for many. A third runway will inflict devastating damage to the environment and to the quality of life of millions of people.
The Conservative Party will fight them every step of the way. We need to make Heathrow better not bigger. We are part of broad coalition opposing the Government’s damaging plans on Heathrow.
After careful consideration of the environmental, social and economic impacts of expansion, we do not believe that the case for a third runway at Heathrow has been made; the costs of expansion significantly outweigh the benefits – benefits which remain unproved and uncertain. The extra 222,000 flights a year at Heathrow which would come with a third runway would blight the lives of thousands of people with increased aircraft noise and pollution levels leading to serious damage to the health of local communities. They would also undermine our efforts to meet our national targets on climate change.
This is why we have consistently argued that instead of pushing ahead with the expansion of Heathrow, with its serious environmental and social impacts, the Government should consider alternatives to deal with capacity constraints at Heathrow. We also need to plan for the long-term transport infrastructure our country needs.
A Conservative Government would therefore give the go ahead for a new high speed rail line linking up Heathrow, St Pancras, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. I welcome the Government’s change of heart in agreeing to study a high speed rail proposal, but I fail to see why they refuse to accept that high speed rail could provide an alternative to a third runway. They have anyway failed to make any firm pledge to actually build new high speed rail lines.
Experience around the rest of Europe shows that high speed rail provides an attractive alternative to short haul flights and we believe that the new link we propose could replace virtually all of the flights between Heathrow and destinations such as Manchester, Leeds, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.
Figures published by the Government for 2007 put flights to these destinations at 63,200. Freeing up this many landing slots at Heathrow would provide the equivalent to around 30 per cent of the capacity of a third runway without any extra flights. This could rise substantially with a more extensive high-speed network in the UK and further still with greater use of high speed rail to continental Europe.
This would provide the headroom for sustainable growth at Heathrow to ensure that the UK remains competitive, as well as helping to reduce pollution and emissions from domestic transport. By relieving overcrowding problems at the airport our proposals would do a huge amount to make Heathrow better.
Our proposed high speed rail link will also leave a lasting legacy for the future. It will provide benefits for rail passengers by freeing up capacity on the existing network for more commuter services, helping to tackle the nightmare levels of overcrowding we are now witnessing on our railways.
It will contribute to a more balanced UK economy, providing growth for the midlands and north. Our proposed rail network would also reduce the pressure on roads, land and housing in the South east by providing faster travel connections across the country. Such a rail project would also strengthen the case for inward investment in the UK as a whole. A high speed rail network would generate huge economic benefits. The engineering consultants Atkins, in a study for the Transport Department, estimated this to be worth £60 billion to the economy.
If we win the general election, we would envisage construction beginning in 2015 with the full completion of the rail link by 2027. This is a long term project, and would start in challenging economic circumstances, but our transport system has suffered from short-termism for too long (and, in any event, the controversy surrounding a third runway would have meant it would have taken many years to deliver). A high speed rail link will benefit the economy, vastly improve public transport links between the north and south of the country and help us reduce emissions from transport. It will also mean that we can make Heathrow a much better airport, to meet the needs of business, without the devastating environmental and social consequences of a third runway.
Stephen Hammond is the Conservative MP for Wimbledon and Shadow Minister for Transport.