Does London need a bigger Heathrow? – Evening Standard debate between Ruth Kelly and George Monbiot
27.5.2008 (Evening Standard)
Benedict Moore-Bridger, Evening Standard
The Transport Secretary was slammed by angry Londoners and panellists at last
night’s Evening Standard debate on whether London needs a bigger Heathrow.
Green campaigner and author George Monbiot led the attack, accusing the minister
of lying over the environmental impact of a third runway and calling the proposals
He said theoretical economic growth should not be placed ahead of the “catastrophic”
effect that increasing air travel would have for the poorest people.
He said: “Economic growth has become a proxy for human welfare but its a poor
proxy. The growth involved in Heathrow actually represents a very regressive redistribution
“Those hit hardest are the poor people who can’t afford to move away (from the
expansion) but those using Heathrow are the upper echelons of society.
“And the poorest people on earth are those most affected by climate change.
“The economic growth of this airport is generated only at the expense of people’s
quality of life.
“It is buck passing, and a total abdication of moral responsibility. It is an
abomination, minister, and your Government should be ashamed of itself.”
Addressing the audience, Mr Monbiot accused the Government of manipulating figures
showing the environmental cost of building a third runway in collusion with Heathrow
“Why was it, when confronted with the real numbers for noise and pollution caused
by a third runway, they scrapped the real numbers and came up with a new set of
numbers that have no basis in reality whatsoever?”, he asked.
“When Terminal Four was built we were promised there would be no Terminal Five.
When that was built we were promised there would be no third runway. When is it
going to end?”
His comments were met with cheers from the audience, many of whom had turned
out to see the minister face some awkward questioning.
But Ms Kelly defended the Government, claiming expansion was necessary to keep
UK business competitive in an increasingly global marketplace. She said if ongoing
investigations proved noise and pollution levels would be exceeded, the project
would be scrapped.
She added: “The noise contour level should not increase. If it does, we cannot
go ahead. That is what the consultation is doing. We will look closely at it.
“The fact is there is a great premium on being able to fly and connect internationally.
We are adding value to the economy.”
Despite being heckled, Ms Kelly was unfazed as she engaged in the vigorous debate
at the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce)
near the Strand.
She said the EU Emissions Trading Scheme would also precipitate a reduction in
pollution from aircraft and allow the government to meet their tough carbon reduction
“I would not be comfortable with these proposals if I did not think they were
compatible with reducing climate change. The ETS comes in in 2012 and will be
back-dated to 2005. Airports must buy permits for carbon emissions. It is not
biting yet but it will.
“Money is going to play a huge part in this, but money plus regulation.”
But fellow panellist, journalist and film-maker Julian O’Halloran warned the
Government should be wary of placing too much faith in carbon offsetting schemes.
He said: “If anyone tells you you can pay £15 and offset your carbon emissions
and scourge your guilt, I would be highly suspicious.
“Avoiding a flight here and there is not going to be good enough. It is going
to be the price of the seat, the price of airport charging, which has probably
been too low in this country.”
He and business expert Baroness Valentine said vast improvements were needed
to Heathrow before any talk of expansion should take place.
Baroness Valentine said: “We need zero carbon on-site vehicles; efficient use
of air space; a world class service; quicker journey times; friendly customer
service; cleaner loos; escalators and lifts reported as soon as they stop working.
When these are addressed we can look at whether it should be expanded.”
Also in the audience was green activist Tamsin Omond, member of direct action
group Plane Stupid.
At the end of the debate she cornered an uneasy Ms Kelly to press her further
about the expansion.
Miss Omond said: “She seemed shocked when I told her I was one of the ones who
had climbed on to the Houses of Parliament.”
Mr O’Halloran’s daughter Harriet quizzed Mr Mombiot on the justification or otherwise
of her gap year.
The author quipped: “With a whole year, could you not go by train?”
Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Transport overseeing the consultation.
She said: “There are huge economic benefits for flying. International businesses
are much more likely to locate to Britain near a good airport.
“The reality is Heathrow is bursting at the seams. It is operating at almost
99 per cent capacity. That means that if there is a short burst of fog on the
runway, that can throw out planes for the rest of the day or even longer – it
simply does not have the capacity to cope, and damages Britain’s reputation across
“Because of that lack of capacity, in 2003 we had a major consultation exercise
and concluded we needed to increase airport capacity but in a sustainable way.
It is a huge challenge as a nation that we need to face up to.” She added that
the Government had to be “sensitive” to the impact on the environment. She said:
“Absolutely we must take action against climate change, and we are the first country
in the world to sign up to binding legal restrictions on CO2 emissions.
“I will be guided by what I think is the right thing to do for the interests
of the country.
“My answer [to the question] is yes but not at any cost. Only if the strict local
and environmental conditions can be met.”
She said she wanted to give people the opportunity to expand their horizons by
travelling, and to add to the economy for the good of the nation, adding that
having one international hub airport benefited the whole country as it encouraged
business to locate to Britain.
She said: “I care about people having the opportunity to get on in life. I just
don’t accept the country would not suffer if we cut the number of flights.”
George Monbiot, environmental author and columnist
Mr Monbiot said Heathrow was a system designed to cause “misery” to as many people
He said the financial services industry was holding the Government to ransom,
with their wants and needs being valued more highly than ordinary people or the
He said: “In this Government’s view humanity acts only to serve the economy.
“It values human lives on how much they are earning.
“Why is Heathrow running at 99 per cent capacity? Because the Government is failing
to regulate to discourage people from flying unnecessarily.
“Ruth Kelly said if evidence of noise and pollution levels were unacceptable
the third runway could not go ahead. “She already knows the evidence has shown
they would breach the legal limits which is why they scrapped it and, with BAA,
came up with a completely fraudulent set of figures.”
Responding to a suggestion from the floor about building an entirely new airport
at the Thames Gateway, Mr Monbiot said: “That would be like moving the deck chairs
on the Titanic.
“Who cares where it is. We have got to have fewer flights than we have.
Baroness Valentine, Chief executive of London First, who speaks on issues affecting
London’s leading businesses.
Baroness Valentine said London businesses needed an improved Heathrow before
any expansion plans went ahead.
She said: “It is not size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.
We need to make Heathrow work properly. There are shabby main buildings, poor
customer service, huge queues, flight delays.”
She said technological advances such as video conferencing were not yet sufficiently
advanced to have an impact on flying. And she added that, relying on technology,
you risk business “packing up and going to Dubai”.
“Why are you not sitting in your armchair to take part in this debate? Business
needs to fly to meet clients.
“The only responsible option for the Government is to prepare for a third runway
“Still some huge and difficult questions remain. Which airport should expand?
Does London need a bigger Heathrow? Perhaps, but it needs a better Heathrow first.”
Julian O’Halloran, journalist and film-maker who covered the disastrous T5 opening
and has examined BAA’s stewardship of London’s airports in recent years.
He said: “If anything goes wrong theirs [BAA] is the only door to knock on. Whatever
happens is bound to take a long time.
“Ninety per cent of passengers passing through the South-East go through Heathrow,
Gatwick or Stansted. The Competition Commission is on the case. Why it has taken
until 21 years to force BAA to that sort of scrutiny I don’t know.
“On that fateful opening day of Terminal Five, gates did not work, lifts did
not work, all that stuff with the loos and the new baggage system at the heart
of it all failed to operate properly.
“BAA did a lot of research and planning but curiously all of their trial runs
never came close to mimicking a normal working day – there were hundreds of people,
“There was inadequate planning, that is blindingly obvious.
“The Competition Commission in a recent report conveyed very strong criticism
of BAA and a long record of unresponsiveness to a) the passengers, and b) the
airlines. It is not in the Moscow final, or the Premier League, it is way down
at the bottom of a whole heap of airports.
“How to stop Heathrow being a national embarrassment? Awful queues. They have
hired 1,500 people and it has got a bit better. But American Airlines say the
likelihood of having your bags going missing is three times higher if changing
planes at Heathrow.
“American Airlines announced a 12 per cent cut in its services. If further airlines
follow suit what would that do to demand and the necessity for a third runway?
“These are huge factors which have relevance to whether a runway is built.”
Speaking about the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, he said: “That has not been a
happy story so far. There is a lack of confidence as to whether that can create
a cutback in emissions needed to cut back climate change.”