Battle lines drawn in Heathrow expansion

12.11.2008   (FT)

By Jim Pickard, Political Correspondent

The expansion of Heathrow airport should go ahead in spite of any short-term
fears about recession, Geoff Hoon, the transport secretary, insisted on Tuesday.

During a Commons debate on the issue, he said the airport was at full capacity
and would fall behind European rivals if a third runway were not allowed.

Mr Hoon denied that the decision to give the scheme the go-ahead had already
been made and insisted it would take place only if ministers were convinced that
strict criteria on air quality and noise levels were met.

But the Tories described the Department for Transport consultation as "a complete
sham". Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, said that officials’
modelling – which used "green" aircraft not yet invented – had been "reverse engineered"
to suit the government’s agenda.

"The plane doesn’t actually exist: it is a virtual aircraft … a fantasy plane,"
she said.

Nick Hurd, a Conservative MP, said the new runway would make a "mockery" of the
government’s new target to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050.

Gordon Brown, the prime minister, met Labour backbenchers before the debate to
discuss the Heathrow project in the face of rising opposition.

Some Labour MPs are worried that the issue could prove decisive at local level
during the next general election. More than 140 MPs, including 52 from Labour,
have signed a Commons motion urging the government to consider alter ­natives.  
[146 MPs on 12th November.     EDM 2344   53 Labour MPs].

Martin Salter, a Labour backbencher, said the government would have to seek a
derogation from the European Commission’s air-quality directive to proceed.

But the Conservatives are also divided, with some pro-business MPs concerned
about the party’s policy of scrapping the third runway in favour of fast rail
links to the north.

Mr Hoon dismissed this policy, suggesting that capacity would still be 97% full
even if new high-speed rail services were introduced.

He portrayed a future where Heathrow would lose passengers to Amsterdam or Frankfurt
– threatening thousands of jobs – unless it increased its capacity. The economic
argument for Heathrow’s status as the UK’s main hub for air passengers travelling
via other airports has been frequently questioned in recent months.

But the aviation industry, led by BAA, the airports group, and British Airways, the biggest operator at Heath ­row, claim that transfer passengers are crucial
to the competitiveness of a hub airport. Without them, the scale of the network
and range of destinations and the number of daily services that can be supported
on individual routes would suffer.

Additional reporting by Kevin Done


the Hansard record of the Heathrow debate can be found at:

See also
Guardian   12.11.2008  
No to the airport lobby? Not yet
By Michael White

MPs get rightly criticised for debates and votes that don’t change much. Yesterday’s
testy Commons debate on the government’s plans to add a third runway at Heathrow
airport may prove an exception. If David Cameron wins power in 2010 and moves
to cancel the runway – as he claims he will – there will be plenty of by-then-ex-Labour
MPs he can quote in his defence.

As with much else on the policy front, the Tory leader is all over the place
on Heathrow. His plan to ease acute congestion at Britain’s hub airport by building
a high-speed rail link to the north is admirable, if implausibly optimistic. But
it would only trim Heathrow’s flight overload by 3% at best. And who would finance

Unblushing ministers complain that the third runway proposal – due to be confirmed
soon after what critics dismiss as a public “‘con’sultation” – will have been discussed for 30 years by the time (if) it is built by 2020.

Like all the best rows this is one with powerful arguments and advocates on both
sides. The green movement, the Tories and Liberal Democrats, are joined in opposition
by the Economist magazine (whose readers must make more than the average two flights
a year) and by MPs, from left to right, whose constituents hate the noise – from
Reading across London, Essex and Kent.

Their case is pretty lethal: all that noise and pollution from 220,000 extra
flights a year, 46% up on current use, flying in and out of the ad hoc airport
over a major world city. Throw in rising fuel costs, a recession and the green
agenda and no wonder MPs are in revolt.

Four cabinet ministers are unhappy too: the Miliband brothers, Harriet Harman
and Hilary Benn (who lives under the proposed flight path). It is a sign of Gordon
Brown’s weakened authority and of real concern that Britain must do more to meet
EU pollution targets.

Transport buff, Geoff Hoon, made only a lawyerly job of his case in the Commons.
But his side, which includes business, the City and the unions, has a strong case

Yes, 1-in-3 passengers are in transit, most not passing through UK customs, let
alone the wider economy. But every country’s economy needs a hub which feeds and
subsidises domestic traffic. Amsterdam’s Schiphol, which already has more UK destinations
than Heathrow, is shaping up to be ours. Under pressure of congestion, Heathrow’s
global routes are down from 220 to 180. Aircraft are getting cleaner as well as
quieter, their pollution footprint shrinking. Most pollution around the airport
is caused by traffic on the M4 and M25. Voters want to fly. And so on.

Brown’s government, ever keen to wrong- foot Cameron, have approved expansion
at Stansted while sanctioning the coming sale of Gatwick, whose new owners would
be keen to expand there. A government will have to say no to the airport lobby
one day. But not yet. That’s always easier in opposition.

see also
BBC 11.11.2008
MPs have been debating plans to create a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport.
see also
BBC   12.11.2008
Consultation over the need for a third runway at Heathrow has been a   “complete
sham”   the Conservatives have claimed
see also
Guardian   12.11.2008
The government attempted to head off a Labour rebellion against plans for a third
runway at Heathrow yesterday, with rebel MPs, including a ministerial aide and
a vice-chair of the Labour party, attending talks with Gordon Brown in Downing

see also
Telegraph     12.11.2008
British jobs will be lost to our continental competitors unless a third runway
is built at Heathrow Geoff Hoon the Transport Secretary told rebellious backbench
Labour MPs.

Chris Mullin, a former Labour aviation minister, said the Government should be
trying to control the total number of flights that are taken in order to meet
environmental goals.

He said: “The aviation industry has plans for unlimited expansion. Sooner or
later, politicians are going to have to say no to them.”

The Heathrow decision had not been formally taken yet, but Labour and Tory MPs
guffawed as Mr Hoon said he would consider the choice with “complete fairness
and transparency.”


Labour rebels join Heathrow T6 fight – Oct-28