Time to say ‘no’ to Heathrow’s expansion

Sunday Times leader


Gordon Brown has been congratulating himself on his speed of response to the
financial crisis and that it appears to have brought political dividends.   On
another issue, however, he is his familiar lumbering self, pressing on even when
the facts have changed and the argument is going against him.

The issue is the third runway at Heathrow.   There may have been a time when expanding
this bloated airport seemed the right thing to do to protect Britain’s economic
interests. That time is over.   Even before the recession, the shift to a permanently
higher oil price, the prospect of airlines being brought into the European emissions
trading net and "green" attitudes among consumers and businesses had raised serious
questions about the relentless expansion of airport capacity.

Those questions should be uppermost, as should the fact that the Competition
Commission is to tell BAA, Heathrow’s operator, to divest itself of two of its
three London airports.   Any decision to expand Heathrow should at least wait until
the new operators of Gatwick and Stansted have made their pitches.

The Sunday Times has a keen interest in this issue.   When we first raised objections
to the expansion of Heathrow and argued for a new airport in the Thames estuary,
our arguments were dismissed by the airline industry establishment.   Since then,
the chorus of disapproval about enlarging Heathrow has grown louder.  Not only
has Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, ordered a study into the Thames estuary
option, but David Cameron has also signalled his opposition.   A future Conservative
government would favour high-speed rail links to connect Heathrow to the rest
of the country, making many internal flights unnecessary.   The Tories would block
a third runway.

A go-ahead for the runway will not be seen as a bold move by an enterprise-friendly
prime minister but a caving in to the interests of BAA, the Spanish-owned airports
operator, and to British Airways.   This is the duo which so spectacularly botched
the opening of Heathrow’s terminal 5, an episode described by the House of Commons
transport committee as "a national embarrassment".

Heathrow’s third runway will be debated in the Commons this week.   We hope the
voices of opposition, said to reach right into the cabinet, will be in full flow.
 But a government go-ahead, when it comes, will mean little.   It will be followed
by a judicial review and a lengthy planning process.   The government may well
be out of office long before a single strip of runway has been laid down.   This
unnecessary project would then be abandoned. In the meantime an enlightened government
could have looked east, to the 21st century.