Even with no new runway Heathrow is still far too big
14.10.2009 (Evening Standard)
by Simon Jenkins
So is it victory? Sensational weekend reports that the British Airports Authority has abandoned its bid for a third runway at Heathrow remain unconfirmed, and indeed denied by the company.
But the indications are clear, as is the Tory promise to rescind the bid. The
time-honoured pledge that Heathrow would not grow was reneged on by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Now it might be reasserted, and the threat of jet-scream lifted from hundreds
of thousands of London residents.
Recession, which means poverty, is yielding ever more green linings. Kent‘s new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth has been halted. Iconic skyscrapers
are withering on the drawing board.
The extravagant Crossrail project is again in doubt. But nothing is greener
than opposition to millions of tons of concrete being poured over Harmondsworth
meadows so that more jumbo jets can roar over anywhere in London with a W in its
Heathrow has been a textbook case of rotten government ever since it became the
main London airport in succession to Croydon after the war.
Two runways were eventually built and a categorical promise given to those under
the flight path that this was enough “for all time”.
The promise was given again with the approval of Terminal 4 in 1978, when an
absolute cap of 275,000 flights was added.
Since then every promise has been broken. Terminal 5 was added and the cap revised
upwards to 480,000 flights.
When the new terminal was supposedly about to open in 2006, the Labour Transport
Minister, Ruth Kelly, was totally captured by the Big Carbon lobby of BAA and the national carrier,
BA, and by “predict and provide” planning.
She claimed that the capital’s economy needed a third runway after all, but that
it would be small and its flights would only be to the west over countryside.
Three years later her successor, Geoff Hoon, reneged on that. He said he would allow not just a third runway but a sixth
terminal and a new cap of 700,000 flights. The whole saga has been one of corporate
and political mendacity.
Londoners should never believe a word from an air industry executive or a minister
for planning. They lie.
With an eye to the main chance, the Tories have opposed the third runway at Heathrow
and warned BAA not to sign contracts for a project they will stop.
Boris Johnson has added his pennyworth (or billions-worth) and revived the once-dead idea
of a £9 billion airport on an island in the Thames Estuary.
His deputy, Kit Malthouse, has even discovered that it can be built without public
money – and doubtless used for landing flying pigs.
The concept of responsibility has simply evaporated from public life. For better
or worse, new runways do not feature in the Mayor’s new transport strategy announced
Those old enough to have lived through the horrors of “London’s third airport”
in the Seventies will recall that anything to do with airports is horrible.
The infrastructure is massive – and energy-guzzling.
The congestion and noise pollution is extensive and opposition is certain to
be bitter. That is why the biggest new airports these days are built by dictators.
Back in 1973 the then Tory government decided to put a third London airport on
Maplin Sands at the mouth of the Thames Estuary in Essex.
It now seems a visionary option, but then it was dismissed as too far away and
a threat to (and from) birds. Airlines demanded somewhere closer.
Stansted was chosen instead, with added pledges not to expand Stansted or Gatwick,
in addition to Heathrow.
These non-expansion pledges have been honoured while that to Heathrow has been
broken. Honour in business is a matter of profit.
Hoon, who gave permission for the Heathrow third runway in January, now has egg
all over his face. Those who live by subordinating long-term planning to short-term
profit tend to die by it.
London airport planning is a victim of classic British government cynicism. On
any showing it is in a mess.
The Thames Estuary airport could conceivably be London’s version of Hong Kong‘s new Chek Lap Kok airport, the most costly modern building project on earth.
But with London government still trying to swallow the Olympics and having, against
its better judgment, to continue planning Crossrail, the idea of another so-called
lumpy project consuming money and political energy is more than anyone can bear.
Assuming the Government does not impose swingeing taxes on air travel, demand
will continue to rise.
In which case there is little alternative to pricing Heathrow out of its current
overcrowding and into sanity by removing the bulk of its UK tourism flights and
dumping them ever farther from the capital.
Two thirds of Heathrow’s users are leisure travellers and their presence in west
London is hardly a personal or commercial necessity – let alone “vital to London’s
economy”, as aviation lobbyists chant.
I might be annoyed to be denied Heathrow’s convenient half-hour drive to my front
door but I cannot honestly expect that this convenience should be at the expense
of the amenity of hundreds of thousands of west London residents. Tourist destinations
should be served from elsewhere.
If green policy is to mean anything it must curb mobility. Curbing will be in part by congestion, as practised daily on the streets of London.
But mostly it will be by price.
For burning carbon by internal combustion people must be charged sufficiently
to make them go by muscle-power or not at all – or at least go from outside London.
Heathrow is essentially an urban airport imposing severe external costs on its
city. It should be made very expensive to use.
It would be good to know if the Government agrees.