Even if people prefer a 3rd runway to Boris Island, it doesn’t mean they like either
An ICM poll commissioned by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, on attitudes to a third Heathrow runway, or an estuary airport, says that a 3rd runway was favoured by 25% of respondents, with 21% backing the new airport. When asked if they believed the Government was right to block Heathrow’s 3rd runway, 35% agreed while 32% thought it was the wrong decision. And it says “The Government needs to urgently rethink its decision to rule out any potential expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, which all offer more sensible and cost-effective alternatives”. John Stewart writes that this poll is yet another attempt to avoid the real debate about whether any further airport capacity is required in the South East. It is part of a coordinated series of publications by the aviation industry and its allies intended to influence the government’s draft aviation policy due to go out to public consultation at the end of this month.
(chair of AirportWatch)
by John Stewart (chair of AirportWatch)
(writing in Left Foot Forward)
A poll released yesterday by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (see below), which showed more people would prefer a third runway at Heathrow to a new airport in the Thames Estuary, is little more than a desperate attempt to avoid the real debate about whether any further airport capacity is required in the South East.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the figure the Institute chose not to headline: that 35% think the government was right not to go ahead with a third runway in the first place. This is desperation with a capital ‘D’.
The poll is part of a coordinated series of publications by the aviation industry and its allies intended to influence the government’s draft aviation policy due to go out to public consultationat the end of this month.
Last month London First issued a report, London, Britain and the world: Transport links for economic growth, calling for full use of Heathrow’s existing runways now, a third Heathrow runway soon,followed then by a new hub airport.
In January a group of 30 Conservatives MPs, calling themselves the Free Enterprise Group, published The Case for Aviation (pdf) which argued that:
“To deliver growth, airport operators should be enabled to build at least one more runway in south east England by 2020.”
The common theme of all these reports is that UK business will lose out to our European competitors if it does not have the extra airport capacity to serve more cities in the fast-developing economies of China, India and South America. But none of them has even attempted a rigorous analysis of whether extra capacity is actually required.
A public opinion poll asking people about their favoured site for a new airport is no substitute for sound argument.
The evidence which does exist suggests that the economic case for further airport capacity in the South East is not strong.
All the independent research shows London remains the best-connected city in the world for firms to do business.
The global property consultants, Cushman & Wakefield, carry out an influential survey each year on how attractive European cities are to business. In 2011, London remained the top city in Europe to do business. It owed it position to its excellent links to the rest of the world.
Cushman & Wakefield commented:
“London is still ranked – by some distance from its closest competitors – as the leading city in which to do business.”
This, despite the fact that London is losing out badly to many of its European rivals on quality of life, air pollution, noise and traffic congestion.
There is at least a credible argument to be made that business should be lobbying for improvements in these areas to make London even more business-friendly rather than focusing on the area where London leads the world: its international connectivity.
The polls and reports being rushed out by the aviation industry and its allies ignore two other key factors that will determine whether new capacity is required. There is no mention of the trend by business people to increasingly favour video-conferencing over air travel.
A report from WWF, published last year (pdf) found that, amongst the UK’s top 500 companies, 47% had reduced the number of business flights they had taken in the last two years, and that of those, 85% did not intend to return to ‘business as usual’ levels of flying.
The other issue the industry and its allies refuse to address surrounds the use of existing airport capacity.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that if better use was made of current capacity, no new runways would be required in the South East. At Heathrow around 25 per cent of flights are domestic or to European destinations where fast, affordable rail is potentially an alternative.
If airport capacity was to be restrained, it is likely that market forces would squeeze out many of these flights in favour of the more profitable intercontinental flights, including many more from the fast-developing economies of Asia and South America.
There is an irony in the in the refusal of the aviation industry and its allies to back up its case with hard evidence.
The current transport secretary Justine Greening and her Labour shadow, Maria Eagle, come from different ends of the political spectrum but both are serious politicians who aim to take evidence-based decisions. Neither Justine Greening nor Maria Eagle will be swayed by snap-shot opinion polls that act as a substitute for serious debate.
The IMechE article:
Heathrow third runway more popular than Estuary airport – poll
Building a third runway at Heathrow is a more popular option to deal with the UK’s airport capacity crunch than a new airport in the Thames Estuary, according to an ICM poll commissioned by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
The poll of 1,001 members of the general public showed that a third runway was favoured by 25% of respondents, with 21% backing the new airport. When asked if they believed the Government was right to block Heathrow’s third runway, 35% agreed while 32% thought it was the wrong decision.
Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said:
“Heathrow, Britain’s only hub airport, is heading for a capacity crunch which could cause lasting damage to the economy and cost the UK thousands of jobs.
“However the Thames Estuary airport is not the solution, as it would be an expensive, impractical and – as this poll reveals – unpopular white elephant. The Government needs to urgently rethink its decision to rule out any potential expansion at Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted, which all offer more sensible and cost-effective alternatives.
“We need a clear vision on what UK air capacity should be in ten years’ time. This needs to be backed up by a stringent cost-benefit analysis that takes into account provincial airports as well as those in the South-East.”
“Key questions need to be answered relating to how much airport capacity the Government wants in the future, the number of destinations the UK will want to fly to and whether airport capacity will increase to meet business or tourism needs.”
A consultation of industry experts sitting on the Institution’s Aerospace and Transport Committees detailed the following issues with a Thames Estuary airport:
• Cost – A new airport would require massive investment, both public and private, in a time of economic hardship. The billions spent on the airport would be compounded many times over by the necessary investment in supportive rail and road infrastructure, as well as local towns to house workers. More effective, cheaper options are available.
• Environment – All of the proposed sites intrude on designated Special Protection Areas or Special Areas of Conservation, meaning the proposed airport would destroy the habitats of rare wildlife. The Estuary is also a nesting ground for hundreds of thousands of birds, which could prove a severe safety risk if they come into contact with plane engines.
• Location – A proposed Thames Estuary airport would be located on the wrong side of London for the majority of the British public. Travellers from the west, the Midlands or the North would have to go through or round London to get there. The area is also susceptible to heavy fog, which could compound the safety risk.
The growing airport capacity crunch in the South East has already seen Heathrow hit 99% capacity. The South East as a whole is predicted to reach full airport capacity by 2030 if nothing is done to remedy the problem. This would cost an estimated 15,000 jobs per year as the UK loses opportunities to Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam, according to an FTI Consulting report published in November 2011.
The consultation favoured the expansion of Gatwick and Stansted, coupled with road and rail infrastructure improvements to provide an integrated transport solution, as a better alternative to an Estuary airport.
The Institution also said the role of provincial airports should be considered, including the potential to improve the use of Coventry and Manston airports. Reopening RAF Northolt, just 10km north of Heathrow, as a commercial satellite of the UK’s only hub airport could also provide a cost-effective solution.