There is no government in the Western world that would even contemplate an act so self-defeating, so short-termist, and so barbarically contemptuous of the rights of the population. That is why all three main parties have correctly ruled out expansion of Heathrow airport, in the form of a third runway.
So it is mystifying and depressing to learn that some in Whitehall want to use the cover provided by Sir Howard Davies to effect a colossal U-turn: by announcing that this option is back on the agenda – for consideration post May 2015.
It is of course true that such a runway would be a disaster for hundreds of thousands of people living under new flight paths, who currently have no idea of the peril. That means people in Kennington, Camberwell, New Cross, Deptford, Peckham; and yes, it means you, too, in Chelsea and Chiswick and Hammersmith and Pimlico.
Heathrow is already by far the noisiest airport in Europe, about a hundred times worse than Paris. A third runway will mean that there are more than a million people in the city affected by noise pollution of more than 55db – well over a third of all the victims of such aircraft noise in the whole of Europe.
It will mean more of the medical problems associated with such pollution – stress, heart disease, etc; more struggling in school; vastly more road congestion and pollution in west London: all the other problems that have made a new runway politically undeliverable in the past.
All that is true, but what frustrates me is that a third runway is so desperately short-sighted. You could not conceivably get it built before 2029, by the airport’s own admission – and as soon as it opened it would be full. Even with three runways, Heathrow would be lagging woefully behind our continental rivals. By 2050 the airport claims that with three runways Heathrow would serve 170 destinations – even though the number used to be more than 200. Well, Paris CDG already has four runways and serves 257 destinations; Frankfurt serves 291 from four runways; Amsterdam serves 277 from six runways.
In fact, it is one of the most shameful consequences of our failure to provide more hub capacity that Amsterdam now serves more UNITED KINGDOM destinations than Heathrow itself. As soon as a third runway opened, in other words – after the interminable judicial reviews and appeals – there would be instant pressure for a fourth; and we would be put through the whole miserable argument again.
Britain is haemorrhaging vital connectivity to growth markets. You cannot fly direct from London to Osaka, for heaven’s sake, or to Lima, or to Dar es Salaam. If we cannot connect swiftly to these markets, we will lose exports, and opportunities, and eventually we will lose our position as a great trading nation. The country needs not a third runway at Heathrow, but proper hub capacity of the kind that every single one of our competitors has now built or is building.
The fundamental problem with Heathrow is that it is situated in the western suburbs, so that unlike any other major hub airport it requires planes to land by flying over the heart of the city. The answer is not to keep compounding the mistake, but to look at a new site.
Gatwick can’t be the long-term solution, because you don’t get the hub capacity – a point the CBI has rightly identified this week. By far the best solution is to do what we should have done in the Sixties – locate the airport in the Thames estuary, sufficiently close as to be readily accessible but with a 95 per cent reduction in noise pollution.
The beauty of this project is that it helps us to address all the main challenges facing London. We are going through an era of vast population growth, heading for a staggering 11.3 million by 2050. We need 49,000 new homes per year. We can either send the bulldozers scything through the green belt and destroying the Home Counties, or we can build sensitively in the many post-industrial brownfield sites to the east of London.
That is why George Osborne has rightly identified Ebbsfleet, for instance, as a potential new city. But you won’t get Ebbsfleet going if there are no transport links and too few jobs.
Studies by the Greater London Authority and Transport for London have concluded that a new hub in the east would have a sensational and beneficial effect on the UK economy – creating 222,000 jobs for Londoners in the Thames Gateway, and supporting 336,000 jobs across the country as a whole.
By 2050 the airport would be contributing £92.1 billion per year to the UK economy – far more than Heathrow; a point the Davies Commission has already acknowledged. You would have a four-runway, 24-hour service and at last Britain would be able to stop our rivals eating our lunch. Finally we could re-connect London, by air, with other cities around the UK who have been seeing a steady reduction in services.
Every one of the objections can be despatched. Including risk, land acquisition and construction, the cost – £25.9 billion by 2030 – is not appreciably higher than Heathrow’s third runway. The connections to central London would be superb – 24 minutes to London Bridge; 28 minutes to Waterloo.
The road and rail improvements should be seen not as projects exclusive to the airport, but as essential to the homes and communities that will need to be built in the area. As for the existing hub at Heathrow, you could keep an Orly-style airport; but you could also release huge quantities of prime land as a wonderful new district for London.
In the estuary there are some technical difficulties, sure: but TfL and our consultants are certain that neither fog nor birds nor the SS Montgomery present anything remotely approaching a deal-breaker to a country that used to have a reputation as the greatest engineering nation on earth.
Plenty of other countries have by now built very similar projects. This year for the first time Dubai is overtaking Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport, and about a third of that country’s GDP now comes from aviation. We need the scale and ambition to compete, and Heathrow is no answer.
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