Zac Goldsmith, for The Evening Standard, Friday, 9th March 2012 (Evening Standard)
The two million or so residents who live beneath the Heathrow flight path are accustomed to the noise. However, they are right to feel that any expansion would represent an unacceptable broken promise.
For they remember all too well the pledge from BAA’s chairman in 1999 that “Terminal 5 will not lead to a third runway”.
After the last general election, residents felt able to lower their guard. Both the Conservatives and Lib-Dems had opposed the third runway in opposition.
The Labour party changed its view too. In response, BAA’s chief executive Colin Matthews said: “We recognise the importance of government policy in a matter as significant and controversial as runway capacity.” He added that BAA would stop buying properties in Sipson, the village over which the runway was due to be built.
The issue appeared to have moved on. But no one should underestimate the power of the aviation lobby. Just a year after its apparent surrender, BAA is at it again, lobbying with a fury.
I have every reason to believe the Prime Minister will hold his position. The arguments are on his side. For one thing, the previous government’s economic case was hopelessly flawed.
It estimated the net benefit of expansion to be roughly £5 billion over 70 years. Even if that’s true, it works out at just £35 per person living beneath the flight path. But the calculation ignores a long list of costs. What will be the effect on London of some 25 million extra road passenger journeys to and from the airport each year? What will be the effect on house prices? What is the cost to the environment of increased emissions?
Comparisons between London and other European cities are misguided too. A recent report by AirportWatch found that Heathrow has more flights to business destinations than any other airport in Europe: more than the combined total of Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt. Heathrow has 1,938 more annual flights to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing than Frankfurt and 1,426 more than Charles de Gaulle.
London airports as a whole have the highest number of flights to key markets in Asia, the Middle East, North America and Australasia.
The report confirms that Heathrow and London airports are highly competitive and the real issue is how capacity is used, rather than increased runway capacity.
Yes, Heathrow is the UK’s busiest airport but new runways or a new airport are not the answer. It is far better to focus on improving capacity.
For instance, many runway slots at Heathrow that could be allocated to longer-haul business flights are currently clogged up by short-haul flights which could be using London’s four other airports. In time, high-speed rail will remove some of the short-haul demand.
Technology will also help. More and more big businesses are turning to video monitoring, not only to save money but to save time. In addition, it is worth looking at proposals for a rail link between Gatwick and Heathrow to create a new “Heath-Wick” hub.
Our focus should be on improving, not expanding capacity. We know that’s possible, and without undermining the quality of life for millions of Londoners. As the Prime Minister said in opposition, we need a better, not a bigger Heathrow.
This article first appeared in The Evening Standard, on Friday 9th March 2012