Straight talking Boris Johnson proves what a ridiculous decision it will be if the government choose Heathrow to build a third runway. The PM campaigned in 2010 on the promise that there would be no third runway at Heathrow, and the Chancellor is so dead to the feelings of people living around Heathrow, he makes jokes about it. Boris Johnson says in the Daily Telegraph:
“I was walking across Parliament Square with a French journalist. Our conversation was almost drowned out – by an aircraft. She looked up and said, “Why do you allow planes to fly over the centre of the city? Isn’t it dangerous?” Well, yes, perhaps; I said, but that is the least of the problems. It is also very noisy and polluting.
That is why ambitious economies across the world are building new runways – without exception – away from the centres of habitation. So it is incredible that we might be on the verge of taking a shameful and above all short-termist decision about where to put a new runway in the South East.
I have no idea what the Government will decide in the next few weeks. But the pressure is obviously very great: to pick yet again the tired, failed solution that has been proposed and rejected for decades. Virtually every day we hear from business leaders and MPs who demand that we implement what they take to be the conclusion of the Davies report, and go for a third runway at Heathrow.
Alas, I don’t think they can have studied the report in detail. To be fair, Sir Howard Davies got a lot of his analysis right. He correctly frames the problem: we need a hub airport, and Heathrow has been losing ground to other airports in Europe and around the world. These foreign hubs now serve far more destinations, boosting opportunities for trade and tourism and investment – in both directions. Heathrow used to be number one; but for about 20 years it has been stuck on 180 routes, while Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam now serve 250 or more.
The whole objective of expanding Heathrow was, in theory, to answer this basic question. So it is amazing to find that the Davies solution fails the very test he sets, failing to connect us abroad – and even at home.
Heathrow expansion has been explicitly sold to MPs as a way of helping links between London and the rest of the UK. But look at what Davies is forecasting. The number of UK connections goes not up but DOWN, from seven to four. I am not sure that they are aware of this in Scotland or Northern Ireland indeed in the Northern Powerhouse. Some British cities will be bitterly disappointed not to gain the promised links, and some will actually lose. And how many more long-haul destinations will we get? All of – wait for it – seven! By 2030.
There is absolutely no hope, on this plan, of catching up with our European rivals, let alone Dubai or any of the rapidly growing airports of Asia or America. You might wonder how this can be. How can we be so incompetent as to expand Heathrow, and produce such a pitiful increase in connectivity?
The answer is simple lack of capacity, combined with the constraints that Sir Howard has been obliged to place on his solution. In the hope of restricting the very serious increase in noise pollution, he has been forced to call for a partial ban on night flights. This would reduce Heathrow’s existing connections with Hong Kong, Singapore and China, and deter low-cost carriers whose business model needs early morning and late evening flights – and all this for a night flight “ban” that would actually increase the number of nocturnal noise victims by 33 per cent.
You might say the obvious solution to this capacity crunch is to build not just a third but a fourth runway. And yet this option, of course, is explicitly ruled out. A fourth runway would cause such an inferno of noise and pollution in west London that Sir Howard calls, preposterously, for a legal “ban” on the very idea.
Now people may take these “bans” – on night flights and a fourth runway – with a pinch of salt. Heathrow Airport itself doesn’t accept them. It may be that these are more fingers-crossed promises, and that the whole exercise is fundamentally dishonest. But we must take Sir Howard at his word. In which case we would get a third runway that won’t perceptibly increase British links with the rest of the world, and that contrives to REDUCE domestic links, and with no possibility of further expansion.
This would be achieved at colossal and so far unacknowledged expense to the taxpayer. The bill for the third runway is currently put at £22.6 billion, including £5 billion for surface access. As Willie Walsh has been making clear, there is no way the airlines (mainly BA) are going to pay. The transport costs, says Transport for London, are nearer £15-20 billion. The whole bill is probably above £40 billion to the public purse. And the environmental damage is massive – another 250,000 people afflicted by noise pollution, taking the total to one million. No other society is contemplating such a step backwards.
Even on Sir Howard’s wildly over-optimistic figures, there would be another 28,000 people suffering noise of over 70 decibels. That is horrendously loud. Then there is the damage to air quality in London. This legal obstacle is so serious that the Davies report bizarrely proposes that we should build the runway – and then only use it if we can clean up the air.
As Sir Howard says, the traffic would be so bad that we would need a new congestion charge in west London; and all this misery for a solution that will be obsolete as soon as it is built.
If the Government wants to be long-termist it should go for the truly long- term solution, a four-runway hub, and the logical place is in the Thames estuary. The GDP growth unleashed would dwarf Heathrow, with 50 per cent more routes overall, double the number of domestic routes, to say nothing of the huge scope for much-needed housing and regeneration. That is what the Government should do – to stick with its principled stance, to keep its explicit manifesto promise.
This is the time to ignore the pleas of the largely foreign owners of Heathrow, and to back a solution that is better for hundreds of thousands of local people, better for the economy, and better for British business as well.