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Expanding Heathrow Is Not The Way

November 11, 2008

Expanding Heathrow Is Not The Way

Mark spoke in a debate at the Royal Aeronautical Society entitled, ‘Heathrow Expansion – or Thames Estuary Airport?’. He argued in favour of a brand new hub airport in the Thames Estuary and the closure of Heathrow.

“Since the beginning of the millennium, our government has dithered and delayed over the pressing need to expand airport capacity in the UK. We have seen White Papers, judicial reviews, announcements, retractions, consultations…and still no firm commitment on the future of Heathrow Airport, the global gateway to our nation.

Yet airports are key to our economic success and to the international connectivity of our increasingly diverse and mobile population. One of the most important things that any modern, forward-looking society can do is to ensure that its people have the opportunity to travel abroad and to see other cultures. With the growth in power of China, India and south east Asia, we also will require a tremendous investment in our airports if we are to maintain credibility as an open, competitive and equipped centre for business.

Traditional wisdom says that the expansion of Heathrow is the best option to increase our airport capacity. It is potentially the most cost-effective solution, most major airlines do not wish to move elsewhere and there is a large nearby residential population to staff a larger airport. In this way, observers expect Heathrow expansion to be given the green light when new Transport Secretary, Geoff Hoon, announces the government’s decision on the future of our airports next month.

By papering over Heathrow’s cracks, we get a cut-price remedy for our overburdened airports but for how long and at what cost to the future health of our economy and transport system, the character of west London and the quality of life for local residents?

I believe that we desperately need a visionary outlook to improve transport and to have political leaders who have a firm eye on the future and the courage to take brave and innovative decisions. Too often the UK’s transport decision making has lain in the hands of corporate interests – in particular BAA -and environmental pressure groups. After over a decade in office, we have seen no such strategic thinking from successive Labour Transport Secretaries and our transport system has ground to a halt as a result. Not even Crossrail can be credited to this government until we can be sure that the financial arrangements are robust.

London and the UK now need a new state-of-the-art hub airport. Planned according to the needs of a modern, global economy, such an airport could utilise advances in environmentally sound construction and high-speed rail links into central London, the docklands and beyond. Flying in over the North Sea, planes would not disturb a large residential population, allowing the truly modern airport to operate twenty four hours a day. Business folk could depart to and arrive from India, China and the rapidly developing economies of south east Asia at convenient times. Construction could take place with minimal disruption and the airport would be located in a place that would allow for future expansion should it be necessary.

I accept that this idea is too big for many and just too difficult to implement. It does not tally with our make do and mend mentality and for some it is simply too radical. It can also, of course, be argued that the context in which the decision on our airports is to be made has changed drastically since the government’s 2003 aviation White Paper. The public purse is desperately stretched to the extent that the prospect of any infrastructure project on such a massive scale will be greeted with hostility and it could well be that demand for flights will fall over the coming years. However this should not allow for the default option of Heathrow to be pursued. Yes, economically times are tough but that makes it ever more crucial that we invest cleverly.

Politically times have changed too. If opinion polls are to be believed, the government will by 2010 have run its course and the Conservatives have already said that if elected, they would reverse any decision to expand Heathrow. There are also reports that members of the cabinet oppose the expansion of Heathrow too as it does not tally with fresh Labour commitments on emissions targets and could jeopardise Labour seats in the south.

After the Competition Commission’s inquiry into BAA’s airport monopoly, it looks likely that the Authority will have to sell two of its three London airports, after which the operation and funding of all the capital’s airports will drastically change. It is likely that new owners of either Gatwick or Stansted will want to have their say over the future of our airports. This could give us valuable breathing space to more seriously address our options and to fully understand the shift of economic power that looks to be inevitable as a result of the financial decisions that have been taken over recent months. Whether we like it or not, the coming decades will see both political and economic power move firmly eastwards. As such, we must understand what potential business partners in the east want from the UK. Yes, investment in a brand new airport will be a costly enterprise but it could reap welcome and much needed rewards in the years ahead.

I first formally sought to reignite the idea of a new hub option this time last year when I tabled a Westminster Hall debate on Heathrow. At that time the erstwhile Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, had just announced the government’s intention to add another runway and terminal to Heathrow by 2020 and expand Stansted Airport as soon as 2011. I confess that it was the election of Boris Johnson some six months later that gave this issue real publicity when he announced too that he supported an estuary option. It should be made clear that this is not official Conservative party policy and I do not speak as the voice of the Party here tonight.

When Boris got involved in this debate, Labour were quick to pounce on him, labelling it an opportunistic move which sought to cover the Party’s own divisions on whether to expand Heathrow. But it is not illogical or foolish for Boris to oppose Heathrow’s expansion. Since its inception, it has been an utter planning disaster and to entrench its mess even further could seriously damage the prospect of the city that Boris now represents.

I personally took the opportunity to raise the issue of Heathrow because the impact of its failure can be felt particularly in my own constituency of the Cities of London and Westminster. In the City of London we have a large international business community that needs proper transport facilities to function and remain competitive. In Westminster, we have cultural and historical wonders that draw visitors from across the globe.

It is clear to me as an MP who represents Britain’s financial heart (a heart which has been deeply wounded over the past months) that there remains a strong economic case for a comprehensive overhaul of our thinking on aviation. Flying is part of our commercial life and Heathrow has been the mainstay of our international connectivity for more than fifty years. But that airport is currently operating at full capacity. Every year sixty eight million passengers cram into facilities designed for forty five million. Heathrow is the world’s busiest airport and the resultant chaos is clear for all to see.

Flying into Britain, often for the first time, travellers from abroad can expect to be greeted by a shabby, overcrowded, understaffed and poorly planned mess of an airport. Britons travelling abroad face the frustrating prospect of long security queues and mind-numbing delays as the prologue to their hard-earned breaks. To add to the hassle, some 22 000 items of luggage are lost in transit from Heathrow every month. Unfortunately the opening of Terminal Five this year has done nothing to improve Heathrow’s image in this sense, even if teething problems have now been ironed out.

Through an outdated regulatory system, Heathrow also has low landing charges, making it the busiest international airport in the world but with landing charges that stand at seventeenth in the world league. It is not surprising, therefore, that important profitable revenue is sought from retail outlets. BAA have done their sums and found that necessary profits come not from passenger satisfaction but from selling alcohol, perfume and Toblerone to a captive and often delayed audience. On top of that, operating at full capacity means that the airport is inflexible and staff are unable to respond quickly to changes in security procedures or to minor changes to the landing schedule.

We all use Heathrow because there is no real alternative. The airport remains our single most important gateway to the global economy but City bosses claim that the Heathrow hassle factor is dissuading many business executives from travelling to our capital city. No one can blame them, especially in view of the delays that senior business folk often experience at immigration. It is expensive for companies to have staff unable to work simply because of costly delays in the travel system. I accept that businesses may place less emphasis on our airports as costs begin to be cut by reducing the air travel of employees. But as our economy begins to recover – as it hopefully will – in the coming years, it will be ever more vital that we have a competitive edge over other Western economies, particularly nearby European countries.

Research undertaken by the City of London Corporation in 2002 revealed that some 70 per cent of firms consider air services to be critical for business travel by their staff and more than half of the respondents considered air travel critical for meeting clients. The Square Mile has been the world’s foremost financial and business centre and has a high concentration of international firms that can choose any of the world’s major capital cities in which to locate. The City has made it clear that good aviation services and efficient, welcoming airports are a critical contributory factor to competitiveness and the success of the UK economy.

Many would say that this all adds up to a new runway at Heathrow but I do not believe that increasing space at Heathrow will provide the resolution we are seeking over the UK’s aviation capacity difficulties. The supporting infrastructure is likely to remain inadequate, even with Crossrail, and the limited supply of land around Heathrow suggests that the area will not be able to cope with a significant increase in airport activity in the future. [Add to that the greater problems Heathrow will have should competition be introduced to the market through the breaking up of BAA. Currently the best landing slots are at a premium at that airport but if other airports are able to offer more capacity at a cheaper rate, Heathrow will find it increasingly difficult to attract business.]

Talk of airport expansion will inevitably be dogged by environmental concerns about aircraft emissions but we need to accept that unilateral action by Britain to cut carbon emissions will solve very little globally but will seriously disadvantage our economy. To put our interminable navel-gazing over Heathrow into perspective, China hopes to have completed no fewer than forty-nine new airports within the next five years.

We need to completely rethink the entire question of aviation and airports in Britain and resurrect the idea of a brand new hub airport to the east of London. To provide real competition, it should be operated by someone other than BAA. (And I should add at this point that I accept the Conservatives should take the blame for this dreadful, monopolistic regulatory framework that was put in place when we were in government).

In essence, the government in the broader sense needs to take a brave step and accept that Heathrow will never be what Britain needs. Many other cities came to that realisation about their own outdated airports and had the vision to relocate: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Paris and even places such as Beijing and Oslo which I have visited in the past four or five years. Those airports are an absolute pleasure to pass through.

At present, aircraft operating at Heathrow are rightly subject to strict flight controls to reduce noise for the nearby large residential population. In essence, the controls mean that few planes can fly between 11.30pm and 6am. I well understand and very much support the idea that people have to be allowed to sleep in peace. Furthermore, the airport is hemmed in by houses and roads which severely restricts future capacity, including freight capacity. On several occasions in recent years I have walked through Harmondsworth and Sipson, two villages that would be wrecked by a third runway at Heathrow. Even though they are located just be the existing airport they retain some charm from their centuries-old roots. The same can be said – just about – for places such as Stanwell Moor, located right under the flight path of the existing runways and where some historic eighteenth century buildings still stand amid the noise and pollution. The residents of those villages have been misled by promises from all governments on Heathrow’s long term expansion. The confirmation of a third runway would be a further stab in the back for all those who have held on in that quiet and pleasant little quarter of Middlesex.

Aircraft going to a new airport in the Thames estuary could fly in over the North Sea. With no residential noise and little disruption during construction, such an airport could become a twenty four hour hub and there would be potential to enlarge it if necessary in the decades ahead. The stacking of planes, currently such a problem at Heathrow because of the noise and environmental impact, would be a thing of the past. High speed bullet trains could take passengers directly to the City. I travelled on a Maglev train on a visit to Shanghai last year. It took just eight minutes to traverse the twenty one miles between Shanghai’s financial district and international airport.

In terms of the future of aircraft themselves, there are currently two schools of thought. It may be that smaller, efficient aeroplanes are the future, capable of landing at any airport and able to provide frequent services for fewer passengers at a time. Alternatively, it may be that super aircraft such as Airbus’s A380 become more popular. Generally able to land only at hub airports, these large, comfortable, high capacity aircraft will fly long distances before depositing passengers for transfer if necessary. Currently this is the method more favoured in the east where there are at the moment fewer regional airports. Admittedly both these types of aircraft can currently land at Heathrow but ultimately nobody knows what the future of aviation holds. What we do know is that Heathrow is an incredibly inflexible site and that changes to aircraft sometimes require changes to airport infrastructure – the A380, for instance, needs double decker boarding facilities. Decisions on expansion take years to make and more years still to enact. If we are to get bogged down in such a quagmire each time Heathrow needs to adapt, our competitiveness and credibility will be eroded further.

We could have a new hub airport as part of the regeneration of the Thames gateway but it will require vision. It will also take guts. There will need to be a high initial investment and dividends will be long term. No doubt there will be enormous logistical problems to boot, not least in realigning London’s transport infrastructure. It will take many years, it is likely to cost many billions. But in entrenching existing planning nightmares, we are yet again making irresponsible decisions about our long term prosperity. London is the very essence of sequential planning decisions embedding substandard systems. The result? Our capital is gridlocked and every time piecemeal – and extremely aggravating – changes are made to allow commuters and visitors space to breathe, that extra capacity is quickly filled. The problems arise again, the same arguments for and against various options are trotted out.

In reducing and eventually eliminating Heathrow’s use, we would be left with 2500 acres of prime land for community development in a location near London with excellent transport links to the City. The sale of that land, whilst perhaps not as valuable in these times, could help to fund the cost of a new state-of-the-art airport. In starting from scratch, we could utilise new technology and make the airport purpose built, adaptable and pleasant to travel through.

It must be recognised that our economy and quality of life will continue to suffer in an increasingly competitive world if we fail to invest in our infrastructure and think strategically for the future. Do we really believe that a sixth terminal and third runway at Heathrow will put to rest the issue of airport expansion for decades to come? We need a flexible solution that allows us room to manoeuvre according to demand and future economic requirements. Above all, the government should regard this as an opportunity to equip our nation as an internationally formidable partner and competitor for the tricky times that lie ahead.”