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Heathrow Airport expansion – the arguments for and against as MPs vote on major development

It's been one of the most contentious issues in public discourse throughout the UK for years, but the Government is set to vote today (25 June) on the potential Heathrow expansion. In light of its upcoming decision, Felix Todd assesses the benefits and drawbacks of the project

The UK Government will vote later today (25 June) on the National Policy Statement concerning the proposed Heathrow expansion in the next chapter of a process that is as laborious as it is divisive.

The debate over whether to build an additional third runway at the country’s largest airport has seen key figures like Boris Johnson vow to “lie down in front of bulldozers” to stop it from happening.

Junior trade minister Greg Hands went as far as to resign from his position on 21 June in order to oppose the proposal.

They argue that more planes flying into and across the nation will prove detrimental to the environment, as well as local residents, and that the project’s cost – estimated to be at least £14bn – far outweighs its potential benefit.

By the same token, Prime Minister Theresa May and many of her fellow Tories are in favour of the expansion, arguing it will boost business and make Britain a more attractive and accessible prospect post-Brexit.

She said: “The Government is absolutely committed to increasing airport capacity at Heathrow.

“This is important, it is part of our future as global Britain, and the ambitions we have as a trading nation for the future.”

As the crunch time for Heathrow’s potential third runway gets closer, we break down the pros and cons of one of the most polarising development projects in British history.

 

The argument for the Heathrow expansion

An economic boost

The airport’s location on the outskirts of London makes it a prime location for international transfer passengers and it’s this connectivity that boosts business investment in the UK.

With 78 million passengers and 81 airlines serving 204 destinations in 85 countries, Heathrow is the UK’s largest airport.

However, its runways are currently operating at 99% capacity, which leads to delays, disruptions and ticket unavailability – while airlines have chosen other European hubs like Paris and Frankfurt to grow.

heathrow expansion
The proposed third runway at Heathrow

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general at the CBI, which speaks on behalf of 190,000 UK businesses, said: “Time is up on the decision and delay on the new runway at Heathrow.

“The UK must be open for business, and to the world. A new runway is critical for our economy, and we have reached the day when Parliament needs to say yes.”

The Department for Transport has previously said no expansion would mean London’s five airports reach full capacity by 2034.

It is estimated that the project could generate up to £187bn in economic growth across the UK, create up to 180,000 new jobs nationally and provide new domestic routes.

“Any more delay, and our competitors – who have been busy building their own aviation capacity and trade relationships – will pull further ahead,” added Ms Fairbairn.

“Strong economies need strong leadership. From Truro to Thurso, firms are counting on their MPs to vote for a stronger economic future.”

 

The logistics perspective

Heathrow carries £360m worth of freight per day on average, making it the UK’s largest port by value.

Ian Baxter, founder of Nottingham logistics company Baxter Freight, feels this is the reason its expansion is so critical to his industry.

“For me, Heathrow is the hub – though there is a place for the development of other airports, like Gatwick,” he told Compelo. “Infrastructure matters most, particularly post-Brexit.

Ian Baxter, chairman of Baxter Freight

“Heathrow is the only place with global-connectivity. Spreading the infrastructure development across different airports is contrary to the freight hub model that works worldwide.

“The UK isn’t going to have two massive hubs in the south of England – there will only be one and it has to be Heathrow.

“Given where air freight companies live and where the warehouses are, it’s the right place. It wasn’t put there by putting a pin in a map, it was put there for a reason.

“We can’t replicate what Heathrow provides anywhere else in the UK.”

Cases have been put forward that a Heathrow expansion will present damaging environmental problems, but Mr Baxter is not alone in rebuking them, however.

He argued: “I don’t really buy the environmental arguments against the expansion – aviation has come such a long way and made so many improvements to its environmental footprint – it’s time to expand and make the most of the technology.

“Aircraft are a completely different concept to what they were 50 years ago.

“From an environmental and pollution point of view, if you look at the latest generation of aircraft that Airbus is developing, they’re completely different.”

 

Regional prosperity and lower prices

Should the Government vote in favour of the third runway today, it has confirmed it will actively reserve slots at Heathrow for regional flights.

Public Service Obligations (PSOs) will be implemented to make sure flights to UK regions remain readily available.

Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg said: “Heathrow is situated in the South East of England, but the benefits of expansion will be felt throughout the UK.

“About 15% of the new capacity will be used for flights to destinations within the UK.

“And now we are going even further by confirming that the UK Government will act to protect domestic flights from Heathrow for the first time.”

Extra capacity at Heathrow is also expected to encourage competition between airlines, driving down prices for the British passenger.

Major carriers easyJet and Flybe have outlined key routes they would expect to fly for a three-runway Heathrow, with the former already confirming new flights to UK airports and a 30% reduction on certain fares.

 

The argument against the Heathrow expansion

An unnecessary expense

Widespread estimates for the project’s costs start at about £14bn, while Transport for London (TfL) believes it will be as much as £18.4bn.

The true expense has yet to be revealed but what is certain is that most of it will hit the British taxpayer.

It led Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith to resign over the issue in 2016 before reclaiming his Richmond seat in June 2017.

He said: “This doesn’t just look like a blank cheque being given by this Government to a foreign-owned multinational, it looks like a whole book of cheques signed by our constituents.”

heathrow expansion
Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond, London

A number of reasons have been put forward as to why the Heathrow expansion is an inefficient investment, including the fact that it could actually damage the economy by reducing domestic tourism.

About two-thirds of passengers on flights from UK airports are British residents, which means more capacity could see more Brits leaving the country rather than holidaying at home.

The Office for National Statistics estimates the country already has a £17bn tourism deficit, which opponents of the development say could be significantly added to.

 

An entire village could be flattened

Residents living near the airport are also against the project, with at least 700 homes – including the entire village of Sipson, in the borough of Hillingdon – needing to be demolished before work can get underway.

They have been unsuccessful in convincing the Government of their arguments, however, having failed to have the decision declared unlawful last year.

On a broader scale, more than 2 million people in 973,000 households would suffer from additional aircraft noise according to Government analysis.

Traffic in the surrounding area would also be increased with additional capacity at the airport, so much so that Heathrow has admitted only some form of congestion charge could keep cars moving properly.

 

Damage to the environment

The proposed Heathrow expansion promises to vastly undermine the UK’s climate change goals.

Existing UK legislation states the Government is committed to cut carbon dioxide levels by 80% of 1990 levels in 2050.

As of 2016, aviation accounts for about 6% of UK emissions – half of which comes from Heathrow.

To meet the legislated target, the sector would have to reduce its emissions to below the 2005 level – which will only be made more difficult with additional capacity.

heathrow expansion
Heathrow Airport

Tim Johnson, director of UK-based sustainable aviation campaigner Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), said: “The measures that people have put forward seem fairly far-fetched in terms of implementation.

“Ideas like taking diesel cars off the road are indeed potential solutions, but how do you get consumer change that makes that happen in the time scale?”

The independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) argues aircraft improvements and the proliferation of biofuels could keep emissions at 60% above 2005 levels come 2050.

But that means in order to reach the intended target, the Government would have to cut regional airport capacity or introduce new anti-emission regulation in other areas of the economy.

Key environmental campaigners have also been outspoken about the potential damage of the Heathrow expansion.

Andrew Pendleton, of environmental campaigning community Friends of the Earth, said: “The decision to expand Heathrow looks deeply cynical.

“However this is only the first step on a long journey that will see communities, councils and climate campaigners continue the battle to reverse this misjudged and damaging decision.”