The industry-led Freedom to Fly campaign argues that airport expansion is essential to Britain's economic prosperity, but one man's economic freedom fighter is another man's environmental terrorist. If aviation is allowed to grow unchecked, more people living near airports will suffer health-damaging levels of noise and air pollution. Air transport is also the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. Forecasts suggest the number of people flying from UK airports could increase from 180 million in 2000 to 500 million by 2030.
Aviation contributes to the UK economy, but claims for its importance can be exaggerated. The official Oxford Economic Forecasting (OEF) study concluded that constraining growth in aviation would damage the wider economy. But, on closer inspection, this proves to be industry propaganda masquer- ading as objective research. It assumes an automatic link between growth in air transport and economic growth, which OEF was unable to show despite its best efforts.
Transport improvements redistribute economic activity, which may benefit one area at the expense of another. Three quarters of air travel is for leisure, and Britain has a massive and growing trade deficit in tourism: £11bn even before the 11 September terrorist attacks. Cheap air travel is exporting jobs from Cumbria and Cornwall to Malaga and Majorca.
The expansion of airports in the South-east is likely to increase development pressure in a region already struggling to cope with the demand for new housing. All of the options put forward by the Government for airport expansion in the South-east present problems. The idea of a new airport at Cliffe in north Kent is a non-starter; as an important bird sanctuary, it has every national and international designation of wildlife importance going. A third runway at Heathrow in addition to a fifth terminal would mean more noise and air pollution for local residents. The four-runway option at Stan- sted requires finding 80,000 homes for the workforce.
Instead, the Government should focus on making the best use of existing capacity, developing regional airports and putting aviation on a sustainable trajectory. Auctioning take-off and landing slots at congested airports could raise at least £1bn a year from Heathrow alone. The money could be invested in mitigating environmental impacts, improving public transport links to airports and building a national network of high-speed rail lines.
Aviation gets a number of unjustified tax concessions. No tax is paid on aviation fuel and no VAT on tickets. Even taking account of air passenger duty and assuming a tax on aviation fuel at half the rate of petrol, the loss to the Exchequer is about £7bn a year.
Greenhouse gas emissions from international flights are exempted from the Kyoto protocol on climate change, so that half the gains from modest reductions in emissions elsewhere will be undone by the growth in air transport. Far more radical reductions will be required to stave off catastrophic climate change. Air transport must be included.
In 1989, in a White Paper entitled "Roads for Prosperity", the Conservative government promised the biggest road-building programme since the Romans. The policy ended in tears because middle England did not want the countryside covered in tarmac. There is a danger the forthcoming air transport White Paper will suffer the same fate. It is not too late to develop a sustainable aviation policy.
Tony Grayling is an associate director at the Institute for Public Policy Research. 'Sustainable Aviation' by Simon Bishop and Tony Grayling will be published by the IPPR in the autumn.