Leading article: A new runway is the last thing that Heathrow needs

Even at this late hour, the Prime Minister should heed the protesters

Share
Related Topics

After much delay, the Government, it seems, is about to announce that it intends to proceed with a third runway for Heathrow airport. The series of postponements - the latest last weekend - resurrected the charge against Gordon Brown – largely forgotten during the financial crisis – that he was a ditherer. In this case, though, hesitation would have been an improvement on a wrong decision.

Figures released yesterday supplied additional reasons to question further expansion at Heathrow. In 2008, the number of people using London's three biggest airports – Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted – declined for the first time since the scare precipitated by the attacks of 9/11. Passenger numbers fell at all three, with Gatwick and Stansted each down by more than 13 per cent. The drop at Heathrow, where the initially troubled Terminal 5 is now in operation, was smaller.

Together and separately, the numbers gave the lie to two arguments that supporters of Heathrow's third runway had long taken as given. The first was that air travel to and from Britain wasbound to increase into the future. The second was that London and the South-east were approaching aviation overload, or had already reached it.Even a slight fall, though, produces spare capacity. Declines of more than 10 per cent are substantial. Would it not have made more sense from every point of view to switch more flights to, say, Gatwick – if there really was a runway shortage at Heathrow? It would be cheaper, quicker and infinitely less disruptive than building a new runway from scratch - and would not, if present trends continue, require expansion at Gatwick either.

High speed trains, as advocated by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, should have been another part of the solution. It appears that the Government will temper its support for a third Heathrow runway by including a new high-speed train link to St Pancras. The point of new rail services, however, should be to replace flights, where possible, not to supplement them. Of course, advocates for Heathrow's expansion – chief among them business leaders, but also trade unions protective of local jobs – never accepted that Heathrow was just another London airport. They insisted that, as the destination much preferred by scheduled airline companies and business passengers, Heathrow's competitors were less other London airports than Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. If Heathrow could not remain competitive, they argued, then Britain, and London in particular, would be a serious commercial loser.

How much business Heathrow really brings to London and the region, though, has long been questionable. Because it is seen, notably by British Airways, as a "hub" airport, with many flights connecting from elsewhere, a large proportion of its passengers only transit through Heathrow. Such a "hub" could be placed almost anywhere, including – as the Mayor of London proposes – in the Thames estuary. It does not have to be in a densely populated area, where aircraft disturb many millions of people.

Fierce local opposition, given voice at Westminster by MPs who risk losing their seats over the runway issue, has reinforced protests by "green" campaign groups. And the Government's decision supposedly recognises the need for environmental safeguards. But experience teaches that assurances over carbon emissions and noise are unlikely to be worth the paper they are written on.

If, as expected, a decision is announced today, the planning inquiry will become the next battlefield. With environmental considerations, high-speed rail opportunities and a slowing of aviation growth all pointing so clearly in the same direction, the Government seems about to place itself on the wrong side of transport history.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Matthew Norman
Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album