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

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Project Manager - Pensions

£32000 - £38000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone