Heathrow expansion 'best option' but Gatwick runway 'plausible'
Tory dissent is mounting just hours after report says third runway at Heathrow is best option
The long-awaited report on UK airport capacity has, as expected, endorsed the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport, while leaving the government wiggle-room to back a "feasible" rival plan to expand Gatwick.
In its final report, the five-person Airports Commission gives "unanimous" backing to a controversial new runway at Britain's largest aviation hub, beating off shortlisted alternatives including extending an existing runway at Heathrow or building a second runway at Gatwick.
Heathrow expansion is preferred as it would enable the UK to exploit greater "long-haul links to new markets" that would maximise economic benefits. The £17bn project could generate a £150bn boost to GDP over 60 years and 70,000 new jobs, the report claims.
Although it was a cheaper option delivering "similar economic benefits" and resulting in the loss of fewer homes – 242 compared to 783, including " the entire community of Longford and much of Harmondsworth" – extending the northern runway at the airport was rejected as it "provides a smaller increase in capacity and is less attractive from a noise and air quality perspective".
Gatwick, which according to The Guardian, presents a "plausible case for expansion", was not chosen despite only requiring the loss of 167 homes as it is was deemed to focus capacity increases on short-haul destinations.
The Independent says the report will "fail to settle the debate". Channel Four's political editor writes in a blog post that the report represents a "steaming pile of poo" for Prime Minister David Cameron, who pledged in 2009 to block a third runway at Heathrow and faces mounting opposition from ministers and key backbenchers.
Within hours, Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who is backing a new airport on the Thames Estuary, had told The BBC that the Heathrow runway "will not happen". His prospective successor Zac Goldsmith told LBC Radio he would resign his seat if it was chosen.
There is stringent opposition to Gatwick, too. The Independent says eight Tory MPs representing seats near the airport vehemently oppose a second runway. Environmental campaigners have stepped up their call for no capacity extension and new taxes to stem demand.
The Commission said development at Heathrow should come with conditions to lessen environmental impact, including no overnight flights and a community engagement board.
Heathrow expansion: report unlikely to end wrangle
The long-awaited report that will advise the government whether to expand either Heathrow or Gatwick may not settle the dispute, which looks set to drag on well into 2016.
Reports this morning in both the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail suggest that the Airports Commission, set up in 2012 and chaired by the former chairman of the financial services regulator Sir Howard Davies, is set to recommend building a third runway at Heathrow. But they also say that the option of building at Gatwick will not be 'ruled out'.
This would leave the decision to David Cameron, who had initially ruled out a third runway at Heathrow back in 2010, and who faces a battle with ministers and influential backbenchers elected by London constituencies that would be affected by the Heathrow plans.
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, Home Secretary Theresa May, International Development Secretary Justine Greening, Mayor of London Boris Johnson and his heir apparent Zac Goldsmith are all expected to fight Heathrow expansion.
The Independent reports that the government will decide by the end of this year whether to accept the Davies review's Heathrow recommendation or to opt for an alternative. It cites Whitehall sources hinting the decision could be put back further still, until after the 2016 London mayoral election.
Last week The Guardian reported comments from the bosses of both Heathrow and Gatwick, who said that their campaigns would not end when the Davies commission published its findings.
Last year the Airports Commission ruled out all other options to meet aviation demand in the UK, including the expansion of Stansted or an all-new airport.
Environmental campaigners have continued to argue for a reduction in demand instead of an increase in capacity. A coalition of anti-expansion campaign groups recently wrote to The Observer suggesting that air passenger duty should be replaced with a "frequent flyer levy" to cut flights.
Heathrow expansion: will the Tories fast-track a new runway?
Business leaders in the UK have urged the new Conservative government to fast-track plans for a new runway in the southeast of England. But the group doesn't answer the big question: where should the runway be built?
Bosses from Aberdeen Asset Management, Associated British Foods, Harrods, ICAP and other major firms signed an open letter distributed by pro-runway lobby group Let Britain Fly, says financial news agency Bloomberg.
The letter insists that a new runway is needed to boost tourism, trade, investment and general economic growth. Many political opponents of airport expansion have been swept away by an electoral tsunami, even if some high-profile refuseniks remain.
So where will it be built? The government-commissioned Davies Commission is due to report within a few weeks. It has already ruled out building an entirely new east of London – but expansion at Heathrow and Gatwick is still on the cards.
Last month, ITV reported that campaigners who want a third runway at Heathrow claim 100,000 local residents now supported the plan. But opponents of the £18bn scheme insisted it would devastate the area.
More recently, the Financial Times observed that many senior opponents of a third runway at Heathrow had been "blown away by the electorate". As MP for Twickenham, Vince Cable had spearheaded opposition.
Now Cable is political history – and the Lib Dems, who had made a manifesto promise to oppose all new runways, are reduced to just eight MPs. The paper quoted one source in the industry as saying: "The stars are lining up for us now."
As for Labour, Ed Miliband had opposed the third runway. While he is no longer leader, his shadow transport minister, Michael Dugher, remains in his post and is a supporter of the runway.
But the paper noted that there was still "heartfelt opposition" from some Conservative MPs. Most notable, perhaps, is Boris Johnson, newly-chosen to represent Uxbridge and South Ruislip, slap bang under the Heathrow flight-path.
In his election address, Johnson, who remains mayor of London, promised to "lie down in front of the bulldozers" – even though the scheme he backed of building a new hub on land reclaimed from the Thames Estuary, dubbed Boris Island, has been ruled out.
Option 1: Build a third runway at Heathrow
Increasing Heathrow's capacity by building a third runway seems an obvious solution. The idea was championed by successive Labour governments and formalised by a 2003 white paper calling for the construction of a new landing strip by 2015. The Tories have been opposed to a third runway - David Cameron criticised Gordon Brown in 2008 for "pig-headedly" pressing ahead with the plan -and the newly-elected Coalition made a promise in 2010 that there would be no expansion of Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. However, there are signs that the Conservatives' resistance is weakening. Late last year, Cameron said he wouldn't renege on his manifesto pledge to oppose a third runway "in this parliament", but didn't rule out supporting the idea in the future.
What are arguments in favour of a third runway?
Supporters of a third runway say it would be cheaper and quicker to build than a brand new airport. In a submission to the Airports Commission in July, Heathrow argued that the "£14bn-£18bn" cost of an extra runway was "cheaper than any rival hub option".
A third runway would provide economic benefits to the UK worth £100bn, the submission says. That is more than the benefits from either Crossrail or HS2. Each of the three third runway options outlined in the report "could be turned into a four runway solution should the demand increase in future," the submission says. "This is a more cost effective solution than building a new four-runway airport from scratch when we may never need one."
What are the main arguments against the extra runway?
A sharp rise in air and noise pollution is the main reason a third runway is strongly opposed by many people, particularly those living under flight paths. Heathrow currently exposes 766,000 people to "severe noise" and that number will rise to almost a million if it expands. Statistics released by the Department of Transport in 2009 showed Heathrow was generating 50 per cent of UK aviation emissions and six per cent of the UK's total emissions. Opponents of the third runway argue that the expanded airport could be responsible for as much as 50 per cent of the UK's emissions by 2050. That raises a question, says BBC. In a world concerned about the environment, why should we assume that air traffic should simply continue to grow? Some opponents of the third runway believe the UK should stick with the flight capacity it has and "allow market forces to price out inessential flyers".
Third runway opponents have also argued that the economic case for expanding Heathrow has been "overstated". Former British Airways boss Bob Ayling told BBC that many of the passengers using the new runway would be in transit and spend "little or nothing" in London. Meanwhile, Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government said the runway would come to be seen as a white elephant because demand for flying will "fall away" as pressure to reduce carbon emissions increases.
Option 2: Expand Gatwick or Stansted
Although Boris Johnson has argued strongly for the creation of an all-new airport (see below), he has also spoken up for the expansion of Stansted. The mayor says the airport is in a good location to serve "key economic centres" such as the City and Canary Wharf. Less than 40,000 people would be affected by noise and pollution if Stansted was expanded into a hub and the bigger airport would create about 134,000 jobs. "It would be quicker to get to Stansted from Canary Wharf, the Lea Valley and other UK cities than to get to Heathrow," says the Standard.
What's the argument against expanding Stansted?
The fact that Stansted is currently operating at "half its permitted capacity" suggests airlines don't want to use it, Carol Barbone, campaign director of Stop Stansted Expansion told the Daily Mail. "If the market was interested in using Stansted we would be seeing increasing passenger numbers rather than a month-on-month decline for the past five years," she said. BAA agrees, saying the construction of a second runway at Stansted would simply "increase the amount of spare capacity there".
What's the case for expanding Gatwick?
Writing in the London Evening Standard, Simon Jenkins says building a new runway at Gatwick is the best solution to the UK's most vexed infrastructure debate. The expansion would affect a relatively small number of residents and Gatwick's owners have already set out plans to start building a second runway in 2019. They are unable to begin work before then because of a "promise made to local councils in 1979". But Jenkins says the date should be brought forward because it would be a "less devastating betrayal than breaking yet another promise to the more numerous residents of west London".
Writes Jenkins: "The Isle of Grain will not happen. Heathrow cannot expand. Luton and other airports may take some of the pressure. But Gatwick it must be. If airlines do not like it, they can lump it."
What are the arguments against expanding Gatwick?
The Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC) cites the impact on the environment and quality of life as key reasons why Gatwick shouldn't be expanded. But it adds another reason: the topography of the area means a new runway "won't work". A range of hills to the west and a main railway line to the east means the layout of a new runway would be "cramped and convoluted", GACC says.
Option 3: A brand new airport
A completely new airport has been ruled out by the Davies commission, but its proponents insist that it makes sense - because Heathrow, which began life as a private airfield, is badly located. Its flight paths send aircraft over heavily-populated parts of London which has implications for both safety and air and noise pollution.
The highest profile advocate of a new airport is London mayor Boris Johnson. He initially proposed the construction of a four-runway airport in the outer Thames Estuary, a project dubbed 'Boris Island' by the press. The location meant only 50 people would be affected by noise, but there were concerns about the impact on "biodiversity and natural habitats", says the London Evening Standard. Another worry was the fact that getting to the airport from central London would take 40 minutes even if a high-speed rail line was built.
Johnson still wants a new airport built, but his favoured site is now the Isle of Grain in the inner Thames Estuary. Built on reclaimed land, the airport would allow take offs and landings to take place over water. As a result, the number of people affected by noise would be low - "five per cent" of the people affected by an expanded Heathrow according to one estimate. A new high-speed rail line would transport passengers from central London to the airport in less than 30 minutes.
What are the arguments for a Thames Estuary airport?
Architects Foster + Partners, one of several firms that have proposed a design for the new airport, told The Engineer that the chance to "relieve 5 million Londoners of the noise, pollution and dangers of flight paths over the capital" was a key reason to build the new airport. It says it would be more "cost-effective" to build the facility in a "non-urban site" and it could operate 24-hours-a-day because a relatively low number of people would be affected by noise. The new airport could be built in the "same timeframe" as Heathrow's third runway, but it would offer far greater capacity - 110 million passengers per year within 16 years. By contrast, Heathrow's third runway would be at full capacity within a decade of the first plane taking off, the firm argues.