by G Gavin Collins
Prime Minister Theresa May announced recently that she would be giving a statement the following week on the subject the government’s on the long-discussed third runway at Heathrow airport. This comes after 50 UK MPs and representatives of the devolved assemblies sent a letter to the PM advocating the new runway. Mrs. May also instructed her cabinet that there would be a suspension of collective responsibility, which will allow ministers who are opposed to the expansion to state their beliefs openly without the need to resign if the Government decides to back the third runway. The fact that Mrs. May has announced such a suspension suggests that her government will support the expansion of Heathrow. Assuming this all comes to pass, the Prime Minister will undoubtedly be making the correct decision.
Since the 1940s there have been numerous debates over the construction of a third runway at Heathrow to alleviate congestion. In recent years, however, the situation has become critical – Heathrow is running its two runways at 99% capacity, resulting in fewer trading opportunities when compared to other international airports, as well as higher fares for consumers due to a stagnation in competition.
In 2015 a report undertaken by the independent Airports Commission concluded that a northwest runway at Heathrow was the most sensible policy proposal available to alleviate overcapacity and revitalise air travel in the southeast of England. The report emphasised that due to the fact that Heathrow already operates roughly 70% of all scheduled UK long-haul routes, a greater number of airlines could more easily offer new services from the airport. Gatwick, which has also been lobbying for a new runway, is only responsible for 11% of the UK’s long-haul flights. Suggestions that an airport outside of London ought to be expanded ignore the reality that the present infrastructure greatly accommodates the English capital. Proposals in other cities are entirely dependent on the completion of yet unbuilt high speed rail lines, such as HS2 – set to be completed in 2033.
The report also concluded that environmental challenges, specifically those pertaining to carbon dioxide emissions, could be solved through carbon trading in other areas of the UK economy. Furthermore, as the technology of both aeroplanes and the automobiles which service the runways become more efficient, emissions will be greatly reduced.
The issue of noise pollution – perhaps the most pressing concern for the average West Londoner – is mitigated by the arrival of quieter jet engines in modern aeroplanes, as well as the increased capacity which would be afforded by a third runway, allowing Heathrow to reschedule most of the flights which take place between the unsociable hours of 11pm and 6am. Although the frequency of flights during the day would increase, this must be recognised as one of the costs of living in a rapidly expanding global city. The comfort of citizens should be a priority in policymaking of this sort, but it must not be allowed to halt all economic development.
The addition of a third runway to Heathrow has also taken on a new meaning in the wake of Brexit. As the UK looks set to increase its trading with countries outside of the European Single Market – and outside of the range of the Eurotunnel or freight-carrying lorries – more long-haul routes to destinations such as India and China will be required. When one considers that 29% of all British exports depart from Heathrow, the third runway looks less like a convenience and more like a necessary step in ensuring the future competitiveness of the UK economy.
Although Mrs. May appears set to make a serious push for the expansion at Heathrow, the fact remains that a vote in the House of Commons on this issue will likely not take place until 2017. Even if there is a successful vote, there will no doubt be legal challenges and delays in construction.
Despite these unfortunate realities, the Prime Minister should strongly advocate for the northwest runway at Heathrow, albeit with an eye towards short-term solutions to prevent any negative impact on UK trade when the Heathrow plan inevitably hits a snag along the way to the finish line.