1. Governance
December 28, 2015updated 04 Aug 2023 9:34am

Heathrow or Gatwick? It's make your mind up time for David Cameron

By Lilian Greenwood

The author is Labour’s shadow transport secretary.

Few policy problems have proved to be as intractable as providing new airport capacity – but the case for action is overwhelming.

The UK has produced a long list of discarded plans for new airports. Lullingstone, Cubbington and Maplin Sands were all unrealised, and Boris Johnson’s Thames Estuary Airport on the Isle of Grain looks set to join them. Even when new runways have been built, they have provoked intense local and ecological protests. The construction of a second runway at Manchester Airport 15 years ago was a case in point.

There is no doubt, however, that we need a new runway. Heathrow is full, and it has been for a decade. Gatwick operates at 85 per cent of its capacity, and it too is effectively full during the peak period. No new full-length runway has been built in the South East since the 1940s.

Redistributing demand to underutilised airports is easier in theory than in practice, and the Airports Commission found that, without action, the entire London airport network would be operating at the limits of its capacity by 2040.

It has become clear over the last few days that David Cameron is hamstrung.  He commissioned an independent report that strongly recommended Heathrow expansion, yet he is also faced with the threat of a by-election triggered by his mayoral candidate if that recommendation is adopted.

Now he has to choose which pledge he breaks: either that “a decision will be made by the end of the year,” as he told MPs in July, or his famous 2009 promise that there would be no third runway at Heathrow – “no ifs, no buts”. 

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This continued indecision is deeply damaging for the economy, and it is causing blight for residents who live close to both Heathrow and Gatwick.

It’s vital that questions over the environmental impacts of expansion are addressed; but they must be genuinely investigated and not just used as an excuse to kick the issue further down the road. Aviation accounts for around 6 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and airports have not always been regarded as good neighbours, especially when it comes to noise pollution.

The Airports Commission recommended that an independent noise authority should be created two years ago. This is a sensible recommendation that could have already been implemented without prejudicing a wider decision on runway capacity – so why has the government failed to take action?

We have also taken note of the Environmental Audit Committee’s concerns which were published in early December. Ministers must make sure that when they do bring a proposal before parliament they are doing so on a sound legal basis. There can be no repeat of the West Coast franchise scandal which cost taxpayers over £50m. However, as the Committee itself said, “the government should not avoid or defer these issues”. It’s clear that the report is not a charter for further, indefinite delay.  

Labour will study the government’s proposals carefully, alongside any additional material that is commissioned, and we will respond on the basis of our four tests for aviation expansion:

  • That robust and convincing evidence was produced that the Commission’s recommendations would provide sufficient capacity;
  • That the UK’s legal climate change obligations could still be met;
  • That local noise and environmental impacts can be managed and minimised;
  • That the benefits of any expansion were not confined to London and the South East.

We have also set out a set of proposals which would support the wider aviation industry. The National Infrastructure Commission should study the road and rail requirements of airports outside the South East, and the government should confirm the HS2 Manchester Airport Station as soon as possible. These measures are not, however, in themselves a substitute for new runway capacity in the South East.  

Aviation expansion is a matter of national significance and, having committed to addressing the problem head on, David Cameron faces a loss of credibility if he ducks the issue now. The UK needs additional capacity, but the prospect of any expansion is now in doubt. The country – and people who live under the flightpaths of both Heathrow and Gatwick – deserve better. 

Lilian Greenwood is MP for Nottingham South, and Labour’s shadow transport secretary.

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