What follows is very much not dissent in the ranks or any kind of support for a third runway at Heathrow – if for no other reason than I don’t want to give John McDonnell any excuse to start wielding the Mace again. I fully support and agree with the Lib Dem campaign being ably led by Susan Kramer and Norman Baker against blighting south-west London and surrounding areas with yet more noise, pollution and congestion.
But the Government has now announced its decision on a new runway and Terminal 6 and, while I hope we will be able to reverse that decision, New Labour are not renowned for listening to public protest or opposition. (See Basra for details). And given this Government’s form on airports, I’m now less concerned about Runway 3 or Terminal 6 than I am about what happens in a few years when BAA decides they could really do with a seventh or eighth terminal, a fourth runway, or a launch pad for Ariane 5.
So this is a plea for the great minds currently exercising themselves on stopping the current Heathrow expansion to look with at least half an eye to the future. Without a concerted effort to tackle the underlying problems of travel in the UK, we will sleepwalk into yet another unwanted development.
The vague promises that have been made about High-Speed Rail alongside the newly expanded airport are simply not enough. Fast, convenient links between London and major British cities, and between Heathrow and the near continent, are essential if we are to succeed in reducing the demand for the most damaging and unnecessary types of aviation, domestic and short-hop flights.
A new High-Speed link across Surrey and Kent would not only provide much-improved access to the Channel Tunnel for residents in the region but this and other feeder routes into Heathrow could drastically reduce the amount of road congestion and pollution suffered by people in areas around the airport, as passengers either avoid flying altogether or get there by rail instead of driving.
But there will always be some passengers who decide (or are forced) to pass through the airport as transit passengers. Tempting as it is to condemn these people as not adding anything to the economy as they are only passing through, it is important to remember that there are upwards of 200,000 people directly or indirectly reliant on Heathrow for employment.
What is more, these transit passengers could generate much more income into the capital’s economy if only they were given the chance. London has done little to promote itself overseas as an exciting and attractive stop-over destination, a kind of travel that has contributed to booming service and entertainment sectors in cities as far-flung as Paris, Singapore and Hong Kong. If these people are to travel through London then why are more of them not enticed to see more (and spend more) than they do sitting in a transit lounge? If these people are to contribute to polluting our skies, why are we not trying to get better value from them in exchange?
I’m no expert and mine are just a few back-of-the-envelope ideas, but I want to see the Lib Dems using the combination of environmental credentials and business experience we have within our ranks to create and publish firm plans for London’s airports. We must start today if we are to limit the further expansion of Heathrow post-Terminal 6, reduce the airport’s carbon footprint and squeeze as much employment, opportunity and money out of whatever aviation there will be.
We are not the Green Party. We don’t want to see the economy grind to a halt. We want to use responsible business as the engine for advancement. So let’s tell people how that can be done.
Benjamin Mathis is Vice-Chair of Campaigns for Liberal Youth, and writing in his personal capacity as a Lib Dem member.