Heathrow: As the Conservatives’ brief flirtation with anti-expansion comes to an end, the Lib Dem fight continues

Overheard at a bus stop on the Kew Road last week:

Visitor: “What’s the matter with that plane?”
Resident: “Nothing.”
Visitor: “But it’s so low and loud, is it in trouble?”
Resident: “No, this is Richmond.”

Overheard this morning on Sky News at 8:15:

Sir Howard Davies: “A relatively small proportion of the population are affected by noise.”

725,000 of us under the Heathrow flight path beg to differ. And that’s 725,000 before any expansion at Heathrow is considered.

240,000 of us live within the 57LAeq contour. Translation: it’s really very noisy here – just ask the World Health Organisation and the European Commission.  No airport in Europe comes even close to that level of noise pollution, as in fact the Davies Commission interim report accepts.

This is not really about airport capacity. This is about money. There is a lot of it sloshing around in the UK aviation lobby and much of it geared towards Heathrow. How did we get to this stage? Why is it that even an officially independent report can have such a strong pro-Heathrow expansion slant? Why do we just accept that PR and advertising agencies can so cynically monopolise the debate in favour of giving vast sums of money to this private (non-UK) firm which owns Heathrow, while hundreds of thousands of people under the flight path are in danger?

The Conservatives in Westminster and beyond have wilfully gone along with this; their brief flirtation with anti-expansion rhetoric is now coming to an end. From George Osborne down, they have for two years been champing  at the bit to expand. Those of their number on the anti-expansion side of the argument are irrelevant, alone, sidelined or quietly reshuffled away. Labour came up with the original plan for a third runway at Heathrow in the last Parliament.

So it’s worth, at this stage, recapping why the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning against Heathrow expansion for a generation rather than just popping along at the last election with the right message.

This airport will always come back for more. Third runway now, fourth runway later. Residents have been misled and let down every step of the way. Terminal 5 was to be absolutely the last bit of expansion. Don’t worry, residents were told, this will allow 90 million passengers. (In fact, because of load factors, Heathrow now says it is full at 70 million passengers. Funny, that.)  And whenever it comes back for more, more local people suffer. Nothing the Davies Commission can say about Heathrow will mitigate that.

However quiet planes get, they are still noisy. However safe planes get, they are still flying above an extraordinarily densely populated chunk of residential London (just two years ago we had the grizzly story of the frozen body of a stowaway smash on to a pavement in residential Mortlake).

People close to the airport are known to suffer health problems and high levels of stress and anxiety due to exposure throughout the day from aircraft noise. Thousands of people living under the flight path are woken up before 5am. Incredibly, the report recommends a “smoothing” of morning flights which would mean more flights between 5am and 6am to finally finish off the prospect of people falling asleep again.

There is some relief around the Richmond Park constituency that a southern runway at Heathrow has not made it on to the shortlist of three. This would have seen a massive increase in air traffic over Ham, Petersham and North Kingston. However, a new North Westerly runway at Heathrow would still mean the destruction of villages and will still spread the noise misery to thousands more people. The other Heathrow option, put forward by a commercial third party, Heathrow Hub, would also see an increase in noise pollution (arguably less so at night, but the ‘smoothing’ between 5am and 6am which Davies recommends as a short term option makes this distinction barely one for celebration).

Everyone in the lobby or being lobbied will tell you that by questioning expansion plans, you are doing down the British economy. Never mind that London already has more runways than any European city with the exception of Paris (and far more passengers fly in and out of London than Paris).  Never mind that even the Davies Commission interim report accepts that there is existing capacity in the UK which is under-used and that there is no immediate crisis. Never mind that passengers from regional airports are travelling through Heathrow to get to the continent, on planes which take up ridiculous amounts of slot space, with no incentive to change. Never mind that a mass expansion of Heathrow Airport would mean a grotesque increase in ground traffic throughout South West London – a point which merits barely a mention in the interim report.

The Liberal Democrat position on Heathrow is clear: the airport is big enough. We are opposed to a third runway, we have blocked it in this Parliament, we were the only Party to vote against it in Select Committee this year, and we oppose all night flights.

Sarah Ludford, the Liberal Democrat MEP for London and a leading opponent of Heathrow expansion puts it very simply:

Londoners, especially in West and South West London, cannot tolerate Heathrow expansion, whether increased noise or air pollution or safety hazards. I will fight it.

Let’s join her.

* Robin Meltzer is the Liberal Democrat Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Richmond Park, North Kingston & New Malden.

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  • David Allen 17th Dec '13 - 2:07pm

    It’s worth reading Robert Peston, who explains that Davies concluded that the economic cost of not building new runways is actually quite small. So, quite apart from the environmental and noise issues, an expensive project such as Boris Island comes out as costing more than it’s worth and being detrimental to our economy.


  • Mack (Not a Lib Dem) 17th Dec '13 - 2:50pm

    Tory MP and former Transport Minister Simon Burns appealed in the Commons today for there to be all party consensus over the decision. Well, being a Tory he would ask for that wouldn’t he? The last thing the Tories want is to be seen doing a u-turn over an expansion at Heathrow. If the Tories renege on their pledge not to site a third runway at Heathrow then it will be as great a betrayal as the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal over tuition fees.

  • Transatlantic visitors to our business in Sheffield try to avoid Heathrow at all costs, either coming in via Manchester or going to Frankfurt/Schipol and then on to a regional airport. They’re sick of the delays and debacle that tends to happen there

  • William,

    What exactly are these Hub travellers bringing to the UK economy beyond supporting the transit lounge economy? All the other London and UK airports survive perfectly well, looking after the travel needs of everyone in their area.

    Well, given that Heathrow supports at least a 100,000 jobs as it is, that’s quite a contribution from a hub airport. Not to mention the cultural intangibles you get from making London a stop off point for international travellers.

    If I want to go most places outside of Europe, which I do several times a year in my job, I inevitably fly viaHeathrow as my local airports don’t have many international flights because of low demand, poor transport links, etc.

    Besides the UK is pretty well situated for a hub, equidistant as it is between the Americas and Asia. If not Heathrow, then there needs to be one somewhere, and London is a good as place as any, being accessible with excellent transport links.

    It was foolish to promise to vote against a third runway, as it now means the decision making buck gets passed to the next government, as a fair decision can not be made if one viable option gets ruled out to protect a political promise, rather than on any other grounds.

    Whole things a mess, but the UK does need to expand it’s airport capacity somehow.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Dec '13 - 5:31pm

    Most of the passengers who use South East airports are not business travellers. You can get more capacity for necessary travellers by increasing the cost to people going to Vienna for the weekend or on a cheap holiday in Turkey.

    If a new Hub is needed it does not need to be in the South east. Actually it ought not to be in the south east.

    If you are travelling on a long haul flight you do not need to go from an airport on your doorstep.


  • Peter Hayes 17th Dec '13 - 6:41pm

    As I have posted on another thread, for me flights via London are a pain. Birmingham to Holland was better for flights to America. Links in the UK do matter and a London centric view against regional airports does not help. Change airport charges to expand regional to the world.

  • peter tyzack 18th Dec '13 - 10:09am

    passenger flight tax should be changed from ‘per-passenger’ to ‘per-plane’ to make the industry focus on greater efficiency. That tax could then be adjusted by the airports to encourage operators to use up capacity at other airports.

  • @ Mack

    “If the Tories renege on their pledge not to site a third runway at Heathrow then it will be as great a betrayal as the Liberal Democrats’ betrayal over tuition fees.”

    Except that our change of policy on tuition fees happened because there weren’t enough MPs and we didn’t have enough money i.e. the policy couldn’t have been implemented anyway, so the word “betrayal” is not even remotely appropriate. Whereas the Tories won’t have any reason for a change on Heathrow expansion apart from the fact that they might lose party funding. (Oh dear!)

    Apart from that, it might be an apt comparison.

  • Alex Macfie 18th Dec '13 - 1:55pm

    If we used the Channel Tunnel more intelligently we could get a lot of short-haul air passengers onto the rails. Currently the only passenger train services that use the CT are the quasi-airline routes between London and Paris/Brussels. If we abolished airport-style check-in (having border checks done on the train instead) and allowed international trains to carry domestic UK passengers, then we could have a much wider variety of services such as trains from the north and west of the UK to mainland Europe, and inter-regional trains between Kent and Pas-de-Calais. Working towards better integration of passenger train services across the EU (both local and high-speed services) is also important for eliminating the need for point-to-point short-haul European flights. The released capacity can then be used for what air travel is best for, namely long-haul flights.

  • Andrew Colman 18th Dec '13 - 3:46pm

    I regularly travel via Heathrow on business not by choice but because of cost. I live near a regional airport (Exeter) which has direct links to nearby hubs (Amsterdam, Paris CDG) and would love to make more use of it but prices are absurd. For example a typical flight London – Amsterdam Joburg might cost £500, If I went from Exeter-Amsterdam-Joburg its likely to cost £1000 or more.

    The pricing structure (of airport slots) needs to change so its far more favourable to start from a regional airport like Exeter than from Heathrow. (ie it should be cheaper to fly from Exeter than Heathrow)

    Ultimately, overland (inc channel tunnel) short haul flights under 600KM should be phased out over the next decade and replaced with HS rail travel. This would free up slots at Heathrow and remove the need for more runways.

  • Ridiculous piece. Richmond is one of the most desirable places to live in the UK. The number of people who live there who couldn’t afford to move elsewhere is vanishingly small. The number of people who have lived there before Heathrow was noisy is also small. Richmond is packed full of wealthy people whose wealth is connected to London’s status as a legal, financial and transport hub.

  • Alistair 18th Dec ’13 – 7:21pm
    Richmond … … The number of people who have lived there before Heathrow was noisy is also small. Richmond is packed full of wealthy people whose wealth is connected to London’s status as a legal, financial and transport hub.

    I don’t know who Alastair is or where he lives but he is imply wrong. I have lived in Kingston Borough since 1960 – if you want to see how small Heathrow was at the time check out film of The Beatles returning by plane in 1964. I am not unusual in fact many people have lived in Richmond and Kingston long before me. Not everyone who lives in these Boroughs is rich. Not everyone can afford to move. If Alastair, whoever he is, would like a bus tour of the not so rich bits I can make full use of my old person’s bus pass to take him. He will want to bring his ear-plugs with him.

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