Julian Huppert MP writes… Liberal Democrats need a clear policy on the future of aviation

Over the last few months, speculation over the Government’s aviation policy has filled countless column inches. The majority of it has been based on very little evidence.

Perhaps the lack of evidence isn’t surprising, given the way aviation policy has been formed during recent years. When Labour decided to build a third runway at Heathrow, they did so by completely ignoring the fact that, already, a quarter of all those in Europe who are affected by aviation noise live under the Heathrow flight path.

Not only that, but Labour decided to figure out if we could meet our carbon reduction targets after they decided to build the runway.

Policy first, evidence later.

Liberal Democrats knew from the off that, not only would a third runway be a disaster for hundreds of thousands of Londoners, in terms of noise pollution and air quality, it would force us to miss our carbon reduction targets. So too would runways at Gatwick and Stansted.

That is precisely why I am proposing a new motion at Conference, on Sunday morning, which affirms our opposition to runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

It also makes clear that we will not support Boris Island. As I’ve written here before, his proposals would be disastrous for the environment, and utterly inaccessible for the millions of people living outside London and the South-East. Boris Island is a no-go.

But there are benefits to aviation – for business, for tourism, for enabling people to learn about other countries and cultures, see family and friends. As the RSPB, amusingly, said ‘We are not opposed to flying’ – and nor are the Liberal Democrats.

So we need a clear policy on the future of aviation – how we maximise the benefits from it, and also meet our carbon reduction targets. How we balance its role in economic growth, with the noise pollution it causes.

First, we need to make the best use of the capacity we have. I know lots of people who were very surprised when Virgin announced this week that they have the capacity to fly new routes from Heathrow to Manchester. There is clearly scope for us to incentivise short-haul flights to move out of Heathrow, to say Stansted and Gatwick, and encourage domestic flyers to use rail – particularly when high speed rail brings Manchester within 1 hour 13 minutes of London. This would leave slots for long-haul flights, especially to new destinations in South America and Asia.

Crucially, we can also support other airports in London and the rest of the country. There’s lots of space already at those airports, with no new runways and no new terminals. Gatwick has a fifth of their capacity free while Stansted is only half full, and neither are asking for a new runway. Instead, they want rail connections to make the airport more accessible, and we should support that.

We should also be unafraid to support use of existing capacity at Birmingham and Manchester – balanced growth is long overdue.

Second, it’s vital that we recognise that, while Heathrow has a vital role as it is our only hub, it is not the long-term solution, and must not be treated as such. It is a function of bad planning and political weakness that our hub is located so close to hundreds of thousands of Londoners, with no room for expansion. So the motion opposes night flights, Mixed-Mode flying and any interim measures which allow politicians to create a whole new stop-gap, which does little but bring misery for Londoners and delay any long-term solution.

Third, the motion lays down a clear cap for the aviation industry. In 2009 the independent Committee on Climate Change discussed an appropriate level which emissions should not exceed – around 37.5MtCO2 a year. Beyond this level it will become extremely difficult for us to meet our 2050 emission target – a target which would still allow global temperatures to rise by around 2 degrees. It’s time we listened to the scientific advice and adopt this as a cap for the industry.

Finally, we have to be clear that, even with this cap, we still have space for a 60% increase in current passenger numbers, allowing for reasonable technological improvements. So with this cap in place, the country still has huge scope to increase access to emerging markets, and grow this vital industry.

There are large questions over how we do this. DfT forecasts suggest we could reach this cap in about 2030 with the capacity we have. So we would actually reach our environmental limit without any new runways anywhere.

But, in order to make flights to new markets economically viable, there are benefits from concentrating flights in one area. Airlines will only lay down new routes when they have enough transfer passengers, particularly business users, to make a flight viable, and that requires both long and short haul passengers to be able to transfer within the limits of a single airport.

The motion, therefore, sets out a clear basis upon which future capacity decisions should be made: accessibility from North and South; growth only within UK carbon budgets; minimal impact to local population; minimal impact to the local environment; and maximum hubbing potential.

In my book, that effectively rules out Heathrow, due to local impacts, and Boris Island, due to both local impact and lack of accessibility (and some rather exceptional local issues – eg birdstrike and the SS Richard Montgomery). And it also rules out adding runways on to other London airports, because that could create 2 separate hubs which could inhibit our access to new destinations in the long-term, while maxing out our available carbon envelope.

The policy motion does, however, imply that we can seek an alternative hub (or expand an existing airport into a hub) – although crucially it absolutely must result in the concomitant closure of other runways, to make sure the country does not have a level of airport capacity which would force us to miss climate change targets. There may not be a suitable alternative, but we should seek to find one if it exists – and would be subject to the same overall constraints, ruling out Boris Island, for example.

The motion contains other measures aimed at greening the industry, as well as short-term tactics we can use to improve our use of existing capacity. But I firmly believe that the broad framework is there.

We must start from the evidence: that unrestrained capacity could bankrupt our children’s environment, and their future. At the same time, we must identify a fair and balanced way in which we can concentrate existing capacity, to serve our needs now and in the long-term.

I hope that this motion will spark a proper debate at Conference, and give us a policy which Lib Dems can get behind.

* Julian Huppert was the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge from 2010-15

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  • Richard Dean 29th Aug '12 - 12:09pm

    It is surely technically feasible to make all of our airports into one big hub – so that Manchester, Brimingham, Cardiff, Bristol, Edinburgh, Manchester,etc …., as well as Stansted and Gatwik can be managed in terms of air traffic control and a single airport? This could be a more user-friendly system as well as one that spread the costs and benefoits of aviation more fairly throughout the country.

  • Alex Macfie 29th Aug '12 - 1:13pm

    Any policy on aviation should consider alternative travel modes. In particular, we should seek to reduce short-haul international flights by making use of spare capacity in the Channel Tunnel. It’s still possible to fly from airports in SE England to destinations in mainland Europe that are now easily reachable by train. This clearly indicates that we are not making best use of the rail link to the mainland. Unfortunately, the excessive safety and security requirements for passenger train services make this difficult. We need to work with the IGC to make it easier to run trains through the CT (for instance, there is no need for special safety requirements: it’s just another rail tunnel); abolish airport-style check-in and instead have border controls done on board the train (as in pre-Schengen mainland Europe) and allow international trains running in the UK to carry domestic passengers as well. These regulatory changes would make it possible to run a much greater level and variety of international train services; thus we could get practically all short-haul air passengers to mainland Europe onto rail, freeing up the air slots for long-haul flights.

  • toryboysnevergrowup 29th Aug '12 - 1:14pm

    I agree that the main constraints should be the overall level of emissions , the use of scarce resources and decibels created . And if we are serious about those being the constaints then it would make sense to allocate capacity and make charges for its use on that basis – witness what has happened to car CO2 emiisions when company car tax charges were made on that basis. Even better if we could get EU/worldwide agreement about operating on such a basis.

    But if you accept that there can be some capacity growth within those constraints then I would have thought that there would be some argument to say that costs of building airports and of disruption to those living nearby are likely to be minimised overall by expanding existing airports rather than creating new ones. I have some doubts about making people use regional airports if they don’t want to – and won’t that mean more take offs and landings and enviromental damage as a result?

  • jenny barnes 29th Aug '12 - 3:47pm

    The policy motion does, however, imply that we can seek an alternative hub (or expand an existing airport into a hub)
    it also rules out adding runways on to other London airports
    These things don’t make sense together. Why couldn’t the alternative hub be stansted? for example?

    Just because BA like Heathrow, and we have a lot of sunk cost there.

  • William Corderoy 29th Aug '12 - 8:13pm

    It is completely disingenuous to say that the Thame Estuary airport would be inaccessible to millions and I’m sick to death of hearing this as excuse.
    Read the Halcrow and Fosters Plans.

    One of the central pillars of the plan is to build an orbital railway around London, following roughly the course of the M25. By doing so, they will not only join up all of the arterial train routes out of London, but also connect the airport to HS1 and HS2. This will in fact make it the MOST accessible airport in the country.

    Some say the orbital rail is a separate issue to the Thames Estuary plans, this however is not the case. They believe it is crucial for the airport to be accessible for everyone, not just London. Hence why they also propose to build the single largest train station, in terms of passenger numbers, underneath the airport terminal.

    I’m all for an open debate about aviation in this country, however it is not for politicians to decide whether certain plans are unworkable. It must up to Engineers to decide whether a scheme is unworkable – Birdstike, SS Montgomerry, Air Traffic etc etc arre technical problems, with a solution providing there is the political backing. It’s just too easy for politicians to dismiss the plans because of their technical difficulty.

    Surely all plans must be on the table? Including Heathrow, Thames Estuary and regional airports. What sort of debate immediately ignores two of the solutions. Debate the pros and cons of each scheme, do not however ignore that facts that you disagree with.

  • William Corderoy 29th Aug '12 - 8:17pm

    Apologies for the various spelling mistakes in the previous post.

  • Totally agree with what William Corderoy said. We cannot rule out a long term solution of a Thames Estuary airport without proper examination of whether the potential problems (birdstrikes, accessibility) really are that great.

    Julian Huppert is being inconsistent in calling for an evidence based approach and then promptly rejecting a Thames Estuary airport out of hand on the basis of what appears to be anecdotal evidence.

    On the other hand I do agree that, much improved connectivity between London’s existing airports and between these and other destinations particularly Birmingham International and Paris CDG with could help massively. It would weld them into one superhub with additional transport benefits for ground based travellers.

  • Fred Stephenson 30th Aug '12 - 12:27am

    Here we go again with the “don’t give up on the Thames Estuary airport” junk. The estuary airport is a NO GO. It’s a fantasy, unworkable due to more than just as Mr. Corderoy of the horrendous spelling says “technical problems.” Is it a technical problem to mass destroy nesting wildlife and thousands of species of sea life to accommodate business travelers? Is it a technical problem for flights to be constantly grounded or rerouted for intense fog which is more frequent in the estuary and other dangerous conditions even the air traffic controllers believe is unworkable? Is it a technical problem for the thousands of jobs lost due to loss of tourists along the estuary both in Kent and Essex?

    And if not the politicians, who do you want dictating the fate of the thousands whose lives would be disrupted and possibly ruined over the noise and pollution on the estuary. Unlike those in London, these people were there long before this idea was even conceived in Mr. Johnson’s beady little brain. Our politicians are our VOICE, or should be (though I had come to doubt it until now.)

    So THANK YOU LIB DEMS! Thank you for the solutions you’ve presented! It’s so good to FINALLY see our politicians stand up and take note at the reality of the situation at hand. You have my vote AND my donation. I had almost given up hope that anyone was listening.

  • William Corderoy 30th Aug '12 - 6:54am

    Are you telling me wildlife cannot be relocated over the period of 20 years, or however long it will take to build? As far as I’m aware, 20km^2 of habitat is set to be lost, yet they will reclaim 60km^2 of land further up the coast. As for the “thousands of species of sea life” point, well that’s just spurious and I haven’t seen any evidence to support that claim.

    The fog point may be valid, but yes it is a technical problem. Planes already have the technology to land in fog, so the rerouting point is also false. The taking off is more of an issue – but seeing as the airport will be running 24hrs, I can’t see it being a major issue, however I would like to see more evidence on the point.

    The air traffic controllers deem it unworkable if Heathrow remains open – which of course would not be the case.

    Of course politicians must ultimately dictate, but what I’m saying is it’s not for politicians to dismiss plans solely on their technical difficulty – that’s what feasibility studies are for. I just don’t understand the logic of wanting a open, evidence based debate about aviation, but immediately ignoring all options in the South East.

    The reason of course is clear – the Lib Dems are currently haemorrhaging support, and they don’t want another TV replay moment , like the tuition fees where they promise one thing yet deliver another. It’s one of the reasons infrastructure is never built in this country, don’t do best for the country because it will loose you votes. This country desperately needs a long term vision.

    Is it sensible to arbitrarily block all proposals in the South East? The South East is set to have the largest population rise. It’s also, conveniently, the closest and best connected to Europe, and would maximise the airport’s hub status.

    I’m aware of the controversies around the scheme, however they are not sufficient for it to be completely excluded from the debate.

  • CAA data show that the majority of people flying from Manchester to LHR are connecting to other flights. For these people getting to London is not the aim, getting to Heathrow is the aim. So it is likely that many of them will fly even if HS2 happens.

  • I’ve never understood why the price of landing slots are not set by the market. Surely if there is spare capacity in the system at other airports then a market based pricing for landing slots would ensure there was financial incentives for airlines to move flights away from Heathrow to where ever there is space available, and the true cost of landing at Heathrow would be passed on to customers, so reducing demand.

  • Clearly, Tim (Pollard), you have a pretty magical view drawn from your initial economics textbook!

  • Tim P: The point of a price system is really to get more supply when prices rise, rather than to ration existing supply…

  • Boris Island is a NO, No, NO, nO…how many ways are there to say ‘no’? A few birds and spurious anecdotal evidence of sea-life? There is a great saying ‘you can’t educate pork’, especially pork that thinks it already knows something. The world does not revolve around human beings, and when we eventually destroy our species and a myriad of others along the way, the blue planet will still be here. We are its custodians, we need to find ways of doing what we want to do without disrupting the planet or any of its species any more than we have to. There are other less disruptive ways of creating the aviation capacity that (it is claimed) we need. Lets start by doing an audit of all the airfields that already exist in the UK, operational or not… just how many were built at public expense during the war years, how many of them still exist and could provide the runway capacity needed, operated as an annexe from an existing airport, with a Maglev connection from an existing terminal… has anyone asked the question?
    Why do you think the likes of Halcrow are supportive of Boris Island, (and The Severn Barrage, and countless other mega-structures)? .. because it involves Civil Engineering, lots of aggregates, lots of concrete, lots of steel = lots of profit for them… whether the project produces the goods or not they will have made their money and gone on around the globe building more stuff. Get real..!

  • It SHOULD be easy to go by train than plane to many mainland European destinations, but it is not from the East of England. One can easily drive to Stansted.
    To get to Eurostar with its pre-book only services, one either has an hour for the unpredictable Underground journey from Liverpool Street to St Pancras, or one has to allow an hour for possible delays getting to Ebbsfleet via the Dartford Bridge. Why does Eurostar provides 2 stops on the Kent side of the Thames, but none on the north side. Why was Stratford Internatonal built so far from Stratford Regional?
    What we need to get people going abroad by train is better connections to rail hubs.
    To reduce inland flights we need to improve non radial services, for example by restoring Ipswich to Birmingham through trains and speeding them up.

  • The lack of any actual international train services at Stratford “International” station is probably for the same reason that Ashford “International” has a quasi-parliamentary international train service: they are banned from carrying domestic passengers in the UK, so stops on the UK side lead to empty seats for the UK part of their run. That needs to change. It would also be nice if cross-Channel trains weren’t “pre-book only”, but “walk-up, buy a ticket and hop on” like traditional train services. But Eurostar operates like an airline, so that isn’t likely to happen unless an alternative operator emerges.

  • I absolutely agree that there need to be better connections between the UK rail network and international trains — not just from central London. From southern Kent it’s almost as bad as from East Anglia. Just as one would not expect to have to travel by train from Rugby to Manchester by backtracking southwards to Watford or London Euston, so it seems madness that at most times of the day one has to travel by train from Ashford to France by backtracking to Ebbesfleet or St Pancras.

  • Can Julian Huppert please address the inconsistency of the apparent contradiction in his own argument.

    “It is a function of bad planning and political weakness that our hub is located so close to hundreds of thousands of Londoners”
    “proposals [for an airport in the Thames Estuary] would be… utterly inaccessible for the millions of people living outside London and the South-East.”

    Surely it is a product of planning that so many people live so close to the hub, not a function (since the suburban sprawl occurred largely after Heathrow was designated, not before) – and therefore constitutes not bad planning, but bad plans.

    Such a basic factual error is unworthy of him.

    So his point about accessibility depends more upon the road and rail transport infrastructure he seems to support rather than any location he doesn’t.

  • “So it is likely that many of them will fly even if HS2 happens.”

    Totally agree.

    One look at the revised track plans for HS2, namely the version that includes a link with HS1 – remember HS2 was originally proposed as a London-Birmingham line only, will show that running high-speed through trains is not an intention and will not be possible.
    This all due to the convolutions necessary to get a line that was intended to terminate in Euston (and will continue to terminate at Euston for no justifiable operational reason) to link to a line designed and built to terminate at St.Pancras, whilst not eradicating Camden, From the plans, given the curves and gradients necessary to align these two track formations and the need to be a good neighbour, it will be be unlikely that HS2 trains will negotiate this segment of track at anything more than 30~40mph (in all the HS2 documentation, I’ve not seen a provisional operational service plan that contains the intended speeds of the various sections of the route), thereby ensuring that all through journeys contain a permanent delay of at least 10~15 minutes…

  • What is so special about these golden voters that live under the flight path of Heathrow that we have to strangle our economy to suit them?

  • Tim Pollard 4th Sep '12 - 2:35pm

    Surely the point is that we need to incentivise the use of other airports in the UK and encourage people who are just changing planes at Heathrow (which is quite a high proportion) to fly more directly or use alternative routes. Making Heathrow more expensive would achieve both these, while generating money to offset the environmental impact of the place and to improve transport links to other airports.

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