Opinion: Heathrow expansion: big money versus public health

This week’s ‘advertorials’ from Heathrow Hub were just the latest example of the role big money plays in the so-called aviation ‘debate’ in West London.

Heathrow Hub, by the way, is not Heathrow airport. In fact the Heathrow Hub website is run by the Maitland PR firm on behalf of business men who have an option on the land around Heathrow. Heathrow’s rival PR team accuse Heathrow Hub (following so far?) of coming up with plans which fail to “provide respite from noise for local residents.” Which may well be true but would probably receive more sympathy from people in my neck of the woods if it did not come from a company which itself was investing so heavily in lobbying for more night flights and up to two new runways.

For those who do not live in London or the South East, it is worth quickly recapping the facts – the sort of things you won’t find mentioned in the advertorials from Heathrow hub, the massive adverts from Heathrow plastered around London, or the sponsored events at party conferences.

Before any expansion option is even considered, over 725,000 people are already affected by noise from Heathrow.

No airport in Europe comes even close to that level of noise pollution. In fact, half of all the people in Europe affected by aircraft noise live under the Heathrow flight path. Yes, you read that correctly. Of all the citizens in all of Europe who suffer from aircraft noise, half of them live near me!

This is not some NIMBYish complaint or simply an irritant. People close to the airport are more likely to suffer health problems and high levels of stress and anxiety due to exposure throughout the day from aircraft noise.

Just last month, a study in the British Medical Journal became the latest to address the issue. It found the risks of stroke, heart and circulatory disease are higher in areas with a lot of aircraft noise. The study of 3.6 million residents near Heathrow Airport suggested the risks were 10-20% higher in areas with the highest levels of aircraft noise.

The health impacts of living with constant aircraft noise are particularly serious when it comes to Heathrow because of the night flights regime which currently sees thousands of people living under the flight path woken up before 5am. These night flights rid residents of their few hours of respite from aircraft noise.

The Liberal Democrats passed a new resolution at our conference in Brighton in 2012, explicitly committing the party to a policy of no night flights at Heathrow (except, of course, for emergencies). It is very difficult to imagine any business-case for jet-lagged trans-continental commuters arriving in London for a working day beginning at 5am.

A third or fourth new runway at an airport positioned so close to a residential part of our capital city would lead to the destruction of homes and entire villages. It would be an environmental outrage and a noise pollution disaster for hundreds of thousands of residents, including people not currently affected.

Yet the whole pro-expansion side of the issue, which is rolling in money and spending it furiously, is able to get its views across forcefully and frequently in the media. So it is important to challenge the assumptions and myths.

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). There is existing capacity in the UK which is under-used, not least because the airlines are still using the slots at Heathrow for small planes which are not even full. And passengers from regional airports are travelling through Heathrow to get to the continent, on planes which take up slot space, with no incentive to change.

But what about the economy, the pro-expansion lobby ask. How can we continue to compete without better connectivity?

Of course London must be connected to the world – and especially to the fast growing emerging markets. But Heathrow expansion is not the answer. Richmond Heathrow Campaign is a non-partisan anti-expansion pressure group which has made a series of proposals to the Davies Commission looking into aviation capacity. RHC point out that figures from 2010 show that UK business long-haul accounts for just 2% of the UK’s total 182m passengers. Foreign business long-haul passengers coming into the UK is also at just 2%. Foreign leisure long-haul (eg. Chinese tourism which benefits our economy) is at 5% and UK leisure long-haul (so people leaving the UK) is 11%. So longhaul represents 20% of the market, excluding transfers. When you then factor in how badly used our city’s and country’s existing airport capacity is, the real picture starts to emerge.

It doesn’t suit all the players in this game to highlight the inefficiencies. Why, for example, does Heathrow say it is full at 70m passengers a year when Terminal 5 was supposed to provide capacity for 90m a year? Does it suit Heathrow more to just continually push for expansion rather than to help manage the UK’s existing capacity properly? Heathrow is a company; it naturally wants to expand.

It’s not exactly rocket science to realise that the massive industry that has grown up around lobbying for expansion serves well the people who would benefit from it. But let’s not forget that any proposals from either Heathrow or Boris Johnson for large-scale aviation expansion could only ever be made good with lots of money from the public purse.

However cynical the lobbying has become, though, let us be in no doubt why the Heathrow expansion issue is back as a clear and present danger. It’s because the Conservatives are divided and chaotic on an issue that affects hundreds of thousands of residents. The Conservative Mayor of London says he would like Heathrow to shut down altogether. Meanwhile, senior Conservatives in Parliament say we should actually be building not just a third but a fourth runway there. This constant confusion is unfair on residents who were told at the last election that the Tories had seen the light and would oppose expansion at Heathrow.

We need a strategy combining the existing and under-used capacity of Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick – and indeed regional airports so that passengers stop having to go via Heathrow to get to Europe. Investing in transport infrastructure to link our existing airports is the sustainable way to go.

The Liberal Democrats continue to provide the only rational and consistent approach: 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 continue to oppose all night flights. To join our campaign, visit www.no3rdrunway.org.uk

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

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  • Why are the Lib Dems pushing for “no more expansion” rather than “noise reduction”?

    It’s stupid to say there’s no business case for Heathrow expansion then to point out that Heathrow is a business. If a business wants to expand then that is, by definition, a business case.

    Why aren’t we saying yes to things like Heathrow Hub but only 1. on the condition that it’s all private-sector funded, 2. on the condition that they pay for work to ensure that existing residents suffer from less noise rather than merely accepting the status quo?

  • Thomas Long 14th Nov ’13 – 2:53pm

    I suggest you read Robin Meltzer’s excellent comprehensive piece again and then you will not have to ask such questions. Robin has already answered your points. If there is anything at all in his piece that is too complex for you to follow I am sure Robin will happily spell it out.
    Public health is a key factor here for the 725,000people already suffering from the existing over-development of the existing Heathrow. It is not just the appalling aircraft noise that results in damage to the health of those who live in South West and West London. If you are unfamiliar with the published reports they are easily accessible and have been widely covered in the media.

    Robin Meltzer offers a clear and well researched response to the big money propaganda of Heathrow Hub but he is a David fighting an enormous Goliath with very deep pockets.

  • Brian Paddick 14th Nov '13 - 5:17pm

    Do we trust the independent Howard Commission to make an objective decision based on the facts and if we do, are we prepared to accept the outcome?

  • “Robin Meltzer’s excellent comprehensive piece” agree, in some ways the piece is refreshing as it focuses on the players and context rather than the details of the various schemes being proposed. I also like the restrained language Robin has used to get his message across.

    As for night flights, I haven’t experienced them, but know from the mid-90’s how disturbing the first arrivals around 5am were after a quiet night’s sleep. During my year in Hounslow, the alarm clock was used solely to remind me of the correct time to go to the office – having been up for several hours working in my room, it was very easy to overlook the passing of time. But then we would welcome the 5pm arrival of Concorde as buried deep in the computer suite, it was the one flight we could feel.

  • The idea that LHR is this huge public health threat is absurd. Far greater impact is seen from air pollution caused by cars and buses, in terms of preventing deaths, tweaking rules around HGVs driving through London in the rush hour is more relevant. I use Gatwick Heathrow and Eurostar for work and its a fact that the global connectivity of the South East is a huge positive economic driver. LHR doesn’t need public funds.

  • Alistair 15th Nov ’13 – 6:51am
    The idea that LHR is this huge public health threat is absurd.

    When it comes to the health of 725,000 people should we believe the many years of medical evidence as published, peer reviewed in the relevant medical journals?
    Or should we believe ‘Alistair” who says that all that medical evidence and hospital data is “absurd” ?

    It is a matter of fact that Heathrow is already having a serious impact on the health of people living in the area affected. Recently published data on the incidence of stroke in the population living in the shadow of Heathrow being just one example of what is a whole library of data collated over decades. This is not some vague speculation or loosely held opinion it is the fact of living near Heathrow. Lazy and facile assertions of absurdity are no substitute for medical evidence.

  • peter tyzack 15th Nov '13 - 10:10am

    Making full use of the underused capacity of Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick is clearly the way to go, a Maglev system or even an overhead Metro serving the three would be better than passengers having to rely on coaches on M25 or a mix of underground/overground, The other way to go must be the tax switch from ‘per-passenger’ to ‘per-plane’ to encourage full planes, and the move to more efficient larger planes, such as the A380.

  • @Thomas Long
    “If a business wants to expand then that by definition is a business case”.
    It is not right to accept a case just because the business itself wants it; too much of that has happened for too long when we need to have some control over how business operates. Business also has an inbuilt conservatism, often being very slow to see, or invest, in alternative ways of operating. Until public pressure persuades them otherwise they will always take the easiest option, rather than look at alternatives and the lobbying referred to by Robin is getting out of all proportion and damaging the effectiveness of our democracy.
    In this case, one major factor is the need to use regional airports; for example Birmingham is already building capacity that will allow for huge expansion in passengers, but with the airlines not yet showing signs of using it. It is only by some restriction on the way business operates can they be persuaded to change their ways so that people benefit with their quality of life and not just financially.
    This includes the way people travel; I and many others who do not live in the South East are finding increasingly that flying to some parts of Europe and to other continents is very restricted in choice without going via Heathrow.
    I also see this argument as part of a much wider debate about economic development which yet again is inclined to go much more to the power base of London and the South East, rather than being fairly distributed around the country.

  • @Brian Paddick – Do we have the self belief to review and assess the results produced by the Howard Commission to determine whether its conclusions have been based on values and principles the Lib Dems accept, or do we simply acknowledge that outsourcing decision making, like the Browne Review, is an acceptable mechanism for determining Lib Dem Policy?

  • Richard Dean 15th Nov '13 - 11:29am

    @David Evans, Brian Paddick
    Do we offer the electorate questions, or solutions?
    Which might they vote for, I wonder?

  • I would suggest they would vote for a Lib Dem solution. If on the other hand you don’t have confidence that the Lib Dems could develop such a solution, you could always rename the party the “Bureaucratic Solutions Party.”

  • Richard Fagence 15th Nov '13 - 12:57pm

    I live in Windsor, right under the incoming flight path if aircraft are landing on to the northern runway from the west. I have been here for forty-three years. In all that time every single promise made by Heathrow on expansion, the need for more terminals, more runways, night flights and you name it has either been broken, ignored or untrue. Yesterday I was polled by Populus on the telephone. The very pleasant young lady started by asking me my age and who I usually voted for. So far, so easy. Then she began asking my opinion on a series of questions and statements. Every single one was about Heathrow. Many of them were unanswerable. Heathrow was described as Britain’s only hub airport and, when I disputed that, she had to explain that she was nowhere near Heathrow and was simply asking the questions on the screen in front of her and which Populus’ client had requested. Now I wonder who that client could possibly be?

    Heathrow is now, has always been and will always be in the wrong place. No amount of expansion and re-jigging of the existing infrastructure will change that fact. I was asked if I would be more likely to voote for my current MP if he voted against further expansion. As my current MP is the appalling Adam Afriyie, I was able to answer that question easily!

    So if, like Robin and me, you live within a five or six mile radius of Heathrow, get ready for the phone call from the hard working staff of Populus sometime soon.

  • If LHR did no exist today there would be no question of siting it where is located today as the obvious noise and health problems it brings to its flight path areas would go against it.

    Therefore, once we recognise it, there should be no question of allowing the current proposed expansion much less the inevitable future ones.

    Hence the question becomes where should the airport to replace it be located? That’s a big decision but that it what government is for. I would suggest locating it on A HS2-style line thus taking pressure off London and changing the economics of the chosen HS2-style line.

  • @Paul R
    The real challenge is getting Westminster ie. London based politic’s and government, to move away from a London centric view of the UK. Currently, they are keen to do practically anything to ensure London remains at the centre of everything, even if it is to the detriment of it’s own residents.

  • Meher Oliaji 15th Nov '13 - 10:58pm

    The business case for expansion is that there are people who want to use that airport, (it would be nice if we could persuade the paying customer to use the underused capacity at Stansted or Gatwick, but strangely enough, s/he is resolutely unpersuadeable) and there are at least 100,000 households with jobs dependent on the airport. A lot of those families will be among the 730,000 affected by the noise, and a lot will have moved to the area because it is economically thriving, For every one person who would sleep sounder without Heathrow are many more who would lie awake wondering where they are going to find another job. Robin is right that the case for expansion is being made by big businesses with deep pockets but we should be wary of assuming that all the “little guys” are on our side.

  • Andrew Colman 16th Nov '13 - 1:30pm

    The answer to the 3rd runway issue, is to phase out all overland air journeys under 600 KM (including journeys though the channel tunnel)

    Airlines should instead be encouraged to invest in or partner with HS train companies instead for these shorter journeys. Thus is one wanted to fly Air France from Paris, one would take Eurostar to CDG airport in Paris and take the plane from there, or is one wanted to take a BA flight starting from Brussels, one would take the Eurostar to London and catch a plane at Heathrow. The HS rail infrastructure already covers Paris & Brussels well and should be extended to most other large cities in NW Europe over the next few years.

    Abolishing the short hall flight, we free up slots enabling expansion to longer distance venues, problem solved

  • @Andrew Colman
    What an integrated transport strategy with rules and incentives!!!
    Mind you, the downside (for some) would be that it would take HS2 back to the drawing board as then people and business really would not be prepared to live with it’s many limitations. But if we are to have a ‘superfast’ rail network that actually delivers real benefits then let’s do it properly.

  • Are you against a planned third runway at Heathrow?
    Are you concerned about the impact on the quality of your life and house prices in the area, if Runway 3 gets green lit?
    Do you live in South West London under Heathrow Flight paths?
    Then show your support by getting involved.

    We are looking to film a 2 minute short film in or around Richmond on May 31. For this we need a diverse cast of people that represent the lives of people living under Heathrow Flight Paths.

    We also need a location as in a large house with which to film people.
    If you can be a part of this then call
    07941 741 577 [email protected]

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