The Independent View: The Liberal case for airport expansion is strong

Centre Forum aviationThe debate over airport expansion, particularly in the South East, has been raging for decades. Later this year, it is due to reach a crucial moment as Howard Davies and the Airports Commission publish their final report. Ahead of this, CentreForum has published a report looking at the liberal case for aviation and explaining how genuine concerns over environmental challenges, noise and regional growth should be addressed.

Though not directly concerned with Liberal Democrat policy, the report does raise questions over the wisdom of the party’s current position.

The pre-manifesto commits to “carefully consider the conclusions of the Davies Review”, but it also states that the party “remain opposed to any expansion of Heathrow, Stansted or Gatwick and any new airport in the Thames Estuary” and commits to “ensure no net increase in runways across the UK as a whole”.

This is incoherent at best. Davies has already made clear that he will recommend new runways, and that his main contenders are Gatwick and Heathrow. And with good reason. Heathrow Airport is already full and Gatwick will be by 2020. In fact, all London’s airports are expected to be operating at capacity by 2041. If the Lib Dems are really want to “Ensure our airport infrastructure meets the needs of a modern and open economy” they will need to allow the capital’s airports to grow.

Flying may not sound like one of the fundamental freedoms that inspired John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith, but many core liberties are affected when airports are prevented from expanding. It is, for example, deeply regressive. Governmental constraints on runway capacity act in the same way as a quota, pushing up prices and so making flying even more of a luxury reserved for the rich. These higher prices also transfer wealth from consumers to producers; it is hard to understand why liberals would support a policy that encourages (arguably, necessitates) the extraction of monopoly rents by airports.

It also affects our ability to play a part on the world stage. Whether you want the Prime Minister to attend world summits, or you want to go there yourself and picket the global elite, it is going to require a plane. It would be a tragic irony if constrained airport capacity meant that, in the future, climate activists were forced to take indirect flights, thus pushing up their carbon emissions, and global poverty campaigners were forced to pay more to fly, thus diverting money away from aid projects in the developing world.

The economic case is well known. Airports support £32.2 billion of economic activity (2.1% of GDP) and between 200,000 and 1 million jobs. They are essential for the UK’s competitiveness, for both inward and outward investment, trade, tourism and immigration. The Treasury receives £20 billion due to aviation and related sectors.

There are real challenges. But the best way to resolve these is to tackle the problem rather than attack the industry. Surely the biggest of these is climate change. There is no question that we need to reduce the carbon emissions. But it is total UK (indeed, global) emissions that we should be targeting, not those of individual sectors. The independent Committee on Climate Change believes that the UK can accommodate a 55% increase in air traffic movements by 2050 without aviation adversely affecting greenhouse gas emissions. What matters is that we get the overall emissions framework right. Aviation is already incorporated in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation is assessing the feasibility of a worldwide cap-and-trade scheme. This is the most efficient and most effective way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

By comparison, constraining capacity at airports is likely to push emissions up. Planes “stacking” added 2% to aviation emissions in 2006. If travellers are diverted to European rather than UK airports, it increases the length (and thus emissions) of journeys. What is worse, it effectively exports emissions. Constraining London airports to the benefit of Paris and Amsterdam simply allows environmentalists in the UK to flatter themselves that our emissions are falling by passing the problem off to our neighbours.

Noise is a very real problem – though people who bought their houses in the past 40 years can hardly claim an unexpected one. In fact, over the past half century aircraft noise has fallen by approximately 95%. But the aviation industry should not rest on its laurels. More can and should be done to reduce noise, including through technological improvement, operational restrictions, and (if necessary) noise quotas, budgets and envelopes. What is more, airlines and airports should directly compensate those affected, as the CAA has suggested.

Much of the debate at the 2014 Autumn Conference revolved around the effect on other UK regions, however. This showed a remarkable amount of confusion. Firstly, delegates appeared to think that investment should be directed away from London. But this is not public investment, and we do not live in a planned economy. Government cannot and should not be trying to dictate where private investment goes; the choice is not between investment in the South East and investment elsewhere but between investment in the South East and no investment at all.

Secondly, airports outside the South East are not constrained. Bristol Airport is operating at 31% capacity, Birmingham at 60%, Glasgow at 50% and Manchester at 77%. Nothing is preventing these airports from laying on more flights and they do not need extra runways to do so. The reason they do not lay on more flights is that there is not sufficient demand; by comparison, London’s airports are increasingly unable to meet the demand that is there.

Thirdly, the regions benefit enormously from the South East’s successful airports. Large numbers of non-South East exports and business travellers fly via London airports. These airports are supplied by firms from across the UK. And tourists reach all corners of Britain via South East airports. Constraining the South East to “promote the regions” risks cutting off regional noses to spite the South East’s face.

Traditionally liberals have championed progress. Expanding the capacity to travel through growing our airports enables people to pursue their own life ambitions, be it through tourism, trade, visiting friends and relatives, operating globally renowned companies or providing a vital service to their neighbours. All this freedom creates the wealth on which our society is built. The costs should be borne by those who fly, the side effects should be contained and the losers should be compensated. But the liberal case for airport expansion remains strong.

* Tom Papworth is a member of Waltham Forest Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in The Independent View.


  • James Barber 26th Mar '15 - 2:52pm

    I beg to differ.
    Current landing and take off slots are wastefully allocated. If they were auctioned it would encourage much better allocation – to larger aircraft, quieter aircraft and resolve all the capacity issues suggested. While these slots are free from our government they are not wisely allocated. In fact the argument is then made we should have lots more slots provided via new runways. Madness while the externalities of environment, noise, health and ignored.
    Even the economic argument has been shown to be spurious. Majorityo f flights are for leisure not business and I have never been unable to fly on business where and when I wanted/needed to.
    So our Lib dem current policy is sane it just needs to be tempered with how we allocate the existing slots much more economically.

  • Robin Bennett 26th Mar '15 - 3:36pm

    Some of us in Scotland avoid Heathrow like the plague, and make our intercontinental journeys direct to Dubai and a few North American destinations or transit via Schipol or Shannon. To attract more international carriers, there should be a long term aim to establish one central Scotland airport . Airth, near Falkirk has been mentioned as a location

  • Why can’t those other, under-capacity, airports you mention outside of London fill much of the demand? This country would benefit from being less London centric.

  • George Potter 26th Mar '15 - 4:39pm

    Let’s get this straight:

    London’s airports are unable to meet demand
    Regional airports have unused capacity

    Sounds like a simple case for letting the market handle the problem to me through our old friend supply and demand.

  • and still they come, these unaccountable ‘think tanks’ pushing a line which is neither Liberal or progressive. What a surprise that Liberal Reform with its so called four cornered liberalism is mentioned.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 4:41pm

    Simon Oliver is right we should be seeking new and low environmental impact ways of communicating wherever possible. Some businesses and some ‘liberals’ don’t seem to have caught on to this yet.

    Robin and Jack are also right in their comments! Those of us in the North of England also avoid Heathrow and believe the entire country – including the people of London – would benefit from being less London-centric.

    I am so glad this article uses the word liberal as opposed to Liberal.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 4:46pm

    Caracatus 26th Mar ’15 – 4:41pm

    Odd that TTIP and ‘liberal vision’ weren’t squeezed in as well 🙂

  • I just despair of the people in these think tank who make assine comments like “Noise is a very real problem – though people who bought their houses in the past 40 years can hardly claim an unexpected one”

    Because we all have such unlimited choices – so many people over the past 40 years have thought shall I get a house in London so I can work and earn a living or shall I move to Caithness to get away from the aircraft noise.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Mar '15 - 5:18pm

    To be honest I thought, “The independent Committee on Climate Change believes that the UK can accommodate a 55% increase in air traffic movements by 2050 without aviation adversely affecting greenhouse gas emissions. What matters is that we get the overall emissions framework right. “, was a gem.

    So a 55% increase in air traffic combined with shifting the impact anywhere as long as it does not fall on this industry?

    I sometimes wonder if we a political party seeking to ‘build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community’ – or a pro-Heathrow, pro-TTIP, pro-tobacco pressure group.

  • Tony Greaves 26th Mar '15 - 7:12pm

    The CentreForum wrong as usual!


  • The real trouble is, if, to meet our climate change obligations we must leave fossil fuels in the ground then there will be no fuel to fuel any growth in aviation…

  • Given the success of OFTEL/OFCOMM auctioning of radio spectrum, I suggest it is imperative that any new capacity is owned by the UK government and it auctions off the right to use these slots for 5, 10 or 15 years to the highest bidder using the same techniques as have proved so effective in the various spectrum auctions for mobile telecommunications over the years.

    Additionally, as part of the consent to airport enlargement the holders of existing slots will have to voluntary surrender these slots to the pool…

    It wouldn’t surprise me to find that suddenly we have lots more flights and spare capacity, because operators find new and more efficient ways to use the airports…

  • Restricting aviation by demand (e.g. simply not allowing airports to expand infrastructure) is pretty much the least economic and environmentally sound way of regulating air traffic. You end up with poorly planned economic outcomes, embarassing infrastructure and tons of wasted CO2 in the air from planes flying around congested skies. I’d estimate I’ve spent over 30 hours this year alone circling Heathrow due to a lack of capacity on the runways (yes, I do fly a lot).

    As suggested in the article, the London area urgently requires more capacity even to cope with today’s traffic levels, but our dysfunctional planning regime and short termism amongst politicians of all political parties means that we’re likely to see a worsening of London’s international connections.

  • “In a few years when airplanes are noise and pollution free”

    That utopia has been coming “in a few years” since 1965.

  • Tom Papworth 26th Mar ‘
    “…shift the burden of carbon reduction onto those areas where the costs are lowest. That is the entire point of carbon trading. ”

    Some very serious commentators say that the main purpose of “carbon trading” is to provide a fig leaf for free-market ideologues who cannot admit that something like Climate Change can only be tackled by the actions of government, by state intervention and co-operation on a international scale.

    Do you honestly believe that the problems of Climate Change will be sorted by “carbon trading” and those philanthropic hedge fund managers making another fast buck ?

  • David-1 27th Mar ’15 – 4:14am

    Yes I have been waiting for that too, David-1
    Those good times which are just around the corner when airplanes are noise and pollution free, when the radioactive waste from nuclear power stations can be disposed of safely, when capitalism will solve the problems of hunger and poverty, and when we will all marry a handsome prince who used to be a frog.

  • Sara Scarlett 27th Mar '15 - 8:33am

    Referencing some sort of utopia is a straw man attack.

    Considering that in 1915 planes were made out of wood and jute canvas, what I am suggesting is logically the only way aviation can go. It’s the way cars are going to. Unless you’re expecting some sort of massive technological deviation/regression – perhaps you read too many steam punk novels – planes could easily be pollution and noise free in less than a hundred years.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 27th Mar '15 - 10:03am

    Roland 26th Mar ’15 – 8:49pm
    “I suggest it is imperative that any new capacity is owned by the UK government and it auctions off the right to use these slots for 5, 10 or 15 years to the highest bidder……..Additionally, as part of the consent to airport enlargement the holders of *existing slots* will have to voluntary surrender these slots to the pool…”

    Whether new capacity or existing slots [currently available in the regions] they should all be brought together [not voluntarily IMO] into a transitional period of auctions while we consider the report from Howard Davies and the Airports Commission – which will probably take many more years to resolve before planning can begin.

  • No time to read all of the above.
    Just to say :(1)
    I was told by someone that helped put down the runway at East Midlands- that they put down an extra Kilometer – or something like – it is grassed over he said. (it was in a pub- so don’t know for sure).
    Any-whoo- It is next to the M1 and will be next to HS2. Also, central for all.

    That with the rapid development of such things as Oculas Rift and the like. There will be fewer reasons to travel, as
    many meetings can take place in a “virtual world”. Watching the “Christmas Lectures” showed how it is even possible to shake hands across the internet.

    It may not be too long before we have vertical take-off. So all will become useless. 🙂

  • “Regional airports have unused capacity.” The Channel Tunnel also has unused capacity. We should be making better use of our existing capacity before considering expansion. Of course, the main reasons we are not using the Channel Tunnel effectively are political (security theatre, gold-plated safety regulations, high track access charges etc). Get this right and we could eliminate most short-haul air traffic between UK and mainland Western Europe.

  • Tom Papworth

    How many years has “carbon trading” been going now?
    Do you or Centre Forum have any evidence that it has made any difference to the problems of Climate Change?

    This is not a rhetorical question but a genuine request for information.

    What you say seems to be an article of faith in free-market approaches rather than something based on scientific fact.

  • “…… aircraft noise has fallen by 97% on departure and 94% on arrival over the past half-century. ”


    We can all hear the noise every time an aircraft lands or takes off.
    Are we wrong? Is it an illusion or a sort of mass psychosis?
    Is it really between 94% and 97% quieter than it used to be?

    The government and local authorities who still give grants for double glazing and taking special noise baffling measures for primary schools and hospitals near runways must be wasting their time and money.

    Why do RAF staff wear ear-protectors when on duty at air-strips?

  • I don’t understand why some people commenting here think a virtual reality world is so desirable. It fills me full of horror and is open to just as much corruption , if not more, as the real world of globalisation and the consequent need for air travel. Just imagine a virtual reality meeting between the President of the USA and Vladimir Putin and how that could be manipulated with dire results for all of us. I think the devil you know and can influence and regulate is vastly superior to the devil you don’t .

  • Incredible we now support airport expansion.

  • Sara Scarlett 27th Mar '15 - 4:48pm

    “I’m not sure I agree that planes will ever be silent…”

    Oh ye of little faith! Well, it’s happening whether you like it or not.

    We should be expanding Heathrow, Gatwick and building Boris Johnson’s airport island. It’s absurd that a city the size of London has two runways when somewhere like Chicago has eight.

  • Ted Striker 27th Mar '15 - 4:50pm

    The authors argue that blocking airport expansion is a clumsy way of tackling serious externality problems and that “textbook” mechanisms for dealing with externalities, such as a “carbon tax” or a cap and trade system would be more effective. Fine. Please do implement these less clumsy mechanisms. But just in case they don’t pan out or require more motivation than textbooks can provide, let’s tie airport expansion to their success.

  • “I don’t understand why some people commenting here think a virtual reality world is so desirable. It fills me full of horror and is open to just as much corruption , if not more, as the real world of globalisation and the consequent need for air travel. Just imagine a virtual reality meeting between the President of the USA and Vladimir Putin and how that could be manipulated with dire results for all of us.” Sue S 27th Mar ’15 – 1:39pm

    I don’t remember either Kennedy and Khrushchev meeting face-to-face to resolve the cuban missile crisis, however that crisis did demonstrate the necessity of a quick, clear, and direct communication line between Washington and Moscow, which was duly installed. The issue is with all communications, there are times when it is appropriate and necessary to meet face-to-face and there are times when other forms of communication better fit the bill. The problem is where it is easy and quick to travel, certainly in a business context, it is very easy to get into the mindset that every meeting should be face-to-face and then it doesn’t take long to reach a point where you spend more time travelling to and from meetings than actually doing the job you’re being paid to do…

  • Malcolm Todd 29th Mar '15 - 4:25pm

    Simon Oliver
    “Any greenhouse gas emissions at cruising height have double the warming potential of emissions are ground level, so even producing entirely artificial avgas using only renewable energy and feedstock would only reduce the impact of aircraft emissions by 50%”

    No doubt I’ll be accused of nitpicking (I usually am); but I’m confused by this claim. If an aircraft is emitting no greenhouse gases (something I don’t expect I’ll live to see, but you never know) then how can that “only reduce the impact of aircraft emissions by 50%”? Double zero is still zero. Have I misunderstood the point you’re making?

  • Many of the comments in this thread do not seem to take into account what is mentioned in the report and has already been pointed out in an earlier comment about the sponsors of the report —
    Nick 27th Mar ’15 – 1:30pm
    “….CentreForum is grateful to Gatwick Airport, Heathrow Airport, Let Britain Fly, Heathrow Hub and GTMC for their generous support.”

  • Stephen Hesketh 30th Mar '15 - 10:49am

    JohnTilley30th Mar ’15 – 7:39am
    Nick 27th Mar ’15 – 1:30pm

    Well said Nick and John.
    “….CentreForum is grateful to Gatwick Airport, Heathrow Airport, Let Britain Fly, Heathrow Hub and GTMC for their generous support.”

    This is an alternative view. There have to be concerns regarding it being ‘Independent’ in the usual sense of the word.

  • Richard Underhill 28th Nov '15 - 2:07pm

    Federal conference passed policy on airports. Ably led by Duncan Brack we opposed the enviromental damage.
    In Tunbridge Wells we campaigned against Gatwick in the general election. The Tory-controlled Borough Council has passed a motion against Gatwick. Many residents are upset by the existing noise and the threat of worse to come in the event of expansion.
    On 28/11/2015 Greg Clark MP chaired a consultation in the Assembly Hall. He announced that A320 owned by EasyJet will be retrofitted with equipment which should eliminate an annoying whine, by June 2016. The heads of various UK and international quangos are sensitised. Gatwick is up for sale and the owners are sensitive. The Chairman of Gatwick appointed two ‘indepependent’ consultants to report to him, but restricted their remit. They are to report, so far, on aircraft landings, but not on take-offs. Questioners included two Tory borough councillors,
    One of the consultants told us that they are not resposible for the weather. For instance if residents are having a barbecue on a Saturday, outdoors. (How docile or stupid does he think we are? Pilots respond to weather all the time, from headwinds to volcanoes). He also said that they are not responsible for where we live, residents are. (In fact we looked carefully at Gatwick flightpaths when choosing where to live, but the flightpaths have since changed, moving house is expensive).
    As Sir Humphrey Appleby said in Yes Minister: “The train runs on its guidelines and arrives at its intended destination.”
    Further information will be available, when recommendations are made and in response to questionnaires.
    Commercial aircraft are only part of the problem. Low-flying, unsilenced RAF planes made a terrible noise, but have not been heard recently. Small light aircraft seem to be unsilenced and fly in the same area for long periods on summer afternoons. Helicopters associated with the PFI hospital at Pembury are needed because improvements to the B2015 (linking Tunbridge Wells hospital with Maidstone hospital) have been postponed into the never-never.
    Radical thoughts include:
    1) If space shuttles can land without actual power, or reserve power, why do aircraft need power on landing?
    2) Is there a case for hybrid vehicles as in Formula 1 cars and in road cars?
    3) What about global warming? Increased busines for airports seems to mean more flights and more exhaust fumes.

  • Gillian Douglass 30th Nov '15 - 10:38am

    Adding to Richard’s comments, we also campaigned for a wider variation in flight paths in Tunbridge Wells. This would have the effect of spreading noise pollution over a wider number of people.

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