Is increasing air capacity a wise idea?
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A third runway at Heathrow would be an off-the-scale betrayal
11th September, 2012
David Cameron will pay a high price if he opts for the unfair and unpopular non-solution that Heathrow expansion represents
More passengers fly in and out of London than any other city in the world. We have ample capacity
The prime minister believes we face a crisis over aviation capacity in London. As a result, he has put Heathrow's third runway back into the mix. Given the "no ifs, no buts" pledge he made before the election, it's a major leap. Combined with the removal of the well-respected transport secretary, Justine Greening, and the equally respected aviation minister, Theresa Villiers, both of whom resolutely defended the government's stated opposition to Heathrow expansion, all this points to an imminent U-turn.
Why else would the government have announced (yet another) aviation review that will not report until the summer of 2015? After all, if we face a crisis of undercapacity, it is surely odd that the only policy we have in place is an absolute commitment to do nothing for three years. There is only one explanation: the government believes it can press on with a third runway, and without fronting up to the electorate.
This matters for countless reasons. First, political promises need to mean something. As William Hague has said, there's no justification in U-turns unless the facts change significantly, which they have not. If there is a pre-election U-turn, my colleagues will struggle at the next election to persuade voters that their manifesto is worth the paper it's written on.
I don't actually believe we will see bulldozers this side of the election. That would represent an off-the-scale betrayal, and would be noted by voters everywhere. It would also be logistically difficult to pull off. But unless the government is clear with voters it will be assumed that it is wedded to a post-election green light.
A decision to expand would be the wrong decision, on every level. Despite the scaremongering, it remains a fact that Heathrow already has more flights to business destinations than any other airport in Europe. More passengers fly in and out of London than any other city in the world. We are well-connected, we have ample capacity, and we are starting from a position of strength. The problem is that we don't use that capacity well. If we want to preserve Heathrow's hub status, we need to stop clogging it up with point-to-point flights to places such as Cyprus and Greece, which between them account for 87 weekly flights, and contribute nothing to overall connectivity.
We also need to discourage operators guarding their slots by flying half-empty planes. Heathrow has terminal capacity for an extra 20 million passengers, and with fuller and, in places, bigger planes, we'd be able to accommodate many more. In addition, we need to encourage a shift from air to rail wherever possible. Every week, for example, there are more than 300 flights from Heathrow Brussels, Manchester, Newcastle and Paris. In time, a better high speed rail network will help.
These measures would relieve pressure on Heathrow, but by improving links to other airports, we can do more. For example, Stansted is massively underused, by nearly 50%, and with proper rail links to the City, it would be the natural place for business flights. There is no reason why we couldn't facilitate a two-hub approach, with Heathrow catering (broadly speaking) for western-facing flights, and Stansted catering for eastern business flights.
It has been argued that these measures are inconvenient and complicated. But subjecting 2 million residents to aerial bombardment is far more inconvenient. And making room on London's roads for an extra 25 million road passenger journeys to and from Heathrow is far more complicated.
Always on the look out for the quick answer, the government appears to have been seduced by vested interest. But it will pay a high price if it opts for the deeply unfair, and unpopular non-solution that Heathrow expansion represents.
Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston
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