Why new runways are not the solution

Only a new hub airport can balance our aviation needs with those of the environment.

A quarter of all those in Europe who are affected by aircraft noise live under the Heathrow flight-path. If there is a single statistic which underlines the failure of British aviation policy it is this. For decades, a combination of powerful lobbyists and weak decision-making has led ministers to slavishly accept the hodgepodge expansion of Heathrow. There has been very little vision, and very little evidence-based policy making.

The previous Labour government, for example, decided to build a third runway at Heathrow, and only then asked the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to figure out how the UK could meet its 2050 carbon reduction target. They didn't allow the facts to affect their policy. But the CCC did some very useful work, and calculated that, based on increased plane loads, new technology and fuel improvements, our carbon budget allows for about a 60% increase on current passenger numbers, bringing us to around 368 million passengers per annum. This is still a very large increase in the proportion of our carbon emissions due to aviation – the industry would emit 37.5MtCO2 a year by 2050. It is harder to decarbonise aviation than other sectors. But this 60% increase represents a lot of opportunities for new destinations and new travellers - within our carbon cap.

So, how much new capacity do we need to build to take us up to this limit? The answer is none. We can reach that 60% increase with no third runway at Heathrow, no new Thames Estuary airport, no second runway at Gatwick or Stansted. And Department for Transport forecasts suggest that we won't get to that point until about 2030. In particular, Gatwick is already expanding into new markets with routes to China, South Korea and Vietnam. Stansted is only around 50% full, and it makes no sense whatsoever to build a second runway at either. Indeed, rather than pushing for new runways, both airports are campaigning for rail links and improved surface access to help their growth, which brings environmental gains too: up to half of emissions from aviation actually come from surface movements, rather than the planes.

It’s clear that Heathrow plays a very important role - it is our only hub airport, and caters for transfer passengers, particularly business users, and that enables flights to emerging markets to become economically viable. It’s also true that Heathrow is almost totally full. While in the short term there are a few tools available to encourage flights to transfer to Gatwick or Stansted, if we are to retain a successful hub airport and all the benefits it brings, we need to look at longer-term solutions. Mixed Mode operation and a large increase in night flights have been proposed, but they fail the same test as the third runway - they affect far too many people who already suffer massively from noise pollution. And it has a huge effect on London’s air quality. Heathrow is, simply put, in the wrong location for our current needs.

Boris Johnson, I suspect for electoral reasons, recognises that Heathrow is not the answer. But his solution is perhaps even more wrong. Located east of London in the Thames estuary, 'Boris Island' would be largely inaccessible for anyone living outside London and the south east, making it even harder to spread economic growth to the north and west of the country. It would essentially be a transfer hub for foreign travellers (paying no APD) and the City. Before construction could even begin, you'd have to somehow move or defuse the remains of the SS Richard Montgomery, a wartime liberty ship whose detonation would cause a small tidal wave up the Thames and possibly one of the world's largest non-nuclear blasts. The chance of bird-strike is also 12 times higher here, let alone the crippling effect it would have on this vital migratory route. The RSPB claimed it would be one of the worst environmental decisions the country has made. Finally, the expense of this project would be astronomical and it would take far too long to construct. You'd have to start the infrastructure from scratch. It's simply not a goer, and I am delighted that I and the Lib Dems rejected it so promptly.

Is there a better option? We have to be clear that total UK aircraft movements in 2050 cannot be above the limit suggested by the CCC. So there is no point in building capacity which would allow us to vastly exceed that limit. Our 2050 carbon reduction target is not some figure that can be fiddled if a future government realises they can't meet it. The effect on our children's economy and their environment would be immense. We must not burden them with an environmental debt from which they cannot escape. But that still leaves us with a 60% increase in passenger movements which is allowed within UK carbon budgets.

For now, we can meet it with the runways we have, using the capacity at Manchester and Birmingham, for example, but it makes sense to consider the option of having a new hub, bringing together runways in one place to link with all the transfer passengers and new routes they bring to bear. That new hub could only happen with the closure of other runways and airports to ensure a future government doesn't exceed the available carbon budget. And this new hub couldn't be just anywhere - it would have to be accessible to north and south of the country, and be somewhere which would pose minimal impact to the local population and to the local environment.

The Labour Party is at best vague on this - they "accept the Government’s decision to cancel the third runway at Heathrow" - but fail to say whether they actually support it or don't - and many of their backbenchers (and frontbenchers) still argue for the third runway. They also argue for more expansion of aviation in the south east, threatening to breach our environmental constraints.

Some Tories, such as the Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, understand the need for environmental considerations to play a key role in aviation policy, in keeping with the Coalition Agreement, but there is a growing band of pro-third runway MPs, including George Osborne. Few seem to take Boris Island that seriously.

This autumn, the Liberal Democrats will vote on a conference motion that presents a proper policy to the public, outside of the vested interests in the aviation industry. The public deserve an airport policy which balances the benefits from aviation with the harm it can do to the environment globally and locally. That is exactly what we’ll deliver.

A British Airways aircraft taxis past other parked aircraft at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport. Photograph: Getty Images.

Julian Huppert is the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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