The third runway is lazy thinking by those who should know better

Never mind Heathrow expansion - we don't use our existing capacity sufficiently well.

Leaders of both members of the coalition were unambiguous before the election, flatly ruling out any prospect of a U-turn on the third runway. To break that promise now would be a betrayal too far, and I don’t believe many of the two million or so voters living beneath the flightpath would forgive either party. So far, the government position hasn't actually shifted.

This matters for a number of 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. The facts around aviation haven’t changed. If we perform a U-turn, my colleagues - particularly those who are now calling for a U-turn – will struggle at the next election to persuade anyone who’ll listen to them that their manifesto is worth the paper it’s written on. If politicians drop their pledges, then why believe anything they promise?

It also matters because a decision to expand Heathrow would be the wrong decision, on every level, and before casually subjecting some two million people to an aerial bombardment, those clamouring for a third runway would do well to look at the facts.

Despite the scaremongering, it’s worth remembering that Heathrow already has more flights to business destinations than any other airport in Europe: more than the combined total of Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt. London airports as a whole have the highest number of flights to key markets in Asia, the Middle East, North American and Australasia. More passengers fly in and out of London than any other city in the world. Paris, our nearest competitor, is in fifth place.

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 like Cyprus and Greece, which between them account for 87 weekly flights, and which contribute nothing to overall connectivity.

We also need to take measures to prevent 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 passengers. The government attempted to bring in a "flight tax", which would wholly or partially have replaced Air Passenger Duty. It faced legal obstacles, but with fresh thinking it could, I’m sure, identify alternatives. Some have suggested a "slot tax", for instance.

In addition, we need to encourage a shift from air to rail wherever possible. Every week, there are 78 flights to Brussels, 94 to Manchester, 37 to Newcastle, and 95 to Paris. All of these, and many others, can be reached easily by train. With a better high speed rail network, they will be easier still.

But most importantly, we need to relieve pressure on Heathrow by improving links to other airports. For example, Stansted is massively underused, currently by about 50 per cent, 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. The point to point flights that merely clog up Heathrow could be taken care of elsewhere.

Those demanding a third runway are yet to explain why we must have a single mega hub. They have not explained how London is supposed to deal with 25 million extra road passenger journeys each year to and from Heathrow. They haven’t acknowledged the masses of spare capacity that exists in London, which is already serviced by more runways than any other European city bar Paris, which has one more. These and countless other questions are simply left unanswered.

Simply calling on government to double the size of Heathrow is lazy half-thinking by people who ought to know better, but who have been captured by vested interest and are allowing them to do their thinking for them.

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston

A plane in the Heathrow flight path over West London. Photograph: Getty Images

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.