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.
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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.