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4 July 2015

The Prime Minister must get his act together on airport expansion

Once again we stand to have a major decision of national consequence determined more by the political management of the Tory party than the national interest, says Tessa Jowell.

By Tessa Jowell

Three years, £20million, and 342 pages later, the Airports Commission has reported. The Commission was asked to identify and recommend options to maintain the UK’s position as Europe’s most important aviation hub – where airlines direct more of their flights, linking up to other airports around the world. 

Its conclusions are, in the words of its chair Sir Howard Davies, “clear and unanimous”. This expert committee has concluded that “the best answer” is to build a third runway at Heathrow.

The Commission’s report sets out in detail the economic case for a third runway at Heathrow, alongside consideration of the alternative case for Gatwick. It would increase Britain’s GDP by between £131bn-147bn, compared with £89bn if Gatwick were expanded. The fact that Heathrow is already a hub means it would generate more long-haul trips, improving London’s connectivity and protecting the UK’s hub status. This status is currently under threat as other airports have better connectivity outside of Europe and North America. And crucially, Heathrow would create more jobs, more quickly – in an area of higher average unemployment than Gatwick.

However, as the report sets out, expansion of Heathrow would be enormously disruptive to the lives of many people. Any progress must focus very particularly on mitigating the impact on communities under the flight path.

We need to deal with existing levels of noise pollution and air pollution, and understand how a third runway would make these worse. Above all, we need to recognise that the recommendation of the Davies Commission is conditional on mitigating this impact.

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Some 550,000 would be affected by noise as a result of an expanded Heathrow, compared with 22,000 in Gatwick. Building a third runway would cause 47,063 properties to be exposed to increased nitrogen dioxide air pollution – compared with 20,985 for Gatwick. And the Heathrow proposal would likely result in an additional 22.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – compared with 16.5 million tonnes for Gatwick. The potential for a real human and environmental cost is plain to see.

The Davies Commission sets out a number of conditions to soften the impact. In particular, there should be no scheduled night flights; no overall increase in noise; air quality levels should not breach EU limits; there should be enhanced compensation for those who lose their homes, and at least £1bn in a special community compensation fund for those affected by the airport; and an independent aviation noise authority should be established with real powers over flight paths and other operating procedures.

I recognise the need for additional airport capacity and would support the Davies recommendation, but on the non-negotiable basis that safeguards on noise, air pollution, traffic congestion are embedded in the operational planning.

The government have said that they will respond to Davies by Christmas. What is already clear is that the government is deeply divided, and once again we stand to have a major decision of national consequence determined more by the political management of the Tory party than the national interest.

There are great economic benefits at stake – jobs, security and the growth upon which we all rely – as everyone from the CBI to major trade unions like the GMB and Unite recognise.

By the end of the year, the government has to make a decision. I will be spending the time talking to those affected, for better or for worse. Any further delay will, in the words of Sir Howard Davies, “be increasingly costly”. Not only will the cost of the project rise, but so too the cost for the country, which is why the Prime Minister has to make his mind up.