When I was working in Downing Street back in 2009, I remember Gordon Brown coming out of the Cabinet Room at No 10 with a face like thunder. Nothing particularly unusual in that. But this was the day the cabinet had just had a row about Heathrow expansion. It was reported that there was a loud thud as the then business secretary, Peter Mandelson, literally banged his head on the table in frustration.
Both Brown and Mandelson felt that it was time for the government to get on with it. The decision, critical to our economy, had already been put off for years. When Cameron became prime minister in 2010, once again this crucial decision was further kicked into the long grass.
When I became shadow transport secretary in 2014, having understood people’s concerns, I created “four tests” that Heathrow should meet as a condition of our support for expansion.
As MPs prepare to vote on the issue on Monday, I’m absolutely convinced that Heathrow now meets those tests. MPs of all parties can vote in favour of expansion with a clear conscience, recognising that this is the right decision in the vital long-term interests of the country.
The legitimate concerns of communities who live near the airport – who by and large benefit from huge numbers of well-paid skilled jobs thanks to Heathrow – mostly centre around noise and air quality. Environmental campaigners are worried about CO2 emissions and the impact on climate change obligations. And then there are people who justifiably ask: why not invest somewhere other than the south east?
These are the questions that shaped the four tests I put in place. Putting aside the prejudices and politics of those who have always opposed expansion at Heathrow, the body of evidence is now clearly there on how Heathrow will meet their important obligations.
The first test says expansion must deliver the increase in aviation capacity that Britain needs. Heathrow obviously passes this test. To say otherwise is frankly absurd.
For two years, the independent Airports Commission examined this question. In the end, they concluded that Heathrow provided “more substantial economic and strategic benefits than any of the other shortlisted options, strengthening connectivity for passengers and freight users and boosting the productivity of the UK economy.” Successive governments and the Transport Select Committee support that view.
The second test required that expansion goes hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and importantly meet our legal climate change obligations. Again, the Airports Commission found that expansion is compatible with the government’s CO2 emissions target – a view shared by the independent Committee on Climate Change.
Furthermore, Heathrow, which is powered by 100 per cent renewable electricity, will continue to incentivise airlines to operate their quietest and cleanest aircraft.
There are two parts to the third test: noise and air quality. And these are probably the toughest for Heathrow to deal with because they require major investment and commitment.
In addition to the £700m the airport has set aside to fund noise-reduction measures, Heathrow has agreed to a night flight ban lasting 6.5 hours. Crucially, though, they’ve also promised to consult on redesigning the flight paths, post-expansion, so that fewer people are affected by noise than today.
On air quality, Heathrow have an ambition that 50 per cent of airport passenger journeys will be made by public and sustainable transport by 2030, meaning no more airport-related cars on the road than there are today.
The airport are also consulting on creating an airside ultra-low emissions zone. They’ve gone even further by asking the government to ensure independent regulation of air quality plans to guarantee Heathrow meets its commitments to the public. And they’ve agreed that no extra flight capacity will be made available until its environmental obligations are met. It’s quite clear to me that Heathrow has not just met the test on air quality and noise, but exceeded it.
The fourth and final test requires that the benefits of expansion will be felt in every corner of the country, not just the south east of England and that regional airports will be supported too. As a former MP representing a northern constituency, this was particularly important to me.
Around 60 per cent of the economic benefits of expansion will be focused outside London and the south east, according to independent economic analysis supported by the Airports Commission.
Across the UK there will be opportunities to benefit from the huge private investment required to build a third runway and the related infrastructure. Four logistics hubs will be set up nationwide to enable businesses everywhere to get involved in the innumerable aspects of the construction process.
Expansion will inject £14bn of private investment in to the UK economy. Heathrow have always been clear that expansion will be entirely privately-funded at no cost to the taxpayer.
Tellingly, 40 regional airports have recently voiced their support for Heathrow expansion. That’s because Heathrow has promised to support ring-fencing a proportion of slots for domestic flights and committed to reducing domestic passenger charges. There’ll be six new domestic routes as well as increased frequency and competition on existing routes.
As well as more domestic flights, improved connections with HS2, Crossrail and Western Rail link lines will reduce journey times and help spread the benefits of expansion to the nations and regions.
On all of these issues, Heathrow has offered to provide the Transport Select Committee with a regular progress report to give everyone confidence that expansion is proceeding in the right way. Heathrow is full and extra capacity is crucial to Britain’s economy as we prepare to embrace our post-Brexit future. So let’s get on with it.
I hope that on Monday, MPs of all parties support the government. Labour MPs, in particular, can have confidence that the four tests we set back in 2015 have indeed been met. Hopefully after Monday, the sound of Peter Mandelson’s head hitting the cabinet table and reverberating around 10 Downing Street will be but a distant memory.