Westminster is deliberating the issue of increasing the UK’s airport capacity. Across all parties, debate is taking place as to which way to turn. The conversation, of course is focused on Heathrow, which came out as the unanimous and unambiguous option in the Airports Commission Final Report.
The government will have the final say, but Labour’s response will be key in determining how this project of national significance progresses. If opposition support is to be secured, the proposal will need to pass Labour’s “four tests”. These tests were first outlined by former Transport Spokesman, Michael Dugher, in June and were then confirmed at this year’s Labour conference.
Based on the findings of the nearly three year, £20 million investigation into the future aviation capacity needs of the UK, Airport Commission Final Report which was published in July of this year shows how Heathrow meets those four tests.
Test 1: Is there robust and convincing evidence that the required increased aviation capacity will be delivered with Sir Howard Davies’ recommendation?
The Commission has stressed that with Heathrow at capacity, there is currently no space to operate a competitive ‘Hub’ airport, to rival those elsewhere in Europe. Flights are now being routed via other European airports due to a lack of space and Britain is missing out on new long haul routes and connections to economically important destinations as a result.
According to the Commission, building a new runway at Heathrow will provide the biggest increase in the type of capacity which is most urgently required: long haul destinations in new markets.
Due to a lack of capacity, other UK airports are also increasingly squeezed out of Heathrow, with passengers from the nations and regions obliged to transfer through other European airports, or Middle Eastern hubs. This costs them time and money, and is off-putting to inward investors.
Overall, the Commission’s analysis states the strongest benefits for the UK economy are likely to come from focusing capacity where demand is strongest: be that from freight users, leisure passengers, business travellers or the international transfer passengers needed to support a dense long-haul network. In each case, the Commission concludes the highest levels of demand are seen at Heathrow.
Test 2: Can the recommended expansion in capacity go hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation and allow us to meet our legal climate change obligations?
The Commission found this is feasible, in that expansion is compatible with the UK government’s target of 37.5MtCO2 emissions from aviation by 2050. This is well aligned with the thoughts of the independent Committee on Climate Change which has confirmed a 60 per cent growth in passengers is consistent with meeting the UK’s climate change targets.
Specifically, it is Heathrow’s location and excellent public-transport connectivity (both locally and to the country as a whole) that makes it the most efficient location in terms of carbon emissions due to surface access.
In essence, the new capacity provided by an additional runway would alleviate the constraints on the route network and provide aviation users with the connectivity they badly need.
An additional runway would deliver significant benefits for the UK without breaching climate change commitments or requiring aviation emissions to exceed the planning assumption set by the CCC. If the Heathrow scheme is built, it will not alter the likelihood of the UK exceeding the National Emissions Ceilings and the Gothenburg targets.
Test 3: Have Local noise and environmental impacts been adequately considered and will they be managed and minimised?
The Commission’s conclusion is that, once effective mitigations and compensation are provided, the environmental impacts of expansion at Heathrow will not outweigh its very significant national and local benefits. And on the subject of air quality, the Commission found although it is a serious issue for the UK as a whole, analysis demonstrates the impacts of expansion at Heathrow would be a manageable part of this broader problem, which the Government can address.
It is predicted the noise impact of Heathrow will reduce significantly over the coming decade, as new and quieter aircraft come into service and as flight paths are redesigned and improved. With expansion, the overall number of flights would grow, but new approaches and departure paths could enable the noise impacts to be dispersed more widely, limiting the impacts on any individual community.
Whilst consulting around the country on its plans for a third runway, the Commission found in addition to opposition, there was also substantial support at the local level, which recognised the economic and employment opportunities expansion would create.
Test 4: Will the benefits of expansion be felt in every corner of the country, not just the South East of England, and will regional airports be supported too?
The economic impacts of expansion at Heathrow would be felt throughout the UK, according to the Commission. Their Final Report shows the effects of expansion would be felt most strongly in the air passenger and freight sectors, but with increases in economic activity also seen across the country in other sectors with international linkages, such as manufacturing, accommodation and food services.
In total, the analysis indicates around 60 per cent of the overall boost to GDP would be focused on areas of the UK outside the South East of England.
Regional stakeholders were clear in their representations to the Commission that while links to overseas hubs are highly valued, they are not considered a substitute for access to Heathrow.
Heathrow expansion will support regional economic growth in line with the Government’s evolving policy to create a Northern Powerhouse. The links to HS2 at Old Oak Common and to the Great Western Main Line at Reading will help to ensure the benefits of expansion at Heathrow are felt across the English regions. In addition, for nations and regions where domestic air connections to London remain crucial, such as Scotland and Northern Ireland, expansion will create space at the airport for increased frequencies and new links.
The report concludes: “Expansion at Heathrow would enhance connections between the UK regions and London and its associated onward connectivity, reversing the trend of the declining links between London and the rest of the UK witnessed in recent decades.”