Heathrow green light would bring more noise and air pollution

Christina Smyth blogs about the Government’s decision to back a third runway at Heathrow.

The Government published a document on 5 June which would effectively give outline planning permission for a third runway at Heathrow. Parliament will vote on this in the next three weeks. We asked Christina Smyth, Chair of the independent Hammersmith & Fulham Commission on Airport Expansion, set up by the council in 2014, to explain the issues.

Christina Smyth’s blog

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Christina Smyth

We already benefit from Heathrow as it exists now. We would derive very limited benefit from expansion, in the form of a modest number of jobs and more, but dearer, flight options. We would pay a heavy price in terms of greater noise, more traffic and even more pollution. The commission recommended that the council should resist a third runway.

Our work has stood the passage of time and our report is available on the council's website (pdf 875KB).

Since then it has become clearer that Heathrow expansion would not benefit the UK as a whole either.

The Government’s latest published business case shows that there is no net benefit to the UK. In technical language this is the ‘net present value’ which shows a range of plus £3.3bn to minus £2.2bn over a 60 year period. Stripping out the large value assigned to overseas travellers just using Heathrow to change flights, the gross benefits are only between £5.8bn and £9.9bn (compared with a range of £8.9bn to £10.3bn for Gatwick). Heathrow are still claiming £147bn gross benefits for the project!

We, as taxpayers, will be subsidising this project, both directly (up to £18bn for transport infrastructure near the airport) and through maintaining domestic routes to Heathrow from regional airports. This money could be spent on UK-wide infrastructure such as enhanced broadband and transport improvements for the north.

There could well be further public subsidy. Heathrow Airport Ltd already has high levels of debt. It will finance the third runway by increasing that debt to unfeasibly high levels (from £11bn to £34bn). PwC estimates that the sterling bond market would be swamped by the amount Heathrow needs to raise.

The hub model, funnelling air traffic through Heathrow, is outmoded. Instead, regions could develop their own infrastructure and the newer point-to-point routes, rebalancing the economy and not overheating London and the south east further. Both are not possible because of the ceiling on carbon emissions enshrined in the Climate Change Act. So Heathrow gains at the expense of the regions.

One of the reasons that the third runway retains the support of some MPs is the panic surrounding Brexit. Realising that Brexit will leave a big economic hole, there is a knee jerk reaction to search for a large, shiny, ready-made solution. But these MPs have not realised how weak the business case has become. To my mind, developing international trade could be done more economically and more evenly across the country, with a balanced approach to UK infrastructure spending.

It is now official Government policy to bring more noise and air pollution to Hammersmith & Fulham. So it’s time for residents to reject the third runway once and for all, and demand that better solutions are found to the UK’s transport woes.

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