No Way to a Third Runway

6 July 2019

Response to Heathrow Expansion, June 2019.

No Way to a Third Runway


Heathrow Airport published its expansion 'Preferred Masterplan' on Tuesday kicking off a 3-month public consultation on the building of a third runway and the expansion of terminal facilities. Not only a PR exercise and a shrewd move to keep the neighbours on side, but a legal requirement and the last step before Heathrow submit their planning application in 2020.

Heathrow says expansion is necessary as the runways are operating at 98% capacity, meaning more flight delays, and losing business to competing European airports who benefit from the traffic Heathrow is unable to handle.

Last year the government voted to back the plan, claiming the expansion will benefit the UK economy by £5.5 billion over the period 2020 to 2080. They say Heathrow's connectivity will allow London and the South East to benefit from business investment that may otherwise go to competing European cities, and this, in turn, will bolster the rest of the UK's economy. Is this enough justification for the government to prioritise commercial interests over a raft of local and environmental concerns? As the government admits in the Appraisal of Sustainability, a paper that informs the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), upon which the government's decision to support expansion is based:
'...there will be inevitable harm caused by a new Northwest Runway at Heathrow Airport...the need for such a scheme, the obligation to mitigate such harm as far as possible, and the benefits that such a scheme will deliver, outweigh such harm'.

If it goes ahead, the expansion, will be responsible for an additional 700 planes and an extra 260,000 flights, and carbon emissions will be increased to levels that dramatically exceed carbon targets, as set out in the UK Climate Change Act 2008.

The local community will be decimated with the whole village of Longford completely disappearing, as well as large swathes of Harmondsworth. Other homes, businesses, recreation and community facilities including a special needs centre, will be demolished or displaced, and the Greenbelt around Heathrow, normally protected by the National Planning Policy Framework, will be adversely impacted. The preferred masterplan also reveals that a primary school is to be relocated in a pollution hotspot to make way for the third runway, despite assurances that Heathrow will endeavour to avoid, mitigate or compensate disruption to the community and the impact on the environment.

Understandably, there has been strong opposition to these plans and the government's support of them. Friends of the Earth lawyers, on 6th August 2018, applied to the High Court asking for the Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), the statutory paper that gives the green light for expansion, to be quashed on the grounds that it contradicts the UK's climate change policy 2008 and its sustainable development duties. Greenpeace, a consortium of local authorities, the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, have also lodged legal challenges to stop the expansion, on grounds of noise pollution, air quality and climate change. Even though the plans are at odds with, the government's environmental objectives, last month, all five challenges were dismissed by the High Court.

Politicians like Boris Johnson famously opposed Heathrow expansion, with his claim he would 'lie down in front of the bulldozers', though in the next breath he says he doubts the expansion would ever be approved. Fast-forward to August 2018, Mr Johnson fails to vote in parliament, while Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond, resigns in protest over the government's decision to back the expansion. Our current Prime minister, Theresa May in 2008 said that a new runway at Heathrow would 'undermine (climate) targets & seriously damage the health of the local community'. Strange that now as Prime Minister, she does a volte-face and sanctions the expansion when climate change needs to be addressed more urgently than ever before.

Opposition groups, though, take it seriously and have been fighting a long time against Heathrow expansion. In response to Heathrow's 2008 third runway plans, Caroline Lucas states in her consultation submission: 'Any government which, on the one hand pledges to make a significant reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020, and in the next breath gives the green light to the greatest expansion of aviation in a generation is guilty of either the most shameless hypocrisy, or the most unforgivable ignorance and stupidity'. 11 years on, nothing has changed.

In response to Tuesday's publication of Heathrow's preferred masterplan, Green Party leaders say 'no way' (to a third runway), a smart play on words that serve to highlight the gravity of the environmental catastrophe expansion will bring. Sian Berry goes onto say..." Aviation clearly has to contract, not expand, while we need to promote and encourage cleaner options like train travel, which could replace many Heathrow flights... huge numbers of Londoners already suffer from the noise and air pollution from Heathrow, see their transport systems overloaded and their lives disrupted."

The government defend their position by claiming co2 emissions from aeroplanes constitutes only 2-3% of the world's total emissions, but even their own forecasts show the aviation industry alone would absorb nearly 50% of the UK's carbon budget by 2050. Even now, 13% of the UK's climate impact is due to flights leaving UK airports.

In the preferred masterplan, Heathrow proposes to offset carbon emissions by introducing a low emissions zone as well as developing existing green spaces, creating new ones and mitigating the loss of local wildlife and ecosystems. Environmental groups say this is not enough and falls way short of levelling the scales.

'The idea that offsetting makes a tonne of CO2 from aviation "neutral" is misleading; if an offset pays for an emissions reduction that needs to happen anyway then that tonne of CO2 emitted from the aircraft will still cause warming and be inconsistent with a "net zero" climate goal', so say the Aviation Environment Federation in their 'Heathrow Can't Solve its Carbon Problem' paper.
'Far more radical solutions than any included in Heathrow's roadmap will be needed to ensure that the aviation sector is compatible with net zero emissions as required by the Paris Agreement'.

The government further defend their support of the plan by claiming it will generate 77,000 new jobs and 5,000 new apprenticeships and will lead to more investment and improved infrastructure.

But the history between the Heathrow expansion project and successive governments has been somewhat murky, with charges of collusion and conflicts of interest. Lobby groups, set up to show parliament that it was taking the aviation sector's contribution to climate change seriously, pushed the airport's expansion agenda, backed by BAA, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic among others. In 2008, an exposé in the Sunday Times alleged BAA was colluding with the Department for Transport to "prevent the use of data in the consultation document, which showed the expansion would cause unlawful levels of pollution and extra noise".

In March 2009, Whitehall and Downing Street were accused by senior MPs of having a 'revolving door' policy with BAA and demanded a Commons investigation. The Guardian newspaper reported civil servants from the Department of Transport met regularly with aviation industry leaders, despite them telling environmental groups there was a blanket ban on meetings with any external bodies.

Considering this chequered history, and successive governments close links with aviation industry leaders, it may be hard for those in opposition to the expansion and the local community, to trust Heathrow, the government and their preferred masterplan. How effective really is Heathrow's package of environmental measures at mitigating the harmful impacts of expansion on the environment and the local community, despite what they claim? Even where the measures are effective, will they be delivered on time or at all?

A host of credible alternatives to Heathrow expansion have been put forward. Proposals include better utilisation of the airport's existing capacity, using bigger planes, a high-speed rail link between Heathrow and Gatwick to create a super-hub, greater use of regional airports, a high-speed rail link to connect Heathrow to northwest Europe and a floating airport on the Thames Estuary. All proposals were dismissed by the Airports Commission, mostly for commercial reasons. Though this is hardly surprising as the Airport Commission's remit was simply to 'maintain the UK's position as a global, aviation hub'.

With the massive carbon footprint generated by expansion, that falls far short of meeting the government's new zero-carbon target, it may be wise for the Department for Transport to revisit these alternatives and explore new ones. Moreover, there needs to be a shift in focus, from airport infrastructure expansion to investment in train infrastructure and environmentally friendly aviation technologies.

The government are, in fact, formulating an aviation strategy to dramatically reduce the UK aviation industry's contribution to global warming. The Aviation 2050 document is the first step in the process. The consultation has now closed, 20th June 2019, two days after the publication of Heathrow's preferred masterplan, marking the beginning of the Heathrow expansion consultation. But this is too little, too late, as the title illustrates. Making the target 2020 would have been kinder to the environment and brought their aviation strategy in line with their own carbon emission targets. Significantly increasing their investment in aerospace technologies from £125,000,000 will go some way towards compensating their lack of foresight and planning.

But their thinking on airport expansion has been deeply flawed from the start.

'Heathrow is already losing ground to international hub airports in other competitor countries. This makes the UK a progressively less attractive place for mobile international businesses'. The transport secretary in an address to the House of Commons, 2009.

Countries must work together to improve the environment, not make it worse so they can gain a commercial advantage over the other. In the UK, we are doing things back to front for commercial expedience at the expense of the local community and the environment. The massive carbon footprint and other harmful emissions that expansion will bring, and the destruction of wildlife habitats and ecosystems, is simply unacceptable, bearing in mind we are in a climate emergency.

If the government truly value the environment and Heathrow's local community, they should prioritise investment in environmentally friendly technology to minimise the carbon footprint left from conventional airport construction and operation. Moreover, they should invest substantially more in the research and development of aircraft biofuels, in hybrid-electric and fully electric aircraft, and in large aircraft with vertical take-off and landing capabilities. More investment and focus speeds up delivery. Once the new technologies are ready for market, the government should make it a statutory requirement for airlines to upgrade their fleets and building companies to employ sustainable processes. Only then must airport expansion be considered. It is imperative to our survival to prioritise the health of the planet over short-term commercial gain.

How likely is it the plan will be approved? HACAN, a campaign organisation for people living under the flight paths and against expansion, says it's still 'not a done deal'. There is time, three months exactly, to scrutinise the plan, get key developments into the public domain for discussion, ask pertinent questions and protest. Heathrow will use this consultation to submit a final application for a Development Consent Order in 2020.

The key question again is: have Heathrow successfully demonstrated that the project has no material impact on the government's ability to meet its climate change commitments? Perhaps Boris Johnson may become Prime Minister and scupper the project, or not and lay down in front of the bulldozers. But don't bet on it. Do your bit. The consultation ends on 13th September 2019.

Debbie Le'cand, June 2019


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