UK Parliament has voted in favour of a third runway at Heathrow, but did they do so in the interests of the public, or big business?
The government has won a landmark vote in the decades-long debate around the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Although the government was odds on to win the vote, this watershed moment in the debate has brought longstanding arguments for and against Heathrow expansion to the fore once again.
Even though the agreed plans currently only equate to the outlining of planning permission, the vote represents an unequivocal step towards the construction of a third runway.
That will be music to the ears of supporters like the confederation of British business groups (CBI) who said the vote represented “a truly historic decision that will open the doors to a new era in the UK’s global trading relationships.” So, who does the expansion of Heathrow really benefit?
Global Britain under strain
At the start of the Commons debate, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling – who has been dubbed “Failing Grayling” and was subject to a motion of no confidence following recent rail chaos – said the third runway at Heathrow is needed to secure Britain’s “future as a global nation in the post-Brexit world.”
The independent Airports Commission, set up in 2012 and led by former CBI chief Howard Davies, found that even with Heathrow and Gatwick operating at peak capacity, London’s status as a global and well-connected city was coming under strain.
The commission found that the most viable solution was a third runway at Heathrow. A completely new airport in the Thames Estuary was deemed unfeasibly expensive, while expanding Gatwick would not provide the capacity that British aviation needs anywhere near as quickly as it would at Heathrow.
Plus, an expanded Heathrow, which the government said would create 100,000 jobs and be of no cost to the taxpayer, could significantly benefit the British economy. The government estimated that expansion would incur net benefits for the British economy over a 70 year period ending in 2076, even when offset against the costs of covering greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution and building costs.
Government figures determined the biggest economic benefit would come from customers deciding to take flights in the future because of the reduced cost of flying from an airport with increased capacity. This, they claim, equates to a monetary influx of £9bn for the country (calculated using economic Consumer Surplus Theory).
Even when offset with those aforementioned costs, highlighted by the figures published succinctly together by environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth, the overall economic benefit by 2076 would be between £5.1bn to £5.9bn, or around £24,500 per family, according to the Centre for Economic and Business Research.
So, more money in our pockets to spend on cheaper holidays, a win-win?
Gas and noise
Well, maybe not if you live near the proposed runway, or even on it.
During the Commons debate, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, MP for the Hayes and Harlington constituency where Heathrow is situated, gave a rousing speech in which he said centuries-old villages would have to be destroyed to facilitate the new runway.
The village of Longford, for example, which predates Medieval England, would be completely wiped out and replaced by a car park.
For residents local to Heathrow whose homes are not set to be buried under three feet of tarmac, they may well be breathing even more dangerous carbon dioxide and suffering from even more noise pollution than they do already.
The Friends of the Earth group said MPs who had backed the proposals would be judged harshly by history. For the millions of vulnerable people across the world already suffering due to accelerated climate change, the group said the third runway at Heathrow would only “intensify the misery.”
And the group also challenged the government’s assessment of the financial cost of the expansion’s effect on climate change, arguing that the monetary value was calculated according to assumptions that future governments would apply far more stringent policies on greenhouse gas emissions than they currently do. Using a business-as-usual model, the group calculated the costs to actually be closer to £14bn, £9bn more than the government’s estimations.
The vote on Heathrow has also further highlighted the government’s double standards on parliamentary conventions. While junior trade minister Greg Hands resigned before the vote under the principle of collective responsibility so he could oppose the expansion, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who once vowed to lie in front of bulldozers to halt the expansion – kept his place in the Cabinet by running away to Afghanistan during the vote.
Ultimately, it is clear Britain needs to expand its aviation capacity to handle its place on the global stage as it careers almost uncontrollably towards Brexit.
The next stage will see developers provide further details on how they can move forward with the expansion while keeping their promises on the environment, noise pollution and cost effectiveness. Only once those factors are agreed will we see the plans for Heathrow really begin to take off.