The UK government has finally made its decision. There is to be a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, together with new terminals, an extended business park, and substantial upgrade of road and rail links to the airport.
Expansion of London’s airport capacity has been a political hot potato for half a century. There have been numerous proposals both for expanding existing airports and building completely new ones, in various locations all around London. Every plan has come in for criticism and, often, outright opposition from local authorities and environmental lobbyists: some plans have also been opposed by business interests. Until now, no government has been willing to approve any of them.
Sadly, the few places that would have welcomed airport expansion, such as Manston in Kent, were felt to be unsuitable. Despite significant local opposition, Manston has now been closed and the site is scheduled for redevelopment. A public inquiry is to be held into its future.
The announcement of Heathrow’s expansion has been received with considerable relief by business representatives. The President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Paul Dreschler, said:
“A new runway at Heathrow is really fantastic news, especially as the country has waited nearly 50 years for this decision. It will create the air links that will do so much to drive jobs and unlock growth across the UK, allowing even more of our innovative, ambitious and internationally focussed firms, from Bristol to Belfast, to take off and break into new markets.”
Philippa Oldham, Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, also welcomed the decision, noting particularly that recent technological improvements address many of the environmental objections to the expansion of Heathrow. However, she warned that expansion of Heathrow needs to form part of an integrated transport strategy:
“This is so near and yet so far. Without clear view from Government on its support for expansion at Gatwick and Birmingham airports, investors are still unable to take a long-term view on how to future-proof UK airport capacity…..
It is good that this Government is looking towards developing an integrated transport and industrial strategy. It is vital therefore that these developments form part of this integrated approach with Crossrail and HS2.”
She has a point. Unless other UK are also expanded, the proposed HS2 high-speed railway link from London to the north of England will simply encourage people to commute from cities in the North and Midlands to London, encouraging yet more business development in London and the South East at the expense of other areas. If Heathrow is to be expanded, so too should Birmingham and/or Manchester airports.
But not everyone is happy about the expansion of Heathrow. The residents of the villages of Longford and Harmondsworth are up in arms about it. The whole of Longford and half of Harmondsworth will be bulldozed to make way for the runway.
Of course, the villagers will be offered compensation for the loss of their homes. Additionally, those living in the half of Harmondsworth that will remain are to be offered the choice of staying in their homes or selling up at 25% above market value. Residents of several other villages nearby will be offered the same deal. It is not hard to imagine what their choice would be. These seem likely to become “ghost villages” – a monument to progress, or a relic of a simpler past?
Both the present and former Mayors of London expressed their disappointment at the decision. The present Mayor, Sadiq Khan, openly preferred a second runway at Gatwick Airport to the south of London. And the previous Mayor, Boris Johnson, wanted a completely new airport in the Thames Estuary. Both are concerned about the impact on the environment and on quality of life for people living in the area round Heathrow, which is fairly densely populated.
Mr. Johnson, who is now the UK’s Foreign Secretary, has already declared the Heathrow expansion “undeliverable”, and says it is “very likely it will be stopped”. He has strong support from his Cabinet colleague Justine Greening, the Education Secretary, whose constituency is affected by the plans. Another local MP, Zac Goldsmith, resigned when the announcement was made.
It is indeed possible that the expansion will be stopped. There is to be a year’s consultation, during which time opponents will air their views in no uncertain terms. Four local authorities in the area have already indicated that they will pursue legal action to try to stop the expansion. The budget – an eyewatering £16 billion (about $18 billion) – has still to be approved.
Even if the project goes ahead, construction will not commence until 2021 at the earliest. And by then, technological improvement might have rendered such an ambitious expansion unnecessary. According to the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), innovations such as “time based separation” (TBS), which enables aircraft to land safely closer together, could considerably improve existing airport capacity:
“This technology has the potential to reduce separation between aircraft, altering today’s assumptions about airspace and runway loading, which could have huge implications on the number of airline operations able to operate from an airport or runway.”
TBS is not the only innovation on the horizon. Development of “unmanned air systems” (UAS) could enable a very different solution to the UK’s airport freight capacity problem:
“Once regulatory hurdles for the use of autonomous air vehicles are cleared, UAS developments could give logistics companies the opportunity to move freight away from central hubs to dispersed regional airfields and change how we transport goods by air.”
Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal from the IET’s Transport Policy Panel said: “The decision around additional airport capacity for London and the South East needs to take into account how new technologies will change the way we travel and transfer goods by air in the future, and not just look at the here and now.”
So although it has already spent half a century in gestation, perhaps the decision to expand Heathrow Airport is still premature. With investment in innovative technology, there could be a solution that would better meet the needs of people and businesses in other parts of the UK while allowing the residents of Harmondsworth and Longford to keep their homes. If the days of gigantic hub airports are numbered, as the IET seems to suggest, it would surely be far better for the UK to be at the forefront of developing the world’s first distributed air transport network.