If the UK needs another airport, we need to get beyond the usual arguments.
Let’s, for the sake of an argument, say a ‘friend’ has just bought a new house. The house is on the outskirts of a large provincial town. A mile or so down the road is a very dinky airport. Nothing more than a few hangers, a flying school, and one undulating runway. The friend’s house is directly in line with the end of the runway, but in lazy blue skies all that can be heard is the buzzing of one-engine Cessna’s, the occasional pretty bi-plane, and the arrogant roar once a week of a business jet heading out on a Sunday evening. That’s about it.
Now imagine how my ‘friend’ would feel if plans were announced that this toytown landing strip was to be developed into a new domestic or international airport. At 3 minute intervals a passenger jet would roar overhead, shaking the foundations. No fun, right? I’d try and move straight away if I could, though the price of my, sorry, my friends’s house would have already plummeted to the ground like a punctured balloon. In short, it would very rapidly screw up my friend’s life. Even if this is the same friend who flies regularly, bemoans the shoddy state of UK airports, and can’t stand doing figure of eights over the Thames estuary waiting for a turn to land.
So the greater good smacks up against the NIMBY. Back in the real world – what is to be done?
The arguments against airport expansion revolve around the residential and the environmental. Taking the residential argument first, and the now-cancelled third runway at Heathrow, there was talk of up to 700 houses being demolished (4000 if you take it beyond the logical extreme) and some fear for a church and a few listed buildings. Given the billions supposedly up for grabs, it would seem relatively easy to compensate 400 households – even with a rather large bonus.
For others who may face increased noise pollution - well, unless you moved in over 40 years ago, or Hounslow has the best estate agents the world has ever seen (“he just never mentioned nothing about an airport”) then sympathy is very limited. At least with ‘my friend’ the development would be post-purchase, it’s a slightly tougher case to move next door to the world’s busiest international airport and then kick up a fuss about noisy neighbors.
For Heathrow also read Gatwick and Stansted. How many tax pounds are we prepared to use to pay off these tiny minority of objectors? Stansted would elicit a little more sympathy given its expansion has been far more recent. But considering that Gatwick is currently using one runway (the equivalent of a single lane M1), it would seem a more likely candidate. But is it really worth the years, the fuss, the bad blood?
Why don’t we follow the Beijings, the Seouls, the Tokyos, the KLs and park our airport in the middle of nowhere and … wait. Middle of nowhere in South East England? Is there such a thing? Well, Seoul’s airport is actually in another city – 43 miles away. About 50mins away by train. From experience it is a pain in the behind, but would solve a lot of problems. 43 miles away from London would bring Reading to the West, almost Brighton to the South, Southend to the East and near to Bedford to the North, into play. Surely there’s something within this radius that could be used? Foster and Boris are keen on the estuary – makes a lot of sense if you could get rid of the birds.
So on to the environmental argument. Climate change we’re not arguing with. How to reduce its impact when it comes to flights? Well, having planes circulate in one of 4 holding stacks (for Heathrow alone) really doesn’t seem the best solution. Listen, if you will, to Richard Deakin, head of UK air traffic control: ”The single biggest thing we could do to reduce CO2 in the UK is to build a third runway at Heathrow”.
But any way you slice it, the only way to really reduce CO2 emissions long-term means less flights – any improvements in efficiencies are soon overtaken by growth in passenger numbers. The old road building policy of ‘predict-and-provide’ (think M25 – annual usage predicted at 88,000 per day, soon it was 200,000 per day) have proven not to work.
So do we even need a new airport? Can’t we just stop people from flying? Increase taxation? Make it too expensive? Apparently a 10% increase in charges would see a resultant drop in demand. So, put flying back into the preserve of the rich? Really? Is that what we want? That in a global world we become stay-at-homes, insular and self-regarding?
Or do we have to admit that the ultimate CO2 reduction is no flights at all, and that is just not going to happen. Be realistic. We can’t un-invent flying, just as we can’t un-invent the combustion engine or the internet.
So back to the airport. We need a new one. Want it in your backyard?