Heathrow's Achilles' Heel

The recent decision on airport expansion is deeply disappointing. Yet in some ways it’s understandable given the groupthink surrounding a third runway to which the Airport Expansion sub-committee has been subjected.

We need new airport capacity and we need it fast. But it needs to be introduced in the most cost-effective and least environmentally damaging way possible.

We’re all aware of the unassailable environmental arguments for expanding Gatwick over Heathrow, but there is also strong business case for expanding Gatwick.

Heathrow simply can’t deliver the growth that this country needs. The Davies Commission report itself said that expansion at Heathrow would provide only £1.4bn in net benefit whereas a 2nd Runway at Gatwick would provide £5.5bn. It is no wonder that Sir Terry Farrell, one of the UK’s leading architecture planners, said that Gatwick will deliver more balanced, and more widely spread, economic growth.

The lukewarm support shown by some businesses for Heathrow expansion will quickly dissipate once the reality sets in that Heathrow is going to become the most expensive airport in the world. Airport capacity is a fulcrum for national growth, so this is likely to send out damaging ripples to Britain’s competitiveness.

Since the Davies Commission, the business case for Heathrow has got even weaker. Gatwick has added 20 new long-haul flight destinations in the last year meaning that an extra runway at Gatwick will deliver identical traffic connectivity for the UK as expansion at Heathrow with a much smaller environmental footprint.

Heathrow is permanently stymied by its archaic location; a relic of the days before mass air travel. Due to Heathrow’s proximity to London, a 3rd runway will affect 21 times more people through noise pollution compared to expanding Gatwick.

But the real Achilles heel of a 3rd Runway is air quality targets. It is impossible to reconcile building an extra runway at Heathrow with meeting air quality targets when Heathrow has already broken every air quality target for the last decade with only two runways.

Given that the Airports Commission recommended that the release of capacity at a 3rd Runway should be dependent on Heathrow meeting binding air quality targets it is likely that we may end up with the worst of all worlds: spending decades building an additional runway only to find that Heathrow is unable to utilise much of it.

Thankfully, this decision isn’t final. A 3rd Runway will have to traverse a whole series of obstacles, starting with a vote in Parliament. Given that research suggests that expansion at Heathrow will require a public subsidy of up to £305 per household, I hope that every MP who votes in favour of expansion at Heathrow is prepared to explain to their constituents why they expect taxpayers from the Shetland Islands to Lands’ End to subsidise a foreign-owned, private company.

Expanding Gatwick will be cheaper, quicker and, crucially, deliverable. It will create a more competitive airports system with cheaper flights for businesspeople. Opposition to a 3rd Runway at Heathrow is an attempt to prevent the biggest white elephant project in our history.