climate change current affairs transport

Heathrow’s third runway – the case for and against

One of the big environmental stories of 2010 was the third runway at Heathrow Airport, which was due to go ahead under the Labour government. Plans collapsed around the time of the election and the plans were shelved. The incoming Conservative government had campaigned against the 3rd runway, put their opposition in their manifesto, and repeated it in the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems. It looked pretty certain that the debate was over.

Two years on, it remains government policy, but there is a growing number of MPs clamouring to build that runway. Heathrow expansion was one of those rare instances where the Conservatives were squarely on the right side of an environmental debate, so it is a shame to see them so determined to re-open the case. Despite the noise, the government has so far batted back any suggestion that it should be built. They’re absolutely right. There are multiple reasons why it’s a bad idea and shouldn’t be attempted. Here’s a summary, and I’ll include both sides of the argument.

The case for

  • The economy is stalling, and the new runway would be good for growth.
  • Aviation emissions are now covered by the EU cap, so it would not be an obstacle to Britain’s CO2 targets.
  • Expanded capacity at Heathrow would make Britain more accessible to emerging markets, with flights to China particularly important.
  • A major infrastructure project like this would create jobs and boost the construction industry.
  • A larger Heathrow would create jobs in West London.
  • Heathrow is in danger of falling behind continental rival aviation hubs in Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
  • Building a brand new airport would take to long, so it has to be Heathrow.

The case against

  • The increase in emissions from expanded aviation would single-handedly make Britain’s CO2 emissions targets impossible.
  • The EU’s emissions trading scheme isn’t working, so whether aviation is included or not is a moot point.
  • The runway would not be complete in time to contribute to Britain’s economic recovery.
  • Heathrow is still Europe’s largest hub airport for connections to emerging economies, so it is not as if we lack these connections – the fear is simply that we may not be number one by 2016.
  • Building the runway is against government policy, would break the coalition agreement and break the promises made during the election.
  • The last attempt to build a third runway was blocked by the High Court, which ruled that the economic case was unfounded.
  • While Heathrow is full, there is spare capacity at Stansted and Gatwick. Smaller direct flights could be moved there, freeing up Heathrow to operate as the hub for international flights.
  • Planning permission for Terminal 5 was secured by guaranteeing local residents that there would be no attempt to build a third runway.
  • There is room to expand at Luton, Gatwick and Stansted.
  • Thousands of people would need to be relocated, and the village of Sipson would be bulldozed in its entirety.
  • Air pollution over London is over the EU limits as it is, meaning the city is in breach of agreements and the government could be fined for it. Expanding Heathrow would make this worse.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people are affected by noise pollution from Heathrow, and the third runway would dramatically increase the number of people living in the impact area.

Those are the main arguments that I’m aware of. Personally, I find the case for the runway incredibly weak. Climate change is reason enough to settle the debate, but even if we just talk economics, it’s actually quite difficult to say whether it would be a good thing or not. According to the pro-runway propaganda site, we’re forfeiting £1.2 billion a year in potential growth by not building it. But the runway itself would cost £10 billion. Then you would have to offset the cost of the massive legal battle to get permission to build it, the loss of value across tens of thousands of homes in West London, and added healthcare bills from the increase in air pollution. It’s not clear cut, and it seems to be more of a panic reaction to a stuttering economy, clutching at anything that might deliver a shot of growth.

In fact, I suspect that this simplistic equating of growth and runways is a direct result of the lobbying efforts of BAA last year. These ads were all over Westminster tube where our MPs get off their trains to go to the Houses of Parliament.

The ad is nonsense on so many levels, but it seems to have done the trick of convincing plenty of people that an expanded Heathrow is somehow vital to our economic recovery.

Let’s hope the government holds its nerve and resists the third runway. And if it doesn’t, I’ve still got a plot of land with my name on it in the way.


  1. Job creation is always a bad argument for a project. It reveals that the proponent is a believer in job creationism. You might as well argue the case for treading mud all over your floor because it has created work.

    Part of the solution to the capacity problem is to introduce effective charging for landing and take-off slots with a competitive bidding procedure. Another part of the solution is to transfer more traffic on to rail. High speed rail is not a major part of the switch because it is focussing on a limited number of centre-to-centre journeys. Many short-haul journeys are made by air because of the proximity of airports on the edge of conurbations.

    1. It’s also strange that business resents any government involvement in the market until a downturn, and then there are clamours for the government to step in and create jobs. That requires the government to ‘pick winners’ to invest in and create those jobs, something that is anathema to free market thinkers most of the time.

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