The Heathrow battle is back

In 2009 the Labour government gave a green light to a third runway at Heathrow, and unleashed one of the fiercest environmental battles of recent times. The Conservative opposition was against it, the Lib Dems opposed it, local Labour MPs and councils stood in its way, green groups were prepared to chain themselves to trees to stop it, and the High Court itself ruled that the business case was untenable and threw out the proposal.

Ruling out a third runway was subsequently added to the Conservative manifesto in the 2010 election, and with the coalition agreed that it was off the table, it seemed like the battle had been won. Once in power though, many Conservatives changed their minds, perhaps in response to heroic lobbying efforts. If you’re a Londoner, you will have noted the apparently infinite budget for Heathrow expansion billboards and full page adverts in the Metro over the last five years.

David Cameron had campaigned in no uncertain terms against a third runway, so as long as he was in power the question was left unanswered – not ruled out, but kicked endlessly down the road to avoid the embarrassment of broken promises. With him gone, it’s full speed ahead. Today the government announced a new round of consultations on that infernal third runway. And once again, it opens up a whole can of worms.

To remind ourselves of the debate, the argument is that South East England needs more airport capacity to meet growing global demand, and to keep ahead of rival hub airports on the continent. Besides, expanding Heathrow would create thousands of jobs in construction, and bring billions into the economy. As the Prime Minister said at the announcement, “ordinary working people will know that my government backs jobs and growth”.

On the downside, it would single-handedly make Britain’s climate targets unreachable. That in itself is reason enough to mobilise against it. But it will also increase air pollution over London, compound the misery of the million people who already live under the flight path, and expand the number of people affected by noise and depressed property prices. It’s also a betrayal of multiple promises, from the Conservatives own commitments, to the BAA officials who insisted expansion plans would stop at Terminal 5. “Subject to permission being given for T5, an additional Heathrow runway should be ruled out forever” BAA’s chief executive said at the time. Theresa May, incidentally, was against the runway back in the old days when it was Labour’s idea: “I am clear that we must say no to a third runway at Heathrow.” In posts recently deleted from her website, she added that after Labour’s announcement, “nobody will take this government seriously on the environment again.”

After the government’s abolishing of the climate change department, green light to Hinckley C, and ongoing support for fracking, it’s really no surprise that the runway has got the nod. But I suspect that many have forgotten the strength of feeling over this issue, and just how broad and strong an alliance was formed against it last time around. Last week we learned that the global aviation industry is not taking responsibility for emissions, so it has to be opposed locally. Let’s hope those same forces prevail again.


  1. Air travel will keep on growing because it is inexpensive and the alternatives are poor or non-existent. The railways lost a major competitive advantage when they replaced spacious comfortable carriages with stock which packs passengers in like sardines, having first shrunk its capacity by closing alternative inter-city routes.

    However, Heathrow has always been a bad location for an airport, due to its flight paths over built-up areas. A third runway implies a 50% increase in capacity, but where are the plans for the infrastructure that will take the extra passengers to and from the airport?

    Stanstead claims it has the capacity to double the traffic it carries, but suffers from poor rail access.

    Possibly the most useful way to deal with ever increasing air traffic would be to build a circular railway, roughly equivalent to the M25, serving Heathrow, Stanstead and Gatwick, with additional stations at Ebbsfleet, somewhere in the St Albans area, and Shenfield.

  2. I live in ‘the north’. I’ve always hated going to Heathrow, Gatwick etc on those occasions when I’ve had to fly. I wonder why no one seems to have considered uprating existing airports in the Midlands / North to give extra flight slots without having to build any new runway and spreading the benfitis / disbenefits around somewhat.

    By the way, I’d rather air travel be somehow scaled back, on environmental grounds, but given the Government and widespread neo-liberal economic thinking we have in the UK, this is about damage limitation at the moment.

    1. Yes penninerover, but, today is ‘the moment’ we have to save tomorrow. Poor kids of tomorrow. It appears that we have no time left to ‘plan’ for tomorrow’s economics, action is need now for the planet and all upon it. But many claim that better wealth will make tomorrow better for all! It depends on ones ‘trade-offs’!

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