Coffee House

No ifs, no buts, we need a decision on Heathrow now

13 November 2012

5:30 PM

13 November 2012

5:30 PM

The Prime Minister presumably believes we face a critical shortage of airport capacity in London. Why else would he signal a possible U-turn on what was a headline pre-election promise? He knows that one reason west London voters backed the Conservatives in the last general and local elections was his decision to rule out any prospect of building Labour’s 3rd runway at Heathrow.

But if that is how he feels, why on earth would he commit to doing absolutely nothing for three years? I am yet to meet anyone who believes an airport review should take anything like so long; indeed the majority of options have been studied to death. Moreover, it wouldn’t simply be a three-year delay. Add a lengthy planning process, and it could be more like six years before work even begins.

If we face a crisis of under-capacity, and if the priority is getting the economy going, it is hard to imagine a more useless policy. A six-year delay will cause paralysis across the board, with businesses not knowing where to invest, residents not knowing how their lives may be affected, and no possibility of informed decisions relating to surface transport infrastructure. Everyone, no matter what solution they favour, wants a decision.

The dithering isn’t simply bad for the economy. For voters beneath Heathrow’s flight-path, this ambiguity looks like a hidden green light for expansion. Come the election, the Conservative Party will feel all the electoral downside it is trying to avoid. In other words, whichever genius thought Heathrow could be kicked into the long grass has guaranteed that it will become the defining election issue in the many constituencies affected by it.

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Meanwhile, to voters beyond the flight-path, and to businesses, lobby groups and the like, this extraordinary position can only reinforce the impression of a government crippled by fear of taking difficult decisions, and so worried about fronting up to voters that it daren’t reveal its policy until voters can no longer have their say. It is shockingly bad politics.

The irony is that the government’s review will almost certainly rule out Heathrow expansion.  The economic arguments will not justify subjecting 2 million residents to increased aerial bombardment. Making room on London’s congested roads for an extra 25 million road passenger journeys to and from Heathrow will prove nightmarishly difficult. And privately, it is agreed that if the arguments in favour of expansion are correct, we will need a fourth runway too. A cursory glance at the map shows how complicated and expensive that would be.

Most importantly, the arguments being used to bulldoze the government into a U-turn are grossly exaggerated. Heathrow already has more flights to business destinations than any other airport in Europe. More passengers fly in and out of London than any other city in the world. We are well-connected, we have ample capacity. The problem is that we don’t use our capacity well. If we want to preserve Heathrow’s hub status, we need to stop clogging it up with point-to-point flights to places such as Cyprus and Greece, which between them account for 87 weekly flights, and contribute nothing to overall connectivity.

We also need to discourage operators guarding their slots by flying half-empty planes. Heathrow has terminal capacity for an extra 20 million passengers, and with fuller and, in places, bigger planes, we’d be able to accommodate many more. In addition, we need to encourage a shift from air to rail wherever possible. Every week, for example, there are more than 300 flights from Heathrow Brussels, Manchester, Newcastle and Paris. In time, a better high speed rail network will help.

These measures would relieve pressure on Heathrow, but by improving links to other airports, we can do more. For example, Stansted is massively underused, by nearly 50 per cent, and with proper rail links to the City, it would be the natural place for business flights. There is no reason why we couldn’t facilitate a two-hub approach, with Heathrow catering (broadly speaking) for western-facing flights, and Stansted catering for eastern business flights.

It has been argued that these measures are inconvenient and complicated. Perhaps, but the government will find that they aren’t nearly as inconvenient as the alternatives.

Tickets are still available to the Spectator’s debate on expansion at Heathrow, which will be held on Monday 26 November at Savoy Place in London. A panel of experts – including Boris Johnson’s right hand man, Daniel Moylan, and influential Tory MP Graham Brady – will discuss the question, ‘No ifs, no buts. Heathrow must have a third runway.’  For more information on this event, including tickets and directions to the venue, click here.

Zac Goldsmith is the Conservative MP for Richmond-upon-Thames.

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Show comments
  • BB

    I quote from the above: “It has been argued that these measures are inconvenient and complicated. Perhaps, but the government will find that they aren’t nearly as inconvenient as the alternatives.”

    The alternative is the current Government willfully converts itself into a minority opposition.

  • Mephistopholes

    No 3rd runway at LHR is needed. But the Spanish are selling down their equity stake in BAA; China now owns 10% and Qatar 20% of LHR, and their big purses can afford to pay Frontier Economics (a firm biased because of its allegiances) to produce a one-sided report of glossy proportions which lazy journalists thus assume as verbatim. Horrifying! We need solutions other than a 3rd runway, and people and politicians with the courage to innovate these.

  • William Blakes Ghost

    Why is it there is so much sense from some on the blue backbenches and absolutely none from the Government front bench on so many issues?

  • http://www.facebook.com/steve.patriarca Steve Patriarca

    Of course we do need at least one more runway at Heathrow and this would in fact reduce air pollution over London and the Chilterns – it might even reduce noise. Planes being “stacked” waiting to land are still in the air. Planes queuing the usual 45 minutes or so for take off are still polluters. That said, we also need better rail services and the Government’s position on this is bizarre. It has tried to close the best service in the country, that offered by Virgin trains mainly to and from Manchester and the North West. The EU has consistently tried to open up the railways and the Governments of UK and France have endorsed restrictive practices which prevent London being linked to the European rail network. There is the hopeless Gare du Nord with a positively Victorian link to the East (cobbled stairway – too close for a taxi too far for comfort) and the horrible Brussels Central which at least has direct links to Europe. There are no trains form London to anywhere but the NW fringes of Europe – Belgium (whoever wants to go to Belgium for goodness sake unless they are EU apparatchiks) – Paris. The Tunnel is being used well below potential. There is no reason at all not to have fast trains from London to Zurich, Strasbourg and Frankfurt – direct. This is the other real transport scandal –

  • Guest

    Of course we do need at least one more runway at Heathrow and this would in fact reduce air pollution over London and the Chilterns – it might even reduce noise. Places being “stacked” waiting to land are still in the air. Planes queuing the usual 45 minutes or so for take off are still polluters. That said, we also need better rail services and the Government’s position on this is bizarre. It has tried to close the best service in the country, that offered by Virgin trains mainly to and for Manchester and the North West. The EU has consistently tried to open up the railways and the Governments of UK and France have endorsed restrictive practices which prevent London being linked to the European rail network. There is the hopeless Gare du Nord with a positively Victorian link to the East (cobbled stairway – too close for a taxi too far for comfort) and the horrible Brussels Central which at least has direct links to Europe. There are no trains form London to anywhere but the NW fringes of Europe – Belgium (whoever wants to go to Belgium for goodness sake unless they are EU apparatchiks) – Paris. The Tunnel is being used well below potential. There is no reason at all not to have fast trains from London to Zurich, Strasbourg and Frankfurt – direct. This is the other real transport scandal –

  • ButcombeMan

    Yes, We need a quick answer, but just not Zac;s (or Boris’).

    Cameron has really lost it on this one,

    Britain will be a third rate, impoverished nation, because Brown/Blair, funked nuclear power. and Cameron funked airports.

  • jazz6o6

    Cameron is between a rock and a hard place. He’s trapped between the demands of big business and the national interest so he has opted to kick the problem into the long grass for a season or two.

    Why is it that at one of the most trying times in our history we end up with a slippery PR apparatchik at the helm?

    • telemachus

      For Gods sake we need growth
      Cameron engineered the double dip
      The shadow chancellor has a build for growth strategy
      Lets start with building 4 runways for growth

  • M. Wenzl

    Zac Goldsmith — a prize shit — speaks good sense on Stansted.

  • http://twitter.com/BerkshireJames James Randall

    There’s a very simple decision that could be made about Heathrow: build a new hub airport designed for the needs of 21st century travellers that doesn’t have its runways aligned to force flights to fly over the capital. Then close Heathrow, and redevelop the site.

    • telemachus

      OK where and at what cost?

      • http://twitter.com/BerkshireJames James Randall

        I’ll deal with the cost first. Done correctly there should be no overall cost to the project as a significant proportion of the costs of constructing a new facility could be recovered from income from redeveloping Heathrow with the remainder coming from the new airport once operational (of course the construction would have to be financed initially).

        As for location, with the UK’s prevailing wind direction (westerly) you can’t do anything west or east of the capital and prevent overflying. Which leaves the options of north, south, north east, north west, south east and south west of London as potential sites. Ideally you would want to position it to be as accessible as possible, with access to the best possible catchment area of population, allowing for the use of multiple forms of transport for access.

  • Daveyyy12

    No we do not. Actually had enough of growth.

    Teresa May want to try and stop pull factors, an extra Airport would be a pull factor.

    PS: No EU referendum vote I will stay at home, spoil the ballot, vote UKIP, eat my ballot in the booth. I will not be voting Tory so leave all the big decisions to the next, non Tory government.

    PPS: Actually make sure the wife does not vote by taking her shopping.

    PPPS: May order a coach and take all the old dears shopping on the next election day.

    • Daveyyy12

      oops, extra runway.

  • Ivor

    A new hub airport is the adopted mantra of the day and is a concept firmly embedded in the 1970′s invented in the 1950’s. By the time a new hub with it’s additional infrastructure requirements were constructed (2030?) it would just be regarded as wasteful white elephant project that big governments are so good at proposing. What
    does not seem to have been discussed openly is the future direction of aviation technology and it’s influence on airline operations.The single largest major driving factor in airline operation is economics (with safety) and for today’s 1st tier operators this is paramount.
    Air transport manufacturers work closely with the operators to produce
    the air vehicles that are needed to meet future requirements which
    means that constant innovation is being aggressively pursued at every
    level and as this works through to the airline operations front then
    modes of flight planning will change.
    The Aircraft vehicle –
    consists of airframe, engines and avionics in which tremendous
    advances have and will be made into the future. Frames are lighter
    (composites), engines are ever more efficient and avionics have
    developed advanced ‘Fly by Wire’, safety and navigational systems
    (spacial awareness). We should not also forget the improved
    maintenance aspects leading to less frequent scheduled maintenance
    activity and greater vehicle availability.
    Air and Ground Traffic
    control – Introduction of the ‘Free Flight Programme’ for ATC
    and the increasing use of aircraft mounted ‘Visual Guidance
    Systems’ for low visibility flying and landing together with
    providing ground traffic aids.
    So the changing technology is a dynamic in the the overall operating equation and will have a significant impact on operations during any period needed to build
    new take off and landing capacity. To those that doubt that these will not happen quickly I would say that upgrades to existing equipments will happen if they improve overall running costs (spend to save). Another augment sometimes used is that aircraft are expensive and so an operator will keep it for life that again is yesterday’s thinking as most tier one operators sell and lease back their fleet (I own a miniscule part of an A380 bought and leased back by such an airline) so movement of aircraft through the food chain will increase in future and tier one operators will maintain lower average age fleets. I should also mention that aircraft engines are increasingly supplied on ‘Power By The Hour’ arrangements to operators where the investment cost is spread over the period of use.
    Having been a frequent flyer prior to retirement I can tell
    you that most hub airports are places to avoid (LHR, LAX, CHI, DWC to
    name but a handful) if you can get a point to point then that’s the
    way to go. Of course the hub and spoke operation will not disappear
    but will decrease in importance over time to be supplanted by more
    point to point operation of these lighter more economical aircraft
    taking advantage of the new ATC advances to improve operating costs.
    It is my belief that we have enough hub and spoke capability for the
    future with existing or modifiable airports and that increased
    utilization factors at other geographical locations will support more
    efficient point to point operation.

  • CraigStrachan

    Yes, Stansted is the way to go. I’d almost always prefer it to Heathrow.

  • dalai guevara

    Where did I read this? Some architecture magazine: only 16% of MPs believe in Boris Island. Gulp!

    The simple truth in planning, urban design and architecture is that maximum connectivity is not achieved by a centralist ‘star’ diagram, but by implementing a superior ‘web’ diagram.

  • http://twitter.com/BerkshireJames James Randall

    Mr Goldsmith appears to have fallen into the usual trap of “I want an airport but not near me ta”. His main suggestion of a twin hub for London is not a viable solution. So Heathrow does westerly flights and Stansted does easterly flights? What about the flights to/from Europe and the rest of the UK that provide the important connecting traffic to make a number of these flights viable? With a twin hub solution airlines would have to duplicate these flights between different airports.

    He may argue that flights to Greece or Cyprus don’t contribute to connectivity. This may be the case but at 87 flights per week this is only covering about 0.9% of Heathrow’s weekly capacity. In addition does he know how many passengers on those flights transfer onto longhaul services at Heathrow?

    Shifting passengers onto rail for trips domestically and to Paris and Brussels? Again, this neatly avoids considering the connecting traffic that these flights bring to long haul services.

    Bigger planes? They’re coming, but you need airlines to buy them and operate them.

    Relative lack of use of Stansted? Well here you need to blame the combination of Ryanair and BAA who seemingly can’t manage to do deals any more. Stansted’s traffic has largely dropped as a result of Ryanair pulling flights out of the airport.

    The idea of this review is to consider all the options, not just the ones that get repeated continuously in the press (3rd runway, Heath-wick, Boris Island, etc). You never know, there might be a better solution out there.

    • http://twitter.com/StopCityAirport Stop City Airport ✈

      Mr Goldsmith appears to have fallen into the usual trap of “I want an airport but not near me ta”. >> What trap? He has an airport near him and makes no mention of wanting another airport in the article.

  • Vix

    Why not have a more interesting policy
    Technology has reduced not increased, the need for business travel. Indeed it should have reduced it – so who exactly is asking for more capacity and why?
    Tourists should pay proper whack.
    Planes should pay tax on fuel.
    Scotland has been notably silent but should be wanting a more international airport and more businesses to relocate to assist when they get their independence. More tourists too.
    Let the airport argument work on pull and not push. Create a larger international airport in Edinburgh and let businesses adapt to what follows.
    After all, Heathrow is surely large enough for the English (real) requirement?

    • MichtyMe

      Scotland’s airports are well connected by KLM to a excellent hub, Schiphol with one superb terminal, six runways and no APD on the onward leg.

  • Daniel Maris

    Oh dear. Zac has rather neatly exposed Cameron’s Toffee for what it is.

    • Archimedes

      No. I suspect that he just rather likes the idea of the government approving a third runway, paving the way for him to stand down on a matter of principle, dear boy, only to see himself catapulted into the stratosphere of political influence by virtue of his stoic stand, widely regarded by his peers as a man of conviction and vision…but then he wakes, and alas he is just a member of the public!

      • Daniel Maris

        I’ve seen the guy up close. I v. much doubt your analysis. He’s super-rich, doesn’t have to worry about self-advancement, and I think is genuinely concerned about the environment. He’s looking to get the Tories to abandon their suicidal slide into third runway support. Living in London I can guarantee you that will lose them 5-10 seats in the next general election.

        • http://twitter.com/BerkshireJames James Randall

          And the alternative is…..?

          • Daniel Maris

            1. Boris Island.

            2. Expand other London airports.

            3. Expand regional airports, leaving Heathrow as a specialist business hub.

            • http://twitter.com/BerkshireJames James Randall

              Boris Island? Aside from it being the wrong side of London, just like planes have to fly over London at Heathrow currently, they’re likely to have to for Boris Island as well.

              Expand other London airports? So which one do the big carriers & alliances go to?

              Expand regional airports? The oft used theory that there’s plenty of potential capacity outside of London. Well, yes, maybe. But why isn’t it being used today?

    • telemachus

      Zac
      Get up and hug a tree
      We need more runways for economic growth
      For heavens sake your Tory cronies have done their best to cut off growth
      There are far too many Nimby’s in the south east.
      They have to take the rough with the smooth
      I am in full agreement with your suggestion of 4 runways at Heathrow
      *
      Main problem in truth is that Dave is scared of Boris

      • Daniel Maris

        I am always reassured to find myself opposing your viewpoint Tele. It gives me a warm reassurance that I am in the right.

        • telemachus

          You are (almost) as smug as Zac

      • jazz6o6

        And you don’t know what you’re talking about. I worked out of Heathrow for 17 years and I can tell you that on the day they finish building the third runway Heathrow will be too small.
        Heathrow is a busted flush and I don’t see why we should all continue to suffer in order to protect the interests of a few big businesses who can afford to lobby the hell out of the govt at the expense of everyone else.

  • Archimedes

    It’s probably not the best idea to use reductio ad absurdum when one holds an activist position like your own. It rather makes one look like a bit of a pillock.

    Some novel ideas in there. I’m sure Patrick McLoughlin will be on the phone to Greece and Cyprus presently, to point out to them that we no longer wish to have any direct flights to their economically useless countries (why not just ban direct flights to all tourist destinations while we’re at it?), whilst Simon Burns makes a call to the operators: “Err, hello, hello – hello there chaps! Rather an urgent matter, I’m afraid – we feel you ought to be filling your planes up, you know? Causing a bit of a stir with capacity you see – all these takeoff slots being full and what-not? We think it will work wonders for pricing if we keep supply low and just jam the damn thing full – so what do you say? If your willing to fill your planes, we’re willing to take away your slots! How’s that for cooperation – and tough decisions?”

    The government is stuck where it is because people such as yourself decided that opposition to Heathrow expansion was the only policy that might deliver you your seat, so you went gung-ho on it.

  • In2minds

    What’s the BBC policy on Heathrow expansion?

    • Archimedes

      They don’t know, but they’re pretty sure that Howard Davies is a paedophile.

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