Plane Stupid protest at House of Commons
Fri 28 Feb 2008 – The UK Government’s public consultation on the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport ended on Wednesday amid accusations that it was a “sham” and coincided with high profile protests by activists at the airport and Parliament. The plans to add a sixth terminal and a third runway have met with strong opposition from campaign groups, local councils and politicians from all parties.
The proposals, announced by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly in November (see story) include the construction of a new 2,200m runway and a sixth passenger terminal to the north of the airport that involves the demolition of an entire village. The Government also proposes to change existing operations to allow simultaneous take-offs and landings from the two existing runways.
This increase in capacity could see annual aircraft movements increase from the present 480,000 to around 702,000 and passenger numbers doubling to 122 million by 2030.
The anti-expansion lobby has mounted a vociferous campaign to persuade the Government to reconsider. The 2M Group, an alliance of 12 local authorities claiming to represent two million residents affected by the plans, organized a series of meetings across the area, culminating in a mass rally in central London last Monday, where the 2,000-seater hall was filled to overcapacity.
The 2M Group has complained to the Government that the three-month consultation period was too short and also about the extent of cooperation between the Department for Transport (DfT) and BAA in the run up to the consultation. “This has allowed the airport owner to influence the assessment of whether the environmental conditions for the expansion can be met,” it said and accused the DfT of withholding important data.
Actual measurement of local sentiment to the proposals is thin on the ground. The only poll taken was by Richmond Council in southwest London, which sent a questionnaire to residents. From 9,405 responses, 89% said they backed the Council’s opposition to the expansion plan. Although 89% of the respondents knew of the plan, only 47% were aware that a public consultation process was taking place.
Speaking on behalf of the 2M Group, the Council’s Leader, Serge Lourie, commented: “The results of our own consultation overwhelmingly support the Council’s anti-expansion stance and we will leave the Government in absolutely no doubt about this strength of feeling in our official response to them. Enough is enough, and this simple message will be at the core of our response.”
As well as local councillors, around 100 MPs and MEPs with constituencies affected by the Heathrow ‘footprint’ have also condemned the plans. London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, said recently: “On every test, the argument for expanding Heathrow has not been made and I don’t believe it ever can. We have a duty to protect our environment not just for us, but the generations who will come after us.
“It is vital that all airport expansion in London and the south-east, including Heathrow, is halted now as it is completely contrary to the growing evidence on the role of aviation in contributing towards catastrophic climate change.”
A range of environmental groups have, unsurprisingly, criticized the proposals. Two of the more militant campaigners, Greenpeace and Plane Stupid, went further and attracted widespread publicity for two high-profile stunts.
On Monday, five Greenpeace activists disembarking from a BA flight evaded supposedly tight security and managed to climb on to the fuselage of the Airbus A320 they had travelled on from Manchester. Having done so, they unfurled a banner reading “Climate Emergency – No Third Runway” and placed it over the tailfin. One of the protesters told the BBC: “Climate change can be beaten but not by almost doubling the size of the world’s biggest airport. We are here to draw a line in the sand and tell Gordon Brown his new runway must not and will not be built.”
Another wrote in a blog: “Some people seem to think we’re calling for all flying to stop, tomorrow. We’re not – what we’re opposed to is Brown’s dash to double the size of Heathrow in the face of climate change. If we don’t put a cap on emissions, at predicted rates of expansion the aviation industry will be emitting our total carbon budget by 2050. That means we wouldn’t be able to emit CO2 anywhere else in the country if we want to hit the emission reduction targets set by the Government.
“This isn’t about telling people they can or can’t fly. This is about stabilizing the number of flights from UK airports, which is why we’re calling for the Government to stop all plans for airport expansion, for a ban on domestic flights, for a cap on long-haul flights and for a transfer of the £9 billion subsidies the aviation industry gets over to rail, to make train travel better and cheaper.”
Five campaigners from Plane Stupid – motto: “Bringing the aviation industry back down to earth” – also managed to bypass heavy security and on Wednesday scaled the roof of the House of Commons. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown was taking questions in the Commons, the protesters hung a banner over the building and launched paper aeroplanes made from what they claimed as secret Whitehall documents proving BAA, Heathrow’s operator, had written parts of the consultation document and that the Government had already decided to implement the expansion plans.
The Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), whichhas over 120 affiliated members comprising community and environmental groups, local authorities, parish councils, businesses and consultancies and individuals, claims a report published last month undermines claims by the DfT about the economic benefits of an expansion. The study, carried out by respected research and consultancy firm CE Delft, criticized the findings of an earlier report by Oxford Economic Forecasting that were used by the DfT in its assessment.
The CE Delft study was commissioned by HACAN Clearskies, another group campaigning against Heathrow expansion and a co-organizer of Monday’s mass rally. Its spokesman, John Stewart said: “The report clearly shows it is essential that the Government should not rely on propaganda promoted by vested interests. We are not asking that they should wholly rely on the CE Delft report. What I do say is that we need a proper independent study into the economic impacts of airport expansion and that greater transparency in the consultation process is necessary for the public to have full confidence in the conclusions reached; something that is sadly lacking at the moment.”
However, business interests have lined up to say the expansion is crucial for the economy. BA chief executive, Willie Walsh, has attacked objectors for peddling “myths” about the economic and environmental impact of the plans. “If Heathrow’s international connectivity continues to decline, UK-based business will lose competitiveness and be forced to consider relocating abroad.” He maintains there will be no overall increase in emissions by the growing traffic because of aircraft technology development.
His views received support earlier this week from arch-rival Sir Richard Branson, President of Virgin Atlantic. “With more runways being built in other European cities, such as Frankfurt, it is more important than ever that London expands its capacity,” he said. “Business travellers need an airport that flows seamlessly, not one that seizes up due to lack of space on the runways. Businesses will move their global headquarters elsewhere in Europe, and they will take thousands of jobs with them if a third runway fails to be built at Heathrow.
“Routine delays and circling overhead by all airlines, manoeuvres that simply increase pollution levels, will only be stopped with extra capacity.
“The aircraft of the future are more fuel-efficient and much quieter, and so will help to meet the environmental criteria that the Government has laid down for another runway to be built.”
Pro-aviation coalition group, FlyingMatters, says that the UK needs three new runways, including Heathrow’s, or half a million potential new jobs in tourism would be lost.
“The rate of growth in international visitors is growing fast and the UK is set to be one of the main beneficiaries. If the UK does not have the infrastructure to accommodate this growth, tourists will not stop flying they will simply fly, and spend their money, elsewhere. There would be no environmental gain and only economic pain,” said Chairman Brian Wilson, a former Labour MP and government minister.
“The vast majority of international visitors arrive by air. Heathrow will be completely full by next year and other main regional airports will require additional infrastructure in terms of terminal and runway capacity in order to handle the projected growth in international visitors and domestic demand for air travel.
“Most people accept a sustainable growth in aviation – such as that set out by the Stern report. It makes no sense to foster delays, discomfort and higher prices for travellers by denying the need for new infrastructure.”
Another pro-aviation lobby group, Future Heathrow, says 72,000 people work directly on the airport and in some local boroughs more than 10% of the workforce is employed at the airport and around 22% of these jobs would be lost by 2030 without the expansion. The group’s campaign director is Clive Solely, another former Labour MP.
In the unlikely event the UK Government bows to public and environmental campaigning pressure and decides not to proceed with the proposals, what are the alternatives in dealing with the forecasted growth in traffic, given that Heathrow is now close to full runway capacity? Suggestions have ranged from dusting off plans from the 1970s that looked at the feasibility of building an entirely new airport in the Thames Estuary, to the east of London. This would severely curtail the need of aircraft to fly over the densely populated London area, it would allow 24-hour operations and it would fit in with the continuing regeneration of the Thames Gateway region. Since the 1970s, two major new international airports, Osaka’s Kansai and Hong Kong, have been built offshore. However, there are further environmental and safety concerns with a Thames Estuary airport as the area is home to large bird populations.
Another suggestion is to break up the BAA monopoly in which it owns and operates the three main London airports, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted. There is an argument that strengthened competition could see efficiency improvements that would curtail the need for large-scale expansion. Since its takeover by Spanish conglomerate Ferrovial, BAA has had to ride a host of problems, with passenger delays caused by security bottlenecks and baggage handling breakdowns. It is struggling with £9 billion (nearly $18bn) of debt, low staff morale and a high turnover of top management that culminated earlier this week with the replacement of its chief executive.
Although the consultation has now closed, the heat generated by the Heathrow debate ensures the battle is far from over. The UK Government appears ready to renege on a 2001 commitment to cap flights at Heathrow and now has a job squaring its newly-acquired tough public stance on fighting climate warming with the demands of a fast-growing, fast-polluting aviation industry.
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