UK Government set to sanction Heathrow expansion just as London's mayor proposes a replacement airport
(photo: Google Earth)
Thu 25 Sept 2008 – According to The Times newspaper, the UK Government has already decided to press ahead with controversial proposals to expand the capacity of London’s Heathrow Airport, despite widespread opposition from environmental pressure groups, local councils and politicians. The disclosure coincides with an announcement from London’s mayor that he was commissioning a study to consider the viability of a new 24-hour, four-runway airport in the Thames estuary to the east of the capital to ultimately replace Heathrow.
The Department for Transport is still supposedly ploughing through 70,000 responses following the public consultation on the Heathrow proposals, which include greater use of the two existing runways together with the building of a new runway and a sixth passenger terminal. An announcement had not been expected until just before the end of the year but it appears it may be made as early as November. This task will now fall on the shoulders of a new Transport Secretary, following the decision of Ruth Kelly to step down.
The issue has proved the hottest of potatoes. Environmentalists and local campaigners say the anticipated increase in aircraft and road traffic will bring unacceptably high levels of noise and air pollution. Even high-level European Commission officials have expressed concern that EU air quality regulations are likely to be breached. On the other side of the argument, business leaders and, of course, the operator of Heathrow, BAA, together with airlines serving the airport, are convinced expansion is vital for the national economy.
Both camps have produced studies to support their case but others have said not enough research has been done on the environmental and economic impacts.
The proposal by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to build a new airport just off the Kent coast linked to a high-speed cross-Channel rail network is not a new one. Back in 2002, the Strategic Aviation Special Interest Group, which represented 74 councils, also mooted the idea of a 24-hour, four-runway airport in the same area to solve the growing capacity problem in the south-east of England and to maintain London’s position as the pre-eminent international air transport hub.
The group said the geographical isolation combined with the ease of linking it with the existing high-speed rail system between London and the Continent would minimize the effects of airport noise and pollution and provide an alternative to short-haul flights. A 24-hour operation would enable an expansion of air freight capability and provide easier connections for long-haul flights from south-east Asia.
The group had estimated the cost of building such an airport would be in the region of £13 billion ($24bn), which could be partly financed by imposing heavy levies at the other airports in the south-east, forcing airlines to switch flights to it.
Johnson’s aides believe that the construction of an airport loosely modelled on Hong Kong’s offshore airport could be built in just six years. Heathrow, which Johnson describes as a “planning error”, would then be phased out and turned into an equivalent of California’s high-tech Silicon Valley. However, it is conceded that an environmental impact assessment on a new airport would have to be made first. A major environmental objection to previous proposals on a Thames estuary airport is that the area is a feeding area for many thousands of migrating birds, which would also make it a potential safety hazard for aircraft landing and taking off.
Assuming east-west runways, it would also seem impossible to avoid at least a sizeable percentage of flights overflying populated areas. The leader of Kent County Council has already come out against the Mayor’s proposal, calling it a “big bad idea” and said the proposed site was “totally unsuitable” for an airport. However, a local business leader said a new international airport would have huge benefits for local employment and the area’s economy.
An offshore airport is unlikely to find much support from environmental lobby groups, who will see any proposal that allows for an increase in airline traffic as a failure to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Campaigners opposed to an expansion of Heathrow joined forces with local activists in Manchester on Tuesday (September 23) to carry out a ‘flash mob’ protest against the expansion of Manchester Airport. It coincided with the Labour Party annual conference taking place in the city. A new group called Stop Expansion at Manchester Airport (SEMA) has been formed, it says, to fight plans the airport has made to increase the number of passengers from 22 million in 2005 to 50 million by 2030.
A similar environment campaign group was set up to oppose a possible new runway at London Stansted Airport. John Stewart of HACAN, the group campaigning against the Heathrow proposals, points out: “This shows how campaign groups are linking up to oppose expansion plans across the country.”
And it’s not just in the UK that militancy against airport expansion is on the rise. On Saturday (September 20), a demonstration took place in central Paris to protest against night flights at Roissy CDG and Bourget airports. Organized by ADVOCNAR, a French environmental group campaigning against aircraft ‘nuisance’, 86 local mayors gathered at the Trocadéro to push claims under the French Declaration of Human Rights for each citizen’s right to a good night’s sleep. ADVOCNAR says two million inhabitants are disturbed by night flights, which have doubled over the past 13 years.
In Germany, local activists have been occupying a forest next to Frankfurt Airport, which the airport wants to clear so it can build a fourth runway. AufgeMUCkt, a group campaigning against a proposed third runway at Munich Airport, held a large demonstration earlier this month.