In July 2015 the Davis Commission released its report into airport capacity in the south-east of England, and recommended the construction of a third runway at Heathrow. Not only was this the wrong decision of the south-east but it was the wrong decision for the country. Airport capacity in the south-east is not the pressing issue that the government will have you believe. The issue is inextricably linked to the wider problem of the economic divide between the North and South of England; any such large infrastructure project must also be a method of reducing this disparity.
Dr Gary Fuller of King’s College London was commissioned by London Mayor Boris Johnson to write a report about air quality in the capital. The report estimated that in 2008 alone 4,300 people died prematurely as a result of air pollution. I would therefore argue that adding another runway to a London airport in order to increase the number of flights would only exacerbate this figure. Furthermore the European Union set air quality targets in 1998 that should have been met in 2010 but are now expected to be met in 2030; a third runway at Heathrow would only push this date back even further unless something radical happened. The other often unmentioned pollution that would be made significantly worse is noise pollution; people in West London are already subjected to aircraft noise which at the busiest of times of day can see planes overhead every 60 seconds.
In addition to decreasing the environmental quality of an area that is already unacceptable, the expansion of Heathrow would also result in the destruction of around 700 homes, eight Grade II listed buildings and the entire village of Sipson as well as a sizeable portion of nearby Harmondsworth. Not only can these people not leave the homes because nobody would by a house that could very well be demolished by the government, but they will have to accept compensation from the government which is based on their home’s value which would have been artificially lowered as a result of Heathrow’s expansion. The local services in the towns such as schools and doctor’s offices will also be demolished thus increasing the pressure on other services in nearby areas.
However the argument most often given in support of Heathrow’s expansion is centred on the enormous economic benefits that such an infrastructure project would bring. Infrastructure projects do provide economic benefits such as increased employment in the construction industry, but this argument is predicated on the premise that the money used to expand Heathrow would not be used elsewhere in the country. The alternative I advocate would provide similar benefits whilst addressing the sizeable economic disparity between the south-east of England and the rest of the country.
Rather than expand Heathrow or any other London airport, capacity in the North of England should be expanded in order to create the same economic benefits away from London. As I have stated in my previous post about HS2, increasing investment away from London shall only encourage more people to live and work in the capital thus increasing pressure on public services and creating a never-ending cycle of higher investment and increased pressure. Only by investing in other parts of the country will this cycle be broken which will also have the added bonus of creating economic opportunities outside the confines of the M25.
The expansion of Newcastle, Manchester or Humberside airports would all result in fewer forced evictions whilst also not worsening the air pollution in the south-east. By heavily investing in one northern airport, a hub airport could easily be created linking this part of the country with emerging economies thus boosting trade with these nations (which I am assured is what capitalists love). From a capitalist perspective the use of this infrastructure project to regenerate northern cities would increase employment without risking capital flight to London (pun intended).
People in the south-east would also be in favour as this proposal wouldn’t worsen air quality or noise pollution and people in the more rural areas of the south-east would support ending the perpetual investment in the capital which has resulted in the urban sprawl of London and rural depopulation. People in the North should support the move as the jobs created in and around London would be relocated to the North thus enabling a genuine economic rival to the south-east to emerge.
In combination with this airport expansion the government would have to work with other organisations such as businesses, universities and local authorities so new flights from the expanded airport would meet local demand. For example 226,000 people in Yorkshire and the Humber identified as ethnically Pakistani or Pakistani-British in the 2011 census; as well as having the airport work to get direct flights to Pakistan so it is easy for people to visit relatives, the government should work with Hull University and others to encourage courses that work in collaboration with Pakistani universities or to offer courses/modules in Urdu, Pakistani history etc. By creating that reciprocal demand the airport becomes a linchpin in maintaining the link between the airport and the other country. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an ethnic group; the same census also showed that 326,000 people in the same region identify as Islamic, so the airport could try to get direct flights to sites of pilgrimage like Mecca and Medina.
The reason that such a strategy would be necessary is that an airport in the North of England would have to put forward a plan that was economically viable because people around the world want to visit or invest in London due to its international reputation; another part of the country would have to actively market itself and create a demand for that service in order to successfully stimulate the regional economy as a viable counter-weight to London’s current dominance. Failure to do so would only increase people’s support in the South for airport expansion in London where demand already exists; to avoid an expanded airport becoming a white-elephant such a demand would have to be fostered and encouraged before construction began.
The arguments in support of airport expansion in the south-east, particularly from those advocating a third runway at Heathrow, are ignoring the UK economy’s wider problem of wealth concentration. By investing in an airport in the North of England this disparity can be addressed whilst seeing the job creation that these proponents say will occur in London relocated to the North. The issues of air and noise pollution are significant enough to dissuade expansion and the comparatively low disruption that expansion in the North should also focus people on the case to use these massive infrastructure projects to target investment away from the south-east.
Although this sets out the case for airport expansion in the North when compared with Heathrow, I would contest from an environmentalist and anti-capitalist perspective that airport expansion is actually necessary. However, as a policy proposal, in my mind it is clear that if airport expansion has been agreed, it should never take place at Heathrow. Addressing the North-South divide has to be at the centre of such a project; Heathrow expansion will not only worsen this economic chasm but will worsen the standard of living for millions of people.