“All that noise & just so people can stop off in Heathrow's duty free”: the case against airport expansion

Protests against Heathrow expansion have been going on for a while: this one's from 2008. Image: AFP/Getty.

The London Assembly has a longstanding opposition to Heathrow expansion for a very clear reason. We don't need it and we don't want it.

Last May, the Assembly called upon the Airports Commission to reject both of the Heathrow expansion options. Mayor Boris Johnson added, in a response to a written question in June: "My team and I concluded that the Commission's assessment had failed to demonstrate that Heathrow expansion could be compatible with the UK's air quality obligations under EU law. It is simply inconceivable that Heathrow expansion could be allowed to proceed in these circumstances."

So, the position of the mayor and the London Assembly is completely clear. A third runway at Heathrow would undermine efforts to tackle air pollution and climate change, and increase noise for millions of Londoners.

We know that Transport for London (TfL) and the Greater London Authority could help fund a legal challenge by London borough councils' to this decision. To us, the pro Heathrow supporters are out of touch and are in the pockets of big business.

According to the Davis report, around 30 percent of new Heathrow passengers are simply people who would otherwise fly out of another London airport. So that'll be concentrating air pollution in one place. Can that be sensible?

How many London residents, school children and businesses will experience worsening or illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide or particulate exposure? Why are we considering taking 10m passengers a year from other London airports and concentrating them all at one of most polluted hot spots in the country?

It's predicted that Heathrow will be breaching European legal pollution limits in 2030, when still running under capacity. It will be much higher when at full capacity. TfL also think the Davis Report underestimated the pollution from surface access.

So why make it impossible to meet air quality laws, just to get 10m passengers flying out of Heathrow instead of Gatwick or Stansted?

So hundreds of thousands more Londoners will have to put up with aircraft noise, just so people can stop off in Heathrow's duty free

The government is signed up to targets on carbon emissions. To meet them, its latest modelling shows it would need to impose a carbon tax on fuel adding £100 to the cost of a return flight to Ibiza by 2050, even if there is no airport expansion. One of the initial reports by the Davies Commission published a graph showing that, to meet those targets after expanding airport capacity, that additional cost would have to be around £150.

In other words, we’d build a new runway in a London airport – then tax people so no more flights were taken across the UK as a whole. If Department for Transport modelling is accepted, it implies a massive switch of flights away from Scottish and regional airports as the South East airports grow.

Who benefits from this growth? Around 5 in 10 new passengers will just be transferring between international flights. So hundreds of thousands more Londoners will have to put up with aircraft noise, just so people can stop off in Heathrow's duty free.

This expansion would mean spending at least £18bn on a third runway, creating all these problems, not to mention the climate impacts, even though only 10 percent of flights is actually a new connection for British passengers. Why create so many problems when we could easily get the extra passenger journeys out of existing capacity at other British airports?

When we also consider that business flights are falling – and that most of the increase is due to relatively wealthy people choosing to take even more flights each year – the idea of expanding airport capacity looks a nonsense. It's not even big business, as such, but rich businessmen pushing for it.

Darren Johnson represents the Green party in the London Assembly.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.