“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.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.