Heathrow or Gatwick? It's make your mind up time for David Cameron

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes, it's a plane. Image: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty.

The author is Labour’s shadow transport secretary.

Few policy problems have proved to be as intractable as providing new airport capacity – but the case for action is overwhelming.

The UK has produced a long list of discarded plans for new airports. Lullingstone, Cubbington and Maplin Sands were all unrealised, and Boris Johnson's Thames Estuary Airport on the Isle of Grain looks set to join them. Even when new runways have been built, they have provoked intense local and ecological protests. The construction of a second runway at Manchester Airport 15 years ago was a case in point.

There is no doubt, however, that we need a new runway. Heathrow is full, and it has been for a decade. Gatwick operates at 85 per cent of its capacity, and it too is effectively full during the peak period. No new full-length runway has been built in the South East since the 1940s.

Redistributing demand to underutilised airports is easier in theory than in practice, and the Airports Commission found that, without action, the entire London airport network would be operating at the limits of its capacity by 2040.

It has become clear over the last few days that David Cameron is hamstrung.  He commissioned an independent report that strongly recommended Heathrow expansion, yet he is also faced with the threat of a by-election triggered by his mayoral candidate if that recommendation is adopted.

Now he has to choose which pledge he breaks: either that “a decision will be made by the end of the year,” as he told MPs in July, or his famous 2009 promise that there would be no third runway at Heathrow – “no ifs, no buts”. 


This continued indecision is deeply damaging for the economy, and it is causing blight for residents who live close to both Heathrow and Gatwick.

It’s vital that questions over the environmental impacts of expansion are addressed; but they must be genuinely investigated and not just used as an excuse to kick the issue further down the road. Aviation accounts for around 6 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and airports have not always been regarded as good neighbours, especially when it comes to noise pollution.

The Airports Commission recommended that an independent noise authority should be created two years ago. This is a sensible recommendation that could have already been implemented without prejudicing a wider decision on runway capacity – so why has the government failed to take action?

We have also taken note of the Environmental Audit Committee’s concerns which were published in early December. Ministers must make sure that when they do bring a proposal before parliament they are doing so on a sound legal basis. There can be no repeat of the West Coast franchise scandal which cost taxpayers over £50m. However, as the Committee itself said, “the government should not avoid or defer these issues”. It’s clear that the report is not a charter for further, indefinite delay.  

Labour will study the government’s proposals carefully, alongside any additional material that is commissioned, and we will respond on the basis of our four tests for aviation expansion:

  • That robust and convincing evidence was produced that the Commission’s recommendations would provide sufficient capacity;
  • That the UK’s legal climate change obligations could still be met;
  • That local noise and environmental impacts can be managed and minimised;
  • That the benefits of any expansion were not confined to London and the South East.

We have also set out a set of proposals which would support the wider aviation industry. The National Infrastructure Commission should study the road and rail requirements of airports outside the South East, and the government should confirm the HS2 Manchester Airport Station as soon as possible. These measures are not, however, in themselves a substitute for new runway capacity in the South East.  

Aviation expansion is a matter of national significance and, having committed to addressing the problem head on, David Cameron faces a loss of credibility if he ducks the issue now. The UK needs additional capacity, but the prospect of any expansion is now in doubt. The country – and people who live under the flightpaths of both Heathrow and Gatwick – deserve better. 

Lilian Greenwood is MP for Nottingham South, and Labour’s shadow transport secretary.

 
 
 
 

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.