No, London doesn't need another runway – and the only people who'd benefit own airports

Loads of room! Another busy day at Gatwick Airport. Image: Getty.

Caroline Pidgeon is the Liberal Democrat candidate for mayor of London. She doesn't think much of the aviation industry's enthusiasm for airport expansion...

“Myths which are believed in,” George Orwell once declared, “tend to become true.” We cannot allow that to happen on the issue of aviation.

To challenge the immense commercial lobbying claims of Heathrow and Gatwick airports, I suggest taking a look at the excellent publication by the Aviation Environment Network, The Great British Runway Myth – Why there is no need for any new runway in the south east.

The report highlights many key facts that are often overlooked – for example that, while the number of UK air passengers has grown by 32 per cent since 2000, the number of actual flights has been almost static, growing by just 0.6 per cent. 

This point is hardly rocket science, but it is the number of planes that pass through an airport that define whether there is a lack of capacity, not the number of passengers. And in 2014 the average number of passengers per flight at Heathrow and Gatwick was just under 150 people. This is still a relatively low figure.

In fact, when the London Assembly Transport Committee carried out its own investigation into airport capacity three years ago, we heard evidence that – despite all the claims that Heathrow has no spare capacity – it could easily serve 20m more passengers per year, if bigger aircraft were used. Heathrow needs to be a better, not a bigger airport.

What’s more, London and the South East have a surprising number of underused runways. Even at Gatwick, 12 per cent of runway slots are not being used. And in the summer of 2012, 47 per cent of runway slots at Stansted were not used; at Luton it was a staggering 51 per cent.

There’s another issue: not everyone wants to fly from London and the South East. That region accounts for about a third of the UK’s population, but almost two-thirds of its flights. In the whole aviation debate, it is strange that the views of ordinary passengers in the rest of the UK are rarely given a fair hearing.

The conclusion is clear: London and the South East do not need a further runway.

However, we do need to improve train links to Stansted, to ensure that this airport is able to make proper use of its spare capacity. High Speed 2 will also have a dramatic impact. In effect, it will enable Birmingham to become a further runway serving London and much of the South East.

And yes, we do also need to address issues about how we reduce certain types of flights altogether. Some internal flights should be made redundant by HS2. Business travel can also be substituted in many cases, by intelligent use of technology, especially video conferencing.

But the ultimate argument against expanding Heathrow or Gatwick is to challenge the aviation industry’s claim that creating an international hub airport is the way forward.

Heathrow is not a UK owned company. It’s owned by Heathrow Airports Holdings. That in turn is owned by FGP Topco Limited, a consortium owned and led by the Spanish infrastructure group Ferrovial S.A. (25 per cent); and co-owned by Qatar Holding LLC (20 per cent), Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (13.3 per cent), the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (11.9 per cent), Alinda Capital Partners (11.2 per cent), China Investment Corporation (10 per cent) and Universities Superannuation Scheme (8.7 per cent).

Heathrow Airports Holdings quite understandably wants to create a dominant position in the UK, ideally at the expense of other airports. More landing rights means more profits for them. The closer to a monopoly on international flights they have, the happier they are.

But the idea that this company speaks up on behalf of “UK Plc”, or the needs of passengers across the UK, is a joke. The reality is it speaks solely for its own commercial self-interest.

As revealed in this week’s Sunday Times, Heathrow handed its largely overseas owners £2.1b in dividends over the past four years – but has paid only £24m in corporation tax in almost a decade.

This island can remain connected, especially to new growing markets around the world, without a new airport in London or the South East. The huge number of tourists to London can also be maintained without a further runway. We can achieve all this without having to accept the demands of Heathrow or Gatwick.

There are strong environmental and economic arguments for a whole different approach to managing aviation demand. But we must start listening to the real facts – not the commercial interests of the owners of Heathrow and Gatwick.

Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat member of the London Assembly, and the party’s candidate for mayor.

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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 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.

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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.