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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Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.