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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Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.

Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.

What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.