The case against expanding London City Airport

A plane leaves London City. Image: Getty.

In June, London City Airport released its plans for a major expansion over the next fifteen years. Although the company has no intention of expanding its physical footprint by building a new runway or terminal – there simply isn’t the space – it is asking for a relaxation of the restrictions around its operation, in order to “maximise the potential” of existing infrastructure.

In short, the airport wants to be allowed to operate during times that it is not currently permitted, or when flights are limited. That would include an end to the 24-hour weekend closure between 12.30pm on Saturday and 12.30pm on Sunday, lifting the annual cap of 111,000 flights to 151,000 by 2035, and increasing the number of flights that can land and take off during the first and last half hour of the airport’s daily operations.

Any such expansion will impact the lives of ordinary Londoners, who will be forced to deal with yet more noisy planes overhead, during even more antisocial hours. It will also exacerbate the city’s air pollution crisis, which already causes thousands of premature deaths every year.

To add insult to injury, most residents of the capital have never even flown out of London City.

The annual salary of an average passenger from the airport is reportedly £114,000 – four times the median UK income, three times that of the typical Londoner, and the highest of all the airports in the UK. More than half of its passengers are business customers flying directly into financial capitals such as Frankfurt and Zurich, or tax havens like Luxembourg and the Isle of Man.

Those who do use the airport for leisure trips earn far more than middle-income holidaymakers. Most of the planes owned by low-cost carriers, such as EasyJet and Ryanair, are too large to use its runway.

The airport claims that its expansion will be carbon neutral. But even if we could take its speculative claims at face value, these promises don’t go anywhere near far enough. If we’re to meet the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and limit global temperature increase to two degrees centigrade, we need to actively reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases being expelled into the atmosphere.


Simply put, rather than allowing London City Airport to expand to accommodate projected increases in demand, we should be looking to take the heat out of that demand. Nothing short of a cut in the number of flights taken each year will bring us close to carbon neutrality.

So, how do we achieve that in the 11 years the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we have left to avert a climate emergency? The Greens support the introduction of an EU-wide kerosene (plane fuel) tax, which would help us move closer to this goal. Many countries already tax fuel on some flights – includeing the US, Australia and Japan – and I am broadly in favour. There is currently an active EU petition calling on the Commission to propose this tax to Member States, which needs to secure one million signatures by May 2020.

We should also be seriously considering the introduction of a frequent flyer levy – an extra tax that would be paid by those who fly more than twice a year, and rise with each additional flight taken. In a recent poll, 56 per cent of people agreed that a frequent flyer levy would be “fair”.

They’re right. The vast majority of people would not be affected by such a tax. Most years, most Britons do not fly at all. And only 15 per cent take three or more flights, adding up to a whopping 70 per cent of all flights taken.

It’s now clear that the wealthiest among us are doing disproportionate harm to our environment. They need to contribute towards fixing this damage, or change their damaging behaviour.

A public consultation on London City’s expansion ends in less than a month. I urge you to respond and reject these reckless, polluting and downright dangerous plans.

Scott Ainslie is a Green MEP for London.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.