A third Heathrow will mean congestion, pollution and inconvenience. There is another way

A plane comes into land at Heathrow. Image: Getty.

There must be some credible reason why the government would back a plan to extend an overcrowded, polluting airport, entrenching the monopoly of a foreign owner, whilst demolishing historic villages in the process. But I’m struggling to find it.

The M25 is already a traffic jam around Heathrow at most times of the day, yet we’re told almost doubling passenger numbers won’t make matters worse. Some 100m vehicles flow between junctions 14 and 15 of the M25 every year – and we don’t think an extra 50 million passengers out of Heathrow will add to that?

Even before this extra traffic is pushed onto the road we can expect chaos as a new tunnel is dug to take the M25 beneath the new runway, because space is at such a premium.

Congestion, though, is the least of our worries. In the Aussie movie The Castle the Kerrigan family find that their makeshift home, teetering on the edge of Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport, is threatened with demolition to make room for a new runway. “Tell ‘em they’re dreamin,” was the laconic war cry from Darryl Kerrigan, as the Aussie battlers take their case to the High Court.

Sound familiar?

Now, hundreds of Kerrigan families face a similar threat from Heathrow. The new north-west runway will see their homes and neighbourhood ripped apart. The village of Harmondsworth will be practically tarmacked over, and what remains will be so close to the airport perimeter that life will never be the same again. This parish, so old it’s featured in the Doomsday book, will become history. 

Then there’s the danger to the great crested newt. Don’t get me started on the newts.

Worse still, heaping extra traffic on Heathrow – taking it from 78m to 130m passengers a year – increases its monopoly over other London airports, seeing more profits repatriated back to its Spanish owners.

All in all, this “historic moment for the UK” spells disaster. Yet transport secretary Chris Grayling seems intent on extending the chaos on our railways onto our roads and airports.

The two reasons I have heard in favour of the Heathrow decision are both circular arguments. 

First, we’ve seen a lot of economic growth in the Thames Valley because of its proximity to Heathrow. That’s the claim. I suspect proximity to London is more likely the driving force, but if it’s the airport, then extending Gatwick could have a similar impact on growth to the south of London, rather than adding to congestion along the Thames corridor.


The second argument revolves around the importance of being a hub. Almost a third of passengers at Heathrow transit between flights. The more aircraft land. the more onward flights for passengers to choose from. If we don’t add these choices we’ll lose out to other, competing hubs, like Schiphol in Amsterdam. 

But if the traveller’s ultimate destination is outside the UK, who cares if they don’t fly via Heathrow? Transit passengers might buy a coffee and help keep a toilet cleaner in a job, but they’re also adding to air pollution and noise. Let Schiphol deal with them. The Spanish owners will lose a few quid, but that’s hardly our concern.

The same applies for travellers bound for the UK – do we care where they interconnect, so long as they get here and start spending? And their holiday will get off to a better start if they land practically anywhere in the UK other than Heathrow, with the possible exception of Luton.

Yet there is a plan that would solve the pollution, congestion and competition issues in one fell swoop, if only the government would listen. Alistair Lenczner, from engineering consultancy Expedition, suggests a high speed rail link, offering a 15 minute connection between the two airports. In fact, the proposal goes further, with HS4 Air linking to HS2 to the north and looping south of London to join HS1 in Ashford.  

A quarter hour journey time between the two airports would make transiting flights a possibility. Increasing Gatwick to the size of Heathrow today would mean each airport would compete for airlines, lowering landing rates and offering better value for customers. You’d assume there would be a greater variety of operators and destinations overall, increasing the competitiveness against foreign hubs, if we really see that as an important consideration.

Passengers could park at Gatwick or Heathrow, easing congestion on the M25 rather than adding to it. Businesses that want to be near international links can pay a premium to base themselves near Reading, or choose newly developing business parks from Crawley to Brighton – or at any point along the new HS4 Air route. And 2m people in West London wouldn’t suffer an increase air traffic noise. 

The idea of an extra runway at Heathrow has been on the cards for 30 years or more. In that time we’ve seen road traffic and air pollution go from bad to worse. Is piling on the numbers at one of the world’s busiest airports the best we can do?

If Chris Grayling really thinks the Heathrow extension plan is the most elegant solution for our future air travel demands, someone has to tell him he’s dreamin’.

Phil Dobbie is a freelance journalist, business podcaster and commentator. He presents Saturday nights from 10pm to 1am on LoveSport Radio in London.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.