A third Heathrow runway 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.

 
 
 
 

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.