Concreting over the South-East

First we had John Prescott announcing a couple of weeks ago that 200,000 homes were to be built in the region, though he omitted to say when and where. And now we have Transport Secretary Alistair Darling’s promise of a new runway near you, set out in the consultation paper on airport policy published this week.

The airport paper is a quite remarkable document in its complete lack of balance.

Governments are charged with a difficult responsibility of balancing economic development against environmental damage. Labour seems to have forgotten completely about the second half of this equation.

The paper suggests that a new runway at Heathrow and two at Stansted are likely to be needed in order to cater for the rise in demand, plus lots more development at regional airports across the country. A four-runway airport on a greenfield site at Cliffe in Kent is a possible alternative.

Whatever the outcome, Darling reiterated that “doing nothing was not an option”, and clearly the Government’s agenda is for a rapid and large expansion of airport capacity in the South-East.

All this is based on the heroic assumption that aviation will continue to expand as fast in the next 30 years as it has in the past 50. At the moment, there are 180 million people using UK airports annually.

As this includes both arrivals and departures, that means around three flights for every one of us each year ignoring the fact that around 20 per cent of journeys are by visitors). According to the Government, this will almost triple by 2030, to a staggering eight flights each, annually.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is unlikely to happen. Business travel will gradually be replaced by improved videoconferencing – indeed, one of the pioneers is Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, which makes extensive use of the facility Secondly, industries mature.

There are only so many holidays and business trips that people can go on in any one year. Eventually, as with any relatively new industry, the growth rate will tail off.

And thirdly, the cost may increase as fuel prices become more expensive thanks to supply drying out or, more likely, an increase in tensions in the Middle East.

The Government is not an passive bystander in this process. It can damp down demand through all sorts of measures, from boosting rail investment and providing high-speed services between major towns and cities, to pressing for an EU-wide aviation tax.

The outcry from residents and environmentalists, with public meetings attended by several hundred people this week and MPs promising to sit in front of the bulldozers, is just a prelude to a major political battle over the coming months.

Indeed, if ministers had sought deliberately to wind up local people, they could not have chosen a better way than spending nearly three years considering the alternatives and then excluding none of them (apart from the second runway at Gatwick, which is barred by law, anyway).

The consultation paper is based on the familiar but discredited notion of “predict and provide”. The authors simply look at the trend in aviation growth, which has been broadly in the five to seven per cent range since the war, with occasional hiccups because of the Gulf War and 11 September, and extrapolate it for the next 30 years. Science, it is not.

The aviation industry benefits from all kinds of tax concessions: fuel is tax-free; there is no VAT on tickets or even on new aircraft; and, amazingly, airports are designated as farms, entitling refuelling and catering trucks to operate on cheap red diesel. Does an industry with a growth rate of five to seven per cent really need these concessions? REMEMBER the whinges about the abolition of duty-free within Europe and how many jobs it would cost? Nothing happened.

Taxing aviation may slow down the growth rate slightly, but it will hardly lead to airport closures and the collapse of the industry.

When the study of airport capacity in the South-East was launched by the then Transport Minister, John Reid in March 1999, he said expressly: “I must emphasise that the study will not be an exercise in meeting demand and just mitigating the environmental effects.”

Yet, that is precisely what the Government has done.

However, predict and provide has already been rejected by this very Government in relation to roads.

The Transport White Paper published in July 1998 said: “Simply building more and more roads is not the answer to traffic growth. Predict and provide didn’t work.” If that is the case for roads, it must apply, too, for aviation. BUT, the aviation lobby argues, trying to damp down the growth in aviation will restrict people’s freedom to fly. Stuff and nonsense.

There is no God-given right to fly round the world at fares which do not reflect the damaging environmental effects caused by commercial aircraft. The European Environment Agency has calculated that the damage in terms of pollution, noise, land use and so on caused by a person flying 700 miles is more than pounds 30. If air travel were taxed to take that into account, it would add around pounds 75 for the average flight to Spain or Italy.

That is unlikely to happen overnight, but it is interesting that some of Darling’s colleagues are less enamoured with the aviation industry than he seems to be.

Margaret Beckett, now in charge of the environment brief which merged with agriculture, told a National Consumers Council conference in June: “People will gradually focus on the impact of aviation freight and air travel on the environment air transport will stick out like a sore thumb as other pollution is tackled.”

Hiving the Department of Transport out of the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions seems to have created an imbalance in the Government. Transport has gone into its old mode of merely arguing that more transport is a good thing, irrespective of the environmental consequences.

Indeed, the gung-ho nature of the airport consultation paper suggests, as Jeff Gazzard of AirportWatch put it: “they have listened to our arguments but not heard them.”

Given the strength of feeling on this issue, from both nimbys and non-nimbys, ministers will ignore these protests at their peril.

Scroll to Top