SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 125 - February 2009

The Heathrow expansion controversy

ALONGSIDE DEEPENING economic gloom, the government’s decision to give the go ahead to a third runway at Heathrow has dominated headlines in London. The proposed new runway will raise the number of flights from 480,000 a year to 700,000, according to government figures. The village of Sipson, home to several thousand people, will be completely demolished.

The Labour government and big-business interests backing the plan – the airline industry, British Airports Authority (BAA), the privatised controllers of Heathrow and most British airports, whose largest shareholder is the Spanish company, Ferrovial – are adamant that the project is vital to the continued competitiveness of Heathrow and the long-term prosperity of the South East. Nevertheless, a broad constellation of forces – direct action environmentalists, trade unions, local residents, the Conservative Party and several rebel Labour MPs – oppose the project.

Given the widespread evidence of the damage an increase in aviation traffic will cause to Britain’s anti-pollution targets and the political storm that is brewing for Labour in key west London constituencies, New Labour’s insistence on ploughing ahead may seem puzzling. However, the answer is a refusal to acknowledge inconvenient facts and a craven capitulation to big-business interests.

The essence of the argument in favour of expansion hinges on the idea that maintaining Heathrow as the world’s busiest airport is vital for the long-term health of London’s economy and, due to the lopsided nature of the national economy, the UK as a whole.

Michael Bishop, chairman of BMI airlines, argues that Heathrow must expand to compete with other European airports. At present, Heathrow operates at 99% capacity, meaning that there is very little flexibility for the unexpected, causing severe delays when bad weather sets in. This is an undeniable problem, as anyone who has spent time sleeping on the floor of Heathrow during foggy conditions will testify. In contrast, European competitors operate at 75% capacity. Charles de Gaulle in Paris hosts four runways, Frankfurt will open a fourth in 2011. Schipoll in the Netherlands has five. This spare capacity results in fewer delays and they are attracting greater business than Heathrow.

This presents a strategic problem for the government. As the UK economy is strongly service based, heavily reliant on the global economy, making Heathrow a hub for international air travel is essential to making ‘UK plc’ an attractive place for international investment. The third runway will make Heathrow more competitive by producing economies of scale and reducing overall capacity and, thereby, delays. The airline industry and BAA have made this the key point in persuading the government.

Some unions have also argued that Heathrow expansion will generate much needed jobs and income in this economic recession. New Labour has also promised that stringent anti-pollution measures will be enforced to lessen the environmental impact.

Do the pro-runway arguments stack up? The answer is a resounding no. Firstly, New Labour refuses to acknowledge that the economic downturn has made its projected figure of 700,000 flights by 2030 look wildly inflated. None other than Stelios Hadjioannou, head of EasyJet, remarked: "We are not Aldi or Lidl. It is very difficult to stop eating in a recession but you can stop flying".

Evidence that increasing the number of flights into Heathrow will benefit the UK economy is also thin on the ground. Most of the increase will be in connecting flights to other destinations, so the extra money actually spent in Britain will be minimal. Bob Ayling, former head of British Airways, said they amount to the price of a cup of coffee in the departure lounge. Indeed, in a poll by Continental research only 4% of ‘business leaders’ in London thought Heathrow expansion would benefit their businesses.

Air travel itself is one of the most heavily subsidised forms of transport in Britain. For example, domestic aviation does not pay fuel duty or VAT. And the all too frequent delays are as much a result of privatising BAA (and BA), where customer service has been cut to the bone to maximise profits, as they are of a lack of capacity.

On the environmental front, the evidence is even more damning. Air travel, a relatively small polluter compared to other forms of transport, particularly the car, is much more heavily polluting in itself. A 200-mile journey by plane produces 90kg of carbon per passenger compared to 14.8kg for the equivalent journey by rail. Aviation accounts for 13% of overall UK climate change impact. By 2050, if expansion continues, it will account for half of Britain’s carbon budget. Added to this is the impact of ‘radiative forcing’, where aviation emissions have between two and four times the impact in the upper atmosphere as emissions produced on the ground.

The European Commission has warned that the UK will exceed recommended emissions of nitrogen dioxide in the area if Heathrow expansion goes through. The Department for Transport’s own figures show that the risks of air pollution are increased, yet transport minister, Geoff Hoon, dismissed his own civil servants’ findings as "over cautious". With regard to the government’s promise to combat air and noise pollution, the same report says that, "the mitigation measures identified to achieve air quality targets are too costly or impractical to implement or politically unacceptable".

The prospect of increased pollution, not to mention the destruction of Sipson, has ignited a storm of protest. There is big opposition across west London which could cause problems for Labour in the next general election. Labour currently holds 44 seats in London and would need to retain a good portion of these to win. Some of these are in very tight constituencies. Labour holds a majority of 484 in Islington South and a tiny 184 in Battersea. Both are directly under the new flight path and both MPs, Emily Thornberry and Martin Linton, are among the 18 Labour MPs opposed to the third runway. Of the 13 London Labour MPs who are in favour, twelve are in the cabinet.

The stakes have been raised as the Conservatives have come out in opposition. Tory MP for Putney, Justine Greening, pledged that "A future Conservative government will cancel Heathrow expansion plans". A poll by Greenpeace found that a quarter of voters in west London were less likely to vote for Labour because of the Heathrow controversy. Based on a 5% swing away from Labour, it could lose Battersea, Ealing Central, Acton, Hammersmith, Brentford and Isleworth. The government is acutely vulnerable to political pressure on this issue, and the building of the third runway is far from a foregone conclusion.

Opposition to the plans includes a variety of agendas. Groups like Plane Stupid see the campaign as part of their broader assault on aviation travel in general. The trade unions are split. The PCS, Unison, TSSA and RMT have campaigned against the proposals and taken out ads in newspapers alongside Greenpeace. Unite and GMB, representing the majority of workers at Heathrow, have taken out advertisements with the CBI arguing in favour.

It would be wrong to single out air travel as the greatest obstacle to cutting carbon emissions, as groups like Plane Stupid sometimes appear to do. Such a task requires a holistic plan that takes into account all modes of transport, energy production, recycling, patterns of consumption and so on. However, the controversy around airport expansion underlines one of the organic weaknesses of capitalism: the tendency of powerful vested interests to prevent proper planning so as to maximise profits.

Since BAA was privatised, it has spent enormous amounts of time and money lobbying the government to allow it to expand and boost shareholders’ profits. It cannot even compromise by sharing out the load among other airports, as some, like London City, are in direct competition with BAA. And the threat to further break up BAA by selling Stansted airport means there is no incentive for it to integrate the work of the airports it owns.

Many short-haul flights could be reduced in northern Europe by developing high-speed rail networks. The Campaign for Better Transport found that one third of flights from Britain are short haul, and 20% of the destinations were served by rail, with potential for another 20%. However, 20 years of neo-liberalism on the railways mean that prices are prohibitively high and the private sector has no incentive to foot the enormous capital investment needed to provide such a service.

Capitalism cannot provide an integrated, properly planned transport system vital to any strategy to reduce carbon emissions. Under a socialist plan of production air, sea, rail and road travel could be integrated to ensure maximum investment went to the least polluting forms of travel, with urgent long-haul flights kept to a minimum. Shorter working hours and the decentralisation of decision making could help reduce the need for the constant movement of workers. Longer holidays could allow people to take more leisurely and less polluting forms of travel. Investment in local economies and universal access to cheap housing would eliminate dormitory towns and the nightmare of long-distance commuting. These socialist policies are the key to a better and cleaner planet.

Neil Cafferky


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