Why I changed my view on Heathrow expansion

By Andrew Dakers, Chief Executive of West London Business

For most of my life I have stood firmly against expansion of Heathrow airport, largely on the grounds of aviation’s impact on climate change. And I’ve got the bruises to prove it. As both a Councillor and Parliamentary candidate I committed to lie in front of bulldozers and joined the Heathrow Climate Camp.   In 2007 I protested by interrupting a keynote speech by then Secretary of State for Transport, Douglas Alexander.

In late 2012, however, with the launch of the Airports Commission my views changed on Heathrow expansion.  As the debate reaches a critical juncture this autumn, now is the time to expand on the reasons why a significant shift in the debate – and a more dialogue-based approach from the operators of Heathrow – has led to my new outlook on this complex and tough decision.

While the climate change impacts of aviation still give me huge cause for concern, as a West Londoner I think we would be mad to give up the economic advantage that Heathrow offers, particularly given the changes Heathrow have now made to their proposals. And I say this despite living directly under the flight path and enduring 4.30am aircraft wake-up calls!

It would be naive to think that our quality of life in West London in terms of good quality jobs and high levels of employment are not linked to Heathrow airport.  West London has 60% more international companies in the area around Heathrow than in the rest of the UK.  Not surprisingly, the economy around Heathrow – the UK’s second largest economic powerhouse – reflects some 60 years of investment by these firms.

Heathrow’s new proposal for expansion have changed significantly from those put forward in 2010 and reduce the impact of expansion on our local communities.  The Airports Commission’s final report recognises this, stating that the 2015 proposals are ‘a radically different plan from any previous proposals’. After sustained campaigning by the local community and more dialogue, Heathrow has put together a fairer deal than previously for those home-owners that would have to move as a result of expansion and those of us that would continue to experience significant noise.

The Heathrow debate has also been subject to some rather muddled arguments regarding the Airports Commission’s consultation on air quality.  The reality is that the monitoring sites located further away from the airport are failing to meet EU limits, and this is due to a variety of factors – but it is non-airport related traffic which is the most significant emissions source.

Surface transport is the most significant factor affecting local air quality in the Heathrow area.  In recognition of this, Heathrow has developed a strategy that will transform rail connectivity to help ensure the majority of passengers use public transport at the expanded airport. There could be as many as 40 trains per hour, equating to a train every 90 seconds, with an increase in capacity from 5,000 seats per hour today to almost 15,000 seats per hour by 2040.

Heathrow suggest their proposals will enable 40 new long-haul destinations to be introduced.  At a time when the UK economy is still struggling to recover from recession, giving businesses easier access to new global markets would be an enhanced economic driver.  My caveat to this is that we need to be smarter about how we use this capacity.  Placing capacity constraints on Heathrow is economically and carbon inefficient on the basis that direct flights to destinations, providing the
seats are fully utilised, are lower impact.

Sustainable Aviation’s roadmap published in December 2014 sets out how the sector believes it can expand whilst remaining within the UK’s international commitments on carbon reduction.  This will be achieved through a combination of high carbon trading and offset; the use of sustainable fuel such as from waste and fuel-burn reduction through a more efficient aircraft fleet.

However, none of the arguments above for expanding Heathrow, rather than Gatwick, is to say that the climate change and other environmental impacts including air quality, CO2 emissions and noise can be ignored.   It is essential that the aviation industry maintains an unrelenting focus on these areas.  If these key issues are not addressed meaningfully, then West Londoners’ quality of life will slide backwards and suburban living and working will become less and less appealing, which will create its own problems for our community.

The bottom line of course is that whatever capacity we have in airports such as Heathrow we need to make the smartest, most efficient use of what is a finite resource to drive our economy forward.