Tory Transport Minister Chris Grayling announced to Parliament on June 5th, after endless prevarication, what he called the government’s ‘final proposal’ on airport expansion in the shape of what he called an Airports National Policy Statement (NPS), writes Alan Thornett. Heathrow, he said, is already full and the other London airports won’t be far behind. The proposal, therefore, is for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow—to the north west of the existing runways.
The aim is to make Heathrow into a major European hub which would take the passenger capacity of Heathrow to around 120 million a year.
If this plan is allowed to go ahead it would further pollute what is already one of the most polluted parts of London, where air quality is already at illegal levels. Around 4,000 homes will be demolished and hundreds of thousands of people will be exposed to additional aircraft noise. This will suck economic activity even more into London and the South East away from the rest of Britain. It will further congest roads in West London that are already bursting at the seams.
It is not the first time we have been here. The Labour government, under Gordon Brown (and Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon), made the same proposal in early 2007. Brown was supported by the TUC along with the key unions involved at Heathrow: Amicus, the TGWU/Unite, the GMB and the pilot’s union, BALPA. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber argued that impact that third runway would have on CO2 emissions could be offset by carbon trading.
Unions opposing the expansion included Unison, the rail unions – the RMT, ASLEF and TSSA – along with Connect and the PCS. A broad-based campaign was mounted against expansion which united such unions with local people, direct action campaigns, environmental NGOs and the environmental left.
In August 2007, the Camp for Climate Action took place about a mile from Heathrow. It ran for a week and on its final day 1500 people protested and 200 people blockaded the British Airports Authority (BAA) HQ. It was supported by a wide range of organizations including the Campaign against Climate Change, the Green Party, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the RSPB, the Woodland Trust, the National Trust, Friends of the Earth, and many more. Local MP, and now Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell strongly supported the campaign. He spoke at its demonstrations and participated in many other actions against the expansion.
In February 2008, five members of the direct action group, Plane Stupid, staged a two-hour protest on the roof of the Houses of Parliament in protest at the close links between BAA and the government. Banners were unfurled which read ‘BAA HQ’ and ‘No third runway at Heathrow’. In March 2009, a Plane Stupid protester threw green custard over Business Secretary Peter Mandelson at a low carbon summit hosted by Gordon Brown.
The campaign won a spectacular victory in March 2010 when a High Court judge ruled that Heathrow expansion was ‘untenable in law and common sense’ and (ironically) that it was inconsistent with Labour’s own Climate Change Act. When the incoming Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition was forced to cancel Heathrow expansion as a result of this ruling, the TUC criticised the decision, arguing that it would cost large numbers of jobs.
Today, as then, there are many reasons for opposing Heathrow expansion in addition to its impact on the population of West London. The issue is not whether a new airport in the south of England should be in London or the Thames estuary.
The direct result of airport expansion is aviation expansion. Aviation is the fastest growing and most dangerous form of greenhouse gas emissions we face. The impact of CO2 emissions at high altitude is around double of such emissions at surface level—a factor which is conveniently ignored by the international aviation industry and by the Tory government here.
A new runway of this sort is incompatible with Britain’s compliance with the Paris agreement. An increase in the global average surface temperature of 2°C above the pre-industrial level will trigger irreversible feedback that will spin the global warming process beyond human control. We are already at 0.99°C above the pre-industrial level and the rate of increase is rising. The Paris COP regarded 2°C as complacent and adopted a target of limiting the increase to 1.5°C.
Fortunately, it will not be easy for the Tories to get this proposal through Parliament or to implement it even if it does, although the situations in the unions may well be no better today than it was in 2007.
Commenting immediately afterwards on the government’s announcement to approve the expansion at Heathrow Airport, the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The case for Heathrow expansion was proven long ago. It will create thousands of high-quality jobs and apprenticeships. And it has the backing of both trade unions and businesses. This needs to be a clear and final decision. Work must start as soon as possible, with the government doing all it can to keep progress in the fast lane”. It’s disappointing that this statement was made given that the TUC’s overall position on climate change has strengthened since 2007. Trade unionists need to take up the debate as to why the statement is based on a completely wrong headed approach.
But the most important factor will be the position taken by the Labour leadership under Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst there are signs that they are moving towards opposing a third runway it is still not clear, with the vote likely to happen in the next few weeks.
Labour has set out four tests to determine whether they would support a new runway at Heathrow. They will support it providing:
- Robust and convincing evidence is provided that the required increased aviation capacity will be delivered with Sir Howard Davies’ recommendation.
- The recommended expansion in capacity can go hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation and allow us to meet our legal climate change obligations.
- Local noise and environmental impacts have been adequately considered and will be managed and minimised.
- Benefits of expansion will be felt in every corner of the country, not just the South East of England, and that regional airports will be supported too.
At the same time Heathrow expansion must not:
- Reduce flights from regional airports to allow expansion at Heathrow, further exacerbating regional disparities;
- Backtrack on both the UK Climate Change Act and the Paris climate agreement, admitting that emissions cuts made by all other sectors of the economy will be partially cancelled out by growth in UK aviation emissions, leaving us unable to meet our commitments.
The Campaign against Climate change, in its excellent briefing, sets out why the proposals cannot meet these tests. It is impossible to meet the obligations of Paris or the government’s own act – unless you think that techno fixes and cons such as increased biomass and carbon capture and storage work. Then there are the noise and air quality issues. It’s vital that MP’s attention is drawn to all these issues as soon as possible.
It’s excellent that a new group, Vote No Heathrow is bringing the message home in an immediate way with its hunger strikes outside Labour Party HQ and the offices of a number of key trade unions. You can sign up to join them here.
We need to mobilise a campaign of at least the scale and breadth of the campaign in 2007 and action in the last week shows there is a thirst to do just that.
Transport Select Committee Report https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmtrans/548/548.pdf (Annex I, p147)
Problems with offsetting and why an international agreement won’t solve Heathrow’s emissions problem: https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-05/WWF_Grounded_report_F…
http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidence… (carbon trading, and non-CO2 impacts of aviation – p3)