Plans for a third runway at Heathrow have been floating around Westminster ever since Gordon Brown’s fumbling premiership, as successive governments timorously skirted an issue which has been the centre of much controversy. That accusation is certainly not one that can be aimed toward Theresa May, however. This week, the Government officially announced its support for the expansion, much to the chagrin of many environmentalists, not least – and indeed most notably – Zac Goldsmith, who resigned his position as Member of Parliament for Richmond Park immediately upon hearing the news.
A willingness to fight for one’s principles to that extent is a rare sight in modern politics, and that makes it all the more admirable when we’re presented with it. Goldsmith is without doubt a man of undying principle, demonstrated in this year’s London mayoral election, in which he uncompromisingly continued to support Brexit, despite running for leadership of England’s most Europhilic region. In response to this week’s developments, he has shown great integrity, first in promising to resign from Parliament and stand again as an independent candidate in the resulting by-election, and then following through on that pledge without delay. On this occasion, though, Goldsmith has allowed probity to sour into naivety. The Government is clearly right in its decision; it hasn’t allowed the environmental ideologues to disrupt the practicality that is at the heart of true conservatism.
It’s a simple matter of priorities. Yes, the environment is important, but not as immediately important as the economy. Those are essentially the two sides of this debate. In peacetime, every government’s primary focus should be on enhancing the economic growth of the U.K. Considering the global economic climate, successive Conservative governments have been doing a remarkable job over the last six years. London is thriving; it’s garnered a reputation as the most cosmopolitan city in Europe and financial capital of the world, surpassing cities such as New York, Singapore and Hong Kong. Heathrow itself is the busiest airport in Europe, yet it only has two runways, compared to Helsinki’s three, Frankfurt’s four and Amsterdam’s six. This comparison starkly reveals the scale of the problem. I’m proud to say that the U.K. has always been an outward-looking country, yet the forces opposing these expansion plans would inevitably see us losing that vitally important quality. Heathrow is the gatekeeper for London and the South-East and unless we act decisively, it will no longer be able to sustain its current status as a connective hub allowing us to compete with European cities for business investment.
Let’s throw some figures into the mix, courtesy of the report by the Airports Commission set up in 2012 and published last year. Construction of a new runway at Heathrow, and operating the expanded airport is estimated to create 179,000 jobs by the year 2050. To put that in perspective, that’s over 10% of the entire unemployed population in the U.K at the moment. Additionally, the economy could receive as much as £211 billion in economic benefits from the project, which equates to £3,250 for every individual in the country. Can we justify turning down an economic boost of that magnitude, for fear of upsetting a few bumptious eco-warriors who fail to see the bigger picture? £211 billion – that’s the cost of pandering to principle over pragmatism in this instance. Is it really worth it?
Critics of expansion plans have desperately scrabbled to produce coherent arguments to back up their view – and have failed emphatically. ‘What about the people in the surrounding area who will suffer because of a third runway?’ they demand. Well, when the Airports Commission surveyed people living in the immediate area of Heathrow, it turned out that 82% are in favour of this vital expansion. How can these critics reconcile defending their eco-activist principles with a complete disregard for the democratic process? The local residents have clearly come to the logical realisation that the prodigious economic and employment benefits they, and the rest of the country will receive, outweigh the negligible increase in noise and light pollution.
The argument that an expansion will see a huge increase in Nitrogen Dioxide emissions (NO2) is also deeply flawed. Recent independent research has demonstrated that the increase would only be marginal due to significant reductions elsewhere. The wider usage of electric cars and changes in diesel engines will ensure that there is no large-scale increase in environmental pollution. There are even significant environmental benefits to go along with the plan. The airport has committed to a mammoth £105 million plan to create green spaces around the airport four times the size of Hyde Park. Not only would this benefit the local community; it would also be a haven for wildlife and a huge boost to biodiversity. It seems to me that not only are all the opposing arguments illogical, but that by taking a stance against Heathrow expansion, the environmentalists are shunning the chance to create a huge and diverse sanctuary for families and wildlife alike. Put principle before pragmatism, fine – but don’t then abandon principle as well.
The prodigious economic and employment benefits they, and the rest of the country will receive, outweigh the negligible increase in noise and light pollution.
Then there are those who recognise the need for increased airport capacity in the South East, but offer alternative solutions. An extra runway at Gatwick was seriously considered by the Commission, its main attraction being the low cost (£9.3 billion compared to £18.6 billion for the third runway at Heathrow). But this is the first new runway to be built in the U.K. in the post-war era, and one of the largest infrastructure projects in recent history; skimping on such a crucial project is simply not an option. Besides, the economics of the situation are damning. The potential benefits from the Gatwick option could rise to £127 billion, £84 billion less than the predictions for Heathrow. The extra cost seems like a reasonable investment considering the huge difference in potential economic growth. We also saw a proposal for a new airport to be located in the Thames Estuary – the infamous ‘Boris Island’. Whilst it is certainly tempting to ensure the legacy of the former Mayor of London is enshrined for generations to come, especially in such a quintessentially Johnsonite manner, the plan was rejected due to the costs being too high (potentially up to £100 billion).
A thought to conclude: The debate over the expansion of Heathrow isn’t simply about airport capacity – that just isn’t a sexy enough topic to capture the public imagination. The roots of the schism are more ideological. Do we create a pragmatic society, with a realistic world-view, in which we take whatever situation we find ourselves in and adapt in order to make sure everyone is as prosperous as possible? Or do we pursue a less-functional, more idealistic model in which we strive to have everything, often with significant costs? Those who oppose the expansion of Heathrow, like Zac Goldsmith, usually fall into the second category. Their perspective is blinkered; as this article demonstrates, the environmental concerns can largely be addressed and mitigated. A third runway at Heathrow is a vital plank in our future economic success, and I, for one, am glad to have a government that stands up for this.
Chris Murray is a student of Newcastle University, where he is in the second year of his studies in Politics.