Heathrow Expansion: Do the Benefits Outweigh the Environmental Costs? | Alex Game


Heathrow expansion has been a source of political and environmental controversy since a 2003 white paper first recommended a third runway. After a major Court of Appeal defeat this March, last month the Supreme Court finally ruled in favour of the long-awaited expansion. The airport must now submit plans, and the government will make the final call on whether they are approved. But as anti-expansion campaigners now turn their eye toward the European Court of Human Rights, we must brace for years yet of further judicial reviews and court cases.

Heathrow is the United Kingdom’s ‘hub’ airport, and the second busiest one in the world by international passenger traffic. The airport currently supports around 120,000 jobs and contributes £6.2 billion to the economy. In 2018 it dealt with over 80 million passengers, more than Charles-de-Gaulle (72.2 million), Amsterdam Schiphol (71.1 million) and even Frankfurt (69.5 million), despite each of these airports having double the number of runways at their disposal.

In the fast-approaching reality of post-Brexit Britain, our international links will be more important than ever, and airports are key to that. Over 40% of our non-EU exports currently leave via Heathrow. The longed-for ‘Global Britain’ will likely be impossible without its full potential. Although smaller aircraft are now flying ever longer distances, the national “hub” model will likely remain critical for decades to come. The project will be funded privately, an astute decision given the political capital that yet another high-cost London-adjacent government project would haemorrhage, especially amid the devastating regional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, Britain must signal that it is open for business.

Leading green pressure group, “Friends of the Earth”, have stated that the airport expansion contradicts the government’s policy of reaching carbon neutrality. The Supreme Court verdict, however, argued that the government based its strategy on less stringent environment targets when they decided to plan the third runway. Yet planes are already becoming more efficient, with electric and hydrogen-powered models in the works, and it is less a question of when and not if the technology is built. Furthermore, all Heathrow terminals are already carbon neutral, despite the number of travellers passing through Heathrow doubling since 1990.

Critics also lament the immediate environmental damage that would be caused by the diversion of rivers, construction of an M25 tunnel and the destruction of an entire village made necessary by the expansion. Residents also fear the rise in noise pollution. Yet, while many residents will be forced out of homes, they will be offered 125% of their properties market value, along with the coverage of legal bills and stamp duty for their next property. To counter the environmental impacts to habitats near the airport, Heathrow has claimed that they will, “look to improve the quality of the habitat for watercourses to the east of the airport and increase their public amenity value, and new green areas and development will support the already strong biodiversity in the area.” Building the third runway will also create around 120,000 new jobs, with the possibility of alleviating youth unemployment in the 5 local boroughs, not to mention the obvious benefits of increased passenger count to the economy at large.

Airport expansion will be key to post-EU Britain becoming a truly global nation, and at least for the near future, a third Heathrow runway must feature in these plans. If the UK surrenders its flight capacity, someone else will happily take it, and in a post-Brexit world, we need all the passengers we can take.


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