Politicians and businesses are competing in their calls to show their enthusiasm for rebalancing England’s economic activity, to give the north a boost.
Flying into turbulence
All manner of proposals are put forward, from relocating chunks of Government departments from Whitehall to setting up ‘insect farming and consumption' hubs – whatever they are.
But the moment you mention aviation, they all scramble back to the safety of London, focusing on providing ever more runways to the capital’s airports. No matter that, if you add up those five airports, London already has 50% more flights than New York or Tokyo, its nearest competitors. Nor that at the 2010 election, there was political consensus against adding yet another runway to the overheated south east of England, since it is as desirable to the average voter as a bug buffet.
The scale of what is being proposed really needs highlighting. An expanded Heathrow would become the biggest airport in the world, equal only to the Istanbul New Airport – and that comes with its own state palace. An expanded Gatwick would become as big as Heathrow currently is but would have to be squeezed into a narrow parcel of land almost entirely surrounded by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Both would be a disaster, not just for the region’s environment but also for England's economy.
The Airports Commission, the body set up to pass the parcel of this controversial decision safely into the hands of the next government, claims to have studied all the issues carefully and methodically. Its consultation process has certainly offered some of the best opportunities for public engagement of any infrastructure project in recent memory.
The fundamental problem though is the lack of any ‘larger than local’ planning in England: as a country we are unique in the developed world in not having any national spatial plan. Scotland and Wales have plans that set the wider context beyond local authority boundaries but there is nothing to assess the wider strategic fit of such enormous airport expansion proposals. As the most densely populated large country in Europe (other than mini-states) as well the most economically imbalanced, if anywhere needs strategic thinking, it is us.
The north has the right to be worried: new research shows that expanding Heathrow or Gatwick would damage regional airports, particularly if carbon emissions from air travel are capped. Not only would this put more pressure on the south-east, it could make it harder to regenerate brownfield sites in the north.
Worse still, the more aviation grows, the more the risk is that other sectors will have to do more to reduce carbon emissions if overall targets for carbon reduction are to be met. Besides the economic cost to traditional industries and farming, this could require an even greater increase in renewable energy infrastructure, putting pressure on our landscapes across the country.
So when the Commission claims all the runways proposed fit well with spatial plans, that’s because there aren’t any. Even then, this claim is open to attack, not least as it is accepted that substantial areas of Green Belt would have to be de-designated in order to accommodate the spin-off growth. In fact this is just the tip of the iceberg, as the thousands of pages of analysis have failed to assess a wide range of impacts on our precious countryside.
The Commission’s consideration of noise from all the extra flight paths was as useless for rural tranquillity as much as the offer of free loft insulation (not much use in your garden or when out walking the dog!) from the airports’ bosses. Only noise levels above 70dB were considered, when in rural areas, background noise can be as low as 40 or even 30dB. Worse still, the impact on nationally protected landscapes was assessed just in terms of whether you could or couldn’t see new airport buildings. The devastating impact of the sight and din of thousands of aircraft circling over the Chilterns, North Downs or Weald simply was not picked up.
No wonder so many communities, councils and campaigners are viewing the Commission’s final report, due in the summer, as a forgone conclusion and are gearing up for a fight. CPRE feared from the start the Commission would short-change the countryside. In line with our policy against increasing airport capacity, we will be standing up for our countryside and joining in.
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