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Justine Greening: Government must rethink Heathrow Airport expansion plans

Controversial plans for a third runway at Heathrow are moving forward.
Controversial plans for a third runway at Heathrow are moving forward.
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I remember the very first flight I ever took. It was from Manchester Airport to Spain and I was 11. I’d never been abroad before and we were going on a holiday to Benidorm, but I was just excited to be having my first flight. I remember the plane getting above the Manchester clouds to reveal that it was a sunny day after all.

Nowadays we expect to be able to fly all over the world. And plane technology is moving on. We’ve just seen the first direct, non-stop flight from Sydney to London, with no need to fly via a hub airport. So you’d have thought this would be the perfect time for our country to have a proper UK wide airports strategy. One that has regional airports doing more direct routes to more places at its heart and that backs up the Northern Powerhouse.

A UK airports strategy that encourages more low-cost carriers to keep moving into long-haul routes at lower cost regional airports giving more affordable connections on the doorstep all around the UK, including Yorkshire.

But there’s nothing national about the Airports “National Policy Statement” proposed by the Department for Transport. The third runway proposal at Heathrow is a 20-year-old hub proposal that’s entirely unrelated to the world of direct, point to point flights we live in today.

Yes, I admit that for my own local community, it’ll mean flights overhead every 90 seconds virtually all day – but as someone who grew up in the North, it’s unacceptable that yet again, politicians in Whitehall think it’s okay for people living everywhere else in our country to waste time and money to travel to London so Heathrow Airport Limited can have an expensive, in part taxpayer-funded expansion.

It’s a double whammy already for northerners. Pay more to get to Heathrow, then pay more to get on a plane at an expensive expanded Heathrow.

But it’s worse than that. It’s a triple whammy for the Northern Powerhouse and Yorkshire region, because a bigger Heathrow means smaller regional airports.

The DfT’s own analysis and the Transport Select Committee work shows that regional airports – Leeds Bradford, Doncaster and Manchester – will lose over 26,100 international flights every year by 2030 because of Heathrow expansion.

That’s bad for communities, but it’s bad for business too. Would-be international investors in this region want to be able to fly here direct, not waste time going through London. 
That just puts them off investing
in the region, which is the opposite of what the Northern Powerhouse is all about.

And there’s a fourth whammy. Heathrow Airport will consume £10-15bn of transport spend to help all those extra passengers – people reading this article, no doubt – travelling hundreds of miles to get to Heathrow, because their local regional airport doesn’t have as many flights any more.

This, at the very time most rail commuters would think Northern a much higher priority investment if you’re a government with £10-15bn going spare to invest in transport.

My local Putney commuters would say South Western Railway performance leaves a lot to be desired too.

Heathrow is an airport that is already too expensive – existing passenger charges are about 40 per cent more expensive than at rival European airports. That’s why BA is cutting Leeds Bradford routes which don’t make business sense compared to the alternative of another highly profitable New York flight.

Yet the massive £18bn cost of the extra third runway makes that problem even worse – that’s partly why regional airports lose more flights if Heathrow expands. The DfT admit this but say they’ll ringfence new flights so it will all be okay, but how?

Ministers can’t even stop the existing Leeds Bradford flights to Heathrow from being cut as planned by British Airways, so how can they credibly promise even more flights for the future.

With Heathrow so expensive, to persuade airlines to keep those flights going will need subsidies. Tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. But if it’s going to be spent, wouldn’t this money be better invested helping regional airports develop international direct routes, boosting regional economies and connectivity?

There’ll shortly be a vote in Parliament on Heathrow expansion. MPs shouldn’t just believe the hype of Heathrow Airport that this is good news for their local regional airports. This is about our entire country and how we’re going to make sure we stay connected to the rest of the world
in an ever more competitive global economy.

We’re an island without an airports strategy. The solution isn’t a proposal that takes our most expensive airport and then makes it more expensive still whilst cutting connections at regional airports and making emerging market
routes even more uneconomic too. Parliament needs to do its job properly. MPs need to look at the detail locally and nationally, ask questions to Ministers as to why this proposal so badly undermines our crucial regional airports, vote against it and then demand a proper UK-wide airports strategy that works for all of us, wherever we live.

Justine Greening is the former Education Secretary. Born in Rotherham, she writes a monthly column for The Yorkshire Post.