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New runways to support leisure even as transport at home is cut

Coming down to earth - just like house prices near airports. Steve Parsons/PA

The interim report of the Davies Airports Commission published this week presents an in-depth analysis of aviation’s value to the UK economy and suggests the country will need a new runway by 2030, and a second by 2050.

The report examines various future predictions and possible plans of action to cope with what could be a doubling of flight demand by 2050. Even with significant carbon emission limits and capacity constraints, the report estimates that by 2030 runways will be operating so close to their capacity that major reliability issues will emerge. Yet despite these strong words, the report will take another two years to come to a conclusion on which of the two contenders – Heathrow and Gatwick – will get extra runways. Shouldn’t we just get on with it?

I was fortunate to work in Parliament at the time the 2003 Airports White Paper was produced. I saw the reports and arguments that underpinned the last policy statement, which ultimately failed to achieve what it set out to. At the time it seemed clear that the majority business interest and the strongest economic case was for a third runway at Heathrow. Gatwick was then out of the question as there was a moratorium on further development until 2017. Expansion of Stansted was supported, although ultimately that seemed more like the option with the least collective opposition rather than one which had logic behind it and buy in.

The politics of expansion was huge then and it clearly has not diminished now, with the commission’s final report not due until after the next election (check the constituency maps near the airports for further details).

Economic vs environmental concerns

Those against airport expansion question the growth figures and the government’s proposals as a “predict and provide” approach. They claim it is inconsistent with our environmental commitments. This line of argument is important to explore.

The Davies report examines flight demand worldwide as well as in the UK. Demand for flights from emerging economies is growing (more than doubling in the past 20 years) and this is beyond the control of UK policy makers. Heathrow retains a globally leading status as an international hub airport, but faces competition from Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

From an environmental perspective it doesn’t matter much if the demand is truly global (it matters of course for those under the flight path). So does UK Plc benefit more from having these flights going through London and making it a more accessible city than we lose from not having those flights? The report suggests it does and a failure to act will cost the UK economy between 48 and 65 billion pounds over the next 60 years.

Demands of business vs leisure

What about overall demand? The report relies heavily on models based on the past decades, with grown driven by rising disposable income. In London the average person takes 2.7 flights a year, almost double that of a resident of the West Midlands. From that it’s clear that there’s room for demand to rise not only with a growing population, but with growth from areas of the country where demand is currently low.

But dig a little further and you see that even in London, fewer one sixth of the flights are for business, with this being around one ninth for the whole of the UK. The real question is why we are travelling so much more for leisure or to visit friends and relatives, and whether this is sufficient to justify expansion.

If expansion is driven by the needs of business, then there is surely plenty of capacity to expand business use of existing flights by pricing some leisure trips out of the market. Any debate on proposals that would imply a significant environmental impact must include a discussion on changing patterns of business travel, and whether supporting leisure travel is the best use of resources. This is not just about which proposal brings about the most value, but what sort of society we want our transport system to support.

Are we also happy for a different logic to apply to aviation than to other parts of the transport system? This is also the week where further cuts were announced to local authority budgets. The subsidised evening and weekend bus network continues to shrink as we prioritise education and social care over transport. What are essential transport services for some are being lost, while we debate not whether, but where to expend resources that will mainly support leisure travel. That is something worth talking about.

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