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No ifs. No buts. Heathrow must have a third runway. Or must it?

27 November 2012

‘No ifs. No buts. Heathrow must have a third runway.’ This was our motion of the evening at last night’s Spectator debate, but when it came to kick-off time, it appeared the audience was there for the taking. The pre-vote count found a majority of nine votes against the motion, but with 21 undecided attendees, everything was still left to play for.

Graham Brady – Chairman of the 1922 committee, and MP for Altringham and Sale West (with Manchester Airport on his doorstep, he added) – opened the debate by speaking for the motion. With more than a nod to David Cameron’s conference speech in Birmingham, Brady argued: ‘We are in a global race today… Sink or swim. Do or decline.’

Two years before he was born, he said, an airport in the Thames Estuary was first proposed. We have had fifty years of dither and delay, and we need a decision now. Not after the 2015 election.

Building an airport in the East of London would shift the economic centre of the country even further into the south East, argued Brady. Why not connect HS2 to Heathrow – thus enabling the airport to connect properly to the regions? A new airport would need new infrastructure – schools, homes.  A third runway at Heathrow is the quickest, most affordable, and the most likely to happen solution to our problems. We should get on with it.

John Stewart, of HACAN ClearSkies, representing residents under the Heathrow flight path, wasn’t so sure. We have enough airport capacity until 2030, he said – there’s no rush to make a decision one way or the other.  The way forward, he said, was not to create more capacity, but to remove the regulations surrounding our airports at the moment. Agreements such as ours with China, which restricts the UK from operating just 62 flights to China per week, need to change. We need a better, rather than a bigger, Heathrow.

Tim Yeo, chair of the Energy and Climate Change select committee, agreed with his fellow Tory Brady. An immediate decision was the number one priority – but that decision ought to be a third runway. To compete internationally, the UK needs transport links, and Heathrow is the fastest, cheapest, and most convenient option.


Plus, he pointed out, Mark Carney, the new Canadian governor of the Bank of England, would need to get home on a regular basis if he was going to make a success of his new job. And for that to happen, excellent transport facilities are crucial.  As a nation, we are handicapped by our lack of connections to the ‘Asian tiger economies’. With direct flights to just three Chinese cities – half of what Frankfurt offers – we are hampering our own economy. If we act now, we can still be the nation that China turns to first when doing dealings with Europe. Leave it until after the next election, and Germany will have stepped in and become top dog, he argued.

It wasn’t just our airports that came under attack from Yeo. On returning to Britain, he said ‘you feel as if you’ve left the first world and returned to the third world’ due to our poor transport links. At least he had a good word for St Pancras, which is ‘fabulous’ in comparison to the ‘decrepit’ Gare du Nord – but as he pointed out himself, as a shareholder in Eurostar, his opinion was somewhat biased in its favour.

On noise and pollution, Yeo was more sympathetic. ‘In Zac’s position, I would do exactly the same as Zac is doing now.’ But, when push comes to shove, the wider national interest was more important, he added. To conclude, he offered the audience the challenge which he had put to Cameron in the summer. We must show whether we were men or mice, and make a decision, fast, which would benefit the nation.

Labour MP for Hammersmith Andy Slaughter was the next to speak against the motion, highlighting how the expansion of Heathrow would affect his constituents. As someone who had moved from the flight path of Fulham to ‘quiet and rural Shepherd’s Bush’, he was well acquainted with the horrors of noise pollution. Building an extra runway at Heathrow was, he argued, taking the easy option. But he wasn’t too keen on Boris Island either. In the wrong place and too expensive, ‘it was never a serious option’ he claimed, adding: ‘The problem is, Boris suddenly became a serious politician!’ Slaughter’s view was that we need to logically consider all of our options before making a decision. A third runway is not the only option, he pointed out, and we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that it is.

The final speaker for the motion, venture capitalist Jon Moulton, was himself a fairly recent convert to the third runway idea, as he readily admitted. But the need for airport capacity had changed his mind. Both trade and tourism are severely affected by aviation links, he pointed out, and we need a bigger and better airport with good transport connections. But what options are there? The environmental arguments against Heathrow are, he said, valid anywhere that you build an airport. The Thames Estuary airport is too expensive to be a decent alternative, leaving the third runway as the only option if we were to prevent everything sliding steadily downwards; ‘we’ve had enough of that already’.

The sixth and final speaker, speaking against the motion, left us in no doubt as to who he was representing. Boris might have been on a work trip to India, but he was certainly present in spirit, and it sounded as if he had been giving his right-hand man, Daniel Moylan, some debating lessons as well. Allegedly having been sent ‘on a mission of peace’ by his boss, we were told that Boris’s last words to his protégée as he disappeared onto the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow were: ‘Daniel, remember this is The Spectator. They will be a civilised audience.’

He began by rubbishing Yeo’s claims that Heathrow was a ‘modern 21st century hub’ (how can it be, with no train lines to the west, and the proposed third runway unable to take A380s or 747s?) The new runway would be on the ‘wrong side’ of the A4, he claimed, and where would we store the fuel needed for the planes taking off from the crucial 6th terminal? Public transport expansion would be needed (at a £2 billion cost to the taxpayer) and, as soon as the third runway was up and running, a fourth runway would be needed.

No no – the right decision is to build a new airport  – not in 15 years’ time, but now. He highlighted the benefits that Boris Island would bring to East London. More jobs; regeneration of a deprived area. The transport links would be fantastic: seated on top of a train station, Boris Island would have trains direct to Waterloo, Paddington – all of central London! HS2 could be redirected to avoid the Cotswolds, and come straight to Boris Island instead. The British are some of the best civil engineers in the world, he reminded us. We built Hong Kong airport, and we can build this one.

‘It will shine. It will glimmer quietly at them in the estuary. It will transform the area.’

It could almost have been Boris himself talking. This airport would do more to unite the nation than the Olympics had done. Surely a simple decision?

And it seemed that, one way or another, the audience had indeed made their decision. Andrew Neil put some of Moylan’s criticisms of the third runway to Tim Yeo. Was it on the wrong side of the A4? Better than the wrong side of London, retorted Yeo. Not enough space to store fuel? Only the 3,000 miles of earth between the earth’s surface and its core. But it was too late. The spirit of Boris had made himself heard, and after listening to all of the speakers – and of course the subsequent questions – only 4 members of the audience remained undecided. Of the others, 50 voted for the motion, versus 67 against, leaving the motion defeated by 17 votes.

Pre-vote              For: 41                  Against: 50          Undecided: 21

End vote              For: 50                  Against: 67          Undecided: 4

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  • Jupiter

    ‘No ifs. No buts. Heathrow must have a third runway.’ This was our motion of the evening at last night’s Spectator debate, but when it came to kick-off time, it appeared the audience was there for the taking. The pre-vote count found a majority of nine votes
    in favour of the motion, but with 21 undecided attendees, everything
    was still left to play for.

    Pre-vote For: 41 Against: 51 Undecided: 21

    You have contradicted yourself, which figures are correct?

  • HellforLeather

    I wonder if Mr Yeo noted his vested/lobbyist interest in a third runway at Heathrow, asap? (If so, the reporter should have mentioned that).

    I refer to the following (from Guido Fawkes):

  • dalai guevara

    Michael O’Leary nailed it when he called the proposal to build an estuary airport an idea that must have sprung from the mind of a -I paraphrase- near closet fruitcake.

  • Knightyk

    Unfortunately anyone who supports Heathrow expansion considers that it’s the easy, cheap, quick & cost effective solution. It isn’t!! No matter what tightening of planning laws are brought in to facilitate large infrastructure projects, you have more than 2 million people directly affected by aircraft noise & pollution, which will only increase with a 3rd runway; and you have 25 councils directly opposing it. What chance is there of conducting a Compulsory Purchase Order within 3 years?! Terminal 5 didn’t displace anyone and didn’t have all this opposition, yet still took 13 years to gain planning consent! In comparison it took the British 7 years to sign off, design, construct and open Hong Kong’s airport on reclaimed land, including new bridges, tunnels and rail links.

    In the short term Heathrow should be a long haul airport, that can attract Asian & South American business with the adoption of larger, more efficient planes. The A380 is quieter, more fuel efficient and carries 100 more passengers than other large aircraft. Yet there are only 10 A380’s flying daily into Heathrow out of more than 1,300 flights! Short haul flights can temporarily be shifted to London’s other airports. The 3rd runway could only be used for short haul as it can only be a short runway, which very few people seem to realise.

    In order to have a decent, efficient, and well connected hub airport, it’s necessary to start afresh, rather than from something which has grown randomly and has so many constraints. If people consider the Heathrow experience is poor now, imagine what it’ll be like with years of major construction whilst trying to keep the wheels turning?

    A 4 runway solution is required for growth as well as to stop the plane stacks, which delay passengers for huge periods as they’re having to queue for slots. This creates so much pollution and wastes so much fuel, but has anyone considered this? Flying in to land with an approach over water allows aircraft to glide in, using little fuel, especially compared to running at full thrust over London in order to keep control of the plane, which is fuel inefficient and noisy.

    An estuary airport can be for all of London and the entire south east, relative to Heathrow, which is difficult to access from south London by public transport. Rail links are crucial for a hub airport, and Heathrow is only connected to Paddington, when it should in itself be the largest national rail hub in the country. Amazingly Heathrow has no dedicated rail freight interchange, which is required for a proper hub airport. A new hub in the estuary will be from scratch and shall have national rail connections as well as a direct link to Eurostar so we can nab passengers from France & Holland, or at least offer a viable quick rail link between these major international hubs. There will be a dedicated rail freight terminal in the estuary, which can be accessed by ships as well.

    Having a 5 yearly political cycle doesn’t allow any visionaries to come forward with bold national plans that are good for the country, rather than for personal political gain. We need to look for a long term solution, not a quick fix that is papering over the cracks. For sure a brand new hub might be more expensive, but it will be fundable, with the private sector covering the majority of the cost. There can be an American funded terminal, Chinese funded terminal and so on. It can and will work, but only if people start to get some vision back and move forward.

    • HooksLaw

      Well yes, good points, but I would like to think the pilot would have control of the plane coming in to land over water too!

      Trouble is our media like a good dispute and personality clashes and are incapable of recognising self interested arguments (from airport and airline owners) and is happy to stir the pot rather than elucidate clearly like you have done.

  • Andrew Paul Shakespeare

    Surely HS2 (if we really MUST have it) should connect London, Heathrow and Birmingham International. 45 minutes from central London (the same travel time as Gatwick) should make Birmingham International a viable London airport, and if it were connected to Heathrow as well, could make it an extra terminal. Hey presto, you have Heathrow’s extra terminal and runway, plus room to expand.

    • James Randall

      As has previously been explained when the suggestion of connecting Heathrow and Gatwick using high speed rail, not only will the minimum connection times not be short enough, but passengers will not be able to connect airside

      • Andrew Paul Shakespeare

        I thought high-speed rail was Cameron’s alternative to a third runway. What on earth IS the point of it then? Why is the whole country (including the western bits that will derive no benefit from a north-south line) being taxed to fund a projected Return on Investment too small to be of interest to a single capital investor?

  • LondonStatto

    The bottom line is that a third runway at LHR would be a short runway, as Moylan pointed out but rarely gets mentioned in press discussions.

    • Andrew Paul Shakespeare

      How short? If it’s long enough to accommodate a 737 and an A320, that would clear a lot of capacity.on the other two runways.

      • James Randall

        This is true, but this would not free up an equivalent amount of space on the other 2 runways due to the increased distances needed between larger aircraft

        • HooksLaw

          A 3rd runway to ease congestion, but not increase capacity in any way significantly would be OK by me but I doubt it would be acceptable to anybody.

    • HooksLaw

      ‘but rarely gets mentioned in press discussions’ — see my point earlier

  • James Randall

    It’s a rare occasion when I find myself agreeing with a Labour politician, but in this case Mr Slaughter is correct. The third runway is not the answer to the UK’s hub capacity problem, but neither is Boris Island. There are many more options that must be explored and assessed.

    • HooksLaw

      I think we can explore other possibilities and act on them, but the fundamental is that Heathrow is in the wrong place and needs movong. It might have been in the right place if in 1946 we had demolished all around it and developed it with a view to the future, but we did not.

      • James Randall

        I completely agree. Of course when it was first constructed no one in the UK really had any idea that air travel would become the way most people travelled. Fast forward 60+ years and look what we’ve been left with. Should have implemented any of the recommendations from Roskill in the 70s but politics got in the way (as usual).

      • Daniel Maris

        We would have to have demolished half of London even then (1946)! We have incredibly luck never to have a mid air crash between two jumbos falling on a shopping centre in such a crowded urban centre.

        I agree. Long term we need to decommission Heathrow. It doesn’t have to happen overnight. It should be part of a 20 year programme to create a London Airport infrastructure, with a new international airport in the estuary, working with Gatwick, City, Stansted, Luton and Southend to create a brilliant London Hub.

        Heathrow will be a hugely valuable piece of real estate. It could be developed for residential accommodation, wind and solar energy generation, a tourist centre with artificial beach facilities, and perhaps an industrial-high tech zone linked to Brunel and Oxford Universities, to provide employment opportunities.

        • James Randall

          Leaving aside the slightly alarmist first paragraph…. It still surprises me that people think that airports many 10s of miles apart can be connected together to create some sort of hub.

          Hubs work by bringing passengers from many different locations to the same place so that they can transfer onto other flights. Hubs are competitive by virtue of the fact that they can offer short connection times between arrival and departure. These connection times can be as short as 60 minutes.

          The first thing that happens if you try to create some sort of “virtual hub” is that the minimum connection time increases. At the same time, rather than keeping connecting passengers within the confines of the airport, you require them to collect their luggage (which will then need to be checked in again upon reaching the departure airport) on arrival and actually enter the UK.

          Furthermore, airlines would have aircraft scattered at different airports throughout the region making efficient use of them less easy than when they are flying in and out of the same location.

          • Knightyk

            You’re right in assuming that there are no hub efficiency’s for airlines or operators if there is a satellite hub solution by say joining Gatwick & Heathrow with a passenger rail link. I think most people have thrown this suggestion out long ago, and it should officially be dismissed asap.

            It amazes me that Crossrail only has a spur link through to Heathrow, rather than passing directly through it. The most important infrastructure project in the UK (and allegedly Europe) seems to only link with the UK’s key airport hub as though it’s an accident. A new airport would have no constraints and would be no accident happening over time.

            Over time Heathrow airport could be closed, and could be an enterprise zone to attract new and retain old businesses. Many firms would need to move to the new airport as that’s where they have to be. Others will still benefit from the motorway network, which would be less congested, and there would still be reason to be located there due to the talented workforce. Transport links to central London would be good and a new city could be master planned on the site. Taking note from Asia and building tall at Heathrow could alleviate London and the south easts housing crises, with the potential to build thousands of units, new schools and other public facilities.

          • Daniel Maris

            No, I don’t think you are right. Hubs work because a businessman knows that he can get from the hub to lots of different destinations. It’s isn’t about “passing through”.

            From the CAA: “The level of connecting passengers in the London airport system has been 15% or more (and at Heathrow 20% or more) for at least the last thirty five years. Levels rose in the late 1980s and peaked in 1996 and 2002.” In other words, the proportion of connecting flights has been declining. Of course have several airports working together doesn’t mean that connecting flights won’t be survived. As long as you have one main airport (the estuary airport) serving main destinations, you will serve the vast majority of connecting needs.

  • HooksLaw

    Heathrow is in the wrong place. It needs a programme and some vision to replace it, rebuild it somewhere else and to put something wealth creating in its place. This is a 20 year plus project, but there is no national vision. There never has been, its a failure of national character.

    I should add that Heathrow is in the ideal place for me, but I never fly from there. Of course John Prescott promised us an integrated transport policy, look what happened to that.

    • Stiffit

      There’s a uniquely British cock-up urge at work.

      When I travel from Yorkshire to France by rail the trains are scheduled to allow fifteen minutes longer for the walk across St Pancras Road than the flight from Yorkshire to France takes tarmac to tarmac.

      If we can’t get things right at this level, there’s no reason to think that any airport site will be any better than any other.

      • HooksLaw

        Aren’t we building Crossrail to resolve that. Crossrail is likely to cost 15 billion. after being initially speculated at 3 billion! (though to be fair the cost relates to the whole line of 118km) it is Europe’s largest building project (which must make it one of the biggest in the world).

        In any event the scale and size of Crossrail shows how difficult and expensive it is to resolve past mistakes and or rebuild over the top of an archaic past to live in the future. Crossrali in the sense of a giant tunnel under London was first proposed in 1941!

      • Fergus Pickering

        But how long does it take you to get to the airport and check in, old sport. Last I heard, check in time at Heathrow was THREE HOURS before take-off..

    • Andrew Paul Shakespeare

      I think that’s the first time I’ve ever agreed with you.

      • HooksLaw

        I am more perceptive than most give me credit for – and more modest too.

        • Andrew Paul Shakespeare

          No you’re not. A broken clock gives the right time twice a day.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Ah National vision! Oh for a Stalin, a Hitler, Mao, a Pol Pot, someone with National vision! Have you never heard that Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel? Who said that? The archetypal Englishman, Samuel Johnson.

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