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Op Ed: Heathrow Expansion

Photo: Heathrow's expansion plans were MPs from across supported overwhelmingly by MPs across the political parties. (Photo Heathrow Airport)


Regular readers of Airliner World will know we have frequently ‘banged the drum’ for increased airport capacity in the southeast of England.

So, it was most welcome that the British government formally – and finally – backed a third runway at London/Heathrow, confirmed by Parliament in a crunch vote on June 25.

Government policy on such issues as infrastructure has, for decades, been largely dictated by whichever way the electoral wind seems to be blowing.  The Department for Transport may have finally planted its flag firmly in the Heathrow Airport camp, but the matter is far from over and some sizeable hurdles remain before construction can begin on the new third runway.

I appreciate such a momentous decision should not be taken lightly, but sadly the issue of airport expansion is as much political as it is economical.  Short-termism is rife, and many politicians appear more concerned about protecting their constituency seats than making long-term choices for the greater good.

At face value, the Airports National Policy Statement received overwhelming support, a move that should theoretically end decades of political debate on one of the UK’s most pressing infrastructure issues.

But a majority of 296 does not necessarily reflect just how divisive the expansion is.  The proposal was backed by representatives from all parties, but Conservative MPs were bound by a three-line whip, leaving just eight to rebel against the government.  Other opponents either abstained or stayed away, including now ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson.  His absence from the vote in the House of Commons came in stark contrast to Greg Hands, the Tory MP, who resigned as a trade minister a week earlier, so he could vote against expansion.

Speaking ahead of the vote, he pointedly told MPs: “This is not just for me a debate about Heathrow, important though that is; it’s also a debate about being true to your word and to your election pledges.  This vote is also about integrity and the promises we make to our voters.”

For his part, Johnson has long been determined to block any move to expand Heathrow, telling supporters after being elected for his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat: “I will lie down with you in front of those bulldozers and stop the building, stop the construction of that third runway.”

However, rather than defying the party line, he missed the vote entirely and travelled to Afghanistan on an official visit – a move criticised by many of his fellow MPs.  In a letter to local councillors, obtained by the Evening Standard, Johnson defended his decision, adding: “I will continue to lobby colleagues from within government.”

Of course, a third runway at Heathrow is by no means the perfect solution.  If starting from scratch, it’s extremely unlikely anyone would suggest building London’s major hub airport in such a highly populated area.  But, from a national perspective, it can be justified by the economic benefits alone and, without such expansion, the UK as a whole faces a major infrastructure bottleneck and one that could potentially cause lasting damage.  Meanwhile, the eye-watering price that airlines currently pay for landing slots reinforces the message that Heathrow is, and will continue to be, the country’s primary gateway.

Notwithstanding Parliament’s approval, the initiative could still fall down at any subsequent stages.  It will be subjected to another round of public consultation before firm plans are drawn up for construction, while it also faces the prospect of fresh legal challenges – several local councils are preparing for such action – if not a full judicial review.  Let’s hope the government can see its long-awaited decision through…

What is your opinion on Heathrow expansion?  Should the London hub be allowed to build its long-awaited third runway, or will that capacity be better used elsewhere?  Why not drop us a line at and tell us your views.

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