Heathrow at the crossroads

heathrow control tower sunsetAt today’s Place West London conference – Heathrow’s Future: Crossroads for the West London Economy – delegates heard from a range of speakers about the options for the future of the Heathrow site.

These include expansion, through Heathrow’s third runway plan, extension through Heathrow Hub’s plans to lengthen the runways, and redevelopment as ‘Heathrow City’, a new London Borough with a population of 200,000.

Speakers from all perspectives agreed on one thing – that London needs a hub airport. Further they agreed that a world-leading hub airport, as Heathrow is now, is essential not just to London, but to the national economy. Nigel Milton of Heathrow Airport was at pains to point out they did not object to the idea of Gatwick Airport adding a runway – the other option under consideration by the Davies Commission – but not at the expense of expansion at Heathrow.

Milton described the ongoing Davies review as the “last and best chance” to sort of the aviation capacity crunch before the UK economy was irretrievably damaged by our declining connectivity. He described Heathrow’s submission for a third runway as a new approach – one produced after long consultation with residents and employers in the area and across the UK following the Coalition government’s reversal of the previous Labour government approval of an earlier expansion plan.

Certainly they have upped the ante in terms of compensation available to those affected, and have recognised the issue around surface access to the airport in a way previous management teams have perhaps not, by signalling they are prepared to look at congestion charging. Milton also promised a new look at freight – which will be welcome news for the logistics sector, already strong around Heathrow.

The key points in favour of R3 were economic. First that the plan was deliverable – economically and politically. Heathrow had the capacity to invest, said Milton, and referred to a report issued earlier in the year that shows Heathrow expansion as an effective vote-winner in all but one constituency around the airport.

A Heathrow expansion option would also deliver a massive dividend in employment – through the construction phase, as T2and T5 before has done – and in operation where direct on-airport employment would of course increase, but more importantly indirect “induced” jobs in the surrounding area would be both created and sustained. Several speakers made the point that the uncertainty around Heathrow’s future might already be affecting location decisions by employers who can find more long-term certainty for convenient international connections around Amsterdam.

Noise

Noise came in to the discussion. It doesn’t directly affect the economic argument, although some suggest that disturbed sleep affects worker productivity. However, all parties recognised the negative effect it can have.

Heathrow for their part are proposing significant growth in noise insulation payouts – more than doubling their offer. Captain Jock Lowe, the former Concorde pilot championing the Heathrow Hub proposal suggested their proposal to lengthen the northern runway to 6.6km would allow an end to early morning flights, something which Cllr Colin Ellar from Hounslow was keen to see, given he lives on the approach path.

Much of Lowe’s presentation concerned airspace management, and how this could be improved with the aid of the ability to land 3km further west, and with steeper take off and landing paths to significantly reduce the noise impact of the airport.

“Daft”

Lowe agreed with much of Heathrow’s proposal, certainly that Heathrow was the place for expansion, and the Thames Estuary airport idea was “plain daft”.

Lowe pointed to figures showing that 200 of the UKs top 300 companies were in the Heathrow area, partly because the airport was there. He made much of their proposals surface access proposals, a new station for the airport connecting to Crossrail and the Western Mainline to all terminals at the airport.

Heathrow’s own surface access proposals include both western and southern rail access, which together with connections to Crossrail would end Heathrow’s disconnection from the rail network. Lowe’s proposals appear to go further than Heathrow’s, which propose taking the public transport share of access traffic to over 60% by 2040.

Simon Earles of Heathrow also pointed to the current 40,000 journeys into or out of the airport made by empty taxis or minicabs as an opportunity to reduce congestion with better management.

Daniel Moylan, the Mayor of London’s aviation advisor, thinks this is fanciful. He said “their proposals to encourage more passengers to use public transport are based on false assumptions. Put simply their arguments are all hot air.

M25 chaos?

Captain Lowe was careful to say that their proposal, which involves rerouting the M25 would not involve closing it, except ‘overnight for painting new white lines and moving the central reservation’. He said that anyone suggesting their or Heathrow’s cut-and-cover proposal meant closing the motorway for a significant period was scaremongering, and that neither plan would require that.

R4 on the way?

When pressed on the potential need for a fourth runway, Lowe pointed out that technically their proposal didn’t even mean a third runway, but suggested the provision would be simple, by extending the southern runway. Milton was more circumspect, saying that there was no indication as yet that R4 would be required before 2050, and that forecasting that requirement now was not a particularly useful thing to do – as so much could change between now and then. Certainly Milton’s figures for an expanded Heathrow showed it operating at a capacity not dissimilar to Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol now when running at over 700,000 passenger movements a year, so the conclusion that R4 is inevitable is difficult to draw with certainty.

Richard de Cani, from Transport for London, said they felt that a fourth runway would inevitably be needed, which was why they favoured deciding in favour of a brand new hub in the Thames Estuary now.

Securing London’s growth

Richard de Cani, of Transport for London, made his presentation of the Mayor of London’s plans to redevelop the site of Heathrow, about securing London’s future against a backdrop of rapidly growing population – possibly heading for 14m in 2050.

With the UK unable to find land to build enough homes now, the prospect of a 90,000 home boost to supply on a single site is indeed tempting. De Cani pointed to successful hub moves in Hong Kong and Denver as evidence that it can be done. Although other speakers felt the risks involved were immense, and the likelihood of – as Cllr Ellar put it – the move being a “nuclear strike” on the West London economy was too great for it to be favoured by those with a stake in the sub-region.

A new London borough

De Cani showed forecasts of employment in London, showing that it was likely to remain concentrated in the centre, and that radial routes – including Crossrail, and Crossrail2 – would be filled by population growth, and that an expanded Heathrow could not rely on these new links to handle a 50% growth in passenger movements.

The mayor’s plans would provide for 90,000 homes on the Heathrow site, with a 190,000 population and 80,000 jobs. The terminal buildings could be reused as retail or commercial space, or as a new University.

On education, Andrew Ward of Brunel University, asked to comment on what the various options would mean for the skills landscape and the education requirement, did not agree that setting up a new university strong in life sciences was what the area would need.

He showed that the region is already surrounded by strength in that area – with Imperial and UCL in central London, and Oxford and Cambridge not far away. His conclusion was that, although more Higher Education was needed, rather than the university envisaged in the Mayor’s plan, one focussed more on the needs of business, delivering a bigger chunk of community education – helping replace the 40% drop there has been in part time HE students since the beginning of the recession. This closer educational and business sector working would be essential whether Heathrow were expanded or closed.

Both councils who accepted the invitation to speak – Ealing and Hounslow – made it clear their policies were against expansion. However both are in favour of the economic benefits that Heathrow brings. Cllr Ellar from Hounslow recognised that the closure of Heathrow would destroy one in four jobs in his borough.

Pat Hayes, from Ealing Council, said that while noise was not so big an issue for them, congestion was, and they wanted to see a ‘better not bigger’ Heathrow reducing its impact on the road and rail network.

Hayes also felt that Heathrow have been “sluggish in driving economic impact around the airport”, reflecting an introspective attitude that many would agree afflicted previous management. He suggested they have been “slow to grasp the nettle of adequate compensation”, something which may be addressed by recent announcements of a significant lift of the cash on offer.

“Delusional”

There was little enthusiasm from the councils for the closure of Heathrow, Cllr Ellar pointed out that would be in line with Hillingdon Council policy, and that he felt they were “delusional” if they thought that would be a good thing for the region. Pat Hayes said that if Heathrow were closed we might well “find ourselves bidding for the 2038 Olympics to regenerate the site.”

Colin Stanbridge, of the London Chamber of Commerce, thanks the Mayor of London for shining the spotlight on jobs during the aviation debate. His clear focus on the national economic contribution of London’s main airport had shown what the consequences of no decision would be. He urged that whatever government is in power when Davies reports adopts and does what he recommends rather than commissioning another review.

Certainly there seems to be a wide consensus that a decision now is essential, and that, should we be sitting at another similar event in five years, we would be trying to preserve a continuously declining slice of world GDP.

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