Like a magnet held over bristled iron filings, the rumbling controversy over Heathrow expansion attracts eccentrics almost indiscriminately.

It’s the kind of subject where articles will include, alongside comparatively mundane points about night flights and noise pollution, visions of the Mayor of London’s body laying prostrate beneath the path of a JCB, or the ‘mock celebration’ of Heathrow’s platinum jubilee by residents of Harmondsworth, who marked the occasion by planting 783 cardboard planes into the local green, each representing a house that would be demolished should work begin on a third runway. In June 2015, it was parakeets with breathing problems. That month, the Financial Times dutifully reported that the last, best hope of thwarting Heathrow’s expansion would be to build a “local quarantine centre handling rare birds and pets”. A legal challenge could then be brought against the airport, on the grounds that its pollutants would adversely affect the animals’ living conditions.

However, behind this panoply of the bizarre lurks a bitter political conflict fuelled by local concerns and fought on a national stage. Beginning in June 2001, government ministers and industry observers warned that Heathrow, the UK’s busiest airport, would effectively fill up by the end of the decade. That, in turn, raised questions regarding the long-term validity of the UK’s reigning hub model. Heathrow was already the country’s busiest airport; building a third runway would inevitably increase the level of noise and air pollution already suffered by those living on the flight path.

Why not, instead, expand Gatwick, which was only a little farther from London and proving increasingly popular with business travellers and tourists? Or even scrap the hub model altogether and spread traffic out to the UK’s regional airports? 

A decision on airport expansion would not be reached until 2008, when the Labour Government of the day decided to press ahead with building a third runway, by which time, airports on the continent had begun to seriously challenge Heathrow’s dominance of international routes. The decision was condemned by the opposition Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, who opposed expanding the airport on environmental grounds; when he became prime minister following his party’s general election victory two years later, approval for the runway was rescinded.

The issue was effectively kicked into the long grass until 2012 when, under pressure from sections of his own party, Cameron appointed an independent panel to make final recommendations on where airport expansion would take place, which his government would then implement. The Davies Commission, as it became popularly known, issued its final report last year, recommending that a third runway be built at Heathrow. No action has since been taken by the government on the issue and, following Cameron’s resignation in June and Theresa May’s appointment in July, it seems unlikely that a decision will be reached one way or the other until the dust has settled.

Heathrow doesn’t make sense from an environmental, financial or legal perspective. More than that, it provides only a sticking plaster to the problem.

Split position

The correspondence Bob Neill receives on noise pollution has always been fairly regular. His leafy constituency of Bromley and Chislehurst lies underneath the Biggin Hill holding point, a stacking zone for aircraft queuing to land 23 miles away at Heathrow. Over the past year, as the moment seemingly approaches for a firm decision on expansion from the government, the number of letters the Conservative MP has been receiving has increased.

“Although it’s a frustratingly slow process, the government has gone about this in the right way,” he says. He approves of the appointment of the Davies Commission and the fact that a number of Parliamentary groups are also looking into the issue, and would be firmly behind any decision the government might take that would prevent a third runway at Heathrow and let the opportunity for expansion fall squarely into Gatwick’s lap.

“It’s the option preferred by the majority of Londoners,” says Neill, who can be counted among the cohort of anti-Heathrow-expansion MPs representing constituencies in and around the capital. That contingent includes not only backbenchers, but also the best, the brightest and most notorious members of both parties, including the Conservative former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and former mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith; the current mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell; and several cabinet ministers. Therefore, in combination with these voices and a razor-thin Conservative majority in the House of Commons, the opinions of backbenchers like Neill carry weight on this issue.

“Heathrow doesn’t make sense from an environmental, financial or legal perspective,” explains Neill. “More than that, it provides only a sticking plaster to the problem, with forecasts indicating that Heathrow will be at capacity by 2030, even with a third runway. Ultimately, I feel it would set in motion a vicious cycle.

“In contrast, Gatwick would increase the number of destinations currently available to passengers and offer us an opportunity to rebalance economic growth, not only in London but throughout the UK as well by increasing domestic connectivity.”

In the end, Neill believes expanding Gatwick is simply a more deliverable goal. There is a lower chance of any legal challenge to the works and, bearing in mind the added investment in rail and road links needed to fully upgrade Heathrow, it would take less time. “There isn’t a perfect solution to how Britain should expand its aviation capacity,” says Neill. “There’ll be winners and losers whichever option the government decides to take. Unless we are to seriously look at the left-field option of making better use of our regional airports, the debate has two contenders: Heathrow and Gatwick.”

Liberal leanings

Baroness Jennifer Randerson firmly belongs in Neill’s left-field category of regionalists. When Future Airport catches her on the phone, the Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson is in demand, having already warned that she might be called away for a vote in the House of Lords during our call. Throughout, she conveys a rare mix of optimism at the notional potential in spreading the south-east’s air traffic around the country’s underused regional airports and sheer exasperation at the government’s inaction on the issue.

“There’s one fundamental statistic to consider, which is that the south-east of England has a third of the population of the UK and two thirds of the flights,” she says. “That, by definition, means that people from the rest of the country are travelling significant distances in order to catch a plane. A lot is made of business travellers and how important the hub model is for them – if you look at the figures, though, 70% of the passengers using Heathrow are leisure travellers, and three quarters of the passengers using Gatwick are too. They’re not very interested in the big-airlines hub model; they’re interested in cost, and convenience.”

The key to prising traffic away from the south-east, Randerson believes, lies in targeted infrastructure investment. If the airlines could be persuaded that the road and rail links around the airports of Manchester and Birmingham could sustain a shift in air traffic patterns, and if the application of air-passenger duty could be suitably devolved to the north-west, then airline operators could be persuaded to move there. What’s more, these kinds of measures could be enacted at a comparative pittance.

“The infrastructure improvements – in particular for Heathrow but also for Gatwick – because they are in heavily built-up areas, are massively complex and expensive,” says Randerson. Furthermore, the same type of works in Manchester and Birmingham would not only be less expensive, but would also have a greater positive knock-on effect on job growth in the region.

“If we have proper infrastructure investment throughout the Midlands and the north, not just confined to [the] High Speed 2 [rail link], then I think you will have a very positive situation for Manchester and Birmingham Airports,” Randerson says.

Above all, she believes in an airport expansion plan that divests the UK of its total allegiance to the hub model: “There are plenty of examples of countries that spread their routes across more than one airport. You don’t have to put everything in one place anymore in order to succeed.”

If you don’t make a decision, the danger is economic. We’ll lose out on connections to emerging markets, and that’s a long-term issue.

Hub concerns

When Future Airport meets Louise Ellman, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, at Portcullis House, the day is hot and the glass-roofed atrium is rammed. Ushered into a small anteroom by her assistant, we’re afforded some privacy but little protection from the wall of noise rumbling from the foyer. At times, it’s difficult to hear her soft voice above the din.

“I think [the government] is afraid to take action because, inevitably, a decision of that nature will be controversial,” says Ellman. “There will be people who will support it, and others who will be dismayed. That is unavoidable. You should do all that you can to address the concerns of people who may well be upset but, ultimately, a decision has to be taken. If you don’t make a decision, the danger is economic. We’ll lose out on connections to emerging markets, and that’s a long-term issue.”

While she represents a comparatively far-flung northern constituency, Ellman’s role as the chair of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee has seen her resolutely campaign for a third runway at Heathrow. As far as she is concerned, extending the hub model that currently exists is the most straightforward policy solution for the ongoing constriction in airport capacity. To that end, she gently dismisses the viability of Heathrow’s nearest competitor.

“Gatwick is becoming increasingly successful,” she says. “In fact, it’s now full at peak times, and it will be full altogether in about five years’ time – but there’s no evidence that it can develop into a hub airport at low capacity, and I think that’s what the problem is.”

Ellman’s own position does not necessarily tally with that of her party. Officially, Labour’s endorsement of a third runway has been ‘under review’ since September 2015, an artful compromise between long-standing policy and public misgivings about expansion expressed by Jeremy Corbyn prior to his election as party leader.

Although it remains to be seen whether Labour is capable of winning a Commons majority at the next general election under Corbyn – or if he will indeed even be the party’s leader by then – Ellman certainly remains hopeful that Labour will steer back to her point of view. “I would say that, inside the party, there’s always some division, although most people I’ve spoken to are pro-Heathrow,” she says. “Clearly, we need to see what the government will do.”

With routes continuing to ebb from the UK and the timescale of works projected to be in the order of years, the decision must be made as soon as possible.