Back to articles • Back to home page

The rise of the airport
Local Government Chronicle – 16 August 2007

Councils are faced with a major dilemma surrounding airport expansion. Do the economic benefits of expansion outweigh environmental concerns and local misery? Mark Smulian finds out

Flying off on holiday this summer is not an appealing prospect: "Thank you for checking in with Cheapo Airlines. Please wait an hour while we check your sunblock isn't going to explode and confiscate your nail clippers. Oh, and the plane is three hours late."

But millions of people still want their break in the sun and will continue to fly, despite airport security restrictions, overcrowding and concerns about aviation contributing to climate change. And the slump in air fares delivered by the budget airlines means more people want to fly from more places, and as a result most airports plan to expand.

Councils opposing airport expansion on environmental grounds have their work cut out - the aviation industry is a powerful lobby, as councils around Heathrow and Stansted have discovered. There is also a dilemma for many affected councils. Airports generate noise, pollution and traffic and consume open space, but they also create jobs, regeneration and investment.

One need not go very far from London to find councils that want their local airport to grow. There is also backing from central government: a white paper in 2003 supported substantial airport expansion, specifically a second runway at Stansted and, with a few environmental caveats, a third at Heathrow.

But the 12 councils around Heathrow have had enough, and have formed the 2M Group to oppose expansion, so named for the two million people they say are affected by aircraft noise. It is based at Wandsworth LBC, whose media head Steve Mayner is gearing up for battle over this autumn's government consultation on the sustainable development of Heathrow, something he calls "an oxymoron".

This will look at technical changes to the way the two runways are used, which would enable Heathrow's owner BAA to significantly increase its capacity whether or not the third runway is built. Mr Mayner says: "Our number one beef is that government is only allowing 12 weeks for this consultation yet the expansion proposed is the equivalent of an airport the size of Gatwick.

"There are many issues, but the main one is noise. It is a quality of life question, and if local authorities don't stand up for people who live round here, who will?"

Councils opposed Heathrow Terminal 5, which is due to open in March, after a planning battle so protracted that it is routinely cited by the government as justification for removing decisions on major infrastructure planning applications from councils' jurisdiction and handing them to a quango. Heathrow, though, is a substantial local employer, which has forced councils to balance environmental and economic factors. But the third runway plan has raised fears that there are no limits to Heathrow's growth, and Hillingdon LBC, in whose area the airport stands, wants a halt.

Keith Burrows (Con), cabinet member for planning and transportation, says: "The third runway would mean the destruction of hundreds of homes. The problem is that the airlines are never satisfied. If they get a third runway and Terminal 5 we will soon be into a sixth terminal and a fourth runway. Our main worry with the independent planning commission is that it would allow developments like this."

BAA retorts that Heathrow is close to breaking point, being used at 98% capacity most days, and that it needs to grow to meet demand. A spokeswoman says: "Heathrow employs 70,000 people and supports over 200,000 further jobs. It is an absolutely essential factor when businesses decide to locate in the UK."

She says expansion will proceed only "if there is no net increase in noise compared to 2002", and that quieter aircraft and better noise insulation - provided at BAA's expense to the worst-affected residents - will mitigate the problem. This cuts little ice with 2M, which released a study in July that found "an almost constant background of aircraft noise", even 15km away at the Oval cricket ground.

Stansted has grown rapidly with the expansion of budget airlines. The proposed second runway and a plan to use the existing runway more intensively have horrified Uttlesford DC, which has led opposition at the current public inquiry in a David and Goliath battle between a small district council and BAA.

Chief executive Alasdair Bovaird, says: "It is a quality of life issue, mainly due to noise, though there is a wider environmental impact too. The case in favour of expansion has not been made and it is not clear that any economic benefits delivered will benefit the local economy. We want it to be successful, but we want it to be on a suitable scale."

Planning blight has descended on the surrounding area. BAA agreed to buy homes that could one day be under the second runway, and so "we are seeing local communities hollowed out", says Mr Bovaird.

"The only buyer for homes is the airport, which then either boards them up or rents them to transient people. In villages such as Takeley the social infrastructure has been destroyed," he says.

Other councils might not want more noise, but they would like the economic benefits of airports. Kent CC was involved last year in an abortive scheme with tour operator Cosmos to run flights to the US from the optimistically named Kent International Airport, better known as Manston. Despite its remote location near Ramsgate, Kent hopes to attract scheduled services as one-and-a-half million people live within two hours' drive.

Stephen Dukes, principal projects officer, says: "The airport is privately owned, but the county council is committed to support economic development there. It would be important to regeneration in Thanet."

The five West Yorkshire councils sold Leeds-Bradford Airport in May for 145.5m, after realising that they could not afford the investment needed for it to expand. That was 30 times its earnings, which suggests new owner Bridgepoint Capital expects significant growth.

Leeds City Council owned 40% of the airport and is the planning authority. Deputy leader Andrew Carter (Con) says that while the council is mindful of its environmental effects "we recognise the important contribution that [the] airport makes to the ongoing development of the city region's economy [and] that the airport has significant growth potential."

There is a similar story at Exeter airport, which Devon CC sold to Regional & City Airports for 60m last January. Leader Brian Greenslade (Lib Dem) says: "We very much support its development as it is important to regeneration and employment."

Some 50 million people a year use Manchester airport, owned by Manchester Airport Group, which in turn is owned by the 10 councils in Greater Manchester. The group describes the airport as "crucial to the wellbeing and prosperity of the region it serves".

It has sought to tackle the noise issue through a commitment to keep the area affected by its 60 decibel noise output below 1992 levels until 2011 and "as low as possible thereafter". There are also charges that give incentives to airlines with quieter aircraft.

A successful airport can be too much of a good thing, but unless green taxes and concern about climate change really do bring a shift in public behaviour it is likely they will keep growing - good news for some councils, but not for those fighting a one-sided battle because they have had enough.

Invest for a greener future

Will airport security hassles and concern about CO2 emissions present councils in British resort areas with a golden opportunity to promote alternatives to foreign holidays?

The answer is 'yes' but "It's not as simple as it might seem", says Peter Hampson, director of the British Resorts & Destinations Association.

One problem is that tourist destinations need to attract overseas visitors, and simple mathematics dictates if fewer flights take off from the UK, fewer bearing foreign travellers will land. More important, says Mr Hampson, is that visitors come here for culture, not the sun, and if worries about flying reach critical mass in international public opinion, foreign tourists might find their cultural fixes nearer home.

Another worry is that concern about aviation emissions might extend to those from cars. "There is a growing concern among local authorities that car travel will be demonised, not just air travel," he says. "More than 80% of leisure tourism is car-borne whether we like it or not. If you don't have visitors, you don't have a visitor economy."

Mr Hampson recommends that councils and the tourism industry invest now in anticipation that people will look for more environmentally friendly destinations in about five years' time. But he says it is a misconception that the UK tourist market has slumped under pressure from cheap flights.

"There are 25-26 million visits a year to UK resorts," he says. "It is not a declining market - what happens is that people take their main holiday abroad but take shorter breaks at home."