Airport expansion is one of the most important strategic decisions facing the capital and arguably the country.
Given that fact my position has been to give serious attention to the Airports Commission Report. I know it can be ‘unsexy’ in some political circles to actually read and understand reports before commenting on or dismissing them but that is what Assembly Members were elected to do.
The demands and expectations placed upon the two year, multi-million pound Airports Commission were high. It is only right that we demand take a commensurately serious and open minded approach to our scrutiny of its findings.
As a consequence we did something which I know other Assembly Members have found worrying – we said we are not going to just reiterate previous positions or make a knee jerk reaction.
We are going to do a serious and as rational and objective a scrutiny of this Airports Commission Report as possible. We were willing to give the case for Heathrow a fair hearing and possibly be persuaded but based on evidence, not just in search of a quick headline.
The result of that scrutiny has been to find profound holes in the Airports Commission’s findings. For that reason we have been clear, the case for Heathrow expansion remains unproven.
The fundamental calculation politicians need to make is whether the economic benefits of Heathrow expansion justify the costs. In particular whether the transport, air quality and noise costs are justified and whether mitigations offered can adequately protect the quality of life and health of Londoners affected.
Not only does the economic case not stand up to scrutiny, the impact on air quality, demands on transport infrastructure and aviation noise is greatly underestimated. In my estimation the positive reasons for supporting Heathrow expansion over Gatwick are dramatically overstated.
We have had credible evidence from TfL of underestimates of staffing numbers, underestimates of traffic growth impacts on the networks generally and of overly optimistic assumptions of what the public transport system could cope with.
If there is no room on the public transport system for growth, or if the necessary upgrades would cost so much they’re unviable, then we will have reached the limits of expansion.
On the issue of Air quality we always knew that this was going to be the weakest link in the chain. The targets set by the Commission to keep 2030 air pollution below the current worst levels is limited at best and deeply legalistic.
The mitigations offered are weak and some known to be ineffective, particularly when linked to the unrealistic optimism of the Transport access proposals. We shouldn’t be settling for air quality sticking at its current poor levels, we should be driving it down as quickly as we can.
Take noise pollution and it’s a similar case. A Noise Regulator would make significant improvements, especially if complemented by changes to the flight paths, improved aircraft technology and better compensation schemes. However it is really disappointing that the footprint of people affected by noise will remain at 750,000 with expansion.
That Heathrow has been seen to be questioning the night time flight ban the Commission has proposed has damaged their case. Gatwick makes a profoundly stronger case for being the quietest option where the much smaller number of residents are affected.
Whilst these problems are not unassailable there is a long way to go before Heathrow expansion is proven to be the best option available. That however is exactly what Government is currently looking at. No matter what our political opponents say I am clear, the case for Heathrow expansion as it stands is not supportable.
When Government announce their plans later in the year, whether, Heathrow or Gatwick, I will look at them again and hold them to the same scrutiny as the Davies Commission, with an open mind, not having dismissed them before even they are even released. That’s exactly what Londoners elected us to do.