Labour hint they won't support a third runway - here's why Heathrow fails their four tests

Senior Labour party sources have indicated the party will not support Heathrow’s plans for a third runway in a parliamentary vote on the issue expected next year, saying the project will not meet Labour's four tests that any locations for airport expansion had to pass in order to gain its support.

Cranford, in the Borough of Hounslow, under a relentless stream of aircraft preparing to land

Cranford, in the Borough of Hounslow, under a relentless stream of aircraft preparing to land


Labour’s failure to support Heathrow expansion in a vote on the Airports National Policy Statement, which is expected to take place in the spring, would be likely to cause significant damage to a major piece of Conservative infrastructure legislation and scupper Heathrow’s chances of constructing a third runway.

Heathrow has been pushed hard for another runway since 2002, when the Labour government supported the idea. However, since that time many new issues have had to be considered. For example, back in 2002 few politicians were thinking about the implications for climate change. 

With strong arguments against Heathrow expansion gathering support, the Labour party, during Michael Dugher MP's period serving as shadow transport secretary, looked at its stance. 

In 2015, after the Airport Commission published its final Report on airport expansion in the South East, Labour announced that it would adopt four tests to determine whether to support the report’s conclusion that Heathrow was the favoured option. Only Gatwick had remained as an alternative after the Commission whittled down from around 50 ideas put forward. 

Current shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald MP has continued to say that the party will use these four tests to determine its policy.

It is worth having a look at Labour's Four Tests to see what Labour expects and whether that can be achieved.

A closer look at Labour's Four Tests 

A closer look at Labour's Four Tests 


Test 1:  Robust and convincing evidence is provided that the required increased aviation capacity will be delivered with Sir Howard Davies’ recommendation.

The third runway has been sold on the basis that it will improve connectivity to the emerging economies of the world.  Yet, according to the Airports Commission, a third runway will provide no more than 7 additional long-haul destinations by 2030, and 12 by 2050. In the meantime, without intervention, domestic airport connections to Heathrow could reduce from 7 to only 4.

Heathrow says a new runway would enable it to serve a total of 14 domestic routes, up 6 from the current position. However, the Airports Commission stated without a regional slot allocation preference or some sort subsidy that these new routes may not be commercially viable. The Government has yet to make clear whether it is prepared to financially support these regional connections.

The Port of Jersey announced in July 2017 that a Heathrow link from the island would not be viable, and would require heavy state subsidies, met with landing fees five to ten times higher than at Gatwick, and that a link to Gatwick would be preferred as it is now serving more international destinations.

Better use of available capacity at London and regional airports would better serve passengers. For instance, Stansted currently operates at 50% capacity and with a change to the planning restrictions could easily handle many more flights. Regional airports like Manchester and Birmingham also have significant spare capacity that could be better utilised today. Interestingly, whilst increases in passenger numbers are regularly cited as the rationale for airport expansion, the number of UK Air Traffic Movements (ATMs) grew by only 0.6% between 2000 and 2014. Therefore, despite existing capacity at airports around the country the number of planes taking off and landing has stayed roughly the same.

Test 2.  The recommended expansion in capacity can go hand-in-hand with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions from aviation and allow us to meet our legal climate change obligations.

Growth would need to be curbed at all other UK airports if a third runway were to be built at Heathrow in order for the UK not to breach the target set by the Climate Change Act. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), estimate that the number of flights in the UK should grow by no more than 55% by 2050 if the Government is to meet its overall targets to reduce CO2 emissions.

If flight numbers grow as predicted at all UK airports, the target would only be met if demand were deliberately restricted through a carbon tax or a tough emissions trading scheme with a carbon price of at least £40 per tonne. Neither policy initiative is on the horizon.

The CCC also stated that if a Heathrow expansion goes ahead that emissions could constitute around 25% of the entire UK emissions, meaning that there would need to be serious reductions and restrictions in other sectors of the economy. This would also include the complete decarbonisation of the rest of the transport sector and significant moves to renewable and clean energy production.

The Environmental Audit Committee has repeatedly asked the government what it is intending to do, to ensure that the CCC's advice is taken. The DfT repeatedly refuses to answer this question, even as recently as 28 April 2017.

Test 3.  Local noise and environmental impacts have been adequately considered and will be managed and minimised.

No peace for the wicked - or churchgoers in Windsor 

No peace for the wicked - or churchgoers in Windsor 

A third runway would mean another 250,000 planes a year using Heathrow. Whilst individual aircraft may be less noisy, local communities have consistently highlighted that it is the number of aircraft causing noise disturbance that causes the annoyance.

Tens of thousands of people will be newly overflown as a result of the third runway yet the details of the flight paths have still not been published. How can noise impacts be minimised if local communities are unaware they will experience noise pollution?

The improved noise mitigation offer from Heathrow can be considered a step in the right direction but the proposed speed of the roll out, over a 20-year period, is not satisfactory. Communities blighted by noise pollution deserve world-class mitigation today not a decade or more after the third runway has opened.

The area around Heathrow Airport already breaches EU legal limits on nitrogen dioxide. The legal limit is 40 micrograms per cubic metre yet the reading for the area around Heathrow for Jan – Mar 2017 was 68. Not only are the Tories not committing to adopt EU air quality laws in the Brexit process, but expansion at Heathrow cannot possibly be delivered without increasing road traffic (including freight traffic) around the airport as Heathrow keep promising. The use of cleaner vehicles on the roads surrounding Heathrow also requires significant roll out of new infrastructure and a step change in attitudes to motor vehicles by the majority of motorists. There is currently minimal commitment from Government about the investment required to achieve this.

It is a big leap of faith, not backed by hard evidence, to believe Heathrow's claim that a reduction in emissions from planes and cars will result in air pollution levels below EU limits by the time another runway is built. During its previous campaign for a third runway, Heathrow assured the public that EU limits would be met by 2015, when it expected a third runway to be operational.  In reality, limits could not be achieved even with just the existing two runways. 

Claims that air quality can be significantly improved should be questioned when flight numbers will be increased from nearly 480,000 a year to as many as 760,000.

There are also commitments in the Heathrow proposal about increasing the use of public transport yet it is still unclear how this would be achieved.  There is no doubt that there would be considerable cost involved in improving road and rail infrastructure to meet the additional burden of a third runway. It is uncertain how much this will cost or who will pay. The Airports Commission put the cost at £5-£6bn.  The DfT has scaled that down to around £3.5bn.  However TfL, who have close-quarters experience of meeting the needs of the travelling public, put the figure at £15-£18bn. Heathrow told the Environmental Audit Committee that it would contribute only £1.1bn. Other infrastructure projects historically run considerably over-budget. Heathrow cannot meet air quality limits and without sufficient investment in transport infrastructure has no chance of ever being able to meet them.

The Government needs to be challenged on this project which comes at a very high price to UK taxpayers, who will pay for road and rail upgrades. The money, up to seventeen billion pounds, could be spent on desperately needed infrastructure in other regions of the UK.

Test 4.  Benefits of expansion will be felt in every corner of the country, not just the South East of England, and that regional airports will be supported too.

Heathrow’s third runway plan was apparently chosen by the Government because it offered “the largest benefits to passengers and the wider economy, of up to £61billion over 60 years”. This figure alone is a threefold reduction from the original estimation of £147 - £211bn provided by the Airports Commission. However, this figure is a gross figure and the DfT also concludes that net benefits total £0.2 - £6.1bn over a 60-year period. It is not clear whether Heathrow’s promises to local communities in terms of mitigation, to the regions in terms of connectivity and to the country in terms jobs will remain the same given the reduction in economic benefit.

Moreover, the Further Review and Sensitivities Report makes clear that the claimed £6.1 bn benefit includes impacts outside the UK as well as the value to overseas travellers using Heathrow as a hub to pass through.  When the UK-only benefits were calculated, they estimated that a third runway would bring benefits of between £5.8 billion and £9.9 billion. This is feeble when they predicted that Gatwick expansion would be worth £8.9 billion to £10.3 billion to U.K. residents. Further, the report asserts that an overrun in Heathrow’s costs of just one per cent could be enough to negate the overall benefits of the scheme. By contrast the analysis found Gatwick, which would cost half as much, would still offer benefits if costs rose by 44 per cent.

It is vital that the UK makes full use of the capacity of all its airports and the Government should publish a national airports strategy that enables regional airports to develop their own unique identity and competitive advantage in addition to fulfilling a wider strategic role for UK plc. Such a strategy should include clear improvements in surface access to airports and form part of an integrated transport strategy for the country.

If the Government is serious about rebalancing the economy then direct flights to regional airports are vital to support economic growth. Indeed, in the CBI’s 2016 Unlocking Regional Growth report, businesses recognised the need to better link regions to international markets to increase and encourage export capabilities. It is clear that businesses want to fly directly to centres of trade and commerce without the need to transfer before reaching their destination.

The recent consultation on the draft National Policy Statement was been written with such a focus on Heathrow that it could not be applied to other airports in the South East let alone anywhere else in the UK. Whilst the Airports Commission process examined a range of options for expansion of runway capacity, at no stage has Government undertaken a comprehensive and strategy assessment of the totality of UK airport capacity. There is a significant need for a genuinely national integrated transport strategy to help address investment requirements and prioritise key schemes that deliver the greatest benefits, environmentally, socially and economically to the entire UK.

It is clear that Heathrow expansion does not meet Labour’s four tests – and it won’t meet them any time soon. In its manifesto, Labour should explore supporting alternative options for the issue of airport capacity in the UK.