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From The Socialist newspaper, 21 January 2009

Opposing the expansion of Heathrow

The government's decision to give the go ahead for a third runway at Heathrow has dominated headlines in London. The expansion will raise the number of Heathrow flights from 480,000 a year to 700,000 according to government figures.

Neil Cafferky

The big businesses backing the project are adamant that it is vital to the competitiveness of Heathrow, and to the economy of London and so to the UK as a whole. At present Heathrow operates at 99% capacity, meaning that the slightest difficulty can cause severe delays. In contrast European competitors operate at 75% capacity.

Also, New Labour, and some trade unions, have argued that expansion will generate much needed jobs, and that the government will enforce anti-pollution measures to lessen its environmental impact.

So do their arguments stack up? On closer examination the answer has to be a resounding no.

Wildly optimistic

Firstly, New Labour has refused to acknowledge that the economic downturn has made their projected figure of 700,000 extra flights by 2030 look wildly optimistic. Added to this, the evidence that increasing the number of flights will benefit the UK economy is weak. The majority of the increased flights will be connecting flights to other destinations meaning the amount of money actually spent in the UK will be 'no more than the price of a cup of coffee in the departure lounge' as a former head of British Airways put it.

As air travel is one of the most heavily subsidised forms of transport in Britain (eg domestic aviation does not pay any fuel duty or VAT), there would be minimal return for the UK taxpayer.

Many victims of Heathrow delays would welcome an end to them. However, they are as much a result of privatisation of the airport authority (and British Airways) as they are of lack of capacity.

The environmental evidence is even more damning. Aviation already accounts for 13% of overall UK climate change impact. By 2050, if expansion continues, it will account for half of the UK's 'carbon budget'. Added to this is the fact that aviation emissions have two to four times the impact in the upper atmosphere as emissions produced on the ground.

Also, the European Commission has warned that the UK will exceed recommended emissions of nitrogen dioxide in the area if the expansion goes ahead.

The prospect of greater air and noise pollution, not to mention the planned destruction of the village of Sipson, has ignited a storm of protest to the Heathrow proposals. The government is still acutely vulnerable to electoral and political pressure on the expansion, so it is far from a foregone conclusion.

A broad constellation of forces, including environmentalists, trade unionists, local residents, the Conservative Party and several rebel Labour MPs, will continue to oppose the project.

It would be wrong to single out air travel as the greatest obstacle to cutting carbon emissions, but measures such as giving workers longer holidays could allow people to take more leisurely and less polluting forms of transport.

However the reality is that capitalism cannot provide an integrated, properly planned transport system that is a vital component of any strategy to reduce carbon emissions. Under a socialist plan of production, air, sea, rail and road travel could be integrated, and sufficient investment put into non-polluting forms of travel to ensure a better and cleaner planet.

  • See the next issue of Socialism Today for a longer article by Neil on this issue.
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    In The Socialist 21 January 2009:

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