Never before has the UK been threatened with so much airport expansion. But never before has the opposition been stronger. At virtually every airport in the country there is a protest group. And these local campaigners have forged links with national environmental and development organisations as well as with the burgeoning direct action movement.
Ten years ago things were very different. A self-confident aviation industry was growing apace as cheap flights mushroomed. New Labour came to power certain it could provide for the expansion the industry was calling for and which a globalised economy required.
The 2003 Air Transport White Paper reflected this buoyant mood. It set out to cater for a trebling in the number of passengers using UK airports by 2030. The Government argued this might require as many as five new runways plus ‘full use’ of the existing runways at virtually every airport in the country. This would entail the biggest single programme of airport expansion that this country would ever have seen.
New runways were proposed for Heathrow, Stansted, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and possibly Gatwick. And flights numbers were expected to grow dramatically at most of the smaller airports too – places like Southampton, Bournemouth, Liverpool, Aberdeen, even Exeter and Newquay.
But the fight back had begun. The umbrella group, AirportWatch, had been set up in 2000 to bring together the local campaign groups and the national organisations. It argued that demand should be managed and, over time, reduced.
The downsides of aviation are huge. It is the fastest-growing contributor to CO2 emissions in the UK. The World Development Movement has calculated that a third runway at Heathrow would be responsible for the same amount of CO2 in one year as the entire economy of Kenya. The incessant noise threatens to turn people’s lives upside down. At somewhere like Heathrow a plane can fly overhead every 90 seconds, sometimes right throughout the day.
The campaigners have also challenged, probably for the first time, the claims of the aviation industry and the Government that, if airports don’t expand, the economy will suffer dire consequences. The actual figures show that, since the onset of cheap flights, aviation’s contribution to the economy is negative rather than positive. There is a £17 billion annual deficit in air tourism (the difference between what Britons spend abroad and visitors spend in this country). When this is added to the £9 billion the Exchequer loses each year from the tax-breaks aviation receives (tax-free fuel and an exemption from VAT), the figure is greater than what aviation brings to the economy through its contribution to GDP and the tax it does pay..
What has emerged is a nationwide opposition movement, armed with the facts, media-savvy, bubbling with vitality, believing its time has come. With runaway climate change threatening, peak-oil fast-approaching and the global banking system in disarray, business-as-usual is not an option for the aviation industry.
Not that the industry accepts the new reality. It still seems to have a touching faith that new technology and continuing subsidies by national governments will see it through its current difficulties. Neither is likely. Even with cleaner aircraft, aviation, if it continues to grow as had been predicted, would still be the fastest-growing contributor to CO2 emissions. As for the tax-breaks, there are early moves within the EU to impose tax on aviation fuel.
Change is happening. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have ruled out the building of new runways in the South East, although both parties still seem to favour some expansion of regional airports. And there is a renewed interest in high-speed rail.
Fast, affordable rail services have the potential to provide a viable alternative to short-haul flights. 45% of flights within Europe are less than 500km in length – that’s about the distance from London to the Scottish border. The evidence from Europe shows that people tend to choose rail if the journey by train is no more than about 31/2 hours. A high-speed line to Scotland would bring Glasgow and Edinburgh within 3 hours of London.
High-speed rail, particularly if combined with an end to the tax-breaks aviation enjoys, would remove the need for expansion. An astonishing 58% of flights at Glasgow Airport are to or from one of the London airports. Even at Heathrow, the UK airport with most long-haul flights, the potential is significant. A study done in 2006 by the local campaign group, HACAN, revealed that 100,000 flights a year using Heathrow serve 12 destinations where there is or could easily be a viable rail alternative. They go to places like Paris, Brussels, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Paris, with 50 flights a day, is incredibly still the top destination from Heathrow.
Europe has shown what can be done. The air service between Paris and Brussels has ceased since the train journey was reduced to about an hour. Rail held only 22% of the combined Paris-Marseille air-rail market before TGV Mediterranean went into service (2001), but in four years that market share rose to 65% and in 2006 it was 69% and EasyJet abandoned its Paris-Marseille flights.
The question arises why the Labour Government continues to pursue its airport expansion policies. There are a number of reasons for this. New Labour is as close to the aviation industry as Eric Morecombe was to Ernie Wise. The organisation SpinWatch has revealed the extent of the revolving door. As an example, Tony Blair’s last spin doctor, Tom Kelly, now heads up BAA’s media operation. And Joe Irwin, former Head of Public Affairs at BAA, now works for Gordon Brown in 10 Downing Street.
There are two other reasons for Labour’s intransigence. Most importantly, it sees aviation as a critical tool for the success of globalisation to which it has sold its soul. And secondly, and partly I think as a cover for its addiction to globalised markets, it argues that ‘hard working British families’ have a right to fly abroad on holiday.
And so it is blinkered. Blinkered to rail as an alternative for foreign holidays. Blinkered to the amount of money that aviation is taking out of the economy. Blinkered to the increasing use of video-conferencing by big business. Blinkered to the reality that it is the rich world which must change its habits if there is to be any justice for the poor world. Climate change will impact first, and most acutely, on the poorest in the poor world, those least likely of any on earth ever to fly.
The opponents of airport expansion are not saying that people should stop flying. But we are saying to Government that the onus is on them to facilitate behavioural change. As long as flights remain as cheap as they are, easyJet and Ryanair will be as addictive as cheap gin was in Victorian times.
I think is has slowly dawned on this blinkered Government that its opponents are now going away and indeed are becoming stronger and more confident all the time. The movement the Government is facing is not a collection of NIMBYS worried about the price of their houses. It is local people concerned about the quality of their life. But it also encompasses major environmental organisations, such as Greenpeace, fighting the onset of climate change, as well as developmental NGOs like the World Development Movement concerned about global equity issues. And it embraces the direct action movement of Plane Stupid and the Climate Camp.
It has adopted the slogan: ‘Unity of Purpose; Diversity of Tactics’. Although there is some lobbying of politicians, it is generally an ‘outside track’ movement. It is typically about mass rallies, flash mobs and eye-catching direct action such as the appearance of Plane Stupid on the roof of the House of Commons in February. But it is based on what we believe to be sound arguments relevant to the needs of the 21st century.