Prior to the 2010 general election in Britain, and recognizing that Heathrow airport expansion plans were unpopular with voters, Conservative Party leader David Cameron made his ‘no third runway’ promise (‘No ifs, no buts, no third runway’ were his exact words).
The Conservative Party won the election and formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. In 2012 the coalition created the Airports Commission, a supposedly ‘independent’ body, to report on how Britain could maintain its status as Europe’s most important aviation hub.
In July 2015, the Commission recommended a third runway at Heathrow in a report that was the culmination of 3 years’ work and £20 million ($31 million) of public money.
The result was as expected: a stitch-up. Far from being an ‘independent’ body, the Airports Commission had a Chair, Sir Howard Davies, with multiple conflicts of interest.
The first of these is that Davies was a board member of Prudential, a life insurance and financial services company, throughout the time he chaired the Commission. Prudential spent £300 million ($369 million) buying up properties around the airport in the months before the Commission’s report came out.
Prudential, through its asset management business M&G, already owns Hilton Hotel at Terminal 5 and has planning permission to build a large hotel on land near the proposed site of the third runway.
Davies did not declare his financial interest in Prudential, although he has shares in the company and pocketed more than £370,000 ($578,000) in fees from them while chairing the Commission.
Secondly, immediately before becoming Chair of the Commission, Davies was an adviser to the Singapore-based company GIC Private – which owned an 11.2% stake in Heathrow Airport Holdings in 2014.
Thirdly, in February 2015 Davies was appointed Chair of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), and is expected to take up the post in September. Both Heathrow and Gatwick airports are major clients of RBS.
Ultimately, who is to benefit from the expansion? It is estimated that only 5% of people globally have ever flown, while in Britain, 15% of people take 70% of all flights. Flying is therefore a privileged mode of transport and frequent flying is an elitist activity.
The Heathrow expansion is thus more likely to cater to rich frequent flyers taking leisure flights, to the detriment of the planet and local communities around Heathrow, which are affected by pollution caused both by the planes and by the intense traffic to and from the airport.
Aviation also contributes to air and noise pollution, with serious health impacts for communities living next to airports and those under the flight path. Britain already has illegal levels of air pollution and those in London are worst affected, with poor air quality estimated to kill almost 10,000 prematurely each year in London alone.
In addition, the noise generated by planes is linked to stroke, coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease.
Climate science is clear: we need deep cuts from existing levels of greenhouse gas emissions to maintain a stable, safe climate. Not only is the government not doing that, it’s actually promoting mega-infrastructure projects like expanding airport capacity, which will make it virtually impossible to meet the (inadequate) climate change targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008.
Commenting on the Heathrow expansion, James Lees, from the Aviation Environment Federation, a leading NGO on aviation and the environment, states:
‘There is a recommended limit to the level of CO2 emissions from aviation that can be allowed in 2050 so that the UK as a whole can stand a chance of meeting its national climate change commitments. Unfortunately, the emissions from an expanded Heathrow, on top of those from other airports, will far exceed that limit according to the Airports Commission.’
He works out that in order to manage CO2 emissions and demand, prices will have to go up ‘around £500 for a return flight to New York’, spelling ‘an end to the ‘democratization of air travel’.
So, to the extent that the Airport Commission deals with climate, it’s relying on the fact that carbon pricing will be so high that only the rich will be able to afford to fly!
In July 2015, I was part of a group from direct action network Plane Stupid that occupied part of the northern runway at Heathrow Airport. We erected a tripod and fencing, and locked ourselves onto it. Our intention was to stay there as long as possible. In doing so, we stopped some flights and greenhouse gas emissions.
It has long been obvious that the democratic process has failed to deal with the climate crisis.
In these circumstances, direct action against unnecessary, fossil-fuel-intensive operations such as an expansion at Heathrow Airport is justifiable. In fact, given what’s known about the state of our fragile planet – our only home – taking action, where we can, is a duty that we owe to ourselves and to our children.
We must insist that our health and the viable future of the planet come before the greed and the profits of those in the industry and their friends in government.
The Plane Stupid activists involved in the Heathrow action had their first court hearing on 19 August at Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court. All plead not guilty to the charges of aggravated trespass and being in a restricted area of the airport without permission or reasonable excuse. The trial is scheduled for 18-29 January 2016.
For more information about Plane Stupid see: www.planestupid.com