Soley Fights Back Over Airport Expansion

Former MP explains the role of Future Heathrow

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Future Heathrow has been founded by trade unions, business groups, airlines and other interested parties who have a shared interest in modernising Heathrow.

It is now more than a year since the government set out its policies for the future of air transport. In that White Paper the Government supports a third runway at Heathrow, subject to meeting the stringent environmental conditions. The timing is subject to studies now well underway on compliance with air quality limits. Work is also underway to consider the scope for greater utilisation of the existing runways.

Our aim is to support the implementation of government policy and to convince as many people as possible that Heathrow is a uniquely valuable asset to the UK and to London. It is also critically important to the economic prosperity of west London and the Thames Valley region.

In the next 18 months there will be important public consultations and critical decisions made to follow through government’s policy for Heathrow.

We seek to convince people that it is possible to develop Heathrow in a way that allows it to retain its premier position and in a manner that is sensitive to environmental issues and the needs of the local population.

There are many different audiences to address in this campaign and many competing interests. In everything we say and do we will aim to address problems that arise from further development of the airport in a positive and constructive manner.

But we will also seek to advise and warn people that the one impossible option is the maintenance of the status quo. Heathrow can either decline or develop. It cannot stay as it is.

My concern about the future of Heathrow has been growing as the nature of the world economy changes. Modern hub airports are like high tech cities. They generate enormous wealth for the region in which they are located. Visit any modern airport in Europe or elsewhere and you will see very quickly just how far Heathrow has fallen behind.

Globalisation is changing the way the world’s economy works. The cities in China, India and the Far East are developing in a way that will leave London and other European cities behind both economically and technologically unless we have a sustainable modernisation programme.

London is the key economic centre for Europe and can retain its economic predominance but only if it has the infrastructure to support that position. Heathrow is the international corner stone of that infrastructure.

Heathrow is on the Western edge of one of the largest and most prosperous concentrations of population in Europe. The South East corner of the UK contains some 20 million people and includes not only the key financial and business centre of London but also the science centres of Cambridge, Oxford and Milton Keynes. Its economic and scientific base is sufficient to match the growing centres in Asia.

So is Heathrow really in decline or is it just something that could happen in the future? I am afraid decline has been happening for a few years now and that is what gave me my wake up call and what I hope will be a wake up call for others.

In 1990 Heathrow was serving more destinations in Europe than any other airport except Frankfurt. In 2004 we were overtaken by Amsterdam, Paris, and Munich. Without a third short runway to serve regional destinations Madrid, Rome, and Milan will overtake us by 2015. The number of regional cities in the UK served by Heathrow is now significantly less then those British regional cities served by Paris and Amsterdam. In other words for some of the major British cities it is easier to travel to and from Amsterdam and Paris then it is to travel to and from London. Amsterdam serves 21 regional British cities; Paris serves 17. Heathrow serves 9. In 1990 it served 21. It is hard to argue that there isn’t a very real threat to Heathrow.

The argument for the third runway is that Heathrow could again offer easy transfer between long haul flights and the regions of Britain and Europe. The integration of these flights into a network means that the range of destinations served at Heathrow can be increased – which attracts business to locate and invest in London and the Thames Valley region.

This brings us to the heart of the problem about the long term danger of decline. Business travellers and tourists are less likely to go to an airport which does not have the ability to take them on to a regional destination.

Other airports can now market better onward links than can be offered from Heathrow and will therefore increase their competitive advantage over Heathrow.

The development of high speed rail links throughout Europe offer another major competitive advantage to the continental airports which are in a better geographical position to exploit it. Most of the big companies located between Reading and London are there because of Heathrow. If Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam offer better facilities then Heathrow (and they do) those businesses will eventually move. If they go, Heathrow will cease to be the premier hub airport for North West Europe.

I have on occasions drawn an analogy between Heathrow and the London docks. The analogy is not exact. No analogy is. But as an east Londoner by birth and upbringing I remember how we all thought the docks would never close.

We scorned the idea that shipping would move to Felixstowe or Rotterdam when it could go to the centre of London. People who claimed otherwise were simply scaremongers. Then the docks declined to their present very limited size. Unemployment in east London went through the roof and the local economy collapsed. East London took years to recover. There are about 70,000 people employed at Heathrow and another 140,000 indirectly dependent on the work coming from Heathrow. That is not very different from the total number of employees in the whole of the British coal and steel industry prior to its collapse in the 1980’s.

We have a duty to address the concerns of local residents about the consequences of expansion and I hope and expect to do so. But resident’s economic welfare is also linked to Heathrow and no one will thank us if by ducking the difficult decisions now we store up even greater problems for the future. I do not want to see west London relive the experiences of east London Future Heathrow intends to state the positive case for the modernisation and development of Heathrow.

We will make clear the serious problems that would arise if Heathrow went into long term decline.

We will work to create greater understanding of the challenges posed to Heathrow by its major competitors.

We will explain why it is that maintaining the status quo at Heathrow is not a viable option.

These are the reasons why Future Heathrow has been formed with the full involvement of trade unions, business, airlines and others. We believe that for the sake of Britain, for the sake of London and for the sake of the region around Heathrow we cannot afford to fail.

Clive Soley - Campaign Director, Future Heathrow

May 27, 2005