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Theresa Villiers MP: We need to make Heathrow better not bigger

Villiers_theresa Last week David Wilshire MP made the case for expansion of Heathrow.  This week Theresa Villiers MP, Shadow Transport Secretary, outlines the official Conservative policy and its vision of high speed railways.

It is clear that we need a top class international airport for London and for the UK as a whole, both for business competitiveness and passenger convenience. Building a deeply controversial third runway at Heathrow with 222,000 extra flights is not the way to deliver that goal.

Instead, connecting Heathrow to a high speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel and a new line north to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is the best way to make Heathrow a much better airport.

Dramatically improving public transport access, the proposal I announced at the Conservative Party conference will allow people to get a train to UK and European destinations directly from the airport.

Even more importantly, it would provide a viable alternative to thousands of flights now clogging up Heathrow. Evidence from Europe clearly shows that high speed rail provides an attractive alternative to competing short haul flights. For example, Air France has stopped flying between Paris and Brussels. Instead they charter carriages on Thalys-run high speed trains. According to BAA figures, there were 63,200 flights in 2007 to destinations such as Manchester, Leeds, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam – destinations where it is realistic to expect high speed rail to replace air travel.

By freeing up thousands of landing slots, our plan would relieve overcrowding problems at Heathrow but without the environmental penalties that would come with building a third runway and the 222,000 extra flights that would involve.

And if we are to be credible as government-in-waiting, we have to take a responsible approach to balancing the competing concerns here. Aircraft noise from Heathrow already has a major impact on the quality of life of thousands of people. This would be intensified with the 46% increase in flights that would come with a third runway. Moreover, analysis by the World Health Organisation indicates that the Government’s criteria for assessing the annoyance caused by aircraft noise underestimate the gravity of the problem.

But the environmental concerns do not end with noise. Heathrow’s proximity to the M4 and the M25, two of the busiest roads in Europe, means the combined effect of aviation and road transport make pollution a serious problem around the airport, even at its current size. The health damage pollution causes to those suffering from respiratory diseases is clear and the Environment Agency has warned of the risk of “increased morbidity and mortality”  if a third runway goes ahead.

And of course giving the go ahead for the 222,000 extra flights would make it much harder to meet the nation’s targets for tackling climate change.

By contrast, our high speed rail proposal gives people a greener alternative to flying. Eurostar trains emit a tenth of the carbon of competing flights and the latest generation of high speed vehicles are greener still.

Our proposal is affordable and well within the bounds of ongoing capital spending levels on rail (and it is worth pointing out that Heathrow expansion is not a free option – the bill for the £13.3 billion approximate cost would end up with airlines and their passengers). Furthermore, within just a few years (and even after the current upgrade programme has been delivered) overcrowding is likely to have reached such crisis proportions on the existing rail line between London to Manchester that there would be huge pressure to build a new line anyway.

We should seize this opportunity to tackle two problems at once – relieving chronic overcrowding on our railways and making Heathrow a much better airport. A high speed rail link to the north could also generate huge economic benefits across the country, particularly in the midlands and the north.

It is true that high speed rail will take some years to deliver; but building a deeply controversial third runway is likely to take many years, with a protracted legal challenge under EU air quality rules a real possibility. And even the Government admit that flights would have to be capped on the new runway until 2030 anyway, acknowledging that there is no prospect, before that date, that technology will deliver planes that are clean and quiet enough to meet the environmental pre-conditions Labour have set.

In conclusion, I should emphasise that our strategy for improving Heathrow is not confined to the long term. There is much that can be done right now to improve customer service at the airport. For example, for years we have been calling for BAA’s monopoly over so much of the airport capacity in the south east to be broken up. Now the Competition Commission have backed our stance. We believe that allowing passengers to vote with their feet and choose between airports run by different operators will drive up service quality at all of London’s airports and make a big difference in tackling the travel misery that too many passengers experience.


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