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Conservatives should be backing airport expansion, not opposing it

Babz_normile3 Babz Normile works in London and is a director of the new grassroots campaign Conservatives for International Travel, which will be holding a one-day conference in the New Year on the theme: “What would Brunel do?”

Whatever your views on the effect of aviation on the environment, attempts to increase capacity at Heathrow and Stansted airports, or alternative proposals for a new island airport in the Thames Estuary (the Marinair ‘Boris Island’ proposal), there can be no denying that air travel is currently the source of heated debate within the Conservative Party.

Conservatives for International Travel (c-fit) was recently established to give a voice to those grassroots Conservatives who believe international travel should be made as accessible as possible. C-fit is concerned that the anti-travel agenda of a vocal and financially well-supported minority within the party is leading to the creation of policies that could deny ordinary individuals and families well-earned holidays, and small businesses their ability to market and sell their goods and services abroad.

The recent contributions on this website of David Wilshire and shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers  – as well as the comments of MPs, PPCs and activists - have tended to focus on the issue of Heathrow expansion and the prospects for high speed rail. However, as with every policy discussion, let us not lose sight of the big picture.

Travel is good. Travel is right, travel works. Travel clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Travel, in all of its forms; travel for life, for money, for love, and for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind.

International travel is fundamentally a good thing. It allows people to see, visit and do things of which our grandparents could only have dreamed. It allows individuals to gain a wider appreciation of the world around them and the histories and cultures of other places and people. It facilitates the exchange of ideas, goods and services. It permits individuals to gain new insights and it inspires us technologically, artistically, socially and economically. It provides new markets for our businesses, large and small. Just as importantly, it also allows a hard working individual or family to “get away from it all”.

International travel is a positive force and we should not lose sight of its importance to social progression. It is right that governments allow people to travel as much as possible. In a globalised and highly competitive international economy, governments should make it their aim to facilitate their citizens’ right to travel, not to place obstacles in their path.

So what policies should the Conservative Party be pursuing in order to advance that principle? C-fit lays out the following clear objectives:

  1. To ensure that infrastructure plays as little role as possible in limiting access to travel;
  2. To ensure that government taxes actively encourage travel, not discourage it;
  3. To ensure that the views and concerns of those adversely affected by air traffic, such as residents in proximity to airports, are taken into account in government policy whilst at all times remaining mindful of the wider benefits international air travel gives to the national population; and
  4. To ensure that governments internationally actively support the development of new aviation and aerospace technology, including innovations to reduce aircraft noise and the direct environmental impact of aviation.

Meeting Consumer Demand for More Travel
Turning attention to the basic facts of what the future demand for air travel will be, c-fit contends that the Government should do all it can to ensure that demand for international travel is met. Clearly this puts immense pressure on the current system. In short, as things stand, by 2030, not in 2030, people will from this country, and people visiting this country, will be paying significantly more for their flights, purely as a result of the government not providing a sufficient response to the well-evidenced expectations of increased demand.

According to a Populus/Flying Matters poll, 48% of people said they intended to take a foreign holiday in 2008 (87% of those by air), and, crucially, 29% of people in socio-economic categories D and E intend doing so - with 46% of people in category C2 (the ‘swing voters’) intending taking a holiday. The impact on lower income and ordinary hard-working households in marginal constituencies could be tremendous. 46% of the population have close friends and family living abroad, meaning that aviation taxes could hurt the same family ties that Conservatives have so regularly campaigned to protect.

Without getting overly technical, Department for Transport figures show that for supply to meet demand by 2030, the UK needs to cater for 500,000,000 passengers per annum (500 mppa). It currently caters for around 180 mppa and without any more runways it will cater for around 431 mppa by 2030. In this context, an expansion of air capacity seems to be relatively marginal in terms of impact, until you consider that over two thirds of the extra capacity is being contributed from airports outside London. Yet it is the capital that commands the greatest demand for additional capacity.

There is no question of future demand; the only question is of how that demand is going to be met and how quickly we can meet it, before holidaymakers and businessmen are taxed out of the air. So how can a Conservative government of the future achieve an extra 70 mppa by 2030 (almost entirely in the South East) and continue to allow for growth beyond that? Certainly not by blocking plans to expand airports…

Heathrow, Crossrail and High Speed Rail have inter-dependent relationships
C-fit contends that failure to expand Heathrow could jeopardise Crossrail. The effects of protracted downturn combined with fresh uncertainty over future Heathrow growth could place at risk the private investment available to contribute to Crossrail by our suddenly not-so-flush City corporations and house builders. Without future Heathrow growth the projections of long-term return on investment for all private sector contributors suddenly becomes less attractive. This could in turn force the Treasury to face a Crossrail bill much nearer to 100% - threatening the project’s entire viability to even the most profligate Chancellor.

Without Crossrail, the high speed rail link itself starts to become a distant pipe dream due to its own reliance on Crossrail to create a high speed fully-integrated rail network. C-fit therefore sees opposition to Heathrow expansion as a weakening the long-term case for Crossrail and High Speed Rail.

High Speed Rail is not an alternative to Heathrow Expansion
Theresa Villiers’ High Speed Rail proposal is a noble ambition, and an endeavour of which Brunel himself would be proud. However I fear for its practical viability. To begin with, its 2027 timeline is a cause for concern, especially in light of its proposed termination point less than half way up the country at Leeds rather than, say, Edinburgh. Add to that the inevitable red tape and delays and it may drag on even longer.

Then there is the matter of cost versus return. If I fly from Heathrow to Leeds-Bradford on 1st December, returning the next day, it will cost me £101.75 (according to Regardless of the time it will take me, is there any realistic prospect that High Speed Rail will cost any less (barring the prospect of government swamping the aviation industry with a heavy round of fresh taxes)? If we take £100 as the cost of a journey to Leeds and £20bn as the cost of building the line, it would take no less than the entire population of Leeds making that journey four times a year, every year for 100 years, just to break even financially. Then take into account the inevitable cost over-runs, listed building issues, legalities around compulsory purchase orders and mass protests that will meet the high speed rail line, and the costs and timescales just grow and grow until, like the twice-culled Crossrail, project viability becomes severely threatened.

The options before us are quite clear. We can willingly damage our own businesses and inward investment, tourism in and out of the UK and, as a result, potential for growth in a competing world, or we’ll have to bite a few bullets and make sure that the UK is not left behind. This requires making the right choice for travel policy: building airport capacity.

The case for Marinair
The Marinair plan for an island airport off the Thames Estuary would cater for 120 mppa, it can be built in stages, and it can be expanded exponentially. It is this latter point that should occupy our attention. Building airport capacity with one eye on future further growth is something onshore airports in the UK cannot easily do but Marinair can. Dallas Fort Worth Airport provides us with an international precedent. It presently has five terminals but has been built with the foresight and potential to expand up to 13 terminals. We could learn much from this approach.

More to the point, given that the costs of building offshore are obviously going to be higher we certainly do not want to make the Hong Kong mistake of underestimating future demand. To now extend Hong Kong’s offshore airport, even on a small scale, will cost nearly as much as the entire airport when it was first built in the 1990s.

Besides its ability to cater for further growth, another positive of the Marinair proposal is that it would only seriously inconvenience those troubled by the works traffic during the period of construction. The population affected by the daily air traffic will be nothing comparable to Heathrow or Gatwick.

However, another problem we must face as a country is our embarrassing track record when it comes to just getting on and building things. Even with the new Planning Act, which will hopefully add some speed to nationally important projects, the UK is pitifully slow at completing major infrastructure work on time and on budget. It took 6 years to build the new island airport at Hong Kong. Assuming we are vaguely competent as a country, the new airport could be built in time for the 2016 Olympic athletes to leave for the games from the new airport with the entire project costing less than £20bn.

The Marinair plan is not far off being the official policy of the Boris Mayoralty, but would he dare to say it would be completed half way through his second term? Of course not. Even though a new airport would help to absorb most of the expected increase in demand in the UK, and enable us to cater for huge amounts of growth beyond that, we can expect to see countless objections from seagull lovers and EU bureaucrats. We’ll then get the obligatory cross-party parliamentary inquiry leading to yet more delays, followed by months and months of every lobbyist in the UK wrestling in on the matter.

If the Government were to pull its finger out and stop us being a laughing stock when it comes to building major infrastructure by building Marinair by 2016, that does not take away the immediate need to expand elsewhere too. At least one of the three main London airports will also need to be expanded, in addition to Luton and City being taken up to full capacity. Rail and transport links to all the airports will also need to be overhauled, as will off-site check-in arrangements.

Of these expansions, Stansted is the easiest to build, requiring fewer compulsory purchase orders and less damage to listed buildings than either of the other two. It saddens me therefore that the Conservative Party has resolutely ruled out expansion at Stansted to the extent of warning contractors that their contracts may not be honoured. The consequences of such a rash action will bear upon all travel consumers in the guise of unnecessarily inflated air travel costs to and from the UK.

Indeed, the party’s anti-aviation pronouncements on Heathrow and Stansted, and hints of support for greater levels of aviation tax, are yet more puzzling in light of evidence of where the target electorate are positioned on these issues. Polling by Crosby|Textor|Pepper/Flying Matters of marginal seats revealed that 92% of voters believe the Government should be working with, rather than against, the aviation industry on fuel surcharges and aviation taxes.

There seems to be a serious deficit in the party’s logic on the entire issue of future travel at present: it is placing itself against the current of consumer demand, a dangerous place for any political party to be.

C-fit believes the current policies of the Conservative Party on international travel are in danger of leaving the country at odds with the global trend of increased air travel. To fiscally dissuade people from travel through the tax system, to resist expert calls for future-proofed long term investment in air capacity, and to position ourselves in opposition to the travelling aspirations of the average man and woman, are not in the nature or the best instincts of the Conservative Party.

C-fit exists to remind the party of the benefits derived from international travel, to highlight the aspirations of the ordinary person to travel and to pinpoint options and possible solutions to the forthcoming aviation “capacity crunch”. We hope we can amass the crucial numbers in support needed to force a policy rethink from the party.


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