The Airport Expansion debate continues….

In an interview on BBC Surrey with Kelly Marie-Blundell ( Lib Dem prospective candidate for Guildford) discussed opposition to Heathrow and Gatwick expansion. It did have a degree of nimbyism about it in regards to appeasing the people of Surrey who obviously and understandably suffer as individuals from noise pollution and surface congestion from having Gatwick in their geographic proximity. I queried on Twitter about it afterwards where she talked of favouring any additional airport capacity to be in the North or Midlands thus removing some of the London and South East superiority that acts as a barrier to anyone north of Watford. I broadly agree on Heathrow and am in favour of increased airport
capacity in the North and/or Midlands however I do (as does research) see huge economic benefits in hub airports and believe Gatwick has put forward a good proposal for its expansion that offers real benefits.

I’m sad to see in the Lib Dems pre-manifesto that they are opposing expansion at Heathrow/Gatwick and Stansted and also pledging that any new runways will be offset by removing other runways. In the same part of the pre-manifesto document there are plans to improve railway infrastructure, roll out faster broadband and even commitment to reduce road congestion from new infrastructure. It is disappointing then that the aviation industry gets nothing despite the many benefits it offers. Airport infrastructure plays such an important part in generating trade even in these days of superior ICT used by business. It is vital that the SouthEast (for the UK economy as a whole) does increase its airport capacity so as not to lose out to other centres around the World. I have read the Davies reports for the Airport Commission and studied the plans submitted by Heathrow and Gatwick. I don’t see any benefit in crazy ideas like Boris Airport in the Thames but sensible expansion of what we have to increase capacity should be part of the UK’s future infrastructure improvement plans. Bear in mind that we haven’t really expanded our runway capacity in recent decades. I’m not in any way suggesting we go back to predict and provide but rather acknowledge that after years of no expansion now is the right time. (Note with the exception of the new runway at Manchester (in the North I should add) most airport expansion has been terminals not runways such as Heathrow T5). There were many suggested options in the 2003 white paper the Future of Air Transport by the DfT but 11 years later very little progress has been made. This isn’t going to go away.

In terms of the environment we all understand and are concerned with the impact air travel has on the planet. However I believe the future has to be improving the environmental credentials of air travel of which we are seeing improvements and advances in research all the time. All that considered I would be broadly supportive of the curbing of some domestic flights and promoting alternatives such as rail. I’m no frequent flyer and have travelled more miles by rail in Europe then by air so are definitely not on the side of the Airport per se. Although not competing on travel time I feel the Channel Tunnel is a piece of infrastructure that does not reap all the benefits it could, with better integration and marketing there is no reason why a greater number of European destinations could not be within easy reach by
train taking pressure of short haul flights. A view not shared by the likes of the Greenpeace gaffer who prefers to fly Brussels to Amsterdam despite an hourly train service operating with journey times comparable to air when taking into account check in and security time at the airport. However judging by a piece in yesterday’s Guardian the future of Europe’s international sleepers is hanging in the balance with planned cuts which will just push more people to flights and make airport capacity an even more pressing issue when the alternatives don’t exist. I’m more impressed with my fellow Lib Dem members whom when asked how they were getting to next months Glasgow conference the vast majority are taking the train. Although quite worryingly one member was flying from Birmingham to Glasgow despite Brum being well placed for direct trains to Scotland’s second city.

Despite being a champion of the train I do see the benefits of air travel and hub airports act as a one stop shop offering real benefits over lots of regional airports, not to mention as mini-cities create so much local employment. Heathrow is bursting at the seems, Gatwick is only working at marginally under capacity. Stansted and Luton are good at what they do with low cost budget carriers, holidaymakers and short haul destinations but the fact is that there is a need for increased airport capacity. We can’t just close our doors and say no more flights. Welcoming business to the UK is key to growing the economy not to mention the costs to the economy of the meltdowns that regularly occur at our airports from the slightest incident because we are so close to capacity. If we don’t don’t improve our airport capacity then other countries that do will reap what could be our benefits.

P

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