Theresa Villiers is shadow transport secretary and argues here that there is no convincing evidence that a third runway at Heathrow would benefit the wider business community in Britain, and that the expansion plans do not have the overwhelming support of the business community.
The Government’s flawed case for a third runway has been attacked from many angles but yesterday’s open letter from an independent group of highly influential business figures deals a fresh blow to a key element of Labour’s argument – their misleading claim that their plans have the overwhelming support of the business community.
The group includes senior businessmen from the City, the media, and high street retail, along with a former adviser to the Labour leadership. Furthermore, this heavyweight list represents just a fraction of those in the commercial world who oppose Runway Three, with many more reluctant to make their views known publicly because they work with or for companies who supply services to the airport or aviation sectors.
What Russell Chambers and his co-signatories on the letter realise is that there is no convincing evidence that a third runway would benefit the wider business community in the UK. A particularly telling point they highlight is that there is no guarantee that construction of a third runway would ensure Heathrow serves a wider range of international and domestic destinations. The expansion of flight numbers permitted with the opening of Terminal Five yielded no such result, with the extra capacity swallowed up by more intensive use of popular and already well-served routes.
Furthermore, simplistic comparisons between the number of runways at Heathrow and its European competitors ignore the reality of London’s system of five busy airports which together offer a wider choice of flights and destinations than either Charles De Gaulle, or Schipol.
And the question the business community also needs to consider is, whatever the alleged benefits, if a third runway risks serious damage to the quality of life of millions of people who make or buy your products or services, is this too high a price to pay?
This mirrors some of the questions the Conservative Party asked itself when considering this issue. Of course we value the role the aviation industry plays in supporting our economy, creating jobs and in enabling people to travel the world. But you cannot blindly make a decision because it helps one sector, while damaging a whole raft of others. We cannot and should not ignore the fact that a new runway would increase air pollution around the airport which is already at dangerous levels and that it would worsen an already serious problem with aircraft noise from Heathrow which is now a big issue in areas as far apart as Windsor and Greenwich.
Labour are on the wrong side of the argument on Heathrow. Within the space of a few weeks, they agreed first to an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions and then to a new runway which would add an extra 222,000 flights a year at just one airport and which many believe would make Heathrow the largest single source of CO2 in the UK. Moreover, in reaching their decision, Labour applied criteria on environmental protection based on emissions figures for a fantasy plane which does not even exist and which no major manufacturer has plans to produce.
At the start of this year, Gordon Brown had the chance to say no to a third runway and, in so doing, to make a historic choice – to demonstrate that the political class had finally woken up to the urgency of climate change. He failed that test.
By contrast, David Cameron took a brave decision when he came out against a third runway. The intervening months have shown the Conservatives playing a leading part in an ever-widening coalition of opposition parties, environmentalists, trade unions, local authorities, community and campaign groups, charities and mass membership organisations such as the RSPB, the WWF and the National Trust. Now the business community is beginning to make itself heard as well in the growing chorus of those demanding that Labour think again on Heathrow and scrap their plans for a third runway.