As a member of parliament I am often faced with difficult choices and this is especially true for today’s debate on the National Policy Statement on Airports.
A third runway at Heathrow raises very challenging economic, environmental and ethical considerations. I am glad we in the Labour Party are having a free vote – I think that is the right decision. Here I set out why, after reviewing the evidence and consulting constituents and stakeholders, I have decided to vote for a third runway. My reasons are economic, environmental, ethical and, to a lesser extent, engineering, and driven by the long term interests of my constituents.
The UK is the most regionally unequal developed economy in the OECD. Investment, opportunity and infrastructure are focused in the south. I know from bitter experience how difficult it can be to convince business people that the North is not ‘inaccessible’. A third runway at Heathrow would open more routes to and from Newcastle. In addition it is estimated to create up to 180,000 new jobs across the country, unlocking growth and investment. Heathrow have also made significant commitments to supporting small businesses into their supply chain across the whole of the UK .
I am aware some of these benefits are disputed and have discussed this with Newcastle Airport as well as with the Secretary of State and others. It is quite right to say that domestic routes depend on airlines, pricing and passenger demand and that economic modelling over long time periods is difficult. But Parliament can and will hold Heathrow and the Government to their commitments. I am also somewhat suspect of those who have shown no interest whatsoever in regional economic inequality and who are now saying this is the reason to vote against Heathrow. I give far more credence to the evidence of those whose long term interests are aligned with the prosperity of the North East – and as well as Newcastle Airport, the North East Chambers of Commerce, the FSB and CBI, the LEP and the trade unions are all supporters of the expansion of Heathrow.
I do not want economic prosperity in the North at the cost of lives in the South. It is not acceptable that people’s health should be put at risk by an expanded airport. But today’s vote is not a blank cheque for expansion regardless of air quality – it is instead the provisory ‘green light’ for a long term infrastructure project. Over that time Parliament can ensure Heathrow meets air quality standards. Thanks to European Union regulations we have robust legal rights to good air quality and, from my consultations with aviation experts, the rate of technological improvement is such as means these standards can be met. Heathrow has committed to only releasing new capacity if it can be delivered in accordance with the UK’s legal air quality obligations and by enshrining that commitment in law we can set a direction for the global aviation industry – it must operate within the highest air quality standards.
There are those who argue that regardless of any risk assessment, expanding aviation at this point is unethical. I recognise and respect those who are therefore against aviation in principle. But I believe it should and must be possible to deliver an expanded Heathrow and still meet our Paris Climate Change commitments. The fact that this Tory Government is not doing enough in this area should not be used as an excuse. Heathrow can do this, its on-airport NO2 emissions have reduced by 23% since 1995, despite annual passenger numbers growing from 54 million to 78 million per year in that time period.
I also believe that we must be able to address climate change whilst supporting increased aviation – and technology and standards will enable us to do so. It is important both economically and in terms of humanity’s common understanding and shared future, that people can travel and meet other people and cultures – it helps counterbalance the ‘othering’ of strangers we see so much in social media. Whilst some may think that we have all travelled enough, and fly to environmental summits to explain why, there are those in Africa, India, China and other developing economies who believe they have something of value to say, and want to travel to have their voice heard or engage with the rest of the world. Aviation as a sector will grow, and it can grow sustainably. I want Newcastle to be part of that.
I also have a number of engineering concerns. Heathrow runs at 98% capacity on its two runways, far higher than any other airport. As an Engineer I find that concerning, although I recognise that Heathrow’s safety standards are second to none.
Finally I find the argument that the future is point to point air travel difficult to accept. Having designed networks for twenty years, albeit in telecoms as opposed to aviation, the idea that increasing point to point connections can compete with hub and spoke networks is simply not credible. We are stronger collectively when we come together and we are also more economically and environmentally efficient. I believe in network effects, I have seen them all my professional life.
These four factors have many dimensions and the decision is complex. I have also talked to and received messages from constituents, both for and against a third runway. I recognise that some of my constituents, particularly those most concerned about climate change and the environment, will be disappointed by the decision I have taken. I hope they will at least recognise it was taken after profound reflection and on the basis of the evidence I have seen.