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The airports battle

December 1, 2003 12:00 AM
By Alan Dean in Challenge

Alan Dean reports from the front line in Stansted

The Liberal Democrats at their September 2002 conference said: No more airport runways in the south-east without charging aviation for the damage to the environment, and without taking other measures to manage demand for growth in air travel.

Earlier, a major political debate had been stirred up in July 2002 when the Government published its consultation on the future of UK aviation.

Yet those Liberal Democrats who live near Stansted Airport were implored "Don't make it political!" Not to be deterred, they threw themselves into the fight against more runways as soon as the Department for Transport said there could be up to three more tarmac strips in the rural district in northwest Essex known as Uttlesford. Those of a more conservative viewpoint called Lib Dem campaigning party political but eventually they came round to accepting that all parties had to campaign together against a common threat.

So why shouldn't the British people fly where they want whenever they want and as often as they want, provided Mr Ryan will transport them for £5 a trip? What right have NIMBYs - such as the author of this article - to stand in the way of individual freedom? Why should the aviation business pay the cost of its local and global damage through environmental charges? After all, that will put up the airfares!

It is claimed that Mr Ryan has emancipated the least well off so that flying is no longer a middle and upper class pastime. Everyone can now get to his or her second home in the south of France or Tuscany. At least, those were the arguments put forward by the industry lobby group Freedom to Fly at the 2002 Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton.

Well, reality is of course somewhat different. Almost nine out of every ten passengers using Stansted come from social groups A, B and C1. The average passenger using Stansted earns £53,000 and enjoys weekend booze binges abroad, according to a MORI poll. Less fortunate groups can't afford second homes overseas or long weekends in hotels in Florence.

In reality, the absence of fair charging or taxation on aviation means that once again the taxes of the poor are subsidising the better off because those of us who fly don't pay our way. More people fly out of the UK than fly in to visit, so there is a major balance of payments deficit of some £12 billion annually resulting from air travel. The economic argument for more runways in the southeast falls apart under scrutiny.

And all that is before we start to talk about the environment. Is there a case for greening the earth by more and more aeroplanes flying around it? One suspects that Tony Blair might have an affirmative answer. The rest of us know that aviation is the most polluting form of mass transport that exists. Passenger-kilometres flown from UK airports grew from 125 billion in 1990 to 260 billion in 2010. The UK Government predicts annual growth between 3.6% and 4.9%. Without restrictions, UK airports would be carrying one billion passengers a year by 2050.

The UK's commitment to greenhouse gas reductions under the 1997 Kyoto Agreement is by 5.2% of 1990 levels by 2012. However, international aviation was - extraordinarily - excluded from the agreement, though domestic aviation is included. Predicted growth in air travel will either prevent the UK meeting its climate change obligations or will force other industries to make additional reductions in their own emissions of CO2.

The Department for Transport (DfT) doesn't seem to take its environmental lead from Defra. All indications are that the DfT is a law unto itself and that it is too close to the aviation industry for comfort. The commercial interests of BAA and the carrying companies should not be allowed to override those of the global environment and those who live near its airports. Yet putting commercial interests before everything else would be confirmed as the way the Labour Government thinks if it gives the green light to major runway expansion at Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted, all of which are owned by BAA.

In a joint publication by the Department for Transport and HM Treasury, Aviation and the Environment: Using Economic Instruments the Government talks about "an environmental framework to ensure the long-term developments of aviation in the UK is sustainable". There are some early indications that the UK Government is starting to toy with environmental charges, say based on CO2 and other pollutant emissions, but it is unlikely that the tariff will be set high enough to be realistic to suppress demand. It needs to address the assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that aviation's global contribution to climate change in 1992 was 3.5% of the global total from all activities. Its contribution to climate change is growing. By 2050 emissions will increase eleven fold on an unlimited growth scenario.

The same paper questions whether the external costs of the industry have been adequately assessed in monetary terms. It then goes on to suggest that if these costs can be assessed and then paid that this will be sufficient to allow growth to continue.

There is no doubt that the industry's thinking has moved on since the 2002 Brighton conference, when the Lib Dems agreed a policy not to allow further capacity until these big issues had been evaluated and addressed. This year the same people are not playing the class war arguments mentioned above. They are also starting to accept that air transport has to pay its external (including environmental) costs.

It is difficult to put a monetary value on the negative impact of air transport, but that does not mean they should not be evaluated rigorously. It is not good enough just to compare relative costs between different airports and then expand where the impact it assessed lowest. Will the government and industry together assess the costs in a way that is too low to have any effect on demand? They want to buy themselves out of embarrassment and carry on polluting us with noise, CO2, NO2, other noxious gases and particulates (PM10), surface transport congestion with impunity. Plant a few more trees and no one will notice?

The Chicago Convention prevents the imposition of tax on aviation fuel for international travel by national governments. Although LibDem policy calls for a tax on aviation fuel as a form of price regulator of demand, there may be more scope for imposing tax or emissions charging related to landings, takeoffs and distance travelled, rather than a tax on litres of fuel.

The EU has made some progress in defining a European regime for charging and controlling aviation pollution. A report from the Committee on Regional Policy, Transport and Tourism - Air Transport and the Environment - has already been approved by the Parliament and MEPs are waiting for the Commission to come forward with proposals. However, these seem to be stuck in the Transport Directorate, although firmly backed by the Environment Directorate and its progressive Commissioner, Margot Wallström of Sweden.

The crux of the debate in the past 16 months has been whether forecast demand should be met or whether demand management in aviation is preferable. The DfT's position has been that it is not government's role to restrict what they claim will be the public's continuing upward demand to fly. But if it is good for roads, especially in London where congestion charging has been shown to be successful, why not in the air?

The campaign at Stansted has concentrated first on the wider impacts at all airports and has avoided the NIMBY approach "shove it elsewhere". There has been close working with local authorities and campaigners around Gatwick, Heathrow, Cliffe in Kent, and many other airport locations to challenge the underlying assumptions in favour of unconstrained demand extrapolated from historical trends.

We all need to be NIABYs - not in anyone's backyard.

The DfT has found this pincer movement very uncomfortable. They have been unable to play divide and rule.

Of course, there are local impacts that are unacceptable to the people who live around Stansted.

Three percent of all the nation's listed buildings are in Essex, and a third of Essex's listed buildings are in Uttlesford. Up to 30 would be lost if extra runways were permitted. Immediately to the south of the airport lies Hatfield Forest; a mediaeval former royal hunting forest that is already said by some observers to be suffering aircraft-related damage in addition to that caused when a 747 crashed and disintegrated on the edge of the forest four years ago.

The residents around Stansted voted in a referendum in the autumn of 2002 against extra runways at the local airport. They did not say "stick them at ……instead". 89% voted against on a 69% turnout. According to the Electoral Reform Society, that is an exceptional vote for any ballot, and shows the strength of feeling against the potential local and global damage that would be caused.

Surface access constraints are a major issue. There may be attempts to improve rail access to Stansted, but why not improve the UK's high-speed rail network to Europe to Stansted and beyond to provide an alternative to some air travel?

Calculations have shown there is enough existing runway capacity in the southeast to last at least until 2015. There is no rush to go ahead with new runways. The Government would be well advised to take a precautionary approach until its emerging ideas on charging for environmental damage have been developed, imposed and have taken effect to reduce demand for air travel.

This article began with a reference to avoiding party politics in the debate. Just two months before the aviation White Paper is due in December 2003, national press reports suggest that the Prime Minister supports more runways at Stansted. It is alleged Tony Blair's view is driven by party political expediency - that there are few Labour MPs in the area so his narrow electoral advantage would be served by destroying rural Essex and Hertfordshire.

Is this what is meant by Labour's "green" agenda?