Should Heathrow Grow?

It has been a little while since I last wrote a blog post.  The summer holidays meant balancing my council duties with my two young boys, and of course the family holiday I desperately needed.  Now school is back in action, I’m playing catch up. 

There’s a lot going on in local politics at the moment, and the big topic is the Heathrow expansion.  I would like to give special thanks to my friend and colleague Paul Fishwick for all the research he has done regarding the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport, which I am including in this article.  Apologies for the length and detail of this article, but I hope it provides you with the facts that have helped determine my position on this. 

Heathrow Airport is already the largest UK airport with a capped 480,000 annual flights.  A third runway could mean 260,000 additional flights a year taking the total flight movements to 740,000[1], impacting on the surrounding area, including Wokingham Borough.

Why is a third runway required?

Apparently, there is an urgent need for new capacity for business travelers.  However, according to the Civil Aviation Statistics report that looked at the UK’s five largest airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stanstead and Manchester) between 2006 and 2016, the number of flights made for business at these airports has not increased.

Also, the Department for Transport (DfT) UK Aviation Forecasts (2017)[2] suggest that a new runway will make little difference to the number of flights taken for business across the UK in the future with the Transport Committee’s report (page 17) stating that “the passenger growth facilitated by a North Western Runway scheme is accounted for almost entirely by leisure passengers and international transfer passengers”.

Most flights are leisure flights, and most of these leisure flights are taken by a small number of wealthy fliers who take multiple flights each year. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, just 15% of the UK population take about 70% of all flights[3]

A bigger airport would only really serve the interests of frequent flyers, with the majority of the population paying for the consequences (of which I discuss below). 

Impact on regional airports

The Department for Transport (2017)[4] indicates that the latest forecasts suggest that regional airports will lose out from a Heathrow Expansion since, with the third runway, they will have 17 million fewer passengers by 2050 than they would without it.  This means people would be travelling further to get to larger airports like Heathrow, putting more traffic on the roads which is not only an inconvenience, but increases pollutants into the atmosphere. 

The Effect on Climate Change

The Committee on Climate Change has stated that Heathrow is already the biggest single source of greenhouse gases in the UK[5].

According to the latest Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (DBEIS[6]),  the 1990 to 2017 Greenhouse gas emissions for the UK Transport sector covers 27% which is now the largest of any sector. In addition, between 1990 and 2017 the percentage drop in greenhouse gas emissions has been a tiny 2%, and zero between the latest reporting years 2016-17. By contrast energy has reduced by 60% and waste management by 69%. The Aviation sector (Table 14) has not improved between 1990 and 2017. Adding another runway, with more flights will only make matters worse.

Heathrow’s own figures[7] show a total of 173 MtCO2 MORE carbon emitted, over 2022-2050, with the 3rd runway than without building it. The emissions could reach 25MtCO2 per year from flights alone. The increased CO2 would be as much as 9MtCO2 per year more, in the peak year (2035) than with 2 runways. The total extra CO2 from more surface access transport would be 7MtCO2 over that time period. The extra CO2 from all the construction work would be 3.7MtCO2, to build it all. The total of all that would be 173MtCO2 MORE carbon produced in total (flights, surface access + construction) than if the runway was not built. The estimates may be on the low side, as Heathrow has factored in future carbon efficiencies. Heathrow has taken no account of the fact that we now have a net zero target for 2050.

Further Developments

Since the third runway was approved in June 2018, there have been several developments in climate science and policy that make an even stronger case for withdrawing and reviewing the decision to proceed.

In December 2015, the UK – along with almost every other country in the world – has agreed to a global deal to limit global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to limit rises to 1.5°C. However, emissions reduction commitments currently fall well short of what is needed to achieve this aim. Even if all existing commitments were met, the world would see warming of 3 to 4.5°C – which would be catastrophic for millions of people. In this context the UK must do far more to reduce emissions.  

However, since Parliament approved the Airports National Policy Statement[8] (NPS) on 25 June 2018, several scientific and political developments have further demonstrated the incompatibility of the decision to expand Heathrow with meeting the UK’s climate goals:

  • On 28 June 2018, the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) annual progress report to Parliament[9] warned that “the UK is not on course to meet the legally binding fourth and fifth carbon budgets” as set out in the Climate Change Act, and that much greater action is required, particularly in the transport sector. The stalled progress of the last five years was described as “now an acute concern”.
  • On 8 October, the IPCC’s special report[10] laid out in sobering clarity the catastrophic impacts of 2 degrees’ warming compared to 1.5 degrees. The report, coordinated between 2,000 climate scientists, reiterated the need for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and made clear the necessity of halving global emissions within just 12 years. 
  • The following week, the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments formally requested updated advice from the CCC regarding tightening long-term emissions reduction targets and the transition to a net zero-carbon economy, in light of the Paris Agreement.
  • On 26 November the Met Office’s UK Climate Prediction 2018[11] provided the clearest assessment yet of what the UK will experience from the changing climate: rising sea levels, increased temperatures, and changing patterns of rainfall[12].
  • On 27 November the UN’s Emissions Gap Report 2018[13] set out the gulf between action required to meet Paris goals and that so far pledged by national governments. The report outlined humanity’s current trajectory – more than 3 degrees of warming by 2100 – and the scale of action required to get back on track: a fivefold increase in ambition compared to current ambition.

Western Rail Link and Southern rail Access

As indicated in the DBEIS[14] all sectors of the economy, especially the transport sector must make deep cuts in emissions and that includes aviation. Expanding Heathrow Airport will only increase greenhouse gas emissions from more flights and road transport cars, vans, freight etc as there is no provision for expansion of the rail network to include the Western Rail Link from the Great Western railway and the Southern Access Link.

The Heathrow Airport Consultation document[15] page 4 table 2 only states “work with stakeholders to influence the delivery of the Western and Southern rail links”. That statement provides little guarantee that either of the rail accesses will be provided at any time.  

With no direct rail access to Heathrow Airport, residents living to the west and south west of the airport are more likely to drive or use a taxi, including those who live within Wokingham Borough area to get to the airport as the alternative modes are considerably lengthy and not cost effective for example via London Paddington.

Additional Housing

An expanded Heathrow Airport with an additional 123,000 jobs (currently 110,000) [16] will also put pressure on more housing development along the ‘M4 commuter corridor’ in areas such as Wokingham Borough where a recent Housing Consultation has given a 95% No to more housing[17]. Additional housing will also put pressure on the local and strategic highway network as there is no programme for the introduction of the two-rail links highlighted above.

More Air Pollution and noise

Air pollution locally is way above legal limits and gets worse towards Heathrow.  Heathrow, and the surrounding area, already suffers from illegal levels of air pollution. Dirty air already causes over 9,000 early deaths in London each year[18]. Not only will expanding Heathrow mean more flights, but more traffic on the roads from people travelling to the airport. This is likely to cause even more air pollution, including additional traffic locally which will add to the poor air quality in many parts of the borough and make the goal of Wokingham Borough becoming carbon neutral by 2030 even more difficult.

The Heathrow Expansion summary document page 26[19] states; “When public transport improvements are in place, there could be a case for introducing a congestion charge.” However, there is no time planned for the introduction of the Western and Southern Rail links and there are doubts now over the delivery of HS2.

Additional car parking

However, there are plans to construct a Southern and Northern Parkway car parks[20] within the phased development and this has been quoted as the “worlds largest car park for 50,000 vehicles”.[21] The traffic for these car parks will use the existing highway network, where Heathrow Airport are planning on improvements to create more capacity at congested locations. More traffic getting to Heathrow Airport equates to more air pollution.

Flight Paths

Already local people must endure around 1,300 noisy planes landing and taking off at Heathrow every day, many flight paths are over Wokingham.  It should be noted that this is with 2 runways with around 480,000 flights per annum. With a 3rd runway this could rise by 250,000 flights.  There are significant differences in take-offs and landings when the wind is in the ‘easterly’ half as they fly low over this area including up to midnight and from 05:30am.


Wokingham Borough Council, along with many other local authorities and the UK Government, have agreed to a Climate Emergency[22]. The details of the Climate Emergency have yet to be developed and agreed, but there is only 10 years to take drastic action and if Wokingham Borough Council are serious about Climate Change they must object to the expansion of Heathrow as you can’t be

Supporting the Climate Change Emergency and Heathrow Airport Expansion?

The two are incompatible and no amount of conditions being attached to the support of it will make a difference.  Heathrow cannot as we’ve seen from the evidence comply with the emissions conditions that would need to be attached in order to make this compatible with our commitment to climate change.  They claim they can and will proceed to build with conditional support, but it is only after it is built that we will see that they can’t meet those conditions and then it’s too late.  The only way forward is for this council to firmly state that it does not support the expansion.  Any conditions attached will just weaken that stance.  My colleagues and I (the Wokingham Liberal Democrat Group) have submitted our own response to the Heathrow consultation giving a firm ‘no.’ 





[5] Airportwatch












[17] Wokingham Borough Council meeting of the Council 18th July 2019.






2 thoughts on “Should Heathrow Grow?”

  1. Cripes!
    Thanks for publishing this. Well done for researching this and writing a good precis. There’s a heck of a lot of information here and it looks like Wokingham Borough Council have not thought too much about the consequences of the LHR expansion. This one thing will make the Climate Emergency Action Plan difficult to achieve.

    Incidentally, as I skim through your attachments I noticed in Sect 9.2.5 of the Preliminary Environmental Report that Wokingham Borough are not among the councils that were considered!

    What do the Lib Dems think should happen instead of a LHR expansion?

  2. I must say, if it’s all about the hub capacity thing, is it really such a terrible thing if some flights change in paris or amsterdam or gatwich instead of heathrow ? Obviously there are landing fees etc, but how much benefit is really derived from flights coming in and passengers transferring and going straight out on another flight ? and we should weigh that against environmental considerations. To be honest not so much for us, but for the poor sods that live closer to the airport. Pretty sure that there are plenty of people who live in our borough for whom, heathrow is a big boon to their businesses / jobs. Aren’t we always being told the hub model is dying anyway ? and more point to point flights take place now, and that’s why airbus can’t sell the A380 ? Mind you on the other hand you could argue that the problem isn’t runways, it’s the number of flights. And that much less busy airports like say Madrid has 4 runways for a fraction of the traffic that heathrow handles with 2. That it’s dangerous to have such little slack in the system and makes it a nightmare when there’s any disruption to get back to normal. However, it would be niave in the extreeme to believe that they’ll build another runway, especially at the cost that it would be at heathrow, and not be constantly pushing to increase the number of flights to fill the capacity. I can’t help but wonder if an airport more central, Birmingham, swindon, etc, wouldn’t better cater to the wider population rather than an ever increasing heathrow. Longer term, planes do get quieter and cleaner, at what point they’ll be able to make “clean” passenger planes remains to be seen.

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