The proposed building of a third runway at Heathrow airport is expected to be voted on by parliament in June. This vote will either make expansion cross-party government policy, or consign the third runway to the dreams of a few Heathrow executives.
The government has apparently committed itself to backing the plan, which will destroy local communities and make Heathrow far and away the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. Labour, on the other hand, has prevaricated and not yet taken a position on the third runway. Here are four reasons why Heathrow expansion serves the few, not the many – and why it’s high time Labour took a stand against it.
1. Climate breakdown is affecting the global many but not the few.
The most profound adverse consequence of a third runway at Heathrow is that it will exacerbate and accelerate climate breakdown. The rapidly changing climate is devastating many parts of the world, causing drought, coral bleaching and violent floods. It is overwhelmingly poorer communities and people of colour who are suffering these consequences first and worst. By contrast, global elites are better protected from natural disasters thanks to their wealth and access to resources.
Take Cape Town, where right now the impacts of a continuing water shortage caused by a lack of rainfall over the past four years are being felt most acutely by township residents. Perversely, these poorer communities are also those who, both locally and globally, have contributed least to the causes of climate breakdown.
Climate breakdown is the most dramatic and global demonstration of a wealthy minority inflicting devastating harm on the less well-off majority. Building additional carbon-intensive infrastructure at Heathrow in full knowledge of both the effects of climate breakdown and who is most affected is morally unjustifiable.
2. Heathrow expansion would harm and displace thousands.
The expansion of Heathrow would displace thousands of villagers from nearby villages, including Longford, Harmondsworth and Sipson. Longford would be demolished completely. The increased noise from the additional aircraft and traffic would affect up to 2.2 million people. The health of residents near to the runway would also be affected by increased air pollution, which already frequently exceeds EU limits.
Crucially, it is poorer communities – not the wealthy – in the villages around Heathrow who would be impacted most by a new runway. The affluent elite who are likely to make most use of the new runway will not suffer from displacement or disruption to nearly the same extent.
3. Flying is the privilege of a tiny minority.
Flying is the privilege of a tiny minority, with less than 10% of people globally ever having set foot on a plane. What’s more, the proclaimed increase in demand for flights in the UK is being driven by a wealthy minority of frequent flyers rather than annual holidaymakers; 70% of flights are taken by 15% of people in the UK, and half of us don’t fly in any given year. Analysis shows the 15% who fly most are for the most part united by ownership of a second home and an annual income above £115k. The new runway will serve this wealthy few at the expense of the health and homes of the rest.
4. The new runway won’t necessarily create jobs.
A hangover from the New Labour era is that there remain a number of Labour MPs who see backing a third runway as party policy. These MPs support the runway for historic reasons and are reluctant to listen to the increasingly disparaging analysis of the project, including recent trenchant criticism from Willie Walsh, CEO of Heathrow’s biggest customer International Airlines Group (IAG), urging MPs not to trust Heathrow’s plans.
Importantly, Heathrow has a history of failing to deliver the jobs it promises. When proposals were put forward for Terminal 5 the airport promised thousands more jobs, but the airport now employs 3,000 fewer people than it did before Terminal 5. There is no reason why anyone should trust Heathrow’s claims of increased employment this time. If Willie Walsh has “zero confidence” in Heathrow, why should the Labour party have any confidence either?
On Heathrow, Labour must side with the large proportion of its parliamentarians, including much of the shadow cabinet, who are staunchly opposed to expansion. Opposition to Heathrow is clearly naturally aligned with Labour’s principles of standing up to capital and representing the interests of ordinary people.
It’s understandable that Labour is holding its cards close to its chest; there is value in keeping an insecure Conservative government unsure of how well supported it is. There will certainly be a good number of vocal Tory rebels and additional uncertainty can unsettle the government.
But given the existential challenge of climate breakdown and its disproportionate social impacts – and that the proposed third runway cannot satisfy Labour’s four tests which the party has stipulated as the necessary basis for any support – Labour is pretty much obliged to oppose Heathrow expansion. The party must stick by its values and stand for those who want a liveable planet for everyone, rather those driven by financial profit and more holidays for a privileged few. Labour must vote no on Heathrow.
Write to your MP and ask them to oppose Heathrow expansion at the vote in June, and come to the Vote No Heathrow open meeting on 12 June to learn more.